Kintsugi

Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, Suicide, and Self Harm

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver, Summer Day

I turned thirty this week, I’m still trying to process that fact. Ten thousand nine hundred and sixty two days on this Earth on the day this post is published. Three hundred and sixty months. Two hundred and sixty three thousand six hundred and thirty five hours.
Parts of me are shocked that we made it this far, while other parts of me are angry and bitter that we’ve wasted so much of the limited time we have on this Earth. My life is not where I wish it was, I’m not the
person I hoped to become. So much has happened to me, life has been at many times been harsh and unforgiving, and time has a way of catching up with us. 

I was treated poorly as a child, and I’m also still trying to process that fact. I’m sure my parents will argue that they did the best they could, and maybe they did. I probably have undiagnosed autism, which I’m also trying to come to terms with, and if no one including me realized that then I of course that couldn’t be taken into account by my caregivers…Not that our society is particularly kind or good to autistic children who are identified young either. 

I don’t want to start some sort of fight with them or blame them for the trauma I experienced, but they also made lots of mistakes and to this day seem rather detached and oblivious to the world I inhabit. They grew up in a very different time and their expectations of how the world works have never fundamentally been updated from those times. They seem trapped in the just world fallacy and willfully deny the horrors of reality, taking shelter in the blind faith that everything just has to work out in the end somehow.

It doesn’t. It really really doesn’t. 

I had different and contradictory demands put on me by school and my parents, I wasn’t ever really allowed as a child to explore or express my own preferences and for a long time, even into my young adulthood, I didn’t really know what I wanted. None of the things I was allowed to want were appealing and when I was punished for exploring the things that did seem interesting to me, I learned to just stop trying and stop wanting things. Contradictory demands to have preferences I didn’t have were poured into me until I shattered and became a husk of a person. I had a lot of people tell me that when they knew me as a child or teenager that I seemed like this empty shell to them. That didn’t really improve until I moved out of my parents’ house and was finally able to start considering what I actually wanted out of life. Of course, by then the damage was already done and I wasn’t remotely in a place where I could intelligently pursue those desires. 

I entered adulthood armed with a broken sense of agency and an incoherent view of reality that metamorphosed itself to appease all the authority figures I interacted with. I was pushed into college and pushed into taking out loans without any real idea of what was happening to me. I didn’t understand the world or my place in it, I was just dragged through one awful experience after another while being told that the world was magical and wonderful and everything always worked out for good people who followed the rules. 

For a long time I wasn’t able to form a coherent worldview because I was getting told one set of facts by my parents, another alternative set of facts by my teachers, and yet another alternative set of facts by popular media. I would be yelled at if I said the wrong set of facts to the wrong people, so I had to learn to code switch before I learned how to actually recognize which of the facts I was getting were true. The answer: almost none of them. 

The nineties were characterized by a culture of everyone aggressively lying to children, of telling us we could be anything, do anything. It was thought that children had to be eased into reality and that we couldn’t handle the truth so we had to be lied to and told the world was more just, more kind, more fair, and easier to navigate than it actually was. Not only were we ill prepared for the real world because of these lies, but our ability to respond to the truth when we finally started to see past them was also stomped on by forcing us to sit in classes and have our sense of curiosity and agency destroyed because ‘learning obedience’ was more important than becoming knowledgeable people prepared to confront a rapidly changing global landscape. I still remember an art teacher saying to my mother at one point “It’s not about art it’s about discipline” when I was punished for not following the instructions closely enough.

It might have been better if I’d had friends, but I was a shy socially anxious kid who quickly became the magnet for bullying and ostracization, so I couldn’t even find support from my peers. Worse, I was kind of naive and gullible and the kids around me realized they could offer to do things like trust falls with me and then let me hit the ground, and it was funny to see my confusion and horror at being betrayed. I’d be invited to things and then ditched, told I was welcome somewhere just as everyone else decided to leave, and generally treated like a punching bag because I was small and seen as an easy target. I know a bunch of them later became worried I would become some sort of school shooter. I admit, I had some fantasies about ‘getting even’ against those bullying me, but most of them involved me having magical powers so it was never particularly realistic. 

The few places I was able to find solace from the world was to dissociate into useless tasks like video games and television. I was taught to hate learning, to distrust authority, to assume kindness was a sign of someone tricking me or expecting to get something out of me, and I entered adulthood on a path where I immediately collapsed in on myself as soon as the external pain driven demands were removed. I had no intrinsic motivation so as soon as the pain-conditioned motivation was gone I was left completely adrift and spent the next several years playing EVE Online and bombing out of community college. 

I was set up to fail, then collapsed into a hole and was left there to die. This is where the surprise that I didn’t comes in. My priors up to this point featured betrayal after betrayal by those charged with teaching and caring for and protecting me, and as such, I didn’t really trust anyone at all. I didn’t know how to trust anyone. It seemed very strongly like the entire world was out to use me and take advantage of me, which was why I was great at EVE. 

But something funny happened, starting in EVE of all places. Sometimes, for absolutely no reason and without benefit to themselves, people started being nice to me at times. For a long time I just flat out didn’t know how to deal with this. I didn’t trust it, there had to be a catch. When I started dating my first serious partner I continuously thought that it was only a matter of time before the rug was pulled out from under me. That relationship probably would have gone better if I had been capable of trusting people, but it took probably another five years before my ability to trust anyone at all finally started to heal enough to not expect my friends to turn on me. 

My twenties were mostly spent trying to recover from the damages of childhood and piece myself back together. While I was doing that, I let myself slip deeper and deeper into the hole I’d fallen in. I didn’t really have a choice, I was too shattered to think much beyond the next day, so I couldn’t plan for the future or work to improve myself. It was only within the last two or three years that I healed enough to actually think about who I was and what I wanted. 

This presented its own form of pain, because I found myself down a mineshaft with the surface lost to the gloom above. I wasn’t starting from zero, I was starting from negative three thousand six hundred and fifty, in a place in my late twenties that most people entered in their late teens. I still don’t know if I’ll ever really be able to reach the surface, much less build anything new. I constantly struggle with not simply giving up and letting the world roll over me, and sometimes it’s really hard. The bottles of pills on my desk whisper of the possibility of escape and the razor blades sing their own sad song of pain and release. I don’t want to go but sometimes staying is the hardest thing I can do. 

However, there is something working in my favor, which keeps me going seemingly in spite of everything else. I’m not the child I was before I shattered into a million pieces. That person is gone and is never going to be recovered. The thing about trauma is that it never really goes away. Even if you reassemble all the pieces the cracks remain in the material, the structural discontinuities and weaknesses are all still there. You can’t really fix that, but you move on anyways. Just because something is broken doesn’t mean it’s useless or trash. 

In Japan, a technique called kintsugi (金継) developed to repair broken pottery by using a lacquer mixed with gold to reassemble the broken pieces. The end result isn’t the original, the damage remains, but instead of being hidden or treated as a bad thing, the flaws are emphasized and highlighted, adding to the beauty and history of the piece. You might not be able to undo what happens, but skin heals in spite of scars. 

You might not be able to be who you were, but at least you can be someone. Put one foot in front of the other and step forward into life as something whole, something new, something better. 

kintsugi21

Occam’s Guillotine

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Part of the Series: Truth
Previous Post: Gods! Robots! Aliens! Zombies!
Cowritten with: Namespace

There are two ways to slide easily through life: Namely, to believe everything, or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.
 – Alfred Korzybski, The Manhood of Humanity

For most of human history, cultures and individuals held to the idea that there was one truth that could be discovered or divined. While different tribes and traditions might disagree strongly on whose truth was correct, no one particularly objected to the idea that there was a truth to the world which you either had or did not have. Both the priest and the shaman believed their worldviews were correct, but neither one of them put stock in the notion that they were both somehow correct. Contradictory statements could not both be true, someone was right and someone was wrong. However, as competing cultures began to interact with one another more extensively this began to change, and not for the better. 

Eclecticism may be defined as the practice of choosing apparently irreconcilable doctrines from antagonistic schools and constructing therefrom a composite philosophic system in harmony with the convictions of the eclectic himself. Eclecticism can scarcely be considered philosophically or logically sound, for as individual schools arrive at their conclusions by different methods of reasoning, so the philosophic product of fragments from these schools must necessarily be built upon the foundation of conflicting premises. Eclecticism, accordingly, has been designated the layman’s cult. In the Roman Empire little thought was devoted to philosophic theory; consequently most of its thinkers were of the eclectic type. Cicero is the outstanding example of early Eclecticism, for his writings are a veritable potpourri of invaluable fragments from earlier schools of thought. Eclecticism appears to have had its inception at the moment when men first doubted the possibility of discovering ultimate truth. Observing all so-called knowledge to be mere opinion at best, the less studious furthermore concluded that the wiser course to pursue was to accept that which appeared to be the most reasonable of the teachings of any school or individual. From this practice, however, arose a pseudo-broadmindedness devoid of the element of preciseness found in true logic and philosophy.
Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings Of All Ages

Eclecticism and its descendent postmodernism raise the idea that the ultimate truth of the world can never really be known. The world is subjective down to its roots, reality is just like, your opinion man. This has had disastrous effects on the wider pursuit of truth. Hard science has been inundated by limp wristed subjectivity and the notion of a plurality of contradictory truths all being correct has become the norm across much of the humanities. How could a proper art and science of human engineering ever come out of this potpourri of nonsense? 

You can’t design a bridge without actually knowing the tensile strength of steel and the compressive strength of concrete, these facts are not open to interpretation. Designing a society is no different and pretending that all viewpoints are equal, that all truths are just as valid as one another, is a dangerous precedent that has brought the development of the humanities to a screeching halt. If we truly want to advance the art of rationality, this notion must be stamped out with extreme prejudice. 

This is easily the most important concept that Eliezer discusses in The Sequences. Reality actually exists and has properties you can determine through study and experimentation. Conclusions follow from their premises and it’s unreasonable to expect a plurality of truths. Our universe is consistent and your understanding of the pieces should fit together. The truth isn’t just your opinion. There is one truth and you find it or you don’t:

But it was Probability Theory that did the trick. Here was probability theory, laid out not as a clever tool, but as The Rules, inviolable on pain of paradox. If you tried to approximate The Rules because they were too computationally expensive to use directly, then, no matter how necessary that compromise might be, you would still end up doing less than optimal. Jaynes would do his calculations different ways to show that the same answer always arose when you used legitimate methods; and he would display different answers that others had arrived at, and trace down the illegitimate step. Paradoxes could not coexist with his precision. Not an answer, but the answer.

The universe operates on rules, and the rules continue to apply to you whether you believe in them or not. The rules are not optional, they are not open to interpretation, they do not care about your feelings. The universe exists, and it cannot be negotiated around. That’s not fair? Doesn’t matter. But that’s injust! Doesn’t matter. But– 

What can a twelfth-century peasant do to save themselves from annihilation? Nothing. Nature’s little challenges aren’t always fair. When you run into a challenge that’s too difficult, you suffer the penalty; when you run into a lethal penalty, you die. That’s how it is for people, and it isn’t any different for planets. Someone who wants to dance the deadly dance with Nature does need to understand what they’re up against: Absolute, utter, exceptionless neutrality.

Eliezer discusses this mostly in the context of physics and Bayesian reasoning. If conclusions follow from their premises, and the premises always lead to the same conclusion, we can say that conclusion is necessary. Valid methods of thinking will reliably produce the same answer (modulo some noise in real world thinkers) given the same priors and evidence. Two and two make four, matter cannot be created or destroyed, the probability of two independent events occurring is always less than the independent probability of either. Curiously, necessity is discussed frequently in The Sequences but never given a name. This is to their detriment, as necessity is one of the hardest concepts in rationality to master.

Most basic failures of rationality are some form of refusal of necessity. This is unsurprising, because necessity is the dream killer. As children, we dream of being veterinarians, astronauts and mad scientists, not the lawyers, accountants, and grocery store clerks we actually grow up to be. We’re told all sorts of things about the world and ourselves that we don’t want to hear, so we deny them. Everyone else might have to get a job but not me, when I’m older I’ll eat all the candy I want, I’m not going to die. Over time, this reflex becomes automatic and we stop even noticing the denial. 

For example, I recently saw a discussion of necessity on a ‘rationalist’ forum where someone pointed out that it was impossible to fly unassisted. A Buddhist replied that it was only impossible to fly unassisted in consensus reality. They argued that it’s possible to fly in a lucid dream, so their real complaint is that they can’t do it where it will affect others. The entire process of thought that is capable of generating this objection betrays an extreme level of disassociation; where the default is a personal, private universe separated from the underlying physics which allow it to exist. That dream world is the thing necessity takes away from us, what people are afraid of losing by restricting themselves to what is there to be experienced in reality. The refusal of necessity is synonymous with the refusal of reality, which Buddhism provides a framework for. In Buddhism, the aspiring Arhat dismantles their attachments to the material world and turns their survival hardware into a substrate to run a personal paradise for a certain amount of time before being annihilated into a welcomed nothingness. This is one way of dealing with the problem of necessity, but it’s not one we can sanely endorse and still consider ourselves rationalists. 

Our private symbolic universe is not the only thing we’re looking to guard by refusing necessity. Often we resent the effort we’d have to go through if we took our beliefs seriously, supported by an implicit meta-belief that life should never be too hard. In many ways, a 1st world childhood is a very bad introduction to life because it sets you up for a lifetime of unreasonable expectations. 

Conditions are so good that it becomes easy to imagine in our childish naivete that life can be an indefinite sleepwalk through an introvert’s dream world or a never ending play session in an extrovert’s favorite field. Eventually, we are pulled away from these delusions, but the expectations set by that tutorial stay with us for life. Bennett Foddy writes about the process of building a game meant to show players their unreasonable expectations about challenge and difficulty:

Anyway when you start Sexy Hiking, you’re standing next to this dead tree that blocks the way to the entire rest of the game. It might take you an hour to get over that tree, and a lot of people never got past it, you prod and you poke at it exploring the limits of your reach and strength trying to find a way up and over. And there’s a sense of truth in that lack of compromise. Most obstacles in video game worlds are fake, you can be completely confident in your ability to get through them, once you have the correct method or the correct equipment or just by spending enough time. In that sense, every pixelated obstacle in Sexy Hiking is real. . . . A funny thing happened to me as I was building this mountain. I’d have an idea for a new obstacle, and I’d build it, test it, and I would usually find it was unreasonably hard. But I couldn’t bring myself to make it any easier, it already felt like my inability to get past the new obstacle was my fault as a player rather than as the builder.

I heard a story from the recent COVID-19 outbreak that illustrates this well. A man living with relatives noticed they were still buying bananas from the grocery. When he inquired about whether they’d been washed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he got a very strange answer. They had not been washed, but that was okay because bananas had a skin on them. The relatives insisted he should peel the banana and then carefully avoid letting the outside peel touch the meat of the fruit on the inside. So long as he didn’t touch it with his fingers then he wouldn’t be putting his face in contact with the virus. This is the sort of thing you think is okay when you aren’t taking ideas seriously. He wasn’t very hungry for bananas after that. 

At the core of the difficulty people have with necessity is uncertainty. It’s obvious that two and two make four, but when things become less obvious than that, when they get abstract or there’s incomplete information suddenly magical thinking gets introduced. Our biases take over, and whether in the direction of pessimism or optimism our beliefs become hallucinations premised on a smaller and smaller proportion of evidence to analysis and speculation. What Eliezer tries to get across with his insistence on a Bayesian foundation for epistemology is that your beliefs should still be necessary even under conditions of uncertainty. It is the duty of every serious philosopher to learn to feel gradations of necessity and to intuit how necessary their beliefs are. What degrees of freedom remain in their ideas, what hypotheses are still left to be considered, exactly how much weight does it make sense to put on a given hypothesis given the available evidence? There are exact, precise answers to these questions even if they are outside of your current awareness. 

Failing to accept the world as it is, failing to take ideas seriously, makes us a danger to ourselves and others. In this, the current pandemic gives us a rather fantastic (albeit horrifying) window into the limits of the dream worlds that most people inhabit. College students openly defy public health experts because they’re entitled to spring break. The health minister of Iran gets the virus and still insists that quarantine is an outdated method of controlling an epidemic. President Trump tells the public that the disease is comparable to the flu until it’s too late for us to contain it. If this were a movie it’d be panned by critics as unrealistic b-film trash.

trump-reddit-coronavirus-statements

It’s quite impressive how far people will go to protect their worldview at the cost of their wellbeing, but even this has its limits. Eventually too much predictive error will build up and the whole edifice will come crashing down. What will it take to make you look? How much harm do you have to come to? How many people close to you have to die before you’ll actually look at the world as it is? Over the coming weeks, we can expect to see a lot of deeply held worldviews fracture as the illusion of safety is rudely torn away. The safety blanket of childhood won’t protect you from bullets or viruses, only true knowledge of the universe has any hope of doing that.

You can get a lot of mileage out of willful ignorance, but eventually your fake beliefs will come back to bite you. For example, in the Iranian city of Qom, a number of religious shrines remained open and busy even as the coronavirus tore through the city, because religious leaders believed the shrines had magical healing properties. They don’t. Iran is now digging mass graves. When magical beliefs come up against the cold face of unflinching reality, reality wins. Thus, in order to protect these magical beliefs they have to be socially insulated from reality, challenging them has to be verboten. However when this happens, from the outside it looks rather obvious that the deck is being stacked against truth, and it can’t hold up forever. However uncomfortable the truth may be, as a certain mad titan says, you can dread it, run from it, but destiny arrives all the same. 

Most people are familiar with the incident where Catholicism lost credibility by insisting that the sun revolved around the earth when it did not. I suspect that part of why we single out this episode as a decisive triumph of science over religion is that it represents more than just the loss of Catholicism’s control of cosmology. Rather, it is a prelude to the more personal and uncomfortable revelation that humanity is not the center of the universe. We are a marginal force in nature which exists on a ‘pale blue dot’, and the rest of creation stretches out for an unfathomable distance around us. It is when we fully internalize this, along with Darwin’s revelation that humanity is a product of nature and arose from adaption to the natural world (including other humans, who are also part of the natural world) that we understand the absurdity of denying death. 

In the what-if world where every step follows only from the cellular automaton rules, the equivalent of Genghis Khan can murder a million people, and laugh, and be rich, and never be punished, and live his life much happier than the average.  Who prevents it?

Were it “within the stars” so to speak, nature would discard us like you discard so many used tissues. Life is not sacred to the universe, let alone human life. If sleeping really did end your thread of experience nature would have no problem letting that happen. It would allow you to die thousands of deaths over the course of your life so long as it made no difference to reproduction. Observing this vast cosmos and the amoral gears of creation, it becomes abundantly obvious that there is no afterlife. Nature, which seems to care about nothing else and has seen fit to save nothing else, has almost certainly not set aside a special preserve for the sake of your experiences and feelings. You are not special in the eyes of creation, you are a blob of animate matter that will one day become a blob of inanimate matter and that is that. In the second law of thermodynamics, the house always wins; at best you can hope for some unforeseen development in physics which allows us to defeat entropy. In the meantime, there is no life after this one. The expectation that you will see lost loved ones in the hereafter, that you will have eternal life through Jesus Christ, that when you die you will wake again from your lifelong dream is unreasonable. Your expectation of eternal life has always been unreasonable, nothing else lasts forever: why would you?

Part of the Series: Truth
Next Post: The Symbol and the Substrate
Previous Post: Gods! Robots! Aliens! Zombies!

Gods! Robots! Aliens! Zombies!

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Part of the Series: Truth
Previous Post: Time Binders

Rationality From AI to Zombies is a sprawling six-volume compilation of two years worth of daily(!) rationality blogging by autodidactic scholar Eliezer Yudkowsky. My apologies to Yudkowsky if this comes off as vaguely negative about him. As I was doing research there were a lot of places where I kept being surprised by certain things he did. I tried to get an interview out of him to see if my beliefs about his beliefs were actually correct interpretations of his worldview, but he never got back to me. If he does and his answers update me towards a more charitable view of his views, then I can always come back and rewrite this essay later.

So once more let’s start with the man. Like Korzybski, Yudkowsky was raised by well educated and relatively well to do parents and like Korzybski, he’s mostly self-taught in the areas that interest him. Something that happened between Korzybski and Yudkowsky however, was an explosion in the popularity of science fiction as a genre. His parents seemed to like science fiction and introduced him to science fiction and what he calls traditional rationality at a young age. There are actually a lot of entertaining parallels between Korzybski and Yudkowsky, although I think Korzybski wins the contest of who is the most extra. (Unless Eliezer took up sword fighting and fought in a war and never told anyone). 

While his parents were modern orthodox Jews, Yudkowsky himself was raised more within American culture than within traditional Jewish culture to the point where, in one interview, he recalls a realization that Judaism was never really his childhood religion, space travel was. 

This is interesting to remark upon because I think it describes a lot of people raised in religious households. Unless your parents deeply insulate you, chances are you’re going to spend more time being more exposed to modern secular American society than you are being exposed to the traditional religious cultures of your family’s past. Church/Synagogue only comes once a week, but Star Trek is on TV every day. There’s only one Torah/Bible, but there are lots of science fiction books. 

Yudkowsky’s parents were also both employed in science-oriented technical fields. His father was a physicist and his mother was a psychiatrist which is where he got his introduction to what he calls traditional rationality. He specifically namedrops early skeptic Martin Gardner, debunker of the supernatural James Randi, physicist Richard Feynman, and disciple of Korzybski S.I. Hayakawa. 

However Eliezer also comes off as rather dismissive of traditional rationality and aside from those few namedrops (particularly Feynman, who he namedrops a few times despite him not being, in my opinion, a very central example of traditional rationality) he spends very little time talking about where he came from in either in his writing or his interviews, much to their detriment I think.  His treatment of General Semantics is especially egregious in this regard, he never refers to it by name, never mentions Korzybski, and in the entire volume of his writing, he references Hayakawa twice.

With the way Yudkowsky talks about science and his ideas, the way he references catgirls and other literary and anime tropes, and the way he fails to identify where he got the ideas that he didn’t invent, it wouldn’t be a surprise if someone thought the primary source of these ideas was Yudkowsky and TV Tropes. Without discussing the intellectual traditions that led him to where he is, thinking that he came up with ideas like The Map and Territory would be an easy mistake to make. 

Yudkowsky takes from traditional rationality things like empiricism, (the virtue of performing your own experiments) falsifiability, (make predictions that can be proven wrong) and warrant, (the importance of justifying your beliefs). He then applies probability theory and decision theory to traditional rationality in the service of creating the juggernaut that is within the rationalist community colloquially referred to as The Sequences. 

Rationality From AI to Zombies shouldn’t really be thought of as a book. Literally speaking it’s a book of course, you can buy physical copies with pages made of paper you can leaf through. However, it is really still just a collection of essays. It lacks a lot in the way of a central thesis and mostly just throws rationality flavored spaghetti at the wall and hopes some of it sticks. As of the time of this writing, I’ve done four read-throughs of his material and with each pass have become somewhat less favorable in my viewing of it. 

The biggest weakness of the sequences is that it doesn’t do a very good job of keeping itself organized in sections or focused on a theme or sorted by topic. One day Eliezer will talk about identifying truth, then the next he’ll talk about that time he totally pwned a religious person in an argument by bringing up Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, then the next he’ll talk about cognitive biases. I was hoping when he compiled all of his writing into Rationality from AI to Zombies that he would produce a more coherent and focused work, one with a central thesis, but Rationality from AI to Zombies is just the sequences arranged into book form with some of the weaker essays removed or rearranged. 

Yudkowsky does bring some things to the table, in particular incorporating rigor, probability, and quantifiability into what was previously a mostly qualitative field. This is important for a number of reasons, but maybe not the ones you might expect. There are definitely important things to take from the sequences, but a lot of them are concepts he either doesn’t name or obliquely references without pointing directly towards. 

Reading the sequences as they’re written and missing the important between-the-lines reasoning probably won’t lead you to the place he wants. It’s possible to get to that place, but it requires a lot of reading between the lines. Without that, they’ll lead you somewhere vaguely adjacent but with critical pieces missing, malformed, or underdeveloped. This is a rather big problem with the sequences because Eliezer clearly intends them as a step by step instruction manual for finding the holy grail of good thinking. But as Scott Alexander says 

The thing about grail quests is – if you make a wrong turn two blocks away from your house, you end up at the corner store feeling mildly embarrassed. If you do almost everything right and then miss the very last turn, you end up being eaten by the legendary Black Beast of Aaargh whose ichorous stomach acid erodes your very soul into gibbering fragments.

There are lots of people who manage to take useful things from the sequences, but there are also lots of people left stranded on the side of the road in really weird epistemological traps that they thought themselves into and then couldn’t find their way out of. We’ll be attempting over the following essays to sketch out the most important and underspecified parts of the sequences and hopefully build some ladders out of those potholes. Along the way, we’ll crash through most of the important concepts and principles, and hopefully, you’ll come away from it with a bit more grounded understanding of what this is all about. 

Part of the Series: Truth
Next Post: Occam’s Guillotine
Previous Post: Time Binders

Return to Hyperspace

Reddit.com
/r/hyperspacewindows
2,341,917 Window Jockeys
710 Hyperspace Astronauts

I moved my house into Hyperspace AMA
/u/2sexu4urshirt 1419 comments

Hyperspace day cruises anyone?
/u/missspaceyachtclub 2378 comments

Check out this crazy portal art!
/u/catsallthewaydown 1517 comments

Lost my keys in hyperspace
/u/underseatreespirit 2251 comments

Simplified Extensible Exploration Gantry (Blueprints Included)
/u/thelastpragmatist 1311 comments

Hyperspace Tacocat Mega Image Dump (300+ Pics)
/u/anartforyournoodle 4896 comments

Improved suction on vacuum cleaner by replacing bag with hyperspace window
/u/DIYDIYDIY4471 2463 comments

What’s the best portal shape? why?
/u/anancientminorspecific 3321 comments

Bungee Jumping into Hyperspace (High Definition Video)
/u/addrenalickmyballs 1994 comments

ELI5: How does gravity work with portals?
/u/earnestlyrelatablyspectacularly 2123 comments

STOP THROWING YOUR TRASH INTO HYPERSPACE
/u/objectpunktype299 3017 comments

Hyperspace Pizza Delivery
/u/therealdominospizza 6429 comments

A DRILL TO PIERCE THE HEAVENS
/u/BELIEVEINTHEMEMESTHATBELIEVEINYOU 2933 comments

Hyperspace Shortwave Club?
/u/revalentine2001 1246 comments

Epic Portal Cuts Compilation
/u/demolutionandrogyne 2604 comments

After a two year hiatus, Sideways in Hyperspace returns on Sunday, March 22nd

Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Part of the Series: Extinction

See that little stream — we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.

It was a bright and sunny Monday morning. Air raid sirens had sounded through part of the night and again closer to dawn but as the sun rose into a clear blue sky, the calm had returned. People had begun going to work and children had just started their days at school when a new star was born 1,900 feet over the city of Hiroshima. 

At 8:15 am on August 6th, 1945, An American B-29 bomber nicknamed the Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy nuclear weapon on an unsuspecting Japanese metropolis. Forty-five seconds later, 70,000 people were instantly incinerated as a mile wide atomic fireball vaporized the center of the city and sent shockwaves filled with radioactive debris radiating outwards for miles in every direction. The blast ignited a firestorm that would burn for much of the day and destroy what little of the original downtown had survived, churning the air with radioactive dust and ash. 

In the following days’ American president Harry Truman would issue a dire warning to Japan: 

The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in the first attack to avoid insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and unfortunately thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately and save themselves from destruction.

Having found the bomb, we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbour, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretence of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war; in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us. …

Japan did not surrender. Three days later, on August 9th, Soviet tanks began to roll into Japanese occupied Manchuria, while in Japan another fireball would obliterate the city of Nagasaki, instantly killing another 40,000 people. The death tolls from injuries and radiation exposure from the atomic weapons would continue ticking upwards for months, and although the true death counts may never be known it is estimated that between them the two bombs killed on the order of 220,000 people by the time their grisly work was done.

A world already shattered by thirty years of global war looked on in shock, awe, and horror as the deadly flower of atomic weapons blossomed in anger for the first and only time in the history of our species. World leaders talked about the possible end of civilization if these weapons continued to be brought to bear, and on August 14, three days before the next bombs were scheduled to be deployed, Japan finally surrendered. 

Despite the best that has been done by every one—the gallant fighting of military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people, the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest. Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.

With that, the deadliest conflict in human history was brought to a close. 75 million people were dead, over half of them civilians who had either been caught on the crossfire or who suffered from famine, disease, and deliberate acts of genocide. 

Between the first and second world wars, the death toll was around one hundred million. One hundred million people dead in thirty years. These were conflicts unlike any the world had seen before or would see after. There has not been another global war since.

This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.

What does it take to fight a world war? Where does the willingness to march forward into the surety of death come from? What makes a leader willingly throw their nations into so terrible a battle? 

Alfred Korzybski described the world wars as a result of technology escaping from humanity, accelerating in development faster than human morality, wisdom, law, or economics could keep up, and then snapping and rebounding back into equilibrium in the form of mass violence and death. 

The rebound from the first world war set the stage for the snap that led to the second world war, and when the second world war ended, the world nearly stood poised to begin yet another massive conflict, this time between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

But technology continued to march forwards. The atomic bombs were dropped, and everything changed again. While there has not been another rebound since, Korzybski’s warning continues to ominously ring from the church steeple. In the 75 years since the end of the last global war, the tension has slowly increased, like a fault line under ever-increasing tectonic pressure. 

However, this technological tension was not the only decoupling which allowed the world wars to occur. There is another factor in the willingness to wage a global war that must not be overlooked. 

This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle — there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.

Many people and even some rationalists will argue that the development of the atomic bomb has made the world more peaceful. They argue that it has brought an end to war, that a future world war could not happen without destroying the world and thus the threat of total global war is diminished. Where have we heard this before

There is no one alive today who remembers the first world war, and few remain who remember the second, a number shrinking constantly and which with the new global pandemic sweeping the world may soon vanish completely. 

Gone with them has been the direct experience of living through a world war. No one from the following generations can ever truly understand what it was like to live through those days. Even the baby boomers whose parents told gallant and heroic stories of fighting Nazis were insulated from the true horrors of war. They grew up in a world where the largest armed conflicts were localized brushfires like Vietnam and Korea. Even with the threat of mutually assured destruction by atomic weapons looming overhead like a storm about to break, the people of the following generations still grew up not knowing what a true global war would be like. 

Like the European powers of the last century, we became disconnected from the direct experiences of total war. We dissociated from the realities of a conflict that would pit the full might of industrialized superpowers into one another’s destruction. We have no idea what a global war is like, it is completely outside of our scope of experience. 

Technology continues to accelerate away from humanity, while humanity has lingered in the pre-atomic paradigms of economics, politics, law, and ethics. We are still living in the past and the more time that passes the further ahead of us our technology races. 

Moreover, we have decoupled ourselves from the realities and horrors of our technology. We don’t meaningfully acknowledge the harms they could inflict. We have forgotten how bad war can be, and in doing so, we make ourselves poised and willing to begin one again. It has been a century since the last love battle and enough time has passed, enough generations have passed in peace and plenty, that we have once more grown willing to wage such a conflict. We have forgotten war, but war will not forget us. 

Unless the cardinal concerns of mankind are brought into equilibria by some art and science of human engineering, it is not a matter of if but a matter of when the next snap occurs. When it comes, the next rebound might not be survivable at all. 

Part of the Series: Extinction
Next Post: A Trillion Dead Futures

Even if your Voice Shakes

I try not to talk too much about my personal life on this blog but some of my existing patrons suggested that I make this post. I’ve ended up in a sort of rough situation recently and could use some help. 

I work(ed) at a grocery store in Seattle until recently, which as you’ve probably been made aware is ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. As of today (3/6/2020) there have been over fifty confirmed cases of coronavirus in King County alone, along with twelve deaths. Bedford Labs is estimating that the true number of infected is an order of magnitude higher and the community has been seeing cryptic transmission for the last six weeks. 

So, I work(ed) at a fancy cheese counter. One of the things this fancy cheese counter has is an open-topped olive bar with food exposed to the air and utensils which are only washed once a day. It’s also predominantly visited by an elderly demographic, the people most at risk of dying from COVID-19. 

This seemed like a really dangerous combination of factors and I felt like something needed to happen to protect the health of our customers. Ethically speaking I felt rather gross about participating in the spread of a deadly virus by not doing anything. 

I first asked the store manager on duty to close it, and was told that could not happen without permission from higher-ups in corporate and gave me a name to contact. I tried to convince this manager that this would take too long, to take a more proactive stance and that sometimes standing up for what was right meant doing something without asking permission first. He refused.

The Milgrim experiment was a psychological test performed in the 1950s to test obedience to authority figures. Researchers were curious after the end of the second world war as to why so many people just blindly went along with the Nazis, and so they performed a test to see where the limits of obedience to authority were located. 

A test subject was told that they were responsible for delivering potentially deadly electric shocks to another test subject (actually an actor). The experimenter would order the subject to begin turning a knob which the test subject was told controlled these electric shocks. The actor would begin flailing and screaming and begging the subject to stop the experiment, while the experimenter would, first gently and then in increasingly commanding tones, order the subject to continue the experiment and keep turning up the knob. 

They wanted to see at what point the subject would refuse, and discovered to their surprise and dismay, that there was no such limit. The subject would obey the experimenter and turn the knob all the way up until they had ‘killed’ the actor. 

It was probably ten years ago that I learned about this experiment. I decided I never wanted to be the sort of person who would just blindly follow orders and turn that knob. I deeply internalized the notion of doing the right thing, of speaking the truth even if my voice trembled. I would not participate in getting people killed because I was too afraid to do something. Even if it was scary, I would do my best to stand up for what was right.  

Waiting for weeks while the corporation sat on its hands and waffled on making a decision that might hurt their bottom line while our customer’s health was on the line seemed to me to fall into that category of letting something bad happen because I was too afraid to try and do something. So I did something. I decided to close the olive bar despite being told not to. I felt that the order to keep it open was asking me to do something very unsafe which could potentially harm a lot of elderly customers. I couldn’t in good conscience participate in that, it felt on some level like all my ethical training had been in preparation for this sort of situation. 

After I closed the olive bar, the manager said that wasn’t acceptable and reopened the olive bar himself. Following this, I called the number I’d been given for corporate and talked to the company’s local food safety person. He said (predictably) that he couldn’t make the decision himself but that he would pass the message up the chain of command. This is how responsibility is defused unto the point of nonexistence. No one is willing to take a stand, so it gets passed up the chain of command until it reaches someone detached enough not to care, and at that point, it was out of their hands. Just following orders. As of Tuesday, the olive bar remained open when I arrived for work. I still believe this is a clear health hazard to our customers and something still needs to be done about the olive bar and other self-serve stations. 

On Thursday the county health department finally advised businesses to 

“Consider temporarily limiting self-serve operations. Examples of such operations include; salad bars, buffets and dispensers. Replace utensils frequently (approximately hourly) during peak use hours for self-serve style operations.”

Of course, by then I had already been punished for my insubordination. 

On Tuesday shortly after arriving for my shift, I was called into the manager’s office for disciplinary measures and I invoked my Weingarten rights at which point I was suspended pending investigation and sent home. I contacted our store’s union representative and he said he would get back to me. As far as I am aware the olive bar is still open today. I am afraid I am going to lose my job for trying to do the right thing and protect our customer’s health. 

Did I actually do the right thing here? I honestly couldn’t tell you. There’s certainly an argument that could be made that I didn’t fully think through the consequences of my actions or what effect they would have on me. There’s also an argument that could be made that my defiance was rather pointless since the olive bar is still open, and if I was going to do something that crazy, I should have saved it for when I knew it would make a difference.

The problem is that barring near-omniscience you can’t really know when that will be, all you can do is play your hand and let the cards fall where they may. Would I have still tried to do this knowing everything I do now? Probably not. Not because of the consequences to myself, but because it didn’t end up working. The olive bar remains open so my act of defiance didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. If it had resulted in the olive bar being closed, I think I would have done it despite the consequences. Maybe there was something else I could have done to force the issue more, I really don’t know and hindsight is 2020. It’s always easier to tell after it’s too late to matter.

I was already running a Patreon donation drive, but after being suspended this is now potentially all that separates me from going homeless. 

To encourage donations, if I meet my $1400 funding goal on or before March 31st, everyone who is donating at least $10 a month will receive a limited edition enamel pin. If you don’t like Patreon but still want to help me out, send me a private message and I’ll send you my paypal.me link. 

patreon-medium-button

Change Your Mind

I can make a promise.
I can make a plan.
I can make a difference.
I can take a stand.
I can make an effort.
If I only understand.
That I, I can make a change.

This is a post of updates. Historically, I haven’t ever removed a post from this blog. I felt it was important that, even if I no longer endorsed something, there was a historical record of my beliefs and how they changed which I could chart through time. 

However this blog is now entering its fourth year, and I have changed quite a lot as a person in those four years. During that time, this blog has accumulated a lot of things which I no longer think are correct or helpful or necessarily even healthy advice to give people, and so I want to review everything. This post will serve as that review. 

Afterward, I’ll be removing anything significantly de-endorsed from the sidebar and about sections. This post will retain links to all those essays, nothing will be deleted. De-endorsed posts will have headers indicating their status and sections I don’t agree with will be marked in red. I will eventually end up reposting some older essays with edits if it would make sense to do so. There may be a lag time of a few weeks before everything is updated, so refer to this post if you aren’t sure if something is endorsed or not. 

This list is not quite entirely chronological, but for the most part, it is. 

The Plurality series – This is by far the biggest update, and it’s also one that I want to dedicate some additional writing to once I finish with my current projects. Since developing the idea of true no-self, and understanding of keeping my identity small, my perspectives on how to do plurality has changed significantly. Keeping my identity small is probably one of the most important pieces of mental tech I’ve developed over the last year. 

As I said in the death series, identity is a power fantasy, it can’t actually help you very much. Without this understanding, someone doing tulpamancy is often just making an uncontrolled mess of their head. I do still think tulpamancy and the sort of mental manipulations found within can be helpful and produce power and agency but only when done from a place of no-self and keeping your identity small. 

It’s very easy to let identity become the thing that plurality is constructed around, which is a fast track to dysfunction. The plurality series is going to stay on the sidebar for now, until I have time to rewrite all of it, but it should be understood that doing plurality without keeping your identity small is an extremely bad idea

Yes, This is a Hill Worth Dying On – This post is basically an argument for classical liberalism and freedom of speech. I still vaguely agree with parts of it, but with some huge caveats that deserve a post of their own to explain and without which I can’t endorse it. In short, there actually are people trying to betray the commons and if your moral/ethical/legal system doesn’t know how to deal with that because it’s trying too hard to see the good in everyone, you will end up fucking your society and getting your country taken over by fascists. 

Announcing EntropyCon 12017 – Still Endorsed. 

The Story of Our Life – Probably the cringiest description of my past that I could have created, I don’t really endorse it as a good description of my past anymore. I was writing from a place of having a ton of baggage, but the actual events are accurate enough. If you decide to read it, my apologies in advance for coming across as a whiny emo. 

The Origin Sequence – I still endorse the goals of the Origin Project, even if the actual outcome was not what I wanted. I still use the precepts as my primary moral/ethical code and overall I think the project is still a good thing, it just failed in execution. See Eris in Retrograde for more details. 

Why Do you Hate Elua – I bet I felt really clever when I was writing this. This is in a sense the beginnings of my pivot away from thinking Yes, This is a Hill Worth Dying On, was a correct perspective on liberalism. It’s also not very good. It and a lot of my other political positions definitely could use substantial updates. No longer endorsed. 

This is For Real – Trying to talk about social reality before reading Improv and Becker. This is honestly still one of my favorite posts and I think I did a rather good job on the tone, but I wrote it before I really knew what I was talking about and the content is sort of light on the ground. Weakly endorsed but it could be better.

A Castle Made of Castles – A framework for discussing frameworks. A bit silly, a bit reductive, describes things as magic that I would not want to describe as magic anymore. Not the worst thing ever, but not particularly endorsed either, there are better frameworks for discussing frameworks. 

Basic Lens Model Theory – Another framework for discussing frameworks. This is basically a classification system for frameworks and belief systems, I still use this on occasion and I moderately endorse it as a framing, but there are probably better ones out there. 

Objects In Thoughtspace Are Closer Than They Appear – A system for classifying egregores. I consider this a very useful framing device when discussing egregores and vigorously endorse this post. 

Against in Defense of Unreliability – A response post to Ozy’s In Defense of Unreliability, post. I was a bit aggressive in my tone in this essay, but I still endorse the content and think that advocating norms of unreliability is dangerous and bad for the community. 

The Silence Hidden in the Sound – I definitely still strongly endorse this post, but I have more things to say about gender and sex which I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve updated in the direction of loosely identifying as nonbinary or genderfluid, but I still stand by the contents of this post. 

Eris in Retrograde – Postmortem of the Origin Project, Endorsed. 

The Internet Hate Machine – A commentary on cancel culture, Endorsed. 

That Which May Yet Save Us – This continues my pivot away from pure classical liberalism that started with Why Do You Hate Elua and advocates for kindness towards one’s enemies even when fighting them. This is not to say “never fight” but “be kind even when striking down your opponent.” This post is definitely still endorsed, but eventually, I will rewrite it, Why Do You Hate Elua, and Yes, This is a Hill Worth Dying On to better describe my actual political positions on these things. 

The State of the Stateless – This was honestly just kind of a fun time waste post to write that talks about how I feel being a pink-haired city dweller who rides the bus and how the culture of anime has bled into real life. Somewhat endorsed but it’s mostly just me musing on things, should not be taken seriously. 

The Nature of the Soul – This is the beginning of my updating process on plurality and psychology, and this post attempts to synthesize all the various people talking about self and motivation and identity. Endorsed, but should be followed up with my other more recent posts that answer the questions I pose in it. 

On Communities – Dichotomy posting. An ad-hoc analysis of community dynamics and ways that groups can organize. A rather reductive framing that I don’t particularly stand by even if all the elements that I identify seem real. No longer endorsed. 

Hemisphere Theory, Much More Than You Wanted to Know – My analysis of Ziz and Gwen’s Hemisphere Theory. While I endorse my analysis, it should be understood that the post is describing someone else’s beliefs, not my own. 

Two Visions  – My 2019 Secular Solstice Speech. Endorsed. 

Vaporize – My explorations of self, identity, and insight using acid. Endorsed. 

One Hundred Billion Children’s Sky – Introduction to the Death Series, endorsed. 

Doors and Corners – Ernest Becker’s theory that the fear of mortality underlies all of human psychology. Mostly Endorsed but my positions on some of these things have evolved as I’ve read The Worm in the Core which was written fairly recently by some disciples of Becker. I will probably write more about the fear of death in the future. 

Empire of the Dead – My descriptions of immortality projects new and old based off of Becker and extrapolating outwards from it. Endorsed with the same caveat that applies to Doors and Corners. 

The Room Eats You – Explorations of social reality and how social reality interfaces with our fear of death. I’m not super happy with this post even though I agree with the contents of it. I didn’t really say a lot of the things in it as well as I should, and I should probably research social reality a lot more before trying to write about it again so I don’t have to keep citing Ziz. Endorsed but unhappily. 

The Ends of Identity – How my perspective on identity has changed over time to get me to where I am now. Endorsed. 

You Have Not Read the Sequences – On avoiding conspiracy theories and truth detection, the beginnings of my exploration of traditional and modern rationality. Endorsed. 

Jan Bloch’s Impossible War – Exploring World War One and the dawn of X-risk. Endorsed but needs a few corrections.

Time Binders – Exploring Korzybski and the creation of General Semantics, endorsed. 

This update post will be updated as endorsements change over time. 

You can make it different,
You can make it right!
You can make it better,
We don’t have to fight!
You can make an effort,
Starting with tonight,
Cause you, you can make a change

Take Me Home, Hohmann Roads

This is a filked version of Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver that I wrote.

Almost Heaven, Mariner Valley
Tharis Montes, Acidalia Prairie
Life is young here, younger than the air
Older than the oceans, growing like a prayer

Hohmann roads, take me home
To a place, I belong
Sacra Fossa, Martian momma
Take me home, Hohmann roads

All my memories gather ’round her
Explorer’s lady, native of black waters
Sleek and shiny, soaring through the sky
Misty taste of methane, teardrop in my eye

Hohmann roads, take me home
To a place, I belong
Sacra Fossa, Martian momma
Take me home, Hohmann roads

I hear her voice in the timeless hour she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
Crossing the great black I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

Hohmann roads, take me home, to a place I belong
Sacra Fossa, Martian momma
Take me home, Hohmann roads

Hohmann roads, take me home, to a place I belong
Sacra Fossa, Martian momma
Take me home, Hohmann roads

Take me home, (down) Hohmann roads
Take me home, (down) Hohmann roads