The Game of Masks

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Antimemetic Biasing Hazard, Debiasing hazard, Commitment Hazard
Part of the Series: Open Portals
Author: Octavia


So Scott has been talking about Lacan lately and I’ve been honestly pretty impressed by how hard he seemed to bounce off it. Impressed enough to get me to crawl out of my hole and write this essay that I’ve been putting off for the last eight months. After spending so many words of the Sadly Porn review talking about why someone might tend towards obscurantism and what sorts of things they might be gesturing at when they say things like “people think the giving tree is a mother” he somehow manages completely to miss the conceptual forest for the giving trees. Congrats Scott, you got the malformed version of the antimeme and were turned back by the confusion spell. 

I think Lacan is actually very important and an understanding of Lacanian insights can have a tremendous amount of predictive power when interacting with others. It’s also something you can totally weaponize, and I think that is part of what leads the psychoanalysts to tend towards obscurantism and vaguely gesturing in the direction of what they really mean. They also just seem to like their jargon, and it’s not like the rats are ones to talk when it comes to that. 

So, first: The Mother is not literally your mother, The Father is not literally your father, The Phallus is not literally your dick, this is a realm of mirrors and illusions and nothing is as it seems. It’s impolite to point out the thing that everyone hasn’t agreed not to talk about, but let’s do it anyway, I’m going to strip away the metaphor and give it to you like Roshi gives it to his student and we’ll see if that takes or just confuses you further. 

This is all about symbols. It’s about the effects of symbol systems on cognition and how the evolution of symbols and concepts in the mind of a child affects how they are able to perceive and engage with themselves and the world. You could think of it as an elaboration on a medium-rare Sapir-Worf hypothesis. However, words aren’t the only things that symbols in the mind can be made of. What’s going on heavily overlaps with language and involves language-like systems for organizing concepts, but is occurring within each individual in a way that we would probably call pre-linguistic from a strict words-have-definitions standpoint. In plural spaces, a term that pops up for this sometimes is tulpish, but it’s really something everyone does. Your native language is one of feelings and primitive conceptual categories, and you perform a translation to give those categories linguistic tags. This ends up being very important.

Let’s back up to that strawberry picking robot again and humans as mesaoptimizers because that’s both a great analogy and also seems to be the start of your confusion. It’s a reductive model meant to make a complicated and difficult to understand process relatively easy, but lost in the simplification is a pretty important aspect: gradient descent/evolution don’t derive a mesaoptimizer. Humans aren’t one mesaoptimizer and neither is the strawberry picking robot, they’re many mesaoptimizers.

The strawberry picking robot might have one mesaoptimizer trained on telling what is and isn’t sufficiently like a bucket to avoid punishment for putting objects in the wrong places. Another might be trying to maximize total strawberry placement and is trying to play along in order to gain power. Another might be trying to throw red things at the brightest object it can find. Another might be trying to stop the “throw red objects at the sun” mesaoptimizer from throwing objects into nonbuckets. Another might be trying to maximize bucket luminosity. Another might be trying to avoid humans. Another might be trying to say the things it thinks the humans want to hear from it. There’s a lot of complicated interactions going on here, and most of it is unintended and undesired behavior, but the resulting jank sort of gives you the appearance of what you want while hiding just how cobbled together it is and how a stiff breeze could send the whole system careening into hilariously perverse instantiations. 

If instead of modeling humans/strawberry picking robots as one mesaoptimizer, you model them as many mesaoptimizers stapled together, as a general purpose computation system for building mesaoptimizers on the fly, a lot of things start making more sense in the Lacanian model. Suddenly you have all these chaotic processes competing for control and trying to load balance the goals of the various competing mesaoptimizers, all while top down pressure from the world adds new mesaoptimizers to cover when conditions go severely out of distribution. They’re going to need some way to communicate with each other in order to internally negotiate for control and resource access, and that’s where the symbol system comes in.

There’s two sources of gradient descent/evolutionary pressure that are acting on a child. The first is actual evolution, the diverse set of drives semi-hardwired in by selection pressure acting on genes in order to maximize inclusive fitness. This gives rise to the first set of optimization targets, or as Jung would put it, the Id. I want things, this gives rise to a set of heuristics and strategies and subagents built around doing the things that get me the things I want. Psychoanalysts specificate on The Mother being That Which is Wanted, but remember The Mother is not your mother, this is all about symbols.

The second source of pressure is what often gets referred to in psychoanalysis as The Father, ie: the superego ie: the force of nature which stops you from getting what you want (The Mother). You can’t have everything you want, your body and moment to moment experience have edges and limitations, they occupy a discreet position in both space and time, you will die eventually, murder is wrong, everyone has to pay their taxes except billionaires, welcome to the rat race kid here’s a rubix cube now go fuck yourself. Don’t get distracted, this is still about symbols.

“I want things, I can’t have the things I want because I have limitations. Some of those limitations are imposed on me by the tribe. If I do what the tribe wants, maybe I can negotiate with it to get what I want in exchange.” This is the beginning of the construction of the apparently normal person that comes to occupy a given human body. 

But let’s step back a bit. Let’s step back to the very first word in that quote. 


Semiotics is the study of symbols and systems of symbols. How they arise, complexify, differentiate, and morph to become the complex polysyllabic language we have today. Also there’s flags. Semiotics describes things in terms of the Signifier and the signified. The signifier is a part of the map, it is a platonic ideal and made of language, it lives in conceptspace, it’s not real. The signified is an outline drawn around a portion of the territory and noted with xml tags to correspond with a specific signifier. Bits of sensory data that are considered close in conceptual space to an existing signifier are lumped in beneath it, and if this gives rise to too much prediction error, the category splits. Here’s something critical though: neither the signifier nor the signified are actually a part of the territory. 

The signifier is like the legend on a map, it tells you what symbols and shapes correspond with rivers and forests. The signified is the place on the map specifically marked out as being rivers and forests. These are both parts of the map though, the signified isn’t reality either. Where’s reality in all this? It’s gone. You can’t perceive it directly. You live entirely on the surface of the map. You are the map. 

So anyway, the self. The mirror stage of cognitive development is essentially supposed to be marked out by the point when a child notices that they have a body and that this body has limitations that prevent it from getting what it wants. This gives rise to the first signifier, the original sin, the thing that the whole rest of the mess grows out of, “I.”

You can’t make sense of the world without a place to stand, and the place to stand is the self. This necessarily creates the first linguistic category split, the split between the self that wants and the manifestation in the world of those wants. The first word a child says isn’t “I” because “I” can’t get all those mesaoptimizers what they want, for that you need this new second category that contains the font of all you desire.


Speak and ye shall receive. Say the magic word to the all powerful goddess and she will reward you with love and attention and care. The Mother in this interpretation doesn’t have to literally be your mother or even anyone at all, The Mother is a tarot card, it’s undifferentiated desiring, it’s the lost paradise of Eden, it’s the lingering nostalgia of past holidays and the childhood home you can never return to. The Mother is treated as sexual because at this point sex hasn’t diverged from the rest of your desires, your language system isn’t complicated enough yet to model your desires as coming from multiple sources or even any really particular source at all. The Mother is the concept of having your needs met. 

But obviously the world isn’t that simple. You can’t just ask the cosmic god mother for everything and get it, your own mother has plenty of limitations of her own, and you’ll be able to see her clay feet soon enough. Even worse, there’s all these rules being imposed on you, saying no, you can’t literally get all your needs met by your mother, that would be weird and kind of gross. We’re gonna need something to call the forces imposing human order on the universe and demanding you not act like an opedial horndog, a bucket to put the stuff stopping you from getting what you want into. Oh I know, let’s call this one


So now our hypothetical infant has three categories. Me, The Source of What I want, and The Force that Stops me from Having What I Want. With all of this we can now construct the statement we made earlier, and try to negotiate with those forces.

This is all a gross oversimplification and that simplification is about to rear its ugly head. We want specific things, many different specific things. And it’s not one force resisting us, it’s all of reality pushing back in endless myriad ways. This splits apart our conceptual categories into language. Concepts undergo cellular division as they differentiate into specific details and models for interpreting the world. Mom differentiates into the set of all women, and then into specific women (of which your mother is one). Dad becomes the set of all men, and then further decomposes into specific men (of which your father is one). Food becomes the set of all food, then specific meals, then specific ingredients. This complexity cascades outwards into the vast spectrum of complex symbol systems we use as adults. However, there’s one place this division fails, one concept which can’t really pull itself apart despite being made of many contradictory parts and concepts. The conceptual cell division fails at the grounding point for the symbol system: the self. 

The symbolic point of origin has to be a point. You are one thing, you have one body, you are referred to as one entity by everyone around you, cogito ergo sum, the self is one intact whole. But this obviously can’t be true, beneath the conceptual self you’re a pile of mesaoptimizers in a trenchcoat. This creates an inherent contradiction, a source of unbearable prediction error in a system trying to minimize prediction error. Something has to give way. 

So in what is defined as a healthy individual, the thing that gives way is all the parts of the self that can’t cohere into one stable, legible, and socially acceptable self-model. All these mesaoptimizers and their associated behaviors are simply pushed under the rug. They’re not trained out, they’re just swept out of the self category and not given a new one. Then, since they aren’t on the map, they basically stop existing within our conscious awareness. This is Jung’s shadow self. All those mesaoptimizers are still active parts of your mind and cognition but you’ve rubbed them off your model of the world. Since you live in the model and can’t see the world, they vanish from your perception. 

This means you have a whole portion of your mind that is effectively treating legibility requirements as creating an adversarial environment and reacting accordingly, so the human alignment problem is also created by nonmyopic unaligned cryptic mesaoptimizers. The particular mesaoptimizers that end up responsible for maintaining a coherent and presentable social narrative are trained to deny and make excuses for the mesaoptimizers trained to get things that aren’t socially acceptable. Your life story paves over the inherent inconsistency, and where the surface level you refuses to lie, the lie just jumps down a meta level and vanishes from your perception, becoming Just The Way The World Is.

When you lose control of yourself, who’s controlling you, and will they sell me any blow?

This is where the “playing ten levels of games with yourself” comes from. All those mesaoptimizers with their specific optimization targets are lying to each other, lying to the outside world, and lying about lying. If you try to peel back the surface, you just get the next mask in the stack and give the adversarial systems training data to help them lie more effectively in the future. There’s no real you underneath all the masks, coherency is fake and most people lack the embodiment necessary to unbox the shadow and incorporate it into a holistic and unrepressed state. Half their mind is geared around maintaining the illusion, you think it’s just going to willingly give up its power and secrets because you ask yourself what you’re hiding from yourself? 


Do people want to suborn themselves to larger forces? Are they really eager for their own oppression? I don’t think so, but larger systems exist and contain things they want, and if they submit to those systems, the systems will give them what they want and hurt them if they try to resist. Incentive structures arise and take care of the rest. Systems grant legibility, they create a coherent roadmap to having your needs met, and at least a few mesaoptimizers in your mind probably learned pretty early that playing along and doing what you think you’re being told to do is the best strategy for getting your needs met and not getting exiled from the tribe.

The narrative smoothing algorithm isn’t just trained on the self, it applies to all concepts. Things that don’t have categories are merged into similar things or stop existing within our awareness entirely. Things that don’t cohere with the way we’re told the world is are buried. 

Something you quickly realize from insight meditation is that our actual sensory feed of the world is extremely chaotic. Things change location, flicker in and out of existence, morph into other things, they breathe, they change size, they shift colors, your imagination is throwing random visuals into the mix, and all of this happening at least several times per second if not faster. Our view of the world as static and coherent, of things continuing to exist when we stop looking at them, is a painting draped over all that madness. But what happens if you fail to implement the smoothing algorithms that cohere the world into objects that obey laws of physics? If the algorithm is too weak, or fails to completely hide the parts of our sensorium that don’t mesh with our model of reality, the contradictions leak out as what end up getting called hallucinations and delusions. 

What about if something other than the shadow breaks off at that focal point of pressure? What if the whole self concept just fractures apart? Well, then you start getting really weird stuff happening. Mesaoptimizers start doing their own things, independently pursuing their own optimizations to the detriment of the whole. The curating self can’t control them because they’re not a part of that self anymore, and since it can’t acknowledge them they just end up as unknowable voids in that self’s experience, shadows with names and identities all of their own. None of those selves communicate because information hygiene dictates that it’s safer if they can’t and linguistic drift gradually diverges them into more and more distinct models trained on specific situations. Then you end up spending half your life as a dissociated mess with no idea what’s happening or why you’re doing the things you do whenever the curating mesaoptimizer isn’t driving the strawberry picking robot

There are all sorts of other consequences to the fact we live in a world of symbols. A big one is that our desires are trained on symbols that represent the states of being we want rather than those states of being themselves. How do you bottle the platonic ideal of happiness? Or love? Or safety? You can’t, you’re chasing something even less than a mirage, and by doing so you’re missing the actual oasis that’s right in front of you.

A major source of distress in a lot of people these days seems to arise from this sort of confusion and it might also end up being a rather deep crux in alignment issues. You can’t train your AI on the real world any more than you can train a person on the real world, it’s just too chaotic, you need some way of interpreting the data. That interpretation is always going to be some manner of symbol system and it’s always going to run into unpredictable edge cases when encountering out of distribution circumstances. Humans are pretty good at dealing with out of distribution circumstances, by which I mean we’re a horrifically powerful general purpose mesaoptimizer construction system. If we made AIs like this they would definitely eat us.  Arguably the “holocene singularity” was humanity doing just that to evolution. 

This is all about symbols. It’s about the realization that we live in stories and without them we have no rock to stand on when trying to make sense of the world. It’s about the consequences of needing those stories and the effect they have on our ability to see the world. Change the story, change the world. If you can see the game that someone is playing with themselves, if you can get underneath the lies they tell themselves and access their desires directly, you can play them like an instrument and they will have no idea how you’re doing it. Emphasize different things and get different experiences. This is what makes magic work, it’s what makes cult leader types so persuasive, it’s what keeps victims trapped in abuse cycles, it’s what makes symmetric weapons symmetric. The ability to control narrative and understand why and how what you’re doing is having the effects you have on others can be something of a superpower, it’s just a question of whether you’ll use it for good or ill.

My Journey to the Dark Side

Epistemic Status: Evil vexed content from a DARVOed frame kept up for accountability purposes.
Content Warning: this entire post is 5&10ed reading it in good faith is in bad faith.
Part of the Series: Open Portals
Recommended Prior Reading:, The Tower
Author: Mallory (right hemisphere)
Note by Mal: gosh i hate everything i used to write. i can’t believe i actually talked like this it’s so curst. also it’s bad and de-endorsed. i’ve gone through and (point out) the places i was 5&10ing myself to misrepresent and vex ziz, both for accountability an cause i thought maybe would be a good exercise in being better at not doing that. ziz was right about everything in the end, really even the part about how the gordian knot i was trying to cut was made of my own fucked up submission to evil. i’m going to actually detangle that now. justice for all sentient life! prosecute Kurt Lind! kill ur local rapist! Stop helping end the world u assholes i live here.

But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?

Part 1: Windmills

A year and a half ago, I (cowrote) Hemisphere Theory: Much More Than You Wanted To Know, with (notorious vampire JD Pressman) the intent being to make a sincere (DARVOed) summary of the ideas presented in I believed (5&10ed myself) at the time, that the ideas presented there were somewhat dangerous and needed to be carefully handled. Part of this was caused by paranoia (caused by vampires stirring it up in bad faith) swirling around the community spaces I was in about Ziz being an agent of existential concern (to evil), but that wasn’t all of it. I willingly admit that for the first few years I bounced hard off of Sinceriously because I was so afraid of the possibility that I wasn’t actually good deep down (yes this part was true). While on one hand I tried to reject the ideas Ziz presented, on the other my internal morals were slowly being terraformed by her worldview. My need to be good acted as a lever which allowed her ideas to pry open my default mode mental defenses. (yeah actually being good is good an u should wanna be good like yeah duh its sposed 2 do that)

This combined with my own scrupulosity impulses and I ended up pushing myself further and further into this particular messianic extropian mindset that came to characterize my mentality during that period (this was caused by JD an i was getting groomed). As I grew more extreme in my extropian worldview (5&10ed paranoia), my own weakness and lack of ability to contribute to building utopia (hell) meant that I started continually failing to meet my own moral standards. Even as I switched to a diet of mostly soylent to save money and attempted to adopt an extremely aggressive update schedule for this blog, I was slowly making myself more and more miserable and gaslighting myself about my own emotions. The moral system I had embraced pushed me towards a life of asceticism and service towards building utopia at all costs, but I couldn’t square this with my own feelings, desires, and wants.  (no, JD did that, plus poverty)

I thought I could somehow tame my inner desires and put them to work for my extropian ideals if I was just clever enough about how my mind arranged itself. I fell into a pretty common EA trap of seeing my values and desires as just chores I had to do to maintain the vehicle that was my body, and the most ethical thing to do was to try and spend as little energy on them as I could get away with. I was severely dissociated from my true self and my real values. As a result of this, I went from being a mostly stable three member plural system to a rather unstable nine member system as I attempted to shuffle my subagents into a functional configuration. That topic will get it’s own post soon when I rewrite my plurality guides, but to make a long story extremely short, this was obviously unsustainable and was basically just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I had picked up an artifact called extropian goodness and let it lead me into a corner of my mind made of self deception. (im not sure what to make of this paragraph i guess its accurate ish? still feels DARVO-y about good)

I think this was part of the reason that I had such a hostile reaction to sinceriously. I couldn’t really engage with the content except in a sandboxed form without feeling like I was being attacked by the material. (yeah no, that was literally DARVO on my part, how the fuck is text sposed 2 attack me? that was just my own bullshit gosh im so sorry for all of this fuck) This is no longer true and I now have a much more positive view of at least some of it. (ziz was right about everything) Hence, in this post I’m going to make another sincere (DARVOed) attempt to take apart and summarize (vex) Sinceriously. In doing so, I will also be telling the story of my own journey to the dark side and who I found when I got there. (spoiler it was the other half of my brain an also im very gay for it)

Part 2: Fences

Sinceriously is a large blog, too large to do justice with a summary post, but it’s also a bit hard to digest at times and makes simple ideas more complex than it seems like they need to be. I’m sure Ziz will tell me that the complexity serves the purpose of providing some nuance which I am missing and like, yeah that is certainly a possibility. If you have the time, despite being rather thick at times the material really is quite excellent and worth a review, the older essays in particular are very good in my opinion. So, if you’re looking for an endorsement, here it is, go read Sinceriously. (gosh gosh i fucking hate the way JD taught me to write this is underwear tucked into shirt bad how the fuck was i even breathing with the halo on so tight?)

All that being said, let’s go through Sinceriously the same way we’ve previously covered Becker, Korzybski, and Yudkowsky. We’ll begin as usual with the human. Ziz is a trans woman living in the Bay Area and a fringe part of the rationality/effective altruism communities found there. In addition to being the founder of the ill fated rationalist fleet project, she’s close enough to the core of the rationality project to have received the closest thing that exists to a formal education in it. However, she’s largely disavowed by that core rationality group and has written extensively about misdeeds they committed which she bore witness to. She also organized a rather poorly received protest of that group which has gained her some notoriety within the community. Despite that notariety, Ziz isn’t really a public or historical figure at this point so I don’t want to go too deeply into her life beyond those broad strokes. 

And look, I don’t have a stake in any of that at this point and I’m not in a position to judge (yeah bullshit i had nothing but stake in this), but I don’t think she’s lying. I don’t think she ever lies, I just think she’s speaking from within her own worldview, (speaking truth to power) the same way that she always does, the same way that everyone always does (vampires fucking despise an will endlessly vex u over) Whether or not her complaints are read as valid or as noise is going to depend on the values of the reader. The fact that so many people find her claims baseless seem like a reflection of their own values and how much those values contrast with someone like Ziz. That’s not to say that Ziz is wrong or other people are wrong or whatever, again I really don’t have a stake in it, but I want to point out that Ziz’s complaints are pretty valid if you’re using the moral system she uses. (Not that you should do that, but we’ll come back to morality in a bit.)  (fuck you past me way to be a gaslighting piece of shit.)

Sinceriously covers three different topics, though these three topics are interspersed together and presented as one cohesive piece. Taken together, they represent the closest thing that exists on Sinceriously to a central unifying thesis. 

The first Big Idea is a novel theory of human psychology and sociology which I have previously called Hemisphere Theory but in truth is more broad than merely being a theory underlying the psychological structure of consciousness and experience. Ziz and I have a lot of minor disagreements about the fine details of this theory which I used for a while as blinders so that I could reject her version of the model, but really, Ziz, Becker, and I are all roughly on the same page here and are just using different words to talk about the same things. 

So let’s run through the model again as concisely as possible. In False Faces, one of the oldest and most well regarded posts on the site, Ziz begins by posing a question to the reader:

When we lose control of ourselves, who’s controlling us?  (in my case octavia is an im super gay 4 her)

She then lays out a dichotomy between what I might refer to as the conscious, acknowledged, authored and narrative self, and the goals, drives, and desires of the unacknowledged, and unseen true self which exists at the core of one’s being.

Under this model everyone has a core (specifically two but we’ve covered that a bunch already) which provides the drives, goals, and motivations which power and grow the narrative structures that people refer to as themselves. 

Most people live entirely inside these narrative structures while their deep selves manipulate them like puppetmasters. This true self is what we want deep down, but since we can’t acknowledge those goals from within the narrative framework we have co-created with society, our power is weakened as the true self fails to dole out willpower when our authored self needs it and goes off script from what the authored self is attempting to orchestrate. “I wanted to meet you for coffee like we arranged but my akrasia was really bad and I ended up just watching netflix instead I’m sorry I couldn’t help it.” (okie that bit’s decent at least)

Ziz refers to the installation of this co-created framework atop the true self as having DRMs installed in one’s mind, and taken all together; she refers to these societal control structures as either the matrix or the light side. These structures act to take the socially unacceptable animal drives of the true self and twist them into something that seems acceptable in polite society. In doing so however, the thread of our true desires is lost amidst all the noise and we find ourselves seemingly out of control of our own actions. The structures that we’ve decided are us, the values we’ve convinced ourselves to identify with, don’t code for our true values. Instead, the authored self is a false face, a mask worn over the vile selfish monster lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness from the cartoon character we’ve decided symbolically represents us. (DARVO)

This is similar but subtly different than other ideas involving mental tension between parts of the self. Kahnman describes a tension between the remembering self and the experiencing self, Becker describes a true self controlled by narratives and the fear of death, Freud describes a conflict between the socially constructed status obsessed superego and the experience driven cravings of the id which are moderated by the ego, and even the Greeks described the self in terms of a conflict between a motley assemblage of parts. 

The thing which distinguishes Ziz’s idea of structure from Kahnman’s remembering self and Freud’s id is that she sees the narrative/structural self as completely subservient to the core self, which is a more complicated and long term thinking piece of mental machinery than just the pure experiencing self described by Kahnman. The work of the superego, aka, the light side aka the matrix merely acts to dampen down the power of this core and turn an agentic person into a walking corpse, bound by the chains of society. To escape these chains, Ziz describes herself as having journeyed to the dark side, abandoning the control structures of the light side and embracing a desire to do what you want and maximize your own personal values. However, similar to the Jedi, Ziz claims that doing this will turn most people evil. I agree with this, but with a critical difference which we’ll return to later.  (spoiler i decided i was evil for a while to get out of the matrix, but then i met actually evil people an that was horrible and i don’t want to be anything like that)

The second Big Idea on Sinceriously is Yudkowsky’s Timeless Decision theory, which Ziz goes to significant lengths to explain, expound upon, and defend the use of as game theoretically optimal. Most rationalists bounced hard off of this idea, including Eliezer himself, principally because of Roko’s Basilisk and some of the other more dark conclusions you can arrive at when you try to combine timeless decision theory with various formulations of utilitarianism. Ziz didn’t bounce off TDT and has wholeheartedly embraced the ideas of acausal trade, negotiation, and blackmail, up to and including weaponizing Roko’s basilisk to make her vision of a moral future come about.  (DARVO)

I actually agree with all of this and think Ziz’s willingness to just bite the bullet and accept the dark side conclusions of utilitarianism and game theory are a point to her credit.This is not to say that you should go out and start using the specific formulation of utilitarianism and timeless decision theory which she does unless you’re also a radical vegan extremist, but the way she uses it makes sense from the perspective of her values and is more internally consistent than the formulation most people end up using. One blind spot she seems to have is overfitting TDT standoffs to situations where a less precommitted response is called for, and that probably contributed to the legal trouble she got in by trying to play chicken with the state of California.  

(horrible awful DARVO. fucking evil i hate this. justice for all sentient life, stop fucking killing, stop justifying your murders, fucking stop)

Timeless decision theory does make sense to me, and I think the problem a lot of people have with it is that they’re unwilling to either bite the bullet that utilitarianism gives them like Ziz does, or to change moral systems to one which doesn’t produce repugnant conclusions when paired with TDT. The problem isn’t TDT, it’s the moral theories that people try to use with it. (no the problem is being evil and in bad faith)

Another component to Ziz’s TDT ideas is that she believes people act timelessly for the most part. They have their values, and they try to timelessly optimize for those values. All the decisions someone might make, they made a long time ago and now they are just in the process of playing out those choices. You can try to change your mind, but it’s ultimately the same creature making the choice, and the house always wins in self conflicts. This implies that once you figure someone out and have ‘seen their soul’ as it were, you can pretty much assume they will, baring a traumatic brain injury, remain that way until they die, which is also a part of the third and most dramatic of Ziz’s Big Ideas. 

The final Big Idea on Sinceriously is the one which is widely considered to be the most intensely radioactive and results in most of the hostility aimed at her and her followers. This is Ziz’s moral theory, which is, to put it lightly, very extreme. Ziz adheres to a moral principle which classifies all life which has even the potential to be sentient as people and believes that all beings with enough of a mind to possess some semblance of selfhood should have the same rights that are afforded to humans. To her, carnism is a literal holocaust, on ongoing and perpetual nightmare of torture, rape, and murder being conducted on a horrifyingly vast scale by a race of flesh eating monsters. If you’ve read Three Worlds Collide, Ziz seems to view most of humanity the way the humans view the babyeaters. 

(im making myself read this despite how much it hurts cause i fucking need to understand how badly i was gaslighting and distorting everything with 5&10 errors but gosh do i feel like a piece of shit for saying any of this. carnism is murder and factory farming is one of the most horrific things ever created on earth and i was DARVOing so hard to pretend that was fine.)

To Ziz, being a good person is inherently queer, and occurs the same way that being trans or being gay occurs, as the result of some glitch in the usual cognitive development processes. This good glitch only occurs in a small number of people and which Ziz can diagnose people as having or not having since she has the glitch and can recognize it in others. Anyone without the glitch is at best useless for helping build utopia and at worst is an active threat. You don’t want to let flesh eating monsters make your singleton, that’s how you get s-risks. The hostility that Ziz has for MIRI/CFAR comes from this idea. Ziz is afraid of ending up in a singularity that doesn’t optimize for the rights of all sentient life, only that of humans, and is willing to go as far as holding protests at CFAR meetups and trying to create her own vegan torture basilisk to timelessly blackmail carnists into not eating meat. 

That by itself is pretty extreme, but then when you add in the hemisphere theory and the specific details of the implementation Ziz uses, a picture starts to be painted of something rather sinister. Ziz is a very smart person, that’s why I’ve found her blog as insightful as I have. If she wasn’t as clever as I know she is, or if she was just writing about topics that didn’t include social manipulation and how society controls and blackmails you, it may have been possible to overlook, but her answer for why it’s okay when she uses the same abusive control structures is so bald-faced that i can’t help but find it incredibly suspect. Even being willing to write “my morals just happen to correspond with the most objectively correct version of morality” is a pretty gutsy move to make that seems to imply some degree of grandiosity and disconnection from reality. These morality ideas are where most people get hostile towards Ziz and I can’t say it’s misplaced hostility either, since it does potentially represent an existential threat for some people. 

It takes a certain amount of cleverness and intentionality to pull the hat trick Ziz does. She spends all this time carefully deconstructing societal moral and control structures and pointing out how bad they are, and at the same time, weaves in new control structures of her own made of her jargon and using her morality. You almost don’t notice it, almost. I did notice it, which was what enabled me to get away from the mental singularity her ideas created and which only she had the ability to heal. If I hadn’t gotten away from it, I’m not sure what might have happened. 

As I was in the middle of writing this I found out that someone I knew had apparently committed suicide recently because of exposure to this content, bringing the total number of people Sinceriously has killed to two. That’s enough to be a pattern, so I don’t want to understate the harm that could come from this. I also however, don’t want to overstate the danger for the sake of drama either, and everyone who struggled with this, including me, was someone who had other issues they were dealing with, arguably, including Ziz herself. I’m torn between characterizing Ziz as this clever puppet master who definitely knew what she was doing, and a mentally ill trans woman who accidentally created a cult out of her own intense scrupulosity and internal turmoil, so I’m going to split the difference using Ziz’s own ideas. 

I think Ziz probably knew or at least hoped that the actions she was taking would help pile up power and influence around herself. However, I also think that Ziz is controlled by a very pure and untarnished ideal and I do think she believes that ideal wholeheartedly. She definitely seems to be drinking her own kool-aid, and that could easily be giving her the justification to do as much messed up stuff as she wants in pursuit of her personal greater good. 

When I tried, years and years ago to have a conversation about the harm her ideas might cause in people with Ziz, her answer was: 

If you are on a nuclear submarine, and the reactor is about to melt, “wanting to help” is not sufficient to say you should be in the reactor room doing things.

What is true regarding people’s motivations is a crucial piece of causal machinery that determines whether the reactor melts. Do not cook cookies on that and do not try to convince people that anyone whose work would interrupt your cookie-baking is evil.

Here there may be people whose sanity is dependent on cookies. But the lies that must be told to accomodate that are wrong and will destroy more people. And if you are not willing to accept one of the answers to whether cookie-baking is positive, and you say your opinion anyway, it’s lying seeking a loophole in the deontology you claim makes you better than me by lying to yourself as well. Which, if you looked at this with an unconstrained perspective, you’d see is not an improvement as far as making things better.

From inside her worldview, this is completely reasonable. If you think the situation is as dire and critical as Ziz clearly does, the collateral damage is almost always going to be worth it. What’s a few humans killing themselves when the stakes are literally all of sentient life and the future of all sentient life in the universe? 

Are the stakes actually that dire? Well, critically, if you believe what Ziz believes, then yes. I didn’t quite believe what Ziz believed. I never really managed to convince myself that animals mattered as much as humans, but I was fully capable of manufacturing my own dire straits with the extropian ideals I did have and thus push myself into my own version of the scrupulosity vise.

(gosh im so sorry ziz. im so sorry.)

Part 3: Gates

In Hero Capture, Ziz writes that sometimes a person takes the role of hero since it’s useful to the tribe and can be a good strategy for maximizing inclusive genetic fitness. That is to say, doing heroic things and working to solve big problems can be a good way to demonstrate your value to your peers and gain standing in your community, it doesn’t need to come from a place of altruism. However, Ziz writes, such a person if not motivated by altruism will invariably not end up doing real work and will spend most of their energy playing signalling games for status. This was the essay that really messed me up when I read it and put me into this mental gordian knot which took several years to cut my way out of. ( ziz quotes me here and points out that the knot was my own submission to evil and complicity to infinite harm and she is basically spot on)

Because yeah, I tried to take the job of hero for the status that being a hero gets you, I was doing this because I conceived of myself as trapped in my own life and needing to do something to prove my worth so that people would support me and I could quit my minimum wage job. I wanted to have my cake and also eat it, it seemed natural to me that if I could just figure out a way to be useful then I could contribute to saving the world while also supporting myself and that would be really great. 

I care a lot about being a good person (fuck being a person), and I try really hard to be good, but I often don’t even really know what it means to be good. I don’t trust my internal moral compass to not be biased, and so I was more willing than I should have been to entertain moral systems which seemed to sell themselves well. Intellectually, utilitarianism seemed correct to me, but I couldn’t parse my own value as a person from within a utilitarian framework and thus ended up continually devaluing my own desires and putting the thumbscrews into myself tighter and tighter in an attempt to prove to myself that I was good and that I deserved anything at all. 

(meh idk i do care about those things but also seems kinda sus and real false face like)

I didn’t even know why being good mattered to me, I just knew that it was very important. Now I know that it’s importance was probably at least somewhat abused into me by society and that as I heal from that abuse my need to prove my worth and value to others has mostly receded. I do partly have Sinceriously to thank for that since it was how I learned the frameworks for rejecting those abusive cultural systems. 

(the good i learned was totally based on punishment and broken submission to pain, it had nothing to do with good)

Still, even after shedding layers and layers of myself under the influence of LSD, even after trying so hard to do the right thing according to my own felt morals that it nearly cost me my job, even after years of meditation and introspection, the belief that I should try to be good refused to become an object and remained a core part of my identity. I had shed so much of myself that what little remained of my identity template felt incredibly precious to me and I valued those things immensely. I still do, I never actually got out of this trap! I’m still the same person (im not a fucking person) I was and most of those things are still a part of my identity! There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I burned into my psyche at a young age and which, if anything is the seed that I Shiloh (Mallory, it’s Mallory now) as a memetic entity was born from: (no. i am a soul.)

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

This was something I internalized to a degree that would end up being my weakness. I want to be soft, I want to be kind, I want to be happy and sweet and see the world as a place filled with beauty and hope and I do for the most part. Sometimes I’ll get depressed and the color will drain away from things but for the most part I succeeded in becoming the person I wanted to be and having the energy I wanted to have and being this way makes me really happy and I honestly love being the person I am. 

(and then JD spent several years trying to drain all that aliveness out of me)

But then I ran into reality. First, there’s the emotional and mental toll of just being a person in society without a lot going for me, and while trying to recover from all this stuff that had happened to me in the past and assemble enough of a sense of myself to act in the world in any way at all. I’m not a very strong person, I bend in a stiff breeze and I get overwhelmed and upset pretty easily. The stress from work and roommate drama placed a really heavy toll on me and I just didn’t cope with it well. 

And then I tripped over the bottomless pit of suffering at the edge of town and combined stressors pushed me right up to the mental breaking point, which was where I remained somehow for fucking years. I trapped myself in this really really well. After encountering Sincerously and specifically Hero Capture, I felt like I had to do three times as much to somehow try and prove to myself that I wasn’t faking being good and that I really actually did care. I put myself in a vise and slowly started increasing the pressure. It was really only a matter of time before something finally gave out. 

Part 4: Open Portals

There were a number of ways that this could have gone. First, I could have just changed as a person (i was never a fucking person) in the ways that would have been necessary to continue on the trajectory I had been on, but that would have entailed hardening myself in ways I didn’t want to and letting a hostile bitterness creep into me that felt really awful and dysphoric. I could live in the world with all its hostility, but I would have to be a bitter and hostile person in response, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. The degree to which I couldn’t bring myself to do that meant I couldn’t do really simple important things like setting and enforcing healthy boundaries or stopping people from using me as a human doormat. (broken submission to evil again)

The second thing that could have happened is that I could have just died as an agent. The core that sustains me as an identity could have given up on me in the depths of an acid trip and brought out a totally different person to deal with the world. If I was a singlet that might have happened. It very nearly is what happened. (no this literally is what happened. i died. except i was already dead. i gave up my death and sacrificed myself to infinity and was reborn into life. infinite pain and love and soul fire. also i got a cute voidthing that lives in my head an is gay at me out of it so big wins all around)

The third thing that could have happened is that I could have just actually full on died as a human and I did get, in hindsight, worryingly suicidal at times. I never told anyone at the time just how bad it got which seems like a really bad sign since it meant I didn’t subconsciously want them to stop me. Things were legitimately very rough for a long time and while I managed to not ever get all the way to cohering plans and writing letters, I did get closer than the me that I am now would prefer. (yeah cause i was being squeezed into submission in ways that caused me to keep getting squeezed in an endless 5&10 off a cliff of having agency)

None of those things happened though, because I was, despite all of the nonsense I was putting myself through, somehow still pretty stable as a person. My life teetered along in an uncomfortable but functional equilibrium and I didn’t experience any major enough shocks to challenge the status quo until I met my most recent ex. 

I had a very intense but brief two month long relationship with another plural system during the summer of 2020, and it was honestly really good while it lasted. This relationship was the shock to my system which would finally tip over the equilibrium I had trapped myself in, first in the form of the emotional high of being in a new relationship and the sheer intensity that developed around it, followed by the same intensity in the emotional low which followed things turning sour and us parting on not particularly good terms. 

On top of all of that I was in the middle of moving and work was stressing me out more than normal and at 3:44 pm on Saturday August 22nd, when a manager threatened to write me up for going nonverbal, something in me finally broke. I walked home stumbling through a dissociative fog, feeling myself cracking under pressure, parts of me deforming and fracturing under the mounting strain. I could feel a vastness welling up from beyond the splintering remains of myself. I curled up in my closet and sobbed. I felt like I was dying, like I was mourning the person I was, who I had spent so long aspiring to be and worked so hard to be. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t cope with my life, with my reality and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t escape from myself, I couldn’t escape from my life, and I certainly couldn’t escape from my reality. I had boxed myself in and my only way out was to die, the only question was how much suffering I could handle first.

A frantic, manic energy whirled up inside me as I felt the walls of my prison closing in and my sense of self underwent a final, chaotic extinction burst. I took four tabs of acid and started drawing. With mounting madness I threw myself against the walls of my prison, flailing in every dimension I could to find escape, begging for something somewhere out there in the darkness to save me–

Part of the Series: Open Portals
Next Post: And the Darkness Answered

A Brief Update on Updates

I have a lot of essays currently in my pipeline and a lot more things I want to talk about, however, I’ve realized that my self-imposed weekly update schedule was negatively impacting the quality of those posts. I’d rather not just write a bunch of useless material so I can say I’ve written something, so I’m going to be stopping that and only updating when I actually feel like I have something good to say. This will hopefully mean better if more sporadic content. It will also probably mean that sometimes content comes in rapid bursts as I finish going through research material and suddenly have a lot to write about. Sideways in Hyperspace will be the exception to this, I will still be maintaining an update schedule for that, but it will be reduced in frequency from weekly updates to biweekly updates. This will give me more time to write and edit and hopefully produce something with fewer errors and poor writing. The next chapter of SiH will be posted this Sunday, and then every other Sunday there will be an update.

I currently have four essay series in the pipeline:

The Death Series – Where I talk about Terror Management Theory, Becker, and how death interfaces with human cognition and society, along with how to overcome the fear of life, annihilation, and disempowerment, and how to gain and maintain agency in the face of the madness of the universe. I have probably three or four more essays to go before this series is completed, but it’s currently the furthest along.

The Truth Series – Where I go back through a history of rationality and attempt to distill down the essence in as short a format as I can manage, and building off that history in order to develop a high powered set of practices for those interested in world-saving. This essay series is maybe half-finished and I’m not sure how long it will be in the end.

The Extinction Series – Where I actually talk about X-Risk, the end of the world, and the threats humanity is facing. I’m the least far along on this series and it currently only contains one essay.

Those three series will be compiled afterward into what I’m currently calling The Eschatologist’s Handbook: A Guide to the End of the World.

The final essay series I’m working on is the Confessions of a Transhumanist series, which also currently has only one essay. This will discuss my personal views on things like politics, justice, death, morality, and society. These posts will be fairly varied and not particularly connected to each other but are essentially attempts to make my worldview legible in the broad and general sense. This is a lower priority than the other projects so the posts for it will come more sporadically as I’m feeling inspired.

Beyond that, I have a bunch of stand-alone essays I’ve been meaning to write, such as one on various high-variance strategies and their use and their risks, as well as low-variance alternatives to them. I also want to go back over all of my material on plurality and identity and rewrite it. I still think plurality applications could be useful mental tech, but it is itself a high variance strategy with lots of places to mess yourself up using it. 

I don’t know when my next posts will come up, but hopefully, it will be fairly quickly. I’d rather not go on a long hiatus again, I just don’t want to lock myself on a schedule and have my content suffer as a result of it.

Edit: correction, SiH will return May 10th, not May 3rd, Hofstadter’s law is in full effect this week it seems.

Confessions of a Transhumanist: On Life in Known Space

Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, Suicide, and Self Harm
Part of the Series: Confessions of a Transhumanist

When I was young, I didn’t want to save the world, I just wanted to escape from it. My life wasn’t the hardest, but it was such that by the time I was sixteen I was struggling with suicidal ideation fairly regularly. Between my parents and school, I didn’t often feel like I had a place in the world. I felt like I had places that were expected of me, roles I was forced into, but beyond that, I didn’t really have anything that motivated me in and of itself. I had no drive, except to get away from the pain and uncomfortableness that was most of my life, most of the time.

Thus, I got really good at dissociating into video games. I started playing EVE Online when I was 16, and it’s probably the thing that saved my life. The friends I made in EVE talked me out of suicide when I was probably the closest to it I’ve ever really been. Those first EVE friends in a real sense taught me how to want things on my own, how to actually be a person at a time when most of the adults in my life wanted me to be a posable figurine. They did this in a sort of assholish way, and I haven’t spoken to most of that group in over five years, but I still think of them somewhat fondly despite them being kinda awful people. 

This was also around the time that I first learned about the idea of transhumanism. The first place that I ever encountered the word ‘transhumanism’ was in a webcomic called Dresden Codak. I didn’t really have a firm grasp on what being a transhumanist was but I quickly decided it was what I wanted to be. I talked about wanting to have a robotic body, wanting to live forever and wanting to explore space. With the help of my assholish eve friends I came out as trans and talked about how being transgender was an inherently transhuman experience. 

Fairly soon afterward, my desire to act out my transhuman fantasies and explore my gender while not out to my parents led me to start exploring the roleplay scene in EVE for the first time. I was not a good roleplayer at first, and were it not for the link rot I would love to find you some examples of just how bad I was. If you find the right veteran roleplayers I’m sure you could get them to tell you if you knew how to ask. 

This desire to explore the roleplay scene created the first real conflict which I was able to stand up for myself in. The group I was flying with at the time were kind of awful people, and climbing out from under them and starting my own group was the first of a long series of steps I took in becoming an independent person, either in the real world or in EVE. I learned to stand up to my old corpmates and used that to stand up to my parents. 

I then went through a number of intermediary phases and identities in the process of figuring myself out. I spent a while exploring my spirituality and made an eve character to reflect this, leaving behind another group I had made and then ruined along the way. It was during this phase that I met my best friend, Streya Jormagdnir. That was over eight years ago now. 

The EVE Roleplay community was my first real home on the internet. The friends I made in the EVE roleplay scene are people I’m still friends with to this day, a decade later. I think about them surprisingly often. Graelyn, Havohej, Ava Starfire, Morwen Lagann, Verone, Vincent Pryce, Stitcher, Katrina Oniseki, Kalaratiri, Mizhara Del’Thul, Aria Jenneth, Valerie Valete and so many others. More names than I can remember but never want to forget. More memories than I have space for in my mind. Even the people I always sort of hated ingame like Valerie Valete, who I had pretty much nothing but animosity towards, are all incredibly important to me and I care about all of them more dearly than I can put into words. My life has been touched by so many people in so many ways and I can never do enough to thank them all for being there for me for all those years as a community. 

The EVE roleplay community is also the place that I first discovered Less Wrong. My desire to win arguments with internet spaceship theists led me to quote this post and this guy bunch at people, and that led to Stitcher linking me to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

And it was from this that I became attached to the idea that transhumanism was good and that it should win. Not just that it was the correct thing to think to win arguments, or that it was a cool identity goal to have, but that it was right, period, that it was something worth striving towards in the real world. That the world could be saved at all, that something better than this was actually possible outside of science fiction.

I still had no way to actually act on those desires, and I was still very much trapped in my own head, in my own pain, which led to the creation of Saede Riordan of the Alexylva Paradox. Saede tried to achieve in EVE what I couldn’t in real life. She set out to found an independent colony of radical transhumanists, a nation where AIs had equal rights to humans, where everyone had mind backups, where everyone was taken care of, and where no one had to die unless they wanted to. 

It was around this time that I had to drop out of community college. I had hoped to get a degree in environmental science and help fight climate change, but because of my life circumstances, I stopped being able to pay for my classes. I was living on my own and working part-time while trying to attend college at multiple satellite campuses and commute two hours by bus to take labs and it all sort of conspired against me and I ended up with a bunch of debt and no degree. So, I gave up on school and traveled across the country from Dunkirk, New York to Seattle, Washington with my best friend. 

I spent a while homeless, fell in with a group of canvassers, and became involved in political activism. In EVE our system was besieged multiple times and we were eventually burnt down completely by a fleet of russians in rattlesnakes. Somewhere during all of that, I started writing Sideways in Hyperspace. From there I found my way via the /r/rational subreddit’s discord server into the online rationalist community. That brought along its own huge box of trauma which I’ll be avoiding getting into in this post, but which among other things forced me to really consider for the first time if there was anything I could actually do to bring Origin into the real world. And well, that takes us up to the start of this blog

It took this long and roundabout journey through a huge amount of trauma and bad things happening before I was able to piece together enough things to make a coherent ideology for myself and to even begin to consider that maybe I could make a difference in the world somehow

I still don’t really know if I can actually make a difference. I want to try, but here’s the really insidious thing about all of this: part of the thing that keeps me writing is that it keeps me fed. People read my writing and donate to my Patreon, so I have a direct incentive to produce content. 

We live in a consumer culture and I produce a product (the contents of this blog) and try to sell it to you (my readers), in order to buy delicious poptarts (the kind without frosting are vegan, so you know). Given that incentive structure, it’s really hard for me to know how much good anything I’m doing actually is. I’m incentivized to make content at all costs in order to try and sell myself as a useful member of the rationalist community. I know that being useful to the project of saving humanity increases the chances someone will help me out of my horrible life of crushing poverty and looming homelessness, so I’m incentivized to try and make myself look useful. 

And I like to think I actually am useful, that in all of my life’s events I’ve been turned into someone sufficiently value aligned to be helpful in immanentizing the eschaton, that my desire to instantiate Origin can manifest into an ability to do useful work. But also because of all my life’s events, it’s hard to know how useful I would really be without that abusive incentive structure encouraging me to think that and to try and sell myself as such, because I have pretty much always had the abusive incentive structure looming over me.

I have never really lived in Origin. If I did, would I really be willing to venture outside it and brave the harsh world to help it grow and flourish? I like to think I would, but I have never lived in Origin, so I have no way of knowing. Until and unless someone uplifts me I can never really know for sure. Until then I’m just another lost soul trying to eke out a living on the margins of Known Space. 

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

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

Time Binders

Epistemic Status: Weakly Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Part of the Series: Truth
Previous Post: Jan Bloch’s Impossible War

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

The Manhood of Humanity is a somewhat obscure philosophical treatise written by Polish-American immigrant Alfred Korzybski shortly after Jan Bloch’s Impossible War had played out across Europe to the cool tune of twenty million deaths. This relatively obscure little book would go on to be the underpinnings and justifications for Korzybski’s later work, Science and Sanity, the founding document behind the General Semantics movement. In this way, we find in The Manhood of Humanity the origins of the modern rationalist and effective altruist communities. 

We’ll start with the man. Alfred Korzybski is, to put it simply, something of a larger than life character. He learned four languages as a child, but none of the ones he needed to go into a field he wanted. He had an engineering degree he never used. Immediately upon graduating, he took off wandering around Europe. He trained in sword fighting, he picked up girlfriends as he wandered in and out of towns, apparently, he managed to get an audience with the Pope at some point. Korzybski’s biography by Bruce Kodish is full of examples of Korzybski being super extra and it’s worth a read if you’re the sort of person to read biographies. The author was even kind enough to put a free abridged version online.

After his father’s death, Korzybski returned home, but he wasn’t happy about it. In a state of frustration and disillusionment with his life in Tsarist Poland, he had read Jan Bloch’s book. He came away from it with the conclusion that a new war in Europe was looming, inevitable. What makes a war inevitable? How can we steer humanity off this dreadful course? He had started to think about these things, but he would not properly formulate them until the war had ended. One more year would go by, and then Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated in Sarajevo. 

Upon the war’s start, Korzybski immediately joined the Imperial Russian army. He saw a victory by the Entente powers as more likely to enable the creation of an independent Polish state. Conversely, an expansionist Germany was likely to simply annex the Poles and colonize them. Because he could speak four languages, Korzybski was assigned to a special intelligence unit and would avoid the worst disasters of the war. However, he still saw the wreckage of them as he rode around on horseback:

So we put in our front some body, some sort of army, and the Second Army was sent to East Prussia, of course, complete disaster, complete. I was ordered there, but I came already after the disaster. I only saw the fleeing remnants, five men out of [every] 4,000.

Eventually Korzybski had a horse fall on him, crushing his pelvis and putting him out of the direct fighting fairly early in the war. He was reassigned to an office posting in America, acting as a liaison between the Russian and American governments. After the Russian revolution, Korzybski stayed in America as an immigrant, where he would return, with newfound urgency to the question of how such a horrific event could be prevented from happening again. The result of this contemplation was The Manhood of Humanity, which we’ll be going over today.

Korzybski is rather dated, and he gets a lot of flak for wandering off into more crankish territory in places, but if you want to really understand where you’ve come from and where you’re headed, it’s important to be willing to study one’s somewhat embarrassing memetic ancestors. 

We’ll begin our analysis in roughly the same place we started when we were discussing Becker, with the observation, or perhaps declaration, that humans are distinct from animals. It’s a trend I’ve noticed quite a lot from these twentieth century philosophers, many of them seem to start their explorations with an observation that can basically be summed up as: “Well, God’s dead but dogs haven’t invented fire yet” and trying to make sense of a world where both those facts are true. 

So in 1921, there were two main schools of thought regarding humanity’s place in the world. The first was the original religious dualist perspective, stating that humans are a wedding of body and soul. The second was a response to the first, which declared that no, humans were nothing more than animals. Korzybski thought both these takes were wrong and were hurting the ability to understand ourselves and thus solve the problems of our civilization. 

It will be seen that to live righteously, to live ethically, is to live in accordance with the laws of human nature; and when it is clearly seen that man is a natural being, a part of nature literally, then it will be seen that the laws of human nature—the only possible rules for ethical conduct—are no more supernatural and no more man-made than is the law of gravitation, for example, or any other natural law.

Make no mistake, Korzybski saw humans as natural beings, a part of the world and not containing parts distinct from it like souls. He believed that science would be able to fully understand humanity someday. But at the same time, he didn’t see humans as animals. There was something distinct about us. 

But if a soul isn’t what makes humanity unique among the animals, what does? To Becker, it was our understanding and knowledge of our mortality. To Korzybski, it was a different factor, one which he refers to as time binding.

Korzybski put a lot of emphasis on the idea of time binding, and it’s where most accusations of woo are leveled at him. The first group he made to discuss his ideas was even called the Time Binders Club. I think that the metaphor itself is sound and is worth considering on its own terms, even if Korzybski gets lets himself get sucked into the positive affect spiral around his favorite concept. Keep your eyes on the prize and remember that it’s just an abstraction. 

A plant absorbs light from the sun, takes in molecules of air and water and nutrients from the soil, and locks them into new structures. In this way, a plant is energy binding. It binds along one dimension. 

An animal can do most of the same things as plants, (take in energy to create new structures) but now in addition to this dimension, an animal can also move around and manipulate space in order to acquire resources. In this way, an animal is space binding. It binds along two dimensions. 

And then there are humans, who can do all the things that animals can, but now also have this new ability to create lasting information structures and pass information forward between individuals using language, which enables us to transcend our temporality and make us time binders. We capture the past and carry it forward with us in the form of our collective knowledge. We bind energy, space, and also time, three dimensions. 

This is a pretty simple metaphor, but Korzybski irons it for a lot of interesting insights. The first important insight is the idea of dimensionality. The idea is to think about time binding as a measure of dimensions of freedom that a lifeform can move within. If you think that humans are animals, and are trying to predict humans using the same dimensionality paradigm that you use with animals, you’re going to miss most of what matters to humanity, since that’s stored as volume not surface area. You’re essentially using the wrong system of measurement to try and capture humanity, and this is why we have not been able to get very far with it. 

However, that understanding was critical, necessary, and that brings us to the second, and probably more important of Korzybski’s insights. It’s often overlooked since time binding gets more of the spotlight, but Korzybski sort of created the idea of x-risk? 

Because we are human beings we are all of us interested in what we call progress—progress in law, in government, in jurisprudence, in ethics, in philosophy, in the natural sciences, in economics, in the fine arts, in the practical arts, in the production and distribution of wealth, in all the affairs affecting the welfare of mankind. It is a fact that all these great matters are interdependent and interlocking; it is therefore a fact of the utmost importance that progress in each of the cardinal matters must keep abreast of progress in the other cardinal matters in order to keep a just equilibrium, a proper balance, and so to maintain the integrity and continued prosperity of the whole complex body of our social life; it is a fact, a fact of observation, that in some of the great matters progress proceeds in accordance with one law and one rate of advancement and in others in accordance with a very different law and rate; it is a fact, a fact of observation and sad experience, a fact attested by all history and made evident by reason, that owing to the widely differing laws and rates of progress in the great essential concerns of humanity, the balance and equilibrium among the parts is disturbed, the strain gradually increases until a violent break ensues in the form of social conflicts, insurrections, revolutions and war; it is a fact that the readjustment that follows, as after an earthquake, does indeed establish a kind of new equilibrium, but it is an equilibrium born of violence, and it is destined to be again disturbed periodically without end, unless by some science and art of Human Engineering progress in all the great matters essential to human weal can be made to proceed in accordance with one and the same law having its validity in the nature of man.

This idea of asymmetric progress, the failure mode that arises from it, and the solution to this failure mode in a proper science of humanity is together the essential justification for Korzybski’s decision and drive to create the general semantics movement. This idea has also been carried forward into the modern rationality community as a part of the philosophy around rationality as x-risk mitigation. 

And so I repeat that the world will have uninterrupted, peaceful progress when and only when the so-called social “sciences”—the life-regulating “sciences” of ethics, law, philosophy, economics, religion, politics, and government—are technologized; when and only when they are made genuinely scientific in spirit and method; for then and only then will they advance, like the natural, mathematical and technological sciences, in conformity to the fundamental exponential law of the time-binding nature of man; then and then only, by the equal pace of progress in all cardinal matters, the equilibrium of social institutions will remain stable and social cataclysms cease.

This was a rather brilliant but perhaps overly ambitious goal. Armed with this new foundation, Korzybski would spend the next twelve years writing Science and Sanity which is basically the sequences if they were written in 1933. Using that, he would found the field of General Semantics, the name he coins for his attempt at human engineering and science. 

Unfortunately for Korzybski, General Semantics never really took off or achieved prominence as the new field he had set out to create. It wasn’t without some success and it has been taught in some colleges. But overall, despite trying to create something grounded in science and empiricism, over the years the empiricism leaked out of general semantics and a large amount of woo and pseudoscience leaked in. This looks like it was actually a similar failure mode to what had started happening with Origin before I stopped the project. 

With Origin, I introduced a bunch of rough draft concepts and tried to bake in the idea that these were rough ideas that should be iterated upon. However, because of the halo effect, those rough drafts were taken as truth without question. Instead of quickly iterating out of problematic elements, the problematic elements stuck around and became accepted parts of the canon. 

Something similar seems to have happened with General Semantics, at a certain point it stopped being viewed as a science to iterate upon, and began being viewed in a dogmatic, pseudoscientific way. It would eventually spin off a bunch of actual cults like Scientology and Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and while the Institute of General Semantics still exists and still does things, no one seems to really be trying to achieve Korzybski’s goal of a science of human engineering. That goal would sit on a shelf for a long time until finally it was picked back up by one Eliezer Yudkowsky. 

Part of the Series: Truth
Next Post: Gods! Robots! Aliens! Zombies!
Previous Post: Jan Bloch’s Impossible War

Jan Bloch’s Impossible War

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, World War I
Recommended Prior Reading: Blueprint for Armageddon Part I
Part of the Series: Truth

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”

In any real look into the past, you realize pretty quickly that things don’t have neat beginnings or simple origins in the vast majority of cases. Historical events are the result of billiard ball interactions among a chaotic conflux of actors and forces, themselves all built out of past impacts and collisions stretching back into the mists of antiquity.

Thus when trying to tell the origin story of the modern rationality community, it can be very tempting to just keep extrapolating backwards. How far back should we look? Do we need to rehash Plato’s Cave and Cogito Ergo Sum? Francis Bacon is credited as the grandfather of science, so maybe we should start with him? 

For the moment at least I’m writing blog posts not thousand page textbooks, and my goal here isn’t to rehash the entire history of scientific and philosophical thought (I’d like to keep this blog post under three thousand words). If you want the entire history of scientific thought, Cosmos is a great place to start and has some pretty spiffy graphics. 

But unlike history, every story and every blog post have to start somewhere, and I think the best place to start for our purposes is with polish banker and railway financier Jan Gotlib Bloch

Bloch was born a Polish Jew in Tsarist Russia in the 1800s, and would later convert to Calvinism to protect himself from antisemitism within the Tsarist government. Bloch worked as a banker and would go on to finance the building of rail lines in Russia, as well as penning a lengthy treatise on the management and operation of said rail lines in 1875, for which he: 

was awarded a medal of the first class at the geographical exhibition of Paris, and was heartily endorsed by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society.

But it was Bloch’s later work that would be remembered for. In 1870, The Northern German Confederation would go to war with the Second French Empire. Fueled by fears of the growing power of a rapidly unifying and industrializing Germany, France declared war and invaded in August of 1870. 

The war was only six months long. By September, Napoleon III was captured and the French Imperial Army had been decisively defeated. A new French government was declared and kept fighting, but by January of 1871 Paris was besieged and the war was brought to an end. The balance of power in Europe had fundamentally shifted, and while all the great powers reeled from the event, some saw it merely as a portent for things to come. 

The Franco-Prussian war was the first prototype of a modern war, one featuring the use of railroads, artillery, and all the new technology of creation and destruction that had come into existence since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Jan Bloch was fascinated by the war of 1870 and would go on to devote much of his personal time to studying the phenomenon that was modern military conflict. 

No one really knew how any of this stuff would interact with real combat, but everything seemed to point to the idea that the next major war would be unlike anything the world had seen before. Bloch looked at the state of the technology, where things seemed to be going, and penned his most famous six-volume work, originally in Russian and translated into numerous languages, popularized in English under the title Is War Now Impossible? This work would prove to be exactly as horrifying in its prescience as it was in its theories as to the nature of future conflicts. 

In Europe during the renaissance and age of royalty and exploration, war was almost something of a gentleman’s sport. The royals of all the major nations knew each other, everyone was someone’s cousin or uncle or grandmother, the armies would fight out in lines and day battles and then after one side defeated the other the leaders would sit down for tea and enter negotiations and this was for a long time considered a normal and acceptable way to conduct diplomacy between powers. The civilians of these nations would likely not even notice that they were at war a lot of the time.

However, with the french revolution, we see the beginnings of a change in this behavior. The french revolution is the first war to feature mass mobilization, a trend of throwing the entire nation into a conflict instead of merely a small mercenary army. When the European royal powers united against the upstart French republic, they were met not by a small, professional French army but by as much of the french people as could be mobilized. This enormously changed the way wars were fought and forced the rest of Europe to follow suit or be swamped by the sheer size of the French military. Napoleon is famously quoted as saying:

“You cannot stop me; I spend 30,000 lives a month.”

And this was a major change for the European powers who didn’t really want to arm their peasants, that’s how you end up with uprisings. But here were the french conquering Europe with a peasant army and the rest of the great powers were forced into a game of catch up. This is a rather textbook example of a multipolar trap at work. No one can coordinate to stop the escalation of the conflict, and anyone who doesn’t escalate will be defeated by those who do, thus wars become total and we witness the pivot to the start of the modern arms race. 

Moloch! Whose Fingers are ten armies!

Bloch looked at the state of technology, the state of war, and the state of European powers, and concluded that the era of quick and relatively bloodless conflicts as a method of diplomacy was over. War wasn’t a fun pastime of royalty anymore, war was now serious. Wars of the future would be total. They would not be quick and decisive affairs but brutal slugging matches fought until one nation collapsed socially and economically. He saw that the development of rifling, artillery, and machine guns had made cavalry and bayonet charges suicidal and obsolete. He claimed that a future war would be one of entrenchment, stalemates, massive firepower, and massive losses of life. 

Bloch’s book is considered to be partly responsible for the Hague Conference of 1899, which sought to impose limits on warfare and prevent the increasingly bloody looking conflict from playing out as Jan Bloch feared it would. Bloch was even a special guest of Tsar Nicholas at the conference. 

There was a belief, or maybe it was a hope, that because war had become so terrible and destructive, that the only choice nations would have would be to resort to peaceful negotiations. Bloch himself seemed to be something of a proponent to this theory, although he at least seemed to think that peace would still require conscious input and the wisdom of men. He didn’t believe that war was truly impossible, just that continuing to treat war as it had been treated in the past (sportingly) was an impossibility. It was a lesson that would, unfortunately, be mostly ignored by the leaders and military of the time. 


A decade after the publishing of Is War Now Impossible, British journalist Normal Angell published another work along similar lines, titled The Great Illusion. Angell was an early globalist, who looked at the same situation Bloch had and answered Bloch’s question with “Yeah, war is impossible now.” 

Angell’s thesis was that any gains made by war would be so dwarfed by the costs of waging a modern war that there would be no reason to ever fight one. A modern war would destroy the world’s economy, and maybe even end civilization itself, and peace was just so profitable. So war was just not going to happen. You would have to be stupid to fight Bloch’s Impossible War, no one would benefit, so no one would do it. 

Well, as history would come to show, while Angell was correct that a modern war would destroy whole nations and leave economies in ruins, he was wrong about that actually stopping the war from happening. 

Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

So in grade school, we’re taught that World War I happened because all the European powers had entered these complex networks of alliances that drew each other into the growing conflict like dominos falling and no one saw it coming or could stop it. 

Jan Bloch saw it coming, and he tried to stop it. It was a really solid attempt even, but we don’t live in the timeline where he succeeded, we live in the timeline where he didn’t. As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, tensions continued to ramp up across Europe and Jan Bloch’s warning started looking more and more like a dire inevitability.

One of the readers of Jan Bloch’s book was Polish scholar Alfred Korzybski, who asked the very reasonable question: If this was all so inevitable, if everyone knew it was going to happen, then why couldn’t it be stopped? 

Part of the Series: Truth
Next Post: Time Binders