Under An Open Sky

When I was in Korea I used to wait until it was raining out to go hiking. Because most people abhor this kind of weather I would have the whole mountainside to myself. Sometimes I would pause and watch the mist roll in over the town, or use the opportunity to venture well off the usual trails and find places no one else was willing to go.

There’s something remarkably intimate about this experience which is difficult to communicate. It’s as if you’ve seen Nature in a gown she doesn’t wear for strangers, or the World has caught you watching her bathe but is too ebullient to do anything but laugh.

I love technology as much as anyone — I’m writing a whole book about how awesome it is. But sometimes it’s worth leaving the protective cocoons we build and to tune ourselves to the vast heartbeat of the universe; to exist, however briefly, in the manner of our ancestors; to get dirty, to get wet, and to face our gods under an open sky.

Does Biology Drive ‘Pebble Formation’ in Ideologies?

In ‘pebble form ideologies‘ I advanced the idea that over time information topologies degrade into much smaller ‘pebble forms’ which are are recognizably religious in nature, and I stipulated that part of what drives this process are ‘religion-shaped grooves’ worn deep into mammalian nervous systems. Elsewhere a commenter challenged this notion, questioning why I invoked biology as an explanation when I might instead assume this phenomenon to be an artifact of language.

My reply is that humans exhibit a property known as ‘hyper-active agency detection (HAAD)’, which is a tendency to posit agents as the cause for unknown phenomena instead of, say, the interactions of underlying components. If this were not the case, and  language were to blame for HAAD, we might expect there to be cultures whose members don’t exhibit this property. I’m unaware of a single case in which this is true. Even in situations where a mechanistic causal relationship is obvious (i.e. ‘the wall fell down because a rock hit it’) the ultimate cause is almost always assumed to be the will of some god. This is true despite the staggering diversity of the world’s languages.

That’s why I think the reliable degradation of even secular worldviews into quasi-religious ones is rooted in biology and not (solely) in language.

Pebble Form Ideologies

(Epistemic Status: Riffing on an interesting thought in a Facebook comments thread, mostly just speculation without any citations to actual research)

My friend Jeffrey Biles — who is an indefatigable fountainhead of interesting stuff to think about — recently posited that the modern world’s aversion to traditional religion has exerted a selection pressure on meme vectors which has led to the proliferation of religions masquerading as science, philosophy, and the like. For any given worldview — even ostensibly scientific ones like racial realism or climate change — we can all think of someone whose fervor for or against it can only be described in religious terms.

Doubtless there is something to this, but personally I’m inclined to think it’s attributable to the fact that there are religion-shaped grooves worn deep in mammalian brains, probably piggybacking on ingroup-biasing and kin-selection circuitry.

No matter how heroic an attempt is made to get people to accept an ideology on the basis of carefully-reasoned arguments and facts, over time a significant fraction of adherents end up treating it as a litmus test separating the fools from those who ‘get it’. As an ideology matures it becomes a psychological gravity well around which very powerful positive and negative emotions accrete, amplifying the religious valence it has in the hearts and minds of True Believers.

Eventually you end up with something that’s clearly substituted ‘God’ for social justice, the free market, the proletariat revolution, etc.

An important corollary of this idea is that the truth of a worldview is often orthogonal to the justifications supplied by its adherents. I’m an atheist, for example, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another atheist who has a firm grasp on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Widely believed to be among the most compelling arguments for theism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything which *began* to exist has a cause;
  2. the universe began to exist;
  3. therefore, the universe has a cause;

(After this point further arguments are marshalled to try and prove that a personal creator God is the most parsimonious causal mechanism)

Despite being clearly articulated in innumerable places, atheists like Michael Shermer are still saying “but if everything has a cause then what caused God?”

If you understand the KCA then the theistic reply is straightforward: “The universe began to exist, so it has a cause, but God is outside time and thus had no beginning.” The standard atheist line, in other words, is a complete non-sequitur. Atheistic rebuttals to other religious arguments don’t fare much better, which means a majority of atheists don’t have particularly good reasons for being atheists.

This has little bearing on whether or not atheism is true, of course. But it does suggest that atheism is growing because many perceive it to be what the sensible, cool people believe, not because they’ve spent multiple evenings grappling with William Lane Craig’s Time and Eternity.

Perhaps then we should keep this in mind as we go about building and spreading ideas. Let us define the ‘pebble form’ of a worldview as being like the small, smooth stone which is left after a boulder spends eons submerged in a river — it’s whatever remains once time and compression have worn away its edges and nuances. Let us further define a “Maximally Durable Worldview” as one with certain desirable properties:

  1. the central epistemic mechanisms has the slowest decay into faith-based acceptance;
  2. the worldview is the least damaging once it becomes a pebble form (i.e. doesn’t have strong injunctions to slaughter non-believers);
  3.  …?

There’s probably an interesting connection between:

  1. how quickly a worldview spreads;
  2. how quickly it collapses into a pebble form;
  3. the kinds of pebble forms likely to result from a given memeplex rotating through a given population;

Perhaps there are people doing research on these topics? If so I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Literary Criticism as Applied Apophenia

Growing up I had far more books than friends, and have been writing regularly since I was about seventeen. In high school I was a voracious reader of “the classics”; with the lamp on late into the night I’d turn the pages of Hemingway and Dickens, not caring to wait for the English class in which they’d be taught. Owing to some high test scores I started college studying masterpieces of world literature with more advanced students, which necessitated much in the way of paper writing and classroom debate.

So it may be a surprise to learn that I’ve never had much patience for literary criticism. Upon hearing someone say “the author is using the bridge as a metaphor to…” or “the lion’s jaw is clearly an expressive vehicle for…”, I would think to myself, how could anyone possibly know that? Yes, a bridge could be a metaphor, but it could also just, y’know, be a bridge.

Now, literary criticism is a vast field and I admit to having explored little of it. But I have had many friends who enjoy literature and film, a nontrivial fraction of which were themselves steeped in the relevant theory. In an honest effort to understand I’ve often asked them about the basis of their interpretations, but they’ve rarely provided answers which I found satisfactory.

But with time and experience I’ve learned much. This essay is an attempt to answer my younger self’s skepticism by providing two different mechanisms which can justify the literary critic’s perception of metaphorical significance.

Semi-permeable cognitive membranes

I’ve written before about the fact that human introspection is shallow and much of what’s going on between our ears must be inferred. If we envision the mind as a kind of machine then many of its components are submerged under water and can only be understood indirectly. Further, the cognitive processes utilized for things like crafting a story are not cleanly partitioned from each other.

A corollary of the foregoing is that layers of meaning and metaphor can creep into a work even if the author fails to realize this. I see two ways this could happen, the first being through what may be called “leaky empathy”.

As an author tries to model characters and situations they may themselves begin to drift into corresponding emotional states. The process of writing about a group of horribly oppressed villagers preparing to travel through the forest surrounding their town could well give rise to feelings of despair or anger, albeit probably mild versions. If so, when the author conjures up an image of the forest their brains will be more likely to produce one that is dark, caliginous, and perhaps vaguely sinister.

The setting has become a metaphor for the internal states of the characters even though the author may not be remotely aware of this dynamic.

Second, and for basically the same reason, a work might reflect an author’s convictions and knowledge despite being ostensibly unrelated to the work through what may be called “leaky concepts”.

Imagine an author has just spent a year thinking about how Communism is/isn’t the greatest/worst idea anyone has ever had. When the same author sits down to design a world and plan out a story arc, is there any serious chance they’ll be able to keep these political beliefs from influencing their depictions of kingdoms, economies, and states?

Of course many authors write with the explicit purpose of promulgating a worldview or exploring some complex theme. But even if an author fails to see the lessons implicit in their work, that does not mean that the lessons aren’t there.

Reflective patternicity 

There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo-jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching sub-routines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God’s wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor’s edge, patterns that only Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination.

-Peter Watts, “Echopraxia”

Another corollary to the shallowness of human introspection is that you may be surprised by the contents of your own consciousness. Sometimes the only way to explore your mind is to twist dials until lights start coming on.

Everyone has had the experience of being unusually moved by a song they’ve heard many times before. If a loved one has just passed away, then heightened emotional sensitivity is to be expected. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes, life is progressing as normal and a snatch of conversation, the light of the sun reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper, or a memory from childhood grabs hold of you and stops you dead in your tracks. Besides being profound and worth experiencing for their own sake these moments also hint at a range of emotional states which most people don’t realize they’re capable of.

If you’re tempted to resist my claim that you don’t know yourself as well as you believe, read through this characteristically thoughtful post from Scott Alexander. It relates the story of a boy who lived his entire life without a sense of smell and didn’t realize it until his late teens. This despite the fact that he used all sorts of olfactive expressions like saying fresh bread “smells good” or teasing his sister by telling her she stinks.

But how was he to know that his sensory experience was different from anyone else’s? He can’t borrow someone else’s nose. He can’t just open a neural command line, run ‘$ grep feelz.txt’, and get back a schematic of his perceptual apparatus, complete with a little blinking cursor in the spots where there are gaps.

Put more plainly: there are numerous facets of your own mind that you aren’t aware of, so it’s worth reading poetry, listening to new music, and going to art museums, just to see how you react. Likewise, it can be useful to try and interpret a piece of literature just to see what your brain comes up with.

This first began to dawn on me in a major way while I was living in South Korea. I had just re-read Dancing With the Gods and it came to my attention that an unusually careful and prolific neopagan scholar had taken up residence in a town not far from mine. We spent a day hiking and discussing all manner of recondite issues in philosophy and religion.

It was a blast.

Near the end I half-jokingly made a disparaging remark about tarot cards. He calmly pulled a deck from his backpack and told me he always carries it with him. During the return walk he made a compelling argument for the utility of reading cards which was rooted entirely in a secular, non-mystical understanding of human psychology.

His reasoning was that superimposing an interpretive framework over cards as they come out can yield genuinely useful information. The mental dots being connected were there all along; the cards emphatically do not provide access to knowledge of the future. But, in the same way that you can agonize for weeks over an important decision and then realize that the answer is obvious after a five minute conversation, sometimes you just need that initial spark.

This is the key point behind Scott Alexander’s essay “Random Noise is Our Most Valuable Resource“. He specifically mentions tarot cards as a source of noise which can help break us out of our mental ruts. Vivian Caethe has tried to leverage this for profit by inventing a tarot deck calibrated for aspiring authors stricken with writer’s block. Both of these are examples of outwardly-focused processes which can also usefully be turned inward.

And when viewed a certain way I think literary criticism can be a similar sort of introspective scaffolding. Whether or not you believe that the author intended the lion’s jaw as a metaphor, seeing how your brain interprets it metaphorically can be akin to performing a literary version of the Rorschach test. I imagine that, as with tarot cards, doing this long enough will yield an increasingly subtle familiarity with the folds and wrinkles of your psychology.

It’s important not to get too excited about this. Just as people can form incorrect hypotheses about physical data, they can form incorrect ones about introspective data; all the usual rationalist warnings apply. But I have come to believe that this sort of “applied apophenia” can be a tool in the arsenal of those wanting a better understanding of their phenomenological field.

 

Using a Mantra Stack

For a couple of months now I have been experimenting with different protocols for designing mantras and visualization exercises, combining them into ‘stacks’ like one might do with nootropics, and nestling them into ritual structures which make them more likely to become habits. As I have now had the opportunity to explore this territory under a variety of conditions, both favorable and unfavorable, I feel prepared to discuss my results.

My theory is that these techniques work because they create depressions in a cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. This is probably not even close to the full story, but it seems a useful enough metaphor for present purposes and not obviously wrong in any way, so it will be my point of departure.

Traditionally pursuits like this would have been undertaken in a religious, not secular, context; some cognitive operations are best performed via what I call themythopoetic command line interface[1], and religions have a monopoly on this. The ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding religions provide are important because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspective algorithms are shallow and lack teeth.

That having been said there is no dogma or metaphysical commitment associated with the exercises I describe below. To the best of my knowledge they are compatible with existing religious beliefs and with an absence of such belief.

The First Steps

When I began, I did two mantra sessions daily, one in the morning and one at night. They were structured as follows:

Morning:

  1. Lit a candle[2], took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan bootstrap sequence”
  3. Spoken: “I will be like water in my process, earth in my resolve, fire in my intensity, and air in my presence”. This mantra is henceforth “The element meditation”.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am distracted. A mind that wanders is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the colors of a prism become like a knife when focused, so too does the light of my mind converge upon the task at hand.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Distraction.”
  5. Written: some habit mantra. Generally these consisted of a short phrase that I would write longhand between 15-25 times. An example: “I will spend my last hour reading by candlelight”.
  6. Visualized: The best version of the coming day that I could imagine, with a special emphasis on moving quickly and efficiently from task to task.

Night:

  1. Lit a candle and took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan shutdown sequence”.
  3. Spoken: The element meditation, same as before.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am frustrated. Frustration is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the fog clears and lays bare the world so too does my frustration dissipate, leaving me to think and to act.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Frustration”.
  5. Written: some habit mantra, usually about getting up early the next day.
  6. Spoken: “if/then”s, i.e. “if I wake up tired, then I will still get up”.

Now some of this may seem grandiose and overblown. Is it really necessary to begin with a phrase like “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”? Surely I don’t consider myself a Titan, after all, and what purpose is served by styling myself after the four classical elements?

Perhaps the more interesting part of the answer to that question is that many aspects of the mantra stack just occurred to me. Once I began tinkering with my practice certain phrases began suggesting themselves as natural extensions of what I was already doing. I still remember how the element meditation kept coming to mind, almost fully formed, until I finally decided to incorporate it into the stack.

The same is true of the opening phrase, “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”. After a few days it just felt like I needed a dedicated signal to myself that the mantra stack was beginning, and as soon as I noticed this feeling the sentence presented itself to me.

Furthermore, as time went on some of the mantras became accompanied by stylized hieroglyphic images. These days when I say the Litany Against Distraction I picture a man standing with a rainbow beginning about a foot behind him, the colors converging as they pass through his head to become a focused point of searing light about a foot in front of him. This too was something that occurred naturally and with little overt effort.

The rest of the answer is that I believe the best mantras have a solemn, lyrical quality that echoes other elements of the religious memeplex. Commandments, poetry, songs, and stories from religious traditions often feel like a cross between a haiku and an aphorism. They are weighty, but short and easy to memorize. They’re true, but general enough to be applicable across vast swaths of a person’s life.

At once the bow and the arrow; a heavy stone with a little handle; a linguistic seed that, like an acorn, contains an enormous folded structure than opens when fed on sun and rain. 

In other words, my mantras sound portentous because that’s how mantras are supposed to sound.

Evolution

As the months passed this stack received all number of stress fractures and consequently underwent many changes. For a little while I tried adding a third mantra session around noon, and even gave thought to mimicking the Islamic Salah by doing five sessions a day. At various times I experimented with including failure autopsies in the stack, and was happy with the results.

There’s an interesting idea lurking here: I would’ve loved to have had a program into which I could enter various parameters and time constraints for a given day and received back a customized mantra stack. Huge bonus points if it could use data from something like Thync to automatically adjust my stack when I’m feeling more frustrated or stressed.

Alas, with an increasingly busy schedule my practice gradually eroded until, these days, I usually just do the morning session. And I’ll be honest, I’ve begun to feel less focused, less centered, and a lot more irritable. So I’ve begun to experiment with a new mantra stack, and I’m thinking about ways of adapting it to the challenges which caused me to loosen my grip on my practice in the first place.

I think multiple daily sessions will be a lot more sustainable if they’re very short, on the order of 90 seconds. That’s not enough time to write anything but it is enough to light a candle, do a little chanting, and hopefully get most of the benefit out of the exercise. One or two sessions a day will be longer, and it is during these times that I’ll do the writing and habit work.

What Have I Learned?

There are a two important takeaways here. The first is that mantras are definitely effective. More than once I have found myself on the verge of losing my temper only to have the Litany Against Frustration play itself in my head, and the less I’ve worked through the stack the more often frustration has gotten the better of me.

The second is that my stack has naturally bifurcated into theoretical and applied segments. The theoretical side consists of the bootstrap sequence, the two litanies, and the element meditation. These are very abstract, not at all specific, and are more about reaffirming a worldview. Thus they are spoken while staring into candlelight and visualizing an associated hieroglyphic instead of being written down, which would take too long. The practical side consists of habits I’m trying to instill, and they are usually written long-hand in front of a candle while I visualize myself performing the action.

The above classification scheme can be usefully extended. The theoretical elements in the mantra stack are like “rudders” you can attach to an iceberg to do something vaguely like steering. The practical elements can be further categorized as “vice wedges” or “skyhooks”.

In “Deep Work” Cal Newport recommends waiting five minutes to get online when you really need a piece of information. This small temporal distance diminishes the reward signal you get from distraction, making it less tempting in the future. It drives a wedge between you and your vices. Skyhooks on the other hand are built for ascendancy, and can include any positive behavior you are trying to make into a habit. Yes, as usual, these semantic boundaries are semi-permeable.

Conclusion

The fact that exercises like these crop up in many different religious traditions, together with personal experience, are enough to convince me to continue with my experimentation.

More broadly, this essay can be construed as another push in my attempt to adapt the best parts of religion to secular use. But so far this has all been pretty tame, just some mantras and some candles.

There are hints from the Neopagan community that that this religious posturing can be taken much, much further. Indeed, the Gods may be nothing more than stable micro-personalities running on a devotee’s wetware, and summoning one no more a violation of a scientific worldview than imagining a conversation with a deceased loved one. What I’ve read indicates that in this form the Gods don’t rise to the level of a full-blown Tulpa, but they can be, engaging, frightening, and insightful.

I have begun to wonder if a talented enough deimancer could use rituals to erect a pantheon of entirely new, custom-built Gods. To what purpose could such a profound level of mental control be bent….?

Notes

[1] I coined the phrase “mythopoetic command line interface”. It works just the same as an actual command line interface, but in the language of dreams, symbols, art, and metaphor.

[2] Candles are a popular ritual accoutrement. My best guess for why this is: candles do in the visual channel what rain does in the auditory one. It’s a gentle, unobtrusive stimulus that is just intriguing enough to be an object of focus while leaving extra resources for visualizing or chanting.

My Epistemic Status as of the end of 2015

The following is a list of things I learned or became more convinced of in 2015:

* The Christian god is real, and so are all the others, just not outside anyone’s head. Almost everyone I’ve ever come across, theist or atheist, misinterprets the implications of this.

Religions furnish both a ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding, and you need this because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspection is very shallow.

Some operations are best performed via the mythopoetic command line interface, and religions have a monopoly on this.

* Mantras, meditation, and visualizations work because they create depressions in your cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. The fact that these things are enthusiastically embraced by mushy flower-power hippies doesn’t mean they don’t work.

* I have a suspicion that attention is more poorly understood and more important than most of us realize. I think it might be the mechanism undergirding Sapir-Whorf effects, and I have noticed that ubermenschen like Richard Feynman, Elon Musk, and Josh Waitzkin are capable of a level of focus I can’t seem to reach.

We need a Dictionary of Internal Events in order to better categorize our failings of attention and target our interventions. We need a more concerted effort to understand the algorithms and circuitry undergirding attention so that we can develop ways of training it.

* Huge amounts of race-level differences in performance are attributable to race-level differences in genes. Conversely, almost none of the gender wage gap is attributable to structural discrimination.

* The division of labor should be applied to power. It kind of already is but nobody is honest about it. I’d rather live in a sovereign startup with a national CEO than a tepid democracy where every problem is addressed via an interminable carnival of special committees and hearings.

* Having learned more about the rise and fall of communism, I like the ideology even less.

* Proposed definition of ‘civilization’ : “a concatenation of black boxes”. Proposed definition of “culture”: “a constellation of Schelling points hanging in the space between two or more minds”.

* There is a such thing as social technology, and tradition is an example of it. The ‘black boxes’ I mentioned in the previous point can include technologies of this sort. The argument known as “Chesterton’s Fence” has teeth, at least if you don’t like Manticores.

* It is inappropriate to categorize systems on the basis of their being “fragile” or “robust”. Rather, think of them as exhibiting what I call ‘vector-dependent fragility’.

A rocket is designed to withstand many g’s of force and enormous temperatures upon reentry into the atmosphere, but if an o-ring is out of place the whole thing might explode.

If words in a language are mispronounced in one way it’s a regional dialect, if they’re mispronounced another way they are incomprehensible.

* The causal structure of a system can be more or less opaque. In cases where causality is well-understood you can be more daring. In cases where it’s not, you should be more cautious.

Or, when facing Knighting Uncertainty the proper response is Talebian Conservatism.

Or, maybe we shouldn’t be broadcasting messages into space for aliens to pick up because we have no clue what’s out there.

* Rather than thinking about emotions in gestalt, model them as hyperdimensional shapes with bulges, edges, corners, and wrinkles along different axes.

A dear friend of mine and I once spent the better part of an hour taking ‘ambition’ and breaking it down in terms of its ‘direction’, ‘magnitude’, and ‘volatility’. By conversation’s end we had both done this analysis on ourselves and thought about ways we could try and bring our efforts at being productive more in line with the natural shape of our ambition.

The connection to the idea for a Dictionary of Internal Events is probably obvious.

Religious People Are Wrong (And So Are Most Atheists).

I believe that there is a mistake being made on both sides of the theism/atheism debate, one that is made as often in the former camp as in the latter. It is the idea that if the experiences people have when engaged in religious or spiritual practices of one sort or another don’t actually connect them to a divine reality, then the experiences aren’t worth seeking.

Among theists this mistake can manifest as a vehement defense of even the most absurd aspects of religion. When a person finds a state of perfect bliss and contentment after hours spent praying to Jesus, it’s easy to understand how she might interpret this as evidence of the divinity of Christ and the truth of Christian doctrine.

In light of this it’s also easy to understand how a conversation between a theist and an atheist can so rapidly spiral into histrionics, if the atheist believes her objections are a matter of logic and the theist is hearing a full-frontal assault on the most valuable experience she has ever had.

But given how many truths aren’t directly, subjectively accessible, we should be very careful in drawing conclusions from spiritual experiences, no matter how profound. And because practitioners of different religions report near-identical experiences despite engaging in wildly different rituals and praying to different gods, we should suspect that something deeper is happening here; perhaps successful contemplatives and mystics, even the non-religious ones, are tapping into states of mind that are human-universal.

Among atheists this mistake can manifests as a categorical dismissal of anything labeled ‘transcendent’, ‘mystical’, or ‘spiritual’. I can sympathize, as I too have come to realize that almost everyone who fecklessly sprinkles such words throughout conversations is peddling bullshit. But, when one carefully slices away the myth which inevitably gathers around mystics, what is left behind is empirical. An experiment is being proposed: if you train your mind using technique x, you can have experience y.

Here is the solution as I see it: remember that spiritual experiences stand on their own feet. Whether or not you had them while meditating in an isolated temple in mist-shrouded mountains or during a raucous neopagan ritual by firelight, your experiences, as experiences, are real and valuable. And they remain valuable even if you realize that you live in a godless universe.

It is atheists, particularly those with an interest in the future, who must be the most careful here. If we let lunatics like Deepak Chopra be the gatekeepers of the numinous, if we claim that the sacred isn’t real when millions of human beings know that it is, we’ll never build a secular world worth living in.