Sorry to disappoint – I had a lot of studying to do for App Academy and I don’t really have much left in me for writing this week. Should be back next week tho.
(Epistemic status: I might just be misusing/misunderstanding karma and this entire concept is trivial – still, the epistemic status is endorsed)
We’ve all heard the phrase “What goes around comes around.” In popular culture, this has been shortened further to an appropriation of the concept of karma. When we think about karmic justice, we think about the ways in which people get their just desserts. At least in western thought, it’s frequently rounded to the Just World Fallacy and derided as such. The idea of karma, however, is much more complex than that – if you think about it probabilistically, it makes perfect sense as behavioral guidance.
Actions we take often have a probability of costing some resource, either locally or globally. They also often have a probability of creating some resource – either the same one, transferring from local to global or vice versa, or a different resource, either on the same scale or a different one. Some of these resources are qualitative rather than quantitative. Regardless of the object level resource involved, it is not always clear how much will be consumed and how much will be provided, and to what scale. How this ties to karma is that the concept is fundamentally trying to incentivize actions that have more probability of creating resources. Positive karma actions are those that have a probability of increasing resources. When you help someone out in some way, you are giving up some of your time/energy to take on some of their burden, which has downstream effects and increases the amount of resources in “circulation”. However, sometimes when you try to help someone out, you actively make things harder for them because you don’t fully understand the situation or because of other factors – it is better karma to minimize this probability, but if the probability of things producing the resource is sufficiently high, it is still good karma even if the actual outcome was negative.
On the flip side, negative karma actions are those that with high probability of decreasing resources. This is the kind of thing where you take from the commons to enrich yourself in some way, be it environmentally destructive, decreasing of social trust, etc. It might be that the actual consequence of what you’ve done produces a lot of resources, but has a ton of externalities – this is still negative karma because in most worlds, those externalities did not get resolved and it’s not an action that should be taken.
Now, thus far, this interpretation of karma mostly sounds like deontology in an exotic wrapper – I think where it gets interesting is how it applies not to instances of behavior but patterns of behavior. I’ve used instances and actions as examples to make the concept easier to see, but the real point of karma is not the probability on a single action scale, it is the probability that an algorithm will enrich the world around it. Essentially, reincarnation is the idea of putting algorithms in different bodies to see what they do – and experiences and meditation are ways to retrain that algorithm in some ways. I don’t believe in strict reincarnation (though in a way, each moment we live that contains an instance of ourselves is a reincarnation – that instance has an algorithm that is going to be quite similar to other instances but has likely undergone some changes even on the moment to moment level). However, if we accept a karmic frame for these algorithm tests, essentially it asserts that the algorithm has a higher chance of being rewarded (being used in contexts that make the algorithm “happier”, except sometimes it starts failing karmic tests, and thusly falls again, and this is why meditation and breaking the cycle are important because they effectively optimize for algorithms with really good metaprogramming skills). While deontology largely optimizes for right actions that work well even if everyone does them, (this conception of) karma is a little more individualized while optimizing for collectivism.
In practice, I think karma is essentially decision theory – you are an algorithm that is likely to repeat actions that fulfill a reward function, and sometimes there is an action space, and probabilistically some actions will use more resources than others, and the iteration is what determines whether people should cooperate with you or not – hence, if you do a lot of positive karma things, you’re probably safe to cooperate with – if you do a lot of negative karma things, well, maybe defecting makes more sense when making decisions concerning you.
Overall, I find that it is easier to consider the “goodness” and “badness” of my choices with this frame – rather than trying to figure out a rule a choice follows, or trying to calculate the actual downstream personal utility every time I do something, the middle ground of considering the probability that this action will bite me or other people in the ass later seems quicker and more likely to lead to better outcomes over a long period of time.
Discussion questions: What are ways you have thought about karma in the past? Does this conception seem more useful in any way? What does it look like for you to consider the probability of resources consumed versus the probability of resources created?
(Epistemic Status: A dichotomy with a tree – it rounds reality off to some degree and there will be exceptions, but as a general pattern, can be useful held loosely)
There are two types of people. Predator and prey.
Ok. That’s a load of garbage, but let’s hold that frame a little. The predator type is the person who sets and holds a social context. The prey type is the kind of person who relates to a context. The prey type fundamentally wants to be safe; the predator type fundamentally wants to be powerful. The typing ends up somewhat of a spectrum – there are predators who will play prey to other predators – there are prey who will predate opportunistically because it’s safe. Humans often have some weighting of both sides of the equation, and whichever strategy is rewarded more frequently in a given social ecosystem will usually decide someone’s bias (combined with childhood experiences). How this plays out socially depends on what exactly safe or powerful means to a given person.
I’ll start with the prey type – the strategy is acceptance of context. You are signaling that you will cooperate with the conversational flow unless it threatens you; if you are threatened, you signal you intend to escape the context rather than fight it. This is not the same as playing low status – you can play low and set a context; you can play high and receive a context. The point is you are fundamentally assuming that there are threats, and you must be careful of them – a good social interaction is one in which you feel safer than you started – you’ve gained a new ally, or you’ve ascertained that someone can be traded with. If it goes really well, you’ve found someone who can integrate with your herd. Accepting context is also a compatibility test – if your memes work well with their memes, then things are great. It’s unsafe to step too far outside your reference class from the prey perspective – discernment is one of your key protections. As such, harmony, listening, and paying attention are important tools. Prey hold groups together, because a tight knit group with sufficiently difficult to fake handshakes can protect against most attempts to break apart the culture. Overall, sounds like a pretty prosocial strategy – if you play the game right, you’re extremely safe and content and have a good crew of friends and no one tries to hurt you. But there is a problem…
If no one is setting the context, how do you build around a cohesive memeplex to create a herd? You have your societal defaults, but anyone can fake those and your herd is weak. If someone is setting context? Then you probably have a predator in the pack – and if they are claiming to be prey, then they are likely building a hunting ground. This of course isn’t always true – humans have both in them, so someone who’s really good at the social can in fact build a context that respects everyone’s needs to satisfy a drive for safety…but power corrupts, and setting context is power. A group built entirely from prey norms is going to be very pretty, idyllic, and harmonic – and going to be torn apart the minute anyone figures out their memes because no one can talk about the problems because that would be a violation of the memeplex.
On the individual level, the prey experience is fundamentally that of fear until they find an oasis. Hypervigilence, discernment, deference – subjugating your needs for other things to your need to be safe. I imagine it’s painful and exhausting – but on the flip side, when you are safe, you flourish. The energy consumption is so low you can just…communally build things. You can be a part of a society without worrying about your needs – it’s low intensity and low stress. Being prey is not bad, it’s just paying an upfront cognitive tax for access to a herd.
On the other hand, you have the predator type. I’m more familiar with this social strategy – the point is to own the context. When you own the context, you own the thoughts of everyone within that context – with sufficient strength of generated memes, certain thoughts just cannot occur, which frees up your action space considerably to do whatever it takes to become more powerful. You have a group of people and you can extract resources – your choice as a herd predator is whether to be parasitic or symbiotic – zero sum or positive sum. Alternatively, you can be a scavenger – a lone wolf with either very violent extraction strategies, or very gentle ones – again, zero sum or positive sum.
Let’s start with the herd predator – you’ve made yourself the contextual center of a group of people. Your frames are intoxicating and people just want you to win. In some cases, you even feel safe to them because you emulated the memeplex that well – in other cases, people are aware you’re doing a thing, but it’s still valuable to them. A positive sum herd predator is interested in the thriving of the group. It’s a longer term strategy because if the group is a repeatable source of food (power), then you can achieve so much more than you could alone. The symbiotic agreement is not only the elevation of the prey in the pack, but also protection from other predators – part of the reason all prey groups do not excessively thrive is because their defense is the impenetrability of their memeplex and being below the notice of people who want a quick snack. By not being noticed, they will not be attacked (usually). A herd of prey centered around a positive sum predator will spark – they will all have abundance, and that will make them a source of power to other predators. This is the kind of person that walks into a community, is noticed immediately, and sets to work trying to make the world a better place, for a definition of better set by the predator’s values – they cause whirlwinds wherever they go, and it feels like the entire community is uplifted. They usually choose their community for a reason – there’s a clear alignment, even if some things change a little.
A positive sum predator that can hold the group’s context and tear apart attempts from other predators to hurt the group will thrive beyond reason. A positive sum predator who has their context corrupted will be the ruin of everything around them. Intent is only one piece of being a symbiotic herd predator – if you seek power and use predatory strategies, that power has to be used in the service of your herd. You cannot just extract, or your herd will be short lived…
Conveniently, for the zero sum predator, this pattern is quite common in incompetent positive sum predators, and is great to hide behind. The zero sum predator’s goal is to extract as many resources out of the herd by using their context as a leash, and to run away when it goes sour. It’s so easy to restrict the thoughts of people around you when they accept your context that you can hold up the illusion of things being for their own good until something happens beyond the pale…but ideally by then the herd will be so bleeding and weak that you can stroll out at your leisure, ineffectively having your heels nipped by reprimands you don’t give a single damn about. The zero sum predator is only interested in power and proof of that power to themselves – building something greater is just a way for prey to use a predator, and the zero sum predator sees through this (or so they think). This is the kind of person that walks into a community, sparkles a lot, and looks like they’re doing things all the time – but it’s unclear exactly what they’re aiming for. They often don’t care what community they are walking into – everything is interchangeable in the short term. The goal is to leave enough discord so that their activities can’t be coordinated against, while not being so obviously a source of danger that they get taken down by the entire group’s memeplex. If they can look like a positive sum predator while still sowing seeds of disharmony, then they will usually win and leave things a mess with only them (and maybe a few people they decided were interesting) enriched.
A zero sum predator is usually noticed by the most experienced/oldest prey, and by positive sum predators. A zero sum predator is often going to optimize for weaker communities, or communities guarded by weaker predators – if they can corrupt the context and grab the (now twisted and likely low self esteem) positive sum predator for their next act, then they will iterate until their positive sum “friend” seems to be growing a spine again…and then eat them too.
However, the above process can go both ways – a very good, experienced positive sum predator will usually start collecting more predators into the herd and training them. This is risky, and can backfire if the positive sum predator misjudges, but when played well, your community gains scalability. At this point I’m reinventing game theory so I won’t go any meta levels higher – the essential concept is that sparkly people will often be very wary of each other, because the social strategy at play is fundamentally predatory, which throws doubt on intent from the outset.
The lone wolf varieties of predator are often the scariest, but also the least scalable. Both varieties of herd predator are constrained by social reality – there is give and take. The lone wolf does not care about this. They are interested in a solitary world. The zero sum lone wolf has the most clear social pattern – they don’t exist in anyone’s context, ever. If they are somewhere, it is because they wants something, and they will get it by brute social (and sometimes physical) force. They’ve collected all the data they need to strike, and they are intending to do it. Without any obligations, they are not constrained by norms – whatever they derive a satisfaction in their power from, they are surgical about getting. If it is money, they will do what it takes to make that number go up, regardless of what people think of them. If it is the ability to act freely, they will ignore obligations. The concern is purely solipsistic, when a lone wolf predator is zero sum. Usually, these die early – they either miscalculate a herd’s strength and get taken down or make a misstep that allows greater society to clean them up, or generally just lose to an authority. If they don’t, however, they are often the most dangerous people alive because there is only one string on them, and if they can take it from you, it’s not possible to bribe them with it.
However…the other strain of lone wolf predator, the positive sum lone wolf, often has a purpose. Something greater than them, that they do not trust a community to achieve. They use predatory social strategies as a means to an end. What they are building is often an ideal – a paradigm shift. They are not interested in extracting resources quickly – they want to extract as many resources as possible to their end and will often come off as fae-like in the process. They reward individual acts in the service of that ideal. They punish individual acts that get in their way. This is fundamentally the “agent of God” type – where God is whatever purpose they feel called to. The interest isn’t setting a context on a group, it is winning, long term. To do anything overtly self destructive would be losing – the key difference is that cooperation is an option purely because it will increase the probability of the thing they want. If you judge this type correctly, you can gain a lot of ancillary power through them, if you don’t mind their goal. It is very difficult to gain safety from them unless you are aligned completely with what they want – and even then, they will not prioritize you, they will prioritize your probability of getting them their thing.
Overall, I know a lot more about predator typology than prey typology. I strive to be a positive sum herd predator – but of course I would say that. You can usually see what’s going on in your community if you sit back and pay attention – look around at parties, look at what people are trying to do, look at what people are succeeding at and where it leads. Lone wolves are harder to detect because you only see them when they strike – but if you can see the strike pattern and determine the goal, and determine the methodology, you can utilize this…or stay far, far away from it. If you are more prey typed, consider what would make you feel safest and pursue it like a predator. The predator strategy is an ongoing energy drain that never stops – the prey strategy is more efficient pathed through predator heuristics until safety is achieved. In the end though, you will use whatever social strategy rewards you – try not to pick one that works most of the time but kills you when it fails.
Discussion questions – The prey type is far less explored – if you were to impose more of a tree on prey, what would it entail? Do you consider yourself more predatory or more prey-like in social strategy? What does it feel like to notice the difference between positive sum and zero sum predators? Have you ever had an experience with a lone wolf?
Bonus note – I will note that at the time of publishing, an unfortunate event happened within the community I call home that tangentially relates to these ideas – effectively, a zero sum predator was finally noticed and is being dealt with. However – this was not the inspiration for this post – I am not making specific commentary on that case by posting this; I have been thinking a lot about this interplay over the past few weeks. Take it as you will, but consider my intent made clear by this note.
(Epistemic status: Extremely subjective experience, mostly a thing to play with rather than amazing insight.)
Recently, I’ve found things like qualia to have a conceptual color to them. There seem to be three obvious axes that I focus on when thinking of the color of an experience – red-blue, yellow-green, and white-black. I think there is also a light and dark, but I’ve felt less of that dimension.
Red-blue seems largely to be about projection outward versus projection inward. Red is an experience that involves how much of the world you are acting upon. A lot of details get blurred because you are acting on your perspective, and pushing outward. The experience isn’t about rumination or getting caught in loops, it’s about action, playing with the world from one’s own perspective lens, imposing one’s context on the surroundings. Blue is the opposite – blue is being a receiver for the context and considering what it means – at worst, ruminating on it. Letting things go into you – paying attention mostly to the external qualia and how your internal state is affected by it. Paying attention to how the context changes you and how your response changes the context – more the former than the latter, but basically intense introspective, sensitive experiences – awareness of the world, but not in control of it. The middle part of this axis is purple – a sense in which your internal experience is an important part of the context, but you are not in control of the context. It’s effortful to get too lost in yourself, but also effortful to impose your self on the world around you. It’s a state of being, but with effort – but usually the effort is worthwhile.
Yellow-green seems to be somewhat related to bigness, but not quite. Yellow experiences tend to be vivid, energetic, almost comical. They’re big, larger than life. Everything feels alive. Green experiences tend to be a lot slower, a lot more serious. Green is pressure, green is the struggle of mundanity. Green is when you wake up with a hangover, or after taking an antihistamine – everything is harder and slower, but it still seems mundane – you’re tired, but it’ll pass. It’s…being ok with things being hard, rather than needing to make something larger than life to interact with it. The light-dark axis is most notable here – dark green tends to be mundanity combined with a pessimistic outlook – the outside view and it hates you; I imagine dark yellow is sickly, like everything is bigger than you and you are too mortal to handle it.
White-black seems to be a rare sort of qualia. White is an intensely pure experience – it doesn’t strictly mean it’s a good experience, but it tends to be the kind of experience where something beyond yourself was formed – a vow, a piece of the puzzle of your place in the world just fitting, a responsibility fulfilled in a deep way. It feels like a milestone, done right for the shape of the thing you are. Black is…the opposite of this. Black is the deepest sort of corruption and out of placeness. Black qualia are the darkest moments, the darkest choices – the ones where you wonder if you can really justify the thing you are. The ones where there is no ground, no sky, nothing except a rejection of your core and how you deal with that. I don’t think black qualia can ever be good in the moment, but I think that they can be valuable when contextualized by other qualia.
Overall, I feel like this is a very vague map that is pointing at something, but not in nearly high enough resolution to be useful – dichotomies rarely are good for that. I would like to explore my experiences in this framework more in the future but think that holding it lightly is likely wise – it doesn’t cover all experience by a longshot, but maybe it can be useful for predicting what sorts of things are best to do when your setting imposes a certain “color”.
Discussion Questions: What sorts of qualia taxonomies are your gotos? Do colors of qualia resonate with you at all, even if the colors are different? What are your thoughts on classing experience in systems like these?
(Epistemic status: It’s been a long month; sorta endorsed)
Introspection doesn’t solve problems.
I’ve written about different aspects of that before, but there are many more senses in which it is true. Wrapping up your experiences in nice, well packaged, easily referred to insights is bullshit. Thinking that if you do this One Weird Trick internally, you can just always do the “right thing” is bullshit. Thinking that you can control every bit of the world around you by telling stories about it is bullshit (and dangerous). Thinking that you need to control the world around you and that people are made for roles is bullshit. Optimizing your experience for useful feelings is bullshit. Almost everything that I have written, every little trick and tip, every scrap of insight…
…is a piece of the ouroboros of bullshit.
That’s not to say it’s valueless – there are changes in outcomes from doing some of the things linked above. There are real shifts in one’s social web and social reality. However, the focal points and intentions that are held by these things are not actually solutions to anything. They are overcorrections to ego injuries I’ve faced in the past, and just come with a different set of problems, for which I overcorrect. The ouroboros of bullshit is a recursive trap of introspective self-improvement – the assertion is that whatever part of yourself you are trying to improve is very unlikely to point at the actual underlying cause of the issue you’re trying to solve. The ouroboros of bullshit rests on the idea that humans generally are resistant to ego dystonic changes to their personality, and the appearance of change can frequently feel much better than actual, deep lasting change.
My Personal Ouroboros
Ouroboros problems are hard – the frequent format is “I do this, so I’ll do this instead, except that also feels like just doing the same thing in a different way, so I’ll do another thing – except that also feels like it has the flavor of the initial problem.” It’s often a feeling that nothing you generate is actually outside the scope of the problem you’re trying to solve. My personal ouroboros is the intersection of narcissism and bipolar (and a few other things). I like being hypomanic – I like optimizing for a self concept that is high energy. A self concept that is optimized for mania is quite frequently full of itself – it does not see failure. This can be good in moderation, but moderation means actually acknowledging mistakes, which are depressing and therefore not mania inducing. So – what we have is “I like being manic, but sometimes it makes me distort reality and not see my errors.” Well, eventually disaster strikes, things keep going wrong because I’m not actually receiving feedback, even if it’s given. So I correct – “Well, I’ll question myself more. I’ll, you know, be chill, do less things, listen to feeling overwhelmed.” Suddenly it seems like every little thing I don’t want to do overwhelms me. So busy busy busy, but also depressed to boot. Whoops, guess I overcorrected. “Well, hmm, I guess I could try being manic sometimes, but also being depressed other times”. Sounds great, so I try that. Why doesn’t anything seem to come together anymore? I feel unlucky – I feel desynced. I’m depressed when I really need to go hard. I’m manic when I should really back off. I’m unfocused and unclear on what I’m even trying to do. “Ok, well, maybe I just need a goal.” So I make up a few. And the cycle continues. All these little, iterative solutions that don’t address the fundamental problem.
Which is that I am trying to use a mental illness to be successful because it is a narcissistic injury for me not to be successful, and I want to be successful in Anything because I narcissistically want to be important. The reason, however, that it is an ouroboros is that if I shift my focus to that problem, then I’m not paying attention to how my bipolar disorder might be distorting my utility function, or how correcting for narcissism might just also be narcissistic. Every solution just feeds into a different part of the problem structure.
The Structure of the Snake and the Self:
An ouroboros of bullshit consists of several common introspective patterns – the first involves insight packaging. When you constrain insights into words, they become smaller. They become cute APIs for interacting with your internal state. As you compress them, the most difficult and ego dystonic parts of the insight are going to get washed away. Memory highlights what you were paying attention to, and we usually pay attention to either things that are rewarding or things that avoid danger: If you are laying on the floor but about to shift position, you might suddenly feel a “tug” from your peripheral vision. You notice a pair of scissors that were carelessly left right where you were about to shift. You’re unlikely to remember much else from the experience besides the part where you avoided danger. If your partner is acting in ways meant to draw your attention, you’re unlikely to remember what the display on the clock was, or where something on the bedside table was – the rewarding thing to perceive was your partner.
Insights are the same way – usually, we remember the things that felt good, things that helped us avoid a pitfall, or made our lives seem better. Unfortunately, the process of self is often poorly calibrated on what danger is, so some of the gears of the insight are not exactly welcome. As it turns out, ego injury is also parsed as a danger. In the moment, an insight will usually be full force, solid, a deep, sometimes painful realization of what’s been causing you or others around you to suffer – and it will often include parts that you don’t strictly feel are “like you”. As you get more distant from the insight, the parts that don’t feel “like you”, or even feel like “anti-you” will fade, and the insight will start working less well. You start focusing on the parts that felt good and are puzzled when the insight seems less efficacious. The real kicker though, is that the insight doesn’t completely stop working, it’s just a lot weaker. It’s compressed, and as you call the memory, it will compress further. The ouroboros of bullshit has tacked the insight onto the tail and started eating itself again. In summary? Whatever you think the focus of your introspective problems is, you’re wrong. Pathologies don’t like being found and sorted out.
Another way the ouroboros of bullshit gets you is LARPing understanding. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you knew all the words to a concept, could string them together in a way that passed for knowledge…but had no idea what it felt like to apply that concept to another problem? That’s LARPing understanding. It’s a skill – it’s very good at convincing people you get what they’re talking about if you can regurgitate their words back to them quickly enough, with enough sincerity. Turns out we do this to ourselves too – we convince ourselves that we understand something by regurgitating the concept back to our verbal loop and feel like we’ve made progress. We LARP internal understanding, and this provides strong armor against ego injury. It becomes harder and harder to legitimately have the understanding that would help untangle a nest of personal problems. To truly understand something and apply it in all applicable cases is hard work. You iteratively realize where a concept is appropriate and where it is not, and ouroboros problems specifically hinder this process. You misapply the parts of the insight that work, which makes the whole thing seem less salient. You just flat aren’t able to use it when a problem where it applies comes up. You get discouraged, worn down – because the true understanding was deflected and you’re trying to run self improvement on a buggy back end.
Persistence and Meta
It gets worse – LARPing understanding and packaging insights tend to corrupt every meta level you try to escape to. You think you see the structure of how you’ve LARPed understanding, and LARP that. You try to make your insights more complex and nuanced, and try to focus on things that aren’t intuitive. This kind of works, except then it gets incorporated into the ouroboros. You discard things you shouldn’t have discarded, you add things that felt right and even went through ouroboros checking. Sometimes you have big insight structures, sometimes you have small ones – time goes on, we oscillate between modes, getting more and more discouraged…because fully dealing with an ouroboros problem is hard work. It’s the intersection of pathology and ego. Antipatterns that are tied into self concept just flat do not want to die. When the ouroboros gets a hold of a helpful idea, it twists and distorts into something safe for one’s ego, and much of the power is lost.
Another approach to that the ouroboros of bullshit perpetuates is pendulum swinging. If you have a problem, clearly the solution is going as far as away from the thing you were doing! This unfortunately fails to account for the fact that the thing generating a solution opposite the previous solution is still the thing that generated the previous solution and will already be corrupted by ouroboros reasoning. Pendulums aren’t too bad though, eventually they settle on the happy medium of a good solution, right? Unfortunately, when you apply every other part of the ouroboros structure, you more or less end up finding a meta level pendulum that you think is clearly the correct solution and start again from there.
Recursion and the Snake
The worst part of the structure of the ouroboros is this: all of these parts are also a part of the ouroboros of bullshit. These aren’t hard and fast rules for how it works. You can’t just pocket the concept of questioning your focus, or LARPing understanding, or pendulum swings, or what meta level you’re on and suddenly be free. There are times in which you are focusing on the right thing, and the ouroboros reminds you “wait, aren’t you supposed to question that?”. There are times in which you truly understood, but the ouroboros whispers “Nah, you don’t understand, you’re just LARPing, why don’t you think harder about it?”. There are times in which you swing in a direction, and it was actually necessary to go that way because you were so deeply wrong…and the ouroboros is like “aww, that’s so fake though, it’s clearly an overcorrection, why don’t you go back this way a little.” There are times in which you take a meta escape hatch and it might have actually helped – and the ouroboros is like “ooh, look at the metaproblems you have to solve now, that’s not going to work.” The ouroboros of bullshit is not a thought pattern that can be solved. Even the idea of “solving” a “problem” is part of the ouroboros. It’s an expression of the self, a series of illusions meant to hold together, and the ouroboros acts as one of many threads.
Solving the Ouroboros of Bullshit
But people want solutions anyway. There’s some things you can do, to varying levels of efficacy, depending on the level of good faith I applied them. Most people, even if they have an ouroboros of bullshit, are unlikely to have the same ouroboros of bullshit as you. You can compare notes – you can talk about things. Others will frequently have a useful perspective that you should at least consider. This doesn’t mean unreservedly listen to what other people have to say about your problems but, consider it – while remembering that the ouroboros does not want to be unraveled. It’s a common pattern to hear advice, round it to the most ego syntonic correlate, and then wonder why the advice doesn’t work. It’s common to assume that you were already doing the thing the advice prescribes. It’s hard to really, actually, truly take advice – generally you have to discard your first few responses before it has a chance of getting through, but it can be done. Other times, of course, you will desperately need to just let your first response flow, because the advice clicked with something in you before you could consciously think about it. It’s unfortunately a combination of trial, error, and discernment.
There are solutions outside of other people – be distrustful of simple, clean solutions to your ouroboros problems; but not always, sometimes it is that simple – once again, you have to iterate. If it seems like you find a simple solution, repeatedly, but none of them work, then you probably have a more complex problem. If it seems like you have complex structures that cash out to minimal change, then maybe try something simpler. Meditation is also helpful – dissolving the words you’re trying to throw at a problem frequently allows less space for ouroboros problems to distort your perception. Relatedly, allowing yourself to be in the moment, and see the structure of the present and only the present, can often reveal assumptions you’ve made that have caused your problems to become ouroboros problems.
Overall, the ouroboros of bullshit is a pattern like any other. Not all problems are the ouroboros. Not all solutions are generated by the ouroboros. The ouroboros is a hallucination just like any other qualia. The concept is mostly another frame to put on your reality, to explore and expand on – who knows, you might see some of your persistent issues as ouroboroses of bullshit and find a way to cut through them. The ouroboros is not the end all be all of problem structure – but it’s a hell of a lot better than single thread insight farming which assumes that all problems are self-contained and point to reality. The key ideas are simple (of course) – remember to breathe, remember what you care about, and do the best you can.
Discussion Questions: The ouroboros of bullshit is a more advanced problem structure pattern – what other problem structure patterns have you noticed? Do you think you have a personal ouroboros of bullshit? If so, what form does it take? What other ways have you tangled with an ouroboros of bullshit and had apparent success?
Hey all – in light of the fact that August is an extremely busy month for me, I’m going to be taking a one month hiatus. My update schedule had already been becoming more erratic due to having to prepare for a move to the west coast, getting ready for App Academy, and generally being busy. I should be back once I’m settled in and with a few posts ready to go. I appreciate everyone reading my ramblings so far, and look forward to what the future holds!
(Epistemic Status: Trying on a new approach – likely framework agnostic; literally thought of this tonight)
Have you ever tried just telling someone the truth without filters? Saying what you think, why you think it, critically considering what they’re saying, and not trying to be acceptable? Sharp culture has aspects of this; most other cultures I’ve experienced do not – there’s a drive to keep things smooth and harmonious. “Brutally honest” is often decried as uncompassionate – it’s perceived most frequently (and often correctly) as a bid for dominance over someone under the cover of helping them. Social harmony is armor in low trust environments – it keeps the peace and allows you to act slowly on things without having to deal with attacks on all sides in status games.
So what happens in cultures where you don’t have to put that armor on?
Societal norms around politeness are not optimized for growth and change. They are optimized for perpetuation of the existing structure and building on that structure slowly. Sayings like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, misinterpretations of “treat others as you would like to be treated”, “the truth is often in the middle”, these are all optimized for continuing the status quo and sparing the feelings of others, at the expense of their cognition.
Unfortunately, it turns out that telling lies and buying into narratives damages your ability to think – at best, you can sandbox your narratives when interacting with low trust environments, but if you spend most of your time with people optimizing for harmony, it is inevitable your thought patterns will become more and more corrupt in favor of the status quo and validation – your heavy armor slows you down, and you take a lot more hits than you really need to. It gets dings and scratches, and you get scars.
If you’re with people you can trust to hear what you’re saying when you aren’t filtering for niceness, for harmony, however…
You become a lot faster. You take off your armor. You take out a fencing epee – you aren’t trying to hurt everyone around you for keeps, but you train. You spar and build stronger models. Your group, your society mutually agrees to rules of engagement that are meant to improve you and those around you. Rather than having your epistemics atrophy, they become more rigorous. This is not even a new idea – Ben Franklin had the concept of the junto, a society of mutual improvement. As quoted from his autobiography: “Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”
The maxims of this society are “move fast, break things”, “treat others as you would like to be treated”, “you are the sum of the five people closest to you”. The ability to think is always the terminal value.
This does not mean that you never don the heavy armor again – we live in a world where most societies are low trust. Where most interactions require not letting the politeness tools atrophy either. You need to be able to wear this armor even within your high trust society – but rather than it being the default assumption, it is better for it to be an active action that is respected by the rest of the group – it still relies on truth in introspection.
There are critical ingredients to being the kind of person who can exist in a truth-based culture, and you will fail, and you will be told that you have failed, and this will be ok. The responsibility to accept criticism is the foundation. This does NOT mean wordlessly submitting to someone else’s evaluation of you; this is act of engagement in good faith with other models of you, generated from the outside. You also take on the responsibility to criticize. These aspects alone create a feedback loop of honest feedback rather than noise. These form the core of a truth-based culture. The mechanisms of social capital are not that of criticism being a status scoring activity for the criticizer, but of increased status for both the criticized and the criticizer.
The next layer of this culture involves strong norms against performance. This is hard – to some degree everything will be performative. Critical sessions will be hosted just for selfish gain and wheel spinning and change won’t occur. People will make cutting remarks and default to “Well I was just being honest”. However, the people who take the norms in good faith will start becoming noticeably stronger – the performers will be weeded out purely by differentials. Related to this is a norm where apologies are only made for lies or actual harms caused. Apologies for “hurting feelings”, “not being good enough”, things in that vein are often performative – they aren’t legitimately good faith intent to be better. Lying by far is a deep sin when this culture is working well. On this level as well is a removal of social status for mutual validation. Validation is social candy – validation-seeking behavior is a mode antithetical to accomplishing things – it’s a substitute for action. There are things underneath validation-seeking that should be introspected, noted, and expressed. However, validation seeking and phatic validation giving are anti-truth and anti-action.
On the next layer, things get self-critical. The above guidelines are not meant to be enforced on others. All the time you spend hating and punishing is time not spent being better yourself. Guilt spirals and censure spirals are both poison to this truth-based culture. Optimize for having real conversations, with disagreements, criticisms, and truth, but don’t waste time noticing all the times this standard isn’t reached, unless the conversation is meant to be about the standard. The meta escape valve is also phatic and anti-truth. Notice when you are telling stories or trying to socially maneuver yourself out of a situation – and then express your feeling directly. Not as a social move, but as information about the world. Go back to the cardinal rules – say true things, take the responsibility of being criticized, take the responsibility to criticize others. Then rebuild your layers.
On the next layer, action spaces are less constrained. This is where allowances for putting on the heavy armor of harmony are allowed. When your foundation of truth is strong, playing in social reality and narrative becomes safer – it’s still hazardous, but this truth-based culture is meant to allow gentle detox from it. Sometimes this means wearing armor in this space. Sometimes this means status jockeying, playing social games. Sometimes this means trying things out that are only useful in the wider world. When your social context has passed the lower layers, these can be done.
Overall, I think the above culture is possible – the old Less Wrong community had this in spades – a lot more was understood about what it meant to have a project and be status blind with it. I am not yet a member who would qualify for this culture, but I strive for it. I wish to build this, ideally following the model of the junto and other social technologies. If you also wish to build this, or be a part of it, and experiment with social technology, I want to get to know you better. I want to shed the heavy armor and move fast, and strike with an epee. I want to be around people who do this as well.
Discussion Questions: How much of the world around you requires you to harmonize? How do you maintain your epistemic purity in environments optimized for making it hard to think? What is your vision for ideal societal norms? How would you build a high trust environment? How would you improve the model described above?
(Epistemic Status: Subjective internal experience with lack of clarity on the internal experiences of others. Generated from a conversation with Olivia, who I credit as being invaluable in exploring things in this category)
I have recently come to suspect that my mind works a little differently than other people I know. Of course, this is trivially true for anyone – the specific way in which it works differently, however, applies to a subset of people such that certain insights can be expressed in this frame. I have a certain flexibility when it comes to self-definition, readily accepting arguments in favor of self-inconsistency across time, adopting subagent models, considering all states in the “category of me” to be mutable, etc. I also tend to skirt the edges of stability frequently, experimenting with ideas that fundamentally question my perception of reality, pushing for peak experiences, actively using pathologies to achieve my goals, etc. This flexibility is based on the ability to dissociate – to push “self” completely out of the way while still maintaining a loose idea of being a “self”. To use the oft-criticized model of brains as biological computers, the dissociative framework is an OS that trades stability for flexibility, allowing for a wider but less safe action space.
To go up a level, mental frameworks are how mind types frame the world as well as the mind’s relation to the world. Ways of reconciling and narrativizing experiences such that they feel ego syntonic. I speculate that other frameworks might include a singleton framework, in which one has a perception of a completely consistent self, with a restricted action space trading for stability – they likely don’t handle out of frame experiences well, but they have strong, reliable heuristics for experiences within frame. They don’t need to waste a lot of cognitive effort figuring out why or how, it just integrates quickly and they move on. This kind of person is very easy to acausally trade with. They tend to have developed deep skill at things within their frame because of the level of constancy they bring to the table.
Another plausible mental framework is one of no-self framework – the oft sought enlightenment idea where frames are not used at all – the mind is not relating to the world, it is of the world and of the same salience as the experience. I don’t have a good model of the advantages or disadvantages of this hypothetical framework – I suspect it’s both high flexibility and high stability – the cognitive load is reduced by not running contextualization of experience all the time and optimizing for just being.
For one last example, there’s a mental framework in which connection is optimized – the distributed processing framework. In some ways, well blended couples (or even polycules) have this, as well as deeply connected small groups. In this framework, other people in the collective are part of the mind map to a degree that almost feels like telepathy. You know the strengths and weaknesses of every member of the unit, and are able to transfer information with minimal bits. This has medium flexibility, medium stability, and extremely high efficacy in the world, but takes a lot of time, effort, and luck to build. I suspect that this framework risks codependence and difficulty accessing oneself as an individual – it is unclear whether this is a drawback.
Going back to the dissociative framework, this one is extremely dangerous technology. The other frameworks I described are higher stability, and trading off stability can cost you years of your life on dead ends, insanity, or worse. However, with any high-risk investment, the rewards also tend to be fairly high – the dissociative framework is probably the easiest in which to model other people while still optimizing for individuality. Modeling other people is one of the building blocks of mastery of social reality – being able to predict behavior and combinations of behavior is a rare skill. Another advantage of the dissociative framework is being able to break down your personality into modular units and replace parts as needed – the introspective access here is very high, which is a large part of the risk. The ability to self-modify does take a lot of work even with a default predisposition to dissociation – I personally don’t have it down perfectly at all, but this is effectively how things like internal monologue modification work. The dissociative framework also makes it easier to dissociate from a predominant social reality, which can provide discernment into the cracks in the narrative – when personality and self are mutable, roles become much less sticky. The dissociative framework also tends to increase hypnotic susceptibility – this is likely due to the general experience of having a wider action space and adeptness at unusual states. There are other advantages to the framework, but they become less legible as we go deeper.
The disadvantages to the dissociative framework are also numerous – the first is the reduced ability to make acausal trades. Due to the high inconsistency in the framework, it’s difficult to place expectations on future versions of yourself without stronger commitment mechanisms. It’s also difficult to access preferences – as with everything else, these are mutable as well, so it’s hard to have a core “want” when it’s merely another switch to toggle. The difficulty of accessing preferences also can lead to stagnation and slower development because the wide action space pulls you in multiple directions. Strong internal access also tends to create optimization loops for things that may not be worth optimizing to infinity (the wireheading problem, for example). I suspect that the dissociative framework also makes emotions bigger, because they are one of the few S1 signals that can get past firm internal control, if only for a short time. Another disadvantage is weaker sense of self, which can make one weaker to cults of personality, or even charisma in general. The dissociative framework also is often cognitively expensive – more choices are made on a more minute level, which is fatiguing. There are other disadvantages, but they also get less legible as we go deeper.
Overall, I find mental frameworks to be a useful way to class efficacy of interventions – I am likely to start speculating on whether the dissociative framework is necessary for a given mindhack in the future. If I have written about anything in the past hasn’t resonated, this might be part of it. Over the next few weeks, I will be going into specific tools the dissociative framework gives access to – if you don’t consider yourself able to run the dissociative framework and have success with these tools, it would be helpful data for my theorizing. The dissociative framework is very powerful when the drawbacks are corrected for, but very dangerous when used carelessly – without constant vigilance or guidance, a slip can easily undo years of effort. I don’t know if baseline mental frameworks can be reconfigured – I suspect they are based on childhood experience and genetic predisposition, but if they can, I would recommend avoiding this configuration.
Discussion Questions – Do you feel like any of the mental frameworks described above fit you? If so, which ones? If not, what would you describe yours as, and what are the advantages and disadvantages? Have you experienced issues where I’ve posted about a mindhack and it just didn’t make sense – if so, do you suspect this is one of the causes? What would be the traits of an optimal mental framework?
On Leveling Up
(Epistemic Status: Endorsed – Somewhat vague/abstract)
Last year, I made a decision. I was going to get good at “the social.” I would meet with people, talk with them, figure out what this extroversion thing was like. This so happened to coincide with me getting invited to more parties, noticing that I didn’t seem to be very good at parties but other people were, and still going to them despite this. This actually worked fairly well – I made an effort to actually try at parties, I’d meet interesting people, I’d talk to them one on one, I got better at conversations, things were great. So I started optimizing more and more, putting a lot of pressure on myself to “get good at social,” kept post morteming and creating nice subjective lists of whether things were Good or Bad, and increasingly my life was about “being that weird girl obsessed with meta social things.”
Naturally I got way worse at social, people started considering me kind of manipulative, and I had to take a step back – instead of leveling up, I leveled down. Had a kind of miserable fall and winter and moved on to other things.
A curious thing happened when I moved onto other things. The object level thing of Get Good At Social became way less important, I had tasks that I needed to do. I needed funding to change my life. I had to learn to program. I had to get housing things done. I had to strategize about having a good life and think about the future – and suddenly all that social grinding became useful because it wasn’t aimed at the object level “get good at social,” it was aimed at the object level “if I miss these steps, I will fail.”
There’s a failure mode where people want to be good at something – something is usually underspecified, and the details are difficult to pin down. More frequently, this happens with social skills like “being good to talk to” or “being able to lead people” or “being able to get dates and sex”. This sometimes happens with things that look “cool”, like being fit, or being good at dancing. Regardless of the type of thing, you can usually get as far as generating some way to practice; however, you often end up grinding things that might correlate with the thing you want, or just make you good at a certain subset of thing while ignoring the supporting skills. I tried to get good at social, and the skill I ended up developing was being able to frame things in my life as interesting and direct conversational flow such that I could talk about things that I liked talking about. It’s a useful skill, but it’s not All Social Skills Ever, and overuse of the thing I was good at made me weaker.
Leveling up is rarely about directly trying to access the thing you want to be good at – usually it takes working on projects that require the skill and being able to accept failure. I’ve been taking courses on programming, but when it comes to trying to implement projects to make my life easier? It’s hard to know where to start – I have to work with people and end up in a lot of dead ends, because I mostly wireheaded “being good at programming courses”. On the flip side, I’ve had to do a lot of illegible networking things lately to do things like “create group house” or “have money to survive switching career paths.” A lot of the social stuff I’ve done has been helpful, but if I approached this as “Oh I guess I need to Network and Have Lunches”, I’d still be at square one. By just Doing The Things, I’ve gained a lot of valuable S1 knowledge on social dynamics that I’m still working on S2 parsing out, and in turn have accidentally gotten notably better at other social skills besides “directing conversational flow.”
Several people I know would like to go on dates and have sex. Several other people I know want to be better at mindhacking and fix all their EF problems. Others I know want to save the world. They work on these things and talk a lot about the failure modes and the things they’ve done – it’s honestly impressive. But…somehow, 6 months to a year down the line, they still haven’t succeeded (at least, to their satisfaction) at the task they set out to do. In some ways, they’ve become worse – the potential never actuated. For awhile I wasn’t sure why this was happening – in the same way I wasn’t really sure why I seemed to be stagnating socially and not actually accomplishing anything anymore. I suspect this is why – the thing in and of itself is not a reasonable goal – it’s unbounded. Suddenly, though, when concrete things need to be accomplished that require a set of skills, those skills start to come to the fore – and if you’re missing something, you realize what you’re missing in a hurry because your approach is not working. This post is partially to the people I notice getting stuck in undesireable loops – it’s also partially to me. I feel like I got way more powerful at the things I wanted to be good at over the past month or two – and it wasn’t by thinking about “ok I gotta do the thing to be better at leadership/social/conversation.” It was by having problems that I needed to solve or else. I realize not everyone can get into a situation like that, and it’s hard to let go of the optimization value. However…
True levelling up doesn’t come from directly going at a Thing – it comes from doing a variety of things that aren’t strictly connected to your Thing and discovering in retrospect that all your training suggested routes that are unique to you and provides a lot of real world training data on your skills and what you want to do.
Overall, I think it’s good to want to become stronger. However, I think wanting to get stronger becomes a shibboleth in many people – they do train and do things that sorta work for improvement, but they end up in a state of constant striving because the things they’re doing aren’t aligned with running headfirst into reality. The goal of becoming stronger caps your potential and leveling up resumes mostly when doing stuff becomes the priority – not just doing stuff because “becoming stronger” is the incorrect way to become stronger – doing stuff because you need that money or your plan falls apart. Not just doing stuff to “level up”, doing stuff because you are there and the stuff needs doing. Not just doing stuff because you’re “supposed to” – doing stuff because you have actual goals besides “getting good at Thing.” Realizing your potential is scary and hard – figure out how your world is inconvenient and fix that instead.
Discussion questions – Have you noticed this pattern in your life at all? Have you ever gotten caught building a skill for the sake of having skills and having trouble implementing it? Do you think this is just limited to social things, or does it extend to anything that has a form of “get good at X”? Several concepts kind of intermix in this post – how would you split them out to apply the advice to your life best?
(Epistemic status: Metapost)