(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?