Monument to the Soul

When I was a child, my first fascination, before I found math and science, before I found space and rockets, was famous monuments. I grew up in a tiny town of three thousand people, and when I saw pictures of these vast constructions, I loved them. The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Opera House: instantly and irrevocably, their images went straight to my heart. I cut them out of magazines and taped them on my wall. My parents got me a jumbo-sized pad of graph paper, and I drew my own creations, preparing to become an architect. I didn’t always know what these structures were for, or what their history was, and I didn’t need to. By their very appearance, they were great.

When I was in 7th grade, my teacher brought a television into the classroom, and I saw one of my favorite monuments on fire. The “twin towers”, as I had always called them, were gone over the next two hours. One student in the class had been to the top. The only thing I really understood while watching the events that day is that I never would. No one talked about how sad it was to lose a monument, and they shouldn’t have, because, of course, incomparably more was lost.

When I was around ten years old, I went into our tiny town library and checked out a thousand page tome. It was a book on Notre Dame de Paris. The librarian smiled knowingly as she handed me a book that she knew I would never read. And I didn’t get very far, but it never felt strange then or now for me to have checked out that book. Why would you not want to know all about this majesty? Who wouldn’t see that book and think, yes, this is the size of book that this monument deserves.

Since then I’ve gotten to visit a lot of the icons I had put up on my wall. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building. I will never see the World Trade Center towers, but I have seen their successor, and I have seen the stunning memorial in their footprints.

I have never been to Paris. I have never seen the Eiffel Tower, an unparalleled monument to modernity. And today, as I watched the news, I knew that I might have lost my chance to see an ancient monument to that which is timeless in humanity.

Thankfully, the people by the Seine did not mourn the loss of life today. The president of France did not console us on the loss of economic productivity. Instead, everyone knew that what we were losing was what that child had seen; one of the greatest depictions of human exaltation that we have managed to envision. A structure built for no other purpose than to make real our sense that there is something in this world so profound, so beautiful that we cannot just describe it; we must make it.

Fate willing, the damage will be repaired, and I will one day be able to go to Paris and see that monument to the human soul.

Call to Arts

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a patchwork palace containing art from all eras. As you move through the labyrinth, your S1 reacts to the themes of different civilizations, the philosophies of various movements. Their memeplexes, long dead on the societal scale, still try to slowly alter you, the viewer.

Limestone sphinxes, straight-backed statues of pharaohs, walls of simple hieroglyphs. Perhaps your S1 hears “The world is regular, clean, noble. There is a grandeur behind what you see, and perhaps if you live as these statues you will live to see it.”

Faces, anatomically perfect paintings of hundreds of Europeans, billowing robes dyed deep colors. Perhaps your S1 hears, “We have reached the height of culture. Our ways are refinements toward the platonic state of elite and luxury.”

The vibrancy and grunge of modern art. The splatters, the angles, the barest resemblances of everyday objects. Perhaps your S1 hears “The world is chaotic. The order is only a result of your attempt to see it. Let go and let the world be what it is.” The precision, the radiance, the colors. Perhaps your S1 hears “The world is ours to shape. The patterns are endless. Forge the beauty you wish to see.”

We are a movement. We want to move the minds of humanity. We want to move the future itself. Thus far we’ve spread our ideas with words. But for many, S1 isn’t moved by words. It’s moved by visuals. These past civilizations have spoken from their systems 1 with visual art.

What say you, rationality? What say we, rationalists? What forms espouse our masochistic love for Truth? What figures flush crimson at threat to their something to protect? What melting clocks display our view of the future of humanity and the stars?

Hell if I know. I’m a miserable artist. But I’ll tell you what I think anyway.
I think we should compel the viewer to act. I think we should instill agency in the viewer. I think we should show the world what is good and great and precious, and what is the very reason for existing. I think we should show them what to fight for.

I think we should show them the deep conflicts that rationality brings about: between love of truths and love of giving up beliefs so easily; between the power of abstraction, and the ultimate authority of empiricism; the value of helping a single soul, and the unspeakable potential of the stars in the sky.

I think we should speak from our systems 1. If need be, use your system 2 to explore plausible post-singularity states. But don’t try to represent them in a way your S1 is blind to. Symbols are not precise, and if they’re also not compelling, they’re worthless. (…But if I see another humanoid robot image I will scream.)

I think we should use the tools of our age. Humans have always adapted and rationalists especially love to throw out tradition. So I’m not really asking anyone to buy an easel and start watching Bob Ross videos. Just as photography became an art after the invention of the camera, so too should photoshop be a legitimate medium. (If only the Met would have galleries of such.)

Yes, I know we have some art. Where would we even be, without Methods or the Solstice? Our movement grows every time I hum “Bitter Wind Blown” on the street. I’m just filling in the gaps here; we have no visual art. None. Not a single facade have we risen, no propaganda posters have we printed, no bronze park memorials have we cast. It’s a big piece missing for me; I’m a very visual person. I want to have a visual sense of our movement in the same way I have a visual sense of the roaring ’20s from art deco.

So go, go create tags on deviant art and register r/rationalistart and figure out how to install GIMP on arch linux. Print t-shirts and make interactive java applets. And, if it feels right, get out oil and canvas or touch pencil to paper.

‘But’ Considered Harmful

“Chickens are fluffy and helpless, but they descended from true dinosaurs.”

Spock: “The engines are likely to fail if we stay in hyperspace, Captain.
Kirk: “But we need to save the planet Empiricus from the supernova!

If someone makes a statement of the form “A, but B.” what they typically mean is that A is true, and — even though A is evidence against B — B is true nonetheless. The chicken statement is of this form. This is a pretty useful bit of English.

But sometimes, it doesn’t effectively mean that. In arguments like the one on the Enterprise, if the first speaker asserts A and the second speaker responds “But B!” this can mean “What you said was irrelevant, because B.” Sometimes this is a legitimate correction, and sometimes it’s an attempt to not have to concede A.

I propose a tiny trigger-action-plan to consider using ‘and’ every time you want to use ‘but’. It’s the epistemically sound kin of improv’s “yes and” technique. You won’t want to replace ‘but’ every time, because one often wants to emphasize the surprise. But when it feels like it would hurt to say ‘and’, consider doing so. The engines are likely to fail if you stay in hyperspace, and you need to save the planet Empiricus. This is more painful to consider, and you are now ready to solve the problem. Can you reverse the polarity of the transducer? No, because that would take thirteen hours. The engines will soon fail, you cannot reverse the transducer, and you need to save the planet Empiricus. What will you do?

The universe is filled with unfortunate facts that are simultaneously true. It’s an essential skill of a rationalist to hold seemingly contradictory facts in their mind until they discover the resolution. Simplifications are instrumentally useful and can be used safely in context. But when the planet Empiricus is at stake, you must know what simplifications are okay and which are fatal. Star Trek is notorious for implausibly successful save-the-day actions; Kirk never gets his fact-denying comeuppance. Nature is notorious for indifference.

To bring it closer to Earth, consider a favored political policy, like minimum wage. Does your stance on the issue have any negative side effects? Does your opponent’s have any positive effects? Minimum wage violates the freedom of business owners — and some good people have trouble finding a job that will pay them a living wage. Are all low-income people lazy and deserving of their strife? Are all business owners greedy or biased in their wage setting? Certainly not; there are just two unfortunate facts, and we only have solutions to fix one of them. Let us remember this, so we know to keep working toward better solutions.

Like the mantra “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”, this is a practice for your own mind. If someone avoids your true statement by responding “But B!” with another true statement, don’t tell them to say ‘and’ instead; repeat “A and B” to yourself first. See whether this loosens your beliefs.

The Boston CFAR alumni workshop

It’s wednesday morning at 8:57. I’ve just gotten into work. Kenzi texts me saying:

Anna in a curriculum development meeting: “My inner Alex Altair is really sad he’s not going to be here this weekend”

The next morning before the sun is up I’m on the BART to SFO. *Obviously* I should have decided to go to Boston for the alumni workshop. I hadn’t even considered it. My brain just filtered it out as not-local.

So why is it obvious? The previous morning, when deciding whether to go, I try to use outside view. I visualize how I think my weekend would go in either case. On one hand, I have a fairly large sample of spending weekends by myself working on projects. They’ve been going pretty well recently, all things considered. I’ve tended to get done the things I set out to do. On the other hand, I have three alumni workshops as my reference class. They were, each of them, exceptional weekends. I developed ideas and concepts, was taught new frameworks, made deeper connections with people and untangled connections in my mind. It’s like having twenty guaranteed excellent conversations in a row, punctuated by solo sessions of high-value introspection and planning. A naive application of Laplace’s law of succession says there’s a 4/5 chance this workshop will be the same.

When I hold up my average weekend next to a CFAR workshop, the deficit is obvious. I’m going. Carpe diem, try things, move fast and break things. This is my calling. The hero’s call to action isn’t a single moment where they decide to or not to follow the fairy into the cave. It’s the repeated choice to steer into the wind, because that’s where the treasure lies.

An alumni workshop is not like the first workshop. There are only about twelve participants (including the staff, because they are equally participatory). We work in one group. You’ll most likely have a significant conversation with each person there. The theme for this workshop was the Hamming question applied to our lives and the community. (That is, what is the most important problem in your field, and why aren’t you working on it?) But I like to call it the “actually” workshop; we tried to understand the nature of actually trying, of actually caring about succeeding. I’m fond of this.

It’s hard to directly measure my progress during the workshops. Or at all really, at least on week timescales. I rarely find that I “fix” a problem in my life, at least compared to the measurability of fixing software bugs or jiggly door handles. I haven’t come out of a workshop having founded an organization yet. But some measures are possible. I always come out with lists of things to try, notes scattered across handouts and notebooks. After the first alumni workshop (titled Epistemic Rationality for Effective Altruists), I hosted a series of group followups. This time, I came out with two major things.

1) For the first time I had strong evidence that my S1’s major wrong belief had changed.

Over the years I’ve accumulated an understanding that a major part of my worldview is a false (!) belief which I nicknamed “world is safe”. It means that to ensure my happiness I only need to take immediate actions. This causes some problems.

I’ve engaged a considerable amount of resources into aligning this belief with reality. But it’s awfully hard to tell whether I’ve made progress. …Am I more motivated now? …How about now? I’ve gotten a few bits of evidence that this belief has shifted, but nothing where I couldn’t chalk it up to small sample size or some other story. Whenever I checked in with S1, it still believed.

One technique for checking S1 beliefs I learned at Leverage. Basically, you just say a statement out loud. If it “rings true”, you believe it. It’s a bit tricky to catch the feeling of “ringing true”, but you can calibrate using statements you already know you believe. Say a statement you definitely believe like “This is my computer.”. Then say the negation, “This is not my computer.”. Actually saying it out loud seems to strongly increase the effectiveness. Feel the difference between them. One of them will feel something like a lie, and the other will feel like “well, yeah, of course”. Once you feel confident you can detect “ringing true”, you can try it with statements which you don’t know whether you believe.

So I sat alone during one of the work periods, and whispered to myself, “The world is not safe.” It rang true. It has never rung true, before.

2) It became clear that my plans were insufficient.

I sat with Oliver, describing my plan for the next phase of my life. He asks, “But how long will that take?”

“Um, I think about two years” I say.

“Two years?! Look how far MIRI, CFAR and FLI have gotten in two years!”

His response throws me two years into the future, imagining myself at 28.5 years old, and thinking All I’ve done in the past two years is [previous plan].

The correct sense of urgency isn’t one where the dementors are scarily approaching, and you have five minutes to figure out how to stop them. The correct sense of urgency is the one where the dementors have already come and gone. They’ve already taken people. There’s more behind them, and they won’t stop coming until you stop them.

God dammit responds my S1. He’s right.

But that which can be destroyed by the truth should be, and thus my plans must be destroyed.

So why do I book a next day flight to go to a CFAR workshop? It resembles the world I want to live in. I walk in the door, and people ask me my most important problem, and how I’m working on it. When I ask for help, they give it. When I ask for examples, they give me five. Conversations end because I have to be deliberate about sleep. I am deliberate about sleep because every hour of the next day is worth alertness and attention. So I go to bed. And when I wake up, I walk downstairs, and we start again. I grab the cereal, and start helping someone figure out how they can save the world. This is how life should be, and so I will get on a plane and make it that way.

Simon & Garfunkel and the Natural Order

One day while strolling around on the internet, I come across a comment; “…hello darkness my old friend.” I’ve never heard this before, but it seems… good. So I google it.

A few months later, I’ve got a playlist with all of their songs which I take around the block almost every day. The first thing about their music that catches my attention is the sound of it. I think Simon and Garfunkel heard a harmony at age 16 and said “hey, that sounded great — let’s do that all time time!” Turns out, that optimization target is basically just awesome. Their songs are what harmonies are for, and make me regret that I have but one voice under my own control.

The harmonies draw me in, but they’re not what make me stay. As I listen, song after song, I start to appreciate how… thoroughly unobjectionable their lyrics are. I’ve more or less given up on being inspired by the words to songs I get stuck in my head. They tend to be vulgar or mindless or downright uninterpretable. Most songs are just ornaments; just another dimension along which to set the scene of my experience. I put them on and they help evoke a mood and I go about what I was doing. But Paul and Art do not play such games. They knock on the door, and my attention is cut. They begin to speak, and I listen, because someone is speaking to me. This music is not just another dimension along which to set the scene.

Their songs don’t wrench my heart; they’re not like Harry from HPMOR speaking the thoughts that bring his true Patronus. They don’t speak about the things closest to my heart and they don’t speak in my own language. But as I listen I can tell that they are minds looking at the same world as me. Their songs span subjects modern and timeless. They speak about loneliness among crowds and the conflict people feel toward the society handed to them at birth. They paint for us life in modern cities or as a rolling stone spirit, and they never let us forget that we are embedded within the natural world. These things are beautiful. But they don’t concern me. There is another theme sewn throughout their work which does.

(If you don’t want to be spoiled or anchored, I’d recommend giving these songs a listen before reading on.)

My Little Town is sung from a character who finds no value in his place of origin. Nothing changes there and nothing has changed. His nostalgia is dull and static, lifeless to the point where the refrain of the song is “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”

Richard Cory and A Most Peculiar Man describe the lives of very different people, at least from the outside. We hear the details of their behavior and how others see them. We sink into their environments, just a bit. Then we are told that they committed suicide. No one reels from shock, and no one says comforting words. Despite heavy references to Christianity throughout their work, we are not told that these people go to heaven. We are just told that the remaining observers are sad and bewildered.

The Sun Is Burning maximizes the contrast between idyllic states of the world and the fate which awaits us all. It does this through the juxtaposition of the summer sun with a nuclear detonation, one giving life and one taking it away. The song opens with the most lulling of guitar picking and never veers. The lyrics veer. We’re welcomed with “In the park the lazy bees are droning in the flowers among the trees.” and departed with my favorite line among others; “Twisted sightless wrecks of men”. Simon & Garfunkel are ’60s hippies through and through, so it’s no surprise they would write a nuclear age song. But they don’t tell us whose fault it is; they don’t use anti-war rhetoric; they don’t tell us we should instead live in harmony, with no religion. They just tell us what life is like, and what could happen.

Sparrow is about a bird who struggles through life. It’s gorgeous and allegorical, personifying elements of the landscape. The plants give various excuses for not helping the sparrow, and when she dies it is asked;

Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”

A relationship dies, a raindrop dies, a brother dies. Things don’t “move on” or “pass away” in Simon & Garfunkel songs.

To my ear, their best treatment of this theme is a song which does not mention death by name.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Once my heart was filled with the love of a girl.
I held her close, but she faded in the night
Like a poem I meant to write
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Hello, hello, hello, hello.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
That’s all there is.
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.

Why is it so important what happens to the leaves? Some other song writer might tell us that the leaves are reborn next year, that pleasure requires pain, and that Heraclitus is the man. But a dead leaf will be forever gone, and the new leaves cost us precious negentropy. The song draws no such conclusions. Just that the leaves turn to brown, turn to brown, turn to brown. That’s all there is.

Simon’s corpus of lyrics uses more Biblical allusions than references to death. I’m not sure why; I like to think it’s because the Bible is a powerful source of poetry. It says a thing or two that I agree with, in exactly the way I might want one to say it. Whatever their expressed beliefs, they know that death is not a journey to another land. They know that those who die will never be seen again, by anyone. They know what the natural order looks like, and they do not sing its praises. They sing about the way things are. It does not always end on a major chord. And when the guitar stops and the resonance fades you are left to face the way things are, and judge it for yourself.

The Playground and the Gameboard

Though we all live on Earth, we live with different world-views.

One of the more notable biological characteristics of humans is neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits. (By juvenile we don’t mean tasteless immaturity, but rather ‘still developing’.) To developmental biologists and other apes, we look kind of like babies. Along with hairlessness and facial proportions are features more intriguing, like deeper parental investment and prolonged neurological development. It’s no wonder we forget that there is nec pater, nec mater when we live in another’s care for 18+ years. (Unless, of course, we don’t; unreliable parents oft produce a sense of heroic responsibility.)

Within Homo sapiens, some individuals retain psychological neoteny longer than others. Scientist Jaak Panksepp was foundational in the field of affective neuroscience, the study of how emotions arise from neurology. He describes a model of seven basic mammalian affects; seven emotions that are shared by all mammals, and which can be evoked with direct brain stimulation (TED talk). Only the affect of ‘play’ is primarily expressed by youth. Panksepp describes play (a technical term in the field) thus; “the overall impression given by practically all mammals is a flurry of dynamic, carefree rambunctiousness.”

Humans, as mammals, display all of these affects. They display them not only physically, but conceptually. Just as anger causes people to attack ideas and loss causes nihilist philosophies, so to is play expressed conceptually in humans. Concepts lead to worldviews, and for some, a worldview of play affect extends neoteny beyond its natural horizons.

In the beginning, there is a child. This child has an imaginary friend who is a lion. Every day they go to the park together to have lunch. The child trudges over to a tree, and the lion pounces behind them, chasing the flies. They eat the sandwich their parents have packed for them, and they save the cheese for last because it is the most delicious. The lion rolls in the grass and climbs up the tree. The child watches the clouds and with them builds cities. When their meal is done, the child trudges back and the lion trots behind, his tail wagging and his mane covered in leaves. The child decides that when they build cities, they will build them so that lion can climb anything he wants.

One day their parents take them to some place special. The child doesn’t understand where, but lion wants to go for a car ride, so they agree to follow. The car pulls up to a building as tall as it is wide. Each sheet of glass is a different color. The child decides that his cities will have such windows. The child doesn’t know what a toy store is, but when they pass through the colored windows, they knows what the things inside are meant for. From wall to wall there is nothing but piles of blocks, beams, magnets, sheets, tracks and wheels. The child can’t feel their feet anymore and never thought that clouds might be so close, but lion has already knocked over the nearest stack of blocks and so the child runs after, forgetting that they had decided to cry in a flurry of thoughts of what to build first.

The playground is also inhabited (for a time) by the characters Dagny Taggart and Francisco d’Anconia in Atlas Shrugged. We hear a purified version of Dagny’s experience after they learn how to share their bodies with each other;

… she thought that she would not sleep, because she did not want to rest and lose the most wonderful exhaustion she had ever known—her last thought was of the times when she had wanted to express, but found no way to do it, an instant’s knowledge of a feeling greater than happiness, the feeling of one’s blessing upon the whole of the earth, the feeling of being in love with the fact that one exists and in this kind of world; she thought that the act she had learned was the way one expressed it. If this was a thought of the gravest importance, she did not know it; nothing could be grave in a universe from which the concept of pain had been wiped out; she was not there to weigh her conclusion; she was asleep, a faint smile on her face, in a silent, luminous room filled with the light of morning.

In these worlds, the stars are a reflection of life’s endless potential and the only purpose of the horizon is for there to always be more to explore. There is no fear and the only reaction to conflict is the grin that looks forward to adventure.

But this is not the world where I live. In the world where I live there is danger. In the world where I live, those who wish to play might instead be hurt. Those that reach may fall, and those that fall cannot always get back up. There are those with hearts that radiate warmth, and in return the world hurts them, again and again. Not all and not always, but with indifference to justice.

There are those who never come to know this world. They live on with hearts as light as the fog over San Francisco, and the suffering that they see does not settle inside them. They do not take it in and it does not touch them there. They know not panic and they’ve no knowledge of desperation.

Until recently I was one of them. I was one who lived in the world where all was play. But I cannot dwell there anymore, because there is a danger in the world, and I cannot allow it. It must not come here and it must not touch these sacred things. I will not allow it.

So I will fight. I will fight the danger, and by learning to fight I will fight against my nature.

Dagny and Francisco deal with this tragedy throughout the book; it’s part of what defines them as characters.

She survived it. She was able to survive it, because she did not believe in suffering. She faced with astonished indignation the ugly fact of feeling pain, and refused to let it matter. Suffering was a senseless accident, it was not part of life as she saw it. She would not allow pain to become important. She had no name for the kind of resistance she offered, for the emotion from which the resistance came; but the words that stood as its equivalent in her mind were: It does not count—it is not to be taken seriously. She knew these were the words, even in the moments when there was nothing left within her but screaming and she wished she could lose the faculty of consciousness so that it would not tell her that what could not be true was true. Not to be taken seriously—an immovable certainty within her kept repeating—pain and ugliness are never to be taken seriously.

She fought it. She recovered. Years helped her to reach the day when she could face her memories indifferently, then the day when she felt no necessity to face them. It was finished and of no concern to her any longer.

There are so many people on this earth. I do not know whether they all should come to understand this place where we live. But I’m speaking now to those who have something to protect.

There is a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
There is a time to sew, and a time to rend; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
There is a time to heal, and a time to kill; a time of peace, and a time of war.

And this time, this time without guardrails or padding, this is the time to look up, look out, and see what is in the world. It is time now to leave the playground and enter the gameboard. But this is not a game you play; this is a game you endure. This is a game you struggle to stay in at all.

Once you see that there is something other than the playground, you are already outside it. For to be on the playground is to be carefree, and to see something outside is to see that something is not right. You may see me from there, but it will always be through the looking glass.

I can’t write about the gameboard in the same way, because I’m new here. I’m still trying to absorb the loss of the playground; still looking back and dreaming on it; still using all my patterns of thought and action from a world where all is well. Maybe a year from now I will be able to give others a greeting to the gameboard; but for now, I’m still stumbling, still learning how to walk among all these lines, pieces and boundaries. I don’t know the rules, and I don’t know the players. I have no battle-tested strategies or methods of dealing with loss. What I do have are allies, and what I do know is the goal; to make all the world a playground, so that no one ever truly loses again.