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The Ritual

27 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 October 2008 11:52PM

Followup toThe Failures of Eld Science, Crisis of Faith

The room in which Jeffreyssai received his non-beisutsukai visitors was quietly formal, impeccably appointed in only the most conservative tastes.  Sunlight and outside air streamed through a grillwork of polished silver, a few sharp edges making it clear that this wall was not to be opened.  The floor and walls were glass, thick enough to distort, to a depth sufficient that it didn't matter what might be underneath.  Upon the surfaces of the glass were subtly scratched patterns of no particular meaning, scribed as if by the hand of an artistically inclined child (and this was in fact the case).

Elsewhere in Jeffreyssai's home there were rooms of other style; but this, he had found, was what most outsiders expected of a Bayesian Master, and he chose not to enlighten them otherwise.  That quiet amusement was one of life's little joys, after all.

The guest sat across from him, knees on the pillow and heels behind.  She was here solely upon the business of her Conspiracy, and her attire showed it:  A form-fitting jumpsuit of pink leather with even her hands gloved—all the way to the hood covering her head and hair, though her face lay plain and unconcealed beneath.

And so Jeffreyssai had chosen to receive her in this room.

Jeffreyssai let out a long breath, exhaling.  "Are you sure?"

"Oh," she said, "and do I have to be absolutely certain before my advice can shift your opinions?  Does it not suffice that I am a domain expert, and you are not?"

Jeffreyssai's mouth twisted up at the corner in a half-smile.  "How do you know so much about the rules, anyway?  You've never had so much as a Planck length of formal training."

"Do you even need to ask?" she said dryly.  "If there's one thing that you beisutsukai do love to go on about, it's the reasons why you do things."

Jeffreyssai inwardly winced at the thought of trying to pick up rationality by watching other people talk about it—

"And don't inwardly wince at me like that," she said.  "I'm not trying to be a rationalist myself, just trying to win an argument with a rationalist.  There's a difference, as I'm sure you tell your students."

Can she really read me that well?  Jeffreyssai looked out through the silver grillwork, at the sunlight reflected from the faceted mountainside.  Always, always the golden sunlight fell each day, in this place far above the clouds.  An unchanging thing, that light.  The distant Sun, which that light represented, was in five billion years burned out; but now, in this moment, the Sun still shone.  And that could never alter.  Why wish for things to stay the same way forever, when that wish was already granted as absolutely as any wish could be?  The paradox of permanence and impermanence: only in the latter perspective was there any such thing as progress, or loss.

"You have always given me good counsel," Jeffreyssai said.  "Unchanging, that has been.  Through all the time we've known each other."

She inclined her head, acknowledging.  This was true, and there was no need to spell out the implications.

"So," Jeffreyssai said.  "Not for the sake of arguing.  Only because I want to know the answer.  Are you sure?"  He didn't even see how she could guess.

"Pretty sure," she said, "we've been collecting statistics for a long time, and in nine hundred and eight-five out of a thousand cases like yours—"

Then she laughed at the look on his face.  "No, I'm joking.  Of course I'm not sure.  This thing only you can decide.  But I am sure that you should go off and do whatever it is you people do—I'm quite sure you have a ritual for it, even if you won't discuss it with outsiders—when you very seriously consider abandoning a long-held premise of your existence."

It was hard to argue with that, Jeffreyssai reflected, the more so when a domain expert had told you that you were, in fact, probably wrong.

"I concede," Jeffreyssai said.  Coming from his lips, the phrase was spoken with a commanding finality.  There is no need to argue with me any further:  You have won.

"Oh, stop it," she said.  She rose from her pillow in a single fluid shift without the slightest wasted motion.  She didn't flaunt her age, but she didn't conceal it either.  She took his outstretched hand, and raised it to her lips for a formal kiss.  "Farewell, sensei."

"Farewell?" repeated Jeffreyssai.  That signified a higher order of departure than goodbye.  "I do intend to visit you again, milady; and you are always welcome here."

She walked toward the door without answering.  At the doorway she paused, without turning around.  "It won't be the same," she said.  And then, without the movements seeming the least rushed, she walked away so swiftly it was almost like vanishing.

Jeffreyssai sighed.  But at least, from here until the challenge proper, all his actions were prescribed, known quantities.

Leaving that formal reception area, he passed to his arena, and caused to be sent out messengers to his students, telling them that the next day's classes must be improvised in his absence, and that there would be a test later.

And then he did nothing in particular.  He read another hundred pages of the textbook he had borrowed; it wasn't very good, but then the book he had loaned out in exchange wasn't very good either.  He wandered from room to room of his house, idly checking various storages to see if anything had been stolen (a deck of cards was missing, but that was all).  From time to time his thoughts turned to tomorrow's challenge, and he let them drift.  Not directing his thoughts at all, only blocking out every thought that had ever previously occurred to him; and disallowing any kind of conclusion, or even any thought as to where his thoughts might be trending.

The sun set, and he watched it for a while, mind carefully put in idle.  It was a fantastic balancing act to set your mind in idle without having to obsess about it, or exert energy to keep it that way; and years ago he would have sweated over it, but practice had long since made perfect.

The next morning he awoke with the chaos of the night's dreaming fresh in his mind, and, doing his best to preserve the feeling of the chaos as well as its memory, he descended a flight of stairs, then another flight of stairs, then a flight of stairs after that, and finally came to the least fashionable room in his whole house.

It was white.  That was pretty much it as far as the color scheme went.

All along a single wall were plaques, which, following the classic and suggested method, a younger Jeffreyssai had very carefully scribed himself, burning the concepts into his mind with each touch of the brush that wrote the words.  That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.  People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.  Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself.  Even one small plaque that showed nothing except a red horizontal slash.  Symbols could be made to stand for anything; a flexibility of visual power that even the Bardic Conspiracy would balk at admitting outright.

Beneath the plaques, two sets of tally marks scratched into the wall.  Under the plus column, two marks.  Under the minus column, five marks.  Seven times he had entered this room; five times he had decided not to change his mind; twice he had exited something of a different person.  There was no set ratio prescribed, or set range—that would have been a mockery indeed.  But if there were no marks in the plus column after a while, you might as well admit that there was no point in having the room, since you didn't have the ability it stood for.  Either that, or you'd been born knowing the truth and right of everything.

Jeffreyssai seated himself, not facing the plaques, but facing away from them, at the featureless white wall.  It was better to have no visual distractions.

In his mind, he rehearsed first the meta-mnemonic, and then the various sub-mnemonics referenced, for the seven major principles and sixty-two specific techniques that were most likely to prove needful in the Ritual Of Changing One's Mind.  To this, Jeffreyssai added another mnemonic, reminding himself of his own fourteen most embarrassing oversights.

He did not take a deep breath.  Regular breathing was best.

And then he asked himself the question.

 

Part of the Letting Go subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

(end of sequence)

Previous post: "Crisis of Faith"

Comments (19)

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Comment author: Psy-Kosh 12 October 2008 03:42:19AM 3 points [-]

"only blocking out every thought that had ever previously occurred to him" This is the one part that I'm kinda unsure about. If you mean "don't just loop through the same line of thinking over and over with no progress", than sure, but being too strict on that may prevent further/alternate development from a line of thought. ie, taking a notion from earlier farther or in a different direction than previously. (or did I misunderstand?)

Comment author: J.K. 12 October 2008 08:08:32PM 3 points [-]

Psy-Kosh, amazingly enough, looping does not help progress at all. Any internal monologue is made up of what you already know. Insight, creativity, etc. comes all at once and is something entirely new. A clear mind can be more focused on a problem, even a specific one, than one cluttered with known material. Try it!

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 12 October 2008 10:28:17PM 0 points [-]

J.K.: Uh... I think we're in agreement on that. Maybe I was unclear in what I said (or, possibly, thought. :))

I meant: Sure, avoiding going in the same mental loops over and over is a good thing, and telling yourself "stop, I already thought of that, no need to redo it" is fine. I meant more "but be careful not to stop yourself from taking something you already figured out in a _different_ direction than previously."

Comment author: Caledonian2 12 October 2008 10:30:58PM 2 points [-]

I hope "I should probably stop this process" wasn't a thought the gentleman in question has previously had. Otherwise the consequences could be very ugly.

Comment author: TGGP4 13 October 2008 02:28:32AM 2 points [-]

? I guess sci-fi isn't really my bag. I was never that into the Jeffreysai sequence but I think this was the least worth reading. And I guess I'm now guilty of writing an insubstantial derisive comment in response to (subjectively speaking) insubstantial post, which I just complained about at my own blog.

Comment author: Eric5 13 October 2008 12:49:45PM 3 points [-]

Psy-Kosh, I think the point is that you should flush your cache and reload everything from scratch - if the thought that you calculated before is still valid, you'll produce it again, and can then take it in a different direction.

TGGP, I don't see this as sci-fi necessarily... but I have to say, I really enjoy the beisutsukai series of posts. They are perhaps some of my favorite to read, even if they're not necessarily as useful as a direct statement of the principle behind them. (Then again... maybe they're more useful because they're easier to relate to. Hmm.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 October 2008 01:29:25PM 4 points [-]

Yes, I do hope that each of my readers will remember that not all of my readers have the same taste, and that the "worthwhileness" of a blog post is not a direct inherent attribute of the post but relates to the reader.

Though this post was a bit experimental even as fiction, since it was written to appear nonspecific.

Comment author: Alan_Crowe 13 October 2008 03:30:10PM 11 points [-]

On the question of blocking thoughts, may I offer a personal anecdote, conscious that readers of Overcoming Bias will read it heterophenomenologically?

Years ago, when my health was good, I had a Buddhist meditation practice of great vigour and depth. Sitting on my cushion, noticing my train of thought pull into the station of consciousness, refusing to board the train and watching the thoughts leave, I would become more and more aware that it was the same old crap coming round again and again.

Forcibly stopping my thoughts had always worked badly. I coined a meditation slogan encapsulating what I had learned: When thoughts spin round in your head, like the wheels on a bicycle, don't apply the breaks, just stop peddling.

There was little pleasure to be had, peddling away, only to see the same old crap coming back into view yet again. No peddling. No thought.

That was bloody scary. I was an intellectual. All these clever thoughts? They were me, my identity, my core. Without them, who was I? Did I still like cats? Did I still like music?

I needn't have worried. After I few days Mara noticed that my mind was calm and free from distraction. Did He concede defeat, admitting that another human had gained enlightenment and slipped from his grasp? No, ofcourse not. I had seen through the old familiar crap, but it was crap and there was no problem about improving the quality. I had learned to resist the temptations of low quality distracting thoughts, but all that happened was that my mind came up with more creative, more clever, more insightful, and more distracting thoughts.

Soon I was caught up in them, back to business as usual.

I see a secular moral to this tale. If you want more insightful and creative thoughts all you have to do is stop recycling the usual crud. You would guess that withdrawing your mental energy from the pumps that circulate the usual shit round your head would leave an empty silence, but the mind doesn't work like that.

Comment author: gwern 13 February 2011 06:16:13PM 2 points [-]

I had learned to resist the temptations of low quality distracting thoughts, but all that happened was that my mind came up with more creative, more clever, more insightful, and more distracting thoughts.

That sounds very useful to me, actually. Many people have problems coming up with interesting or original thoughts.

I suppose the question is how does one gain from the clever/creative/insightful thoughts while not sabotaging the meditation; keeping a pad to write down the thoughts might work.

A new thought occurs, you write it down, and if it tries to re-occur, you know it's already written down and don't pedal any more. Then later when you aren't meditating, you have the thoughts handy.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 February 2011 10:21:12PM 1 point [-]

Before doing that, I would first experiment with just how volatile those insights really are.

For example, put a bowl in front of me and a pile of small rocks, and every time I have what feels like a clever/creative/insightful thought put a rock in the bowl, then forget about it. Afterwards, try to remember what my insights were, and compare the total to see how many I forgot.

If it turns out that I can remember them later, then I don't need pads and etc.

(This was, incidentally, a glorious moment in my recovery, when my memory improved to the point that I didn't have to rehearse things constantly in order to stand a chance of remembering them when I needed them, but could instead let them go in the confidence that I could get them back later.)

Comment author: gwern 14 February 2011 01:13:31AM 1 point [-]

Ah. I couldn't do that - either I remember it, in which case it was on my mind the entire time and ruined the meditation, or I forget it, in which case I feel regretful and obviously can't act on whatever occurred to me.

Comment author: Emile 13 October 2008 05:15:18PM 2 points [-]

I enjoy the beisutsukai posts too, it's nice to see similar ideas presented under different lights; plus it's a nice change of tone, it gives a bit of variety.

Comment author: pdf23ds 13 October 2008 07:08:02PM 1 point [-]

Even as someone who would absolutely hate being one of Jeffreysai's students, I do enjoy the posts.

Comment author: Paul_Murray 15 October 2008 03:48:46AM 3 points [-]

I changed my mind, once, but it took several years. It is not that I changed it, but that one afternoon I discovered that I no longer belived as I used to.

Comment author: gwern 13 August 2011 04:10:53PM *  12 points [-]

I've been writing down my memories about things I changed my mind about, and I've noticed the same thing. It's not that I slowly slid through a range of intermediate positions, but one day while reading or thinking, I suddenly noticed that I no longer believed as I used to believe. There are some things I am agnostic about, but I seem to be purely agnostic about them, not leaning either way.

One of the few good bits of Schulz's recent book Being Wrong is where she does a more readable version of Wittgenstein's observation, "If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely', it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." The paragraphs go:

"But before we can plunge into the experience of being wrong, we must pause to make an important if somewhat perverse point: there is no experience of being wrong.

There is an experience of realizing that we are wrong, of course. In fact, there is a stunning diversity of such experiences. As we’ll see in the pages to come, recognizing our mistakes can be shocking, confusing, funny, embarrassing, traumatic, pleasurable, illuminating, and life-altering, sometimes for ill and sometimes for good. But by definition, there can’t be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it’s possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right."

Comment author: gwern 23 August 2011 10:10:03PM 6 points [-]

I've finished up my mistakes essay (including the above material) and published it at http://www.gwern.net/Notes#things-i-have-changed-my-mind-about

Comment author: David_J._Balan 22 October 2008 03:50:42AM 1 point [-]

I like the idea of a fictional sequence involving a rationality master and students. But I can't *stand* the Jeffreyssai character. He's just so intolerably smug and self-satisfied, very much in the mold of some of the martial arts instructors I had when I was young. More recently I took boxing classes, and the teacher was like Mickey from the Rocky movies. Much better persona; Jeffreyssai should take note.

Comment author: Richard_Minerich 22 March 2009 09:50:42PM 4 points [-]

Great post. I would be interested in reading a novel in this style.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 09 January 2012 03:38:51AM *  1 point [-]

Leaving that formal reception area, he passed to his arena, and caused to be sent out messengers to his students, telling them that the next day's classes must be improvised in his absence, and that there would be a test later.

Re-reading this, that line is oddly striking. Encapsulates his teaching style beautifully.

Also, was there any word on what conspiracy his visitor was representing?