Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Two books by Celia Green

-9 Post author: Mitchell_Porter 13 July 2012 08:43AM

Celia Green is a figure who should interest some LW readers. If you can imagine Eliezer, not as an A.I. futurist in 2000s America, but as a parapsychologist in 1960s Britain - she must have been a little like that. She founded her own research institute in her mid-20s, invented psychological theories meant to explain why the human race was walking around resigned to mortality and ignorance, felt that her peers (who got all the research money) were doing everything wrong... I would say that her two outstanding books are The Human Evasion and Advice to Clever Children. The first book, while still very obscure, has slowly acquired a fanbase online; but the second book remains thoroughly unknown.

For a synopsis of what the books are about, I think something I wrote in 1993 (I've been promoting her work on the Internet for years) remains reasonable. They contain an analysis of the alleged deficiencies and hidden motivations of normal human psychology, description of an alternative outlook, and an examination of various topics from that new perspective. There is some similarity to the rationalist ideal developed in the Sequences here, in that her alternative involves existential urgency, deep respect for uncertainty, and superhuman aspiration.

There are also prominent differences. Green's starting point is not Bayesian calculation, it's Humean skepticism. Green would agree that one should aspire to "think like reality", but for her this would mean, above all, being mindful of "total uncertainty". It's a fact that I don't know what comes next, that I don't know the true nature of reality, that I don't know what's possible if I try; I may have habitual opinions about these matters, but a moment's honest reflection shows that none of these opinions are knowledge in any genuine sense; even if they are correct, I don't know them to be correct. So if I am interested in thinking like reality, I can begin by acknowledging the radical uncertainty of my situation. I exist, I don't know why, I don't know what I am, I don't know what the world is or what it has planned for me. I may have my ideas, but I should be able to see them as ideas and hold them apart from the unknown reality.

If you are like me, you will enjoy the outlook of open-ended striving that Green develops in this intellectual context, but you will be jarred by her account of ordinary, non-striving psychology. Her answer to the question, why does the human race have such petty interests and limited ambitions, is that it is sunk in an orgy of mutual hatred, mostly disguised, and resulting from an attempt to evade the psychology of striving. More precisely, to be a finite human being is to be in a desperate and frustrating situation; and people attempt to solve this problem, not by overcoming their limitations, but by suppressing their reactions to the situation. Other people are central to the resulting psychological maneuvers. They are a way for you to distract yourself from your own situation, and they are a safe target if the existential frustration and desperation reassert themselves.

Celia Green's psychological ideas are the product of her personal confrontation with the mysterious existential situation, and also her confrontation with an uncomprehending society. I've thought for some time that her portrayal of universal human depravity results from overestimating the potential of the average human being; that in effect she has asked herself, if I were that person, how could I possibly lead the life I see them living, and say the things I hear them saying, unless I were that twisted up inside? Nonetheless, I do think she has described an aspect of human psychology which is real and largely unexamined, and also that her advice on how to avoid the resentful turning-away from reality, and live in the uncertainty, is quite profound. One reason I'm promoting these books is in the hope that some small part of the culture at large is finally ready to digest their contents and critically assess them. People ought to be doing PhDs on the thought of Celia Green, but she's unknown in that world.

As for Celia Green herself, she's still alive and still going. She has a blog and a personal website and an organization based near Oxford. She's an "academic exile", but true to her philosophy, she hasn't compromised one iota and hopes to start her own private university. She may especially be of interest to the metaphysically inclined faction of LW readers, identified by Yvain in a recent blog post.

Comments (21)

Comment author: cousin_it 13 July 2012 12:56:51PM *  6 points [-]

Oh, this brings back memories. When I first started trying to figure out the world by reading stuff online, one of the first examples of internet woo that ensnared me was something called "Programmer's Stone". Following the links from there, I arrived at Celia Green. It all made a lot of sense to my teenage mind. Now I have moved on to more advanced forms of internet woo, like Eliezer's writings. (That's not meant as an attack on his ideas, which are fine! It's just that some people think these ideas will lead them to "winning", which is wrong.)

Comment author: Emile 13 July 2012 01:20:16PM 0 points [-]

Never heard of Celia Greene, but I read some "Programmer's Stone" stuff back in the days, about mappers and packers; it looked interesting but had a lot of material and some of the speculation sounded a bit dubious; so i didn't read all of it.

Comment author: gjm 13 July 2012 10:22:29AM 15 points [-]

Celia Green is, as you say, a parapsychologist; "Advice to Clever Children" is, among other things, advocacy for belief in ESP and telekinesis and such things; it seems curious that the only indication in this post of that aspect of her thought is four letters "para" towards the end of the first sentence.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 13 July 2012 10:42:16PM 1 point [-]

This is a post about Green's psychological and philosophical reflections. A book in which only one chapter (chapter 17) out of 39 introduces paranormal topics, and only in order to talk about the psychology of attempting the impossible, hardly constitutes advocacy for belief in psychic powers, and it would be positively misleading to describe it as you have done.

Comment author: gjm 13 July 2012 11:14:15PM 4 points [-]

Paranormal topics are found in (at least -- I haven't checked through the whole thing) the Introduction and chapters 16, 17, 20, 23. I agree that they are not central to the book. (Though, in view of the "Invitation to Young People", I'd say that the book is about paranormal phenomena in roughly the same way as Eliezer's "Sequences" are about AI.) None the less, Green's serious belief in ESP and telekinesis (and, more specifically, in her own ability to perform those psychic feats) seems to me to be useful information about the nature of her thinking.

(It's by no means the only thing in the book that strikes me as a very bad sign. Others include her apparent obsession with her own cleverness and the lack of support she received from others; her statement -- she seems to be proud of it! -- that her philosophical views have remained unaltered since the age of 13; repeated gratuitous digs at "socialism"; and more.)

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 14 July 2012 12:51:28AM 1 point [-]

I do think chapter 17 is the only one in which psychic powers feature directly as a topic of discussion, and then only to illustrate her psychological technique for attempting impossible things, which boils down to reminding yourself that you don't know them to be impossible because you don't really know anything. I see there are similar incidental remarks elsewhere in the book too, but it's all pretty tangential to the main subject, the "two kinds of psychology".

Actually, her career as a parapsychology researcher is about as slim as Eliezer's career as an A.I. programmer. She produced one serious book of "advocacy", The Decline and Fall of Science, and mostly what it advocates is that her research organization ought to be supported in a broad program of psychophysical investigations, which would also encompass phenomena such as lucid dreams and other hallucinatory experiences, and the potential for physiological self-control arising from altered psychological states. The objective is to learn more about reality, not to shore up a particular belief system. But her group has never managed to establish a lab.

Comment author: gwern 14 July 2012 12:55:31AM 2 points [-]

Did she advocate lucid dreams before LaBerge published? If so, that'd be a point in her favor.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 14 July 2012 01:01:24AM 2 points [-]

She was the pioneer. She published about it in 1968.

Comment author: Manfred 13 July 2012 11:16:09AM *  8 points [-]

Starting Advice to Clever Children. I'm certainly reminded a bit of Eliezer's writing style :) But this is perhaps a style that makes more historical sense in 1980 Oxford anyhow. The life story she starts with certainly does ring bells, if caricatured bells.

And then we hit this: "I may mention that by the age of thirteen my philosophical thinking was, essentially, complete." Sanctified Sicilian sweets, Chiroptera homo. Or as Scooby would say, ruh roh raggy.

Updates: Oh deary dear.

Okay, page 38, nonsense physics, I'm out.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 13 July 2012 11:53:34PM 1 point [-]

nonsense physics

But antiparticles do move in the opposite direction. (It was Gamow who called positrons "donkey electrons".) The weakness in the exposition is that, even before antimatter was discovered, we knew that electric charge can be positive as well as negative, and so that the same force is experienced as a push by one particle but as a pull by another particle. So any assumption that the direction of a force is necessarily the same as the direction of the motion it induces was revealed to be wrong, not when antimatter was discovered, but some time earlier.

Comment author: Manfred 14 July 2012 03:07:15AM 1 point [-]

(It was Gamow who called positrons "donkey electrons".)

Yes, in 1929.

And, of course, F = dp/dt.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 13 July 2012 11:52:23AM 3 points [-]

I came across her web site a few years ago, but I didn't pay it much attention, because it failed my rule of thumb for deciding whether someone's thoughts are worth studying: what is she for? It's fairly clear what she's against, but (this is my rule of thumb) I am not interested in what someone is against until I have seen what they are for. (I must add that to the recent "maxims" thread.)

Having just glanced over The Human Evasion again, my view of it is unchanged.

Mitchell, can you briefly summarise her "description of an alternative outlook, and an examination of various topics from that new perspective"? She herself at the end of that book says she can't unless you go and visit her in Oxford.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 July 2012 03:23:12PM 2 points [-]

Aside from what would be obvious to LessWrongers, who else would you recommend as having something worthwhile that they're for?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 14 July 2012 07:36:24AM 0 points [-]

I don't have any particular list, this is just a touchstone for evaluating anyone's writing. It isn't even about agreeing with what they are for, but there must be something, or they are just an empty vessel.

Just to take the obvious example anyway, Eliezer's writings are overwhelmingly focussed on what he is for. Even when he makes a negative critique (e.g of conventional concepts of scientific method) it is always in the service of saying what he would put in its place (Bayesian practice).

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 14 July 2012 09:27:33AM 0 points [-]

Perhaps her psychological ideal can be conveyed by asking you to imagine yourself as a seed A.I. programmer in a world on the threshold of singularity but which might just be a simulation. You have to decide, not just how to act, but how seriously to take your apparent circumstances. It's up to you to figure out reality, and to do the best possible, most important thing you can do. She writes about this in Advice, from chapter 24 onwards.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 14 July 2012 02:24:19PM *  2 points [-]

Well, I tried. I read forwards from chapter 24, but when I got to chapter 32 and she writes: "I do not know if I am making much progress in elucidating the application of the existential criterion to psychology" I decided that she wasn't. It was like reading the more vacuous sort of church sermon or new-agey book: many words, circling around and around, but never saying anything of substance. And the whole suffused with her anger and resentment against everyone else.

You compared her writing to Eliezer's, but this is more like a version of Eliezer that never said anything beyond generalities like "the world abounds with possibilities, explodes with possibilities that most people never see", "someone who could truly update would surpass any Nobel Prize winner", and "the world is crazy, people are mad."

in effect she has asked herself, if I were that person, how could I possibly lead the life I see them living, and say the things I hear them saying, unless I were that twisted up inside?

Reminds me of this xkcd.

What has she, or any acolyte of hers, actually done?

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 15 July 2012 03:05:48AM 0 points [-]

Did Eliezer ever explain what causes people to be "mad"? These books propose an explanation: human beings try to restrict their attention to other human beings, and they especially want to regard as bad only those bads which are caused by other human beings, because other people can at least be attacked and punished, whereas there is no analogous method of psychological relief available if the cause of the bad thing is just nature or the universe.

That is why Green says (in the final chapter of Advice) that the other way of thinking starts with an interest in the universe, driven by the reaction to one's limitations. Life contains impersonally caused badness. You will react to it when you begin to encounter it. The usual reaction is to resign oneself to it; one tries to take the sting from it by accepting it. The "centralized" way of reacting to it is instead to not accept it, to remain engaged with it - to fight it - and this is what the total uncertainty counsels, or at least it does not license the view that nothing can be done, which is implicit in resignation.

So far as I know, these psychological reflections are unique to Green's work, and they are just the beginning of her interpretation of numerous social and historical phenomena. They have a normative dimension as well as purely explanatory value, and they also ought to have some practical value for, say, people who want to cure aging or end death and who can't understand why society treats such aspirations as talkshow curiosities rather than central priorities.

Russell wrote of Schopenhauer that pessimists can be of value by bringing forward facts and considerations which optimists would prefer to overlook, thereby helping to create a more accurate picture of reality; even if their work appears biased when considered in isolation, on account of its being produced in opposition to a prevailing bias. I suggest approaching Green's account of human nature in this spirit. It's not scripture, but it is drawing attention to a very underremarked aspect of psychology.

As for what she has accomplished in life, her works are certainly full of ideas which individually might have served as the basis of a whole career, and in the case of lucid dreams it does seem that her work helped to create career opportunities for other people, by pioneering the subject in which they went on to specialize. I can only speculate as to exactly why it is that she has received so little attention and support over the years.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 15 July 2012 09:15:04AM 2 points [-]

Did Eliezer ever explain what causes people to be "mad"?

Yes. We're semi-evolved monkeys created by a blind idiot god that has fortuitously created something with intellectual escape velocity. Everything we achieve as a result, we are by definition only just rational enough to achieve it, or it would have happened earlier.

They have a normative dimension as well as purely explanatory value, and they also ought to have some practical value for, say, people who want to cure aging or end death and who can't understand why society treats such aspirations as talkshow curiosities rather than central priorities.

And yet, society does not treat modern life-saving medicine as a talkshow curiosity, nor the urge to rally to support the victims of disasters, including the "impersonally caused badness" of natural disasters. So her diagnosis seems wide of the mark.

Has she expressed any view about the people who actually are going for the big ones, trying to cure aging and end death? SENS, cryonics, uploading, AGI? I don't get the impression these ideas have impinged upon her.

So far as I know, these psychological reflections are unique to Green's work

In science, that's generally not a good sign, except in the initial stages of someone discovering a new thing.

As for what she has accomplished in life, her works are certainly full of ideas which individually might have served as the basis of a whole career

Alas for the flower that is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air. Has her fanbase, as you call it, done anything new with these ideas?

I've never seen the significance of lucid dreaming, btw. I mean, "Hey, I can be conscious while dreaming, how cool is that?!?!" But, so what? Being conscious while waking seems more important to me.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 16 July 2012 08:05:03AM *  1 point [-]

We're semi-evolved monkeys created by a blind idiot god that has fortuitously created something with intellectual escape velocity. Everything we achieve as a result, we are by definition only just rational enough to achieve it, or it would have happened earlier.

That is a generic explanation; rather like saying that a bridge collapsed because the inspectors didn't do their job. It doesn't tell us whether people fall short of rationality because of purely intellectual shortcomings (e.g. innumeracy), or whether there are also emotional and willful elements at work. Green's psychological ideas can even be expressed in the language of biases and heuristics: sane psychology results from an "evasion bias", and existential psychology corrects for that using an "uncertainty heuristic".

And yet, society does not treat modern life-saving medicine as a talkshow curiosity, nor the urge to rally to support the victims of disasters, including the "impersonally caused badness" of natural disasters. So her diagnosis seems wide of the mark.

How often do people talk about preventing earthquakes or tsunamis? Maybe you could lubricate the tectonic plates so they roll more smoothly, or dissipate the tidal wave before it reaches the shore... Now, doesn't that sound like a child's response to a disaster? Not just helping the survivors, but naively wanting to stop it from ever happening again.

Adults are in general far more resigned to the idea that life will always be a string of disasters. But it's usually only a few young adults who then draw the logical conclusion that life is a mistake and we should all stop reproducing and commit suicide. It's the willingness to go on living in a gloomy world, without fixing it or fleeing it, that really typifies "sanity", I think. (By this criterion, LW is certainly not a sane site, since it has an apocalyptic eschatology whose outcome people hope to affect.)

I actually agree that Celia Green's explanation for this state of affairs, in its pure form, doesn't quite add up. It must derive from the experience of having her own proposals repeatedly shot down; she must have eventually concluded that people just don't want truth or transhumanity. In reality, there would be other factors at work as well, such as a simple feeling of helplessness, as well as the cognitive inefficiencies at all levels that were inherited from the idiot god. But resentment of other people's freedom, and a taste for sabotage and suffering, are also part of human psychology, and one should consider to what extent such morbid factors are responsible for the resistance to one's favorite futurist schemes (along with legitimate criticisms).

Has she expressed any view about the people who actually are going for the big ones

Not to my knowledge. She has an aphorism, "If the human race took death seriously, there would be no more of it", but it could be construed as support for transhumanism (no more death) or as support for antinatalism (no more human race).

Has her fanbase, as you call it, done anything new with these ideas?

Again, not to my knowledge.

Earlier, I likened Green to Schopenhauer, and there is another similarity in that Schopenhauer had many decades of sporadic contact with academia before his ideas began to achieve genuine currency. Green has had associations with a number of academics (H.H. Price, Hans Eysenck, Michael Lockwood), but her thought remains unknown and unremarked within the system.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 July 2012 08:25:00AM 3 points [-]

That is a generic explanation; rather like saying that a bridge collapsed because the inspectors didn't do their job.

For specifics, I could say "read the Sequences", but I'm sure you have done already.

How often do people talk about preventing earthquakes or tsunamis?

It seems to me that people talk about it to the extent that they have ideas for what we could actually do about it -- which is not a large extent. Earthquakes and tsunamis are huge, and we, even with our technology, are tiny. People have in fact considered what might be done to relieve stresses in earthquake zones, but haven't come up with much. It's easy to say that if they weren't in such denial about death they find a way. Too easy.

Maybe you could lubricate the tectonic plates so they roll more smoothly, or dissipate the tidal wave before it reaches the shore... Now, doesn't that sound like a child's response to a disaster? Not just helping the survivors, but naively wanting to stop it from ever happening again.

Wanting, with nothing more, is indeed the response of a child, a child that has no idea what would be involved or how to seriously set about finding out, and expects the big folk to take care of it.

Comment author: gjm 13 July 2012 09:55:50AM *  2 points [-]

I would say that her two outstanding books are The Human Evasion and Advice to Clever Children. The first book, while still very obscure, has slowly acquired a fanbase online; but the second book remains thoroughly unknown.

Single data point: I had heard of (and read a few pages of) the second of those but not the first.

[EDITED to add:] Second data point of a very different kind: Google gets about 3x more hits for <<"advice to clever children" celia>> than for <<"the human evasion" celia>>.