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Ways of Seeing

1 ig0r 21 July 2017 01:42AM

Cross-posted on my blog: http://garybasin.com/ways-of-seeing/

Tough problems often feel insurmountable without more information and better models — more data and thinking. An alternative approach is to be able to see the problem, and the whole world, in a new way. By looking through different eyes, different aspects of the world get highlighted and new actions become visible. An entrepreneur sees the world differently. They notice opportunities for improvement and innovation where someone else only sees stress and pain. Similarly, while a typical person enters a living room and sees the couches and artwork on the walls, a parent of a young child perceives a menagerie of death traps. We are doing this in our own ways all of the time and this defines our experience — our reality.

Several ways of seeing come pre-installed for us — drives to obtain food, sex, safety, and socialization — as a result of our mind rewarding itself for continued survival and gene propagation. These powerful recurring waves of hallucination affect us to the core: how we see and how we experience. The world takes on a different character when we are hungry in contrast to when we are cold and wet. We develop new ways of seeing as we are exposed to more complex patterns: being unemployed or playing a game of chess. At times, we glimpse perspectives of overwhelming curiosity and open-mindedness — fertile soil for our capacity for reason. Unfortunately, we often overestimate this capacity, causing us to fool ourselves and others, and get stuck in the same old ways of thinking and perceiving.

The way we experience and how we look are two sides of the same coin. A way of seeing guides our attention in the service of some purpose, which highlights some parts of experience at the expense of others. The purpose is perhaps not a cause but rather a justification: a way that we understand, or talk about, the behaviors we undertake. One can imagine that if the earth was a conscious thing, it may understand one of its purposes — one of its ways of seeing — as life creation. The way we see also seems to define which actions appear available to us — which levers are pullable. When we feel stuck, it is useful to explore alternative ways of seeing. The way you perceive the world may be limiting your ability to find a solution, so try other ways of looking. Certain questions can act as attentional portals into ways of seeing which immediately reveal insight and new potential actions. Similarly, approaching the particular and peculiar with curiosity has a tendency of generating new thoughts.

Do we really have multiple ways of seeing and in what sense can we more fully inhabit ones beyond the primordial set? Which interesting ways of seeing have we forgotten?

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Certain Questions

3 ig0r 04 July 2017 03:37AM

Cross-posted on my blog: http://garybasin.com/the-unreasonable-effectiveness-of-certain-questions/

About a year ago I was sitting around trying to grok the concept of Evil — where does it come from and how does it work? After a few hours of spinning in circles, I experienced a sudden shift. My mind conjured up the question: “Is this a thing out in the world or just a projection?” (Map vs Territory). Immediately, a part of my mind replied with “Well, this may not be anything other than a story we tell about the behavior of people we dislike”. Let’s ignore the truth value for today and notice the process. I’m interested in this mechanism of how a simple query — checking if I’m looking at a confusion of map with the territory — was able to instantly reframe a problem in a way that allowed me to effortlessly make a mental leap. What’s fascinating is that you don’t even need someone else’s brain to come up with these questions (although that often helps) — you can try to explain your problem to a rubber duck which creates a conversation with yourself and generates queries, or just go through a list of things to ask yourself when stuck.


There are a few different categories of these types of queries and many examples of each. For instance, when thinking about plans we can ask ourselves to perform prehindsight/inner simulator or reference class forecasting/outside view. When introspecting on our own behavior, we can perform sentence completion to check for limiting beliefs, ask questions like “Why aren’t I done yet?” or “What can I do to 10x my results?”. When thinking about problems or situations, we can ask ourselves to invert, reframe into something falsifiable, and taboo your words or perform paradjitsu. Or consider the miracle question: Imagine you wake up and the problem is entirely solved — what do you see, as concretely as possible, such that you know this is true?

So “we know more than we can tell” — somewhere in our head often lies the answer, if only we could get to it. In some sense, parts of our brain are not speaking to each other (do they even share the same ontologies?) except through our language processor, and only then if the sentences are constructed in specific ways. This may make you feel relieved if you think you can rely on your subconscious processing — which may have access to this knowledge — to guide you to effective action, or terrified if you need to use conscious reasoning to think through a chain of consequences.

My thoughts on Evil have continued to evolve since that initial revelation, partially driven by trying new queries on the concept (and partially from finally reading Nietzsche). Once you have a set of tools to throw at problems, the bottleneck to clearer thinking becomes remembering to apply them and actually having the time to do so. This makes me wonder about people that have formed habits to automatically apply a litany of these mental moves whenever approaching a problem — how much of their effectiveness and intelligence can this explain?

In response to What is Wisdom?
Comment author: tadasdatys 30 June 2017 06:51:02AM 0 points [-]

Your division of predictive ability into intelligence and wisdom is very artificial. People are not magic, they're just chaotic. They are not fundamentally different from other complex and chaotic systems. There is no reason to expect that raising general predictive ability wouldn't help predicting them.

In response to comment by tadasdatys on What is Wisdom?
Comment author: ig0r 30 June 2017 03:49:43PM 0 points [-]

I agree that raising general predictive ability would also tend to increase wisdom. I think my main point, which I probably didn't sufficiently highlight, is that wisdom is bottlenecked on data (and also maybe seems to require more abstraction and abduction than other learning) moreso than other knowledge we tend to collect due to the underlying complexity of the thing we are trying to predict (human behavior)

What is Wisdom?

1 ig0r 29 June 2017 09:44PM
Cross-posted on my blog: http://garybasin.com/what-is-wisdom/

What could go wrong if we develop technology to significantly amplify the intelligence of human minds? Intelligence is tricky to understand and I get confused when comparing it to the related concepts of wisdom and rationality. I'd like to draw clear distinctions between them. In a nutshell, rationality is the tendency to apply the capacity of intelligence, whereas wisdom describes the embodied knowledge of human behavioral patterns, specifically in terms of failure modes.
The relationship between rationality and intelligence seems better understood. My favorite exposition is in the excellent What Intelligence Tests Miss (good summary on LW). Of course, LessWrong itself is partially devoted to understanding this distinction and CFAR was built to see if we can isolate and train rationality (as opposed to intelligence). Intelligence is typically viewed as the capacity to perform the relevant moves -- explicit reasoning, analogical application of past experiences, and avoiding biased heuristics of thought -- when presented with a well-formed problem. In practice, the hard part of taking advantage of intelligence is having the awareness that one is facing a situation where intelligence can be explicitly applied. Thus, one can perform well when formally posed a problem, such as on an IQ or SAT test, yet still behave foolishly in the real world where the problems are not clearly structured and labeled. A colloquialism which approximates this dynamic is the idea of "book" and "street" smarts. Thus, to be rational requires not only some capacity for intelligence but, more importantly, the habits of identifying when and where to apply it in the wild.
How does wisdom fit into this? Informally, wisdom refers to the ability to think and act with sound judgment and common sense, often developed through a diversity of life experiences. We tend to look to the aged members of society as a font of wisdom rather than those with merely a large raw capacity for reasoning (intelligence). This corresponds with the heuristic of listening to your elders even when it doesn't always make sense. Wisdom is often associated with conservativism and functions as a regulatory mechanism for societal change. The young and clever upstart has the energy and open-mindedness to create new technology and push for change while the old and wise have seen similar attempts fail enough times to raise a note of caution. The intelligent (and rational) are not more careless than the wise but rather seem to have more blind spots -- perhaps as a result of seeing fewer well-laid plans fail in unexpected ways. To anticipate failure -- to predict the future -- we rely on models. Ideally, we deduce from known laws -- this is possible in the physical sciences. In messier and more complex systems, like human interactions, we are forced to primarily rely on experience from analogous situations (inductive and abductive reason). It is no surprise that the hardest failures to predict relate to how humans will act -- politics, not rocket science.
Looking through the literature on measuring wisdom (1, 2, 3), one major commonality is the emphasis on modeling psychological dynamics: intrapersonal (knowing thyself) and interpersonal (making sense of interactions with, and between, other humans). Proficiency in these domains seems to only become possible through experience (specifically, exposure to extremes) interacting with other humans and introspecting, or reflecting, on experience. In contrast, a foundation in the physical sciences and mathematics seems to be learnable by interaction with text, thought, exercises, and experiments performable without significant interpersonal dynamics. In a sense, we can say that proficiency in the "hard" sciences is intelligence-constrained whereas proficiency in predicting and interacting with humans is constrained by a lack of diverse personal experience data and the ability to act upon heuristics extracted from it.
This can be understood as a difference in modelability -- the extent to which we can formalize useful (predictive) models of the system. With mathematics and the physical sciences -- at least when applied to sufficiently simplified slices of reality -- we are able to constrain non-determinism into a probabilistic model with well-behaved errors. On the other hand, modeling humans presents us with an uncertainty of a kind that we struggle to reduce (see: the struggle of the social sciences to successfully science). Even residing in a deterministic universe amenable to reductionism, and being armed with excellent models of sub-atomic interactions, we are unable to build the machinery necessary to predict the behavior of human beings. There are too many moving parts for a supercomputer, let alone the highly-constrained working memory of a human brain, to make useful predictions by analyzing the interactions of the component parts. On the other hand, the human brain has evolved to be quite good at modeling itself and other humans -- we are social animals, after all. We perform this feat by observing behavior and automatically chunking it into categories and schemas to be recalled in future situations that appear similar enough. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a shortcut for developing this repository of experiences and the corresponding heuristics derived from it. This is the hard-to-replicate thing we tend to call wisdom.
The weak relationship between intelligence (or rationality) and wisdom should make us wary of the consequences of intelligence amplification. Increasing our capacity for intelligence and rationality without a corresponding increase in wisdom -- which appears constrained by experience and associated reflection-based learning -- may be dangerous. Amplified intelligence allows us to make better predictions of the physical world which can be leveraged to build more powerful systems and technologies, like nukes in the 20th century and more powerful AI in the 21st century. However, if we fail to simultaneously increase our wisdom we face the risk of unleashing capabilities onto humanity which may be quite safe in theory but in practice may lead to disaster when they come into contact with human society. We need more foresight into the disastrous failure modes of interactions between humans and their tools. How do we amplify wisdom?

[Link] Deleuze contra Error: Other Misadventures of Thought

1 ig0r 18 April 2017 05:45AM
Comment author: bogus 17 April 2017 02:59:19PM *  5 points [-]

Despite its length and sometimes overwrought writing style, this article does not quite manage to "explain" postmodernism, so much as caricature its worst manifestations and developments. We're all aware that these developments exist, but treating them as if they were the only product of the aforementioned 'French intellectuals' that might be worthy of notice strikes me as quite counterproductive! To take just one example from the beginning, the article claims that Nietzsche and Heidegger espoused "anti-realism and[] rejection of the concept of the unified and coherent individual"... I mean, really? Says who? (Is the author even aware that Heidegger lived in a hut in the woods most of his life? Does he think that this should tell us nothing about what he was actually trying to say, if not always with the greatest clarity?) And that's just the first issue I spotted here - to take another, if you think postmodernism can be described as "decidedly left wing", you're clearly unfamiliar with the rather nuanced stances of many of its proponents.

Comment author: ig0r 18 April 2017 03:31:40AM 0 points [-]

I think that's right and it's a bit of a strawman. I don't think pomo originally threw out epistemology but it provides tools that, while useful for general societal critique, are also easy to shoot your foot off with. So, pomo allows for some good things but also seems to have enabled identity politics as well as right wing fake news hysteria.

[Link] How French intellectuals ruined the West - Postmodernism and its impact, explained

4 ig0r 17 April 2017 12:42AM

[Link] Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system

5 ig0r 10 March 2017 08:40PM
In response to Satisfaction Levers
Comment author: ChristianKl 12 February 2017 09:07:37AM 2 points [-]

It seems to me like you make quite definite claims about how desires get acquired without referencing any scientific work about the subject.

Have you read the relevant work and just don't want to go through the work of adding citations, or is the post mainly speculation?

If I have a stimulus of a physical sensation like a tense throat that's tense due to emotions that I can't immediately label trying out different stimuli isn't the only way to deal with them. Eugine Gendlin's Focusing is another way to get at the underlying meaning of the emotions.

You can't reason your way to where anxiety comes from but you can feel into it and verbalize the cause with a process like Focusing.

Comment author: ig0r 14 February 2017 06:37:06PM *  0 points [-]

To me, this felt more like speculation which was certainly informed by many things I've read in the past but nothing particular came to mind with the exception of the obvious reference to Deleuze. A kind of applied Deleuzian psychiatry, although I'm not sure he would agree with this sort of application. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Oedipus#Desiring_machines_and_social_production)

Good point regarding Focusing, and I do agree that it is closely related. I've only listened to the audiobook, is there a work by Gendlin you would recommend? Upon reflection, it seems one of the main insights I was trying to point at here is the lack of logical connection between the qualia of desire and the object it seeks (the machine it seeks to connect to, in D&G's terminology). The mental act of seeking out levers to pull would be equivalent to Focusing here, I think?

In response to Satisfaction Levers
Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 February 2017 03:33:57AM 2 points [-]

This is quite a wonderful frame that makes it easier to think about several things I was having trouble thinking clearly about. Thank you.

Related to 1. You can get a double whammy by having your mindfulness practice be a CNS training routine as well eg yoga, feldenkrais, alexander method etc.

Related to 2. Creativity can be directly trained, I link this so much I should just turn it into a post: https://vimeo.com/89936101

Related to 3. Ruthless prioritization has many downstream positive effects when trained directly. I recommend Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

1 helps a lot with 4 as well, as you start seeing what fear is made of, which has several large milestones in positive impact on quality of life AFAICT.

Comment author: ig0r 14 February 2017 06:23:20PM 0 points [-]

Yes that Cleese piece is great, thanks for sharing.

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