Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Be Here Now?

None of us is born knowing the difference between a situation and our experience of a situation.

There's so much Buddhism-inspired hype in contemporary self-help about "being in the moment". I don't know how much of it is completely missing the point.

But there is a point, and it's a good point.

The good point is not "you should spend all or even most of your time attending to immediate sensory experiences, rather than remembering the past, imagining the future, or entertaining abstract thoughts." How dare you pass by a flower without stopping to smell it! Unfortunately, that's the easiest thing to take away from anything that talks about "mindfulness" or "being here now".

When attempting to state the useful insight of "be here now", I find myself tempted to say things like, "Immediate experience is all we have." I don't say it, because I expect it to sound like nonsense to anyone who doesn't already know what I mean by it. I'll try it a slightly different way.

Problem solving tends to benefit from an accurate model of the situation, the available tools, and the problem solver. No matter what you do, every action will be directed by a mind that exists within its own bubble of immediate experience. We actually don't have a very good model of immediate experience by default, despite spending every moment of our lives in it.

When you imagine a future version of yourself, your attention is not on that with which you're immediately acquainted. It's on an attempt to model the future, and attempts to model the future call on memories of the past. Memories of the past are not faithful models of immediate experiences.

Most of immediate experience is forgotten. Most of it doesn't matter, isn't vivid, isn't unusual, doesn't make a lasting impression. It takes an extra reflective effort of become aware that your mind's doing whatever it's doing. A lot of the truth of what it is to be a mind slips through the cracks. So our default models of immediate experience lack crucial information.

Additionally, they equivocate between objects and representations of objects.

From a distance, you don't have separate memories of hearing your partner's voice become strained, seeing their facial muscles tighten, interpreting their words as insults and accusations, feeling a shadow of anger and believing it is the emotion they feel. You don't have a memory of sense impressions and interpretations, of forming hypotheses and weighing evidence. Not unless you've trained that specifically. You just have a memory of your partner being angry.

If you use that memory to plan for the future, at some point you're going to run headlong into the impossibility of experiencing your partner's anger directly. Where does your partner's actual anger exist? In your partner--and thus outside of your experience. That event just isn't available to you.

Why not?

Because immediate experience is all we have.

There, I said it.

It is the capacity to recognize all the features of immediate experience, without intrusion by mnemonic distortion and object-representation equivocation, that is cultivated by a practice of "living in the present moment".

It doesn't always work. Maybe it almost never works. I'd bet, though, that it works sometimes, and that almost nothing else ever does.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How I Feel About Emotional Appeals

Cross posted from Facebook by request.

Edit: Clarifications, new thoughts, and updates in response to the Facebook discussion and my own further reflections are below the main post as footnotes. I certainly welcome critical comments, but do please read the notes first, because it's likely I've already addressed your point.


I went to a Catholic high school that took an annual field trip to DC to march in a pro-life rally. I was pro-choice from the moment I started actually thinking about it. I chose not to join everyone else on the trip. So I was frequently prompted to think about it, to talk about it, and to listen to others doing the same.

I realized around sophomore or maybe junior year that there was a really scary thing going on. The two sides acted like they had completely different values, but they actually had almost exactly the same values and simply disagreed about a single question of fact: Are unborn babies moral patients?

The pro-lifers thought the answer was yes, because God gives everyone a soul at the moment of conception. The pro-choicers thought no, for various reasons, but usually because they didn't believe in souls and had reasonable beliefs about cognitive development. Everybody valued bodily autonomy for women, and everyone valued sentient human life above that.

The debates or accusations almost never went in the direction of the central question of fact, though. Nobody was saying, "The pro-choicers think unborn babies are soulless and they're wrong!" or "The pro-lifers think unborn babies can think and feel and they're wrong!" Everybody acted like the other side believed the same thing they did about this question, and was therefore being purposefully evil, either by murdering soul-bearing babies or by denying adult women bodily autonomy for the sake of a worthless lump of flesh in their stomachs.

It was frightening, because the problem really mattered a great deal, and ignoring the empirical question in favor of vilifying the enemy could never lead to resolving it. If I was wrong and babies were moral patients, there was no way a pro-lifer was going to convince me of it by showing me gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, and I might end up committing murder one day. I would at least vote to allow others to do so. (1)

I am seeing exactly this happen to my current community with veganism and meat-eating. It's a little more complicated, but at heart it's the same thing, and I'm equally frightened by it. (2)

Vegans post videos and descriptions of factory farms that seem to assume the viewer believes animals are moral patients in virtue of their subjective experiences, and that the viewer simply doesn't care enough about the animals yet because they don't look like humans--which is exactly like the aborted fetus photos. Meat-eaters act like the vegans (knowingly) care more about non-sentient meat sacks than about humanity and its future, and (sort of paradoxically, actually) like vegans must be stupid for believing animals can feel.

Vegans: If the meat eaters believed what you did about animal sentience, most of them would be vegans, and they would be horrified by their many previous murders. Your heart-wrenching videos aren't convincing to them because they aren't already convinced that animals can feel. (3)

Meat-eaters: Vegans think there are billions of times more people on this planet than you do, they believe you're eating a lot of those people, and they care about every one of them the way you care about every human. Furthermore, if you can't pass the ideological turing test for every major philosophy of mind, you should really stop calling vegans stupid. If you *can* pass those ideological turing tests, then I hope you already appreciate that you can be as brilliant as either David Chalmers or Eliezer Yudkowsky and still get this kind of question massively wrong (because at least one of those two is wrong). (4)

This problem matters. It matters a lot. Which is why I am all for valid, relevant, honest arguments about which things are sentient, how we might know that, how sure we can be, what actions would lead to the largest number of quality adjusted life years given either hypothesis, and everything along those lines. I am *not* in favor of arguments over whether it is wrong to eat meat, let alone whether you have to be evil to do it, before the central empirical question has been so much as mentioned. (5)

Finally, let me tell you about what happens when you post a heart-wrenching video of apparent animal suffering: It works, if the thing you're trying to do is make me feel terrible. My brain anthropomorphizes everything at the slightest provocation. Pigs, cows, chickens, mollusks, worms, bacteria, frozen vegetables, and even rocks. And since I know that it's quite easy to get me to deeply empathize with a pet rock, I know better than to take those feelings as evidence that the apparently suffering thing is in fact suffering. If you posted videos of carrots in factory farms and used the same phrases to describe their miserable lives and how it's all my fault for making the world this terrible place where oodles of carrots are murdered constantly, I'd feel the same way. So these arguments do not tend to be revelatory of truth.

Thus, be it known: You are never going to convince me to stop eating meat merely by appealing to my emotions. You will, however, torture me every time you try, and I will not abide pointless suffering any more than you. If you try to use truth-orthogonal emotional manipulation to persuade me of things--anything, not just veganism--I will block you and never trust you to have a fair, truth-seeking conversation with me ever again. (6)


1) Everything above here is an account of my memories of a very tiny community--my high school had something like 130 students in it, my hometown 12,000--and I was between 11 and 13 years old at the time. They're also probably taken primarily from religion class, where debates about Anselm, Aquinas, and New Atheism were common. As such, my cached thoughts about the pro-life/pro-choice clash are certainly not representative of the larger debate.

But regardless, the lesson I learned from that experience was a good one: It's easy to misunderstand people. The person you're talking to has reasons for their beliefs and actions just like you do. If you don't understand them, the correct move is to try to understand them, not to dominate them by any means necessary. It's likely you share larger goals, and disagree about a point of fact that can be discussed productively.

2) This is not quite true. It is what I have been perceiving, but not what I have been seeing. My emotional reactions and automatic responses are consistent with believing I've been seeing this. It's the easiest interpretation of the facts when your mind is configured like mine. But I know they are largely mistaken. What I've actually been seeing is a debate over veganism and meat-eating that shares some red-flag characteristics with the pro-life/pro-choice debate as I remember it. But not the ones I claim here.

3) I meant to refer to my current community, a group of a couple hundred rationalists, when I said this, and not to the general population. I don't know what people in the general population would say if asked why they do or don't eat meat. When I was a vegan myself, I lived at a Zen temple where almost everyone was vegan and people chanted "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them" every morning and believed "sentient" meant "literally everything". I don't think that's normal either.

Update: Even restricted to that, though, I was wrong. I really did believe this before, even reflectively and not just automatically. I no longer do. I think the people who changed my mind about this are underestimating how many people believe non-humans aren't sentient, but I was drastically underestimating how many believe animals have internal experience but eat them anyway.

This is also misleading because I am mostly not in the group of meat-eaters I was describing, despite eating meat. Granted, I didn't claim to be, but it's a perfectly predictable inference that I shouldn't have allowed. Before now, I thought that other people reflectively aware of being like me were incredibly rare, but apparently I was wrong. I've seen several people today claim that they believe animals are conscious and that they don't care.

However, and don't you dare quote that last paragraph without this one, 
I'm in a state of transition about this. The longer I avoid winter depression, the more I care about ordinary experiences of ordinary people. So it will probably be the case in a few months or maybe a year that if you can convince me animals are conscious, I will stop eating them. Or probably just if you raise my probability estimate enough, regardless of whether it goes over 50%, because there are a lot of farm animals. I am extremely doubtful that you will do that, though, and remember that you'd have to say something I've never heard or thought of myself before. The position on animal consciousness I'm thoroughly convinced of is laid out here.

4) I came to believe that meat-eaters were acting this way toward vegans from a small and biased sample. I'm noticing now that the thing about not calling the other side stupid or irrational before you can pass the ideological turing tests applies much more strongly to vegans I've heard from than meat-eaters. Cut it out, everybody. The Hard Problem is a really really really hard problem.

5) I stand by everything in that paragraph. On the other hand, it does allow another predictable false inference, which is that I think the problem matters because eating meat is bad if animals are sentient. The real reason I think it matters a lot is that if we can't solve it, building an AI with coherent extrapolated volition is going to be a lot harder. How are we going to get it to optimize for the wellbeing of humans but not palm trees? How are we going to agree on the right conclusions in metaethics--which is necessary for the survival of humans and everything else--if we can't have truly productive discussions about the preferences of chickens?

The remainder of the post remains apparently accurate upon reflection. The only thing left to note is that there is a difference between trying to change my beliefs via emotional appeals, and trying to inspire me to act on beliefs I already hold. I recognize that the videos I refer to are largely meant to do the latter, but they are sometimes used for the former, they have the same effect on me anyway, and multiple people have admitted today to using terror tactics when reason doesn't work.

6) Fair, truth-seeking conversations are, and have always been, essential to scientific progress of all forms. I am extremely disappointed in many people who have responded to my post in ways that cut off any possibility of honest discussion. 

Honesty requires vulnerability. Speaking the truth is dangerous. Today, in a moment of despair, I declared that I would stop doing it. But the only way I know of to cultivate a culture of collaborative truth-seeking is by example. By going out in the open and being uncertain, changing my mind, correcting deception despite the social risk, revealing facts about my mind that could be used against me, and never, ever bullying people epistemically. If you take up someone's emotional vulnerabilities as weapons, the first thing you destroy is progress toward knowledge.

The discussions of animal rights I've seen in the EA and rationalist communities in the past year have worried me almost as much as the social justice conversations, because the way those discussions go, it's like people are at war. And they seem to know it, and think it's a good thing, that they must dominate the evil enemy at all cost. And when one person declares war, it's kinda hard not to raise some shields. But we have to stop this. This is not how the truth is revealed and applied. This problem is too important to be overwhelmed by blue/green politics.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Identification and Seeking the Subject of Experience

Here is a thing that I'm pretty sure is inappropriate for the book, but that I want to post somewhere anyway. I'm very curious to know your reactions. It's an exercise for creating enough distance between yourself and your experiences or beliefs that you can evaluate them more fairly, and maybe change your mind about them more easily. I expect it to take five to ten minutes.

Choose a thought with which you identify. It might be, "I'm a libertarian," or "art is really important to me," or even something small and silly, like the belief that "asparagus tastes awful". Something that feels like it's a part of you, like if you didn't implicitly think this, you wouldn't quite be the same you anymore.

Direct your attention to that thought. Focus on it intensely. The whole thought: not just the words representing it, but the sensations that comprise your experience of its meaning. The way you feel about it. Become completely absorbed in the thought. Do this for several breaths, until you feel like it's fully in focus.

Now, keeping that thought in sight but softening your focus on it considerably, move toward reflective attention: redirect most of your focus to the process that gives rise to your focus on the thought. Observe your observation of the thought.

What does it mean that you can do this, that you can observe yourself thinking a thought with which you identify?

Shift your focus back and forth, between the thought itself, and your attention to the thought.

Resting now on your attention to the thought, gently recall the feeling of shifting back, zooming out, to this place of attention to attention. If you need a reminder, refocus on the thought and zoom back out to reflective attention again. 

Can you imagine taking another backward step just like that one, but from here? Try it. Move your attention to attention to attention. Bring this more distant, observant state of mind into focus as your object of attention, without losing sight of the first two layers. Seeing now the thought, attention to the thought, and attention to attention to the thought.

Notice that as you step back, becoming increasingly reflective, moving in the direction of the observer, you become more distant from the original thought.

There are several things one might mean by "identifying with a thought", but when you observe the process of observation, you're pointing to a central component of any notion of identity. You are moving in the direction of where the subject of all your experiences ought to be. But you are never actually finding it, never taking it as an object of experience.

You can take this backward step many times, building towers of recursive reflection. But every time you do, the subject of your experience steps back, because it is precisely what is doing the stepping. You cannot direct your attention to it in the same way that you cannot direct your visual gaze to your own eyeballs. When your gaze moves, so do your eyes. When your attention moves, so does that which attends.

Think again that thought with which you identify.

Is that the subject of experience? Is that you?

It cannot possibly be. Why? Because you are thinking it.

Nothing you can think of, nothing that can come under your attention, nothing that can be an object of experience, can be the subject of experience. So there's an important sense in which nothing you identify with can be you

If you keep this understanding always running as a background habit, there is a limit to how intertwined with your thoughts you can feel. Even when you're absorbed in them, you know your thoughts to be ever so slightly distant, always objects of experience, never the subject.

If you find yourself struggling to evaluate an experience fairly--if you find yourself clinging to a belief that feels distinctly yours, or flinching away from an observation that threatens to destroy it--you can create a more comfortable distance by repeating this exercise. 

You can demonstrate to yourself that whatever the truth turns out to be, you will still be here, behind the beliefs, behind the observations, behind the experiences. And you will in fact be safer, armed with a better model of reality. The false thoughts that try to pass themselves off as you, those are the thoughts that will harm you most. "The thought you cannot think controls you more than the thoughts you speak aloud." This is why.

It is much easier to let go of something that you observe, than something that you are.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Ninjas Sandbox

There is now an open Facebook group for people interested in the applied phenomenology book I'm working on. I will use it to post exercises to get feedback, ask questions, answer questions, and keep people updated on my progress. It currently has a chapter by chapter overview of the current plan, and access to the first round of exercises. Please join if you want to play!