Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism

Man I am so very overdue for this post.

I have been working for the past year on a second sequence in the series that started with "Intro to Naturalism". Intro was about the worldview. This one's called "The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism", and it's the step-by-step how-to. This, like the previous sequence, is over at LessWrong.com.

Readers of Agenty Duck will be familiar with most of the things in Nuts and Bolts, but I've spent a lot of time refining the techniques and putting them together into a larger strategy, and from there into a curriculum. Here is a crosspost of the opening essay.

Introducing the Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism

What Is Naturalism?

Naturalism is a general-purpose procedure for advancing one’s art of rationality.

“Naturalism” is the term I use for an investigative process that focuses attention on the points in daily life where subjective experience intersects with crucial information. It is a systematic method for taking your implicit stories and assumptions and holding them up against reality. In the process, you’ll find out whether they survive that contact, or get replaced with new stories.

I’ve previously published a sequence that focuses on the philosophy and perspective underlying this method. In it, I describe what I mean by “naturalism” in a lot of detail, by expanding on the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.” Fundamentally, I think of naturalism as the practice of behaving as though you believe that knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.

What Is This Sequence?

My first naturalism sequence was about the worldview. This one is the step-by-step how-to.

The sequence you’re currently reading is the second in a larger series. This second sequence is coherent on its own; however, if you start to read and find yourself wondering, “But why would I bother with any of this?” then you should probably stop and go read the worldview sequence first. (If you instead find yourself wishing that there were many more in-depth examples, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my third sequence, which I expect will consist mainly of demonstration.)

As I pointed out at the end of the intro sequence, the practice of naturalism is entirely focused on “patient observation”.

When a person first begins to study naturalism with me, … I begin by helping them establish consistent habits of observation. … And then, throughout what has so far proven to be about a three month program, I never shift our focus away from consistent habits of observation. It’s not just where I start. It’s the entire curriculum. …

From a practical perspective, this dogged persistence is the foundation of naturalism. “Direct observation of the territory”, without patience, gets you something like a bag of tricks. Valuable tricks, but still tricks. Isolated mental motions made when they are convenient and enjoyable, not when they are most needed.

With patience, though, you get a life-long practice of epistemic rationality.

The sort of patience I have in mind is not simply waiting. It is a long series of small, consistent efforts to observe openly and thoroughly.

I’ve developed many detailed strategies and techniques for directing those efforts over time. In the past few years, I’ve woven these strategies together into a comprehensive curriculum that several people have completed, and many more have experimented with in part.

In these essays, I will delineate my naturalist curriculum, piece by piece.

These are the nuts and bolts of my practice, and I’ve done my best to touch on each of them.

What This Sequence Isn’t

What follows is a lot like an extremely detailed syllabus. It is not really the curriculum itself in text form.

The full curriculum depends not just on instruction in the techniques, but on practical grounding in the underlying philosophy, plus a whole lot of real-time demonstration and practice. You can’t learn the violin just by reading a book, and you can’t learn naturalism that way either. You have to wrestle with all of it in real life.

That said, I do hope to present here a sturdy framework that especially enterprising students of rationality could personalize and flesh out into a full independent-study curriculum, and from there into a systematic rationality practice. If that might be your aim, I have a few suggestions.

Tips For the Ambitious

Tip 1: Read First

Even if you do plan to attempt a full naturalist study by following the instructions in this overview, I recommend reading through the whole sequence before you begin. I think it will help a lot to be somewhat familiar with a bird’s eye sketch of the process before finding out all the ways things go sideways and require creativity down on the ground.

Tip 2: Prepare For the Unexpected

As you read, I encourage you to keep in mind that no naturalist study goes exactly like the curriculum suggests. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What I’m sharing with you is a plan for naturalist study.

Direct investigation is invariably messy and complicated, because the world is messy and complicated, and so are investigators. If I describe something that seems off to you, or that doesn’t sound like it fits your situation or the way your own mind works, you’re likely right. Generate alternatives, or at least be ready to look for them in the future.

Tip 3: Invite a Friend

Some people study best independently, but many don’t. Social engagement is a fundamental part of my curriculum, and building some into your own work could make a huge difference. When you’re trying to see familiar things in new ways, meeting regularly with someone else who’s doing the same can be both supportive and usefully challenging. They may ask questions you haven’t thought of, or notice things you’ve missed. They’ll also be one more external structure to help keep your progress consistent.