"What? Why would I choose cosmic energy over Katara?"

Avatar the Last Airbender


"You idiot" said the monk from atop his mountain, "there's all this fresh air up here and the view is breathtaking and you're down there dredging mud ." The mud-dredger only grit his teeth. After finishing the foundations, he cut down some lumber and built a cabin. That winter, the mountaintop monk died of starvation and was eaten by bears. 

There is a common trope: that to achieve "inner peace", you must to some degree disentangle your desires with the atoms around you. E.g. caring about wealth or social status implies entangling your goals with the material world, which is Bad because it means externalizing your locus of control

I call this "being the mountaintop monk". A mountaintop monk disentangles their desires with atomic reality to such an extreme degree that they end up retiring to a monastery in Tibet and spending the rest of their life meditating in the lotus position and being mysterious at people

A lot of credit is given to the Way of the mountaintop monk. Cached thoughts like "one must make peace with death" or "but is human extinction really a bad thing?" are in accordance with his general philosophy. I can imagine most of my friends listening to this description and nod along thinking "this is wise". 

There are, however, significant disadvantages that come with being a mountaintop monk. For instance, if you believe in AI x-risk, you understand that there is nowhere you can hide from an intelligent threat. You cannot hide at the top of a mountain and meditate your way into Nirvana to escape death.  If your desires are in any  way still entangled with reality (you might have loved ones to protect) then retiring to a mountain is not a good plan. 

The best example in fiction I can think of is a scene in Avatar the Last Airbender in which Aang, in order to reach the avatar state on demand,[1] must relinquish his "attachment to this world", namely the person he's in love with. "What?" Aang exclaims, "why would I choose cosmic energy over Katara?"[2]

I know a guy who believes that humanity and all his loved ones don't have long to live. But he holds this belief while not taking the necessary offensive steps to prevent them from dying. I suspect part of the explanation is that taking a lot of 5-meo DMT makes you lose an intuition for consequentialism. From my perspective, he has drugged himself into a permanent disentanglement between his values and the atoms outside of his head. 

I am not like this. I am a mud-dredger (that's how it feels sometimes), not a mountaintop monk. I'm entangled enough with reality that I think you'd have to be pretty loony  not to do everything in your power to increase your loved one's log odds of survival. 

This leads me to actually do things that increase my loved one's log odds, like, hopefully, publishing this post. 

It's not always fun. 

  • Entangling your desires with atoms means making yourself more vulnerable to that which you cannot control. 
  • If your feedback loops are too loose, it can be emotionally draining to pursue a goal that is only abstract in essence. 
  • Being a mud-dredger will expose you to impossible problems
  • When "well-being" is no longer the end—when the end is elsewhere, stored on atoms—that is when you become most vulnerable to anxiety, and frustration, and desperation. 
  • Using words like "I should" or "here's the plan" implies entangling your brain with outside atoms instead of letting it do its thing. That restricts your thoughtspace because you are aiming it, which can impede creativity.[3]

Mud-dredging does improve your rationality, however. That's why betting works. When the outcome of your thoughts is entangled with your bank account— or your daughter's life—you had better be maximizing stamps, not stampyness. Because you can no longer afford to treat what happens inside your 1400 cubic centimeters of cranial compute as your end, you must make that compute take the shape of reality. You have to go on the offensive, and that means slamming into reality (which is as pleasant as it sounds). 

It is a spectrum. Sometimes you'll feel a lot more like a mountaintop monk than a mud-dredger, other times the opposite. It is not a good idea to be entirely a mud-dredger. At least, it's certainly not the route to good mental health.  Meditation, sabbath, and gratitude are all mountaintop virtues that are worth pursuing. But mountaintopping in general will pull you away from anything you care about that runs on atoms. That may not be a possibility for you. 

  1. ^

    A goal originally spurred by a consequentialist desire to save the world, mind you!

  2. ^

    Somehow, the full scene is available on YouTube

  3. ^

    Sometimes, you might not want to begin your thinking by entangling thoughts with atoms. Letting your mind wander has become clichéd enough advice that you no longer think to apply it. 

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It seems that by "Mountain Top Monk" you are referring to a stereotype of monk, not actual monks living on mountains. A stereotype that together with the mud dredger illustrates the two extremes of entire attachment with immediate needs vs detachment from all needs. The former probably leads to more specific assumptions than the latter and it might make sense to clarify that it is just to name that end of the spectrum.

Yeah I was wondering what made this post fail and an unclear name might be part of it. Thanks for the feedback! 

I don't think the title is too bad, but it is important to clarify what it means. For a moment it seemed to dunk on monks.

Haha, well I changed the title and it has 10 more karma than it had yesterday, so there was something up with the title. Thank you again!