Epistemic Status: Poetry, but also, True Story

For seven years, I worked in a supermarket bakery.

The bakery was quite a nice place to work. I got a good mix of physical exercise (everything I know about basketball I learned from tossing heavy boxes of bread up several feet such that they landed just perfectly on top of each other).

I learned skills, I decorated cakes. I had an excellent manager, who led by example, who was funny, who was stern when she needed to be but almost never needed to be because people just wanted to do the right thing for her.

One day, we hired a person I found really annoying, who I'll call Debbie.

Debbie talked a lot, and she had a really grating, whiny, high pitched voice. And at first I tried to engage with her cheerfully, then I tried engaging with her politely, and then I tried to avoid her because she just wouldn't stop talking no matter what about inane things that nonetheless were just complicated enough that I felt pressure to think about how to respond.

Debbie was probably a decent person who didn't deserve my ire. Nonetheless, my ire she had.

Avoiding Debbie wasn't really an option because the bakery wasn't that big. A few weeks of annoyance passed. And one day Debbie was telling some story about her kids or sister or something that was probably a reasonably fine story but I just couldn't stand it any more and —

— and —

...and then I literally felt my brain make a slight "czhzk" sound. And Debbie's voice just of faded into the background. I heard all the other sounds in the supermarket – the customers talking, the air conditioners humming, the beep of distant item-scanners, the sliding of the automating doors. And Debbie's voice, one mechanical physical process among many.

And it felt like Neo, at the end of the Matrix, where he can suddenly see the Code, and he can also see Agent Smith. And then a flashback to earlier in the movie, when Neo looks upon the raw code for the first time and can't make heads of tails of it. A fellow crewmember says "Yeah, I don't even see the code anymore. I just parse it automatically. My brain sees 'blond', 'brunette', 'redhead'."

And suddenly, I could effortless switch back and forth between seeing Debbie, the human being with hopes and dreams and kids and sisters and stories she wanted to tell and coworkers she wanted to vibe with... and <Debbie>, the collection of atoms that were just inevitably, deterministically, going to keep on making high pitched noises no matter what I said or did.

And somehow... this made it simultaneously way easier to both ignore Debbie when I didn't feel like dealing with her – muttering automatic 'uh huhs' and 'yeah' and nodding as appropriate – as well as remembering she was a Person, whose experiences were valuable according my outlook on Personhood, and sometimes actually talking with her and engaging and actually caring about her kids or sister.

Now one lesson, a simpler lesson (but which I didn't actually learn till much later), is that nerds tend to think conversation needs to include lots of actually understanding what a person is saying and forming reasonable beliefs about the conversation topic and saying those things in a logical flow. But, a lot of what's going on is socializing, smalltalk, and sometimes vibing. I found Debbie annoying in part because I felt obligated to spend a fair amount of cognitive effort responding to her stories. I do think she cared at least somewhat that I actually listened. But I don't think she intended me to spend as much cognitive effort as I was.

The weirder, deeper, experiential lesson is to be able to see the Matrix. I don't expect you to gain that ability by reading this blogpost – I think I needed a weird combination of circumstances, and philosophical-beliefs-at-a-certain-stage-of-development, in order for things to click into place and my brain to go "czhzk".

But I think it's useful to be able to refer to this skill. My guess is it's not that hard to conceptually understand (at least for LessWrong folk).

And I think it becomes relevant when engaging with important moral questions, that require us both to have the ability to see a million deaths, or a million lives, and process them as a statistic that is weighed against other statistics, equations to be abstracted and simplified until you find the answer....

...and to remember the felt sense, that each of those lives and deaths are filled with meaning. And you can only process one or two of them at a time before your brain breaks, but that their meaning depends on the ability to look at them through a layer of abstraction that doesn't lend itself well to linear logic or calculations.

Sometimes you need to simplify part or all of those rich-inner-lives away to be able to think, or communicate clearly about the equations.

I think there's something like missing moods that go on sometimes, where one person is trying to have a conversation focusing on a particular abstraction, and another person is tuned into another abstraction, and they both share most of the same beliefs and values but at that particular moment they're trying to talk about different things and frustrated that the other person doesn't seem to care.

Sometimes you need to abstract away, not only the rich inner life of a person (or millions of people), but entire swaths of the cold mathematics too. Or, sometimes you might want to focus on rich-inner-life, but tuned into a particular subset – the part of the rich-inner-life that cares about agency and longterms goals, or the rich-inner-life that cares about the energy in the room at the moment.

Or, you might care about interpersonal rich-outer-life — the layers of meaning and personhood that apply to relationships and groups over individuals or masses. Two individuals might both be having individually good experiences but something about their relationship seems stagnant or toxic.

Reality is rich with detail and it seems quite common to need to tune into some of that detail, and necessarily tune out others.

I wrote this post after a couple recent moments wherein I seemed to focused on a different slice of reality than my conversation partner(s). I'm not sure whether this particular blogpost would have helped, but it seemed like a useful handle for how I personally relate to this sort of disconnect. I'd like to be able to briefly refer to this meta-concept, and then figuring out which moods are actually missing, and "get on the same page" as quickly as possible without interrupting the conversation.

I don't necessarily see all the same rich-detail that you do, and there might be times when I literally don't understand or don't care about the particular lens you are trying to optimize reality through. But I think, most of the time, I do see it, it just might not have been what I was focused on at the moment.

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:34 PM

How would you compare this technique to a more standard mindfulness practice?

I’d call this more of an ability I randomly got one day than a technique, and it seems plausible that mindfulness practice is a a path to more reliably gain the ability

Nice. I've had that noise happen in my head so many times in very specific emotional situations but I have never known what it was about. Now I may be able to put it to some good use since your interpretation may be literally correct. By the way, I did a search on Google for "is the matrix literally seen or just felt" and saw your post about the noise that happened in your head so I clicked on it to read the article. I'm glad I did!