Follow-up to: The Intelligent Social Web

Related to: Fake Frameworks

Yesterday I described a framework for viewing culture as a kind of distributed intelligence, and ourselves as nodes in this distributed network.

Today I’d like to share a way of using this framework intentionally that doesn’t require Looking. My main intent here is concreteness: I’d like to illustrate what an application of accounting for the Omega-web can look like. But I also hope this is something some of y’all can benefit from.

I’ll warn up front: this is playing with epistemic fire. I think the skill of clearly labeling when you’re entering and leaving a fake framework is especially important here for retaining epistemic integrity. If you aren’t sure how to do that, or if the prospect of needing to unnerves you too much, then it might be right for you not to try using this at least for now.

Scott Alexander created a fascinating impact through his essay Meditations on Moloch. A few excerpts:

What’s always impressed me about this poem is its conception of civilization as an individual entity. You can almost see him, with his fingers of armies and his skyscraper-window eyes.
The Universe is a dark and foreboding place, suspended between alien deities. Cthulhu, Gnon, Moloch, call them what you will.
Somewhere in this darkness is another god. He has also had many names. In the Kushiel books, his name was Elua. He is the god of flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. He is a god of humans.
The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even control any hell-monsters or command his worshippers to become killing machines. What a weakling! This is going to be so easy!”
But somehow Elua is still here. No one knows exactly how. And the gods who oppose Him tend to find Themselves meeting with a surprising number of unfortunate accidents.
There are many gods, but this one is ours.

There was basically nothing in that essay that was conceptually new, at least in the social circles I’m in around CFAR. But this essay still had a huge cultural impact. Suddenly it became real how to literally see the demon-god so many of us are fighting, and now we know its name: Moloch. This mattered to the web. Now we can actually feel a sense in which we’re battling eldritch horrors in an epic war determining humanity’s future.

I suggest that the reason this is impactful comes from something I mentioned in my last post: the social web encodes its sense of meaning, roles, and expectations in the structure of story. Facts can inform culture, but story guides it. Scott’s main contribution via that essay, I claim, was in his transposition of large chunks of the fight against existential risk into the key of myth.

From this mythic mode, within the sandbox, we can see a sense in which classical gods are real. We can see the footprints of Ares, the ferocious warrior, in the bomb-carved craters of areas torn up by civil war. Or Apollo’s light in the lively intelligent discourse between academic colleagues who are sincerely curious about the truth. Or the joint partnership of Dionysus and Hephaestus that breathes life into the crazy builder revelry that is Burning Man. To the extent that something like these archetypes are known and recognizable to each of us in our story-like intuitions, these gods can be seen as distributed subroutines within the web of Omega.

The programmer Eric S. Raymond describes this beautifully in an old essay Dancing With the Gods. I really recommend reading the whole thing; he’s quite lucid about it. Here’s a relevant snippet:

All the Gods are alive. They are not supernatural; rather, they are our inmost natures. They power our dreams and our art and our personalities. Theurgy and ritual can make them stronger, more accessible to the shaman. They can be evoked in a human being to teach, heal, inspire, or harm. Occasionally they manifest in spontaneous theophanies; the result may be religious conversion, creative inspiration, charisma, or madness.

Mythic mode is a way of looking at the world through a story-like lens. When you enter mythic mode, you recognize that you’re a character in Omega’s story, as is everyone else. And because you’re very likely familiar with a wide range of story types, you can probably look around and see who has been given which kind of plot hook, and to what kind of tale.

Why is any of this relevant?

Well, recall from my previous post that there’s a basic puzzle: if you don’t like the script you’re enacting, you won’t get very far just trying to defy it, because by default your effort to defy it will just play into your role.

But… we do have stories of people being able to transition roles in a pretty deep sense. They often (but not always) follow the arc of the hero’s journey, wherein the hero must enter into the unknown and face trials and eventually die to who they were, transforming into something new so as to complete the journey and return victorious but different. We tell these (or similar) stories again and again, with lots of variation… but some things (like the types of heroes) tend to vary a lot less than others. This gives us some clues about where the web has room to let people shift their lived scripts, and what the constraints are.

So, if you can identify a well-known story type that fits the transition you want and also starts from a place pretty close to where you are, and you have enough slack to lean into that role, then the web might conspire to help you play out that script.

The thing is, you can’t just sit outside your role and figure out what to do. That isn’t what it feels like to live the epic you’re examining; that’s playing the role of someone who is (among other things) analyzing the story they think they’re in.

Instead, if you want to use this approach, you have to learn how to experience story from the inside. That’s essentially what mythic mode is.

I like how Eric Raymond expressed this part too (again from Dancing With the Gods):

If my language is too "religious" for you, feel free to transpose it all into the key of psychology. Speak of archetypes and semi-independent complexes. Feel free to hypothesize that I've merely learned how to enter some non-ordinary mental states that change my body language, disable a few mental censors, and have me putting out signals that other people interpret in terms of certain material in their own unconscious minds.
Fine. You've explained it. Correctly, even. But you can't do it!
And as long as you stick with the sterile denotative language of psychology, and the logical mode of the waking mind, you won't be able to --- because you can't reach and program the unconscious mind that way. It takes music, symbolism, sex, hypnosis, wine and strange drugs, firelight and chanting, ritual and magic. Super-stimuli that reach past the conscious mind and neocortex, in and back to the primate and mammal and reptile brains curled up inside.

I think it’s important afterwards to be able to leave mythic mode, and leave the “insights” gleaned within the sandbox, and give your more normal way of interpreting the world a chance to look at what happened. In particular, mythic mode tends to highlight seemingly meaningful coincidences, but at least some of those are likely to be confirmation bias, which is helpful to remember once you’re outside the sandbox.

But I think it’s also critical not to do this while in mythic mode. It just gets in the way. You in fact don’t know ahead of time which synchronicities are confirmation bias and which are you syncing up with the larger computational network, and it’s too slow in practice to figure it out in real time, and the effort of trying tends to shove you into a role type that won’t let you walk the path of a hero’s journey you weren’t already on anyway. You are in fact donning some epistemic risk whenever you use mythic mode — which is why I think it’s important to sandbox it properly if you’re going to bother.

I’d like to illustrate the use of mythic mode with a personal example to help clarify what it can look like.

Right after my kenshō, I tried to find a teacher in Rinzai Zen, since that’s the tradition I’m familiar with that treats kenshō as an initiation point after which deeper instruction becomes possible. This turned out to be tricky: Sōtō Zen (with its emphasis on gradual development and its downplaying of the relevance of kenshō) is so much more popular that Rinzai dojos basically don’t exist anywhere near where I live, at least that I could tell.

This felt weird. I’d reached kenshō via a previous arc of using mythic mode, and finding a Rinzai teacher felt like the natural next step, but I was getting stuck. This “plot has led me to a dead end” feeling has become a signal to me to switch into mythic mode to try reinterpreting the blockade.

From mythic mode, I considered what kind of character I was, including the implicit genre-savviness I was using. When I imagined wearing the role of a zen disciple and walking the path to becoming a zen master, I noticed that it almost but didn’t quite fit my sense of my path, like I’d be being a little dishonest to who I am. I focused on the “not quite right” feeling, and what came up was my love of physicality and athletics… and martial arts. And there’s totally an archetype for someone who walks the path of enlightenment via martial arts: the Eastern warrior-monk. That felt right. From mythic mode, then, it seemed promising for me to see how to walk that path.

Some Googling suggested to me that the origin of this archetype was the Shaolin Monastery. It seems that their spiritual practice was Chan Buddhism, from which we get all the schools of zen. This closely matched the “almost but not quite right” feeling I’d gotten earlier. In mythic mode, this is the kind of thing I’ve learned to take as evidence that I’m going in a mythically supported direction. (From outside mythic mode, it’s really not that surprising that I’d find something like this that I could interpret as meaningful… but since at this point I hadn’t solved the original problem, I wasn’t going to worry too much about that just yet.)

After a sequence of mythic exploration and omens, it seemed clear to me that I needed to visit New York City. I was actually ready to hop on a plane the day after we’d finished with a CFAR workshop… but a bunch of projects showed up as important for me to deal with over the following week. So I booked plane tickets for a week later.

When I arrived, it turned out that the Shaolin monk who teaches there was arriving back from a weeks-long trip from Argentina that day.

This is a kind of thing I’ve come to expect from mythic mode. I could have used murphyjitsu to hopefully notice that maybe the monk wouldn’t be there and then called to check, and then carefully timed my trip to coincide with when he’s there. But from inside mythic mode, that wouldn’t have mattered: either it would just work out (like it did); or it was fated within the script that it wouldn’t work out, in which case some problem I didn’t anticipate would appear anyway (e.g., I might have just failed to think of the monk possibly traveling). My landing the same day he returned, as a result of my just happening to need to wait a week… is the kind of coincidence one just gets used to after a while of operating mythically.

(And of course, this is quite possibly just confirmation bias. And that’s important to notice. But like I said earlier, one tends to get results from mythic mode if one isn’t too worried about that while in the mode. And also, we don’t know it is confirmation bias either: what people notice, and when, is subject to the distributed computation of the social web, which means that some seeming coincidences are probably orchestrated. E.g., maybe some part of me noticed a sidebar on their website mentioning when the monk would be traveling, but I didn’t consciously register it, instead feeling like those little projects I had to take care of were important enough to have me wait a week.)

The whole trip in New York felt epic. I gained a lot. Most of what I gained requires more backstory to explain, so for the sake of brevity I’ll skip describing the bulk of it. I did learn an intense movement meditation sequence I’ve been using almost every morning for months now — which, interestingly, I don’t need to struggle to get myself to do. I just get up and do it, easily. It’s not a matter of personal discipline; it’s just so right-fitting for me that it happens naturally.

Looking back, from outside mythic mode, I can see how this amounted to me doing a costly self-signal to stick to some kind of meditation and exercise program. That fits with most of the insights and opportunities I experienced along the way. And… I can also see how it wouldn’t have worked if I’d done it thinking “I’m going to spend a bunch of time and money on a costly signal to myself.” I step outside mythic mode and keep its “insights” contained within the sandbox as a matter of keeping my epistemology clean. But even from here, I can see how valuable that toolkit is to me as a method of shaping my behavior and, sometimes, getting myself to update.

I’ve seen the rationality community use mythic mode a lot — but almost exclusively for intuition pumps and, occasionally, spicing up events. And even then I’ve seen a fair amount of push-back. My guess, from extrapolating the outcries I’ve heard against it, is that a fair number of folk find it epistemically frightening. And that makes sense: if you don’t know how to sandbox, or if you don’t trust that sandboxing can reliably work, then this probably looks like a crazy risk to take.

From where I’m standing, though, the choice was already made when you were born. We’re already embedded in culture and subject to its influences. And much of that is culture reaching into our emotions and deepest thoughts and nudging us to behave in certain ways. None of us are immune; if it were otherwise, there would be no reason for caution.

The fact that there is a type of person who is attracted to Less Wrong, and that this type gathers and forms a community, but that the vast majority of that community is not and has not been involved in the same task-oriented project… suggests that the forces that shape the rationality community are implicit and subtle, and probably very similar to the ones that shape other communities.

So from what I can tell, if you don’t know how to sandbox this stuff, and you don’t know how to Look, then your epistemology is already screwed. It just might not be in-character for you to notice it in this way.*

With all that said, I’m not at all invested in folk here using mythic mode more than they already do. I wanted this here to illustrate an example application of accounting for the real-world Omega. I’ll also want to call on the framework later to offer my own intuition pumps in future posts: it’s a really helpful context for conveying maps that point at otherwise-hard-to-talk-about phenomenology.

Beyond that, if you want to avoid using mythic mode, I don’t object.

I even welcome attempts to argue that no one should use mythic mode. Just be warned that you’re likely to find that effort a particular flavor of frustrating.

*: In case I need this later, this is an MD5 hash: 24e07349c9134ff91d77a6a38cf23183

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Here's a seed of a possible future post, in response to the introductory part about Moloch:

The Four Demon Gods and the Psychologists Out to Stop Them

The bowels of Hell are divided by two rivers of flame into four quadrants.

The left-right axis reads Weakness on the left and Strength on the right. Weakness demons prey on cowardice and jealousy. Strength demons dominate and exploit.

The up-down axis reads Private on the bottom and Public on top. Private demons live in the hearts of individual human beings. Public demons live in the empty voids between people.

Our tour of Hell takes us clockwise around this wheel of Evil from the top left quadrant.

(1) The top left quadrant is the domain of Moloch. Moloch is Public Demon of Weakness. The decay of whole cities down incentive slopes, unbeknownst to their citizens. The whisper of defect, defect on frigid prison nights. The tragic coordination failures of naive libertarians. God's chosen champion against Moloch is Scott Alexander.

(2) The top right quadrant is the domain of The Man, known sometimes as the Patriarchy and Big Brother. The Man is the Public Demon of Strength. The Man is Out to Get You for all you've got. The Man ... (read more)

Narrative tropes are powerful psychological tools but we’re not actually in a narrative. I’ve certainly driven my metaphorical life-bicycle into metaphorical reality-telephone poles more than once because the Story of it appealed to me, or I felt it was what the current Role required. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to become alarmed and cautious when I detect myself reasoning by proximity to Protagonist Feelings.

It seems to me that what we are 'actually in' is indeed better described as a narrative. Sure you have chosen what you describe as unsuccessful narratives in your life but in order to exist you have to choose a narrative. You say "As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to become alarmed and cautious when I detect myself reasoning by proximity to Protagonist Feelings". Why have you become alarmed and cautious? Cautious towards what? What danger are you trying to avoid? It seems to me that you have changed your narrative structure to take into account whatever you have chosen to define as that which you do not want to identify with. But you are still in what can be seen as a narrative structure.

A narrative is not _any possible chain of explanations_ -- I'm concerned that you can just always describe someone's description of a chain of events as a narrative, making it meaningless. To me, a narrative in the context of Val's post means a description which is specifically optimised for social/psychological incentives (especially emotional appeal, which is to say, engagness) rather than for accuracy.

The claim is deeper than that. Your mind is structured in a way that mirrors narrative structure. You are always in a state (A) and in order to do anything you need to decide on a goal state(B). That is a simplified narrative structure and is not just a way to explain the actions of someone else. It is the way you decide how to act. Check Jordan Peterson's Maps of Meaning lectures where he goes in depth on the full pattern and then shows how it is found in stories, myth, religion etc. and also, quite astonishingly, in the biological structure of the brain.
There are many different definitions of "narrative" which you can give, and there are many different patterns which the brain is biased toward. The particular element which you point at (out of Peterson's more elaborate definition) can also be called intentional stance, and it makes sense to suppose that the brain is evolved to deal with it, along with a number of other structures. But, if we just define "narrative structure" as the sort of pattern which the brain is adapted to understand, then you can always say that you are turning your reality into a narrative structure, because you are understanding it with your brain. While this may be a perfectly useful definition in some contexts, it is useless for the kind of debiasing move which moridinamael was talking about. In the context of that conversation, it seems better to interpret "narrative" as a description which is specifically warped by optimizing it to fit the biases of the brain particularly well, as a kind of superstimulus. Then, "narrative" is a matter of degree (we can still say that everything is warped by the fact that we have to use our brains to understand it), but we can distinguish between narrative and non-narrative. This also seems more likely to me to be a useful definition in general, and in the context of Val's post, but I could be wrong. To me, it seems to better fit the central cases of what I want to call narrative, such as political speeches, or fiction.
I have to admit that your comment makes a lot of sense from within the rationalist perspective. I just think that the rationalist perspective is quite myopic when it comes to the value of stories. You say: You seem to see narrative structures as being useful only as a stimulus [1]. Epistemologically you are using the word 'warped' and 'bias' that, in my view, betrays your own belief system. A hypothesis that you might want to entertain is that stories contain truths (wisdom) that can not always be rationally articulated, at least for now. That does not mean that all stories contain wisdom, just like statements that presume to be rational do not necessarily achieve their goal. By studying stories you will develop the capacity to understand/obtain wisdom. In other words the stories themselves contain the elements needed to understand them and distinguish wisdom from superstition. Here is a story through which you can reflect on some aspects of your situation: I do recommend Idries Shah's books of stories. The Nasrudin books are a good start for most people. ------------------------------------------ [1] I have to acknowledge here that Valentine seems to treat stories in a similar manner so your comment is definitely justified. I am here expanding on why I believe this to be a restrictive way of thinking.

I'm pretty skeptical of your narrative around flying to NY to see the Buddhists. It sounds a bit too much like "The Secret" and other forms of popular wishful thinking to me. I understand that you're trying to sandbox this reasoning to "mythic mode", but the way you write about it in this post (while presumably not in mythic mode) makes it seem like the sandbox might be a bit leaky.

The problems with believing in fate or Providence start to become real when bad things happen to you.

If you imagine that the universe is conspiring to help you when things go right, you can also imagine that the universe is conspiring to hurt you when things go wrong, and that’s terrifying. Ordinary failure and misfortune is easier to recover from than the creeping fear that you’ve angered God. I’ve been there; it sucks.

That seems to depend on the nature of the belief, though. Some people with a belief of fate seem to gain strength from it even during misfortune, thinking not "the universe is out to get me", but something like "well I guess this was the universe's way of [setting me on a better path / reminding me not to take for granted what I have / insert-some-other-benefit-here]".

If you have sufficiently strong faith in the universe being benevolent, you can probably find some positive angle from any event and focus on that.

I was not, in fact, staying consistently outside of mythic mode when writing this post. I didn't think what it was would convey well if I had. Instead, I tried to weave in and out of it while highlighting signposts. When I talk about coincidences lining up and how one gets used to things like that while in mythic mode, or when I talk about seeing the gods… that's operating mythically. When I then talk about how there's an easy way of seeing how this could come from cherry-picking which things are significant, that's outside of mythic mode. I haven't checked carefully, but I'm pretty sure I could insert <mythic> and </mythic> pseudo-HTML tags throughout the OP.
I'd be interested to hear more about what specifically bothers you. I agree that it "sounds like" The Secret, but just saying it "sounds like it" seems like a version of The Worst Argument in the World. What are the negative effects you feel will come from doing this?

Two different possible failure modes (if continuing far enough down this path) are along the lines of trying to cure one's cancer with magic instead of medicine, and/or fatalism/"inshallah".

A milder possible failure case is simply spending too much time on this stuff, if it feels fun and effective even when isn't working.

(I didn't downvote you by the way)

I'm definitely a bit worried about the milder one, but I'm so inefficient with my use of time currently that I doubt it could hurt too badly. I don't really worry about the first two, because we have powerful myths (e.g. Steve Jobs) warning us against those things, so paying attention to myth seems like a good way to avoid them.

Author of "Dancing with the Gods" checks in.

First, to confirm that you have correctly understood the points I was trying to make. I intended "Dancing with the Gods" to be a rationalist essay, in the strictest Yudkowskian-reformation sense of the term "rationalist", even though the beginnings of the reformation were seven years in the future when I wrote it. 

<insert timeless-decision-theory joke here>

Second, that I 100% agree with your analysis of why "Meditations on Moloch" was important.

Third and most importantly, to say that I like your use of the term "sandbox" a lot, and I'm going to adopt it. Maintaining a hard distinction between inside the sandbox and outside really is an important tactic for dealing with mythic mode in general, and magic/theurgy in particular.

You got it from infosec jargon, of course, and I'm going to emphasize its use as a verb. A lot of people have damaged themselves through not understanding that they need to sandbox, and a lot of other people (including, as you imply, many rationalists) fear mythic mode unnecessarily because they don't know that sandboxing is possible.

Like some other commenters, I also highly recommend Impro if this post resonates with you.

Readers who are very interested in a more conceptual analysis of what decision making "is" in the narrative framework may want to check out Tempo (by Venkatesh Rao, who writes at Ribbonfarm). Rao takes as axiomatic the memetically derived idea that all our choices are between life scripts that end in our death, and looks at how to make these choices. It's more of an analytical book on strategy (with exercises) than a poetic exemplar of Mythic Mode, but it seems very related to me. In particular, I think it helps with a core question of Mythic Mode: how do you get useful work out of this narrative way of thinking without being led astray? I don't claim to have an answer, but reading Tempo has certainly been useful for this question.

The problem, by which I mean the reason I would rather the scene had less of this mythic stuff, is that I subscribe to absolutely the meanest, smallest type of cynicism: things people love are dangerous.

Take political arguments. People love to have political arguments. If one considers the community in the abstract, then political arguments are great for the community - look at how much more discussion there is over on SSC these days!

I am, of course, assuming in this example that political arguments in internet comments are of little use. But I think there is a straightforward cause: political arguments can be of little use because people love them. If people didn't love them, they would only have them when necessary.

People love myths. Or at least most of them, some of the time. That's why the myths you hear about aren't selected for usefulness.

This seems right to me, as far as it goes. But for the same reason they're dangerous, they're powerful. Why should the forces of evil and ignorance be the only ones who get to have powerful weapons? I would feel pretty comfortable betting that Meditations on Moloch is one of the top 5 most effective posts produced by the LW-sphere, in terms of leading to people pursuing good in the world. That's a direct result of it choosing to harness myth in a way selected for usefulness.

Meditations on Moloch certainly wasn't promoting evil, but I think it was (inadvertently) promoting ignorance. For example, it paints the fish farming story as an argument against libertarianism, but economists see the exact same story as an argument for privatization of fisheries, and it works in reality exactly as economists say!

The whole essay suffers from that problem. It leaves readers unaware that there's a whole profession dedicated to "fighting Moloch" and they have a surprisingly good framework: incentives, public goods, common resources, free rider problem, externalities, Pigovian taxes, Coasian bargains... Unfortunately, dry theory is hard to learn, so people skip learning it if they can more easily get an illusion of understanding - like many readers of the Moloch essay I've encountered.

That's the general problem Charlie is pointing to. If you want to give your argument some extra oomph beyond what the evidence supports, why do you want that? You could be slightly wrong, or (if you're less lucky than Scott) a lot wrong, and make many other people wrong too. Better spend that extra time making your evidence-based argument better.

Even shorter: I don't want powerful weapons to argue for truth. I want asymmetric weapons that only the truth can use. Myth isn't such a weapon, so I'll leave it in the cave where it was found.

I'm bad and I feel bad about making this kind of argument:

I don't want powerful weapons to argue for truth. I want asymmetric weapons that only the truth can use. Myth isn't such a weapon, so I'll leave it in the cave where it was found.

Register the irony of framing your refusal to use the power of mythical language in a metaphor about a wise and humble hero leaving Excalibur in the cave where it was found.

The issue is that we are all being pulled by Omega's web into roles, and the choice is not whether or not to partake in some role, but whether or not to use the role we inhabit to our advantage. You don't get to choose not to play the game, but you do get to pick your position.

Nice! I agree I should've left out that last bit :-)
I deeply respect that, and your choice. I think I want the same end result you do: I want truth and clarity to reign. This has led me to intentionally use mythic mode because I see the influence of things like it all over the place, and I want to be able to notice and track that, and get practice extracting the parts that are epistemically good. And I need to have a cultivated skill with countering uses of mythic language that turn out to have deceived (or were intentionally used to deceive). But I think it's totally a defensible position to say "Nope, this is too fraught and too symmetric, I ain't touchin' that" and walk away.
My goal is almost always behavior change. I can write all sorts of strong evidence-based arguments but I despair of those arguments actually affecting the behavior of anyone except the rationalists who are best at taking ideas seriously. Said another way, in addition to writing down arguments there's the task of debugging emotional blocks preventing people from taking the argument seriously enough for it to change their behavior. I think there's a role for writing that tries to do both of these things (and that e.g. Eliezer did this a lot in the Sequences and it was good that he did this, and that HPMoR also does this and that was good too, and Meditations on Moloch, etc.).
Meditations on Moloch is not an argument. It's a type error to analyze it as if it were.
Meditations on Moloch was creative and effective but ultimately "just" a restatement of well-known game theory. This post is a lot more speculative and anecdotal.
Hmm, I don't really see it that way? This post is trying to describe the category of which Meditation on Moloch is an instance. If Meditation on Moloch is good, surely trying to understand the thing that it's an instance of could also be good.
1Dr. Jamchie6y
I have just recently read Meditations on Moloch and I agree it is fascinating post, but also entirely misses the point. Competition does not make you sacrifice your values, that's how these values came to existence in the first place. There was analogy with rats who came to live in the island and used their spare time to do art, but stopped when resources had depleted. That`s not how story goes. When rats first came to island they did not care about art or any such nonsense, all they did was eat and fuck all day and everyone was happy. But one day, there was no more food to continue to just do that. Only then some rats started to be creative. Turns out if you paint your picture with bigger muscles than you actually have, and you put it on rats-tinder, you get to mate more than if you just posted your real picture. That's how art came to exist in rats island.
Scott wasn't suggesting that competition alone makes people sacrifice their values. He was suggesting (as I understand it) that the following configuration tends to suck for everyone pretty systematically: * You have a bunch of agents who are in competition for some resource. * Each agent is given an opportunity to sacrifice something important to them in order to gain competitive advantage over the other agents. * The agents can't coordinate about who will or won't take advantage of this opportunity. The net effect is generally that agents who accept this trade tend to win out over those who don't. This incentivizes each agent to make the trade so that they can at least stay in competition. In particular, this means that even if there's common knowledge of this whole setup, and there's common knowledge that it sucks, it's still the case that no one can do anything about it. That, personified, is Moloch.
0Dr. Jamchie6y
Yes, and what I am asking is why those things are important fot them in the first place? Probably because having these things important gave those agents competetive advantage. Love your children? Thats Moloch wants you to replicate your stomach so you could eat mode baby elephants, than you alone could. You only sacrifice those things that Molach himself has given you.
The way I would put it is that agents evolve to make use of the regularities in the environment. If exploiting those regularities leads to increased success, then competition creates complexity that allows for those regularities to be taken advantage of. Whereas complexity which is no longer useful, either because the regularities no longer exist in the new environment or because there are more powerful regularities to exploit instead, will eventually be eaten away by competition. Thus it's true that competition gave us those things originally. But on the other hand, if you're looking from the perspective of what we have now and want to preserve it, then it's also fair to say that competition is a threat to it.
1Dr. Jamchie6y
We might want to preseve those, but can we? By definition we will be outcompeted by those who do not.
And that problem is exactly what Scott refers to as Moloch.
-4Dr. Jamchie6y
Let me put it this way - if this is a problem, you would probably want to solve it? Generally if you want to solve a problem you would prefer it to not have existed in the first place? If yes then you would also not have any of the values you want to save. Considering this, does Moloch still qualifies as a problem?
This is incorrect and I think only sounds like an argument because of the language you're choosing; there's nothing incoherent about 1. preferring evolutionary pressures that look like Moloch to exist so that you end up existing rather than not existing, and 2. wanting to solve Moloch-like problems now that you exist. Also, there's nothing incoherent about wanting to solve Moloch-like problems now that you exist regardless of Moloch-like things causing you to come into existence. Our values are not evolution's values, if that even makes sense.
-3Dr. Jamchie6y
So to again summarise this whole argument: Moloch is a problem, that made you exist and is impossible to solve by definition. So what are you going to do about it? (I suggest trying to answer this to your self at first, only then to me)
So… we should respond by removing the things people love? I suspect I just disagree with your claim. But even if you were right, I don't think the right answer is to ban beloved things. I think it's to learn how to have beloved things and still be sane. By my own personal judgment, rationalist culture developed a lot of epistemic viciousness by gripping hard onto the chant "Politics is the mind-killer!" and thereby banning all development of the Art in that domain. The Trump election in 2016 displayed that communal weakness in force, with rationalists getting sucked into the same internal signaling games as all the other primates, and then being shocked when he won. I mean, think about that. A whole community that grew out of an attempt to practice an art of clear thinking that supposedly tries to pay rent largely made the same wrong prediction. Yes, I know there are exceptions. I live with one of them. But that just says that some people in that community managed not to get swept up. This doesn't bode well for a Calvinist approach to epistemic integrity. (…and that method is a lot less fun!)

This is a tangent, but I feel like this comment is making the mistake of collapsing predictions into a "predicted Trump"/"predicted Clinton" binary. I predicted about a 20% chance of Trump (my strategy was to agree with Nate Silver, Nate Silver is always right when speaking ex cathedra), and I do not consider myself to have made an error. Things with a 20% chance of happening happen one time out of five. Trump lost the popular vote after an October surprise; that definitely looks like the sort of outcome you get in a world where he was genuinely less likely than Clinton to win.

3Charlie Steiner6y
I think about it like a memetic ecosystem. Ideas can spread because they're visibly helping someone else, or because they're catchy, or because they tap into primal instincts, or because there's an abstract argument for them, or combinations of such things. Ideas in an ecosystem have properties at different levels: they have appeal that helps them spread, they have effects on peoples' actions, and they can also be understood as having effects on the ecosystem. The idea of the scientific method, for example, has some philosophical appeal, it changes peoples' actions to involve more testing, and it also changes what thoughts those people think and spread. In this framing, my claimed problem with the mythic mode is that it pushes people, and to an extent the entire ecosystem, more towards spreading ideas based on how they tap into primal instincts and emotions, at the expense of appeal based on certain sorts of abstract argument about value. So to be more precise, information that has a lot of appeal not based on its value is dangerous, because I think we need this memetic ecosystem to appeal mostly based on value and knowledge. Hence why my example was the dangers of political discussion, not the dangers of chocolate (though my belly might argue for certain dangers of that too). Even if the mythic mode is valuable, or if certain political discussions are valuable, we need to balance this local value with the effect it's going to have on the global value generated. A ban is one sort of meme that shapes the memetic ecosystem - but it's not the only way. I live in central Illinois and do my interaction with rationalists via the internet these days, deliberately ignoring 99.9% of people talking about politics, so I'm guessing you experienced something pretty different out in Berkeley. Given this, I think I just don't have the context to interpret your argument. Arguing that we should systematically outperform Nate Silver seems wrong, but I suspect that's not what you'r

So, for the purposes of this comment, I am going to take the fake framework entirely seriously (the framework is fake, so whether the following question makes sense is arguable, but I want to try and see what we can get from this angle).

In this post, you tell us that mythic mode can be useful for changing the role we play in the "web". However, how do we decide what role we want to play? Isn't it the case that our reasoning about that is in itself part of the role we are currently playing? Is it the right thing to somehow step out of the role entirely, and look for a new role from that perspective (or even forgo roles entirely)? Is there even such a thing as "the things our inner selves want, independently of the role"? Or, are all our preferences always part of the role and it's meaningless to talk about preferences that are not?

Is there even such a thing as "the things our inner selves want, independently of the role"? Or, are all our preferences always part of the role and it's meaningless to talk about preferences that are not?

Some people spend almost none of their time alone, by which I mean not being exposed to social pressures (so e.g. being on Facebook doesn't count as being alone in the sense I mean it here). Those people will probably learn some things about themselves by deliberately spending a lot of time alone, for example at a silent meditation retreat.

Yep. That's why this is a weaker partial solution than is Looking. I claim yes, kind of. There's secretly a type error embedded in here, but language is horrid for pointing this particular thing out, so I'll just gesture toward the wave of mystical stuff that keeps saying "there is no self" and claim that there's some implicit confusion in the ontology I read being used here. But if we ignore that and round it to the nearest true thing as I understand it… then yes, your "inner self" can want things in a way that isn't derived from your position in the web. That's part of why Looking is even possible.

At first I wanted to react like Phil Goetz did to Scott's old post Crowley on Religious Experience:

In his youth, Steve Jobs went to India to be enlightened. After seeing that the nation claiming to be the source of this great spiritual knowledge was full of hunger, ignorance, squalor, poverty, prejudice, and disease, he came back and said that the East should look to the West for enlightenment.

But then I noticed that you aren't promoting woo as a means to external success, only solving internal problems (depression, anxiety, akrasia). That's fine, I guess? Western culture certainly doesn't have a good track record against anxiety. I'd still want to see rational solutions, but woo is better than no solution at all.

The worrying possibility is that anxiety etc. is part of the price we pay for the nice things we have. Giving up modernity can lead to horrible results that are all too familiar. And modernity hasn't won yet, the world can slide back any minute. I certainly don't feel that my ability for independent thought (weak as it is) would survive a switch to woo. What do others think?

I don't feel like my capacity to think has been harmed by dabbling in woo (Tantra, bits and pieces of mythic mode) but I do think a certain level of epistemic strength is necessary to avoid being washed away by the tide, and I've met people dabbling in woo (not rationalists) who don't have it and whose epistemics are compromised accordingly. (But I think most people have this property, it's just that their epistemics are usually being compromised in a more broadly socially acceptable direction. If you don't also take ideas seriously this doesn't matter much either way. So the only people at risk here are people who both take ideas seriously and worry that they're epistemically weak.)
Responding to the “western culture isn’t good at dealing with anxiety section”: I think anxiety is a bit of a special case, and also that internal problems are hard to distinguish from external problems. Take for example lead-poisoning, which seems to have drastically increased violence and impulsiveness in places with leaded gasoline, and I am very skeptical that any internal intervention would have helped people affected by lead poisoning. Similarly we have antidepressants which have a pretty good track record of working for anxiety and depression. Overall I would say that western culture has a stronger track record of finding scalable solutions to mental problems than any other culture, though competitive pressures certainly have also caused it to adopt a bunch of factors that are now causing people anxiety (though overall western cultures still appear to be the self-reported happiest cultures in the world, as well as the least anxious cultures in the world, based on quick googling). There is maybe an argument to be made that what you truly mean by non-modernity is a hunter-gatherer society, but what lives those lives and what levels of anxiety they experiences strikes me as a much harder question.
Weird. Here's a review article that seems to disagree:
Huh, I would be interested in more evidence on this.
I certainly don't feel that my ability for independent thought (weak as it is) would survive a switch to woo. What do others think? Having done a reasonable bit of role-playing and fiction writing, I feel reasonably confident in my ability to run different ways of thinking in sandboxes, though I obviously need to be careful.
If you have enough social contact with rationalists, I don't think the danger of drifting to deep into woo is big. Social feedback from people who think rigorously is likely to keep you in a good sphere.

Not if all rationalists start taking up woo.

I seriously doubt that'll ever happen. The closest I would expect is if the community schisms on an axis like "Is mythic mode okay to use?" and the mantle of "rationalist" is seen as moving with the "yes" camp. And I think that whole schism would be dumb and would make both groups dumber regardless of what happens to which labels.
I have done a decent amount of "woo" (meditation, a bit of Val-style mythic mode) in the past years, and my ability for independent thought and especially independent action seem to have gone way up.

While my primate political side really likes the alignment and agreement, I want to encourage good epistemic norms here. So, I'll ask an impolitic question:

What gives you the impression that your ability for independent thought and action has "gone way up"? In particular, how do you know that you aren't kidding yourself? (Not meaning to claim you are! Just trying to nudge toward sharing the causes of your belief here.)

Appreciate the impolitic question. :) I think I was doing some sort of social move that was trying to reset the burden of proof, rather than actually sharing data, but of course sharing data is better. (I do think people too often assume that their status quo bias is some sort of principled wisdom, so asking "are you sure the burden of proof is on your side?" is moderately useful. But data is better.)

I'm more confident on the independent action side than the independent thought side, so I'll start with that: I am taking more concrete steps towards achieving my goals, in ways that (inside-view) seem directly related to meditation et. al. For instance, I'm noticing much faster when I'm unhappy with a situation, and taking action more directly to fix it. Some specific examples are quitting my job last spring, and successfully pitching my boss on a change of plan at my current job. (Possible confounder is that I'm generally gaining confidence over time, and am getting more career capital, so maybe I would get better at these things anyway. I'm not immediately sure how to prove that this isn't true, though it inside-view doesn't seem to ... (read more)

Val, you mentioned Sandboxing several times, but only linked to the Computer Science definition. Can you go into more details about how to sandbox as a human?

I'd be happy to. …though after reflecting on it and starting a few drafts of a comment here, I'm starting to wonder if I should instead spell it out in more detail in its own post. The gist of it is that every framework thinks every other framework is seriously missing the point in some way. If you can nail down X's critique of Y and Y's critique of X, and both critiques are made of Gears, you can use those critiques to emphasize a boundary between them and to intentionally switch between them. In practice, we usually want to switch between a kind of science-based frame and a new hypothetical one we want to test out. When both the science frame and the new to-be-sandboxed frame both have allergic reactions to the other, then they're never going to mix, and there's no risk of the "Aha, consciousness collapses quantum probability waves!" type error. You can then leverage each frame's critique of the other to switch between them, or to verify which one you're in. After that you can set up some TAPs to create mental warning bells whenever you enter one, or to remember to verify which one you're in if you want to double-check before doing a given kind of reasoning or making a given kind of decision. In practice I find this makes each mode more clear and internally consistent, in part by exposing and removing internal inconsistencies. E.g., in the "consciousness collapses quantum probability waves" thing, you can actually find the logical point where "consciousness first" and quantum mechanics slam into one another, at which point you need to separate them more fully. Then it becomes more obvious that the "consciousness first" paradigm doesn't allow us to start with the frame of there being an objective reality that there is subjective experience of. This lets you keep your sanity in quantum mechanics even when sometimes trying on the "consciousness first" paradigm, because the two basically can't coexist in the same effort to explain a given phenomenon. The only th
This, please.

This fake frameworks thing looks quite clearly like Chaos Magic, and the reference to the Book of the Law quote "wine and strange drugs" is a dog whistle to that effect.

Some chaos magicians like to use drug experiences as ready-made containers for what Val calls the Mythic Mode. Some drugs can both increase the ability to suspend disbelief while inside the experience and make it easier to distance oneself from it when outside of it. A good description of techniques for this, with all non-scientific woo-woo strictly optional, is Julian Vayne'... (read more)

4Eric Raymond3y
The reference to the Book of the Law was intentional.  The reference to chaos magic was not, as that concept had yet to be formulated when I wrote the essay - at least, not out where I could see it. I myself do not use psychoactives for magical purposes; I've never found it necessary and consider them a rather blunt and chancy instrument.  I do occasionally take armodafinil for the nootropic effect, but that is very recent and long postdates the essay.
There are a lot of different people who talk about similar thing. Impro was mentioned. There's also Jung. They are probably interrelated and have similar influences. I'd be very wary of Chaos Magick in who it seems to explicitly break down useful psychic walls for the sake of freedom and power (eg. rejecting virtue).

Since Val could edit his post, but not this comment, here's me echoing his MD5 hash so that it is more verifiable in the future: 24e07349c9134ff91d77a6a38cf23183

I'm not an expert, but I think MD5 isn't the best for this purpose due to collision attacks. If it's a very small plain-english ASCII message, then collision attacks are probably not a worry (I think?), but it's probably better to use something like SHA-2 or SHA-3 anyways.
That might well be. I haven't a clue which hash functions do what relative to one another. But yeah, the thing it encodes is English ASCII text.
Could someone eli5 what this hash thing does?
A hash is a way of taking a bunch of data and returning a unique (or mostly-unique) signature. The nice thing is that if you change the data by just a little bit, the hash is then completely different.
The important feature is that it's easy to compute the hash given the data but very difficult to recover the data given the hash, even though hashes are mostly unique. And the point, in this context: You can use hashes to register advance predictions without revealing them. If you want to be able to publicly claim that a week ago you predicted that it would rain today, but without having revealed that fact until now, you can do it by publicly posting a hash of the text of such a prediction (e.g. "I, [your name], predicted on [last week's date] that it will rain on [today's date]") a week ago, then today revealing the text. Anyone can now check that the text hashes to the hash you posted a week ago.

Re: pushback. I don't find it frightening, but it's often not to my taste. I like writers who make everything as simple as possible but no simpler--folks like Paul Graham and Richard Feynman.

A relevant idea is the forum/community axis: a forum is a place where people come to discuss things, whereas a community has less turnover and a stronger culture. I suspect the evolutionary role of religion is to facilitate superorganism formation. Strengthened in-group identity brings pros like better group coordination, public goods provision, and share... (read more)

Would it be fair to say that one core claim of your post is "There's many a time when you will be better served by choosing actions based off of the hero-role script, as opposed to 'worrying about the details' "?

I think that mythic mode makes more sense when one is thinking about it as an iterative strategy. Looking at the your NYC monk story as a one-off, it's easy to conclude, "yeah, it worked, but the careful planning route is what you should have done." Whereas if you think of mythic mode as an iterative strategy... (read more)

Yesss. I've been alluding in various comments lately to things that I've been learning over the past year via circling and other practices, and the stuff in this post (as well as Dancing With The Gods, which I recommend that people read in full, and Impro, which I continue to recommend in the strongest terms) is very much in line with it.

I think I have decent practice with using mythic mode in moments that call for it but haven't tried using it to make plans yet. Looking forward to experimenting with this.


(epistemic status: I can tell that I'm missing something, but I still think this model is an improvement over the default)

To those with an aversion to narrative: I don't think we have a choice.

Myth is a very powerful tool for emotional intelligence. To put a number to my intuition: I think a properly devised narrative can have 10x the amount of traction compared to any amount of SAD lamps, multivitamins, sleep routines and other tricks you play on your s1. If you want to persuade your s1, you have to speak to it in it's own language.

I think ... (read more)

I generally agree. One nitpick: My impression is that S1 solves roughly two kinds of problems: movement and other people. I think the latter tends to dominate, sometimes overwhelmingly. But with or without myths, you can still lift your arm.

This, and Vaniver's later review on Maps of Meaning (, point to an important blindspot of rationalists - an allergy to narrative, which leads to a loss of meaning and an ability to motivate themselves.

These two posts give some concrete ways in which to recognize an transcend this blindspot. I think common knowledge of how to create myths and narratives for oneself, and understand how they operate in others, is quite important.

Val, do you know of any lists of good mythic mode roles that a person could inhabit?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


I've often strongly desired an alternative version of TVTropes which could be called RealityTropes. Much of what you're referring to above would be on that webpage.

Within the mythic mode framework, the hero's journey is a known living story and role. It exists in both mythic mode and fiction, but not all roles that exist in fiction actually exist in mythic mode and not all that exist in mythic mode exist in fiction. (Or easily accessible fic... (read more)

Archetypes are good (Caroline Myss is one author), trickster makes this world, and spiral dynamics are three places to look for modes of thinking.

I think I've been doing "mythic mode" for nearly my entire life, but not because I came up with this idea explicitly and intentionally deployed it, but just because it sort of happens on its own without any effort. It's not something that happens at every moment, but frequently enough that it's a significant driving force.

But it used to be that I didn't notice myself doing this at all, this is just how it felt to be a person with goals and desires, and doing mythic mode was just how that manifested in my subconscious desires. ... (read more)

A lot of what you say here is why I think it's maybe really important to learn how to sandbox mythic mode, even if you don't want to intentionally use it. Otherwise I think something like it seeps into your system anyway. Yep! I debated framing it this way, but I eventually decided against it because I thought it would be distracting here. And as you say, I rederived the ideas, and then later noticed that they corresponded to my read of what Jung was talking about… and not having really read Jung in any depth, I didn't want to tie my ideas to other things he might have claimed. Mmm… not exactly. More like, I posit that it has scripts, and guides people to play them out. This often involves an element of predicting people's actions, but it's more a matter of predicting what kinds of actions someone is likely to take. "What kind of person is this?" rather than "What is this person going to do?" I think that's close enough. I'd just add the caveat that by my model, people mostly can't intentionally stray from paths. There are exceptions, but they're relatively rare, and when done without finesse it can create some pretty ferocious responses. Like, I suspect that psychopathy is in part being unaffected by Omega's tugs, and people generally really really don't like others to be quite that free. Yep, I agree, that's important, and the framework says that it's extremely difficult for the most part (except where it doesn't matter to the "scene", or where it's about things that aren't subject to scripts the way physics isn't). This is another way of stating what I see as a core challenge for a mature art of rationality to gracefully navigate.

This is partly a reply and partly an addendum to my first comment. I've been thinking about a sort of duality that exists within the rationalist community to a degree and that has become a lot more visible lately, in particular with posts like this. I would refer to this duality as something like "The Two Polarities of Noncomformists", although I'm sure someone could think of something better to call it. The way I would describe it is that, communities like this one are largely composed of people who feel fairly uncomfortable with the way they are situated in society, either because they are outliers on some dimension of personality, interests, or intellect, or because of the degree to which they are sensitive to social reality around them. What this leads to is basically a bimodal distribution of people where both modes are outliers, with respect to the distribution of people in general, on one axis (namely the way that social reality is sensed) but on opposite ends. And these two groups differ very strongly in the way that their values are formed and quite possibly even in subtle ways reality itself is perceived. 

On the one hand, you have the "proper non-... (read more)

I think this dichotomy carves reality pretty well. Nice comment. I’m reminded of the different approaches to magic described in various stories. In some stories magic is ineffable. The characters never really understand it. They use it intuitively, and its functioning tends to depend on emotional states or degrees of belief or proper intentions. Wizardry is more like art than science. In another type of story, magic is mechanical. A mage learns precise words, movements or rituals to operate a kind of invisible machine that serves up magical results. Wizardry is not unlike being an engineer or programmer. I think that you can view real life as having both qualities. That’s probably why these two views of magic have any appeal in the first place. I find it more appealing to be the kind of mage who understands the nuts and bolts. To stretch the metaphor probably too far, it’s all well and good to know a long, complex ritual that summons a demon, but I find it more aesthetically appealing to understand what elements of that ritual are load bearing and then just do those. And maybe that means I just do the “spell” in my head in five seconds instead of performing a lengthy narrative-conforming ritual. Maybe magic will twist the world so that one doesn’t miss their connection with the Buddhist monk in NYC. (I super-duper doubt it, though. This is actually just classic hindsight bias.) I would rather rely on basic planning principles to get the same outcome. At least then the causal story is actually true. And if my planning approach fails, then I can learn from that, rather than having the Mythic approach fail, and being forced to shrug and accept that this is the outcome the cosmos wanted.
I'm not in Val's head, but I didn't get the sense that he was claiming this was the best way to meet Shaolin monks. Rather, his aim was to find a way to build on his moment of Kensho in a way that progressed his growth and development. He could just as easily have missed the monk, and then he would have by chance run into another form of teacher, and that would have been the story instead. Or he would have learned something from his aimless wanderings that he couldn't have learned by finding a teacher. Or he would have not learned anything and been frustrated, and then the story would be that he was undergoing some sort of trial and the next thing he did would be the payoff.
Yeah, you're right. I wasn't being very precise, there. Thinking in terms of narrative and such as all well and good (and even natural and unavoidable) but sometimes the superficial story "I scheduled a trip and almost missed one of the people I wanted to see on the trip, I should consider this is a potential thing to look out for going forward" is the one worth paying attention to.

This argument has been very very helpful in my thinking those last few weeks and I want to thank you for it. I'm walking an increasingly spiritual path in my life, but this article lays a solid foundation for my thinking: yes, emotions can be amazing and they pretty much run the show; yes, you can only access those deep transcendental feeling by being in this 'mythic' mode where you see crazy coincidences; but no, they don't have to be truths about the nature of the world, and it is important to be able to navigate both to lead a fully satisfying life.