Rationality and Spirituality - Summary and Open Thread

by Chris_Leong1 min read21st Apr 201827 comments


Open Threads

I've noticed that there has recently been a lot of interest in spirituality, ritual and meaning within the rationality community. I could highlight the discussions of Jordan Peterson (SSC, SSC Follow Up, Put A Num On It), Valentine's recent posts (Fake Frameworks, Kensho, The Intelligent Social Web, Mythic Mode, Kaj Sotala's Response), discussions on Meditation (Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, Gupta on Enlightenment, Five Years After Starting Mindfulness Meditation) and a few others (Funeral Ritual, Open-Source Monasticism). I thought I would encourage this trend making this post as this seems like an interesting direction for exploration and I suspect more progress occurs when multiple people develop an interest in a topic at the same time than when they all explore individual directions.

This is an open thread, so you can post whatever you want about this topic, but here's a few possible discussion directions:

  • Have you made any attempt to explore any kind of spirituality in the broadest sense? If so, what have you learned?
  • In the past, attempts to engage with post-rationality didn't seem to be particularly successful. Perhaps now is a better time?
  • What are the core rationality posts or resources on this topic? What are some resources from outside the rationality community that we may find helpful?

(I'm too lazy, but the links above could form the basis of a Wiki post)

27 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:31 AM
New Comment

I've lived in a buddhist monastery for 3 months and attended 5 ayahuasca ceremonies, so I feel called upon here. I haven't written anything before because I couldn't justify any of the insights I've had, even though some part of me "knows" this stuff is true. I haven't arrived at a full model either, so here's some notes that you shouldn't take too seriously.

Spirituality is a toolbox for emotional intelligence, and it's primary goal is inner alignment, or alignment of your subagents. It's winning coordination games with all the parts of you that represent different needs.

The opposite of inner alignment is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the sum of activity of all those subagents that are trying to push the world into a state they're 'attached to'. When cognitive dissonance flares up we notice, but there is also a continuous subconscious process of dissonance going on, eating our attention.

From what I know from cognitive neuroscience, presumably these are parts of your brain representing certain needs. They're activated by your map matching a state they don't agree with, and your prefrontal cortex is inhibiting them. The part of the PFC that does inhibition also does working memory, so you function less well if there is more dissonance going on.

Arriving at increasingly strong inner alignment is actually a fully automatic process. It's just that it doesn't execute as long as our working memory is being used for something else. If you're not occupied with trying to achieve all kinds of worldly goals like money and impact and status, all kinds of insights bubble up to the surface that help you relieve dissonance in some way.

This process is especially active during REM sleep, meditative states, and on psychedelics. Ever noticed how a night with more dreams is more restorative?

Temples are optimized for completely reducing distractions so that this dissonance-relieving process has more space to do it's magic. You do exactly the same stuff every day, and 6 hours of that is sitting on a pillow explicitly killing your daemons. It's all about freeing as much working memory as possible.

To give an idea, here's a few examples of insights I had when I was there:

  • Suppression of feelings: some feelings are hidden. They influence your behavior and require effort to continuously suppress. Suppressing feelings also forces you to ignore data and makes you unable to actually get to the root of the problem. Pica is often a result.
  • Pleasure vs happiness: pleasure is a form of happiness that is associated with change, usually through some sort of action. It is necessarily short-lived. Happiness itself need not depend on pleasure, for some happiness is based on things that are stable. While there are a thousand shards of pleasure, the things that lead to eudaimonia seem few and simple. It seems to me that things that give pleasure are rarely, if ever, necessary conditions for happiness.
  • Worth indifference: Perceiving yourself as worth more than others leads to mania and burnout. Perceiving yourself as worth less leads to not living up to your potential. perceiving differences of worth leads to bad coordination in general.
  • Inner trust: Imagine you're a subagent that is tasked with physical care. You have limited information. All you can see is the state of your physical body, and you have limited tools. You regulate your energy levels and thus have some veto power over the agent. Now imagine you see your physical state deteriorating quickly with no clear reason. What do you do? You pull the emergency break. That's burnout. An emergency break because you neglect your physical body.
  • "mental" problems: Try not to define your problems in terms of affective states. Those are only a manifestation of the problem. Real problems don't exist in the map, only in the territory. Happiness is the belief that your terminal goals are fulfilled. If you strive to be happy, you strive to believe that your terminal goals are fulfilled. When happiness is your terminal goal, it becomes self-reinforcing. But you have other terminal goals, and if you strive to believe they are fulfilled, this is in contradiction to the litany of tarski. Therefore happiness is not our (correct) terminal goal, but then what is? And how stable is it?

(That last one has become a meme at the Home Bayes (our local rationalist association). We call it "don't shoot the messenger". If you're having emotional problems, give the emotion personhood and take it's message seriously. Only then will it take you seriously. Powerful stuff)

I also became sort of a negative utilitarian, in the sense that I learned that happiness is merely the absence of dissonance. It's not an active process, just the background of suffering. Increasing your working memory by relieving dissonance makes you both happier and more rational.

The latter only to the extent that you preserve your utility function, which is just one of those processes that cause dissonance.

Again, this model is a work in progress.

You are the first person that I have seen suggest that spirituality is emotional intelligence. But that makes a lot of sense.

Especially when trying to sort out the spirituality of disciplined masters of their craft (swordsman, martial artists, artists/performers, flow states) and how that marries to religious spirituality.

In Daniel Goleman's book "emotional intelligence, he describes a Physiological link between physical states (breathing, posture, hr) and emotion. And as a two way street.

If we continue that link, physical discipline IS emotional management IS spirituality.

Also I never paired cognitive dissonance with agent disagreement. No idea why. Seems obvious now.

Are you all up proposing that spirituality is aligning the parts of us? There's a discussion in Judaism where they talk about the animalistic self and the spiritual self. Which seems to confuse things compared to "spirituality is emotional alignment". Thoughts?

Re animalistic self vs spiritual self: I'm confused too. I'd just label them as two subagents, but then why call one spiritual.

Perhaps you could say that spirituality is about giving the spiritual subagent more space by aligning other subagents with it.

Maybe the spiritual self is not a subagent but the agent, constituting of a subset of your subagents that are already aligned.

There was a study where people that recited religious memes had a lot more willpower (they held their hands in ice water much longer).

I once participated in an ice water test. I maxxed out on the timer because I felt like it. Thinking that's a willpower test is really not great science, "put your hand in the ice bucket for as long as you like", "what's the max time?" it really wasn't an effective measure and I hope I didn't break their experiment.

Specifically this is about encouraging people to choose the spiritual pull over the animalistic pull. Not alignment but rather choice.

Although I personally suspect that your options for congruence include picking one, picking the other or trying to find alignment.

"There's a discussion in Judaism where they talk about the animalistic self and the spiritual self" - That sounds roughly like the id and the super-ego in Freudian terms (though he also includes an ego)

I've been meditating since I was about 19, and before I came across rationality / effective altruism. There is quite a bit of overlap between the sets of things I've been able to learn from both schools of thought, but I think there are still a lot of very useful (possibly even necessary) things that can only be learned from meditative practices right now. This is not because rationality is inherently incapable of learning the same things, but because within rationality it would take very strong and well developed theories, perhaps developed through large scale empirical observations of human behavior, to come to the same conclusions. On the other hand, with meditation a lot of these same conclusions are just "obvious."

Most of these things have to do with subtle issues of psychology, particularly with values and morality. For example, before I began meditating, I generally believed that:

  • Moral principles could be determined logically from a set of axioms that were "self-evidently true" and that once I deduced those things, I would simply follow them.
  • The set of things that seemed to make me happy, like having friends, being in love, feeling accomplished, were not incompatible with true moral principles, and in fact were instrumentally helpful in achieving terminal moral goals.
  • I intrinsically value what is moral. If it ever seemed like I valued what was not moral, I could chalk it up to temporary or easily surmountable issues, like vestigial animal instincts or lack of willpower. Basically desires that could be easily overridden.
  • Pleasure, pain, and emotions were more like guidelines, things that made it possible to act quickly in certain situations. Insofar as certain forms of pleasure were "intrinsic values" (like love) they did not interfere with moral goals. They were not things that determined my behavior very strongly, and certainly they didn't have subtle cascading effects on the entire set of my beliefs.

After having meditated for a long time, many of these beliefs were eradicated. Right now it seems more likely that:

  • My values are not even consistent, let alone determined by moral principles. It's not clear that deducing a good set of moral principles could even change my values.
  • My values are malleable, but not easily malleable in a direction that can be controlled by me (not without a ton of meditation, anyway).
  • The formalization of my values in my mind are not a good predictor of what my actions will be. A better predictor involves far more short term mechanisms in my psyche.
  • The beliefs I had prior to meditating were more likely constructed so that I could report these to other people in a way that would make them more likely to value me and approve of me.
  • Values that truly do seem hard to deconstruct are surprisingly selfish. For example, I assumed that I valued approval from other humans because this was an instrumental goal in helping me judge the quality of my actions. It now seems more likely that social approval is in fact an intrinsic goal, which is very worrying to me in regards to my ability to attain my altruistic goals.

If it turns out that meditating has given me better self-reflective capabilities, and the things I've observed are accurate, then this has some pretty far-reaching implications. If I'm not extremely atypical, then most people are probably very blind to their own intrinsic values. This is a worrying prospect for the long-term efficacy of effective altruism.

Hopefully this isn't too controversial to say, but it seems to me like a lot of the main currents within EA are operating more-or-less along the lines of my prior-to-meditating beliefs. Here I'm thinking about the type of ethics where you are encouraged to maximize your altruistic output. Things like, "earn to give", "choose only the career that maximizes your ability to be altruistic", "donate as much of your time and energy as you can to being altruistic", etc. Of course EA thought is very diverse, so this doesn't represent all of it. But the way that my values currently seem structured, it's probably unrealistic that I could actually fulfill these, unless I experienced an abnormally large amount of happiness for each altruistic act that outweighed most of my other values. It's of course possible that I'm unusually selfish or even a sociopath, but my prior on that is very low.

On the other hand, if my values really are malleable, and it is possible to influence those values, then it makes sense for me to spend a lot of time deciding how that process should proceed. This is only possible because my values are inconsistent. If they were consistent, it would be against my values to change them, but it seems that once a set of values is inconsistent, it could actually make sense to try to alter them. And meditation might turn out to be one of the ways to make these kind of changes to your own mind.

I thought I'd highlight a few posts that you might find interesting.

Eric Raymond's Dancing with the Gods describes his experiences with the neo-pagan movement and how he finds 'channeling a God' a useful fiction to achieve certain states of mind where he can do things that he can't normally do.

In Defense of "Spiritual" - Sam Harris defends using the term spiritual to refer to certain experiences obtained through meditation, psychedelics or other means that allow a person to transform themselves.

This blog post (The Making of Buddhist Modernism) makes some quite interesting point about how "Western Buddhism" is a world apart from Traditional Buddhism and is better termed as Buddhist Modernism as it was developed in Asia in response to Western ideas, but only later imported into the West. Another useful post is Epistemology and Enlightenment which takes a skeptical look at many enlightenment claims.

Daniel Dennet's work on Heterophenomenology also seems quite relevant as it provides a more scientific approach to the project of understanding our raw experience (phenomenology). It's discussed briefly in the following book review and seems highly relevant to meditation.

Atheism 2.0: Alain de Bois arguing that we can lift various concepts from religion including sermons, rituals and physical actions backing up ideas.

The concept of metis (Greek for "practical wisdom") is also crucially important as it allows us to understand how religion or rituals can have value that even the practitioners don't fully understand. I'd start with this SlateStarCodex article before reading The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life as SamZDat is sometimes rather tricky to understand.

Buddhism and "fit" - seems to take a more rationalist approach which looks to religious traditions as tools

I need this whole topic steelmanned. Parts of it are presumably good and worth discussing, but much of it is lighting my bullshit detectors on fire.

One minor issue, I read the "In Defense of "Spiritual"", and didn't find it all that convincing. You may want to change the mystical associations of that word, but wanting isn't enough, and by using that word you're paying some associated costs. Honestly, if I try to forget the mystical associations, I have no idea what "spiritual" even means, and, more importantly, I have no confidence that different people use that word to refer to the same things. It sounds like you want to talk about phenomenology, so why not call it that?

Book recommendation: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris. Discusses enlightenment, meditation, and psychedelics.

I have never had any experience that I would call "spiritual", and I do not know what other people are intending to point to when they use the word. From outside, I only get the idea of strong positive emotions, imbued with a sense of contact with something, personal or impersonal, outside of and independent from oneself. They are moved to call this thing "enlightenment", "(ultimate) reality", "God", "insight", and so on. They experience it as tremendously valuable, but it is not clear that it makes any outward difference to their lives.

Or sometimes, it's just the emotions, and that's all they mean by the word "spiritual". Ok, fine, call it that.

Some things have produced strong positive emotions for me -- some music, some writing, some pictures, for example -- but I don't call this "spiritual", and I have not experienced the subjective feelings of insight, despite having spent a fair amount of time meditating.

Some people claim enlightenment from drugs, but the mind is a physical process of the brain, so it's not surprising that pouring chemicals into the brain can give you weird experiences. At the most it might tell you something about how your mind works, but there is no insight into ultimate reality or contact with God to be had there.

The concrete, observable things that some people say they get from "spiritual" experience, and maybe they do, always look like ordinary things like consciousness of abstraction or the various topics covered in the Sequences. That is, when it's any more than an example of Heinlein's observation that the "wisdom of the ages" so often sounds like just being too tired.

Here is an analogy I find tempting, but I shall stop short of claiming that it actually describes this. Suppose someone has been raised drinking alcohol every day, from early childhood on, so that they have never experienced sobriety. Then one day, for whatever reason, they stop. They go through some withdrawal period (the Dark Night of the Soul?) and come out the other side sober for the first time ever. They go on and on about their enlightened state, while the ordinarily sober people around them just go, "Well, duh. Chop wood, carry water, bub."

Kinda. Check out liberation unleashed. You might already have things.

Do you mean liberationunleashed dot com, the "global movement of people helping others to see through the illusion of a separate self"? I'll pass. I am very much aware of my own self, and when meditating even more so. Hey, I already have things! Including a self!

Very curious web site. I looked at several of their articles and you could replace their central claim, that "you have no self", by anything else, and it would make as much sense. For example, from their page "The Gate":

"First of all you will need to set a clear intention to see the truth, no matter what. That might be scary, but necessary. If you are serious about stepping through the gateless gate you need to bring courage and honesty with you.

"Commit and get liberated. The exit that you are looking for is here.

"Clear the expectations. Of course you know a lot about what enlightenment is and what liberation should be and feel like. So just write it all down. Make a list of every bit of what you think it’s gonna do for you. Then leave it all to rest. We are going to guide you to see what is true for yourself.

"The biggest obstacles are fear, resistance and distraction. Fear is a mechanism that is guarding illusion from being found out for what it really is. Resistance comes up through feelings and thoughts that you can not do it. And mind will play all kind of tricks to distract you from direct looking. You will need courage, burning desire for truth and focus.

"Once you bypass the fear then it’s easy. You look at the truth that X. X. X. You look at the thought with the thought, examine labels, mind function to label experience and find out for yourself what it is that you know for sure.

"The simple fact is that, in a very literal sense, X. Once this is seen, it can never be unseen."

And so on. Their article "Where is the I" could equally well be repurposed to prove that there is no such thing as a jumbo jet.

You missed the point of the site. They definitely cluster at a concept. I don't need to convince you. Come back to it in ten years when you are ready.

I took the point of the site to be what they say it is, over and over again on every page. That is the concept that they definitely cluster at, and I find it no more credible than any other woo. If their point is something else, they really suck at communicating it. This thing screams "cult" all over.

"Choose the path of least resistance and it will be easy. Resists [sic] and we will slap you."

‘Does Big Brother exist?’

‘Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’

‘Does he exist in the same way as I exist?’

‘You do not exist,’ said O’Brien.

Once again the sense of helplessness assailed him. He knew, or he could imagine, the arguments which proved his own nonexistence; but they were nonsense, they were only a play on words. Did not the statement, ‘You do not exist’, contain a logical absurdity? But what use was it to say so? His mind shrivelled as he thought of the unanswerable, mad arguments with which O’Brien would demolish him.

‘I think I exist,’ he said wearily. ‘I am conscious of my own identity. I was born and I shall die. I have arms and legs. I occupy a particular point in space. No other solid object can occupy the same point simultaneously. In that sense, does Big Brother exist?’

‘It is of no importance. He exists.’

Cute. 1984 I guess.

Let me try again. This might not help but I am going to try anyway just in case it does.

I suspect that you personally don't get spirituality because every time you intend to move towards it you are accidentally doing the opposite thing.

Like flow state. You can't get into flow by constantly without taking a break, asking if you are in flow yet.

You need to do less complicated thinking and relax your "try hard at it" muscle.

The whole thing is "simple and obvious" by that I don't mean "and you should be able to get it easy and feel bad for not getting it", rather I mean, "and it does not require any more complex thinking or strategy than you already have". It's simple in the sense that it's not a trick or a trap or a cryptic thing. It is in fact even less and boring and ordinary. In that sense you may already have bits of spirituality that you just took as "background noise" in your life.

I have no judgement around if you get it or not. It just is. Don't worry about it and it will be easier to get there.

Try to do the opposite and see what happens. Or describe what will happen if you do the opposite of the things you have tried.

The opposite of all the things I have done in this area would be to ignore the matter. Which I did, before I was interested in this. So that does not leave much.

The whole "it's so simple!" shtick is what the cactus person and the green bat said to Scott Alexander, and what Val and others have said to LessWrong, and is the totality of liberationunleashed, but all I see is inferential distance and no attempt to cross it. (I am not demanding that you make such an attempt.) Of all the things that I know, I would not try to teach any of them by saying how simple it is and how all you need to do is not do, and drop all assumptions, and just see the truth of the matter, and conquer your fear, and [cont'd p.94]

There's a reason that these things sound like repeating advice. And it's because from the other side of the inferential distance they sound like the right advice.

It's frustrating from this vantage point too.

I guess you don't need to worry until someone with a better description comes along.

What have you learned from that site?

I do have a decent amount of experience and my main spiritual path comes from the teaching of a Frenchman called Danis Bois.knowledge is dependent on a person's experience and can by it's nature only be ascertained by people who actually had certain experiences.

If so, what have you learned?

A lot, I don't think it makes much sense to answer the question is that broadness.

In the past, attempts to engage with post-rationality didn't seem to be particularly successful.

That depends a lot on how you frame the debate. You could call the fact that we had a lot of great solstice events a successful adoption of rituals.

I suspect more progress occurs when multiple people develop an interest in a topic at the same time than when they all explore individual directions.

In one sense spirituality is one topic. On the other hand different spiritual traditions are different. Effective learning in most spiritual traditions is done via in person teaching.

Exoteric refers to knowledge that is outside, and independent from, a person's experience and can be ascertained by anyone while esoteric knowledge is dependend on a person's experience and can by it's nature only be ascertained by people who actually had certain experiences.

In Kensho Valentine writes how Koan's were supposed to be a teaching tool that works because they manage to induce certain experiences and how rationalists dissolve them by reasoning about them in a way that that doesn't induce any new experiences making the teaching tool pointless.

I'm at the moment on a 4-day workshop on the Danis Bois method. With the group we now bimonthly workshops for over two years. This workshop we had really great meditations and there was an opening to ask about how the workshop leader actually leads meditations and what's important in how she does it. She managed to tell us a bit but a significant portion of the room just couldn't follow and make any sense of it because of lack of experience and got quite agitated by it. It ended with her saying: "I'm not going to tell you more, not because I don't know more but because I don't think it would be valuable to tell you."

That brings us back to Strauss. His book is good at explaining how many writers use various devices to hide information from lay people. He mainly writes about the norms of Jewish spirituality but most spiritual traditions have norms of secrecy around advanced knowledge. In the Danis Bois method, we are even relatively open and don't have any promises of secrecy that the Jewish and for example Tantra people do have.

New Age spirituality doesn't have those norms of secrecy and teachers willing to tell you anything you want to hear provided you pay enough money for their teaching but it's often quite shallow as a result.

If you want to get a better understanding of the issue of secrecy around most spiritual traditions I recommend reading Strauss.

That said, I consider David Chapman's writing to be good and approachable. There are times when Chapman says: "I'm talking about a Tantra technique that I can't explain to you because of promises of secrecy" but overall Chapman writes a lot of things in a very open way. He also wrote multiple posts on Meaningness specifically for a rational audience.

I've never heard about Danis Bois before. Do you have a link to a good introduction of what it is about?

His main work is in French and his PHD students also published in French, so there isn't much published in English.

One of his book is translated into English under the title The Wild Region of Lived Experience: Using Somatic-Psychoeducation. The book is however not easily readable for people without background in the method.

When I read it a few month into learning the method it I didn't draw much out of it but I found much more value when I reread it two years later.

The book has a short description on the cover:

"The Wild Region of Lived Experience introduces the emerging discipline of somatic-psychoeducation, a powerful body-mind modality developed over a period of 25 years by author Danis Bois. Somatic-psychoeducation uses aspects of manual therapy (touch), movement, and psychotherapeutic methods to help people heal from physical and emotional issues, as well as develop their maximum potential for balance, well-being, and creativity. Considering the person as a body-mind unit, this method aims to resolve physical pain and psychological suffering, thereby helping the subject regain the sure sense of his or her life. By teaching people to perceive, to feel, and to reflect, they learn from their bodies and from events in their lives."

Though I've had a handful of multi-month streaks of daily meditation, I don't have much experience with meditation or spirituality in general. I feel fairly receptive to what I've seen though.

It seems to me that the two biggest concerns about this area are 1. If it's "worth" the time to figure out, and 2. If it's "safe".

On point 2. I remember a lot of comments along the lines of, "What if I poke around in my brain, trigger a 'spiritual' experience, and screw myself up and lose sight of what is real and what is just 'stuff going on in my brain'?"

To me, this danger is only apparent if you are in a group context where you have people intentionally or unintentionally putting effort into getting you to buy in. I have a hard time seeing why stuff in the meditation realm might be particularly hazardous. If this is just a failure of my imagination, I would love to hear from the people who are worried about this.

Some time ago I described high-level meditation as getting admin privileges into parts of your brain. You can use those privileges to make a lot of changes, which means great potential to improve on things, but also great potential to break stuff.

For example: intellectually, people can accept all kinds of claims about how we’re living in a simulation constructed by our brains and how everything we experience is a result of many layers of processing and transformation. But it’s quite another matter to experience it, by getting access to somewhat earlier processing stages of sensory information. Knowing something on an intellectual level is a very different thing than knowing it on an experiental level: knowing the physical processes of light, is different from actually seeing the color red for the first time. In particular, there are many assumptions of the nature of the self, of the nature of the world, etc. that people take granted because they are fused together with those conceptual structures. Seeing how those structures are constructed, makes them less convincing as absolute truths; they’re more correctly experienced as things that involve certain assumptions, where those assumptions may be wrong.

But those assumptions can be correct, too! And it’s certainly possible for some people to experience this and draw the wrong lessons from it – such as seeing their belief in materialism as just a mental construct, and rejecting it in favor of something they like more. That’s why I suspect that it’s good for people to have a strong intellectual understanding of why things like rationality and materialism are correct, before they start going down this rabbit hole – because this process may remove one’s strong emotional conviction that some particular belief structure is true, at which point they will need to use their intellectual understanding to decide which things they should believe in. If they never had a very strong intellectual argument for why things like materialism and rationality are correct in the first place, and were just believing in that because all of their friends did, then they might go quite crazy. Insight practices can make you question all of your beliefs and unquestioned assumptions more – for good or ill.

To me this sounds like you never had significant spiritual experiences and the resulting issues of having to update your map of the world to integrate them.

Getting visions and believing too much in them can also be a problem. From my perspective good guidance then involves guiding a person not to attach themselves to the vision. Of course having bad guidance in some New Age context where people encourage you to take the vision seriously can be even more problematic.

That said, if there's somebody in our community who thinks they need help, ask for it. I'm open for talking any rationalist through dealing with strong spiritual experiences.

Read this SSC article which reviews Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: "Some of these people accidentally cross the A&P Event, reach the Dark Night Of The Soul, and – not even knowing that the way out is through meditation – get stuck there for years, having nothing but a vague spiritual yearning and sense that something’s not right. He says that this is his own origin story – he got stuck in the Dark Night after having an A&P Event in a dream at age 15, was low-grade depressed for most of his life, and only recovered once he studied enough Buddhism to realize what had happened to him and how he could meditate his way out"