Aella on Rationality and the Void

by Jacobian 18d31st Oct 201914 min read8 comments

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Cross-posted from Putanumonit.

This is a transcript of a discussion, my speech is in bold and Aella's is in normal text. This is the second part of the interview, part 1 covered Aella's life and background and is found here.


Let’s talk about trauma, which is a concept about which people have very different beliefs and intuitions. I often struggle to understand what people mean by “trauma”, it doesn’t quite map to anything in my experience. For example, a common trope in therapy is that growth and healing only occurs when you surface and face your trauma. This gets applied even to things like “the trauma of your birth” in practices like holotropic breathwork. Do you know what they’re talking about?

I assume it’s something bad that happens to you and makes you view the world as particularly dangerous. But if you look at what happened to you and you can handle that memory, then the rest of the world stops being dangerous and also becomes something you can handle.

I’m not sure this applies to birth, though. I’m open to birth being traumatic or issue-laden, but it doesn’t feel like a framework I’m particularly drawn to.

You wrote a powerful post about trauma being a story and a narrative. When you lived a narrative of grievance and victimhood, feeling that the universe was deformed by a great injustice, that was traumatic for you.

Yes, the sense that the universe needs to be fixed.

It makes a lot of sense that adopting this narrative of injustice causes intense misery. I think it’s a good model of trauma, and it was very well put after you’ve been writing around the subject for a few years. But when it comes to how you should escape this narrative, I think that we strongly disagree.

Your suggestion is:

The trick to healing from suffering, I think, is deciding that the pain was worth it.
How do you decide the pain was worth it? Find out what it gave you. […]
And in deciding that it had been worth it, the suffering ended. Life had no longer cheated her. Life had made a fair trade.

So you switch to a narrative where the bad thing was worth it because of something good it gave you. I understand why this helps with the suffering, but at the cost of convincing yourself of something false. It’s the just-world fallacy.

As an alternative, I think that saying “there is injustice in the universe” is just a category error. The universe doesn’t give a shit on a fundamental level. Shit just happens. Getting upset about an abusive relationship is like getting upset about bad weather. And surviving an abusive relationship isn’t a gift. The mere fact that life and consciousness exist in such an uncaring universe is enough of a gift. There’s nothing more we should expect of the universe, things like “justice”.

Right. Why do you think that the just-world fallacy is a fallacy?

When I look at the laws of nature, there is no justice written in them.

So you’re saying that believing the world must be just is a bad way of making predictions about things happening?

Yes. This includes believing in a just world or even in any sort of omnipotent god. If you believe that, then some things are simply off the table, like the possibility of life in the universe just going extinct. That can’t happen in a “fair” universe, but in mine there’s certainly a non-zero chance of that happening. For the T-Rex, there was nothing redeeming about the asteroid. They just all died.

Sure. So the thing that I’m talking about when it comes to meaning-making has nothing to do with prediction or “the way the universe works” because our sense of understanding how the universe works comes from our ability to predict it. So it’s not about “the way the universe is” but about pattern-matching inside of the universe in a way that adjusts your mind towards happiness or meaningfulness or whatever.

I’m not saying that the universe has some sort of plan or that there is an inherent meaning out there that we could possibly discover, I’m saying that the experience of information is under our control. Thinking of the universe as something separate from the self is fundamentally nonsensical, and thinking of the universe in this nonsensical way is more deeply flawed, on an epistemological level. The thing you described, about the universe not having any inherent meaning, is not in reference to what I’m trying to say.

Let’s say we walk outside and a car hits us and we both shatter our hips and walk with a limp the rest of our lives. I will not try to see in the future how this was actually a good thing in disguise or how it was worth it. Having a broken leg really sucks, but life is still great with two legs, with one leg, whatever. There doesn’t have to be something redeeming about breaking my hip.

There isn’t. There just has to be meaning, and already the meaning that we construct out of any experience is not real, it does not exist in the universe. 

When I was younger, I tried to imagine what would happen if I stopped interpreting my environment. If the divisions that I was forming around me went away. I would imagine it’s like static noise because there’s no reason to decide to treat anything as special or separate from another.

So we’re already engaging in this magic, magically pulling this entire world out of thin air. That has nothing to do with reality outside of ourselves. And so when it comes to breaking the leg, I’m asking why not do that magic on your leg in a sense? If you can find the meaning in your leg being broken, much as you find the meaning in anything else like in your friend saying these words to you. It’s all the same basic category. And if this is something that feels good, why not do it?

I do think that this is actually a deep crux of disagreement for us. There are two separate components to making meaning of an experience: how I choose to react to it, and what story I tell about it. And for me, the choice of story I can tell is a lot more constrained than simply picking what would make me feel good. I have a strong aversion to believing the comforting story. I don’t want to believe wrong things.

I think you’re right in that it comes from a deeper crux. When I’m imagining what you’re believing, there’s a wrong concept that’s functioning in a way that it doesn’t in my own mind.

This comes back to assuming an external reality, which is the big rift between what you believe and “standard” Rationality.

Yes, that’s true.

So one of the reasons why you reject the idea of an external reality that our narratives have to be measured against is that in your mind there’s only logical consistency and subjective experience, nothing else. There’s nothing else you can be sure of. Alright. If I told myself a false story about my leg it would affect my experience and run into logical inconsistencies.

Can you say that again without using the word “false”? Does that work at all?

Let’s come up with a hypothetical story I can tell myself, like maybe with a broken leg I’ll stop focusing so much on soccer and instead finally sit down to write that book, which is what I really wanted to be doing but was distracted. 

Already, I’m forced to fill in questionable details like assuming I don’t write a book because I play soccer too much and not because of laziness or insecurity about my talent as a writer. So I predict that now with a broken leg I’ll finally sit down and write but I won’t, which is how I would know that the story I told myself wasn’t true.

Right, you’re worried about making up a story that ends up in false predictions. And if you engage in that story, then the world is going to be out of your control and things will go wrong or you will end up disappointed.

And the problem with false stories is that they propagate and accumulate like debt. I’ll have to make up more and more supporting details to keep the story from crashing.

I’m with you on this. For me, I classify this as a lack of curiosity. I have a way that I want things to go, and I’m not curious about the ways in which they might not go. And then I develop a reality that’s immune to other things, and my awareness is not big enough to encompass things that might contradict what I believe. But I still think that this isn’t what I’m trying to get at, which is very likely my fault. I am having a hard time articulating exactly what I mean by “the magic of meaning creation”.

I find that meaning creation usually works better in hindsight. In hindsight, I have become grateful for negative things because I can see the good that they gave me, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Perhaps I would have had other good things, but that’s not really the point. The point is that I’m constructing this narrative arc of myself, a journey. And I feel very aware that it is a story, but I’m not subject to the story. I don’t believe the story is an indicator of reality. I don’t think it’s predictive. I just have the flexibility, the ability to inhabit that story.

It feels extremely healthy to me. It puts things in their place.

Here’s what it comes down to for me. I drank alcohol before with no lingering effects, so I can drink this whiskey without worrying about becoming an alcoholic. But I’m pretty sure that I’m already “wearing” many fake stories that I’ve forgotten or never realized are fake. And epistemic rationality is so hard, I don’t want to burden it with one more made-up story if I don’t have to.

What are you worried about experiencing? What are you afraid will happen to you if you do the wrong thing with your stories?

I’m worried that I may come to a serious test vis-a-vis reality. A big decision with life-or-death stakes that will require a very careful and precise understanding of reality, or overcoming a lot of misleading intuitions. Perhaps even something like deciding about cryonics. And it won’t be graded on a curve, it may take just about all the rationality I could muster. And if I sacrifice any epistemic rationality I will surely fail.

In my life right now I don’t experience too much negative emotion. I don’t need to sacrifice epistemic rationality for comfort because my life is comfortable enough. And sacrificing epistemic rationality is a slippery slope, like The Legend of Murder-Gandhi. Especially when I share the made-up story with people around me and now they end up reinforcing it even if I want in the future to take the mask off.

I’m trying to ask about some specific example which is why I phrased my question the way that I did. I feel like my curiosity hasn’t been scratched yet. What concrete experience are you afraid of? The experience of regret at having made the wrong decision? The experience of feeling like a failure, like you weren’t good enough? Feeling inadequate and out of control?

No, the actual experiences, the consequences of making the wrong decision. Dying when I could’ve lived forever.

You can’t experience death, but you’re right. So let’s say being tortured by the paperclip god, for example.

You’re right, dying is not that bad. But the living is pretty great.

Yeah. Living is pretty great.

I wrote about an example of summoning rationality to make a key decision where I ultimately ended up overruling both my intuition and common wisdom. And this decision gave me my marriage, which is so precious to me. And I’m pretty sure I would have gotten that decision wrong if I didn’t have that ability of explicit rational decision making or if I didn’t have the confidence in that ability. It’s as close to a superpower as I have, and I think it’s really fragile.

Let’s say I had been dumped by some girl many years ago and I was heartbroken. So I weave a comforting story about how it was actually good that she dumped me, and that story entails beliefs about what sorts of women I have good and bad relationships with. And then when I would have to make a decision about whom to date it would be impossible to stop believing that story, it’s already part of me. Brains don’t work in a way where you can cleanly take stories off your mind like pulling a mask off your face.

When I read The Sequences for the first time I didn’t really get why Eliezer was talking about having some greater purpose behind rationality, it just seemed that epistemic rationality was clearly good in itself. But now I get that there are so many temptations to give up bits and pieces of it. Eliezer believes that perhaps he alone can save humanity from extinction, and even if that’s crazy you need a belief like that to always choose rationality over comfort.

And maybe this distinction between epistemic rationality and comforting falsehoods is wrong and confused, but I don’t have a desire to poke at it.

I don’t feel that my rationalist skill or ability to reason in very much the way that you talked about, like evaluating choices and recognizing biases, has been impacted negatively whatsoever by psychedelics or by the other thing which is meaning-making and the world being not real. It feels like I’m talking about two separate classes of things, and the way in which they’re separate makes it very difficult to point at one using the other. I want to be very clear that I am 100 percent on board with everything that you said. Epistemic rationality is extremely fun and really useful and very valuable. And I cling to it. I get made fun of by my friends for the degree to which I am concerned with ”finding the truth of the situation”.

Maybe I’m just more paranoid. I feel like my internal feeling of how good I am at epistemic rationality is a piss poor measure of how good I am at it. If I can’t trust my intuitions about one thing, it’s “how good I am at not trusting my intuition”.

I think I understand what you mean, though. If the thing that you’re battling is the brain, it’s capable of being incredibly misleading. 

I definitely recognize this in myself, how the way that I approach the world is so different. You go on one good date you fall for someone like crazy or have one fight with your partner and you want to leave them forever, but then the next day you feel completely different. I mean, I’m just generally agreeing with you about how non-trustworthy the brain is if your goal is epistemics. 

Going back to your writing about trauma, I wanted to ask you about free will. You mentioned Man’s Search for Meaning, an exceptional book. The book endorses free will not as a metaphysical claim but as an attitude — you don’t choose what happens to you, but you choose how you react to it. And this seems to contradict what you often write about, that everything could only have unfolded the way they did and no other way, including your own actions.

Well, this whole thing is about contradictory clothes to wear. I have no issue with contradiction here.

When I talk about trying to imagine what it would be like to not be interpreting being when I was younger and imagining everything going to static, you could say I can’t actually imagine not being an interpreting being. But there’s something about the dissolution of meaning-making into a nothingness state that I think is analogous to freewill. When I dissolve the meaning-making thing, there is no free will or there is all of it. Basically, the division between myself and others goes away. 

You can build a story where the sense of agency you have signifies a division between self and other. This is what gives me my sense of identity and personal consciousness as opposed to you, because I’m in control of this and you’re in control of that. That’s also a fun, meaning-making story that we can engage in. But I enjoy recognizing that that is a story, and that we can take that story off or on as we see fit, or to watch that story come upon us or away from us. This happens, too, because free will is an illusion.

I guess my support for adopting free will as a stance is also a dress I wear, one that contradicts my belief in external, deterministic reality.

Let’s talk about acid.

A lot of your writing about your experiences on LSD is like an attempt to put into words or build a model out of something that you know to be true as an immediate experience. I guess I could call this inside-out thinking, as opposed to what is often done in rationality where you try to figure out a cognitive “system 2” model of how things are and then aligning your intuitions and your interpretation of experience with this “outside” model. Does this make sense as a distinction?

This is kind of a tricky question. For me, it doesn’t feel like that dichotomy is a useful frame. Is the question that we’re asking how do these two things relate to each other? 

There are more cognitive models, things you can write in a blog post or draw a diagram of, and there are things that just feel intuitively true or true in your immediate, wordless experience. So if we desire to align them, it seems one could do that from the inside out or from the outside in.

So when you said “things that feel wordlessly true” I’m matching this onto a thing. Let’s say, I take acid, and then I realized something new about the universe. One such realization for me for a while was that all internally consistent realities must necessarily exist. It’s a fact that feels intuitively true that I have landed on. 

You can compare this to cognitive processing, like working something out on paper. But I think at the fundamental level, the sense of insight that results from both of these, is the same thing. This sense of intuitive truth is exactly like the building blocks that make up the cognitive models that we write about in blog posts. There are differences, but at the core level, they’re not really different things.

Some people ask how I know I’m not going to take acid and be convinced of some other reality. That I’m not going to have this sense of deep, incredible insight and learning but I’m just going crazy and being misled. But the sense of insight that you have when you’re learning things in school is the exact same thing that you have on acid. You can’t be misled about the sense of having an insight. You can, however, develop a system that is surprised.

You mentioned that you haven’t really read a lot about meditative traditions besides the Tao Te Ching, to compare them to your experience with LSD. 

I’ve read some of Daniel Ingram’s book but that’s been about it. The Tao Te Ching resonates very strongly. That whole book is like putting me in a little tin can and shaking it. It’s good.

I got really curious about Buddhism and nirvana. So I talked to my Buddhist friends, I talked to monks in Thailand, I read the books by both Harrises, and it didn’t completely make sense. But when I read your description of what it was like after taking LSD weekly for 10 months, not having desires, thinking calmly about how you may starve on the streets, that sounded like a state that could be nirvana.

When you hear about various religious traditions and concepts, do any of them make sense? Do other people’s experiences and frameworks for making sense of them resonate with yours?

As you mentioned, I’m not very educated on spiritual meditative tradition, so I can’t really speak to them. I don’t know if the thing that I went through is what other people would consider nirvana at all. I don’t know if nirvana makes sense.

My experience has resonance with being religious, like becoming religious again. It’s similar to the feeling that I used to get when I was worshiping God as a Christian. I would take acid and think that that’s what people in my childhood were trying to get at and using the religion to do it. 

I know this is an oversimplification, but this is my conspiracy theory as to why meditators think that like psychedelics aren’t going to get you anywhere.

Sunk cost?

Yeah, because if meditation can’t get you anywhere acid can’t, they’ve been spending many hours of their lives inefficiently.

I mean, it’s probably not true, but I like to think about it.

It’s interesting to hear people like Sam Harris, who is an experienced meditator and also an experienced psychonaut, talk about this. He admits that drugs can be a shortcut but he has to caveat it with reasons why meditation is actually great. And he also has a meditation app that brings him money so he can’t tell people to just drop acid.

Let’s finish up by talking about the void.

Do you have people reaching out to you after they read your post telling you they’ve seen the void?

A lot of people say that they understand me but this feels different than the category of people for whom I have a sense that they understand it. I guess I’m kind of skeptical about these claims. I want to be clear that I’m not making judgments about anybody, it’s just the way that I react to people. 

So sometimes people will say they understand it in such a way that it generates this sensation inside of me, which is like the experience coming back very strongly. And I feel like the person describing it is inhabiting that experience as well. It feels like I’m on drugs, thoughts stop operating in the same way and it becomes very hard to talk. That happens very rarely. I have a lot of people telling me that they understand it, but people saying in such a way that it generates the experience inside me is very rare.

It’s very interesting that it happens. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that what triggers this response is somebody else describing the same experience, right? The lock is not the key.

Right, that’s true.

You described your acid journey as a process of losing the things that make up your character, beliefs and desires and insecurities. And then closing your eyes to the void and coming back to them. Did you come back to a different person than who you were with different desires and values?

Yes. I feel there are two ways you might be asking this question, or at least, two ways I’m going to interpret it. 

One of them is: is my experience of reality permanently shifted because the thing that I went through is still with me on an ongoing basis? The answer is yes. Another question is: do I have personality traits that are altered? Do I score differently in personality tests? Do I have different habits? And the answer there is also yes, but maybe less than you think.

So the journey in cleared out a lot of baggage I had. It fixed a huge amount of the insecurity that I had, even though I still have some now. And I don’t suffer from trauma anymore, which I used to. Those are the two largest measurable differences. There are a whole bunch of smaller ones, most of them are just about being at ease and the way that being at ease manifests in the world. 

Were any of those changes intentional?

No, they just happen.

Do you think there is any hope of doing this exercise with an intention to change? Letting go of some things I’m attached to like caring about shiny clothes and starting to care more about animal rights, say. Acid as a tool for aspiration.

I don’t think acid works quite like that. The part of you that wants something different from what you are right now is a concrete aspect of yourself. And acid will affect everything, both your current desires and the meta part of you that desires to change your desires. They’re both in the same category, you can’t just preserve one desire and change the other. 

When I say that I came out of this with less trauma and more confidence, it’s not because I was trying to be less traumatized or confident but because I was trying to observe what was there. And then the side effect of observation were these results in that arrived in ways I could never have expected and would never have happened if I was actively trying to get there.

A big part of this is surrendering control. You can’t achieve certain types of development while still being in control, still being the person who wants to achieve that development. You have to let go of the part of yourself that is trying to do the steering. 

You know, it’s really fucking terrifying. I totally understand that people don’t want to let go of the thing doing the steering because it’s the most intense and terrifying thing you can do. But that’s how you do it.

So why did those specific changes happen and not other ones? Did it have to do with things in your subconscious? Your circumstances? 

I think that what changed were aspects of myself that were caused by not being self-aware. So the increased self-awareness naturally changed the parts of me that were a defense against knowing who I was. The trauma thing, for example, was me holding onto the story that I had been wronged. I had this sense of identity and I didn’t want to become aware that I was holding onto that sense of my identity. 

But acid made me aware that I was doing that, and when I was aware of it it just naturally faded away. So those things that were caused by lack of awareness changed and those that weren’t, didn’t. Does that make sense? 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’m being coherent when I talk. Sometimes when I’m talking, I’m like, am I just saying words right now? I’ve no idea.

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