Related to: Politics is the mind-killer, Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies, The Importance of Saying "Oops", Leave a Line of Retreat, You Can Face Reality

This is something I wrote, sort of in brain-dump mode, in the process of trying to organize my thoughts for a song I'm working on. I don't think it covers any new ground for this community, but I was somewhat taken with the way it turned out and figured I'd go ahead and post it for LW's enjoyment.


So you've changed your mind. Given up your sacred belief, the one that defined so much of who you are for so long.

You are probably feeling pretty scared right now.

Your life revolved around this. There is not a single aspect of your life that will not feel the effects of this momentous tumult. Right now though, you're still in shock. You know that later, little by little, as you lie awake in bed or stare at your desk at work, the idea will creep its way through the web of your mind. It will touch each and every idea, and change it, and move on. And that changed idea will change other ideas, and those ideas will change as well. Who are you as a person if not the person who holds that idea? For as this new notion gradually but violently makes its way through your skull, will it not upset everything that you know, everything that you do, everything that you are? Will you not then be another person?

The thought is terrifying. What person will you be?

Will you be like the jackasses that you argued against for so long? Yes, they were right all along, but damn they were infuriating. Is that your lot now? Another loud-mouth, uncompromising, thick-skulled, pushy, self-righteous snob who lives for the thrill of making everyone else feel ignorant? Dear God. Is that your fate? Perhaps in just a few days? You're reminded of the film character who has just been bitten by a zombie: Knowing the disgusting, horrific, inhuman beast he is now doomed to become, he says good-bye to The Girl, politely leaves the room, and wraps his mouth around both barrels of his shotgun.

Is that it then? Better dead than Red? But surely this is nonsense. For starters, you know damn well that you just don't have the, well... courage? resolve? commitment? hopelessness? inclination? lack-of-perspective? impulsiveness? Whatever it is that separates those who could actually, really and truly, do such a thing, from... you. But really now. If this isn't "game over"... then why not? Hasn't this been your reason for Everything? Doesn't that make Everything, QED, a lost cause now? Difficult to see why it wouldn't.

And yet... there is the feeling that it doesn't. You don't want to throw it all away. You don't know why, and part of you condemns your fickleness, but throwing it all away just doesn't feel as right as it sounds.

Well, perhaps it's not right. Really, when you take a second to actually think of reasons to go on... where to begin? You still love your spouse, and you still want to see your kids grow up... why cut your time with them short? You still take pride in your job, most days. You still like the taste of pizza, which is actually sounding really good right about now. Hell, you still have another season and a half of Doctor Who to get through. Perhaps you've lost your "purpose", for the time being, but you've still got reasons.

Maybe that idea wasn't as far-reaching as you told yourself it was. Even now, in the immediate aftermath, you can see that it must not have been your real reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Because you know that tomorrow morning, despite everything, you're going to get out of bed. Maybe the world will seem new and scary, but honestly, how long could you possibly just sit in bed? Even if you didn't have to pee.

Maybe you told yourself that it was your reason for loving your parents, for going to work, for learning and socializing and creating and breathing... but then, maybe you weren't being totally honest with yourself. Because here you are, and while you might be feeling a little overwhelmed right now... you know that you still want to do those things. So then... maybe that wasn't your true motivation all along, like you always said it was. Well, fine. You're already cleaning out ideas, might as well clean out the related, faulty, meta-ideas too.

And slowly, hesitantly, your fear starts to dissipate. You feel a curious sense of clarity. You don't have to become a zombie. Because in this brave new world, zombies are still obnoxious and intolerable. You still can't stand just how infuriating they are. And really that was the reason you were so disgusted at the thought of becoming one of them. Your ideas about what it means to be on "their side"... those were just poisoned meta-ideas too. Just like the lies about your "purpose for living", they were just one more road block you set up to block your own escape route. Preemptive self-sabotage. My, were you ever committed.

For a moment, you are confused. You've just realized that perhaps a lot of your ideas are poisonous slave-ideas like this one. You've realized that perhaps you'll be overturning even more ideas that you feared. And yet, you are comforted. How could this realization possibly be comforting?... And then you see it: it's because you realize that that more of these ideas you give up, the easier it will be to let the core idea go.

Come to think of it, most of your real ideas will be fine. There's no reason to expect that you'll have to overturn your notions about the blueness of the sky, the four-ness of two plus two, the wrongness of murder, the rightness of compassion, the awesomeness of London Calling or the awfulness of Bridezillas. The only beliefs that you'll have to overturn are the ones that were holding you back anyway. The ones that either grew out of a mistake, or were planted just to protect that mistake.

Your commitment to that mistake has filled your mind with junk. In fact, a lot of that junk would still be junk even if the idea had been right. Perhaps the commitment itself hurt you more than the idea... Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned there... but there will be plenty of time later to ponder that.

Either way, you suddenly find yourself feeling a lot more optimistic about the house cleaning that's coming up over the next few days. Of course you're going to change: you've been given a real chance to improve yourself. Might as well wring every last precious drop out of it. And if "purpose" is still something you find yourself needing... well, you'll find a better one. For the time being, as long as there is something you care about, anything at all, there will be something that needs doing.


New Comment
48 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:23 PM

I didn't have a radical experience of changing my mind, but when I was ~20 and going through a nihilist period I decided to live without a fundamental purpose for a week, as an experiment. It turned out not to change much of anything in my life, an experimental result that has saved me a lot of headaches in searching for meaning.

Upvoted for poetic, agreeably informal writing that is widely applicable to many different situations in which people change their cherished beliefs.

[-][anonymous]12y 8

I liked this piece, though I can't say it has matched my experience of updating.

Most of the beneficial paradigm-shifts I've experienced have taken a long time. The basis of my old belief system corrodes; a single precept is investigated and discarded, such that it isn't missed for long. Another precept is replaced as the flora inches closer. Months later, I stand in the ruins of the old civilization, a bit awed at the magnitude of the change - but fully able to track its progression, and ready to move on.

The more dramatic paradigm-shifts have been characterized not by discomfort at the loss of an old idea, but by awe at the beauty of the new idea - perhaps a sign that those shifts were a result of zealotry instead of rational change.

Thank you for this this text. The style of writing brings the concepts and associated feelings across very well. I'll try to remember this one as a way to clear my thoughts the next time I make some big change in my life.

There's no fundamental new material, but I don't think I've read anything on here that presents the idea from the point of view of experiencing the situation. This is a useful addition. Upvoted.

First, I think you do very well in capturing that sort of giddy excitement in having a belief undermined and the world turned upside down. I find it a rather addictive experience.

"It will touch each and every idea, and change it, and move on."

Not necessarily.

Sometimes I am having a conversation and I say something like 'we should stop dumping garbage.' There are ways that I can believe this validly. I could mean that we should start a better recycling program. We should change the sort of consumer goods are available. We should make people more conscious of what sort of place they are creating. But I don't know any of these arguments because this belief comes from the time before I learned to analyse and challenge beliefs, before I learned that I could fight back if a belief is challenged. Before I learned that I can see my belief in even the material world temporarily vanish without breaking. (It came back, which is nice because I like the material world.)

So there are residual beliefs, unless you systematically change all your beliefs at once only some will be changed. It is possible to have obsolete beliefs, which is really weird.

Sometimes I am having a conversation and I say something like 'we should stop dumping garbage.'

It seems to me that this is a misstated desire, 'I would like to see less garbage being dumped (by everyone)'.

Edit - please disregard this post

Whenever I read something on Less Wrong about how to change my mind, I feel guilty for not immediately changing my mind about everything I believe. This post especially. I've already examined my beliefs and concluded they are absolutely worthy, I've already taken all the advice on how to maintain rational beliefs, but the style of these posts makes me feel so guilty for being as committed as I am to what I am fairly sure are rational beliefs. Of course, I hope this comment doesn't lead anyone to believe that they don't need to relentlessly focus on changing their mind. Recognizing that it is hard and annoying to be constantly vigilant is not an excuse to not be.

On the other hand, it could be that I've just internalized the rhetoric and made myself immune to the Less Wrong style of belief-correction. Reading this post, for example, I noted with satisfaction that I believe that following my "sacred beliefs" is in contradiction with following "animal urges" like enjoying myself or morality. But even asceticism, radicalism can be a defense for some perniciously deep-seated wrong idea. The only genuine defense against irrationality is constant self-examination; the only genuinely problematic beliefs are those that bias or otherwise prevent one's self-examination.

Whenever I read something on Less Wrong about how to change my mind, I feel guilty for not changing my mind.

Change your mind. Seriously. Identify the underlying beliefs that result in the guilt, assess whether they are rational or beneficial and then change them. Because they are neither. Guilt (usually) sucks as an ongoing motivator.

I don't think you quite understood my meaning. I can see why, though, as my post is not very clear. Edited it a little.

I don't really have anything significant to change my mind about, as I'm reasonably certain that my major beliefs are without error. I just feel a social pressure to change my mind because many of these posts on Changing Your Mind seem to decry having any level of certainty that your beliefs are rational and correct. I feel guilty that I have that certainty, which I think is justified, when I supposedly should not.

Wedrifid's comment still applies. Examine the social pressure, identify how it produces guilt in your mind, and then change your mind so that it doesn't produce guilt no more.

Recently I've really liked the "brain as cognitive engine" metaphor, so in that vein I offer you a different interpretation of what "change your mind" means: altering your brain. So changing your mind is no longer "I believed X, but now I believe Y" and is more like "My brain used to generate X but I shut off the Z input and removed the Q cogitator and now it generates Y".

I've seen it said here a lot that overconfidence is a problem, but so is underconfidence. If you think your certainty (or more ideally, near-certainty) is justified, and you can explain why with reasons, any social pressure to be less confident you might be perceiving would be misplaced.

I noted with satisfaction that I believe that following my "sacred beliefs" is in contradiction with following "animal urges" like enjoying myself or morality

Could you expound upon this?

Oh, it's just a fairly straightforward notion that considering my limited resources, I should pursue eternal goals rather than any personal interests, but that personal interests are constantly thwarting my effort to pursue eternal goals. Fairly standard akrasia stuff, I guess I could have made that more clear.

In local terminology, "morality" refers to the meaningful kind of "eternal goals", and some notions of "eternal goals" are seen as confusion, so your original statement remain unclear.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I don't wish to reveal that "more important value", because I think it would be very distracting

From this alone I expect that you have something to change your mind about. Don't avoid discussing it, or at least have a plan for developing new epistemic tools. :-)

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

But now I'm curious :(

it's just a value that if revealed would derail any and all threads

By saying that in a community as insatiably curious as LW you now have dozens of people (including me) persistently wondering what the heck it could be.


p=.65 it's either political or sexual in nature.

[-][anonymous]12y 4

Let's find a bookmaker who will accept bets on my secret value. I'll take 10% and we can resolve all issues. Bets above 100$ only please.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
[-][anonymous]12y 15

I think you're maybe making it a lot worse by being deliberately coy? If you actually wanted to avoid derailing a thread, wink-nudge-hint wasn't the way to go. I'm not even sure why it was necessary to mention your secret objectionable value at all if you truly didn't want to talk about it.

[+][anonymous]12y -6

If you look closely, you'll notice that it was your relentless evasiveness rather than the belief itself which has caused that derailment.

The reason I mentioned epistemic tools is that it's possible to be wrong about what your own values are, but people sometimes don't easily accept this idea. Where you expect people finding your value objectionable, I expect people seeing you as mistaken about the fact of this value actually being your own. You believe it is, but it's probably not (based on what indirect evidence you revealed).

You would be surprised, maybe... If you don't want to derail a public thread, would you send me a private message to discuss this?

Yea, I sometimes get the unhelthy impulse to wish I were more wrong so I could discover it and have something to change my mind about, or to change my mind about things randomly despite that leading to much less accurate beliefs. (that I don't act on these impulses shouldn't need saying, and probably dosn't.)

Thanks for the text! I think it's really useful to have such a subjective description, too, primarily to recognize whether you really have changed your mind... if no feelings like this appear, then you probably have not.

(I especially like the part about those bastards you now suddenly belong to too... :))

Very good. Typo in the second-to-last paragraph, "hurt your".

Fixed, thanks.

Can I assume that 'elated to' was unintentional?

I'm glad you included those related links, BTW.

Ha. It could only be a casualty of my submitting 50 drafts of this thing trying to get the formatting right. This is my first top-level, and now I understand perfectly what all the frustration is about.

But what about the case when you suddenly find yourself in a position where you exactly have to change your self-image to be with your spouse and children? Like "I should not care about X, because it takes too much time, even though it has defined me for years"? I mean, this is not insurmountable, it just seems the logical next question.

You stop. You breathe in, you breathe out. There's no way back, but this is the path you've chosen. If you were never going to change your mind, you'd have been better off watching daytime TV. At least when you look back, you can think 'this is how I got here'.

I like the use of dark arts embedded in this article. Others might not think so.

Could you clarify what you are referring to? I didn't see any dark arts in this article, but I'd like to improve my ability to detect them.

Perhaps he is referring to the entire thing. The story-telling format might be considered dark arts, in that it appeals to your emotions rather than making rational argument.

Other than that it is remarkably neutral (and thus unlikely to be dark-arts-ish), the only violations that I see are "Better dead than Red" and the mention of a spouse and children.

in that it appeals to your emotions rather than making rational argument.

Appealing to emotions in a transparent fashion as a way of helping deal with problems that arise from the same emotional cluster doesn't seem to be dark arts. The solution to emotion creating irrationality is not to turn into a straw Vulcan.

Agreed, I was simply attempting to gain insight into drawde's perspective.

the only violations are "Better dead than Red" and the mention of a spouse and children.

I have to say, I was also a little puzzled that the idea being accepted here was communism. To give it a favorable interpretation, I just assume it's being used as an cultural idiom to convey the idea of preferring death to submission to an ideological opponent.

it's being used as an cultural idiom

Basically this, I'm surprised to find people taking it literally, my bad. If you'd like to put it into Eliezer's conventional terminology, you could try "better dead than blue".

I actually meant that the use of the idiom (I'm confident that it's only an idiom) would bias people against "red" ideas. Mocking "red" ideas with this routine idiom might lead someone to more firmly entrench themselves in a belief that "red" ideas are perpetually and eternally wrong, and that as someone opposed to "red" ideas they are perpetually and eternally right. Very minor, but I felt compelled to mention it for the purpose of completeness.

For what it's worth, my 0th-order reaction to "Better dead than Red" is a bias in the opposite direction. I grew up during the Vietnam war, in the U.S., so I got to watch my government repeatedly lie through its teeth, and the US was the opposition to the Reds - so, when I hear, "Better dead than Red", I expect it paired with deceit. (It's a low level bias - the Soviets are gone, and the cold war has been replaced by other conflicts, so this reaction is largely moot at this point)

OK - I had been assuming that "dark arts" meant "use of techniques socially considered mean, nasty or evil; may be employed for either selfish or altruistic purposes".

It seems the LW definition is more specifically about manipulation. (I'm just bringing this up in case any other readers suffered the same confusion).

This page on the Dark Arts points out "there’s no clear distinction between using these skills and regular social interaction". Does the LW community consider "regular social interaction" to be a dark art, or is there some line you have to cross?

I once made a post about hanging out with cheerful, positive Christians in order to be more cheerful and positive, because a number of my atheist friends are also more negative and cynical. Someone commented that this verges on the Dark Arts. (Manipulating my own mind?) I've come to the conclusion that I can distinguish myself using Dark Arts from "regular social interaction" but I'm not going to stop doing it unless someone can prove that doing this harms others.

OK - I had been assuming that "dark arts" meant "use of techniques socially considered mean, nasty or evil

The meaning should be considered divorced from what is socially considered. Many things that fit in that category are not dark at all. In fact a lot of what 'dark arts' entail is doing things because they fly under the radar of social disapproval while still being effective. There are also many techniques that are socially considered mean nasty or evil while not being dark arts. Those techniques often also qualify for such labels as banal, honest, blunt and naive.

It seems the LW definition is more specifically about manipulation.

That's the one. With an emphasis on persuasion via manipulation. But the concept runs into the same problems as manipulation does in general. The line between 'manipulation' and 'actually having social skills' is basically non-existent.

I don't tend to use the phrase 'dark arts' myself. It's too cute, rather imprecise and places the emphasis on entirely the wrong thing - including things that are not even objectionable. I talk about bullshit instead.