"Taking your environment as object" vs "Being subject to your environment"

by Ben Pace4 min read11th Apr 202118 comments

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I think there's a key rationalist skill of being able to take your environment as object, rather than being subject to it.

There's a kind of wisdom people get when they leave environments. Today I talked to a friend of mine who has moved out of living in a city for over a year, and on visiting a city she noticed things about it that made her feel pressured and unpleasant that she'd never noticed before.

I've also done several interviews with people who are quitting organizations or leaving communities, asking them why they're leaving, and there's a certain lightness to them and their speech about the place. They can talk about the negatives and the positives freely, and don't feel anxiety toward finding ways to balance their negatives with equal positives, like they're supposed to justify their environment as 'good'. They just speak plainly. I can hear them 'admitting' things a little with a chuckle, as though it was always true but not something they'd felt able to say until now.

Here's a slightly different example, but that's focused on a similar sort of mental move: I recently was on an intensely restrictive diet, because I thought it was very healthy and would cause me to lose weight. I'd done this diet before, but this time I had a much more unpredictable workload, which messed up my routine and I crashed several times from under-eating. I finally decided to let myself broaden the diet notably, and on the first bite of new food I had 2 realizations.

Firstly, I didn't actually believe in the previous diet for its own sake. It was actually to make me disciplined about my food.

Secondly, I hadn't let myself think that thought during my diet, I think because it would have been too much strain for me to discipline myself in this way just to discipline myself. It was much less strain to think that my diet had some magical properties for my health.

Recently, I read and participated in Eliezer's dath ilan thread, where he answered questions about his home civilization.

Eliezer has a fantastic imagination. He is able to imagine what our civilization would like, from the perspective of someone in a different civilization. He is able to just say what it looks like from this outsider's perspective, and say what are probably very obvious things from their perspective. But when you're on the inside it's far harder. You can sometimes do it with normal means within the system, but it can end up being a lot of hard work to get these insights. It can be much easier to imagine someone outside of the system looking in.

I've been reading some of Michael Vassar's Twitter threads. I think he has a similar ability to look at civilization as a whole and say truths that people collectively avoid looking at, but I don't think it comes from the same source. One model I have of Michael is someone who feels they are living in a hostile state, like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. This is a situation where you viscerally feel the threat to your life of "feeling comfortable in the system", and are searching for alternative perspectives in an attempt to fight your way out. It's a much more adversarial frame, and it's more likely to notice parts of the society that are unjust and criminal.

Another model: I feel like Michael Vassar is similar to Luna Lovegood, who I empathized with a great deal when reading the HPMOR fanfic Luna Lovegood and the Chamber of Secrets. She has a pretty clear distinction between "what she believes" and "what narratives the Daily Prophet wants you to believe". She assumes the latter is primarily a tool for the powerful, and is able to find pretty valuable things by separating the it from the former. I wouldn't say she is wise enough to see the full truth, but she is able to correctly pick up on several patterns in the world most others miss. 

So far I have said there are three ways of getting perspective on your environment: leaving it, imagining yourself into someone outside of it, and assuming that it's hostile. 

I have one more to add: I also think that 'breaks' are a fine tool for the toolkit. Sabbaths are things I have found very useful. And in January I took a whole two-week vacation in a new environment where I didn't use my screens/devices, and this really helped get me out of my head.

(I didn't literally never use them, but I used them at least 10x less, and only let myself use them according to stringent rules. I'm not going to write down all the details but it was something like "I am only allowed to do a thing with my device if I wrote the thing down on a sheet of paper yesterday".)

On that vacation I also read some great literature that I've never read before (Heinlein, Dostoyevsky, Tolkien and more) which has helped me empathize with people outside of my civilization. (I've been trying to write some dialogues between myself and Lord Denethor II discussing our respective civilizations, which has been a trip.) It's been deeply rewarding and worthwhile in other ways I won't list here, but I've made sure to keep it up since returning (Asimov, Watt-Evans, Herbert, and more; I'm looking forward to reading Gulf, on Eric S. Raymond's recommendation).

I think people manage to spend their whole lives never thinking outside of their environment, or way-of-being. It's a painful thought; and I'd like to build an environment where people reliably do.

What are some other ways to successfully take your environment as object?


[1] I note that Luna doesn't think the world is as hostile, and has a generally more fun and curious time than someone living in Soviet Russia.

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So far I have said there are three ways of getting perspective on your environment: leaving it, imagining yourself into someone outside of it, and assuming that it's hostile.

 

What are some other ways of getting a better perspective on your environment?

Imagining myself explaining the environment to someone else, or literally doing that. That's also a very useful technique for checking understanding, and I think it uses the same mechanism: when you read a paper, you feel a sense of familiarity and obviousness that makes you think you understand. But if you have to actually explain it, completely, then you can't really do that anymore.

I tend to do that a lot, be it for "getting outside of my head/environnment" or for learning.

I would expect the imagined version to not work as well for someone who isn't already used to trying to see their environment from the outside, since they're likely to just imagine someone else who's used to the same environment (because it's normal and obvious, right?), after which the explanation can just be the “official” explanation. Any experiential information on that?

Not sure I'm not right person to ask for that, because I tend to often doubt basically almost anything I say or think (not at the same time), and sometimes I forget why something makes sense, and spend quite some time trying to find a good explanation. So I guess I'm naturally the type that gets something out of the imagined version.

I think you may mean taking your environment as object? The typical idea behind a subject-object shift is that first you are subject to a lens, then you can take it as an object to look at.

I reflected on it some more, and decided to change the title.

I don't actually know what the grammatical rules say, but "take environment as object" is the phrase I've heard used in local culture over the past few years.

Yeah, the current phrase feels confusing to me. If a human takes something else as a subject that... feels like it has some different connotations. In my mind the two opposing phrases are "being subject to" (passive) and "taking as object" (active).

There's some complexity here because English offers two words here, "subject" and "object" that can be used somewhat interchangeably in some situations but in most situations we have some notion that "subject" is on the left/upstream side of the causal arrow and "object" is on the right/downstream side. However Ben's reuse of "subject" by shifting it from actor ("subject to") to the acted upon ("as subject") seems mostly poetic and a reasonable alternative to talking about object.

Of course, because English is noun-focused, it's rather nice to have two different nouns for these concepts rather than having to point to them by using two different verb phrases as Ben does here.

I have my own mild preferences around using standard phrasing to trigger in people associations with that common body of work built around those standards, but regardless I don't think anything in the post is actually at odds with standard phrasing, just different and, to my ear, equally clear, even if I have no intention of ever copying it.

Seems like the first step is to notice that your environment is X, as opposed to some other hypothetical Y. Then you can ask "why is it X instead of Y?"

Without the alternatives, even imaginary, the question about the environment sounds like "why X is X?", which invites the answer "tautologically, duh". The world is what it is, because that's kinda what "reality" means, right?

With alternatives, the world is a mechanism. We can ask what forces are moving its state towards X, instead of Y or Z. Is it a consequence of some natural forces, so even if we could magically switch the world to Y or Z, it would gradually chance back to X? If this is the case, then we have some interesting natural forces to study. Maybe we can use them to overcome them, like the knowledge of gravity allows us to construct an airplane. Or maybe it is a Schelling point, so if we could magically switch the world to Y (and brainwash everyone into believing it was always Y), it would remain Y. Then, who knows, maybe we could artificially establish Y as a Schelling point of some smaller environment, and see if we can make it expand from there.

Sometimes the environment is adversarial, in the sense that it was shaped by people following their selfish incentives, willing to make trade-offs whenever less utility for you means more utility for them. It can help to remind yourself that them following their incentives is a choice, not a law of nature.

For example, whenever you deal with a helpful employee of a corporation or a bureaucracy telling you "I am really sorry, I wish I could help you, but what you want is not allowed by our rules" (framing the situation as: people are friendly, but what you want is simply impossible), you might want to remember that those rules were also set up by some humans... and if they end up hurting you and helping the corporation/bureaucracy, who knows, maybe that was exactly the intention (reframing the situation as: the friendly humans are just a facade for the unfriendly humans). Like, maybe there is a good reason for the rule, maybe it prevents some abuse; but maybe the rule is actually there to abuse you. Or it can be somewhere in the middle, like some abuse is probably unavoidable, and someone with the power decided that it should be you who pays the cost.

Whenever I encounter a new system/situation/environment, I often find myself automatically asking "What are the possible ways this could be, which of those would I most prefer, and can I make that happen?" Even in mundane situations, there is often low-hanging fruit for improvement that most people don't notice or bother to take.

Excellent post.

I could easily spin either a narrative where I'm totally missing this or totally good at it. I'm a bit confused at that.

I have a very strong identity and continuity over time. I recently re-read the SSC review of House of God -- that's the post where Scott talks about how he recalls high school fondly despite knowing he felt differently about it at the time (and mentions that as a teen he was surrounded by adults who recalled their own high school experiences fondly). I don't seem to have any delusions about high school: I remember that at the time, I wanted to write a manifesto about why it sucks so much (modeled after the communist manifesto). My recollection remains consistent with that.

My opinion about living in cities remains the same over time; no difference of opinion upon leaving.

One possibility is that I never break out of my narrative. This is consistent with how consistent my identity tends to be over time. 

The other possibility is that I "pre-break-out" of my narrative. This is consistent with the feeling of unease I have about following some social scripts, especially ones which "balance cons with pros" like you mention. It's also more consistent with the fact that I occasionally do explicit thought experiments about leaving places.

But I think my thought experiments are "abstract" rather than "concrete" in some sense, like taking the outside view, what a person hearing the story might say. Reading your post made me try the inside view version, which felt much different.  

It's plausible that a lot of my thinking about cities, high school, etc, was and remains "outside-view" in this way, and my resistance to participate in narratives such as high-school-was-great is actually based on outside-view thinking ("that sounds like something someone might say regardless of whether it was true").

So, yeah, my new narrative is that I have a really hardcore outside-view version of this thing, which I execute kind of constantly, but was lacking the inside-view version of the thing, which your post somehow prompted me to try.

I feel like the easiest way to begin is by noticing someone's faux pa. "We don't do it here" means "we here" have collectively agreed on something else, but one can assume a role to develop some attitude to the agreed-upon thing. Be a lord and view it as yours to govern; be a word and build it through a multitude of connections; be a crook and parasitize on it; be a cook and enrich it; be a trader and "just deal with it" etc.

The trick is to remember what role it was, why you chose it, and what this says about your environment.

An example. When my kid was in his second year of primary school (that's for 7-8 y.o. here in Ukraine), they played a game: kids were running in circles around chairs, and when they heard a whistle they had to sit down. But they were one chair short, and each time one kid and one chair were sent away. After three rounds my son started to get the general idea, and when they started running he went to the pile of discarded chairs and got himself one because whatever. (They disqualified him, and I stood there grinning like an idiot because heck yeah.)

But I also thought about how I would explain to him the game as a game, quite separate from everything else.

Seems like thinking outside the box is only allowed at school when you are explicitly told to. :D

...but not always, unfortunately.

This post points at a core of why I like to talk about the subject-object relationship with respect to developmental psychology: the shifting of things from one side of the lens of intentionality to the other seems to be the key driver of development.

I think this post mostly intends to focus on the "imagine you're a space alien; see the world with fresh eyes" type thing, which Feynman talks about. I see this as a tool for transitioning from cook mindset to to chef mindset.

But I already do that all the time. The valuable thing I got out of the post was the more local version, where you think about your city/job/diet/etc.