My partner Logan Brienne Strohl has been doing original rationality development off and on for the past ten years (and "on" for at least the past three).
A week or so ago, I received a long email from them, which they summarized as follows:
Duncan and I recently moved out into the country, where it took us almost a month to get moderately functional internet. I was psychologically prepared for a lack of internet, but Duncan was not. Rather than being understanding and supportive of his struggles, I found myself acting irritated, dismissive, and even disgusted. Shortly after an alarming-to-me discussion that addressed the internet issue directly, I sat down to figure out what on earth was happening in my head. This is my log of that introspective session, which I shared with Duncan, and which I'm happy for him to share with you.
The reason I asked Logan for permission to publish the email is that it leapt out to me as a sort of motivating example for the kind of work that they've been doing. Their primary focus these days is in phenomenology and preconceptual immediacy, much of it headlined by their concept of "naturalism," some of which has been published on LW.
The email isn't any of that, exactly. It isn't naturalism, and it isn't about naturalism, and you can't pinpoint naturalism just by reading it. But it was excellent in a way I had a hard time describing, and clear evidence that there's something going on in Logan's head that is outside of the boundaries of my own competence. I found myself thinking thoughts like "so this is the mind that is discovering-slash-developing naturalism" and "so this is what a mind that's been steeping in naturalism-etc, and practicing it relentlessly, looks like in motion."
In particular, the email was chock-full of what Logan refers to as perceptual dexterity, and which I now hope they write about at length in the near future.
(Or rather, not perceptual dexterity precisely, but something like recursive perceptual dexterity? Phenomenological perceptual dexterity? Perceptual dexterity turned on itself and applied to Logan's own thoughts and moment-to-moment conscious experience.)
It seemed worth publishing, along with some annotations, as a case study.
(It's about 2000 words, maybe 4000 with all of the annotations. I recommend reading now if you're going to, and leaving the below for a post-script.)
A few more of Logan's words on perceptual dexterity, drawn from scattered drafts that have not yet been published:
- When I look at a water bottle, I see a water bottle. That is, when I direct my gaze and attention toward the part of my visual field where light is reflecting off of the surface of a water bottle, my concept for "water bottle" is activated.
- When I see a water bottle as a water bottle, certain parts of my experience stand out to me, while others are discarded. My attention lands on the bottom of the screw-top lid where I would grip to twist, for example, and on the narrow middle where my hand would wrap around it. The thin line circumventing the bottom doesn't occur to me.
- If I'd never seen or heard of water bottles before, I'd have no such concept to activate, and I'd see it as something else. A small club, maybe. Or a paper weight. Or just a shiny bronze cylinder with an unknown purpose.
- But I don't actually have to be ignorant of water bottles to see a water bottle in a different way. I can move my mind so it is as though I've never seen a water bottle before, holding what's familiar in abeyance as I rotate my attention through many different associative paths. I can choose to see it as a weight for a mechanical scale. I can see it as a a bubble blown in glass and coated with metallic paint. I can see it as a pendant taken from the necklace of a giant.
- I call the capacity for this sort of rotation "perceptual dexterity", and I think it comprises half of original seeing. It is the ability to see something again, and again, from any angle you like, or from many all at once. The more perceptually dexterous you are, the less constrained you are to see only what you saw in your very first glance. You are not trapped in your most familiar perspective.
And from another object-level example, this time a lamp:
- When I activate these various concepts and look through them toward the same part of my visual field, I become aware of more facts about the lamp that were obscured by my first associative path from sense data to “flat”. The texture of the fabric stands out when I perceive the lamp shade as a tapestry, for example. The tautness of it leaps into attention when I perceive it as a canvas. If I rotate my mind into aggression, I see the sharpness of the corners, and when I rotate it into love I see the softness of the sides. Looking through fast, I see the reaching vertical plane, and looking through slow, I see individually woven strings. It’s as though I can be many people at once, seeing something from many angles without moving my head. I thereby see more thoroughly, and more originally.
And a final snippet of text from our ongoing emails about the internet, which I couldn't resist including, both because it concisely demonstrates the same mental agility I'm trying to highlight and because it's just great:
- in the thing i've been tracking, it's different. it's the same in that i want someone else to behave (or think, or feel) differently, but the feeling behind the wanting isn't the same. there's a sort of panicked feeling. hm that's not quite right. or [OMG A BIRD IS AT MY FEEDER FINALLY YES EXCELLENT THEY FOUND IT. it is a female nuthatch, i think. nuthatches like bugs, i should get her dried mealworms.] it's more like there's a... i'm imagining a long pointy cone, like a javelin, protruding from my solar plexus. there is a feeling of stabbing outward from my torso at the other person, as though trying to burst a balloon with it, and then maybe push their insides around into the right configuration. behind the javelin, in my solar plexus and chest and stomach, there is a hot and cold feeling that's like steel or getting your finger stuck to a piece of ice.