[This post was primarily written in 2015, after I gave a related talk, and other bits in 2018; I decided to finish writing it now because of a recent SSC post.]
The standard forms of divination that I’ve seen in contemporary Western culture--astrology, fortune cookies, lotteries, that sort of thing--seem pretty worthless to me. They’re like trying to extract information from a random number generator, which is a generally hopeless phenomenon because of conservation of expected evidence. Thus I had mostly written off divination; although I've come across some arguments that divination served as a way to implement mixed strategies in competitive games. (Hunters would decide where to hunt by burning bones, which generated an approximately random map of their location, preventing their targets from learning where the humans liked to hunt and avoiding that location.) But then I came across this striking passage, and sat up straight:
One performs the rain sacrifice and it rains. Why? I say: there is no special reason why. It is the same as when one does not perform the rain sacrifice and it rains anyway. When the sun and moon suffer eclipse, one tries to save them. When Heaven sends drought, one performs the rain sacrifice. One performs divination and only then decides on important affairs. But this is not to be regarded as bringing one what one seeks, but rather is done to give things proper form. Thus, the gentleman regards this as proper form, but the common people regard it as connecting with spirits. If one regards it as proper form, one will have good fortune. If one regards it as connecting with spirits, one will have misfortune.
This is from Eric L. Hutton's translation of a collection of essays called Xunzi (presumably written by Xunzi, an ancient Chinese philosopher who was Confucian with heavy Legalist influences). The book was overall remarkable in how much of Xunzi's brilliance shone through, which is something I very rarely think about authors. (Talking to another rationalist who was more familiar with Chinese philosophy than I was, he also had this impression that Xunzi simply had a lot more mental horsepower than many other core figures.) By the end of it, I was asking myself, "if they had this much of rationality figured out back then, why didn't they conquer the world?" Then I looked into the history a bit more and figured out that two of Xunzi's students were core figures in Qin Shi Huang's unification of China to become the First Emperor.
So this paragraph stuck with me. When Xunzi talks about the way that earlier kings did things, I registered it as an applause light and moved on. When he talked about how an important role of government was to prevent innovation in music, I registered it as covering a very different thing than what I think of when I think about 'music' and moved on. But when he specifically called out the reason why I (and most educated people I know) don't pay much attention to astrology or other sorts of divination or magic, said "yeah, those would be dumb reasons to do this," and then said "but there's still a reason", I was curious. What's the proper form that he's talking about? (Sadly, this was left as an exercise for the reader; the surrounding paragraphs are only vaguely related.)
In his introduction, Hutton summarizes the relevant portion of Xunzi's philosophy:
In this process of becoming good, ritual plays an especially important role in Xunzi's view. As he conceives them, the rituals constitute a set of standards for proper behavior that were created by the past sages and should govern virtually every aspect of a person's life. These rituals are not inviolable rules: Xunzi allows that people with developed moral judgment may need to depart from the strict dictates of ritual on some occasions, but he thinks those just beginning the process of moral learning need to submit completely to the requirements of ritual. Of the many important roles played by the rituals in making people good on Xunzi's view, three particularly deserve mention here. First the rituals serve to display certain attitudes and emotions. The ritually prescribed actions in the case of mourning, for instance, exhibit grief over the loss of a loved one, whether or not the ritual practitioner actually feels sadness. Second, even if the ritual practitioner does not actually feel the particular attitude or emotion embodied in the ritual, Xunzi believes that repeated performance of the ritual can, when done properly, serve to cultivate those attitudes and emotions in the person. To use a modern example, toddlers who do not know to be grateful when given a gift may be taught to say "thank you" and may do so without any understanding of its meaning or a feeling or gratitude. With repetition, time, and a more mature understanding of the meaning of the phrase, many of these children grow into adults who not only feel gratitude upon receiving gifts but also say "thank you" as a conscious expression of that feeling. Similarly, on Xunzi's view, rituals serve to inculcate attitudes and feelings, such as caring and respect, that are characteristic of virtue, and then serve to express a person's virtue once it is fully developed. A third important function of the rituals is to allot different responsibilities, privileges, and goods to different individuals, and thereby help to prevent conflict over those things among people.
So what is cultivated by performing divination?
The first step is figuring out what sort of divination we're discussing. Xunzi probably had in mind the I Ching, a book with 64 sections, each corresponding to a situation or perspective, and advice appropriate for that situation. In the simplest version, one generates six random bits and then consults the appropriate chapter. I actually tried this for about a month, and then have done it off and on since then. I noticed several things about it that seemed useful:
- Entries in the I Ching typically focused on perspectives or principles instead of situations, consequences, or actions. Today’s Taurus horoscope says “your self-esteem might be challenged by a fast talker or unpleasant situation” and counsels me “don’t accept things as they appear on first glance,” whereas the I Ching reading I just randomly selected talks about how following proper principles leads to increased power and how the increased power tempts us to abandon the principles that generated that power. This makes it much easier to scan one’s life and see where the perspectives shed new light on a situation, or where principles had been ignored. (One of the early successes of my I Ching practice was a chapter that suggested reaching out to a trusted guide for advice, and I realized I should talk to a mentor at work about a developing situation, which I wouldn’t have done otherwise.)
- Given that, daily divination almost filled the same role as daily retrospectives or planning sessions; I was frequently thinking about all the different parts of my life on a regular interval, using a variety of random access to filter things down.
- “One performs divination and only then decides on important affairs.” Often one is faced with a challenge that is “above one’s pay grade,” and having a prescribed ritual for what sort of cognition needs to be done encourages reflection and popping out of the obvious frame. Simply thinking about a situation in the way one naturally would doesn’t correct for biases, while attempting to make sense of a situation from a randomly generated frame does help expand one’s conception of it.
- Since the divination result was a particular perspective (rather than an object-level claim about events or the correct action), it was easy to see when the perspective had been ‘fully considered’ and the reflection was done. If I’m trying to make a binary choice and I flip a coin to resolve it, basically all I’m doing is checking whether or not my gut is secretly hoping the coin lands a particular way, and in cases of genuine uncertainty I will end up just as uncertain after consulting the coin flip. But when I have a situation and I resolve the questions of “what does patience have to say about X?” and “what does humility have to say about X?” then I can have the sense of having actually made progress.
- It encouraged experimentation by partially decoupling one’s mood and one’s decisions. The first few days, I was instructed to consider diligence and so I worked more than I would have wanted to (and discovered that this was generally fine); on the fourth day, I joked, “when is it going to tell me to goof off and play video games?”, and then got a reading that said “effort is hopeless today; that happens, cope with it.” So despite feeling like I could have been productive, I took the day off, and later had the sense that I had confirmed my initial sense that I didn’t need to take the day off, providing data to calibrate on that I wouldn’t have gotten except through random variation.
Essentially, it looked to me like the steelman of divination is something like Oblique Strategies, where challenging situations (either ‘daily life’ or a specific important decision) are responded to by random access to a library of perspectives or approaches, and the particular claim made by a source is what distribution is most useful. There was previously an attempt on LW to learn what advice was useful, but I think on the wrong level of abstraction (the ‘do X’ variety, instead of the ‘think about X’ variety).
This approach has also served me well with other forms of divination I've since tried; a Tarot deck works by focusing your attention on a situation, and then randomly generating a frame (from an implied distribution of relevant symbols), giving one access to parts of the space that they wouldn't have considered otherwise. This also trains the habit of 'understanding alien frames'; if I am considering a conflict with another person and then have to figure out what it means that "I'm the vizier of water, the relationship is the three of earth, and the other person is strength" (where, of course, each of those is in fact an image rich in detail rather than a simple concept), this trains the habit of adopting other perspectives / figuring out how things make sense from the other point of view.
This view is apparently contested.
This comment is going to seem unrelated or only tangentially related to the post, at first. I promise that it’s quite relevant, but explaining the relevance up-front would make the comment longer and more awkward.
Open up an old-school Dungeons & Dragons rule book (like this this one), and one thing you’ll find a whole lot of is random tables.
The idea was simple: your characters would encounter some situation; the Dungeon Master (DM) would roll some dice; then he’d consult a table, which would tell him what the outcome of the situation was, given the result of the die rolls.
Here’s a table for diseases (or disorders):
If a player character contracted a disease, or developed a disorder (which, itself, would’ve been determined by some other die rolls), the DM would roll three dice: one (a d100) to determine the afflicted part of the body; one (a d8) for whether the affliction was acute or chronic; and a third (another d8) to determine severity. The table above indicated which values on each die corresponded to which outcome.
Here’s a table for determining whether a previously undiscovered fortress or castle is inhabited, and by whom (or by what!):
Finally, here’s a table for determining what happens when two magical potions are mixed (or, when a character drinks them both):
Random tables fell out of favor, for a time. But they’ve been making somewhat of a comeback (along with many other features of “old-school” D&D—the so-called “Old-School Renaissance”). One sees discussions of random tables, now and then, on blogs and web forums dedicated to tabletop role-playing games. Often, people put together their own random tables.
And—as with everything else—one sees arguments about them.
Arguments for: These usually involve the word ‘fun’. Randomness is fun, we are told, and surprises are fun; and a random table can inspire a Dungeon Master, and suggest possibilities.
Arguments against: Randomness, the critics say, does not make sense; and surprises are not fun. (Because—it is implied—they might be bad; or they are often bad; or they are usually bad.)
Both sides miss the point entirely. Very few people—even among those who love a good random table—understand the tables’ nature, and their purpose. Without understanding, when people today try to construct random tables for use in their D&D games, they often find that something is missing—some ineffable quality that makes these modern imitations of the work of Gygax fail to have quite the same satisfying and enriching effect on the game as did the random tables in the D&D rule books of old.
And that ‘something’ is that random tables are not about the mere fact of randomness.
Here is what random tables really are: they are representations of a probability distribution across a set of outcomes. As such, they encode two critical things: first, what outcomes are possible; second, those outcomes’ relative frequency.
And in consequence, here is something else that random tables are: they are models of the game world.
Look again at that first table I presented (with the diseases and disorders). A character is exposed to disease; the DM rolls d100. On a roll of 1, 2, or 3, the character contracts an affliction of the blood; on a roll of 4, an illness of the bones; a roll of 5 signifies a nervous system disorder.
But another way to look at this, is that blood-related disorders are 3 times more likely—and thus 3 times more common—than bone-related disorders (at least, among adventurers!).
And the table has no entry for a disease of the lymphatic system. As a consequence, in this fictional world, no such illnesses exist (or, perhaps, they do not occur among the sorts of people that the player characters are).
Similarly, the second table (with the castles) tells us that among small-sized strongholds found in wilderness regions, 45% are deserted entirely, 15% are infested with monsters, and the remaining 40% are occupied by civilized folk.
When constructing, or choosing to use, a random table of outcomes, what you are doing is modeling the fictional world of the game. The relative frequency of the possible outcomes of the category of situation which is to be resolved by rolling on the table—and, no less importantly, which outcomes are present in the distribution at all, and which are not—are facts about that world.
Now consider two random tables, for the same situation—let us say, two versions of the disease & disorder table given above. The first is as presented, while the second has all the same rows, but the distribution is altered: on this latter table, only a single number each (out of 100, on the d100) will yield any result but ‘skin’—to which the remaining 85 out of 100 numbers are now allocated.
What are the consequences for using this latter table? Well, in a D&D game where the DM chooses to use it (in place of the original table), it is rare indeed for any character to fall ill with a disease of the respiratory system—but afflictions of the skin are terrifyingly commonplace. One hopes that the DM has a good explanation for this skew (perhaps the fictional world on which the action takes place lacks an ozone layer, resulting in a permanent epidemic of skin cancers); if not, the modeled world will fail to make much sense (one can only suspend disbelief so far, after all, and perhaps—even after we’ve accepted the existence of dragons and elves—being told that skin conditions are 85 times more common than the cold, the flu, bronchitis, and every other respiratory condition combined, is a bridge too far).
And, similarly, we may imagine yet another version of this same table—an expanded one, with many more rows than merely the 16 we see above (with the die roll result ranges—i.e., the probability mass—of the existing entries being compressed, to make room); and these additional rows are all mental or psychological disorders. In this setting, characters are just as much in danger of developing a debilitating phobia, or lapsing into psychosis, as developing a skin condition. This, too, will result in a very different game world—and a very different game—than the original table.
The point, in other words, is not simply the fact of using a random table. The point, rather, is: just what exactly is on that random table, and what is not on it; and what is the distribution of the listed things. Not all random tables are created equal; not all are equally ‘fun’. The details are everything.
And now consider the application of the same caveat—to random tables, not of outcomes in a game, but of outcomes of a method of divination.
Suppose that we accept the basic idea, that we wish to be prompted to take some perspective, or think along certain lines, chosen at random out of a pool of such. The question, however, is: what, specifically, is the set of perspectives or prompts from which we are selecting? What perspectives are on there? What will be the relative frequency of certain perspectives or prompts, if you draw from this distribution repeatedly? And what is not in there?
We may imagine, for instance, two versions of the same divinatory device. In both versions, you draw a card from a shuffled 52-card deck, then consult a booklet of prompts, where each card corresponds to one entry. But the booklets are different; they were written (and the sets of prompts compiled) by people with very different philosophies (a Buddhist and a Randian, perhaps; or a Christian and a Communist).
Would not your choice of which version of this device to use for your divinations, affect the long-term outcome of using it? Might not your actions be nudged in one direction, or another—systematically? Might there not be some prominent gaps, in one or both of the distributions—perspectives which are simply absent from the set of possible prompts? What would be the consequence of such a lack?
Generators of random outcomes can be extremely efficient ways to model complex systems, by abstracting away the details of causal interactions. But be careful that the outcome distribution of the generator is one which you actually endorse.
Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition; p. 14. ↩︎
Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition; p. 182. ↩︎
Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition; p. 119. ↩︎
The popular sentiment, you see, was that things should happen for a reason, because the DM decided they should happen, rather than being quite so… random. Or, of course, perhaps the game’s publishers merely wanted to economize by reducing the rule books’ page count. ↩︎
That is, the DM generates an integer between 1 and 100 (inclusive), with the distribution across the possible values being uniform. ↩︎
I quite liked this. I'm not 100% sure how to apply it – I think I roughly agree with your final claim, and don't think it's reasonable to expect a fleshed out answer of how different real divination practices varied in usefulness. But I'm curious about some made-up-but-plausible examples you can imagine that would result in different outcomes, esp. factoring in something of the "what worldmodel is being communicated" bit.
I can think of a few further purely speculative inferences. Clearly, somebody created the divination systems used in various cultures throughout the world. The Xunxi quote gives reason to believe that for some members of at least some cultures, systems of ritual, perhaps including divination, were perceived as something like a useful technology. With perhaps daily use by a number of practitioners, possibly engaging in ongoing intergenerational discussions about the efficacy of their divination system, it might have been subject to many optimizing tweaks.
The I Ching does appear to have different versions. From Wikipedia: "Various modern scholars suggest dates ranging between the 10th and 4th centuries BC for the assembly of the text in approximately its current form" (emphasis mine). It seems to me that anyone telling fortunes for a regular clientele will stay in business longer if their advice offers at least the appearance of utility. Royalty might have been more educated and more sophisticated consumers of divination; perhaps they knew exactly what they were buying. After all, if it's possible for divination to offer both the mere appearance of utility and the real thing, all else being equal we'd expect the latter to drive the former out of the market.
When I synthesize the posts of Vaniver and Said Achmiz, it seems to suggest that divination is useful both when random and when the answers have an optimal wording and frequency distribution.
Given that different societies will feature very different pressures and power structures, it seems unlikely to me that a system of divination optimized for one culture (or segment of that culture, such as royalty) will necessarily translate with perfect fidelity to other contexts. It may not even optimize the conscious goals of the individuals using it, or the survival of their societies as a whole.
I can think of two ways divination systems might be retained. One is through conquest. If they promote that activity successfully, it might lead to the spread of the divination system. Another is through promotion of individual flourishing. If a divination system helps people achieve their aims, they might continue to use it, teach it to their children, promote it among their friends, and be imitated by their enemies.
I'd expect a system that does both to be most successful, and my mind immediately jumps to the dual nature of many religions, which are by turns warlike and peaceful. Though the "doves" and "hawks" of each culture or religion often seem to despise each other, they may very well work synergistically to promote the spread of their shared culture. The "hawks" promote an attitude of conquest and hardline defensiveness, while the "doves" promote the benefits of a focus on peaceful individual flourishing. Both can be useful propaganda tools both within their own borders and to outsiders. In order to be convincing to others, they need to be utterly convinced themselves that they are rigid hawks or committed doves. A savvy leader would known how to make use of both.
This is getting a bit away from divination at this point, so I'll leave it there. I do think that any account of the utility of a divination practice (or other cultural practice) needs to explain for whom it provides utility and the mechanism by which it does so. That's the reason for digressing into my "hawks and doves are best friends" theory. My guess is that even when a religion doesn't have an obvious divinatory practice, that it has other ways of accomplishing something similar.
I'm less familiar with Island and Judaism, but in Christianity, it seems to me that sermons, rotating selections of the Bible chosen for study, prayer, and calls to take these words and rituals to heart in ways that are personally meaningful for the congregation are somewhat "random" - or at least out of the hands of the congregation unless they're willing to change churches - and optimized, as judged by the size and growth of the congregation, or the success of cultures that and their varied practices.
It would be interesting to speculate on how much the physical form of the randomization practice or any reference text/image plays in the efficacy of these practices. Can yarrow sticks be replaced with a random number generator, if we're aware that's all that's happening? Or would that make it less effective? Perhaps there is some aspect of human neurology that makes divination done with certain physical implements more compelling than that done with others.
Cf The Dice Man (a good idea for a mediocre book), in which the protagonist decides to make all decisions large & small by rolling a die.
But (and I don’t recall if the book discusses this) much then comes down to what 6 options to choose from - a decision made entirely by the protagonist. Eg if you fall out with Fred, do you include ‘punch Fred’ or ‘kill Fred’, or merely ‘criticise/ignore/undermine/forgive Fred’? And what proportion of options should be nasty vs nice?
And perhaps that decision (deciding the options) is more instructive than just making a decision cold.
This post makes the best case I’ve seen for a steelmanned version of divination. Unfortunately, many of its substantive points are also either wrong or misleading. I’ll start small, by giving the least serious misleading statement. Then I’ll point out two wrong statements along with one extremely misleading statement, and end with why this all matters.
Vaniver's post is good and LW is better for having it. This is intended as a discussion of how it could be made better, and the criticism here should not distract you from how useful the post is.
The smallest misleading statement
Let’s start with the smallest misleading statement. Vaniver gives the throwaway remark early on that he and another rationalist had the impression that “Xunzi simply had a lot more mental horsepower than many other core figures.” That’s because many of the core figures lived before Xunzi, who comes at the end of the classical (pre-imperial) period.
To the extent that Xunzi’s work is richer than theirs, it is richer because Xunzi can build on their work. Xunzi can argue against Mozi and Mencius; Mozi and Mencius can’t argue against Xunzi.
It’s like saying that Derek Parfit had more mental horsepower than Bertrand Russell, because he made finer ethical distinctions. Of course he did. Parfit can take advantage of Russell’s knowledge. Russell can’t take advantage of Parfit’s.
The historical mistakes
To see where the post could be better, let’s see what Vaniver was trying to do. He attempts to answer two questions in this post. The historical question: what did Xunzi mean by rituals, and why did he think they were a good idea? The second, conceptual question: how can we steelman his argument?
To answer these questions, the post makes three substantive claims. The first two are claims of historical interpretation. The third claim is more conceptual.
The first two historical statements are wrong. The third conceptual claim is correct, but is phrased in a way which doesn't allow full learning.
When Xunzi talks about divination, he does not mean the I Ching. Reading Xunzi makes it clear that he thinks of ritual and divination as social activities; Vaniver gets his historical interpretation wrong immediately by assuming an individualistic framework. If the I Ching is used at all, it's in a communal setting. All of Xunzi's other ritual examples are communal.
Xunzi’s reasons for supporting divination rituals are very clear. To quote the SEP article:
Those are the questions of historical interpretation that Vaniver gets wrong.
The misleading conceptual answer: missing out on real learning
What of Vaniver’s core claim that the I Ching can be seen as steelmanned perspective-taking? That’s certainly true. As I said, this post makes an excellent argument for it.
This exact point was made seventeen centuries earlier by Wang Bi’s commentary on the I Ching, which Vaniver does not mention. Tze-Ki Hon, writing on “Wang Bi's sustained efforts to obliterate the fortune-telling aspects of the hexagrams” in his article “Human Agency and Change: A Reading of Wang Bi’s Yijing Commentary,” points out [pdf, p. 238]:
I doubt Vaniver would find anything to disagree with in the above paragraph.
The problem with Vaniver not mentioning Wang Bi is that it prevents full learning. The unfortunate outcome is that even though Vaniver is reading a text from a different time and culture, very little is learned. By reading Xunzi as Brian Eno, creative visionary and co-inventor of Oblique Strategies, he misses out on Xunzi as Xunzi, thinker on self-cultivation and architect of social order.
Reading the I Ching as Oblique Strategies gives him nothing new, as he already knew about Oblique Strategies beforehand; he ends up with what he started. Reading the I Ching as the I Ching gives him Wang Bi, philosophical perspectives on self-cultivation and living in an uncertain world, historical depth, awe at the line of commentators who found so much to interpret, and Oblique Strategies if he wanted it.
(Incidentally, there is also a missed chance to mention other applications of the Yijing, as seen in Kidder Smith Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler and Don J. Wyatt’s book Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching. Just as Xunzi is richer for having come after Mencius, Zhu Xi is richer for having come after Wang Bi.)
The unfortunate consequences
There’s nothing wrong in Vaniver having come up with his interpretation on his own. The real problem comes about when people with no knowledge of Chinese philosophy read Vaniver’s post and come away with wrong views. They---being acute readers---will likely read the false implicatures facilitated by his post and come away with the impression that Xunzi’s rituals work on an individual level, that other thinkers are less worth reading than Xunzi, and that in ancient China the I Ching was mostly read as a divination manual rather than a tool for communal change or a series of metaphors.
This last one is worrying. There’s the mindset that these “old ways” made sense from a rational perspective which those in the past missed, and now here we are, the rationalists, elucidating why they worked. All in all, it’s an excellent way to miss out on reading the past honestly on its own terms and to not realise that there were rationalists in the past as well. (It is also quite a patronising way to read past texts, as though people now have a monopoly on rational thinking!)
This post would have been richer if he had emphasised the social aspect of divination and brought in some of Wang Bi’s specific interpretations of the hexagrams for concrete examples of interpreting them as fields of action. Instead, Wang Bi’s wheel is reinvented. With two hours of extra work, the post could have been so much richer. Both the SEP and the IEP are freely available, and I’m not saying anything groundbreaking.
And the shame is that there is a lot that is interesting in Xunzi for rationalists. Xunzi thinks that the hierarchical rituals help to create a more egalitarian society. What kind of hierarchical rituals are allowed? Why? How can we steelman that argument? What implications does it have for institutional design? He thinks that these rituals have certain standards and origins. Is there a concrete way of having metrics for these standards? To what extent can evolutionary explanations account for these rituals?
(For more on rituals, see Daniel A. Bell’s paper “Hierarchical Rituals for Egalitarian Societies” and chapter four, pp. 181--188 of Puett's To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China.)
There’s a lot in Xunzi that's useful and interesting. Misreading him is a sure way to miss it.
Why this matters
Why does this matter? You might think that the conceptual point is the real one that matters. Who cares about interpretation and scene-setting?
I've already partly answered this above when I talked about how Vaniver's perspective stunts full learning. But here's another way of looking at it. Imagine a post on artificial intelligence which began:
That’s about how badly the post reads to me. Just as a knowledge of etymology does not automatically enable one to write well about AI, a knowledge of randomisation in rationality does not automatically enable one to write well about Xunzi. The post on artificial intelligence may make cogent points later, but the very way it’s phrased is so misguided as to make it harmful to readers who aren’t familiar with AI.
As I mentioned earlier, Vaniver's post is good and LW is better for having it. I hope this comment adds to making it better and more complete.
Thanks for the detailed commentary, and welcome to LessWrong!
I think we have two main disagreements, and two minor ones.
First is what I set out to do, which is perhaps tied up with what I should have set out to do. I'm not trying to explain Xunzi, or even all of the I Ching; I'm trying to open a door that was rightfully closed on the likes of fortune cookies and astrology to rescue things like the I Ching, that seem superficially similar but have a real depth to them.
And, as Xunzi points out when describing the Way, "No one corner is sufficient to exhibit it fully." If someone is going to get something real out of the I Ching, they're going to do it through practice, not through a summary, or reading it cover to cover, and the best I can do is point at why that would be good in a way that they can see from the other side of the door.
From the shape of your disappointment, I'm guessing you wanted me to explain Xunzi more fully, instead of just making an indirect pitch, or more fully grapple with philosophy or classicism. If I were out to do the former, my preferred strategy would be to see if Hutton would let me post the entirety of his translation of Undoing Fixation (which I think is way more readable than the in-public-domain one I found). For the latter, I'll readily admit I'm an amateur instead of an scholar, following trails as they appear and catch my interest instead of hoping for completion. I didn't reference Wang Bi because this is the first I've heard of him, but I'm not surprised to hear this is an old viewpoint. [Indeed, I suspect if this sort of thing hadn't been appreciated in Xunzi's time by his audience, he would have written an essay about it instead of just mentioning it and moving on.]
This bears on our second disagreement, which might be illusory. I agree that ritual, in Xunzi's conception, is primarily social instead of individual. But this isn't exclusively the case, and my impression was that divination as performed by individuals was primarily about cultivating reflection and broadmindedness; if there's a social dimension to it that I'm missing, I'm very interested in hearing more.
The minor disagreements:
Surely it is the case that later thinkers have an advantage over earlier thinkers. I, for example, relied on the mathematicians who worked through set theory to understand the point that "white horses are not horses," whereas Xunzi dismisses it as unproductive sophistry.
Nevertheless, I think people do vary in both the speed and the shape of their thoughts, and this can sometimes be picked up on from the texts they write, even in the presence of other advantages. I hesitate to judge the latter across the gulfs of time and translation; it may have just been bad luck that other thinkers failed to translate as well as Xunzi. Nevertheless, the translations are what we have, and my sense is what it is, and given the agreement of someone who knew more than I it seemed worth sharing.
[And, note the corollary; given that ancient thinkers are disadvantaged in this way compared to modern thinkers, a busy reader needs special inducement to look at the past instead of a modern textbook. Sometimes it's a desire to see the foundations; sometimes it's a belief that times have changed and bad ideas then might have become good ideas now; sometimes it's a glimpse of a genius making sense of another time and another place. Someone who shared my desire to read the original works from the classical period wouldn't need my recommendation to do so, whereas someone looking for a glimpse of genius benefits from the recommendation.]
I thought it was clear in my post that I thought Xunzi had enough of rationality figured out to count as a rationalist, in a way both evident in the text and in the historical record. (Sadly, he didn't approve of Qin, and so maybe he regrets teaching what he knew to others.)
I have more complicated thoughts about meeting the past on its own terms; it definitely has its uses, but 'steelmanning' is normally a different move.
As it happens, while I agree with the current (as of 2018) SEP article on Xunzi, when I first researched this I thought that SEP article badly misunderstood Xunzi's disagreement with Mencius, in a way that made me pessimistic about reading more SEP articles about it.
There are two different claims here; the first is about my (already professed) ignorance, which I agree with, and the second is about whether or not it is contagious, which I think I disagree with. That is, suppose I read all of Xunzi, and tell others to read a single chapter. This implies that the other chapters are lower value, and so some in the audience will be more willing to move on after reading that chapter; but also presumably it increases the number of people who have read that chapter, and if you picked a good one that's worth it. And the most interested will be excited by that chapter, and then read more.
I so far have not had the time to write up what I like about Xunzi as a whole, and his relevance to modern institutions and individuals, and I'm not sure that I will. I'd be excited to read anything you wanted to write here on the subject, or related ones; another thing on my "someday maybe" list is the relevance of Mohism to modern utilitarianism and effective altruism.
Thank you for your generous response. Upon rereading my comment, parts of it sounded overly strident and accusatory, and I retract the tone of my comment. I was overly critical and didn't mention the good parts of your post. I've edited it slightly to downplay those and have added portions to emphasise that your post is an overall good for LessWrong. There's not enough discussion of these things, and I hope that my earlier post makes it clearer that I think your contribution is valuable.
I'd welcome anything further on these that you write here, especially the possible posts on Xunzi and Mozi! I hope my comments haven't discouraged you. I'd like to see more of your work.
Our main disagreement
Our main disagreement perhaps came from the fact (only realised after reading your comment) that you were focusing on steelmanning the I Ching, while I focused on interpretations of Xunzi as a rationalist. Yes, I would have liked you to explain Xunzi better and more fully grapple with the philosophy in ways mentioned above. But now I realise that this wasn't your main aim and that it was uncharitable of me to ask you to do so.
Xunzi on ritual
I'll quote Berkson's paper in The Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi:
Is ritual exclusively social? All of Xunzi's examples of rituals are social, rituals must be socially handed down and taught, and one of their main purposes is to sustain social order. It's not conclusive, but if rituals could be individual, it seems strange that Xunzi didn't give a single example of one.
Our minor disagreements
The question of mental horsepower is a very subjective one. The reason I bring it up is the possibility that due to your comment readers would unfairly prefer Xunzi over other authors without knowing much about them. ("Oh, Xunzi? I've heard he's good. Very rationalist. Mencius, Mozi, Laozi? Probably not so good. Vaniver doesn't think they have as much mental horsepower.")
I do think you read Xunzi as a rationalist. My concern was that other readers would read your post and come away with the false implicature that there were no other rationalists in China, or that no-one else considered the possibility of the I Ching being used for perspective-taking. I apologise for the phrasing of "Nothing, except that it stunts true learning." It comes off as overly sarcastic and I've edited it in the original comment.
I was concerned about the mindset of readers more than their likelihood of reading Xunzi. Ignorance is not contagious, but framing is. The impression given by the post is that almost everything Xunzi says about the I Ching was said indirectly by Brian Eno. What reason, then, is there to read Xunzi? My concern is that readers would take the implicature that Xunzi adds essentially nothing new to Eno and so there's no real reason to read Xunzi at all.
Once again, I want to reiterate that I think your post is a net good. I misunderstood what you were aiming for, and your post succeeds very well in steelmanning divination. My criticisms only relate to the parts on interpreting Xunzi. I hope that my comments came across as useful rather than dispiriting, and I hope one day I'll be able to read your posts on Xunzi and Mozi.
Thank you for this comment. I was trying to point to something similar in this comment I wrote about the importance of understanding the origins of your ideas, but you've stated the point, in my opinion, much better than I did.
Some years ago I got interested in the Yi Jing after reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which features the Yi Jing prominently where the book within the book (which is the alternate dimension/history version of The Man in the High Castle) is written by using the Yi Jing to make plot decisions and one of the characters relies on it heavily to navigate life. I went on to write a WebOS Yi Jing phone app so I could more easily consult it from my phone and played around with it myself.
My experience of it was mostly that it offered me nothing I wasn't already doing on my own, but I could see how it would have been helpful to others who lack my particular natural disposition to letting my mind go quiet and seeing what it has to tell me. As you note, it seems a good way to be able to step back and consider something from a different angle, and to consider different aspects of something you may be currently ignoring. The commentary on the Yi Jing is carefully worded such that it's more about the decision generation process than the decision itself, and when used well I think can result in the sort of sudden realization of the action you will take the same way my sitting quietly and waiting for insight does.
I also know a decent number of rationalists who enjoy playing with Tarot cards for seemingly this same reason. Tarot works a bit different because it more tells a story than highlights a virtue, but I think like you much of the value comes from placing an random framing on events, injecting noise into an otherwise too stable algorithm, and helping people get out of local maxima/minima traps.
I'd also include rubber ducking as a modern divination method. I think it does something similar, but by using a different method to get you to see things more clearly and find out what you already implicitly knew but weren't making explicit enough to let it have an impact on your actions. My speculation at a possible mechanism of action here is something like what happens when I sit quietly with a decision and wait for an answer: you let the established patterns of thought get out of the way and let other things come through so you can consider them, in part because you can generate your own internal noise if you stop trying to direct your thought. But not everyone finds this easy or possible, in which case more traditional divination methods with external noise injection are likely useful.
In an innovation workshop we were taught the following technique:
Make a list of 6 things your company is good at
Make a list of 6 applications of your product(s)
Make a list of 6 random words (Disney characters? City names?)
Roll 3 dice and select the corresponding words from the lists. Think about those 3 words and see what ideas you can come up with based on them.
Everyone I spoke to agreed that this was the best technique which we were taught. I knew constrained creativity was a thing but I think using this technique really drove the point home. I don't think this is quite the same thing as traditional divination (e.g. you can repeat this a few times and then choose your best idea) but I wonder if it is relying on similar principles.
Rereading this post, I'm a bit struck by how much effort I put into explaining my history with the underlying ideas, and motivating that this specifically is cool. I think this made sense as a rhetorical move--I'm hoping that a skeptical audience will follow me into territory labeled 'woo' so that they can see the parts of it that are real--and also as a pedagogical move (proofs may be easy to verify, but all of the interesting content of how they actually discovered that line of thought in concept space has been cleaned away; in this post, rather than hiding the sprues they were part of the content, and perhaps even the main content. [Some part of me wants to signpost that a bit more clearly, tho perhaps it is obvious?]
There's something that itches about this post, where it feels like I never turn 'the idea' into a sentence. "If one regards it as proper form, one will have good fortune." Sure, but that leaves much of the work to the reader; this post is more like a log of me as a reader doing some more of the work, and leaving yet more work to my reader. It's not a clear condensation of the point, it doesn't address previous scholarship, it doesn't even clearly identify the relevant points that I had identified, and it doesn't transmit many of the tips and tricks I picked up. A sentence that feels like it would have fit (at least some of what I wanted to convey?) is this description of Tarot readings: "they are not about fortelling your inevitable future, but taking control of it through self knowledge and awareness." [But in reading that, there's something pleasing about the holistic vagueness of "proper form"; the point of having proper form is not just 'taking control'!]
For example, an important point that came up when reading AllAmericanBreakfast's exploration of using divination was the 'skill of discernment', and that looking at random perspectives and lenses helps train this as well. Once I got a Tarot reading that I'll paraphrase as "this person you're having an interpersonal conflict with is 100% in the wrong," and as soon as I saw the card I burst out laughing; it was clearly not resonant with my experience or the situation, and yet there was still something useful out of seeing myself react to that perspective in that way. Other times, it really is just noise. Somehow, it reminds me of baseball, where an important feature of the game is that the large majority of at-bats do not result in hits. Demonstrating the skill of discernment is present in the original post--but only when I talk about sifting through the sections of Xunzi, giving the specific reasons why I dismissed some parts and thought that the quoted section was a hit that justified additional research, contemplation, and exploration. The ongoing importance of that skill to divination is basically left out.
I also hadn't realized until reading AllAmericanBreakfast's exploration how much it might help to convey that the little things mattered; my translation of the I Ching surely impacted my experience of doing divination with it deeply, like my Tarot deck impacted my experience of doing Tarot readings. I make a related point in passing ("the particular claim made by a source is what distribution is most useful"), and SaidAchmiz's excellent comment explains it much more fully. When I think of where to go from here, matching the 'advice distribution' to some mixture of the reader and the world feels like a central point.
Expanding on that, I think the traditional style of Tarot reading mostly cares about which cards end up in which positions, drawing on the mythical associations of the card's name more than the features of the cards themselves. Whether or not cards are 'reversed' is significant, but as an orderly person and a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, I can't stand shuffling methods that randomize the orientation of the cards. The tableau defines the relationships between the cards and constructs the overall perspective.
So the way I do Tarot readings is often quite simple: three cards, one for me, one for the other party, and the third for the relationship. [Another common three-card spread is 'past, present, and future'; this page that I found while writing this review suggests a few spreads and questions that I am excited to try. As is perhaps obvious, the questions seeding how to relate to the cards you draw will have a huge impact on the variety and usefulness of perspectives you will generate.] But this works in part because my deck is so beautiful and detailed; as an example, I'll do (and 'live-blog') a reading about my relationship to this post.
I am the "princet of ground"; in a cave, his staff planted firmly behind him, a glowing triangle (the symbol of ground) floating in his hands. The clear story is that I'm delving deep into the past, looking for treasure while maintaining my grounding; the subtler point is that I initially wrote "holding a glowing triangle" and then realized that it in fact wasn't being touched by the princet, in a way that rhymes with my sense that I don't actually understand this fully, or haven't distilled it crisply enough.
The post is the 3 of wind; three swords piercing a heart in the middle of a storm. The meaning of this is, uh, obscure. And yet, perhaps that obscurity is the relevance? The post is not clear--it is three 'stabs at the heart of the matter', which while they touch the point, they have not cleared away the stormclouds or lightning or rain.
The relationship is "The Fountain" (or "Wheel of Fortune"); a fat figure eats and drinks at a party while their reflection is emaciated and surrounded by flame. Water pours from the fountain, causing ripples in the pool. I try out a few stories here, and none of them resonate strongly; am I the fortunate figure, reaping the rewards of having written a solid post? Is the reader the emaciated figure? Is the reflection the illusion of transparency, where there's a sense that they got it, but actually they missed it, or the post itself is insight porn? [As I say in a comment, "if someone is going to get something out of the I Ching, they're going to do it through practice, not through a summary".] The fountain resonates with gradual change, with water moving, in a way that seems hard to articulate but somehow rhymes with people reading this post, seeing things more clearly, or having more tools to see things more broadly and understand more perspectives. [One of my favorite comments about this post was posted by a friend to Facebook, where she attended a Red Tent event that involved someone doing a Tarot reading, and reading this post gave her a clear affordance of how to relate to it in a healthy and connective way, instead of being forced into a dilemma of whether to suppress her disbelief or cause a conflict with the other women there.]
The perspective that seems most resonant, after thinking about it for a few minutes, is that the relationship is a mixture of pride and shame. I like this post; I think it's good, I think it's an example of one of my comparative advantages as a rationalist, I am glad to have written it, and I am glad that people liked it. And also... I am ashamed that this is a 2019 post, instead of a 2015 one; that it is just an advertisement seeking to "open a door that was rightfully closed on the likes of fortune cookies and astrology to rescue things like the I Ching, that seem superficially similar but have a real depth to them," instead of having much depth of its own. And while I still pull out the deck or the I Ching for some major instances, the regular habit never quite stuck in a way that made me suspect I wasn't being creative enough, or pushing enough towards my growth edge. ['If you are bored of reading Tarot cards,' that perspective says, 'you are not asking spicy enough questions.']
The SSC post that motivated finally finishing this up was Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success, which discusses the game-theoretic validity of randomization in competitive endeavors (like hunters vs. prey, or generals vs. generals). It seemed important to also bring up the other sorts of validity, of randomness as debiasing or de-confounding (like why randomized controlled trials are good) or randomness as mechanism to make salient pre-existing principles. I'm reminded of some online advice-purveyor who would often get emails from people asking if their generic advice applied to their specific situation; almost always, the answer was 'yes,' and there was something about the personal attention that was relevant; having it be the case that this particular bit of advice was selected for the situation you're in makes it feel worth considering in a way that "yeah, I guess I could throw this whole book of advice at my problem" doesn't.
Original text is from Discourse on Heaven of Xunzi:
The Britannica says:
I once did a thought experiment where I tried to figure out how divination practices might directly help decisions.
The Druids were legendarily learned. What information we have says they were responsible for maintaining the oral history of their people, and for management of sacrifices, and reading of omens and the weather. They were reputed to have advanced knowledge of plants and animals.
I wondered about divination before battle. Naturally, birds aren't really random - I expect a lot of people have noticed things like how they suddenly go quiet when a wet gust of wind blows through immediately prior to a storm. I expect if I were a Druid, I would have spent a lot of time watching birds, and know more things like this.
As a keeper of the oral history, I'll know the reported outcome of previous battles and some important details about them (the weather, say).
Things like how many warriors my tribe has I can see with my eyes, and whether the other guys have more or less can be had by scouting like usual.
There's also the matter of appeasing the gods, and offering them sacrifice. Now there's a story from Greek myth about how early on the gods were tricked into accepting the fatty, gristly parts of the animal as the best parts, on the grounds that the smoke from burning those was better able to reach Olympus and nourish them. This agrees with casual observation: when I ruin a steak on the grill it smokes a lot more than when I ruin chicken on the grill. Smoke is a pretty good indicator of things like wind direction and strength, and further when it rises it can do things like show you where the wind changes above your level (like in smokestacks where it suddenly gets sheared off at a certain height).
So bird behavior provides information about barometric pressure, and the smoke from a sacrifice provides information about the movement of air pretty high up, and the oral history provides a sort of prior for similar circumstances.
So, if I were a Druid and knew what Druids know, I could make better than average predictions about the outcome of a battle if I made a burnt offering and read omens from birds.
How does battle outcome relate to barometric pressure, and the movement of air pretty high up?
Weather. In a nutshell, bad weather makes battles harder. This is because walking a long way while wet sucks, it damages supplies and equipment, it increases the likelihood of disease, and there are intermittent dangers like flooding that are hard to predict in unfamiliar territory. In general, people know how to manage these things where they live, so the worse the weather, the bigger an advantage for the defender (or at least whoever marched less).
This post made me try adding more randomness to my life for a week or so. I learned a small amount. I remain excited about automated tools that help do things like this, e.g. recent work from Ought.
Is there any chance you could tell us what you learned?
It's been a while, but:
Promoted to curated: This is probably the post on LW I referenced most often in the last few months while a lot of the discussion of cultural rationality was going on.
I think there is a lot of value in reading and learning from the best writings throughout all of history, both because they usually tend to have good ideas, and also because it gives a much stronger grounded sense of history. I think there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in analyzing a bunch of historical classics through a rationality lense.
Nitpick: conservation of expected evidence does not seem to me like why you can’t do divination with a random number generator.
I mean, I think it would be more accurate to say something like "the die roll, as it's uncorrelated with features of the decision, doesn't give me any new information about which action is best," but the reason why I point to CoEE is because it is actually a valid introspective technique to imagine acting by coinflip or dieroll and then see if you're hoping for a particular result, which rhymes with the "if you can predictably update in direction X, then you should already be there."
23583450863409854 is not a perspective that helps me get a new view on a problem I'm considering.
1. This post addressed that - pair your RNG with an advice table.
2. That's because you don't give meaning to "numbers". Try a random word/sentence/advice generator.
Sure 23583450863409854 might not refer to any abstract concept fro you.
But I would hold that 23583450863409854 is a valid target for numerology and I would not be surprised if a numerologist did connect that number to some abstract concepts.
You need the numerology to get your perspective. It's similar to the source of the 64 bits of entropy for the I Ching.
You need background education in general to understand a language. No statement is really free of auxillary hypotheses.
In the limit you don't need any external prompt to start activating concepts you have gathered or booting up your imagination. But for some psychologies they don't automatically try to match every theory they know against every percept they have but only apply concepts very selectively. Sometime you proposefully make that selectivity wider but it's hard to say which level of selectivity is appropriate. On the other end there is akrasia where you don't answer direct questions but only activate your brain when somebody punches you in the face. And in the other extreme being constantly paranoid about everything can burn a lot of energy and thinktime for little improvement.
If you throw a dice and read the results it's reasonable to assume that it's a trial independent of the rest of universes happenings. Thus conditioning on the dice result should not shift any probabilities concerning the rest of the world. If I throw an additional dice it doesn't help determine what already thrown dice are. Your expectation doesn't shift so no probability can shift.
Someone rolls a die, and writes down the result. How do you guess what they rolled?
One of the things I take from the post is that you don't have any new information about what they rolled, but you DO now have an indication that they had some reason to roll a die. If you know what kind of decisions they make based on die rolls, you know they're making such a decision.
For some things, that is a lot of information about the universe from the act of divination, not from the results of the act.
This is sort of the inverse of what the post is saying (that preparing for the act ensures that you consider the question with sufficient weight).
You can't. But for example if they say what they rolled and you assume there is a correlation what they actually get and what they would say then you have a chance to narrow it down. If you know it's not corrrelated to anything (ie is pure dice) you know it can' t be evidence.
You can guess. You can roll the die yourself (and guess that it came up the same way). You can also examine the die, and then guess.
Also, this contains some assumptions that aren't always correct. I can throw a die a bunch of times, and notice that it comes up "6" or "1" an awful lot an conclude it's weighted. (A shift in expectation.)
A guess would be equally good without dice throwing. Indeed if you have access to the dice that generated the result we want to know about you can infer distribution information. But if you have a different die and determine that it's weighted it doesn't tell whether the orignal die is weighted. If you knew the dice came from the same factory you could infer something. But you manufacturing a fresh dice is justified to assume to not be distributionally connected. If you have information that you know to correlate your manunfacturing process to be similar then that contains your information and the actual rolling of the die doesn't tell you anything.
Because it's output is a number, as opposed to information (in word form)? Or because there's not reason the (P)RNG would be correlated to the solution to the problem you wish to solve/what you want information about?
This crystallizes a class of strategies which I was aware of, and used sometimes -- eg I have in the past had dice-tables of topics to think about in the shower. But I didn't make the connection to older practices, and I don't think most people would've recognized this as a useful strategy (as opposed to a gimmick). So now the situation is that this post exists to explain the randomized-library-of-strategies approach, but there isn't much in the way of well curated strategy-libraries to sample from.
In an ideal world, the randomly-sampled strategies would be explicit about what they are (rather than disguising themselves as predictions), and would have a feedback mechanism attached. You'd go to a web page, click "tell me what to think about", and it says "pay attention to relationships you might be neglecting" or something, and 24 hours later you rate whether that caused you to notice anything important. Hopefully bringing attention to this concept will cause people to build more tools like that.
See also: Rationalist Horoscopes
For selecting from an array of useful frames, could the process be improved by using spaced repetition instead of random draw?
Perhaps, use a process that starts with a few crucual elemental frames and presents them in a cycle, then starts introducing new frames, and as you go the frequency of the older frames decreases. Never does it draw two very similar frames on consecutive sessions.
I had actually discussed writing a post with Elliot about Tarot cards, but when this post came out there wasn't any need since it already expressed the core idea extremely elegantly.
Could the phenomenon described in the post explain why people find psychedelics useful for self-development?
There is the random perturbation - seeing music, hearing thoughts, ...
The authority of an old sage performing divinations is replaced in psychedelics with direct experience of the perturbation. And the perturbation is amplified by the feeling of detachedness from one-self, people often have on a trip.
I don't have any experience with psychedelics, though, so I'm just theorizing.
According to the REBUS and the Anarchic Brain model, the self-developmental benefits of psychedelics would be due to a temporary relaxation of the hierarchical information processing of the brain.
Normally our top-down processes suppress very low-prior bottom-up signals as noise. Psychedelics selectively inhibit the top-down network, allowing anomalous bottom-up signals to propagate. If a lot of anomalies had been suppressed by strongly-held high-level beliefs, this can cause large updates.
Note that these updates are not necessarily correct and the new beliefs can also become sticky, so I wouldn't recommend untutored experimentation.
This is a great post!
I think I get some kind of similar benefit just by reading a lot and from lots of different sources but would you recommend something like what you described doing with the I Ching to others as a habitual practice they should adopt?
I wonder if variations on the same thing might be similarly helpful, e.g. a service that emails you a random essay or an app that pings you to remind you to read a random LW post.
Something similar to this? With the root notion of the action, weather it be divination or a walk in the woods being to detach yourself from your own mind and force yourself to reflect?