John Vervaeke has a lecture series on YouTube called Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. I thought it was great, so I'm arranging a lecture club to discuss it here on Less Wrong. The format is simple: each weekday I post a comment that's a link to the next lecture and the summary (which I plan on stealing from the recap at the beginning of the next lecture), and then sometimes comment beneath it with my own thoughts. If you're coming late (even years late!) feel free to join in, and go at whatever pace works for you.

(Who is John Vervaeke? He's a lecturer in cognitive science at the University of Toronto. I hadn't heard of him before the series, which came highly recommended to me.)

I split the lecture series into three parts: the philosophical, religious, and cultural history of humankind (25 episodes) related to meaning, the cognitive science of wisdom and meaning (20 episodes), and more recent philosophy related to the meaning crisis specifically (5 episodes). Each episode is about an hour at regular speed (but I think they're understandable at 2x speed). I am not yet aware of a good text version of the lectures; I also have some suspicion that some important content is not in the text itself, and so even if I transcribed them (or paid someone to) it'd still be worth watching or listening to it. 

I think the subject matter is 1) very convergent with the sort of rationality people are interested in on LW, and 2) relevant to AI alignment, especially thinking about embedded agency.

Discussion:

  1. Introduction
  2. Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution
  3. Conscious Cosmos and Modern Grammar
  4. Socrates and the Quest for Wisdom
  5. Plato and the Cave
  6. Aristotle, Kant, and Evolution
  7. Aristotle's World View and Erich Fromm
  8. The Buddha and "Mindfulness"
  9. Insight
  10. Consciousness
  11. Higher States of Consciousness, Part 1
  12. Higher States of Consciousness, Part 2
  13. Buddhism and Parasitic Processing
  14. Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics
  15. Marcus Aurelius and Jesus
  16. Christianity and Agape
  17. Gnosis and Existential Inertia
  18. Plotinus and Neoplatonism
  19. Augustine and Aquinas
  20. Death of the Universe
  21. Martin Luther and Descartes
  22. Descartes vs. Hobbes
  23. Romanticism
  24. Hegel
  25. The Clash

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Episode 7: Aristotle's World View and Erich Fromm

So last time we took a look at the second half of Aristotle and his further developments of the Axial Age's understanding of meaning and wisdom. We took a look more at the world side of things and we took a look at his worldview, with two components: his conformity theory, which is an important alternative understanding of knowledge--it's a contact epistemology, an intimate knowing and being with something--and how plausible that contact epistemology actually is, and then we also looked at a plausible (turne

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The agent-arena relationship is, in my view, one of the core concepts in the course. My version is that you perceive yourself as an 'agent', able to 'take actions' (often according to some script) in a way that is matched up to perceiving your environment as 'an arena' that 'presents affordances'. Much of familiarizing yourself with a new place or culture or job or so on is learning how to properly understand the agent-arena relationship ("oh, when I want this done, I go over there and push those buttons"). The CFAR taste/shaping class is, I think, about deliberately seeing this happen in your mind. Importantly, basically all actions will ground their meaning in this agent-arena relationship.

 

One of the things that I think is behind a lot of 'modern alienation' is that the arenas are so narrow, detached, and voluntary, in contrast to the arenas perceived by a hunter-gatherer tribesman.

Why is 'voluntary' alienating? For example, suppose I'm in a soccer league; I have some role to play, and some satisfaction in how well I play that role, and so on, but at the root of the satisfaction I get from the soccer league is that I chose to participate. There's not really 'something bigge... (read more)

8Yoav Ravid1moYeah, i think you hit the nail with your point on voluntary. The thing i hear most often from people who experience a meaning crisis is "Why" - "Why this specifically? Why this and not this other thing? What's the purpose?". This also relates to me to Choices are Bad [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ufd9YWXLdWaLFMxfL/choices-are-bad]. If you have lots of options it's much harder to answer this nagging "Why" question. When the possibility space is large you need much more powerful principles to locate the right choice (This also relates to relevance realization). The process that produces that question about meaning might start out with simply trying to decide what to do, notice the option space is so large that it needs better principles to successfully locate something, then start asking questions about purpose and meaning. The distress is an inability to locate relevance. My brother used to say that whenever someone started to talk with him about "the meaning of life" he wants to just go to them, give them a really good massage, and ask if the question still bothers them. It of course doesn't answer or diffuse the question, but it has a point. When they're getting a massage it's fairly clear what the right thing to do is, try to focus on the massage and don't worry about other stuff. It gives them peace from mind [https://nav.al/peace]. And I was once able to answer someone that question well enough that it seemed it actually gave her enough clarity and understanding to be peaceful and satisfied. In jargon, my answer gave her the tools to better find what's relevant (At least if I'm not too optimistic in my interpretation of her response, she also had it pretty easy compared to others who have meaning crises).
3Yoav Ravid1moI actually answered her in text, so i can share what I wrote (translated from Hebrew). It's mostly based on ideas from the sequences, and it was before I heard of Vervaeke (I think before these lectures even came out). [1] It was this quote from Eric Weinstein: “Don’t be afraid to fool yourself into thinking that life is meaningful and that, against all odds, *you* have an important part to play in the world. If it’s all meaningless you‘ll have done no harm lying to yourself. And if by some chance this matters, you will waste less time.” The principle I distilled from it is that The existence of meaning precedes the importance of truth (I'll be happy to discuss that one).
4Vaniver1moNote the possibility of the other sort of modal confusion: trying to meet your having needs through the being mode. ("I am dry on the inside.") I think Vervaeke's position is that this isn't much of a problem. That is, the higher levels of development also contain the lower levels of development, and so can see and properly situate the having needs and being needs. If you need to eat to not be hungry, and you need to be a good parent, you might go hungry so that your child has enough to eat, or you might not, depending on your best judgment of the situation. If you need to not have drunk hemlock in order to live, and you need to be true to your principles, you might drink hemlock or you might not, depending on your best judgment of the situation. [I've been reading through The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich, which comes up near the end of the lecture series, and the relevant part of his take on religion is that the most important bit is draining the fear of death to make possible regular life (which is everywhere colored by the presence of death). If death is actually infinitely bad, then it doesn't make sense to get into a car, but how can you live a meaningful life without activities like getting in a car that bear some risk of death?] But it is still a problem sometimes / you do actually have to use judgment to balance them. A friend of mine, early in the pandemic, was trying to get her community to prepare, and her community responded with something like "you seem like you're acting out of fear in a way that seems unhealthy," which I would now characterize as thinking my friend was "focusing on the having-need of safety" instead of "focusing on the being-need of detachment", or something. I don't know the full details, but as I understand it they didn't take sufficient precautions and then COVID spread through the community. (COVID is, of course, in that weird middle zone where this might actually have been fine in retrospect, as I don't think they had any dea
4Yoav Ravid1moThe modal confusion seems like one of the useful models/concepts Vervaeke shares. I admit I kind of forgot it, but it seemed useful when I first watched the lecture, and it seems useful again now (A large part of why i forgot it could be because i pretty much binged the lectures). Anyway, your observation is good: This sounds like what the buddhists did. Instead of trying to fulfill your having desires, become someone who doesn't desire them (being mode). This can be both beneficial and harmful. Minimalism is an example where it's beneficial. You recognize you are being pumped with having needs/desires that can be relinquished, so you become someone who is satisfied with less. It could be harmful when the having need isn't a need that should be relinquished, or you become something you shouldn't. For example, you have a need for companionship, but for some reason it's difficult for you to get, so you tell yourself that the other sex is awful and you shouldn't get involved with them. There probably are fine ways to make relinquish that need (monks do that and they seem fine), but when it doesn't work like in this example we call that denying your needs, and it makes you miserable. Your having needs stem from what you are, so it makes sense it would be possible to solve them through transforming yourself, but not so much the other way around (or at all?). I need food because I am human, I can solve that either by getting food or becoming something that doesn't need food (fact check: Can't. Growth mindset: Yet). But not every change is an improvement, so attempts to become something different can harm you.
7Kaj_Sotala1moWhat some Buddhists did. :-) While there are branches of Buddhism that take renunciation as the primary goal, there are also those who just consider it one tool among others (e.g. [https://arobuddhism.org/community/an-uncommon-perspective.html]).
4Yoav Ravid1moYes, thanks for adding precision to that statement :) I only have a small familiarity with Buddhism.
3Spiracular1moI do know at least 1 person (...maybe 2, from another "bad childhood" case) who completely lost touch with their ability to detect their own hunger, and had to rely on social conventions to remember to eat. (This person's childhood was awful. I think they had been stuck in a lot of situations where they couldn't satisfy their need for food through the "having" frame. While it might be impossible to not need food, it is possible for someone to adjust to not want or think about food much.) This person was otherwise incredibly well-adjusted*, but the "no sense of hunger" thing stuck. Do not recommend, btw. It seems to be something that is very hard to unlearn, once acquired. In the absence of other people, "timers" or "actual wooziness" were the shitty secondary indicators these people came to rely on. * This one was well-adjusted compared to most people, period.** ** Given what he went through, this struck me as an unusual (but pleasant!) surprise. This person's life was far more difficult than most. But he seemed to be able to view a lot of his tragedies as statistics, and he still found it worth living. Had an incredible knack for making found-family, which probably helped.
3Yoav Ravid1moDamm... That sounds terrible. Maybe that's how it's possible to die of hunger playing video games? I was always confused when I heard these stories, as I can't imagine a game being so addicting that i don't notice I'm hungry (Other option is these stories are somehow exaggerated / not real, I haven't looked into it).
2Vaniver1moWhen I did one meal a day intermittent fasting for sufficiently long (4 months, maybe?), I mostly lost my non-physiological sense of hunger (i.e. I wouldn't notice that I hadn't eaten in 30 hours or w/e until I was like "huh, my blood sugar is low"). I think I currently have a weak sense of hunger, which is more frequently lonely mouth [https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kuchisabishii-lonely-mouth-mindless-eating_l_5ebdccc3c5b698a29045b714] than "I forgot to eat" or w/e. My experience of it is mostly positive? Like, I don't have much trouble eating lunch every day, and have habituated to eating enough at once to sustain me for a day. [People are often surprised the first time they see me with four mealsquares for a meal :P]
3Spiracular24dOn a little further thought: "weaker sense of hunger" could be fine or beneficial for some people, and negative for others. But some people don't seem to be able to undo this change, after doing it. So my advice around it defaults to cautionary, largely for that reason. It's hard to adjust something intelligently after-the-fact, when you can only move a knob easily in 1 direction. (And from my tiny sliver of anecdatums, I think this might be true for at least 1 of the mental-reconfigurations some people can do in this space.) P.S. "Lonely mouth" is a VASTLY better term (and framing) than "oral fixation." Why the hell did Western Culture* let Freud do this sort of thing to the joint-metaphor-space? * Do we have a canonical term for "the anthro for decentralized language canon" yet?** ** I get the feeling that a fun (and incredibly-stupid) anthropomorphizing metaphor could easily exist here. New words as offerings, that can be accepted or rejected by facets of Memesis. Descriptivist linguists as the mad prophets of a broken God. Prescriptivists and conlang-users as her ex-paladins or reformers, fallen to the temptations of lawfulness and cursed with his displeasure. An incomplete reification for "Language as They Are," in contrast to the platonic construct of an "Orderly Language that Could Be."

Episode 2: Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution

Last time we were talking about what was going on in shamanism and the Upper Paleolithic transition. We talked a lot about the flow experience and how it integrates altered states of consciousness, on a continuum with mystical experiences and meaning making, enhanced insight and intuition, and how this resulted in an enhanced capacity for metaphorical cognition which greatly expands human cognition, makes it much more creative, much more capable of generating all of those fantastic connection in meaning th

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8Vaniver1moOne of the things I really like about this series is the way in which cognition is viewed as this double-edged sword, where it is specifically the things that make it good that also make it bad. The ability to quickly reach conclusions is both what makes intelligence useful--you need less sensory data / less time to decide things--and what makes it problematic--you jump to incorrect conclusions more quickly as well. This is, of course, also my view on AI alignment: the problem is not that people build robots and then foolishly decide to put guns on the robots. The problem is that we only know how to make the first-order cognition, where we know how to make optimizers that search across a wide possibility space for things that maximize some score, with no attention on whether or not they have the right score function. So the robots we build now are very susceptible to illusion and self-deception. This also feels very tied to the spirit behind Less Wrong: intelligence and rationality are distinct things, where rationality is mostly focusing on the ways in which you personally are subject to illusion and self-deception, and need to rearrange your thinking such that your intelligence is helping you instead of an obstacle.
2cata1moI didn't understand the connection he was drawing between causal modelling and flow. * It sounded like he was really down on learning mere correlations, but in nature knowing correlations seems pretty good for being able to make predictions about the world. If you know that purple berries are more likely to be poisonous than red berries, you can start extracting value without needing to understand what the causal connection between being purple and being poisonous is. * I didn't understand why he thought his conditions for flow (clear information, quick feedback, errors matter) were specifically conducive to making causal models, or distinguishing correlation from causation. Did anyone understand this? He didn't elaborate at all.
6Vaniver1moThis also shows up in Pearl [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/jnjjzkH8Fdzg4D6EK/causality-a-chapter-by-chapter-review] ; I think humans are in a weird situation where they have very simple intuitive machinery for thinking about causation, and very simple formal machinery for thinking about correlation, and so the constant struggle when talking about them is keeping the two distinct. Like, there's a correlation between purple berries and feeling ill, and there's also a correlation between vomiting and feeling ill. Intuitive causal reasoning is the thing that makes you think about "berries -> illness" instead of "vomiting <-> illness". Try flipping each of the conditions. Information that is obscure or noisy instead of clear makes it harder to determine causes, because the similarities and differences between things are obscured. If the berries are black and white, it's very easy to notice relationships; if the berries are #f5429e and #f54242, you might misclassify a bunch of the berries, polluting your dataset. Feedback that's slow means you can't easily confirm or disconfirm hypotheses. If eating one black berry makes you immediately ill, then once you come across that hypothesis you can do a few simple checks. If eating one black berry makes you ill 8-48 hours later, then it'll be hard to tell whether it was the black berry or something else you ate over that window. If you ate a dozen different things, you now have to run a dozen different (long!) experiments. If errors are irrelevant, then you're just going to ignore the information and not end up making any models related to it. The more relevant the errors are, the more of your mental energy you can recruit to modeling the situation. Why those three, and not others? Idk, this is probably just directed sourced from the literature on flow, where they likely have experiments that look into varying these different conditions and trying out others.
1Slider8dI was thinking that there were groudns to think that flow is an experience of lots of implicit learing but I was much more lost on why flow would be conductive to more. Like if I have a proof streak then there is going to be more fodder for more and more proofs but most of that is going to be irrelevant calculation and dead-ends that don't lead to theorems. And there is no guarantee of success. At some point what is getting and enabling me the results is going to run out. Success doesn't by itself generate success.
1Spiracular1moAssyrian Armies of the Axial-Age: Alphabetical, Arithmetic, and Affluent.

Episode 16: Christianity and Agape

Last time we something somewhat pretentious, I hope it was still valuable. We endeavored to discuss the contributions to the notions of meaning and wisdom that were made by the advent of Christianity. In particular we looked at Jesus of Nazareth and the exemplification of this participatory knowing in God's agapic creativity, this forgiving of personhood to others.

John's radical idea that God is in fact this agape that is actually what we've always been talking about when we didn't go talking about God, and then Paul's rad

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5Vaniver12dA story people sometimes tell is a Garden of Eden sort of story: things were good, then somebody fucked it up, and now things are bad. Who fucked it up and how varies--was it Eve eating the apple, capitalism unleashing human greed, agriculture forcing toil?--but the basic attitude is one of resentment / debt. We have to struggle now to get back to where we 'should' be, if that's even possible. This has basically not been my sense of the world or of history. To me, it seems much more like "first there was nothing, then there was something and it sucked, and then it sucked a little less, over and over until now." I am way wealthier than fictional Adam was, and even more so if you consider the actual historical Adam. When it sucked less, it's normally because of something else fixing it, and giving the fix to you. The basic attitude is something like grateful inheritance. Like, in a basic physical sense, there was a time before the sun existed, and now it exists, and basically all the material components of my life only exist in the form they do because of stars that existed in the past. In a social sense, I'm living in buildings that I didn't build, using a language that I didn't make, using tools that I didn't invent, under a political system that I didn't put into place. "Somebody else built that." And it's not just that I found some abandoned ruins, or whatever; the people who built this wealth (often) wanted me to have it. Some of it I've exchanged for, but the vast majority of 'my wealth' is inherited. If there's a principle behind this sort of saving up for the future / sweating so that progress happens, it seems like agape, and so the love that I have towards civilization is easy to backpropagate towards its source. Now, Adam Smith might point out that it's not the benevolence of the baker that I expect my dinner from, and one of the ways I frame things is capitalism as a way to direct civilization towards generative behavior (by tying it to consumption and
2Vaniver12dTillich (I'm still drawing from The Courage to Be) argues that Stoicism, while viable, is fundamentally unpopular because it picks renunciation instead of salvation. That is, sure, if you do the right thing when you're in control, focusing only on the things that you can control is satisfying. But if you do the wrong things when you're in control, well, what then? It seems unsatisfying to say "well, I can't control the past" and just forget about it, or to constantly be resetting your identity, or to not have a story of why this happens and how it could be better. On Less Wrong, we don't focus too much on sin and guilt, but there's a 'clear thinking' analog when it comes to mistakes / confusions. The sort of 'courage to think in spite of myth and falsehood' feels very different from the sort of 'courage to think in spite of fallibility and uncertainty'; I associate (perhaps unfairly) the first with 'skeptics', and the second with a sort of patient focus on smoothing out errors / reflecting on one's own mistakes / operating on the best available knowledge without being stupefied that feels like the steel rationalist to me. [There's an old claim I don't have a link to, where someone who was into the occult and eventually snapped out of it realized that lots of mystics would describe scientists as "unable to deal with uncertainty", but this was projection; the scientific virtue was being able to clearly see and sit with your ignorance, whereas this person's scene couldn't handle ignorance, and so had to immediately paper over any holes with stories, even if those stories were fake.]
2Vaniver12dAlso note the meta point here; if there's one "ideal thinking" state, and people start off in lots of randomly different "worse thinking" states, moving towards ideal thinking will be a different direction for different people, and one of the worries about taking one person's account of their transformation too seriously is typical minding [https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/typical-mind-fallacy] (or, more weirdly, adopting the patterns of their pre-transformation mind so that you can follow the transformations that start from that point!).

Episode 1: Introduction

So last time we were beginning our historical examination of the origin of this capacity for meaning making to try to get a clearer picture of what it is. Today I'd like to continue on with what we were talking about: the connections between meaning-making, enhancing cognition, altered states of consciousness, wisdom.

We were talking about that in connection with the upper Paleolithic transition, in which human beings seem to have gone through this radical change which was not so much a biological change but a change in how they were

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7Vaniver1moThere's a great SSC post, Read History of Philosophy Backwards [https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/11/read-history-of-philosophy-backwards/], which seems relevant to framing the first half of the series. That is, the point of talking about shamans isn't that it's better than what we're doing today, or a direct response to the meaning crisis; the point of looking at shamans is in part to figure out how they worked (both what problems they were solving, and how they were solving them) and in part to figure out what life / society was like before there were any shamans. I was a bit bugged by the 'placebo effect' discussion, mostly because I think he worded things wrong; 'placebo effect is 30-40% as effective as full medicine' is different from 'you do 30-40% better with placebo than nothing'.
1Slider8dWhat is the difference of the placebo wordings? Are you not including the placebo half into the full medice and consider anythign not part of the chemical medice to not be medicine?
2Vaniver8dI think the denominators of them are different. The first wording is "(medicine - placebo) / (medicine - no treatment) = 0.65", whereas the second wording is "(placebo - no treatment) / (no treatment) = 1.35".
1Slider8dI am still a bit confused. I would read the first as "(treatment-chemical)/treatment = 0.35" and I guess the overall point was. I don't think the case of secretly injecting peope with chemical was ever referred to or is it a typical experimental setting.
6romeostevensit1moI see the meaning crisis as a function of increased neoteny. Parents provide meaning for children, elders provide meaning for adults. We don't have village elders and everyone is getting more child-like as they get wealthier.
6Vaniver1moHuh, I think I agree with lots of components of this, but somehow they're linked together in a way that seems shaky to me, or like it's jumping too far too quickly. Like, yes there's increased neoteny, and yes there's increased wealth, but it's another leap to say that wealth makes people more neotenous. [More likely, from my models, there's another thing that is causing both, like the increased size and specialization of society. People have to learn longer / have more subservient roles to fit into larger, more complicated organizations, and those larger, more complicated organizations are better at producing goods and services / serving as 'parents' for much longer. More peace leads to less trauma which leads to less 'growing up fast.']
5Spiracular1moI appreciated the Foolishness vs Ignorance distinction he drew up in Episode 1. "Foolishness is lack of wisdom, Ignorance is lack of knowledge" sounds initially trite. But when he drills a little further into it, it became clear that his use of "Foolishness" is trying to gesture at premature pattern-identification and pattern-fixation, with a failure to notice alternative patterns. "Premature reification [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification]" is what I've heard Ozzie call something similar, and that's the handle I most often use for it. There are probably some types of error that a child wouldn't make, but an adult would, because adults more readily project one of their pre-existing reifications. ...but also, you need a reification to build things or coordinate. They're not a thing you want to stop doing, they're a thing you want to learn to monitor, manage, and question sometimes. It is good to have some tools to dislodge or rewrite reifications which don't actually apply. (And this seems to be what he sees as a selling-point of altered states.)
3mike_hawke1moI had no idea that the metaphor "think outside the box" was derived from a math puzzle. That's pretty cool.
1Slider8dDid you have some conception of where it would have came from and what it was referring to? How can one understand an idiom if one doesn't understand the constituent parts?
1Slider8dI am thinking whether wizards and really are shamanistic instances. In a lot of stories wizards know a lot but are impractical, disinvolved and overtly theorethical. Those aspects don't really jive with the high wisdom aspects. It is more that wizard are people that have knowledge that other people do not have. And while it might utilise wisdom to come up with such unusual things being able to receive or wield it doesn't have so high requirements. Wizards are associated with spellbooks and stuff which is clearly in the domain of sticking with a lot of propositional knowledge. In particular my mind is that in Dungeos and Dragons, wizards have intelligence as their spellcasting stat while the cleric and monk have wisdom, sorcerers and warlock have charisma. I guess the more general class of "spellcasters" catches more fo the aspects and wizard is like the "default" spellcaster. When the shaman is donning the deer mask they are essentially playing singleplayer D&D activating the muscle "roleplay". Some fo the speelcaster seem to be revolving around some of the actions deemed beneficial. The warlock is about relying in an entity outside of yourself, your patron to get things done, to channel the other. Sorceresser are about enbodying the the improvement. You don't use the magic, you are the magic. Clerics tap into devotion and how intense focus and elaborate system opens new options.
1weft1moI had previously watched an episode or two of this, and felt pretty meh about it. It felt like he overpromised and underdelivered, and talked a lot without getting to an actual point. I'm trying it again solely on the strength of your recommendation / it seems like you think there's a solid payoff if you stick with it.
3Vaniver1moThis is good to know; I've seen some people recommend it with "if you get through two lectures and you don't like it, it's not for you." So I'm not sure how strongly you should take my recommendation. In particular, I think one of the things I liked most about it was seeing a thing I'm already deeply familiar with / interested in (rationality / how to orient one's life) from a new angle. The "history of philosophy as seen by a cognitive scientist" sounds way more interesting to me than "history of philosophy as seen by a philosopher", or something similar; it might or might not sound interesting to you. That said, I think there's a thing going on with 'underdelivery', where the lecture is much more "these are the problems meditation is trying to solve, and this is why you might expect meditation to solve them" (with an ecosystem of practices, rather than just meditation), but listening to the lecture doesn't make you a skilled meditator; you have to actually meditate if you want to solve the problems that meditation solves. [You could imagine a similar lecture on physiology, wherein you end up with a knowledge of the history of movement and exercise and a sense of what you need to do--but also, you won't actually get fit without moving.] As well, a lot of his points are something like "here's a phrase that we've trivialized, but which you should take seriously", but maybe you do take the phrase seriously already, or him pointing at this still leads to you seeing the trivialized thing, since he hasn't actually helped you realize its meaning.
1weft1moI've just watched two episodes now, and while it's interesting, it's also... throwing up a lot of epistemic red flags for me. He goes off on all these interesting tangents, but it feels more like "just so stories". Like he can throw all this information at me to get me to nod along and follow where he's going, without ever actually proving anything, and because there's all these tangents I feel like he can slip stuff in without me noticing. I've been listening to him for two hours now, and I still don't quite get what his thesis is, except "There's a meaning crisis." I feel like he's trying to push me towards a solution without being upfront from the beginning about what that solution is.... "Traditionalism", maybe? Or like maybe he's saying something simple in a very complex and long-winded way in order to feel deep? But maybe that is the required method of saying it to get it deeper into your brain.
9Spiracular1moHere's a single concrete thing he does that drives me nuts. I wonder if it may be a part of what is setting you off, too? He overuses the term "unifying." He uses it three times an episode, to mean a different thing than I would usually mean by it. I really wish he'd cut it out. I usually see "unifying" as signifying that there is an overarching model that takes some of the complexity of several models, and collapses them down together. Something that reduces "special casing." He almost never means that. It's always adding more, or tying together, or connecting bits without simplifying. It comes off to me like a string of broken promises. In my notes, it means that I produce a ton of pre-emptive "Summary Here Headers" (for theory unifications that seem to never come), that I had to delete in the end. Because usually, there isn't a deep shared root to summarize. When I come back to fill them in, all I find is a tangential binding that's thin as a thread. Which is just not enough to cohesively summarize the next 3 things he talked about as if they were a single object. I think his "big theory" is actually something more like... spoilers... which I wouldn't have guessed at accurately from the first 2 episodes. (I can't get spoilers to work on markdown, ugh. Stop reading if you want to avoid them.) Maybe "attention as a terrain," or maybe something about aligning high-abstraction frames with embodied ones? The former feels basic to me at this point, but the later's actually a pretty decent line of thought.
3Yoav Ravid1moI can't recall any specific examples of him using "Unifying" that way, but what you describe does ring familiar. I think he tends to use verbose language where unnecessary. I'd love to get the Paul-Graham-edited-for-simplicity version of these lectures.
5Yoav Ravid1moHe isn't offering traditionalism, he recognizes that's infeasible. He's looking for something that's compatible with science and rationality, but also achieves the same thing traditional systems achieved (like creating meaning, purpose, fulfillment, community, etc.) His solution is to create an "ecosystem of practices" (such as meditation, journaling, circling and such) that are practiced communally. Sometimes he also calls it "The religion that isn't a religion". On the one hand, I think there's still place for him to be clearer about his solution, on the other hand, he's clear that he's not actually sure yet how a solution would look like, and the purpose of this series is to define and understand the problem really well [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/uHYYA32CKgKT3FagE/hold-off-on-proposing-solutions] , and understand a bunch of background materiel that he expects will be relevant for finding a solution. And yes, I think there's room for simplifying. If not the thesis, then at least the presentation. He uses very complex vocabulary that I'm not sure is really necessary. To me it feels like it detracts rather than add.
1weft1moTwo episodes / two hours in and he hasn't mentioned any of this that I recall. I feel like the introductory session should at least vaguely mention where he's going to be steering BEFORE you've invested many hours.
2Vaniver1moI am pretty sympathetic to his reason for not doing this, which is something like "yes, at the end of the lecture you can say two sentences that feel to you like they capture the spirit. But do those two sentences have the power to transmit the spirit?" I think most summaries (mine included!) are papering over some of the inferential distance [https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/inferential-distance]. I do also think he's much more tentative about proposed solutions than the problem. This isn't a "I have a great new exercise plan which will solve the obesity crisis", it's closer to "we're in an obesity crisis, this is the history of it and how I think the underlying physiological mechanisms work, and here's what might be a sketch of a solution." At which point foregrounding the sketch of the solution seems like it's putting the emphasis in the wrong place.
4Vaniver1moYoav's reply seems right to me. Also: Consider doing some epistemic spot checks [https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/epistemic-spot-check], where you randomly select some claims and try to figure out if his story checks out. One of the benefits of something like this lecture club is with enough eyes, we can actually get decent coverage on all of the bits of the lecture, and figure out where he's made mistakes or been misleading or so on, or if the number of mistakes is actually pretty low, end up confident in the remainder. [I'm doing a more involved version of this that's going to pay off for some of the later lectures, which is he references a bunch of works by more recent philosophers, and so I'm reading some of those books to try to better situate what he says / see how much his take and my take agree.]
3weft1moThe issue here is that the easy, straightforward facts are all legit to the best of my knowledge (e.g. the basic history of the Bronze Age collapse and such), but the points that his thesis is more strongly built upon are not just straightforward fact checks (e.g. Pretending to be a deer helps you hunt deer, and tribes with shamans outperformed tribes without, etc) It's like you list a bunch of real facts and real knowledge in order to make your point sound legit, and then put a bunch of wild speculation on top of it. (I'm not saying that's what he's doing, but that it's a really easy thing to do, and really hard to tell apart).
1Slider8dI got somewhat of a similar feeling skipped into episode title that seemed more interesting. Now having myself "spoiled" ona couple of things it is more clear what he is doing with the presentation. He is using sophisticated opinion in choosing a partiuclar path/story and wants the path to be followable step-by-step to the one that is walking it. It is a the difference between coming up with a proof vs explaining a proof. In doing the reverse ordering I can make connections on what the talkpoints are later connected to. Presented here itis "shamans do wonky stuff and it somehow works" but in reference to later how it might be plausible that the wierd stuff has tangilble (understandable by me here now) advantages makes it a more dynamic landscape to think in. Part fo the point might be that the shamans might be able to pick up on the advantages and thus a reason to repeat the behaviour/technique but they might not have a good gear-level understanding what it is doing or why it is working (or they or some of them could but can't neccesarily chare the insight to the uninitiated).
3weft1moHis digression about shamans really getting into the mindset of a deer in order to better track them reminds me of a skill "Pretending to Be" that I think is useful for many skills.

Episode 15: Marcus Aurelius and Jesus

So last time we had begun to take a look at the transformation that was occuring in the eastern Mediterranean around the time of the advent of what was going to become Christianity. Of course, this figures upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a very controversial figure to say the least. As I said, I'm not going to endeavor to claim to give the absolute or exhaustive account of this extraordinary individual, but instead I'm going to try to do what I've done before, which is to show how what he did contributed to our un

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4Vaniver16dSo Marcus Aurelius (and the Stoics) get 45 minutes of the lecture, and then Jesus and the short version of agape get the last 15 minutes. But the next lecture is mostly about expanding on those 15 minutes, and so the summary focuses on it. So here's a brief list of the Stoic things he covers (mostly using quotes or paraphrases): 1. The Buddha was trying to make you realize how threatened you are, and you don't have as much control as you think you do. Epictetus says the core of wisdom is in knowing what's in your control and what's not in your control, and stop pretending that things are in your control that aren't. 2. Fromm, brought up before as distinguishing the having mode and the being mode, basically got that distinction from the Stoics. 3. The Stoics shifted focus from products (having mode) to process (being mode), because you have lots of control over the latter but not the former. This involves a lot of practices that are similar to mindfulness / remembering the being mode. 4. Marcus Aurelius writes a book, which shouldn't be interpreted in the propositional way; it's written to himself. It's spiritual exercises. 5. Marcus Aurelius has the philosophical problems especially *because* he had power and fame. Unlike the Buddha, he doesn't try to leave the palace; he doesn't want to shirk his moral responsibilities (to use his power wisely). 6. The "view from above" helps you situate things correctly. Looking at situations from above, instead of your perspective, helps you be objective / treat others fairly. 7. Lots of modern CBT is basically just Stoicism; 'internalizing Socrates' is inculcating the sort of mental habits and doubt that dissolve incorrect thinking. "Everything I do is a failure!" "Everything?" asks Socrates.

Episode 4: Socrates and the Quest for Wisdom

Last time we talked about how the Axial Revolution came into Greece. We first reviewed Pythagoras and then we concentrated especially on the figure of Socrates and the Socratic revolution. We saw again how issues of meaning, wisdom, and self-transcendence are so tightly bound up together. We took a look at Socrates and how he has a particular conception of wisdom in which what we find salient or relevant is closely coupled to what we find true or real.

Those two concerns--what is transformative of us and what is t

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6Vaniver1moContinuing on last week's commentary, Socrates mostly makes sense as part of this move from the continuous cosmos (in which the Gods are physically real and power is what matters) to the two worlds mythology (in which the material world is low and a different world is high). Like, we begin in a world where Power is Glorious, where Zeus commands respect because he can zap with you lightning bolts. If you read The Iliad, it's full of people (and gods!) explicitly threatening each other. Aphrodite tells Helen to have sex with Paris, Helen doesn't want to, and Aphrodite replies with "look, this is me being nice to you, do you want to see me being mean to you?", and Helen goes through with it. Hera complains about Zeus, her son pleads with her to stop because he doesn't want to stand idly by and watch Zeus beat her (standing idly by, of course, because Zeus could easily beat him as well). The importance of heroes is determined primarily by where they fall in the power ranking, rather than their moral qualities. The Achilles-Agamemnon conflict is mostly about how respect should be distributed between power and legitimacy. And we somehow end up in a world where Truth is Sacred. Socrates does something that seems sort of astounding to me, which is conflate goodness and power strongly enough to insist "look, Zeus has to be a moral exemplar, otherwise he wouldn't be a God." A related perspective--"if God exists, we need to destroy him / put him on trial for his crimes"--seems pretty common in rationalist fiction, at least. From this perspective, refusing to bow from pressure from the citizens of Athens seems like the obvious move. "Look, either they're right and I should accept the punishment, or they're wrong and I'll be a martyr for the truth, which is better than living without principles." There's a parable that I like, about a monk and a samurai: Normally I read this with the sense that "yes, you can redefine victory by changing your perspective, but only so far." Th
6Yoav Ravid1moJust wanted to say that even if i don't find something to say and don't comment, i still enjoy reading the summery each day and especially your commentary, so thanks!

Meta discussion about how to do this:

(This is the sort of place to complain that 5 lectures a week is too many, or to propose that we have a weekly discussion event in the Walled Garden, or so on.)

4Vaniver1moI'll be in the Walled Garden to talk about lectures 1-5 from 4pm to 6pm (Pacific time) this Sunday; here's the invite link [http://garden.lesswrong.com?code=O7wl&event=aftmc-lecture-club].
4Vaniver1moI just realized that LW lets you embed YouTube videos in comments! I assume this was built in to the editor, rather than a feature we added?
4habryka1moRequired some integration from both sides. But yeah, the new editor made it much easier.
3Ikaxas1moSo one thing I'm worried about is having a hard time navigating once we're a few episodes in. Perhaps you could link in the main post to the comment for each episode?
4Vaniver1moGreat idea, will do.
3Spiracular1moLesswrong doesn't have a "group"-like (user subthread) functionality, and I mostly think Lesswrong is currently not an optimal place to do "subscribe to a sequence of posts" content (...ironically?), since it doesn't seem presently rigged for this. (I thought they discontinued sequences functionality? They may have actually limited access to it to a karma score or something, and I'm holding this assumption weakly.) These are counterbalanced for me by the accessibility/reach of LW (for audience and commenters) and the expected quality of comments, though. And it's always possible to just provide in-text links to tie together a sequence. I think I've convinced myself not to push to change it; it's a fine choice. I'm... really curious to see how well "discussion-driven something-or-other" goes. I was a little disappointed with how little engagement the "Questions" section sometimes got, and I usually think of "Link-out w/ discussion" as a slightly-similar datatype.
5Vaniver1moI think if I wanted I could make this a Sequence of posts. I'm also quite curious to see how it goes. For what it's worth, I like having all of the discussion on one page (in part because coming back to this page shows you discussion on the other lectures), but maybe it will get unwieldy. [In the Old Days we had to break up the intro threads whenever they hit 500 comments or so, and quite possibly this post will end up with so many comments that we'll have to break it up also. Probably the team is fine with me signing them up to do surgery on this post if necessary. :P]
4Raemon1moBTW, everyone can make a sequence (the button is available on the /library page, deliberately a bit out-of-the-way for new users. Users with 1000 karma should see the menu-item right next to the "new post" button in the User menu)
3Raemon1moNote that people can subscribe to posts-of-a-given-tag. (I agree you should also be able to subscribe to a sequence, but, this is a hack for now)
1Spiracular1moThis post seems to be the meta-Lecture Club, not Episode 1, so I'm a tad confused about where to object-comment on Epi 1 (high-level? subthread on Episode 1 summary? Both seem a little suboptimal.) This probably resolves itself as "just do a highest-level comment" after Epi 1, but I wanted to express the confusion.
3Vaniver1moSorry about that; object-level commentary on Episode 1 should happen underneath the Episode 1 comment [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/i4BYp9xZeEebhg7qM/lecture-club-awakening-from-the-meaning-crisis?commentId=rJCL3CuEf7QK3Kzcj] .

Meta discussion about why to do this:

(This is the sort of place to complain that this is off-topic for LW, or to say that you're participating, or to talk about why participating makes sense or doesn't.)

7Vaniver1moAnna Salamon on Twitter [https://twitter.com/AnnaWSalamon/status/1311928887509544966] (talking about a different video, by a related person):
6Kaj_Sotala1moI've been having this lecture series recommended me by lots of different people, but so far haven't gotten farther than reading through Valentine's summaries [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WIu38z6uFzjQUGS_NnqALtkSyKmLl_8-EOwzhxcOon8/edit] . Maybe I'll get around watching some of it now.

I've watched some of Vervaeke's lectures, but they just seem to go on and on without ever reaching whatever his goal is. Likewise Jordan Peterson. Having just read through Valentine's document (mainly the lecture summaries, rather than the detailed notes), I am still disappointed. Vervaeke just breaks off at the end, just as it seemed it might get interesting. It goes to lecture 26, the last of which suggests there are more to come. I look forward to summaries of them, but more with hope than with expectation.

Yeah, I think you'll appreciate the summaries we end up with of the second half of the series.

I've watched some of Vervaeke's lectures, but they just seem to go on and on without ever reaching whatever his goal is.

I think this is both fair and unfair, and am trying to figure out how to articulate my sense of it.

I think there's a way to consider thinking that views it as just being about truth/exactness/etc., and turning everything into propositional knowledge. I think there's another way to consider thinking that views it as being a delicate balancing act between different layers of knowledge (propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory being the four that Vervaeke talks about frequently). I have a suspicion that a lot of his goal is transformative change in the audience, often by something like moving from thinking mostly about propositions to thinking in a balanced way, but from the propositional perspective this will end up seeming empty, or full of lots of things that don't compile to propositions, or only do so vacuously.

"So what was his point? What does it boil down to?" "Well... boiling it isn't a good mode of preparation, actually; it kills the nutritional va... (read more)

4Yoav Ravid1moThis is a cool idea. i watched the lecture series and also thought much of it is highly relevant to LW. speaking of relevance, i thought his idea of relevance realization was especially relevant, and even thought/tried to write a post about it. so I'm happy you started this :) Question: Is making top level comments ok? or do you want to keep it to only the three you made already? if so maybe make another one for open discussion on the series?

Episode 13: Buddhism and Parasitic Processing

Last time we finished our look at the Axial Revolution in India. We took a look at what was going on in the Buddha's state of enlightenment. We took a look at some of the cognitive science in such awakening experiences and then we moved to interpret some of the Buddha's pronouncements, following the sage advice of Batchelor, trying to get beyond interpreting his pronouncements as propositions to be believed and instead understand them as provocations so that we may enact enlightenment.

That means enacting the thr

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3Vaniver18dThis was a very short summary, but I think both things it brings up are key: 1. Things like Buddhism were not 'belief systems' (which Vervaeke calls a 'post-Christian' way of looking at it) and instead were practices. Like, you could imagine people of the future trying to understand football propositionally, and they sort of could, but it's mostly not about the propositions, for the athletes or the spectators. It's about enacting the football game. They were transformative practices--you should be able to see the difference between someone before Buddhism and after it (at least if they did it right). 2. The in-depth look at a problem that Buddhism was trying to be a solution to (parasitic processing). Plato tells us a story about anagoge; Buddhism tells a story about its opposite, and how to avoid that.

Episode 10: Consciousness

Last time we were discussing the Axial Age within ancient India and we were focusing in on a pivotal figure of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and we had been talking about his particular story. We talked about the two modes of being that were being represented in his story of leaving the palace: the having mode and the being mode. We talked about modal confusion and about overcoming it.

We followed him to where he's sitting under the Bodhi tree and he achieves a deep kind of realization, a deep state of enlightenment. Along the way

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4Vaniver23dOne of the things that impressed me a lot about Vervaeke in this episode was naming my crux and meeting it. Like I talk about in Steelmanning Divination [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fnkbdwckdfHS2H22Q/steelmanning-divination], often I've written off something for good reasons, and then come across a statement of the thing that says "yes, it runs afoul of X and Y, but even knowing that I think you should look at Z," and this is a pretty compelling reason to look at Z! So Vervaeke is familiar with dreams, and expects his audience to be familiar with dreams. Your sense of how much things cohere can be hacked! I realized this as the result of direct experience many years ago, as presumably have most people, and so any claim of states of consciousness that are more in touch with reality than the default state of consciousness, rather than less in touch with it, has a high bar of evidence to clear. The default presumption should be "how are you sure it isn't just hacking your sense of how much things cohere?" Vervaeke is also familiar with the unreliability of the propositional knowledge that comes out of these experiences. Some people see God while high, other people see the absence of God while high. Surely this means it's not a reliable source of knowledge [https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/04/21/universal-love-said-the-cactus-person/]. Contrast to fictional situations; if the DMT entities could in fact factor large numbers, this would be very compelling evidence about them! Or in the world of Control [https://controlgame.com/], people in the Astral Realm see a black pyramid, in a way that makes the propositional knowledge gained there reliable. So Vervaeke's story is: these mystical experiences are not about propositional knowledge. This seems pretty promising to me as an account (tho it's obviously not complete). Dreams might be random soup, but if I realize an error in my thinking because of a dream and that realization persists when I'm sober, and stands up t
2Yoav Ravid23dYes I also noticed that with Vervaeke. He would often start talking about something that sounds crackpot-ish or like straight up bullshit, but then immediately mention my objection and go on to talk sense. Last episode had an example of that with "Quantum Change", which is something i wouldn't even bother listening to, but he immediately criticized the name and said that the theory is good in spite of it, so I was open to hearing it out.
3Spiracular21dA question: What are some of the metrics people use, to judge whether something felt "real?" What are some metrics used to resolve fork-conflicts, between different ways of making sense of the world? What does it mean, when these are different, and how do you resolve that conflict? (A few example conflicts: A dream that is obviously not self-consistent, but still makes useful predictions. A vivid memory you have, that none of your friends can recall. A high-confidence intuitive prediction you could make whose certainty colors your perception, but which others insist is based on invalid starting premises.)
1Spiracular21dA bit of context: I ended up with an odd connection between the way he described a "Realness-gauging heuristic," and how Blockchain works, that I wanted to share. This eventually led to the question bubbling up. Vervaeke mentioned that a problem with some Higher State of Consciousness (HSC) experiences is that some people experience an "Axial Revolution in miniature," and decide that the real world is the dream, and their experience in the altered state was the reality. (Which they usually feel a need to return to, due to what he dubbed a "Platonic meta-drive" towards realness.) Usually, with altered states (ex: literal dreaming), one ends up treating the altered state as a dream-like subjective experience, and understand your waking-life as reality. In these cases, this seems to get flipped. To paraphrase Vervaeke... The way I interpret this is that one of the common heuristics to ascertain "realness" is to search for the most extensive, highest-continuity, or most vividly experienced comprehension algorithm that you've ever built. This calls faintly to mind fork-resolution in blockchains. For the most part, blockchains branch constantly, but by design turn whatever is the longest and most-developed legal branch into the canonical one*. This is not purely continuous, since this is not always the same chain over time; one can overtake another. As long as it's the the longest, it becomes the "valid" one. While this is one of the simplest fork-resolution metics to explain, it is not the only one. Other varieties of forking (ex: a git repo for a software package) may use other canonicity-resolution heuristics. Here's a very common one: for a lot of projects, the most-built one is called an "Alpha" while the canonical version numbers are reserved for branches deemed debugged or "sufficiently stable." (It is also sometimes possible to provide an avenue for re-integrating or otherwise feeding an off-branch to a main one (ex: uncles), but this can get complicated

Episode 25: The Clash

Last time we took a look at what's happening in Germany in the period after Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. We took a look at the rise of pseudo-religious ideologies and of the various other cultural undercurrents and threads and processes of transformation that were gathered together in Germany and then exacerbated and ignited (if you'll allow me a volatile metaphor) by Germany's terrific defeat in the terror that was World War One, and the impact this had on Germany and how all of this, all of these features that we saw at work in German

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Episode 24: Hegel

Last time we took a look at important develops that are centered upon the figure of Hegel. I can't give a comprehensive analysis of Hegel's thought; it's too complex and sophisticated. I was trying to do the best I could to capture that within Hegel's thought which is directly relevant to our understanding the genealogy of the meaning crisis. 

We saw how Hegel proposes how to move beyond Kant and the Romantics by rejecting Kant's notion of 'the thing in itself' and saying: "look, reality is just the patterns of intelligibility, there i

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2Vaniver3dSo I feel like there's a Schopenhauer-like response here, which is something like... "development is the joke that the civilization plays on the individual"? That is, you might go about your life thinking there's some deeper purpose to your life or some great spiritual growth on offer, but actually what really matters is a hundred thousand people all being gears in a giant machine to make slightly better semiconductors, which then serves as gears in another giant machine, and the whole thing is aware of this process of using material progress to advance material progress. One can view the scientific / capitalistic revolution eating the world as the narrowly propositional / materialistic forces competing against the balanced / spiritualistic forces and just actually delivering the goods in a much more obvious way. Like, it's a coincidence that this paulfchristiano post [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/AyNHoTWWAJ5eb99ji/another-outer-alignment-failure-story] came out yesterday, but it somehow feels very relevant for thinking about material dialecticism. My inner Vervaeke responds with "but you pay a terrible price for that!", and he's right; if you give up on individual development / experience, then the bottom falls out and you end up with Bostrom's Disneyland with no children.

Episode 23: Romanticism

Last time we were talking about the historical developments that happened around Kant. We took a look at Kant and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I present Nietzsche as one of the great prophets (I'm using that in the Old Testament sense of a prophet) of the meaning crisis. We talked about a way of understanding what Nietzsche is saying, how it's not just simply atheism. We also took a look at a way in which Nietzsche doesn't really adequately give us a response to the meaning crisis although he indicates that an important project within

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4Vaniver4dAnother short summary, so let me summarize. * Kant's trying to unify the two halves separated by Descartes; he proposes a shift where the mathematical, rather than being 'out there', is a lens that you apply to reality. "Math isn't discovering reality, math is ultimately about how the mind imposes a structure on reality so it can reason about it." Vervaeke comments: "that's a really big price you pay for getting the two sides of Descartes back together!" * A quick description of predictive processing, how actually there does seem to be a filtering thing going on. Bottom-up and top-down processing are "completely interpenetrating in a completely self-organizing manner outside of your cognitive awareness." * The Romantic reaction to this Kantian model is to notice that the closer you are to the mind / the more rational you are, the more you're in your abstract frame and out of touch. So in order to get closer to reality, you have to move further from the mind / from rationality / from math. * Jung is basically Kantian epistemology plus gnostic mythology. * Vervaeke's very ambivalent about the Romantics because they're after contact with reality and they're trying to recapture the lost perspectival / participatory knowledge. But because they're in a Kantian framework, they think they get that by going into the depths of the irrational aspects of the mind. * The Romantics become anti-empiricists; the empiricists view the mind as a blank state that's impressed on by experience, the world is an empty canvas on which imagination expresses itself. (Vervaeke thinks both are wrong; I think they remind me a lot of no-self and self [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/dMeRKq6tXWqcNxujt/self-and-no-self], which I view as interrelated like the taijitu [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taijitu] .) * "[Romanticism] is a pseudoreligious ideology so it sweeps the continent but it's like spiritual junk food. It's tasty

Episode 22: Descartes vs. Hobbes

So last time we took a look at three pivotal figures; two of them are in dialogue with the central figure, Rene Descartes. We took a look at the debate between Descartes and Hobbes, and how that is so current and relevant to us today in the debate around the possible creation of strong AI and what that means both scientifically and existentially to us, and we then took a look at what comes out of Descartes's response to Hobbes.

Descartes builds a defense against Hobbes's proposal for a completely materialistic artificial inte

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2Vaniver5dSo I gave a talk on the Meaning Crisis on Sunday in the Walled Garden, which mostly was about the agent-arena relationship and some other stuff, and among other things I pointed out that part of the crisis here is a growing sophistication of concepts that breaks down 'useful bucket errors' at earlier stages. "It's fine for Plato to say that truth is goodness and goodness is truth, but we have clearer concepts now and have counterexamples of truth that's not good and goodness that's not true." Zvi [https://www.lesswrong.com/users/zvi] pushed back; 'well, how sure are we about those counterexamples?' After sleeping on it, I think "actually, they're more like type definitions than they are like counterexamples." If one thing is about a correspondence between descriptions of worlds and our particular world, and the other thing is about a correspondence between descriptions of worlds and real numbers that indicate how much one ought to prefer those worlds, for them to be exactly equal you need to a very strange utility function. And it's much, much harder to make them line up if you have a difference version of 'good' than 'consequentialist utility theory', as that gives you different types. Continuing on the type distinction, Vervaeke talks a lot about these four varieties of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. But the Cartesian view is really only comfortable with the propositional knowing. [Actually, isn't it also about the participatory knowing of being your mind touching itself? But I suppose that's only a very narrow subset of participatory knowledge.] One of the things that came up in the conversation was the way in which 'everything' can be compiled to propositional knowledge. My favorite example of this is Solomonoff Induction; it's a formal method for updating on observations to determine what the underlying program for a computable world is. First, you run all possible programs to get their output streams, you compare tho

Episode 21: Martin Luther and Descartes

Last time we took a look at Martin Luther and the deep impact in our cultural grammar made by the Protestant Reformation. We talked about things like cultural training for narcissism, sapiential obsolescence, the division of church and state which furthers secularism, and the rise of the Protestant work ethic and how that's got integrated with emergent corporate capitalism. 

We then took a look at some initial responses by Pascal to this change and the loss of the cosmos, being replaced by the infinite spaces that

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2Yoav Ravid6dTypo: "if matter is real the we can build a material computer" should be then
2Vaniver6dVervaeke's split between Luther and Descartes reminded me of SSC's On First Looking into Chapman's "Pop Bayesianism" [https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/08/06/on-first-looking-into-chapmans-pop-bayesianism/] , but the camps are importantly different. There, Aristotelianism is the camp of certainty, and Anton-Wilsonism the camp of anti-certainty. Here, both Luther and Descartes are after certainty; Luther thinks you get it by a sort of 'pick it and stick with it' faith (which is importantly detached from action, but not necessarily from evidence!), whereas Descartes thinks you get it from careful deductive reasoning.

Episode 20: Death of the Universe

Last time we took a look at the advent of the Scientific Revolution. We looked at the work of Copernicus and how the important advent of a scientific description of reality had with it the consequence that most of our experience--our sensory experience--was questionable as illusory in nature. Galileo also developed the idea of math as the language of reality, and used that with the new experimental method (a method also born out of the idea that most of our cognition is deceptive and biasing in nature) and he used that to d

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Episode 19: Augustine and Aquinas

So last time we took a look at how Augustine drew all of this development, this very complex sophisticated articulation of the Axial Revolution, drew it all together into a nomological order that brought with it the best of Aristotelian science, a normative order that brought with it the best of Platonic spirituality, a narrative order that brought with it the best of the Christian process of moving through history, and of course along the ride comes some of the best psychotherapeutic techniques available from the ancient w

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2Vaniver10dIncidentally, this is one of the reasons why I (as someone who deeply prefers text-based communication media to audio or visual ones) nevertheless encourage people to actually watch the videos. It also points to one of the big meta-issues; part of what's happening is modularization and specialization. Reading used to be a big package deal that got you lots of things, and now it's a narrow focused tool that does what it does very well, but doesn't give you the other parts of the package deal. As far as I can tell, we're better off with rapid silent consumptive reading than just having access to Lectio Divina. But there's a big price for this in coherence, as all of the various components of your life become necessarily detached from each other so that they can be interchangeable.

Episode 18: Plotinus and Neoplatonism

Last time we were talking about this interaction and confluence between nascent Christianity, the transformation that's undergoing the Platonic tradition in Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism. We had ended up by talking about Plotinus, and how he brings about this grand unification of the best science of the time (Aristotle), the best therapy of the time (Stoicism), and the best spirituality of the time (Platonism). This is done all in a way that powerfully integrates mystical experience, achieving higher states of consciousn

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2Vaniver11dAgain, Vervaeke on returning to something that 'worked' in the past:

Episode 17: Gnosis and Existential Inertia

So last time we were taking a look at a group of people: the Gnostics. They shouldn't be understood as forming a community or group, although there might have been some Gnostic churches; we should think of them more like we think of existentialism or fundamentalism. You can be a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or Jew etc.; it's more about a style, a way of being, a way of understanding and interpreting. It was pervasive during the same period as early Christianity and the two are interacting with each other. In

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2Vaniver6dIn looking for another post, I found SSC's Against Anton-Wilsonism [https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/03/against-anton-wilsonism/], which I think makes the same point as Vervaeke repeatedly makes, of being against a sort of pick-and-choose autodidactic approach to mysticism, as opposed to taking a package deal from a sapiential and supportive community, and actually putting in the calories.
2Yoav Ravid6dWait, isn't that what Vervaeke himself does? Or does he do it himself because he thinks he's proficient enough and is putting enough effort into it, and is willing to risk failure for the chance of finding new ground, but thinks in general people should pick up a ready-made bundle and roll with it? Perhaps the ecosystem of practices he's trying to develop?
2Vaniver6dI don't think he's doing the autodidactic thing. Like, he studies wisdom as a scientist, but I think personally he practices tai chi and meditation in part because they're tried-and-true with the sort of supportive community that he talks up in many places. Much of this lecture series is, I think, not his material, and is instead other people's work and other people's analysis, passed through his filters. [He doesn't mention this until later, but he's not trying to be a prophet / start a religion / etc.]
2Yoav Ravid6dFrom that post: Sounds like a good article, only learning about rationality and not actually learning rationality is definitely a core failure mode in learning rationality. Has Scott or anyone wrote about it?

Episode 14: Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics

So last time we finished up our look at what was going on in Buddhism and then we moved back to the West and we started to take a look at what was coming after the Axial Revolution. We saw that Aristotle's disciple Alexander ushered in a period of turmoil and cultural anxiety, a period when many people were expecting or were experiencing domicide, a very deep and profound sense of loss of home. Not of having a house or dwelling, but that connectedness, that rootedness to one's culture, one's place, one's history, o

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2Vaniver12dFrom The Courage to Be, by Paul Tillich, discussing the Stoics:

Episode 12: Higher States of Consciousness, Part 2

So last time we finished up a cognitive scientific exploration of higher states of consciousness, awakening experiences, these kinds of mystical experiences that bring about massive transformation. We saw how we can give a psychologically active description of these processes that explain both the experiential profile that people are having and some of the features that they find therein. We were also able to talk about this at the level of machine learning and information processing, and at the brain level

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2Vaniver19dSo this completes Vervaeke's account (for now) of what's going on with mystical experiences. They don't do the thing we might want them to (give us access to propositional knowledge), but they give us some sort of non-propositional guidance through a way to vary our internals in a way that lets us experiment with things / untrap our priors [https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/trapped-priors-as-a-basic-problem]. This also explains some about why it would be ineffable: consider the difference between describing an idealized algorithm and describing a pernicious bug you found in your code. The first is simple and formal, with many of the details abstracted; the second is almost entirely about the details. Most of these experiences are more like exposing psychological bugs so that they can be reimplemented, in a way that's not going to generalize between people (as everyone's implementation of that bit of their psychology will likely be different). But... I'm not convinced it's an asymmetric weapon [https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/24/guided-by-the-beauty-of-our-weapons/], yet. The thing where you randomly increase variation sometimes breaks you out of bad spots, but it sometimes puts you into bad spots. I think Vervaeke would respond: that's what the whole practice and community built around it is for! Someone who goes on a trip supported by other people, who know how to cultivate wisdom and challenge foolishness, is much better off than an autodidact who tries it on their own, maybe missing a core preparatory step or foolishness-challenging skill. Also, maybe this is just 'for extreme cases'; for example, you might want to give psychedelics to almost everyone with PTSD, but almost no one without PTSD. [I'm not sure why I'm focusing on psychedelics here, since part of the point of meditation is to get to these states, and he seems pretty bullish on everyone doing meditation. I think it's that the risk for psychedelics seems much higher, and so the story has to b

Episode 11: Higher States of Consciousness, Part 1

So we have been engaged in a very long discussion because we're talking about a topic that is central--the possibility of enlightenment--to try to make that something plausibly accessible to us rather than something wrapped and shrouded in mesmeric mystique. Instead we've been trying to understand this from a cognitive science perspective that could tell us why these higher states of consciousness might in fact provide a means for the radical self-transformation, self-transcendence, enhanced inner peace, an

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Episode 9: Insight

Last time we were talking more about mindfulness and trying to get an account of how mindfulness can bring about an insight. Not just a single insight into a single problem, but a modal insight, a systemic insight that is fully transformative of the agent-arena relationship and brings about the alleviation of existential distress and the affordance of enhanced meaning. We took a look at that by getting into the machinery of attention and seeing that attention involves two kinds of attentional scaling: attention involves an ability to enga

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Episode 8: The Buddha and "Mindfulness"

So last time we continued looking through the myth of Siddhartha's awakening. We talked about him leaving the palace--the having mode--his attempt to rediscover / recover the being mode, and the difficulty he faced in pursuing self-denial as passionately as he pursued self-indulgence and why this ultimately failed because it's still working within the same operation of trying to have a self. Then we looked at Siddhartha's commitment to the middle path: an attempt to overcome that through the cultivation of mindfulness

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Episode 6: Aristotle, Kant, and Evolution

So last time we began out discussion of Aristotle and how he has contributed significantly to our understanding of meaning and wisdom. We talked about how Aristotle was centrally concerned with something that he thought Plato didn't give an adequate enough account of: change. Importantly, Aristotle's term for change is properly understood in terms of growth and development.

We talked about how much your sense of growth and development is constitutive of finding your life to be meaningful. Aristotle understood that de

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Episode 5: Plato and the Cave

So last time we discussed the important and foundational work of Plato. The grammar of Western Civilization is basically made up of the Bible and Plato. We will keep coming back to both of those repeatedly in certain ways. 

We talked about Plato's notion of wisdom and how it involved this process of aligning the psyche so as to reduce inner conflict and reduce self-deception (by bullshitting ourselves). That enabled us to achieve one of our meta-desires: the desire for inner peace. We could also align that reduction in self

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As an aside--Vervaeke says,

Now Plato was traumatized by the death of Socrates. It's deeply disturbing to him. Why I think that is because he keeps coming back to it and trying to understand. He wanted to understand how is it that the city he loved, the city he belonged to--Athens--could have killed this man that he admired and loved so deeply. How is it that his beloved Athens killed his beloved Socrates?

So where Socrates had this dilemma given to him by the gods, Plato has this dilemma given to him by the death of Socrates. Plato wanted to understand how people could be so foolish.

My hot take before this series was that Socrates probably had it coming, tho I think the previous episode gave me a much more positive impression of Socrates. [There's a thing Vervaeke will do a lot in this series, where he tries to distance "talking about X the actual historical figure" (about which there might be a lot of controversy) and "talking about X as understood by the intellectual history" (about which there might be much less controversy). You might not think you have good enough records of Jesus's existence to be confident about what actually happened with Jesus or whether he even existed, bu... (read more)

2Vaniver1moA core bit of this episode that didn't make it into Vervaeke's summary is the idea of 'structural functional organization'. The core example is a bird; if you tried to define a bird as the 'sum' of its parts, you would be missing out on the difference between a bird (where all the parts are carefully integrated together into a particular structure) and a bloody pile of parts (if they're cluelessly jumbled together). The intricate relationships between things that make up its structure determine its function, which determines its identity in an important way. This, of course, ties into the whole project. You need to not just have a list of facts about the mind, but a structural functional organizational account of the mind.

Episode 3: Continuous Cosmos and Modern World Grammar

So last time we discussed the Axial Revolution and in particular how it moved into ancient Israel. We talked about the advent of the psychotechnology of time as cosmic history: as a narrative in which there's an open future and your actions (the moral quality of your actions) can determine that future. You participate along with God in the creation of that future.

This brings with it the idea of moral progress: the increase in justice. This is how we move from the less real world to the more real world. F

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7Vaniver1moThis feels like the central bit of this lecture to me, both because it points at the right way to understand myth and is also highly relevant to old conflicts between epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality. His sense of myth seems very similar to Peterson's [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ZaJNuYdAAC4kzcdc7/maps-of-meaning-abridged-and-translated] : the world as forum for action. [Vervaeke will use the phrase 'agent-arena relationship' a lot.] The materialist worldview is concerned with the transition probability between states; the mythological worldview is concerned with the value function of states and the policy over actions. [Those are connected but importantly distinct.] Modern myths are things like "go to college" or "recycle plastics"--by which I don't mean that college isn't real, or that going to college doesn't have real benefits, or that you shouldn't recycle. I mean something more like "choosing not to go to college, or to not recycle, feels distant from propositional beliefs in an important way." Think of The Fireplace Delusion [https://samharris.org/the-fireplace-delusion/] by Sam Harris. [I once attended a lecture where the professor gave a coherent and clear argument against recycling, and then at the end of the lecture he stood by the trash cans / recycling bins to see how it would alter attendee behavior; at most 10% fewer people recycled that for other, 'control' lectures. If asked, people's sense was less "I wasn't convinced" and more "being convinced about the claims in the lecture doesn't shift my sense of whether or not it's good for me to recycle."] So the claim here is not just "well, we used to believe in God and now we don't", the claim is something more like "there used to be a strong shared motivation to do this sort of self-improvement, deepening in connection, and enhancement of wisdom, that was more like 'go to college' than it was like a propositional belief." [Noting, of course, that only about a third of Americans to
1Slider6dWhen wondering about the connection between "cosmos" and "cosmetics" my thought was that cosmetics is about apperances, that make-up conceals and presents the thing as different. The kind of meaning he was going for was about "revealing" which was pretty much in the opposite direction. The connections can seem a bit tenous but it feels better when one can see that he knows what he is trying to do with them. Althought it is a more goal-oriented presentation rather than a dispassionate and evenhanded search of the handiest direction. And I guess there is also value in giving an example of the thing being talked about rather than just talking about it.

I'm curious if you can summarize the relevance to embedded agency. This many hours of listening seems like quite a commitment, even at 2x. Is it really worth it? (Sometimes I have a commute or other time when it's great to have something to listen to, but this isn't currently true.)

Probably the main idea Vaniver is talking here is Relevance Realization, which John starts talking about in episode 28 (He stays on the topic for at least a few episodes, see the playlist). But if that also seems like much, you can read his paper Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science. Might not be quite as in depth, but it goes over the important stuff.

Of course, i might be wrong about which idea Vaniver was talking about :)

4Vaniver1moOnly sort of. Yoav correctly points to Vervaeke's new contribution, but I think I'm more impressed with his perspective than with his hypothesis? That is, he thinks the core thing underlying wisdom is relevance realization, which I'm going to simply describe as the ability to identify what bits of the world (physical and logical) influence each other, in a way which drives how you should look at the world and what actions you should take. [If you think about AlphaGo, 'relevance realization' is like using the value network to drive the MCTS, but for a full agent, it bears more deeply on more aspects of cognition.] But this feels like one step: yes, you have determined that wisdom is about realizing relevance, but how to do you that? What does it look like to do that successfully, or poorly? Here, the history of human thought becomes much more important. "The human condition", and the perennial problems, and all that are basically the problems of embedded agency (in the context of living in a civilization, at least). Humans have built up significant practices and institutions around dealing with those problems. Here I'm more optimistic about, say, you or Scott hearing Vervaeke describe the problems and previous solutions and drawing your own connections to Embedded Agency and imagining your own solutions, more than I am excited about you just tasting his conclusions and deciding whether to accept or reject them. Like, saying "instead of building clever robots, we need to build wise robots" doesn't make much progress. Saying "an aspect of human wisdom is this sort of metacognition that searches for insights that determine how one is misframing reality" leads to "well, can we formalize that sort of metacognition?". [In particular, a guess I have about something that will be generative is grappling with the way humans have felt that wisdom was a developmental trajectory--a climbing up / climbing towards / going deeper--more than a static object, or a state that one