LessWrong: West vs. East

by Neuroff7 min read19th Oct 201715 comments

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There is a particular distinction in Western and Eastern ways of seeing the world and interpreting Truth. I want to point at how I think LessWrong is more aligned with the Western way of truth-seeking.

[ Epistemic status is speculative / playful. ]

One illustration of the distinction is that there was a study where Japanese and American students were shown images of fish tanks[1]. Later, they were asked to recall the scene. Japanese students were twice as likely to recall background objects. They also often started by describing the environment—“it looked like a pond.” While Americans were more likely to describe the foreground—“there were three big fish swimming to the left.” The Japanese attended more to the context and relationships within the image, while the Americans attended more to the "main actors."

Some pattern-matching words to further triangulate the difference here:

East Asians see things in context, while Westerners focus on the point at hand; the former are dependent, the latter independent; the former are holistic, the latter analytic. … Asians are collectivistic, Westerners individualistic. [2]

LessWrong feels like a further continuation of this long-standing, analytic Western tradition.

1. It features anonymous users (wiping clean the context of name, social group, cultural background, etc.).

2. It has a sense of “the argument should stand for itself.” It doesn’t matter who writes it—the words themselves should be taken into consideration and judged to be convincing or not. The truth will be evaluated based solely on the logical structure, the content, and the evidence. Similar to how mathematical proofs don’t rely on the perspective of the person constructing it or the one reading it.

3. It tries to keep emotion at bay. There is a sense that emotion risks making things distracting or “tribal.” Emotion takes away clear-headedness and disables people’s ability to think. Signs of hostility or aggression are quick to be pointed out in comments. The implication is that one of the jobs of moderation is to keep discussion free of emotional charge. Again, it seems the point is to highlight the argument on its own ground and to remove the “background layers” of emotion and social signaling, as much as possible.

These features hint at underlying assumptions about the nature of reality and Truth. LessWrong was formed as an attempt to clarify, carve out, and discover this Truth, given the assumptions about how an enlightened mind goes about the business of finding Truth in the first place. What kinds of assumptions are those?

From the paper referenced at the beginning:

Another example concerns metaphysics or fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world, together with the cognitive processes that followed from the metaphysical assumptions. The Greeks tended to focus on the object and to explain its behavior with reference only to its properties and the categories to which it belonged. Aristotle explained a stone's falling when placed in water by invoking the notion that the stone had the property of “gravity,” and explained a piece of wood's floating on water by reference to the wood's property of “levity.” In contrast, the Chinese recognized that action always occurs in a field of forces, understood much about magnetism and acoustics, and recognized the true reason for the tides (which escaped even Galileo). The Greeks were inclined to see matter as being composed of discrete objects or atoms, whereas the Chinese were disposed to see matter as continuous substances, even as interpenetrating substances. Finally, the Greeks tended to see stability in the world (e.g., Plato's forms), whereas the Chinese saw the world as constantly changing, indeed, in line with the yin and yang of the Tao, as always being in the process of reverting to the opposite of the current state.

To me, these assumptions about reality feel related to why Europe ventured to find new land across the ocean in the 1400’s, while China—despite having the technology and resources—did not bother to look. It feels related to why Europe was the center of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. It feels related to why America is the champion of capitalism, freedom of religion, and escaping from older traditions and cultures.

On causal attribution and prediction:

We might expect that Westerners, like ancient Greek scientists, would be inclined to explain events by reference to properties of the object and that East Asians would be inclined to explain the same events with reference to interactions between the object and the field. There is much evidence indicating that this is the case (for reviews, see refs. 18-20). Morris and Peng (21) and Lee et al. (22) have shown that Americans are inclined to explain murders and sports events respectively by invoking presumed traits, abilities, or other characteristics of the individual, whereas Chinese and Hong Kong citizens are more likely to explain the same events with reference to contextual factors, including historical ones. Cha and Nam (23) and Choi and Nisbett (24) found that East Asians used more contextual information than did Americans in making causal attributions. The same is true for predictions.

On logic vs. dialectics:

When told that all birds have a certain property, people are more inclined to agree that eagles have the property than that penguins have the property, even though, if asked, they would of course say that penguins are birds. Norenzayan et al. (26) showed that Korean participants were more susceptible to this so-called “typicality” effect in deduction. Koreans were also more likely than Americans to be influenced by the desirability of a proposition when judging whether it was logically consistent with propositions to which it was related deductively. A series of studies by Peng and Nisbett (27) showed that Chinese are more comfortable with apparent contradictions than are Americans. They showed that Chinese participants had a greater preference for proverbs that contain an apparent contradiction (“too humble is half proud”) than did American participants (even when the proverbs were Yiddish ones and equally unfamiliar to Americans and Chinese). They also found that the Chinese were more likely to propose “middle way” solutions to inter- and intrapersonal conflicts than were Americans, who seemed to find it necessary that one side or the other had to be correct. When presented with evidence for apparently contradictory propositions, Chinese participants tried to find truth in both, whereas Americans were more inclined to reject one proposition in favor of the other.

What is the Western view of Truth?

Perhaps that Truth has discrete elements that can be manipulated, observed, or measured. Phrases like “cutting nature at its joints” point at a sense of Truth having concrete outlines—that concepts have edges. Also, that it is possible to see objects independently of their contexts. That I can name things, categorize them, and create new taxonomies for them. There is an emphasis on definitions, symbols, rules, and linear structures in argument.

Given that this post is an attempt at putting LessWrong into a larger, historical context—maybe you can already guess which way I tend to lean naturally.

I am trying to avoid making explicit claims about which is “better.” There are clearly certain arenas that the West has come to dominate. But there’s also something to be said for the more context-driven, holistic approach of the East, if the examples above are any indication.

There’s the weird, head-warping question of: Which is more aligned with what reality is actually like? Which is more likely to discover meaningful truths about the universe?

I’m inclined to say—just as light acts as both particle and wave, reality might not be so readily divided. Maybe we need both.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I’m going to skip over that question because I don’t feel it’s the right one.

But I am interested in finding a third road, a way to combine the two and gain the benefits of each.

A third road: East + West = ?

The above paragraphs were an attempt to make observations about LessWrong and the way it seems to view the world, or ways it wants to view the world.

Here are some analogies that try to point at a particular motion of truth-seeking that feels Western:

  • Changing the focus of a camera lens such that the “main subject” of the photo becomes clear and prominent, while the background becomes blurred.

  • Brushing off dirt from a dug-up archaeological object, such that the object’s shape and contours can be clearly felt and distinguished.

  • Creating new terminology, such that the new concept can be held, wielded, and manipulated.

Note that for each of these, there are two motions—one is removing or distancing the background and one is clarifying or zooming in on the desired foreground object.

Let me describe a different truth-seeking motion that combines this Western method with an Eastern sensibility.

  • In the process of truth-seeking, I can try to name objects in the background—such that they then become “foreground objects.” (And furthermore, doing this continuously, over and over.)

  • Subject-object shifts.

  • I can try to consider how I came to this place, what led me to research this particular thing out of all things and what kind of person takes the actions I have taken so far. I can come up with hypotheses about these questions.

  • I can try to test which background properties seem relevant to my experiment. Generate hypotheses about contexts, not about subjects or individuals. (I have a niggling, unjustified sense that psychology research has failed in part because of an under-emphasis on attending to background conditions.)

  • Always carry an assumption that there might be relevant things in the background that I have yet to identify.

I’ll demonstrate with a meta example:

[example]
There’s a particular way I talked about LessWrong in this post that framed me as an outside observer. I used the third person instead of “we” or “our.” Also there was a way I tried to be “neutral” but also “distant” that might have projected an air of “foreignness.” Like I was talking about LessWrong as “these people and their ways.”

And I imagine this framing could land in some of you in a way that makes it subtly tempting to dismiss the post or find nitpicks in it, due to in-group/out-group signaling / monkey-brain stuff. I don’t think this effect will dominate, but I imagine it might be present. Maybe some of you noticed this effect occurring even before I said anything. (I notice this kind of thing happening in me all the time. E.g. I’ll note the username of a person before reading a post, and this colors my perception.)
[/example]

Okay, I just named a thing about how I wrote the post and my projected prediction of its effect. I brought up potential signaling effects in the very post I am in the midst of writing. By taking something that is usually implicit or “background” and foregrounding it, we can now more explicitly try to see it for ourselves.

There are many such “background things” that affect the way people view the world, all the time.

My main call to action:

Notice more “background things.” Notice things about how you write posts or comments and what kind of effect you expect to have. Ask yourself “what is it about this person—their past, history, social context—such that they are saying this right now?” Allow yourself to build models about people’s culture, ancestry, and personal history and how that affects how they see and process the world. (Try not to be essentialist about it. Fundamental attribution error, typical mind fallacy, hold your beliefs lightly, etc.)

Maybe try boggling at Scott's Different Worlds post.

And furthermore, occasionally try naming the things you are noticing and see what happens.

[ Just to be clear, I’m not trying to say something essentialist myself. I’m doing loose pattern-matching to try to illustrate something, but I don’t want to make claims about “the West/East is this way, for real.” Read Val’s post on Fake Frameworks for more. ]

Emotions: What do?

There’s a particular point about emotions I want to make.

The response to “emotional arguments” on LessWrong is one of wanting to “background” the emotions—to push them further away, to dismiss them or curtail them. But emotions seem like relevant, contextual data that I prefer not get immediately discarded.

Perhaps there is a third option. Which is to name what you perceive so that it can be seen more clearly in the light of day and openly discussed, if the parties are comfortable doing so.

E.g. “I notice what feels like an undertone of aggression in your comment, and I notice some defensiveness in myself.”

When a person feels aggressive or defensive, there is often “something important at stake” which is the source of the emotional response. I further suggest naming what is at stake, so that it becomes clear where the emotion is coming from.

E.g. “I notice I feel defensive. I think the thing I’m defending is…” or “I’m worried that a particular point will be under-considered, and this will cause…”

Getting into more specifics and consulting the emotion for more info seems like a useful move to have available. Even for “supposedly intellectual” discussion. Perhaps we are not there yet, as a community, especially over internet discourse. But I will certainly try to make the case in favor.

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What do you consider a contemporary Asian author who says valuable things about our subject of effective thinking that has such an Eastern perspective? Or does your idea of what Eastern thinking is like mostly come from Western sources?

This is a good point, because what we (Westerners) see as "Eastern thinking" may actually be Eastern thinking filtered by Western communicational channels, which can easily be more impressive than unfiltered "Western thinking", simply because the less impressive parts were filtered away.

It's like in movies, where Western audience enjoys watching Buddhist monks with cool fighting skills and deep wisdom (because everyone knows the average Christian priest is quite boring), while Eastern audience watches an anime where the Pope rides a dragon into a swordfight (because everyone knows the average Buddhist priest is quite boring).

I'm taking a much more abstract view of "Eastern" and "Western" thinking. It's a lot like the introvert / extrovert distinction. There are correlations, and the correlations coalesce into patterns, and the patterns become concepts / buckets.

I'm not trying to talk about actual Asians here. White ppl can absolutely do the Eastern thing, and vice versa, and also all kinds of mixes. Basically, the concept of Eastern/Western is an abstract line; it's not about people.

The philosophies and teaching methods of Circling Europe (a particular school of Circling that is led by white guys) are influenced by Zen, and their methods more embody the Eastern way of going about truth-seeking. [Warning: Their online content is really bad.] They like to do subject-object shifts, continuous context setting, and naming the unnamed (e.g. elephants in the room).

In-person methods of seeking truth from other humans is probably more Eastern, as in-person communication includes a lot of the implicit contexts. While the internet tends to wipe away context.

There are also a number of rationalist writers who like to put events into broader historical contexts, which is a move that I'm calling more Eastern. Systems-based thinking is also more Eastern, as it puts more attention on the "field" than the players or objects.

Good forecasting likely has to use many Eastern moves—as it involves a kind of outside view / checking for large-scale variables that one could easily ignore when focusing only on the relevant actors.

While I haven't been to the bigger Circling Europe events, I have learned Circling from Lucas who's in good standing with the main Circling Europe crowd. I know what it is even without having to look at the 6-figure web presence that's still wanting at explaining it.

The Circling Europe page links plenty of people as influences for Circling Europe and not a single one who comes from a strict Zen perspective or even a non-Zen Buddhist background.

On the other hand, there are Western phenomolgists like Nietzsche and Heidegger. I think it's a mistake to identify Western-thinking with analytical Philosophy and pretend that we didn't have many Western thinkers who also thought differently.

I think it's easy to get lost in inaccurate historical narratives when speaking about West and East. Plenty of Westerns are quite capable of dialectic thinking.

I have other reasons to believe they have a Zen influence that are not their webpage.

I am confused by your latter two paragraphs, as it seems like my first two paragraphs in the previous comment should have addressed those concerns. I'll put forward Val's "In praise of fake frameworks" post as further response.

E.g. “I notice what feels like an undertone of aggression in your comment, and I notice some defensiveness in myself.”

I am really behind making this sort of communication more of a norm. There have been many times when I've wanted to tell someone how I've felt, yet also let them know that I didn't necessarily agree with or identify with how I was feeling, and I ended up staying silent because it all seemed like to much to explain.

Establishing common knowledge that what you feel doesn't automatically inform what you think would go a long way to making it easier to clearly communicate.

This kind of thing is a "given" in certain spaces. The practices of Circling, Focusing, Nonviolent Communication, and Internal Family Systems all try to distance oneself a little from one's experiences / feelings and treat them as 'objects' or 'observations' or even 'subagents' without auto-judgment. The practicers tend to be good about not making the assumption that "I feel X" means "I endorse X," and this is obvious from the way they communicate with each other.

It is one of the things I'd love to see more of in rationality spaces.

China did build ships to travel the world under Zhu Di but his successor canceled the project. It likely had more to do with the people than with underlying culture.

At the time the West was also more capitalistic and therefore had a way to fund trade ships shipping valuable wares in way that the Chinese government didn't fund their expeditions. Presentday China shows that they do capitalism quite well in Shenzen, Macau and Hong Kong.

I may have under-communicated my point.

My point is that there's a reason the West was more capitalistic, and there's a reason why European countries were such that young people felt an affordance and a pull to take daring expeditions across the Atlantic, while China was only ever going to do that IF the emperor planned it.

Of course China can do capitalism.

My point is not that there is some kind of difference in capacity between Asians and white people.

My point is that there is/was a cultural, worldview difference that has carried over time, predicting many of the historical events of the past, as well as the conditions of the present.

I hope I'm being more clear. ?

It's quite easy to claim that you understand why certain historical events happens.

My first point was that China was brothering to look. Under Zhu Di ships were build. Explaining the fact that the internal Chinese politics resulted in China turning inwards after Zhu Di with general attributes of Chinese culture seems doubtful to me.

The idea that Europe was the birth place of freedom of religion also illustrates a lot of picking and choosing. Europeans killed a lot more people because of religion than the Chinese and Zhu Di had religous freedom during his reign.

As far as capitalism goes there are likely a lot of reasons why it happened in Europe and not in China. The geography is much difference and as a result it was easier to rule a large area as a single kingdom and a good historian can likely come up with plenty of alternative hypothesis.

I don't think you have provided a good case to believe that it's because of the attributes you apply to West and East.

It sounds like you are claiming I'm trying to draw some kind of single causal arrow that explains a bunch of things about history. This is not quite the thing I'm trying to do... although I can see how it might appear that way.

Hi! I've moved this post off the frontpage and back to your personal LW account, as it's a post about LessWrong. While I like a lot of things about this post, the frontpage is a place where we're trying to have the best object level discussion of how the world works, and we're trying to avoid community-focused discussion. (Check out point 2.1 in the frontpage content guidelines.)

That isn't to say that this post didn't have many valuable object level points about epistemics and reasoning (I really like this post!), just that it also had a bunch of extra comments about the LessWrong community too. If this post was less "Here's how LessWrong could reason better" and more "Here is a recommendation for how to reason better" or "Here is something I've noticed about good reasoning" it would likely be a great fit for the frontpage.

This is fair. It was a little ambiguous to me where this post ought to go. I'd appreciate something like 'hover text' over the various checkbox options when submitting, to clarify the different types of submissions. (I also suspect 'meta' should be one of the checkbox options but am less clear on this.)

it doesn't seem to have been moved off of the front page, to me. I still see it in most recent.

If you haven't already, you might find David Chapman's writing relevant here.