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What confusions do people have about simulacrum levels?

by johnswentworth1 min read14th Dec 202029 comments

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Simulacrum LevelsWorld ModelingRationality
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I've noticed comments to effect of "simulacrum levels seem very confusing". Personally, simulacrum levels seem fairly obvious-in-retrospect and self-expanatory to me, based on a handful of explanations and examples from Benquo and Zvi's posts. I'm not sure whether I'm missing something (in which case I should figure out what), or whether I have some pre-existing frame which makes it all more natural (in which case I should figure out what that frame is and try to communicate it), or whether this is just about happening to read the right posts in the right order. So... what are some things people find confusing about simulacrum levels?

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I've forged my own understanding of the levels, picking and choosing the parts that made sense to me from various posts. But there was definitely a lot of picking and choosing -- parts that didn't make sense to me, I've simply discarded. So there are certainly versions I don't understand.

I'm planning to take a look back at some articles to indicate places of dissonance, but off the top of my head, I think the point of highest friction is the idea that each stage follows from the last in a systematic way. This story seems to almost work rather than actually working.

OK, looking back a bit, I think the main point of discordance for me is that the 3rd level "masks the absence of meaning". This was repeated often in simulacrum posts. 

I can understand this "masks the absence of meaning" as a thing, but to me it seems more sensible to think of level 3 as "signalling". I like the interpretation where levels 1 and 3 are both "honest in their own way" (level 3 is like "vibing", an honestly expressing what is felt in the moment, just devoid of a concept of truth like that at level 1). This seems incompatible with "masks the absence of meaning".

A "show trial" was given as an example of the mask-absence-of-meaning level 3; this makes some sense, as it hides the absence of rule of law in which statements of guilt would be meaningful (as opposed to simply lying about guilt). But it makes less sense as "honest signalling" to indicate group affiliation with those who prefer rule-of-law-flavored vibes.

Quoting the original wikipedia summary which seems to have sparked much of the discussion:

Simulacra and Simulation delineates the sign-order into four stages:


1 The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a "reflection of a profound reality" (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called "the sacramental order".


2 The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which "masks and denatures" reality as an "evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence". Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.


3 The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the "order of sorcery", a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.


4 The fourth stage is pure simulacrum, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers' lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, "hyperreal" terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.

For me, I somewhat buy a natural progression between the levels in this model:

  • Level 1: truth.
  • Level 2: masks the absence of level 1; IE, lying.
  • Level 3: masks the absence of even level 2; IE, masks the absence of meaning.

However, level 4 feels less like a natural next step and more like a summary of all the rest of the infinite levels of such a hierarchy -- as if to say "and so on". The implicit claim is that anything worse than level 3 is so bad as to be not worth classifying in further detail.

In my preferred interpretation, we instead think in this way:

  • Level 1: truth.
  • Level 2: Malign subversion of the level-1 system; IE, lying.
  • Level 3: The behavior at level 2 corrupts the meaning of the symbols at level 1 (basically honest people are communicating, but using a language build with liars). What survives is a kind of looser meaning system. Meaning becomes "whatever you can infer"; words therefore have a tendency to say more about group affiliation than about reality.
  • Level 4: Malign subversion of the level-3 system.

This leads to some slippage between 3 and 4 for me. If I go with the original description of the levels (in which 3 masks lack of meaning, and 4 indicates collapse of meaning, where symbols refer only to symbols), it seems like signalling should be level 4, not level 3.

Level 3 is identity, masking the absence of justification. Level 4 masks the absence of identity.

2abramdemski2moAh, interesting, I like it! In terms of attempting pseudo-rigor for the pattern of succession of stages, I don't understand why you throw "justification" in there. I would have said "meaning", something which still holds strong at level 2 (in order for us to even define lying). And then we have the next natural questions: what grows to mask the absence of identity? What would level 5 mask?
1knite2moSo level 4 is...intention masking the absence of identity? Then level 5 is nonsense words, masking the absence of intention. For levels 6 and higher, please see [Cuil Theory](http://cuiltheory.wikidot.com/what-is-cuil-theory).

I don't know if this is a confusion, per se, but I dislike that there's this undertone in the model that everything above the first level is progressively worse. I mean, sure, it's worse for some purposes, but this quickly fades into the background and becomes a model about what's worse within a particular worldview and for particular purposes.

Complaints that any particular simulacrum level get in the way of truth is not very interesting to someone who doesn't actually care much about truth, and instead is more concerned with, say, social harmony or power. And you might say, well, the posts acknowledge that, but it's done in a way that makes it very clear there are taken-for-granted reasons why truth is the most import thing that won't connect for anyone for whom this isn't true.

When I look at the theory of simulacrum levels I have a reaction like "yeah, that's cool, I get what you're saying, but also you have to communicate at all the levels concurrently all the time anyway, so stop whining about it and get on with living with humans as they are rather than pining for some ideal world that doesn't exist." Not the most charitable reaction, and again not exactly a confusion, but I bring this up because I could see this manifesting as confusion for someone who similarly sees this problem but doesn't quite have the words to put to it.

If I had to guess at why I've grasped the concept but not the level-number mapping, I think the "simulacrum level N" schema makes it harder to learn. There's no intrinsic 2-ness about SL 2 or 4-ness about SL 4, so it's a memorization game. Not a big game, especially if you actually use the concept handles in conversations, but... 

Generally, it's harder to learn a set of vocab words and phrases if there are pairs which look similar. (I think there's some psychology-forgetting theory research on this, but I forgot what it's called) 

Even worse, this pairwise similarity can impede retention in the long-term, in my experience. For example, I am (or at least have been) quite proficient in French, but because my teacher tried to teach all of the days of the week at the same time, they still give me trouble.

EDIT: The way to get around this is by learning each similar concept a week+ apart. I have a special "conflicting concepts" Anki deck when I have to add cards for similar things.

French, but because my teacher tried to teach all of the days of the week at the same time, they still give me trouble.

They're named as the planets: Sun-day, Moon-day, Mars-day, Mercury-day, Jupiter-day, Venus-day, and Saturn-day.

It's easy to remember when you realize that the English names are just the equivalent Norse gods: Saturday, Sunday and Monday are obvious. Tyr's-day (god of combat, like Mars), Odin's-day (eloquent traveler god, like Mercury), Thor's-day (god of thunder and lightning, like Jupiter), and Freyja's-day (goddess of love, like Venus) are how we get the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

5Pongo2moNote also Odin was "Woden" in Old English
9gilch2moIn Old English Wednesday was "Wōdnesdæg", but yeah. Woden is the Anglo-Saxon version of Odin. Also Friday was "Frīġedæġ". It's not actually clear from the record if Fríge and Freyja are the same goddess or not, but they're so similar that it's a matter of some debate among scholars. The Norse pantheon apparently had no equivalent for Saturn, so Saturday kept the Roman name. The weekdays were named for the seven "naked-eye" planets known to Hellenistic astrology. (The Sun and Moon counted as planets in that system.) The seven planetary gods were said to watch over the Earth in hourly shifts in order of (geocentric) distance: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon. Because a 24-hour day is 3 in arithmetic modulo 7, a different god opened each day of the week, and so the day was named for its opening god. Counting by 24's (or 3's) in this cycle ordered by distance gives us the familiar order of days of the week.
2johnswentworth2moThat is so cool, I can't believe I'd never heard it before!
6gilch2moNames for days of the week are similarly derived from the planets in other languages, often from the local pantheon. Knowing which Chinese element was associated with which planet from watching the Sailor Moon anime was how I learned the weekday names and associated kanji in Japanese.
5AnthonyC2moInteresting. In Mandarin, at least nowadays, they're just numbered. Week is "星期" or "star period." Sunday is "星期 day" but the others are just 星期 one, 星期 two, and so on. I wonder when that happened.
5gilch2moIn Japanese, the days are written with 日 and 月, and then the five elements corresponding to each planet: 火, 水, 木, 金, and 土, followed by -曜日. It was spelled the same in Classical Chinese (where the Japanese got it from), until 1911. The Chinese had apparently learned of Hellenistic astrology by the 4th century. In Classical Chinese, I suppose e.g. Wednesday would be literally "Water-Luminary day".
2TurnTrout2moJe vous remercie du fond du coeur :)

Maybe the reason it's so hard to remember is that SL N is SL4. ;-)

Zvi attempted to address this in a more recent post, but I still feel like there's two slightly different abstractions getting conflated with simulacrum levels that don't quite gel together for me. See my comment on this post:

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/yqEh9ewKwzig4kzyx/what-is-meant-by-simulcra-levels?commentId=62QE96aqwyLq98mM2

(Your link is wrong)

Your linked comment was very useful. To those who didn't click, here's a relevant snippet:

It seems like Simulacrum Levels were aiming to explore two related concepts:

  • How people's models/interactions diverge over time from an original concept (where that concept is gradually replaced by exaggerations, lies, and social games, which eventually bear little or not referent to the original)
  • How people relate to object level truth, as a whole, vs social reality

The first concept makes sense to call "simulacrum", and the second one I think ends up making more sense

... (read more)

I think that the main thing that confuses me is the nuance of SL4, and I also think that’s the main place where the rationalist communities understanding/use of simulacra levels breaks down on the abstract level.

One of the original posts bringing simulacra to LessWrong explicitly described the effort to disentangle simulacra from Marxist European philosophers. I think that this was entirely successful, and intuitive for the first 3 levels, but I think that the fourth simulacra level is significantly more challenging to disentangle from the ideological theses advanced by said philosophers, and I’m not sure that I’ve seen a non-object level description that doesn’t use highly loaded phrases (symbol, signifier) that come with nuanced and essential connotations from Baudrillard and others. I worry that this leads to the inaccurate analogy of 1:2=3:4, and the loss of a legitimately helpful concept.

I define SL4 in terms of a description I heard once of a summary of Baudrillard's work: a simulacrum is when a simulation breaks off and becomes its own thing, but still connected to the original. And whether or not that's how Baudrillard thought of SL4, it's a useful concept on its own. (My simulacrum of "simulacrum" as it were.)

For example, a smartphone is a miniature computer and video game console that also has telephone capabilities; it's a simulacrum of Bell's talk-over-telegraph-wires device.

The iPod Video is an almost identical piece of hardware an... (read more)

I could use more clarity on what is and isn't level three.

Supposedly at level three, saying "There's a lion across the river" means "I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river." But there's more than one kind of motivation the speaker might have.

A) A felt sense that "There's a lion across the river" would be a good thing to say (based on subconscious desire to affiliate with the cool kids, and having heard the cool kids say this)

B) A conscious calculation that saying this will ingratiate you with the cool kids, based on explicit reasoning about other things the cool kids have said, but motivated by a felt sense that those kids are cool and you want to join them

C) A conscious calculation that saying this will ingratiate you with the cool kids, motivated by a conscious calculation that gaining status among the cool kids will yield tangible benefits.

Are all three of these contained by level three? Or does an element of conscious calculation take us into level four?

(I think C) has a tendency to turn into B) and B) likewise into A), but I don't think it's inevitable)

8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:32 AM

Hmm it’s not that I find them confusing, and I even managed to explain them to someone who didn’t know about them. I think it just feels... too high complexity or something. Like there’s a simpler version just around the corner. Maybe I’d benefit from 3 positive and negative real life examples of each level.

maybe something closer to

  • causal reality
  • social reality
  • being causal about social reality
  • being social about being causal about social reality

not there yet, but closer for me.

I had that experience at first. A bit like some chemistry professor just told me "the stages of boiling" as if we can objectively divide things into stages from almost-boiling water to a heavy boil, and I'm like, this level of descriptive accuracy sounds like it belongs in a cooking class rather than chemistry.

I also had the experience of explaining the levels to a friend. I got a "why is this important" type reaction. When I gave examples of mistakes people could make if they interpreted things at the wrong level (EG interpreting "guns don't kill people, people kill people" as a factual question rather than signalling political allegiance), my friend said something along the lines of "that's just a dumb mistake, I don't need the levels to understand that".  

Right...! I think that's a very good point on the usefulness of the model. Like, I find it interesting and useful as a model, but I don't think I've ever applied it in practice.

This isn't exactly a confusion about the model itself, but this seems like the right place to ask this question:

What areas of the world are people able to predict better once they've internalized the "simulacrum levels" model? Like, if I go through all the effort of learning which statements and behaviors are "level 1" or level 3" and what principles go into those distinctions and how the levels relate to each other, then in what way will I be better able to navigate the world?

I ask because this is a very esoteric theory which I only partially understand after ~a couple hours of serious effort, and some people clearly think there's a big payoff for really internalizing it. However, so far the justification I've seen people claim for the payoff has always been in terms of subjective insight and the feeling of understanding, not in terms of improved ability to navigate social situations or predict the trajectories of groups or avoid dangerous people, or any similar feats which I might expect a person could perform if they had a true theory in this area.

In other words, what's the argument that these beliefs pay rent?

I endorse this use of the question feature. Probing for confusions specifically on a topic is a good idea because:

  • The question format seems like it would lower the threshold for articulating them
  • It collects a bunch of different confusions in the same place, helping to get a well-rounded update and thus increasing the quality ceiling of each iteration of refinement

Especially since johnswentworth wasn't one of the driving authors of the idea, I put this into the mental bucket of "good stewardship of the pipeline," alongside tasks like recording or summarizing off-Lesswrong conversations/interviews.

(Posting this in a spirit of self-congratulation: I wrote up a spiel about what I found confusing, and then realised that I'm confused on a much more fundamental level about the nature of the various explanations and how they relate to each other, and am now going back to reread the various sources rather than writing something unhelpfully confusing about a confused confusion.)

smug smaug :)