The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism
Intro to Naturalism

Wiki Contributions


This post helped me relate to my own work better. I feel less confused about what's going on with the differences between my own working pace and the pace of many around me. I am obviously more like a 10,000 day monk than a 10 day monk, and I should think and plan accordingly. 

Partly because I read this post, I spend frewer resources frantically trying to show off a Marketable Product(TM) as quickly as possible ("How can I make a Unit out of this for the Workshop next month?"), and I spend more resources aiming for the progress I actually think would be valuable ("In the world where I have robustly solved X one year from now, what happened in the intervening twelve months?").

Outside of academia (or perhaps even inside of it, at this point), our society does not really have a place for monks of the larger magnitudes, so it's uncomfortable to try to be one. But if I'm going to try to be one, which I absolutely am, it's awfully helpful to be able to recognize that as what I'm doing. It impacts how I structure my research and writing projects. It impacts how I ask for funding. It impacts how I communicate about priorities and boundaries ("I'm not scheduling meetings this quarter.") 

I plot my largest project on a multi-decade timescale, and although there are reasons I'm concerned about this, "lots of other people don't seem to commit to such things" is no longer among them.

(This is a review of the entire sequence.)

On the day when I first conceived of this sequence, my room was covered in giant graph paper sticky notes. The walls, the windows, the dressers, the floor. Sticky pads everywhere, and every one of them packed with word clouds and doodles in messy bold marker.

My world is rich. The grain of the wood on the desk in front of me, the slightly raw sensation inside my nostrils that brightens each time I inhale, the pressure of my search for words as I write that rises up through my chest and makes my brain feel like it’s breathing through a straw. I know as well as almost anybody what MacNeice called “the drunkenness of things being various”, “incorrigibly plural”. I am awash in details; sometimes I swim, sometimes I drown, and in rare merciful moments, I float.

People talk about missing the forest for the trees; I am a creature of individual leaves. The sticky notes with which I had covered my walls were my attempts to recall every twig and branch I had seen while developing my approach to rationality, ever since I asked myself what the existing art is missing back in 2013. Each page was an attempted portrait of a different tree. 

The sentence I somehow pulled together for this sequence—”Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation”—was my sketch of the entire forest all at once. 



On that day, it had seemed a literally incomprehensible pile of details, as nearly everything I write about does until some time after I’ve published. Yet after two more years of work on this project, I still think that sketch is not only accurate, but pretty close to complete.

I am proud of this sequence. It’s far from perfect; it’s far from adequate, in fact. And I’ll talk about that, too. But as a first-pass summary of how I think about “Intro to Naturalism”, it’s right to say that overall, I think it may be the best thing I’ve done so far.


I doubt it’s worth much on its own, though. It was really never meant to be. I tried to make it accessible, but I mostly wrote it for myself. I published it publicly anyway because I figure there’s a (reasonable!) limit to the patience of my funders. I’m delighted and a little surprised that other people have found it useful.

To me, this sequence is a bit like a sextant. Suppose you’re trying to navigate to a particular island off the coast of South Africa. It will not, by itself, get you to your destination. It’s not the shore. It’s not a boat. It’s not even a map. You need an awful lot more than this to sail to Madagascar.

But as the captain of the HMS Naturalism, I felt I had no hope of staying on course without writing down this worldview, in summary and in detail.


On course toward what, exactly? What is the project of which this sequence is a small but crucial part?

The journey has four parts, according to my current understanding:

1) Intro to Naturalism: My attempt to lay out the perspective from which my branch of rationality is practiced.

2) The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism (published in early 2023): A straightforward mechanical description of the procedure, as I tend to present it to people learning it for the first time.

3) Naturalism In Practice: A series of accounts of real-life naturalist studies, in frequent dialog with posts from the earlier two sequences, covering a range of topics and demonstrating what naturalism looks and feels like in practice. (This sequence is currently in the works.)

4) THE ACTUAL GOAL [as yet untitled (and unfunded)]: A synthesis of the previous three sequences, perhaps in book form, comprising a comprehensive practical guide to knowing the territory through patient and direct observation.

(There may need to be a part “3.5”, where I refocus for a while on pedagogy and collaboration, before I am ready for 4.)

If I were less awash in details, I imagine I would have been able to start with part 4. But also, I may never have been able to develop such a thing as naturalism.


What can I predict about how this sequence will show up in whatever synthesis I eventually create, provided I eventually get to do that?

I think the core summary will be the same: “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.”

Here are some ways I think it will differ from the original.


I may rely much less on the aesthetics of 19th century natural history; indeed, I may completely rename the discipline. 

This framing did a ton of work in helping me understand what I was doing and why; but most people do not have my background, and do not find this framework nearly as supportive or inspiring as I have.

For most readers of LessWrong, the word “naturalism” refers to an ontological claim denying the supernatural. They are completely unfamiliar with the approach to biology that also goes by that name, which focuses on knowing a few organisms deeply rather than on the categorization of organisms. 

If I do keep the naturalist framing, I’ll need to double down on it and begin with a discussion of the role of the naturalist approach in the history of science, which would be fun for me but perhaps needlessly inefficient.


If there is a major change to the overall summary, it will probably be a result of further developments in my study of “realness”.

During the study I’m currently writing up—one of “Hug the Query”—the primacy of my intuitions involving these observations has come into sharper focus. I’m not the only person who believes “Interlude On Realness” is the most important post in my intro sequence, even though it’s also the one that’s least integrated with the rest of the sequence. I think that a more mature and positively impactful incarnation of “Intro To Naturalism” might put whatever’s going on with “realness” front and center (presumably after I manage to have more coherent thoughts about what is going on with realness).


As Intro to Naturalism suggests, this approach to investigation is in theory extremely general. I have an even larger vision than the one I’ve so far laid out in this review, in which my approach is thoroughly tested and adapted to an enormous breadth of domains, from AI alignment research to metallurgy to computational ethnomusicology. (I maintain an intuition that’s even a little gears-y about the utility of naturalism for AI alignment research especially.)

However, I am by passion and profession a rationality developer. The version of naturalism that I understand best, and that I am best prepared to write about at length, is particularly tailored to the investigation of human cognitive algorithms. Unless someone swoops in and drops a bunch of money on a far more ambitious and speculative project than I currently plan to undertake, and perhaps even finds me some kind of cofounder with a complementary skillset, the final incarnation of this sequence will be more narrowly focused on rationality in particular than was the original.


The structure of the finished work will almost certainly be the exact opposite of my historical publications. Historically, I published the most abstract discussions, then the instructional guidelines, then the fully concrete demonstrations. I did this not because I thought it was a good idea, but because I’m a tiny human with limited cognitive capacity and it was the only way I could manage to write anything in practice.

The almost-always-correct way to write is to move from concrete to abstract. I expect that anything I present from this sequence in the final work will follow a demonstration and a methodological discussion.


I do not think that I had “patient” in sufficiently clear view when I wrote “Patient Observation”, and I still don’t think I’m quite there yet. It may be the wrong term, or it may be overloaded. It’s terribly important, and I think that communicating about it as well as I’d like to will require 1) breaking it down more carefully, and 2) doing so in dialog with contrasting approaches.

I recently found myself claiming to be “at war with the relatively dumb versions of startup culture aesthetics”. I think that to make my point about “patience” to my satisfaction, I will also need to extol the virtues of efficiency, rapid iteration, decisiveness, etc., as I understand them. This entire approach depends fundamentally on patience, and I don’t think it can be wholeheartedly embraced without first safeguarding the fruits of contrasting approaches (or at least explicitly contending with their loss, where they are in fact threatened).

>A visualization where a hose of heavy running water enters at the top of your head and pours out through the pads of your hands results in a pretty solid frame for lateral.

hm i've never heard that one! i'll try it out, thanks!

if you wanna second-guess yourself even harder, 

1) look around the room and attempt to produce three instances of something resembling tiny quiet confusion (or louder than that if it's available)
2) try to precisely describe the difference between surprise and confusion
3) sketch a taxonomy of confusing experiences and then ask yourself what you might be missing

I feel embarrassed that I'm just now reading this. >_< ' (Ray knows but: I'm the aforementioned "Brienne Yudkowsky", my name's just different now.) I enjoyed it; it's really interesting and valuable to see my thoughts contextualized from the outside and narrativized. It's usually hard for me to see forests when I'm surrounded by trees.

> There are very few opportunities to practice noticing confusion.

I'm really curious how you relate to this claim six years later.


I wrote up "How To Think Of Things" for CFAR a while back. I probably wanna at least edit it some before making it a top level post, but I'm curious what you think of it.

"What did pregnancy do to your cognition?"

(Interested in responses to this from other people who have been pregnant, but here's my own answer.)

I think the main thing pregnancy seemed to do to my mind was reduce my associative speed. This had all kinds of effects on the rest of my cognition and experience, because it's a capacity I rely on almost constantly, but I think this was the central mechanism.

I'm not sure I have my concepts carved up right here, but by "associative speed" I mean "the thing that lets your thoughts go far and fast during a babble challenge". During pregnancy I'd try to do a task like "What does the smell of this chocolate make me think of?" and nothing would come to me for ages and ages (by which I mean a full one to three seconds), and then tiny bits of things would trickle in, but with no vibrancy or motion, no suggestion of more thoughts coming on their tails.

At the height of my mnemonics training, when I was super buff in raw creativity muscles, I'd try something like that and it was an almost overwhelming flood of life-like imaginings that felt effortless, almost like closing your eyes on mushrooms. My brain on pregnancy was the opposite of that, and it felt like death.

I was terrified that my associative speed would stay that low forever. Six weeks postpartum, it's not quite back to normal yet, but I think it's close.

>They're... free? Nothing bad happens when you generate them. You ignore them and move on and consolidate the good ideas later. 

I understood BenWr to be suggesting this was false. His pruner is rejecting "bad ideas" for a reason, and perhaps it is a good reason; perhaps bad things do happen if he deliberately lets in more "bad ideas".

If that were true for people in general, or for a significant minority of people, I'd definitely want to understand what the bad thing is, how it works, whether "having bad ideas" tends to be good on net anyway, and how to mitigate the bad thing if so. 

I do think that lots of people—at least 85% of people, in my experiences running this kind of exercise with others—experience some kind of pain or suffering when "trying to have bad ideas", at least at first. (I did a series of mnemonics workshops before I even started using this kind of thing in rationality training, so n is somewhere around... 350?) 

It has always appeared to me that the painful parts of the experience are coming from a combination of "doing new things is hard", "doing things I've trained myself not to do is uncomfortable", and "social image-based stuff like 'what if people see this and think I'm bad' or 'what if I see this and think I'm bad". All of these concerns are important to address in some way, I claim, for a person to get really good at this. I haven't actually seen anybody investigate what's going on for them and then decide that they do not want to gain the skillset. (There certainly are people who decide not to use negatively-valenced emotions when committing things to memory, and who decide to keep their "thinking like a villain" knob turned down pretty low, and these decisions seem similar to "try not to have bad ideas"; but I think they're not dealbreakers for the central skill, and I think "try not to have bad ideas" probably is.)

However, I think I was much, much worse ten years ago at making space for the people I'm teaching to find their own way of doing things. So maybe if I ran mnemonics workshops today, many more people would pipe up to be like "You know what? This is bad for me. No thank you."

I don't know what it says about me that

"Eat it then eat lots of beans then fart while in a handstand." 

was the fourth thing I thought of. Wtf brain.

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