G Gordon Worley III

Director of Research at PAISRI

G Gordon Worley III's Comments

Bay Solstice 2019 Retrospective

That was probably me in the response form.

In the previously planned post I was going to explain something about what I saw like this as way of evidence:

After Solstice I talked with or otherwise helped multiple people suffering as a result of having attended Solstice. One person was seriously negative affected and I talked with them for over an hour about it. Another person was moderately negatively affected and I talked with them about it for about 10 minutes. I talked to 3 other people who in passing mentioned Solstice being net-negative for them but they didn't invite further conversation on that topic. The main themes I got from these conversations is that Solstice strongly reminded these folks that they felt lonely, isolated, or ineffectual in ways I would categorize as distressing or dissonant with their sense of self.

Assuming I got what amounts to a random sample, this suggests to me there is at least a large minority—let's call it O(10%)—of people attending Solstice who are negatively impacted by it.

I also wrote up the following caveats to my evidence:

It's possible I suffer from selection bias and the situation is not as it seems to me. Perhaps by some mechanism or just chance I encountered more people suffering from having attended Solstice in 2019 than is proportional to the entire population. I have no reason to think that is especially the case but it's worth keeping in mind when I give an impression of how many people are affected in negative ways by Solstice and how much that matters.
I also am relying largely on first-hand reports people gave me of their experiences and how much I perceived them to be suffering as inferred from those reports. I have not collected data in a systematic way, so I think there is a probably a lot wrong with my impression if you ask it to do to much. I am only personally confident of the general direction and order of the effect size, nothing more.
Also keep in mind I can't say anything about the people who self-selected out of the main Solstice celebration because they knew from past experience with Solstice celebrations or expectations from similar events that they would have a bad time. I've talked to several people who do this over the years, so if anything they suggest the negative experiences of Solstice are more common than they appear or would be if people didn't avoid it.

I think "aftercare" is a decent first-order approximation of what I view as the appropriate response. I think it needs to be a bit more than just "throw a party" or "here are some people you can talk to". What I have in mind is something more systematic and ritualistic.

An ineffectual version of what I have in mind is the way, towards the end of a Catholic mass, there's the rite of peace: everyone stands up, shakes hands, and says "peace be with you" to the people near them in the pews. Slightly better is the Protestant tradition of lunch fellowship or church picnic that immediately follows service, a sort of post-worship potluck meal, but much of what makes this work (or, as often as not, not) depends on the local culture and how inclusive it is.

I think a good version of this would be something I've not seen much before: a structured authentic relating activity as part of the upswing of the service. There was something like this a few years ago at a Bay Area Solstice where people wrote on notes they posted to the walls. As I recall the prompt was something like "what is something I'm privately afraid of and not telling others", although maybe I'm mixing that up from another event. I think we could come up with something similar for future events that would help people connect and remind them that they are connected, even if they can't see the face of those they are connected to.

I think none of this is to draw away from the darkness. Make the low point low and dark and full of woe. But match it with a high point of brightness and joy that actually pulls people together and connects them without backfiring and throwing in their face the way others are connected and they are not.

I think the Solstice should be "for everyone" in a certain sense, but that achieved not by watering it down, but by making it whole so that, as much as possible, it can hit the dark notes in a way where, even in the depths of despair, people retain a thread of connection to safety that pulls them back out into the light so they can dwell in the darkness for a time without being abandoned there.

Reality-Revealing and Reality-Masking Puzzles

I'd like to emphasize some things related to this perspective.

One thing that seems frustrating to me from just outside CFAR in the control group[1] is the way it is fumbling its way towards creating a new traditional for what I'll vaguely and for lack of a better term call positive transformation, i.e. taking people and helping them turn themselves into better versions of themselves that they more like and have greater positive impact on the world (make the world more liked by themselves and others). But there are already a lot of traditions that do this, albeit with different worldviews than the one CFAR has. So it's disappointing to watch CFAR to have tried and failed over the years in various ways, as measured by my interactions with people who have gone through their training programs, that were predictable if they were more aware of and practiced with existing traditions.

This has not been helped by what I read as a disgust or "yuck" reaction from some rationalists when you try to bring in things from these traditions because they are confounded in those traditions with things like supernatural claims. To their credit, many people have not reacted this way, but I've repeatedly felt the existence of this "guilty by association" meme from people who I consider allies in other respects. Yes, I expect on the margin some of this is amped up by the limitations of my communication skills such that I observe more of it than others do along with my ample willingness to put forward ideas that I think work even if they are "wrong" in an attempt to jump closer to global maxima, but I do not think the effect is so large as to discredit this observation.

I'm really excited to read that CFAR is moving in the direction implied by this post, and, because of the impact CFAR is having on the world through the people it impacts, like Romeo I'm happy to assist in what ways I can to help CFAR learn from the wisdom of existing traditions to make itself into an organization that has more positive effects on the world.


[1] This is a very tiny joke: I was in the control group for an early CFAR study and have still not attended a workshop, so in a certain sense I remain in the control group.

Bay Solstice 2019 Retrospective
On the feedback form, some people mentioned being very upset by Solstice because it reminded them that they were lonely or felt like they could be accomplishing more. I do not think anything should change about Solstice itself in response to this feedback, because being reminded that the universe is vast and dark and cold is pretty much the entire point of Solstice. 

I started writing a post around this aspect of Solstice, and I may come back to it, but since you bring it up here I think it's worth addressing in a comment.

If I'm being frank, I think this is a woefully inadequate and irresponsible response. I don't mean that as an attack on your or the organizers in any particular year, but rather as a statement against the general pattern of behavior being manifested. A rationalist culture with more Hufflepuff virtue would not think it okay to remind people of something distressing and then offer them nothing to deal with the distress.

Some more, somewhat disjointed and rambly thoughts on all this:

One of the effects of Solstice is that it makes salient thoughts and memories of loss and loneliness, generates negative-affect emotions, and otherwise affects people in powerful ways. These effects, especially for those who do not have a lot of psychological safety, range from producing mild negative affect to causing trauma or trauma-like experiences to causing psychological deintegration. Failure to address this and just say "ehh, intended effect" is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, similar in my mind to encouraging someone to engage in a physical activity that is likely to cause them injury and then saying "oh well, I guess find your own way to the hospital" when they inevitably get hurt. Or, for a more mundane example that I think illustrates the same principle, it's like telling a friend you want them to hang out with them at their house to lead them through doing a messy activity and then when the inevitable mess appears saying "okay, well, time to leave, I'm sure you'll clean it up".

I realize I'm making a claim here about what is morally/ethically right. I view it as important to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, and if we put on an event that regularly and predictably causes negative psychological impact on a portion of the attendees, we have a responsibility to those attendees to help them deal with the fallout.

An alternative would be to more activity encourage such folks not to attend, but I think this is antithetical to how I understand the Solstice (it's a highly inclusive event, and we'd cause people pain if we excluded them), so I think we need to work towards helping people reintegrate after they may have old or active psychic wounds torn open by the event. I think this can be done as part of the ceremony, although a more complete solution would be changing the culture such that the downswing of Solstice didn't drop people out from a place where they already felt unsafe. Lacking that, I think careful ritual design during the dawn/new day part of the arc to help people connect and see the path forward would go a long way to addressing this issue.

For context, much of my thinking here comes from the way spiritual traditions help or fail to help people deal with the consequences of the insights they may gain from interacting with the tradition. This has been a problem in, for example, Western Buddhism, where people may teach meditation but not be equipped or prepared to help or at least help get help for people whose lives get worse (sometimes dramatically so) as a result of meditating. The rationalist project, even though it has a very different worldview and objectives, shares with some spiritual traditions an intention to help people better their lives through transformative practice, but I also see it doing not nearly as much as it could or, in my opinion, should to help those it unintentionally but predictably hurts by teaching its methods, and the situation with those hurt by Winter Solstice seems one more manifestation of this pattern. I would like us to do better at Winter Solstice as a way of shifting towards a better pattern.

Can we always assign, and make sense of, subjective probabilities?

I think this is possibly rehashing the main point of disagreement between frequentists and subjectivists, i.e. whether or not probability is only sensible after the fact or if it is also meaningful to talk about probabilities before any data is available. I'm not sure this debate will ever end, but I can tell you that LW culture leans subjectivists, specifically along Bayesian lines.

Malign generalization without internal search
However, it's worth noting that saying the agent is mistaken about the state of the world is really an anthropomorphization. It was actually perfectly correct in inferring where the red part of the world was -- we just didn't want it to go to that part of the world. We model the agent as being 'mistaken' about where the landing pad is, but it works equally well to model the agent as having goals that are counter to ours.

That we can flip our perspective like this suggests to me that thinking of the agent as having different goals is likely still anthropomorphic or at least teleological reasoning that results from us modeling this agent has having dispositions it doesn't actually have.

I'm not sure what to offer as an alternative since we're not talking about a category where I feel grounded enough to see clearly what might be really going on, much less offer a more useful abstraction that avoids this problem, but I think it's worth considering that there's a deeper confusion here that this exposes but doesn't resolve.

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness
Now put the two together, and you get an "attention schema", an internal model of attention (i.e., of the activity of the GNW). The attention schema is supposedly key to the mystery of consciousness.

The idea of an attention schema helps make sense of a thing talked about in meditation. In zen we talk sometimes about it via the metaphor of the mind like a mirror such that it sees itself reflecting in itself. In The Mind Illuminated it's referred to as metacognitive awareness. The point is that the process by which the mind operates can be observed by itself even as it operates, and and perhaps the attention schema is an important part of what it means to do that, specifically causing the attention schema to be able to model itself.

What is the relationship between Preference Learning and Value Learning?

The short answer is that yes, they are related and basically about the same thing. However the approaches of researchers vary a lot.

Relevant considerations that come to mind:

  • The extent to which values/preferences are legible
  • The extent to which they are discoverable
  • The extent to which they are hidden variables
  • The extent to which they are normative
  • How important immediate implementability is
  • How important extreme optimization is
  • How important safety concerns are

The result is that I think there is something of a divide between safety-focused researchers and capabilities-focused researchers in this area due to different assumptions and that makes each others work not very interesting/relevant to the other cluster.

Ascetic aesthetic

So I think you are right about the way aesthetics power ethical reasoning, and I think aesthetics is just a waypoint on the causal mechanism of generating ethical judgements, because aesthetics are ultimately about what we value (how we compare things for various purposes), and what we value is a function of valence. So to the extent I agree it's to the extent that I see ethics and aesthetics as applications of valence to different domains.

Repossessing Degrees

Another possibly useful data point in this discussion: I spent 6 years working on my PhD before dropping out. On my resume I mention that I worked on a PhD but didn't receive it (to explain what I was doing for all those years of my life). Multiple things happen as a result of this:

  • some people don't read carefully and just think I have a PhD
  • some people are excited that I dropped out of one (that's a common Bay Area reaction)
  • some people ignore everything under "Education" and only look at work experience

I suspect that having a repossessed PhD would receive similar sorts of reactions to having dropped out before graduation.

Repossessing Degrees

On the other hand it would work in cases where a degree is necessary to licensure. For example, degree repossession would be effective against professions who need a degree as part of their certification to practice. If it is not the case already, this could be made the case for doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, professional engineers, etc. such that there would be real impacts of loss of degree even if you could still tell people you had it because you wouldn't be allowed to practice your profession in the same capacity as before without your license.

(Whether or not licensing is a good policy is a separate question from the consideration of how the mechanism of degree repossession might work.)

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