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As agents embedded and evolving within our (ancestral) environment of interaction, our concepts of "morality" tend toward choices which, in principle, exploited synergies and thus tended to persist, for our ancestors.

For an individual agent, isolated from ongoing or anticipated interaction, there is no "moral", but only "good" relative to the agent's present values.

For agents interacting within groups (and groups of groups, …) actions perceived as "moral", or right-in-principle, are those actions assessed as (1) promoting an increasing context of increasingly coherent values (hierarchical and fine-grained), (2) via instrumental methods increasingly effective, in principle, over increasing scope of consequences. These orthogonal planes of (1) values, and (2) methods, form a space of meaningful action tending to select for increasing coherence over increasing context. Lather, rinse, repeat—two steps forward, one step back—tending to select for persistent, positive-sum, outcomes.

For agents embedded in their environment of interaction, there can be no "objective" morality, because their knowledge of their (1) values and (2) methods is ultimately ungrounded, thus subjective or perspectival, however this knowledge of values and methods is far from arbitrary since it emerges at great expense of testing within the common environment of interaction.

Metaphorically, the search for moral agreement can be envisioned as individual agents like leaves growing at the tips of a tree exploring the adjacent possible, and as they traverse the thickening and increasingly probable branches toward the trunk shared by all, rooted in the mists of "fundamental reality", they must find agreement upon arrival at the level of those branches which support them all.

The Arrow of Morality points not in any specific direction, but tends always outward, with increasing coherence over increasing context of meaning-making.

The practical application of this "moral" understanding is that we should strive to promote increasing awareness of (1) our present but evolving values, increasingly coherent over increasing context of meaning-making, and (2) our instrumental methods for their promotion, increasingly effectively over increasing scope of interaction and consequences, within an evolving intentional framework for effective decision-making at a level of complexity exceeding individual human faculties.

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” - Zen koan

What does that mean you cryptic bastards! If enlightenment is so great then give me some step by step directions to it!

Here's another, slightly more informative quote:

The famous saying of Ch'ing-yüan Wei-hsin [Seigen Ishin]

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

These classic quotes cut right to the essence of Zen, but provide no context or path for getting there.

I see a few key reasons for the persistent "woo-woo" vagueness. (1) Many persons are attracted to what they see as a doorway to mystical, occult, supernatural, etc. knowledge and powers. Good, I suppose, to the extent it keeps them on their journey of discovery... (2) People come from different backgrounds and harbor different preconceptions of "the Truth" and (in my experience) it usually takes a vast and indeterminate amount of effort to convey and address all these aspects of what Zen is not, leaving the very simple but powerful essence of what Zen is. So the standard approach is to offer small kernels intended to avoid the myriad possible objections while still engaging the mind of the seeker in resolving the apparent paradox by discovering the appropriate context.

The denizens of LessWrong can sometimes be found in the first category, under the influence of almost magical belief in the power of "Rationality" as they imagine it, and quite often in the second, where their intelligence gives them a view of things somewhat above that of the crowd, but where they tend to stay and admire the superior view rather than strive to take it up (and out) another level of context and meaning making.

[I realize that the above could be taken as demeaning, but could easily provide the basis for a 3rd justification for pedagogical vagueness--not to create a barrier by offending the other's pride. A 4th justification, and probably the strongest, would be that understanding that is constructed, rather than conveyed, tends to have greater impact. But time is short...]

Zen enlightenment is simply about re-conceiving the relationship between the observer and the observed.

Once this re-conception is attained, everything is just as it was before but ontologically simpler--there is no separate, privileged "self" in the model of reality. To grok this is liberating and may cause one to laugh with joy at the silliness of having carried that imagined burden for no gain; indeed it only got in one's way. Then, back to cutting wood and carrying water, the same as before but feeling lighter.

I hope that this might help.


The most insidious of these misguiding heuristics have, apparently due to their transparency (like water to a fish), gone unmentioned so far in this thread.

Typical game play shares much in common with typical schooling. Children are inculcated with impressions of a world of levels that can (and should) be ascended through mastery of skills corresponding to challenges presented to them at each level, with right action leading to convergence on right answers, within an effectively fixed and ultimately knowable context.

Contrast this with the "real world", where challenges are not presented but encountered, where it's generally better to do the right thing than to do things right, within a diverging context of increasing uncertainty.