Vaniver's Comments

Steelmanning Divination

Thanks for the detailed commentary, and welcome to LessWrong!

I think we have two main disagreements, and two minor ones.

First is what I set out to do, which is perhaps tied up with what I should have set out to do. I'm not trying to explain Xunzi, or even all of the I Ching; I'm trying to open a door that was rightfully closed on the likes of fortune cookies and astrology to rescue things like the I Ching, that seem superficially similar but have a real depth to them.

And, as Xunzi points out when describing the Way, "No one corner is sufficient to exhibit it fully." If someone is going to get something real out of the I Ching, they're going to do it through practice, not through a summary, or reading it cover to cover, and the best I can do is point at why that would be good in a way that they can see from the other side of the door.

From the shape of your disappointment, I'm guessing you wanted me to explain Xunzi more fully, instead of just making an indirect pitch, or more fully grapple with philosophy or classicism. If I were out to do the former, my preferred strategy would be to see if Hutton would let me post the entirety of his translation of Undoing Fixation (which I think is way more readable than the in-public-domain one I found). For the latter, I'll readily admit I'm an amateur instead of an scholar, following trails as they appear and catch my interest instead of hoping for completion. I didn't reference Wang Bi because this is the first I've heard of him, but I'm not surprised to hear this is an old viewpoint. [Indeed, I suspect if this sort of thing hadn't been appreciated in Xunzi's time by his audience, he would have written an essay about it instead of just mentioning it and moving on.]

This bears on our second disagreement, which might be illusory. I agree that ritual, in Xunzi's conception, is primarily social instead of individual. But this isn't exclusively the case, and my impression was that divination as performed by individuals was primarily about cultivating reflection and broadmindedness; if there's a social dimension to it that I'm missing, I'm very interested in hearing more.

The minor disagreements:

To the extent that Xunzi’s work is richer than theirs, it is richer because Xunzi can build on their work. Xunzi can argue against Mozi and Mencius; Mozi and Mencius can’t argue against Xunzi.

Surely it is the case that later thinkers have an advantage over earlier thinkers. I, for example, relied on the mathematicians who worked through set theory to understand the point that "white horses are not horses," whereas Xunzi dismisses it as unproductive sophistry.

Nevertheless, I think people do vary in both the speed and the shape of their thoughts, and this can sometimes be picked up on from the texts they write, even in the presence of other advantages. I hesitate to judge the latter across the gulfs of time and translation; it may have just been bad luck that other thinkers failed to translate as well as Xunzi. Nevertheless, the translations are what we have, and my sense is what it is, and given the agreement of someone who knew more than I it seemed worth sharing.

[And, note the corollary; given that ancient thinkers are disadvantaged in this way compared to modern thinkers, a busy reader needs special inducement to look at the past instead of a modern textbook. Sometimes it's a desire to see the foundations; sometimes it's a belief that times have changed and bad ideas then might have become good ideas now; sometimes it's a glimpse of a genius making sense of another time and another place. Someone who shared my desire to read the original works from the classical period wouldn't need my recommendation to do so, whereas someone looking for a glimpse of genius benefits from the recommendation.]

All in all, it’s an excellent way to miss out on reading the past honestly on its own terms and to not realise that there were rationalists in the past as well.

I thought it was clear in my post that I thought Xunzi had enough of rationality figured out to count as a rationalist, in a way both evident in the text and in the historical record. (Sadly, he didn't approve of Qin, and so maybe he regrets teaching what he knew to others.)

I have more complicated thoughts about meeting the past on its own terms; it definitely has its uses, but 'steelmanning' is normally a different move.

Both the SEP and the IEP are freely available

As it happens, while I agree with the current (as of 2018) SEP article on Xunzi, when I first researched this I thought that SEP article badly misunderstood Xunzi's disagreement with Mencius, in a way that made me pessimistic about reading more SEP articles about it.

Nothing, except that it stunts learning.

There are two different claims here; the first is about my (already professed) ignorance, which I agree with, and the second is about whether or not it is contagious, which I think I disagree with. That is, suppose I read all of Xunzi, and tell others to read a single chapter. This implies that the other chapters are lower value, and so some in the audience will be more willing to move on after reading that chapter; but also presumably it increases the number of people who have read that chapter, and if you picked a good one that's worth it. And the most interested will be excited by that chapter, and then read more.


I so far have not had the time to write up what I like about Xunzi as a whole, and his relevance to modern institutions and individuals, and I'm not sure that I will. I'd be excited to read anything you wanted to write here on the subject, or related ones; another thing on my "someday maybe" list is the relevance of Mohism to modern utilitarianism and effective altruism.

In Defense of the Arms Races… that End Arms Races

The principle: it may make sense to start an arms race if you think you are going to win if you start now, provided that a nastier arms race is inevitable later. 

My impression is that while there were some people who thought the Soviet Union would turn out to be troublesome, most people believed (either genuinely or as the result of wishful thinking) that capitalism and communism could coexist, and thus the nastier arms race later was not inevitable.

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

I think the "increase in sensory acuity is an increase in introspective access to signal already present" point is central to understanding meditation, Circling, and their similarity, and think your post makes that point well.

If you just mean the version of "empiricism" where "knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience", then I think it does a good job of pointing at how it's trying to do that. I think there are important connotations of empiricism that are missing, tho; like, what is the sensory experience of? This is what I've vaguely gesturing at with the "nourishing properties of the universe" thing; if I look at a thermometer, I'm trying to get my sense data to connect to 'objective reality'; if I look at my own thoughts, the connection to 'objective reality' is more tenuous. It's not absent; and I think having some sort of reflective practice is a good idea, but I feel like Circling can make a stronger case than "a corollary of meditation." 

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

So, wait. Have you ever used Circling to resolve conflicts? Or, seen it used this way? Or, know anyone (whose word you trust) who has used it this way?

I have seen... maybe a dozen attempts to use it this way that I can remember (at least vaguely). Some of them were successful, some weren't; many had the flavor of "well, we haven't resolved anything yet but we know a lot more now". (Also I'm not counting conflicts about where the group attention should be going, which are happen pretty frequently.)

Some of the conflicts were quite serious / high-stakes; described somewhat vaguely, I remember one where a wife was trying to 'save her marriage' (the husband was also in the Circle), and over the course of an hour or so we got to the label of her felt sense of what was happening, figured out an "if X, then Y" belief that she had so deeply she hadn't ever looked at it, and then when she asked the question "is that true?" it dissolved and she was able to look at the situation with fresh eyes.

I don't remember being one of the primary parties for any of those conflicts; the closest was when I organized a Circle focused on me to work through my stance towards someone in my life that I was having a conflict with who wasn't present. (I thought that was helpful, but it's only sort of related.)

Also, I noticed a day or two ago that maybe I should back up a bit: when I'm talking about "resolving conflicts," I mean something closer to "do work towards a resolution" than "conflict goes in, result comes out." Like, if we think about democracy, there's a way in which candidate debates help resolve an election, but they aren't the election itself.

There's not an arbitration thing going on, where you take a conflict to the Circle, talk about it for a while, and then the facilitator or the group as a whole or whatever says "well, this is what I think" and then that's the ruling. Instead it's much closer to Alice and Bob relating to each other in a way that conflicts, and that getting explored, and then sometimes Alice and Bob end up relating to each other in a way they agree on, and sometimes they don't.

There's also a clear way in which Circles are a conflict-generating mechanism, in that Alice and Bob can be unaware that they disagree on a topic until it comes up, and now they can see their disagreement clearly.

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

I wouldn't want that. 

If I'm inferring correctly, the thing that's going on here is your frustration is at both how the thing went down and that the person who did it is superior to you. If he 'lets you' scream, it's not a fight or a remonstration, it's him humoring you, which isn't the real thing.

To start off: What effects can and should circling have on the social reality while not circling?

Yeah, this is a really tricky question. I think the answer to both is "lots of effects."

Sometimes there are confidentiality agreements (where people get into a high-trust state and share info and then by default that info isn't widely propagated, so that you don't have to be think as much about "I trust Alice, but do I trust Alice's trust?") but there aren't any sort of "forgetting agreements" (where I share something shocking about me and you don't want to be friends anymore and then I can say "well, can you just forget the shocking thing?").

Given that it can have lots of effects on the social reality outside of Circling, the question of "are those expected effects good or bad?" is quite important, as is the question of "what standard should you use to measure goodness or badness of those effects?".

A section of my draft for this post that I decided to move to a comment, and then later decided should be its own post, is about the "will Circling with people I know be good for my social goals?" question, which I answered with "quite probably not on the meta-level I think you're thinking on, but I think it will on a different meta-level, and I think you might want to hop to the other meta-level."

To the extent it's possible, I think it's good for people to have the option of Circling with strangers, in order to minimize worries in this vein; I think this is one of the other things that makes the possibility of Circling online neat.

Voting Phase of 2018 LW Review (Deadline: Sun 19th Jan)

I also note that I think there's signal in your decision to only skim a post, as opposed to reading it, but as noted in habryka's response, it's probably a weak signal.

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

So my question is: can Circling tell you “actually, what you need is not Circling but something else [like a (metaphorical) ‘court’]”? Or, to put it another way: when should you not use Circling, but instead use some ‘court-like’ approach?

My first reaction is to pick apart the question, which suggests to me we have some sort of conceptual mismatch. But before I try to pick it apart, I'll try to answer it.

I think Circling won't "tell you" anything about that, except in the most metaphorical of senses. That is, suppose you're not bought into using Circling for resolving issue X; Circling will likely bring that to conscious attention, and then you might realize "ah, what I really want to do instead is settle this another way." But the judgment is yours, not Circling's, because Circling isn't trying to generate judgments. (I should note that it could be the case that the other participants either notice their own resistance to using the Circle in that way, or might notice your resistance before you do and bring that up, so I mean "yours" in the 'final judgment' sense as opposed to the 'original thinking' sense; you can end up agreeing to things you wouldn't imagine.)

As mentioned before, if you're not an experienced Circler, I wouldn't use it as a conflict-resolution mechanism, and I would be suspicious of someone who was an experienced Circler trying to immediately jump to conflict-resolution with someone new to Circling. If you have a conflict where everyone thinks everyone understands the issue, and yet there's still a conflict, I don't think Circling will point towards a resolution.

in that case I have further questions, concerning the meaning of the comments that gave me said impression

I would be interested in seeing the things that gave you this impression.

I confess I still do not know whether you think (and/or claim) that Circling is supposed to be used for object-level conflict resolution, or not. I think that this is important; in fact, I don’t know how much more progress can be made without getting clear on this point.

I agree that settling that seems useful. I think your question attempts to be "yes xor no" but the answer to the question as written is "yes and no," and so I responded with a question-substitution to try to identify the thing that I think divides the cases more cleanly.

That is, I claim that Circling can help people understand each other (and their way of interacting) better. Separately, I observe that many conflicts have, at their root, a misunderstanding. This generates the hypothesis that Circling would resolve many conflicts by knocking out the root misunderstanding generating them, or by transforming them from "two people trying to solve two problems" to "two people trying to solve one problem," which may do most of the work of resolution.

Of course, not all conflicts have a misunderstanding at the root; sometimes only one of us gets to win the chess game, or decide what restaurant we go to, or whatever. For such conflicts, there's no strong reason to think Circling would help. (There are weak reasons, like an outside-view guess that "if you think there are no misunderstandings, this is nevertheless sometimes a thing you think where there are misunderstandings," but I wouldn't want to make a strong case on weak reasons.)

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

It could mean that the problem is gone, but it propably means you're setting the cut later.

I asked because it is considered appropriate in Circling to bring emotions in the forms they want to be expressed in, including things like screams. Also the sorts of emotions people express in Circles run basically the whole emotional range, from pleasant to challenging.

I had the hypothesis that you were imagining a version where emotions had to pass through some external filter, like "politeness," and so rather than ending up with an accurate picture of where people are at, Circlers would end up with a systematically biased or censored picture. I don't think that happens with an external filter based on valence. That is, I think there are internal filters and people self-censor a lot (as part of being authentic to the complicated thing that they are), and I think there might be some external procedural filters.

I am somewhat worried about those procedural filters. Like, if I have a desire to be understood on a narrow technical point, the more Circling move is to go into what it's like to want to convey the point, but the thing the emotion wants is to just explain the thing already; if it could pick its expression it would pick a lecture.

[Worried because of the "can't allow for intimacy" point, and what to make of that is pretty complicated because it touches on lots of stuff that I haven't written about yet.]

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

your first thought is "let's analyze why the person said that", rather than "wait, is my thing bad?"

It definitely makes sense to be worried about Bulverism, where my attention becomes solely about how it lands for the other person (and figuring out what mistake of theirs prevents it from landing the way I want).

I think you often want to figure out all of 1) what the causal history of their statement is, 2) whether your thing was bad according to you, 3) whether your sense of goodness/badness is bad according to you, in contact with their statement and its causal history. What order you do those in will depend on what the situation is.

Like, suppose I write a post and someone comments with a claim that I made a typo. Presumably my attention jumps to the second point, of "oh, did I type incorrectly?", and only later (if ever) do I ask the questions of "why do they care about this?" and "am I caring the right amount about spelling errors?"

If instead I make a claim and someone says "that claim misses my experience," presumably my attention should jump to the first point, of what their experience was so that I can then determine whether or not I was missing their experience when I said it, or expressed myself poorly, or was misheard, or whatever.


I note that I am personally only minimally worried about specific Circlers that I know falling into Bulverism, and I feel like if I knew the theory / practice of it more I would be able to point to the policies and principles they're using that mean that error is unlikely for them. Like, for me personally, one of the protective forces is something like "selfish growth," where there's a drive to interpret information in a way that leads to me getting better at what I want to get better at, and so it would be surprising to see me 'write off' criticism after analyzing it, because the thing I want is the growth, not the defense-from-attack.


I think there are definitely developmental stages that people can pass through that make them more annoying when they advance a step. Like, I can imagine someone who mostly cares about defending themselves from attacks, and basically doesn't have a theory of mind, and you introduce them to the idea that they can figure out why other people say things, and so then they go around projecting at everyone else. I think so long as they're still accepting input / doing empiricism / able to self-reflect, this will be a temporary phase as their initial random model gradient-descents through feedback to something that more accurately reflects reality. If they aren't, well, knowing about biases can hurt people, and they might project why other people dislike their projections in a way that's self-reinforcing and get stuck in a trap.

Circling as Cousin to Rationality

is Circling supposed to be for resolving conflicts and other object-level situations, or is Circling supposed to be for investigating this meta-level “how does the machinery operate” stuff? I’ve seen pro-Circling folks, you included, appear to vacillate between these two perspectives.

I think 'better Circling' involves leaning towards investigating the meta-level. I wouldn't recommend that anyone's first Circle be about exploring a dispute they're involved in; that seems like it would be likely to go poorly. In situations that seem high-stakes, it's better to understand the norms you're operating under than not understand them!

Perhaps it can be used for both? This would be surprising, and would increase the improbability of the pro-Circling position, but certainly cannot be ruled out a priori.

I think it helps you understand conflicts, and that sometimes resolves them, and sometimes doesn't. If Alice thinks meat should be served at an event, and Bob thinks the event should be vegan, a Circle that includes Alice and Bob and is about that issue might end up with them understanding more why they think and feel the way they do, and how their dynamic of coming to a decision together works. But they're still going to come to the decision using whatever dynamic they use.

To the extent people think Circling is useful for mediation or other sorts of resolution, I think that's mostly informed by a belief that a very large fraction of conflicts have misunderstandings at their root, or that investigating the generators is more fruitful than dealing with a particular instance. 

Perhaps so, but it seems to me that this is all the more reason why Circling is an inappropriate tool with which to determine whether what you need is meditation, or a court.

I'm confused by this, because it seems to me to imply that I thought or argued that Circling was the tool you would use to determine how to resolve an issue. What gave you that impression?

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