Beyond Rationality

I called this post “Beyond Rationality” because I wanted to move past the unfortunate connotations and bad habits associated with the word “rationality” in our culture. With tongue firmly in cheek, Divia and I often refer to the cluster of ideas I am about to present as post-rationality, and you may well encounter us using that very term. But in truth, I don’t see this philosophy as being opposed to rationality in any way. In fact, quite the opposite – I see this as rationality being properly applied. At the end of my last post, I promised to present you with a model of a rationalist human being. Not an ideally rational agent as described by mathematical equations, but how those abstract representations manifest in a living, breathing person. This is my approach to rationality, my philosophy of life, and why I think that rationality is actually an incredibly powerful meme.

Supremacy of the Instrumental over the Epistemic

In the first post in the series I presented my theory that self-described rationalists most often come to these ideas because of an aesthetic preference for truth. They are drawn to epistemic rationality, and that subsequently defines their relationship to these ideas. I found myself in the exact same boat when I first started out, the notion of systematically honing in on true beliefs was the siren’s call that left me immediately hooked. I had to understand these methods and apply them to my own cognition… and this laid the seeds for the triumph of instrumental rationality. [Read more…]

The Promise and Perils of Rationality

In my previous post I laid out what I did and did not mean by the term “rationality”. While I addressed what I consider to be misconceptions around the word rationality and how self-described rationalists would behave, I do think that there are some common problems that real-life rationalists run into in practice. In this post I want to discuss some of what these failure modes are, and what generates them, in the hope of helping others to recognize and avoid them.

The Crusaders

“That which can be destroyed by truth should be.” – P. C. Hodgell

This quote is greatly admired by our rationalist community, as you might expect. Given our aesthetic preference for truth, we want the divine light of evidence to burn away all of the unclean falsehoods that lurk in the unexamined parts of our minds… For those who value truth above all else, this may in fact be the best course of action to apply to their own mind. (The resulting structures formed by this procedure also have an attractive property: that they are robust to reality – revealing known true information cannot damage them, unlike many of the social constructs we pretend exist.)

Our friend Michael Vassar has a great response to this quote: “That’s like saying anything that can be destroyed by lions should be.” [Read more…]

If You Have A Strong Feeling, It’s Yours

I’ve had a plan to blog about something related to personal growth every Monday. I’ve managed this the last two weeks, and I’m doing it again today.

I read an IFS book about relationships a couple of years ago that had an articulate explanation of why strong feelings are always about us, never the other person. Will and I just hosted an NVC webinar, where we talked about the importance of taking responsibility for all of your feelings. The basic idea is that even though there are external triggers that prompt us to feel emotions at certain times, something always happens in our head between our sensory perception of what happened and our reaction to it.

And we have control over that something that happens. We can change our narrative, and therefore change our feelings about a situation.

While this principle basically always holds true, today I’d like to focus on the specific case of really strong feelings. One heuristic I use is that if a reaction seems disproportionate, it’s because the person isn’t actually reacting to the situation at hand.

If I get a little annoyed at my roommate for eating my cheese, ask her not to do it again, and forget about the whole thing, I think it’s basically fair to say that I was annoyed about the cheese. If my roommate eats my cheese and I’m in tears (yes, I’ve done this…), there’s something else going on. I’m pattern matching my current circumstance to an unresolved incident, probably from my childhood.

If someone says or does something that makes me feel absolutely terrible, I always try to remember that whatever the trigger was can’t possibly be what I’m really upset about. It doesn’t make sense to say that I’m in a really bad mood “because my friend was late” or “because Will joked that ‘you only think of yourself’ when I didn’t unplug his power cord for him”.

It doesn’t make sense to frame it that way, because I’ll never actually be able to resolve my emotional state by focusing on the trigger. Setting up my life to avoid situations that pattern match to the past probably won’t work, and (in my opinion) would be counterproductive even if it did. Because the trigger brought my attention to some emotional pain that was already there.

My model of how this works is that actually feeling better means owning the feeling and opening up emotionally. In doing so, my mind will naturally go back to the original incident where I created a distorted narrative instead of processing the emotion. Once I can see the mental movements I’m going through, it’s not usually hard to change the pattern.

So, if you find yourself complaining, either to yourself or out loud, about how bad someone made you feel, or about how much someone is making your life difficult, try getting curious about what’s going on underneath the surface.

And if you can manage it, try feeling grateful to the other person for drawing your attention to something that already a problem.

(If the thing the other person did to you is actually huge, like killing someone you care about, then this heuristic doesn’t apply. That’s a different story.)

Rationality, Unpacked

The word “rationality” carries a lot of historical baggage and cultural misconceptions, enough so that I have considered not using it at all. Yet a substantial portion of my social circle has decided to adopt this label (spoiler alert!), and for better or worse, it is the label that I use in my own mind. First I am going to address what rationality is not, before talking about this definition of rationality and why we should care about it.

Cartesian Rationality and Axiomatic Systems

The first widespread use of rationalism was a philosophy espoused by Descartes back in the 17th century. In this sense, the opposite of rationalism was empiricism. Rationalism as a philosophy in its extremest form holds that the only source of knowledge or justification is through our own reason. Descartes himself tried to derive all of the “eternal truths” of mathematics, epistemology, and metaphysics through the single starting assumption of cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.

While not every thinker believes that reason is the only source of knowledge, it does have the connotations of conscious deliberation being the primary source of knowledge, or morality, or action. Even a rudimentary reading of cognitive science clearly shows that our brain is a massively-paralleled and mostly unconscious processing machine, with a very small deliberation module attached on top (and particularly connected with verbal processing). Anyone hoping to utilize their reasoning needs to understand where it comes from and what purpose it serves, to avoid deluding themselves and going horribly wrong. [Read more…]

Nineteen Weeks of Lydia

Lydia tuns nineteen weeks old today, and it was a very active week. She’s getting stronger by the day!

Sleep

Sleep was unmemorable this week, which is exactly where I want it to be! She seems to be past whatever was making her more fitful last week. We have been breaking out the swaddling blanket at night pretty often though. Sometimes she’s clearly tired, but is having a hard time settling, and the swaddle usually does the trick. She still hasn’t been resisting it. If it continues to be useful, I may have to get new blankets though, because I don’t think she’ll fit into the ones we have now for that long.

Last night, Lydia gave a very clear signal that she wanted to go to sleep, which was nice. Around 9:30, she started getting quite upset and rejecting my usual soothing measures, until I tried feeding her lying down in the bedroom. Then she was happy. [Read more…]

Learning Programming

My relationship with programming has a long and sordid past. We got our first computer when I was very young, and I was immediately transfixed by this devil machine. How did it possibly work?? This curiosity got me a handful of vague enough answers to temporarily satisfy me, and I went about playing Dune II. I remember at one point creating a file, adding .exe on the end, and telling people that I “wrote my first program”. When they asked me what it did I had no answer.

Years later I started to realize that I wanted more. I wanted to be able to command the machine. I knew this was possible to do through this thing called “programming”, though this was still vague. At one point I even said I wanted to be a programmer when I grew up. In retrospect, this skill seems valuable enough that I wish my parents had given me more of a push / support when I was younger – certainly we intend to introduce Lydia to Logo at a young age ourselves.

As it so happened, my dad did at one point give me a book about Java. I proceeded to do a few lessons, marvel at my ability to make the computer prompt me and spit out some text, and promptly forgot that it existed. [Read more…]

Your Inner Virtue Ethicist Should Like Self-Compassion

If you haven’t read Virtue Ethics for Consequentialists, I highly recommend it. As I see it, consequentialism is obviously correct, and virtue ethics is how you implement it on human hardware.

I’m also a big fan of self-compassion. Today, I was working with someone, and while we did some good IFS work together, we didn’t manage to wrap things up in a nice little bow at the end of the session. That happens sometimes. So, I recommended an operant conditioning exercise to work on in the meantime.

Basically, imagine the situation that was triggering her and feel compassion. Practice this enough times, and it gets easier to feel compassion in the real situation.

She said, that her inner virtue ethicist objected, because it seemed like rewarding herself for undesirable behavior. That’s not how I see it at all, so it seemed worth it to me to write up my reasons for seeing it differently.

Compassion is a game-theoretic hack.

Or something. 

Many people end up using some sort of internal system where they aim to feel good when they do something aligned with their moral system, and bad when they do something that isn’t aligned with their moral system. This is a relatively intuitive way to set things up. And compassion is generally experienced by people as positive, so I could see why it might seem backwards to “reward” yourself with compassion for, say, feeling resentful.

But here’s how compassion is a hack. Yes, compassion feels good. But in order to feel self-compassion, I have to be updating. As humans, we tend to store data that tells us that the world is worse than we realize. We cordon it off and prevent ourselves from looking at it. If we were to take it out and look at it, we would get sad. And if you look at your sadness from the right angle, you get self-compassion.

Compassion lets you feel good while updating your model of the world to be accurate even when you’re getting bad news. But you’re not going to start doing the undesirable behavior in order to get more compassion, because feeling the self-compassion at all requires that you be in exactly the sort of observer state that means you’ll be updating as you feel it. If you take in the compassion, you’ll accept the world as it is,  feel better about yourself, and then not have the emotional impetus to do the problematic behavior anymore.

(I’m somewhat worried that this post isn’t particularly articulate, as this isn’t a concept I’ve tried to put into words very often, but it seemed worth trying. I may revisit this topic later.)

O, Fragile Productivity!

As long as I stick to my systems I don’t get sick very often, and thus I sometimes forget what it’s like. Getting enough sleep seems to render me immune to infections, though sometimes I stay up late or wake up too early. If I do start to feel a cold coming on, a complete water fast for 1-3 days will almost always knock it out before it takes hold.

But I don’t always take good care of myself, and then occasionally I have to pay the price.

A couple weeks ago I caught a nasty cold. It knocked me completely out of commission for about three days, as judged by blank entries in my goal tracking system. I figured I would rest up for a few days, mostly lying around the house, sleeping, reading and playing computer games, and then I would jump back on my horse and keep going. Oh how wrong I was… [Read more…]

Eighteen Weeks of Lydia

Lydia is eighteen weeks now!

Nothing too huge this week. Many of the positive changes from last week have carried over, and I would say it’s been a pretty good week. We had the reunion for our homebirth class this past Sunday, so I got to see a bunch of non-Lydia babies too.

Sleep

Last week, I checked sleep off my list of things to worry about. That mostly still holds. She’s been pretty much fine about napping when she’s tired and falling asleep in my arms, but nights have been later and somewhat fitful the past few days. My theory is that she’s working on her physical skills and doesn’t want to stop practicing them at night. 

So, she’s been going to sleep late and waking up at night not just to feed but to squirm around. I’ve actually broken out the swaddling blanket again, which seems to work relatively well. The time I used it, she didn’t fight it or anything, and it got her to stop moving around and go to sleep.

Last night, she was sleeping quite fitfully for a while, maybe half an hour? Then she peed. This sort of thing makes me update towards just waking her up to potty her, which will probably only work if I feed her at the same time.

I hear people talk a bunch about the “four month sleep regression”. Maybe this is that? Hard to know. I just hope it doesn’t last forever. Then I’d have to start troubleshooting again.

The good thing about her staying up late is that it usually means she sleeps in later. I’ve heard that this shouldn’t work for babies, but for whatever reason it seems to with her.

Eating

Eating is similar to last week, which is more during the day than before. The other night I got tired way before she did (Will was out), so I basically had her feed while I dozed and she mostly didn’t for quite a while in the evening. Not sure how long, but it felt like hours. I try to feed her at night whenever she wakes up, but sometimes I think that’s not actually the issue so it doesn’t work all that well.

Elimination Communication

EC is going well. I have mini potties set up in the places we usually hang out when I’m at home, and it does make me inclined to offer more often. I don’t think I’m using more than a handful of diapers during the day, though nighttime is still iffy. She can hold it a long time though, especially at night.

Babywearing

I’ve been using the Double Hammock Carry more this week. It’s more comfortable than the Rucksack Carry, but takes longer to do. I used it to clean the house before our class reunion and that worked really well. 

I did buy another wrap, so I’m excited waiting for that to come in the mail. It’s a 2.7m rebozo length one, which is shorter than I was thinking I’d get, but I liked this particular wrap, and that’s the size it came in. I’ll see what carries I’ll be able to do with it.

I forgot to bring my wrap to an event a few days ago and used the backup Moby wrap we keep in the car. It actually worked better than I would have thought, and she had a nice nap in there.

Motor Skills

The biggest thing this week is that she seems waaay more active. I’ve been putting her on the floor to play more, and she does quite a bit.

On her back, she’ll squirm backwards very effectively. She still hasn’t rolled back to front.

On her front, she can rotate 360 to face whichever direction she wants, which is new. She doesn’t make it look effortless or anything, but it works. She can also sometimes hold herself up so her stomach is off the ground. I started noticing that when I put her down on her stomach she’d hold herself up like that for a second or so. Now, I’ve seen her do it for as long as three seconds, and sometimes she’ll actually push herself up from being slumped on the floor to do it for a bit.

I find this very exciting, even if she does want to get up at night to practice :-).

No idea whether this means she’ll crawl early. My current prediction is that she’ll making her first crawling movements (which may be backward) somewhere around six months. Will thinks it’ll be earlier. 

We’re going to put the baby gate up at the top of the stairs soon.

Personality/Other

She seems to be happier playing independently on the floor now that she can do more. Though happier is maybe an overstatement. She will often grunt and otherwise vocalize while she’s on the ground, in a way that makes me wonder whether I should go help her. Not exactly crying, but not quite happy either. Definitely struggling and straining. I try to communicate with her about what she wants and read her cues, but often I’m not quite sure. In practice, my usual strategy is to let her play and grunt while paying a lot of attention to her, until I decide that she wants something. Then I pick her up, offer her things, try her on the ground again, and eventually just go back to holding her. 

I figure it’ll get somewhat clearer what she wants here as she gets older. 

Oh, about that cold Will and I had a while ago. Lydia seems to have it more now than before. I’m confused about why that would be true, but her nose has been running a bit the past few days. Another variable in the increasing night waking we’ve had the past few days, but who knows.

Me

Pretty good week for me, I think. I cleaned the whole house for the reunion we hosted, which is pretty unlike me. (We usually hire cleaners, but they were booked and calling a bunch of new places sounded harder than cleaning.)

I’ve been getting more writing done than I have in a while.

I’ve also had a few times where I got really, really tired, though I think it’s not a chronic issue. Sometimes, when I try to nurse Lydia to sleep, all that happens is that I get really drowsy :-).

How It Feels to Be the Subject of an IFS process

Will and I recently hosted a webinar about IFS, and when I was reading the feedback forms, I noticed that two people asked very similar questions about how it felt to be the subject of an IFS process. I wanted to give my best attempt at a description, though I imagine it’s somewhat different for everyone.

During an IFS process, I go into a trance-like state. I’ve had some hypnosis work done on me, and it’s a little like that. Also similar to how I feel during guided visualizations I’ve done. If you know what it means to be “in your head“, that’s not the state you’re going for. It shouldn’t feel very much like you’re in the driver’s seat at all. More like you’re witnessing your thoughts, emotions, and visualizations unfolding.

Sometimes, I’m aware of vivid visual imagery. That being said, my imagery isn’t all that vivid compared to what Will experiences. I’m usually pretty aware of what’s going on physically in my body. It feels sort of floaty. Answers to the questions the facilitator poses come quickly, or I don’t trust them. If I pay attention, I can feel my head wanting to nod or shake before all of my mind has even processed the question.

It occurs to me to describe the state as feeling spacious. I think what I mean by that is that, since I’m not identifying with much, my thoughts are flowing more and I’m not self-censoring them.

There are moments when I can tell a process is going somewhere interesting. One of the most important signs is when I get an answer from myself that seems surprising. Or when I get a thought that causes a strong pulse of emotion. Recalling memories I haven’t thought of in ages that don’t seem obviously related is a very good sign too.

There are also a few protectors that make regular appearances in me when I’m the subject of IFS.

  • Anger: I’ll get frustrated that the person trying to help me doesn’t actually understand me. When the facilitator tries to paraphrase what I’ve said, it won’t sound quite right and I’ll complain about it. This part judges other people for not being able to read my mind effectively.
  • Confusion: I’ll find myself wanting to answer “I don’t know”, which can slow things down quite a bit if I don’t identify it as a part.
  • Skepticism: Am I doing it right? Am I just making this up? Does this even work at all? I’ve experienced powerful work on both ends, but these questions still come up for me, even now.
  • Analysis: As I mentioned above, being in an analytical frame of mind isn’t appropriate for doing IFS work, but it’s always a strong attractor for me anyway.
  • Silence: I’ll have a strong impulse to shut down and not say anything. This can happen for a bunch of reasons, though it’s not as strong in me as it used to be.

Other people I’ve worked with have a different set of usual objections. Going deep is vulnerable, and there are many reasons someone wouldn’t want to do it. Some people, for example, are reluctant to cry in front of others. If you are afraid to cry, your brain may be looking ahead ten steps and preventing from letting you talk about something that even might lead in that direction.