What Has Changed my Political Beliefs

I think it’s safe to say that political beliefs are one of the most sticky types of beliefs we commonly hold. By some measures partisan polarization is at record highs for the modern era (though these figures are also debated). Politics are also beliefs that provoke some of the strongest arguments between differing viewpoints, and the strongest consolidation among shared viewpoints. Eliezer warned us to be particularly careful when grappling with these ideas.

But, as good rationalists, all of our beliefs should be subject to updating upon receiving further information – and when I look at my political beliefs over the years, I see that they have indeed changed, in some ways massively, in other ways slow and subtly. I thought it would be an interesting to lay out what the drivers of these changes were, as a case study in the art of changing one’s mind.

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New Perspectives on IFS

I did some IFS with a friend last night around his nail-biting, an area where he hadn’t gotten much traction working on his own.

Early in the process, when he expressed some judgements about the nail biting, I clarified that I wasn’t interested in getting him to stop biting his nails if we couldn’t first find a better way to meet whatever need was currently being met by nail biting.

I assumed the nail biting was serving an important purpose.

Assuming that neurotic-seeming behaviors may be serving important purposes is part of the IFS instructions, so I’ve been saying stuff like that since I’ve started doing IFS. But saying it used to feel more like going through the motions. I’m not quite sure what I mean, because I really didn’t want to get rid of or change parts without their consent. It feels different now, though.

I trust that people’s internal ecosystems make quite a lot of sense.

On a related note, I haven’t had much desire to do IFS on myself recently. Or to have others do it on me. Mostly because I assume that I’ve internalized these processes enough that if things haven’t found a way to shift on their own in IFS-y ways, there’s a good reason they haven’t.

I’m still very open to conversations where I explore my psychology around a thing, but I want them to feel more organic.

I’m also more inclined to just try to give myself what I want instead of changing what I want, even if I sense that I want it in part because I’m hurt in some way. The example that came up most recently was thinking about how I often get angry after we hire cleaners, since they don’t do it exactly how I’d want them to. I think the getting angry is a bit of my own craziness, but these days I’m somewhat more inclined to actually get what I want anyway, instead of “healing” it.

This shift fits pretty well with the idea that paradigms work best as scaffolds instead of permanent structures. So, my IFS scaffold is pretty dismantled by now.

Probably not my clearest post ever, but I’ll leave it at that.

How to Build a Tribe

It is important to preface this entire document by saying that I had very specific objectives for creating a tribe. In particular, I wanted a group that was emotionally vulnerable with each other, who are reacting in real time to each other’s responses, where we create a safe space to say and feel and process anything. If you’re looking for something else, only some of this will apply to you. If you share this vision with me, a list of concrete steps to get there from here is below the fold:

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Hypothetical Apostasy on Nutrition

As many of you know, I am a major proponent of paleo/primal/ancestral/etc type diets. At this point the term “paleo” has come to be applied to many very different diets, but for the record my own personal beliefs coincide most strongly with the Perfect Health Diet. Whatever you want to call it, it is certainly outside of conventional wisdom and mainstream scientific/medical opinion. This has been a point of contention between me and others who put more stock in mainstream opinion. I have spent many hundreds, or maybe thousands, of hours doing research into human metabolism, and as a result my ideas are starting to get sticky.

Periodically I like to subject my beliefs to one of my all-time favorite techniques, the hypothetical apostasy by philosopher Nick Bostrom. The basic idea is to produce a good faith effort at destroying your currently held position. This process has helped me improve my thinking on a number of topics, including the original mind-killer itself: politics. Given my particularly strong beliefs about diet, it is long past due for me to try this exercise. Below the fold is my best attempt to undermine the paleo position:

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Where I’ve Been, and a Brief Taxonomy of Bad Patterns

I didn’t post yesterday because I was traveling all day. I got up extremely early and took Lydia on a cab to SFO for a flight to JFK, then took another flight to Portland, ME, then another cab, then a ferry. Add in time being pushed three hours ahead, and that’s the day. I also didn’t have my computer last Wednesday-Sunday because we were at Ephemerisle, which we got home from late, with just barely enough time to nap and pack. The weekend before that, we went to Napa for my cousin’s wedding, and before that we were at the EA Summit…

Never being at home is pretty bad for getting writing done. But hanging out with interesting people all the time is good for generating ideas. I’ll sketch out at least one idea today and will state that it is my vague intention to get more writing done on this trip than I do in an average week.

There are many, many ways to divide up and classify destructive emotional patterns, but I’ll share one that occurred to me.

Some bad emotional patterns are, at their heart, crappy strategies. They’re likely outdated and originally formed by a less-resourced self, but I wouldn’t say they’re a result of trauma. The other month, I noticed that I was resisting changing my emotional state in the thick of discussions with Will because I wanted him to practice the skill of being the one to change the emotional tone.

It wasn’t working. Once I put my finger on what I was doing…I just asked Will to get better at that. And that seems to have worked pretty well. Much better than the other thing, anyway. I would call that one a bad strategy. There was no huge underlying childhood emotional pain to be processed. And I knew how to do something better, once I unraveled my reasons for not doing so. I’m actually pretty good at changing my state on command when my whole brain is on board with it.

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Summary of A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a handbook of Stoic philosophy by professor William Irvine. He points out that Stoicism is very different than the stereotypes we have developed about unfeeling robots, and in fact it contains a lot of timeless advice for psychological well being. This is not an academic work of philosophy, it is written as a popular self-improvement book. Though he does discuss a bit of the philosophy and history behind Stoicism, the bulk of the book consists of practical and actionable advice to improve your life. My summary reorganizes the book chapters, with a brief intro in the beginning, followed by all the actionable advice and the author’s personal suggestions, and concluding with a discussion of Stoicism in the modern context and some brief notes on the history of Stoic philosophy.

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Self-Improvement: What It Is And Why We Care

We like to talk about this concept we call “self-improvement” a lot. On the face of it, it’s a relatively simple and easy concept to understand: we are improving our selves. End of post!

…except it’s still a little bit vague what I mean by that, even in my own mind. Let’s forget about defining the “self” for a moment and just talk about “improvement”. By what standard are we judging improvement exactly? It’s not usually that clear cut. I might think adding delicious bacon to this dish is an improvement, but a vegetarian would beg to differ. Or to make it more personal, I might become a more assertive person, but to other people around me that might be relatively more off putting than allowing them to always get what they want.

Ultimately improvement ends up getting defined by my own standards. That’s one possible meaning of self-improvement: it’s my own improvement thank you very much! This is still only a partial answer, because we’ve passed the buck to the process that is setting our standards. I suspect that in many cases, we have an idealized vision of a human being in our minds, and we are trying to make ourselves look more like that vision. This can be a great motivator, and if human values are widely shared it will produce a great person. You could think of this as the virtue ethics model of self-improvement. [Read more…]

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…]

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…]