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Monday, November 6th, 2017
1:05 pm - Meditation and mental space

One effect that I often notice after my meditation practice has been interrupted and I then manage to resume it again, is an increase in a kind of mental resilience.

That is, when I have a lower resilience, feeling bad for any reason feels much more like an emergency. It’s something that forces itself into my consciousness, takes over, and refuses to go away. I would like to ignore it, but I can’t; as long as it’s there, it’s hard to think of anything else.

When my resilience is higher, it’s like my mind has more room for thoughts and emotions. Something might be making me feel bad, but something else might also be making me feel good, and there’s space for those two to intermingle. It becomes much easier to accept that I’m feeling a little bad, but I don’t need to do anything about it. I can just go on and do something else, and the nasty feeling might go away on its own – or if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

Interestingly, being on antidepressants can also give me a similar effect.

Of course, in itself this kind of an effect isn’t too surprising, given that it’s one of the explicit goals of the practice. Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated notes that two of the goals of mindfulness practice are an increase in the amount of “conscious power” (roughly, the amount of things that can be consciously processed at a time), as well as learning to more intentionally shift the focus of attention, so that it won’t just automatically go to the most painful or pleasant thing and become preoccupied with that, but can rather be controlled in a more useful manner. Still, it’s nice to see that the practice is bearing fruit.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, October 17th, 2017
10:19 am - Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas

I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, October 14th, 2017
11:29 am - You can never be universally inclusive

A discussion about the article “We Don’t Do That Here” (h/t siderea) raised the question about the tension between having inclusive social norms on the one hand, and restricting some behaviors on the other hand.

At least, that was the way the discussion was initially framed. The thing is, inclusivity is a bit of a bad term, since you can never really be universally inclusive. Accepting some behaviors is going to attract people who like engaging in those behaviors while repelling people who don’t like those behaviors; and vice versa for disallowing them.

Of course, you can still create spaces that are more inclusive than others, in being comfortable to a broader spectrum of people. But the way you do that, is by disallowing behaviors that would, if allowed, repel more people that the act of disallowing them does.

If you use your social power to shut up people who would otherwise be loudly racist and homophobic and who then leave because they don’t want to be in a place where those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, then that would fit the common definition of “inclusive space” pretty well.

That said, the “excluding racists and homophobes” thing may make it sound like you’re only excluding “bad” people, which isn’t the case either. Every set of rules (including having no rules in the first place) is going to repel some completely decent people.

Like, maybe you decide to try to make a space more inclusive by having a rule like “no discussing religion or politics”. This may make the space more inclusive towards people of all kinds of religions and political backgrounds, since there is less of a risk of anyone feeling unwelcome when everyone else turns out to disagree with their beliefs.

But at the same time, you are making the space less inclusive towards people who are perfectly reasonable and respectful people, but who would like to discuss religion or politics. As well as to people who aren’t so good at self-regulation and will feel uncomfortable about having to keep a constant eye on themselves to avoid saying the wrong things.

And maybe these people would feel more comfortable at a different event with different rules, which was more inclusive towards them. Which is fine. Competing access needs:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

I wrote a while ago that I think this concept extends to a lot of activist/social justice community challenges and a lot of the difficulty of designing good messages. For example, body positivity: some people need to hear “love your body! no matter who you are you are soooo sexy” and some people really hate being told that they’re ‘sexy’. Or some gay people might need a space where it’s against the rules to ask “well, what if it actually is morally wrong to be gay?” but other gay people (like me of a few years ago) might need a space where they can ask that so there can be a serious discussion and they can become convinced that they’re okay.

Every set of rules is going to be bad for someone, so a better question than “how to make this space inclusive” is “who do we want to make this space inclusive towards”. You’re always going to exclude some people who aren’t jerks or bad people, but would just prefer a different set of rules. And you just have to accept that.

See also: The Unit of Caring on Safe Spaces and Competing Access Needs.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, October 7th, 2017
5:30 pm - What are your plans for the evening of the apocalypse?
If everyone found out for sure that the world would end in five years, what would happen?

My guess is that it would take time before anything big happened. Finding out about the end of the world, that’s the kind of a thing that you need to digest for a while. For the first couple of days, people might go “huh”, and then carry on with their old routines while thinking about it.

A few months later, maybe there still wouldn’t be all that much change. Sure, people would adjust their life plans, start thinking more near-term, some would decide not to go to college after all. But a lot of people already don’t plan much beyond a couple of years; five years is a long time, and you’ll still need to pay your bills until the Apocalypse hits. So many people might just carry on with their jobs as normal; if they were already doing college, well, you need to pass the time until the end of the world somehow. Might as well keep studying.

Of course, some people would have bigger reactions, right from day one. Quit their unsatisfying job, that kind of thing. People with a lot of savings might choose this moment to start living off them. And as the end of the world got closer and closer, people might get an increasingly relaxed attitude to work; though there might also be a feeling of, we’re all in this together, let’s make our existing institutions work until the end. I could imagine doctors and nurses in a hospital, who had decided that they want to make sure the hospital runs for as long as it can, and that nobody has to die before they really have to.

But I could also imagine, say, the waiter at some restaurant carrying on, serving customers even on the night of the apocalypse. (Be sure to make a reservation, we expect to have no free tables that evening.) Maybe out of principles, maybe out of professional pride, but maybe just out of habit.

I’m guessing there would be gradual changes to society, with occasional tipping points when a lot of people decided to stop whatever they had been doing and that created a chain reaction of others doing so as well. But it seems really hard to guess for how long things would remain mostly normal.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, October 5th, 2017
11:24 am - Meaningfulness and the scope of experience

I find that the extent to which I find life meaningful, seems strongly influenced by my scope of experience [1, 2].

Say that I have a day off, and there’s nothing in particular that I need to get done or think about. This makes it easy for the spatial scope of my experience to become close. My attention is most strongly drawn to the sensations of my body, nearby sounds, tempting nearby things like the warmth of the shower that I could take, the taste of a cup tea that I could prepare, or the pleasant muscle fatigue that I’d get if I went jogging in the nearby forest. The temporal scope of my experience is close as well; these are all things that are nearby in time, in that I could do them within a few minutes of having decided to do them.

Say that I don’t have a day off, and I’m trying to focus on work. My employer’s website says that our research focuses on reducing risks of dystopian futures in the context of emerging technologies; this is a pretty accurate description of what I try to do. Our focus is on really large-scale stuff, including the consequences of eventual space colonization; this requires thinking in the scale of galaxies, a vast spatial scope. And we are also trying to figure out whether there is anything we can do to meaningfully influence the far future, including hundreds if not thousands of years from now; that means taking a vast temporal scope.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is much easier to feel that things are meaningful when the scope of my experience is close, than when it is far.


My favorite theory of meaning actually comes from a slightly surprising direction: the literature on game design and analysis. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define meaningful play in a game as emerging when the relationships between actions and outcomes are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game. In other words:

The consequences of your actions in a game have to be discernable: you need to have some idea of what happened as a result of your actions. If you shoot at an opponent and the opponent dies, that’s pretty clear and discernable. If you press a button and a number changes but you have no idea of what that number means or why it’s relevant, that’s not very clear nor discernable. If you don’t know what happens as a result of your actions, you might as well be randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards.

The consequences of your actions have to be integrated into the larger context of the game: they need to affect the game experience at some later point in the game. If you move a piece in a game of chess, then that move will directly shape the whole rest of the game, making the moves deeply integrated. But if every game of chess included three opening moves after which the board was reset to the initial position, throwing away everything that happened during those three moves, then those moves would not be integrated to the gameplay. People would just make some moves at random as fast as possible, to get on with the actual opening moves of the game.

As Salen & Zimmerman write: “Whereas discernability of game events tells players what happened (I hit the monster), integration lets players know how it will affect the rest of the game (If I keep on hitting the monster I will kill it. If I kill enough monsters, I’ll gain a level.).”

My own model is that regardless of whether we’re playing a game or living our ordinary lives, our minds will automatically keep looking for actions whose outcomes are discernable and integrated, relative to the current scope of experience.

When the scope is close, it is easy to find such actions. Taking a shower, making a cup of tea, going out for a jog; the consequences of these actions will manifest as concrete and enjoyable bodily sensations, clearly discernable both within the temporal and spatial scope. And because the scope is so close, almost everything I do will affect the whole scope, so it will feel tightly integrated.  I imagine getting a taste of tea, and think no farther out in time; thus, getting up from bed, going to the kitchen, preparing the tea, and sitting down to drink it, feels like a tight chain of actions where each step gives rise to the next, culminating in the warmth of the tea cup pressing against my lips, the sensation of taste on my tongue.

When the scope is far, it is much different. What action could one even think of, whose consequences were discernable on a scale spanning entire galaxies? Or whose consequences could be traced out for tens, maybe hundreds of years? It’s hard to imagine anything. An intellectual analysis may suggest things that could plausibly result as a consequence of our actions, but unless one can really visualize those and translate them into emotional terms, it’s still going to feel hard to connect them to the small-scale things happening in our daily lives.

I find that my mind will automatically look for objectives that makes sense within a given scope. When my scope is relatively close, things like finding a romantic partner and maybe having children feel strongly appealing; they would have a strong impact within the entire scope. When my scope gets more remote, such things seem to lose their appeal: what is one more family going to matter? It is highly unlikely to change the course of history. Better to ignore those things, as my chances to make a lasting impact are remote already; better to concentrate on finding something that would inch those chances ever-so-slightly upwards.


The naive implication of this would be, “keep your scopes close, and you’ll be happy”. But of course, it’s not that simple.

For one, most of us can’t just focus on small pleasures and not worry at all about things like earning an income, what we’ll be doing next year, or whatever it is that we need to think about at work. The necessities of everyday life force us to think long term and in a larger context, which forces us to attend to a broader scope of experience.

Even if we did have the opportunity to keep our scope small, the effect would be to make ourselves happy by ignoring everything else that’s going on in the world. It’s easy to be happy, if you can just the ignore the suffering of your neighbor; a small scope easily gets very self-centered. (Of course, a large scope can be centered on the self as well; it’s just that it’s big enough to also contain other beings, regardless of who happens to be in the center.)

Even if you widen your scope to contain family and friends, that scope will only contain a small fraction of everybody who exists. You don’t necessarily want to only think about what happens to those you personally have reason to care about, if it means neglecting the well-being of everyone else.

Of course, it also makes no sense to burden yourself with things that you realistically can’t affect. Better to exclude those from your scope.

Except… how certain are you of not being able to affect them? The only thing that guarantees that you can’t knowingly affect somebody, is if you make the decision to never think about them. If you do keep them in your scope, even only occasionally, then you might come up with something that lets you help them after all.

So the right thing is not to stick with a certain scope, but to learn to adjust the scope if needed. Draw it closer when you are feeling overwhelmed, or when you are at risk of neglecting yourself or your loved ones; broaden it out when you have the resources to deal with the larger scope, and its demands. When you are operating in a larger scope, see if you can find ways to visualize your impact in a way that makes your current actions feel more integrated to the whole context, so as to experience their meaningfulness.

It’s easier said than done.

Exercise: see if you can consciously manipulate the scope of your experience. Try pulling it close, both spatially and temporally: focus only on your immediate surroundings and let your attention be drawn to things that you could be doing right away. Then try gradually expanding the scope, maybe all the way up to the level of galaxies and multiverses and millions of years, but also stopping at more intermediate points: e.g. your own life in a few years, or your country or your planet in the same time. How do those changes make a difference to what you feel, and what you feel like doing?

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
10:32 am - Nobody does the thing that they are supposedly doing

I feel like one of the most important lessons I’ve had about How the World Works, which has taken quite a bit of time to sink in, is:

In general, neither organizations nor individual people do the thing that their supposed role says they should do. Rather they tend to do the things that align with their incentives (which may sometimes be economic, but even more often they are social and psychological). If you want to really change things, you have to change people’s incentives.

But I feel like I’ve had to gradually piece this together from a variety of places, over a long time; I’ve never read anything that would have laid down the whole picture. I remember that Freakonomics had a few chapters about how incentives cause unexpected behavior, but that was mostly about economic incentives, which are just a small part of the whole picture. And it didn’t really focus on the “nothing in the world works the way you’d naively expect” thing; as I recall, it was presented more as a curiosity.

On the other hand, Robin Hanson has had a lot of stuff about “X is not about Y“, but that has mostly been framed in terms of prestige and signaling, which is the kind of stuff that’s certainly an important part of the whole picture (the psychological kind of incentives), but again just a part of the picture. (However, his upcoming book goes into a lot more detail on why and how the publicly-stated motives for human or organizational behavior aren’t actually the true motives.)

And then in social/evolutionary/moral psychology there’s a bunch of stuff about social-psychological incentives, of how we’re motivated to denounce outgroups and form bonds with our ingroups; and how it can be socially costly to have accurate beliefs about outgroups and defend them to your ingroup, whereas it would be much more rewarding to just spread inaccuracies or outright lies about how terrible the outgroups are, and thus increase your own social standing. And how even well-meaning ideologies will by default get hijacked by these kinds of dynamics and become something quite different from what they claimed to be.

But again, that’s just one piece of the whole story. And you can find more isolated pieces of the whole story scattered around in a variety of articles and books, also stuff like the iron law of oligarchy, rational irrationality, public choice theory, etc etc. But no grand synthesis.

There’s also a relevant strand of this in the psychology of motivation/procrastination/habit-formation, on why people keep putting off various things that they claim they want to do, but then don’t. And how small things can reshape people’s behavior, like if somebody ends up as a much more healthy eater just because they don’t happen to have a fast food restaurant conveniently near their route home from work. Which isn’t necessarily so much about incentives themselves, but an important building block in understanding why our behavior tends to be so strongly shaped by things that are entirely separate from consciously-set goals.

Additionally, the things that do drive human behavior are often things like maintaining a self-concept, seeking feelings of connection, autonomy and competence, maintaining status, enforcing various moral intuitions, etc., things that only loosely align one’s behavior with one’s stated goals. Often people may not even realize what exactly it is that they are trying to achieve with their behavior.

“Experiental pica” is a misdirected craving for something that doesn’t actually fulfill the need behind the craving. The term originally comes from a condition where people with a mineral deficiency start eating things like ice, which don’t actually help with the deficiency. Recently I’ve been shifting towards the perspective that, to a first approximation, roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire, with that deeper desire being something like social connection, feeling safe and accepted, or having a feeling of autonomy or competence. That is, most of the things that people will give as reasons for why they are doing something will actually miss the mark, and also that many people are engaging in things that are actually relatively inefficient ways of achieving their true desires, such as pursuing career success when the real goal is social connection. (This doesn’t mean that the underlying desire would never be fulfilled, just that it gets fulfilled less often than it would if people were aware of their true desires.)

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, September 3rd, 2017
3:27 pm - Debiasing by rationalizing your own motives
 Some time back, I saw somebody express an opinion that I disagreed with. Next, my mind quickly came up with emotional motives the other person might have for holding such an opinion, that would let me safely justify dismissing that opinion.

Now, it’s certainly conceivable that they did have such a reason for holding the opinion. People do often have all kinds of psychological, non-truth-tracking reasons for believing in something. So I don’t know whether this guess was correct or not.

But then I recalled something that has stayed with me: a slide from a presentation that Stuart Armstrong held several years back, that showed the way that we tend to think of our own opinions as being based on evidence, reasoning, etc.. And at the same time, we don’t see any of the evidence that caused other people to form their opinion, so instead we think of the opinions of others as being only based on rationalizations and biases.

Yes, it was conceivable that this person I was disagreeing with, held their opinion because of some bias. But given how quickly I was tempted to dismiss their view, it was even more conceivable that I had some similar emotional bias making me want to hold on to my opinion.

And being able to imagine a plausible bias that could explain another person’s position, is a Fully General Counterargument. You can dismiss any position that way.

So I asked myself: okay, I have invented a plausible bias that would explain the person’s commitment to this view. Can I invent some plausible bias that would explain my own commitment to my view?

I could think of several, right there on the spot. And almost as soon as I could, I felt my dismissive attitude towards the other person’s view dissolve, letting me consider their arguments on their own merits.

So, I’ll have to remember this. New cognitive trigger-action plan: if I notice myself inventing a bias that would explain someone else’s view, spend a moment to invent a bias that would explain *my* opposing view, in order to consider both more objectively.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, August 24th, 2017
1:47 pm - The muted signal hypothesis of online outrage

Everyone, it sometimes seems, has their own pet theory of why social media and the Internet often seem like so unpleasant and toxic places. Let me add one more.

People want to feel respected, loved, appreciated, etc. When we interact physically, you can easily experience subtle forms of these feelings. For instance, even if you just hang out in the same physical space with a bunch of other people and don’t really interact with them, you often get some positive feelings regardless. Just the fact that other people are comfortable having you around, is a subtle signal that you belong and are accepted.

Similarly, if you’re physically in the same space with someone, there are a lot of subtle nonverbal things that people can do to signal interest and respect. Meeting each other’s gaze, nodding or making small encouraging noises when somebody is talking, generally giving people your attention. This kind of thing tends to happen automatically when we are in each other’s physical presence.

Online, most of these messages are gone: a thousand people might read your message, but if nobody reacts to it, then you don’t get any signal indicating that you were seen. Even getting a hundred likes and a bunch of comments on a status, can feel more abstract and less emotionally salient than just a single person nodding at you and giving you an approving look when you’re talking.

So there’s a combination of two things going on. First, many of the signals that make us feel good “in the physical world” are relatively subtle. Second, online interaction mutes the intensity of signals, so that subtle ones barely even register.

Depending on how sensitive you are, and how good you are generally feeling, you may still feel the positive signals online as well. But if your ability to feel good things is already muted, because of something like depression or just being generally in a bad mood, you may not experience the good things online at all. So if you want to consistently feel anything, you may need to ramp up the intensity of the signals.

Anger and outrage are emotional reactions with a very strong intensity, strong enough that you can actually feel them even in online interactions. They are signals that can consistently get similar-minded people rallied on your side. Anger can also cause people to make sufficiently strongly-worded comments supporting your anger that those comments will register emotionally. A shared sense of outrage isn’t the most pleasant way of getting a sense of belonging, but if you otherwise have none, it’s still better than nothing.

And if it’s the only way of getting that belonging, then the habit of getting enraged will keep reinforcing itself, as it will give all of the haters some of what they’re after: pleasant emotions to fill an emotional void.

So to recap:

When interacting physically, we don’t actually need to do or experience much in order to experience positive feelings. Someone nonverbally acknowledging our presence or indicating that they’re listening to us, already feels good. And we can earn the liking and respect of others, by doing things that are as small as giving them nonverbal signals of liking and respect.

Online, all of that is gone. While things such as “likes” or positive comments serve some of the same function, they often fail to produce much of a reaction. Only sufficiently strong signals can consistently break through and make us feel like others care about us, and outrage is one of the strongest emotional reactions around, so many people will learn to engage in more and more of it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, August 15th, 2017
2:03 pm - The parliamentary model as the correct ethical model

In 2009, Nick Bostrom brought up the possibility of dealing with moral uncertainty with a “parliamentary model” of morality. Suppose that you assign (say) 40% probability to some form particular of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some other form of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some form of deontology being true. Then in the parliamentary model, you imagine yourself as having a “parliament” that decides on what to do, with the first utilitarian theory having 40% of the delegates, the other form having 20% of the delegates, and the deontological theory having 20% of the delegates. The various delegates then bargain with each other and vote on different decisions. Bostrom explained:

The idea here is that moral theories get more influence the more probable they are; yet even a relatively weak theory can still get its way on some issues that the theory think are extremely important by sacrificing its influence on other issues that other theories deem more important. For example, suppose you assign 10% probability to total utilitarianism and 90% to moral egoism (just to illustrate the principle). Then the Parliament would mostly take actions that maximize egoistic satisfaction; however it would make some concessions to utilitarianism on issues that utilitarianism thinks is especially important. In this example, the person might donate some portion of their income to existential risks research and otherwise live completely selfishly.

As I noted, the model was proposed for dealing with a situation where you’re not sure of which ethical theory is correct. I view this somewhat differently. I lean towards the theory that the parliamentary model itself is the most correct ethical theory, as the brain seems to contain multiple different valuation systems that get activated in different situations, as well as multiple competing subsystems that feed inputs to these higher-level systems. (E.g. there exist both systems that tend to produce more deontological judgments, and systems that tend to produce more consequentialist judgments.)

Over time, I’ve settled upon something like a parliamentary model for my own decision-making. Different parts of me clearly tend towards different kinds of ethical frameworks, and rather than collapse into constant infighting, the best approach seems to go for a compromise where the most dominant parts get their desires most of the time, but less dominant parts also get their desires on issues that they care particularly strongly about. For example, a few days back I was considering the issue of whether I want to have children; several parts of my mind subscribed to various ethical theories which felt that the idea of having them felt a little iffy. But then a part of my mind piped up that clearly cared very strongly about the issue, and which had a strong position of “YES. KIDS”. Given that the remaining parts of my mind only had ambivalent or weak preferences on the issue, they decided to let the part with the strongest preference to have its way, in order to get its support on other issues.

There was a time when I had a strong utilitarian faction in my mind which did not want to follow a democratic process and tried to force its will on all the other factions. This did not work very well, and I’ve felt much better after it was eventually overthrown.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, August 3rd, 2017
9:34 pm - Confidence and patience don’t feel like anything in particular

After doing my self-concept work, I’ve been expecting to feel confident in social situations. And observing myself in them or after them, I have been more confident. But I haven’t felt particularly confident.

The thing is, being confident doesn’t feel like much in particular. I was pretty confident in my ability to open my laptop and write this post. I’m also confident in my ability to go to the shower and wash my hair, and I’m confident in my ability to go to the grocery store to buy stuff.

But writing this, or washing my hair, or going to the grocery store, aren’t things that would fill me with any particular “feeling of confidence”. They’re just things that I do, without thinking about them too much.

Similarly, being confident in a social situation doesn’t mean you’d actually have any strong feeling of confidence. It just means you don’t have any feeling of unconfidence.

Which is obvious when I think about it. So why did I expect otherwise?

I think the explanation is, the only times when I have previously paid conscious attention to my confidence, have been in situations where I’ve felt unconfident. And if you lack confidence, you try to psych yourself up. You try to summon some *other* emotion to flood your mind and push the feeling of unconfidence away.

If you are successfully suppressing your lack of confidence with some other emotion, you do “feel confident”. You are feeling whatever the other emotion is, that’s temporarily allowing you to be confident.

But if you don’t have any uncertainties that are actively surfacing, you don’t need to summon any other emotion to temporarily suppress them. Just those uncertainties not being around, is enough by itself. And something that’s just not around, doesn’t feel like anything.

Another similar thing is “patience”. If we feel impatient with someone, we might struggle to “try to be patient”. But if you actually are patient with someone, it usually doesn’t feel like anything in particular. You don’t have a glow of patience as you think about how badly the other person is getting on your nerves but how you withstand it anyway; rather the other person’s behavior just doesn’t bother you very much in the first place.

Edited to add: somebody pointed out that there exists good feeling of “you’ve got this” that one can feel. That’s true, and I agree that this could sensibly be called “confidence”. What I was trying to say was less “there’s no sensation that could reasonably be called confidence” but more “most everyday confidence doesn’t feel like anything in particular”. Paradoxically, even if confidence wouldn’t usually feel like anything, the lack of a feel can make you unconfident if you think that you should feel something to be confident. Somebody else mentioned that they do also have an actual feeling of patience; I’m not sure if I’ve experienced this myself, but the same thing applies.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, July 26th, 2017
3:46 pm
http://kajsotala.fi/2017/07/how-i-found-fixed-the-root-problem-behind-my-depression-and-anxiety-after-20-years/

So, I haven't talked about this in public before because I wanted to wait and make sure that the changes would last, but...

I believe that I recently managed to find and fix what was the root problem of all of the depression and anxiety that I've had for the last 20+ years.

Concrete changes that this had led to over the last five weeks include:

* My experience of work has gone from "literally soul-crushing" to moderately enjoyable; my bank account balance looks better than it has done in years, and I'm for the first time confident in my ability to actually hold a job
* The pervasive sense of meaningless and pointlessness is gone
* My sexuality has changed: some paraphilias that used to be at the core of my sexuality have become more of a mild extra spice; many fantasies that were obsessive to the point of bothersome have completely lost their emotional appeal
* I'm feeling increasingly free to think about anything: there's no longer any secret fear of hitting upon a thought that would suddenly make me feel feel guilty or ashamed
* I'm increasingly shifting towards not intrinsically caring about what others think of me, and being fine with people disliking me (though of course I still see the practical value of being liked)

among other things. The link talks about all of this in more detail (my WordPress crossposting plugin hasn't worked for a while for some reason, and the post is too long for me to bother cross-posting it here manually, so you'll just have to read it at the original source).

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Thursday, July 20th, 2017
5:41 pm - Meditation insights: suffering and pleasure are intrinsically bound together
 A principle which I've been gradually been able to observe and internalize, thanks both to meditation and some other mind-hacking practices, is that suffering is never about the pain itself. There are conditions in which people report pain but do not mind it; pain is just an attention signal. Pain does not intrinsically cause suffering: what causes suffering is experiencing the pain, and desiring the relief that would come from the pain ceasing. One does not wish the pain to end, as such; one wishes to feel the pleasure that would come from the pain ending.

This may sound like a pure semantic distinction. It is not: it is a distinction with enormous practical value.

Some time back, Juha lent me his copy of The Mind Illuminated, a book on meditation. This is the best book on meditation that I have ever read. Among other practical instructions, it was the first time that a text really properly explained what the concrete goal of mindfulness practices are.

The goal (or at least a goal) of mindfulness is to train the mental processes responsible for maintaining your peripheral awareness - your background sense of everything that is going on around you, but which is not in the focus of your active attention - to observe not only your physical surroundings, but also the processes going on in your mind. By doing so, the mental processes responsible for habit formation start to get more information about what kinds of thought patterns produce pleasure and which kinds of thought patterns produce suffering. Over time this will start reshaping your mind, as patterns which only produce suffering will get dropped.

And part of the reason why this happens, is that you will start seeing thoughts with false promises of pleasure as what they are; rather than chasing promises of short-term pleasure, you will shift to sustainable thought patterns that produce long-term pleasure.

Suppose that you are meditating, and trying to maintain a focus on your breath. Over time this may start to feel boredom. A pleasant-feeling thought will arise, tempting you to get distracted with its promise of relief from the boredom. But if you do get distracted sufficiently many times, and pay attention to how you feel afterwards, you will notice that this didn't actually make you feel very good. Your concentration is in shambles and chasing random thoughts has just made you feel scatter-brained.

So the next time when that particular distraction arises, it may be slightly less tempting. And you begin to notice that it does feel good when you succeed at maintaining your concentration and ignoring the distractions. You had been suffering because your mind had been offering promises of pleasure which you felt you had to reject, but eventually you begin to internalize it's not a choice of pleasure versus concentration at all. Concentration is only boring, or otherwise unpleasant, if you buy into the illusion of needing to chase the pleasant thought in order to feel good. If the false promise of pleasure stops tempting you, then the suffering of not having that pleasure goes away.

The tempting, pleasant thought is kind of like a marketer who first makes you feel inadequate about something, and then offers to sell you a product that will make you feel better. Your problem was never the lack of product; your problem was the person who made you think you can only feel good once you have his product.

Over time you learn to transfer this to your everyday life, paying attention to tempting thought-patterns that cause you suffering there. You experience different kinds of suffering, and feel that this could be fixed, if only you had X. Maybe you are procrastinating on something, and you get distracted by the idea of playing video games instead. Your mind tells you that if you just played video games, they would feel so good, and that pleasure would take away the pain of procrastination.

But if you do start to play the game, you may eventually notice that the promised pleasure never really manifested. Procrastination didn't make you feel good, it just made you feel more miserable. And it's one thing to know this on an intellectual level, in the way that most of us know intellectually that we're going to regret procrastinating later; it's quite another to actually internalize that belief in such a way that you recognize the temptation itself as harmful, and your mind begins learning to just ignore the temptation, until it never arises in the first place.

And the same principle applies more widely. Social anxiety, frustration over having to participate in an event you wouldn't actually want to participate in, regrets over past mistakes: all are fundamentally about clinging to a thought which promises to offer pleasure, if only you (weren't around these people/could skip the event/could change what had happened in the past). It is when you internalize that thinking about this isn't actually going to deliver the pleasure and is actually causing you suffering, that reframe of the thought makes it easier to just automatically let go of it, with no need to struggle or expend willpower.

Originally published at 
Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, May 28th, 2017
6:22 pm - Books that have had the biggest impact on my life/thought
In roughly chronological order:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings
2. Eliezer Yudkowsky: The Less Wrong Sequences
3. Michele Boldrin & David K. Levine: Against Intellectual Monopoly
4. Olivia Fox Cabane: The Charisma Myth
5. Marshall Rosenberg: Non-Violent Communication
6. Eugene Gendlin: Focusing; Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas: Core Transformation

Tolkien, because he got me really into fantasy.

The Sequences woke me from a certain super-postmodern thought, where I basically felt that I could believe in anything as long as I came up with a sufficiently clever argument for it. They made me realize that there are actual mathematical laws regarding the kind of evidence I must have witnessed in order to start believing in something, if I wish to have correct beliefs. Also convinced me about AI being the biggest thing in the history of humanity, and got me on the career path that I'm still on.

Against Intellectual Monopoly bolted me from a very strong, principled "all online piracy is wrong" mindset to one where I later ended up as one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party. It was also my first introduction to pro-market thinking and theories, with me having grown up in a climate that was very left economically.

The Charisma Myth got me to realize that one can be charismatic without being extroverted, and that being charismatic doesn't necessarily mean saying interesting things all the time. It made me understand that just being present and paying genuine attention to the other person were things that could already give you considerable charisma, and furthermore these were some skills that I already possessed. It meant the start of my conversations with people going from the constant question of "oh now what do I say next?!?" to actually being present in the moment and not worrying so much.

Non-Violent Communication started me on the path where I can actually usefully work with the underlying needs and beliefs behind my emotional reactions, instead of treating them as atomic reactions that I can do very little about.

I'm bunching Focusing and Core Transformation together, as I think of them as two books that discuss variants of what's fundamentally the same technique. I've found the Core Transformation version of it really powerful during some of the last few months, on the order of taking maybe half an hour to permanently cure psychological issues that had plagued me for decades. That said, I suspect I wouldn't have been able to properly use the technique had I not first read Focusing and practiced with the instructions there.

Honorable mentions:

* David Friedman: The Machinery of Freedom. The book which further shook my very leftist thought, and got me to realize that libertarians also have some pretty damn compelling arguments, and that I'm not really qualified to say who's right. Decided that I'd avoid taking any strong positions on economics from now, given how complicated the whole thing is. (have had varying levels of success with this decision)

* Pema Chödrön: The Wisdom of No Escape: How to love yourself and your world. Only read this book in the beginning of this year, but it has been very powerful in changing my thought and putting me on a path of greater self-compassion and self-acceptance.

* John Yates & Matthew Immergut & Jeremy Graves: The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. The best book on meditation that I've ever read. This is also something I started reading *very* recently (many thanks, Juha!), but I'm already provisionally ready to nominate it for an honorable mention, because it's meditation instructions have been super-useful. They've helped install an automatic habit of my mind automatically dropping any lines of thought that will only be harmful (e.g. worrying about things that I have no control over); time will show whether that habit will last.

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Saturday, May 6th, 2017
12:11 pm - Cognitive Core Systems explaining intuitions behind belief in souls, free will, and creation myths

A book I’m currently reading, Cognitive Pluralism, cites research suggesting that human infants as well as many non-human animals (particularly primates) are born with four “hard-coded” core reasoning systems:

  • A Core Object System which identifies cohesive and continuous objects (as opposed to say liquids or heaps), enables tracking of such objects, and causes us to expect that objects will follow some specific properties: they will preserve their boundaries, move as a unit, interact with one another only through contact, and be set into motion only when acted on through direct contact. Has some signature limitations, such that we can only attend to about 3-4 objects at the same time.
  • A Core Number System which allows for numerical comparisons, such as by saying that a set with thirty stimuli is larger than a set with ten. Unlike the core object system, the core number system is nonmodal and not limited to contiguous objects; it can compare the number of e.g. sounds or actions.
  • A Core Agency System that causes us to intuitively treat humans, animals, and other things exhibiting signs of agency as being different from objects, liquids, or heaps. Things that are classified as agents are expected to exhibit autonomous, goal-directed behavior; and they will activate social behavior, such as when an infant imitates their actions.
  • A Core Geometric System which represents space and environment according to geometric properties such as distance and angle, while ignoring non-geometric properties such as color and smell. Does things such as constructing perspective-invariant representations of geometric layouts, or predicting how objects will appear when turned around or look at from a different perspective.

Now one particularly intriguing hypothesis which the book mentioned was that the intuitive human belief in souls or consciousness continuing after death, may come from the Agent and Object systems having different classification criteria. In particular, objects are assumed to only move when acted upon, while agents are assumed to exhibit independent, goal-directed motion.

Apparently the psychologist Paul Bloom has proposed that seeing or thinking about a human causes us to perceive there being two entities in the same space: a body (object) and a soul (agent). While the book did not explicitly mention this, this would also explain the origin of many intuitions about free will and mind-body dualism. Under this model, the object system would classify the body as something that only moves when being ordered to by an external force, requiring an agent in the form of a mind/soul being the “unmoved mover” that initiates the movement. One could also speculate on this being the intuition that motivated Aristotle’s unmoved movers in the celestial spheres, to say nothing about all the different creation myths, if we have an inborn intuition for movement requiring an agent to set it going.

Also, as a fun implication: if you were to design an AI to have the same core reasoning systems, then it might also have an intuitive belief in free will, souls, and creators.

Further reading: Cognitive Pluralism cites Spelke & Kinzler (2007), Core Knowledge, in Developmental Science 10:1, as well as Paul Bloom’s 2004 book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, which based on its title sounds absolutely fascinating and which I probably want to read soon.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, April 29th, 2017
4:50 pm - Relationship compatibility as patterns of emotional associations

Much of relationship compatibility comes down to a fuzzy concept that’s variously referred to as “chemistry”, “clicking”, or just feeling good and comfortable in the other’s presence. This is infamously difficult to predict by any other means than actually spending time around the other. OKCupid-style dating sites, with their extensive batteries of questions about values and preferences, are good at predicting a match in values and preferences but almost useless at predicting this kind of compatibility.

What I think is largely going on is that it’s about compatible patterns of emotional association. Each of us has deep in them various patterns of emotional associations that are hard to predict by an outsider because they seem to follow little “sensible” logic: rather they are formed by a combination of a person’s life experiences and their inborn temperament. Somebody fears abandonment and will freak out whenever they hear an expression that their parent used when angry; for another person that very same expression was used as one of affection, and has the opposite meaning. (Or the same expression might be associated with both fighting an affection: there’s a possibly apocryphal tale about a couple who made sure that whenever they’d been fighting so that their children had witnessed it, they’d make sure to call each other “love” and “dear” to let the children know that they still cared about each other. This lasted until the day that their kids came running to them, complaining that “He called me ‘love’!” “She started it, she called me ‘dear’!”…)

These are relatively superficial examples: typically the patterns go deeper and subtler. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that some of the people with whom I’ve had mutual attraction have exhibited sub-clinical signs of something like avoidant personality disorder, and I feel like exhibiting sub-clinical signs of AvPD has also been the case for myself. There have been few obvious signs of this at the time, but whatever those subtle signs were, some intuitive part of each of us picked up on them, thought this person is like me, and felt attracted without the rest of our minds knowing more than I feel good around this person.

Many failed relationships can be explained as a pattern of emotional compatibility that was a match in one situation (such as when you were going out on dates) but a mismatch in another (such as when you tried living together). Sometimes exactly the same traits cause opposite emotional reactions in different situations. Someone who is hard-working and has lots of impressive achievements can feel like a very appealing partner when you’re just getting to know each other, but feel much less desirable when you realize that they will never have much time for you and that their work will always come first.

The discouraging implication – for those of us who are single or otherwise looking – is that even if you manage to hit off on a date, that’s no guarantee of long-term compatibility. The encouraging implication is that we may already happen to be friends with someone who could be our dream partner: we just haven’t realized it yet. The yet-again-discouraging implication is that it’s pretty hard to find out who that hidden dream partner might be, without spending a lot of time in their presence.

“Love” is a word with many meanings, but maybe the deepest form of love is when you come to genuinely care about the other, in the same way as you care about yourself. Not just caring about the other so that they’ll like you in return, but putting intrinsic value on their well-being, the same way you put intrinsic value on your own well-being.

You ultimately get here, I suspect, by having enough smoothly-going interactions to experience increasing synchrony. Situations where your patterns of emotional association are so compatible that each of you intuitively acts in a way that promotes positive feelings in the other. My guess is that you start caring about the other as much as you care about yourself because some part of your mind comes to actually believe, on a level of emotional logic if not fact, that the two of you are the same.

This feeling of two people becoming one may actually be correct in a very concrete sense, as studies of people who co-operate and like each other show that their behavioral patterns, body language and spoken language, and neural patterns tend to become synchronized with each other. I am once again reminded of this quote from Michael “Vassar” Arc:

> In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. […] People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]

The opposite of synchrony, when things get really bad, is described as “walking on eggshells” or “being constantly unsure of what the other wants”. It is when the other person’s emotional associations are so out of sync with yours that it feels like anything you say or do may trigger a negative response, or when they really crave from you some behavior that would trigger in them a specific positive response – but you don’t know what that desired behavior would be. Because your patterns of emotional association are dissimilar, you have no idea of what is expected of you, and have no way of intuitively simulating it. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes” does not work because the two of you have different-sized feet: the kinds of shoes that feel comfortably tight to you feel excruciatingly small for your partner, and vice versa.

If a situation gets described as walking on eggshells, it has likely to do with a pattern of mutual incompatibilities that has become self-reinforcing and spiraled out of control. He is expecting a bit of peace and quiet and time for himself; she does not realize this and seeks his company. He tries to make her back away but she doesn’t understand the signals, until he lashes out in frustration. She experiences this seemingly-out-of-nowhere reaction as inexplicable rejection and is shocked to silence for a while, until she can no longer hold it in and bursts out – at which point he is shocked by this seemingly inexplicable hostile reaction that to him came out of nowhere. Afterwards, she feels insecure about their relationship so she pursues mutual closeness more aggressively, while he feels like his independence is at risk so he tries to get more distance. The pattern repeats, getting worse each time.

It does not help that having a negative emotional association triggered is experienced as a threat: it is not actually a matter of life and death, but the way people often react, it might as well be. The ideal thing to do at this point would be for both to draw deep breaths, mutually work to dispel each other’s reactions of panic, and figure out what actually happened and what both meant. The thing that commonly happens instead that both are in too much pain to think clearly and do everything they can to just make it hurt less. This often includes blaming the other and trying to make them admit that they were in the wrong, so that the other would promise to never do anything like that again.

Besides the other obvious problems in using this as a persuasion tactic, there is the fact that even if one partner did manage to force such a promise out of the other, the other still does not know what exactly triggered the reaction in the other. In other words, one person has promised to avoid doing something, but they don’t actually know what it is that they’ve promised not to do. They may know some specific things that they should avoid, but not understanding the emotional logic behind that rule, they are likely to do something else – to them seemingly different – that will trigger the same reaction. And when that happens, their partner will be even more upset at them, because “they broke their promise”.

This is why some people feel that a relationship having explicit rules is a warning sign. Not because having rules would be a bad thing by itself, but because needing to have codified rules means that one of the partners doesn’t understand the other’s emotions well enough to be able to avoid trouble just on an intuitive basis. In the worst case, the number of rules will bloat and get out of hand, as more and more of them will need to be added to cover all the different eventualities.

On a more encouraging note, it’s not actually necessary to solve all the incompatibilities. It’s possible to get away with just accepting that in some situations you will always have incompatible emotional patterns, and then have both partners tacitly avoid getting into such situations. Successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems: rather they just get good at dealing with them. In the meanwhile, couples who feel that they should be able to agree on everything end up worse and worse off.

Many if not most people crave a feeling of being understood. They want to feel that their desires and emotions are both understood and also accepted by the people who are important for them. Possibly this desire is so strong in us because of everything above: mutual emotional understanding allows us to have relationships (romantic or otherwise) where things just work, and where each partner can trust the other to understand the emotional logic driving them and can trust the other not to accidentally set off any emotional landmines. It may also be the reason for the thing I mentioned at the beginning of the article, where I’ve experienced mutual attraction with people who share some of my psychological issues: an intuitive part of our minds looks for emotionally similar people.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, April 3rd, 2017
7:17 am - Empowering the growth of others: an underutilized desire for game design?

There’s a human desire which is very emotionally powerful, and which I’m a little surprised to realize that very few video games seem to have tapped into. (That I know of? Please let me know about any counter-examples!)

The desire is for a specific way of helping others and seeing the consequences of that help. It’s when you help someone acquire a new skill or ability, see them absorb that new skill so that it becomes a part of them, and then start using it to do things under their own power, no longer dependent on you.

It’s when you stop giving the proverbial man fishes and teach him to fish instead, and then you come back later to find out that he’s now the head of a local fishing guild that he founded, and is now using the fish that he catches every day to support his family and kids.

It’s when you suggest someone a hobby she might like, and she later lets you know that she gave it a try, loved it, and has now reached an advanced level in it and has contributed several things to the further development of the hobby.

It’s when you teach your kid to draw simple pictures when they are four, support them throughout as they grow older, and then watch them become a famous and accomplished artist whose understanding of art is way more sophisticated than anything you’d ever hope you could reach.

There are lots of games that involve helping others, or managing something; but usually their focus is on making your actions significant, rather than empowering others.

In a typical CRPG, you might rescue someone from kidnappers, kill a swarm of monsters that were terrorizing a village, or retrieve a lost artifact to a scholar who wants to study it. All of these do benefit someone else, but what you’ve essentially done is to temporarily lend your power to them. You haven’t shown them how to rescue others, teach the villagers to defend themselves so that they won’t need the services of wandering adventurers in the future, or taught the scholar your own skills in a way that lets them build on those skills in their work.

In a typical management simulation, the city (or whatever it is that you are managing) does grow more prosperous and people get to live good lives thanks to you, but it’s only because you are doing a good job at being God. None of the city’s inhabitants is going to learn from the way you planned the city and then surpass you in setting up a city of their own.

Though there are elements in both genres that get kind of close. When a CRPG’s ending includes a sequence telling you what happened to the characters and places you influenced afterwards, it’s tapping to this desire. (Probably not coincidentally, the original Fallouts doing this was one of the things that I always found the most memorable and awesome about them.) When a management sim lets you imagine that because you’ve eliminated traffic congestion, the inhabitants of the city get to live less stressful lives and set up better business of their own, it’s kind of tapping into this desire.

Still, these feel more like incidental elements in the genres than they are design goals. You are only told about your long-term impact on the different communities when they game is already over; and for the most part the management sim leaves it up to you to imagine how exactly your actions are influencing the lives of your people on a more personal level.

There have also been some isolated examples of individual games getting close. The Princess Maker series probably draws a lot of its appeal from this impulse: you get to raise a daughter, teach her different skills, and then at the end, see what her life turned out to be like. But again, it’s only at the very end that you get to see what your daughter did once you were no longer around: the whole game before that is controlling her whole schedule yourself, choosing all of your actions for her.

And I heard of some series of educational games where the gimmick is that by solving math challenges, you are actually teaching your pet to be better at math and get to see how it does by itself. But – I suspect, not having actually played the games – that this rather models the bad old idea of a highly teacher pouring down knowledge into the head of a lowly student whose job is just to receive it. Your pet isn’t incorporating your lessons to its own existing knowledge and use it to further its own values; it’s just succeeding at exactly the tasks you taught it to succeed at, and no more.

What could a game look like if it actually had as an explicit design goal to focus on the fulfillment of this desire?

In a CRPG, you could go around the world beating challenges and learning new skills and abilities as usual. But rather than just accumulating skills for yourself, a major part of the game might be to then teach those skills to NPCs, and coming back after some time to see that they’ve done awesome stuff with their new skills. (Maybe that man who needed to be taught to fish was an NPC somewhere, and after you taught him to fish you could come back later and see him having accomplished all the stuff I described earlier.) Maybe some of the skills that you could acquire would have little direct benefit to you personally, but confer powerful benefits to the NPCs you taught them to. Maybe you could even develop an entirely new skill – say, be the first one to discover the principles of magic – and then see the understanding of that spread around the world like a wildfire after you’d set it loose. Mage guilds would start popping out everywhere and give back to you, as the million people who were researching magic could make progress a lot faster than you could alone, and you’d then get access to powerful new abilities that they taught back to you.

Or you could make a management sim where you were running a family business. The success of your business would depend on the skills that your character had, but alone you could only learn a small portion of the available skills. Another part of the game would be getting married and having kids. At first, as in real life, the kids would be a huge sink of time and resources as you’d need to spend a lot of time looking after them, but as you taught them some of your own skills they would eventually learn to develop those skills on their own. You would control their actions less and less, and they would increasingly make their own decisions of what they wanted to do – decisions that were influenced by your earlier interaction with them.

If you had done things well and developed a positive relationship with them, they could eventually join you in running your business and make it develop into entirely new directions with the broader skillset you now had available. Or, if you’d forced them help you when they were younger, they might just grow to resent you and your whole business and run away as soon as they got the chance. Giving the player the option to short-sightedly get some early additional help instead of taking a kinder and wiser route seems like it would also make it feel more rewarding when the player did make the sacrifice of taking the longer route, and then saw it eventually pay off.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, April 2nd, 2017
4:53 pm - Chapman, Kegan & sosiaalinen ja moraalinen kehitys

Luin vihdoin David Chapmanin tiivistelmän psykologi Robert Keganin sosiaalisen ja moraalisen kehityksen mallista, ja totesin että tämähän on yllättävän kiinnostava kuvaus monista nykypäivän yhteiskunnallisista dynamiikoista. (Ainakin mikäli pitää paikkansa.)

Mallin mukaan ihmisten moraalinen kehitys etenee viiden askeleen läpi. Askeleet 1-2 ovat relevantteja lähinnä vain lapsille, ja valtaosa ihmisistä saavuttaa tason 3 joskus murrosiän aikana.

Kehitystasolla 2 moraali on luonteeltaan itsekästä. Pohjimmiltaan vain omilla tarpeilla on väliä, ja ihmissuhteet ovat kaupankäyntiä jotka ovat “reiluja” jos kumpikin saa niistä yhtä paljon hyötyä.

Kehitystasolla 3 siirrytään hyvin itsekkäästä ajattelutapasta hyvin huomioonottavaan. Moraali on luonteeltaan tunnepohjaista. Oikeita toimintatapoja ovat ne, jotka eivät satuta kenenkään tunteita: moraalisen toiminnan tavoite on ylläpitää yhteisön harmoniaa. Toimiminen tavalla joka satuttaisi toisen tunteita on väärin. Ihmissuhteen ei enää tarvitse antaa molemmille yhtä paljoa hyötyä ollakseen reilu, koska tällä kehitystasolla ymmärretään, etteivät kaikkien tarpeet ole samoja.

Tämän kehitystason ongelma on, ettei se pysty ratkomaan vastuusuhteista syntyviä konflikteja. Jos kaksi ihmistä vaatii minulta vastakkaisia asioita, ja kumpikin satuttaa mielensä jos en anna heille mitä he haluavat, ei kehitystaso 3 osaa antaa tilanteeseen tyydyttävää vastausta. En pysty toimimaan aidosti itsenäisesti, vaan olen pohjimmiltani muiden tarpeiden armoilla.

Kehitystasolle 4 siirtyessä otetaan huomioon yhteiskunnallisista ja sosiaalisista rakenteista syntyvät vastuusuhteet ja muodolliset asemat. Jos olen luvannut seurustelukumppanilleni että lähdemme lomalle kahdestaan, ja äitini pahoittaa mielensä siitä ettei pääse mukaan, olisi kehitystason 3 ratkaisu välttää konfliktia ja päästää hänet mukaan. Kumppaniltani olisi itsekästä protestoida ja olla ottamatta äitini tunteita huomioon. Kehitystason 4 näkökulmasta tämä taas on väärä vastaus, koska suhteeni kumppaniini asettaa omat tarpeensa ja vaatimuksensa, ja *tässä* tilanteessa vastuuni suhteellemme saa isomman painon kuin vastuuni vanhemmilleni.

Kehitystaso 4 pyrkii ottamaan huomioon koko yhteiskunnan tarpeet ja rakentamaan monimutkaisen järjestelmän ihmisten välisiä rooleja ja niistä johdettuja vastuusuhteita. Oikeudenmukaisuuden kriteeri ei ole enää se, että kaikkien tunteet otetaan huomioon ja kaikille pyritään tuottamaan hyvää mieltä, vaan se että yksilöitä kohdellaan samanarvoisesti. Modernit yhteiskuntien periaatteet kuten tasaveroisuus lain edessä ovat kehitystason 4 periaatteita.

Tämänlaiset periaatteet ovat luonteeltaan abstrakteja ja vaativat älyllistä pohtimista. Siksi kehitystaso 4 vaatii rakenteekseen jonkinlaisen ideologisen järjestelmän, jonka valossa eri tilanteita pyritään tutkimaan ja jonka logiikasta johdetaan vastaukset joilla ratkoa eri konfliktitilanteet.

Tämän kehitystason ongelma on, että vaikka ideologiat myyvät itseään paketteina joista löytyy ratkaisut kaikkeen, ei mikään ideologia todellisuudessa pysty toteuttamaan lupaustaan. Tyytymättömyys yhteen ideologiaan voi johtaa tarpeeseen etsiä uutta ja parempaa, sellaista joka perustuisi joihinkin ultimaattisiin periaatteisiin joista oikeat ratkaisut voitaisiin johtaa. Mutta koska kaikki periaatteet ovat pohjimmiltaan mielivaltaisia, ei tämä tuota tyydyttävää tulosta. Kehitystasolla 4 ihminen pyrkii aina ajattelemaan asioita *jonkin* ideologian sisäisen logiikan kautta, ja etsii siten sellaista ideologiaa joka olisi se ainoa oikea.

Kehitystasolla 5 ihminen siirtyy näkemään ideologiat ja järjestelmät työkaluina, joista mikään ei ole absoluuttisesti oikea mutta joista jokainen voi tarjota hyödyllisiä näkemyksiä eri tilanteisiin. Kyky omaksua joustavasti erilaisten ideologioiden sisäinen logiikka ja liikkua niiden välillä avaa mahdollisuudet käydä rakentavaa dialogia niiden välillä.

Chapman kommentoi mielenkiintoisesti, että postmodernismin vaikutus yhteiskuntaan on vaikeuttaa ihmisten siirtymistä tasolta 3 tasolle 4, mutta toisaalta helpottaa ihmisten siirtymistä tasolta 4 tasolle 5. Postmodernismin olennainen kritiikki on, ettei ole mitään yhtä objektiivisesti oikeaa ajattelutapaa. Tämä on oikea reaktio ja oikea viesti jota tarjota ihmisille jotka ovat kehitystasolla 4 ja juuttuneet pitämään omaa ideologiaansa ainoana oikeana. Mutta se on haitallinen viesti antaa kehitystason 3 ihmisille, jotka tarvitsisivat *jonkun* ideologian antamaan rakennetta sosiaalisille vuorovaikutuksilleen ja tarjoamaan sosiaalisten konfliktien ratkaisemiseen jonkin muun kriteerin kuin sen, että kenenkään tunteita ei tulisi satuttaa. Chapman kokee, että postmodernismin alkuperäiset kehittäjät olivat saavuttaneet tason 4 ja kehittäessään ajatuksiaan etenivät tasolle 5; mutta kun ajatukset tulkitaan kehitystason 3 valossa niin ne ymmärretään väärin.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, March 28th, 2017
5:55 am - Core Transformation

So I went to my head to ask myself: what is the one thing that I’ve been trying to get from all of my romantic relationships? What is the common theme that unites all of my fantasies? What is the thing that I desperately find myself craving for even now? That one “if only I could have that, then everything would be fine” thing?

Initial associations: Trust. Safety. Someone who wouldn’t abandon you.

That last one seemed to strike a chord. Let’s go with that one.

Someone who wouldn’t abandon you. Safety from abandonment. Is there something deeper?

Mental image: lying in each other’s arms, looking at each other in the eyes. A sense of knowing the other, being known.

Complete openness and vulnerability. Having no secrets, revealing everything about yourself to the other. Being completely accepted.

Not just one way. Complete mutual acceptance. Seeing the other exactly as they are, feeling only love and compassion. Seeing them as perfect, just as they are. And being judged perfect in return.

I stop here for a long time, enjoying.

Is there a yet deeper thing here? Is there something that I’m hoping that the mutual, complete acceptance will give me?

I ask my mind to assume that I have this beautiful fantasy, and to show me what’s the next thing, what’s the next craving it’s hoping this fantasy will fulfill?

Peace. Restfulness.

Just being completely at peace.

From here, it doesn’t look like I can go any deeper. It’s a Core State.

So I do mental tricks intended to reinforce this sense of peace, make it more lasting. I ask the part of me that wants it, the part that now has it, for its age. Newborn, it says. I ask if it wants to grow up, if it wants to live my entire life up to this point. It does, and I let it grow up. I ask it to fill my body. I imagine what it would have been if my grandparents would have had this sense of peace, if they would have transmitted it to my parents, if they would have transmitted it to me, surrounded me in this sense of peace since birth.

I let my mind rest in the peacefulness.

There’s something more, I notice. I want to take this feeling of peace, use it to build a relationship with someone. There’s something besides just the peacefulness that I’m craving, that I feel I could get from a relationship. A separate desire.

This one comes easily. It’s a desire to build a common future together with someone. To actively work together in putting it together, build something that is unique to us. Taking things that are just about us, weaving them into a beautiful tapestry. Have children, perhaps.

Is there something deeper to this desire? Almost certainly.

But I don’t go there, not at this stage. For now I’m happy to just rest in the peacefulness, rest in the mental image of building a common future with someone.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, March 16th, 2017
3:31 pm - Moving on

I expect this to be my last breakup post (about this particular breakup, at least :P).

After having processed all the pains I’ve discussed in previous posts, there was just a final one left, one that’s in a sense the simplest.

It’s that I have tremendous respect and admiration for my ex. She combines a brilliant intelligence, a fiery loyalty to her principles, and a stark determination to get through things no matter what. I’ve rarely encountered such a unique soul, and the pain on my mind was the question of whether I would encounter another again, let alone one who’d be interested in me.

But then I managed to flip the issue around in my head. To just focus on how amazing it is that she ever was interested in me in the first place, and how I’m honestly grateful and humbled that such a beautiful person held me in a high regard. To see the good moments that we had as a piece of validation that I can always remember and hold on to, trusting that if such a person saw something beautiful in me, then she couldn’t have been entirely wrong.

A few days ago I still felt some pain when I saw her name pop up anywhere online. Now I just feel happy to see her writing. Seeing that she’s still herself.

And unexpectedly, I feel some of that gratitude extend to my other former partners as well. Feeling happiness that we ever had any good moments, even if the relationships did not last.

And, if I tap into that feeling, I can extend it even further, to anyone who has ever displayed any liking towards me. Be grateful for that appreciation, for them seeing good things in me.

Thank you, everyone. And thank you again to everyone who has commented on or reacted to my previous breakup posts, for helping me get through this. I’m not going to say that I couldn’t have made it without you, but you people did make it a lot easier.

Thank you.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, March 12th, 2017
2:39 pm - Re-interpreting meanings
After I made my last breakup post, siderea left me with some excellent thoughts about it. While there were a lot of good points, these were the parts that resonated the most. She started by describing the reaction that many people have to her:
 
… a lot of people, male, female and otherwise, fall “in like” with me very quickly, because for a lot of them, I “make” them feel good – put more accurately, the way I comport myself in the world is more comfortable to be around than they usually find themselves feeling. They feel – like you describe feeling for the woman you fell for – safe from humiliation or rejection when self-disclosing to me, like they can be more authentically themselves, which is a delicious feeling.
 
Here’s the first confusion: confusing how they feel with me for how they feel about me. It is one of the commonest human errors to decide that because one feels good with someone that they are good.
 
This is problematic first and most obviously because it’s how serial predators of all sorts groom victims: making the victims feel good so that the victims trust the perp to be good. Not pertinent to your case, except to bear in mind how dangerous an error that can be.
 
Less obvious and more pertinent is how that conflation confuses the one doing the conflating as to how much they actually know about the one they are so judging. The confusion of one’s own good feelings for the goodness of the person one attributes those good feelings to obscures what is often a concommitant fact: one doesn’t actually know much about the person who makes one feel good, except that they make one feel good. […]
 
You say, “What was so special was the almost instant feeling of connection” as if that feeling existed independently of any one specific human to have it. Feelings aren’t facts: that feeling of connection was had by you. It was a feeling you were having. That doesn’t mean there “was a connection” in some objective way. Further, saying that the feeling you had was “of connection” is just a projection of a meaning those feelings had. The words “a feeling of connection” don’t actually have any meaning. They’re a handwave that posits that the feelings – which probably all have names, like “adoration”, “pleasure”, “affection”, “delight”, “surprise” – indicate this hazy concept, “connection”.
 
Some of the main lessons I took away from this comment:
 
Part of my pain was in the feeling that I’d had a unique, almost mystical “connection” with someone, that we’d then lost. But as siderea pointed out, “a connection” doesn’t actually mean anything: it was just a way how I interpreted the feelings I had in the presence of my ex, as well as the feelings that I thought she had in my presence.
 
Going from “there was a unique and magical connection” to “there was a person who happened to fall into some kind of mental schema of a ‘safe person’ based on relatively superficial information, and thus made me feel safe, and at some moments there seemed to be mutuality in this” changes one’s perspective a lot.
 
For one, I had been feeling like it was a personal failure, telling of some deeper fundamental flaw in me, that I had screwed things up and “ruined” that connection. With the new perspective, it’s more like… Well, there were some moments when those feelings arose and others when they didn’t, and that had more to do with the quirks of our individual psychologies than anything else.
 
And as several people commenting on my last post implied, my side of the “connection” being primarily an emotion that *I* had suggests that recapturing that feeling doesn’t necessarily require finding someone who’s magical and rare and unique in some sense. Rather, it may be much more useful to just work on myself and my own emotions, to make it easier for me to achieve that feeling around people in general. (to use psych terms, this is a major inwards shift of the locus of control)
 
In the few days after reading siderea’s comment, painful memories of various kinds about this relationship kept popping up. It wasn’t very pleasant, but at the same time there was a sense of… my mind pulling up those memories so that it could reinterpret the meaning it had given them, and to then reconsolidate the version of the memory with the updated meaning.
 
Yesterday evening I noticed that I was feeling much less of an urge to go back and “make things right again”, but I still had a compelling need to have my ex think well of me, to fix any respect that might have been lost.
 
I asked myself: why do I feel that this is so important? It made sense to have this desire back when there was still a chance to fix our relationship, but what would fulfilling that desire do now?
 
No answer came back. Instead, the feeling seemed to weaken.
 
This night I had a dream where I was hanging out with my ex, and completely forgetting to think about what she thought of me, just getting absorbed in whatever activity it was that we were doing together.
 
And today I’ve been feeling pretty okay about that whole relationship and breakup thing.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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