Essays on the ability to take action that I found to be leaning heavily towards the introspection side, while still conveying surprisingly concrete points.
This is the second book in the bundled series of essays by the LessWrong community, titled A map that reflects the territory, of which I previously read Epistemology. I will quickly remember and discuss three concepts/ideas laid out over four essays that most stuck with me; an explanation of insight meditation and enlightenment, meta-honesty, and being a robust agent.
An explanation of enlightenment
Kaj Sotala attempts to provide an explanation of his experience with intellectually understanding Looking and enlightenment. Looking is used as a term similar to kenshō, but without the Zen connotation. One of the key concepts is cognitive fusion; a person fusing together with the content of a thought or emotion, so that the content is experienced as an objective fact about the world rather than a mental construct. This is not always bad, but it is argued that it always better to be conscious of when this is happening. If fusion would then rationally be deemed to provide positive value, one can decide to continue the fusion. I tend to disagree with the effectiveness of this. In my experience, making this conscious decision already gets me out of the true cognitive fusion that would have been useful, and instead I can only really reach a not-completely-fused fusion. Anyhow, cognitive fusion trades flexibility for focus. Defusing then becomes the concept of reaching towards a more conscious decision beforehand. Kaj makes several observations about the depth of defusion.
Firstly, meditation can be used as a method for cognitive defusion. By focusing on disregarding content of distractions, you purposefully hold of fusion with thoughts and emotions. A further step is to split up your mental processes into subcomponents, but this requires a higher level of mental precision. As an example, Kaj poses the following three subcomponental points: 1) Me feeling unhappy, 2) Mental image of a happy person, 3) Thought that I can't be happy. They then relate this to the concept of Looking:
being able to develop the necessary mental sharpness to notice slightly lower-level processing stages in your cognitive processes, and study the raw concepts which then get turned into higher-level cognitive content, rather than only seeing the high-level cognitive content.
Kaj's second observation relates to leveraging Looking to understand suffering. A moment of discomfort is just a single moment. However, humans tend to do almost anything to avoid ending up there. This becomes the suffering. By Looking, one can identify how this flinching away of discomfort produces the pain, and then stop doing it.
Thirdly, suppose that one day, you happen to run into a complete stranger. You don't think very much about needing to impress them, and as a result, you come off as relaxed and charming. The next day, you're going on a date with someone you're really strongly attracted to. You feel that it's really really important for you to make a good impression, and because you keep obsessing about this thought, you can't relax, act normal, and actually make a good impression. Defusing is hard if you actually care about the belief.
Fourthly, to shatter this delusion of pain, one could practice the Buddhist three marks: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. The fundamental delusion is the one where this fictional construct of I is mistaken for an actually-existing entity. As a result of this realization, desire and aversion towards specific states of mind (thus including suffering) cease.
Lastly, Kaj observes that enlightenment might not actually be clearly visible for other people.
[..] enlightenment means that you no longer experience emotional pain as aversive. In other words, you continue to have "negative" emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, and so on — you just don't mind having them.
[..] if you truly step outside your entire motivational system, then that leaves the part that just stepped out with no motivational system, leaving the existing one operating as normal.
A final recommendation is to not expect Looking at suffering to give you lots of positive emotions, nothing of the sorts is guaranteed. Besides, getting to the point of becoming enlightened requires training up a lot of mental precision, which you can then use to Look at so many other different things too!
Eliezer Yudowsky lays out the basics and the details of his concept of meta-honesty in two essays. Why is meta-honesty needed anyway? Can't you just always be honest? Eliezer identifies that always being honest leads to situations in practice where people are feeling crushed by the weight of their sense of duty. A different approach would be to never say anything false, however, this leads to all sorts of situations in which people make exceptions that "obviously" don't qualify for this.
The example Eliezer carries throughout both of his essays, is the scenario in which a nazi comes to your door to ask whether you are hiding Jews in your house (which in fact, you are, according to the scenario). Answering "no" is arguably the superior ethical choice, but it goes against your pledge of honesty.
What is meta-honesty then? Meta-honesty is the concept that you are always honest about what you will be honest about and what you would lie about.
Eliezer writes much on interactions surrounding the "code of meta-honesty" and what is acceptable to expect of others. He concludes that honesty on a meta-level is absolutely sacred, and meta-lying should be considered a crime against humanity.
Being a robust agent
Raymond Arnold makes a case for why we want to improve ourselves to become a more robust, coherent agent. Robustness is the quality of being able to succeed to novel challenges in complex domains. (Reminds me of one of my Bachelor courses on software engineering theory, where we also talked about software robustness.) I distilled the concrete advice into four points.
- Determine and understand your decision making process, and wield it deliberately
- Be consistent and coherent in the way you make your decisions
- Be—and act to be—someone who others trust with knowledge and power
- Find strategies that work in a messy game-theoretic environments