When I first read Yudkowsky’s other magnum opus Rationality - AI to Zombies, I didn’t really understand why was he so obsessed with looking for the truth, attacking false beliefs with huge flaming swords and why he made such a huge deal out of letting go.
I think I understand now.
What is it like to have a precious false belief?
There are no huge neon signs saying “YOU’RE WRONG AND YOU SHOULD STOP BEING WRONG”.
When nothing you see goes against your precious belief, you may take pleasure in thinking about your cherished belief about and how beautiful the world, as seen by you, is.
Holding a belief does not feel like thinking “I believe X”. Holding a belief feels like X is actually the case and acting upon that assumption.
When you see things that go against your cherished belief X, you don’t go “I’m confused. Let’s do some rationality. If X, I want to believe X. If not X, I want to believe not X. Let’s collect evidence and figure out what’s going on here.”
When you see evidence against your cherished belief X, it hurts to look at. You try not to confront it for what it is. You close your eyes and think it will go away. You think you can’t even stand to think that maybe not X. You cry and scream and beg for help, because it feels like X is what the whole world depends on. You grasp for straws, look into every corner, because you want X so much, because you hope you will find evidence for X if you want it enough.
“Hell is not other people. Hell is yourself.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Indeed. What hurts is not the way the world outside your skull is. What hurts is your thoughts that X just must be the case, that X is so good, I want X so much, why can’t I have it, everything depends on it, please let me have X! States of the world are not sad. Emotion comes from your cognitions. When you think thoughts that hurt, you can torture yourself very efficiently. Quite possibly, most of the pain in my life actually came from within.
It’s quite likely the world will refuse to bend itself to your will, even if you think X is the most important thing in your world.
I think there are, broadly, two ways to approach this.
One way is to just refuse to think not X and to keep torturing yourself, because every time you think about anything that reminds you in any way of your cherished belief X, you will only be reminded about all the clues that not X, and through you can try all you want to cover up all the huge billboards saying “NOT X” because they’re too painful to look at, they will stay there.
The first approach will only bring you more pain.
The second approach is to look the truth in its eyes. Think “not X”. Not “but I want X so so much, it’s the most important thing in the world, please, let X be the case, let me wake up and see that I imagined all the evidence, it’s so painful, please help me”.
Don’t flinch or look away.
And not X is not sad.
Sadness is an emotion. Not X is an objective proposition about the world.
Now, why would you feel sad about not X? Maybe you want X. But is feeling sad helping you bring X about?
Is refusing to accept not X helping anything you care about in any way? Or is it only causing you more pain than the fact that not-X itself? Do you want to be miserable, or do you want to be serene and happy? If X were not the case, would you want to be miserable, or would you want to be serene and happy, so maybe you could do something about not X?
Is your belief I want X so much and I can’t be happy unless X so important that if not X were the case, you would rather keep believing you can’t be happy unless X and be miserable every time you thought about it?
So I updated. It felt like the hardest thing in the world, but it was well worth the effort. I now accept that not X. Not X. Not X is not the end of the world. Being sad about not X would not help anything I care about, so I’m not sad. I think this has something to do with the rationalist meme of letting go.
I’m not certain that my way of dealing with evidence that not X fully generalizes to any problems you might face. I just know I really really thought, I believed I could not accept that not X and that not X would hurt. But when I stopped fighting the truth, it ended up being not as painful to accept as I thought it would be. Coming to terms with it was certainly much better than the alternative for me.
And the next time I think I can’t bear to look at Y because Y would be so painful and because Y is more important to me than anything, I will remember the last time I thought I depended on something. I will remember how absolutely central to everything X seemed, and how fighting against not X made me cry for hours. I will remember how empowering it was to stop fighting, and how stupid it was in retrospect to try to hide the truth from myself. I will remember that I thought I could never be happy about anything in the world again if not X, and that the actual enemy of my happiness was not not X, but my sadness about not X.
Not X and it’s OK. The world is still a pretty neat place.
Interesting. When I decided to start writing every now and then last January, I thought I’d mostly have things to say about technology.