"Childlike ... or maybe religious. I've been part of this subculture where people spend a lot of time speculating about future machine superintelligences, and give credence to the idea that we're already living in a simulation. During my recent psychotic episode ... I don't want to go into the details of what I was thinking, but it was as if those ideas started hitting the God-shaped hole in my psychology really hard, a hole that I had previously managed to leave blissfully empty."

"'God-shaped hole'?"

"You know, like ... these ideas were tapping into the same flaws in primate psychology that make people fear God even though there's no evidence for one, and so I shouldn't blame the ideas for what happened to me, because someone from a different subculture but otherwise similar to me would have had a similar episode, except instead of science-fictional- and futurist-themed delusions, they'd be afraid of demons, or the CIA, or whatever."

"I know you said you don't want to talk about it, but could you give me an example of one of your delusions?"

"Like ... at some point I decided that there must be a conservation law constraining the net power of any optimization process to be zero, and that therefore everything good in life had to be paid for by something correspondingly bad, and that therefore I should be afraid to sleep because I would have horrible torture nightmares."


"Yeah, I know. My friend Anna was able to talk me out of it by pointing out that most possible conservation laws are false. Like, conservation of blue: do blue things necessarily come from other blue things? Well, no: there are chemistry experiments where they combine two transparent liquids to make a liquid of a different color. But I'm worried."

"Worried how?"

"Worried about losing my mind for real. My mother's brother got a postmortem diagnosis of schizophrenia after suiciding. I'm pretty good at metacognition, mostly able to notice when my thoughts are failing checksums, sometimes able to correct for it with explicit Bayesian reasoning, of all things ... but for how long will that continue to be true?"

2 thoughts on “Religious

  1. I had a scary experience of my own recently which awakened me to the disturbing reality that social relationships, approval, and esteem are more important for mental health than analytical arguments justifying one's activities -- yes, even for me.

    What happened was that I became convinced that the subject of ethics was an information hazard, and spent a terrifying few days worrying that I was a horrible person because I wanted to spend my life inventing music and mathematics rather than maximizing my income to donate to famine relief or something similar. What finally "cured" me was reading this post, in particular points 3-5.

    But here's the disturbing part: there isn't a single argument in there that I hadn't already thought of on my own. The difference is that when I thought of it myself, my brain's automatic response was "Nope, sorry, you're just rationalizing; you know perfectly well what you should do (i.e. maximize income)". By contrast, it was willing to accept the "rationalization" when it came from User: tommcabe.

    This implied that what I was really worried about was not being accepted by the community I wanted to be accepted by. Since that community is made up of people who go around talking about "effective altruism" all the time and are adept at noticing hypocrisy, it seemed I wouldn't fit in unless I was visibly trying to be an "effective altruist". And of course, what's particularly unsettling (at least in an intellectual sense) about this is that, according to the ethical system my brain seemed to be endorsing, this definitely makes me a horrible person, because I'm assigning more mental importance to my petty little social desires than the suffering of millions of starving Africans -- and yet, despite knowing this, I'm still calmer and more able to think about music without experiencing "guilt-attacks" than I was before!

    (Indeed, the thing that most interferes with my doubt-free musical concentration is the sense that music -- at least of my type -- isn't quite approved of [*] in this community, though mathematical research at least kinda-sorta is.)

    ([*]Yes, nothing in that post logically implies disapproval, but unfortunately human words don't communicate what they logically imply, they communicate what they Bayesianly imply relative to what wasn't uttered.)

  2. 1. Having a "god-shaped hole" is perfectly normal and fine. Just make sure that whatever you fill it with still matches reality. Sooner or later, philosophy and foundations of math and theory of computation start to get a theological aura around them, an associated sense of awe. I'm perfectly happy to call it religion. (Just not "spirituality", God forbid.)

    2. Feeling of "meaningfulness" or "trueness" is not a reliable gauge of truth. You can simulate it with chemicals. You can get used to the idea that you should still check things even if they "ring true."

    3. I definitely know the feeling of "what if I speculate about stuff and get deluded and go crazy?" Your situation is more serious than mine because of the family history. But basically, anecdotally, it seems like speculation makes people burn out and live in their parents' basement more than it makes them mentally ill. (The big behavioral risk factors for mental illness seem to be sleep deprivation and at least some classes of drug use.) You can see those failure modes coming, so just put in safeguards to avoid them.

    Basically, my own philosophy is, "of course I'm going to think about things, what the hell am I going to do, stop?" I'm not Sor Juana de la Cruz, who prayed to God to "take away the light of her reason." It ain't gonna happen. I don't have the constitution to quit speculating. So, I have to be pretty rigorous about requiring myself to meet external checks (experiment, peer review, profit, winning bets, etc) to make sure I'm not totally in fantasyland. The difference between a crackpot and a visionary is whether the ideas actually work. You can't *tell* just by social metrics (how weird they are, how religion-like they are, etc.) You absolutely have to check the facts themselves.

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