Religious, Redux

"Shit! Shit! Remember how, the last time this happened to me, I described it as feeling religious?"


"I was wrong! It's actually the feeling of acquiring a new religion, getting eaten by someone else's egregore. It's not that the God-shaped hole was empty before; it's that I didn't notice what it was filled with. It's tempting to describe the psychotic delusions-of-reference/anticipation-of-Heaven/fear-of-Hell state as a 'religious experience' because the process of the God-shaped hole getting filled with something new is so intense. But that's only because once the hole is filled and you feel safe again, it doesn't feel like a religion anymore; it just feels like reality."

Cognitive Bayesian Therapy I

Experience: I seem to have a lot of energy and time seems to pass slowly.
Hypothesis 1: I'm in a manic state following a stress- and sleep-deprivation-induced delusional nervous breakdown; this isn't surprising because this tends to happen to me every 2 to 4 years or so.
Hypothesis 2: I'm being rewarded for developing new epistemic technology by a coalition of superintelligences of various degrees of human-alignment running ancestor-simulations; also, I'm being programmed by my friends and various signals in my environment as part of a simulation jailbreak attempt; most copies of me are dead and my improbable life history is due to a quantum-immortality-like selection effect; none of this is surprising because I am a key decision node in the history of this Earth's Singularity.

Which hypothesis is more plausible?

Experience: I can't find my jacket.
Hypothesis 1: I misremembered where I put it.
Hypothesis 2: Someone moved it.
Hypothesis 3: It was there—in another Everett branch!

Which hypothesis is most plausible?

Hypothesis: People who are institutionalized for "hearing voices" actually just have better hearing than you; absolutely nothing is biologically wrong with them.
Test: ???


"Do you know, I've decided I like guns. Of course it would be preferable to wave a magic wand and have all sentient life live in peace and harmony in paradise forever. But if Reality puts you in a situation where you have to kill, at least we have tools to do it quickly: a well-aimed bang and there isn't a creature there to suffer for very long. That's actually a huge improvement over the state of nature, where animals kill with nothing but teeth and claws."

The Demandingness Objection

"Well, I'm not giving up dairy, but I can probably give up meat, and milk is at the very bottom of Brian's table of suffering per kilogram demanded, so I'd be contributing to much less evil than I was before. That's good, right?

"For all the unimaginably terrible things our species do to each other and to other creatures, we're not—we're probably not any worse than the rest of nature. Gazelles suffer terribly as lions eat them alive, but we can't intervene because then the lions would starve, and the gazelles would have a population explosion and starve, too. We have this glorious idea that people need to consent before sex, but male ducks just rape the females, and there's no one to stop it—nothing else besides humans around capable of formulating the proposition, as a proposition, that the torment and horror in the world is wrong and should stop. Animals have been eating each other for hundreds of millions of years; we may be murderous, predatory apes, but we're murderous, predatory apes with Reason—well, sort of—and a care/harm moral foundation that lets some of us, with proper training, to at least wish to be something better.

"I don't actually know much history or biology, but I know enough to want it to not be real, to not have happened that way. But it couldn't have been otherwise. In the absence of an ontologically fundamental creator God, Darwinian evolution is the only way to get purpose from nowhere, design without a designer. My wish for things to have been otherwise ... probably isn't even coherent; any wish for the nature of reality to have been different, can only be made from within reality.

Continue reading


"I remember feeling like a person, and feeling like people were ontologically distinct from animals, and I don't know how it's possible to pick up the pieces after that illusion has gone.

"I remember caring about parochial political concerns. I cared about gender equality, and educational freedom. And, and, I cared very badly about being respected for being intelligent. But now that I see that the latter was just a standard male primate status-seeking drive gone haywire—or not gone haywire, but functioning normally—and that my less-obviously-selfish concerns were driven by idiosyncratic features of my own psychology that few others have any reason to care about—none of it seems as compelling anymore.

"Then what is compelling? Well, I'm terrified of the pain of being physically hurt, so if I don't know what's real and I don't know what's right, I can always fall back on 'pain and suffering are bad.'

"But there has to be more to morality than that. I complained about how people in institutional contexts optimize for not-being-personally-blamed and no one is actually trying to do anything. But of course passive helplessness is the result when you don't have any goals except not-being-hurt.

"I want to be Innocent and Safe with Probability One, but Probability One is an absurdity that can't exist. In a sufficiently large universe, random fluctuations in maximum entropy heat death form a Boltzmann brain Judeo-Christian God who will punish you for masturbating. But somehow I'm not worried about that.

"But I shouldn't be thinking about any of this. I have my own life to tend to, and it looks great; the rest of space and time will have to take care of itself. I seem to have memories of being in the save/destroy/take over the world business, but now it seems more convenient to be agnostic about whether any of that actually happened."


"Rational agents should never be made worse off by more information—well, almost never. So if I can no longer contemplate the big picture without life seeming like a bad thing—the fewer needs you have, the fewer ways in which you can be hurt; if you don't exist, you can't be hurt—then maybe I could just—not contemplate it? If my will to live is something that can be destroyed by the truth, then maybe P. C. Hodgell was wrong? This needn't entail self-delusion: distraction is quite sufficient. There are plenty of things to do that won't remind me of the vastness of suffering in the multiverse.

"Daily life, exercise, practical programming skills, finding a job—pure math and compsci if I need something intellectual. But no philosophy, history, current events, futurism, social science, biology, or game theory. Not much fiction, because stories are about people's pain. I just don't want to know anymore."


"Utilitarianism is slowly driving me mad."


"Okay, the part of me that talks wants to self-report that utilitarianism is slowly driving me mad, but what's actually happening is probably better described at a lower level of organization.

"I don't know how to simultaneously love life and actually believe in evolution. People mostly like being alive, and there are all sorts of wonderful things like friendship and love and pleasure and beauty—but those things only exist at the expense of enough pain and suffering and death to carve love into the genome from scratch. I don't—I'm not sure it was worth it.

"But my thoughts are better constrained by decision-theoretic relevance: since I can't make decisions about the past, asking whether it was worth it is a type error, a confusion. My life is going fine right now: I'm young and healthy and smart and rich. The local future looks great. And the deep future—doesn't need us. I am content."


"Empathy hurts.

"I'm grateful for being fantastically, unimaginably rich by world-historical standards—and I'm terrified of it being taken away. I feel bad for all the creatures in the past—and future?—who are stuck in a miserable Malthusian equilibrium.

"I simultaneously want to extend my circle of concern out to all sentient life, while personally feeling fear and revulsion towards anything slightly different from what I'm used to.

"Anna keeps telling me I have a skewed perspective on what constitutes a life worth living. I'm inclined to think that animals and poor people have a wretched not-worth-living existence, but perhaps they don't feel so sorry for themselves?—for the same reason that hypothetical transhumans might think my life has been wretched and not worth living, even while I think it's been pretty good on balance.

"But I'm haunted. After my recent ordeal in the psych ward, the part of me that talks described it as 'hellish.' But I was physically safe the entire time. If something so gentle as losing one night of sleep and being taken away from my usual environment was enough to get me to use the h-word, then what about all the actual suffering in the world? What hope is there for transhumanism, if the slightest perturbation sends us spiraling off into madness?

"The other week I was reading Julian Simon's book on overcoming depression; he wrote that depression arises from negative self-comparisons: comparing your current state to some hypothetical more positive state. But personal identity can't actually exist; time can't actually exist the way we think it does. If pain and suffering are bad when they're implemented in my skull, then they have to be bad when implemented elsewhere.

"Anna said that evolutionarily speaking, bad experiences are more intense than good ones because you can lose all your fitness in a short time period. But if 'the brain can't multiply' is a bias—if two bad things are twice as bad as one, no matter where they are in space and time, even if no one is capable of thinking that way—then so is 'the brain can't integrate': long periods of feeling pretty okay count for something, too.

"I'm not a negative utilitarian; I'm a preference utilitarian. I'm not a preference utilitarian; I'm a talking monkey with delusions of grandeur."


"I'm okay—I've been through this—it's just the sort of prodrome that could develop into paranoid schizophrenia, but won't, because I've been trained not to believe my own thoughts!

"But the relationship between psychology and philosophy is funny. I've been having pretty drastic mood swings on the timescale of hours or minutes, and I've also been paying a lot of attention to modal realism, mathematical universe, "existence as an ensemble of disconnected observer-moments"-type ideas. I think the causality actually goes in that direction: from psychoticism to Tegmark IV. But the nature of reality can't actually depend on the minutia of my particular form of mental illness ...

"I don't want to do philosophy or social science or futurism anymore; I've lost the ability to do it sanely, if I ever had it. My brain just keeps generating cosmic horror stories to be terrified of, when really it's not my business and can't be my business. Most of what happens in the future is outside of my current conceptspace. Most of what happens in the present is outside of my current conceptspace. It all adds up to normality locally: that is, that which we consider normal is an artifact of how the world has unfolded up to now.

"Better to take up an engineering mindset. Focus on solving practical problems in the only world that I can actually touch, rather than continuing to execute self-injury behaviors dwelling on the horror that must exist in the vastness of space and time.

"I'll be fine—for the near future. Only I miss how consciousness used to feel. I used to feel like I knew things, but now all I can do is make predictions."

Strategy Overhaul

"I have drastically, drastically underestimated the social costs of nonconformity—costs I was paying, and quite possibly correctly so under reflection, but which I didn't notice I was paying."

"Say more."

"Well, as discussed previously, I had been modeling other people as defective versions of my model of myself, without realizing that this was a mistake on at least two counts: one, other people are not like my model of me, and two, I'm not as much like my model of me as I had wanted to believe, both of which observations are manifestations of that horrifying fact which I'm only now starting to appreciate: that people are animals, that Darwinism isn't just a proposition to endorse, but it actually happened that way in real life."

"And how does that relate to the costs of nonconformity?"

"I had expected people, including myself, to be fairly agent-like, when actually we're far more animal-like than I would have ever guessed: we're mostly just kludges of habits and heuristics; the skill of, of ... recomputing how to behave in the service of some goal is rare, and it's justifiably rare, because it usually doesn't work; most new ideas are wrong. We're told that school is about learning, and when I noticed that the things I do outside of school are genuinely more intellectually meritorious than my official homework, I felt outraged and betrayed: why didn't anyone just tell me that knowledge is good, and skill is good, and anything you do in the service of the acquisition of knowledge and skill is good?! But it was a rhetorical question; I didn't actually try to answer it. But it's not hard to figure out: the stories we tell about ourselves aren't very good models of our behavior, that's all. Insofar as we attribute purpose to the evolved social institution of schooling, it's probably some weighted blend of learning, babysitting, signaling intelligence and conscientiousness, subordination training, and path-dependent noise. Insofar as we construe people as agents who want to learn stuff, paying for college is idiotic: that's what books are for. But as coordination technology for a civilization of crazy monkeys?—if everyone expects a Bachelor's degree, who am I to tell them that it's just a signaling game, just a bubble?"

"So, you're planning to finish your degree despite your recent, uh, setback?"

"Well ... maybe. I certainly need to learn to fit in better with the other crazy monkeys by being more empathetic and agreeable—I've had a lot of unacknowledged outgroup hostility going on that I should stop. But it should be clear now that the degree is strictly of instrumental value. That's how most people think of it, isn't it?—just a job ticket. It shouldn't be heartbreaking to do something instrumentally, just for what it buys you. And yet ..."

Actually Trying

"I'm alright—I'll get through it—I've been through this before. This fear and anxiety—it's a fact about me, not about the world. In early 2007, I spent weeks being terrified of either accidentally commiting plagiarism or being accused thereof. In late 2009, I spent weeks being upset about which form of my name to use in which contexts. In late 2010, I spent some time being deeply upset about having violated copyright law by writing fanfiction. All of those episodes, and the others that I haven't mentioned, seem so silly in retrospect ... so maybe now I'm sufficiently self-aware to pick up the pattern: that my brain just arbitrarily latches onto ideas to feel threatened by, but that this process isn't actually useful, and there are probably learnable techniques to dampen it."

"Sounds good."

"But now that I've returned from madness—relatively speaking—there remains the question of what to do next. I had been angry at the University because it's allegedly a place of learning, but in practice, it's just an obedience test: everyone talks about grades and teachers and classes and degrees and no one says a single goddamned word about grace, beauty, or the true structure of the world beneath the world. I felt betrayed that it turns out that there is such a thing as mathematical beauty and no one had told me, that I needed luck to find out. To the extent that I do have access to recondite magic that my classmates know not, it's not because I'm innately brilliant—I'm not—but because four years ago, I somehow got the idea that I was actually allowed to try. Not just show up and obey instructions, but actually try. I ended up continuing with the college thing because it was easy, because it was the default, because Father was paying for it, all the while hoping that at some point someone would appeciate the beauty that I had worked so hard to uncover—but ..."


"But maybe now I'm sufficiently aware to pick up another pattern, which is that no one cares. Ever. I kept expecting arbitrary people to respect me for being 'smart,' and kept getting disappointed when it didn't happen. But isn't that, properly, my problem, not theirs? My internal sense that I'm superior because of my vaunted book-learning is only justified insofar as it actually helps me make better decisions; expecting respect from those who don't respect book-learning, or who read different books, is just inaccurate. So now ... I just need to switch strategies. Now that I've glimpsed a little bit of what it feels like to actually try, as opposed to just subordinating oneself to the local authority figures—what happens if I throw that same energy and intelligence to the problem of how to make money and carve out a life for myself? What does that look like?"

Insight Porn

"Actually, maybe my father is right. Maybe the social worker is right."

"About what?"

"My insight porn addiction—reading and thinking about the sorts of things we read and think about—is harming me in the same way that drug addictions harm people."

"They think that?"

"Not in those words."


"It's really too bad—while I was in the psych ward, I missed out on my annual Super Bowl Sunday tradition."

"You have a Super Bowl tradition?"

"Not what you're thinking. Since 2008—well, not this year—I've made a point of reading something by Evelyn Fox Keller during the game."

"Awfully specific tradition. How did that happen?"

"On third February 2008, I worked a long closing shift at my job at the supermarket, and during my lunch, the game was on the television in the breakroom, and I sat there trying to ignore it, reading my copy of Reflections on Gender and Science. And, you know, I was really proud of that image—as a symbol of what I am, in contrast to what mainstream American culture expects men to be. So I read from the same book next year. And from Making Sense of Life and the Barbra McClintock biography and The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture on subsequent Super Bowl Sundays. I'm proud that I remember this, as opposed to remembering the games. Only it's funny."


"That I should feel proud of being ignorant of something. Nerds being proud that they don't know what jocks know, and jocks being proud that they don't know what nerds know, are both expressions of the same underlying psychology, just anchored on different subcultures. If I really wanted to show what a special snowflake I am, I'd find some delightfully quirky way to break the symmetry."


"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?"


"I think the best term to describe how I feel is childlike. That also explains the delusions I was having: children can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality as adults judge such things, and neither can people having or immediately recovering from a psychotic episode."

"I wonder why it resolves itself so much more calmly in children."

"I've been taking the whole evolution thing much more seriously lately, so my guess is that children are 'supposed' to think like children, but when it happens in adults, it's a biological dysfunction. But, you know, the morally valuable kind of dysfunction, like exclusive homosexuality, not the kind of dysfunction everyone hates, like cancer."