Epistemic Comparison: First Principles Land vs. Mimesis Land

Epistemic Sta­tus: wildly speculative

I’ve been think­ing about the ideas of mime­sis and cul­tural learn­ing by René Girard (known in part for be­ing recom­mended by Peter Thiel, ex­pla­na­tion here) and Joseph Hen­rich (Se­crets of our Suc­cess). Th­ese seem like both profound, though vastly un­ex­plored ideas. René Girard had a few bold ideas on mime­sis, but seemed to fo­cus more on scape­goats and re­li­gious de­tails. Joseph Hen­rich cat­a­logued lots of spe­cific ev­i­dence, but didn’t re­ally in­ves­ti­gate the broader im­pli­ca­tions.[1]

There are ob­vi­ous pos­si­bil­ities of these ideas to our epistemics. If it is true that hu­mans copy their ideas from each other in­stead of de­riv­ing them based on rea­son, of­ten with­out know­ing it, this would have vast im­pli­ca­tions on our be­liefs.

To un­der­stand these ideas bet­ter, I con­structed two hy­po­thet­i­cal and ex­trem­ized so­cieties. The first is “first prin­ci­ples land”, where ev­ery­one con­structs their be­liefs in­di­vi­d­u­ally us­ing first prin­ci­ples. Th­ese peo­ple act ba­si­cally as ideal Bayesian agents and ap­prox­i­mate gears-lev­els un­der­stand­ings of ev­ery­thing. This is in­finitely difficult to do in prac­tice, but sim­ple to rea­son about in ab­stract. The sec­ond is “Mime­sis Land”, where peo­ple copy their be­liefs from those they con­sider suc­cess­ful, typ­i­cally with­out re­al­iz­ing it (this bit taken from Girard). To make “Mime­sis Land” work at all, I’d posit that there is some amount of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of tech­niques and be­liefs hap­pen­ing at all times.

I then com­pared these two hy­po­thet­i­cally so­cieties based on how I ex­pected each to do on 17 var­i­ous at­tributes.

See the doc­u­ment here.

Need­less to say, Mime­sis Land was more in­ter­est­ing to me than First Prin­ci­ples Land.

One tricky thing is that nei­ther land was try­ing to model real hu­mans; but hu­mans that fol­lowed my sim­ple view of a ver­sion of a set of ex­treme the­o­ries that might be some­what co­her­ent. There was a fair bit of sub­jec­tivity in this. I’m sure oth­ers would come up with sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent ver­sions of First Prin­ci­ples Land and Mime­sis Land. As such I’m not par­tic­u­larly satis­fied with this method­ol­ogy, but at the same time I’m not sure what pro­ce­dures would be strictly bet­ter.

I am bullish on try­ing to more clearly for­mu­late what first prin­ci­ples think­ing and mime­sis fully look like in prac­tice, and the costs and benefits of both. In both cases there seem to be fairly patchy ter­minol­ogy of sev­eral clusters dis­cussing them with­out all too much struc­ture. Many thanks to LessWrong for some of my origi­nal thoughts on both so far, but there’s still a lot of work left.

If I were to con­tinue on a similar path, I would con­sider adding sev­eral other wor­lds. First Prin­ci­ples Land may get a less ex­treme ver­sion. The Mime­sis Land here as­sumes that peo­ple copy the most suc­cess­ful peo­ple, and do so mostly un­know­ingly. It would be in­ter­est­ing to try var­i­ants where they copy oth­ers (for in­stance, the most cred­ible peo­ple), and do so in­ten­tion­ally (so they are fully aware that their be­liefs are in­con­sis­tent and of­ten likely to be wrong.) There could be “Ch­ester­ton’s Fence Land”, where tra­di­tional be­liefs are in­ten­tion­ally cho­sen. There could be “Fore­caster Land”, where ev­ery­one del­e­gates all thoughts to a pre­dic­tion mar­ket.

I’m re­ally cu­ri­ous what read­ers may think of this method­ol­ogy, and this piece in gen­eral. Com­ments highly ap­pre­ci­ated.


Dis­claimers of things I don’t be­lieve:

  1. My defi­ni­tions of both lands are the “cor­rect” defi­ni­tions. → I made a lot of sub­jec­tive choices in each case and could imag­ine plenty of al­ter­na­tive ideas.

  2. First Prin­ci­ples Land is “bet­ter” than Mime­sis Land. → First Prin­ci­ples Land has a bunch of ad­van­tage, but is much less pos­si­ble, and also have some sig­nifi­cant dis­ad­van­tages.

  3. Western so­ciety is just like Mime­sis Land → I think our so­ciety has similar­i­ties to both lands. There are prob­a­bly more similar­i­ties to Mime­sis Land, but there could also be similar­i­ties to other lands not yet de­scribed.

  4. I (Ozzie) am in First Prin­ci­ples Land → I’m sure I have many be­liefs copied from oth­ers I haven’t no­ticed. I no­ticed sev­eral, and copy many prac­tices from oth­ers with­out un­der­stand­ing them at all. (For playful in­stance, I cel­e­brate some holi­days, while hav­ing no first prin­ci­ples un­der­stand­ing of the op­ti­mal­ity of the spe­cific prac­tices.)

  5. I (Ozzie) am un­der­stand­ing “Mime­sis” cor­rectly → I’m sure I’m mak­ing mis­takes. I haven’t read Girard’s books, just watched a few lec­tures and read sum­maries. From what I un­der­stand, he’s quite dense.

  6. First Prin­ci­ples Land and Mime­sis Land are two sides to a spec­trum, and all rea­son­able wor­lds are ex­actly in be­tween these two → Th­ese two lands are both ex­tremes, but there are sev­eral im­por­tant axes not cov­ered by them. Our world is gen­er­ally some­where in be­tween them in the ar­eas where they are op­posed, but also has sev­eral other sep­a­rate char­ac­ter­is­tics.


[1] So­cial con­struc­tivism and has a much more ro­bust liter­a­ture. To be hon­est I’m quite rusty on this and need to catch up some time. In­ter­est­ingly, I don’t re­mem­ber read­ing about con­nec­tions be­tween this and Girard or Hen­rich, though they seem to share a lot of be­liefs.

Thanks to Bran­gus for dis­cus­sion on the ideas that helped lead to this fi­nal post.