Seeing the Matrix, Switching Abstractions, and Missing Moods

Epistemic Sta­tus: Poetry, but also, True Story

For seven years, I worked in a su­per­mar­ket bak­ery.

The bak­ery was quite a nice place to work. I got a good mix of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise (ev­ery­thing I know about bas­ket­ball I learned from toss­ing heavy boxes of bread up sev­eral feet such that they landed just perfectly on top of each other).

I learned skills, I dec­o­rated cakes. I had an ex­cel­lent man­ager, who led by ex­am­ple, who was funny, who was stern when she needed to be but al­most never needed to be be­cause peo­ple just wanted to do the right thing for her.

One day, we hired a per­son I found re­ally an­noy­ing, who I’ll call Deb­bie.

Deb­bie talked a lot, and she had a re­ally grat­ing, whiny, high pitched voice. And at first I tried to en­gage with her cheer­fully, then I tried en­gag­ing with her po­litely, and then I tried to avoid her be­cause she just wouldn’t stop talk­ing no mat­ter what about inane things that nonethe­less were just com­pli­cated enough that I felt pres­sure to think about how to re­spond.

Deb­bie was prob­a­bly a de­cent per­son who didn’t de­serve my ire. Nonethe­less, my ire she had.

Avoid­ing Deb­bie wasn’t re­ally an op­tion be­cause the bak­ery wasn’t that big. A few weeks of an­noy­ance passed. And one day Deb­bie was tel­ling some story about her kids or sister or some­thing that was prob­a­bly a rea­son­ably fine story but I just couldn’t stand it any more and —

— and —

...and then I liter­ally felt my brain make a slight “czhzk” sound. And Deb­bie’s voice just of faded into the back­ground. I heard all the other sounds in the su­per­mar­ket – the cus­tomers talk­ing, the air con­di­tion­ers hum­ming, the beep of dis­tant item-scan­ners, the slid­ing of the au­tomat­ing doors. And Deb­bie’s voice, one me­chan­i­cal phys­i­cal pro­cess among many.

And it felt like Neo, at the end of the Ma­trix, where he can sud­denly see the Code, and he can also see Agent Smith. And then a flash­back to ear­lier in the movie, when Neo looks upon the raw code for the first time and can’t make heads of tails of it. A fel­low crewmem­ber says “Yeah, I don’t even see the code any­more. I just parse it au­to­mat­i­cally. My brain sees ‘blond’, ‘brunette’, ‘red­head’.”

And sud­denly, I could effortless switch back and forth be­tween see­ing Deb­bie, the hu­man be­ing with hopes and dreams and kids and sisters and sto­ries she wanted to tell and cowork­ers she wanted to vibe with… and <Deb­bie>, the col­lec­tion of atoms that were just in­evitably, de­ter­minis­ti­cally, go­ing to keep on mak­ing high pitched noises no mat­ter what I said or did.

And some­how… this made it si­mul­ta­neously way eas­ier to both ig­nore Deb­bie when I didn’t feel like deal­ing with her – mut­ter­ing au­to­matic ‘uh huhs’ and ‘yeah’ and nod­ding as ap­pro­pri­ate – as well as re­mem­ber­ing she was a Per­son, whose ex­pe­riences were valuable ac­cord­ing my out­look on Per­son­hood, and some­times ac­tu­ally talk­ing with her and en­gag­ing and ac­tu­ally car­ing about her kids or sister.

Now one les­son, a sim­pler les­son (but which I didn’t ac­tu­ally learn till much later), is that nerds tend to think con­ver­sa­tion needs to in­clude lots of ac­tu­ally un­der­stand­ing what a per­son is say­ing and form­ing rea­son­able be­liefs about the con­ver­sa­tion topic and say­ing those things in a log­i­cal flow. But, a lot of what’s go­ing on is so­cial­iz­ing, smal­ltalk, and some­times vibing. I found Deb­bie an­noy­ing in part be­cause I felt obli­gated to spend a fair amount of cog­ni­tive effort re­spond­ing to her sto­ries. I do think she cared at least some­what that I ac­tu­ally listened. But I don’t think she in­tended me to spend as much cog­ni­tive effort as I was.

The weirder, deeper, ex­pe­ri­en­tial les­son is to be able to see the Ma­trix. I don’t ex­pect you to gain that abil­ity by read­ing this blog­post – I think I needed a weird com­bi­na­tion of cir­cum­stances, and philo­soph­i­cal-be­liefs-at-a-cer­tain-stage-of-de­vel­op­ment, in or­der for things to click into place and my brain to go “czhzk”.

But I think it’s use­ful to be able to re­fer to this skill. My guess is it’s not that hard to con­cep­tu­ally un­der­stand (at least for LessWrong folk).

And I think it be­comes rele­vant when en­gag­ing with im­por­tant moral ques­tions, that re­quire us both to have the abil­ity to see a mil­lion deaths, or a mil­lion lives, and pro­cess them as a statis­tic that is weighed against other statis­tics, equa­tions to be ab­stracted and sim­plified un­til you find the an­swer....

...and to re­mem­ber the felt sense, that each of those lives and deaths are filled with mean­ing. And you can only pro­cess one or two of them at a time be­fore your brain breaks, but that their mean­ing de­pends on the abil­ity to look at them through a layer of ab­strac­tion that doesn’t lend it­self well to lin­ear logic or calcu­la­tions.

Some­times you need to sim­plify part or all of those rich-in­ner-lives away to be able to think, or com­mu­ni­cate clearly about the equa­tions.

I think there’s some­thing like miss­ing moods that go on some­times, where one per­son is try­ing to have a con­ver­sa­tion fo­cus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar ab­strac­tion, and an­other per­son is tuned into an­other ab­strac­tion, and they both share most of the same be­liefs and val­ues but at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment they’re try­ing to talk about differ­ent things and frus­trated that the other per­son doesn’t seem to care.

Some­times you need to ab­stract away, not only the rich in­ner life of a per­son (or mil­lions of peo­ple), but en­tire swaths of the cold math­e­mat­ics too. Or, some­times you might want to fo­cus on rich-in­ner-life, but tuned into a par­tic­u­lar sub­set – the part of the rich-in­ner-life that cares about agency and longterms goals, or the rich-in­ner-life that cares about the en­ergy in the room at the mo­ment.

Or, you might care about in­ter­per­sonal rich-outer-life — the lay­ers of mean­ing and per­son­hood that ap­ply to re­la­tion­ships and groups over in­di­vi­d­u­als or masses. Two in­di­vi­d­u­als might both be hav­ing in­di­vi­d­u­ally good ex­pe­riences but some­thing about their re­la­tion­ship seems stag­nant or toxic.

Real­ity is rich with de­tail and it seems quite com­mon to need to tune into some of that de­tail, and nec­es­sar­ily tune out oth­ers.

I wrote this post af­ter a cou­ple re­cent mo­ments wherein I seemed to fo­cused on a differ­ent slice of re­al­ity than my con­ver­sa­tion part­ner(s). I’m not sure whether this par­tic­u­lar blog­post would have helped, but it seemed like a use­ful han­dle for how I per­son­ally re­late to this sort of dis­con­nect. I’d like to be able to briefly re­fer to this meta-con­cept, and then figur­ing out which moods are ac­tu­ally miss­ing, and “get on the same page” as quickly as pos­si­ble with­out in­ter­rupt­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.

I don’t nec­es­sar­ily see all the same rich-de­tail that you do, and there might be times when I liter­ally don’t un­der­stand or don’t care about the par­tic­u­lar lens you are try­ing to op­ti­mize re­al­ity through. But I think, most of the time, I do see it, it just might not have been what I was fo­cused on at the mo­ment.