Mythic Mode

Fol­low-up to: The In­tel­li­gent So­cial Web

Re­lated to: Fake Frameworks

Yes­ter­day I de­scribed a frame­work for view­ing cul­ture as a kind of dis­tributed in­tel­li­gence, and our­selves as nodes in this dis­tributed net­work.

To­day I’d like to share a way of us­ing this frame­work in­ten­tion­ally that doesn’t re­quire Look­ing. My main in­tent here is con­crete­ness: I’d like to illus­trate what an ap­pli­ca­tion of ac­count­ing for the Omega-web can look like. But I also hope this is some­thing some of y’all can benefit from.

I’ll warn up front: this is play­ing with epistemic fire. I think the skill of clearly la­bel­ing when you’re en­ter­ing and leav­ing a fake frame­work is es­pe­cially im­por­tant here for re­tain­ing epistemic in­tegrity. If you aren’t sure how to do that, or if the prospect of need­ing to un­nerves you too much, then it might be right for you not to try us­ing this at least for now.


Scott Alexan­der cre­ated a fas­ci­nat­ing im­pact through his es­say Med­i­ta­tions on Moloch. A few ex­cerpts:

What’s always im­pressed me about this poem is its con­cep­tion of civ­i­liza­tion as an in­di­vi­d­ual en­tity. You can al­most see him, with his fingers of armies and his skyscraper-win­dow eyes.
[…]
The Uni­verse is a dark and fore­bod­ing place, sus­pended be­tween alien deities. Cthulhu, Gnon, Moloch, call them what you will.
Some­where in this dark­ness is an­other god. He has also had many names. In the Kushiel books, his name was Elua. He is the god of flow­ers and free love and all soft and frag­ile things. Of art and sci­ence and philos­o­phy and love. Of nice­ness, com­mu­nity, and civ­i­liza­tion. He is a god of hu­mans.
The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even con­trol any hell-mon­sters or com­mand his wor­ship­pers to be­come kil­ling ma­chines. What a weak­ling! This is go­ing to be so easy!”
But some­how Elua is still here. No one knows ex­actly how. And the gods who op­pose Him tend to find Them­selves meet­ing with a sur­pris­ing num­ber of un­for­tu­nate ac­ci­dents.
There are many gods, but this one is ours.

There was ba­si­cally noth­ing in that es­say that was con­cep­tu­ally new, at least in the so­cial cir­cles I’m in around CFAR. But this es­say still had a huge cul­tural im­pact. Sud­denly it be­came real how to liter­ally see the de­mon-god so many of us are fight­ing, and now we know its name: Moloch. This mat­tered to the web. Now we can ac­tu­ally feel a sense in which we’re bat­tling el­dritch hor­rors in an epic war de­ter­min­ing hu­man­ity’s fu­ture.

I sug­gest that the rea­son this is im­pact­ful comes from some­thing I men­tioned in my last post: the so­cial web en­codes its sense of mean­ing, roles, and ex­pec­ta­tions in the struc­ture of story. Facts can in­form cul­ture, but story guides it. Scott’s main con­tri­bu­tion via that es­say, I claim, was in his trans­po­si­tion of large chunks of the fight against ex­is­ten­tial risk into the key of myth.

From this mythic mode, within the sand­box, we can see a sense in which clas­si­cal gods are real. We can see the foot­prints of Ares, the fe­ro­cious war­rior, in the bomb-carved craters of ar­eas torn up by civil war. Or Apollo’s light in the lively in­tel­li­gent dis­course be­tween aca­demic col­leagues who are sincerely cu­ri­ous about the truth. Or the joint part­ner­ship of Diony­sus and Hephaes­tus that breathes life into the crazy builder rev­elry that is Burn­ing Man. To the ex­tent that some­thing like these archetypes are known and rec­og­niz­able to each of us in our story-like in­tu­itions, these gods can be seen as dis­tributed sub­rou­tines within the web of Omega.

The pro­gram­mer Eric S. Ray­mond de­scribes this beau­tifully in an old es­say Danc­ing With the Gods. I re­ally recom­mend read­ing the whole thing; he’s quite lu­cid about it. Here’s a rele­vant snip­pet:

All the Gods are al­ive. They are not su­per­nat­u­ral; rather, they are our in­most na­tures. They power our dreams and our art and our per­son­al­ities. Theurgy and rit­ual can make them stronger, more ac­cessible to the shaman. They can be evoked in a hu­man be­ing to teach, heal, in­spire, or harm. Oc­ca­sion­ally they man­i­fest in spon­ta­neous theo­pha­nies; the re­sult may be re­li­gious con­ver­sion, cre­ative in­spira­tion, charisma, or mad­ness.

Mythic mode is a way of look­ing at the world through a story-like lens. When you en­ter mythic mode, you rec­og­nize that you’re a char­ac­ter in Omega’s story, as is ev­ery­one else. And be­cause you’re very likely fa­mil­iar with a wide range of story types, you can prob­a­bly look around and see who has been given which kind of plot hook, and to what kind of tale.


Why is any of this rele­vant?

Well, re­call from my pre­vi­ous post that there’s a ba­sic puz­zle: if you don’t like the script you’re en­act­ing, you won’t get very far just try­ing to defy it, be­cause by de­fault your effort to defy it will just play into your role.

But… we do have sto­ries of peo­ple be­ing able to tran­si­tion roles in a pretty deep sense. They of­ten (but not always) fol­low the arc of the hero’s jour­ney, wherein the hero must en­ter into the un­known and face tri­als and even­tu­ally die to who they were, trans­form­ing into some­thing new so as to com­plete the jour­ney and re­turn vic­to­ri­ous but differ­ent. We tell these (or similar) sto­ries again and again, with lots of vari­a­tion… but some things (like the types of heroes) tend to vary a lot less than oth­ers. This gives us some clues about where the web has room to let peo­ple shift their lived scripts, and what the con­straints are.

So, if you can iden­tify a well-known story type that fits the tran­si­tion you want and also starts from a place pretty close to where you are, and you have enough slack to lean into that role, then the web might con­spire to help you play out that script.

The thing is, you can’t just sit out­side your role and figure out what to do. That isn’t what it feels like to live the epic you’re ex­am­in­ing; that’s play­ing the role of some­one who is (among other things) an­a­lyz­ing the story they think they’re in.

In­stead, if you want to use this ap­proach, you have to learn how to ex­pe­rience story from the in­side. That’s es­sen­tially what mythic mode is.

I like how Eric Ray­mond ex­pressed this part too (again from Danc­ing With the Gods):

If my lan­guage is too “re­li­gious” for you, feel free to trans­pose it all into the key of psy­chol­ogy. Speak of archetypes and semi-in­de­pen­dent com­plexes. Feel free to hy­poth­e­size that I’ve merely learned how to en­ter some non-or­di­nary men­tal states that change my body lan­guage, dis­able a few men­tal cen­sors, and have me putting out sig­nals that other peo­ple in­ter­pret in terms of cer­tain ma­te­rial in their own un­con­scious minds.
Fine. You’ve ex­plained it. Cor­rectly, even. But you can’t do it!
And as long as you stick with the ster­ile de­no­ta­tive lan­guage of psy­chol­ogy, and the log­i­cal mode of the wak­ing mind, you won’t be able to—be­cause you can’t reach and pro­gram the un­con­scious mind that way. It takes mu­sic, sym­bol­ism, sex, hyp­no­sis, wine and strange drugs, fire­light and chant­ing, rit­ual and magic. Su­per-stim­uli that reach past the con­scious mind and neo­cor­tex, in and back to the pri­mate and mam­mal and rep­tile brains curled up in­side.

I think it’s im­por­tant af­ter­wards to be able to leave mythic mode, and leave the “in­sights” gleaned within the sand­box, and give your more nor­mal way of in­ter­pret­ing the world a chance to look at what hap­pened. In par­tic­u­lar, mythic mode tends to high­light seem­ingly mean­ingful co­in­ci­dences, but at least some of those are likely to be con­fir­ma­tion bias, which is helpful to re­mem­ber once you’re out­side the sand­box.

But I think it’s also crit­i­cal not to do this while in mythic mode. It just gets in the way. You in fact don’t know ahead of time which syn­chron­ic­i­ties are con­fir­ma­tion bias and which are you sync­ing up with the larger com­pu­ta­tional net­work, and it’s too slow in prac­tice to figure it out in real time, and the effort of try­ing tends to shove you into a role type that won’t let you walk the path of a hero’s jour­ney you weren’t already on any­way. You are in fact don­ning some epistemic risk when­ever you use mythic mode — which is why I think it’s im­por­tant to sand­box it prop­erly if you’re go­ing to bother.


I’d like to illus­trate the use of mythic mode with a per­sonal ex­am­ple to help clar­ify what it can look like.

Right af­ter my ken­shō, I tried to find a teacher in Rin­zai Zen, since that’s the tra­di­tion I’m fa­mil­iar with that treats ken­shō as an ini­ti­a­tion point af­ter which deeper in­struc­tion be­comes pos­si­ble. This turned out to be tricky: Sōtō Zen (with its em­pha­sis on grad­ual de­vel­op­ment and its down­play­ing of the rele­vance of ken­shō) is so much more pop­u­lar that Rin­zai do­jos ba­si­cally don’t ex­ist any­where near where I live, at least that I could tell.

This felt weird. I’d reached ken­shō via a pre­vi­ous arc of us­ing mythic mode, and find­ing a Rin­zai teacher felt like the nat­u­ral next step, but I was get­ting stuck. This “plot has led me to a dead end” feel­ing has be­come a sig­nal to me to switch into mythic mode to try rein­ter­pret­ing the block­ade.

From mythic mode, I con­sid­ered what kind of char­ac­ter I was, in­clud­ing the im­plicit genre-savvi­ness I was us­ing. When I imag­ined wear­ing the role of a zen dis­ci­ple and walk­ing the path to be­com­ing a zen mas­ter, I no­ticed that it al­most but didn’t quite fit my sense of my path, like I’d be be­ing a lit­tle dishon­est to who I am. I fo­cused on the “not quite right” feel­ing, and what came up was my love of phys­i­cal­ity and ath­let­ics… and mar­tial arts. And there’s to­tally an archetype for some­one who walks the path of en­light­en­ment via mar­tial arts: the Eastern war­rior-monk. That felt right. From mythic mode, then, it seemed promis­ing for me to see how to walk that path.

Some Googling sug­gested to me that the ori­gin of this archetype was the Shaolin Monastery. It seems that their spiritual prac­tice was Chan Bud­dhism, from which we get all the schools of zen. This closely matched the “al­most but not quite right” feel­ing I’d got­ten ear­lier. In mythic mode, this is the kind of thing I’ve learned to take as ev­i­dence that I’m go­ing in a myth­i­cally sup­ported di­rec­tion. (From out­side mythic mode, it’s re­ally not that sur­pris­ing that I’d find some­thing like this that I could in­ter­pret as mean­ingful… but since at this point I hadn’t solved the origi­nal prob­lem, I wasn’t go­ing to worry too much about that just yet.)

After a se­quence of mythic ex­plo­ra­tion and omens, it seemed clear to me that I needed to visit New York City. I was ac­tu­ally ready to hop on a plane the day af­ter we’d finished with a CFAR work­shop… but a bunch of pro­jects showed up as im­por­tant for me to deal with over the fol­low­ing week. So I booked plane tick­ets for a week later.

When I ar­rived, it turned out that the Shaolin monk who teaches there was ar­riv­ing back from a weeks-long trip from Ar­gentina that day.

This is a kind of thing I’ve come to ex­pect from mythic mode. I could have used mur­phyjitsu to hope­fully no­tice that maybe the monk wouldn’t be there and then called to check, and then care­fully timed my trip to co­in­cide with when he’s there. But from in­side mythic mode, that wouldn’t have mat­tered: ei­ther it would just work out (like it did); or it was fated within the script that it wouldn’t work out, in which case some prob­lem I didn’t an­ti­ci­pate would ap­pear any­way (e.g., I might have just failed to think of the monk pos­si­bly trav­el­ing). My land­ing the same day he re­turned, as a re­sult of my just hap­pen­ing to need to wait a week… is the kind of co­in­ci­dence one just gets used to af­ter a while of op­er­at­ing myth­i­cally.

(And of course, this is quite pos­si­bly just con­fir­ma­tion bias. And that’s im­por­tant to no­tice. But like I said ear­lier, one tends to get re­sults from mythic mode if one isn’t too wor­ried about that while in the mode. And also, we don’t know it is con­fir­ma­tion bias ei­ther: what peo­ple no­tice, and when, is sub­ject to the dis­tributed com­pu­ta­tion of the so­cial web, which means that some seem­ing co­in­ci­dences are prob­a­bly or­ches­trated. E.g., maybe some part of me no­ticed a side­bar on their web­site men­tion­ing when the monk would be trav­el­ing, but I didn’t con­sciously reg­ister it, in­stead feel­ing like those lit­tle pro­jects I had to take care of were im­por­tant enough to have me wait a week.)

The whole trip in New York felt epic. I gained a lot. Most of what I gained re­quires more back­story to ex­plain, so for the sake of brevity I’ll skip de­scribing the bulk of it. I did learn an in­tense move­ment med­i­ta­tion se­quence I’ve been us­ing al­most ev­ery morn­ing for months now — which, in­ter­est­ingly, I don’t need to strug­gle to get my­self to do. I just get up and do it, eas­ily. It’s not a mat­ter of per­sonal dis­ci­pline; it’s just so right-fit­ting for me that it hap­pens nat­u­rally.

Look­ing back, from out­side mythic mode, I can see how this amounted to me do­ing a costly self-sig­nal to stick to some kind of med­i­ta­tion and ex­er­cise pro­gram. That fits with most of the in­sights and op­por­tu­ni­ties I ex­pe­rienced along the way. And… I can also see how it wouldn’t have worked if I’d done it think­ing “I’m go­ing to spend a bunch of time and money on a costly sig­nal to my­self.” I step out­side mythic mode and keep its “in­sights” con­tained within the sand­box as a mat­ter of keep­ing my episte­mol­ogy clean. But even from here, I can see how valuable that toolkit is to me as a method of shap­ing my be­hav­ior and, some­times, get­ting my­self to up­date.


I’ve seen the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity use mythic mode a lot — but al­most ex­clu­sively for in­tu­ition pumps and, oc­ca­sion­ally, spic­ing up events. And even then I’ve seen a fair amount of push-back. My guess, from ex­trap­o­lat­ing the out­cries I’ve heard against it, is that a fair num­ber of folk find it epistem­i­cally fright­en­ing. And that makes sense: if you don’t know how to sand­box, or if you don’t trust that sand­box­ing can re­li­ably work, then this prob­a­bly looks like a crazy risk to take.

From where I’m stand­ing, though, the choice was already made when you were born. We’re already em­bed­ded in cul­ture and sub­ject to its in­fluences. And much of that is cul­ture reach­ing into our emo­tions and deep­est thoughts and nudg­ing us to be­have in cer­tain ways. None of us are im­mune; if it were oth­er­wise, there would be no rea­son for cau­tion.

The fact that there is a type of per­son who is at­tracted to Less Wrong, and that this type gath­ers and forms a com­mu­nity, but that the vast ma­jor­ity of that com­mu­nity is not and has not been in­volved in the same task-ori­ented pro­ject… sug­gests that the forces that shape the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity are im­plicit and sub­tle, and prob­a­bly very similar to the ones that shape other com­mu­ni­ties.

So from what I can tell, if you don’t know how to sand­box this stuff, and you don’t know how to Look, then your episte­mol­ogy is already screwed. It just might not be in-char­ac­ter for you to no­tice it in this way.*

With all that said, I’m not at all in­vested in folk here us­ing mythic mode more than they already do. I wanted this here to illus­trate an ex­am­ple ap­pli­ca­tion of ac­count­ing for the real-world Omega. I’ll also want to call on the frame­work later to offer my own in­tu­ition pumps in fu­ture posts: it’s a re­ally helpful con­text for con­vey­ing maps that point at oth­er­wise-hard-to-talk-about phe­nomenol­ogy.

Beyond that, if you want to avoid us­ing mythic mode, I don’t ob­ject.

I even wel­come at­tempts to ar­gue that no one should use mythic mode. Just be warned that you’re likely to find that effort a par­tic­u­lar fla­vor of frus­trat­ing.


*: In case I need this later, this is an MD5 hash: 24e07349c9134ff91d77a6a38cf23183