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