“Taking your environment as object” vs “Being subject to your environment”

I think there’s a key rationalist skill of being able to take your environment as object, rather than being subject to it.

There’s a kind of wisdom people get when they leave environments. Today I talked to a friend of mine who has moved out of living in a city for over a year, and on visiting a city she noticed things about it that made her feel pressured and unpleasant that she’d never noticed before.

I’ve also done several interviews with people who are quitting organizations or leaving communities, asking them why they’re leaving, and there’s a certain lightness to them and their speech about the place. They can talk about the negatives and the positives freely, and don’t feel anxiety toward finding ways to balance their negatives with equal positives, like they’re supposed to justify their environment as ‘good’. They just speak plainly. I can hear them ‘admitting’ things a little with a chuckle, as though it was always true but not something they’d felt able to say until now.

Here’s a slightly different example, but that’s focused on a similar sort of mental move: I recently was on an intensely restrictive diet, because I thought it was very healthy and would cause me to lose weight. I’d done this diet before, but this time I had a much more unpredictable workload, which messed up my routine and I crashed several times from under-eating. I finally decided to let myself broaden the diet notably, and on the first bite of new food I had 2 realizations.

Firstly, I didn’t actually believe in the previous diet for its own sake. It was actually to make me disciplined about my food.

Secondly, I hadn’t let myself think that thought during my diet, I think because it would have been too much strain for me to discipline myself in this way just to discipline myself. It was much less strain to think that my diet had some magical properties for my health.

Recently, I read and participated in Eliezer’s dath ilan thread, where he answered questions about his home civilization.

Eliezer has a fantastic imagination. He is able to imagine what our civilization would like, from the perspective of someone in a different civilization. He is able to just say what it looks like from this outsider’s perspective, and say what are probably very obvious things from their perspective. But when you’re on the inside it’s far harder. You can sometimes do it with normal means within the system, but it can end up being a lot of hard work to get these insights. It can be much easier to imagine someone outside of the system looking in.

I’ve been reading some of Michael Vassar’s Twitter threads. I think he has a similar ability to look at civilization as a whole and say truths that people collectively avoid looking at, but I don’t think it comes from the same source. One model I have of Michael is someone who feels they are living in a hostile state, like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. This is a situation where you viscerally feel the threat to your life of “feeling comfortable in the system”, and are searching for alternative perspectives in an attempt to fight your way out. It’s a much more adversarial frame, and it’s more likely to notice parts of the society that are unjust and criminal.

Another model: I feel like Michael Vassar is similar to Luna Lovegood, who I empathized with a great deal when reading the HPMOR fanfic Luna Lovegood and the Chamber of Secrets. She has a pretty clear distinction between “what she believes” and “what narratives the Daily Prophet wants you to believe”. She assumes the latter is primarily a tool for the powerful, and is able to find pretty valuable things by separating the it from the former. I wouldn’t say she is wise enough to see the full truth, but she is able to correctly pick up on several patterns in the world most others miss.

So far I have said there are three ways of getting perspective on your environment: leaving it, imagining yourself into someone outside of it, and assuming that it’s hostile.

I have one more to add: I also think that ‘breaks’ are a fine tool for the toolkit. Sabbaths are things I have found very useful. And in January I took a whole two-week vacation in a new environment where I didn’t use my screens/​devices, and this really helped get me out of my head.

(I didn’t literally never use them, but I used them at least 10x less, and only let myself use them according to stringent rules. I’m not going to write down all the details but it was something like “I am only allowed to do a thing with my device if I wrote the thing down on a sheet of paper yesterday”.)

On that vacation I also read some great literature that I’ve never read before (Heinlein, Dostoyevsky, Tolkien and more) which has helped me empathize with people outside of my civilization. (I’ve been trying to write some dialogues between myself and Lord Denethor II discussing our respective civilizations, which has been a trip.) It’s been deeply rewarding and worthwhile in other ways I won’t list here, but I’ve made sure to keep it up since returning (Asimov, Watt-Evans, Herbert, and more; I’m looking forward to reading Gulf, on Eric S. Raymond’s recommendation).

I think people manage to spend their whole lives never thinking outside of their environment, or way-of-being. It’s a painful thought; and I’d like to build an environment where people reliably do.

What are some other ways to successfully take your environment as object?


[1] I note that Luna doesn’t think the world is as hostile, and has a generally more fun and curious time than someone living in Soviet Russia.