Steelmanning Divination

[This post was pri­mar­ily writ­ten in 2015, af­ter I gave a re­lated talk, and other bits in 2018; I de­cided to finish writ­ing it now be­cause of a re­cent SSC post.]

The stan­dard forms of div­ina­tion that I’ve seen in con­tem­po­rary Western cul­ture—as­trol­ogy, for­tune cook­ies, lot­ter­ies, that sort of thing—seem pretty worth­less to me. They’re like try­ing to ex­tract in­for­ma­tion from a ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tor, which is a gen­er­ally hope­less phe­nomenon be­cause of con­ser­va­tion of ex­pected ev­i­dence. Thus I had mostly writ­ten off div­ina­tion; al­though I’ve come across some ar­gu­ments that div­ina­tion served as a way to im­ple­ment mixed strate­gies in com­pet­i­tive games. (Hun­ters would de­cide where to hunt by burn­ing bones, which gen­er­ated an ap­prox­i­mately ran­dom map of their lo­ca­tion, pre­vent­ing their tar­gets from learn­ing where the hu­mans liked to hunt and avoid­ing that lo­ca­tion.) But then I came across this strik­ing pas­sage, and sat up straight:

One performs the rain sac­ri­fice and it rains. Why? I say: there is no spe­cial rea­son why. It is the same as when one does not perform the rain sac­ri­fice and it rains any­way. When the sun and moon suffer eclipse, one tries to save them. When Heaven sends drought, one performs the rain sac­ri­fice. One performs div­ina­tion and only then de­cides on im­por­tant af­fairs. But this is not to be re­garded as bring­ing one what one seeks, but rather is done to give things proper form. Thus, the gen­tle­man re­gards this as proper form, but the com­mon peo­ple re­gard it as con­nect­ing with spirits. If one re­gards it as proper form, one will have good for­tune. If one re­gards it as con­nect­ing with spirits, one will have mis­for­tune.

This is from Eric L. Hut­ton’s trans­la­tion of a col­lec­tion of es­says called Xunzi (pre­sum­ably writ­ten by Xunzi, an an­cient Chi­nese philoso­pher who was Con­fu­cian with heavy Le­gal­ist in­fluences). The book was over­all re­mark­able in how much of Xunzi’s brilli­ance shone through, which is some­thing I very rarely think about au­thors. (Talk­ing to an­other ra­tio­nal­ist who was more fa­mil­iar with Chi­nese philos­o­phy than I was, he also had this im­pres­sion that Xunzi sim­ply had a lot more men­tal horse­power than many other core figures.) By the end of it, I was ask­ing my­self, “if they had this much of ra­tio­nal­ity figured out back then, why didn’t they con­quer the world?” Then I looked into the his­tory a bit more and figured out that two of Xunzi’s stu­dents were core figures in Qin Shi Huang’s unifi­ca­tion of China to be­come the First Em­peror.

So this para­graph stuck with me. When Xunzi talks about the way that ear­lier kings did things, I reg­istered it as an ap­plause light and moved on. When he talked about how an im­por­tant role of gov­ern­ment was to pre­vent in­no­va­tion in mu­sic, I reg­istered it as cov­er­ing a very differ­ent thing than what I think of when I think about ‘mu­sic’ and moved on. But when he speci­fi­cally called out the rea­son why I (and most ed­u­cated peo­ple I know) don’t pay much at­ten­tion to as­trol­ogy or other sorts of div­ina­tion or magic, said “yeah, those would be dumb rea­sons to do this,” and then said “but there’s still a rea­son”, I was cu­ri­ous. What’s the proper form that he’s talk­ing about? (Sadly, this was left as an ex­er­cise for the reader; the sur­round­ing para­graphs are only vaguely re­lated.)

In his in­tro­duc­tion, Hut­ton sum­ma­rizes the rele­vant por­tion of Xunzi’s philos­o­phy:

In this pro­cess of be­com­ing good, rit­ual plays an es­pe­cially im­por­tant role in Xunzi’s view. As he con­ceives them, the rit­u­als con­sti­tute a set of stan­dards for proper be­hav­ior that were cre­ated by the past sages and should gov­ern vir­tu­ally ev­ery as­pect of a per­son’s life. Th­ese rit­u­als are not in­vi­o­lable rules: Xunzi al­lows that peo­ple with de­vel­oped moral judg­ment may need to de­part from the strict dic­tates of rit­ual on some oc­ca­sions, but he thinks those just be­gin­ning the pro­cess of moral learn­ing need to sub­mit com­pletely to the re­quire­ments of rit­ual. Of the many im­por­tant roles played by the rit­u­als in mak­ing peo­ple good on Xunzi’s view, three par­tic­u­larly de­serve men­tion here. First the rit­u­als serve to dis­play cer­tain at­ti­tudes and emo­tions. The rit­u­ally pre­scribed ac­tions in the case of mourn­ing, for in­stance, ex­hibit grief over the loss of a loved one, whether or not the rit­ual prac­ti­tioner ac­tu­ally feels sad­ness. Se­cond, even if the rit­ual prac­ti­tioner does not ac­tu­ally feel the par­tic­u­lar at­ti­tude or emo­tion em­bod­ied in the rit­ual, Xunzi be­lieves that re­peated perfor­mance of the rit­ual can, when done prop­erly, serve to cul­ti­vate those at­ti­tudes and emo­tions in the per­son. To use a mod­ern ex­am­ple, tod­dlers who do not know to be grate­ful when given a gift may be taught to say “thank you” and may do so with­out any un­der­stand­ing of its mean­ing or a feel­ing or grat­i­tude. With rep­e­ti­tion, time, and a more ma­ture un­der­stand­ing of the mean­ing of the phrase, many of these chil­dren grow into adults who not only feel grat­i­tude upon re­ceiv­ing gifts but also say “thank you” as a con­scious ex­pres­sion of that feel­ing. Similarly, on Xunzi’s view, rit­u­als serve to in­cul­cate at­ti­tudes and feel­ings, such as car­ing and re­spect, that are char­ac­ter­is­tic of virtue, and then serve to ex­press a per­son’s virtue once it is fully de­vel­oped. A third im­por­tant func­tion of the rit­u­als is to al­lot differ­ent re­spon­si­bil­ities, priv­ileges, and goods to differ­ent in­di­vi­d­u­als, and thereby help to pre­vent con­flict over those things among peo­ple.

So what is cul­ti­vated by perform­ing div­ina­tion?


The first step is figur­ing out what sort of div­ina­tion we’re dis­cussing. Xunzi prob­a­bly had in mind the I Ching, a book with 64 sec­tions, each cor­re­spond­ing to a situ­a­tion or per­spec­tive, and ad­vice ap­pro­pri­ate for that situ­a­tion. In the sim­plest ver­sion, one gen­er­ates six ran­dom bits and then con­sults the ap­pro­pri­ate chap­ter. I ac­tu­ally tried this for about a month, and then have done it off and on since then. I no­ticed sev­eral things about it that seemed use­ful:

  • En­tries in the I Ching typ­i­cally fo­cused on per­spec­tives or prin­ci­ples in­stead of situ­a­tions, con­se­quences, or ac­tions. To­day’s Tau­rus horo­scope says “your self-es­teem might be challenged by a fast talker or un­pleas­ant situ­a­tion” and coun­sels me “don’t ac­cept things as they ap­pear on first glance,” whereas the I Ching read­ing I just ran­domly se­lected talks about how fol­low­ing proper prin­ci­ples leads to in­creased power and how the in­creased power tempts us to aban­don the prin­ci­ples that gen­er­ated that power. This makes it much eas­ier to scan one’s life and see where the per­spec­tives shed new light on a situ­a­tion, or where prin­ci­ples had been ig­nored. (One of the early suc­cesses of my I Ching prac­tice was a chap­ter that sug­gested reach­ing out to a trusted guide for ad­vice, and I re­al­ized I should talk to a men­tor at work about a de­vel­op­ing situ­a­tion, which I wouldn’t have done oth­er­wise.)

  • Given that, daily div­ina­tion al­most filled the same role as daily ret­ro­spec­tives or plan­ning ses­sions; I was fre­quently think­ing about all the differ­ent parts of my life on a reg­u­lar in­ter­val, us­ing a va­ri­ety of ran­dom ac­cess to filter things down.

  • “One performs div­ina­tion and only then de­cides on im­por­tant af­fairs.” Often one is faced with a challenge that is “above one’s pay grade,” and hav­ing a pre­scribed rit­ual for what sort of cog­ni­tion needs to be done en­courages re­flec­tion and pop­ping out of the ob­vi­ous frame. Sim­ply think­ing about a situ­a­tion in the way one nat­u­rally would doesn’t cor­rect for bi­ases, while at­tempt­ing to make sense of a situ­a­tion from a ran­domly gen­er­ated frame does help ex­pand one’s con­cep­tion of it.

  • Since the div­ina­tion re­sult was a par­tic­u­lar per­spec­tive (rather than an ob­ject-level claim about events or the cor­rect ac­tion), it was easy to see when the per­spec­tive had been ‘fully con­sid­ered’ and the re­flec­tion was done. If I’m try­ing to make a bi­nary choice and I flip a coin to re­solve it, ba­si­cally all I’m do­ing is check­ing whether or not my gut is se­cretly hop­ing the coin lands a par­tic­u­lar way, and in cases of gen­uine un­cer­tainty I will end up just as un­cer­tain af­ter con­sult­ing the coin flip. But when I have a situ­a­tion and I re­solve the ques­tions of “what does pa­tience have to say about X?” and “what does hu­mil­ity have to say about X?” then I can have the sense of hav­ing ac­tu­ally made progress.

  • It en­couraged ex­per­i­men­ta­tion by par­tially de­cou­pling one’s mood and one’s de­ci­sions. The first few days, I was in­structed to con­sider dili­gence and so I worked more than I would have wanted to (and dis­cov­ered that this was gen­er­ally fine); on the fourth day, I joked, “when is it go­ing to tell me to goof off and play video games?”, and then got a read­ing that said “effort is hope­less to­day; that hap­pens, cope with it.” So de­spite feel­ing like I could have been pro­duc­tive, I took the day off, and later had the sense that I had con­firmed my ini­tial sense that I didn’t need to take the day off, pro­vid­ing data to cal­ibrate on that I wouldn’t have got­ten ex­cept through ran­dom vari­a­tion.

Essen­tially, it looked to me like the steel­man of div­ina­tion is some­thing like Oblique Strate­gies, where challeng­ing situ­a­tions (ei­ther ‘daily life’ or a spe­cific im­por­tant de­ci­sion) are re­sponded to by ran­dom ac­cess to a library of per­spec­tives or ap­proaches, and the par­tic­u­lar claim made by a source is what dis­tri­bu­tion is most use­ful. There was pre­vi­ously an at­tempt on LW to learn what ad­vice was use­ful, but I think on the wrong level of ab­strac­tion (the ‘do X’ va­ri­ety, in­stead of the ‘think about X’ va­ri­ety).

This ap­proach has also served me well with other forms of div­ina­tion I’ve since tried; a Tarot deck works by fo­cus­ing your at­ten­tion on a situ­a­tion, and then ran­domly gen­er­at­ing a frame (from an im­plied dis­tri­bu­tion of rele­vant sym­bols), giv­ing one ac­cess to parts of the space that they wouldn’t have con­sid­ered oth­er­wise. This also trains the habit of ‘un­der­stand­ing alien frames’; if I am con­sid­er­ing a con­flict with an­other per­son and then have to figure out what it means that “I’m the viz­ier of wa­ter, the re­la­tion­ship is the three of earth, and the other per­son is strength” (where, of course, each of those is in fact an image rich in de­tail rather than a sim­ple con­cept), this trains the habit of adopt­ing other per­spec­tives /​ figur­ing out how things make sense from the other point of view.