Sometimes I sort of feel like a grumpy old man that read the sequences back in the good old fashioned year of 2010. When I am in that mood I will sometimes look around at how memes spread throughout the community and say things like “this is not the rationality I grew up with”. I really do not want to stir things up with this post, but I guess I do want to be empathetic to this part of me and I want to see what others think about the perspective.
One relatively small reason I feel this way is that a lot of really smart rationalists, who are my friends or who I deeply respect or both, seem to have gotten really into chakras, and maybe some other woo stuff. I want to better understand these folks. I’ll admit now that I have weird biased attitudes towards woo stuff in general, but I am going to use chakras as a specific example here.
One of the sacred values of rationality that I care a lot about is that one should not discount hypotheses/perspectives because they are low status, woo, or otherwise weird.
Another is that one’s beliefs should pay rent.
To be clear, I am worried that we might be failing on the second sacred value. I am not saying that we should abandon the first one as I think some people may have suggested in the past. I actually think that rationalists getting into chakras is strong evidence that we are doing great on the first sacred value.
Maybe we are not failing on the second sacred value. I want to know whether we are or not, so I want to ask rationalists who think a lot or talk enthusiastically about chakras a question:
Do chakras exist?
If you answer “yes”, how do you know they exist?
I’ve thought a bit about how someone might answer the second question if they answer “yes” to the first question without violating the second sacred value. I’ve thought of basically two ways that seems possible, but there are probably others.
One way might be that you just think that chakras literally exist in the same ways that planes literally exist, or in the way that waves literally exist. Chakras are just some phenomena that are made out of some stuff like everything else. If that is the case, then it seems like we should be able to at least in principle point to some sort of test that we could run to convince me that they do exist, or you that they do not. I would definitely be interested in hearing proposals for such tests!
Another way might be that you think chakras do not literally exist like planes do, but you can make a predictive profit by pretending that they do exist. This is sort of like how I do not expect that if I could read and understand the source code for a human mind, that there would be some parts of the code that I could point to and call the utility and probability functions. Nonetheless, I think it makes sense to model humans as optimization processes with some utility function and some probability function, because modeling them that way allows me to compress my predictions about their future behavior. Of course, I would get better predictions if I could model them as mechanical objects, but doing so is just too computationally expensive for me. Maybe modeling people as having chakras, including yourself, works sort of the same way. You use some of your evidence to infer the state of their chakras, and then use that model to make testable predictions about their future behavior. In other words, you might think that chakras are real patterns. Again it seems to me that in this case we should at least in principle be able to come up with tests that would convince me that chakras exist, or you that they do not, and I would love to hear any such proposals.
Maybe you think they exist in some other sense, and then I would definitely like to hear about that.
Maybe you do not think they exist in anyway, or make any predictions of any kind, and in that case, I guess I am not sure how continuing to be enthusiastic about thinking about chakras or talking about chakras is supposed to jive with the sacred principle that one’s beliefs should pay rent.
I guess it’s worth mentioning that I do not feel as averse to Duncan’s color wheel thing, maybe because it’s not coded as “woo” to my mind. But I still think it would be fair to ask about that taxonomy exactly how we think that it cuts the universe at its joints. Asking that question still seems to me like it should reduce to figuring out what sorts of predictions to make if it in fact does, and then figuring out ways to test them.
I would really love to have several cooperative conversations about this with people who are excited about chakras, or other similar woo things, either within this framework of finding out what sorts of tests we could run to get rid of our uncertainty, or questioning the framework I propose altogether.
I am not one of the Old Guard, but I have an uneasy feeling about something related to the Chakra phenomenon.
It feels like there’s a lot of hidden value clustered around wooy topics like Chakras and Tulpas, and the right orientation towards these topics seems fairly straightforward: if it calls out to you, investigate and, if you please, report. What feels less clear to me is how I as an individual or as a member of some broader rat community should respond when, according to me, people do not certain forms of bullshit tests.
This comes from someone with little interest or knowledge about the former, but after accidentally stumbling into some Tulpa-related territory and bumbling around in it for a while, it turns out that the Internal Family Systems model captures a large part of what I was grasping towards, this time with testable predictions and the whole deal.
I haven’t given the individual-as-part-of-community thing that much thought, but my intuition is that I would make a poor judge for when to say “nope, your thing is BS” and I’m not sure what metric we might use to figure out who would make for a better judge besides overall faith in reasoning capability.
I have some thoughts about this (as someone who isn’t really into the chakra stuff, but feels like it’s relatively straightforward to answer the meta-questions that you are asking here). Feel free to ping me in a week if I haven’t written a response to this.
Ok, let me give it a try. I am trying to not spend too much time on this, so I prefer to start with a rough draft and see whether there is anything interesting here before I write a massive essay.
You say the following:
In some sense I might be missing the point since the answer to this is basically just “no”. Though obviously I still think they form a meaningful category of something, but in my model they form a meaningful category of “mental experiences” and “mental procedures”, and definitely not a meaningful category of real atom-like things in the external world.
Another way might be that you think chakras do not literally exist like planes do, but you can make a predictive profit by pretending that they do exist
I don’t think the epistemically healthy thing is to pretend that they exist as some external force. Here is an analogy that I think kind of explains the ideas of “auras”, which is a broader set than just chakras:
Imagine you are talking to a chessmaster who has played 20000 hours of chess. You show him a position and he responds with “Oh, black is really open on the right”. You ask “what do you mean by ‘open on the right’?”. He says: “Black’s defense on the right is really weak, I could push through that immediately if I wanted to”, while making the motion of picking up a piece with his right hand and pushing it through the right side of black’s board.
As you poke him more, his sense of “openness” will probably correspond to lots of proprioceptive experiences like “weak”, “fragile”, “strong”, “forceful”, “smashing”, “soft”, etc.
Now, I think it would be accurate to describe (in buddhist/spiritual terms) the experience of the chessmaster as reading an “aura” off the chessboard. It’s useful to describe it as such because a lot of its mental representation is cached out in the same attributes that people and physical objects in general have, even though its referent is the state of some chess-game, which obviously doesn’t have those attributes straightforwardly.
My read of what the deal with “chakras” is, is that it’s basically trying to talk about the proprioceptive subsets of many mental representations. So in thinking about something like a chessboard, you can better understand your own mental models of it, by getting a sense of what the natural clusters of proprioceptive experiences are that tend to correlate with certain attributes of models (like how feeling vulnerable around your stomach corresponds to a concept of openness in a chess position).
You can also apply them to other people, and try to understand what other people are experiencing by trying to read their body-language, which gives you evidence about the proprioceptive experiences that their current thoughts are causing (which tend to feed back into body-language), which allows you to make better inferences about their mental state.
I haven’t actually looked much into whether the usual set of chakras tend to be particularly good categories for the relationship between proprioceptive experiences and model attributes, so I can’t speak much about that. But it seems clear that there are likely some natural categories here, and referring to them as “chakras” seems fine to me.
lol on the grumpy old man part, I feel that sometimes :)
I’m not really familiar with what chakras are supposed to be about, but I’m decently familiar with yoga (200h level training several years ago). For the first 2⁄3 of the training we just focused on movement and anatomy, and the last 1⁄3 was teaching and theory. My teacher told be that there was the stuff called prana that flowed through living beings, and that breath work was all about getting the right prana flow.
I thought that was a bit weird, but the breathing techniques we actually did also had lovely and noticeable affects on my mood/body.
My frame: some woo frameworks came about through X years of experimentation and fiding lots of little tweaks that work, and then the woo framework co-evolved, or came afterwards, as a way to tie all these disjointed bits of accumulated knowledge. So when I go to evaluate something like chakras, I treat the actual theory as secondary to the actual pointers, “how chakras tell me to live my life”.
Now, any given woo framework may or may not have that much useful accumulated tidbits, that’s where we have to try it for ourselves and see if it works. I’ve done enough yoga to be incredibly confident that though prana may not carve reality at the joints or be real, I’m happy to ask a master yogi how to handle my body better.
Hmmmmm, so I guess the thing I wanted to say to you was, when having this chakra discussion with whomever, make sure to ask them, “What are the concrete things chakras tell me to do with my body/mind” and then see if those things have nay effect.
If you come up with a test or set of tests that it would be impossible to actually run in practice, but that we could do in principle if money and ethics were no object, I would still be interested in hearing those. After talking to one of my friends who is enthusiastic about chakras for just a little bit, I would not be surprised if we in fact make fairly similar predictions about the results of such tests.