Intro to Naturalism: Orientation
A note on how to approach this sequence:
If you were exactly like me, I would ask you to savor this sequence, not scarf it. I would ask you to approach each of these essays in an expansive, lingering, thoughtful sort of mood. I would ask you to read them a little bit at a time, perhaps from a comfortable chair with a warm drink beside you, and to take breaks to make dinner, sing in the car, talk to your friends, and sleep.
These essays are reflections on the central principles I have gradually excavated from my past ten years of intellectual labor. I am a very slow thinker myself; if you move too quickly, I expect we’ll miss each other completely.
There’s a certain kind of thing that happens when a person moves quickly, and relies a lot on their built-up structures—their familiar, tried-and-true habits of thought and perception. There is a different kind of thing that happens when a person can step back and bring those very structures into view, rather than standing atop them. I’m hoping for the latter.
But since you’re not exactly like me, there might be a better way to approach this sequence, in your particular case, than the exact one I’d suggest to myself. I hope you’ll take a moment to check.
What matters to me is not how fast you read, or how many sittings it takes; what matters is that you create for yourself enough space to explore, to observe the real world beyond all these words, to watch how your own thoughts and experiences unfold in dialog with mine. Any method that allows you to maintain that kind of space as you read is perfect, as far as I’m concerned.
“Naturalism” is a label for a conceptual framework, investigatory discipline, and semi-formalized way of looking at and learning about the world. I’ve been developing and teaching naturalism for the past couple of years, if you start counting on the day I chose the term, or since 2013, if you take a more historical perspective. I’ve made some relevant content available, but I’ve had trouble writing a straightforward introductory post.
The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that the naturalist perspective is suspicious of categories, projections, and preconceptions, and seeks to move closer toward (relatively) unfiltered, direct observations. It’s specifically a frame-breaking and frame-escaping discipline, so it’s hard to describe in frame-terms without being importantly misleading.
I ardently desire not to mislead anyone.
There’s a saying I like a lot, which goes: “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two is never sure.”
(When I first heard this, I needed to pause for a moment, to let it sink in. It helped me to actually visualize wearing a watch on each wrist, then checking the time.)
The reason I like this saying is that it reminds me to be confused, in an appropriate fashion. “Confused” might even be too weak of a word—it’s almost like it reminds me to be scared, in an appropriate fashion.
I mean, sure—for most things, I don’t have to know what time it actually is, with sufficient precision that the off-ness of my watch makes a meaningful difference. The claim here is not that absolute clarity is required at all times.
But there is indeed an unfortunate property of having-a-watch, which is that it provides me with an answer to the question “what time is it?”
It provides that answer clearly, and specifically, and unambiguously. It provides that answer with more confidence than it ought to, like a calculation that doesn’t attend to significant digits. And if I’m not careful, then with my watch right in front of me, it’s very easy to lose track of the fact that I do not, in fact, know exactly what time it is. To forget that what I really know is what time it almost is.
This is what our concepts do for us. They are usually a strict upgrade over “entirely too much information for us to even begin to process or handle”; but if you lean on them too heavily, or too unthinkingly, they become actively misleading. Actively harmful, in cases where precision and accuracy genuinely matter, and being subtly wrong is disastrous.
And concepts encourage us to lean. They’re sturdy! Sensible! Comforting! They soothe confusion, make the world seem more predictable and comprehensible, give us the surface sensation of control (or at least understanding). It’s nice to have answers.
But the map is not the territory.
It’s easy to look up at the sky, and name the constellations, without losing track of your knowledge that there isn’t really a Great Bear up there. We know that the constellations aren’t “real,” that they’re just there to help us chunk and cluster and orient and discuss.
But constellations are an unusually transparent construction. In the set of fake concepts that we impose on messy reality, they’re unusually candid about their fakeness. Their arbitrary nature is kind enough to be apparent and obvious.
Many concepts are much less wearing-their-fakeness-on-their-sleeve. Constellations don’t bear all that much resemblance to actual stars, so it’s easy to avoid getting confused. But a lot of concepts really look quite similar to the thing they’re modeling, and are therefore much more seductive, mesmerizing, convincing, befuddling. Much more in-the-way, much more likely to distract, much harder to set aside and see past.
The concept Harry’s mind had of the rubber eraser as a single object was obvious nonsense.
It was a map that didn’t and couldn’t match the territory.
Human beings modeled the world using stratified levels of organization, they had separate thoughts about how countries worked, how people worked, how organs worked, how cells worked, how molecules worked, how quarks worked.
When Harry’s brain needed to think about the eraser, it would think about the rules that governed erasers, like “erasers can get rid of pencil-marks”. Only if Harry’s brain needed to predict what would happen on the lower chemical level, only then would Harry’s brain start thinking—as though it were a separate fact—about rubber molecules.
But that was all in the mind.
Harry’s mind might have separate beliefs about rules that governed erasers, but there was no separate law of physics that governed erasers.
Harry’s mind modeled reality using multiple levels of organization, with different beliefs about each level. But that was all in the map, the true territory wasn’t like that, reality itself had only a single level of organization, the quarks, it was a unified low-level process obeying mathematically simple rules.
It is genuinely difficult to notice that an eraser is something other than “an eraser”—to circumvent the well-intentioned shortcutting that our brains are so practiced at doing.
And to be clear: it’s usually not necessary to notice that the mental category “eraser” is glossing over a bunch of detail. It usually does not matter; our concepts are ubiquitous in large part because they tend to be sufficient, adequate for our purposes.
But there are times when it’s absolutely crucial to be un-hypnotized, when it’s absolutely crucial to be aware of the difference between [what’s happening] and [the layer of interpretation we’ve draped like a blanket over what’s happening].
And there’s something frightening (to me, at least) about the idea of such a crucial moment arising and people not noticing it, because they aren’t even aware that they’re draping a blanket. Or noticing that they need to set aside the blanket, but not knowing how to actually do so.
Which is why I’ve devoted so many of my resources to developing naturalism. It’s an important facet of mature rationalist practice, and it’s mostly missing from our collective toolkit.
Notice, though, that “naturalism” is itself a concept. It’s a constellation painted somewhat arbitrarily over a multidimensional cluster of phenomena, pretending to be real. It’s easy to say that X is a part of naturalism and Y is not, and to forget that there just isn’t any boundary out there in the territory.
But in order to properly draw your attention to the cluster, I think I sort of have to paint those lines. Human brains (mine included) have a really hard time getting excited about vast collections of vaguely adjacent points; in order to produce something useful and comprehensible, I have to pretend that there’s a Thing, there.
I think doing so is instrumentally useful, and I think that (when done honestly, as this intro sequence is attempting to do) it’s not actually misleading, or self-undermining. This is a fundamental thesis of naturalism: that there are points, and there are paintings we superimpose upon them, and that these things are different. That the constellations are of a wholly different nature than the stars.
Doesn’t mean we don’t need the conceptual overlay. We just want to know, in any given moment, whether we’re dealing more with paintings, or more with the things they’re meant to depict.
The constellation I will paint in this sequence is a single sentence. It’s a sentence I built one word at a time, sketched atop a cluster of five stars I’ve picked out from my view of the night sky.
The sentence is a summary of naturalism after-the-fact. It will do almost nothing to help you understand the stars themselves, the real thing that I try to do with my mind day in and day out.
But it may serve to guide your attention to those stars. It may prompt you to look more closely, for yourself, at the reality hidden behind the tidy painting.
The sentence, which I will discuss piece by piece throughout my introductory sequence, is this:
The sentence forms the outline of my sequence, more or less:
My only goal in this sequence is to communicate what I mean by the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.”
Here is what will happen in this sequence: I will pick out the concepts that seem central to my understanding of naturalism; I will name them with words; and I will do my best to tell you what I mean by those words.
That is all.
There are a few things you might expect from an introductory sequence that I will not even try to accomplish. I want to be clear about my intentions.
I will not try to argue for the truth of the proposition the sentence picks out. It’s true, I think, that knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation. But I won’t try to convince you of that here.
I won’t tell you what would change my mind, or what I’d expect to see if I were wrong. I won’t tell you how I think you could find out if I were correct, or if I were not. I will not present evidence. I will not engage with counterarguments.
Inasmuch as I’m making a claim, you’re right to want that sort of thing from me. But I’ll disappoint you, for now, on this front. I cannot do very much at once; for me, just saying what I mean without misleading anyone is quite enough to be getting on with.
I will not try to argue that naturalism is important, either. Or, at least, not directly or on purpose. I won’t say much of anything about when it matters, or why. This is also a worthwhile topic, but it’s beyond the scope of this sequence.
Finally I will not try to help you learn naturalism. I do have a sometimes effective curriculum at this point, and I’ve even published a sort of proto-naturalism introductory course that you can take at your own pace online; but I will not be presenting anything like that here.
What I will try to do is pick out the concepts that are central to naturalism, name them with words, and tell you what I mean by those words.
It will take me seven-and-a-half essays, the first of which you have nearly finished.
When we are done here, I will write more things. When I write those things, I will sometimes use the term “naturalism”. And if this sequence is successful, people who have read it will know what I’m talking about.
People who have not read this sequence will say “What is naturalism?”, and I will finally be able to answer their question to my satisfaction.
Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation. Let us begin, then, with “knowing”.
Curated (the whole Sequence). Although not enough time has passed for me to attempt to follow the guidance in this Sequence, it feels to me as though a quite core part of rationality is contained in here, and anyone looking to level-up really ought to be trying this.
haha i would not go so far as to say that this sequence contains any guidance :p
but do please try hallucinating some into it, that sounds super valuable
Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.
For a number of months now I had James J Gibson theory of perception on my mind. My understanding of his ideas suggests to me that 1. There is a world out there and 2. We only know this word through perception.
I also have 2 young kids—and I notice that they spend a lot of time looking at the world (in many different ways). This is how they are getting to know the territory in order to build up their own models of reality.
I am excited for this sequence, I suspect that it will help me in clarifying what I think about the importance of perception.
Apologies for my previous comment—I missed the “read more” button on the guidelines.
In my own search for a good baseline for epistemic truth, I’ve come to a similar position to this, and thought it was worth mentioning that my path routed through cybernetics and systems theory, process philosophy, and social constructivism and anti-realist philosophy. I’m not sure if there’s a more specific term of art for these ideas besides “holism”, whose well has been somewhat poisoned, but naturalism strikes me as a good fit.
I’ve found it a helpful exercise when trying to break down the perception of concrete boundaries, to borrow from cybernetics and mentally model objects as not being distinct without being causally disconnected. A deer is not a deer without the vegetation it eats; it cannot exist separated from its environment. We have higher order “object” conceptions like ecosystems or world-systems where we are perfectly willing to accept an object as having ephemeral links make up parts of its whole but it seems we have a harder time breaking the whole object category when the parts are contiguous. I’m not sure if this perspective is culturally or evolutionarily grounded, but I suspect it’s a bit of both.
LoganStrohl appears to me to be the author and the piece is written in 1st person singular yet a second author is credited in the byline so I am moved to ask if it is both natural and rational for me to fail to understand.
Thank you. 🤝
The post Observations about writing and commenting on the internet feels quite close in spirit to this post.
Some parts that highlight the similarity:
I think analogy is used in the OP in a somewhat in-between way. “Complete” only in an itself circumscribed way.
wonderfully clear writing. Mini-note: I sometimes find it helpful when explaining a thing to state its purpose in addition to describing it generally. Though I understand that you had clear intentions for this sequence which didn’t include explaining the purpose of naturalism, just describing it.
To illustrate (perhaps clumsily), imagine someone taught a whole CFAR-type workshop without ever mentioning once the purpose of any of the techniques or that the overall goal was “winning”. I’d imagine the participants would be quite confused about what they’re doing and how to do it correctly. You could maybe reveal the point of the whole undertaking afterward and the techniques would start to make more sense to the participants in hindsight. But it would probably have been easier and more conducive to understanding the techniques if the participants had known the point of the techniques from the start.
So far, I’ve only read the introduction. It pulls together things I already believe, so I like it.
First thought is James C. Scott’s work—Two Cheers for Anarchism is a good starting point. He writes about tyranny’s demands for legibility.
Also, a lot of science requires taking a close look at the world.
See also “the map is not the territory”—but it takes time to see the territory.
I’ve been doing qi gong—it’s amazingly easy to think I know what I’m feeling physically, and a lot of work to actually start to notice it.
And I’ve been thinking that a way for rationalism to go wrong is to think that good enough concepts reliably trump observation. Sometimes concepts work—perpetual motion machines really are impossible—but mostly you need to keep looking at the world.
Excellent writing. Korzybski lives!
I wrote reactions on FB while reading, coping them here and on the other posts afterwards.
Initial reaction: “Ah, scary.” Their move from frames to unfiltered, direct observations feels scary. Like I’m going to lose something important. I rely on frames a lot to organize and remember stuff, because memory is hard and I forget so many important data points. I can chunk lots of individual stuff under a frame.
Coming back after finishing the series, I notice the “scary!” reaction is gone. Based on some of Logan’s comments on the FB thread, I think I updated toward 1. worry less about having to explicitly remember every detail → instead just learn to pay attention and let those observations filter into your consciousness, and 2. it’s still fine to use/learn from frames, just make sure you also have direct observations to let you know if your frames/assumptions are off.
Probably worth noticing that my mind spent the last half of the post trying to skip ahead. Like, there’s a storyteller setting the scene and my brain wants to skip over “Once upon a time…” ….but I’m guessing that skipping over something because it seems familiar is antithetical to the whole point of this series.
I get the problem about misleading frames and not noticing you’re skipping over counter evidence—I’m always worried/annoyed/frustrated about how little confidence I have in any claim because I can think of nuances. But ah, that’s why I like frames! I want cached answers, damn it.
I might be in the process of proving I’m not very good at looking at webpages, but I can’t find the “read next article” button. Could someone with the rights to add them please do so? I’ll find the next one on my own, but it would be comfy to not have to risk goofing up the order!
Huh, I don’t have this problem. I’m using Chrome and there’s a next button at both the bottom and top. Please click the little message button in the bottom right to let the LessWrong team know about this?
No, that was just me somehow, it’s fine now. Thanks for checking sorry for bothering you! Really enjoying the sequence by the way, interested to see how it plays into some of the ideas in your Nature Study course.