When a person first begins to study naturalism with me, I say to them almost nothing that I’ve written in this sequence.
That might very well be a mistake; I might get better results if I knew some short combination of words that would cause them to correctly understand, intellectually, what we are doing and why, before we started.
But in fact I bank on the person’s trust in me a bit, and begin by helping them establish consistent habits of observation.
If they’re interested in studying confusion, I ask them to tap their leg every time they notice they’re confused. I ask them to keep a log book in which they record a few words about their experiences of confusion each day. I ask them to make predictions about what it will be like to notice confusion—what kind of situation will be happening and how they will know in the moment that they are confused—and to compare their observations to their predictions.
And then, throughout what has so far proven to be about a three month program, I never shift our focus away from consistent habits of observation. It’s not just where I start. It’s the entire curriculum.
From a practical perspective, this dogged persistence is the foundation of naturalism. “Direct observation of the territory”, without patience, gets you something like a bag of tricks. Valuable tricks, but still tricks. Isolated mental motions made when they are convenient and enjoyable, not when they are most needed.
With patience, though, you get a life-long practice of epistemic rationality.
So the whole naturalism program, from start to finish, consists of the establishment, improvement, and maintenance of consistent habits of observation. Consistent and ceaseless, without any sense that “and then we’ll be done observing and get back to normal”. When my students and I meet, we are constantly talking about what daily practice looked like over the past week, what was too heavy to implement as a regular routine, and how they personally can slow down enough to thoroughly observe. We continue in this way until they no longer seem to need me to ask those questions for them. The program is meant to introduce a new normal.
The rest of what I talk about in this sequence is sprinkled in, sure. It’s implicit in the questions I ask, the approaches I encourage, and “my whole vibe”. Like a catalyst, or like spices, those other parts are crucial to the recipe. But patience is the engine that makes all of it go. None of what I’ve written here gets off the ground unless it is practiced as an ongoing discipline.
I suspect that the thing I’m calling “patience” really is a single core capacity, or a single virtue; but it can express itself in multiple patterns of behavior. I’d like to talk about three patient behavior patterns: tenacity, openness, and thoroughness.
In my mind, the paradigmatic example of tenacity is marathon training. Not marathon racing, but the training program a runner goes through to prepare for their first marathon.
After an initial adjustment period, training for endurance athletics is mainly difficult because it requires commitment to the maintenance of a routine, not because it requires intense exertion. Most of the time you’re not running anywhere near as fast as you can, and at least until race day, you’re not running as far as you can either. On any given day, you’re running a comfortable-for-you amount—but you’re doing it day after day after day, without fail, for months at a time. The distance running motto is “small, consistent efforts”.
The facet of patience I’m calling tenacity is the ability to exert small, consistent efforts.
The reason tenacity is foundational to naturalism is that it’s required for any kind of maintenance. Knowledge of the territory requires not just contact with the territory, but maintenance of that contact. Bumping up against the world and bouncing right back off again is not enough; you have to reliably return after you bounce.
We are bound to see things as we are, rather than as they are; but we are not bound to always see them as we were when we first encountered them. It is possible to observe again, and again, and again; if you do that with naked directness, and with the relentlessness of marathon training, your perceptual systems will inevitably adjust to perceive reality more accurately over time.
The next facet of patience I’d like to talk about is “openness”, in the sense of “non-closure”.
When someone comes to me for advice on a long-standing adaptive challenge, the most common recommendation I give is, “Stop trying to solve this problem for a while. Start investigating the underlying territory instead.”
I recently chatted with someone who was worried that she might be a narcissist, and wanted to know what to do about it. She gave me permission to share these (anonymized) excerpts from our conversation.
Logan: my first thought is that this sounds like a situation where you’d do well to put “what should i do about it?” on hold for a good three months, and focus instead on “what is actually happening? how can i tell? what is it like? what is my brain doing by default in various situations, and which situations are the ones i care about here? which phenomena and mental motions seem important for understanding what’s happening here?”
Crystal: That seems smart. But, seems better to know I am a narcissist than to be uncertain about it for three months… more comfortable I mean
Logan: i imagine that you have a question like “am i a narcissist?” in your head, and it’s really salient because things you care about depend on the answer to it, and it’s uncomfortable to not know the answer because you’d ideally orient to the two different worlds differently, and when you don’t know which you’re in you don’t’ know how to orient. is that right?
Here, Crystal is demonstrating a need for closure. She is uncomfortable (understandably!) with being uncertain. She would like to make plans for the future. Those plans may be substantially different in worlds where she believes the answer to the question “am I a narcissist?” is “yes” than in the world where it’s “no.” She wants to know what to work on, in herself and in her relationships. She wants to know what to expect.
So when I recommend to her that she deliberately hang out in uncertainty while she gradually increases her contact with the territory, it feels bad to her.
Back to the conversation, jumping ahead a bit:
Logan: i tend to operate under the conjecture that when there is a thing that’s been a problem for most of a person’s life, that person’s way of conceptualizing the problem is very likely to be incorrect or incomplete in ways that make investigation that’s not driven by the concept more productive than investigation that is driven by the concept.
Crystal: The concept being “narcissism”?
Crystal: How is it driven by the concept or not? What does that mean?
Logan: investigation that’s driven by the concept looks like: how would i know if i’m a narcissist? what things are evidence for or against? where would i look for evidence of narcissism? what would disconfirming evidence look like? what are alternative hypotheses? how might i test them?
Crystal: > investigation that’s driven by the concept looks like: how would i know …
That sounds like me
Logan: investigation that’s not driven by the concept might look like: what does it feel like to be worried about whether i’m a narcissist? what seems to be at stake? if i go through the week and write down times when something related to the-thing-i-care-about-here happened, what do i end up writing? what was happening around me and in my head during those times? which of the things happening in my experience seems most closely tied to the-thing-i-care-about-here? how can i tell when that thing is happening in my head? if i watch for times when that thing is happening in my head and write down instances, what do i write?
in other words, it’s possible to gain a lot of information about what’s actually going on without having pre-decided most of what’s going on. my suspicion is that this is a time when it makes sense to not pre-decide most of what’s going on before you try to really seriously get in contact with the relevant region of territory
I often call the latter type of investigation—the kind that’s not driven by the concept—”exploratory investigation”. I’ve never used a word for the former type, but here I’m inclined to dub it “certainty seeking”.
Certainty seeking is often the right approach. It’s the right approach when you have good reason to think you mostly understand the situation and just need to fill in some details, or to determine the truth values of a couple central propositions. In that case, a more exploratory investigation style would be needlessly inefficient.
But people very often fall into certainty seeking when they are impatient. They already have a sketch, and for one reason or another, they just want to fill in the details and be done. They’re willing to shift a line here or there, but mainly they’re motivated to complete the drawing. “All I want to know is, is this narcissism or isn’t it? Yes or no?!”
A person in the grips of this impatient mode is not so much trying to learn the shape of reality, as to crystalize a satisfying concept so they can relax into certainty.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, of course. My point is that nearly all truth-seeking benefits from a combined approach to investigation. You need to be able to move back and forth. Impatience tends to crowd out direct exploration, and ensures that you’ll mainly find whatever you have already decided to look for.
Openness, in the sense I mean, is the ability to observe without desperation for an answer.
But, what is it to observe without desperation? I’ve told you what this facet of patience lacks, but what does it consist of?
Today I saw a raven do a barrel roll.
I’d heard that ravens could turn over in the air, and even do backflips occasionally, and I’d seen pictures of ravens upside down. But when I saw this one do a barrel roll right in front of me—well, above me, I suppose—I felt… “surprise” is too simple. I felt glued to the ground, knocked sideways, and opened up all at once. I felt awe. I shouted up to the raven, “You just did a barrel roll! What?! That was awesome! You are awesome!”
Before I saw the raven, I was out on a walk through the country, down a dirt road with a few houses and lots of trees. Earlier on my walk, I took a picture of some kind of insect nest, or perhaps a fungus, on the underside of a leaf. I peered through a hedge to see if I could work out what kind of crop my secretive neighbors were growing. I smelled some little pink flowers on a tree and found that their scent was a lot like caramel and roses mixed with grass. I pet a dog and asked her if she could smell my cat (which she probably could, but she wasn’t feeling chatty). I learned that the acorn hats have dried out enough to go “crunch” underfoot.
My state of mind was one of open, gentle exploration. And it’s from that state of mind that the raven was able to move me in the way it did.
I can imagine an alternate walk in which I was trying to determine whether or not my local ravens can do aerial acrobatics. I think there would have been some frustration with the many ravens I saw along the way who were not even flying, let alone flying upside down. (I wouldn’t have observed any leaf bottoms at all.) And I think that seeing the barrel roll would still have been very cool, but it also would have felt a lot more like relief and completion; like the end of something, rather than the beginning. Like closing, more than like opening.
But more importantly, I never would have set out on such a walk in the first place. It simply would never have occurred to me. I saw a raven do a barrel roll because I was there when it happened. I was in the right place, and I was open.
Openness feels like being there for whatever happens. Being down.
It’s almost-but-not-quite the opposite of purposefulness. It’s the canvas on which purposes get painted. A central strategy of naturalism is to put most of your purposefulness points into choosing where to bring your canvas. If that canvas is already full, then there’s nowhere for new and surprising things to land.
Openness feels like putting myself in the middle of something alive, looking around, and letting whatever I observe move me however it does.
The final facet of patience I’d like to discuss is thoroughness.
When I think of thoroughness, I imagine holding a puzzle box as I turn it around and around, trying to visually examine it from all angles. No matter how accurate and precise my observations of the box from one particular angle, it is only possible to see at most three faces of a cube from any single vantage point. To know the whole surface of a cube, I either have to move the cube, or I have to move myself.
If the puzzle box is sitting on your desk, and you glance over at it several times as you go about your day, you’ll most likely catch it from a few different angles by accident. So tenacity and openness together naturally result in some amount of thoroughness.
This is the principle behind what Anna Salamon has called “the 50⁄50 rule”. According to (my own interpretation of) the 50⁄50 rule, 50% of the intellectual progress you make on something will happen while you are deliberately trying to make progress on that thing in particular. The other 50% will happen while you are engaged with other things: riding the bus, playing with your kids, designing a board game, identifying a bird.
It’s important to spend a lot of your time doing things other than focusing on your Main Project. This is not just because your brain needs to “rest”; it is also important to do other things because you will see different faces of the puzzle box while you are dancing at a salsa club than while you are staring at a white board.
It is possible to find additional vantage points on purpose, and I call this capacity “perceptual dexterity”.
When I look at the pen that is on my desk right now, I see a pen. That is, when I direct my gaze and attention toward the part of my visual field where light is reflecting off the surface of the pen, my concept of “pen” is active.
When I see the pen as a pen, certain parts of my experience stand out to me, while others are discarded. My attention lands on the button at the top, which I could push to extrude the nib. It lands on the thin cylindrical shape, and I can feel myself preparing to orient my hand to that shape in a way that would allow me to hold the pen for writing.
But the reflection of the clip in the shiny metal surface of the cylinder doesn’t occur to me, when I see the pen as a pen. To notice that reflection, I have to see the pen a little differently than I would by default. I have to rotate to a slightly different vantage point—to rotate my mind into a slightly different configuration, one that processes information a bit differently.
I don’t have to primarily activate my “pen” concept just because I happen to be looking at a pen. I can choose to rotate my mind however I want, and then look at the thing in front of me.
If I rotate my mind toward “goose”, what first stands out to me is the hole in the front, which seems to break an otherwise aerodynamic nose. Maybe the air would get stuck in there, if this pen had wings and tried to fly.
If I rotate toward “aggression”, the first thing that stands out is the place where the clip is attached to the body of the pen, as I evaluate its thickness and wonder how much force it would take to snap the clip off and leave a sharp edge.
When I’m chewing on a problem and feeling a little stuck, one of the first things I do is ask myself, “If this were a boat, what sort of boat would it be?” There’s nothing special about boats for problem solving, but answering this question forces me to rotate my mind into a configuration that is probably quite different from whatever I was stuck in before. If this pen were a boat, it would be a sleek but sturdy racing boat with a silver sail and an athletic captain steering.
The more perceptually dexterous you are, the less constrained you are to see only what you saw in your very first glance. You are not trapped in your most familiar perspective.
Thoroughness is what results from the successful exercise of perceptual dexterity. It is observation that continues well beyond familiarity, traversing many vantage points to triangulate reality.
The thing that tenacity, openness, and thoroughness have in common is what I mean by “patience”. It’s the opposite of “rushing”, the opposite of “just wanting to be done”, or the opposite of “jumping to conclusions”. Patience is taking the time to discover the real shape of the world.
By “patient observation”, then, I mean observation that is tenacious, open, and thorough. Knowing the territory requires direct observation that takes its time to discover the shape of the world.
It was technically an aileron roll.