Creating a truly formidable Art
Over this last week, I and several other folk from CFAR’s past gathered. We were doing a kind of post-mortem on the last decade.
I mostly haven’t thought explicitly about Less Wrong style rationality for the last three years. It would come up in conversation every now and again, and I engaged with the “best of 2018” review process for a couple of my posts. But it just isn’t where I’ve been focusing anymore.
This week of immersion and reflection stirred some old circuitry in me. It was beautiful and fascinating to witness how who I am today dances with old ways of thinking and being from my CFAR days.
I also remembered the well-worn ache of repeated failure and defeat from trying to create these things, and the endless intellectual conversations that turned out to go nowhere as we struggled to birth any hint of the full Art.
But I’ve learned something these last three years about how to navigate that kind of failure, and how to deeply honor the true essence of an inspiration.
So I find myself in the amusing position of feeling how someone might actually create truly good rationality training. It’s amusing because I doubt this is my gift to give the world. I’m doing something closely related, but different. Far too mystical for the right aesthetic.
I’d like to attempt a translation. Partly for myself, because writing out these things brings me clarity. But partly as an invitation for the souls here who can feel the call and might do something with it.
I think the world would be more beautiful, and more fun, with real Beisutsukai.
Some Possible Ingredients of the Art
Embodying the Void
The first concept I’ll point at here is noise. Not in the information-theoretic sense (i.e., the opposite of signal). More in the sense of how it’s hard to be calm and composed in a loud environment, especially after you’ve been startled. The way the emotional noise of living with an abusive partner can make it hard to notice what’s going on and decide to leave. The way the feeling of alarm from outrage porn crowds out clear thinking and perception in favor of fueling the inner mental fire. The way noisy thoughts about already knowing the answer make it hard to really listen to the words and concepts someone else is saying.
Most tools for thinking more clearly add noise. They’re often useful noise, like “Oh, I’m giving a time estimate, which might be subject to the planning fallacy.” But they’re still adding inner sensation. Instead of inner silence, there’s yet another thought.
What’s needed here, as a foundational practice, is an art of removing inner sensation. The ability to come to inner silence at will.
(I know I’m wording that strongly. “What’s needed here,” etc. I mean it that strongly because it’s something I’m crystal clear on. But I also want to acknowledge an asymmetry of information here. I’m mostly going to keep ignoring that fact and continue to speak plainly throughout this post. I don’t mean for my confidence to pressure you beyond your epistemic comfort. But I’m also not going to pretend I know less than I do.)
This is an awful lot like clearing a workbench. Sure, you can stack your next project on top of the chunks of wood and oils and notes and wires scattered across your table…
…or you could take some time to clean everything up. It’s often surprising how much ease and functionality comes from having way more table room than you need. It’s easier to breathe.
The main difference is empty space. The Void. There’s a richness of nothingness that you can fill with physical “noise” (i.e., things) but you haven’t yet. It’s this free potential that brings ease.
The same thing happens in a mind. I find it hard to see what’s going on in me when everything is loud inside and thoughts are slamming into one another and creating turbulence while other thoughts are running in the background influencing me unseen. It doesn’t matter how accurate some or even all of those thoughts are: I still can’t do much intentionally with all that clutter. I’m just reacting.
But if I can come to inner silence, I can see and hear what’s going on in me very clearly.
This is a very, very powerful place from which to reshape how a mind behaves.
Today, if I were creating a discipline of rationality, I would start with this and interweave it into everything. Every step, every breath, every thought and practice would have the Void as its touchstone. I would focus on deepening it in myself, and I would make sure that every person walking into my rationality dojo had enough of a handle to start consciously deepening it in themselves. As a group I’d establish a signal that means that no matter what’s going on, we pause and come to stillness so that we can then come to view what was just happening from utter inner silence. Some of the practices would focus on creating inner stress via outside stimulation (e.g., eye gazing, or conversation) so that the solidity of one’s stance in nothingness slowly becomes unassailable.
I suspect this plays the sort of role that strength and endurance training does in martial arts. It’s not the Art, but it’s such an absurdly strong support for the Art that it’d be foolish to neglect.
Do the Thing and Not the Non-Thing
After I wrote the above and re-read it, it occurred to me that a reader might think “inner silence” is the same thing as numbing or suppressing inner experiences, and then they might rightly object that that’s a bad thing to cultivate.
So, first: No. That’s not what I mean.
But rather than clarifying what I do mean instead, I’d like to use this as an example.
My hope is that in reading the section on embodying the Void, you caught a glimpse of something. Something true. And I don’t mean “an aspect of the map that accurately reflects the territory”. I mean it the way there’s something true about how Captain America in the MCU stands up for what he sees as right no matter what (even if you might quibble about whether he’s right about what’s right).
And more importantly, it’s the same way in which there’s something true about the sense that more is possible.
If you can feel that “something true” about the inner silence, you can use that sense as a guide for your practice. You can start to tell what does and doesn’t fit — sort of like how you can feel what does or doesn’t “vibe” with a “scene” once you grok the scene’s aesthetic.
So once you grok the “aesthetic” of the Void, you can tell that numbing and suppression are the opposite of the right direction. So even if I in fact had meant something like that, you would be able to see what I should have meant and could make yourself stronger that way.
(And if you can’t tell that, then this signals that you haven’t understood the Void’s “aesthetic” yet — although I again want to acknowledge that I’m saying this across a possible asymmetry of information.)
In the same way, when we look at the sense that more is possible with the Art, it has a certain… ringing to it. It’s such that we can feel and know that we haven’t really done the thing yet. We don’t yet know what it would look like if we had, but we can still compare what exists right now to the tone of the intuition, and we can see that there’s still a sense that way more is possible.
How do we tell whether something is or isn’t “rationality”? It isn’t via a formal definition. If we were to try, we’d be testing the definition against a deeper knowing. If they sync up under scrutiny, then we can explore surprising implications of our definition. But the core thing, where caring about the Art comes from in the first place, is something deeper. By consciously attending to that, we become more honest about what we’re doing, and much more able to consciously distinguish progress from distraction.
This is the core anti-Goodhart move. What could cure you of Goodhart drift, at least in the limit, within your own mind? Not just using better and more clever measurements to stave off the entropic slide toward lost purposes, but actually end the drift? Naturally make it so that lost purposes systematically get unearthed and slain, and every single proxy comes to be transparent and stops confusing or distracting you?
This echoes the Virtue of the Void (or “twelfth virtue” or “zeroth virtue” depending on whom you talk to) from the Twelve Virtues of Rationality:
Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.
You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory.” But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.
This is “Keep your eye on the ball”, only as seen from the emptiness of the Void. And it’s a practice. It requires asking, again and again, in the silent voice of stillness: “Where did this thought come from? What purpose does it serve? How does it compare to my intention? What’s actually true here?”
I should also note that I for one find this practice extremely embodied. It feels like something in my body to resonate with an aesthetic. When something doesn’t match the aesthetic I’m focused on, the something feels sick in my heart and/or stomach. Most of this practice is a matter of spending time “tuning in” to the “frequency” of the aesthetic, sort of letting the intuition ring in my body until I know it the way I know whether my clothes are comfortable or whether I’m in love.
My personal experience is that this practice and that of cultivating inner silence synergize. The more deeply I come from inner silence, the easier it is to notice and stay with any aesthetic. And the more I attend to the aesthetic of emptiness, the deeper my rooting in silence grows.
My impression is that these two work in tandem to help cultivate the Virtue of the Void.
Devotion to Truth
But there’s still one piece of that Virtue to emphasize:
Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement.
I sort of want to bold and underline “Every” there. Every step. Every single one. Each breath, each moment, fully devoted to truth.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) has a wonderful example of this. In the BJJ dojos I’ve visited, there’s a very powerful embodied empirical attitude. If someone comes in with a theory about how it’d be easy to slip out of thus-and-such position, the typical answer is “Show me.” No philosophy. No discussion. Just an honest “Let’s try it and see what happens.”
Every step comes under scrutiny via the question “What’s actually real here?” Once you know what to try, every word uttered after that point is wasted breath because it doesn’t cut through to the truth. The direction of truth here is action.
I posit that this is why BJJ is so much more effective as a fighting style than nearly every other martial art. They train under pressure, with fully resisting opponents, in order to learn what works under pressure with fully resisting opponents. That cuts directly toward the correct answer in a way that lengthy theoretical debates or practicing on non-resisting opponents just can’t.
It’s tempting to see BJJ’s success and put together some kind of rule, like “Seek a practical test ASAP.”
I think this is maybe a little helpful. It’s something like an embodied version of the Virtue of Empiricism.
…but I think it mostly misses the point. It’s seeking to add mental noise without checking why. It doesn’t define the Art.
The question is, if you’re going to add noise, what is it in service to? Does it move you toward truth, or away from it? Does it cause you to see more, or less — the way vision from the Void sees vastly and clearly compared to vision from within thought?
I mean this at very micro levels. In a conversation, sometimes I’ll feel myself itching to inject my perspective, seeking a gap in the other’s speech so I can blurt out my “Yeah, but…”. To hold that itch, I have to care more about saying my piece than I do about listening. But if I enter the Void and silently ask myself “What moves me closer to truth here?”, almost every time the answer is to let go and listen. I know my thought already, but getting wrapped up in needing the other person to hear me can cause my mind to contract and leave me subtly confused.
…and sometimes I end up saying my piece after they finish anyway. But it’s coming from having listened, and from seeing how the act of speaking it helps me see more clearly.
(And sometimes I stop waiting and just cut right in with what I have to say. Because if the other person’s speech is actually that irrelevant to my understanding, then there’s no point in my listening to them. I’d be serving social politeness or maybe even fawning instead of truth.)
What would it be like to have every single breath devoted to cutting through this way? Not one single step taken away from truth, ever?
Well, honestly, it might be kind of terrifying. What if you realize that in fact, you and your partner aren’t really compatible, and you’ve been kind of ignoring that fact to keep the semi-comfortable status quo? If you care more about your relationship than you do about deepening your devotion to truth, you might never really look.
…which means that even if there is no trouble brewing underneath, you don’t get to know that either. Because you aren’t willing to look.
So how do you face the specters, known and unknown?
How do you devote yourself to truth so deeply that literally nothing can deter you, even for a moment, even for the other things you hold dear?
You devote to truth again and again.
Standing in the Void, aiming for the true thing and not the non-thing, you look.
“Why am I saying these words?”
“What is this thought serving?”
“Is looking at this website in this moment moving me closer to truth? Or is it obscuring and distracting me from truth?”
This is truly a devotional practice. You are entrusting your heart to reality itself. You’re choosing to leave every fiction, no matter how precious or wonderful or meaningful, in favor of contact with reality. And you’re developing the skill of making that choice, again and again, and of letting every part of you that resists this process fully die.
…even if it feels on the inside like what dies is you.
(And Maybe Other Ingredients Too)
Of course, there’s probably more. I didn’t intend this to be exhaustive. I’m trying to name an intuition.
It’s particularly a bit silly to be talking about the Beisutsukai when the word literally means to be Japanese for “those who use Bayes”, and from what I can tell this vision of the Art doesn’t require its practitioner to ever know about Bayes’ Theorem, let alone practice using it.
I haven’t named any of the core common material usually thought to be part of rationality, like probability calibration and awareness of biases.
I also haven’t re-combed through the Sequences to see if I’ve maybe missed something I can sense in Eliezer’s vision.
I didn’t even reread the Beisutsukai fiction!
But I suspect that what I’ve described here forms a kind of three-part synergistic engine that will rederive the need for the rest of the Art precisely to the degree that it’s relevant.
It’s a bit like trying to name the kernel of an operating system. In the case of rationality, I’m pretty clear that the “kernel” is the Virtue of the Void.
If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”
And if I’m wrong about any or all of that…
…then do the thing and not the non-thing.
Creating a Rationality Dojo
But for now, I’ll pretend this is the thing to paint a picture. I’d like to offer a semi-concrete vision of how I’d go about developing a rationality dojo these days.
I actually tried to run a rationality dojo about six years ago. It went roughly weekly for something like a year based at the CFAR office. It wasn’t anything to crow about, but I did learn from it. Looking back, the single biggest mistake I’d point to was trying to teach something I wasn’t embodying. It was more like a study group where I’d sometimes share strange ideas. I don’t think anyone there moved meaningfully toward becoming truly formidable master Beisutsukai as a result of attending those sessions.
Since then I’ve really taken seriously how important it is to embody first, and to teach to embodiment.
(…at least for me as a teacher, and for the students I’ve taken on since then.)
With that, the plan is pretty simple and would work pretty much the same whether I or others would create a rationality dojo:
Embody the Art, for real.
Use the embodiment to define and hold the dojo space.
Becoming the Art
The main thing here is to become a dedicated student of the Art. Which is to say, for-real internalizing those three core components (the Void, doing the thing, & devoting to truth) plus whatever they end up inspiring in you.
And the third of that trio means you can’t train in the Art in order to teach it or in order to save the world. You might start out that way, but that’s part of what the Art will demand you purify in order to progress beyond a certain point. For this to work, you have to become serious enough that you’re willing to drop the idea of the dojo if running it would move you away from truth. If the idea survives the crucible of your devotion, then you can proceed.
…but not before.
To get there, I recommend four steps in sequence:
(1) Learn to soothe your body
This might seem like a non sequitur, and it might well be the opposite advice from what some folk need to hear. But based on my own experience, and on my handful of students, this is quite critical for a lot of people — possibly most.
The gist is that if your body is chronically activated and you don’t learn how to calm it down yourself, you won’t find that inner silence simply by trying. Your body will inspire too much noise and movement. Later, after you’ve anchored in nothingness deeply enough, agitation won’t distract you anymore. But getting there at first can be a little tricky, and it’s much easier with a calm body.
The best resource I know of for this is Luis Mojica’s podcast “Holistic Life Navigation”. I especially recommend episodes 2 (on “fawning”), 4 (“Trauma is Our Birthright”), and 10 (“Finding Safety In Yourself”). If you’re up for listening to only one, I recommend the last of these three. Finding and developing somatic safety is core for moving into the Art as I see it.
(2) Deepen your contact with the Void
Once you have some kind of handle on how to soothe and settle your body…
It really is that simple. Just stop.
Stop moving. Stop doing. Stop listening to your thoughts. Just for a little while.
Just listen instead to the quality of silence.
Sit down, be still, and listen.
You are drunk
and this is
the edge of the roof.
You know the feeling of relief that happens when you’re in a very loud environment and then step into another room and… aaahhhh. Sweet, sweet nothing. Yes? That’s what you’re looking for. Look there.
At first you might find it helpful to go somewhere that inspires this quality for you. A silent room, or a remote hilltop overlooking an expansive vista. Then just listen to the silence. Deepen your familiarity with it. Notice your boredom with it, your attempts to fill it, as though noise is all that matters… forgetting the ease and relief you know you feel in the stillness. Just keep pointing your attention at the emptiness.
I found that after a while of this deepening, I stopped needing the environment to be any special way. The silence is everywhere. It’s in the gap between thoughts. It’s around and behind every sensation. Just like underneath all the clutter on a desk, there’s a desk, and without the clutter the desk would be spacious.
Then I started finding that I could drop into emptiness even in conversation — if I tried. And at first trying required a lot of dedication. But there’s something immensely freeing about noticing that what I’m doing in a conversation doesn’t make sense and just… stopping. Really taking in the truth that clearing the inner noise matters far, far more than whatever crazy thing I was just doing, and letting the mad impulse die.
My impression is that this takes way longer to cultivate than most minds find reasonable. Minds addicted to noise and sensation want fast results. When you can see clearly from the Void, I’m pretty sure you’ll see why this is. (It’s basically because fast results are sensational, and judgment of slow results is sensational, and addicted minds really super like the distraction that this kind of sensation provides.)
But I’m pretty sure there’s no magic trick.
It just takes time choosing, over and over again, to be with the silence.
Giving yourself deep permission simply to be.
(3) Learn to notice and leave the Drama Triangle
After you start being able to drop your reactions mid-conversation into the Void, I recommend reading Lynne Forrest’s article “The Three Faces of Victim”. Or alternatively, read it before then, but return to it as emptiness starts really clicking for you.
These Drama Triangle patterns are everywhere. Utterly everywhere. They entangle people’s noise with each other. So if you don’t learn how to notice when you’re operating in the Triangle and leave it, others can (and usually will) flood your mind with their own confusion. It’s crabs-in-a-bucket for madness.
Fortunately, once you see these patterns, you can become immune to them — at least in the limit. You can learn to be anti-fragile to others’ attempts to manipulate you.
One key here is to go beyond the intellectual understanding. Can you see yourself in Forrest’s article? Can you see how you play each of the three roles? When, precisely? What exactly did it feel like in your body in specific instances? What thoughts would go through your mind? Can you see how you inspire Drama Triangle reactions in others? And how you respond to others’ invitations to enter the Triangle with them?
You know it has landed when you start noticing yourself enacting the patterns as they happen in real time.
That’s when you pause. This is where that Void skill you’ve hopefully developed comes in super handy. Drop your share of the Triangle pattern into the silence and watch it unravel, leaving nothing but simple presence.
A note of warning: If you start succeeding at this, you might start having good boundaries… and lots of (most?) people find real boundaries painful to encounter and might try to make you wrong for having them. One reason is that “caring” and “connection” are usually taken to mean a particular type of Drama Triangle dynamic, usually with at least one person playing the role of Rescuer. But that’s not real connection, and that’ll be incredibly transparent to you the more deeply you free yourself of the Triangle and devote yourself to truth. But still, when you drop that Triangle game, it can feel to others like you are unwilling to play with them at all. Like you don’t care.
To attain truly unassailable clarity, you need to become completely emotionally fine with people misunderstanding you this way. Not numbing or ignoring your feeling response to it, but actually okay with it. It might still hurt, but if you can hold yourself through your own emotional pain (see “Learn to soothe your body” above) then their bids to flood your mind with madness will stop having power.
(4) Embody the Art’s aesthetic
I’ve worked a lot with the above three steps, and I’ve done this fourth step quite a lot with other aesthetics. So I’ll end up being very slightly more hypothetical for this part, although I’m still speaking from a not irrelevant amount of experience here.
This is about embodying the “Do the thing and not the non-thing” step. Anti-Goodhart. Which is to say, making yourself immune (in the limit) to distractions from the guiding intuition of the Art.
The main strategy here is to make the aesthetic extremely blazingly clear in your body, mind, and heart. The act of doing this will reveal many of the things that try to distract you from it, and you’ll get practice countering those distractions.
To point at the thing: There’s a certain flavor to the sense that more is possible, and to the Beisutsukai. They act sort of like handles for… something. A felt sense. A hint that inspired me to notice these three core possible practice-qualities (Void, doing the thing, & devotion to truth). An intuition that’s a better match for mid 20th century sci-fi novels than it is for, say, the Twilight Saga.
That feels like a specific thing in my body. As I write this, I feel it as a kind of hungry ache in my heart, and a sort of want-to-raise tingle across my shoulders and outer arms, and a slight pressure forward in my head. My body wears this energy.
(This is already pretty advanced, to be honest. My experience is that most people who start amplifying an aesthetic this way can barely tell at first whether they’re finding it in their bodies. Part of that is because of weak Void skill, part of it is difficulty staying with their body sensations, and part is just not having spent enough time with the feeling for it to be loud and clear for them. Fortunately, simply trying usually seems to resolve this after a while.)
If you do this kind of “tuning in” for yourself, and you just spend time with it the same kind of way you spend time with the Void, a clear sort of knowing will start to settle in. You’ll start to get why the aesthetic is the way it is, which can inspire insights about how you can train yourself to see reality more clearly.
(This is a natural extension of the sort of thing that tells me that, say, Ron from “Harry Potter” most definitely is not a Beisutsuka — but Quirrell from HPMOR pretty much is. And I know that before thinking about why. I’m just focusing on the essence of this intuition, which starts picking out the details of why I care. It just very often “speaks” in the voice of intuition or the Void, not conscious models.)
For some reason I don’t really understand, there’s usually a “clunk” where an aesthetic makes sense and just is available thereafter. It’s a fair bit like the “clunk” that happens from suddenly realizing how to solve a challenging math or programming problem. Hopefully you will have spent enough time with the Void to experience it there; if so, you’ll know exactly what to look for. That’s the minimal bar you’re going after.
Once that happens, you’ll sort of… know what to do. I have a little trouble knowing how to describe this clearly. You’ll get something about why the aesthetic has value for you, and you’ll have a clear sense of what to try next in order to deepen that value in yourself. It’s a subtle intuitive thing, not made of mental models at all, but prior to them. Much closer to the Void than thought.
(I normally find it a convenient shortcut at this point to switch to Mythic Mode and imagine that I’m dialoguing with a god or spirit whom I’m taking as my teacher. But I sort of suspect that this aesthetic in particular would object to being thought of that way!)
From that point on, it’s much easier to choose to do the thing instead of getting distracted with ideas about the thing. You’ll have an exquisitely honed bullshit detector for things that masquerade as attempts at the Art that are actually ego-based distractions (like wanting to look smart or feel important). This is key for identifying how to train yourself. It’s from here that you feel out how to devote to truth, for instance.
This is also a must for running a transformative rationality dojo. I’ll gesture a little at why later, but I don’t mean to issue a persuasive argument. I’m just letting you know in case you can hear me across the information asymmetry: If you try to skip or shortcut this step and put some kind of dojo together anyway, I’m pretty darn sure you won’t get Beisutsukai — not unless you go back and remediate and tear down everything you’d built that doesn’t fit. It’s actually much faster and more sure to just spend the time to get these four steps right first.
Founding the Dojo
It’s a little tricky to predict what someone who groks the Art’s aesthetic would choose to do without my groking it myself. In particular, it’s unclear whether and exactly how a given person would create a rationality dojo as part of their own training. Founding a dojo isn’t for everyone.
However, if they were to, I can predict some of what would have to go into that.
Teaching by embodiment, not instruction
I already hinted at the starting point, but it bears emphasizing. It’s an easy thing to forget — which is actually a feature, not a bug.
The sensei cannot have their primary aim be to teach. Their primary aim must be to master the Art. A rationality sensei worth learning from is someone whose devotion to truth guides them to lead a dojo, and who would abandon the dojo the moment it’s true for them to do so. This way it’s their devotion to the Art that teaches, not their ego.
Suppose a student stumbles but doesn’t recognize it (like completely missing an obvious selection bias in a proposed experiment). If the sensei is attached to teaching effectively, then their impulse will be to manipulate the student into doing something different, often sliding into the Drama Triangle or weaponizing authority. That might help the student fix that mistake, but it also makes the student a little more reliant on the sensei to notice mistakes like that one. And the example the sensei will have just enacted isn’t pristine.
But if the sensei sees the mistake and their first urge is toward “How can my seeing this move me closer to truth?”, they are more likely to see the whole picture. Then the question of how to cause the student to understand isn’t in service to their pride as a teacher. It’s instead a training ground for the sensei. Often, just letting the student make their mistake and then asking the right question later on (“What do you predict happens in these cases over here then? Shall we look?”) can cause the student to notice their blunder in a much more integrated way.
The challenge here is that student success is a metric for the sensei’s developing skill… which offers a temptation to subtly Goodhart. So part of the sensei’s practice is about perfecting their immunity to Goodharting — here and ideally in general. They need to keep checking their progress based on how their students are doing while never targeting that as a goal.
That’s why I say it’s a feature, not a bug, that it can be easy to forget all this. The act of running a rationality dojo this way is itself a significant challenge for some devotees of the Art. The students learn almost incidentally as the sensei forges themselves against those students’ learning processes.
This gives room for the dojo culture to have impeccable integrity.
Holding an aesthetic space
Once the devotee is very, very clear with themselves that the next phase of their own training includes running a rationality dojo, their next step would be to define and hold a space that lets the aesthetic of the Art saturate the students.
I think of walking into a cathedral. Its vast ceilings and rich iconography and stony silence has a kind of impact on me. I find myself wanting to walk slowly, respectfully. I speak in hushed tones or not at all. Whatever I might think about religion and the staleness of Mass and the economic forces that created the building, I cannot deny the power that this space has on me simply by my being in it. I feel reverence.
Online spaces can have this kind of “feel” impact too. A lot of work went into Less Wrong 2.0 to create a particular sort of atmosphere. It’s not primarily by visual impact upon visiting lesswrong.com, but there’s still a guiding aesthetic. Part of learning what kind of comments and posts to put here and where is based on getting intuitively familiar with that aesthetic. If something deviates too much from it, the moderators step in to correct or remove it because the alternative is culture decay.
By way of contrast, rebooting Less Wrong culture absolutely would not have worked on Twitter. Dramatically different vibe, and the tech neither allows the kind of in-depth comments that LW thrives on nor (as far as I know) permits the kind of moderator powers needed to enforce communal boundaries.
A would-be Beisutsu sensei needs to create and hold a space this kind of way based on (their embodiment of) the Art’s aesthetic. Well, “need” might be a strong word, but their task would become unreasonably hard if they were to skip this part.
Part of the key here is to let the aesthetic lead. Should it be an email group? A Mighty Network? A Slack or Discord? Maybe it should have more of a secret society vibe where faceless members interact only via unique aliases. Or perhaps (pandemic nonwithstanding) it should be a physical space, maybe with a dedicated room or building, or perhaps as a small group that gathers at coded times now and then in speakeasies at midnight.
If the aspirant sensei starts by coming up with a plan for teaching, and then figures out the medium based on what would work well for the curriculum, and then tries to fill the whole thing with the Art’s aesthetic via banners and colors and the like…
…well, it won’t work. I promise. Maybe a little at first, but it’ll whither and fade. And the sensei will probably find it exhausting along the way. Speaking from a fair amount of experience and observation here.
If they let the aesthetic lead instead, pragmatics be damned, then what emerges will be good and beautiful and right.
And it will attract the right kind of people.
This naturally saturates the space with the sensei’s embodiment of the aesthetic. The dojo truly becomes an extension of their practice. Just being there will tend to guide the students in the right direction.
This saves the sensei a lot of energy by encouraging a kind of collective cutting straight toward the truth.
I also bet it’d just be way more awesome.
Pressure-testing in the Art
As to the content of each session, I can only make some educated guesses. I’d be quite surprised if Void meditations weren’t a natural part of basically every session, and I suspect some kind of practice about seeking things to sacrifice on the altar of truth would be good and right. (For instance, Void-focusing on a prompt like “What’s something I know is or might be true but I’m avoiding fully acknowledging?” and following up with “What is precious to me here that I would be risking by looking?”)
But I’m reasonably sure the Art will ask for pressure tests.
By “pressure test”, I mean the kind of thing where in BJJ they take their theories to the mat against a fully resisting opponent. It’s why MMA works in 1-on-1 fights while Aikido doesn’t. It’s a flavor of empiricism that strives to marry truth and action.
(This is a distant intuition, but it seems worth adding here: My guess is that the classical LW rationalist focus on making predictions to test models makes the Art too mental and slow. It’s a correct analytic description of the process from the outside, but from the inside I’m guessing it feels more like moving decisively in a chosen direction with a clear and attentive mind. The “predictions” arise the same way I “predict” that typing on these keys will write these words on the screen, and the “empirical tests” come from interacting with reality.)
What would pressure-testing in the context of rationality look like?
Well, honestly, I don’t yet know.
I have a few bad examples that don’t strike me as entirely wrong, so to vaguely gesture in the kind of direction I’m intuiting but dissatisfied with:
In one story of Eliezer’s fictional Beisutsukai, the students received a challenge to invent quantum gravity in one month.
Years ago when I ran rationality dojos, I once issued a challenge of roughly this type. I warned them ahead of time to prepare and gave them some general parameters but wouldn’t tell them what the challenge was beforehand. When they arrived, I handed them a paper describing the challenge: “You will have one hour to sustainably 80/20-boost the expected vitality of every attendee of tonight’s session.”
I could imagine students of the actual rationality dojo showing up one day and finding instructions to (say) build a monkey bridge in a certain plot of land in three hours. They’d need to manage their physical & mental endurance and team morale, find out how it’s constructed, learn what supplies they need, get those supplies, and actually put the thing together.
Less adrenalin-based might be “Build and sell a house.” Very practical across a wide swath of real skills, from carpentry to law to marketing. I’m not at all sure how to define the test part… but it seems to me obvious that most houses get built absurdly slowly, so getting it built both right and fast would be quite something.
Arguing with one of those street preachers, like I at least used to see on college campuses pretty often, strikes me as maybe promising. Stupid and pointless, yes, but if we ignore that for a moment… those preachers work with a kind of script that’s largely meant to hook people into debating them. What kind of clarity would you need to not feel hooked, but walk into the trap anyway, and still navigate it skillfully? You’d need to real-time learn the actual structure of the preacher’s mental program and identify what conversational moves would actually jam his mental code — not just what’s illogical about the content of his words. And you’d need to real-time notice every time you lost even a hint of clarity and got sucked the slightest bit into the rhythms of the hypnotic tirade. This strikes me as quite a bit like BJJ rolling for the mind.
Ideally, very early in their training the aspirant sensei would figure out and enact good pressure tests for themselves. I’m guessing this is one of the first things the Art would ask of them, not long after the aesthetic “clunks” (although maybe after scouring their mind for things to sacrifice on the altar of truth). Through a lot of trial and error they’d get a lot of experience about what works and why, and what doesn’t work and why. That would form a very practical basis for coming up with challenges for their students.
Although maybe in the course of doing so they discover that coming up with these tests is actually key for developing the right kind of mastery. In which case the sensei might focus on issuing well-informed meta-challenges: “Ah, you think that more calibration will help you avoid making this kind of mistake again? How might you ask reality if you’re right?”
At this point, though, I’m just speculating. The truth would emerge from a level of expertise here that’s well beyond my own — and possibly well beyond what has yet been created.