Exploratory thinking: Individual and social ethics & morals for the Godless

“Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all of existence at one glance.”

– Walter Lippman

Part of the difficulty of going breadth-first over depth-first – being a fox over a hedgehog? – is that the usual societal-soup-available categories don’t precisely fit to the things you care about. Hence “thinking around” and not “about”. Philosophers have been debating ethics/morals for ever and I do not believe I’m much capable than the lot of them. Further, I buy Thiel’s axiom about competition being for losers.

But maybe if I refactor the themes I can make some headway. Maybe. It might also be that going breadth-first and trying to refactor things at your will doesn’t really solve anything ever, but I see way more people taking societally-available ontologies as given and then doing work inside of them – even in intellectual circles – so it seems worth trying this out, given that it is necessary for me to think about this.




Nietzsche was right

The God is dead/Nietzsche is dead trope is spun forward by idiots that haven’t bothered to read past the first subclause. I’ve bothered reading to the second one and hence can make fun of them.

“God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. — And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 14.18.48

As predicted by Nietzsche God’s shadow lives. Or, as I prefer: it was not dead in 1880 when Nietzsche proclaimed it and it isn’t dead now. God is and has been comatose for the past century.
Muflax  summarizes GEM Ascombe essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” as “stop theorizing until we have solved psychology kthx”. A more detailed description follows:
“Interest in the concept of eudaimonia and ancient ethical theory more generally enjoyed a revival in the twentieth century. Elizabeth Anscombe in her article “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) argued that duty-based conceptions of morality are conceptually incoherent for they are based on the idea of a “law without a lawgiver”.[9] She claims a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments depends on someone having made these rules.[10] Anscombe recommends a return to the eudaimonistic ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents, and can do so without appealing to any such lawgiver.”
Ascombe’s primary charge in the “Modern Moral Philosophy” is that, as secular approaches to moral theory (Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, and Social Contract theories), are without foundation. “They use concepts such as ‘morally ought,’ ‘morally obligated,’ ‘morally right,’ and so forth that are legalistic and require a legislator as the source of moral authority. In the past God occupied that role, but” since God is no more, the theories “are lacking the proper foundation for meaningful employment of those concepts.
There are two ways to read this article. The first is to read it straightforwardly as an indictment of the moral theories prevalent in the 1950s and a subsequent argument for the development of an alternative theory of morality that does not postulate a legislator, but then also does not try to keep the defunct legislative structure that naturally falls out of religiously based ethics. On this view we need to develop an alternative that is based on moral psychology, moral virtue, facts of human nature, and an account of the good for humans based on this approach. A major mistake made by modern moral philosophers is that they try to provide an account of ‘morally right or morally wrong’ that really has no content outside of the legislative arena provided by the divine. Anscombe writes: “It would be most reasonable to drop it. It has no reasonable sense outside a law conception of ethics; they are not going to maintain such a conception; and you can do ethics without it, as is shown by the example of Aristotle. It would be great improvement if, instead of ‘morally wrong,’ one always named a genus such as ‘untruthful’, ‘unchaste’, ‘unjust’ ” (MMP, 8–9).
Thus, many take her to be arguing for this alternative—the alternative that, like Aristotle’s account, relies on richer, or ‘thick’ concepts such as ‘just’ as opposed to ‘thin’ concepts such as ‘morally wrong’ which—outside of a certain metaphysical perspective—lacks content.”
GEM Anscombe is, as far as I can see, perfectly correct, and the fact that these foundationless secular approaches have survived only prove that God is not dead.
This is all well and fine, but what would morality without God actually look like? What would morality look like if you took God out of the equation, seriously?
I have no idea. But my thinking has been reaching for 3 attractors. I discuss these in turndialogue, virtue, and societal-focused ethics.



Attractor 1: Dialogue

“Perhaps the most important feature of the first half of ‘Knowledge and Decisions’ is simply its analysis of decision-making processes and institutions in terms of the characteristics and consequences of those processes themselves – irrespective of their goals. This approach rejects the common practice of characterizing processes by their hoped for results rather than their actual mechanics. ‘Profit-making’ businesses, ‘drug prevention’ programs are just some of the many things commonly defined by their hoped for results, rather than by… the incentives created by those processes.” Normative statements are usually named after their goal: to be normative descriptions. So let us ask the consequence of the characteristics and consequences of those statements, that is, what function do they serve?


What normative statements are for

Non-Violent Communication claims that all normative statements in speech (“It is not right/moral/logical/likely/rational to do that) express nothing more and nothing less than needs. All normative statements are strategies to express a need. (“If you do that I’ll feel X because Y. Are you willing to Z?”)
(NVC might not be the usual starting point to think about ethics, but all the usual starting points have lead to a suspiciously contemporary four-way split, the usual starting points won’t do.)
I think that this analysis is right. Normative statements have been appropriated by philosophers, but their origin is in social discourse and when you see people using normative statements in their daily life – especially about others – it is clear that the goal is not to express moral imperatives, but rather to force a certain outcome.
Although sometimes moral reasons are invoked (You can’t do that because it is just wrong, evil, morally wrong, makes you a bad person) sometimes other reasons are invoked of the pragmatic, aesthetic, and societal form. (It’s illegal, It’s ugly, It’s embarrassing).
What is notable in the NVC analysis is that all of these statements are not even wrong. That is, they really are statements about the one making them, presented as if they were absolute statements about the object.
“The first component of NVC entails the separation of observation from evaluation. When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying. NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations. Instead, observations are to be made specific to time and context, for example, “Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games,” rather than “Hank Smith is a poor soccer player.”
Taking normative statements to be not-even-wrong, NVC crafted a process language that discourages static generalizations; instead, evaluations are to be based on observations specific to time and context.
But one question is left open: if normative statements are not-even-wrong why have they come to exist in the first place?
What is the evolutionary problem that normative statements solve?
I claim that it is the adaptive problem of social justification. The same way that reason evolved for justification, so did normative statements.
Normative statements serve this function to this very day; because it feels much more powerful to do or not do something because God ordered it so, or because it is the Right or the Wrong thing to do, than because some fellow human expressed a need for it.
Jumping off the postulates that a) normative statements express imperatives, b) normative statements express strategies to get needs met, NVC takes a dialogical approach to need solving, by using as an axiom the idea that only strategies (to meet needs) can conflict, and that needs never can conflict. (This makes reaching an equilibrium  much  easier since one is not constrained by trade-offs of any sort, i.e., there must be a globally satisfying solution)
For the more academically inclined, Error Theory proposes as well that any particular moral statement is not true and is not false and Habermas, dealing with the pragmatic problems of ethical and moral discourse has too reached a dialogical approach.
If we take the Kant out of the Habermas we are left with dialogue, which is what Habermas focuses on when he claims that ethical and moral discourse cannot be conducted by anyone except the persons uniquely concerned with the outcomes of that discourse.
“Habermas summarizes his idealized conception of practical discourse in the “discourse principle” (D), which we might state as follows: A rule of action or choice is justified, and thus valid, only if all those affected by the rule or choice could accept it in a reasonable discourse. Although he first understood (D) as a principle of moral discourse, he now positions it as an overarching principle of impartial justification that holds for all types of practical discourse (cf. 1990a, 66, 93; 1996b, 107). As such, it simply summarizes his argumentation theory for any question involving the various “employments of practical reason” (1993, chap. 1). (D) thus applies not only to moral rightness and ethical authenticity, but also to the justification of technical-pragmatic claims about the choice of effective means for achieving a given end. Each type of practical discourse then involves a further specification of (D) for the content at issue. In developing his democratic theory, Habermas has been especially concerned with two such specifications: moral discourse and legal-political discourse. In distinguishing these two types of discourse, Habermas tackles the traditional problem of the relationship between law and morality. He also shows how to bring ethereal discursive idealizations down to institutional earth. We start with his account of moral discourse.


Habermas’s (D)-Principle articulates this dialogical requirement. If one assumes this requirement, then one can arrive at Habermas’s specific conception of reasonable moral discourse by working out the implications of his argumentation theory for the discursive testing of unconditional moral obligations. What one gets is a dialogical principle of universalization (U): “A [moral norm] is valid just in case the foreseeable consequences and side-effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned without coercion” (i.e., in a sufficiently reasonable discourse) (1998a, 42; trans. amended). Habermas maintains that (U) can be deduced from statements articulating the pragmatic implications of argumentative discourse over moral norms (1990a, 86–93; 1998a, 39–45).


The (U)-Principle assumes that valid moral rules or norms allow for an egalitarian community of autonomous agents—as Kant put it, a “systematic union of different rational beings” governed by “common laws” (1785, Ak. 433; also 431).”

This second attractor makes sense to me for I believe two fundamental reasons: 1) it refashions the understanding of ethics as something that can be understood and used by any human instead of being the domain of specialists who don’t actually use it, only cognitively engage with it, 2) it takes the societal character of ethics as primary



Attractor 3: Societal ethics

What morality and ethics are for

Above we asked what normative statements are for. The question now turns to the whole realm of ethics and morality. What function do they serve? I claim that morality and ethics are for running society. 

My main source of this idea is Natural Justice by Ken Binmore. “He reinterprets classical social contract ideas within a game-theory framework and generates new insights into the fundamental questions of social philosophy. In contrast to the previous writing in moral philosophy that relied on vague notion such as ” societal well-being” and “moral duty,” Binmore begins with individuals; rational decision-makers with the ability to empathize with one another. Any social arrangement that prescribes them to act against their interests will become unstable and eventually will be replaced by another, until one is found that includes worthwhile actions for all individuals involved.

Moral relativism indeed, but of a very persuasive sort. According to Binmore, fairness rules have evolved to help societies select between equilibria in various coordination games that arise in life. Societies that selected the more efficient equilibria have survived, resulting in our current and constantly evolving social contract. Or in the more eloquent words of Binmore: “Fairness is the social tool washed up on the human beach by the tide of evolution for solving […] coordination problems […]”.

He starts with individual rational-decison-maker (which we all are given enough evolutionary time) that can emphasise with each others. He then uses game theory to show how they will coordinate on some of the available social contracts. I maintain that morality and ethics are collections of norms that express imperatives in a categorical fashion appealing to higher constructs of some sort (God, Good) because those constructs are the ones with the most justificatory power for human minds.

It is simpler for everyone to behave in the same fashion by creating a Schelling point in the form of God or the Devil, than have everyone understand that society is playing massive iterated prisioner’s dilemmas and that defection will lead to the worse outcome for all, and we must actually all keep cooperating. I think that the solution that evolution (natural and cultural) struck upon is morals and ethics as a coordination mechanism. (Remember that they are originally from the province of Religion, which leads the figures to coordinate upon).




All of these attractors move beyond there-is-no-God-ness and accept that there are *just* humans, in societies,trying to do the best they can to get needs met.

If my analysis is correct, the way to care about morality is at the individual level and societal level. At the societal level institutions are forced to make categorical decisions and create categorical solutions – and there is where the focus must be. But at the individual level, individuals are capable of making incremental trade-offs which is why in this case the way to solving moral issues is bottom-up, though dialogue, and thick concepts. (Abstract concepts that include many things must necessarily be thin).

It is notable that morality and ethics get taken as black boxes, whereas should this analysis be correct, although they interact, individual and inter-individual morality and group and inter-group (institution/societal) morality are two different things. The first appears to benefit from dialogue, honest observation and requests, virtue and thick descriptions; whilst the second appears to benefit from consensus, analysis of coordination points, categorical decision and thin descriptions.










Evolving GTD: A life design system that takes you into account

GTD is incredible and the best thing I’ve done to increase my knowledge-work efficiency over the past 2 years. In this essay I analyse it from a cognitive function point of view and find a crucial limitation. I then suggest a way of improving GTD to deal with this crucial limitation. (This essay assumes familiarity with GTD.)

GTD and what it is missing

GTD claims to be an attention-management system but really it is a distributed cognition system. It externalises your memory by having Capture take care of everything, it takes advantage of situated cognition by forcing you to write down information in an actionable format and having context lists, and so on.
Distributed cognition is the key to doing whatever you want to do. That is the way you work – according to Misnky – as a bunch of agencies each with a really small task each. This is the way that  governments and companies work, where increasingly a single agent performs a small task and an administrative bureaucracy grows to take care of agents below it at every level.
Now, GTD is the result of trial and error and you need to use it and to learn to use it and adapt it to yourself. But there is low hanging fruit in the fact that few people comprehensively think about it and it’s results versus what they want to achieve. By doing so I believe I got a significant piece that GTD is originally missing that improves it immensely.
The piece is that GTD is not an evolutionary system. It does not evolve. I mean it does, when you adapt it a bit, but in a totally haphazard way. What is needed is a system that forces GTD to evolve, for your needs.

The solution

Keeping in mind that everything that is needed for evolution is Variation of organisms (variation of GTD setups), Selection of organisms (selection of GTD setup characteristics) and Retention (selection of GTD setup characteristics), here is a first pass at a solution.
Define design constraints (selection criteria). In my case these are:
  1. Areas of concern must map to real areas
  2. Projects must move areas of concern forward
  3. Actions must move projects forward
  4. Actions must lead to a nice experience
The first constraint ensures that my written down areas of concern map to my felt senses of the things I actually care about, and not the things I could in a socially accepted fashion care about, or things that are easy to put down into words or verbalise. The second constraint ensures that projects map to the things I care about. The third constraint that my actions move projects forward. These three constraints together ensure that what I do on a day to day basis is directly relevant to my ultimate concerns. The fourth constraint limits my day to day actions to those that lead to a nice felt experience – it is a poor result either if a) I have a nice experience but the things I care about are not moved, or b) The things I care about are moved but my life (feels like it) sucks.
The totality of these constrained are aimed at avoiding both those scenarios and moving me into the “My life is pleasant and the things I care about are being handled” scenario.
With the constraints in place you can create a full evolutionary system. Again, recall that evolution only needs Variation, Retention and  Selection. The criteria of selection have been defined.
Variation & Retention is taken care off by choosing (Variation) areas of concern, projects, and action; taking into account the results of the selection process (retention).
Putting it all together, in an abstract form, the system looks like this:

Components of an evolutionary system

  1. Variation & Retention – Hypothesis
    1. I choose (Variation)
      1. areas of concern
      2. projects
      3. actions
        taking into account the results of the selection process (Retention)
  2. Selection – Test
    1. How actions fulfil life
    2. How actions fulfil projects
    3. How projects fulfil areas of concern
    4. How the selection process is itself


My actual implementation is as follows:
– Every day I diary on how my day was like (this keeps records of my lived experience)
– Every week I summarise my daily experience and think about how my actions mapped to projects, how projects mapped to areas of concern, and how those areas of concern are what I care about
– I save all of this knowledge in a knowledge repository (Retention)
– Then I choose action for the next week, taking into account the original constraints plus the knowledge in the knowledge repository (Variation & Selection)
– Every month I choose areas of concern and associated projects taking into account the original constraints plus the knowledge in the knowledge repository (Variation & Selection)
– Every month I review the whole system, especially the selection constraints: what is my felt sense of the past month, of the past day, of the past week? Am I moving forward in the right direction, is my life where I want it to be?

Final thoughts

Notice how powerful this system is, flowing with you, changing itself as your felt sense changes, constantly responding to new information instead of discarding it. It is not a “work system” or a “productivity system” not even an “attention management system” but a constantly-updated-respondant-to-your-felt-sense-experience-and-knowledge life design system.
It is lighter than GTD, and it evolves with you and your self-knowledge. You can see each actions/projects/areas of concern choice as a hypothesis and each daily and weekly review as a test for your set of hypothesis. Over time the system allows you to evolve theories about yourself that accurately match your desires of how life feels like and what you are about, the somethings that you do.

My experience with Impro[v] (the book and the activity)

Back to the personal posts. It has recently come to my attention that historically I need to and excel at apprehending things in an intellectual fashion. (Part of the reason that I really value new concepts, they quite literally let me see more.)

In this essay I describe my recent experiences with improvisational theatre. The first, reading the book Impro, of which a review follows. The second, taking an Improv class,  of which a review follows. (The third, the intellectual apprehension is this essay.) Enjoy.


Impro review

Multiple authors I enjoy have praised Impro over the years. Also, two close friends who are enormously different recommended it. So after 2 years my brain decided to pay attention and I read it.

It wasn’t  mind blowing, which I expected from seeing various reviews over the years. In retrospect this seems an instance of the Seinfeld is unfunny effect: it is 40 years old, authors I like have read it a long time ago and so it has diffused through the worldview they espouse.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Notes on myself, Status, Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trace.

The chapter on status was very, very rewarding although it hasn’t shaped my mind totally. (This is due to me having studied PUA analysis in the past and thus having some understanding of how to convey high status and what low status looks likes.)

Having said that , the book led me to *spontaneously* analyse interactions in status transactions terms a few times already. I would mentally translate every action into a status move. Including my own. This is incredible because I was blind to status moves I did in a non-purposeful fashion. Just for this the book is worth reading.

The chapter on Spontaneity was pretty good and all of it resonates at a very deep level.

Some meditation, a lot of therapy and introspection have led to various experiences of spontaneity that I identified. It has also led to dealing with “demons” of the obscene, psychotic, and religious tendencies, and after those have had their turn to show the vulnerable children. Yes, yes, yes, and yes, all that made perfect internal sense; even if Johnstone is describing it from the perspective of Improv and Theatre (None of which I had ever done then.).

The chapter on narrative skills was pretty great. He aims to explain that it seems that humans have some sort of story mechanism and you can take advantage of this to create stories. Things like reincorporation (reintegrating a piece, or closing an open end) activate the story mechanism. He also had several writing prompts. I tried one of them  and ended up with a short story I’m quite happy with.

I’m midway through trance masks and I got a much better understanding when I saw the videos. I assumed the masks were of the african tribal mask sort, but instead they are of the exaggerations of *human* faces sort. Keith uses the mask plus a mirror plus a person willing to take social responsibility to induce altered states of consciousness.


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Fig 1. No and yes, respectively.


Having dabbled in those, and having once looked at a mirror to see a demon, or a goat (in a dream) I totally feel how powerful the experience can be and how it can create trance states.

(See this for a video of how trance masks work)

Overall the book is excellent, in addition to the content, Keith has a splendid author voice. (Which makes me empowered to treat him on a first name basis.) The book has a *treasurable* characteristic – it is by an expert that throws observations at you, not theory. If it is the case that you have little to no knowledge on the area (as it was for me) you can connect to the observations by linking them to your experience, and by the end you used your experiences as a scaffold to build out your map in an area you had nothing. This is very, very rewarding. I suspect this is why many people enjoy the book.

(Although there might be other reasons. The book also prompted me to try out the exercises, to think about what it said and attempt to link it for inordinate amounts of time and to go on youtube and search for videos. Some books just prompt me to “read one word after the other until I read them all”. This might be due to the style of writing. Unclear, don’t know enough about writing, but it seems reasonable that different styles imprint different states that lead to different action likelihoods.)


Improv review

The book pumped me up (raised my Emotional Energy) enough to actually take a workshop. This was 2 days, 3 hours each over a weekend. One of the best decisions I ever made.

The professor guiding the seminar was excellent. He was what Johnstone refers as a status specialist – he could raise and lower his (and others) statuses at will. If he wanted to say something he would slightly alter his posture and look down on everyone and the room would fall silent. If he wanted everyone to relax he would laugh too much, and become goofy and everyone relaxed and started interacting instead of standing still paying attention. This is tough to describe but the effect was very vivid.

Further, it was rare for him to talk. He seemed to be focused on praxis on doing over talking, over logos. And so he wouldn’t. He would do and you would have to understand from trial and error. He would set up the group in an ellipse and do a movement and a sound. And you copied it and tried variations, and if those were legal he would let you stay in the ellipse, and if not you would be sent out.

One of the games was Zip-Zap-Boing. In this game you either say Zip and turn and point right or let, say Zap and turn and point to anyone but the people on your right or left, or you jump and say Boing to whomever sent you a Zip or Zap to send it back.

In the beginning people were upset when they lost and so they would loudly moan. But this “stole the energy off the stage” and so they stopped doing it over time, and what happened was brilliant: you could see a logic developing in the game, a tempo, a symphony of Zip-Zip-Zap-Zip-Zip-Zap that would be broken with a Boing and someone would exit. But the break would be correct, if you were seeing it from the outside it made sense from the overall picture, if not to the person that was surprised by it.

There are two very cool things about this game:

  1. You never win. There is no end. You just keep playing, and getting better, better reactions, better tempo, better symphonies, but no end. It is an infinite game.
  2. You must be empty. If you are thinking about you are going to do, then you will flinch too soon or too late and you will lose and exit the ellipse.

This second point is precisely what spontaneity is about. It reminded me of Wu Wei, which I have felt a few times. It’s not flow, or inner freedom, but a sense that things happen and things get done by you, but not that you are doing things. I can imagine that if a group keeps playing this game, then a shared ritual consciousness emerges.

Another game was the predator. One person is a predator, and they have to touch the others. If you get touched, you die. But just before getting touched you can yell out someone’s name. If you do, then that person becomes the predator. What ended up happening is that in the frenzy of running away people would call out people that were dead already, multiple people would be called, and so on. And then the game was interrupted and you were asked what was wrong. It was seldom the case that someone knew, although over time our awareness got better.

And awareness was another thing distinguishing the professor. He would know what you were doing even if he had his back turned to you. This was very freaky in the first hour and then it became OK.

Back to his approach. At some points he would talk. After we had done the praxis, then he would explain it referring technical terms from Aristotle Poetics, or scenes from the Illiad and Odyssey. So he would force you to understand by trial-and-error and then explain it with drama theory. It was brilliant.

A third game was the gibberish game. At some point he started talking german sounding words to me and I replied back in german. They weren’t words it was gibberish. And so I replied in gibberish. And it made sense. From the context, the body language, the cadence, the repetition of words – it started making sense, you knew what was meant.

This game was used to do a improv scene at the end of the second day. The setup was two best friends meeting after not having seen each other for 10 years, discovering they were living in the same city, and then discovering they were fanatical extremists of opposite sides of a cause.

It was overwhelming. Literally. There was a point of quiet recognition, two points of extreme happiness, an uncomfortable tension, and then a realization. After the realization there was a fight, and at some point I made a closed fist. My improv partner started crying out of anger and I couldn’t handle it. I had to exit to the backstage where I was shaking for 1 or 2 full minutes. Still unsure of what happened.

A highly recommended experience, if you can, go and do an improv workshop.


What comes after rationality? Adventure!

Before I asked “(…) [W]hat comes after rationality? Is it postrationality? What is post-formal operations like? What does transrationality look like?”

In this essay I start sketching out a path to answer this question. I first give away a bit of my personal history and the history of my interest in this question. I give a hypothesis of an answer. I then summarise a paper that explores that same hypothesis albeit in an isomorphic way. I finalise with an explanation of my motivation to answer this question.


Setting – A Short History

My historical tendency is to pursue a set of things which that hold a family resemblance but that I cannot put my finger into.

These comprise objective knowledge, certainty, scientific realism, cold analysis, intellect, rationality.

This interest culminated in the absorption of LW (minus the non-rationality parts). I kept going and pushing on rationality and as I dug into the literature I found out how it wasn’t nearly as uniform as I expected. At the same time I got pushed away from GOFAI – my natural inclination – into embodied cognition. I was surrounded by constructivists and cyberneticians. At the same time I was doing work on emotions, meditating a bunch, and reading up on levels of development.

And all these pushed me away from the LW-X-rationality (which I’m using as a handle to the things that share the family-resemblance above) and into narrative rationality. (Ribbonfarm being the prime online example.)

(But note that narrative rationality can be done in an analytic fashion, of which Nozick’s Invariance is an example. Nozick says “My own philosophical bent is to open possibilities for consideration. Not to close them. This book suggests new philosophical views and theses, and the reasons it produces for these are meant to launch them for exploration, not to demonstrate conclusively that they are correct. Similarly, my criticisms of some major competing theories or positions are not intended to refute them conclusively, merely to weaken them enough to clear a philosophical space in which the newly proposed views can breathe and grow.”)


Solution – A Hypothesis

And so I’ve been trying to figure out how to syncretise from these two attractors. A way forward is suggested by Vladimir:

“Unfortunately I don’t know how to switch someone over from the dangerous attractor of “narrative rationality” (basically, attachment to self-generated deep wisdom) to actual rationality.”

Why would you want to do this anyway? What we have in terms of “actual rationality,” as you call it, is often excellent for detecting bullshit, but it’s still largely impotent when it comes to generating interesting hypotheses and novel insight about many (if not most) interesting questions. In contrast, smart people who follow the “narrative” path will inevitably end up producing lots of nonsense in the process, but as long as you avoid getting carried away and take care to apply a bullshit filter to their output consistently, what remains will often contain otherwise unreachable gems of insight. Even when the “narrative” attractor lowers the average accuracy of beliefs of people who fall into it, the value of their output for a careful reader may still be higher than if they were restrained by more stringent intellectual standards.

My hypothesis is that narrative rationality works as a generator, whilst LW-X-rationality works as a selector. One creates, the other selects (for truth). Add retention and you have the recipe for the evolution of something.

I like this idea. I like how it vibes with what David said here: “For Bayesian methods to even apply, you have to have already defined the space of possible evidence-events and possible hypotheses and (in a decision theoretic framework) possible actions. The universe doesn’t come pre-parsed with those. Choosing the vocabulary in which to formulate evidence, hypotheses, and actions is most of the work of understanding something. Bayesianism gives you no help with that. Thus, I expect it predisposes you take someone else’s wrong vocabulary as given.” And by vibes I mean it is isomorphic. Narrative rationality is incredible for generating your own parsing and vocabulary, whilst lw-x-rationality allows you to select (by falsifying some stories).

Whilst this thinking was going on I found out someone that was living through the same dilemma, in a related, albeit different way.

Heylighen, attempting to unify the scientific (lw-rationality) and narrative (narrative rationality) modes of looking at the world proposed to do so by replacing “the fundamental metaphor “the universe is a clockwork mechanism”, by the metaphor “life is an adventure””.

This resonated so strongly it’s not even funny. Below I summarise the paper.


Life as adventure – unifying science and narrative


Whilst the scientific and narrative modes seem opposed – science trying to formulate objective, timeless, contextless laws, narrative describing a particular sequence of events happening to particular subjects in particular contexts – they both aim to “provide dependable knowledge, by formulating rules about how agents are supposed to behave in different circumstances”. That is, at a meta-level they both serve the function of “a guiding framework that helps us to act, to decide, and to understand the complex world we live in.”

The paper’s approach takes an agent view, after acknowledging that “there are context-dependent limits to knowledge (…) [which]  preclude the existence of an omniscient observer like the demon of Laplace, and therefore the possibility of predicting with certainty.”

(The author called these “horizons of knowability”. Simon and Gigerenzer talk about these a lot, although with the name of “bounded rationality.)

It also entails that “any realistic model of behavior will have to take into account uncertainty, mystery and surprise.” Following the Cybernetics and Complex Adaptive Systems paradigms it is show that agents cope effectively with uncertainty “by using regulation to counteract unforeseen disturbances and exploration to discover novel affordances.”



He uses navigation as the way to combine regulation, exploration and exploitation. Navigations is “setting out and following a course of action while taking into account any foreseen or unforeseen diversions.” A course of action is not “a predetermined trajectory but as an adventure, i.e. a goal-directed activity affected by unpredictable and often mysterious encounters.”

An agent trying to maximize its fitness will “apply a judicious combination of regulation (moving away from known disturbances), exploitation (moving towards known affordances) and exploration (moving into the unknown). Together, these steering mechanisms determine the process of navigation.”

This conceptualisation of navigation is consonant with  Campbell’s [1949] analysis of the hero’s journey, the “basic storyline for all myths, legends and fairy tales: the hero (agent) in a quest (search) for a magical boon (fitness enhancing resource) explores a mysterious world (uncertain environment), having to overcome difficult trials (disturbances), while sometimes receiving unexpected aid or making surprising discoveries (affordances).”

This “agent’s goal-directed navigation through an environment that throws up unforeseen challenges and opportunities may be likened to a quest or search.”

“Exploration means venturing into the unknown with the intention of discovering new information, resources, opportunities, or—most generally— affordances. It implies a course of action that is moving away from what is foreseeable (what we will later call “prospect”), and towards what is not (what we will call “mystery”).” The difference between what is foreseeable and what is not follows from the notion of “horizons of knowability”.

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Mystery allows one to experience “the anticipation of mystery. Literary examples of the sentiment are readily found in the genre of magical realism [Zamora & Faris, 1995], which may be exemplified by authors such as Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami. Stories in this genre typically describe ordinary, realistic courses of action that are gradually mixed up with strange, seemingly inexplicable events and coincidences—as if some –  magical realm is intruding into the everyday world. This generates step-by-step a sense of mystery. However, the mystery is rarely formulated explicitly, and never truly resolved, thus sustaining a “magical” atmosphere impervious to rational analysis.”

“More generally, a strong excitement, feeling of freedom and sense of adventure is created by the sensation of movement along an irregular terrain, so that the vista continuously changes, and things that were hidden (mystery) come into plain view (prospect), while those that were clearly to be seen (prospect) disappear again behind the horizon (mystery). This sensation is efficiently exploited in many computer games, where the gamer can steer a car, motorcycle or a running “avatar” through a virtual, 3-dimensional landscape containing plenty of surprises. This sensation may also explain the intense pleasure that people can experience while hiking through forests and hills, or driving a motorcycle or car along a scenic, winding road. This joyful experience can be seen as an instance of flow: a feeling of total absorption into an activity that is accompanied by a sense of being in control and the vanishing of all anxiety, doubt and self-consciousness [Csikszentmihalyi, 1990]. People are likely to experience flow when the following conditions are met: • their activity has clear goals; • they receive immediate feedback on the actions they perform. • the degree of difficulty or challenge of the task remains in balance with their level of skill. The first two rules express the essence of the cybernetic paradigm of regulation, while the third one implicitly adds the exploration necessary to find a new challenge (affordance or disturbance) when the present one has been met.” These three rules together add up to the “flow-producing dynamic of mysteries”

Whereas in the Newtonian worldview the horizon of knowability had the parameter “prospect” either at zero (system) or at infinity (Scientist/god/laplace demon), the “life is an adventure” perspective is a generalises the Newtonian worldview by allowing this parameter to  “vary continuously, from zero towards infinity (but without ever reaching the latter limit).

“By turning the constant “prospect” into a variable, the ontology of adventure brings the creativity, uncertainty and adaptivity of life, mind and society back into the scientific modelling paradigm”



“The agent’s course is visualized as a trail left behind by the agent’s movements across the virtual space. This makes it possible to examine a course of action both in “narrative mode” as a real-time succession of movements, and in “scientific mode” as a fixed trajectory. ” A single run  “can be seen as a virtual adventure, idiographically describing the things happening to a specific agent in a specific context. However, when a large number of such unique runs have been generated (differing in the values of random diversions or the initial state of the agent), it becomes possible to perform a statistical analysis of the outcomes, in order to discover possibly invariant “laws” that nomothetically apply to all “adventures”.” Such a series of simulations might “find out that agents who use a particular system of rules are more fit—in the sense of successfully exploiting affordances and avoiding disturbances and thus surviving—than those following different rules [Gershenson, 2004].”

“The formulation of such “rules of behavior” is the implicit goal of both narrative and scientific worldviews. The typical function of myths, fairy tales and fables is to teach the audience various rules of good behavior—both in the sense of moral and ethical values (…), and in the more pragmatic sense of problem-solving strategies (e.g. get informed well before undertaking a major enterprise, exercise in order to build physical strength). These rules are taught by illustrative stories in which the heroes who follow these rules fare well, while those who do not get in trouble. The scientific worldview eschews any notion of moral values, formulating rules or laws as “the way agents behave” rather than “the way agents ought to behave”. But an accurate description of how things tend to behave is easily and naturally translated into a strategy for making things behave more effectively, as the endless technological and social applications of science illustrate. In that sense, as many observers have pointed out, science is much less “neutral” or “value-free” in its implications than it theoretically claims to be: the neutral observation that some phenomenon A (e.g. smoking) tends to cause some other phenomenon B (e.g. cancer), where B is generally considered to have negative (or positive) value, will automatically lead to a negative (positive) evaluation of A”



Mark has written: “On the one hand, it’s fine to read stories backwards into your life, to selectively edit and mould your past, to give it a coherent narrative. The literature shows that humans do this. And that’s probably healthy and necessary, if those stories don’t get used for future mis-predictions.

What I’m interested in here, though, is us living stories as they’re happening. I want to live *in* a story, that I’m writing as I go, and I want to live it right through the triumphant climax. The longer and bigger the story, the more satisfying.

Yes, reality is indifferent. Yes, reality is incidental chaos. Yes, the story is the property of my map not a property of the territory. But heroically shaping reality is fun, and painful, and gratifying. When you care you can get hurt, but you’re only alive if you care.”

And I’m like “Yes, exactly, I want this.” And this clarifies my interest in rationality, my interest in science, my interest in narrative.

My life is an adventure, of which I’m both hero and writer. Whilst on the one hand I want to and do intensely live it, on the other I want to have knowledge of the tropes that my story is running through and the universe my story is running in, so that I can craft the story I want.

How does one act under maximum life ambiguity?

I’m using “maximum life ambiguity” to describe a state in which you have neither fixed your axiology not your epistemology. You don’t know what you want and you don’t know what is. You can’t state the problem except by handwaving because the goal state is unclear, and the initial state is unclear as well. You can only hand wave and point and say it is a wicked problem or that it is difficult to explain or formalise or pin down.

How to act then?

Life comes at you at shotgun point in every moment, it’s not like you can ask for a time out and sit and think things through and figure things out, and then carry on living.

I have been thinking this for long. A related idea is the idea of moral uncertainty which I like a lot because it speaks from the same place of uncertainty – from a place that understands both epistemic humility and epistemic responsibility – in other words, it takes the bull by the horns.

In what follows I present a variety of heuristics and frameworks I have collected and used over the past two years to think about and live life day-to-day whilst grappling with these uncertainties.



Living from within ambiguity

Heuristics for living and thinking life under ambiguity are divided under 3 main sections:

  • Goal construction
  • Pursuing reasonable instrumental goals
  • Cheap stuff

Following I attack each section in turn.


Goal construction

The keyword here is Effectuation, about which I talked previously. It is partially a blueprint for how to act without an object level goal, with the meta-level goal being to build a startup. It refocuses the question from what must you do (axiological and teleological) to what can you do (exploratory and teleonomical).

According to the theory, goals emerge as ones takes available means to do what is possible, in the vicinity, in the adjacent possible, and as one does that stakeholders and commitments will be added to the enterprise, and goals will emerge.

And effectuation is really nice, but it is a framework for entrepreneurship – for the time being. The question is how to lead your life day to day under massive uncertainty?

I have collected over the past 2 years a bunch of heuristics. It was unclear then why I was attracted to them, but in hindsight it seems clear. They are divided into 2 sections: a) Pursuing reasonable instrumental goals, b) Cheap stuff.


Pursue reasonable Instrumental Goals

This is a relatively simple idea with two main forks: 1)  Pursuing resources that are generally useful like money or knowledge. It is unlikely that these will be a handicap, whatever goals end up being constructed; 2) Going through the motions faster. Even if it is unclear where you are going, the faster you go, the faster you’ll get there. This pretty much means running on a faster tempo. (That is, shortening the total time it takes you to go through your decision-making cycle – presumably starting with observing and ending with acting – for the same result quality).


Do cheap stuff

This section is divided into 5 main ideas: 1) Opportunistic decision-making, 2) Little bets, 3) Convex payoffs, 4) Strategic information gathering.

  • Opportunistic decision making

Says Rao, that opportunism is a “(…) sense of timing and leverage, adaptability and willingness to rapidly shelve existing plans and disrupt procedures.” And that a way to achieve it is as follows:

  1. “Start by training (untraining?) yourself to be more of a daydreaming, idle, idea person. Put more unrealistic, unachievable desires in your head. Things that you know are going to be too difficult to attain from where you are now. This is how you prepare for luck.
  2. Become aware of, and start cultivating, your ability to recognize opportunity. This is NOT the same as trend-spotting or trend-prediction. You are not trying to sensitize yourself to happenings in the world at large with a “listener” mindset. You are watching with a motivated bias for connections to things you’ve already thought about in some depth.
  3. You’ve started noticing the right things? Good. Time to start probing. Probing means idle playing and dabbling. If something catches your eye, poke it with a metaphoric stick. Click on random ads, connect with people who intrigue you in unclear ways, act on impulses. Donot get sucked in and get addicted only to small, idle experiments. The key to probing is to drive towards yourself more information about opportunities you might be able to act on, and less information about stuff that will not yield opportunities. The reason this works is that most people just manage a deluge of zeroth-order information broadcast at everybody, and filter out what they don’t want. To such people, it seems silly to actually goafter even more information than comes at you naturally. But that’s the key: information coming at everybody, no matter how sophisticated your filtering, is of limited value. Until you probe to discover first-order information that is available to all at low effort, but which few bother to poke out, you don’t have much of an informational advantage. Think of it as using your stick to clear away fallen leaves as you stroll through the park. No more complex than that. No high-effort digging. Just more information than the guy without a stick.
  4. Start developing a sense for leverage. Leverage is what creates disproportionate returns. Opportunists aren’t lazy, they just act in focused bursts and get more returns for every ounce of action. But this only happens with a lot of idle watching. Leverage is a combination of timing, selection and energy bursts. You develop your instincts for leverage by pushing with varying amounts of intensity on the opportunities that your constant and restless probing will reveal. This will gradually lower your resistance to agile action, lower the inertia of your planned, reactive or procedural thinking, and prime you to act in bigger ways.
  5. Act. If you’ve cultivated your opportunistic instincts in time, when an actual opportunity comes, you will recognize it faster, be more prepared to act given your background ideas, more armed to act, given the extra information your probing will have delivered you, and finally, more willing to act, even at the cost of disrupting well-laid plans, ingrained behaviors and ponderous rituals. Your sense of leverage will tell you how much you need to do. If you’ve accepted my religious preaching, you won’t be held back by an unnecessary sense of guilt about trying to steal a bargain from Mother Nature when she isn’t looking. But at some point, you’ll actually have to start placing your bets, so learn to tell yourself in no uncertain terms, pure black-and-white terms: this is it; I am going for it. The worst thing ever is not knowing when you are committing, and paying the high cost of a ‘dip’ without realizing it. I did it once. It wasn’t pleasant
  6. Burst. If all your work disciplines were acquired through a moral ethic and a sense of static work-life balance, you won’t be able to do this. Within an extremely short period of time you have to bet a LOT. Not just direct effort (as in staying up nights), but relationships, earned trust, all your brownie points, money.
  7. Rinse and Repeat. Here is the fun part. More often than not, you’ll lose. Watch leopards hunt on the Discovery channel. You’ll see burst after burst trail off into lazy ambles. That’s how you live the opportunist life, like a hunter. Which means after every failed burst, you go back to your laid-back, droopy-eyed-but-watchful life, waiting for the next window of opportunity.”
  • Little bets

Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

  • Convex payoff actions

This idea comes from Nicholas Nassim Taleb, in his book Antifragile. The idea is that you only play games that are tilted in your favour, games that have bounded losses, but unbounded gains. 

  • Strategic information gathering

Here the focus is on the taking cheap actions that fail or succeed at giving you information soon after taking them, be this information about yourself or the world.


(With regards to information about yourself, I strongly endorse Mark’s recommendation to see a therapist. Best value for money ever, even if not necessarily a “cheap” action.)

(Note that the above all interact: cheap stuff shortens tempo, cheap stuff has convex payoffs, strategic information gathering is knowledge, etc – this ontology is a first pass.)

(It feels wrong to give a conclusion to an essay that collects heuristics to deal with life ambiguity. So I won’t.)