Healing the Wounded Western Mind
After 300 years, it's time we Joined Hume's Fork
Western elites, for the past hundred years or so, have been suffering from a kind of psychological wound. This wound has been driving us subtly insane. Unfortunately, nothing that is widespread and ‘normal’ is considered insane.
I feel confident calling this wound a kind of insanity because I’m a former mental patient. I know what insanity looks like from the inside. In fact, my multiple hospitalizations and the years I spent addicted to drugs were caused by the same insanity that is slowly gnawing at many adults reasoning from the precepts popular in the west today. The reason I was in and out of mental hospitals instead of just being an early-stage employee at companies like Uber and Twilio, is that I took the insanity present in the leading minds and loudest voices of the anglosphere elite seriously.
What insanity am I talking about? Here, let me draw a picture. Remember, brains are computers, and our minds are the software systems running on these computers. The insanity takes the form of a split between two different subsystems of the brain which are, in fact, inseparable.
A healthy mind has two important subsystems. Let’s play along with the insanity and pretend they look like this:
We might call these two subsystems prescriptive and predictive. The terms “value” and “fact” are often used here. A healthy mind needs both of these subsystems.
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You cannot Separate facts and values
The insanity present in the west is that idea that these things can be truly, totally, fully separated. The symptoms of the insanity lead to a person or culture taking the “fact value distinction,” as a kind of religious imperative, instead of a description of two separate but connected properties, like longitude and latitude. An afflicted person then implicitly elevates the “fact” side of the distinction as being “good”, while denigrating the “value” side of the distinction as being bad. All of this is happening implicitly, like this:
Of course, those lines of text at the bottom, actually belong as part of the prescriptive subsystem:
Yes, it looks ridiculous when you express it this way. To resolve the cognitive dissonance, I think many intelligent adults in the west have adopted a stance of following the unwritten instructions and not thinking about their prescriptive subsystem much at all.
There are good reasons that people have adopted this insanity. Let’s give the devil his due.
Giving the Devil His Due
The reason many people have adopted the contradictory meta-value belief that says “value beliefs are bad” is out of a devotion to the truth.
Wishful thinking really is a problem. People often conflate what they want to happen, with what is likely to happen. People often avoid considering evidence that would make them uncomfortable because it would challenge other beliefs. People often push others to adopt their values. One of the most destructive forces in history has been large groups of humans convinced beyond all doubt that their values were correct.
I would say that the above things are bad, and that turning the fact value distinction into a religion is an attempt by people to avoid the bad outcomes. The fact/value distinction acts as a kind of materialistic theodicy: “many bad things happen in the world because people insist on believing what they want, rather than what the evidence shows them”. This is a predictive statement with a strong implicit value.
I personally think it’s good that we have collectively learned how destructive it can be when a group is convinced its values are correct and that its job is to bring everyone else in line. I think it’s great that we have seen how good it is to develop predictive maps independent of what we value. I think it’s wonderful that the scientific method, followed studiously, allows us to build really accurate, detailed maps of what is likely to happen. I think it’s fantastic that there’s a community of people who think it is good to endeavor towards always striving to make their maps match the territory.
Yes, it’s true, there’s a long history of people arguing “our values are correct” and then committing atrocities as result of those values. Not talking about values doesn't fix these problems, it simply hides them.
If people don’t have explicitly cultivated values, I think they are still likely to aggressively propagate their values, and fall into wishful thinking failure modes. I believe that the people least likely to try to steamroll others with their values are people with a strong awareness of their own explicitly cultivated values, which include “don’t try to make other people think the way I do.”
Yes, Hume’s fork is real. But we have collectively chosen the wrong end of Hume’s fork: values come first. We chose the wrong end because material facts are far easier to achieve consensus on, and because…. drumroll please…. mostly of us deeply value consensus. For most people it is far easier to believe something when their peers agree. We chose the ‘fact’ end of the ‘fact/value’ distinction because of a value! This is more insane than a guy like me, ranting in all caps on the internet.
Literally Everything is at Stake
Why should you believe truths instead of falsehoods?
Why should we study what causes infectious diseases to spread, instead of the precise arrangement of trash in my garbage can?
Why should we as a country, invest in infrastructure and defense, instead of giving giant piles money to giant wealthy corporations while inflation rages ?
The only answer here is, “because one is better than the other.” This is the obvious answer. Any idiot can see it clearly. And yet among our elite culture, people will think you an idiot for stating this directly.
You can either state this directly, or you can go the route of insanity which has captured the priestly class in the west today. The insane response is to give some long winded, roundabout argument which in the end still boils down to ‘this thing is better than that thing’, except it does so indirectly.
The problem with being intelligent is that you can come up with ever more elaborate ways of lying to yourself.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman, who would now be considered a heretic for saying we don’t need to trust experts
Now, you might ask, OK, but what does better mean? Can we test it like we can test chemicals in a lab? How can we know what is better? What exactly is the truth there? Is there if any territory to which our maps can correspond?
Those questions are either:
THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS ANYONE CAN ASK, or…
Nonsense, ‘better’ is just a thing people do in their brains, purely arbitrarily, there’s no reality there, just a mess of chemicals zapping each other according to bizarre mathematical rules, something something evolution, pay no attention to the men behind the curtain
Lots of common idiots like myself think the answer is 1. Our elites have collectively chosen 2. And then we wonder why things are a mess!
Any attempt to argue for one thing over an other is an argument that there is a correct value system. We all believe that in many cases, there really are correct values. If you believe truth is better than falsehood, you believe there is a correct value system, in some cases. If you believe science is better than superstition, you believe that there is a correct value system, with a scope at least as big as how one should think and what beliefs are valid. If you think love is better than hate, you believe there is a correct value system, at least in the domain of ‘attitudes one can have towards their fellow human beings’.
We - white collar, educated elites in the west, that’s who you likely are if you’re reading this, (and if you’re not thanks so much for reading, sorry for the white collar supremacy) - we all believe all of these things. We should stop pretending we don’t think these values are objectively correct. The only reason many of us are pretending not to believe in correct values is because we internalized a long-winded argument which says, essentially, “it is bad to believe there is a reality to good or bad.” Said directly, this is obviously stupid. So nobody says it directly, but many adults go around acting as if this were true
Every civilization has its superiority myth. Ours is : “The barbarians think they are superior to other people, and clearly that’s nonsense. We are better because we don’t think that way.” Except we don’t use the word ‘barbarian’ any more, because that way of thinking is something only barbarians do.
Values determine which facts you consider relevant. Values determine the end goal of your reasoning process: is it to predict the future, or to feel better about the present? Values are how you select which destination you want to end up at. The only thing facts can do is tell you how to get there. No amount of navigational aids will tell you where you want to go. Should it be any surprise that a civilization lead by people who think there is no meaningful answer to the question of ‘where should we go’ is now wandering aimlessly and bickering with each other?
Why are you still even reading this? The only answer is because you think there’s some value in doing so.
Should we think critically and carefully about the single mechanism that determines what we pay attention to, how we act, how speak, how we treat our fellow human beings and our environment? Should we reason, deliberate, and experiment with the set of norms that bind us together as a people?
Or should we all just take the values we feel intuitively for granted, never question them rigorously, and then wonder why it’s all going so poorly?
The emperor was naked. Everyone knew it, but nobody said anything. Why? Do you remember why that was? What was it that prevented everyone from saying what anyone with a brain could clearly see was the case? The emperor is naked today. And I’m not afraid to play the fool by saying it.
Please Stop Shouting At Us and Draw Some Pictures
OK ALSO this will start to get kinda technical but don’t worry just follow the pictures and you’ll be fine.
Those two subsystems I drew above aren’t really separate. They are both part of the same system which looks like this:
This thing is called a ‘causal dag’, with DAG meaning directed acyclic graph. All of those blue dots are things your brain is predicting, since predicting is what your brain really does. This diagram is far too simple to give you a feeling for the insane complexity of your belief system, so let’s try this one instead:
Except even THAT is too simple to give you a feeling for the enormous complexity involved here, so just take my word for it and we’ll go back to the simpler one. Notice that there are fewer nodes in the dag the higher we go:
At the top of the DAG are extremely abstract concepts. At the very bottom are the tiniest sensory details: a bit of light here, a 220hz sound there, etc. Predictions flow from the top down, and sensory inputs from your nervous system flow from the bottom up. Every day objects live somewhere in the middle; it might feel weird to say that a "chair” is actually a prediction of a distribution of sensory inputs, but this seems to be where the evidence points.
Each node in the dag is a definition, and the way definitions work, you can think of a word as ‘predicting’ the various components. If I tell you ‘Jesse is a bachelor’ you can now predict that Jesse is an unmarried man.
Your fact beliefs correspond to the structure of that dag - what the circles are and how they connect. Fact beliefs give the shape of the dag. Your value beliefs are the color of those dag nodes. Facts and values aren’t really separate, since the only facts your brain supports give rise to predictions, and every prediction has an associated value:
SURPRISE, I snuck a religious claim in there! We might see the key “battle between science and religion” as not really being an argument about the history of the world, but rather, the correct valence value of the top-most abstract concept!
Language tricks us into thinking we are talking about ‘the same concept’ when we are using the same words - but two concepts are only the same when they have the same predictive DAG.
This means that the real difference between these two dags isn’t the labels:
The real difference is the colors!
The real difference between these two dags isn’t the word used to label the predictive nodes, it’s the associated valence. When someone who believes in a loving omnipotent God talks about “God is infinitely loving” what they are really talking about is “the top-most predictive node in my belief network contains a highly positive valence which influences all downstream predictions in a positive manner.” This node, I think, means the same thing as when a materials atheist talks about ‘the material universe’ - what they mean is “that which beyond nothing exists, the root cause.”
Note that the main difference between the Abrahamic creation myths, and those of their neighbors, was that the Abrahamic myths said ‘god created reality as an act of pure love and goodness’ whereas their neighbors said “this place is insane, there are powerful beings which don’t care about us at all but will reward us if we give them what they want.” This is the same argument we are still having today, several thousand years later, with wandering Jewish tribes replaced, for the most part, by explicitly religious people.
The various local tribes thought that uncaring, all-powerful gods enforced their own rules on us, and that the priestly class could understand these rules enough that the gods would reward us. Those tribes have been replaced with a global tribe that believes a single all-powerful god enforces its rules on us, and that a priestly class is capable of understand these rules by following a precisely defined ritual involving numbers and chemicals. The modern priestly class believes that this god is actively trying to destroy us with a force called entropy, just not trying very hard because it cares more about following its precisely defined rules.
The jewish creation myth said that man was the pinnacle of a beautiful creation. Their neighbors said that men were created in a hostile chaotic universe, as slaves for the gods who bickered and fought. The modern transnational state progressive creation narrative says that our very existence is a highly improbable fluke, and that not-caring but trying-to-kill-us god will eventually win in the end, for sure, but with the right leadership and the right kind of powerful state, guided by the wisest of priests, we can keep ourselves alive just a bit longer before the inevitable end.
You only need a few layers of translation to see that we’re having the same arguments we’ve been having for thousands of years. Yes, our causal understanding of the world has advanced. No, you can’t claim this advance is all the result of purely scientific materialist people because both genetics and the big bang were theories introduced by deeply religious people.
It is left as exercise for the reader to translate both the problem of theodicy and various attempts at solutions into claims about the correct structure of the dag. I’ve got one more bag (dag?) of ideas to share before I drop the mic.
The Scientific Revolution Came From Proof of Knowledge, Not Knowledge Itself
The scientific revolution accelerated our learning because it caused the computational singularity that lots of smart people are worried about today.
The singularity already happened, my good bros, a few hundred years ago when we came up with epistemic values around experimentation and making predictions. It was value beliefs that lead to the scientific revolution, which then lead to an acceleration of our accumulation of fact beliefs.
Those epistemic values told us to pursue and express knowledge in a way directly compatible the structure of our own brains (i.e. prediction machines). The kind of knowledge that the values of the scientific revolution prized was purely factual. Valuing factual knowledge that can be tested empirically gave rise to as a kind of ‘proof of knowledge’ consensus mechanism. The true scientific revolution was not ‘new knowledge of the outside world’, it was a mechanism for making our internal maps match the internal territory, as well as proving to other people that we had achieved some congruence by predicting things they can’t. New consensus mechanisms change everything in human history.
The scientific revolution was a distributed computational explosion arising from replacing trust in experts with experiments you could replicate on your own.
The real revolution was a kind of trustless consensus mechanism. This mechanism has now largely run its course, because none of us is able to replicate newest scientific findings, even in real scientific fields like physics or chemistry that aren’t suffering from replication crises. We are back to a place of trust in experts, because most of us aren’t trained in enough different disciplines, nor do we have the budget, to perform experiments and validate the results ourselves.
The true value of the scientific revolution wasn’t really about knowledge, it was about proving that knowledge to others. A corollary of the hume’s fork religion is that many people today are totally unwilling to believe anything unless it is communicated in the New York times, at which point they must believe it. Our knowledge of the material world has advanced far beyond the epistemic limits of the trustless horizon; the only choice you can make today is which other people you trust and which beliefs you take on faith.
The solution is not to give up the search for knowledge, it is to understand the essentially risky nature of epistemic endeavors, and then to choose to keep going. In other words, this:
In the past few hundred years, the scientific revolution let us better understand smaller and smaller portions of material reality. We now have a ton of people with identically-shaped dags when it comes to the very bottom layers. The periodic table is a pure social construct that is both extremely complicated, and widely shared across wealthy educated people in basically all cultures. That’s an amazing accomplishment. Hooray!
Unfortunately, global elites only have consensus about the shapes at the very bottoms of our predictive dags. This is likely all we’ll ever get as far as global consensus goes.
That stuff is easier to form consensus on because it’s easier to isolate and experiment on. It’s far easier to prove your solution works when experiments are cheap and end quickly. But because we made a kind of religion out of ‘predictions or GTFO’, as well as Hume’s fork, it has become impossible for many of us to reason about things like the predictive results of one group of people having one set of values. Even if you only care about fact values, you still should be able to predict the result of people believing in some values over others, right?
For example: why are the Jews still a thing? Seriously, after thousands of years, how come literally all of their neighbors are gone, and they are still around? How did that happen? Doesn’t it strike you as outrageously unlikely that several thousand years after they started being a thing, Jews would still be around and kicking ass when it comes to intellectual accomplishments? No, I’m not Jewish. But I am a scientist, dammit, and I know when an extremely unlikely outcome demands an explanation. The continued existence of Jews, coupled with the absence Elomites, Caanaites, Babylonians, etc, following several thousand year old rituals and texts that are letter-for-letter identical demands an explanation. Why is only such one tribe still around following basically the same culture?
My explanation is that the Jewish value system worked really, really well for them.
Please Just End this Already
The long-lived success of the Jewish people, and its likely relation to their values, gives me what I think is the correct ‘consensus mechanism’ for values: long term average valence. Fact-beliefs are false if they generate inaccurate predictions. I think value beliefs are false if they lower the long-term valence of the entity operating under them. You can’t have any emotional valence if you’re dead, so if a set of beliefs allows an entity to continue existing for a few thousand years, they are clearly doing at least something right.
Correct values almost certainly differ from person to person, and group to group, since what works for a fish doesn’t work for me, and we all have both different hardware and different external circumstances. There might be multiple correct values for a given person or group; . Perhaps there really is no single value that is universally correct - this doesn’t mean there is no territory at all! Yes, figuring out causality will be really hard, and we’ll never be able to do controlled experiments here, but the same is already true of social sciences.
I don’t think the difficulties and challenges in figuring out which values work for which entities, and which don’t, means we shouldn’t try. We already have theories like this, when it comes to certain games. If a game like poker can have incorrect values, why can’t there be correct values in the game of Physics?
I think it’s time we started taking values seriously. So try the scientific method here, the really old school version where you do the experiment yourself.
Try pretending you can be wrong in what you want. Try pretending your values can be wrong, and that there is some real territory to which they can confirm. Then see what happens. Then tell other people what happened! It’s much cheaper than building a particle accelerator, and I predict you’ll find value in conducting the experiment.
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Good essay. We must be tuned into the same shard of the Logos as one of my next Contemplations is going to cover similar ground!
What are your opinions on Jordan Peterson's ideas? Sensing a fair amount of affinities here.
Personally I believe the thesis that 1) value necessarily precedes facts and that 2) the only processes known to man for determining which values are good are long-run evolutionary processes, are basically, correct.
There is one nasty snag though, which is how do you find short term leading indicators to long term value-of-values. Without which, how does one ever innovate on value other than relying on pure hubris?