January 11, 2015

Write What You Know, musings on rationalist buddhism

drafted Sep 23, 2014

“Write what you know,” advises Mark Twain, as does every other person who deigns to advise novice story weavers. I know a rationalist who knows his stoic philosophy, and it shows when he speaks. He likes to expound in detail how rationality and stoic philosophy mesh together; his exuberance in communicating his thoughts inspired me to try it myself. I know too little of stoic philosophy to comment on its merits, but I do know something of buddhism and taoism.

Buddhism builds a narrative around the idea that the reality we think we know is an illusion. It contends one of the more persistent illusions is the existence of the self as a separate and distinct entity from the rest of the world. According to this philosophy, suffering stems from constantly superimposing ideas of what 'should be'—what you want or do not want—onto what is. To live your life to the fullest, you must transcend judging your experiences and learn to simply experience them.

The appeal is clear; you can save a lot of effort by changing what’s in your head rather than the world outside it. The little wants and impulses that drive us often contradict each other. We use our intelligence to try to form coherent goals as best we can; we don't always succeed. When achieving a badly formulated goal leaves you wanting, you can either relinquish the wanting or change what you're doing to satisfy it. Buddhism, as you can imagine, is pretty heavy on the relinquishment.

What you feel or think describes a state of how you are, not of the things you're thinking of or having feelings about; Western (or perhaps, consumer) culture avoids making the distinction. Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes it! In a world where people too often confuse the map for the territory, it seems prudent to promote a narrative centered around distinguishing them for balance. The buddhist narrative encourages the useful practice of considering whether you can dissolve a perceived problem as simply as thinking of it in a different light.

Whereas Buddhism might be a useful reaction to our base culture's error modes. A basic technique from CFAR's bag of tricks, goal factoring, feels similar to the buddhist process of relinquishment. They start out identically: first make yourself aware of your own wants, and acknowledge the very human mess of motives lying underneath the surface. Where buddhism moves to relinquish these desires as broken kludges, though, goal factoring aims to bring the larger goal and lower level wants into perfect harmony.

We can appreciate the buddhist principle that people, including oneself, are better understood as another fragment of an interconnected world than as unique beings of spirit and free will. Furthermore, we notice intuition oversimplifies identity. Hyperbolic discounting shows the discrepancy well: if you want one thing now, and one thing at a different time, which is your true desire? Is your self a body, or a first-person story, or a nebulous je ne sais quo? Better philosophers than I have tried to tackle these questions.

Buddhism and rationality could make a potent mixing, but I doubt you can equate rationality, whose state of the art right now amounts to a grab bag of tricks and techniques, with any established worldview. If I had to choose, however, I can think of one narrative which stands a chance of pulling the disparate pieces together into a cohesive whole: Taoism. The Tao Te Ching, a chief spiritual text, stresses that the “master” practictioner wields only as much force as needed to complete his task, and never a moment too soon or too late. It is a simple narrative, with the idea of the least action at its very heart. A more poetic way to describe a rationalist’s dance to maintain pareto efficiency may exist outside of those pages, but I haven’t found it yet.

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