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Highlights From The Comments On PNSE

(original post)

Alex M writes:

I think one of the main problems with the current state of rationalism (and many other fake “sciences” such as economics or sociology) is fuzzy thinking and lack of falsifiable empirical testing. So somebody claims to be “enlightened.” Does a smart person take that at face value? Of course not. Once you just start believing random shit, you’re no better than a superstitious primitive cargo-cult. You have to TEST all claims. For example, I don’t just take it at face value that economics is a real science just because a bunch of IYIs tell me so. I analyze economist predictions, see that their track record of successful predictions is atrocious, and then make the totally RATIONAL choice to discard my priors and treats economics as the laughable hocus-pocus that it is – because when you genuinely have an accurate view of reality, it doesn’t collapse under scrutiny. We should treat mystical claims exactly the same way. So somebody claims to be enlightened? Fine. How can they substantiate it? Can they do things that unenlightened people can’t, like clairvoyance, predicting the future, or sending messages through the collective subconscious in order to significantly impact world events? Do you see what I’m saying? Enlightenment should have some objectively quantifiable impact beyond just having a different internal narrative that is completely subjective and unprovable.

This total lack of skepticism that people have is endlessly frustrating to me, because it results in bad data and popular narratives that are completely incorrect, if not outright delusional. In my opinion, the reason we have entire pseudo-scientific fields (like sociology or economics) that are nothing more than fake science cargo cults is because of this credulous behavior that results in people just believing whatever an “expert” with a fancy degree says. The fact that we have a replication crisis is a result of this gullible tendency to accept claims at face value. We are slowly learning to fix science by being more skeptical of expert claims, but we have to apply these same standards of falsifiability to spirituality as well, otherwise we are simply shifting our cult-like behavior from the field of science to the field of religion.

Imagine a doctor told you that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. In fact, you don’t need to imagine it – I am telling you now that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. How much effort should you put any effort into doubting this? If I say that my evidence is I know a few patients with trauma histories who say they’ve had long-lasting states of dysphoric depersonalization, and that most other doctors I talk to also know some patients, and a couple of small studies have been done on this and say the same thing, are you especially interested in doubting it?

Now imagine a doctor tells you that repeated meditation can cause a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization. Should our prior on this be any lower than the last statement? Should we reject the experience of thousands of people and dozens of studies because it’s just too far out there? Should we say that no rationalist should ever believe such a thing?

I don’t think the minimalist account of enlightenment takes us quite as minimal as “a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization”. But it takes us pretty close. And the evidence includes thousands of otherwise-trustworthy people who say they’ve had the experience, including some people I know personally and trust quite a bit, and who radically change their behavior afterwards (even if that change is just being impressed by the experience they devote the rest of their lives to exploring it). These are accompanied by many other people who haven’t gotten that far but report surprising and related-sounding experiences from the small amount of meditation they’ve done. And all of this is supported by brain scan results. And all of this meshes well with the evidence from philosophers like Dennett and Parfit that the “self” is a construct created by the brain rather than an objective reality, which itself meshes well with evidence that groups like schizophrenics and drug users can have disturbed senses of self or misplaced self/other boundaries.

This is really as much evidence as we have for any kind of mental state we haven’t experienced personally, and I’m pretty okay with it.

Bugmaster asks:

If 50 people told you they were abducted by aliens, does it mean that there are aliens abducting people?

No. I also wouldn’t believe 50 people who said they had seen Bigfoot, or created perpetual motion machines. I would believe 50 people who said McDonalds had a new dessert on the menu, or that Biden was up in the polls today, or that they had the flu (assuming I hadn’t investigated these issues myself).

As Bayesians, we compute our belief by combining evidence with priors. Our evidence in all these cases is “fifty people believe something”. Our priors are either very low (in the first three examples) or reasonably high (in the last three).

As I mentioned above, my prior that there are euphoric depersonalized states of consciousness is pretty high, given that I know there are dysphoric depersonalized states of consciousness. It’s certainly not low enough that when thousands of people swear they have it, and most of the neuroscientists who look into it end up pretty convinced that it’s real, I’m going to say “Haha, no, you’re all lying”. For thousands of not-really-enlightened people to all falsely claim to be enlightened, describe enlightenment in similar ways, and go around teaching students who themselves later claim to be enlightened, all without giving up the game – sounds like an absurd conspiracy theory.

If I try to steelman the anti-enlightenment argument, the best I can do is to imagine a sort of placebo enlightenment, where if you get told by your culture that you can feel inner peace and selflessness by doing X, eventually you feel (something that can be mistaken for) inner peace and selflessness.

But if we’re going to worry about this, why don’t we believe that LSD only causes placebo hallucinations? Maybe drug culture talks up LSD hallucinations so much that users say they’ve seen them to fit in. Why don’t we believe chronic pain conditions are only placebo pain? Why don’t we worry that “runners high” and “endorphin rushes” are just stories runners tell to feel better for themselves after torturing their bodies over long marathons?

Part of the answer must surely be “because there’s no philosophical difference between pain and a ‘placebo pain’ which presents the same subjective experience as pain, given that pain is a subjective experience”. The other part will depend on our priors about how often people have unusual experiences vs. how often people make things up. My prior is that people have really unusual experiences all the time, and that they make things up much less than doctors like to think. My OCD sometimes presents as a burning need to touch a random piece of furniture far away, felt through a sensory modality I cannot describe to anyone without the condition; my standing to accuse other people of making their unusual experiences up is pretty much nil.

I worry that all of this is being contaminated by associations with the word “enlightenment”, where it represents something like “becoming a superhuman surrounded by glowy rays of light”. If you just say “euphoric depersonalization experience” (or, like Martin, “persistant non-symbolic experience”), it doesn’t seem to have as much cause for skepticism. I imagine people doubted the existence of Komodo dragons for a while based on generally-accurate anti-dragon priors, but if you just think of them as “big lizards” then the problem disappears.

Seppo has a more interesting anti-enlightenment steelman than my poor attempt:

The most interesting enlightenment-skeptical thing I’ve ever heard is this interview (“Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense” with Bill Joslin; h/t peach jam on David Chapman’s blog).

To summarize (from somewhat hazy memory, sorry):

Joslin did various Buddhist and Taoist practices and had… some kind of weird experience and/or insight. I’m reluctant to throw the word “enlightenment” around since it’s defined in too many ways, but Joslin explains what his thing was in a good amount of detail. He also gives a lucid account of several different kinds of meditation practices that people do and why each of them would lead to something freaky happening to the self/other boundary.

Afterwards, he started teaching meditation, probably without an official licence. (At least, he doesn’t mention having one; even ex-Buddhists who have such certifications will normally say so and name the person who gave it to them, if the topic ever comes up.)

After having some doubts about the whole thing, he spent some time trying to talk about his Insights into the Nature of the Mind and/or Reality with ordinary Americans who had never been interested in Buddhism or meditation or the like⁠—and a lot of them told him something like, “Oh, sure, I know all about that. I was walking in the woods one day and sorta… noticed?”

Now he thinks that (1) whatever valid insights come with wild experiences like his are things that random people stumble into all the time without making a big fuss about it, and (2) the main function of mystical/meditation traditions is to get those insights to come at you in the form of unnecessarily dramatic experiences that they can then take credit for.

Remember, on the last SSC survey, 6% of respondents said they were enlightened. Sure, 4% of that is Lizardman’s Constant. What about the other 2%? Maybe some could be the walking-in-the-woods-one-day people Joslin talks about?

Skaladom writes:

Since we’re using Buddhist terminology, it might be worth pointing out that in Buddhism only those at the far end of the spectrum would be called enlightened. What the paper calls Stage 1, in particular, sounds pretty close to what Theravada Buddhism calls stream entry, which is recognized as an important step to enlightenment. A more generic term used by spiritual seekers to encompass all these levels is “realized”.

I think this is a good amendment to the above points. Maybe “enlightenment” really should be restricted to superhumans surrounded by glowy rays of light. One thing that many descriptions of spiritual experiences share is a warning that the first rungs on the enlightenment ladder, the entry-level forms of enlightenment, are so inconceivably world-shattering that the people who attain them will think they’ve reached the ultimate possible state of being unless they have really strong reasons to think otherwise. Maybe random people walking in the forest and 6% of SSC readers have had early-stage awakening experiences, but there are also states beyond that.

Aella writes:

Ok I’m about to do gossip: I know a highly experienced mediator, someone who’s worked with/around Jeffrey and I asked him about what he thought about the PSNE paper (which I liked a lot, particularly because I strongly related to having experienced the last location). He said that he thought Jeffrey was more interested in developing a good narrative (he makes a lot of money off this stuff) than actually trying to figure out patterns, and that the data is cherrypicked, and that he doesn’t really trust anything Jeffrey puts out.

Of course take this with a grain of salt, is heresay, but I trust the meditator enough that now I personally feel wary of the PNSE paper as well.

Also I’m really intrigued by the infighting that goes on in meditation communities, particularly around claims to enlightenment. I’ve talked at least one somewhat famous meditation teacher that is extremely sure another somewhat famous meditation teacher is definitely not enlightened. The lack of agreement in this area is so goddamn juicy and I really want to dig into it.

Cuke writes:

Student of Buddhism for past 35 years. I don’t claim enlightenment for sure, but I have some lived experience with this terrain — repeated glimpses let’s say, on and off the cushion.

The thing that makes me most skeptical about these reported findings is the discussion around stress and loved ones’ perceptions of the person.

As one goes down this path, the person experiences significantly less emotional reactivity. That means both that they will experience less stress in response to things that used to stress them more and they will move more flexibly/kindly through the world than they previously did. Loved ones will notice this, without question. The person themselves will experience fewer days of tight chest anxiety, hot-faced anger, tension headaches, chronic muscle tension, insomnia due to worry, fear of death, conflict with others, etc.

You can’t really compare one person to another that way because we all start at different places, but within a person, it seems dubious to me that a person could claim to be moving along the road to enlightenment and still be manifesting the same level of stress response and emotional reactivity as they did before. This to me is a contradiction of what it means to hold one’s experience more lightly, to cling less to ego, to be less identified with the self, to feel less attached to desire and aversion, and so on.

In my experience, the path is not reversible beyond a certain point. And there’s good reason for that — the awareness gained in meditation, or indeed however the insight comes — permanently changes one’s outlook about oneself and the nature of reality. You can’t un-see it. Part of what that means too is that the awareness/tools/insights gained in meditation cannot be isolated to the cushion — they change fundamentally how you experience and move through your daily life, how you respond to stressors and to other people.

Anyway, that’s been my experience and what I’ve witnessed in others. For all of us somewhere on the road but short of enlightenment, it doesn’t mean the end of stress, the end of pettiness, the end of ego, the end of clinging. But you definitely definitely would expect to see change along those dimensions in a way that would be noticeable to other people.

What comes through Scott’s review here is a particular focus on the experience of loss of self. Our language is imprecise in this arena. It’s possible to experience “loss of self” in the midst of sex or trance or on LSD or in the woods or after long hours of devotional chanting or certain breath practices. It’s possible to have moments of experiencing “loss of agency” in a way that feels very relieving. I don’t think this should be confused with “enlightenment.”

The path towards enlightenment is about “waking up” from cycles of attachment and aversion that we live in. I think it’s possible to have all kinds of transcendent experiences of “oneness” without making much progress on the waking up from attachment part. Those fleeting transcendent experiences may come and go in any person’s life. Waking up entails new levels of self-awareness that are not reversible (I can’t speak to the impact of dementia or brain injury) and that lead to deeper levels of compassion towards all beings.

I’m not familiar with what enlightenment means outside of Buddhist traditions, so part of the imprecision may be that people studying enlightenment experiences need to be clearer about how the definition varies from one tradition to another. I think it’s possible in the effort to study some phenomenon across traditions, that researchers are settling on a least common denominator that no longer resembles “enlightenment” as it’s understood within any one tradition…

For me personally, [gaining new levels of self-awareness] is like discovering a new room in my house. I may not always be able to go in and see the view from that room, but now that I know it’s there, I know that that view exists. Before that, I didn’t know that the room or the view existed. And now mostly, I know how to get back into that room and see the view. From that view, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, no longer do. So even on days that I can’t get into the room, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, don’t cause quite as much suffering.

[As for changes of outlook about the nature of reality] — I don’t have a short way to answer this question. I can tell you it’s not mainly a cognitive/philosophical shift, but it includes it. It’s a more visceral shift in terms of how I hold my moment-to-moment lived experience and how I view myself moving through it. All of it does indeed seem to be tied to what is described as the four noble truths — ie, that attachment causes suffering, that it’s possible to get freer from attachment, and that practicing that does free one up from suffering.

This is what I mean when I talk about the sheer number of testimonials. It’s not just some guy in Tibet trying to sell you a book. Whenever I talk about it, there are smart, normal-seeming people who pipe up and say they have “some experience with the terrain”. I think if you’re going to doubt all these people, you need some theory of what’s going on, something more explanatory than just “we’re rationalists so we don’t believe any of this stuff”.

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Indian Economic Reform: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

From a recent Charter Cities Institute report:

From India’s independence from the British Raj in 1947 to the early 1990s, the country’s economic policy was largely socialist. In the 1980s some early steps were taken to open the Indian economy to increased trade, reduce controls over industry, and set a more realistic exchange rate. In 1991, more widespread economic reforms were introduced. These reforms included the end of government monopolies over certain sectors of the economy, reductions in barriers to entry for new firms, increased foreign investment was allowed, and tariffs and other barriers to trade were reduced or eliminated. After liberalization, exports increased substantially, and various service sector industries saw significant growth.

India’s growth has not just been good for the more educated segment of the population. Datt, Ravallion, and Murgai (2016) argue that India has made substantial progress in reducing the incidence of absolute poverty, and that this trend exists in both urban and rural areas. Historically higher rates of rural poverty have been converging with urban rates of poverty, and the overall poverty rate has been declining at an accelerating rate in the post-1991 reform era. In the 1970s over 60 percent of Indians were living in extreme poverty. As of 2011, only 20 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty. Between 2005 and 2016, an estimated 271 million Indians rose out of multidimensional poverty, which accounts for various health, education, and living standard indicators rather than just income (UNDP and OPHI 2018). Infant mortality has fallen from 161.4 deaths per 1,000 births in 1960 to just 32 deaths per 1,000 births in 2017, and India should soon converge with the world average if the current trend continues. Life expectancy has also improved dramatically, rising from 41 years in 1960 to nearly 69 years today. Like with infant mortality, India is close to converging with the world average in life expectancy. Literacy has improved from just 41 percent in 1981 to 72 percent in 2015, an increase of 75 percent. Here too, India is converging with the world average. Female literacy in particular rose from just 25 percent in 1981 to nearly 60 percent in 2011, and female primary school enrollment has increased from 65 percent in 1990 to over 98 percent today. Across the board of development measures, India has made tremendous strides.

Reading this surprised me. I was vaguely aware that India had done relatively well, but I didn’t grasp the scale. This should be up there with the rise of China as one of the most important (and most encouraging) news stories of my lifetime. And if it was really due to the 1991 reforms, they should go down alongside Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization of China as one of the century’s great achievements.

Looking into it further, the progress against poverty is on firm ground, but the attribution to the 1991 reforms is controversial. Here’s India’s rate of GDP growth over time:

And here’s its poverty rate over time:

Neither looks like much happened in 1991. Both show, if anything, gradual progress from around 1980. Kotwal, Ramaswami and Wadhwa have an especially clear presentation of this:

For their claim about 1991, CCI cites Indian-American economist Arvind Panagariya’s 2004 paper. Panagariya is aware that the graphs don’t back him up, and cites other economists like Brad DeLong and Dani Rodrik making approximately this point. But he argues that liberalization deserves credit for India’s growth anyway, on two grounds. First, he says that there was “stealth reform” in the mid-1980s, when reformers opened the economy without publicizing what they were doing in order to avoid a crackdown from angry leftists. These were complete by 1987, leading to a boom from 1987 – 1991. Second, this growth was unsustainable, and ended in a 1991 crash. Only after the major 1991 reforms did India enter a sustained period of economic growth.

But Panagariya’s panegyric is founded on the growth starting in 1987; the graphs don’t support that story either. He can only note that:

It is difficult to pinpoint the timing of the upward shift in India’s growth rate. Thus, in a recent attempt to pinpoint structural breaks in the growth series, Wallack (2003) is able to achieve at best partial success. She finds that with a 90 percent probability the shift in the growth rate of GDP took place between 1973 and 1987. The associated point estimate of the shift, statistically significant at 10 percent level, is 1980. When Wallack replaces GDP by gross national product (GNP), however, the cutoff point with 90 percent probability shifts to the years between 1980 and 1994. The associated point estimate, statistically significant at 10 percent level, now turns out to be 1987.

In other words, statistics is hard, and random upward swings can segue into real changes in trend in hard-to-analyze ways. It’s impossible to say for sure from the GDP numbers that there wasn’t a (random) boom in 1980 that gradually merged with the (real) boom starting in 1987. This works with the GDP numbers, but I find it basically impossible to square with the graph on poverty (which is from 2016 and which Panagariya didn’t have access to).

CCI also cites Datt, Ravillion, and Murgal (paper, article), which claims that “economic reforms following the macroeconomic crisis of 1991-92 marked a significant change in India’s economic landscape, ushering in a new phase of high economic growth. The growth rate of NDP per capita more than doubled in the period since 1992.” But on closer inspection, they are just comparing an average for the period 1957 – 1991 with an average for the period 1992 – 2012, and finding the latter average is higher. They make no effort to establish that the break point is actually in 1991. Since people had been complaining about this for about ten years before the publication of their paper, I’m not sure what their excuse is, other than that they’re mostly making an unrelated point about poverty and this is not super relevant.

More recent work seems to agree that there is something fishy here. Agarwal and Whalley (2013) concludes that:

We do not find persuasive the contention of manyanalysts that growth accelerated after the mid-1980s when reforms were initiated. Nor does statisticalanalysis support the contention that reforms in the mid-1980s resulted in a growth acceleration. Weshow that there is an accelerating rate of growth of GDP after the mid 1970s and it is difficult to relate this gradual acceleration to specific policy changes. The changed policies in the 1980s did not meana basic change in the policy framework. Furthermore, since corporate investment as a share of GDP did not increase in the 1980s it is difficult to identify the mechanism by which the more pro-business policies of the government were translated to higher growth.

And Kotwal, Ramaswami, and Wadhwa (2016) says basically the same:

Formal econometric tests also indicate a structural break around 1980. Using an F-test, Wallack (2003) finds the highest value of the F-statistic in 1980. Rodrik and Subramanian (2004) use a procedure of Bai and Perron(1998, 2003) and they report a single structural break in 1979. Balakrishnan and Parameswaran (2007) also used the Bai and Perron procedure and they too locate a single structural break in GDP in 1978-79. The authors also estimate structural breaks for sectoral GDP. Their principal finding is that structural break in agricultural output occurs in the mid-1960s while it occurs in the early to mid-1970s for various sub-sectors of services. On the other hand, the first positive structural break in manufacturing occurs after the GDP break in 1982-83.

Basu (2008) and Sen (2007), however, point out that GDP fell by 5.2% in 1979-80 (due to a combination of a drought and the second oil price shock). If this outlier is disregarded, then the trend break occurs in 1975-76. The average annual growth rate during the period 1975-78 is 5.8% – a rate more in line with the post-1980 experience than with the earlier period.

Is the timing of the structural break important? The discussion in the literature about the structural break takes place in the belief that it could offer clues about what policies led to the shift in the economy’s growth rate. Such inference is problematic because statistical methods alone are unlikely to provide a precise timing. Judgments about outliers, the period of analysis, and the sectors that are considered, matter. An additional complication is that policy measures do not have instantaneous results. The delay would be especially pronounced if the benefits flow from a structural change. It is therefore unwise to correlate the changes in economic variables to the policy changes that immediately preceded them. These caveats notwithstanding, the economy does seem to have moved to a higher growth trajectory sometime in the mid to late 1970s or early 1980s, well before the economic reforms of 1991.

So what did cause the Indian economic boom, save 200 million people from poverty, and accomplish an almost unmatched victory over misery and mortality? After discussing a series of possibilities, Kotwal, Ramaswami, and Wadhwa…admit that they are confused:

Although it is clear that GDP growth rates increased sometime in the ‘70s or early ‘80s, the precise timing is hard to establish and depends on one’s prior. Various explanations have been proposed and it is impossible to be sure which of these is the most important one. The economic orthodoxy would favor one that credits trade liberalization, limited as it was, that decreased the cost of capital equipment but it is hard to disentangle the effects of this from more heterodox factors such as public investment and rise in savings rate (due to bank nationalization), the diffusion of agricultural technology (entirely due to public research and dissemination) or indeed to rule out the role of political attitudes towards business. It is also indisputable that there was an unsustainable fiscal expansion through 1980’s and any income growth resulting from it should be considered qualitatively different from the much more sustainable growth that occurred in the next decade.

Of the various papers they cite, the one I find most interesting is Rodrik and Subramanian (2004). After a while describing the problem, they look at it from a different angle: which Indian states boomed first? They find it was the states most closely allied with the ruling Congress Party, and tell a story where floundering Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided she needed support from Big Business and adopted a pro-Big-Business attitude. They do excellent work establishing the plausibility of every link in the chain of assumptions here except the one where they admit that this attitude wasn’t reflected in any pro-business policies until the late 1980s at the earliest. Somehow Gandhi’s pro-Big-Business attitude is supposed to have helped business without being reflected in any major economic reforms. Maybe it changed the way existing laws were enforced? Maybe it signalled to businesses that they should get started on long-term strategies because they could expect favorable laws in the future? Or maybe Prime Minister Gandhi just sort of sat in New Delhi, telepathically willing Big Business to succeed, and it worked? Rodrik and Subramanian are kind of agnostic about this. Everything else seems to fit pretty well, though. This might be a good time to reread Does Reality Drive Straight Lines On Graphs, Or Do Straight Lines On Graphs Drive Reality?

This is also a good time to reread The History Of The Fabian Society, because the problem might be their fault to begin with. In the waning days of the British Empire, bright young leaders from all over the developing world (including India’s Jawaharlal Nehru) came to study at Oxford and Cambridge, got inducted into Fabian socialism, went home to their newly independent countries, and pursued socialist policies. All those countries did terribly and became the Third World basketcases of today. Only over the last few decades is the damage starting to be reversed.

If we had a better understanding of what exactly happened and how it was reversed, it could be an important source of information for developing countries in the future. Also, and more selfishly, it would be an important source of information for the US. Historically-informed anti-socialism arguments have tended to hinge on things like socialist China killing 60 million people, or socialist Russia killing 15 million people, or socialist Cambodia killing 1.5 million people, or [insert other socialist regimes killing 6-7 digit numbers of people]. But nobody thinks that Bernie Sanders plans to kill a six to seven digit number of people. To respond to Bernie-Sanders-style-socialism, we need to study and raise awareness of the history of democratic, comparatively “nice” countries that did nothing worse than overregulate business a bit – and investigate whether even these best-case scenarios still doomed millions of people to live in poverty. My (biased) guess is that careful study will show this to be true. But I don’t think this study has been done, I don’t think the facts are in yet, and I don’t think it was appropriate for the Charter Cities Institute to cite Panagariya’s argument on this point without any challenges or caveats.

The PNSE Paper

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth going over in detail. The full title is Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults by Jeffery Martin, with “persistent non-symbolic experience” (PNSE) as a scientific-sounding culturally-neutral code word for “enlightenment”. Martin is a Reiki practitioner associated with the “Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness”, so we’re not getting this from the most sober of skeptics, but I still find the project interesting enough to deserve a look.

Martin searched various religious and spiritual groups for people who both self-reported enlightenment and were affiliated with “a community that provided validity to their claims”. He says he eventually found 1200 such people who were willing to participate in the study, but that “the data reported here comes primarily from the first 50 participants who sat for in-depth interviews…based on the overall research effort these 50 were felt to be a sufficient sample to represent what has been learned from the larger population”. Although Martin says he tried to get as much diversity as possible, the group was mostly white male Americans.

Martin’s research was mostly qualitative, based on in-depth interviews, so we’re mostly going with his impressions. But his impression was that most people who self-described as enlightened had similar experiences, which could be be plotted on:

…a continuum that seemed to progress from ‘normal’ waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency or ability to make a choice. Locations prior to this seemed to involve consistent changes toward this direction.

He describes this distant form of consciousness as involving changes in sense-of-self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception.

Starting with sense-of-self, he says:

Perhaps the most universal change in what PNSE participants reported related to their sense of self. They experienced a fundamental change from a highly individualized sense of self, which is common among the ‘normal’ population, to something else. How that ‘something else’ was reported often related to their religious or spiritual tradition(s), or lack thereof. For example, Buddhists often referred to a sense of spaciousness while Christians frequently spoke of experiencing a union with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect. However, each experienced a transformation into a sense of self that seemed ‘larger’ and less individuated than the one that was experienced previously. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body, sometimes very far beyond it…

This change was dramatic and most participants noticed it immediately, even if initially they could not pinpoint exactly what had occurred. Sense of self changed immediately in approximately 70% of participants. In the other 30% it unfolded gradually, with the unfolding period reported as varying from a few days to four months.

Those who were not involved in a religious or spiritual tradition that contextualized the experience often felt that they might have acquired a mental disorder. This analysis was not based on emotional or mental distress. It was typically arrived at rationally because the way they were experiencing reality was suddenly remarkably different than they had previously, and as far as they could tell different from everyone they knew. Many of these participants sought professional mental health care, which no participant viewed as having been beneficial. Clinicians often told them their descriptions showed similarities to depersonalization and derealization, except for the positive nature of the experience.

There were nuances within how sense of self was experienced at different locations along the continuum. In the earliest locations, the sense of self felt expanded, and often seemed more connected to everything. In the farthest locations on the continuum, an even more pronounced change occurred in sense of self; a ll aspects of having an individualized sense of self had vanished for these participants. Prior to this location some aspects of an individualized sense of self remained, and participants could occasionally be drawn into them.

On cognition:

Another consistent report is a shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. Virtually all of the participants discussed this as one of the first things they noticed upon entering PNSE. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content.

Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self-related thoughts. Nevertheless, participants were experiencing a reduction in quantity of thoughts that was so significant that when they were asked to quantify the reduction, t hose who could answered within the 80-95% range. This high percentage may suggest why someone would say all thought had fallen away.

There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought. When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.

On perception:

Participants in the later part of the middle range of the PNSE continuum often reported seeing the unfolding layers of these perceptual processes in detail. They reported being able to begin to detect the difference between the orientation response and the physical, cognitive, and emotional processes that arose after it. They reported reaching a point where some events were reacted to by one or more of these layers while others were not. This was in contrast to participants on the early end of the continuum who perceived all of these layers as one during an event, or at least as a greatly reduced number of discrete processes.

You can read more, plus the sections on emotion and memory, yourself; they mostly fit with the stereotypes you would expect of enlightened people; a lot of tranquility, joy, and focus on the present moment.

What I like about this paper is the parts where it departs from these stereotypes. It makes clear that most of these people’s external characteristics didn’t change at all. In many cases, their friends and family didn’t even notice anything was different, and could not be convinced that anything about them was different:

Despite an overwhelming change in how it felt to experience both themselves and the world after the onset of PNSE, the outward appearance of the participants changed very little. Generally speaking they retained their previous mannerisms, hobbies, political ideology, food and clothing preferences, and so forth. If someone were an environmentalist prior to PNSE, typically they remained so after it. If they weren’t, they still are not.

Many participants discussed the thought, just after their transition to PNSE, that they would have to go to work and explain the difference in themselves to co-workers. They went on to describe a puzzled drive home after a full day of work when no one seemed to notice anything different about them. Quite a few chose to never discuss the change that had occurred in them with their families and friends and stated that no one seemed to notice much of a difference. In short, although they had experienced radical internal transformation, externally people didn’t seem to take much notice of it, if any.

Similarly, despite people saying that they no longer had any sense of agency, they were behaving as agentically as anyone else:

On the far end of the continuum, participants reported no sense of agency. They reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening. Nevertheless, many of these participants were functioning in a range of demanding environments and performing well. One, for example, was a doctoral level student at a major university. Another was a young college professor who was building a strong career. Still another was a seasoned public and private sector executive who served as a high-level consultant and on various institutional-level boards.

Can you imagine investing in a company whose executive believes he cannot take any action and is just watching reality unfold? But it seems to work out.

Other times the PNSE participants are just outright wrong about their experience. When asked if they were stressed, they would say of course not, they were experiencing inner peace. But their friends and family said they were totally stressed. For example:

Over the course of a week, [one participant’s] father died, followed very rapidly by his sister. He was also going through a significant issue with one of his children. Over dinner I asked him about his internal state, which he reported as deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening. Having known that the participant was bringing his longtime girlfriend, I’d taken an associate researcher with me to the meeting to independently collect the observations from her. My fellow researcher isolated the participant’s girlfriend at the bar and interviewed her about any signs of stress that the participant might be exhibiting. I casually asked the same questions to the participant as we continued our dinner conversation. Their answers couldn’t have been more different. While the participant reported no stress, his partner had been observing many telltale signs: he wasn’t sleeping well, his appetite was off, his mood was noticeably different, his muscles were much tenser than normal, his sex drive was reduced, his health was suffering, and so forth.

Or:

It was not uncommon for participants to state that they had gained increased bodily awareness upon their transition into PNSE. I arranged and observed private yoga sessions with a series of participants as part of a larger inquiry into their bodily awareness. During these sessions it became clear that participants believed they were far more aware of their body than they actually were. For example, the instructor would often put her hand on part of the body asking the participant to relax the tense muscles there, only to have the participant insist that s/he was totally relaxed in that area and did not feel any muscle tension.

Or even:

During some interviews participants expressed that they no longer felt it was possible for them to be racist or sexist. I asked these participants to take Harvard University’s Project Implicit tests online. All of these participants were white males and each showed a degree of sexism and/or racism, including participants who were in the later no emotion and agency locations on the continuum. Project Implicit uses physiology to test these responses.

It’s tempting to say these people are just making it up. But I think about some of the people I know with very severe psychiatric issues, people who are constantly miserable – and are similarly externally unaffected. These people are holding down stressful jobs, keeping difficult relationships together, etc – and often the people they haven’t “opened up to” don’t have any inkling of what they’re going through. They may tell me it must seem obvious to everybody that they’re completely falling apart – whereas in fact they are speaking fluently, they’re well-dressed, and they haven’t made a single social misstep during the whole time I’ve known them. If unusually negative mental states don’t affect behavior as strongly as people believe, why not unusually positive mental states?

Also, other times these people under-estimate themselves:

As participants neared the further reaches of the continuum, they frequently reported significant difficulty with recalling memories that related to their life history. They did not feel this way about facts, but rather about the details of the biographical moments surrounding the learning of those facts. They also reported that encoding for these types of memories seemed greatly reduced. A lthough this was their perception it did not appear to be the case when talking to them. They were typically rich sources of personal history information and their degree of recall seemed indistinguishable from participants who were in earlier locations on the continuum.

But:

There was a noticeable exception that seemed to be a genuine deficit. As they neared and entered the farther reaches of the continuum, participants routinely reported that they wereincreasingly unable to remember things such as scheduled appointments, while still being able to remember events that were part of a routine. For example, they might consistently remember to pick their child up at school each day, but forget other types of appointments such as doctor visits. Often they had adapted their routines to adjust for this change. Many would immediately write down scheduled events, items they needed to get at the store, and so forth on prominently displayed lists. When visiting their homes I noticed that these lists could be found on: televisions, computer monitors, near toilets, on and next to doors, and so forth. It was clear that the lists were being placed in locations that the participants would look with at least some degree of regularity. Participants consistently stated that they would prefer to remain in PNSE even if going back to ‘normal’ experience meant that they would no longer have this type of deficit.

Finally, Martin is impressed with the certainty that accompanies all of these experiences. People describe their PNSE as obviously more real and better than past states. They tend to be very effusive about this, saying that having the experience shattered everything they had previously believed in the most obvious and final way. But here too, there are signs that the participants are not well-attuned to what is going on in their own heads. Martin says that participants who moved from one level of his continuum to another (whether forward or back) would always say that the level they were currently at was the most fundamental and obviously real (even if they had said the opposite before). When he would tell participants about the experiences of other participants who were at different points of the continuum or just describing their experiences a slightly different way, both participants would confidently pronounce that the other wasn’t really enlightened.

I like this paper because it provides the basis for a minimalist account of enlightenment, similar to Daniel Ingram’s. Enlightenment hasn’t transformed these people’s personalities. It hasn’t given them infinite willpower or productivity or the ability to shoot qi bolts from their third eyes. It hasn’t even given them that much self-understanding. It’s just given them a different kind of internal experience.

The experience itself is hard to describe, but seems marked by drawing the self-other boundary in a different place. Participants don’t see themselves as making decisions; the decisions get made “under the hood” in a way where the person just feels like their path is laid out before them. They don’t see themselves as having thoughts; computations obviously get done, but they are not in awareness. They don’t feel like they have stress, even if the stress is physiologically present and obvious from their actions. On the other hand, they were more aware of certain low-level perceptual processes that are usually unconscious. It seems to be accompanied by total certainty that this is correct and revelatory and new (…much like the altered states people sometimes get on drugs).

None of this seems wildly outside the realm of possibility. It seems about as surprising as the existence of some new mental disorder. If 50 (or 1200, depending on how you count it) people with no history of lying said they had some kind of weird new mental disorder, I’d be willing to credit that they were describing their experience correctly, and able to give some useful information on the sorts of things that caused this disorder. It just sounds like information processing in the brain switching to some new attractor state if you force it hard enough.

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Open Thread 139

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Comment of the week last time was an argument that the severity of the opioid crisis was exaggerated; reader Digital Cygnet wrote a counterargument that you can read here.

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Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?

Last year I reviewed The Mind Illuminated, a meditation guide by Buddhist teacher Upasaka Culadasa. Last month, Culudasa’s Buddhist community accused him of cheating on his wife with prostitutes for many years. Culadasa doesn’t seem to agree with the exact details of the accusations, but he also doesn’t seem to deny that there was something in that general category of thing. What can this teach us about enlightenment?

Culadasa has been meditating and studying Buddhism for over forty years and trained under some of the greatest teachers of his generation. I don’t know if he’s claimed to “be enlightened” in so many words, but he’s written books that describe how to reach enlightenment and that assert you can do it in a few years if you follow his advice, which sounds a lot like claiming enlightenment by implication. Other self-proclaimed enlightened Buddhist teachers seem to respect him and treat him as being at around their level.

And if Culudasa wasn’t enlightened, there’s a long list of other Buddhist masters with similar misdeeds. The Atlantic points out that three of the four great founders of American Zen “caused major public sex scandals”; the fourth, Shunryu Suzuki, was spotless, but his successor Richard Baker caused a major public sex scandal. The two most famous US teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, Chongyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, both caused major public sex scandals. Trungpa’s immediate successor Ösel Tendzin caused a particularly horrifying major public sex scandal, and the current head of Shambhala Buddhism, Sakyong Rinpoche, also caused a major public sex scandal.

These teachers were among the most accomplished of our time. Many were officially certified as enlightened by the relevant governing bodies (of course there are governing bodies that certify enlightenment, we’re not barbarians). Doubt Culudasa if you want, but it would be hard to say none of these people had achieved enlightenment – at least if you want to maintain any reason to believe in enlightenment as an achievable state at all.

I don’t think many modern teachers say enlightenment makes you morally perfect. But I think at least some of them say it makes you free from craving or desire. And repeatedly cheating on your wife doesn’t seem like the action of someone who’s free from desire. It doesn’t even seem like someone whose desire has been moderately decreased. It sounds like the action of someone who has at least as much desire as anyone else. Maybe Buddhists should retreat to a minimalist account of enlightenment where it changes some brain networks around in a way that short-circuits some processing of experiences of suffering and selfhood, but doesn’t really lead to better decisions?

Tricycle Magazine discusses various theories for why Buddhist sex scandals are so common. Maybe Asians from patriarchal cultures do badly when transplanted to the more sexually liberal West (…but Culadasa was white and born in the US). Maybe powerful men are naturally tempted to behave badly when surrounded by vulnerable female students (but Culadasa didn’t have sex with his students). Maybe the Mahayana emphasis on how enlightened people transcend ordinary human norms causes enlightened people to, uh, transcend ordinary human norms (but most of Culadasa’s training was Theravada).

I recently got a chance to talk to about this with a very experienced Buddhist practitioner, one who claims to be enlightened himself. He said it’s accepted in his tradition that meditation “dissolves social conditioning”. In theory once you’ve dissolved all social conditioning, the Inner Light Of Compassion shines through and you can behave with true kindness. But in practice the Inner Light Of Compassion sometimes goes AWOL and you’re just left valueless. This works fine if you’re in a monastery like most advanced meditators were for most of history, not so well if you’re out in the real world with all the usual temptations.

This fascinates me for the same reason HPPD fascinates me. There are all these transformative practices that purport to give you a higher level of consciousness. But by Algernon’s Law, there’s presumably some reason we’re in this state of consciousness, some reason our system protects its usual state so diligently that you need powerful drugs or years of meditation to break through to anything else. Are there advantages to samsara? Are they related to the reason why so many enlightened people end up in sex scandals?

Or to put it another way: if meditation, like LSD, relaxes mental priors and increases entropy, do these failure modes help us understand what strong priors and low entropy are good for?

Book Review: Against The Grain

Someone on SSC Discord summarized James Scott’s Against The Grain as “basically 300 pages of calling wheat a fascist”. I have only two qualms with this description. First, the book is more like 250 pages; the rest is just endnotes. Second, “fascist” isn’t quite the right aspersion to use here.

Against The Grain should be read as a prequel to Scott’s most famous work, Seeing Like A State. SLaS argued that much of what we think of as “progress” towards a more orderly world – like Prussian scientific forestry, or planned cities with wide streets – didn’t make anyone better off or grow the economy. It was “progress” only from a state’s-eye perspective of wanting everything to be legible to top-down control and taxation. He particularly criticizes the High Modernists, Le Corbusier-style architects who replaced flourishing organic cities with grandiose but sterile rectangular grids.

Against the Grain extends the analysis from the 19th century all the way back to the dawn of civilization. If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, “The Devil was the first Whig”, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.

Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; in the Paleolithic the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation.

Intensive cereal cultivation is miserable work requiring constant toil with little guarantee of a good harvest. Why would anyone leave this wilderness Eden for a 100% wheat diet?

Not because they were tired of wandering around; Scott presents evidence that permanent settlements began as early as 6000 BC, long before Uruk, the first true city-state, began in 3300. Sometimes these towns subsisted off of particularly rich local wildlife; other times they practiced some transitional form of agriculture, which also antedated states by millennia. Settled peoples would eat whatever plants they liked, then scatter the seeds in particularly promising-looking soil close to camp – reaping the benefits of agriculture without the back-breaking work.

And not because they needed to store food. Hunter-gatherers could store food just fine, from salting animal meat to burying fish and letting it ferment to just having grain in siloes like everyone else. There is ample archaeological evidence of all of these techniques. Also, when you are surrounded by so much bounty, storing things takes on secondary importance.

And not because the new lifestyle made this happy life even happier. While hunter-gatherers enjoyed a stable and varied diet, agriculturalists subsisted almost entirely on grain; their bones display signs of significant nutritional deficiency. While hunter-gatherers were well-fed, agriculturalists were famished; their skeletons were several inches shorter than contemporaneous foragers. While hunter-gatherers worked ten to twenty hour weeks, agriculturalists lived lives of backbreaking labor. While hunter-gatherers who survived childhood usually lived to old age, agriculturalists suffered from disease, warfare, and conscription into dangerous forced labor.

Scott argues that intensive grain cultivation was a natural choice not for cultivators, but for the states oppressing them. The shift from complicated and mobile food webs to a perfectly rectangular grid of wheat fields was the same sort of “progress” as scientific forestry and planned cities thousands of years later:

Why should cereal grains play such a massive role in the earliest states? After all, other crops, in particular legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and peas, had been domesticated in the Middle East and, in China, taro and soybean. Why were they not the basis of state formation? More broadly, why have no “lentil states,” chickpea states, taro states, sago states, breadfruit states, yam states, cassava states, potato states, peanut states, or banana states appeared in the historical record? Many of these cultivars provide more calories per unit of land than wheat and barley, some require less labor, and singly or in combination they would provide comparable basic nutrition. Many of them meet, in other words, the agro-demographic conditions of population density and food value as well as cereal grains. Only irrigated rice outclasses them in terms of sheer concentration of caloric value per unit of land.

The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.

The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.

Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the reaminder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.

The “aboveground” simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors. These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops. A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation; in Mesopotamia this included insisting on repeated ploughing to break up the large clods of earth and repeated harrowing for better rooting and nutrient delivery. The point is that with cereal grains and soil preparation, the planting, the condition of the crop, and the ultimate yield were more visible and assessable.

Scott’s great advantage over other writers is the care he takes in analyzing the concrete machinery of statehood. Instead of abstractly saying “the state levies a 10% tax”, he realizes that some guy in a palace has resolved to take “ten percent” of the “value” produced in some vast area, with no natural way of knowing who is in that area or how much value they produce. For most of the Stone Age, this problem was insurmountable. You can’t tax hunter-gatherers, because you don’t know how many they are or where they are, and even if you search for them you’ll spend months hunting them down through forests and canyons, and even if you finally find them they’ll just have, like, two elk carcasses and half a herring or something. But you also can’t tax potato farmers, because they can just leave when they hear you coming, and you will never be able to find all of the potatoes and dig them up and tax them. And you can’t even tax lentil farmers, because you’ll go to the lentil plantation and there will be a few lentils on the plants and the farmer will just say “Well, come back next week and there will be a few more”, and you can’t visit every citizen every week.

But you can tax grain farmers! You can assign them some land, and come back around harvest time, and there will be a bunch of grain just standing there for you to take ten percent of. If the grain farmer flees, you can take his grain without him. Then you can grind the grain up and have a nice homogenous, dense, easy-to-transport grain product that you can dole out in measured rations. Grain farming was a giant leap in oppressability.

In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states. Within a few centuries, Uruk and a few other cities developed the full model: tax collectors, to take the grain; scribes, to measure the grain; and priests, to write stories like The Debate Between Sheep And Grain, with immortal lines like:

From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. People should submit to the yoke of Grain. Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whoever has Grain, and pass his time there

And so the people were taught that growing grain was Correct and Right and The Will Of God and they shouldn’t do anything stupid like try to escape back to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty.

…turns out lots of people in early states escaped to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty. Early states were necessarily tiny; overland transportation of resources more than a few miles was cost-prohibitive; you could do a little better by having the state on a river and adding in water transport, but Uruk’s sphere of influence was still probably just a double-digit number of kilometers. Even in good times, peasants would be tempted to escape to the hills and wetlands; in bad times, it started seeming crazy not to try this. Scott suggests that ancient Uruk had a weaker distinction between “subject” and “slave” than we would expect. Although there were certainly literal slaves involved in mining and manufacturing, even the typical subject was a serf at best, bound to the land and monitored for flight risk.

In one of my favorite parts of the book, Scott discusses how this shaped the character of early Near Eastern warfare. Read a typical Near Eastern victory stele, and it looks something like “Hail the glorious king Eksamplu, who campaigned against Examplestan and took 10,000 prisoners of war back to the capital.” Territorial conquest, if it happened at all, was an afterthought; what these kings really wanted was prisoners. Why? Because they didn’t even have enough subjects to farm the land they had; they were short of labor. Prisoners of war would be resettled on some arable land, given one or another legal status that basically equated to slave laborers, and so end up little different from the native-born population. The most extreme example was the massive deportation campaigns of Assyria (eg the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel), but everybody did it because everybody knew their current subjects were a time-limited resources, available only until they gradually drained out into the wilderness.

Early states were pretty time-limited themselves. Scott addresses the collapse of early civilizations, which was ubiquitous; typical history disguises this by talking about “dynasties” or “periods” rather than “the couple of generations an early state could hold itself together without collapsing”.

Robert Adams, whose knowledge of the early Mesopotamian states is unsurpassed, expresses some astonishment at the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), in which five kings succeeded one another over a hundred-year period. Though it too collapsed afterward, it represented something of a record of stability.

Scott thinks of these collapses not as disasters or mysteries but as the expected order of things. It is a minor miracle that some guy in a palace can get everyone to stay on his fields and work for him and pay him taxes, and no surprise when this situation stops holding. These collapses rarely involved great loss of life. They could just be a simple transition from “a bunch of farming towns pay taxes to the state center” to “a bunch of farming towns are no longer paying taxes to the state center”. The great world cultures of the time – Egypt, Sumeria, China, whereever – kept chugging along whether or not there was a king in the middle collecting taxes from them. Scott warns against the bias of archaeologists who – deprived of the great monuments and libraries of cuneiform tablets that only a powerful king could produce – curse the resulting interregnum as a dark age or disaster. Probably most people were better off during these times.

The book ends with a chapter on “barbarians”. Scott reminds us that until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control; histories that focus on states and forget barbarians are forgetting about most humans alive. In keeping with his thesis, Scott reviews some ancient sources that talk about barbarians in the context of people who did not farm or eat grain. Also in keeping with his thesis, he warns against thinking of barbarians as somehow worse or more primitive. Many barbarians were former state citizens who had escaped state control to a freer and happier lifestyle. Barbarian tribes could control vast trading empires, form complex confederations, and enter in various symbiotic relationships with the states around them. Scott wants us to think of these not as primitive people vs. advanced people, but as two different interacting lifestyles, of which the barbarian one was superior for most people up until a few centuries ago.

Overall I liked this book. I’m not sure how convinced I am – Scott occasionally mentions how much denser (in terms of calories produced per unit land) grain is than other forms of subsistence, and this surely deserves more consideration as an alternative explanation for its success. But overall the theory is plausible as at least one of many explanations for the grain/state correlation.

My only other complaint is the constant insistence throughout the book that we should be having our minds blown by it. Scott talks about how he wanted to give a lecture on the rise of civilization in Sumeria, hadn’t studied the subject for a few decades, thought he’d do a quick review of what had been discovered in the interim, and instead found that everything he knew was wrong. He talks a lot about how the conventional narrative of the dawn of agriculture has been turned on its head, overthrown, debunked, etc, and how you need to unlearn all your brainwashing about the superiority of states to hunter-gatherers.

But Jared Diamond was calling agriculture The Worst Mistake In THe History Of The Human Race back in the 1980s. And the changes to the Sumeria story I learned in school seem like updates rather than paradigm shifts. Yes, people were sedentary agriculturalists long before Uruk – but I remember a page in my elementary school textbook (so we’re talking 1995 or so) going over Catal Huyuk and its neighbors in 6000 BC. Yes, early city-states sucked – but does anyone think of “Bronze Age god-king” and imagine a nice guy committed to egalitarianism? The Epic of Gilgamesh was talking about the suckiness of Bronze Age city-states before the Bronze Age even ended. The most surprising revision to the standard story in Against The Grain was the setting of early Sumer in wetland rather than desert. And even that is only a small change; the first cities were on a kind of flat alluvium separate from the wetland proper, and their environmental damage quickly dried the region up into the irrigation-heavy desert we know today.

Scott tries to downplay his own role in the book, emphasizing how much he is just relaying the discoveries of more accomplished Sumer experts than himself. But the part I most appreciated was the part that was most clearly Scott-ish: the role of grain as a state-builder. In this story, the beginning of civilization – like the progress of the High Modernists – wasn’t an advance in human welfare or economic growth. It was an advance in tax collecting and the machinery of oppression; everything else followed.

“From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised”, said the Sumerians. And the ancient Greeks had their Eleusinian Mysteries, where “the mighty, and marvelous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest truths” was the “revelation of the mystic grain”. Can we trace a direct line from there to the sheaves of wheat that feature on fifteen out of fifty US state seals? On the National Emblem of China? The Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union? Does this last one really show the Earth caught in a pincers between two giant stalks of wheat? Should we really make impressionable schoolchildren sing songs of praise for “amber waves of grain”?

Read this book, and you may never think about cereal crops the same way again.

Irvine Meetup This Friday

When: Friday, October 11, 7:30 PM.

Where: Underneath this mysterious hexagonal sigil at the University Center food court in Irvine, California.

Why: I’ll be in Irvine as part of the Meetups Everywhere tour.

Who: Anyone who wants. Please feel free to come even if you feel awkward about it, even if you’re not “the typical SSC reader”, even if you’re worried people won’t like you, etc.

How: No contact person for this one, but I’ll try to read and respond to questions in the comments.

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Berkeley Meetup This Thursday

When: Thursday, October 10, 6:00 PM.

Where: “Event Horizon” (private residence), 2412 Martin Luther King Jr. Way

Why: I’ll be in Berkeley as part of the Meetups Everywhere tour. I might be a bit late to this one, sorry.

Who: Anyone who wants. Please feel free to come even if you feel awkward about it, even if you’re not “the typical SSC reader”, even if you’re worried people won’t like you, etc.

How: For more info, contact mingyuan[at]uchicago[dot]edu or see the Facebook page. The house wants us out by 10 PM, but some people are planning to go to Jupiter afterwards.

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Links 10/19

[Epistemic status: I haven’t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, but can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

Ugly Gerry is a font where every letter is a gerrymandered Congressional district.

Marie-Auguste of Anhalt was a German princess, daughter-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm II. After the collapse of the German Empire, she found a new way to support herself: adopting people for money, letting them (as child of a princess) include the title “Prince” in their name. Her most famous adoptee was entrepreneur Hans Lichtenberg (later “Frederic Prince von Anhalt”), who ended up marrying Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Contra some other studies, Medicaid and Mortality: New Evidence For Linked Survey And Administrative Data finds that giving people free health insurance does make them live longer.

Apparently corporate profits have been a declining share of GDP over the past five years? Even despite the tax cut?

Related: the decline in labor share of GDP may be smaller than previously believed because more skilled employees are getting paid in equity, which wasn’t counted. This would solve a minor economic puzzle, but probably shouldn’t change people’s intuitive perception of inequality much, since equity only goes to the highest-paid workers.

The story of the bizarre, possibly insane American outsider artist Henry Darger. “Darger’s 5000-page work The History Of My Life is putatively an autobiography. However, that word does not accurately describe the vast majority of its contents. The first several hundred pages of the work are indeed an account of Darger’s early life. However, after describing a scene in which his younger self is entranced by the sight of a powerful storm, he apparently gets distracted by the storm and spends the remaining 4000-some pages of the text describing the wake of destruction caused by a fictional twister called “Sweetie Pie,” with no further mention of his own life whatsoever.” Although I can find many books and essays about Darger available online, I can’t find his own books anywhere, not even Amazon.

Government accuses over 20 generic drug companies of colluding to increase drug prices, particularly the price of the the antidepressant clomipramine.

r/bernieblindness records bizarre incidents where the media downplays Bernie Sanders’ chances or even outright erases him from existence. Take a look and decide whether they’re just paranoid, or whether there’s really something nefarious going on.

I previously argued that ketamine might be an opioid, so here’s an argument that it isn’t. I’m now officially confused and will wait for an actually good study before having any more strong opinions.

People have been saying that “the tech bubble is about to burst” since 2011. Why didn’t it? The Atlantic investigates. A good reminder that even claims framed in the language of “we are being the responsible grownups telling you that what comes up must go down” need careful scrutiny.

Maternal cortisol varies by season, which may help explain why babies born in the winter are more likely to have mental illness.

Despite my ongoing complaints about regulation of pharma, I keep being impressed with the incremental progress the FDA is making. Case in point: a new plan to allow importation of prescription drugs from foreign markets.

Research on research on sex differences: when presented with (fictional) research on sex differences, both men and women are more likely to believe research saying women outperform men in something, more likely to condemn research showing men outperform women, even if the studies were identical aside from the conclusion. The more strongly a participant believed in “male privilege”, the more difference in how they evaluated the studies.

Am I the last person to realize that Gavin McInnes, the founder of the “Proud Boys” hate group, also founded Vice Magazine?

A Harvard team researching politics is looking for trivia questions that liberals or conservatives are disproprtionately likely to get wrong, and offering a $100 bounty for good suggestions. Go to redbrainbluebrain.org to help them out.

Tech giant Stripe promises to offset all its carbon emissions – so far, so normal. But it plans to accomplish this through “carbon capture” technologies which directly remove carbon dioxide from the air. Right now these are very inefficient, but Stripe hopes that with sustained investment they could become cheap or even profitable, giving humanity another weapon in the fight against climate change. Announcement includes a “call to action” asking carbon capture teams to get in touch with Stripe and asking other companies to consider the same tactic. See also this Eli Dourado article for some more unusual ideas.

Related: Claims that marine cloud brightening might be able to halt global warming for $10 billion, 50x more cost-effective than other global warming interventions. Be sure to read the top comment on the post too.

The rabbit-duck illusion works in real life too (and is adorable).

Open Psychometrics gives the result of their research on birth order. Short version: like everyone except me, they find a significant but very small effect. Seems to be best captured by “intellect” and “openness to experience”, and by questions like “have you read an absurd number of books?” But they also found that their sample, people who take Internet surveys, was skewed vastly more firstborn than their data could account for! (see this Reddit comment thread for discussion). I think this supports my theory that our current personality tests are really bad at measuring the pathways by which developmental causes translate into behavioral effects.

Related: this article on “disgrace insurance” for Hollywood stars – ie insuring their employers against the risk that they get cancelled for wrongthink – is interesting in and of itself. But I was especially struck by the throwaway comment that their analysts find firstborn celebrities are at higher risk of disgrace – which fits the prediction that they would have higher openness to experience.

Related: Why do men find a lower waist-to-hip ratio sexier? (systematic review, popular article). No, really, it’s related – the study claims it’s because hip fat is disproportionately made of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids crucial to fetal brain development. This store gets exhausted every time a woman carries a child to term, and (the study suggests) any more pregnancies before the store can be replenished will have suboptimal brain development, thus giving firstborns a small brain development and intelligence advantage. I am really skeptical of this, but I admire its elegance.

Did you know: Area 51 has several less mysterious neighbors, including Areas 1-12 (testing nuclear weapons), Area 20 (testing the lunar rover), Area 23 (testing a bowling alley), and Area 15 (testing a herd of 30 Holstein dairy cows).

The Future of Humanity Institute people estimate an upper bound for the background rate of human extinction based on past history and anthropic reasoning. “We conclude that the probability that humanity goes extinct from natural causes in any given year is almost guaranteed to be less than one in 14,000, and likely to be less than one in 87,000…using the longer track record of survival for our entire genus Homo produces even tighter bounds, with an annual probability of natural extinction likely below one in 870,000.”

Study: politicians who win elections have lower openness to experience than losers.

Alexey Guzey (with the help of a Marginal Revolution grant) has been assessing how the life sciences work and whether there are easy ways to make them better. The result is this magisterial How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings Of A Year-Long Investigation essay. Conclusion: biology is not slowing down, its institutions are mostly good, but some obvious problems like peer review are definitely real. See also this MR excerpt.

Related: you can join a replication market, ie a prediction market on which scientific results will replicate.

Poll results on whether people think the “intellectual dark web”/Quilette is failing or succeeding, by supporter/opponent status. Supporters seem to think it is succeeding, opponents seem to think it is failing; is this true of everything? It seems like the opposite pattern as eg socialism circa 2015, when anti-socialists believed socialism controlled government and media, but socialists believed their situation was hopeless before capitalist hegemony. When should we expect to see one pattern vs. the other?

Beloved supplement information site examine.com gives stats on a recent collapse in traffic to their site. The culprit – a Google algorithm update that manually tweaks the algorithm to redirect health queries away from the “real” results and towards sites like WebMD. Google’s intentions are good – to protect users from quackery by making sure they only get the most official sources. But in practice the most official sources are often useless, because they were written by lawyers terrified that someone will take their advice and die, and the only way to avoid that is to speak in such vague terms that you end up saying nothing at all. Also, Google has exiled Wikipedia to the second page, even though I find it’s usually the best site for health-related topics. Overall I think this makes Google and the Internet less useful, and it definitely hurts poor sites like Examine that get caught in the crossfire. See also the Hacker News comments.

Related: the story of how the same kind of Google algorithm tweak devastated MetaFilter in 2014. Unexpectedly interesting. I’m suspicious that something like this has happened to SSC a few times based on some sudden unexplained traffic drops.

CPlusPlusDeveloper explains some intricacies of the online economy: “I don’t think people understand just how poorly performing Reddit is at advertising. Reddit has 300 million active users, and annual revenue of $100 million. That gives it an ARPU (average revenue per user) of $0.30. Facebook has a [North American ARPU of $120].”

Has the Bystander Effect been debunked, or not?

Seemingly good study links fluoridated water during pregnancy to lower IQs. Everyone says this is new and shocking, but I was pushing this line in my 2012 Biodeterminists’ Guide To Parenting and still think it is basically right. But the studies I included in the Guide estimated the effects of 1 mg/L fluoride as 1 IQ point (probably too low to worry about) and this more recent study estimates them at ~4 IQ points (reasonable to worry about). No evidence yet that fluoride is harmful after birth. Some water filters can remove fluoride.

Did you know: ancient China fought ancient Greece in the War of the Heavenly Horses.

A big new study, which tries to address selection bias, finds that students who attended some college but did not get a credential earn more than those who never attended college at all. But this doesn’t disprove the signaling theory of education, since the study admits even a small amount of college can still be a signal. In fact, this seems likely, since women and minorities gain the greatest advantage from partial college completion; there’s little reason to think these groups learn more in college, but lots of reasons to think these groups start at a Bayesian-stereotyping-style disadvantage which evidence of competence can help clear. Interested in what people involved in hiring have to say about whether “completed some college” is a plus, minus, or neutral on a resume.

During the height of the Amazon forest fire crisis, Leonardo DiCaprio donated $5 million to help the Amazon, and European billionaire Bernard Arnault said his group would donate $11 million. At the same time, the G7 – the seven richest Western countries, including powerhouses like the US, UK, and Japan – donated $22 million. That means two people donated 2/3 as much as seven countries. Cf. the discussion of global warming spending from Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy, and the discussion of how little gets spent on non-selfish causes from Too Much Dark Money In Almonds.

A good discussion thread about how the market for choicer vs. cheaper parts of the same animal affects the altruistic effectiveness of meat substitutes. Interested to hear meat substitute proponents’ take on this.

Impossible Conversations is hosting plant-based conversations indistinguishable from the real thing something kind of like SSC’s own Adversarial Collaboration Contest – a call for dialectic between people with opposing viewpoints, with $2500 in prizes and invitations to various prestigious media outlets (Areo Magazine, various podcasts) for the winners. Friend of the blog Russ Roberts is a judge. Entries accepted until November 3. You can also see some completed conversations here.

A eulogy (dyslogy?) for Melissa McEwan’s Shakesville, one of the 2010-or-so era’s most influential feminist blogs. Reading about it makes me realize how different 2010-era-feminism (and the 2010-era Internet) were from the modern Internet, even though the same issues (is feminism too hostile? is it too cultish?) continue to be relevant. It’s hard to reread Shakesville (or the article’s portrayal of it) without it seeming kind of pathetic, hard to take seriously. Yet I remember feeling at the time (and remember other people also feeling) like it was this terrifying threat that could get the whole Internet swooping down on you accusing you of being a “PUA” or an “MRA”, and not funny or pathetic at all. I think the Internet has just upped its game in a way that I didn’t realize until now. SJWs are still with us, but they seem more polished now. In that context, Shakesville belongs with Maddox’s The Best Page In The Universe, as a relic of an earlier pre-corporatized Internet where real people with real “personality” could still punch above their weight.

I like shitty-car-mods-daily.tumblr.com, especially this one and this one.

The Sterile Insect Technique is a scheme to eradicate (or at least decrease the numbers of) some species of insect by releasing sterile males; if enough females mate with the sterile males instead of regular ones, few or no children will be born to the next generation. This has successfully eradicated some pest and disease-vector species. But a recent attempt to extend it to mosquitoes apparently is not going well EDIT: actually the study making that claim is very bad and its own authors are calling for its retraction.

If you liked Uncleftish Beholding or are just a general fan of writing things in an Anglo-Saxon-derived-word-only form of English, you might like the Anglo-Saxon-derived-word-only version of Wikipedia. See eg their article on the Oned Rikes of America.

Arm Joe is a fighting game based on the novel and musical Les Misérables.”

From the “Best Of New Less Wrong” file: Heads I Win, Tails? – Never Heard Of Her; Or, Selective Reporting And The Tragedy Of The Green Rationalists by Zack Davis. Good discussion + model of how selective reporting can mislead people at the personal and social levels.

You probably heard that the Russians domesticated silver foxes, but did you know about the Kostroma Moose Farm? Obligatory cute domesticated moose picture.

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Open Thread 138

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Remember, the due date for the Adversarial Collaboration Contest is November 1. Can someone from each team please fill in this form letting me know your status?

2. Comment of the week is penpractice on the lack of obesity among US Orthodox Jews.

3. Thanks to everyone who attended SSC meetups over the past few weeks. Upcoming meetups that I’ll be attending are Fairbanks (Sunday ie today), Berkeley (Thursday), and Irvine (Friday). See the list for more information now, but I’ll announce them closer to the date.

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