Kaj_Sotala's Comments

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

I'm not sure if I managed to follow all of this, but at least the first paragraph seems spot-on to me. :)

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Well, whether or not a model is needlessly complex depends on what it needs to explain. :-)

Back when I started thinking about the nature of suffering, I also had a relatively simple model, basically boiling down to "suffering is about wanting conflicting things". (Upon re-reading that post from nine years back, I see that I credit you for a part of the model that I outlined there. We've been at this for a while. :-)) I still had it until relatively recently. But I found that there were things which it didn't really explain or predict. For example:

  • You can decouple valence and aversion, so that painful sensations appear just as painful as before, but do not trigger aversion.
  • Changes to the sense of self cause changes even to the aversiveness of things that don't seem to be related to a self-model (e.g. physical pain).
  • You can learn to concentrate better by training your mind to notice that it keeps predicting that indulging in a distraction is going to eliminate the discomfort from the distracting urges, but that it could just as well just drop the distraction entirely.
  • There are mental moves that you can make to investigate craving, in such a way which causes the mind to notice that maintaining the craving is actually preventing it from feeling good, and then dropping it.
  • If you can get your mind into states in which there is little or no craving, then those states will feel intrinsically good without regard to their valence.
  • Upon investigation, you can notice that many states that you had thought were purely pleasant actually contain a degree of subtle discomfort; releasing the craving in those states then gets you into states that are more pleasant overall.
  • If you train your mind to have enough sensory precision, you can eventually come to directly observe how the mind carries out the kinds of steps that I described under "Let’s say that there is this kind of a process": an experience being painted with valence, that valence triggering craving, a new self being fabricated by that craving, and so on.

From your responses, it's not clear to me how much credibility you lend to these kinds of claims. If you feel that meditation doesn't actually provide any real insight into how minds work and that I'm just deluded, then I think that that's certainly a reasonable position to hold. After all, most of the research on the topic is low quality, there's plenty of room for placebo and motivated reasoning effects, introspection is famously unreliable, et cetera.

But ISTM that if you are willing to at least grant that me and others who are saying these kinds of things are not outright lying about our subjective experience... then you need to at least explain how come it seems to us like the urge and the aversion from resisting the urge can become decoupled, or why it seems to us like reductions in the sense of self systematically lead to reductions in the aversiveness of negative valence.

I agree that if I were just developing a model of human motivation and suffering from first principles and from what seems to make evolutionary sense, I wouldn't arrive at this kind of an explanation. "An urge directly combines an itch and the desire to scratch it" would certainly be a much more parsimonious model... but it would then predict that you can't have an urge without a corresponding need to engage in it, and that prediction is contradicted both by my experience and the experience of many others who engage in these kinds of practices.

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Interesting. For some reason I actually hadn't thought about translating these; and I find myself rejecting each proposed translation with "but the connotations of that one aren't exactly right". Maybe I would just stick with the Pali terms. :)

(Just happened to notice this article which translates craving as "halu", FWIW)

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Hmm... I think that there's something else going on than just an unhealthily strong motivation, given that craving looks like a hypothesis that can often be disproven - see my reply to pjeby in the other comment.

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Nice points. To start, there are a few subtleties involved.

One issue, which I thought I had discussed but which I apparently ended up deleting in an editing phase, is that while I have been referring to the Buddhist concept of dukkha as "suffering", there are some issues with that particular translation. I have also been using the term "unsatisfactoriness", which is better in some respects.

The issue is that when we say "suffering", it tends to refer to a relatively strong experience: if you felt a tiny bit of discomfort from your left sock being slightly itchy, many people would say that this does not count as suffering, it's just a bit of discomfort. But dukkha also includes your reaction to that kind of very slight discomfort.

Furthermore, you can even have dukkha that you are not conscious of. Often we think that suffering is a subjective experience, so something that you are conscious of by definition. Can you suffer of something without being conscious of the fact that you are suffering? I can avoid this kind of an issue by saying that dukkha is not exactly the same thing as our common-sense definition of suffering, and unlike the common-sense definition, it doesn't always need to be conscious. Rather, dukkha is something like a training signal that is used by the brain to optimize its functioning and to learn to avoid states with a lot of dukkha: like any other signal in the brain, it has the strongest effect when the signal becomes strong enough to make it to conscious awareness, but it has an effect even if just unconscious.

One example of unconscious dukkha might be this. Sometimes there is a kind of a background discomfort or pain that you have gotten used to, and you think that you are just fine. But once something happens to make that background discomfort go away, you realize how much better you suddenly feel, and that you were actually not okay before.

My model is something like: craving comes in degrees. A lot of factors go into determining how strong it is. Whenever there is craving, there is also dukkha, but if the craving is very subtle, then the dukkha may also be very subtle. There's a spectrum of how easy it is to notice, going roughly something like:

  • Only noticeable in extremely deep states of meditative absorption; has barely any effect on decision-making
  • Hovering near the threshold of conscious awareness, becoming noticeable if it disappears or when there's nothing else going on that could distract you
  • Registers as a slight discomfort, but will be pushed away from consciousness by any distraction
  • Registers as a moderate discomfort that keeps popping up even as other things are going on
  • Experienced as suffering, obvious and makes it hard to focus on anything else
  • Extreme suffering, makes it impossible to think about anything else

So when you say that suffering seems to be most strongly associated with wanting conflicting things, I agree with that... that is, I agree that that tends to produce the strongest levels of craving (by making two strong cravings compete against each other), and thus the level of dukkha that we would ordinarily call "suffering".

At the same time, I also think that there are levels of craving/dukkha that are much subtler, and which may be present even in the case of e.g. imagining a delicious food - they just aren't strong enough to consciously register, or to have any other effect on decision-making; the main influence in those cases is from non-craving-based motivations. (When the craving is that subtle, there's also a conflict, but rather than being a conflict between two cravings, it's a conflict between a craving and how reality is - e.g. "I would like to eat that food" vs. "I don't actually have any of that food right now".)

perhaps what you're saying is that I would have to also think "it would make me happy to eat that, so I should do that in order to be happy."

I think there's something like this going on, yes. I mentioned in my previous post that

a craving for some outcome X tends to implicitly involve at least two assumptions:
1. achieving X is necessary for being happy or avoiding suffering
2. one cannot achieve X except by having a craving for it
Both of these assumptions are false, but subsystems associated with craving have a built-in bias to selectively sample evidence which supports these assumptions, making them frequently feel compelling. Still, it is possible to give the brain evidence which lets it know that these assumptions are wrong: that it is possible to achieve X without having craving for it, and that one can feel good regardless of achieving X.

One way that I've been thinking of this, is that a craving is a form of a hypothesis, in the predictive processing sense where hypotheses drive behavior by seeking to prove themselves true. For example, your visual system may see someone's nose and form the hypothesis that "the thing that I'm seeing is a nose, and a nose is part of a person's face, so I'm seeing someone's face". That contains the prediction "faces have eyes next to the nose, so if I look slightly up and to the right I will see an eye, and if I look left from there I will see another eye"; it will then seek to confirm its prediction by making you look at those spots and verify that they do indeed contain eyes.

This is closely related to two points that you've talked about before; that people form unconscious beliefs about what they need in order to be happy, and that the mind tends to generate filters which pick out features of experience that support the schema underlying the filter - sometimes mangling the input quite severely to make it fit the filter. The "I'm seeing a face" hypothesis is a filter that picks out the features - such as eyes - which support it. In terms of the above, once a craving hypothesis for X is triggered, it seeks to maintain the belief that happiness requires getting X, focusing on evidence which supports that belief. (To be clear, I'm not saying that all filters are created by craving; rather, craving is one subtype of such a filter.)

My model is that the brain has something like a "master template for craving hypotheses". Whenever something triggers positive or negative valence, the brain "tries on" the generic template for craving ("I need to get / avoid this in order to be happy") adapted to this particular source of valence. How strong of a craving is produced, depends on how much evidence can be found to support the hypothesis. If you just imagine a delicious food but aren't particularly hungry, then there isn't much of a reason to believe that you need it for your happiness, so the craving is pretty weak. If you are stressed out and seriously need to get some work done, then "I need to relax while I'm on my walk" has more evidence in its favor, so it produces a stronger craving.

One description for the effects of extended meditative practice is "you suffer less, but you notice it more". Based on the descriptions and my own experience, I think this means roughly the following:

  • By doing meditative practices, you develop better introspective awareness and ability to pay attention to subtle nuances of what's going on in your mind.
  • As your ability to do this improves, you become capable of seeing the craving in your mind more clearly.
  • All craving hypotheses are ultimately false, because they hold that craving is necessary for avoiding dukkha (discomfort), but actually craving is that which generates dukkha in the first place. Each craving hypothesis attributes dukkha to an external source, when it is actually an internally-generated error signal.
  • When your introspective awareness and equanimity sharpen enough, your mind can grab onto a particular craving without getting completely pulled into it. This allows you to see that the craving is trying to avoid discomfort, and that it is also creating discomfort by doing so.
  • Seeing both of these at the same time proves the craving hypothesis false, triggering memory reconsolidation and eliminating the craving.
  • In order to see the craving clearly enough to eliminate it, your introspective awareness had to become sharper and more capable of magnifying subtle signals to the level of conscious awareness. As a result, as you eliminate strong and moderate-strength cravings, the "detection threshold" for when a craving and its associated dukkha is strong enough to become consciously detectable drops. Cravings and discomforts which were previously too subtle to notice, now start appearing in consciousness.
  • The end result is that you have less dukkha (suffering) overall, but become better at noticing those parts of it that you haven't eliminated yet.

There are some similarities between working with craving, and the kind of work with the moral judgment system that you discussed in your post about it. That is, we have learned rules/beliefs which trigger craving in particular situations, just as we have learned rules/beliefs which trigger moral judgment in some situations. As with moral judgment, craving is a system in the brain that cannot be eliminated entirely, and lots of its specific instances need to be eliminated separately - but there are also interventions deeper in the belief network that propagate more widely, eliminating more cravings.

One particular problem with eliminating craving is that even as you eliminate particular instances of it, new craving keeps being generated, as the underlying beliefs about its usefulness are slow to change even as special cases get repeatedly disproven. The claim from Buddhist psychology, which my experience causes me to consider plausible, is that the beliefs which cause cravings to be learned are entangled with beliefs about the self. Changing the beliefs which form the self-model cause changes to craving - as the conception of "I" changes, that changes the kinds of evidence which are taken to support the hypothesis of "I need X to be happy". Drastic enough updates to the self-model can cause a significant reduction in the amount of craving that is generated, to the point that one can unlearn it faster than it is generated.

Though I think that I'm trying to clarify that it is not merely valence or sensation being located in the self, but that another level of indirection is required, as in your "walk to relax" example...

So for craving, indirection can certainly make it stronger, but at its most basic it's held to be a very low-level response to any valence. Physical pain and discomfort is the most obvious example: pain is very immediate and present, but if becomes experienced as less self-related, it too becomes less aversive. In an earlier comment, I described an episode in which my sense of self seemed to become temporarily suspended; the result was that strong negative valence (specifically cold shock from an icy shower) was experienced just as strongly and acutely as before, but it lacked the aversive element - I got out of the shower because I was concerned about the health effects of long-term exposure, but could in principle have remained there for longer if I had wanted. I have had other similar experiences since then, but that one was the most dramatic illustration.

In the case of physical pain, the hypothesis seems to be something like "I have to get this sensation of pain out of my consciousness in order to feel good". If that hypothesis is suspended, one still experiences the sensation of pain, but without the need to get it out of their mind.

(This sometimes feels really weird - you have a painful sensation in your mind, and it feels exactly as painful as always, and you keep expecting yourself to flinch away from it right now... except, you just never do. It just feels really painful and the fact that it feels really painful also does not bother you at all, and you just feel totally confused.)

But the moral judgment system can produce craving/compulsion loops around other people's behavior, without self-reference! You can go around thinking that other people are doing the wrong thing or should be doing something else, and this creates suffering despite there not being any "self" designated in the thought process. (e.g. "Someone is wrong on the internet!" is not a thought that includes a self whose state is to be manipulated, but rather a judgment that the state of the world is wrong and must be fixed.)

So there's a subtlety in that the moral judgment system is separate from the craving system, but it does generate valence that the craving system also reacts to, so their operation gets kinda intermingled. (At least, that's my working model - I haven't seen any Buddhist theory that would explicitly make these distinctions, though honestly that may very well just be because I haven't read enough of it.)

So something like:

  • You witness someone being wrong on the internet
  • The moral judgment system creates an urge to argue with them
  • Your mind notices this urge and forms the prediction that resisting it would feel unpleasant, and even though giving into it isn't necessarily pleasant either, it's at least less unpleasant than trying to resist the urge
  • There's a craving to give in to the urge, consisting of the hypothesis that "I need to give in to this urge and prove the person on the internet wrong, or I will experience greater discomfort than otherwise"
  • The craving causes you to give in to the urge

This is a nice example of how cravings are often self-fulfilling prophecies. Experiencing a craving is unpleasant; when there is negative valence from resisting an urge, craving is generated which tries to resist that negative valence. The negative valence would not create discomfort by itself, but there is discomfort generated by the combination of "craving + negative valence". The craving says that "if I don't give in to the urge, there will be discomfort"... and as soon as you give in to the urge, the craving has gotten you to do what it "wanted" you to do, so it disappears and the discomfort that was associated with it disappears as well. So the craving just "proved" that you had to give in to the urge in order to avoid the discomfort from the negative valence... even though the discomfort was actually produced by the craving itself!

Whereas if you eliminated the craving to avoid this particular discomfort, then the discomfort from resisting the urge would also disappear. Note that this does not automatically mean that you would resist the urge: it just means that you'd have the option to, if you had some reason to do so. But falsifying the beliefs behind the craving is distinct from falsifying the beliefs that triggered the moral judgment system; you might still give in to the urge, if you believed it to be correct and justified. (This is part of my explanation for why it seems that you can reach high levels of enlightenment and see through the experience of the self, and still be a complete jerk towards others.)

Craving, suffering, and predictive processing (three characteristics series)

This reminds me of my discussion with johnswentworth, where I was the one arguing that model-free vs. model-based is a sliding scale. :)

So yes, it seems reasonable to me that these might be best understood as extreme ends of a spectrum... which was part of the reason why I copied that excerpt, as it included the concluding sentence of "‘Model-based’ and ‘model-free’ modes of valuation and response, if this is correct, simply name extremes along a single continuum and may appear in many mixtures and combinations determined by the task at hand" at the end. :)

A non-mystical explanation of "no-self" (three characteristics series)

(Sorry for the late response; I seem to have missed this comment earlier.)

'I'm not sure I understand. If you thought you were at the red dot rather than at the location in the world it marks, wouldn't that be analogous to thinking you are the feeling of tension, rather than to thinking you are at the location that feeling indicates?

Hmm, is there a difference? In that if you think that you are the feeling of tension, then logically you are also at the location of the tension.

I tried the exercise. I didn't know what you expected, but my idea of "noticing myself looking" is a model, so I found something like seeing myself staring at the thing from a third-person perspective. I think I could reproduce your result, but I'm writing this the day after, and now that Im no longer tired I have to create the tension on purpose. [...]

There is also a sense in which you are looking at the world from behind your eyes. Your visual image is a projection with the focal point behind your eyes. If you try the same exercise with holding something in your hand and feeling it rather than looking at something, how does that work out? I tried to do "the same thing" I did to reproduce the tension behind the eyes, and the sensation was just below my skin. I dont know if that's the "right" answer, but if it is, the fact that it's not in the head might suggest the previous result is an artifact.

Yes, subtle differences in how these kinds of exercises are framed produce different kinds of results. Noticing that is part of the point - if you examine one kind of experience, you may notice your brain telling you that you are in one place; if you examine another kind of experience, you may notice your brain telling you that you are in another place. Sometimes the "you" may be a feeling of tension, sometimes a feeling under your skin, sometimes a visual image. These kinds of inconsistencies suggest that a part of the experience of the self, is actually an interpretation that is constructed on the fly, rather than being fundamental in the sense that intuition might otherwise suggest.

(If you have the experience of seeing yourself staring at the thing from a third-person perspective, then a question that might be interesting to investigate is "where are you looking at the third-person image from?". Not trying to fit the answer into the model that I have explained here, nor going into any intellectual mode of analysis, but just paying attention to the experience and what the answer to that question might feel like...)

There are two quotes after that. The first seems congurent with what you said, but the second sounds like identifying with all the contents of consiousness rather than with the field they are in (or is that distinction not real?).

Good catch! I think it's basically the same, despite sounding different; I briefly say a few words about that at the end of a later post.

This is what I understood "identifying with the field of conciousness" to mean, is that right? I think I can do that, but it seems it's not compatible with goal-directed action, which would require its own self-markers as described.

It's possible to get into states where you have this to at least some extent, but there's also some goal-directed action going on; and you are identifying with a process which is observing that goal-directed action, rather than getting pulled into it.

That said, I don't want to say anything about what is "supposed" to happen, because that easily creates craving to experience the thing that's supposed to happen, and then craving warps the experience to make you see what it thinks that the thing will look like, which may not be the same thing. (See the next post about craving.) It's often better to not have very strong expectations, and just keep investigating what seems to happen when you do different things...

How does publishing a paper work?
8. Arxiv: Yes. Also biorXiv for biological sciences.

Also PsyArXiv for psychological sciences and PhilArchive for philosophy.

Why Artists Study Anatomy

Hard to say: I didn't remember Nornagest's comment before looking up your post in order to reference it here. If it was enough to get the basic concept across, at least it didn't do it in a way that would have stuck in my memory. (Given that reading this post made me think "ahh, that's what Raemon was trying to say.)

If I had to guess afterwards, though, I would note that Nornagest only talks about the superficial style of drawing leading to drawings that end up with a "flat, disconnected look". I doubt I would have been able to make the inference that this also implies "and you will be bad at drawing characters from any other angle than the one you are used to".

Why Artists Study Anatomy

Good point! I hadn't made the connection, but you're right.

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