Anecdotal uncertainty of pain

My experience of pain seems to be somewhat different from that of other people. For instance, for much of the day I wrote this I thought I was probably in pain, though I was unsure exactly where, or how bad it was, or if it was really pain instead of something else. To be clear, it was still unpleasant and fairly distracting.

Sometimes I feel like everything is terrible for five minutes or so before figuring out that the problem is that I’m in physical pain. I even explicitly wonder whether the problem is pain, and decide probably not, before later realizing I was wrong. In such cases I infer that I was in pain all along because it feels more like a picture emerging after staring at a bunch of dots for long enough, rather than something in the world changing. Also, I don’t have any other good explanation for what was so bad earlier.

I point this out because I think the usual folk theory of pain says that pain is a kind of direct experience that you can’t really be confused about. If you don’t know if you are in pain, you aren’t. Pain is a conscious experience, so being in pain implies being aware that you are in pain. Also knowing what the pain is like. I think I kind of assumed something like this until I paid more attention to my own experiences, or until my own experiences became more incomprehensible on this model. I don’t have a well worked out alternative model (maybe others do), but I expect it should the possibility of being consciously confused about basically everything.

I’m also curious about whether I am especially unusual in this regard, or just tend to hear from people who are surprised by this. Are you ever unsure whether you are in pain? Are you ever unsure about its characteristics?

Therapy and materialistic accounts of behavior

I used to see a therapist. Every week they would give me actions to take in the coming week. For instance, fill out a sheet about panic attacks immediately after any panic attacks that I had. Or, do a mindfulness exercise about once per day, at a time when I was anxious. 

It seemed to me that it order for any of these things to happen with high probability, I would need to immediately do something to cause them to happen. For instance, think about what symptoms of anxiety should trigger the mindfulness exercise and try to imagine them happening and exactly what I hope to do then. Or make a note to put the panic attack sheet under the honey that I eat if I’m having a panic attack. Or at least make a note in my todo list to figure out how to make these things happen later. 

Being somewhat anxious is just not sufficiently salient and distinctive that I’m going to think ‘oh hey, anxiety—what do I do now?’ And whatever it is that the therapist wanted me to do is also not sufficiently memorable or unique that I will think of it. This may sound implausible, but remember that I have several other things going in life besides paying attention to my own anxiety, many of which also involve paying attention to things, or doing things. And my therapist is far from the only source of suggestions on what I should do if I’m anxious. So just being told to do another thing one time is probably not going to make it happen.

Furthermore, if I’m actually having a panic attack, it’s a good day if I can remember to do the things that I know make it better, let alone fill out some form that’s in my bag somewhere. (Panic attacks can be associated with an extremely perceptible decrease in one’s shit being together.) So getting these weekly exercises to happen would require some actual thought.

This worldview seemed foreign to my therapist. They seemed to think that if I agreed to do a thing, then I would magically do it. Like a story character running on narrative coherence, not like a machine running on causality. 

Often I did not do the things, or did them at the wrong times. Usually because it didn’t occur to me at the relevant time, in line with my theory. (Really I should have had a standing plan to think about these things immediately after therapy each time, but I didn’t.) My therapist would emphasize to me that it is important to do the things at the right times. 

This seems like a surprising kind of failure for a therapist, assuming it is a failure. For one thing, if anyone is going to be aware that human minds don’t run on narrative magic, it should probably be psychological professionals. For another, if anyone should benefit from knowing that human minds don’t run on narrative magic—and in particular that they often need further setup in order to do a thing in the future—it should probably be that whole set of professionals who regularly try to get other random untrained humans to do specific stuff in their own time. Doctors, dentists, teachers, therapists, etc. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a doctor, dentist, teacher, or therapist try to cause me to have a real, actionable plan to do something. Perhaps other people’s minds don’t need this kind of thing? My understanding is that the failure of humans to do what medical professionals ask them to do is a major headache for medical professionals. Also, I’d be surprised if I’m among the least conscientious of the people with imperfect mental health. Others’ failures to follow instructions might be for different reasons. But I think the ‘trigger action planning’ stuff at CFAR is pretty well liked, and it is basically this. 

Is this worldview—on which deciding to do a thing will not magically cause you to do it—just rare outside of the rationalist community? Have I just randomly bumped into people who don’t have it? Is it actually just not useful to therapists and other such people? Is it actually just not useful to anyone? 

Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly

(Mistakes #1, #2, #3, #4, #5)

One thing I was confused about when I was about eight was which things were ‘real’. It was not that I had any trouble distinguishing between the mundane objects around me—including my parents and a perplexed child psychologist—and my so-called ‘imaginary friends’. They were clearly different in kind. It just wasn’t obvious which kind was the ‘real’ one, philosophically speaking. The objects and parents and so on produced vivid mental images, whereas the other things didn’t. And I had some kind of intuitive feeling that that one was the only real world. But one doesn’t want to trust feelings in important matters such as these. Especially as a particularly young person with little experience of things, when feelings are about as suspicious as the next psychological phenomenon.

The psychologist promised me that she was real, and the imaginary friends weren’t. The imaginary friends laughed at her and promised me right back that they were real, and that psychologists were imaginary. So far the only asymmetry was that the psychologist was stupid.

There were some other asymmetries really, like how the psychologist was part of a rich and perceptible world, and the imaginary friends seemed to belong to some hazier shadow realm. I guess at least some of the time, my alternative model was something like, the imaginary friends lived in a more real world outside the physical world, and had a lot of control over the physical world, rather than the physical world being nonexistent.

It was unusually important to determine whether the imaginary friends were real because they were not friendly, and often threatened me. ‘You’ll die if you walk down that hill”, and so on. (Those of you who believe in psychologists may recognize this as some form of obsessive compulsive disorder).

I think in the end I decided the balance of evidence was in favor of the psychologist and other humans being real, in part because they were surprisingly stupid or full of non sequiturs. The imaginary friends seemed clever to me, because they saw considerations that I saw. Also their threats were so well designed for my own mind, it was as if they were intimately familiar with it. And if ever I thought of a thing that would be terrible for my imaginary friends to do, they were immediately on it in a way that indicated that they must be telepathic. And telepathy is probably easier if you live inside the mind you are telepathizing with. (Though also maybe unusually easy if you are simulating that mind.) So all this would make a lot more sense if the imaginary friends were imaginary. It was harder to imagine my brain somehow producing the psychologist.

These considerations maybe shouldn’t have been enough, given the stakes. You really want high confidence before writing off a band of threatening supernatural assassin stalkers as imaginary. And both worlds could have been real. I can’t remember whether I thought this was all good evidence, whether I was silly, or whether I figured that if one is thoroughly and permanently constrained by the watch of a group of psychopathic monsters with arbitrary demands, then one may as well just assume they are imaginary, because one is otherwise screwed.

Was I wrong to entertain the reality of my imaginary friends? Could I have been right sooner with better habits of mind?

For one thing, it seems I should have been clearer on what the question was, and what the alternative answers were. I kind of thought of it as a question of which world was real. But I probably didn’t really think my grandmother might be imaginary, or I would have nothing to worry about: if the friends were real, the grandmother was not. Sometimes it seemed the issue was just whether the imaginary friends were more real than my grandmother, i.e some greater supernatural power outside of the world, or some subnatural power inside my head. But in that case, things are not symmetrical at all. There should be ways to distinguish those. For instance, do the imaginary friends affect anything else? If the imaginary friends were real, it was surprising that nobody else interacted with them (though maybe not that surprising, given that a lot of people do claim to interact with supernatural things and probably I knew this but didn’t know the details).

There are probably lots of other subtle hints about what is real and what is not, and I was perhaps surprisingly incurious about finding them. For instance, things in an imaginary world might naturally be able to observe things in the real world that I observe, but not many other things. Whereas things living outside the world should be able to give me new information about things that I hadn’t seen.

So I think there were a bunch of mistakes. If there was anything like a single, clear, neatly definable meta-mistake I made here, I guess it was something like focusing on seeing the problem as problematic, rather than really trying hard to solve it. I don’t remember very well, but it seems like I hadn’t tried looking for reasons to think there wasn’t a problem. My guess is that I was instead trying to defend it being a problem, in the face of adults claiming I was being silly.

(I’ll ignore the question of whether it is ever worth trying to reason eight year olds out of their mental health problems, and note that while it might not help with the difficulty at hand, I suspect it can provide good exercise in thinking for other areas of life where being reasonable comes more easily.)

Research immersiveness

Suppose you want someone to calculate the current price of cheap computing hardware.

Alice knows roughly how much computing hardware cost a year ago, and know what the different kinds of computing hardware are, and how prices vary by time and market, and as she does the calculation she thinks things like ‘ooh, that is cheap’.

Bob doesn’t know anything about hardware and also isn’t trying to think about it. He mechanically follows an abstract research process he devised without reference to the subject matter, and makes no attempt to form an intuitive model. He reasons that in order to find the price of X, it will be necessary to locate the cheapest readily available version of X. He searches in various ways for cheap X. He writes down the best X prices he can find. He doesn’t notice if the prices are similar, or if there is a pattern behind the different X and prices associated with them. He determines the lowest price on his list, and returns it as the cheapest X. He writes words like ‘hardware’ instead of X, but it doesn’t really matter for his process.

I expect Alice to produce better research. Here are some advantages I expect her to have over Bob:

  • She will know to look for cheap prices for common kinds of computers such as supercomputers, CPUs, and GPUs.
  • If her searches only return CPUs, she will notice that maybe supercomputers aren’t coming up for some reason other than their not being cheap, and look them up directly.
  • If Alice finds numbers that are very different from the number a year ago, she will be surprised and check more carefully.
  • Alice will have an idea of whether the prices of GPUs she has found so far are relatively representative cheap GPUs, based on  things like how much they vary, what brands they are from.
  • If any numbers or patterns of numbers are surprising or interesting, Alice will notice and be able to do further research on a relevant sub-question, such as ‘is Moore’s law speeding up for computing cost?’
  • She will remember much more of what she has found so far, because it is meaningful to her.
  • Basically, Alice is getting feedback, while Bob may as well have set up the whole research procedure to run mechanically at the start, because he is not getting any information from what he finds. And often feedback is good.

You can do research without engaging with the topic, carrying out abstract calculations while ignoring the numbers you find, not updating your views, or feeling curiosity about the subject; feeling nothing. Or you can know what you are studying like you know your lover’s face: understand what each number means, and see what it implies for everything else. Usually you will do something in the middle of this spectrum, but it is good to consider what the ends are like. This is an axis of research I often think about, because sometimes I look more like Alice and sometimes I look more like Bob. I’ll tentatively call Alice’s research style ‘high immersement’, and Bob’s ‘low immersement’. I think of Bob’s as ‘Chinese room style research’.

I have assumed that high immersement is just overwhelmingly better, perhaps because I have some unreasonable bias in favor of knowing what one is doing. Or because of the list of reasons above, and ones like them. (Or because it is more impressive?)

But I expect one advantage of low immersement is that it should be less biased. Bob basically doesn’t know what his data means, so it is harder for him to push the results one way or another. He is like a blinded researcher, and it is often considered highly valuable to have everyone involved in research be blinded. And because Bob doesn’t notice errors, he avoids the kind of problem where he mostly corrects errors that disagree with his own intuitions, biasing the findings toward his own intuitions. I can’t think of obvious reasons he would be more biased in a particular direction. Though maybe in some topics, looking into a thing in more detail reliably leads to higher or lower numbers, and Bob might look into things in less detail. But overall Bob’s research seems likely to be more wrong and less biased.

Most research probably happens somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and maybe there are non-linear effects to having some idea of what you are doing, on the potential for bias. Even so, I think I expect less bias from people who have less idea what they are doing.

My guess is still that high immersement research is generally much better, but to the extent you can control it, I wonder if it is worth being in low immersement mode to do some research tasks. In particular, tasks where you don’t really want your own interpretation of things to influence your behavior. For instance, in the survey I’ve been working on lately it might have been good to be in high immersement mode for looking into how to ask questions, and for interviewing people to inform question writing, and low immersement mode for turning the results into graphs and statistics, and then high immersement mode for looking at the graphs and statistics and speculating about what they mean.

Why would I want a female role model?

People have always talked about the need for female role models, and until recently I didn’t understand how this was meant to help.

Why would I want a female math teacher to be my role model, when that bit of selection power might be used to get someone with more math skill? It seemed maybe insulting that people think I care so much about my femalehood that I prefer to copy someone else who shares it than someone who is chosen solely for being good at math. And if people use role models to decide how to behave, isn’t saying that female role models are important the same as saying either that women should behave differently from men, or that women are somehow unable to copy the behavior of men? Doesn’t it lead to more sexism if you suggest to people in this way that their gender is a defining feature and more important than e.g. math skill?

I now have a model of the potential need for female role models that makes sense to me, though I’m not especially confident in it. It may also be completely obvious to everyone other than me. Anyway, here it is.

Society has many stereotyped roles. The kind teacher. The cool businessman. The class clown. The twenty-something trying to figure out what they should do. The nerd.

My understanding of these is this. If you fit kind of near one of these roles, people will see you as being in it. In the same way that if you write a thing that is kind of like an ‘A’, people will read it as an ‘A’. If someone learns that you program a lot and enjoy playing board games, they think ‘ah, a nerd’ and then interpret more ambiguous characteristics to fit this role. For instance whether your clothing style is edgy or oblivious.

When people meet you, they observe your most striking characteristics, and try to figure out which kinds of person those characteristics mean that you are, from this set of known kinds of people. If your characteristics are striking but don’t seem to fit any known kinds of people, the observer will be confused and curious. Maybe you will get to have your own new role, or ‘weirdo’ is quite a large catchall.

People communicate who they are by either fitting known roles, or riffing on them: sort of fitting, but with unique flourishes that set them apart as individuals. Much like how fiction plays off ideas that exist in culture already, assuming the reader knows about the famous stories and common associations. Subtly varying on the themes or consciously subverting them, as commentary on what has come before, and to absorb the meanings from it so that much can be compactly implied. It is harder to write good fiction which sits in an uncharted vacuum, making use of alien characters, norms and ideas. Similarly it is easier to say who you are with clothes and policy preferences and so on, with a common language of kinds of people you might be gesturing at.

Most people don’t mean to fit in one simple stereotype, each person constructs a careful cocktail of them. They usually don’t mean to be a maximally stereotypical philosopher. However they might mean to be a modern freelance formal epistemologist with neuroscience roots and liberal values.

When people are deciding what to do, they often think of the roles available, and choose the one(s) that most appeal to them, and use that to guide their action. Sometimes this is obvious: few people choose a side in a policy debate without implicitly glancing at what a good liberal or conservative would do. But also, if they are choosing how to teach a class, they might have a few images of different kinds of teachers they could be, and select one they most want to try to emulate, rather than choosing their own behavior from scratch. For instance, they might choose the ‘stern but quietly caring’ teacher role. They can imagine what such a teacher would do, so then they do that.

This has the advantages of both being easier for the teacher, and more understandable to others. Parents and students know what to expect – they can readily recognize the stern but quietly caring teacher, and already know about her character.

So, there are all these stereotyped roles you can have. What does this have to do with gender? A lot of the roles are specific to certain kinds of people. You just can’t be the gentle giant if you are only five feet tall. You can’t be the village idiot if you are smart. And you can’t be the sort of person who twiddles their moustache if you can’t grow a moustache. In fact lots of roles come with a gender. The eccentric old professor who smokes a pipe in class can’t really be a woman, or if she is, then that is a notable characteristic, and she is the female eccentric old professor, which is different.

Growing up I socialized little, and the people I could most relate to were probably middle aged guys who wrote books. However our gender and age genuinely didn’t occur to me as relevant. I figured I could grow up to be Dr Who or Einstein or Dirk Gently.

Now I think I can’t really. And I can’t grow up to be Leo Szilard or an absent-minded professor, or an American gentleman who wanders foreign coffee shops and writes in his journal in the evening light, or even just the nerd. If I want to be a nerd, I have to be a girl nerd. Which is not the same character at all, in popularly imagined stereotype-world. If the Terminator had been a woman, would it be the same story? If Sherlock or James Bond were women, that would be an intentional and meaningful choice.

There are lots of roles that men can’t have too. It is hard for a man to be a nanny or nurse or ballet dancer, without being a ‘MALE ballet dancer’ or whatever. I don’t think that men actually have more roles. I also doubt that men’s versions of more feminine roles are more flattering than women’s versions of more masculine roles. However I wonder if men have a better selection of appealing roles on the whole. It is better to be the absentminded professor than the old school maam, or the spinster cat lady. It is better to be the class clown than the conscientious girl. It is better to be the nerd than the nerd girl. It is better to be the scientist than the woman in science. While it’s also better to be the nanny than the male nanny, there is arguably less demand for being some kind of nanny than some kind of scientist.

So, it’s not that I might not know how to do math well unless I see a woman do it, it is that if there aren’t women doing math around, there might not seem to be a female math-doing role at all, and as a young person finding my place in the world I might be hesitant to explore uninhabited territory in kinds-of-people-space. I think the hope is that if there are enough females doing math, there won’t even be some kind of ‘female mathematician’ role, there will just be a ‘mathematician’ role, and it won’t be attached to gender, like ‘environmentalist’ or ‘conservative’ are not. The reason you might want female role models is not to flesh out a female-specific role, but to illustrate clearly that the usual role can be filled by males or females, since many roles are not.

So the female role model is not to show the female that she can do math. It is to show other people that she can fill a mathematical role, and to show her that other people know this.