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Monday, September 14, 2020

Sand Talk, Singularity and Psi

It’s not that often I encounter a newly authored book that I consider a “must read” and avidly recommend to all my friends and colleagues -- but Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta genuinely falls into this category.   

I was introduced to the book by Jim Rutt who interviewed the author on his podcast -- an episode I also strongly recommend.

Yunkaporta is an Australian Aboriginal whose core goal in the book is to present and analyze modern civilization society from the perspective of Aboriginal indigenous society.   He does a bang-up job of this and raises a lot of related interesting issues along the way.

I’m not going to give a proper review or summary of the book here, but am mostly going to share various indirectly-related thoughts that occurred to me upon reading the book.   If you want a basic overview of the themes of the book try this brief interview with the author.

Was Civilization a Step Forward, or Backward?

It is hard to really give an "outsider" view of something as big as *human civilization* , but Yunkaporta manages to take a decent stab at it....  He is able to pull this off by virtue of being fascinatingly between the two worlds -- ensconced enough in Aboriginal culture to understand their indigenous world-view on the multiple relevant levels; but also embedded enough in the modern intellectual world to explain aspects of the indigenous world view (in the context of contrast with modernity & civilization) in ways that are clear and straightforward and compelling  to those of us accustomed to modern verbal/analytical modes of expression ...

There are hilarious things in the book -- e.g. the analogy and possible historical relationship btw modern education systems and methodologies for animal domestication.   

There are beautifully conceptually insightful things, like the discussion of multiple forms of human understanding -- pattern mind, kinship mind, dreaming mind, story-mind, ancestor-mind -- and the observation of how biased modern civilized culture is toward some of these and away from others.  

There are disturbingly thought-provoking things, like his discussion of public vs. private violence and the relation between physical and psychological violence (he believes that occasional/ moderate physical violence in indigenous societies plays a valuable social-psychological role, which it can't play in modern society due to the different sort of organization).  

All in all he makes a reasonably compelling case that the states of consciousness of indigenous people -- and the "collective minds" of indigenous tribal groups (to use my own fancy language that he probably would not approve of, he is very very down to earth in the book) -- were much more satisfied and fundamentally healthy than the vast majority of individual and human-collective-group minds on the planet today...

He views civilization as mostly destructive both to human minds and families and bodies, and to the rest of the physical environment on the planet…

I largely agree with the core points Yunkaporta makes in the book, but of course I have a somewhat different slant on the conclusions/ideas.  (The rest of this post is now my own musing and  rambling, some of which Yunkaporta might well utterly disagree with...)  

What Drives Humanity?

The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society and then to modern civilization probably has degraded happiness and mental and social health in many important

senses, as Yunkaporta points out.   

So it is certainly meaningful to question whether these transitions have really been “advances” as is commonly assumed.

However, it’s also important to understand that the driver of these transitions has never really been to increase happiness or mental/social health!   Put crudely, “happiness” (a concept very tricky to define) is not necessarily what humans have been after...

Humans and human groups are complex with multiple motivations -- and the drive for fundamental novelty and growth is one of them.

Aboriginal society was stable for 60,000 years, and certainly allowed individuals to pursue their drive for novelty and growth  through stories and dreaming and battles and adventures -- but it did not allow human-groups much avenue to pursue the drive for novelty and growth.   

It would seem that, once human-groups got a taste of fulfillment of their novelty-and-growth goal, they became addicted to it and things just snowballed till we got where we are today…

Singularity as Paradise Regained and Transcended

So what do to now?  Yunkaporta does not really suggest rolling back to indigenous society, because he's a realist and can see this is not too likely to happen except in the aftermath of some disaster scenario (which seems strangely possible to me at the moment, as I write these words sitting here on an island near Seattle with the air so full of smoke one can barely see a few hundred meters out into the ocean… smoke due to forest fires that are spreading like mad through the US West due to heat and dryness that is likely substantially due to industry-induced climate warming....  But yeah yeah... the smoke is supposed to clear over the next couple days...)

Personally, as you probably know, I think we are on the verge of another shift even bigger than the shift from hunter-gatherer to civilization (Singularity, anyone?) ... and as we attempt to guide ourselves through this shift, it seems very important to keep in mind the various aspects of human individual and group life that have been squelched in the transition to civilization -- Perhaps these aspects can be regained in a different form as we move into the next phase....

Yunkaporta refers to modern civilized thinking as "context-free" thinking , whereas indigenous thinking is contextually-embedded -- i.e. in the context of a network of social relationships, a specific area of land, etc.   This is a deep point that I am still in the process of fully absorbing.   There is an indirect connection here to the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which there are no pure phenomena, only (observer, phenomenon) pairs.   But much of our thinking these days is done as if there are pure phenomena.

On the other hand, fundamentally, embedding thinking in contexts defined by kinship and physical place is only one possible way of embedding thinking -- there are many other sorts of possible contexts.   It's arguable that these particular sorts of contexts are intrinsically central to humanity, due to the way our bodies and brains are built.   On the other hand the Singularity is partly about going beyond the restrictions of legacy humanity.   

It seems clear that we want to be sure post-Singularity minds including early-stage AGIs and cyborgs are able to engage in richly context-sensitive thinking, regarding contexts defined by kinship networks and other social networks and specific physical locations -- but also other contexts beyond these historically critical examples.

From an indigenous view -- or a conventional modern civilized human view -- one could view this sort of idea as overweening and narcissistic .. i.e. how can we, who are born to human moms and live our lives walking around in the dirt and stuffing ourselves with food grown in the earth and nourished with water and sunlight -- sensibly talk about going beyond kinship and physical location into some sort of airy  domain of  abstract contexts?   But we have built computer chips and brain scanners and open-heart surgery and brain surgery and virtual reality and birth control and IVF and gone to the moon and blow up atom bombs and on and on -- while we have indeed lost a lot of important stuff relative to our indigenous forebears, there is also obviously a huge amount of power in the crazy path we civilized folks have blazed...

Inspiration Regarding Psi from the Indigenous Perspective

Another aspect of Yunkaporta’s book that jumped out at me -- though it was fairly peripheral in his narrative -- was the Aboriginal approach to psi (psychic, paranormal phenomena…).   (For some references on the science of psi, see  here.)

In the indigenous view psi is just there along with a lot of other phenomena -- it's part of the patterns people observe, and part of the correlation between dreaming mind and everyday life, and part of the correlation between ancestors and nonhuman life (including e.g. rocks which Aboriginals consider to have their own sort of consciousness) and human minds, etc.    

The mercurial nature of psi phenomena, which gives us such a headache as scientists seeking replicable results, is not a problem from the indigenous view -- it's just how the world works.

In fact, conjecturing a bit, I vaguely suspect Yunkaporta would view the modern civilized-society obsession with the small percentage of phenomena in the universe that are reliably repeatable as an indication of our modern civilized mental un-health.   

Consider e.g. the analogue of romantic relationships.  There is all sorts of special-case magic in romantic relationships -- special moments that will never be repeated -- ad hoc exploitations of beautiful situations or unique moods -- and that is fine and wonderful and part of the beauty of it all.   Obsessing on those portions of a romantic relationship that are highly reliably repeatable in the same precise form, without contextual variability -- would seem crass and ridiculous.   (Every time I give her a sufficient number of flowers of the appropriate species and purchase her an evening meal at a restaurant with a sufficiently high rating by a reputable source, she must respond by inviting me for a night of passionate lovemaking -- and if this  fails too often because of some unpredicted variability in aspects of the context in the world or her brain or body or one of our life-processes, then that proves the pattern is inadequate and we must seek a more rigorous and reliable pattern !!) ....  

One could view the obsession with repeatability and reliability (in psi research and elsewhere) from this perspective, as a weird/twisted focus on certain small corners of the broader universe, most of which just doesn't play by that sort of highly simplistic rulebook....

I've suggested before that  basic progress on psi might require modification of our concept of science in the direction of "second person science", where e.g. brain computer interfacing is used to enable one observer to directly perceive another observer's perception of phenomena -- so that we can compare subjective observations directly without needing to project them wholly into non-experiential data.

Quite possibly, another sense in which our current conception of science may need to be obsoleted/ transcended, is that we need to move beyond our simplistic notion of "repeatability"....  Psi is contextually dependent in the same sort of way that indigenous knowledge is contextually dependent (which is related to but maybe stronger than the sense in which quantum knowledge is contextually dependent).   Charlie Tart's wonderful notion of state-specific science is going in this direction -- it's a particular sort of example of context-specific science....

I am reminded of a chat I heard among psi researchers not long ago, which may be paraphrased as:


Can you think of ANY pre-registered, high statistical power, multi-lab psi replication that was successful?


The PEAR consortium in 2000 tried to replicate the original PEAR findings and although the main effect of intention was not significant, they did find a number of interesting effects and anomalous aspects in the data.


I’m aware of those results, but the question was about robust replication.  Finding post hoc "interesting  effects” doesn’t qualify.

A’s question initially seems like a good one; but I just wonder if, somehow or other, to really grapple with psi we need to find a broader notion of success in which finding post hoc "interesting internal effects" DOES qualify...

Yes, one can fool oneself and see interesting post hoc effects in random noise.  However,one can also see genuinely interesting post hoc effects that are not the same as what one was looking for, yet have some meaty surprisingness value to them...

How to quantify this?  Taking a broad-minded Bayesian sort of view, one could ask: In a universe with mercurial psi, versus a universe with none, would this post-hoc effect be more likely to occur?    

Across a host of different experiments with weird post-hoc effects but not accurate replicationof prior results, this sort of question becomes more and more meaningful.   It's not an easy way to look at things, and it's better asked in the context of meaningful concrete models of "universes with mercurial psi", but something in this direction may be better than trying to shove funky / trickstery / mercurial phenomena into a bin of "highly repetitive, replicable phenomena" where they just plain don't fit...

The general notion that psi is "trickstery" is definitely far from new.   However what I’m thinking that may be new is:  How to make a data-analytics methodology that accounts for this aspect...

What if one simply takes the mass of data from a bunch of psi studies and

  1. searches for surprising psi-ish patterns in the data using general pattern-analysis tools

  2. does a comparable search for such patterns in appropriately shuffled versions of the data

To keep things statistically valid, one would want to explore 1) using a variety of pattern-analysis approaches, and then once one feels one has really got something, one tries 2) for validation. Obviously 2) should not be part of one’s main pattern-search loop.

Of course the cosmic trickster could also troll this analysis by -- as soon as one has done this analysis -- starting to tweak experimental results so as to give bad results according to one's particular mathematical definition of surprisingness, but good results according to some other definition, etc.

But yet -- the cosmic trickster is obviously not being infinitely tricky in all instances, sometimes just highly tricky -- and trying to outsmart their tricks is part of the grand eurycosmic dance in which we find ourselves ...

When I shared some of these thoughts with a leading psi researcher, he recalled a time he gave a talk in Australia,, and an aboriginal elder from the audience approached him afterwards, whispering that her people had been using psi for over 50,000 years, but that it was nice to see science starting to catch up.

1 comment:

Mike said...

The convergence is near enough. Bracing myself for the cognitive dissonance as it slowly dawns on them...