“I can tell for myself”

There’s a capacity for knowing, that every human being has, that as a society we’re out of touch with in many important domains. It’s the knowing that comes from trusting our own experience and understanding. It’s not incidental that we’re out of touch with it—our societies are largely organized around this fact. But we could organize a different kind of society where everyone is in touch with it. It’s not easy or straightforward, but it seems to me to be both possible and worthwhile.

There are various fancy terms for this kind of direct-knowing—eg “self-trust” or “trust in one’s own experience” or “wise knowing” or “gnosis”—but in this piece of writing I will speak of it in plain language: “I can tell for myself”. This phrasing is cumbersome but concrete, and forces me to be very clear about what I’m talking about rather than letting the idea float off into some vague attribute one “has” or “doesn’t have”, or some accomplishment or attainment, like “awakeness”. It’s also particularly useful for contrasting it with a different kind of knowing we can call “taking someone’s word for it”. It could also be “received knowing”. I’m particularly interested in what happens when what we can tell for ourselves seems in conflict with what someone else says, and problems that occur when we override what we can tell for ourselves by taking someone else’s word, which I’ll get into in a future piece.

All of this is part of a project you could refer to as “descriptivist epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Much of epistemology is sort of external and prescriptivist: it is the study of “how people should go about knowing things”. Descriptivist Epistemology instead asks: how do we actually go about knowing things? There’s a thing it feels like to know something. Where does that come from? Sometimes we discover that things we knew before, we would now consider incorrect, not because the world has changed but because we’ve learned something or matured in some way. When and why does that happen? And when someone’s very way of knowing evolves, how does it evolve? In what sense did we nonetheless “know” something that was in some sense untrue? How is this different from simply “being misled” or “being confused”?

In order to explore all of those questions, let’s first, explore, concretely and intuitively, the kinds of things that we can know for ourselves, where we don’t have to take someone’s word for it.

Examples of situations where “I can tell for myself”

Here’s a wide sampling but still totally incomplete list of some examples of different kinds of direct-knowing:

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The superegos have gone crazy

File this one under Evolution of Consciousness studies.

I’ve been working on a new theory inspired by Andrew Cutler’s Snake Cult of Consciousness article and Eve Theory of Consciousness articles, about the evolving relationship between what you could call id, ego, and superego. I’m honestly not particularly stoked about those terms, for lots of reasons, but they do seem to roughly map onto the thing that I’m looking at, so here we go.

This post also relates to some other thinking I’ve been doing over the last few years about how egos are necessary for managing your attention & care in relation to external systems that might co-opt your attention & care if you’re too open. 

Here’s part of the post in a tweet:

Andrew writes:

In Freudian terms, we had an animal id for millions of years. We then evolved a super-ego, the simulated view of society in our head. Implicitly, there was a node resolving conflicts between these competing interests: a subconscious ego. A fateful encounter with snake venom allowed someone to perceive this process and she could not unsee it. Henceforth, she perceived and identified with her ego, the agent tasked with navigating the tribe’s moral code. Or in the parlance of the time, she “became as the gods, knowing good and evil.”

That is, the Fall, from a nondual mode to one dualistically separated from an experience of flow with god-ness. Ouch. The transition from the first memetic operating system to the second.

What are we talking about with id, ego, and superego. First thing to know is that those terms made a lot more sense before they were translated from German into Latin. In Freud’s original work, they were “Es, Ich, & Über-Ich”—the it, the I, and the over-I. Now admittedly “I” is a bit unwieldy, visually and acoustically, but the translation to latin made these notions seem very weird and foreign and reified, rather than natural parts of our experience.

At any rate! It is also helpful to have these other words for them for various reasons now. Here’s my take:

  • The id layer is your navigating system that is shared with animals, which can be modelled in part as a cybernetic system composed of a hierarchical network of control systems. You have a bunch of needs which include things like hunger, thirst, physical security, dignity, not to be in pain, etc. You also have a sense of what you personally-selfily care about in the abstract, which is not exactly shared with animals but is still intrinsic to you in some sense (although of course informed by what you have learned from others).
  • The superego layer is what others expect of you. Social expectations. Your model of the social contract. It has many types. I’m not sure exactly how to carve them up but here’s a sketch:
    • The maxims you learn from your parents and culture growing up, even if you’re in a context where nobody else expects that of you
      • (Note that some behaviors you learn might also be better understood as skills or strategies, not expectations)
    • A particular agreement that you make with somebody, for instance to show up at a particular time or complete some sort of assignment
      • Possibly stuff ends up in the superego layer if you promise it to yourself, because you have a maxim that something like “keep promises”
        • Also shit is weird and fractal so who the fuck knows maybe internal parts have expectations of each other that we capitulate these dynamic idfk
    • A loyalty that you have to prioritizing somebody else’s needs in general, whether that is your kid, your parent, your partner, your boss, your employee, your co-worker, your friend, or any other role. There is a sense that you are expected to “be a good husband/friend/etc” and a sense of what that means
      • This is partially informed by the person themselves and partially informed by your sense of what will be good for them which is based on larger social expectations (such as my dad thinking it was necessary to fulfill his role as my dad by telling me to cut my hair)
    • A relationship that you have with a large-scale memetic structure, like a religion or a social movement or a community with certain norms, which generates a sense of what’s important and how to behave.
    • If you’re in the kitchen with someone and they make a grunt, and you come over, notice they’re holding something in each hand and in their mouth, and help them open the cabinet so they can put something in, as they were nonverbally requesting, this is probably somewhat on the superego layer as well.
    • Probably others! If commenting, feel free to use the suggest feature to add new bullets.
      • (Everything is loopy so now I’m noticing how my invitation to you to do that affects your affordances on a superego level at least slightly)
  • The ego is what mediates between all of these—whether effectively or ineffectively. If society wants one thing from you and your inner desires want something else, the ego is what has to deal with that problem.
    • pre-Fall, this was happening implicitly and in a flowy way
    • since the Fall, it’s been characterized by self-consciousness

The rest of this post will be exploring some of the implications of this model for the evolution of consciousness, as I see it. I’m sure I’ll see more within a few months, so I wanted to share these now while they’re fresh.

Conflict between superegos

The genesis of this post came while I was visiting an old dear friend in another city and staying at an airbnb a short walk from his place. We were talking about the Snake Cult model and some related ones, and as the night got on we started talking about whether he might go home briefly, in part to pick some stuff up and in part to see his partner. And we were kind of feeling into what made sense, and then we noticed that there was a tension in him between a sense of wanting to be a good husband (by connecting with his partner, tucking them in, and helping them de-stress before bed, especially given that their work is stressful at the moment) and wanting to be a good friend (by continuing to hang out with me, uninterrupted).

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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