My name is Mark Neyer. I grew up believing in a number of things: Mathematics, Reality, God, Right and Wrong, Choices, Markets, and the Republican Party. My faith in these things fell away, one after another. Right and Wrong went first, and then the idea of God and Choices. Then, years later, the Republican Party, and in 2008, as I left academia to start a job at an electronic trading company, Markets.
This entire process was highly distressing. I was hospitalized once in 2005, once again in 2011, three times in 2012 and twice in 2013. In January 2013, I started to believe in Reality again. At that time, I was addicted to drugs, deeply in debt, very unhappy, and had questionable prospects for life as a functional adult. I used the ideas shared in this blog – as well as copious love and support from the woman who is now my wife, and all of the gifts and privileges I was born with – to get myself out of that hole. These ideas helped me. I want to share them with others.
Faith in Logical Positivism, Taken to its Logical Conclusion
The only belief that never left was Mathematics. It didn’t even make sense to me to doubt mathematical truth, because I saw mathematical truth as tautological relationships between things that were made up.
Along the way I picked up a belief in Physics. Physics worked. It was solid. I felt comfortable standing on it. I had faith that it would stay steady, even though my beliefs in God and Right and Wrong had clearly been faith in things that were false. Starting around 2002, I began translating thoughts I had, or things I heard other people say, or things that I saw, into physics. I found that almost of the thoughts I had could be broken down into two kinds of statements:
- statements about abstract mathematical models, such as physics
- statements about sensory experiences
I started to see statements that I couldn’t translate into an abstract model, or a description of a sensory experience, as being meaningless. When people told me things that I couldn’t translate, I discarded these statement as meaningless. I might as well have told people “THAT DOES NOT COMPUTE.”
I had latched onto logical positivism, without knowing this was a thing. Other people had developed this idea and eventually poked holes in it. I didn’t know that, because “other people” was a concept that was very difficult to translate into physics. I usually didn’t bother to attempt these translations, since “what other people are thinking about” didn’t seem as relevant to me as, “why did the leaves fall that way on the ground?”
Our ability to construct mathematical models that so precisely matched our experiences was astounding to me. Physics was easy to take faith in. As long as I believed in a reality, I believed Physics was a very good approximation of that reality.
Unfortunately, I stopped believing in reality because I couldn’t map the concept of reality onto my sensory experience. There was no way to prove reality existed. It felt like the kind of thing one had to take on faith. Believing in reality seemed liked a metabelief in models themselves. The ‘reality’ concept felt like an axiomatic assertion, for which no amount of evidence could ever suffice. It felt like faith. I had gotten burned by faith. I didn’t want to get burned again. I stopped believing that reality existed.
I still had faith, of course. I’d just hidden it from myself. I had faith that my crude implementation of a Logical Positivist worldview was accurate. This faith lay deep in the foundations of my thoughts, hidden from me because I believed it so thoroughly.
I was miserable, because I had made terrible choices. I was making terrible choices in part because I was in pain, and in part because I didn’t have a set of principles or values to tell me which choices were worth making, and which ones weren’t. I was miserable because I was addicted to drugs, unable to understand how other people thought, and convinced there was some secret telepathic ability that most adults used to communicate with each other.
I was trapped in misery and thought that perhaps the thing trapping me was a belief in reality. And so I saw physics as a game, being played by minds, unconstrained by any rules. I tried my best to break the rules of the game, and failed. My faith in physics grew stronger, because it seemed to remain true no matter how many holes I tried to find in it. I had no idea what to make of that, but I used physics as a ground on which to build.
Around the start of the Obama administration, I started to realize that “what other people are thinking” is often an important thing to be aware of. I was mystified by some people’s abilities to get this mysterious and valuable information, without simply asking directly. When every other source of truth fell apart, and yet Physics felt solid, I knew that I had to understand other people in terms of Physics.
My Brief Descent into Madness
There’s an article on slate star codex describing Autism and Shizhophrenia as opposites:
A schizotypal brain that cannot keep its mentalistic cognition yoked to reality dissolves into schizophrenia, completely losing the boundary between Self and Other into a giant animistic universe of universal significance and undifferentiated Mind.
That was my experience of life, increasingly from the period late 2010 until early 2013. This tumblr captures how I felt at the time of peak insanity.
An autistic brain that cannot handle the weight of its mechanistic cognition becomes unable to do even the most basic mental tasks like identify and cope with its own emotions.
This was my experience of life from most of adolescence until 2010 or so. I went from largely oblivious to other people’s feelings, to wildly overwhelmed by feeling, all the time. In a desperate attempt to get out of one rut of thinking, I found my way into a newer, different, much more terrifying rut.
The ideas in this blog got me out.
The Way Out
My lack of belief in right and wrong as a meaningful concept made me completely miserable. Doubting that reality existed only seemed to make things worse. I understood that I was making poor choices. The problem was that I had trouble translating the idea of choices into physics. That changed when I read Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I had my answer: choices involve navigating different possible futures.
In late 2012, I started to see myself as a computer that made choices by simulating the world around me, computing possible future states of the world, weighting them according to some value system, selecting the best outcome, and then acting to promote the likelihood of that outcome. The value system and the simulation process were code that I could rewrite at will. I needed to rewrite this code, to be happy.
The simulation code was just my internal copy of reality, compressed into principles such as the laws of physics. My goals for iterating on this code was first, to expand its coverage of reality, second, to make it more accurate, and third, to make it more efficient. Now that I could translate the idea of ‘reality’ into statements about physics and experience, it seemed like something I was once again comfortable taking faith in. I started to believe in reality again.
The valuation code was my internal value system. A semi-configurable moral compass. I knew I couldn’t overwrite certain things that I valued – such as fairness, safety and freedom. I found that it was possible to change things I did value, as my reality simulation code expanded in scope and became more accurate. I sensed that this compass was measuring some truely correct direction through the multiverse. I suspected that there were actually correct values to have, rather than just arbitrary preferences. I started to believe in right and wrong again.
This way of thinking about myself tallied with my understanding of physics, it required no faith beyond faith in reality, and it was enabling me to make better choices.
Thinking of myself as a computer running these two sets of code jibed with what I had heard in studying Buddhism: the idea of no-self. If the machine modifies the code, and the code consists of these separate modules that keep changing, along with the machine, then the “me” that exists is more like a causal vortex between these three systems, rather than some discrete thing.
I started building models of how other people thought, by thinking of them as being computers that I was interacting with. This way of thinking worked for me, and my life started to improve.
Life from First Principles
This is not just a blog about how people are computers. It’s a blog about how I rebuilt my sanity and my understanding of reality from the ground up, using first principles thinking. It’s a blog about how I see the world now. I believe this model is functional because it’s enabled me to do well for myself in the world, by any reasonable standard. When compared to how I used to be doing in 2013, I think my improvement is so remarkable, in large part because I developed this powerful way of thinking. I want to share it with others.
My intellectual life started as explosion of fire and color, which quickly distilled itself into a black-and-white, paint-by-numbers game played in binary. Eventually I learned to color, which started out as fun, until things became an extraordinarily messy brown blob. Now, I use black and white and all of the colors, to varying degrees. I usually stay inside the lines which society has constructed, and when I step out of them, I try to use colors in moderation and balance, in order to convey a compressed subset of my lived experience. I hope you enjoy.