In Favour of Identity Politics

This is a thought experiment that makes the case for Identity Politics as useful and desirable. It was inspired by Sam Harris, a thinker I admire and deeply respect but who I believe is at least partly wrong in his assessment of Identity Politics and other ethical matters related to privilege as it interacts with personal identity. I hope rational-minded people might find some arguments here attractive regardless of their current position in the conservative-liberal spectrum.

This is also an exercise in the principles delineated earlier in my writing (see, for example, Agora). I’m communicating as clearly and openly as I can to try to understand each other better, regardless of any a priori perceived agendas. I will begin by trying to state Sam’s position as well as I can; an instance of what is widely known as the Principle of Charity, and that I believe Sam himself is a fan of.

My current personal best mental simulation of Sam Harris says: Identity Politics is wrong, that is, it is of low effective value to our thinking. Identity Politics restrains our thinking to whatever space is provided by the identity of the thinker, which is very much tied to their personal history and their expressed phenotypes. Our race, for example, should not matter when it comes to making an argument or pushing a rational discussion forward: the opinion of everybody should count the same, as that will let us optimally explore the shared space of thinking. Collect as much useful knowledge about the world as we can, after Deutsch.

To that I say: Identity Politics is also needed. Identity Politics is a way of thinking; Identity-Free Politics is another, and both have their advantages. They are philosophical contexts: both provide us with the opportunity to explore diverse solutions and collect useful knowledge. It is desirable to use both, ideally each at their best time. Our discussion can ideally move forward to rationally listing contexts where each approach provides value: when to put each module to best use (in which mental context, after Weinstein). This is a subjective assessment, thus a matter of ethics, and our discussion must shift there.

Our knowledge of the world is imperfect. We must make assumptions all the time when thinking, for much we do not know; this goes doubly for our thoughts about people. How we make those assumptions — which heuristics we use, in algorithmic terms — clearly also has a huge incidence in the thinking space we get to explore.

Imagine we were forced by a specific situation to have to decide which single person gets to make an ethical decision, freely and without consequences, for a whole group. Imagine, say, that aliens came and saw that race is a huge open issue in the US, and that needs to be fixed, and they told us that we must designate a single person to decide exactly what happens next, within the resource constraints of the whole nation. Whether to establish reparations, institute a basic income, or build a colony on Mars. Anything that can directly nudge “Karmic balance” in the right direction, according to some reasonable definition of those terms.

Who should we choose?

Before we know more about each individual candidate, I’d fathom the guess that “black woman thinkers” should be very highly represented in the group to be considered. I believe this is an instance of Identity Politics that is rational and thus desirable according to many useful systems of ethics.

Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t then hold a healthy debate between candidates and get to known them all much better; listened to them, to their ideas, regardless of who they are. The best idea for what to do next might come from a white male. Listening to a white male talk about what to do about race is a bit awkward to many, but to exclude them altogether from a debate that decides how their future will look seems unfair. That means that at some point we want representation of thought regardless of identity; we can then judge people purely on their thoughts, as they are at some point in time, regardless of their history. This adds a degree of (trigger warning for some) free will to everybody’s existence. So in a sense we must always turn to Identity-Free Politics at some point in our rational debate to further test our assumptions. Remember, our information about the world is imperfect but we want it to become better. Nobody wants to miss out on the potential of a truly great idea; one that improves the world for all, and that all choose happily and freely.

Now, where is the point of confusion here? Why are we not all on the same boat, agreeing on what is essentially a middle ground approach that potentially allows us to work better as a society? The middle ground just requires us all to give our distinct frame of thinking a chance in open debate. Just talk to each other, and accept the other’s world views for a little while.

Why is Sam Harris not talking to Ta-Nehisi Coates?

About the nature of the Buddha and loving-kindness.

Computer Science and Machine Learning provide an effective vocabulary to talk about mental states. As I go about my life, I tend to think of the computational processes I could be applying to solve tasks. I’m not sure everybody does this as often as I do; probably geeks do it more often? I’m doing it more and more since I started meditating and became more aware of my mental processes and formations.

While we live, we experiment things; feel a series of qualias. While we experiment with the world and feel things, we learn. When we learn, we adjust our internal neurological state.

More in computing terms: feelings about things and ideas are linked to weights in our models. Qualias are vectors; each dimension is a characteristic of the experience. Experimenting a qualia is evaluating a condition. Usually we experiment many qualias muddled up together; we are evaluating batches. Summing up: the weights we adjust when we learn determine the experiences we feel on different stimuli; they might be the qualia.

Concentration (“Samatha”) lets you evaluate your mental state while considering fewer items at a time. It lets you focus more on individual weights in the model, observe them and update them individually.

You believe in things that ended up with a high weight in the “belief” dimension of its qualia. You believe these things because they happen to be true, or useful, or otherwise important. Wisdom, as distinct from knowledge, is the sum of all this information you carry.

Metta is theory of mind training.

Metta lets you experiment the affinity weights that link you to other people in your life. You feel happy when they feel happy; how much? You feel miserable when they suffer; how much? It might be that some weights are lazy-initialization; reading them actually sets them (lazy here means they are set to NaN and don’t affect batch calculations). Or perhaps reading them also reinforces them; if you check for a feeling often enough, and it comes up positive, perhaps it comes up more positive every time (TODO: look up neurological correlates)..

The self is a cluster of ideas we are positively disposed to; our identity is the set of things that that a) make us happy for one reason or another (we feel as if we “choose” those), or b) we don’t like but otherwise are useful (for example: they are good at predicting how we will behave in the future, like character traits we don’t want but carry).

Feelings of happiness related to other people let you identify with those people; move your self distance operator towards a gravity center not within yourself. Your self expands as you do Metta. As you do it with yourself, you also realize that the same mental processes you use to build a mental model of what other people think (theory of mind) are (or at least feel) like the ones that you use to think in first person.

Hypothesis: they are the same. “Being social” probably comes after just “being” (and trying to understand your being) evolutionarily speaking. So it would make evolutionary sense for it to build on the previous neural pathways; a mutation is more likely to trigger a new module than an independent system.

Once you realize all this, you can can choose to adjust your self any way you like. Part of your identity is group-linked; the group can be expanded, and your identification with it too (every time you do this, perhaps you “feel” it to be true a bit more). You are not the same as all people in all the ways; but if you care about them, and you want them to be happy, well: you’ve got something in common with all of it.

Eventually the significant weights you use to decide whether some entity is in your “self” or not flips. In a practical way, your self can become “everybody”.

This is the nature of the Buddha: Buddhism mostly agrees that it is core to all living beings.

You become the Buddha by identifying with your Buddha nature; believing this to be true.

Kallax

I had an idea about a sort of lazy undertaking. For now, I call it White Kallax.

A 5x5 Kallax from Ikea

Kallax is the successor to the popular Ikea Expedit. It’s a bookshelf that is amenable to becoming a filing system; you get a bunch of cubes you can fill in. I like to think of it as a matrix: the bottom left corner cube is a0, the one to the right of it b0, the one on top of that b1. Or it could be the plain matrix notation for m x n matrixes, although that has the disadvantage that extending the Kallax to the top (by stacking) would yield a coordinate change or negative numbers.

I like that a 5x5 one is 169 on Ikea. It doesn’t break the bank, as long as you’re privileged enough to be able to buy stuff at Ikea in the first place.

We’ve just moved to a new place and bought a 5x5 Kallax and I plan to try to keep it representative. Of what we like; of what we want to be. As we add to it, and edit, I want to take pictures of it. Right now it’s a 5x5 one, and it’s only about half unpacked; not all our books, not all the stuff we like is on it. But it’s getting there.

We like books, so we’ll try to fill it with our favourite books: the most beautiful to us, the most interesting. Many that we’ve always been curious about but haven’t had the time to read1.

Books don’t break the bank, either. Hopefully other stuff I will put in there will be the same way. I like having nice things, but I want everybody to be able to have the same standard of living that I enjoy. It would only be fair, as a Flancian[^books].

I’ll try to keep the Kallax it nice and tidy; honest. Not have too much fluff in it. To the best of my ability and no further away, of course. I accept suggestions.


  1. Of these all, I wonder how many I will actually read before I die. All things make us face our mortality; books do so more than many. 

My meditation practice

I’ve been meditating for about a year now, and for four months seriously. It seems like a good time to stop and just write down what meditation means for me right now; in particular, how much time it takes and what I try to use it for.

Current

I follow the Pareto principle, where I try not to over-invest in activities, instead trying to get 80% of the benefit with about 20% of the effort (with 100% of effort being the quantity of work needed to get 100% of the benefit). So my meditation practice is currently quite light, when compared to most serious practitioners. It looks like this.

In the mornings I wake up and make coffee for my partner and me. I start work later than them, so they leave earlier. Then I do a guided meditation. I use Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, which I can recommend. I started with the 50 day initial course, with each session being about ten minutes long; Sam takes you from complete beginner to someone familiar with focus techniques, duality and non-duality, loving-kindness and open eyes meditation. After finishing the initial course a daily guided meditation becomes available, which you can customize to fit in either ten or twenty minutes depending on the time available. Nowadays I often do twenty minutes.

In the evenings after I get home from work I try to meditate for another ten minutes, either guided (redoing a previous meditation) or unguided (the app has a built in meditation timer, where you get bells every few minutes as desired; the bells remind you to stay on target). This doesn’t happen every day as some days it’s gotten late and we need to go straight to exercise and dinner instead. When it doesn’t happen, and sometimes even if when it does, I meditate in the same way just before taking a shower (I shower in the evenings, just before bed).

In the weekends the routine is quite similar, although the morning meditation is shared with my partner (we just meditate at the same time with the same session playing).

Benefits and ramp up

At this point the benefits I’ve noticed in my life that I can attribute to meditation are various enough and clear enough that I feel comfortable trying to ramp up my practice. To put it shortly, meditation seems to have increased my focus and my creativity; I’ve been writing more, and have been able to stay on target with my daily activities longer than I used to (I’ve always procrastinated too much).

All in all, I find that I seem to have gotten a bit better at thinking about hard things. By this I don’t mean I’ve gotten smarter, but rather that I’ve noticed a range of improvements when trying to think about issues that I find difficult or off-putting. The easiest way I can describe it is as follows: whereas before I skirted around difficult topics, now I find myself a bit more willing to tackle them — or at least think them through. That doesn’t mean that my problem solving skills have improved, of course; rather that I have a chance to solve more problems just because I bother to start on them more often.1

For me, this is one of the main advantages of meditation: it teaches you to recognize patterns of thinking, and through it it enables meta-cognition. To use a corny programming metaphor: it gives you access to the scheduler in your mind, and then lets you use your resources more efficiently.

As I’ve written elsewhere, what you do with your resources is an ethical decision. I believe that thinking about the problems that other people and beings face is one of the ethical responsibilities that every privileged person has. For my own take on how to do this efficiently, see goals.

Plan

I think a slightly increased practice may yield worthy benefits; put another way, I want to explore if I’m really hitting the Pareto sweet spot. Currently I plan to ramp up my morning sessions by adding an unguided session after the guided one; another ten minutes. I will use it with the following default program, with bells to mark phase transitions:

  • One minute: focus on sounds/breath.
  • Four minutes: think about topics chosen in advance, while trying to not lose myself in thought. Examples:
    • The nature of human existence.
    • How to help people reach their fullest potential.
  • Four minutes: Metta (loving-kindness).
  • One minute: focus on sounds/breath.

  1. Of course, this could all be placebo effect or just plain old self-delusion. But as long as the world plays along with my efforts, it’s hard to argue with even short term results as they pile up. 

1 Buddha, n Bodhisattvas

Buddha said: these are the paths and meanderings of the human mind. Come with me and I’ll show you.

We are our thoughts and our actions. While you think like the Buddha you become the Buddha. While you act like the Buddha you become the Buddha.

Boddhisattvas say: I will walk with you, but no further than my friends who are in the path behind me. We will all meet each other there.

Ethics

I consider myself a secular Buddhist: I try to follow a modified Eightfold Path. Here is a list from the Wikipedia article on the Eightfold Path, edited to remove anachronisms or beliefs I otherwise don’t adhere to: mostly reincarnation, complete renunciation to the material (I think there is a more pragmatic middle way) and abstaining from sexual activities (which doesn’t make sense to me now we have birth control): my ethics.

  • Right View: Our actions and beliefs have consequences beyond us and after death. I see humanity as a cultural organism. My actions and beliefs, as they are seen and heard, might send ripples through history. This is true for everyone.

  • Right Resolve or Intention: the giving up of comfort to follow the path; this concept aims at peaceful renunciation, into an environment of non-ill-will (to loving kindness), away from cruelty (to compassion). Such an environment aids contemplation of impermanence, suffering, and non-Self.

  • Right Speech: no lying, no rude speech, no telling one person what another says about them.

  • Right Conduct or Action: no killing or injuring, no taking what is not given, no harmful sexual acts or material desires.

  • Right Livelihood: Only possess what is essential to sustain life and happiness; decide what is needed in life, and commit to give away the rest.

  • Right Effort: preventing the arising of unwholesome states, and generating wholesome states, the bojjhagā (seven factors of awakening). This includes indriya-samvara, “guarding the sense-doors,” restraint of the sense faculties. [to be reviewed, probably good].

  • Right Mindfulness (sati): being mindful of the dhammas (“teachings,” “elements”) that are beneficial to the right path. In the vipassana movement, sati is interpreted as “bare attention”: never be absent minded, being conscious of what one is doing; this encourages the awareness of the impermanence of body, feeling and mind, as well as to experience the five aggregates (skandhas), the five hindrances, the four True Realities and seven factors of awakening.

  • Right samadhi (Passaddhi; Ekaggata; sampasadana): practicing four stages of dhyāna (“meditation”), which includes samadhi proper in the second stage, and reinforces the development of the bojjhagā, culminating into upekkha (equanimity) and mindfulness. In the Theravada tradition and the Vipassana movement, this is interpreted as ekaggata, concentration or one-pointedness of the mind, and supplemented with Vipassana-meditation, which aims at insight.

I’m a beginner (at everything, really). I practice meditation.

Philosophy

I realized I’ve been beating around the bush but haven’t got round to actually writing down my personal philosophy; what I believe to be beautiful and good and true. Writing down stuff is sometimes conducive to actually making sense, so here goes.

I am agnostic. I do not believe we can (currently?) know the principle that put the universe in motion, if any.

I consider myself a sort of secular Buddhist: I try to follow a modified Eightfold Path. I do not usually try to label myself, but I say I follow this Buddhist path to summarize: I agree with it to a great extent and it also gives a salient place to meditation, which I practice, but I do not restrict myself to the principles of Buddhism. I am interested in all philosophy as a vehicle for the pursuit of knowledge and the reduction of suffering; I admire classical culture, although unfortunately it was built upon oppression and slavery (we need to do better), and appreciate Stoic and Epicurean thought. I am an admirer of science and culture. I believe in the enlightenment.

I think the purpose of humanity should be to thrive in peace, advancing knowledge through science and technology and culture, and using said knowledge to reduce and eventually eliminate the suffering of all living beings, starting with fellow humans.

More concretely and to the point: I support the causes of feminism; wealth and power redistribution; and universal basic income. My default stance to open questions is liberality; I believe humanity is a robust distributed system and history has proven time and time again that humanity can gain a lot from trying new solutions to old problems.

Thus I intend to make the following my personal goal in life: to support worthy causes and seek ways to improve humanity within the means I’ve got, with honesty and sincerity, even if it means risking ridicule by making earnest mistakes in public. I believe if everybody did this we’d potentially end up in a better world; you can call it an utopia. You might know what I call my personal utopia by now.

I believe in civilized, fact-based debate and cordiality. If you disagree with any of my positions, I’d love to hear from you! I would like to change my mind or otherwise improve my positions wherever I’m wrong. I know I’m statistically certain to be wrong about many, many things, and I look forward to finding out which those are.

Thank you.

Experiments with replicating elements of style with Transformer

I’ve been toying with this idea for a while and I think it might have some interest.

It is related to the concept of “Narrative Author” by Dehennin or the older “Implicit Author” in Literary Analysis terms.

I will try to pick it up more seriously in my free time, perhaps in collaboration with my dear partner, who was a better and more current background in Literary Analysis and Linguistics. It goes like this:

  • Transformer-based generative language models (GPT-2, BERT) can generate text (prompted or unprompted) with a degree of coherence not reachable by previous models, although still of course short of human performance.
  • Said models can be fine-tuned on smaller corpuses in the same language they were trained on. I’ve run some quick experiments fine-tuning GPT-2 on Jane Austen (unpublished) and Philip K. Dick. The results are only sometimes coherent, but they seem to maintain the original’s style to some extent.

Thus the planned experiment:

  • Define a set of style markers in the context of the Narrative Author theory. These are markers present in texts that might be maintained or not maintained by the generative models trained in such texts.
  • Fine-tune models with these texts and generate prompted and unprompted texts.
  • Analyze which style markers remain present in the generated texts (or can be found by a reasonable reader, with or without knowledge of their generated nature).

What the hell just happened to Kanyo West?

What the hell just happened to Kanyo West?

After his sexist outbursts, after his comments about slavery; after supporting Trump… to go ahead and convert to Buddhism?

Nobody saw it coming. He toyed with Christianity for a while, and that seemed like the obvious move — the whole Born Again Christian thing, Jesus is our savior and all of that. Islam would have been less surprising as a next step, given Raekwon and Ghostface Killah from the Wu Tang, but Kanyo didn’t seem to acknowledge that tradition much, if ever. The results in any case probably wouldn’t have been this dramatic — but more likely than not would have been equally interesting, given his other sudden turn towards history and the scholastic. One can now almost imagine the kinds of rhymes he could have pulled off while discussing the nuances of the trinity, Thomas Aquinas or even the Zakat. But I guess we’ll never hear those verses.

I have to admit that when I first heard we, humanity, had just found our RPG party included (1) Buddhist Kanyo West, troll and rogue extraordinaire, my initial reaction was of course to wonder how much of it he really meant. But he seems quite serious and… earnest about it. Like he means it; this is not a matter of vacuous spirituality. Of course Buddhism is not really a religion, and Kanyo actually raps about that… but, like all philosophy, it does fill the place that religion would more often use up in many people’s lives. The interest makes the time, and Kanyo sounds like he made the time to get reasonably deep in Buddhist philosophy. Disconcertingly, it feels this might be the best possible move for him, and humanity, at this point in history.

What’s next? What comes after philosopher Kanyo West, shouting to the world at large: “if you are interested in your mind, sit down and watch it”? Telling you to know yourself — and to then use your knowledge to reduce human suffering? Can I dare to dream of him rapping about universal basic income? I can almost see him starting a privately funded program with all his rich friends and society, and the state, just having to catch up with them.

After the apparent downward spiral of the last few years, I wonder if we could suddenly find ourselves, once and for a change, in the best possible timeline; or at least a good time to be in a good enough timeline. With potentially only six more months of Trump to go, it sure feels like the beginning of a respite.

Meditation for programmers

I’ve been meditating regularly for about six months now, doing it daily for around the last two. I’m far from an expert, but at this point I’m convinced both about the absolute benefits of meditation and its relative (opportunity-)cost-benefit ratio, so I feel like it’s an appropriate time to write down my thoughts as they are.

I’m writing this with “programmers” in mind as my audience, although “computer enthusiasts” could be used instead equally well; if you like computers and have some level of interest in how they work, and you’re curious about minds, you should be able to get something useful or interesting out of this. If you don’t, please let me know and I’ll try to improve the piece.

Sidebar: on our models of the world and our models of the mind

There is a common thought in the fields of theory of mind/psychology/neuroscience, and that is that each generation uses the models they are familiar with to try to understand the brain. Our generation has computers, and we have taken a liking to them; so it is not surprising that a lot of our contemporary thinking on cognitive science starts from the assumption that brains are meat computers.

In many ways they are, of course, but there is a risk in pushing the metaphor and the model too far. Some computer-like models may just make sense to us because we’re immersed in a reality in which computers are ubiquitous, and may look quaint in a few centuries once the prevailing paradigm shifts. Imagine quantum computers change the world and displace our current digital computers to a significant enough extent; then our model of thinking about the universe and the mind may shift naturally to them resembling quantum computers. People looking back to us and our quaint digital computers would perceive us as wrong as us looking back to Medieval physicians and their theory of the humours.

I think this is the reason that some neuroscientists work towards finding neural correlates of our experiences; our experiences are, to some extent, mediated by our models, but finding the minimum sets of brain activity that correlate strongly with a subjective experience seems to be a good way to “corroborate” some of our cognitive models — make the argument that they match how the brain actually works, at least on a high level structural sense.

This is all to say that this post is, basically, the result of applying a slice of neuroscience and our models of computing to the mind as perceived through meditation. It’s not original work; it is my reading of common positions that smarter people than me have arrived at. It is hard to debate whether it is true or not, given that we’re talking about models. So, caveat emptor. But I hope someone else can find it useful, which is the most we should ask for from most of our models.

Meditation is a tool for introspection

After that long preamble in which I lost 50% of my readers, here’s the deal: meditation is a tool to train attention, awareness and meta-cognition. Let me define those so we’re sure we’re on the same page:

  • Attention is the sense of focus you can direct by applying willpower. You probably know what I mean: you can direct your attention to an object or task and prioritize it over all others, at least while your attention lasts. As usual, our visual system provides a very good example (or is it a metaphor?) for this cognitive phenomenon: you can focus visually on an object and see it in detail, while the surrounding field of view is sort of blurry.

  • Awareness is whatever your mind is conscious of that you are not focusing on. In the field of view example, everything but the object of focus that you can still see is in your field of awareness. I’ve slipped a reference to consciousness here and it’s problematic (we haven’t defined it) — bear with me here, we’ll get back to that later.

  • Meta-cognition is the skill of directing attention and awareness to the mind itself — your thoughts, feelings and other mental processes.

Here’s the kick: we all have these tools. And we are all thinking, all the time. We are just not meta-cognitively aware of it. It takes effort and skill to be aware of more things, more of the time. It takes even more effort to be able to direct our mental processes instead of defaulting to doing whatever happens next.

Now, this is a model. It may or may not resonate with how you intuitively think (or feel) about your own thinking. In this model, though, meditation is the tool that lets you build up these traits and skills. Meditation is exercise for the mind, like other kinds of learning; but it is more directed to meta-cognition than other kinds of learning.

Meditation also lets you see for yourself. When you sit down and meditate, you learn how to observe your mind. What you find will likely surprise you. You will learn how to notice attention, how to notice awareness, how to notice your mind drifting — all the time at first. Then you will learn how to accept its drifting, and then how to control its drifting, and finally how to stop its drifting and direct your thinking.

The actual process of meditation is deceptively simple: you try to focus on your breath (or, later, a different meditation object). You discover you failed — your mind drifted somewhere else. You acknowledge that thought, reward yourself by appreciating the fact that you realized you had drifted, then go back to the meditation object. Repeat.

Meditation has been described as first person science because of the fact that it’s based on insight, observation and experiments. You learn by seeing how you fail, accepting it and then correcting it. But, of course, this could all just be a model that you’re learning and not ground truth reality; you are using introspection and not advanced technology and brain scans (although, of course, such studies of meditation and its benefits exist).

Getting root

I promised you a tie-in with computers and I’ll try not to disappoint.

I do currently believe our minds are computers. They are more than that, perhaps, but it seems to me (and others) that they are at least that. It could be a mirage of the times, as I mentioned earlier; it could be that, if I were writing this in a steampunk parallel universe, I would be equally convinced our mind is in many ways like a steam machine. But I think computation might be special in this universe; we are where we are (us, humans, apex species) mainly because of how we think (as individuals and as groups), and not because of physical attributes (although we are good enough in those aspects as well). And thinking is computation.

Our minds compute all the time; we think all the time. You do not notice it often; thinking just happens, and usually you only have to pay attention when something goes wrong or is somehow surprising. A lot of the computation is unconscious.

The process in which something catches your attention is the correlate of a computer interrupt; some subsystem declares its output to be of interest, or needs inspection for being able to resume regular processing, and raises an interrupt. The mind then addresses the interrupt as well as it can and tries to carry on.

But the mind is itself a complex, distributed system; not a monolith. Meditation has its roots in Buddhism (and Hinduism), and Buddhism has had a modular theory of the mind since about the fourth century C.E. What I got my hands on, of course, is a modern interpretation of it (see references section), but the roots are definitely quite old and seem sound to me. While researching this area I found it surprising how in many ways the Buddhist theory of the mind and Minsky’s Society of Mind have significant overlap.

Each sub-mind (adapted from the Buddhist categories) or agent (in Minsky’s parlance) mostly operates unconsciously. I’ve been thinking about them more and more as Unix processes, chugging along in the background. These processes can generate interrupts (raise attention). Some of these interrupts bring them to the foreground (into “store-house consciousness” in the Buddhist tradition); while they are in the foreground, they execute consciously.

Put another way, consciousness is an interface that processes use to interact; in one canonical definition, it is the place and process where information is integrated. You can picture this setup as akin to that of a complex shell command doing processing through subprocesses and pipes and outputting the result of its computation at the end. Or, alternatively, you could think of it as a chunk of shared memory. Either work, I think, and the analogy is fuzzy here; consciousness is one of the perennial hot topics in psychology and neuroscience, so we won’t settle it here.

Consciousness can also be seen as a succession of slices of attention. The mind probably does not really have a fixed clock cycle like our binary computers; the brain is both actually very slow to propagate impulses and ridiculously parallel, so definitely not your run of the mill simple-but-fast Von Neumann architecture. But through meditation you can become more aware of the fact that the mind does seem to have something like a clock, or at least a series of sequential slices of attention that can be distributed — assigned to mental processes. This seems akin to the function of the OS scheduler in our digital computers: the scheduler assigns slices of CPU time according to a policy, which enables (for example) co-operative multitasking. If you support interrupts (and both modern OSes and our minds usually do), you also can leave the door open to urgent messages from subsystems getting ahead of their place in the queue when needed: think of the evolutionary advantage of the visual subsystem communicating the fact that it just saw something shaped liked a snake, as quickly as possible.

Now, if you accept that our minds have something like a scheduler, and our thought makes use of resources that sub-processes have to compete for — what difference does it make?

Well, meditation tells you that you can first observe how your system works: what kind of processes catch your attention repeatedly? How many slices of attention are you investing in practice in each process? Does the distribution match your expectations?

Then, and more importantly perhaps, it can show you how to change the system. If consciousness is at all like a shell, or shared memory, meditation can get you root.

Tuning the system

One of the tenets of meditation is that meta-cognition influences cognition: if you find yourself lost in thought, and you reward yourself for it while also correcting your attention, over time your unconscious processes will learn to make you (and themselves) less distracted and follow your conscious will.

If you’re trying to focus on an activity, you usually don’t want your sub-minds to distract you with irrelevant information. You don’t want to remember the silly thing you said yesterday, and you don’t want to worry about the other stuff you need to do later; worrying is only useful if you do something about the thing that worries you (for example, solve a problem or prepare a solution). But worrying about something when you’re trying to focus on something else is often counter-productive; it is better to solve the task at hand and then focus on the next. Put another way, there is a context switch cost between mental activities, and too many interrupts actually reduce the effective throughput of the system. Switching all the time due to worries and irrelevant interrupts just isn’t the best possible behaviour. More importantly, though, worrying does not feel good. A distracted mind is usually an unhappy mind, and most people prefer to be happy.

This mismatch is present because, out of the box, we all run with our “natural” scheduler; whatever the combination of our genes, our upbringing and our personal experiences left us with. Our genes probably count a lot here; humans evolved being worried and unhappy, living meal to meal in small groups before the dawn of culture. When you’re fighting for your survival daily, relaxing probably doesn’t get you far; you want to react to every stimulus as fast as possible and accumulate resources without bound. Most of us now live privileged lives in post-industrial society, though, and it is easily arguable we can now do better than our natural scheduler.

I wrote a very simple toy OS with a toy scheduler once for a CS class, and I enjoyed it a lot. You’d have to do the same for your own hobby OS if you coded it; if you have only N processors and M>N processes that want to run, you need a scheduler.

So, what’s the easiest scheduler you can implement that works, in the sense that every process gets to run eventually? Probably a random scheduler: for each slice of time you want to assign, choose a random process and run it. The nice thing is that it doesn’t require any memory; you don’t need to know anything about the past to choose a random process. It’s cheap. The bad part is everything else: it is, of course, quite terrible as a scheduler. Processes might take long to schedule. Useless processes may be scheduled time after time while processes that need CPU time starve.

Through meditation you might find that your built-in scheduler, although not as bad as random, is uncomfortably close to it at times. I did. My mind is all over the place; most minds are. I lack focus. When I think I’m focusing I’m getting distracted ten times a minute, at least.

What if you could improve your scheduler, bit by bit? Tune its policies?

Meditation starts by letting you become aware of (some of) your context switches. Eventually you gain some control over them; you may start to successfully preempt low value ones. Eventually you may be able to override the scheduler completely for some length of time; think of dedicating all available attention slices to the task you’re trying to solve. In Unix terms, you get nice. This kind of override is an evolutionary trade-off, so it makes sense you would have to work hard (practice) to get this mental tool. But, as long as you know your apartment is snake-free, it is likely advantageous.

Fixing bugs

There is another tie in between meditation and programming, and it’s perhaps more obvious: we are all a collection of programs. Most of our programs run as unconscious processes — the processes we discussed earlier. Of course not all of them run at the same time; they get instantiated as needed, or as prompted by other programs.

This structure can be spotted in our own thinking and feeling through meditative introspection. We react to things so very often; we actually spend most of our lives just reacting. But what is reacting? It is, very often, to follow unconscious programs.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Unconscious programs and processes are good. We depend on them, and they are often solid. Some of them evolved; some of them we picked up in our early age. There is a saying in AI about how “easy is hard”: when people were starting out in AI they thought teaching computers to play chess and do logic was going to be the hardest thing to do. In reality, though, that was cracked way before we could teach computers to do simple stuff like object recognition (now finally advanced through deep neural networks) and robots how to move reasonably (still very much a work in progress). This is because a lot of our unconscious programming, and consequently a lot of our brain, is dedicated to “simple” things like movement and perception. Because we assess complexity in our consciousness, we miss the point often.

But some unconscious programs we host are definitely very inefficient. They carry baggage — evolutionary and personal. Consider your natural reaction to thinking about a problem: often you cannot think about a problem without also feeling unhappy about it. Feeling anxious, or unhappy, or stressed — they are all part of the program; there is an if-then-else that points to a stress response, and your consciousness is executing it.

Meditation lets you introspect (debug) and recognize that some of our reactions — some of this unconscious programming — are not necessary. They are optional. Yes, it’s hard to think of something upsetting without getting upset — but you can learn how to do it. Yes, it’s hard to think of something painful without feeling pain — but you can make great strides in at least tolerating that mental pain by recognizing it is mental, and separating it from the stimulus that caused it or the thoughts that you’re having about it.

This detachment also allows you to break loops. Our thinking is full of loops. Loops can work as reinforcement, but some loops are clearly negative and counterproductive; you want to be able to break out of those. Consider anger, a quintessential suboptimal state: anger by itself lasts only a few seconds. If you ever spent more than ten to thirty seconds angry: you were doing it to yourself by thinking about your anger, keeping it alive, running the loop. There is a reason why “take a deep breath” is common advice: focusing on something else breaks the loop.

Once you learn that something is optional, you can stop doing that automatically. Stop reacting, and start managing your actions. Keep the useful thought or action, discard or deprioritize the suffering.

Fix the bug.

References

I’m not an expert, just an enthusiast. You should considering going to the source if you’re interested. These are the books I’d recommend to anyone wanted to dive into these topics.

  • Yates, John, Matthew Immergut, and Jeremy Graves. The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. 2017. Print.
  • Minsky, Marvin L. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007. Print.
  • Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Print.

If you want to try meditation, I’d recommend Sam Harris’ Waking Up app. It’s subscription based, but worth it. Other apps such as Headspace are also good starting points, but in my experience Waking Up is superior.