Ghostbusting in the Gödelian prison

Posted on 3 September 2022 by Cube Flipper

What is symbolic thought?

In my previous post, I used the anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson’s essay Preconquest Consciousness as a platform to discuss liminality, speculating that it might be similar to what we call nonduality.

A friend suggested I was conflating these two terms, pointing me in the direction of Ken Wilber and his models of pre- and trans-rationality. I think I was making what Wilber calls the pre/trans fallacy. From Wikipedia:

Wilber believes that many claims about non-rational states make a mistake he calls the pre/trans fallacy. According to Wilber, the non-rational stages of consciousness (what Wilber calls “pre-rational” and “trans-rational” stages) can be easily confused with one another. In Wilber’s view, one can reduce trans-rational spiritual realization to pre-rational regression, or one can elevate pre-rational states to the trans-rational domain.

Knowing this model I would have focused more clearly on the distinction. Perhaps I was primed by Sorenson’s binary model of preconquest vs. postconquest consciousness. In any case, I blockquoted a candid passage from Preconquest Consciousness describing what I called a liminality collapse. Sorenson was observing a group of people in the Andaman Islands when due to outside pressures they transitioned abruptly from – in Wilber’s terminology – a pre-rational to a rational stage of development. I’d suggest you go read it, but I’ll warn you: it’s harrowing.

So my speculation goes, this was triggered by their adoption of symbolic thought. For this reason, I am interested in the mental moves associated with symbolic thought, as I believe modelling those accurately is key to navigating out the other side of rationality.

“Tiny reflectors for attention”

Since the time of writing, podcaster Ryan Ferris has published an interview with Daniel Ingram, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Frank Yang, which contains a vivid description of what the constructions (or deconstructions) involved might look like. Frank and Daniel are both accomplished meditators and can expand at length on states of enlightenment.

This material is pretty jargon dense. Andrés is working with a model of consciousness as a nonlinear wave phenomenon. To provide additional background, it may be helpful to internalise Steven Lehar’s model of visual reification using nonlinear wave phenomena, as described in his post, The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception:

In linear optics, light waves pass through each other transparently, as if the other waves were not there, and the same is true of the ripples on a pond that also pass through each other totally unaffected after they cross. But almost any optical, or other wave phenomenon, will go non-linear if the amplitude is sufficiently high, and that is also true of water waves, to help our intuition.

When waves in a ripple tank are driven too strongly, they lose their perfect sinusoidal shape, and form sharper peaks between wide valleys, like wind-driven waves on the ocean. A most extreme nonlinear wave is seen in breaking waves on the beach, whose towering crests carry with them a slug of moving water.

Waves of this sort do not pass through each other transparently, but they collide and rebound energetically like colliding billiard balls. In reality, nonlinear waves exhibit both linear and nonlinear components, so that colliding waves will simultaneously pass mostly through each other unaffected, and at the same time some portion of those waves collide with, and rebound off each other, creating reflections in both directions.

Andrés also has a couple of videos where he expands on the topic:

Or if all this still sounds like so much psychonaut technobabble, just read on and take what impressions you can.

At 56:00, Frank details his experience of enlightenment – which he describes as “like candyflipping” – and then Andrés offers his interpretation.

What I claim is that the reifications that we experience in everyday life are essentially stable nonlinear attractors, and when you make a representation and you reify it, there’s kind of like energy and oscillations in your world simulation that are, like, bouncing off of each other and trapped in that reification – and we have like a ton of those. We have this concept of the storehouse consciousness, or different views of the subconscious – we have like this huge pile of reified objects, that for most people will have kind of huge dualistic undercurrents and vibes.

In some sense, during meditation, especially insight practice, what you’re learning to do is to avoid energizing those representations. So there’s all of these techniques of, you know, cutting through with vajra, awareness, or noting, or like noticing the emptiness of things – are ways to essentially avoid the energy getting trapped into those reificiations – those nonlinearities that are essentially trapping the energy – and solidifying them.

So as you do more and more insight practice, what will roughly start to happen is that these reifications will start to break down, because in a sense you’re failing to maintain them – you’re failing to inject energy into them – to essentially vivify and reify them every time you bring them up. So that over time they actually kind of shake themselves apart – and I think this might explain the stages of insight.

Like what parts of your world simulation you stop energizing on their own terms, and you kind of just keep energizing empty space, or pure awareness or something that doesn’t create these reifications and nonlinearities. And there’s gonna be this predictable breakdown of the world simulation, starting from raw sensate levels of colors and textures, all the way to the crazier stages of insight where your actual self model breaks down.

And maybe the world was shaking apart, like breaking up – and okay, maybe that’s like weird and trippy – but all of a sudden your self is also breaking up and shaking and defragmenting and discombobulating – and that can be really shocking for a lot of people.

But on the whole, in this paradigm, essentially what you’re doing with the stages of insight is actually breaking up the nonlinearities that have been accumulated in your nervous system. At the extreme, the final attractor here is a state of consciousness that essentially lacks any of these enduring reifications, such that naturally the homeostasis that you’re cultivating is one where consciousness behaves in as linear of a way as possible. The waves of energy, they stop actually bouncing off each other in uncontrollable waves that give rise to conceptual proliferation and things like that, and instead you just have the waves of energy just go through each other, without causing stress or asymmetries.

In more mundane terms, this is about letting go of ideas that live in your head rent free. In less mundane terms, this is describing an escape route from liminality collapse.

I also have to wonder, as we first learned to reify abstract concepts, does this mean we also started saturating our nonlinear medium – our consciousness – more and more? How universal might this be? Would a hypothetical creature with access to more “headroom” than we do live an existence of pure zen or would all intelligent species inevitably run into the same failure mode as we do? Or is the viable range for the linear-to-nonlinear transition tightly bound?

At 1:08:00, Andrés arrives at a more detailed picture:

I think that if our actual experience – the way our world simulation gets constructed – is through a nonlinear optical system, in a sense most of our experience would be made of kind of like tiny reflectors for attention – that each part of experience is telling attention where to move next.

So in a sense all of your experience is kind of this gigantic graph, where attention is difuminating and reflecting off of each of the elements. And, usually, this model, essentially what I’m getting at is that in normal everyday life experience for most people, they start out with a default shape of the graph, where there’s like a gigantic core, or gigantic node, or set of nodes that are organizing most of the information and where all of the flow is reflecting into and out of. And that would be kind of like the ingrained sense of self and feeling of separateness. And what I think what hard core insight practice is doing in a way is jailbreaking out of that.

So again, because of the nature of the nonlinearities of our experience, what you believe in, you reify, you make stronger. So every time you engage with this big central node, you’re reifying this sense of self. But if you keep trying to jailbreak – and I think a lot of insight practice is like jailbreaking out of this model – you get the flow of awareness to distribute more homogenously throughout the graph.

I’d like to highlight the phrase “tiny reflectors for attention”. In my mind’s eye, these words conjure a chaotic morass of cast glass pieces – some lenticular, some prismatic – light reverberating down turbulent, indirect pathways, sometimes radiating in perfect focus, sometimes casting odd shadows. An optical labyrinth that could guide your attention to some strange places.

Remember Landauer’s principle? Any destruction of information creates waste heat, and this structure hums with it; crisp focal points saturating into optical whitecaps, hissing and foaming throughout every crevice.

With what atomic components do we program this computational hall of mirrors? If we squint just right is there something that looks like a lambda?

Thinking like a hypercomputer

I also like the jailbreaking metaphor. I do not meditate and nor do I seek enlightenment, but I have my own idiosyncratic practice which I’ve been calling “Gödelian prison breaking” for some time now.

When I was much younger, I realised I spent all my time thinking like a Turing machine, with all the failure modes you might expect: non-terminating computations, infinite loops, irresolvable paradoxes, rigid categories, black and white thinking, premature optimisations, recursively defined models hitting the limits of fidelity

Many of these ruminatory thought patterns involved either social anxiety or political ideology in some way, often leaning on some dodgy prior without my best interests at heart. Spooks, as the kids these days call them.

These thought patterns haunted me on a daily basis, and I knew that I wanted them to stop. I also knew from Gödel’s incompleteness theorems that if you find yourself inside a formal system, there are limits to what you can get away with, limits to what you can predict in advance about how much resources a given process will consume. And if you want to break those limits, you first need to break out of the enclosing system.

I don’t know what I did, but I guess I rapidly taught myself the relevant mental moves. It didn’t feel anything like using reason in any way. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have used a computational metaphor: I would have said it was like “popping the stack” up to a meta level where I could identify and terminate runaway patterns – but these days I’d be more inclined to compare it to the expanded awareness from Alexander Technique, or something akin to what Andrés described above.

It blew my mind that this was even possible. It felt like violating the limits of Turing computation in some way. Wouldn’t you need hyper-Turing computation for this? Doesn’t the Wikipedia article for hypercomputation say it’s a load of woo?

But I guess it’s good woo, because, slowly, over time, the spooks started to fade.