Seeking Cognitive Estrangement

I was recently listening to this conversation between Sam Harris and Robin Hanson about hidden motives. We often don’t know the root of why we take actions or make a given choice.

When you strip away post-hoc narrative and causal links leading toward any action, it is hard to reason about where these motivations come from. I just seem to take actions. I eat. Get tired, sleep. Have an idea for a cool world, write.

Jordan Peterson has a practical psychological lens of  aiming for an ideal and taking small steps toward it. Someone like Eliezer Yudkowsky might say, this feels like very simple goal establishment and progress toward a goal.

But we are still left with the question: Where do the goals come from?

This is where it gets interesting. Because we aren’t stuck yet.

Another of Jordan Peterson’s claims is that we are each traversing and climbing numerous games or competence hierarchies. If we do well across the set of these games or hierarchies, then we have better chances to attract a good mate, and to have a better life in general (a life wherein our personal responsibility, integrity, and toolkit allows us to avoid sinking into Hell when tragedy inevitably strikes).

Maybe, too, when doing well across many games, we are in positions to do meaningful things.

Where will I take this blog post next?

One avenue is along Reid Hoffman’s skills, desire, and marketplace triangulation. When we do something we’re good at that people want and that we like to do, we win. Loving what I do will allow me to persevere through the difficult bits that make one stronger, the antifragile periods of any valuable pursuit, where a bit of suffering gives insights and strength one didn’t have prior. I felt I’d gained something when I broke through and completed my first novel, and sent it to agents, a few weeks ago in March 2018.

As I considered what skills and experiences and accomplishments I have accumulated to date, writing is one. The craft of writing, in particular fiction writing, suggests a lifelong journey. Mastery wasn’t even claimed by many of the masters. Isn’t that fascinating?

But where to fit into the grand conversation of literature? An ongoing story from before we formally had writing systems?

For the moment, and, again, I don’t know where exactly this is coming from–even China Miéville recounts just liking trash when he was young (he now runs a magazine called ‘Salvage’, to which I subscribe)–I want to write in ways that make me feel and think strangely. I want emotional and intellectual discomfort. I want to not quite know what I’m doing. Peterson might say this is walking the narrow path between order and chaos. Darko Suvin, whose thesis China Miéville dissects in a dialectic in this talk at KU, whereby he criticizes Suvin’s position by maintaining extreme integrity within his position (a kind of auto-criticism). Suvin famously wrote about ‘cognitive estrangement’. Cognitive estrangement was what science fiction was about and what it was good for. It put you in places you were unfamiliar with. This, in Suvin’s position, differed from fantasy, which was (too generally) wish-fulfillment. (Later, Miéville challenges the idea that fantasy as we know it cannot by definition be estranging, too. You only have to read Perdido Street Station, which Miéville wrote when he was, gasp, 28, to see the author acting out this argument.)

I’ve also begun looking into the history of science fiction. There are many ways to do this, like watching this animated Extra Credits series (where I found Jules Verne’s first ever novel–unpublished till the late 20th century–called Paris in the 20th Century), or, here’s a novel idea, read some novels!

To keep myself publicly accountable, I’m keeping two lists on Goodreads:

a) Novels to prep for EOLIAN DUNES (currently in the 2nd draft of this project)

b) Novels to prep for ESTRANGEMENT (currently outlining this project)

(My first novel, SOUND OF STONE, is out with agents now.)

I just went to find some links and, wow, how quickly the train of thought is lost. But why must we insist on being on a ‘train’ to begin with? Maybe this is only for the benefit of the reader. Maybe this is what consciousness does. It removes noise. Gives signal. Signal of what?

I love G.C. Waldrep’s observation in ‘Testament’ about consciousness, somewhere around page 53, but it might be page 67.

I’m paraphrasing: Consciousness has a break-even aesthetic.

Imagine if consciousness didn’t have a breakeven aesthetic. (Actually, it seems like consciousness has an equilibrium of a slightly worse than break-even subjective score…pain feels worse than pleasure/contentment feels good. Let’s leave meaning aside for the moment, even though meaning seems much more important than pleasure.)

If we had a lopsided consciousness barometer in the negative direction, we might rather die (and some people, many people, do take their own lives).

If we were over-indexed toward contentment, we might not do anything.

As humans, we seem to be centered slightly below the frozen ice, aiming to escape from frigid waters, for air, light, but not entirely, we are pulled back in again and again. We are Sisyphus.

I like how Neitzsche said it. We are Sisyphus and we must enjoy it.

In the talk between Sam Harris and Robin Hanson, Robin talks about his goal:

“I want to find insights.”

He doesn’t care about fortune or fame, and although he is capable of bragging (when Sam asks him about a younger moment that defined him, in particular not applying to the best colleges available), Hanson often speaks plainly, without flair, with precision, with an eye for the things we are saying subtextually.

What are my hidden motives in writing this essay. In publishing it?

One thing is, having finished and put my first novel out to agents, for the first time in about four years have a surplus of attention to think. Sure, I’ve written a first draft of my next piece, but the mental load of the previous four years is slipping away, clearing and creating room in the sense that I love in Will Wright’s ‘possibility space’ model (theory?) of game design.

So many of us want things explained to us. To give what Peterson calls structure. Maybe order. Maybe control. Sure, I get that. I have a quiet life which gives me the chance to reach through the fiction. And so I must.