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Upstream of Everything

A rough sketch of a semi-random selection of ideas stacked in order of importance. The biggest ideas, "upstream of everything", are at the bottom. The furthest upstream ideas we can never see. A better artist would have drawn this as an actual stream.

February 28, 2022 โ€” There will always be truths upstream that we will never be able to see, that are far more important than anything we learn downstream. So devoting too much of your brain to rationality has diminishing returns, as at best your most scientific map of the universe will be perpetually vulnerable to irrelevance by a single missive from upstream.

Growing up I practiced Catholicism and think the practice was probably good for my mind. But as I practiced science and math and logic those growing networks in my brain would conflict with the established religious networks. After a while, in my brain, science vanquished religion.

But I've seen now the folly of having a brain without a strong spiritual section.

In science we observe things, write down many observations, work out simpler models, and use those to predict and invent. But everything we observe comes downstream to us from some source that we cannot observe, model, or predict.

It is trivially easy to imagine some missive that comes from upstream that would change everything. We have many great stories imagining these sorts of events: a message from aliens, a black cat, a dropped boom mic. Many ideas for what's upstream have been named and scholarized: solipsism, a procedural generated universe, a multiverse, our reality is drugged, AGI, the Singularity.

And you can easily string these together to see how there will always be an "upstream of everything". Imagine our lifetime is an eventful one. First, AGI appears. As we're grappling with that, we make contact with aliens, then while we're having tea with aliens (who luckily are peaceful in this scenario) some anomaly pops up and we all deduce this is just a computer simulated multiverse. The biggest revelation ever will always be vulnerable to an ever bigger revelation. There will always be ideas "upstream of everything".

When you accept an upstream idea, you have to update a lot of downstream synapses. When you grok DNA, you have to add a lot of new mental modules or update existing networks to ensure they are compatible with how we know it works. You might have a lot of "well the thing I thought about B doesn't matter much anymore now given C". It takes a lot of mental work to rewire the brain, and requires some level of neuroplasticity.

So now, if you commit your full brain to science, you've got to keep yourself fully open to rewiring your brain as new evidence floats downstream. This might even be a problem if only high quality evidence and high quality theories floated by. But evidence is rarely so clear cut. And so you are constantly having to exert mental energy scanning for new true upstream ideas. And often ideas are promoted more for incentive rather than accuracy. And you will make mistakes and rewire your brain to a theory only to realize it was wrong. Or you might be in the middle of one rewiring and then have to start another. It seems a recipe for mental tumult.

Maybe, if there were any chance at all of ultimate success, it would make sense to dedicate every last 1% of the brain to the search for truth. But there's zero chance of success. The next bend also has a next bend. Therefore science will never be able to see beyond the next bend.

And so I've come full circle to realizing the benefits of spirituality. Of not committing one's full brain to the search for truth, to science, to reason. To grow a strong garden of spiritual strength in the brain. To regularly acknowledge and appreciate the unknowable, to build a part of the mind that can remain stable and above the fray amidst a predictable march of disorder in the "rational" part.


- Though I ultimately found the limits of rationality, I did enjoy the writings from the "Rationalist" communities like LessWrong and RationalWiki.

- For me personally spirituality now means more Buddhism and mindfulness than Catholicism, but I have a new appreciation for Catholicism and all religions.

- I am very intrigued by what happens in the brain when someone learns a new upstream idea that affects their thinking in a big way. Where in the neocortex (or other area) do these ideas live?

- I may be overestimating how hard it is to rewire given a big new upstream idea. For example, you might have a dream where elephants can talk and you near instantly adjust and roll with it. I have a lot of neuroscience to learn.

- Also related to neuroscience, I want to take a fresh look at differences in brains of those who cultivate spirituality and those who do not.

- I started this essay a while ago originally planning to write about how I loved mind expanding "upstream of everything" ideas like those at the center of The Matrix or Three Body Problem. Among other things, these ideas have airs of scientifically plausibility and they had a sort of anxiety-reducing affect: who cares how the meeting goes if we're all just in a simulation anyway? The neocortex could use these ideas to stop worrying. But then I realized that instead of cycling through an endless stream of plausible "what if" priors, it's a wiser strategy to go with spiritual practices refined by humans for centuries, where it's less about what specific idea is upstream of everything and more about acknowledging that there is something beyond the limits, making peace with that, maintaining a stable mind, and being part of a community.

- I've found too much time thinking about upstream ideas leaves not enough time to attend to downstream details.

- At one time I started collecting a list of all the upstream of everything ideas, like my tiny partial enumeration above where I mention The Matrix and Three Body Problem, and was thinking of the best way to catalog all of these ideas so one could grok them as fast as possible. Movies and books seem to communicate them well, but I also would be curious if there's a site out there that catalogs and explains them all concisely, perhaps using and xkcd comic book style.

- I see myself fulfilling many common cliches (getting more religious as one gets older, et cetera). I also wonder if sometime I won't pick up on some big new scientific truth and also fulfill the cliche "science progresses one funeral at a time". Speaking of cliches, c'est la vie.

- I realize now that this idea is thousands of years old.

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