Comments on “Finding the complete stance”

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A possible concrete example

Kenny 2020-04-06

I think a good class of concrete examples might be programmers working with ‘legacy code’.

I’m currently working with some code that’s not a central or prototypical example of legacy code, but I’ve noticed that all of the same issues of working with legacy code seem to be coming up: ignorance or uncertainty about both how the code works and how it ‘should‘ work.

The former – how the code works (if it does!) – is at least possible to discover – eventually (and maybe just most of the time).

The latter tho sometimes remains nebulous forever (to varying degrees)!

Code is written for people – either ourselves as solo programmers or for some nebulous audience of current collaborators, possible future collaborators, or even other passive readers. And yet there is no fixed meaning inherent in any code! Beyond the nebulosity of human language generally, the meaning of code can be slippery for many other reasons.

Consider a function named addSomething(x) but whose code instead is x * 5. Does the function name imply that its code is incorrect? Or ‘should’ the function’s name have been changed to calculateSomething instead (at some earlier point)? Maybe all the people that ‘matter’, e.g. all of the (other) people that work with that code, already understand that the function addSomething doesn’t ‘naively‘ describe its behavior and its name is understood more as a proper name than a regular ‘phrase’. Interestingly, naming code elements such that the ‘naive’ interpretation (relatively) closely matches its behavior is considered good practice. Unfortunately, there’s no set of fixed ‘naive’ interpretations available for all possible readers of any code. Computer science recognizes all of this as ‘Naming is hard!’.

Dongshan's Five Ranks

Gordon Worley 2020-04-06

I noticed reading this a strong parallel to Dongshan’s Five Ranks and Linji’s Four Measures. Intentional mirroring or natural convergence?

Five Ranks

David Chapman 2020-04-06

Thanks, I didn’t know about these. (I know very little about Zen.) Couldn’t find anything about the Four Measures in a quick web search; can you point me to that? I agree the Five Ranks seems broadly similar.

The structure of this method closely parallels a sequence in Dzogchen Sem-dé (the Four Naljors). I noticed this only after I’d mostly written it, but I’m very familiar with the sequence. It was probably semi-conscious modeling.

It’s historically well-documented that Dzogchen Sem-dé and Zen mutually influenced each other around the tenth century. So it’s plausible that there’s distant but significant Zen influence on what I wrote here.

On the other hand, it also seems a natural sequence that’s compelled by the nature of the material. Nebulosity/emptiness is unfamiliar, so you have to find it first. Then you have to avoid absolutizing it, which implies recovering the pattern/form aspect, and then recognizing their inseparability. Once you’ve done that, you can act more accurately.

So if you are working with nebulosity/emptiness, maybe there isn’t any other way this can go; it’s the fundamental nature of the business. And maybe I just reinvented, for this page, something that many many people have discovered before.

Four Measures

Gordon Worley 2020-04-06

I’ve actually only read about the four measures in books about Dongshan, so the best I can find is this Google Books link inside a book about Dongshan. It’s probably from Linji’s recorded sayings (a common literature type in Zen mostly made up of sayings, koans, and poems attributed to a teacher but written after their death), which I found an English PDF of here but didn’t search around to find the four measures poem within it.

Both Linji and Dongshan lived in 9th century China, so the timeline matches the theory.

For myself, I think there is a kind of natural convergence in the way of talking about the same reality. I expect many people have found many ways to point towards the same features of the world and our experience of it many times, each expressed in terms fit for their context. As I’m sure you’ve experienced in your practice with Dzogchen and I’ve seen with Zen, many people have difficulty working with those teachings as they are traditionally presented, so finding new ways to say the “same” thing seems quite valuable to me!

The nebulosity of legacy code

David Chapman 2020-04-06

Thanks, yes, that’s an excellent example! There’s going to be few pages about it in The Eggplant.

One really nice post about this is “People don’t write programs”:

The program is written and maintained by a team of scores or even hundreds of programmers at any one time, many more during its entire lifetime; none of them has written “the program.” In a good team, many programmers would have a vague understanding of some significant portion of the system (say, 30-80%) and a thorough understanding of a very small portion of it (5-10%). A programmer doesn’t write a program. She writes a feature — or ten. This feature interacts with the other ten thousand features in the program in ways that are hard for the programmer to predict with precision.

"People don't write programs"

Kenny 2020-04-07

Thanks for the link David – that is a good post!

Interestingly, I’ve found that I often don’t feel like I’ve written “the program” (or a subset of it) given even a few weeks or months between working on it!

The post you linked linked to this post, which I also liked:

Just after reading the first ‘chapter’ of that post crystalized something that I previously thought was an objection to your larger project: the behavior or property of the phenomena of formal reasoning is generally unprovable.

I realize now that that is better understood as, in a sense, a proof of your larger project: even formal reasoning is ultimately nebulous!

Even formal reasoning

David Chapman 2020-04-07

Even formal reasoning is ultimately nebulous

Yes; Part One of The Eggplant is about that.

Formal reasoning is definite in the small, in it own terms; but for it to do any good, it has to be applied to the real world, which is inescapably nebulous, which means that any conclusions drawn from formal inference are also inescapably nebulous.

Implications of Complete Stance?

Sam 2020-04-11

I’ve been reading this blog for about three years now, and a general question keeps popping into my head.

What if this process of coming into the complete stance is part of the Zeitgeist of our times? If it is, then I’m partially falling into a semi-nihilistic form of meaning, because this would imply that the complete stance is complete in the sense that it surrounds the preceding stances, but then itself must be consumed by another stance to be discovered/realized in the future? Or is this a kind of logical regression just a systematic form of understanding what the stance is and not an experiential comprehension?


David Chapman 2020-04-11

What if this process of coming into the complete stance is part of the Zeitgeist of our times?

Well, I hope it is! That’s what Meaningness and Time is about.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the concern you express. Let me see if I can put it in different words, and you can tell me if I’m missing the point. There seem to be perhaps three related things here, all of which are supposed to be discussed in the nihilism chapter but I haven’t gotten to that yet!

The first is the idea that, if meaning has some causal basis, then it is no good. So if meaning results from biological or cultural evolution, then it doesn’t count. Why not? Well, maybe because those are partly accidental, and real meaning would have to deterministic, in order to have some sort of absolute basis. Why? Because otherwise you couldn’t be certain they were correct.

The second possible idea here is that if meanings change, they are no good. Meanings should be eternal and immutable. Why? Because otherwise you might go wrong as they vary.

The third is that the only meanings that count are ultimate. They shouldn’t be included in, or superseded by, some other meaning. Why not? Because, again, we want some sort of guarantee that we’ve got meaning under control and it’s not going act up.

The emotional root of nihilism is determination not to get fooled again. All the promises we were told about meaning (by eternalists) were lies. Enough of that. The whole lot is nonsense. There’s no meaning to anything.

But, obviously there is meaning everywhere. It just doesn’t come with the guarantees of ultimacy and certainty and totality we wanted. Recognizing this is the complete stance; there’s nothing more to it besides applications.

So the complete stance comes with no promises. It won’t make your life wonderful (probably). It won’t solve all your problems (although it can resolve some psychological dysfunction).

There is almost certainly more to say about meaningness than the complete stance can help with. It’s probably not the ultimate theory of meaning, much less The Answer To Life, The Universe, And Everything. I hope it is superseded by a different, better understanding, as soon as possible.

All it can offer is a more accurate understanding of meaning than is generally available, which tends to resolve many or most existential conundrums if you adopt it. Since those otherwise cause a lot of misery, that is worth having.


Sam 2020-04-13

Thanks for response. Reading my post again, I think I have an uneasiness towards the idea of eternalism in relation to the complete stance itself, alongside other concerns.

It might be that I’m injecting eternalism in these ideas, but the way you write geives me the impression that while the complete stance is not The Number 42, it is still a kind of True Way out of the trappings of the eternalisms with regards to meanings. As in, even as you say this isn’t a permanent answer, the impression I get is, “This is the answer.” (I suppose this impression is akin to the Buddhism you’ve practiced and which I have also investigated mildly. Ideas like: desire to get rid of desire is not a contradiction. It’s like using a boat to get across the river and then leaving the boat because it is no longer necessary.)

Yet on the other hand, I get the sense that this is where wider culture is moving towards and, because of its impermanence, will move away from as well. What it seems to boil down to is that my internalization of the Law of Non-Contradiction still bothers me.

I also have some dissonance with the adoption of the Kegan’s “Evolving Self”. My concern here is that Meaningness is a kind of intellectualization (in the psychological sense of defense mechanisms) of meaning, but utilizing the concept of the Stage 5 self and general development of the self. To make that more clear: the project of meaningness could have been built up using the developmental stages as a means to show that the complete stance is on another “level” in the rational eternalist sense, but which can’t be explained through the complete stance, thereby isolating itself (and those who understand it) from being bound by other ideologies. Of course, this is using psychological theory as an eternalism, and rationality still as an ideal eternalism through which to criticize Meaningness, which might simply prove the point that Meaningness is nebulous and patterned.

I guess this goes to show that I have a resistance towards the complete stance because I’m having trouble seeing how to “jump the gap” onto the complete stance. (I’ve also had this resistance to Buddhism because of its metaphysics but I suppose that’s another topic). It feels like I get it, but that I am also missing something… is it because I’m still using rationality as a means to try and explain it to myself?

I also apologize for my first post, I realize I hadn’t really thought through and explicated my concerns as clearly as I have tried to do here.

Re: Re: Ultimacy

Kenny 2020-04-13

Something that helped me finally (better) triangulate the complete stance is some ideas (that I already knew) from mathematics and computer science: incompleteness and undecidability.

One piece of evidence that I think you might be stuck roughly where I was is that you describe yourself as “having trouble seeing how to “jump the gap” onto the complete stance”.

So, as you wrote:

It feels like I get it, but that I am also missing something… is it because I’m still using rationality as a means to try and explain it to myself?

Maybe it would help to come at this ‘sideways’, purely from a scientific materialist perspective. First, think of ‘rationality’ as comprising of two separate things:

  1. Mathematics and computer science
  2. Models

[1] is ‘pure’ – if you accept the axioms, there are various interesting ‘truths’ that can be ‘proven’. These ‘truths’ are extremely useful! We have lots of evidence of this. But note that – even theoretically – these truths are incomplete, even inside these axiomatic systems. There is no Eternal (perfect) ‘truth function’ that can exist – even in principle.

We are embodied entities – we exist inside a lot of systems that we’d like to understand and in fact are elements of those systems and furthermore created by those systems. We only ever have access to some specific and limited data or info about those systems. We only ever have use of the specific models we were either given (e.g. by evolution) or have developed or discovered ourselves.

The Eternalist stance is that there’s one (unique) and perfect model (and here it is).

The Nihilist stance is that there’s no (i.e. are zero) models of any utility.

But, ‘just rationally’, we know that the Eternalist stance is impossible, even in theory.

We also have an abundance of evidence that the Nihilist stance is false.

So what does that leave us with?

We have some ‘pure truths’ that could be helpful, if reality happened to be similar. And indeed, it magically does appear to be. This is the Eternalist element of reality in a sense.

We also have a lot of different models, all of which are helpful, to varying degrees.But each model is only helpful at all for some specific context or some specific set of circumstances.

I further claim that meaning is akin to my treatment above of scientific materialism – meaning is structured (patterned) but contingent and contextual (nebulous).

The complete stance is the answer to the opposing ‘questions’ of Eternalism and Nihilism. It’s the “true way” out of that trap, but not the true way in a global sense, for all meaning, because there is no true way in that sense.

It’s like using a boat to get across the river and then leaving the boat because it is no longer necessary.

But note that it’s still necessary to use a boat (i.e. adopt the complete stance) to cross the river, even if we no longer need the boat on the opposite shore.

Re: Re: Re: Ultimacy

James 2020-04-13


I think some of your confusion is coming from taking David’s talk of “stances” too seriously, as if they are well-defined things. But by his own logic, the stances are themselves nebulous!

The way I understand it, the confused stances each make some mistake or other about meaning. The “complete stance” is just engaging with meaning without making those mistakes.

And there are multiple paths to getting there: just on this site, David uses both finding the common assumption and rejecting it and showing the traces of each confused stance in the other. And on Approaching Aro he hints at another option: thinking in terms of “fit” instead of “truth.” (The last path is particularly relevant to the Eggplant part of the book.)

Side note: in writing this comment I finally found a way to put into words a nagging worry I’ve had for a while now: the complete stance might not be for everybody! Most people are probably like Yuli Jadov on “Total responsibility” page and have found a way to make one of the confused stances work reasonably well.

Maybe the current crisis of meaning is just a matter of not enough people being able to do that. Like unemployment, significant problems show up well before a majority are directly affected.

Wishes for priorities

Daniel 2020-05-11

This page is great in being almost actionable. What I, and, P≥0.95, lesswrongers need, is a worked example (and maybe a reformulation into the language of metaphysics).
Therefore I/we(?) would like if you wrote, or referred me/us to such an example soonish.
All the complete stances in more specific things are potential worked examples, and I (we??) would like if they all had worked examples

Cheers on creating what will be remembered as the first metamodern metasystem. (I’m refering to a “law” that things are never named after their inventors. To the extent you are the inventor you are an exeption.)

Reply to Daniel's comment "Wishes for priorities"

Kenny 2020-05-12

I’m a somewhat active commenter on LessWrong, and have been its entire life, so I think I can possibly help point you in the right direction, or at least a helpful one.

The first thing worth keeping in mind is that the ‘complete stance’ is ‘merely’ an escape from the dual traps of the stances that David names Eternalist and Nihilist.

If you’re familiar with programming, my (abstract) example (described in an earlier comment on this post) of working with legacy code seems like a good “worked example”.

This post – Doing being rational: polymerase chain reaction | Meaningness – is also a great ‘worked example’.

I don’t think there’s a single unique formulation of the complete stance in the language of metaphysics. The scope of metaphysics is too nebulous and far beyond ‘meaning’, which is roughly the subject of this site.

Also, the complete stance isn’t a replacement of ‘rationality’ – it’s an extension of it, aiding understanding of what it is, when it’s useful, and how it can be used (usefully). I think LessWrong has been extremely receptive to these ideas, both in direct response to the work by David, and in the independent work by LessWrong users themselves. Given how many LessWrong users already think of ‘rationality’, this is arguably very much the same ‘rationality’ project, i.e. these ideas are extensions of rationality and ‘meta-rationality’ can be considered a necessary component of “doing being rational”.

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