The Gunas: A Model For Mental States

Epistemic Status: purely speculative play

Sometimes we learn the most from books we want to throw across the room.  The Bhagavad Gita was like that for me.

It’s a tiny section of the Mahabharata, itself embedded in a truly enormous tradition of Indian spiritual and philosophical thought that I have come to accept I will never make any appreciable headway on.  I have difficulty engaging with that tradition, because a lot of the shared presuppositions in the Eastern religions are so alien to my present values — basic things like “worldly daily life is inferior to ascetic spiritual life” or “the physical world isn’t real.”  It’s intensely frustrating, but in a way that sometimes seems productive, to bump up against a radically different worldview and try to extract value from it.

On the other hand, this means this post requires a warning. When I extract an idea that seems valuable to me from a tradition I’m this unfamiliar with, I’m almost certainly not representing that tradition faithfully.  You’re getting the asshole Western syncretic version.  I am nowhere near equipped to provide the Sanskrit-scholar version.

(If you have not been exposed to quite how big the Hindu tradition is, consider this guy, who, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, has achieved incredible fame and preeminence in philosophical traditions I’d never heard of and in art forms I’d never heard of.)

The Gunas

The Gita speaks of three “gunas”, translated variously as “qualities”, “virtues”, “properties”, of which everything and everyone consists, in different proportions. These are sattva (wisdom, harmony, purity), rajas (passion, activity, ambition), and tamas (ignorance, chaos, destruction).

The Gita says (Chapter 18, verses 23-25):

Action that is virtuous, deliberate, free from attachment, and without craving for results, is considered Sattvic. Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness, and with much effort is Rajasic. Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic.

Likewise there are Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic personality types (which are supposed to correspond to castes).

According to the Gita, “there is no agent but the gunas.” A person has multiple parts, multiple sub-agents, which each have their own agendas, and these sub-agents cycle around ceaselessly, doing their thing, unless one learns to master them through meditative practice.  By default, you are a Markov chain bopping around from state to state.

This seems to ring very true.  My own lived experience has been that I seem to experience multiple different states or moods, which come and go, have their own distinctive qualities, and have conflicting goals with one another.

This also matches a lot of concepts in psychology or cognitive science: Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor, Minsky’s society of mind, and George Ainslie‘s thoughts about hyperbolic discounting as an expression of conflict between multiple selves.

Parallels and Differences in Western thought

These three gunas are echoed in George Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, a theory of three archetypes that he were believed were common across all Indo-European mythologies:

  • Sovereignty (judges and priests)
  • Military (warriors and nobles)
  • Productivity (herders, farmers, and artisans)

Sovereignty would be associated with the head, and the intellectual virtues (wisdom, justice, etc); military with the heart, and the warrior virtues (courage, honor, etc); and productivity with the belly or gonads, and qualities like fertility and luck.

Thus, Dumezil sees trios all over the place.  For instance, Odin (wise king of the gods ), Thor (brave warrior god), and Freyr (fertility and agricultural god).

The trifunctional hypothesis is a pretty close match for the parts of the soul in Plato’s Republic:

  • Reason (associated with the guardians in his ideal city)
  • Passions (associated with warriors)
  • Appetites (associated with commoners)

Plato’s view is hierarchical: polities and persons function best when reason rules, passions execute on reason’s judgments, and appetites are subdued.  A lot of effort has to be put into educating people and organizing states in order to keep this organization in place.

This is not exactly the same model as is described in the Gita.  Tamas is mostly associated with lethargic or passive qualities: sloth, ignorance, apathy, confusion.  The appetites, in both Dumezil and Plato, are more associated with food and sex and active impulsiveness.

And the Gita is not exactly hierarchical in the way the Republic is; there’s some notion of getting beyond all three gunas, passing beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, going outside the frame through meditative insight.

There’s also a parallel with Freud’s id, ego, and superego, though that’s not quite exact either. The superego is a parental or societal inner voice, which is kind of a corrupted version of a voice of reason.  The ego is the locus of self-narrative, which isn’t quite the same as the locus of the emotions, though “egotistical” behavior is probably rajasic.  And the id is the seat of powerful, instinctual passions, which is a better fit with Plato’s appetites than with tamas.

If Plato envisions a monarchy of the soul, Freud envisions the possibility of revolution — if you suppress the id too brutally, there’s a chance it’ll rise up and cause chaos.

Parallels with Biology

The gunas seem to roughly match to different neuroendocrine processes, according to Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory.

According to this theory, the dorsal vagal nerve and its branches, which are evolutionarily ancient (found in reptiles and amphibians) and unmyelinated, governs autonomic processes like digestion and breathing, and the “freeze response” to danger.  The sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis govern the “fight-or-flight” response.  And the ventral vagal complex, which is evolutionarily recent and myelinated, governs social and exploratory behavior — sucking, looking around, sniffing, listening, speaking, etc.

Porges describes

three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to communication (e.g. facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (e.g. fight-flight behaviors), and immobilization (e.g. feigning death, behavioral ‘shutdown’, and syncope).

“Vagal tone”, or the ability to calm down physiological arousal and also make it more flexibly appropriate to the occasion, has experimentally derived associations with  emotional intelligence and secure attachment.

The systems in the polyvagal theory seem to correspond to three kinds of mental states: frozen passivity, anger/fear/excitement, and calmness/curiosity/affection/communication.  These seem to correspond well with the three gunas.

Perhaps there literally are, in some biological sense, different parts of the mind — that is, processes that are only active one at a time, and correspond to different global patterns of behavior and affect, so that it makes sense to ask “is this person in mode A, B, or C right now?”  An uncontroversial example would be “awake vs. asleep” — you can tell, both behaviorally and with an EEG, whether a person is awake or asleep, and while we don’t know fully what sleep is for, nobody questions that “sleep” is a well-formed concept.  Maybe there’s something analogous for the gunas that has to do with mood and parasympathetic activity.

Gita Plato Freud Plain English Element Body Part Polyvagal Theory
Sattva Reason Superego Thinking Air Head Ventral Vagal
Rajas Passion Ego Doing Fire Heart Sympathetic
Tamas Appetite Id Being Earth Belly, Gonads Dorsal Vagal

Sattva from the inside

Sattva wants to understand everything and optimize everything. Sattva wants to feel clear, calm, insightful.  When you’re in a sattvic state, you’re always asking “How could this be better?”  How could this idea be made more precise, how could my behavior be more correct, where do I find quality and excellence?  Sattva’s traditional color is white, and its mood is bright, rarefied, elevated.

Sattva virtues:

  • wisdom
  • awareness
  • reflectiveness
  • insight
  • justice

Sattva failure modes:

  • pedantry
  • paralysis through abstraction
  • control-oriented forms of malice (criminal masterminds, totalitarian governments, gaslighting and isolation as tools of abuse)

Sattvic activities:

  • introspection
  • writing
  • planning
  • learning
  • reorganizing or improving systems

Rajas from the inside

Rajas wants to do stuff and do it hard.  Rajas wants to feel active and exhilarated and victorious. Rajas wants to win, to beat the other guy, to be special and important, to push through obstacles.  When you’re in a rajasic state, you’re trying really hard to do the thing; there’s a quality of fierce intensity, of “gotta gotta gotta gotta do it!”  Rajas’s traditional color is red, for obvious reasons — it’s about blood, both in the sense of “violence” and the sense of “getting enough oxygen for intense activity.”

Rajas virtues:

  • courage
  • passion
  • energy
  • ambition
  • determination

Rajas failure modes:

  • violent aggression
  • drama-seeking, picking fights, ego-trips
  • annoyingness
  • dogmatism, obsession
  • dominance-oriented forms of malice (e.g. bullying someone until they cry)

Rajasic activities:

  • fighting
  • dancing
  • competing
  • passionate romance
  • hard work
  • taking initiative

Tamas from the inside

Tamas is the hardest of the gunas to pin down. It seems to want a state of rest: no obligations, nothing to attend to, no active consciousness, just a comfortable, womblike cave.  It’s a sense that the world is intrusive in its demands, and one wants to retreat from it, or find palliatives from it, or hide from it.  When you’re in a tamasic state, you’re trying to get relief or hide from painful things or be at peaceor maybe just to sleep.  Tamas‘s traditional color is black, which makes sense if you think of it as the nighttime state, the hide-under-the-covers state.

Tamas virtues:

  • endurance
  • patience
  • survival in traumatic conditions

Tamas failure modes:

  • depression
  • procrastination
  • addiction
  • neediness
  • self-sabotage
  • apathy, lethargy, sullenness
  • brain fog
  • willful ignorance, evasion
  • patheticness

Tamasic activities

  • sleeping
  • eating rich foods
  • drinking alcohol
  • being entertained
  • cuddling
  • vegging out


If you have this model of the gunas, you can simply ask yourself: which am I in at the moment? How do my gunas change over the course of a day or a week?

You can consciously change from one guna to another (I’ve managed to switch from tamas to sattva a few times).

You can also consciously try to offer nice things to the much-maligned lower gunas: take up martial arts to satisfy rajas, or have a fondue-and-wine night to satisfy tamas.  I have the rough “pagan common sense” intuition that you should be nice to entities if you want them to be nice to you, and this includes parts of yourself.

I’m not yet aware from first-hand experience about the “going meta” thing that meditation supposedly offers, but I’d expect that there’s probably something to it.


Epistemic status: very speculative. This is mythmaking: you’ve been warned.

Ra is the Sun God

The Egyptian god Ra was a symbol of divine kingship, all-powerful and all-seeing.  He’s a good metaphor for a certain kind of psychological phenomenon that involves thought distortions around authority and legitimacy.  A new demon, if you will, in the grimoire that includes Moloch and Azathoth.

The idea of a malign Establishment is somewhat convergent:

The Establishment (attributed to Henry Fairlie in 1950’s Britain, talking about an informal social network of power among prominent, well-connected people)

The Man (e.g. Yippies, Burning Man)

The Combine (Ken Kesey)

Moloch (Allen Ginsberg)

The Beige Dictatorship (Charles Stross)

The Cathedral (Mencius Moldbug)

The Mandarins (Megan McArdle)

Not all of these ideas are coterminous with Ra, or identical to each other.

What they have in common is that the Establishment is primarily an upper-class phenomenon, that it is more about social and moral legitimacy than mere wealth or raw power, and that it is boringly evil — it produces respectable, normal, right-thinking, mild-mannered people who do things with very bad consequences.

What Ra is not

The usual pitfall when using poetic language to define egregores is making them too broad.  There is not one root of all evil that causes all the ills of the world.

Ra is not simply conformity, simply authoritarianism, or simply power-seeking.  Ra is not the same as “bureaucracy” or “capitalism” or “fallen human nature” or all the myriad reasons why your idealistic goal might fail.  Ra is not “everything that is wrong with people who disagree with me.”

As a social phenomenon, Ra is responsible for some dysfunctions in the democratic modern West; it is not, for instance, what was going on with the Nazis, or with terrorists, or with communist revolutionaries, or with the Confederates in the American Civil War.  Ra is not driving people who want to take over the world for some fanatic goal. It’s more like a dissipating, entropic motion, a process that corrupts institutions.

But it’s not merely the most commonly claimed drivers of institutional decay, like “knowledge problems” or “coordination problems”.  People who participate in those problems are following rational self-interest, but wind up contributing individually to collectively harmful outcomes.  Ra is something more like a psychological mindset, that causes people to actually seek corruption and confusion, and to prefer corruption for its own sake — though, of course, it doesn’t feel quite like that from the inside.

Ra is a specific kind of glitch in intuition, which can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity.  I’m going to try to define it by extension, using examples from my and others’ personal experiences.

Ra is about generic superlativity.

You know how universal gods are praised with formulas that call them glorious, mighty, exalted, holy, righteous, and other suchlike adjectives, all of which are perfectly generic and involve no specific characteristics except wonderfulness?  That’s what Ra is all about.

The worship of Ra involves a preference for stockpiling money, accolades, awards, or other resources, beyond what you can meaningfully consume or make practical use of; a felt sense of wanting to attain that abstract radiance of “bestness”.

A featureless, powerful organization, something with a name like “Acme Corp”, whose activities you can’t pin down, is archetypally Ra.  Especially if it’s associated with markers of excellence (e.g. very smart high-achieving employees) or fully general capabilities (eg the most powerful computers in the world). OpenAI has a lot of this quality, as does Google, as did Enron before its collapse, as do top management consulting firms and investment banks and Ivy League schools. Effective Altruism, when it’s just “a movement for generic optimal goodness”, has a lot of this quality.  When an organization seems shiny, full of the best and brightest, and is presumed to be potentially good at everything, it is appealing in a very Ra-flavored way.

In my mind I synaesthetically imagine Ra as radiant white light and smoothness (as in “futuristic” computer graphics, or as in mirror-like glossiness.)

Ra is evident in marketing that is smooth, featureless, full of unspecified potential goodness, “all things to all people,” like Obama’s 2008 campaign.  (Note the logo, with its smooth gradient and radiant white sun.)  Apple’s design is also very Ra.

Ra is about legitimacy.

When someone is willing to work for prestige, but not merely for money or intrinsic interest, they’re being influenced by Ra.  The love of prestige is not only about seeking “status” (as it cashes out to things like high quality of life, admiration, sex), but about trying to be an insider within a prestigious institution.  Not only “people like and respect and desire me” but “this abstract, objective Thing full of goodness has sanctioned me.”  People with money or charisma but no prestige read as sleazy (e.g. gamblers, gurus) while people with status and prestige/insiderness read as legitimate (e.g. the rightful king or official priest or licensed professional.)

Ra involves seeing abstract, impersonal institutions as more legitimate than individuals. For instance, I have the intuition that it is gross and degrading to pay an individual person to clean your house, but less so to hire a maid service, and still less so if a building that belongs to an institution hires a janitor.  Institutions can have authority and legitimacy in a way that humans cannot; humans who serve institutions serve Ra.

Seen through Ra-goggles, giving money to some particular man to spend on the causes he thinks best is weird and disturbing; putting money into a foundation, to exist in perpetuity, is respectable and appropriate.  The impression that it is run collectively, by “the institution” rather than any individual persons, makes it seem more Ra-like, and therefore more appealing.

Ra causes avoidance of challenging regulators and establishment hierarchies in significant excess of the actual legal and reputational costs of doing so.  Not just caution, but a sort of unbounded over-caution that makes you willing to throw huge amounts of value away to reduce already small risks.  Selfishness can motivate caution and even conformity; Ra-worship motivates sacrificing excess value to institutions you view as more legitimate than yourself.

Once, the CEO of a hedge fund and a friend of mine were in a heated argument, and the CEO finally pushed his point home by saying “200 PhDs work for me, so I know what I’m talking about.”  This is argument by legitimacy.  It’s just saying “because my institution has piled up a lot of excellence in one place, I get to talk and you have to shut up.”  It’s not an argument from expertise like “My 200 physics PhD’s agree with my point about physics” would be. It’s not even a direct power claim like “My 200 armed security guards will make you shut up.”  The guards would be a practical threat; the PhD’s really aren’t.  But they would be, to someone who believed that they granted legitimacy, that the accumulation of PhDs proved that the CEO had more right to speak and think.

Ra defends itself with vagueness, confusion, incoherence — and then anger.

“Respectability” turns out to be incoherent quite often — i.e. if you have any consistent model of the world you often have to take extreme or novel positions as a logical conclusion from your assumptions. To Ra, disrespectability is damnation, and thus consistent thought is suspect.

Vagueness, mental fog, “underconfidence”, avoidance, evasion, blanking out, etc. are hallmarks of Ra.  If cornered, a person embodying Ra will abruptly switch from blurry vagueness to anger and nihilism.

I have, in Ra-influenced moods, had the intuition “I don’t know if it’s possible to be a consistent economic agent [i.e. von Neumann-Morgenstern] and still be good.” Consistency implies the potential for disobedience. Consistency means you might not be recruitable or available to arbitrary purposes.  It’s the opposite of malleability.  Ra wants its worshippers to be always available, always malleable; and calls it “wicked” to have resistance to that.

One friend of mine discussed having a conversation about the future of humanity with someone, getting the strong sense that this person was being evasive and switching between viewpoints, and also that underneath the evasiveness there was a negative-utilitarian belief that humanity ought to be annihilated. And she worried that if she pushed too hard on insisting the other person make a coherent argument, that he would double down on the negative utilitarianism and become vindictive about it.  This is prototypical Ra behavior.  Smooth, soft vagueness that, when challenged, collapses into angry nihilism.

One symptom of Ra is being offended or upset when friends and allies are not doing things associated with power and status.  Actual insecurity and anger at the sight of someone doing their own thing, behaving in ways that don’t bring them closer to the center of coolness/shininess/power/etc.

Nastasya Philipovna, in The Idiot, demonstrates this kind of anger; when she meets the man who embodies her moral ideal, instead of reaching out to him as a lover, she is outraged that he’s being shabby and noble and ignoring the “way of the world”, and she actively ruins his life. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate goodness; it’s that it freaks her out.  People ought not be that good. It disturbs the universe.  Myshkin is missing something — it’s not clear what, because if you look at his words and actions explicitly he seems to be behaving quite sensibly and moderately — but he’s missing some intuition about the “way of the world”, and that enrages everyone around him.

I remember being angry at a coworker, once, for attempting to sell a product to big pharma companies, because he was thinking of them too lightly, not appreciating the awesome majesty of the pharma companies that we were barely worthy to submit our ideas to.  He seemed not to understand the unspoken “way of the world”, and that made me angry.  That was classic Ra thinking on my part.

Ra is involved in the sense of “everyone but me is in on the joke, there is a Thing that I don’t understand myself but is the most important Thing, and I must approximate or imitate or cargo-cult the Thing, and anybody who doesn’t is bad.”  E.g. having the intuition that the power to make successful companies lies in things like “complex sales”, without understanding how complex sales works on a nuts-and-bolts level.  If you just associate complex sales guys with power and success, if you have the feeling that they probably know how to become an insider even if you don’t, then you’re engaging in Ra thinking.

Ra causes persistent brain fog or confusion, especially around economic thinking or cost-benefit analysis or quantitative estimates.  E.g. for a while I had a block around the question “How much would it cost to outfit a biology lab?” and thought that this was literally impossible for me to discover the answer to because the information would only be available to properly credentialed biologists or pharma company employees.  I had a weird aversion to seeking information or thinking directly about the problem.  Another time, I had a block around answering the question “How many lives would be saved if all men got HPV vaccines?” because it was epidemiology and people were talking about publishing the results in a journal and I felt unworthy as a non-academic to submit journal articles, so I procrastinated and didn’t even try to do Fermi estimates on the question.

Ra tends to cause confusion and brain fog around modeling preferences, particularly two or more independent agents trying to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions.  When Ra is active, you’ll see a persistent disposition, in otherwise intelligent people, to misunderstand trade or negotiation scenarios as dominance/submission scenarios.

Ra may cause blurriness around objectives. In Drucker’s Management, the purpose of a business (or nonprofit or government agency) is explicitly not to maximize profits or shareholder value, or to produce the best widgets or save the most lives, but to fulfill its function.   But what does that even mean?  It means something like the preservation of the organization — but it’s not specific.

There’s a disinclination to get specific about numbers or negotiations or goals or arguments.  And then an angry sense that people who do get specific are “doing it wrong” or “bad people” and deserve harshness.  An intuition that the really important things in life, the true “ways of the world”, are hidden or mysterious, always unspoken, and must be respected.

Ra hates communication and introspection.

Ra causes a disinclination to express oneself. An impression that a person who is unknown or mysterious is more attractive or favorably received than a person who is an “open book.”  A tendency to prefer private and off-the-record communications. There are many non-Ra reasons for secrecy, privacy, or reservedness (e.g. spies, shy people) — the core Ra quality is not merely the concealment but the idealization of the invisible, an intuition that people who display a smooth surface to the world are better.

Glamour is a related idea (see Virginia Postrel), in particular the glamour of “mystery and illusion.”  Glamorous things or people are idealized precisely because the details are airbrushed out.

There’s also a preference not to engage with people authentically — i.e. being more comfortable asking someone for a pre-packaged response (like “give me money” or “sign this petition”) than asking them to have an open-ended conversation with you.

Ra promotes the idea that optimal politeness conveys as little information as possible. That you should actively try to hide preferences (because if you shared them, you’d inconvenience others by pressuring them to satisfy your preferences).  That all compliments are empty pleasantries.  There’s an interpretation of “politeness” that’s anti-cooperative, that avoids probing for opportunities for genuine mutual benefit or connection and just wants to make the mutual defection process go as smoothly as possible.  Ra prefers this, because it’s less revealing, commits you less, doesn’t pin you down, allows you to keep all your options open and devote everything to the pursuit of Ra.

Ra is involved in intuitions about silence or absence being ideal.  A blank sheet of paper is more beautiful than any art you can put on it, because the art is potentially flawed, while blankness is flawless.  Blankness leaves all the options open. See also The Whiteness of the Whale.

People who write a lot, or enjoy discussions, or spend a lot of time on introspective “inner work”, tend to be less Ra-oriented.  Blogging is very anti-Ra.  Having opinions and making essay-style arguments, for all the flaws of that medium, does promote some degree of coherence and specificity, and promotes people sharing their inner lives.  Having a coherent, specific, shareable inner life means you’re less malleable, less blank, and Ra insists that people’s inner lives be completely malleable and blank.

I’ve had my writing criticized because “when you give your opinion, it sounds like you think you’re smart”.  And I’ve spent a lot of time feeling ashamed of “thinking out loud” in public, because it tarnishes the glossy facade that it’s easy to feel obligated to put up.  I’ve also had my more mainstream, Ivy League friends express surprise that I cared at all or made the slightest effort for friends in trouble.  Being committed or involved in people’s lives is also messy and doesn’t permit the preservation of a flawless impression.  Expressing yourself, thinking speculatively, and relating to people are shameful to the Ra-worshipping mindset, because all mental and emotional resources must be channeled into the quest for prestige.

Gruad Grayface, in the Illuminatus! Trilogy, is one of many figures representing “the Man” or malign technocratic authority, and he is accused of setting people against each other, making them unable to empathize across demographic lines (men and women, black and white), because if they communicated with each other they would realize that they were natural allies and none of them benefited from Gruad’s tyrannical rule.

There’s a persistent theme in the 60’s counterculture ethos that if people just communicated authentically, it would make a big difference to the world. And while this sounds like a platitude, I think it might be an important truth about the nature of Ra. See “The Sound of Silence.”  See Leary’s exhortation to “find the others.”  See the dystopia of perfect conformity that is Camazotz, which is vanquished by human flaws and by the love of specific people. Understanding that everyone has an inner life and nobody is smooth and blank is the antithesis of Ra.

Ra is fake Horus.

Originally, the Egyptian falcon-god Horus was the god representing the Pharaoh’s sovereignty.  The notion of Horus as the pharaoh seems to have been superseded by the concept of the Pharaoh as the son of Ra during the Fifth Dynasty.

Horus was supposed to be literally the Pharaoh; that is, there’s some actual dude in charge, a god-king.  Ra, by contrast, is “father of the Pharaoh”, the un-look-at-able “power behind the throne.”  Instead of sovereignty that rests in an individual, Ra represents the abstract supreme to which the king is subordinate.

If Horus, the far-sighted, kingly bird, represents “clear brightness” and “being the rightful and just ruler”, then Ra is a sort of fake version of these qualities.  Instead of the light that distinguishes, it’s the light too bright to look at.  Instead of clear brightness, it’s smooth brightness.

Instead of objectivity, excellence, justice, all the “daylight” virtues associated with Horus (what you might also call Apollonian virtues), Ra represents something that’s also shiny and authoritative and has the aesthetic of the daylight virtues, but in an unreal form.

Instead of science, Ra chooses scientism.  Instead of systematization and explicit legibility, Ra chooses an impression of abstract generality which, upon inspection, turns out to be zillions of ad hoc special cases.  Instead of impartial justice, Ra chooses a policy of signaling propriety and eliteness and lack of conflicts of interest. Instead of excellence pointed at a goal, Ra chooses virtuosity kept as an ornament.

(Auden’s version of Apollo is probably Ra imitating the Apollonian virtues. The leadership-oriented, sunnily pragmatic, technological approach to intellectual affairs is not always phony — it’s just that it’s the first to be corrupted by phonies.)

Horus is not Ra.  Horus likes organization, clarity, intelligence, money, excellence, and power — and these things are genuinely valuable. If you want to accomplish big goals, it is perfectly rational to seek them, because they’re force multipliers.  Pursuit of force multipliers — that is, pursuit of power — is not inherently Ra.  There is nothing Ra-like, for instance, about noticing that software is a fully general force multiplier and trying to invest in or make better software. Ra comes in when you start admiring force multipliers for no specific goal, just because they’re shiny.

Ra is not the disposition to seek power for some goal, but the disposition to approve of power and to divert it into arbitrariness. It is very much NOT Machiavellian; Machiavelli would think it was foolish.

Ra corresponds to a stage in the corruption of organizations.

Thomas W. Lamont is an excellent example of Ra.  He was a banker at JP Morgan in the 1930’s who was famously gifted at communication, very much one of the club (Harvard and Exeter), somewhat “idealistic” but in a very vague sense that mostly amounted to rationalizing whatever power structure was nearby.  He ended up making major loans to militarist Japan and Mussolini, and was a major apologist for them right up until the situation became intolerably obvious; at which point without any apparent sense of shame he gave up on them, after making sure his friends were taken care of (e.g. negotiating a Morgan banker’s release from Italian imprisonment).

Lamont’s communication to the Japanese and later to Mussolini was all “I know you mean well but it’s getting harder to defend you, here’s some suggestions for how to clear up the obvious misunderstanding.”  He’s not a cynical power-seeker in these letters; he’s genuinely righteously indignant at people doubting his “ideals.”  There’s no master plan to gain power for himself or for an ideology he supports. He just seems to think “clearly the people gaining power must be good!”

The Lamonts of the world generally show up after the founding generation, after people like J. Pierpont Morgan himself, who was a genuine innovator who developed “modernization” techniques to make the businesses he took over profitable.  Vague objectives are only possible once institutions that steadily produce value have already been set in motion.  You see Ra-like figures at around the peak of an institution’s flourishing, when it’s begun to be possible to capture value without producing any, but before the decline is so severe that overtly exploitative behavior is socially acceptable.  Ra has a quality that’s triumphalist and slightly disconnected from reality — “Our institution is so powerful and wonderful that its proper sphere is the whole world!  And its job is to perpetuate its own flourishing!”

Ra is easy to overcome

As forces in the human psyche go, Ra is a pretty mild one. It’s not a powerful biological drive like aggression, or a difficult-to-treat problem like depression, or a highly optimized energy-saving structure like the standard cognitive biases.

Ra is hard to pin down, but vulnerable to open communication and introspection.  If you can talk and think about what you want, or how you feel, or why you believe what you do, and you don’t dodge the question, Ra will dissolve like mist. The illusion of smooth impersonal perfection doesn’t survive long after you get to know particular human beings. The subjective impression of something being like a vague glowy ball of positive affect doesn’t survive explicit discussion or analysis.  The sensation of total unknowability doesn’t survive the attempt to actually find things out.

It’s so faint and wispy that many people might say “Ra doesn’t have any part in my life!”  And you might be right.  Or it might be hidden in hard-to-find places, in certain questions you don’t ask and tasks you delay starting. It’s very, very rare for people to say “yes, I totally experience these things.”  But if you notice them, and are aware that they don’t make sense, then the fog yields to sunlight.

How I Read: the Jointed Robot Metaphor

“All living beings, whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they are aware or unaware, whether they are not aware or not unaware, all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.” The Diamond Sutra

What do you do when you read a passage like this?

If you’re not a Buddhist, does it read like nonsense?

Does it seem intuitively true or deep right away?

What I see when I read this is a lot of uncertainty.  What is a living being that does not have form?  What is Nirvana anyway, and could there be a meaning of it that’s not obviously incompatible with the laws of physics?  And what’s up with saying that everyone has been liberated and nobody has been liberated?

Highly metaphorical, associative ideas, the kind you see in poetry or religious texts or Continental philosophy, require a different kind of perception than you use for logical arguments or proofs.

The concept of steelmanning is relevant here. When you strawman an argument, you refute the weakest possible version; when you steelman an argument, you engage with the strongest possible version.   Strawmanning impoverishes your intellectual life. It does you no favors to spend your time making fun of idiots.  Steelmanning gives you a way to test your opinions against the best possible counterarguments, and a real possibility of changing your mind; all learning happens at the boundaries, and steelmanning puts you in contact with a boundary.

A piece of poetic language isn’t an argument, exactly, but you can do something like steelmanning here as well.

When I read something like the Diamond Sutra, my mental model is something like a robot or machine with a bunch of joints.

Each sentence or idea could mean a lot of different things. It’s like a segment with a ball-and-socket joint and some degrees of freedom.  Put in another idea from the text and you add another piece of the robot, with its own degrees of freedom, but there’s a constraint now, based on the relationship of those ideas to each other.  (For example: I don’t know what the authors mean by the word “form”, but I can assume they’re using it consistently from one chapter to another.)  And my own prior knowledge and past experiences also constrain things: if I want the Diamond Sutra to click into the machine called “Sarah’s beliefs,” it has to be compatible with materialism (or at least represent some kind of subjective mental phenomenon encoded in our brains, which are made of cells and atoms.)

If I read the whole thing and wiggle the joints around, sooner or later I’ll either get a sense of “yep, that works, I found an interpretation I can use” when things click into place, or “nope, that’s not actually consistent/meaningful” when I get some kind of contradiction.

I picture each segment of the machine as having a continuous range of motion. But the set of globally stable configurations of the whole machine is discrete. They click into place, or jam.

You can think of this with energy landscape or simulated-annealing metaphors. Or you can think of it with moduli space metaphors.

This gives me a way to think about mystical or hand-wavy notions that’s not just free-association or “it could mean anything”, which don’t give me enough structure.  There is structure, even when we’re talking about mysticism; concepts have relationships to other concepts, and some ways of fitting them together are kludgey while others are harmonious.

It can be useful to entertain ideas, to work out their consequences, before you accept or reject them.

And not just ideas. When I go to engage in a group activity like CFAR, the cognitive-science-based self-improvement workshop where I spent this weekend, I naturally fall into the state of provisionally accepting the frame of that group.  For the moment, I assumed that their techniques would work, engaged energetically with the exercises, and I’m waiting to evaluate the results objectively until after I’ve tried them.  My “machine” hasn’t clicked completely yet — there are still some parts of the curriculum I haven’t grokked or fit into place, and I obviously don’t know about the long-term effects on my life.  But I’m going to be wiggling the joints in the back of my mind until it does click or jam.  People who went into the workshop with a conventionally “skeptical” attitude, or who went in with something like an assumption that it could only mean one thing, tended to think they’d already seen the curriculum and it was mundane.

I’m not trying to argue for credulousness.  It’s more like a kind of radical doubt: being aware there are many possible meanings or models and that you may not have pinned down “the” single correct one yet.