Archive of 5 acts webpage

I'm continuously collecting and describing the best explanations so far of how reality works. The model is called the 5 Acts, and it's meant to help me and others to navigate the world and make better decisions. The 5 Acts refer to the broad categories we (implicitly) go through when we take action:

  1. Understanding reality
  2. Understanding life (and humans)
  3. Understanding agency (and selecting what to act on)
  4. Understanding action
  5. Understanding learning

This is a living model which gets updated regularly. The current writing progress is publically available below:

The 5 Acts book

Each of the 5 acts chapters starts with the first principles.

Act I: Understanding Reality

Prologue: A history of reality

After the Big Bang, the universe rapidly developed for close to a billion years. Then, it remained roughly the same for 8.5, until life originated on earth 4 billion years ago.

This marked the phase change where small things, namely information encoded in DNA, began influencing big things. A genetic mutation spawned the ability to create and share ideas through simple imitation. We call this form of knowledge, where information is stored inside minds instead of genes, memetic knowledge.

Approximately 70.000 years ago, the species of homo sapiens developed the ability not just to copy memetic knowledge, but explain knowledge to each other. This higher form of information transmission allowed humans to plan and carry out complex actions, cooperate at large, foster shared beliefs and divide labor. However, even though the presence of explanatory knowledge and its unlimited potential for progress was there, novel and creative thought were actively suppressed. As a result, innovation was rare for nearly all human existence.

There have been a few short-lived periods of progress in the past, but since The Enlightenment started in the late 17th century, we've seen a sustained explosion of progress. This occurs when explanatory knowledge can be peacefully explored and criticized within a culture of free thought. The exceptionally rapid progress enables us to uniquely engineer the cosmos. Without it, the future of the universe will be quite boring.

First principleExplanationImplication
Rapid progress requires an ability to peacefully explore and criticize ideas

1: What is reality?

First principleExplanationImplication
All of physical reality is made out of atoms
Time is meaningless without mass
Reality is undefeated. Invoking the supernatural destroys all arguments.

2: What can influence reality?

The first principles in this chapter

First principleExplanationImplication
Everything that doesn't violate the laws of physics can (and does) happen in reality
The does part refers to the multiverse.
Arguments that violate the laws of physics are akin to invoking the supernatural and therefore wrong.
Everything that can occur in and influence reality, can be expressed computationally (including thoughts and knowledge creation)
Thinking is a form of computation You have to understand how it works in order to encode it into a program. Induction is therefore wrong.
Knowledge creation is the most significant reality-influencing event
The idea that life and humans are a meaningless cosmic spec of scum is entirely wrong
Not just physical matter, but abstractions can influence reality
Reductionism doesn't suffice to explain why things are happening. They can just give a blank picture of the event

Physical reality is made out of matter dispersed during the big bang. Repeated experiments have shown immutable constraints to exist, which we call the laws of physics. These laws govern how matter can be manipulated and transformed.

Mathematics is the language in which the laws of physics are written. Everything that can happen to objects (matter) can be expressed as mathematical formulas, inside a universal computer. Given sufficient memory and time, a universal computer can therefore emulate or simulate every possible transformation in physical reality.

Our brains and the computer devices built by our brains are both universal computers. Computers can run any form of data transformation. We can call this a program. In humans, we call the program the mind, and in devices, we call this software.

Most programs operate based on pre-set information & variables which means they have a specific and narrow reach. A flight simulator, an online chess game, or even what we call “AI” are examples of such programs. But, some programs create new knowledge via evolution.

Random and slow evolution through DNA creates new knowledge accidentally. Humans are the only entities capable of deliberately creating explanatory knowledge. This type of knowledge has an unbounded reach. When we eventually understand how knowledge creation works, we can create a software program for it and truly achieve Artificial General Intelligence.

The above-mentioned processes describe what's happening but not why it's happening. How a computer program beats you at chess can be physically observed from the neurons in the brain of the programmer, through the radio waves of the Wi-Fi connection, down to the silicon atoms in your computer. But the explanation of why you lost can not be observed at that level. The reasons why things happen are abstract and take the shape of ideas and knowledge. In this case, the knowledge that the programmer embedded into the program is what beat you.

Therefore, the explanation of how the world transforms can not be reduced to processes at the particle level and has to include the agency of lifeforms.

3: How do interactions with reality work?

First principleExplanationImplication
Collectives are nearly always bottom-up rather than top-down
To analyze the behavior of a unit, you must understand the systems that it is a part of
Every actor can be evaluated within the context of a system and its interface

Act II: Understanding Nature

4: What impact does life have?

First principleExplanationImplication
Resource scarcity is knowledge scarcity
Resource scarcity is a problem that life orginally faced → facing the unknown which included competition. However, with sufficient knowledge every problem is solveable. Humans can solve problems by understanding
Every behavior of life ultimately is about replicating and preserving knowledge across time

5: What impact does human behavior have?

First principleExplanationImplication
The defining characther of humans is our capacity for universal understanding
Human behavior is a mix of our 4 main evolutionary programs and agency

Humans are life forms. Life can be understood as a program that preserves knowledge. Knowledge is stored in the form of Genes inside of DNA. And, in a few species with cultures, as Memes inside minds. Life's program concerns itself with reproducing knowledge and not with truth or the organism's well-being.

Life's program is distributed into several sub-programs. That's where our behaviors originate. A program is like a micro-identity. It has its own goal, funnels your focus, and initiates behaviors*. These programs fall into four main evolutionary categories: survival, reproduction, family favoring, and reciprocity. Two fundamental but not-so-obvious programs worth knowing are play and exploration. Play is for socializing and practicing skills. And, exploration is for mapping risks and opportunities.

Species inherit physical abilities and programs from evolutionary ancestors and trial new mutations to get a competitive edge. The distinguishing feature of the species homo is brain power. It allowed for intricate tool usage and the mirroring of sophisticated behavior patterns. The favoring of powerful brains empowered a genetic mutation in our species around 70.000 years ago: the ability to understand meaning. This higher form of information interpretation allows us to plan and carry out complex actions, cooperate at large, collectively hold beliefs and trade outcomes of labor. Our "general purpose” brain, with the capacity for learning and understanding anything, also makes us exceptionally versatile and adaptable in our physical movement.

Behavior is also influenced by character. Nature creates diversity in individual traits to strengthen the group. Personality types are a prime example. The Big Five model is the most accepted personality theory today. The theory states that personality maps to five core factors: extraversion (also often spelled extroversion), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

We've now highlighted the primary mechanisms that drive humans. Next is to understand how we orient and select what to act on.

  • This does not imply that the programs are deterministic or inevitable. Programs compete with each other and often contain errors such as cognitive biases.

Act III: Understanding agency

6: How do humans select what to do?

First principleExplanationImplication
Human behavior is a mix of our 4 main evolutionary programs and agency
Observation and perception is theory-laden
There is no “pure” perception, evertyhing is theory laden

If we think of human behavior as a bunch of competing evolutionary programs, the logical follow-up question is: How does the selection process work? The short answer is that the nervous system decides what's acted on.

Three types of inputs address the nervous system: bodily state inputs, sensory inputs, and thoughts (cognitive inputs). The hypothalamus is what prioritizes what to act on. It's a pea-sized, ancient, and highly sophisticated part of our brain. It runs all of our vital processes. Because the hypothalamus is primarily concerned with survival, it's rather coarse and unrefined. It favors acting on state and sensory input, and therein lies a fundamental truth about human nature. We are primarily playful, impulsive, explorative, and thrill-seeking beings. The rational side of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, isn't actually at the steering wheel most of the time.

The prefrontal cortex is home to voluntary thought, and it can guide our decision-making.  Instead of shoving down a bag of potato chips at 5 pm, most of us can convince the hypothalamus to wait until our restaurant reservation at 7. Fortunately, we can amplify the impact of our cognitive inputs. These inputs are interpretations of reality. However, we aren’t hardwired to interpret reality in the sense of physical matter. We sense what matters. To judge what matters, we recognize objects as either tools or obstacles. To make these judgments, we use embedded theories, which, like all forms of knowledge,  contain truths and falsehoods. They are guessed and proven or disproven by observation. Not derived from observation. Thankfully our voluntary thought allows us to criticize not only our ideas but also the very theories by which we critique them. We, therefore, are capable of adding new theories as well as improving upon existing theories. The next chapter describes general theories that, when adopted, improve our reasoning and decision-making

7: Common mistakes in orienting and reasoning

First principleExplanationImplication
Anti-rationality is worse than irationality

7.5: The effective way to orient and reason

First principleExplanationImplication
Optimal decisions incorporate good explanations and successful prior results

8: Decision-making on the Individual, group, and societal level

Act IV: Understanding action

9: What is effective action?

The bottom line:

The Budha is right: The default state of humans is suffering. Everything we do is to alleviate suffering and get somewhere better. In contrast with other animals, our self-awareness and ability for universal understanding allow us to control our actions. I define effective action as specifying the desired outcome and the path toward it.

10: How do you make your intentions explicit?

Goal setting is about holding yourself accountable for where you want to be

The purpose of setting goals is to practice specifying what you want. Setting good goals is a skill. It involves having honest conversations with yourself so that you’ll practice and learn what it is you actually value (and desire).

Planning is about holding yourself accountable for how well you’re moving towards your goals

Planning is similar to goalsetting in the sense that you have to consider and specify what you will get done. This means evaluating both your internal resources (time, energy, attention) as well as external factors (other people’s schedules and other (un)foreseeable dependencies). You’re honing your estimation skills.

The two areas where it often goes wrong

Wrong fidelity (detail)

When you’re determined to make something work, you often cope by simply throwing more at the problem. In the case of planning that can take the form of a highly detailed multi-page plan. That’s actually counterproductive. Not only does this cost you an unnecessary amount of effort, but it also leads you astray. The future is unpredictable and you can’t outwork it by creating super detailed plans. You’ll just be proven increasingly wrong in unforeseeable ways, and likely get demotivated as a result.

Wrong timescale

Not only is the “external” future unpredictable, but what you will want is in the future is unknowable. Would you want your two-year-younger-self to decide what you will aim for this year? Probably not. You must focus on appropriate timescales. Far enough in the future for it to be a certainly desired improvement, and short enough to be able to realistically guesstimate your efforts.

How to do it right

You approach it as a skill that you’re developing. You only improve it through repetition. To set yourself up for succes you’ll want to make the repetitions of high quality by choosing the appropriate fidelity (detail) and horizon length. The key is to also set-up the supportive processes like check-ins and wrap-ups from the get go. You need to stay engaged with your goals throughout the quarter.

11: How do you harness the power of systems?

The bottom line:

Everything is made out of layers of systems. When you learn to identify and (re)build a system, you don't just get better at reaching a single target; your process for reaching all targets improves. Don't just see individual problems, but problems that are part of an improvable system. Improving your systems will make the output of your time compound.

12: How do you optimally manage your energy and attention?

The bottom line:

To get the most out of your time, focus on optimizing your energy, then your attention - and only last on your time management. The optimized energy and attention levels don't just bring greater efficiency, but also increase the quality of your thoughts and decision making

13: How do you optimally manage your time?

14: How do you handle disturbances and keep on track?

Act V: Understanding learning

15: How does learning work?

16: How do you optimally learn?

16: How do you optimally transfer knowledge?