Joscha Bach on Suffering, Reality, Postmodernism, Psychedelics, and Social Media Distortion

The following are highlights from a conversation between Lex Fridman and Joscha Bach. All excerpts are Joscha’s – Lex’s comments are in [brackets].

Human Suffering

Memories and expectations are what make us unhappy. The present is, for the most part, is OK. We are sitting here right here right now, we can choose how we feel. The thing that affects us is the expectation that something is going to be different from what we want it to be, or, the memory that something WAS different than what we want it to be. Once we zoom out from all if this, what’s left is not a person. What’s left is this state of being conscious.

What is our Perceived Reality?

We live in a dream world – a form of data compression. Our reality is an attempt (by the brain) to deal with the problem of “too many parts to count”, at the level at which we are entangled, with the best model you can find. This world is generated by the brain.

Postmodern Philosophy

Postmodernism is a set of philosophical ideas that are difficult to lump together. It is characterized by some useful thinkers, some of them post-structuralist and so on. I am mostly not interested in it, because I think it’s not leading my anywhere useful. It’s born out of the insight that the ontologies we impose on the world are not literally true, and that we can often get to a different interpretation of the world by using a different ontology that is different separation of the world into interacting objects.

The idea that this makes the world a set of stories that are arbitrary, I think is wrong. The people that are engaging in this type of philosophy are working in in an area that I largely don’t find productive. There’s nothing useful coming out of this. So this idea that truth is relative is not something that has informed physics or theory of relativity and there is no feedback between those. There is no meaningful influence of this type of philosophy on the sciences or in engineering or in politics, but there is very strong information on this ideology because it basically has become an ideology that is justifying itself by the notion that truth is a relative concept.

It’s not being used in such a way that the the philosophers or sociologists that take up these ideas say oh uh I should doubt my own ideas because maybe my separation of the world into objects is not completely valid and they should maybe use a different one and be open to a pluralism of ideas. Rather it mostly exists to dismiss the ideas of other people.

[Lex: it becomes a political weapon of sorts to achieve power]

Yes – basically there’s nothing wrong with developing a philosophy around this, but to develop norms around the idea that truth is something that is completely negotiable is incompatible with the scientific project, and I think if academia has no defense against the ideological parts of the postmodernist movement it’s doomed.

An ideology is basically a viral memeplex that is changing your mind in such a way that reality gets warped — warped in such a way that you’re being cut off from the rest of human thought space and you cannot consider things outside of the range of ideas of your own ideology as possibly true.

[Lex: right so I mean there’s certain properties to an ideology that make it harmful one of them is that like dogmatism of just certainty – dogged certainty that you’re right you have the truth and nobody else]

Yes but what is creating the certainty? It’s very interesting to look at the type of model that is being produced. Is it basically just to draw a strong prior, and you tell people oh this idea that you consider to be very true the evidence for this is actually just much weaker than you thought and look here at some studies? No – this is not how it works – it’s usually normative, which means, some thoughts are unthinkable because they would change your identity into something that is no longer acceptable. This cuts you off from considering an alternative. Many uh de facto religions use this trick to lock people into a certain mode of thought this removes agency over your own thoughts. It’s very ugly to me it’s basically not just a process of domestication but it’s actually an intellectual castration that happens. It’s an inability to think creatively and to bring forth new thoughts


A way of looking at psychedelics is that they induce a particular type of lucid dreaming state. It’s a state in which certain connections are being severed in your mind, and your mind is freed to move in a certain direction because some inhibition doesn’t work anymore.

What I observe in people that use psychedelics is that they tend to be overfitting. Overfitting means you are using more bits for modeling than you should, so you can fit your curve to fit extremely detail things in the past, but, this model is no longer predictive for the future.

[Lex: I thought it’s a good mechanism for expansion – taking you outside [of your normal model]. Forcing your model to be non predictive is a good thing. It’s akin to traveling to a totally different environment.]

Yes – psychedelics can transport you to a world that is hyperbolic. If you imagine a room you are in, you can turn 360 degrees and realize you need to go 720 degrees to go full circle. The things you learn in that state cannot be easily transferred to normal state.

[Lex: Don’t psychedelics give you a fresh perspective on non-psychedelic reality?]

The purpose of dreaming is data augmentation – [the brain introduces] strange parameters about the things you have learned. For instance, when you are young you have seen things from certain perspectives but not others – so your brain is generating new perspectives of objects you already know. I suspect that’s why many of us remember having flying dreams because it’s just different perspectives of the world we know. Dreams are controlled hallucinations, and psychedelics are linking into these mechanisms.

[Lex: So aren’t psychedelics just another form of data augmentation?]

Yes but it’s data augmentation that can happen outside the specification that your brain is used to. Basically you are overclocking your brain and that produces states that are subjectively extremely interesting, but from the outset they are suspicious.

[Lex: How is that overfitting? Doesn’t seem that way from my view]

If you look at people like Timothy Leary, who has written beautiful manifestos that in the future science and art will only be done on psychedelics, because it’s so much more efficient, and he have LSD to children, and basically was losing touch with reality and di not understand the societal effects of what he was doing, because he was unable to think critically. What happened was he got in a euphoric state because he was overfitting – translating the euphoria into a model of actual success.

[Lex: I see what you mean by “overfitting” now]

The typical thing that you notice when people are on psychedelics is they are in a state where they feel that everything can be explained – now everything is clear everything is obvious. Sometimes, they have indeed discovered a useful connection, but not always. Very often these connections are overinterpretations.

A lot of the people that tell me that they use psychedelics in a useful way started out as “squares” and were liberating themselves because they were stuck they were basically stuck in local optimum of their own self model – of their relationship to the world – and suddenly they had data augmentation basically saw as an experience the space of possibilities. They experienced what it would be like to be another person yeah and they took uh important lessons from that experience back home.

[Lex: I love the idea of data augmentation in reference to psychedelics – since this also relates to machine learning. Like chemically induced data augmentation in the human mind]

Postmodern United States of America

Our society in some sense perceives itself as too big to fail. Covid did not alert people to the fact that we are facing possible failure -that basically put us into the post-modernist mode. I don’t mean in the philosophical sense but in a societal sense — the difference between a post-modern society and the modern society is that the modernist society has to deal with the ground truth, and the postmodernist society has to deal with appearances. Politics becomes a performance and the performance is done for an audience and the organized audience is the media and the media evaluates itself via other media right so you have an audience of critics that evaluate themselves. I don’t think it’s so much the failure of the politicians because to get in power and to stay in power you need to be able to deal with the published opinion.

[Lex: well I think it goes in cycles because the what’s going to happen is all of the small business owners all the people who truly are suffering and will suffer more because the effects of the closure of the economy and the lack of solutions to the virus they’re going to uprise and hopefully — I mean this is this is where charismatic leaders can get the the world in trouble — but hopefully we’ll elect great leaders that will break through this post-modernist idea of uh of uh the media and the perception and the drama on twitter and all that kind of stuff]

But you know this can go either way. When the Weimar republic was unable to deal with the economic crisis that Germany was facing there was an option to go back but there were people which thought let’s get back to a constitutional monarchy and let’s get this this to work because democracy doesn’t work and eventually uh there was no way back where people decided there was no way back they needed to go forward and the only options for going forward was to become a Stalinist communist – basically an option to completely expropriate the factories and so on and nationalize them and to reorganize Germany and communist terms and ally itself with Stalin – and fascism. Both options were obviously very bad and the one that the Germans picked led to a catastrophe that was that devastated Europe. I’m not sure if the US has an immune response against that.

Social Media and Fragmentation of Public Opinion

In the US decision making is much more central a decentralized than in authoritarian state – people are making decisions autonomously at many many levels in a society. Traditionally (pre-internet) we created coherence and cohesion in society by controlling what people thought and what information they had. The media synchronized public opinion and social media have disrupted this.

It’s not so much Russian influence or something – it’s everybody’s influence. It’s that a random person can come up with a conspiracy theory and disrupt what people think and if that conspiracy theory is more compelling or more attractive than the standardized public conspiracy theory that we give people as a default, then it might get more traction. You suddenly have the situation that the single individual somewhere on a farm in Texas (Joe Rogan) has more listeners than CNN.

You cannot get to be an anchor on CNN if you don’t go through a complete complicated gatekeeping process. Today suddenly you have random people without that gatekeeping process just optimizing for attention not necessarily with a lot of responsibility for the long-term effects of projecting these theories into the public and now there is a push of making social media more like traditional media which means that the opinion that is being projected in social media is more limited to an acceptable range with the goal of getting society into safe waters and increase the stability and cohesion of society again which i think is a laudable goal but of course it also is an opportunity to seize the means of indoctrination and the incentives that people are under.

Human Wellbeing Causes Destruction of Nature

(In reference to the story depicted in Princess Mononoke)

It’s something that is very very complicated, you see people extracting resources and destroying nature but the purpose is not to be evil, but to be able to have a life that is free from oppression and violence and to curb death and disease. You basically see this conflict – which cannot be resolved in a certain way. You see this moment when nature is turned into a garden and it loses most of what it actually is and humans no longer submitting to life and death and nature and to these questions there is no easy answer. It just turns it into something that is being observed as a journey that happens and that happens with a certain degree of inevitability.

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