Normative vs Descriptive Confusions

I’ve been pretty confused lately about trying to think about how seriously I should be interpreting literary things. Or, not exactly literary things, but more like “life philosophies”. What I’m trying to point at is that there seem to be a whole bunch of people with lots of opinions on how life works, and I’m just feeling very lost about what level they’re speaking on.

Basically stuff where people assert that  <thing in life> is <metaphorical thing>.

For example, here is Viktor Frankl on love:

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him…Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

I don’t know what to take this as. Sometimes when people say philosophical things like this, they mean it in a metaphorical sense.

Like, if I said something like:

“Life is just an endless series of waits—you wait for your food, for your diploma, and finally, for death. Things are always on pause, and we never truly hit play.”

In my life-philosophy-aphorism-thingy, I’m just abstracting some parts of life and emphasizing them. My point might be something like “When you spend all your time looking forward to things, you miss the present,” and maybe this means it’s good to pay more attention to things currently happening.

But, in his quote, Frankl seems to also be trying to imply something about how the world works. In addition to pointing out how love is a powerful way to understand others, he also seems to state that by loving others, you are able to bring them to new heights and help their growth.

Does he actually mean that, or is it just to further the metaphor?

Now, the sort of obvious response is “Well, of course Frankl meant it at least somewhat metaphorically. People can love one another and still drag each other down, so we know it’s not true all of the time.”

But that’s not what I’m concerned about. My question is more something like, “Is this model of love enabling growth a useful model to have?”

Some more context:

At all times, I’m carrying simplified models of social dynamics that are general-case heuristics. I operate off of narrative and meaning; through the lens I look at the world through, I shape my experience. I’m always injecting this extra ontological layer onto the world.

For example, there’s something that feels like quest completion when I do things that are topically related to goals I care about, e.g. I finish reading a textbook on AI.

Thus, I’m always very unsure when people say things about life because I don’t know what sense of truth to be taking them on, and to what extent I should be incorporating them into this extra “meaning layer” vs my default model of “how the world works”.

This is sort of like the normative vs descriptive distinction found in other areas like ethics and economics: It’s never clear to me if any given life philosophy is supposed to give an idealized version of how a certain thing in life should be/feel like, or if they’re asserting that it’s how things actually work.

(I mean, in most cases, the aphoristic life philosophies you see are going to be sacrificing full coverage for more brevity, so there will undoubtedly be edge cases they fail to cover. But I would still classify one of them as descriptive if their point is to compress categories, rather than to put forth a new version of how something should be.)

I have a lot of difficulty differentiating between these two areas because the boundaries between “how the mind could work” and “how the mind currently works” feel very, very fuzzy to me.

Like, if I bumped into a life philosophy that said something like “Willpower does not exist,” I can see myself actually seriously taking that into consideration.

Sure, after incorporating it into my worldview, you could probably still identify times where I get tired, circle it, and yell, “Aha! You see! You clearly ran out of willpower here! So you didn’t actually act on this piece of life philosophy. Therefore, it must have been just metaphorical!”

But that’s not the point. Rather, it’s something like, from the inside, I would have a different experience and would likely account my tiredness to something else, maybe something that would lead to less guilt and shame versus if I had just felt bad that my willpower was insufficient.

So, really, this is about wants vs reality.

I don’t know to what extent I should exert my desires about social things and attempt to map them onto reality vs pay attention to what’s going in reality and infer what that means about my wants.

In other non self-improvement areas, I find this a lot less difficult of a debate, often because reality wins out as the final arbiter. In engineering, for instance, reality is already a fixed set of rules, so using those, you attempt to find the closest approximation to your wants.

But when it comes to mental stuff, it’s difficult because there’s entanglement between your models of how the world works and how you actually behave in said world. Like in the above example, we might expect that someone who doesn’t believe in willpower could actually see better results, independent of whether or we could identify patterns of phenomena that we’d label “willpower”. A lot of this has to do with how fuzzy our labels are for mental things and how easily we reify such descriptive labels.

So it’s hard because whenever I discover something that seems like a bias or a weakness, there seem to be two very distinct responses I could try: One is to look inwards, see what’s going on, and maybe end up accepting it as a genuine need, and then working around it. The other is to look at it and then compare it to some idealized version of how I “want” things to work, and then endeavor to mold myself more into that sort of person.

The hidden conflict here, then becomes a question of “Do I want to make myself more of the person I already want to be, or do I want to learn more about what sort of person I “really” am?”

More practically, I find this a difficult conundrum because it’s hampering my ability to make judgment calls on what is actually possible in principle.

Like, human minds are actually pretty powerful. People can do crazy shit like stay outside for hours in freezing temperatures, memorize multiple decks of shuffled cards, or read over four hundred pages in an hour. I myself have done things that, at one point or another, I thought would be semi-impossible to do. (Most of these are thing in close-up magic which require large amounts of finger dexterity.)

The point being that I do in fact think that it’d be good to take some of these seemingly-metaphorical claims seriously and actually attempt to work towards them, because, it seems plausible that I could in fact modify myself accordingly.

But I don’t know which ones.

And maybe most importantly, I myself have opinions on how social things should be! There are ways that I wish humans would work that contradicts existing psychological research, and I don’t know if the right move is to take the research model as given and look for ways to debias or to say “Screw it” and push on for a solution nonetheless, shooting for a better way to impart my own wants onto reality.

For example, fading novelty seems to imply that relationships will lose their luster over time. What if you just told yourself this wasn’t how it worked, and then made yourself still feel excited about things, 10 years down the line?

Yes, this is still a really fuzzy line, as any intervention you take might involve things like messing with neurotransmitters or other biological things which you’d need a descriptive model of, in order to affect things in the first place.

In this example, I think that if you were trying to infer your wants from this phenomenon, you might think that this implied that you were unable to form lasting bonds with people, or something like that, so you would only go for short-term relationships, while the luster was still there.

Whereas, if you take reality as-is and then enforce your wants anyway, I think this is still an instance of acting more prescriptively, even if you’re acting off a descriptive model.

Overall, this entire discussion seems to have the same flavor as the distinction between rationality techniques which place restrictions/systems in place (e.g. precommitment, habit formation) and those which aim for alignment (e.g. Focusing, Internal Double Crux).

I’m still not sure how to resolve these conflicting intuitions. Any suggestions?


  1. “The hidden conflict here, then becomes a question of “Do I want to make myself more of the person I already want to be, or do I want to learn more about what sort of person I “really” am?””

    This is an excellent getting to the core of something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. Historically I’ve been dismissive of the idea that there’s anything like “who I really am”. Recently I’ve noticed ways that I’ve been ignoring certain parts of myself that seems to definitely exist, but which I just haven’t been listening to.

    I have some more fuzzy thoughts which I might write out later, but I just wanted to quickly thank you for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been going through some updates, and this is a tentative conjecture at the ways things could be.

        If you ever feel like you are fighting yourself over something, or making yourself do something, the ‘best’ result comes from a ‘successful’ alignment move. If you find some conflict in yourself that looks irresolvable and unreducable, (“I just fundamentally don’t want to do this -> I also have to do this to not get fired”), you aren’t approaching things from the right angle.

        This isn’t something I feel in my bones, but it feels like my new best guess at what the truth might be. I’d be super interested to hear from some people further down the alignment path about if there are any conflicts they have found in themselves where they actually just made themselves a certain way, and they reflectively endorse that decision.


        • Some other scattered thoughts I’ve got since writing this:

          – Not all traits are equally visible, in that there could be hidden dependencies you’re not seeing. So anytime you’re trying to “intentionally” make some sort of modification, if it feels aversive, it’s also possible that there are hidden costs you’re not seeing.

          – With this framework, it becomes more clear that alignment might be useful because it gives you a chance to “fully reckon” with the change you want to implement, and either you better understand the consequences (and do it anyway) or you notice how said modification is a lot more involved (and you reflectively realize you don’t want to do it).


  2. […] Normative vs Descriptive Confusions gave me more clarity towards an internal conflict, brought on by the increased fluidity I had started to view myself with. Though I don’t I’ve got a full answer yet, I like this framing. It also started out as a more of “okay, let’s try to just get this mess of thoughts I have onto paper into something more structured”, and I think it does a passable job of straddling the line between “represent my state of mind at that time” and “walk new readers towards my conclusions”. […]


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