Treasure Hunting

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln nominated Orion Clemens to the post of Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Clemens’ brother, a Confederate deserter who would later be known as Mark Twain, went with him to Nevada as his assistant.

Roughing It is Mark Twain’s account of his time in the Nevada Territory, an epistemic potpourri of lies, jokes, exaggerations, folklore, and – occasionally – facts verifiable from other sources. It’s a mistake to try to read too much of Roughing It at once, because every story follows essentially the same pattern:

  1. The narrator is tempted into some adventure or other,
  2. about which the narrator is extremely ignorant,
  3. but he nonetheless constructs fantasies based on romantic or biased sources and his own imagining;
  4. his adventure does not accord with his credulous fantasies.

However, these are anything but morality tales about the importance of shrewd dealing and hard work. Mark Twain’s heroes, including his narrator in Roughing It, are defined by gullibility and laziness as their great virtues. A sensible man would not fantasize about the lure of the frontier, and if he did, he would certainly not actually set out for the frontier in a stagecoach at the first opportunity he got. A sensible man would be content being the assistant secretary of the Nevada Territory; he would not run off to prospect for gold, or to stake a timber claim. Therefore, a sensible man would not have so many interesting stories to tell. “Gullible” and “adventurous” are near-synonyms, but each emphasizes a different emotional valence of the characteristic.

Mark Twain, as he presents himself to us, is a trickster, a high-stakes drunk blogger of shocking lies before that was a normal thing to be. But he is also supremely gullible. He has the capacity to be drawn in to the treasure hunting mood of enthusiasm and optimism. He constructs vivid fantasies based on newspaper accounts of ore worth tens of thousands of dollars per ton, according to the evidence of assays. I find this especially interesting: the narrator starts out believing whole-heartedly in the promises of the assays, and through years of participation in mining, ore processing, and then newspaper writing, he comes to understand how the tempting “evidence” is constructed. For instance, a miner would carefully select the richest bits of ore from his claim, and take them to be assayed; the resulting assay document would imply that the entire mine was composed of ore as rich as these cherry-picked bits. If that were not bad enough, assayers were corrupt themselves, happy to supply a promising result. Mark Twain tells a story of one assayer who became so notorious that his competing assayers colluded, arranging to supply him with a chunk of the local blacksmith’s anvil to assay; of course, according to his report, it was rich with precious metals.

But even more interesting is that Mark Twain seamlessly transitions his narrator from consumer to producer of these lies. When he becomes a newspaper writer in Virginia City, Twain’s narrator has no problem cheerfully reporting on the richness of any mining claim, usually in exchange for a share of a few feet in the mine. Shouldn’t he know better? I suppose he does know better – better than the reader, who is most likely ignorant of both mining and newspaper production – and he feels no qualms at all about luring innocents like his former self into having a mining adventure.

Mormon Gold

I gave up the idea that I could settle the “Mormon question” in two days. Still I have seen newspaper correspondents do it in one.
(Mark Twain, Roughing It, Chapter XVII.)

On his way west through Salt Lake City, Mark Twain seems to have invented the sport of making fun of the Book of Mormon. The Latter Day Saints were a very young religion at the time. The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830, Joseph Smith was lynched in 1844, and the Mormons migrated to Utah starting in 1847. Roughing It is the only book I’ve ever read that quotes from the Book of Mormon at length. Even though he mocks the Book of Mormon for being boring and for sounding made-up and faux-Scriptural, Mark Twain is clearly provoked by it.

The aspect of the Book of Mormon that seems to provoke Mark Twain the most is not its content, but the odd, legalistic evidence it proffers of its authenticity. The Book of Mormon is prefaced by paragraph-long statements, signed by various witnesses, as to the nature and origin of the Book of Mormon itself. Some promise that an angel showed them the golden plates from which Joseph Smith translated the book; Mark Twain snarks:

Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything; but for me, when a man tells me that he has “seen the engravings which are upon the plates,” and not only that, but an angel was there at the time, and saw him see them, and probably took his receipt for it, I am very far on the road to conviction, no matter whether I ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel, or his nationality either.

It is not clear from the text whether Mark Twain was aware that Joseph Smith, like himself, was a treasure hunter. Mark Twain was a gold rush prospector, and Joseph Smith was a practitioner of the magical-religious folk tradition of money-digging. Though only separated by a few decades, their treasure-seeking impulses took on very different cultural expressions.

My favorite source regarding Joseph Smith’s treasure hunting practice is “The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” a 1984 paper by Mormon historian Ronald Walker, and published in the BYU Studies Quarterly, which as far as I can tell the oldest scholarly journal devoted to Mormon studies, and which is published by BYU, the faith’s flagship university. In other words, the paper is not written by a cranky gentile skeptic like Mark Twain, but rather by a believing Mormon, for an audience of mostly fellow believers. From this we learn not just about Joseph Smith and his practice, but about the ancient folk practice of seeking buried treasure using magical and religious means.

The historian Johannes Dillinger estimates that there were “thousands” of trials for magical treasure hunting in early modern Europe – trial records (because the practice was illegal) being some of the only surviving records of the practice. Europeans brought their magical treasure hunting customs with them to the American colonies, and continued to use magic technologies (such as divining rods and scrying rocks) to hunt for treasure. They brought their prohibitions, too: a New York statute placed treasure magic in a class together with such crimes as fortune-telling and juggling. One of the first operas written in the colonies concerned magical treasure-seeking. It was scheduled to be performed in 1762, but the performance was cancelled; it seems that a prominent citizen and treasure seeker lampooned in the play was not happy about the mockery, and had the play shut down.

So in 1762 in Philadelphia – which I think you’d have to call smack in the center of the Enlightenment – magical treasure-seeking is so common and respectable that it’s hard to even make fun of it. What’s going on here? Walker (1984) puts it mildly, explaining that the magical-religious folk culture of the time was “not an inappropriate precursor to the Restoration”:

It is already apparent that this culture tended to be anti-traditional church in orientation. It strongly embraced the idea of personal revelation and the ministry of spirits. At least some of its practitioners believed in a kind of premortal existence, “dispensationalism,” and the restoration of ancient texts. For many of its adherents, it seems to have functioned as a visionary and exciting, though not formal, religion. One of the major insights in the field of religious studies during the past decade is the realization that religious faith has been defined too narrowly. By examining what the people actually were doing and believing, we have come to understand that there was, existing side-by-side with such movements as Episcopalianism or Presbyterianism or Lutheranism, sometimes intermixing with them, an informal people’s religion that held the attention of the common man or woman. (Walker, p. 430.)

One might conclude that the “light” of the Enlightenment never penetrated very deep into the murk of Western religious experience.

In 1826, Joseph Smith was tried for the crime of money digging (the magical folk practice); he had many “Seer Stones,” or scrying stones, including an egg-shaped smooth grey one that he found in a neighbor’s well, and he apparently used these as well as his own magical powers in attempting to locate treasure. At his trial, his father expressed regret that Smith used his powers for the profane purpose of making money. But then in 1827, according to the Mormon faith, he found his treasure. Guided by a vision, he retrieved the golden plates from Mormon Hill and began translating them, using the helpful pair of translation glasses provided – glasses made, according to some accounts, of those same Seer Stones. And then, for those not aware, he founded an extremely successful religion that is now global in scope.

To summarize, Joseph Smith, an energized young adept of a semi-official magico-Christian folk religion, uses folk magical practices, including Seer Stones and dream visions, to locate golden plates containing ancient religious doctrine, hidden underground in ancient times and revealed by an angel.

Tibetan Buddhists at this point will be squinting at the page and saying “no way,” because apparently, they refresh their doctrine from time to time in exactly this manner. Except instead of one Joseph Smith, they have many; the class is called tertons, or treasure-revealers. Tertons are energized adepts of the semi-official magico-Buddhist faith who use folk magical practices to find various items (scripture, ritual artifacts) buried underground by the Buddha, to be found much later. To find these treasures, tertons even use stones, glass, or crystals in the same manner as Seer Stones.

My Buddhist friends were creeped out by the similarities, and apparently the Mormons find it just as creepy:

In the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, a fundamental source of religious teaching is the termas (treasures). Termas include sacred texts composed anciently, primarily by the great Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), and hidden by him in various secret locations to be discovered at a later date. Termas can be located and interpreted only by a special class of spiritually enlightened adepts (bodishattvas) known as tertons (treasure finders). Only tertons can reveal these texts because they are written in the cryptic language of the Dakini (supernatural beings).

Placing these histories side by side, Smith looks like an American terton-seer translating ancient texts written in cryptic Reformed Egyptian by the great prophets of the past, Mormon and Moroni. The prophets’ purpose for writing, as it had been for Guru Rinpoche, included keeping the faith on track by making clear the fundamental “plain and precious” principles of the tradition. Further, it is interesting to note that some of the Tibetan termas are called “mind treasures” because they are “not physically discovered but are revealed through the mind of the terton.” This phraseology recalls the prophecies of Enoch or the parchment of John revealed by Joseph Smith. What is interesting here is not to preposterously argue for any organic connection between Joseph Smith and Tibetan Buddhism but to notice the similar mechanisms for authorizing a religious text and to ponder the social and intellectual dynamics that make them effective. (Grant Underwood, Attempting to Situation Joseph Smith, BYU Studies Quarterly, 2005.)

“Preposterously” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. But there is something startling about finding two examples of the strange practice across the world from each other, one eight hundred years older than the other.

Enlightenment Magic

The Fenn Treasure is a treasure reportedly worth over a million dollars supposedly hidden by art dealer and author Forrest Fenn in the Rocky Mountains. Fenn has said he is going to go back and get it when the value is inflated to 10 million dollars. When asked why he created the treasure hunt, Fenn said he “just wanted to give people some hope.”

Four people are known to have died while searching for the treasure. New Mexico police have tried to pressure Fenn into ending the hunt. (Wikipedia, “Fenn Treasure”)

Mark Twain’s form of treasure hunting – prospecting during a gold rush – seems irrational to us now. For most individuals involved, it’s a losing proposition. Those four modern treasure hunters who have died in search of the Fenn Treasure, and those who still hunt for it despite the risks posed by the wilderness, seem irrational in the same way: the expected value of the benefit (the likelihood of finding the treasure, times the value of the treasure, times the likelihood that it exists, say) is almost certainly lower than the expected costs and risk. However, these forms of treasure hunting represents a distinct type of “irrational” from the magico-religious treasure seeking practice. After all, they are merely based on a poor calculation or an unusual utility function, not upon a magico-religious worldview. Mining is quite rational, but look how it connects to treasure hunting and gold rushes. Metallurgy is rational, but look at its history in the magical systems of alchemy.

Perhaps we should look at a really rational activity for contrast. When I think of rational activities during the Enlightenment, I think of gwern’s review of Nicholas Russell’s book Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England.

Heredity is a deceptively simple idea. It seems easy enough to grasp, yet it seems to have taken a very long time to emerge in anything like its present form. Merely living in an agrarian society and participating in animal husbandry does not seem to have been enough. gwern says:

It is not a universal belief among humans that it is possible to progress; Whiggism must be learned. Isaac Newton, for example, regarded the recent progress as evidence that human history went in cycles of creation & destruction, and believed that his research on gravity or the Philosopher’s Stone was merely recovering what the Ancients knew & had been lost. Breeders likewise regarded selection as merely frustrating the inevitable decay of herds under inbreeding & local environments. One imported a Turkish or Spanish or Arabian stallion to try to temporarily elevate one’s horses, but that was to try to borrow some of the ancestral power of a born & raised foreign racehorse – no permanent gain was looked for nor, apparently, seen, and one simply kept importing. The idea that it is possible to almost arbitrarily improve a breed’s traits, or steer a breed in a direction to the point that it would have to be considered a new and clearly distinct breed for all intents & purposes, appears to have not been in circulation. It would have been deemed absurd, worthy of parody in the Laputa of Gulliver’s Travels, to imagine that dairy cows could one day yield [more than eight times] more milk.

Pessimism and ignorance together do not create much that is useful. However, optimism and ignorance together are like magic. It was likely not knowledge or anything rational, but rather a mood of enthusiasm, a socially reinforced idea that progress was possible, that, ironically, made progress possible. Robert Bakewell (whom gwern refers to as “the Moneyball of sheep breeding”) became a foundational figure in animal breeding during the late eighteenth century. He was able to leverage his personal charisma, kindness to animals, and mediocre grasp of heredity into a breeding revolution. gwern continues:

Bakewell had no special training or math or technology to offer, and his breeds have been much criticized for being useless in practice and disappeared, but what he did accomplish was endorse the idea of progress, providing a model to emulate, and a prestigious figure to cite as precedent. Bakewell may have been grossly overrated by acolytes, but from this point of view, that is a feature and not a bug – the more praised the better! His influence then spread and sparked Bakewellites elsewhere and abroad, better equipped to successfully do what they (thought) he did.

Based on the evidence available at the time, it probably wasn’t rational for an individual to engage in experimental breeding programs like Bakewell pioneered. The expected gain, on the evidence available, was small and uncertain, and the costs could be great. (Despite all his contributions, even Bakewell himself apparently went bankrupt, or almost did so.) Engaging in this new practice seems to be the same kind of irrationality as treasure hunting. In both cases, there is a background of powerful ignorance: the treasure hunter is ignorant of what is in the ground, hidden from view, and usually of geology as well, and the animal breeder is ignorant of heredity and the possibilities of systematic breeding. In both cases, there is a driving mood of optimism and enthusiasm, a mood not produced by a detached view of the evidence, but by social, emotional, and other factors not usually considered rational. And in both cases, quite often, there is a shitty map. In the case of treasure hunters, quite often there is some kind of map – either an actual shitty map (perhaps copied many times and very old, with unclear referents), or a figurative shitty map, in the form of a story legend, a geological theory, a dream, or a magical technique. In the case of Bakewell, the “shitty map” was his own farm, where he talked with visitors and demonstrated his new techniques. (He apparently left no written records.)

Bakewell’s work, like a lot of proto-scientific activity, looks a lot like magic: an idea from the sphere of thought, an intention, it set loose upon the world, and changes it for good. I think that it’s a good thing that our minds tend to work in this magical, irrational way, because if we were actually rational in the sense of seeking our objectives based on the best available evidence, we probably wouldn’t have gotten a fancy industrial revolution. (See “novelty search” in a later section for a different idea of rationality.

I think there are a lot of human activities that are similar to treasure hunting and to eighteenth-century animal breeding, and they all have a structure of a zone of ignorance that is allowed to be explored through the maintenance of an optimistic mood and a shitty map.

Things That Are Like Treasure Hunting

1. Geographical and space exploration. Ignorance of faraway places (the poles, the bottom of the oceans, the moon) is navigated using an enthusiastic mood (explorers’ clubs, veneration of explorers and astronauts, optimistic science fiction, etc.) and shitty maps (in this case they are often literal maps that get less shitty as more exploration takes place). Note that treasure hunting is linked with geographical exploration both in recent and in ancient times.

2. Foreign trade (often a companion of 1). Ships full of goods are sent out into the ignorance-shielded void, buoyed by hopes and the past good luck of other traders. The shitty maps are again often actual maps, augmented by a rudimentary understanding of distant people and their needs, desires, and offerings.

3. Tinkering. The ignorance here is the space of possible inventions and the mechanics of how they work; the mood is supplied by other tinkerers and by stories of tinkerer successes. I think the shitty map is different for every tinkerer, but it usually involves acquiring familiarity with some class of artifacts, whether mechanical looms or electronics. When inventions might be valuable (and I think the idea of selling a valuable invention is often a prominent idea in tinkerer cultures), the parallel to treasure hunting is easy to see.

4. Cryptid hunting. Here what is sought is an unknown beast or life form, not filthy lucre. Seekers search the shadows (ignorance zones) for creatures about whom little is known (more ignorance), spurred on by desire for attention, perhaps, like explorers, but I suspect also something purer, more like the magico-religious motivations of some other treasure hunters. Their practice involves helping to create shitty maps for each other.

5. Sports. One is ignorant beforehand of the result of any game or match – not just who will win, but what will happen, and what it will mean. The team, crowd, fans, perhaps cheerleaders, etc. feed each other enthusiasm. Coaches and commentators may supply different kinds of shitty maps, from playbooks to literal Moneyball. Players and fans also have shitty maps that help them situate themselves in games, seasons, and longer timescales.

And a few other miscellaneous examples: most writing (especially creative writing), making a movie, most practices that later get classified as science or proto-science, setting world records, hunting in general (for actual animals), pair bonding, psychedelic drug use, prayer, and recreational wandering (which latter seems to exist as a practice separate from any particular instantiation).

What is the opposite of a treasure hunt? That’s not a precise question, of course, so it has many answers, depending on which facet is emphasized. One kind of opposite is missing the mood aspect: agriculture breeders prior to Bakewell’s time, for instance, lacked an optimistic mood of progress. They had what folklorists call the folk idea of the limited good, which basically means a zero-sum economy and the impossibility of progress. Cows that produce eight times more milk? Sounds made up. The opposite of the limited good is the unlimited good, which folklorist Alan Dundes has argued is operative in American buried treasure legends. American economic abundance promotes a belief in natural plenty, Dundes argues, just as the poverty of peasant cultures promotes a belief in limited goods (Patrick Mullen, “The Folk Idea of Unlimited Good in American Buried Treasure Legends,” Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep. – Dec., 1978), pp. 209-220.) In this understanding, treasure hunters are not driven by poverty to seek riches; rather, treasure hunters emerge from abundance to seek abundance. (Interestingly, treasure is still invoked in the peasant cultures with, according to Foster, “Limited good” mindset: since goods are limited, any good fortune for one family must mean they are stealing from or otherwise harming another. The idea that they acquired treasure by magic is supplied as a possible justification for inequality without invoking theft, wrongdoing, or accumulation from hard work. Honestly this makes my head spin a bit and I’m not sure I buy it.)

Another kind of opposite is a situation in which there is no open field of ignorance, for which the available maps are too accurate. Domains in which the problems are mostly solved, and behaviors are highly predictable, are not like treasure hunts. The opposite of “explore” is “exploit.”

Coincidence, Apparent Complexity, and Shitty Maps

The dream of treasure involves a divinatory look into the future to discover a past that will enrich the present.

Charles Stewart, Dreams of Treasure: Temporality, historicization, and the unconscious (2003).

Novelty search”  is Ken Stanley and Joel Lehman’s term for a search algorithm that explores its search space by ignoring its objective and instead attempting to generate behavioral novelty. It doesn’t climb hills, so it can’t get trapped in local minima (abstracted as “deception”). Stanley and Lehman say,

Novelty search is a kind of treasure hunter that collects hot spots in the search space. Such treasure hunting algorithms are a different class than objective-driven algorithms and will ultimately reveal their own unique benefits and niches….The gradient of novelty is actually an information-rich lattice of treasures that lead to other treasures, just waiting to be found. The problem is only that we haven’t been looking.

In novelty search, each new behavior acquired is irrational, considered on its own: by definition, new behaviors bear no necessary relation to the goal. Each new behavior discovered has some low probability of maybe, eventually, leading to a cool solution. Novelty search works best when there is a field of true ignorance, in which the landscape may be deceptive. At all times, there is a simple, clear objective: find something new. This functions as a shitty map. Behaviors that have already been discovered also inform the shitty map.

The function of a shitty map is to be a complexity shield, allowing exploration to always move forward even when the unknown territory is very complex.

I wrote recently about a paper on coincidences that is one of the most surprising, charming papers I’ve read this year. To briefly review, a coincidence is often characterized as an unlikely event, but having a low probability is not precisely their nature. It is a “coincidence” if my automobile odometer clicks over to, say, 100,000 miles, or 222,222 miles, but not 110,308 – unless 11/03/08 is a special date for you.

What makes 100,000 miles and 222,222 miles special is their low complexity to represent – just a one in the hundred thousands place, or just a two in every place. The expected complexity to represent a random six-digit number is much higher – 294,603 and 147,092 require more information to represent them (a different digit in each place). 110,308 is a coincidence if the date 11/03/08 has already been memorized for other reasons, such that the number becomes easy to remember and subjectively low in complexity. You only have to know “my dog’s birthday” or whatever, rather than six individual digits that aren’t connected to anything. That’s a coincidence: an unexpected drop in subjective complexity. When coincidences are perceived as meaningful, the experience is called synchronicity. Synchronicity may be thought of, then, as deriving meaning from the world being simpler than expected. When I learn about a fairly complex religious practice in Mormonism, I don’t expect to see the exact same practice in Tibetan Buddhism. To me, the unexpected regularity feels meaningful in a general and suggestive sense, even though I don’t know just what it might “mean.”

The self is the easiest, lowest-complexity thing to remember. One already knows about oneself, and hasn’t to remember anything extra. At the bottom of the cognitive gravity well is the self. Relating anything to the self should, under this theory of coincidence, be cognitively almost free of cost. Most coincidences that are considered meaningful relate to the self. The highly intuitive illusion that the self is of low complexity might help drive magical thinking in general. Consider the recently-fashionable, though I think rather ancient, magical thinking technique known as “The Secret” or “the law of attraction”: like attracts like, intentions (of the self) create reality. It sounds like a very comfortable world – but also one of very low apparent cognitive complexity!

Consider a buried treasure. Somewhere, a gold coin is buried, but I don’t know where. The complexity of the whole domain in which the coin might be buried is very complex. But my background cognitive reality is that anything related to me is “simple” in terms of how easy it is to represent. The simplest place for the treasure to be is with me, found by me, relating to me. A shitty map can hide the complexity surrounding the meaningful, much-desired connection of the treasure to the self. A shitty map says the treasure is probably over the next hill; it’s more cognitive effort to consider everywhere that it might be, than to consider that it might be within my reach.

A good shitty map (and a good mood) also helps one interpret what is seen during the course of the treasure hunt in light of the expectation of treasure. If I found a weird mushroom, and a creepy cabin, and a beautiful waterfall, did I find treasure? Perhaps, like the novelty search, the treasure hunt generates treasure as much as it finds it.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Hehe, we’re now in the tvtropes era of ribbonfarm :D

    There is one kind of treasure hunting that I think belongs in your list, where an outer quest is explicitly a stand-in for an inner one. The philosopher’s stone is perhaps the prototype there. In the Paulo Coelho Alchemist version, the angle of seeking yourself by seeking the stone is taken explicitly. The quest to turn base metals into gold is also a quest to turn your base self into a higher one. But the material quest is not optional. Quests for golden plates with messages fall somewhere in between the two extremes of inner and outer treasure.

    I suppose in history, alchemy was both a literal treasure hunt and some sort of gnostic spiritual quest, trying to take a demiurge path to enlightenment or something. When it turned into chemistry, it turned into the tinkering variety of treasure hunt.

    I’ve been thinking about an adjacent concept: that of abundance. The idea that an optimistic fool can do what a pessimistic wise person cannot is a commitment to the idea that the universe is abundance lurking under scarcity, and it takes a serendipity-seeking fool, unblinded by delusions of wisdom, with the boldness to abandon thinking, to stumble into it. Treasure hunting I think relies on 2 epistemic commitments:

    The first is familiar epistemic humility — there are more unknowns than knowns, so your mastery of knowns is not as important as it might seem. This is a familiar commitment in all kinds of recipes for ‘wisdom’.

    The second is what you might call luck arrogance — that the universe is more lucky than unlucky, especially for you. A faith in serendipity.

    More than ignorance per se, it is your assessment of the value of your knowledge/ignorance that I think is key here. It’s not so much that you don’t know stuff as you don’t think what you don’t know matters, relative to what you do know. The ‘ignorance’ in your proposition about pessimistic ignorance is different from the one in your proposition about optimistic ignorance I think. Ignorance (P) = “what I know matters, what I don’t know does not.” Ignorance (O) = “neither what I know, nor what I don’t know, matters”.

    One is an undervaluing of your unknowns, the other is an undervaluing of knowing itself. Perhaps the analogy to truth/lie/bullshit might help here. Ignorance (P) is like lying: you can tell known/unknown apart and “lie” (mainly to yourself) about their relative values, Ignorance (O) is like bullshit: you are indifferent to known/unknown because knowns are not valuable. All knowledge is treated as uninformative priors. Tacit commitment to principle of indifference leading to spaghetti on the wall behaviors.

    It makes sense that treasure hunting would induce such a mentality. It’s a throwing-away of priors. Ritual hunting behaviors like dowsing or divination are less about tracing a hidden causal logic to the location of treasure, and more about doing *something* and avoiding just sitting around like a degenerate expecting the treasure to land at your feet.

    One conservative justification of the efficacy of magical thinking might be this: the specific thing you do doesn’t matter, but that you do *something* non-degenerate does. So the “dimensionality” of activity is more important than its logical or causal content. Sitting around is zeroth order behavior. A random walk with a dowsing stick is a 2nd order behavior (in space).

    • This is good, thanks Sarah for the essay and Venkat for the gloss.

      A few thoughts:

      The Re-awakening strikes me as a very American phenomenon, and I can’t help wondering if, like the Salem witch business, it could have a subconscious link to the European destruction of a fairly coherent and abundant collection of native societies. Imaginary/Spiritual treasure taking the place of the actual societal wealth that had been destroyed by the colonists.

      I like the link Venkat makes between ignorance and wisdom. And I’m fascinated by the power of the Optimism/Pessimism valence of such ignorance. As if technological development rests on a foundation of ignorance squared. This feels correct to me. You may notice how I equate optimism with ignorance. In that sort of equation, it makes perfect sense to me to use the favor of the gods as an excuse (to dodge accusations of theft) if somehow I become wealthier than my neighbors in a zero-sum world.

      Also, to further Venkat’s comment about optimism being an undervaluing of knowledge, it is possible that what is happening is instead a broadening of what one considers ‘knowledge’.
      My microscopic experience with the techniques of dowsing suggests to me that much of the apparatus consists of ‘twitch amplifiers’. The dowsing rod, or other device is held in an unstable position so that even the smallest twitch of the dowser’s body produces a visible movement of the rod. Is this twitching evidence that our bodies are sensing things on a sub-sensory level? Collecting knowledge that we don’t know? Who knows? But I am confident that there is plenty going on that I am not aware of. Can I twitch voluntarily to skew the results? Certainly. What interests me about dowsing is that the hardest part of the practice is that you must calm and steady yourself before you can begin. You must eliminate all those noise twitches before the ‘meaningful’ ones will show up.

      • ‘microscopic experience’ here to mean ‘very little’, rather than ‘to the smallest detail’

  2. Silicon Valley optimism seems closely linked to treasure hunting. I love this essay so much. Also, Joseph Smith was shot, then mutilated.