Holy Books (Or Rationalist Sequences) Don’t Implement Themselves


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Related to: Lessons from Latter-day Saints, Building Rationalist Communities overview

This is my basic thesis:

Marx needed a Lenin. Fermi, Hahn and Meitner needed a Manhattan Project. EY and the Sequences need more clearly- and simply-defined rationality skills and methods for improving them.

Using Eliezer’s levels scheme, these are the three descending levels on which belief systems operate: theology, norms, and implementation.

I’ll give some examples. Here’s a general example, again from the Latter-day Saints:

  • Theology: God knows everything. Your purpose on earth is to become like God;
  • Norms: You should pursue as much education as possible.
  • Implementation: Create and operate a really big, cheap university system.[1]

Here’s one that I often dealt with as a missionary:

  • Theology: God is really good at making decisions. Your purpose on earth is to become like God.
  • Norms: You shouldn’t take alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, or addictive substances. Taking addictive substances impairs your ability to make correct decisions.
  • Implementation: We are going to bring you candy every week so that when you’re tempted to buy a cigarette, you can eat the strawberry toffee instead. (Or, we are going to stop by your house every day at 8:30pm to give you a boost, because going from 7 cups of coffee a day to 0 is tough.)

I did both of these (with different people), and they worked.

Norms and Implementation

As a missionary for the Church, my basic role was to:

  •  find people who were willing to try something out
  • design individualized “commitment systems” for each person, and
  • support them in implementing them.

There’s a lifestyle change here.

The “basic package,” (my terminology), which is a prerequisite to joining the church, includes: a strong focus on strengthening the family, daily family prayer and scripture study, the aforementioned health code, and sex only inside marriage. The glue is weekly church attendance, ensuring membership in a community that shares the same values.

After the “basic package,” it gets a bit more complex, as there are lots of higher-level elements of this lifestyle. To sample a few in no particular order:

  • Loving others. Developing gratitude. Keeping a journal. Following Church leaders. Inviting other people to church. Serving others, especially by accepting responsibilities in church. Pursuing education. Forgiving others.
  • Understanding that you have innate self-worth. Not gossiping. Dressing modestly. Being a good parent. Honoring and respecting parents. Keeping a budget. Doing family activities and not shopping on Sunday. Staying out of debt.
  • For the doubting, to continue living these habits, until they develop (expected) greater belief through experience.[2]

Obviously these are different than rationalist norms, but my point is that they are fairly comprehensive. Though each topic is fairly regularly discussed in church, it’s impossible to implement them into your life all at once. It’s easy to seem overwhelmed by the flood of new information. (Sound familiar?)

And that is why we were there, to design mini-programs for each person.[3] We would isolate a couple of specific standards that would be effective for person X, and assist in implementation. If they liked it and wanted more, we helped them implement the “basic package” lifestyle.

This decision, that they liked it and wanted more, was the single most crucial decision that someone could make. It is directly related to Bhagwat’s Law of Commitment: “The degree to which people identify with your group is directly proportional to the amount of stuff you tell them to do that works.” I will discuss this further on a subsequent post.

Okay, so how does this apply to Less Wrongians?

Less Wrong has its version of a theological framework – the Sequences. They give a comprehensive set of statements about the way the world works, drawn from evolutionary psychology, anthropology, Bayesian statistics, etc.

But rationalism doesn’t have a well-defined set of norms/desirable skills to develop. As a result, we Less Wrongians unsurprisingly also lack a well-developed practical system for implementation.

You may cite lukeprog’s guide. That’s good, but it’s only six posts. Less Wrong needs a lot more of it!

Or maybe you’ll say that if you read the Sequences carefully, etc, etc. Well, I did. Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions is 51 dense pages in Word, or about 25,000 words. This is an (extremely good) foundational text. It is not a how-to manual.[4]

Brevity is key to implementation.

For Latter-day Saints, the basic explanation of family standards is about 6000 words (95% of the important stuff is from page 4 to 15). The basic guide for teenagers is about 4000 words, and the basic guide for running a church organization is about 12000 words. And each one is very clear about what to do. (The teenage guide most clearly illustrates this point about brevity.)

The easiest way to begin building a how-to manual is for LW members to post specific, short personal examples of how they applied the principles of rationality in their day-to-day lives. Then they should collect all of the links somewhere, probably on the wiki.

If this sounds salesman-y or cheesy to you, or if you're extremely skeptical about religion, I quote a commenter on my last post. “If this works for people that are obviously crazy," said Vaniver, "that suggests it'll work for people who are (hopefully obviously) sane.”


[1] Admittedly, this also supports other norms, such as ‘marry another Latter-day Saint.’

[2]I’m not claiming this is perfect. Over the four years since I joined, I've encountered various amounts of ingroup snobbery, use of these standards to judge others, cliquishness, and intolerance towards certain groups, primarily gays. Plus all of the normal human imperfections.

[3] In designing and sequencing programs, we generally used a simple cost-benefit standard: how much will this help X vs. how much effort will it cost X?

[4] By comparison: the Bible is a foundational text of Christianity.  The Purpose-Driven Life  is a derivative how-to manual. This is a distillation of the Sequences, which is at least a start.