I recently stumbled over the relationship between freemasons and networks of social and economic influence (e.g. nobility).
I wondered what could be learned from a society which exists so long and has ideals that are not that far away from the LW goal of refining human rationality.
It is interesting to note that the freemasons seem to have highly tolerant and rational values. The freemasons orginated from independent craft guilds but became 'speculative freemasons' during the enlightenment and this is reflected in their commitment to tolerance and reason which builds on crafts traditions of teaching, truth, reliability and craft perfection. Somewhat problematic may be their unusual customs and the prejudice they face. Nonetheless they obviously can cooperate which our kind can't.
Note: I didn't attend any freemason meetings and don't know any details. What I read on Wikipedia was mostly asbtract. I might attend a meeting but unsure about it's value of information.
What do you think: What can we learn from freemasonry? What should be avoided? Is there any freemason here who might provide insights?
Relevants comments (no posts) on LW:
Interview systems for admission to LW
Use of prejudice about freemasons
A post about an LW symbol prompted this comment about freemason icons.
Modern masonic groups don't really have any rationalist ideals anymore. It's largely a social/charitable fraternity for older men. Most of the charitable work affects the local community and can't be considered effective altruism.
Interesting. Do you speak from personal experience or is that some general trend that you know of?
It's not a new thing. People interested in the occult became heavily involved in Masonry in the 19th Century. When the interest in the occult waned in later years it became more of a businessman's fraternity for networking/socializing. Masonry isn't even very useful for networking in most places because so many of the members are above retirement age.
I think it is good to have some difference between "respected members" and "newcomers". For example on LW website we have karma, but that would not work offline. The difference can motivate the new members to do tasks that are likely to bring them membership in the respected group.
Before LW, my favorite web forum was the developer forum for Battle for Wesnoth. The discussions there were about many things, including politics and other potentially mindkilling stuff. The forum didn't have karma, but in some sense there were "respected members": the people who contributed to the game. When a conflict started, the project contributors had an advantage. And they were usually significantly more rational then the other side. Partially it was because they had something to protect: the game. For example, when a new idea was proposed for the game, they were likely to evaluate not just how cool could it be, but also how much work and maintenance would it require and what could possibly go wrong. Partially it was because the type of people who talk a lot, enjoy conflicts, but never do anything useful, were not among them. Some people join a project forum not because they want to help a project, but because they merely want to "express their opinions"; it is good to have a filter that separates them from people who really want to do something meaningful. -- Because the whole system was informal, I cannot say exactly how many "levels" there were, and what exactly were their requirements.
Analogically, in a rationalist community, people should be respected for something else than being a good speaker or being able to create a faction within the community. One obvious level is working for MIRI or CFAR. But that's too high; we need lower levels, too. The level one should be possible to reach relatively simply, but not automatically by merely coming to meetups. It should be "something useful beyond mere socializing". Such as: organizing the meetups, translating a part of the Sequences, making a lecture about a rationalist topic, creating and distributing HP:MoR flyers, etc. Because there are things that should be done; so it makes sense to reward them. Also, this helps to select the subset of our kind that can cooperate; it can be useful if they recognize each other explicitly.
You say that
but it still seems to have worked. That seems to imply the a precise definition of levels is not needed (and might be associated with phyg). But that doesn't preclude from using recognizable plain terms to refer to community members.
You mention MIRI and CFAR volunteers and meetup organizers. The survey mentions lurkers and poster of Comments, Discussion and Main. Are there any more in between? Is going to meetups a requirement for 'advancement'? Not being (able) to go to a meetup (yet) I nonetheless would think that it is required to establish a real social connection.
Maybe you are right. I see some differences, but I am not sure how important they are.
There are people who contribute to the mission, but are not visible. They can work for MIRI or CFAR, but be completely invisible in the forum (or just a little visible, but not using their real name, so almost no one connects their opinions online with the fact that they also contribute their work). On the other hand, nothing prevents a person to get to the list of top contributors by merely writing a lot of sane comments. I would like to have a system which gives the former a higher position than the latter. But maybe it's not really necessary. If someone from MIRI or CFAR would like to translate their job to karma points, they could achieve it easily by writing a few articles related to their work.
My personal informal ladder is like this: Leaders; MIRI/CFAR Team Members; Other Famous People; Meetup Contributors; Article Authors; Meetup Participants; Commenters; Lurkers. Of course it depends on e.g. how many and how good articles the person wrote, etc. So specifically in my system you would be already higher than people who merely participate in the meetups, but you could gain a higher level by helping to organize one in your area. Or you could skip the meetup levels by becoming sufficiently famous or cooperating on a CFAR project. Now that I think about it more, the system does not need to be linear: the levels I wrote would naturally separate into parallel "online" and "offline" branches.
The important thing: I would like to encourage people to spend more effort in the "offline" branch, if possible. Again, it depends on the scale of contribution: writing HP:MoR is more useful than organizing a local meetup; but writing a thousand moderately smart comments is probably not. (And even within the "online" branch, I would like people to write a high-quality article about a topic they understand instead of thousand moderately smart comments.)
Good question. I've been thinking of the social arm of the rationality scene for a while as a revival or modernization of the concept of a fraternal society, of which the Masons are probably the most famous example, or of the social clubs with which they were often associated; but I haven't looked much into best practices for that sort of organization. In retrospect it seems like a stupidly obvious thing to be asking. Here's what I can think of off the top of my head.
Fundamentally I think societies like the Masons get most of their value not from any specific goals or practices, but simply from being a nucleus for cooperation and social contact among sub-Dunbar groups of intelligent people. As long as you only care about intellectual interaction, it's probably easier to find such a nucleus now than it was in the decades when these groups were most prominent -- the whole point of social media is to provide a platform where groups of people can agglutinate -- but if you're looking for physical, in-person interaction it's harder than ever. Any further development of this aspect of the scene should keep that in mind.
Having somewhat nebulous goals is probably a feature, not a bug. If your social scene is into sponsoring charity and furthering rational values in a general sort of way, but is intentionally apolitical with regard to religion, politics, or the other major alignments of the time, you're essentially contributing to a partial inoculation against ideology. This strikes me as both prosocial and instrumentally useful to members.
It's common for these societies to require some sort of initiatory ordeal. Anthropologically these are pretty common and serve several purposes, but most importantly they're a hard-to-fake signal of dedication and in some sense competence, functioning as a filter for people with high maturity and executive function and against dilettantes and freeloaders. I think some version of this this has the potential to be very useful for us, albeit with the caveat that it's probably the most cultish practice of the Masons and their various peers. It might not need to take the form of an ordeal, though; Burning Man culture, for example, has similar barriers to entry implicit in the logistics of getting to and surviving in a fantastically hostile desert for a week.
Incidentally, it's somewhat improper to refer to this sort of thing as a cult, as you allude in your links; many such societies have goals and often a body of ritual praxis, but it's rare for them to share any specific orthodoxy, and most are explicitly nondenominational.
We had one. It was called "reading the frickin' Sequences". It was on every tongue, in every thread. Ah, it was a golden age! Then men and elves grew soft.
I'm working on it, but you have to admit they are extremely long. They're several years of content and not all of them are easy to internalize.
I understand that joining (and more importantly becoming accepted in) an (online) community should require some effort. You don't join /r/HPMOR without having read at least a couple of chapters. You don't join a Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons forum without at least knowing a little bit about the games.
But more importantly, I think, isn't the effort that preceded joining the community. It's the commitment to improvement that matters. When you join a baseball team, you're not judged on your ability to throw or hit a ball, you're judged on your willingness to come to trainings and observe the games your team plays.
So having the Sequences as (part of) a rite of initiation is okay, but there would need to be some system of support to help newcomers through them.
Fair point. I don't actually think that the move away from that was a bad one, though; reading the Sequences is at the very least a bit too easy to paint as indoctrination. It also selects for people with large amounts of free time, which might not be what we're looking for; the people most likely to read 500,000 words are, or are indistinguishable from, bored teenagers.
(Disclaimer: I have in fact read the frickin' Sequences.)
An average bored teenager spends a lot of time online, but not systematically reading texts about rationality. There are just too many alternatives, and many of them are hundred times more attractive to a random teenager. Making the choice to spend that time reading the Sequences instead of something else certainly means something.
I understand if people are too busy to read the Sequences. However, the more comments they write on LW, the smaller my understanding becomes. Could we have a community norm of expecting people to read 10 articles before they start contributing, and then 1 additional article for each 10 comments they write? Yeah, in real life it would be complicated to measure, but the idea is that if someone has enough time to chat on the internet, then they also have the time to read a part of the Sequences, they just prefer not to.
I think I agree with the general thrust of this, although I still think you're underestimating the attractiveness of Sequences-like material to a certain type of teenager. When I was that age, I was reading political philosophy of about the same length and density and, er, somewhat lesser overall quality; the Sequences didn't exist at the time, but if they had I expect they would have scratched that itch far more effectively. I am of course a sample space of one, but the survey results do seem to suggest that I'm not entirely wrong: we do skew awfully hard towards college-aged people and younger.
In any case, I'm not saying that reading the Sequences isn't a good idea; if it wasn't, I wouldn't have stuck it out that far myself. I just don't think it's a particularly good thing to be targeting as part of the initiatory phase of someone's communication with the LW community. Particularly the physical, person-to-person part of it, which is what I was mainly referring to.
Reading a body of 'sacred texts' (ahem) is not uncommon as part of the preparation of initiation rituals. What may be missing is some kind of examination of the competence of the 'apprentice'.
For a society: Yes. Definitely. It allows to adapts to change. And we live in changing times.
Definitely. And if the meetups grow in size structure is needed and such a filter for competence may be helpful.
I wonder whether EY would condone rituals like Brennan's in http://lesswrong.com/lw/p1/initiation_ceremony/ for such a purpose. Even if grossly exaggerated this surely looks like a filter for competent and mature people.
I guess you are referring to http://lesswrong.com/lw/2mp/burning_man_meetup_bayes_camp/ . Can somebody tell whether that was successfulk in this sense?
I was actually talking about Burning Man as a broader social phenomenon. As it happens, though, I did attend Bayes Camp in 2011 and 2012, and I'm pretty happy with it in this context; I'm still in touch with many of the people I met through it, and I think the difficulty and expense of helping set up a camp was a strong contributor to that bond.
Incidentally, there seems to be something similar going on among CFAR alumni; but as I don't belong to that group I can't comment too authoritatively on it.
At the London meetup today there was talk around having a register of skills that LW people were available to help with, and I was reminded of freemasonry on a general level.
The thing about freemasonry is that as far as I can see, it works. That is, members seem to be more successful than non-members from similar backgrounds (though I would be very pleased to see rigorous evidence on the subject). So it seems to me that forming a freemason-like organization (and presumably tweaking any obvious problems, but defaulting to their ruleset since it's been successful in practice) would be an effective way to help our members achieve their goals.
(I guess the obvious counterproposal is: why don't we just all join the existing freemasons rather than doing work to duplicate them?)
Women aren't allowed to be Freemasons, except for a few rare and extenuating circumstances.
I think atheists are also banned.
It's complicated. English Freemasonry does not accept atheists. Continental Freemasonry does. Swedish Freemasonry accepts only Christians.
That wasn't clear from what I read on WIkipedia etc. Freemasonry is in general quite open to different religions. But indeed belief in a 'supreme being' is required. This issue is analysed in some depth here: http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/atheism-freemasonry.html Interestingly the first point discussed is the suggested incapability of the convited atheist to morality.
There are quite a few comparable 'lodges' for women.
The main disadvantage is really that there are few that admit both genders.
I'm not a freemason, but from the outside it looks like it went the way of many other former political organizations and became essentially a community organization -- there was a lodge between my college and the Rite-Aid, and all their [visible] activities were things like car shows.
There are probably freemasons with blogs; I ran across one years ago, read through the archive, and got the impression that either they're a standard community organization or ~that's what they want you to think~. Given that the latter is indistinguishable from the former unless something breaks, starting a new organization sounds better than entryism -- at least assuming there are enough people to make it viable and useful.
Better how though? I just meant that setting up our own organization and getting a viable initial population to join would be work, and it seems pointless if we'd achieve the same result by joining an existing one.
Joining an existing one means having to deal with existing members. If you want an organization to advance a certain set of goals, whether they're policy goals or just networking with similar people (given that similar(LW) is different than similar(freemason)), it seems like it'd be easier to have general agreement, shared background, etc. across all the members, which is something you don't get from entryism -- you have to expend energy on spreading that background, getting existing members to align with the entryists, and so on.
Admittedly, I also have aesthetic problems with going "your social club is now our rationality group", but my priors in the direction of freemasons-as-just-a-social-club are not all that strong, due to both little information and the geographical sources of that information -- for purely statistical reasons, I wouldn't expect many rationality groups way out in the hills.
That might be right, but I am not convinced. It seems to me possible that the following might be true:
In which case, forming a freemasonry-like organization would be valuable in that way only if it manages to recruit a lot of influential people who can help other members as freemasons (hypothetically) have helped one another. That certainly might work but I don't see that it could be guaranteed.
I like this idea a lot. In most real-life communities, members help each other out and prosper. This is one of the prime reasons why people keep going to church, for instance.
But for that the LW meetups suffice. They could benefit from some more structure or cross support.
How about a Grand Meetup? Or was there one?
I would reccomend segmenting it from LW a bit.
With 'it' you mean the (grand) meetup(s). Or?
Heh. Causality slug bug!
Freemasons do occult rituals. As far as I understand they are psychologically intensive. and I would guess that the average rationalist wouldn"t like engaging into that sort of activity.
We rather want rituals such as CFAR group exercises than occult ones.
An experienced rationalist should be able to deal with all things real life is throwing at him. Exam stress is actually not much different from occult rituals - you are left in the blue as to what the questioner is about to throw at you. It will be not much different from any ritual (some actually seem to think that these are our modern initiation rituals). And real life has other stressors that are psychologically intensive. What is the difference?
That doesn't mean that rationalists should blindly try out dangerous (physical or psychical) situations at random.