Beeminding Sin

by [anonymous]1 min read5th Jul 201316 comments


Personal Blog

(This is something that I originally posted to the CFAR Alumni list, and then fleshed out a bit and posted to the Beeminder blog. It has been well received and there have been suggestions that I post it here, so here it is.)

For a long time I found that I was spending too much time on certain unproductive things and struggled with getting myself to do what I actually wanted to do with my time. The big break came one morning when I noticed that there was a very tight correlation between the things I wanted to stop doing and the traditional Christian concept of Sin.

Once I noticed this, I went straight to the Wikipedia page for the Seven Deadly Sins, and mapped them onto my own vices:

Lust: Porn, flirting, etc.

Gluttony: Junk food like cookies and chocolate. I might add "more than two bowls of spaghetti" here; the stuff is just too easy to eat.

Sloth: Wasting time on stuff that isn't goal directed or self-improving. Being non-industrious. Failing to strive. Useless news/discussion websites, etc.

Wrath: Acting irrationally out of anger, pain, or frustration. Chewing someone out, violence, slamming doors, etc.

Envy: Not reading, using, or appreciating someone else's work because solving a problem is caught up in my identity.

I'm too much of a cheapskate to have trouble with material excess (Greed), and haven't been burned by Pride yet, so I wouldn't know what to avoid. Maybe I'll figure these out soon.

The nice thing about traditional concepts like Sin is that they come bundled with some guarantees of relative completeness for very little cognitive investment on my part. Someone has tested and developed this thing very extensively; even if it's not perfect, all I have to do is use it. Further, concepts like Sin come with a rich aesthetic heritage that lends them some emotional weight and solidness that fresh concepts just don't have. A culture that's been going for >1500 years will leave behind some impressive artifacts. We would be fools not to take advantage of them.

While I figured all of this out, I had also been looking for a way to beemind my way out of these harmful behaviors. I'd considered a number of schemes, but none were satisfactory. Armed with the concept of Sin, I had a comprehensive and reasonably clear-cut list of things to avoid. When I read how Bethany beeminds sugar-free days, I knew exactly what I had to do.

How it works is this: if I do something that I judge to be sinful, I don't get to report a Sin-Free Day to Beeminder, otherwise, I do. I need 5 Sin-Free Days per week. Simple as that, and Sin is gone. It's glorious.

At work, we joke that the accountants are trying to kill us. They leave donuts and chocolate and cookies out for everyone, and we eat them, whether we like it or not. Well not anymore; it's just not worth it to eat that cookie when it means that I immediately fail the whole day, so I don't. The only reason I didn't eat like 20 tasty cookies today is because I beemind Sin.

The traditional solution to akrasia and especially Sin is Willpower and self-loathing. As an akratic, I don't have Magical Free Will, but I don't have to hate myself either, because I have the next best thing: Beeminder!

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16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:25 AM
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Your envy example sounds a lot more like pride.

When you do sin, what incentive do you have not to just sin for the rest of the day?

Same incentive as before the Beeminder setup.

Ironically, many Christians (of the Protestant variety?) would be opposed to such a program) of tracking your sinlessness. The idea, as far as I understand it, is that you end up with a sort of meta-problem with Pride, where you're so convinced of your method of eradicating sin that you fail to notice where you were incapable of seeing your sin in the first place.

With actualized divine intervention, the danger is obvious. You prevent the real work of the the Spirit's intervention from fixing you. To paraphrase Lewis, you're busy rearranging the rooms of your house where Jesus wants to come along and build you a new house.

There is probably a secular analogue here. The idea of Grace) is that you need not worry overmuch about your current failures, because you're mindful that your optimal self is just so far removed from yourself in the long term. Failures at local optimization then are of such drastic difference in magnitude as failures at global optimization. Becoming too cozy in solving the faults you do see can damage your ability to find bigger faults.

It all depends whether the moral landscape is riddled with local maxima.

There are other ancient traditions besides Christianity. It might be worth looking at their equivalents or near-equivalents, to see what's common between them (or particularly insightful in just one).

You probably want to choose traditions that have lived for a long time, not merely existed for a long time. If someone writes a book and it survives 2000 years, that's some evidence that it's got valuable insights in it; but if someone writes a book, and then other people work on refining its ideas for 1000 years, and then the results survive another 1000 years, that's probably better.

Sloth: Wasting time on stuff that isn't goal directed or self-improving. Being non-industrious. Failing to strive. Useless news/discussion websites, etc.

This is a modern understanding of the sin of sloth. Back in the old days "acedia" was closest to what we moderns would call "clinical depression":

What's the downside of lust?

Short time horizon? Some folks spend a lot of time on porn, or money on lap-dances, etc.

Lust seems to be closely related to envy, but more visceral and with more brain chemicals. Wanting what you can have, and which is good for you, is okay. Getting off to what you can't have is likely less so.

Porn is a potentially addictive cycle of erotically pretending you have something you don't. Its current widespread availability is a completely new innovation that we shouldn't prima facie expect to be healthy, although it's possible it could be shown to be so for reasonable portions of the population.

I don't have an unbiased sample on quitting porn, as I only know the outcomes of those who have done so and succeeded, including myself. I've been meaning to do a survey of actual studies and potentially report it in Discussion. I can only say for myself and a lot of others that making the choice has shown the greatest productivity increase of any small life-tweak I've tried, an improvement far beyond just regaining the time previously spent directly on it.

The community I joined for it doesn't strike me as the most scientifically minded, and the information often passed around there hinges on hearsay. I'd be interested in the other side of things, or rather the whole story as understood by the best research.

I'm curious how many of these concerns could be applied to fiction in general.

I'm curious how many of these concerns could be applied to fiction in general.

I do think that video gaming is likely to be a far more detrimental hobby than people realize, especially if they choose the wrong sort of game to play. My favorite style of games use a lot of the same parts of my mind as my research- and so I find that in order to be maximally productive during the week, I need to limit them to the weekends or not at all, and play games that use different parts of my mind during the week if I'm gaming during the week.

I think that there are similar troubles with reading fiction, especially if you're like me where you find it difficult to stop reading engaging narratives, even if you dislike them. I made the mistake of getting the first four Game of Thrones books at once from Amazon, which meant I lost about 40 hours that week to reading them (almost) nonstop, even though I quickly realized the books were making me miserable and thus were quite possibly things I should not read. The more generally applicable argument is about generalizing from fictional evidence. Once you have a well-developed sense of empathy, I think you're much better off reading non-fiction book about interacting with people than reading more fiction, for example, and there are Waste of Hope reasons to dislike escapist fiction.

Your last paragraph ought to be at the beginning, maybe even as a summary preceding the body of the post.

My understanding of the Christian notion of sinful pride is that it's all about paying too much attention to yourself. If you spend your time thinking about how great you are, or how awful you are, that's Pride; if you admire something only because it's yours, or because it makes you feel good, that's Pride. (I think I got this way of thinking about it from C S Lewis; it may be partly his invention.)

A further generalization might say that the underlying failure mode is simply treating oneself differently from others, and that the complete absence of this would mean something like perfect altruism -- caring as much about any other person's welfare as about one's own. Of course that no longer seems to fit the term "pride" very well.

From C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, the character who embodies Pride has this dialogue with an angel on the threshhold of Heaven:

“I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances… I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness–and scope for the talents that God has given me…”
“No,” said the other. “I can promise you none of those things. No sphere of usefulness; you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents; only forgiveness for having perverted them.”

You can be altruistic to others and still be prideful. One way I fall into it is preferring World A (where my suffering is greater, but I know that I have some responsibility for any respite I get) to World B (where I'm doing much better, but I'm not at all the cause of my good fortune). It's not bad to delight in using the talents you have and sharing them with others, but it is a problem for Christians to be possessive of those gifts or to need others to be dependent on you.

Sorry, I wasn't clear. I didn't mean that the total absence of pride-in-this-sense is exactly the same thing as perfect altruism, only that the latter would be a consequence of the former.

C. S. Lewis is laughing in his grave.

Which I mean in a completely positive sense.

If you choose the analogy from this domain, perhaps you could also try the expert cure from the same domain. Make an analogy, keep what seems useful.