As there are many people here here who attended CFAR workshops, I wanted to ask, if you understand why there are no online workshops, even when the in-person workshops were not possible due to the pandemic. In my experience, everything that does not require physical contact (like martial arts) can be taught online. There can be some inconveniences, of course, but if planned well, it can work quite smoothly. I can think about very small amount of reasons, and none of them seems persuasive to me.

1. Maybe CFAR workshop indeed requires physical contact? Sounds quite strange.

2. Maybe organizers are not good with technologies and don't know how to do different Zoom rooms, how to make parties in Mozilla Hubs etc.? Maybe they have never heard about properly organized online schools?  Sounds even less likely.

3. Maybe CFAR workshop requires full embedding with no distraction? Well, it can be clarified in the announcement as a requirement for the participants, and for many people, it is certainly a possible thing to do.

4. Maybe CFAR somehow got into a death spiral and turned into something like  Lifespring? I would hope it is unlikely in the rationalistic community, but here is more hope than actual belief.

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  1. Maybe CFAR workshop requires full embedding with no distraction?

This is fairly close. Zoom has some distractions that limit its ability to fully replace being in the same room with people. More importantly, CFAR depends on a social environment where it feels safe to question how rational you currently are. That safety might be compromised by taking a workshop while staying in a house with people who aren't actively promoting the right kind of curiosity. I haven't talked with CFAR people about this in the past few years, but it's at least a rough explanation of their original reasons.


For me, concern about "taking a workshop while staying in a house with people who aren't actively promoting the right kind of curiosity" rings really loud alarm bells.

How would you compare that to a meditation retreat that asks participants to minimize contact with the outside world for the duration of the retreat?
I would also find that a little alarming. How alarming would depend on details. Is this meditation retreat basically just an opportunity for quiet largely-isolated meditation? (In that case, saying "keep the rest of the world at arm's length while you're doing this" seems eminently reasonable.) Is it also going to be filled with, for want of a better word, indoctrination? (In that case, not so reasonable.) Is the given reason something like "to avoid distractions"? (That seems very reasonable.) Or is it something more like "you are better off not being in contact with people whose opinions might differ"? (That would be alarming.) Your description of what CFAR said (which I appreciate I may be misunderstanding, or you may be reporting in good faith but with less than 100% accuracy) seems to me like it's leaning in the more-alarming direction. If I take it exactly at face value, it's not so alarming. But what you describe seems like exactly the sort of thing I would expect them to say in a world where their purposes are a bit nefarious ("attempt to rewrite participants' values to bring their goals nearer ours", as opposed to "help participants reflect on their own goals and achieve them"). This is a concern it's worth having because it seems like this sort of slight nefariousness is something of an attracting state for seminars of this kind.
I haven't tried to find a clear explanation of why meditation retreats are more valuable than other approaches to meditation. I have some intuitions, but I expect that most meditation instructors would say something like "experience tells us this is what works". That's also most of how CFAR ended up with its current approach. I'm also relying a lot on personal experience - I'm more open to new ideas and new habits in a multi-day retreat than in the other contexts that I've tried. Any workshop, meditation retreat, or university is going to involve some amount of indoctrination. CFAR does a fairly ordinary amount of it compared to those reference classes. You're correct that it's hard to know in advance whether something like this will brainwash you. It seems healthy to plan in advance to get sanity checks from your pre-CFAR friends a week after the workshop, and then repeat that a year later. CFAR is pretty comfortable with participants seeking out contrary opinions before and after workshops. The post Hold Off On Proposing Solutions provides evidence that temporarily suppressing certain types of opinions can enable people to be more creative about finding good ideas. CFAR participants appear to benefit from similar effects.
Is there any proven benefits of meditation retreats in comparison with regular meditation?

It is a good justification for this behavior, but it does not seem to be the most rational choice. Indeed, one could specify that the participant of the online workshop must have a private space (own bedroom, office, hotel room, remote place in a park - whatever fits). I am pretty sure there is a significant number of people, who would prefer an online workshop to the offline one (especially when all offline are canceled due to COVID), and who have or can find a private space for the duration of the workshop. To say that we are not doing it because some pe... (read more)

That's not what "rational" is about. To know whether their decision is rational you would have to compare it to the alternative choices. Holding a workshop has an opportunity cost. If CFAR is not holding a workshop they are doing something else with the time. I don't have a good idea what CFAR did in the time they didn't hold workshops but without knowing that you can't make any decision about whether holding online workshops would have been better then what they did.  That's mostly irrelevant given the goals that CFAR has. It would be toxic to make a decision on that basis given that "giving people what they prefer" and "giving people what will improve their rationality" are two different very things. There are a lot of personal development workshops who's makers focus on the former. CFAR doesn't.  As far as high end restaurants go, high end restaurants don't let people order from multiple options. Attempting to give everybody different options is cheap low end and mid level restaurants do.  Apart from that a restaurant is a business that sells products to make a profit on selling products. That's very far from what CFAR is.
I can understand your point, but I am not persuaded yet. Let me maybe clarify why. During the year and a half of COVID, the in-person workshops were not possible. During this time, there were people, who would strongly benefit from the workshop, and the workshop would be helpful at this time (for example, they were making a career choice). Some of them can allow private places for the time of the workshop. It seems that for them, during this time the online workshop would be certainly more beneficial than no workshop at all. Moreover, conducting at least one online workshop would be a good experiment that would give useful information. It is totally not obvious to me why the priors that "online workshop is useless or harmful, taking into account opportunity cost" are so high that this experiment should not be conducted.  Yes, I hope someone from CFAR can maybe explain it better to me.



I take my guess from what I know by speaking with CFAR people. An answer from CFAR directly would likely tell you more.

The goal of a CFAR workshop is not just teaching individual techniques but giving people agency about how the think. The shared group spirit helps with that. That sense of being together is less strong with an online event and thus it's harder to reach people at that deep level.

I agree that for some people physical contact (like hugs, handshaking etc.) indeed means a lot. However, it is not for everyone. Moreover, even if the online workshop is less effective due to lack of this spirit, is it indeed so ineffective that it is worse than no workshop at all? Finally, why just not to try? It sounds like a thing that should be tried at least one time, and if it fails - well, then we see that it fails. 

Yes, I hope someone who attended CFAR (or even somehow related to it) would see this question and give their answer. 

I don't think just attending it would allow someone to answer better. A good answer would come from someone who actually speaks for CFAR.  When I was talking to Valentine (head of curriculum design at the time) a while ago he said that the spirit is the most important thing about the workshop.
"When I was talking to Valentine (head of curriculum design at the time) a while ago he said that the spirit is the most important thing about the workshop." Now, this already sounds a little bit disturbing and resembling Lifespring. Of course, the spirit is important, but I thought the workshop is going to arm us with instruments we can use in real life, not only in the emotional state of comradeship with like-minded rationalists.  

The particular instruments are not the point. 

When asked whether CFAR wanted to collaborate of scientifically validating their instruments, the answer I heard was that CFAR doesn't because it doesn't consider the instruments of central importance but considers giving people agency about changing their own thinking process of central importance. 

There are many aspects of Lifespring. If I look at the Wikipedia page it suggests that they tried to maximize the amount of people enrolled to lifespring seminars. You complain that CFAR doesn't do enough to maximize the amount of people who are exposed to CFAR content.

As I understand Lifespring tries to sell people more couses after they completed their first training. CFAR is not setup to sell you more courses after you went to the 4 day workshop.

Teaching people instruments does relatively little if people don't use them. Teaching people agency means that they won't only use the instruments taught at the workshop but also ways of thinking they make up themselves.

After leaving CFAR Julia Galef wrote the Scout Mindset because she believes that the mindset people have is of critical importance. The Solider Mindset/Scout Mindset isn'... (read more)

Ok, your point makes sense. Basically, I am trying to figure out for myself if going to the workshop would be beneficial for me.  I do believe that CFAR does not simply try to get as much money as possible. However, I am concerned that people after the workshop are strongly biased towards liking it not because it really helps, but because of psychological mechanisms akin to Lifespring. I am not saying that CFAR is doing it intentionally, it could just have been raised somehow on its own. Maybe these mechanisms are even beneficial to whatever CFAR is doing, but they definitely make evaluation harder.    
CFAR once did an experiment (not sure whether they keep doing it) where they gave questionnaires to people who participated in their workshops and to the control group (people who wanted to participate, but were not selected because of limited space). Part of the questionnaire was evaluated by other people, nominated by the participants as someone who knows them; if I remember correctly they were asked questions immediately before the workshop, and one year later. Not sure where the results are published. Seems to me that your question is mostly about how to distinguish between "participants became more productive/rational/whatever after the workshop" and "participants liked the workshop a lot", as both could lead to good feedback. That is a valid question. But mentioning Lifespring repeatedly just makes it unnecessarily confrontational, considering that "they do workshops, but no online workshops" is pretty much all these two organizations have in common; in many other aspects they seem to be the opposite of each other. If you have specific concerns whether CFAR does some specific bad actions, it would be better to ask directly "does CFAR do X, Y, and Z?". For example (looking at the Wikipedia page about Lifespring), "does CFAR physically prevent participants from leaving the workshop?" or "how many participants have died during a CFAR workshop?" Here the answers are "no" and "zero" respectively. Whatever are CFAR's true reasons for not doing online workshops, torturing and killing people are not among them. Frankly, I would also like to see more people making CFAR workshops in various ways. But it is not my place to tell them how to use their limited resources. I participated in one of those workshops, so in theory, I should be able to review my notes and make a workshop myself. I am just too lazy (ahem, time-constrained) to do that. Also, CFAR probably wouldn't be happy about it, because one of their fears is that someone will provide a shitty version of their
It would be very interesting to look at the results of this experiment in more detail.   Yes, maybe I explained what I mean not very well; however, gjm (see commentaries below) seems to get it. The point is not that CFAR is very much like Lifespring (though I may have sounded like that), the point is that there are certain techniques (team spirit, deep emotional connections etc.) that are likely to be used in such workshops, that will most certainly make participants love workshop and organizers (and other participants) , but their effect on the participant's life can be significantly weaker than their emotional change of mind.  These techniques work sufficiently worse for the online workshops, so this was one of the reason I tried to understand why CFAR does not hold online workshops. Another reason was resentment towards CFAR for not doing it, for it would be much more convenient to me.