Values Assimilation Premortem

by wolverdude4 min read26th Dec 201910 comments


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In the past 3-4 years, I went through a prolonged and painful life crisis in which I systematically deconstructed my existing worldview and slowly moved away from Evangelical Christianity into something Rationalist or Rationalist-adjacent. In the past 4 months, I've started hanging around the Berkeley Rationality community and am now dating someone embedded therein. At this point my partner is still my main connection to the specific values and practices of the community, and given that my worldview is currently being fleshed-out, she has an outsized influence on what my future beliefs and values may look like.

She has become concerned that this dynamic may be unhealthy, and to be honest, I have too. I think there is a nontrivial chance that in 10 years (or some other future timeframe), I will again find myself in some sort of existential crisis, and realize looking back that I adopted inauthentic values in this present season. So let's reach into the future and read a reflection my future self wrote about this to see if it might reveal something of what went wrong...

I was floating in philosophical space, without a firm orientation when suddenly my partner appeared, offering me both a relationship and a philosophy to orient myself. As a result, I rather uncritically swallowed her values whole without giving myself time to crystalize my own values, values that reflect how I can sustainably live whole in the world.

At the time, I thought I was thinking through them, but in reality I did not have the tools or background to think through them; I had encountered no counter-thought that would equip me to vet them properly. They were well thought-out points to my eyes, and I wanted to believe them. I was tired of drifting. I really wanted to believe something, to have some basis on which to build my life. Even more my feelings for my partner and the prospect of the deep, long-term care and connection I had always dreamt of combined with my natural people-pleasing nature and made me want to be on the same page with her.

So I pretended I was in total agreement. I ignored that little voice in the back of my head saying, "I'm not sure about this," and "Something feels off here." The voice was very weak and I didn't want to hear it. It would only complicate things. And it wasn't well calibrated anyway. I still felt torn about my apostasy, especially when interacting with my friends and family who still held the faith. How was I supposed to sort out from all of that what was legitimate and what wasn't? How was I supposed to register the still, small voice amidst the torrent?

Excuses, every one. Excuses for not doing the hard, slow work of coming to a consensus with myself. And now I'm paying the price for that. Once again drifting, estranged from my community and those I'm closest to. Now I must do what I failed to do last time and take the time and care to coalesce around values I can sustainably live out. But with so many more people depending on me, it will be even harder than before, and more costly. My kids, my partners, my community... I'm so much more enmeshed than I was last time. What if I can't come to terms with them? What if I can't come to terms with myself?

All this time, and it still plagues me. I am indeed accursed. I partook of the tree of knowledge all those years ago, and I have lived by the sweat of my brow ever since, perspiring in angst over the meaning of it all and my place in the cosmos.

Okay, I got a little carried away there at the end, but you get the point. :wink: All this is playing Devil's advocate. I do not think this scenario is likely, but it is definitely possible and plausible, so it's worth having a premortem. The point of this post is to explore some potential failure modes and identify tendencies that I need to be more careful about if I want my relationship with my partner to be truly sustainable in the long run and want to minimize the chance of future existential calamities.

I think the main lesson from this exercise is that I need more arguments and perspectives on whatever I'm discussing with my partner. I know that I tend to be pretty terrible at critiquing ideas and arguments I'm encountering for the first time (as I presume most people, even most rationalists, are). I have trained myself to instinctively try to see things from other sides, but when I have no idea what another side might even look like, that doesn't work very well. Unfortunately, I also tend to be pretty terribly at seeking that information out. That might be the best point to try and intervene and change my habits, but I'm a little skeptical whether that will work based on past behavior. (I would tend to write down that I need to research X, and then never actually do it.) I do have one thing going for me here: I am open to updating, so when I do encounter another perspective I tend to execute the critique then, and it becomes part of my own perspective. As long as I'm generally consuming new outside information relevant to my discussions with my partner, I should be fine here.

The other point I'm getting from this is that I should be patient. I need to be prepared to wait for my neural network to settle on a relatively stable state, which may take years yet. That doesn't mean I can't move forward. It just means that I should pay attention to uneasiness I feel and not let myself be rushed. This is easier said than done though. NRE don't wanna waste no time, but more importantly, neither does my partner's biological clock, which is getting to the point where we need to jump on this thing relatively soon if we want to have kids. This is a balancing act I will just have to do, but I think that personally spending more time reading and thinking about the issues will speed this along, and I suspect that developing meditative practice will also help, though I haven't researched to know if that's true or not. (If anyone has knowledge here, please tell!)

There is also a legitimate argument for adopting my partner's position wholesale in some cases. If it's an issue that I don't have strong priors on and is not likely to significantly influence any major decisions I make with regard to her, I might as well just go with the flow and not complicate things unnecessarily.

There's also a larger meta-issue here. I have a lifelong wholeness project of fighting perfectionism. It's so ingrained in me that I'm pretty confident that fight will be lifelong for me. In that vein, this whole exercise could be seen as just another attempt to Do it Right The First Time™ and Never Make a Mistake®. So I do need to give myself a little freedom to screw this up, or I will really screw it up the way that I screwed up every relationship I never had before this. (Yes, I actually never dated anyone before this. I blame it on fear, shame & perfectionism + Evangelical sexual ethics taken a bit too far.)

Do you have thoughts on other failure modes I might be missing? Other strategies I might use to address this? Critiques, kudos, links, ruminations, etc? All non-trolling comments are welcome and appreciated!

(this was cross-posted from my blog)

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