Dec 20, 2011
Last Friday, the NYC Less Wrong community held their first Winter Solstice Celebration. Approximately twenty of us gathered for dinner and a night of ritual. We sang songs, told stories, and recited litanies. The night celebrated ancient astronomers, and the work that humanity has done for the past 5000 years. It paid tribute to the harshness of the universe, respecting it as worthy opponent. We explored Lovecraftian mythology, which intersects with our beliefs in interesting ways.
And finally, we looked to the future, vowing to give a gift to tomorrow.
This is the first of 2-3 posts on this subject. In this one, I'm telling a story about what we did and why I wanted to. In the followup(s), I’ll explain the design principles that went into planning such an event, and what we learned from our first execution of it. I’ll also be posting a PDF of a ritual book, similar to the one we read from but with a few changes based on initial, obvious observations.
Why exactly did we do this? Doesn’t this smack of organized religion? Who the hell is Lovecraft and why do we care?
Depending on your background, this may require the bridging of some inferential distance, as well as emotional distance. Bear with me.
(If at the end, you DO still think this was a dangerous idea, or one you don't want popularized on Less Wrong, I want you to let me know. We're probably just going to disagree, but I want a sense of what the costs are of emphasizing this type of thing here)
To begin, a Just So Story, true enough for our purposes:
The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. It ushers in a time of cold and darkness.
For young civilizations, it was a time when if you HADN’T spent the year preparing adequately for the future, then before spring returned, you would run out of food and die. If you hadn’t striven to use your tribe’s collective wisdom, to work hard beyond what was necessary for immediate gratification... if you hadn’t harnessed the physical and mental tools that humans have but that few other animals do... then the universe, unflinchingly neutral, would destroy you without a second thought. And even if you did do these things, it might kill you anyway. Because fairness isn’t built into the equations of the cosmos.
But it wasn't just the threat of death that inspired the first winter holidays. It was that sense of unfairness, coupled with the desperate hope that world couldn’t really be that unfair. It wouldn’t have occurred to the first squirrels that stored food for winter, but it gradually dawned upon ancient hominids, as their capacity for abstract reasoning developed, alongside their desire to throw parties.
Our tendency is to anthropomorphize. Today, we angrily yell at our cars and computers when they fail us. Rationally we know they are unthinking hulks of metal, but we still ascribe malevolence when the real culprit is a broken, unsentient machine.
There are plausible reasons for humans to have evolved this trait. One of the most complicated tasks a human has to do is predict the actions of other humans. We need to be able to make allies, to identify deceptive enemies, to please lovers. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist and I should be careful when telling this sort of Just-So story, but I can easily imagine selection pressures that resulted in a powerful ability to draw conclusions about sentient creatures similar to ourselves.
And then, there was NOT a whole lot of pressure to NOT use this tool to predict, say, the weather. Many natural forces are just too complex for humans to be good at predicting. The rain would come, or it wouldn’t, regardless of whether we ascribed it to gods or “emergent complexity.” So we told stories about gods, with human motivations, and we honestly believed them because there was nothing better.
And then, we had the solstice.
The world was dark and cold. The sun was retreating, leaving us only with the pale moon and stars that lay unimaginably far away. There was the enroaching threat of death, and just as powerfully, there was the threat that sentient cosmic forces that held supreme power over our world were turning their backs on us. And the best we could hope for was to throw a celebration in their honor and pray that they wouldn’t be angry forever, that the sun would return and the world would be reborn.
And regardless, take a moment to be glad for having worked hard the previous year, so that we had meat stored up and wine that had finished fermenting.
But as ages passed, people noticed something interesting: there was a pattern to the gods getting angry. Weather may be complex and nigh-unpredictable. But the movements of the heavens... they follow rules simple enough for human minds to understand, if only you take the time to look.
We had a question. “When will the sun retreat, and when will it return?”
When you really care about knowing the answer, you can’t make something up. When you need to plan your harvest and prepare for winter so that your family doesn’t starve, you can’t just say “Oh, God will stop getting angry in a few months.”
If you want real knowledge, that you can apply to make your world better...
Then you need to do science. Astronomy was born.
I want to give you some perspective on how much we cared about this. Stonehenge is an ancient archaeological wonder. To the best of our knowledge, it began as a burial site around 3000 BCE. Over the next thousand years, it was gradually built, in major phases of activity every few hundred years. Between 2600 and 2400 BCE, there was a surge of construction. Huge stones were carted over huge distances, to create a monument that’s lasted five thousand years.
30 Sarsen stones. Each of them was at least 25 tons. They were carried 25 miles.
80 bluestones. Four tons each. Carried over 150 miles.
In this era, the height of locomotive technology was “throw it on a pile of logs and roll it.”
We don’t know exactly how they did all this. We don’t know all the reasons why. But we know at least one: The megaliths at Stonehenge are arranged, very specifically, to predict the Solstices. To the moment of dawn.
30 stones, each 25 tons, carried over 25 miles. 80 stones, each four tons, each carried over 150 miles.
200 years of that.
That’s how much we cared about the answer to that question.
To modern society, Winter Solstice isn’t very scary. We have oil to heat our homes, we have mechanical plows that clear our streets when the snow falls and other mechanical plows that work our fields all year round to supply us with food, carted from thousands of miles away, across land and sea. Many people today claim to enjoy Winter, although Richard Adams may accurately say that they really enjoy their protection from it.
Modern winter holidays are about enjoying that protection, not assuaging fear.
But there is a power in that, all the same. My family’s Christmas Eve celebration is one of my favorite parts of the year. The extended family gathers. We have a big feast. Then 20+ people huddle up and sing songs and tell stories for hours. I don’t believe in the literal messages of these rituals, but they have a power to them that I rarely see outside of religious-inspired works of art. They feel timeless and magical even though most Christmas carols have only existed for 50 years or so. The repetition of them each year grants them ritual strength. And the closeness I feel with my family grants them warmth.
Together, all these things are precious.
I didn’t realize how precious, though, until the year I invited a friend of mine to the Christmas Eve party. Her first reaction amused me: “Wait, you guys literally sit around a fire and sing Christmas carols? Like, in movies?” Her second reaction, as the night ended, was even more amusing: “Oh my god, I had no idea Christmas could be so awesome!” But I knew what she meant, and it was accompanied with the realization that NOT everybody got to have experiences like this.
And that made Christmas Eve all the more special. It also made me realize how ridiculous it is that I only get to have that experience once a year.
That desire nagged at me a few years, and it was accompanied by another nagging dissatisfaction: That I didn’t really believe in the words of the songs. They had power, generated by the magnitude of the songwriter’s belief, and given lyric form by carefully honed skill. But they weren’t true, and the falsehood itched at the back of my mind. Not because of the songs themselves, but because there weren't other songs, equally beautiful and with the same cultural weight, that were about things that I truly believed in.
Flash forward five years. I’ve since discovered the sequences at Less Wrong. They outline studies in human behavior, how lots of our thinking is flawed if we want to achieve particular goals, how it can be hard to even know what our goals ARE, and why these are incredibly important questions to answer. Not just so we can succeed at life, but because if you’re developing machine intelligence, and you haven’t studied these questions (and solved problems that are, as I write this, unsolved), you could really, really, wreck the world. Wreck it worse than cold, uncompromising Nature ever could, worse and more unrecoverably than Hollywood has portrayed in explosive blockbuster films.
But if these questions are answered, and certain technological problems are solved, we can do incredible, important, beautiful things. In the past year I’ve read powerful works of science, prose, and poetry that have resonated with all my strongest values. They’ve changed how I approach my life and how I look at the future.
For the past year I’ve attended the local Less Wrong meetup. I’ve made new friends. I’ve gotten involved with a community that encourages everyone to figure out what their goals are and try to achieve them, using the best tools they can find. We’re going through similar life experiences. And for the past year, I’ve been seeking out songs and stories that are fun, powerful and that we all truly believe in.
Ritual has been important in my life. I recognize that there is a risk whenever you begin elevating ideas and seeking them out because they are powerful and moving. I don’t want to start a self-propogating organization designed to accrue followers blindly reciting the faith. But those of us who have studied these ideas and take them seriously - I want us to be able to find each other, to create friendship and family, and to celebrate together.
However, these powerful beliefs we share come with a cost:
I now believe a lot of really weird stuff that’s hard to explain to the average person without sounding crazy. To certain people, they sound genuinely horrifying. I believe that living forever is a perfectly reasonable goal. I think that in the not too distant future, people will be able to radically alter their minds and bodies. In the not much more distant future, there’s a good chance people will be able to live as uploaded computer programs. More frightening: I believe that people will eventually WANT to do this.
To be clear: I’m currently lukewarm about a lot of this - my beliefs are complex, and like most humans I have a poor understanding of what I really value. But I can imagine the future me, plugging into the Matrix like it was no big deal.
All of this pales compared to the possibility of AI. The rest of humanity goes about their daily lives, planning for a future that involves slightly smaller iPhones and bigger televisions, vaguely annoyed that it’s 2012 and we don’t have flying cars yet. Blissfully unaware that with barely any warning, an AGI might be created and then bootstrap itself to godhood.
Blissfully unaware of how big mindspace is, and how little human morality would matter to a ghost of perfect emptiness, and how hard it is to create a mind from scratch that would care about us the way we care about ourselves.
But perhaps most blissful of all, they look upon the horrors that nature has inflicted us, and they give them nice sounding names like “God’s mysterious ways”, or “The Natural Order of Things.”
Now, who the hell is Lovecraft and why should we care?
H.P. Lovecraft was a science fiction/horror writer from the 1920s. He wrote about alien gods, about humans changing their bodies and minds, about the pursuit of immortality. But what makes him particularly relevant is one dominant underlying theme - that the universe is absolutely, unforgivingly neutral. That human life and morality has no inherent value. That mind-space is huge, and that possibility space is even huger, and that 99% of the things in possibility space are utterly terrifying to modern human values. “All my tales,” Lovecraft said, “are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”
Lovecraft identified as an atheist, a materialist and even a rationalist, and his protagonists often identify as such. He was also, as far as I can tell, a pessimist who hated people in general. I’m not sure what his beliefs about morality in the real world were. But he fascinates me because his writings suggest a dark mirror image of our ideals. Professor Quirrell to our Harry Potter, as a certain fanfiction would have it.
This is how Call of Cthulhu begins:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
We, of the Less Wrong community, have gotten a glimpse of an expanse of possibility-space outside the scope of most people’s imagination. I know some people who are genuinely incapable of processing it. I know others who would, unless they took an initially painful plunge into the deep after us, look upon us with confusion and despair.
We ask hard questions about humanity, and about the universe, and a lot of the answers are dark. The Milgram experiment has been repeated many times, and consistently, we find that over half of humanity is willing to electrocute another person to death on the authority of a man in a lab coat. Across the world, people are born into situations — some natural, some human-made — where they can’t provide for themselves, and it is often beyond their power to change that situation.
Every day, approximately 150,000 people die, their minds forever gone.
These are the facts. Some people stare into the Abyss and the Abyss stares back and they crawl away from the truth into the safety of ignorance.
These are facts, but there is more than one way to feel about them. We can look at the darkness of the world and wallow in despair. We can make up reasons why the darkness isn’t so bad. Or we can look at the light, the things that, by our standards, are beautiful and good. And we can say:
“This is what is possible. This is the kind of future we can have.”
And we can look at the darkness and say: “This is not acceptable. We will not rest until it is gone.” However long it takes, however hard. Our gift and curse is that we look at something as awful as Death and see no natural order of things, only a problem to be solved, that we can’t in good conscience resign ourselves to accepting.
We can do all this without Lovecraft or other made up stories. There are plenty of truths that are powerful and beautiful enough to craft a night of ritual. But an important part of Solstice Festivals IS the fun, the joviality. It can be difficult to slip directly into the kind of profound state that I want to achieve. In my family’s Christmas Eve, we begin the night with songs about Santa and Frosty - boistrous, fun songs that suggest a time of magic, friendship and generosity, even if they don’t actually have to do with a virgin born savior. As we progress through the hymnal, the songs grow more somber, and they turn to the ideas that Christmas is supposed to actually be about - the birth of Christ, peace on earth, God’s forgiveness of the world. We end with a solemn Silent Night.
In this Solstice Eve celebration, Cthulhu, Azathoth and the Necronomicon play a part akin to Santa Claus - fun, ridiculous things that don’t directly parallel AI or Existential Risk or Evolution or Immortality, but which nonetheless pay tribute to the core ideas that make those things important to us.
The night begins with many sources of light - from candles and oil lamps to gas lanterns to florescent bulbs to lasers and lava lamps. We begin with fun songs like “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Fish Men.” As the night progresses, we turn the lights off, one by one, and the songs grow darker. We occasionally read relevant snippets of Lovecraft, then abridged versions of Eliezer’s Sequences. We read the Litany of Tarski, over and over, each time facing a darker possibility that we must prepare ourselves for.
The Gift We Give to Tomorrow will be read with one candle remaining, extinguished immediately afterward.
Solstice Celebrations haven’t been truly scary for a long time, and I think that’s a mistake. We are alive today, enjoying the comfort of a warm apartment with food on the table, because millions of people have spent their lives preparing for the future. Using the best wisdom their tribe was able to give them. Finding new wisdom of their own. Working hard. Sometimes courageously speaking out, when the tribe feared a new idea. Dragging eight-thousand-pound rocks across 150 miles of land so that they could figure out when winter was coming, and prepare, so that they and their children could survive.
We honor those people, those first astronomers, and all the laborers and scientists and revolutionaries who have come since, for creating the world we have today.
And then we look to our future. Tiny stars in the distant sky, unimaginably far away, surrounded by black seas of infinity.
We will stare into that Abyss, and the Abyss will stare back at us. But we will go crazy-meta and challenge the Abyss to a staring contest and win the hell at it, because we’re aspiring rationalists and good rationalists win.
And then, jubilantly, sing of a tomorrow that is brighter than today, a tomorrow where we are worthy of those stars, and have the power to reach them.
This begins the Ritual mini-sequence. The next article is The Value (and Danger) of Ritual.