Traditions and Rationality.

by NatashaRostova3 min read10th Dec 201638 comments


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A couple months ago I read a post on facebook about how perhaps more young female virgins should sell their virginity, if they receive a lot of money. It was based on this article about a young women selling her virginity for 120k.

What bugs me is these cases are often lazy in assuming there aren't incredibly complex systems lurking behind these simple calculations. 


If you wanted to be rational about this, you could map your perception of this story to dollars, take the situation as well specified, and estimate what a women ought to do (or at least seriously consider) given those circumstances. For the sake of argument let's assume that the news story is totally accurate, and it's a real decision that is available to all young women. Given this, would this analysis robust?

[Edit: Daniel_Burfoot makes a fair point that I shouldn't cite facebook posts as they are supposed to have a semblance of privacy. Since my argument doesn't rely on the specific post made by EY, I abstracted it away. This is why his name is in the comments.]

About 53 years ago Karl Popper wrote about the hostility between tradition and rationality in an essay in Conjectures and Refutations. In a passage that could have come from Less Wrong he wrote “There is a traditional hostility between rationalism and traditionalism. Rationalists are inclined to adopt the attitude: 'I am not interested in tradition. I want to judge everything on its own merits; I want to find out its merits and demerits, and I want to do this quite independently of any tradition. I want to judge it with my own brain, and not with the brains of other people who lived long ago.'”

That's kinda the tone set by some rationalists. Actually, I think more often than not it's the right way to study certain problems in rationality. Does it always work though? I'm skeptical.

Popper framed this problem as rationalists vs. traditionalists. He didn't claim to know the answer or take a side, but did argue that rationalists were sometimes too dismissive of traditional without at least critically examining it. What even is tradition though? Well, about 31 years after Popper's article a Computer Scientist, R. G. Reynolds, wrote a paper on culture as an algorithm. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's an accepted model for the crowd reading this argument. Based on my own casual observations of culture, it's easy (or at least feels easy) to intuitively understand why some cultural rules are formed. It's particularly nice when it's based on something hidden at the time, which we directly observe in the future, like how pork is forbidden by some religions, which we now know is due to trichinosis caused by parasites in pork.

Sometimes it's harder. The evolution of sexual norms is complicated. It appears to be the lowest level code both genetically and culturally. If you pull on a string you never really know what's going to happen. It seems a reasonable claim that the distributed filtering method of a cultural algorithm could, in theory, optimize over norms and dimensions that are too complicated for us to intuit or hold in our heads. I don't want to come across as too nihilistic though, once we figure out that female genital mutilation is horrible, we should encourage people to stop (that is its own challenge).

Sometimes these algorithms run crazy weird experiments. I was on vacation last year visiting the Yucatan state in Mexico, and saw the sacrificial wells of Chichen Itza. I don't remember their specific rules, but they'd drown a young virgin to encourage rain for their crops. What is creepy is that it is a very rational and reasonable experiment, even though they weren't acutely aware they were running an experiment. If killing a single person could have a low chance of improving the rain, well you need to do it or test it. At least until you're sure it doesn't work. And, hey, life is weird enough. If sacrificing people had some impact on the cosmos it wouldn't have been that much weirder than volcanoes. At least at the time. My point is there are some intensely complex dynamics at play that might be hidden to our brains.

Thinking through this stuff is hard sometimes, because we view ourselves as having an unclouded vision of sexuality as we contrast ourselves to basically everyone else who isn't a well educated person living on the West Coast of the U.S. in 2016 (and if not with us geographically, with us in spirit). And again, I'm not trying to take some post-colonialist (I can't believe I used that term) view that 'all cultures are equally valid.' If we view gay marriage or acceptance as an experiment, the prediction that “nothing bad will happen except lots of people will be happier, with some who won't be at first but will eventually move on” seems to have been the right prediction.

If everyone adopted the Less Wrong framework would sexuality drastically change? Or are we a heterogeneous group who self-selected into this because we are more capable than most to reprogram our brain? Or a hard-to-predict combination of the two?

I suspect, even if we've never considered it, we all have some hard barriers in our brain that we wouldn't cross. Most people seem to be programmed to find incest repulsive. Obviously some edge cases have existed that can override that programming, but I doubt most people could, even if they wanted to (whatever that means).

The point I'm trying to get to is we don't fully understand the limits of human rational analysis towards sex and other biological constraints. There could be strange societal unintended consequences If there was an experimental shift towards more young women selling their bodies. We don't know how their families would react on an aggregate scale.We can still ask if it's an experiment worth advocating for, as a society, but is it?

We don't know exactly why there was a cultural algorithm developed for us to want to protect our young daughters from prostitution. If a tradition intuitively sounds outdated and can be overridden by rationalist analysis, maybe it is, or maybe there is a level of complexity with societal equilibrium we are completely unable to predict. We shouldn't have hubris when dismissing tradition as clearly outdated, clearly wrong, clearly beneath us.

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