Unrefined thoughts on some things rationalism is missing vs religions

by Srdjan Miletic3 min read6th Jun 20219 comments

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Rationalism seems somewhat like a proto-religion to me. It has norms of behavior very different from society at large. It has apocalyptic prophecies which it's members strive to stave off. Still, what's missing? I think a few things:

  • Rituals
  • Symbols
  • A community
  • Institutions around which to build a rationalist life
  • The normalization of rationalism as a central identity rather than a peripheral one or a non-identity

Rituals

Rituals come in many shapes and sizes. Some rituals are recurring and universal. Passover, Petrov Day or Eid all happen once a year at the same time for all believers. Others are singular and specific to the individual. A Bar-mitzvah, Hindu marriage or Irish wake all happen at different times for different individuals and mark transitions from one part of life to another. Some are happy. Others are sad.. Some are for the whole community. Think of Haj. Others are for friends and familly, think of a wedding. Others are for family alone.

I think a major purpose rituals serve is to create/reinforce identity. I'm not sure how they do this, but I have a few plausible mechanisms in mind:

  • Getting members of the same community/faith to meet and spend time together
  • Giving people time to think about important questions and their faith
  • Triggering irrational mechanisms which make our brains recognize each other as being part of the same tribe. (similar to how marching in time or wearing a uniform in the army works)

Raemon's ritual sequence has some good thoughts on what makes rituals work and failure modes of rituals., Ruby's wedding ceremony has some of the best speeches/rituals I've read.

While certain rationalists do celebrate certain rituals such as Solstice or Petrov Day, these rituals are not widely celebrated (most rationalists I know don't celebrate them) and are few in number. Importantly, they're also only one kind of ritual. There's no rationalist ritual to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. From life to death. From an individual to a family. I think most pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Symbols

A cross means Christianity. The Stars and Stripes means America. Every identity has it's symbols. I think symbols are important. I'm not sure why I believe this. I know people in history Maytered themselves over symbols. Old faithers dying for the two fingers instead of three. Maybe symbols are a coordination mechanism. A way to stake out an identity in public, to make yourself visible to others in your group and those not in your group. To tell the world you as a community exist. Maybe they're a personal reminder. Like a magic object that contains a part of your Self.

Community

If you're christian, you will more often than not have a community of christians you can access. This often won't be your only community, but it's there. Through coordination mechanisms like services, Sunday school, baptisms etc... you'll meet people and eventually have a network of acquaintances.

That's not the case for rationalism. In most cases you'll have some online forums and blogs and maybe a local meet up with a few people once in a while.

Thoughts on why this is the case:

  • There are too few of us. Hence most places have too few rationalists to form a stable community.
  • Rationalists are overwhelmingly male and 20 - 35. This isn't enough for a community, at least not the kind of one a church or religion offers.
  • We don't have rituals. Hence meetups are awkward to organize, often stilted and revolve around the discussion of readings or rationality problems or even just lack any structure at all. Contrast this to a church where you show up every Sunday, listen to a service and then make smalltalk or go to a picnic.

Institutions

The word institution is broad. Here I use it to mean a real, formal organization with rules, membership and goals. Rationalism doesn't have enough of these.

  • We don't have a church, whether centralized like Mormonism/Catholicism or decentralized like Protestantism/Islam. No one dedicates their life to rationalism. Maybe that's fine. After all, in many religions priests are community members with jobs, not a separate caste.
  • No one spends real time, energy or effort evangelizing rationalism. There are some arguments for why this isn't done more, but I think the reason we don't proselytize isn't that we find the arguments against proselytize convincing. Rather it's that no one get's around to doing it. it's a shame. From outreach in schools and universities to free education on avoiding epistemic capture, happy death spirals and partisanship, there's a lot Rationalism could give to the world. I doubt even 0.01% of people matching the intellectual profile of today's lessWrongers have been exposed to rationalism.
  • There's no rationalist education. CFAR is expensive, inaccessible, only open to adults and only processes tiny numbers. It also does not provided a rationalist education. Rather it provides a toolbox of things which may make you better at acting rationality. There's a difference between instrumental rationality and rationalism. The former is about getting better at a skill. The latter is a systems of beliefs and values which includes reason and knowledge as one of it's core aims. (The other being preventing the many apocalypses waiting over the horizon) I'm not sure how necessary all of these institutions are but I think at least temples/churches and some kinds of schools are necessary for a functioning religion/movement.

Rationalism as a "core" identity

People have lots of different identities. I can be an employee of my company, a software engineer, a partner to my girlfriend, a Serb, an Atheist etc... Still, some identities are more core than others. Very few people hold their love of strawberry yogurt to be deeply important, meaningful and something which undergrids their day to day life. Many people do feel that way about their Religion.

Right now I think that for many people rationalism is a peripheral identity and attempts to embrace it as a core identity are seen as cringe or culty.

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A few thoughts on this.

First, I probably have a higher appetite for religion-ifying rationalism than others in the community, but I wouldn't want to push my preferences too hard lest it scare people off. This may stem from my personal background as a cradle atheist. Religious people don't want rationality to become rivalrous with their religion, and ex-religionists don't want it to become they very thing they escaped. To the extent that it's good for rationality to become more religion-like, I think it'll happen on its own in the next few decades or centuries without any concerted effort. I'm not in a hurry.

Second, we should avoid treating "religion" as a fixed concept already optimized for a particular social niche, as if to say that if rationality has some attributes of a religion, then it would necessarily gain by taking on the rest as well. Some of the functions that a religion might manage are:

  1. Marriage and family life
  2. Non-familial social ties
  3. The relationship between people and the state
  4. Matters of interpersonal morality
  5. Matters of private morality
  6. Explaining the origin and fate of the universe
  7. Explaining consciousness and death
  8. Ethnic identification
  9. Etc.

Different societies will have different ways of allocating these responsibilities amongst the various institutions/philosophies within it. In Western cultures we use the word "religion" because it's common for most or all of these domains to be handled by the same thing, so we need a word for whatever category of thing that is. But the Western bias is revealed whenever we try to apply the concept to non-Western societies. E.g. a Chinese person may be a Confucianist with respect to (1) (3) and (4), a Taoist for (2) (6) and (8), and a Buddhist for (5) and (7). Which of these is a "religion"? Does it matter?

Even within the West, these boundaries have shifted over time. (3) was forcibly purged from Christianity in the European Wars of Religion, leading ultimately to the 1st Amendment in the US. And (8) is common in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, while mainline Protestantism is indifferent or outright hostile towards it. We can expect that the boundaries will continue to shift in the future, which leads into the third point.

Third, we should ask ourselves (and I'd be curious to hear your answer) what kind of future we're planning for in which the religion-ification of rationalism becomes relevant. I can think of three scenarios:

  • (A) A technological singularity happens within the next few decades.
  • (B) A major civilizational collapse delays the singularity by hundreds or thousands of years.
  • (C) Civilization doesn't collapse, but the singularity is nevertheless delayed by several centuries, due to technological stagnation (or something).

As for (A), I'm not qualified to weigh in on how likely that is; but if it does happen, then this whole question is pretty much irrelevant anyway, because there won't be any humans (as we know them) to practice any religion. The only possible relevance is that it would be bad for people to expend too much effort now in creating a rationalist religion if they could otherwise have been working on AI safety. But that probably doesn't apply to most people.

I don't think (B) is likely, but there's a compelling cultural narrative in its favor that we need to actively counterbalance in our estimates. We all like to imagine an apocalypse where we can wipe the slate clean and remake a "perfect" society. And everyone likes to look back to the Fall of Rome as an easy-to-apply historical template. If you imagine a rationalist religion in that context, you end up with something like "D&D magic + medieval Catholicism," where monks copy manuscripts to preserve knowledge that would otherwise be lost. But, again, I don't think loss of knowledge is major concern for the future, so efforts to create such an order of monks will probably be wasted.

(C) is where the question becomes most relevant, but since this scenario has no historical precedent, we can't just look to existing or past religions and think that we can just change a few incidentals and slot it into the future world. Whatever rationality ends up becoming in this world, it won't be what we'd call a "religion" (but perhaps a word for it will be devised eventually).

For example, in the future, scientific knowledge may never again be lost, but people will nevertheless feel adrift in a flood of false information so vast and confusing that they can't figure out what to believe. What sort of institution could remedy this situation? Not monks copying manuscripts, to be sure.

Lastly, some disjointed thoughts on outreach. There's a certain personality type that feels drawn to rationalist ideas, for reasons that are probably innate or at least very difficult to change. You know you're one of these people if your reaction upon finding LessWrong was "All my life people have been talking nonsense, but finally I've found something that makes sense!" Even if you don't agree with most of it.

At some point (perhaps already past), all of those people who can be persuaded will be. This will only comprise a small fraction of the population, but they will cling to the "rationalist community" with a near-religious zeal. (I have friends who absolutely loathe "rationalists" but still participate in the community online because, in their view, literally no one else even tries to make convincing arguments.) This zeal is a valuable quality, but most normal people will not sympathize. The question then becomes: For that majority of people who are not rationalists-by-disposition, is there some way they can benefit by associating with the community?

I think the answer will involve addressing this:

We don’t have rituals. Hence meetups are awkward to organize, often stilted and revolve around the discussion of readings or rationality problems or even just lack any structure at all. Contrast this to a church where you show up every Sunday, listen to a service and then make smalltalk or go to a picnic.

Maybe rationalists should give talks that are open to the public and geared towards a general audience, and encourage listeners to talk about it amongst themselves. That way there'd be less pressure to follow along with extremely esoteric conversations. But you don't have to think of it as a "religion" or a "ritual" - it's just a public lecture, which is a perfectly normal thing for someone of any religious views to attend. Putting it forward as a religion-substitute would probably turn people off.

Putting it forward as a religion-substitute would probably turn people off

I agree this is a risk. Both due to culty vibes and people not wanting a religion. I'm not sure in practice whether growing rationalism as a core identity would lead to less or more rationalists. I'm also not sure how far non-core and core identity rationalism are mutually exclusive. (Just like a lot of people are vaguely christian without belonging to a church, so maybe a lot of people would be vaguely interested in rationalism without wanting to join their local temple)

Third, we should ask ourselves (and I'd be curious to hear your answer) what kind of future we're planning for in which the religion-ification of rationalism becomes relevant

I don't think there needs to be a specific, world-altering plan in order for a rationalist religion to be something worth pursuing. If you believe as I do that rationalism makes people better human beings, is morally right and leads to more open, free, just and advanced societies, then creating and spreading it is good pretty much irrespective of social circumstances.

At some point (perhaps already past), all of those people who can be persuaded will be. This will only comprise a small fraction of the population, but they will cling to the "rationalist community" with a near-religious zeal

So I think I depart quite strongly from the lesswrong consensus here. Lesswrong has about, what, 200 active members? The broader group of people who would consider themselves rationalists or rationalist adjacent is probably less than 10'000. The world has a population of 600 Billion people. Even assuming only a tiny proportion of people are naturally inclined towards rationalism, I really don't think we're anywhere close to addressing the full market. A few things to bear in mind:

  • Rationalist content is mostly in english. Most people don't speak/read english. Even those that do as a second language don't consumer primarily english sources
  • Rationalism is niche and hard to stumble upon. It's not like christianity or left/right ideology in the west. Whereas those ideologies are broadcasted at you constantly and you will know about them and roughly what they represent, rationalism is something you only find if you happen to just luck out and stumble on this weird internet trail of breadcrumbs.

I’m also not sure how far non-core and core identity rationalism are mutually exclusive. (Just like a lot of people are vaguely christian without belonging to a church, so maybe a lot of people would be vaguely interested in rationalism without wanting to join their local temple)

Agreed; finding a way for multiple levels of involvement to coexist would be helpful. Anecdotally, when I first tried attending LW meetups in around 2010, I was turned off and did not try again for many years, because the conversation was so advanced I couldn't follow it. But when I did try again, I enjoyed it a lot more because I found that the community had expanded to include a "casual meetup attendee and occasional commenter" tier, which I fitted comfortably into. Now we could imagine adding a 3rd tier, namely "people who come and listen to a speech and then make small talk and go for a picnic afterward" (or whatever).

Could this be considered a "temple"? Maybe, but I'd guess that most prospective members wouldn't think of it that way and would be embarrassed to hear such talk. "Philosophical society" might be closer to the mark. It's fun to imagine a Freemason-like society where people are formally allocated into "tiers" and then promoted to the next inner tier by a secret vote, perhaps involving black and white marbles. But at this point, such a level of ritual would probably be a waste of weirdness points.

If you believe as I do that rationalism makes people better human beings, is morally right and leads to more open, free, just and advanced societies, then creating and spreading it is good pretty much irrespective of social circumstances.

I'm uncertain about this, but there is something I suspect and fear may be true, which is that rationalism (as exemplified by current LW members) is not actually helpful for most people on an individual level (see e.g.). There are some people, like me, who are born in the Uncanny Valley and must study rationalism as part of a lifelong effort to climb up out of it. But for others, I would not want to pull them down into the Valley just so I can have company.

For example, I enjoy going to rationalist meetups and spending hours talking about philosophical esoterica, because it fills an intellectual void that I can't fill elsewhere. But most people wouldn't enjoy this, and it wouldn't be a good use of their time.

That's not to say that rationalism is totally inert in society. The ideas developed by rationalists can percolate into the wider population, even to those who are more passive consumers than active participants.

  • Rationalist content is mostly in english. Most people don’t speak/​read english. Even those that do as a second language don’t consumer primarily english sources

You're probably right, although as a monolingual English speaker I myself wouldn't know. I have heard of efforts to translate some of the sequences into Russian and Spanish. But for less popular languages, it may be difficult to assemble enough people who both speak the language and are interested in rationalism. In that respect it differs from Christianity in that there is no definitive text that you can point to and say "If you read and understand this, then you understand rationality." Rationality must be cultivated through active engagement in dialogue, which requires a critical mass of people.

  • Rationalism is niche and hard to stumble upon. It’s not like christianity or left/​right ideology in the west. Whereas those ideologies are broadcasted at you constantly and you will know about them and roughly what they represent, rationalism is something you only find if you happen to just luck out and stumble on this weird internet trail of breadcrumbs.

This is a challenge I've faced when I've tried to explain what, exactly, rationalism is when friends ask me what it's all about. I struggle to answer, because there is no single creed that rationalists believe. One could try to put together a soundbite-tier explanation, but to do so would risk distorting the very essence of rationality, which at its core is a process, not a conclusion. At best, we might try and draw up a list of 40 statements and say "Rationalists all agree that at least 30 of these are true, but there is vehement disagreement as to which."

I think of rationality as somewhat similar to Buddhism to some respects.

Depending on how we talk about it, Buddhism both is and isn't a religion. It isn't in the sense that there's some core teachings about suffering and how to deal with it that aren't really what I would call a religion so much as a teaching about a way to live life. In this respect it's quite similar to rationality.

It is in the sense that there's lots of religions built up around venerating the Buddha for giving us Buddhism and to support people who practice Buddhist teachings. Note, though, that this isn't exactly the same thing as the core teachings themselves.

I see rationality in a similar place as stoicism was in the late Roman period: a way of living one's life that many adopt, but that also isn't really what we'd call a religion. We could build up religions around it to revere its founders, for example, but we haven't. Obviously a religion does a lot more than that, as you note (and I know, since I practice Zen), but my point is mainly just to show that there's some separation between religion and the teachings embedded within a religion and rationality today looks to me a lot like teachings without a religion around them.

Right now I think that for many people rationalism is a peripheral identity

I think this captures something I've been thinking about for a while now. Rationality is very much a core identity for me, and looking back at my life it seems inevitable that it's that way. Yeah I know, classic bias. But even pre sequences I was obsessed with rationality and was slowly reinventing it. Rationality absolutely undergirds my life and it's just... how could it not, you know? Discovering the sequences changed my life and I would do anything to be able to back and read them earlier.

Then I go in the Bayesian Conspiracy and people casually mention that rationality is cool and all but doesn't really impact their life. And I'm just left scratching my head because -- what? How??

But if I look at it from the perspective of, not just whether you've read the sequences or whatever, but is rationality a core identity then that makes a lot more sense. Of course someone who treats rationality as an interesting hobby will get less out of it than someone who's obsessed.

No one spends real time, energy or effort evangelizing rationalism.

The reason I don't talk about rationality to outsiders is because it has a high chance of crippling my social status and making everything harder.

I feel a similar way to you in that rationalism is part of my core identity. Why do you think talking about rationality/rationalism will make you loose social status? I've often broached the topic with people in work, my friendship groupm, debating etc and have never had any problems.

Hm. Perhaps I'm concerned over nothing then. I was specifically afraid of standing out, of cult associations, and my general feeling is that rationality is seen as this cold, inhuman thing. Like I once had a girl tell me she was glad I didn't see things in terms of winning like everyone else does... and that's exactly how I see them. I just include nice things under my definition of victory.

We don't have a church, whether centralized like Mormonism/Catholicism or decentralized like Protestantism/Islam. No one dedicates their life to rationalism. 

What do you think CFAR staff are doing instead of decidating their lifes to rationalism?

No one spends real time, energy or effort evangelizing rationalism. There are some arguments for why this isn't done more, but I think the reason we don't proselytize isn't that we find the arguments against proselytize convincing. Rather it's that no one get's around to doing it. it's a shame. 

I don't think that's a good way to look at it. The limiting factor to growing the rationality community isn't about convincing outsiders to join the rationality community but about creating events inside the community that the existing community wants to attend.

When it comes to Christianity it's easy to convince people to attend the ritual of being at Church on Sunday as providing no special value besides the ritual. If you want to get rationalists to come to an event you have to make a better case that the event provides them value. 

Then there's the question of funding community. Currently, a lot of the free donation capital flows into EA causes and not in funding the rationalist community. 

I doubt even 0.01% of people matching the intellectual profile of today's lessWrongers have been exposed to rationalism.

That depends a lot on what you mean with intellectual profile of today's lessWrongers. There are plenty of people that I know from intellectual contexts outside of LessWrong (and EA) that I meet again on LessWrong. For people who engage in a certain amount of exploring new ideas LessWrong is hard to miss. People might not end up integrating into LessWrong for various reasons.

Out of the old StevePavlina forum (that existed between 2006-2011) for example I think there are at least 3 of the top 100 posters very active in the rationalist community (and a good portion of the rest doesn't belong in the rationalist community). 

If we would start evangelizing and get people who aren't of the mental type that finds LessWrong on their own that does involve getting people who are on average a different intellectual profile. 

"What is the purpose of rituals, rationalists? The purpose of rituals is to remind ourselves to think rationally and act rationally. By thinking rationally and acting rationally we can certainly achieve supreme rationality!"

"What is the purpose of symbols, rationalists? The purpose of symbols is to remind ourselves to think rationally and act rationally. By thinking rationally and acting rationally we can certainly achieve supreme rationality!"

"What is the purpose of a community, rationalists? The purpose of a community is to remind ourselves to think rationally and act rationally. By thinking rationally and acting rationally we can certainly achieve supreme rationality!"

"What is the purpose of rationalist institutions, rationalists? The purpose of rationalist institutions is to remind ourselves to think rationally and act rationally. By thinking rationally and acting rationally we can certainly achieve supreme rationality!"

"What is the purpose of identity as a rationalist, rationalists? The purpose of identity as a rationalist is to remind ourselves to think rationally and act rationally. By thinking rationally and acting rationally we can certainly achieve supreme rationality!"

When a reader of Less Wrong saw these words, he was excited, because his logical mind saw the truth behind these words. And joyfully he exclaimed: "Awesome! Awesome! Supremely rational! Let me subscribe to your newsletter!" His name was Albert Einstein.