Rationalist Community and Ritual
Meet inside The Shops at Waterloo Town Square—we will congregate in the seating area next to the Valu-Mart with the trees sticking out in the middle of the benches at 7pm for 15 minutes, and then head over to my nearby apartment’s amenity room. If you’ve been around a few times, feel free to meet up at my apartment front door for 7:30 instead. (There is free city parking at Bridgeport and Regina, 22 Bridgeport Rd E.)
In January this year we started meeting weekly. I’m experimenting with having a short traditional opening speech at all of our meetups, and am continuing to think about the exact vibes I want to get at the KWR meetups.
We also had a Petrov Day celebration recently, we just came back from a cottage trip I organized in large part for community building purposes, and in December I want to organize a watch party for the SF Solstice simulcast.
Also, Surya seems to really want me to be her cult leader?
Anyways, this week, let’s discuss the contradictions and non-contradictions of rationalist community and ritual.
Select essays in the The Craft and the Community sequence; give them a read if you think the blurbs are interesting:
Your Price For Joining: The game-theoretical puzzle of the Ultimatum game has its reflection in a real-world dilemma: How much do you demand that an existing group adjust toward you, before you will adjust toward it? Our hunter-gatherer instincts will be tuned to groups of 40 with very minimal administrative demands and equal participation, meaning that we underestimate the inertia of larger and more specialized groups and demand too much before joining them. In other groups this resistance can be overcome by affective death spirals and conformity, but rationalists think themselves too good for this—with the result that people in the nonconformist cluster often set their joining prices way way way too high, like an 50-way split with each player demanding 20% of the money. Nonconformists need to move in the direction of joining groups more easily, even in the face of annoyances and apparent unresponsiveness. If an issue isn’t worth personally fixing by however much effort it takes, it’s not worth a refusal to contribute.
Can Humanism Match Religion’s Output?: Anyone with a simple and obvious charitable project—responding with food and shelter to a tidal wave in Thailand, say—would be better off by far pleading with the Pope to mobilize the Catholics, rather than with Richard Dawkins to mobilize the atheists. For so long as this is true, any increase in atheism at the expense of Catholicism will be something of a hollow victory, regardless of all other benefits. Can no rationalist match the motivation that comes from the irrational fear of Hell? Or does the real story have more to do with the motivating power of physically meeting others who share your cause, and group norms of participating?
Church vs. Taskforce: Churches serve a role of providing community—but they aren’t explicitly optimized for this, because their nominal role is different. If we desire community without church, can we go one better in the course of deleting religion? There’s a great deal of work to be done in the world; rationalist communities might potentially organize themselves around good causes, while explicitly optimizing for community.
You’re Calling Who A Cult Leader?: Paul Graham gets exactly the same accusations about “cults” and “echo chambers” and “coteries” that I do, in exactly the same tone—e.g. comparing the long hours worked by Y Combinator startup founders to the sleep-deprivation tactic used in cults, or claiming that founders were asked to move to the Bay Area startup hub as a cult tactic of separation from friends and family. This is bizarre, considering our relative surface risk factors. It just seems to be a failure mode of the nonconformist community in general. By far the most cultish-looking behavior on Hacker News is people trying to show off how willing they are to disagree with Paul Graham, which, I can personally testify, feels really bizarre when you’re the target. Admiring someone shouldn’t be so scary—I don’t hold back so much when praising e.g. Douglas Hofstadter; in this world there are people who have pulled off awesome feats and it is okay to admire them highly.
Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes: Many causes benefit particularly from the spread of rationality—because it takes a little more rationality than usual to see their case, as a supporter, or even just a supportive bystander. Not just the obvious causes like atheism, but things like marijuana legalization. In the case of my own work this effect was strong enough that after years of bogging down I threw up my hands and explicitly recursed on creating rationalists. If such causes can come to terms with not individually capturing all the rationalists they create, then they can mutually benefit from mutual effort on creating rationalists. This cooperation may require learning to shut up about disagreements between such causes, and not fight over priorities, except in specialized venues clearly marked.
Whining-Based Communities: Many communities feed emotional needs by offering their members someone or something to blame for failure—say, those looters who don’t approve of your excellence. You can easily imagine some group of “rationalists” congratulating themselves on how reasonable they were, while blaming the surrounding unreasonable society for keeping them down. But this is not how real rationality works—there’s no assumption that other agents are rational. We all face unfair tests (and yes, they are unfair to different degrees for different people); and how well you do with your unfair tests, is the test of your existence. Rationality is there to help you win anyway, not to provide a self-handicapping excuse for losing. There are no first-person extenuating circumstances. There is absolutely no point in going down the road of mutual bitterness and consolation, about anything, ever.
Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism: Good online communities die primarily by refusing to defend themselves, and so it has been since the days of Eternal September. Anyone acculturated by academia knows that censorship is a very grave sin… in their walled gardens where it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to enter. A community with internal politics will treat any attempt to impose moderation as a coup attempt (since internal politics seem of far greater import than invading barbarians). In rationalist communities this is probably an instance of underconfidence—mildly competent moderators are probably quite trustworthy to wield the banhammer. On Less Wrong, the community is the moderator (via karma) and you will need to trust yourselves enough to wield the power and keep the garden clear.