Holy Books (Or Rationalist Sequences) Don’t Implement Themselves

Re­lated to: Les­sons from Lat­ter-day Saints, Build­ing Ra­tion­al­ist Com­mu­ni­ties overview

This is my ba­sic the­sis:

Marx needed a Lenin. Fermi, Hahn and Meit­ner needed a Man­hat­tan Pro­ject. EY and the Se­quences need more clearly- and sim­ply-defined ra­tio­nal­ity skills and meth­ods for im­prov­ing them.

Us­ing Eliezer’s lev­els scheme, these are the three de­scend­ing lev­els on which be­lief sys­tems op­er­ate: the­ol­ogy, norms, and im­ple­men­ta­tion.

I’ll give some ex­am­ples. Here’s a gen­eral ex­am­ple, again from the Lat­ter-day Saints:

  • The­ol­ogy: God knows ev­ery­thing. Your pur­pose on earth is to be­come like God;

  • Norms: You should pur­sue as much ed­u­ca­tion as pos­si­ble.

  • Im­ple­men­ta­tion: Create and op­er­ate a re­ally big, cheap uni­ver­sity sys­tem.[1]

Here’s one that I of­ten dealt with as a mis­sion­ary:

  • The­ol­ogy: God is re­ally good at mak­ing de­ci­sions. Your pur­pose on earth is to be­come like God.

  • Norms: You shouldn’t take al­co­hol, to­bacco, tea, coffee, or ad­dic­tive sub­stances. Tak­ing ad­dic­tive sub­stances im­pairs your abil­ity to make cor­rect de­ci­sions.

  • Im­ple­men­ta­tion: We are go­ing to bring you candy ev­ery week so that when you’re tempted to buy a cigarette, you can eat the straw­berry toffee in­stead. (Or, we are go­ing to stop by your house ev­ery day at 8:30pm to give you a boost, be­cause go­ing from 7 cups of coffee a day to 0 is tough.)

I did both of these (with differ­ent peo­ple), and they worked.

Norms and Implementation

As a mis­sion­ary for the Church, my ba­sic role was to:

  • find peo­ple who were will­ing to try some­thing out

  • de­sign in­di­vi­d­u­al­ized “com­mit­ment sys­tems” for each per­son, and

  • sup­port them in im­ple­ment­ing them.

There’s a lifestyle change here.

The “ba­sic pack­age,” (my ter­minol­ogy), which is a pre­req­ui­site to join­ing the church, in­cludes: a strong fo­cus on strength­en­ing the fam­ily, daily fam­ily prayer and scrip­ture study, the afore­men­tioned health code, and sex only in­side mar­riage. The glue is weekly church at­ten­dance, en­sur­ing mem­ber­ship in a com­mu­nity that shares the same val­ues.

After the “ba­sic pack­age,” it gets a bit more com­plex, as there are lots of higher-level el­e­ments of this lifestyle. To sam­ple a few in no par­tic­u­lar or­der:

  • Lov­ing oth­ers. Devel­op­ing grat­i­tude. Keep­ing a jour­nal. Fol­low­ing Church lead­ers. Invit­ing other peo­ple to church. Serv­ing oth­ers, es­pe­cially by ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ities in church. Pur­su­ing ed­u­ca­tion. For­giv­ing oth­ers.

  • Un­der­stand­ing that you have in­nate self-worth. Not gos­siping. Dress­ing mod­estly. Be­ing a good par­ent. Honor­ing and re­spect­ing par­ents. Keep­ing a bud­get. Do­ing fam­ily ac­tivi­ties and not shop­ping on Sun­day. Stay­ing out of debt.

  • For the doubt­ing, to con­tinue liv­ing these habits, un­til they de­velop (ex­pected) greater be­lief through ex­pe­rience.[2]

Ob­vi­ously these are differ­ent than ra­tio­nal­ist norms, but my point is that they are fairly com­pre­hen­sive. Though each topic is fairly reg­u­larly dis­cussed in church, it’s im­pos­si­ble to im­ple­ment them into your life all at once. It’s easy to seem over­whelmed by the flood of new in­for­ma­tion. (Sound fa­mil­iar?)

And that is why we were there, to de­sign mini-pro­grams for each per­son.[3] We would iso­late a cou­ple of spe­cific stan­dards that would be effec­tive for per­son X, and as­sist in im­ple­men­ta­tion. If they liked it and wanted more, we helped them im­ple­ment the “ba­sic pack­age” lifestyle.

This de­ci­sion, that they liked it and wanted more, was the sin­gle most cru­cial de­ci­sion that some­one could make. It is di­rectly re­lated to Bhag­wat’s Law of Com­mit­ment: “The de­gree to which peo­ple iden­tify with your group is di­rectly pro­por­tional to the amount of stuff you tell them to do that works.” I will dis­cuss this fur­ther on a sub­se­quent post.

Okay, so how does this ap­ply to Less Wron­gians?

Less Wrong has its ver­sion of a the­olog­i­cal frame­work – the Se­quences. They give a com­pre­hen­sive set of state­ments about the way the world works, drawn from evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, Bayesian statis­tics, etc.

But ra­tio­nal­ism doesn’t have a well-defined set of norms/​de­sir­able skills to de­velop. As a re­sult, we Less Wron­gians un­sur­pris­ingly also lack a well-de­vel­oped prac­ti­cal sys­tem for im­ple­men­ta­tion.

You may cite luke­prog’s guide. That’s good, but it’s only six posts. Less Wrong needs a lot more of it!

Or maybe you’ll say that if you read the Se­quences care­fully, etc, etc. Well, I did. Mys­te­ri­ous An­swers to Mys­te­ri­ous Ques­tions is 51 dense pages in Word, or about 25,000 words. This is an (ex­tremely good) foun­da­tional text. It is not a how-to man­ual.[4]

Brevity is key to im­ple­men­ta­tion.

For Lat­ter-day Saints, the ba­sic ex­pla­na­tion of fam­ily stan­dards is about 6000 words (95% of the im­por­tant stuff is from page 4 to 15). The ba­sic guide for teenagers is about 4000 words, and the ba­sic guide for run­ning a church or­ga­ni­za­tion is about 12000 words. And each one is very clear about what to do. (The teenage guide most clearly illus­trates this point about brevity.)

The eas­iest way to be­gin build­ing a how-to man­ual is for LW mem­bers to post spe­cific, short per­sonal ex­am­ples of how they ap­plied the prin­ci­ples of ra­tio­nal­ity in their day-to-day lives. Then they should col­lect all of the links some­where, prob­a­bly on the wiki.

If this sounds sales­man-y or cheesy to you, or if you’re ex­tremely skep­ti­cal about re­li­gion, I quote a com­menter on my last post. “If this works for peo­ple that are ob­vi­ously crazy,” said Vaniver, “that sug­gests it’ll work for peo­ple who are (hope­fully ob­vi­ously) sane.”


[1] Ad­mit­tedly, this also sup­ports other norms, such as ‘marry an­other Lat­ter-day Saint.’

[2]I’m not claiming this is perfect. Over the four years since I joined, I’ve en­coun­tered var­i­ous amounts of in­group snob­bery, use of these stan­dards to judge oth­ers, cliquish­ness, and in­tol­er­ance to­wards cer­tain groups, pri­mar­ily gays. Plus all of the nor­mal hu­man im­perfec­tions.

[3] In de­sign­ing and se­quenc­ing pro­grams, we gen­er­ally used a sim­ple cost-benefit stan­dard: how much will this help X vs. how much effort will it cost X?

[4] By com­par­i­son: the Bible is a foun­da­tional text of Chris­ti­an­ity. The Pur­pose-Driven Life is a deriva­tive how-to man­ual. This is a dis­til­la­tion of the Se­quences, which is at least a start.