On Rationalist Solstice and Epistemic Caution

Since 2011, some LessWrong folk have ob­served the win­ter sols­tice, as a holi­day rit­ual cel­e­brat­ing hu­man achieve­ment in the face of a con­fus­ing, of­ten ter­rify­ing world.

I’ve writ­ten in the past about the po­ten­tial value, and dan­ger, of rit­ual. Over the past years my opinion shifted some­what, but is still es­sen­tially sum­ma­rized as: “I think rit­ual is less epistem­i­cally fraught than gen­er­ally ex­pos­ing your­self to the be­liefs of a peer group (some­thing that pretty much ev­ery­one does by de­fault), and mean­while has many benefits. We should be cau­tious of it, but it’s a fairly im­por­tant hu­man ex­pe­rience we shouldn’t dis­card sim­ply be­cause it pat­tern-matches to woo.”

Still, I think the prac­tice of ra­tio­nal rit­ual should still in­volve a lot of epistemic care, on the part of both or­ga­niz­ers and par­ti­ci­pants.

Since 2012, in the var­i­ous edi­tions of the Sols­tice Book of Tra­di­tions, I’ve in­cluded a dis­claimer at the be­gin­ning, and I think it’d be valuable to have that more pub­li­cly ac­cessible so that peo­ple go­ing into a Sols­tice can be prop­erly in­formed.

In­di­vi­d­ual Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tions vary, and I can’t promise that this doc­u­ment will ac­cu­rately re­flect all or­ga­niz­ers’ in­ten­tions. But it re­flects my own goals and hope­fully pro­vides a rea­son­able start­ing con­text.


What is a Ri­tual?

A rit­ual is about mak­ing a sac­ri­fice to im­bue a mo­ment with sym­bolic power, and us­ing that power to trans­form your­self. Ri­tual ex­pe­rience can­not be co­erced—only en­tered will­ingly by those that be­lieve in them. A rit­ual that you don’t be­lieve in may feel hol­low, or alienat­ing.

I do not be­lieve rit­ual and ra­tio­nal­ity are in­her­ently con­tra­dic­tory. The hu­man brain seems de­signed badly. It is hard to truly ac­cept cer­tain facts about the world, even when you have em­piri­cal ev­i­dence—es­pe­cially for facts in­volv­ing large num­bers, or un­speak­able hor­rors.

It can even be hard for your brain to ac­cept truths like “You are not alone, and you can do this.

Ri­tu­als can be use­ful, to in­ter­nal­ize those facts.

They can also be use­ful to help make it true, that you are not alone, and you can do this.

Nonethe­less, with power comes re­spon­si­bil­ity. If you are con­sid­er­ing par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the Ra­tion­al­ist Sols­tice, first con­sider as care­fully as you can, in the light of day with your clear-think­ing pre­frontal cor­tex, whether the con­cepts herein seem true and good—the sort of things you’d want to em­ploy emo­tional tricks and a rit­ual jour­ney to ce­ment. Or, if you are un­cer­tain, that you nonethe­less trust that a rit­ual in­vok­ing these prin­ci­ples is a good thing to ex­pe­rience, for what­ever your rea­sons.

If you are an or­ga­nizer, each year you should re­flect upon the prin­ci­ples here and the spe­cific con­tent of the Sols­tice. A ra­tio­nal­ist holi­day doesn’t just need peo­ple to pre­serve one set of tra­di­tions – it needs cul­tural stew­ards to ac­tively pur­sue truth, who work to de­velop songs and sto­ries that re­flect our deep­en­ing un­der­stand­ing of the na­ture of re­al­ity.

Prin­ci­ple Underpinnings

First, that ra­tio­nal in­quiry and em­piri­cal ev­i­dence are the best tools to make sense of the world.

Se­cond, that our world is a harshly neu­tral world, with physics in­differ­ent to our suffer­ing.

Third, more sub­jec­tively, that it is right and good that we look upon the world and have opinions about how to change it. That it is wrong that mil­lions strug­gle in poverty, or die of malaria, or are trapped by sys­tems we built our­selves that are in­differ­ent to our strug­gles.

Fourth, that you have the po­ten­tial to help. Per­haps not now—maybe you must en­sure your own life is flour­ish­ing be­fore you are ready to help oth­ers or change the broader world. But you would, if you could, and that you would like a night to re­mem­ber that pos­si­bil­ity.

Fifth, some oddly spe­cific things. Th­ese as­sump­tions are not in­trin­sic to the sols­tice cer­e­mony, but they per­me­ate many of the songs and sto­ries and it seems best to make them ex­plicit:

Scien­tifi­cally—That the mod­ern as­tro­nom­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of the big bang, star for­ma­tion, and evolu­tion are more or less cor­rect. That the nat­u­ral world is of­ten dan­ger­ous and hu­man civ­i­liza­tion could po­ten­tially be de­stroyed. That ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence is quite pos­si­ble, and will prob­a­bly dra­mat­i­cally shape our fu­ture, sooner or later, one way or an­other.

The more spe­cific claims get less spe­cific story and song lyrics, to avoid over­com­mit­ting epistem­i­cally. Any spe­cific em­piri­cal claim is some­thing we should be pre­pared to dis­card, no mat­ter how pretty a song lyric.

Philo­soph­i­cally—Well, ethics is con­fus­ing, once you be­gin ex­pand­ing your cir­cle of con­cern be­yond tribes of 150, and evolu­tion-honed in­tu­itions break down. But it seems to me:

That pointless suffer­ing is bad. That the de­fault state of na­ture – crea­tures, at least some sen­tient, eat­ing each other al­ive, pop­u­la­tions kept in check by star­va­tion and dis­ease—isn’t okay.

That love and ex­cite­ment and cu­ri­os­ity and cre­ativity are good. This is ar­bi­trary and hu­man-chau­vinis­tic, but that’s fine. It’s what we have. It is good when peo­ple build things to­gether, when they come to un­der­stand the world more deeply, when they be­come more self aware. It is good that we re­late to and love each other. It is good that some­times we laugh and joke and screw around.

That death is bad. Every time a con­scious be­ing which knows it­self and doesn’t want to die is snuffed out of the world… that is a tragedy.

Strate­gi­cally—that com­pas­sion is good, but not suffi­cient. That chang­ing the world re­quires deep think­ing and in­no­va­tion that of­ten feels strange at first glance.

And fi­nally, sixth: that the neu­tral uni­verse does not be­grudge our dreams.

It does not fume at the death of smal­l­pox or re­duced scarcity or non-re­pro­duc­tive sex. We can choose as best we can what is right, and work to bring about the best world we can.

We may not agree on the speci­fics of what that means. The rest of the year, we may ar­gue about what ex­actly is right and good and how to best achieve it. But tonight, we re­mem­ber the vi­sions we share. That in the space of all pos­si­ble dreams, ours are in­cred­ibly al­igned. That we share the meta-dream: we can work to­gether to re­fine our vi­sions as we strive to make them real.

We can co­op­er­ate, and help one an­other along the way.

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