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.
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.