Reasons for being rational

When I found Less Wrong and started read­ing, when I made my first post, when I went to my first meetup….

It was a lit­tle like com­ing home.

And mostly it wasn’t. Mostly I felt a lot more out of place than I have in, say, church youth groups. It was hard to pin­point the differ­ence, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to this: a sig­nifi­cant pro­por­tion of the LW posters are con­trar­i­ans in some sense. And I’m a con­formist, even if I would pre­fer not to be, even if that’s a part of my per­son­al­ity that I’m work­ing hard to change. I’m much more com­fortable as a fol­lower than as a leader. I like pre-ex­ist­ing tra­di­tion, the re­as­sur­ing struc­ture of it. I like situ­a­tions that al­low me to be helpful and gen­er­ous and hard­work­ing, so that I can feel like a good per­son. Emo­tion­ally, I don’t like dis­agree­ing with oth­ers, and the last thing I have to work hard to do is tol­er­ate oth­ers’ tol­er­ance.

And, as ev­i­denced by the fact that I at­tend church youth groups, I don’t have the strong allergy that many of the com­mu­nity seem to have against re­li­gion. This is pos­si­bly be­cause I have eas­ily trig­gered mys­ti­cal ex­pe­riences when, for ex­am­ple, I sing in a group, es­pe­cially when we are singing tra­di­tional ‘sa­cred’ mu­sic. In a pre­vi­ous cen­tury, I would prob­a­bly have been an ex­tremely happy nun.

Some­one once ex­pressed sur­prise that I was able to be­come a ra­tio­nal­ist in spite of this neu­rolog­i­cal quirk. I’ve asked my­self this a few times. My an­swer is that I don’t think I de­serve the credit. If any­thing, I ended up on the cir­cuitous path to­wards read­ing LessWrong be­cause I love sci­ence, and I love sci­ence be­cause, as a child, read­ing about some­thing as beau­tiful as gen­eral rel­a­tivity gave me the same kind of eu­phoric ex­pe­rience as singing about Je­sus does now. My in­abil­ity to ac­tual be­lieve in any re­li­gion comes from a time be­fore I was mak­ing my own de­ci­sions about that kind of thing.

I was raised by athe­ist par­ents, not anti-the­ist so much as in­differ­ent. We at­tended a Uni­tar­ian Univer­sal­ist church for a while, which meant I was learn­ing about Je­sus and Bud­dha and Na­tive Amer­i­can spiritu­al­ity all mixed to­gether, all the memes wa­tered down to the point that they lost their power. I was four­teen when I re­ally en­coun­tered Chris­ti­an­ity, still in the mild form of the Angli­can Church of Canada. I was eigh­teen when I first en­coun­tered the ‘Je­sus myth’ in its full, meme-honed-to-max­i­mum-viru­lence form, and the story arc cap­ti­vated me for a full six months. I still cry dur­ing ev­ery Good Fri­day ser­vice. But I must have missed some crit­i­cal thresh­old, be­cause I can’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve in that story. I’m not even sure what it would mean to be­lieve in a story. What does that feel like?

I was raised by sci­en­tists. My father did his PhD in phys­i­cal chem­istry, my mother in plant biol­ogy. I grew up read­ing SF and pop sci­ence, and oc­ca­sion­ally my mother or my father’s old text­books. I re­mem­ber my mother’s awe at the beau­tiful elec­tron-micro­scope images in my high school text­books, and how she sat pa­tiently while I fum­blingly talked about quan­tum me­chan­ics, hav­ing read the en­tire tiny physics sec­tion of our high school library. My par­ents re­sponded to my in­ter­est in sci­ence with pride and en­thu­si­asm, and to my in­ter­est in re­li­gion with in­dul­gent con­de­scen­sion. That was my struc­ture, my tra­di­tion. And yes, that has ev­ery­thing to do with why I call my­self an athe­ist. I wouldn’t have had the willpower to dis­agree with my par­ents in the long run.

Ul­ti­mately, I have an awfully long way to go if I want to be ra­tio­nal, as op­posed to be­ing some­one who’s just in­ter­ested in read­ing about math and sci­ence. Way too much of my mo­ti­va­tion for ‘hav­ing true be­liefs’ breaks down to ‘maybe then they’ll like me.’ This is one of the an­noy­ing things about my per­son­al­ity, just as an­noy­ing as my sen­si­tivity to re­li­gious memes and my in­abil­ity to say no to any­one. Luck­ily, my per­son­al­ity also comes with the abil­ity to get along with just about any­one, and in a fo­rum of ma­ture adults, no one is go­ing to make fun of me be­cause I’m wear­ing tie-dye over­alls. No one here has yet made fun of me for my in­ter­est in re­li­gion, even though I ex­pect most peo­ple dis­agree with it.

And there’s one last con­clu­sion I can draw, albeit from a sam­ple size of one. Not ev­ery­one can be a con­trar­ian ra­tio­nal­ist. Not ev­ery­one can rebel against their par­ents’ re­li­gion. Not ev­ery­one can dis­agree with their friends and fam­ily and not feel guilty. But ev­ery­one can be ra­tio­nal if they are raised that way.