A Marriage Ceremony for Aspiring Rationalists

Recently, LWers Will Ryan and Divia Melwani (now Will and Divia Eden) were married, with Eliezer Yudkowsky officiating.

I’ve been to 40+ weddings in my lifetime, and this was my favorite ceremony yet. Here is the video, and below is the transcript of Eliezer’s… what’s it called? “Blessing”?

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here upon this day, to bear witness to William Ryan and Divia Melwani, as they bind themselves together in marriage, becoming William and Divia Eden, from this day endeavoring to live their lives as one. If any person can show just cause why these two should not be joined, let them speak now, or forever hold their peace.

The institution of marriage is as old as Homo sapiens. Donald Brown lists it among the human universals, the parts of culture which are found in almost every tribe that has been studied by anthropologists, alongside such other universals as dancing, storytelling, jealousy, or language. Though we give it a single name, marriage takes many forms.

In some tribes a man may wed more than one woman. In 0.5% of hunter-gatherer tribes studied, a woman may wed more than one man. In civilized parts of the modern world, men may marry men, or women marry women. A hundred years ago, in what was then considered civilization, marriage was a cruel necessity if you wanted to have a public relationship with anyone. There was only one approved option for anyone who didn’t want to live alone—marry a single person of the opposite sex and stay together for 70 years or until one of you died.

But in this day, and within this community, marriage necessarily takes on a different meaning. ‘Until death do you part’ is a different concept if you suspect that indefinite lifespan extension may be invented sometime in the next few decades. Once, getting married at age 20 meant you were probably a quarter of the way through your life. In this day, and in this community, you know that you might actually be getting married at zero point zero zero zero and some more zeroes one percent of the way through your life. Our community contains many people in long-term relationships who are not married and are not waiting around to get married.

Even among those who marry, not every marriage has the same meaning. Some may not be planning to stay together until the stars go out—just enjoy the marriage for however long it lasts. And though marriage is no longer mandatory, the government of this country, in its finite wisdom, has decreed legal benefits for marriage which some of us may not wish to deny ourselves, even if we haven’t yet found a perfect romance out of storybooks, even if we might not want a perfect romance out of storybooks.

Marriage is no longer something that everyone has to do, and there isn’t just one kind of marriage, or one meaning of marriage. But at least so far as I can tell from the outside, Will and Divia seem to have a perfect romance, pretty much. And while romances like that exist, the ancient institution of marriage will continue into the future, I think.

There are stars in the sky above us, even now. Even on a cloudless day you can’t see them with your naked eyes, but the right camera would capture them. There is light shining upon this ceremony which is far older than eight and a half minutes. Standing as we do in the light of eternity, it may seem impossible to swear any true promise upon the future, when there are no perfect blessings called down upon a marriage to ensure its success, but only the mortal wills of human beings to guard it.

And yet there are still some people who are just so adorable together that you look at them and say, “Yeah, they should go for it.” I can think of at least three couples like that, though, aside from Will and Divia, I’m not going to name any names. Elizabeth Moon once wrote that courage is inherent in all living things; it is the quality that keeps them alive; it is courage that splits the acorn and sends the rootlet down into soil to search for sustenance. This is not literally true. Acorns don’t have brains so they can’t experience courage. But I would still praise the idea of courage as a quality that powers all of human life—the daring to do things that you don’t know for certain will work, acting under conditions of uncertainty. Even in an unstable world, not knowing how society might change, how you yourself might change, whether life as we know it will still exist at all in 30 years—even though nobody can foresee a thousand years into the future, even if everything goes right—even so, two or more people can still have sufficient confidence, and hope and courage, to try and build something greater out of the union of their lives. Because why not? If someone is already fortunate enough to have a relationship that once would have been called a marriage blessed by Heaven, why should they receive any less joy, or receive it any later, than they would have had in bygone times? How sad would it be to delay a hundred years and then find out that it would have worked after all?

And one element of marriage which has not changed is the endeavor to raise children. Not every marriage may desire children, but among those who do desire children, a marriage promises those children a stable home, a lasting family, and at least two people who jointly accept full responsibility for every child. For myself—seeing the meaning of this wedding through my own eyes—I would affirm and support above all else the wholehearted decision of Will and Divia to forge a more lasting bond because they both wished to bring a new child into the world. That responsibility is owed to any endeavor of creating a new sentient life. That meaning of marriage has not changed.

A final question is what marriage now means to the community that bears witness. William and Divia have chosen to bind their lives together. As it is not our place to deny that, neither is it within our power to permit it. There is no higher authority whose blessings must be sought, and we can’t wish them good luck because there’s no such thing in the universe as luck. We could say, “We wish you happy lives as the result of your own decisions!”, but wishing doesn’t make anything happen. And yet for as long as marriage has existed among the human species, it has been a ceremony performed within sight of the tribe. For tens of thousands of years before humans imagined that the heavens had authority, the tribe has borne witness to marriages. Of you all, then, I will ask that you promise to respect this marriage, and not come between Will and Divia in any way, should you find that possibility within your power; and those of you present who bear them other friendships may vow such other support as lies within your hearts. And let it be known to all the world that what is begun here today, is done brightly, and without shame.