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.