Rationalism in an Age of Egregores

Political tribes work by allowing people to emit costly signals of fealty to a tribe, where that signal of fealty ties your social status to the tribe’s social status. So joining a political tribe is a status bet: you’re hoping[1] that the tribe will gain in group status, relative to rival political tribes. If you called it well, you’ll rise in social status with your tribe. Social status is a matter of relative position in a prestige order, so these group-status competitions are zero-sum.

Political tribes are horrifyingly successful in the social media age. Certainly, monotheistic faiths and the 20th-century political ideologies and nationalism were similarly effective phenomena. But living in the post-scarcity First World, people seem to want to spend a lot of their wealth on playing the zero-sum game about prestige ordering, online and otherwise.

People who have never really understood any other way to use words and arguments will sometimes say things like, “everything is political.” I think this means something like: “there are no interesting, purely predictive uses of language that avoid signaling in some group-status relevant manner; anyone claiming so is actually making a status move by trying to arrogate the title of ‘neutral.’

This is just false. Beyond being motivated, though, it’s epistemically evil! It’s just plain wrong that we have to live in an adversarial communicative environment where we can’t just take claims at face value without considering political-tribe-maneuvering implications. This is not a satisfactory equilibrium! In a mindkilled age, when egregores propagate freely in the medium of human psychology and bash in our ability to think, it’s especially important to state directly: being “political” is unequivocally epistemically bad. And being epistemically weak is in turn bad for your goals, whatever they are. Raising the instrumental-rationality waterline is the common instrumental interest of many final causes.

There’s no real contradiction in explicitly joining the anti-tribe tribe. It’s just false that you can’t get better at being a better-calibrated observer by trying hard at it. One of the most basic rationalist insights is that the best way to accomplish your goals, whatever those goals are, is to try directly. If you want to be less political, try directly first.

I bet that a core tenet of the Neo-Enlightenment project we’re trying to carry out will be building a culture inimical to egregores. I bet a big part of that is simply avowing that, in my culture, I’m anti-political-tribe. I’m not secretly banking social status to later pledge to some political tribe’s maneuvering; I just actually want to make apolitical predictions. I’d sign a commitment to that effect, if I could.

  1. ^

    “Hoping” and “betting” here can be largely unconscious, strategically-hidden-from-yourself-and-then-retroactively-completely-memory-holed mental motions. Unusually elaborate mental motions like these are typical for social status games; we were fine tuned for those tasks in our ancestral environment, and so have a lot of relevant purpose-build psychological hardware.