The Value (and Danger) of Ritual

This is the sec­ond part of my Win­ter Sols­tice Ri­tual mini-se­quence. The in­tro­duc­tion post is here.


Ri­tual is an in­ter­est­ing phe­nomenon to me. It can be fun, beau­tiful, profound, use­ful… and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous.

Com­menters from the pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle fell into two main camps—those who as­sumed I knew what I was do­ing and gave me the benefit of the doubt, and those who were afraid I was naively med­dling with forces be­yond my com­pre­hen­sion. This was a rea­son­able fear. In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll out­line why I think rit­ual is im­por­tant, why it’s dan­ger­ous, why I think it’s rele­vant to an as­piring ra­tio­nal­ist cul­ture.

Be­fore I start ar­gu­ing how mean­ingful and trans­for­ma­tive rit­ual can be, I want to ar­gue some­thing sim­pler:

It can be re­ally fun.

This is not to be dis­counted. For what­ever rea­son, hu­mans tend to ap­pre­ci­ate songs, sto­ries and ac­tivi­ties that they shared with their tribe. He­dons from rit­ual can take the form of fun jovial­ity as well as in­tense, profound ex­pe­riences.

Not ev­ery­thing we evolved to do is good. If we feel an urge to hit the en­emy tribesman with a huge rock and take their land, we can and should say “No, there are im­por­tant game the­o­retic and moral rea­sons why this is a bad idea” and sup­press the urge. But we can also de­vise new ac­tivi­ties, like knock­ing the en­emy tribesman over and tak­ing their ball, satis­fy­ing that urge with­out the nega­tive con­se­quences of war. I’d like ac­cess to the ex­pe­rience that rit­ual uniquely offers, if it can be done safely.

Ri­tual cov­ers a range of ex­pe­rience. One sub­set of that is a kind of art. To give you some sense of what I mean here, here’s a few clusters of ac­tivi­ties.

  • Art, en­joyed alone for sim­ple aes­thet­ics.

  • Art that speaks to your be­liefs.

  • Art that you en­joy ap­pre­ci­at­ing with other peo­ple.

  • Beliefs that you en­joy shar­ing with other peo­ple.

  • Rep­e­ti­tion of ac­tivi­ties that you do ev­ery year.

And here are a few songs I like:

Art and Belief

I like Silent Night be­cause it is a sim­ple, tran­quil song, of­ten sung with skil­lful har­monies.

I like Carol of the Bell be­cause it is a pow­er­ful, awe-in­spiring song that is performed with im­mense com­plex­ity and skill.

I like Do You Hear What I Hear partly for the same rea­sons I like Silent Night—it be­gins with sim­ple tran­quil­ity. But I also like it for ide­olog­i­cal rea­sons—it show­cases the power of a meme grow­ing over time, mag­nify­ing, evolv­ing and chang­ing the lives of its hosts as they come to be­lieve it. As an artist hop­ing to craft pow­er­ful memes, this is very im­por­tant to me. I also like the imagery of the proud king, will­ing to listen to the words of a shep­herd boy, ac­knowl­edg­ing the im­por­tance of a small in­fant born into poverty far away.

And the king is able to com­mand the at­ten­tion of an en­tire na­tion: Take a mo­ment, stop what you are do­ing, and pay at­ten­tion to this child.

But Do You Hear What I Hear also both­ers me slightly—it lies in the un­canny valley of ide­olog­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The song strikes very close to home in my heart, and I want to give my­self over to the song, not just to sing the words but to truly feel them in my heart. And I can’t, be­cause there is a slight snag when we get to the proud king. The king is valu­ing the child for all the wrong rea­sons. I want the child to be im­por­tant be­cause all chil­dren are im­por­tant. But this king would not have given the child a sec­ond thought if it hadn’t been the son of God. I don’t be­lieve in Je­sus, so the in­tended mes­sage of the song clashes with what I want it to be about.

For the most part I sing the song with­out think­ing about this, but that lit­tle snag is there, and it pre­vents the song from be­ing one of my fa­vorites ever.

Con­trast this with Silent Night, where the mes­sage is largely ir­rele­vant to me. Or Carol of the Bells, whose mes­sage is “Bells are pretty and peo­ple like them.” I ap­pre­ci­ate them aes­thet­i­cally and I re­spect skil­led perform­ers. Their mes­sages don’t bother me, but nei­ther do I feel as strongly about them.

Art and Tribe

The Word of God is beau­tiful be­cause the world is an in­cred­ible place, and hu­mans have dis­cov­ered mil­lions of beau­tiful true things about it. There is ex­actly one thing I dis­like about this song, and it is not a dis­agree­ment with its ide­ol­ogy. It’s just the use of the word “God.” I don’t think it was wrong word to use—it’s a nice, sim­ple word and I read it purely as a metaphor for “the uni­verse.”

Like Do you Hear, there is some un­canny-valley effect here. But here it’s about tribal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. (I draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween tribal iden­tity and ide­ol­ogy—tribe is about iden­ti­fy­ing with a group of peo­ple, ide­ol­ogy is iden­ti­fy­ing with a be­lief-struc­ture).

My mind snags be­cause “God” is a word I nor­mally as­so­ci­ate with other cul­tures. This isn’t as big a deal as in Do You Hear. I don’t ac­tu­ally con­sider the god­dists to be my en­emy, I just don’t feel con­nected to them, and the word takes me out of the beauty of the song and re­minds me of this dis­con­nec­tion. I did go ahead and in­clude Word of God, ver­ba­tim, in the Win­ter Sols­tice Cel­e­bra­tion. I just want to note that there are differ­ent rea­sons to be moved by (or fail to be moved by) a song.

[Edit in 2018: we’ve since re-writ­ten Word of God (af­ter touch­ing base with the origi­nal song­writer) to fo­cus more purely on sci­en­tific progress rather than God. This was less be­cause “God” was prob­le­matic and more be­cause it kept the fo­cus on poli­ti­cal con­flict that didn’t seem good for Sols­tice longterm]

Fi­nally, we have Sin­gu­lar­ity, which I like for all kinds of rea­sons.

The mu­sic be­gins whim­si­cal and fun, but grows more pow­er­ful and ex­cit­ing over time. If you have good speak­ers, there’s a heavy but sub­tle baseline that drives the sound through your bones. It was re­fresh­ing to hear an un­apolo­getic vi­sion of how amaz­ing the fu­ture could be. And when the sound abruptly cuts out and the song re­sets, there’s an­other image I re­ally like—that hu­man­ity is not spe­cial be­cause we were cre­ated by some God for a grand pur­pose. In­stead, we are spe­cial pre­cisely be­cause we were shaped by ran­dom forces in an un-ex­traor­di­nary cor­ner of the uni­verse, and all of our po­ten­tial power and great­ness comes from our own de­sires, in­tel­lect and drive.

So it’s ide­olog­i­cally mov­ing to me. But I didn’t re­ally re­al­ize un­til I sang in a group how trib­ally mov­ing it could be. I wasn’t sure peo­ple would like the song. The cho­rus in par­tic­u­lar sounds silly when you sing it by your­self. But as a group, ev­ery­one got re­ally into it, and yes the cho­rus was still a lit­tle silly but we got up and waved our arms around and belted it out and it felt re­ally good to be part of a group who be­lieved that this weird, out­landish idea was in fact very plau­si­ble and im­por­tant.

So that was cool.

I also thought it slightly ter­rify­ing.

Songs like Sin­gu­lar­ity are what give me the most pause about en­courag­ing Less Wrong cul­ture and rit­u­als.

Sig­nal­ing Issues

There are two big is­sues with rit­ual. The first is how it makes other peo­ple per­ceive us.

Ri­tu­als are, al­most by defi­ni­tion, sym­bolic ac­tions that look a lit­tle weird from the out­side. They nor­mally seem okay, be­cause they are an­cient and time­less (or at least were cre­ated a few years be­fore peo­ple started pay­ing at­ten­tion). But any Less Wrong rit­ual is go­ing to have all the nor­mal weird­ness of “fresh” tra­di­tion, and it’s go­ing to look ex­tra strange be­cause we’re Less Wrong, and we’re go­ing to be us­ing words like “rit­ual” and “tribal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion” to mat­ter-of-factly de­scribe what we’re do­ing.

Some peo­ple may be turned off. Skep­tics who speci­fi­cally turned to ra­tio­nal­ity to es­cape mind­less rit­ual that was forced upon them may find this all scary. Qual­ity, in­tel­li­gent in­di­vi­d­u­als may come to our web­site, see an ar­ti­cle about a night of rit­ual and then tune out and leave.

I think this is an ac­cept­able cost to pay. Be­cause for good or for ill, most hu­mans like emo­tional things that aren’t strictly ra­tio­nal. Many peo­ple are drawn to the Se­quences not just be­cause they say im­por­tant things, but be­cause Eliezer crafted an emo­tional nar­ra­tive around his ideas. He in­cluded lita­nies and parables, which move us in a way that pure logic of­ten can’t.

There are smart cyn­ics who will be turned off, but there are also smart ideal­ists who will be drawn to rec­og­niz­able hu­man emo­tional arcs. I don’t think rit­ual should be the FIRST thing po­ten­tial new­com­ers see, but I think it is some­thing that will get them fully in­volved with our com­mu­nity and the im­por­tant things we be­lieve. I think it may par­tic­u­larly help former the­ists, who have built their en­tire lives around a com­mu­nity and rit­ual in­fras­truc­ture, make the tran­si­tion into athe­ists who are proud of their new be­liefs and do pro­duc­tive things.

It may even help cur­rent the­ists make the tran­si­tion, if they can see that they WON’T have to be giv­ing up that com­mu­nity and rit­ual in­fras­truc­ture, and all the he­dons that went along with it.

But there’s an­other cost to rit­ual, that can’t be re­solved quickly with a cost-benefit anal­y­sis.

[Up­date from 2016 - I want to clar­ify that while I think Less Wrong as a com­mu­nity is a rea­son­able place for rit­ual and cul­ture-build­ing, there are other re­lated com­mu­ni­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tions that are more “PR sen­si­tive” and I don’t think should be con­nected to rit­ual]

Dangers of Reinforcement

Ri­tual taps into a lot of re­gions of our brain that are ex­plic­itly ir­ra­tional, or at least a-ra­tio­nal. I don’t think we can af­ford to ig­nore those re­gions—they are too es­sen­tial to our ex­is­tence as hu­mans to sim­ply write off. We didn’t evolve to use pure logic to hold to­gether com­mu­ni­ties and in­spire de­ci­sions. Some peo­ple may be able to do this, but not most.

I think we need rit­ual, but I would be a fool to deny that we’re deal­ing with a dan­ger­ous force. Ri­tual is a self-re­in­forc­ing car­rier wave for ideas. Those ideas can turn out to be wrong, and the art that was once beau­tiful and im­por­tant can turn hol­low or even dan­ger­ous. Even true ideas can be mag­nified un­til you ig­nite a happy death spiral, giv­ing them far more of your time than they de­serve.

Some of this can be miti­gated by mak­ing tra­di­tions ex­plic­itly about the ra­tio­nal pro­cess, and build­ing eval­u­a­tion into the rit­ual it­self. We can re­view in­di­vi­d­ual el­e­ments and re­move them if nec­es­sary. We can even plan to rewrite them into new par­o­dies that re­fute the old idea, cer­e­mo­ni­ously dis­card­ing our old ideas. But this will be a mean­ingless pro­cess un­less we are putting in gen­uine effort—not just do­ing a du­tiful re­view as good ra­tio­nal­ists should.

We can re­cite the Li­tany of Tarski, but un­less you are truly con­sid­er­ing both pos­si­bil­ities and prepar­ing your­self for them, the words are use­less. No amount of pre-plan­ning will change the fact that us­ing rit­ual will re­quire de­liber­ate effort to pro­tect you from the pos­si­bil­ity of in­san­ity.

You should be do­ing this any­way. There are plenty of ways to fall into a happy death spiral that don’t in­volve can­dle-lit gath­er­ings and weird songs. When you’re deal­ing with ideas as pow­er­ful as the Sin­gu­lar­ity—a meme that pro­vides a nice, sound-byte word that sug­gests a solu­tion to all of the most ter­rible prob­lems hu­man­ity faces—you should already be on guard against wish­ful think­ing. When you’re talk­ing about those ideas in a group, you should already be work­ing hard—gen­uinely hard, not just perform­ing a du­tiful search—to over­come group think and evap­o­ra­tive cool­ing and main­tain your ob­jec­tivity.

You should be do­ing that no mat­ter what. Every cause wants to be a cult, whether or not they have a nice word that sounds way sim­pler than it ac­tu­ally is that promises to solve all the world’s prob­lems.

Ri­tual does make this harder. I’m par­tic­u­larly wary of songs like Sin­gu­lar­ity, which build up a par­tic­u­lar idea that still has a LOT of un­known fac­tors. An anony­mous com­menter from the Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tion told me they were con­cerned about the song be­cause it felt like they were “wor­ship­ping” the Sin­gu­lar­ity, and I agree, this is con­cern­ing, both for our own san­ity and for the sig­nal­ing it im­plies to new­com­ers who stum­ble upon this dis­cus­sion.

I’d go ahead and ex­clude the song, and any meme that got too spe­cific with too many un­cer­tain­ties.… ex­cept that a lot of our most pow­er­ful, beau­tiful images come from spe­cific ideas about the fu­ture. A generic ral­ly­ing cry of “Science!”, “Hu­man­ism!” or “Ra­tion­al­ity!” is not a satis­fy­ing an­swer to the prob­lems of Death and Global Suffer­ing and Ex­is­ten­tial Risk. It’s not satis­fy­ing on an artis­tic level, an in­tel­lec­tual level or a tribal level. Hav­ing spe­cific ideas about how to steer the fu­ture is what gives our group a unique iden­tity. Car­ing too much about that iden­tity is dan­ger­ous, but it can also be ex­tremely mo­ti­va­tional.

As of now, I’m not sure what I think about this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. I look for­ward to com­menters weigh­ing in.

With all this dire warn­ing, it may seem like a slam dunk case, to aban­don the idea of rit­ual. Ob­vi­ously, I dis­agree, for a few rea­sons.

The first is that hon­estly, gath­er­ing a few times a year to sing “Sin­gu­lar­ity! Sin­gu­lar­ity!”, even with­out all the pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures, sim­ply pales in sig­nifi­cance com­pared to… well… the en­tire Less Wrong com­mu­nity-meme­plex do­ing what it does on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

If we were gen­uinely con­cerned about mak­ing bad de­ci­sions due to re­in­force­ment rit­u­als, I’d start by wor­ry­ing about much more mun­dane rit­u­als, like con­tin­u­ously dis­cussing the Sin­gu­lar­ity all the time. Con­stantly talk­ing about an idea trains your brain to think of it as im­por­tant. Hang­ing out on fo­rums with a con­stant stream of news about it cre­ates con­fir­ma­tion and availa­bil­ity bias. If you’re con­cerned about ir­ra­tional­ity, as op­posed to weird cer­e­monies that might sig­nal low sta­tus, you should already be putting a lot of effort into pro­tect­ing your­self against a happy death spiral, and the ex­tra effort you need to ex­pend for a few nights of ju­bilant cel­e­bra­tion shouldn’t be that sig­nifi­cant.

The dan­ger of cer­e­mo­nial rit­ual in par­tic­u­lar is real, but over­es­ti­mat­ing it isn’t much bet­ter than un­der­es­ti­mat­ing it. Even if we’re just talk­ing about rit­ual as a source of he­dons that we’ve pre­vi­ously de­nied our­selves. Fam­i­lies across the world gather to sing songs about ideas they like, and while this may be a hu­man be­hav­ior we need to sac­ri­fice, I’m not go­ing to do so out of fear of what *might* hap­pen with­out a de­cent un­der­stand­ing of why.

But there’s more to it than that. And this is why I’ve worked so hard on this, and why I think the po­ten­tial up­sides are so im­por­tant.

Aspiring Ra­tion­al­ist Culture

I had two ma­jor mo­ti­va­tions for the Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tion. One of them was to pro­duce a fun event for my com­mu­nity, and to in­spire similar events for peo­ple across the world who share my memes.

The other was per­sonal: Ra­tion­al­ity train­ing has made me bet­ter at iden­ti­fy­ing good solu­tions, but it hasn’t made those solu­tions emo­tion­ally salient. This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when it comes to op­ti­mal philan­thropy—a mil­lion starv­ing peo­ple across the world sim­ply can’t com­pete with a sin­gle smil­ing or­phan I get to per­son­ally de­liver a christ­mas pre­sent to. And those peo­ple have an even harder time if they live in the dis­tant fu­ture.

Scope in­sen­si­tivity and time dis­count­ing can be hard to over­come. Worst of all is when the best solu­tion might not work, and I may not even live to see it work, and I can never get the emo­tional satis­fac­tion of know­ing I ac­tu­ally helped any­one at all.

I con­structed the Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tion around a nar­ra­tive, based around the in­ter­play be­tween past, pre­sent and fu­ture. The pro­cess of craft­ing that nar­ra­tive was ex­tremely valuable to me, and has helped me to fi­nally give Ex­is­ten­tial Risk the weight it de­serves. I haven’t com­mit­ted to helping SIAI in par­tic­u­lar, but I feel like I’m at place where if I got bet­ter in­for­ma­tion on how effec­tive SIAI is, I’d be emo­tion­ally able to act on that in­for­ma­tion.

I don’t think the first ex­e­cu­tion of the Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tion suc­cess­fully pro­vided other peo­ple with that ex­pe­rience, but I think there is tremen­dous po­ten­tial in the idea. I’d like to see the de­vel­op­ment of a cul­ture that doesn’t glo­rify any par­tic­u­lar solu­tion, but which takes im­por­tant ra­tio­nal­ity con­cepts and helps peo­ple mod­ify their emo­tions match the ac­tual ex­pected val­ues of ac­tions that would oth­er­wise seem cold, hard and calcu­lat­ing.

I think this may turn out to be very im­por­tant.

In some ways this has me far more scared than rit­ual-as-he­dons. Peo­ple can gather for a night of jovial fun and come away mostly un­changed. Us­ing rit­ual *de­liber­ately* to mod­ify your­self is risky, and it is per­haps riskiest if you think you have a good rea­son for do­ing so.

I don’t think this is that dan­ger­ous on the in­di­vi­d­ual level. It was use­ful to me, I think oth­ers may find value in it. Ac­tu­ally al­low­ing your­self to be changed in a mean­ingful way re­quires effort be­yond an ini­tial, in­spiring cer­e­mony. (It took me sev­eral weeks of in­tense work *prepar­ing* the Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tion, ce­mented by a fi­nal mo­ment when a few ideas clicked into place and I came up with a metaphor I could use to al­ter my emo­tions. I don’t know for sure whether this can be dis­til­led into a pro­cess that oth­ers can use with less effort).

Next year, I ex­pect the peo­ple who come to Sols­tice for the com­fort and he­dons will get what they need, and if any­one wants to use it as a spring­board for self-mod­ifi­ca­tion, they will be able to as well.

The pos­si­bil­ity that most con­cerns me is a chain of events go­ing some­thing like this:

  1. Some­one (pos­si­bly a fu­ture ver­sion of me, pos­si­bly any ran­dom per­son pe­rus­ing these ar­ti­cles) will de­cide that this is im­por­tant enough to de­liber­ately prop­a­gate on a mass scale.

  2. Said per­son will be­come good enough at rit­ual-craft (or use ad­di­tional dark arts tech­niques) to make this much more effec­tive than I cur­rently an­ti­ci­pate.

  3. The re­sult is an effec­tive but low-sta­tus self-prop­a­gat­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that ends up cor­rupt­ing the origi­nal goal of “help peo­ple be bet­ter at fol­low­ing through on cor­rect but emo­tion­ally un­satis­fy­ing choices.”

This sce­nario re­quires some­one to put a lot of work in, and they would prob­a­bly fail un­event­fully even if they did. Even if events tran­spire this way, the prob­lem is less that a hol­low self-prop­a­gat­ing meme­plex ex­ists (it’s not like we don’t already have plenty of them, one more won’t hurt that much) but that its as­so­ci­a­tion with Less Wrong and re­lated things may tar­nish our rep­u­ta­tion.

I’d like to think this is a bad thing, al­though truth be told I think it as­sumes a level of im­por­tance that Less Wrong hasn’t re­ally carved or it­self yet in the greater world. But we are try­ing to gain sta­tus and out of re­spect for the com­mu­nity I should ac­knowl­edge this risk, and sincerely so­licit feed­back.

My cur­rent as­sess­ment is that a) this is un­likely, and b) any or­ga­ni­za­tion that’s try­ing to ac­com­plish things on a large scale WILL have to ac­cept the risk that it trans­forms into a hol­low, self per­pet­u­at­ing meme­plex. If you don’t want that risk at all, you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to af­fect the world in a no­tice­able way. Ri­tual-driven meme­plexes tend to be re­li­gions, which many of us con­sider a ri­val tribe, so they carry more emo­tional weight in our risk as­sess­ment. But this can also hap­pen to cor­po­ra­tions, unions, non-prof­its and poli­ti­cal move­ments that may have been gen­uinely valuable at some point.

I do plan to study this is­sue in more de­tail over the com­ing year. If any­one does have spe­cific liter­a­ture or ex­am­ples that I should be aware of, I’d ap­pre­ci­ate it. But my pri­ors are that the few nega­tive re­ac­tions I’ve got­ten to this are based more out of emo­tion than a clear un­der­stand­ing of the risks.

My fi­nal con­cern is that this sim­ply isn’t a topic that Less Wrong should en­courage that much of, partly be­cause some peo­ple find it an­noy­ing and partly be­cause we re­ally should be spend­ing our time de­vel­op­ing tools for ra­tio­nal think­ing and study­ing sci­en­tific liter­a­ture. I have an­other ar­ti­cle or two that I think would be valuable enough for the main page, and af­ter that I’ll be invit­ing peo­ple to a sep­a­rate mailing list if they want to col­lab­o­rate.

This is the sec­ond post of the rit­ual mini-se­quence. The next post is De­sign­ing Ri­tual.