My Detailed Notes & Commentary from Secular Solstice

Previously: General Thoughts on Secular Solstice.

This blog post is my scattered notes and ramblings about the individual components (talks and songs) of Secular Solstice in Berkeley. Talks have their title in bold, and I split the post into two columns, with the notes I took about the content of the talk on the left and my comments on the talk on the right. Songs have normal formatting.


The Circle

This feels like a sort of whig history: a history that neglects most of the complexities and culture-dependence of the past in order to advance a teleological narrative. I do not think that whig histories are inherently wrong (although the term has negative connotations). Whig histories should be held to a very strict standard because they make claims about how most or all of human history functions.

The song describes morality in terms of an expanding circle of concern: kin → neighbor → humanity[1] → “feathers, fur, and silicon” → future.

Trying to line these up with historical societies or ideologies is … difficult. Many societies do not have a concept of ‘neighbor,’[2] and some do not understand ethics in terms of circles of moral concern.[3] A few moral systems are universalistic (i.e. they teach that people should have moral concern for all of humanity): Christianity,[4] liberal democracy,[5] and maybe Buddhism.[6] Actually practicing universalism is really hard: Most societies which preach universalism do not live up to its ideals.

Within one of these traditions, the whig version of history can make sense. Over the centuries, Christianity has dramatically expanded and Christian activists from Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther King have made it more true to the ideals of the New Testament. Similarly, liberal democracy has expanded dramatically, extended the right to vote for more people, and gotten better at defending many freedoms. (I don’t know what’s going on with Buddhism, but its failure to build/​maintain a dominant position in India is evidence that universalist ideologies do not generally outcompete other ideologies.)

This song cannot be simply about the spread of an existing ideology like liberal democracy. It also looks beyond existing ideologies and wants to push its ethics to include animals, computers/​software, and the long term future.[7] The whig history described by the song does not have good evidence when comparing across different ideologies.

Concern about the far future is, if anything, declining in societies that care more about individuals than kinship groups. Abraham looked at the stars and imagined what his descendants would be like in 5,000 years. Moral concern for animals and computers/​software might be increasing, but these opinions seem uncommon, and whether the trends will continue is far from obvious.

The song’s argument about moral progress in the future is: The circle of moral concern will continue to grow, and therefore we should adopt tomorrow’s morals more quickly. The complexity of the history of ethics makes me skeptical that it is possible to predict what the future’s ethics will be. Even if we could, that would not imply that we should adopt them.

The arguments for animal rights, moral concern for computers/​software, and longtermism will and should succeed or fail on their own merits, not because they match a whig history.

Life Is Too Short to Fold Underwear

I am often a fan of making mundane things sacred,[8] but this isn’t how you do it.

To make something mundane sacred, you intentionally do something different with it (which usually makes it harder) in order to materially or symbolically contribute to a higher cause. This is a ‘sacrifice,’ which etymologically comes from the Latin ‘to make sacred.’ For example, eating exclusively vegan can make preparing food a sacred act for an animal rights activist.

This song has intentionality in a mundane act, but the higher cause is yourself: the claim is that you should be willing to sacrifice for your own well-being.

This robs the sacrifice of its power. The power typically comes because you are willing to lay aside your own self interest because you believe in something greater than yourself. If it’s for yourself, then you’re not sacrificing anything or acknowledging anything greater than your personal desires, and so the act has not been made sacred.

A sacred act that you are doing for yourself is completely arbitrary.[9] Immediately after the song ended, the Master of Ceremonies (MC) reminded us that the opposite of the sacred act is equally valid.

This song also has an extremely concerning line in the chorus:

There’s good deeds to do and there’s sins to be sinned.

I do not support doing things, regardless of whether they are good or bad. I support doing good things and not doing bad things.

You might say that ‘sins’ here doesn’t mean ‘things which are bad’ and instead means ‘things which other people think are bad even though they really aren’t.’ I don’t buy this argument because (1) ‘sins’ is pared opposite to ‘good deeds’ and (2) the song doesn’t actually say that.

Time Wrote the Rocks

This is supposed to be anti-Biblical, in particular, anti-Young Earth Creationist. But Old Earth Creationism /​ Divinely Guided Evolution is also very well established in Christian tradition, and is fairly popular. There are loud voices on both sides the debate that pretend that this is a strict dichotomy, but they are misrepresenting the actual ideological landscape, either to consolidate their ‘side’ or to paint their opponents as extremists.

I don’t think it would be too hard to remove/​de-emphasize the (partially imagined) conflict with religion and turn this into a song I really like.

Underrated Reasons to Be Thankful


This was a recurring talk throughout Solstice.

Here is the complete list of the underrated reasons to be grateful, from the entire program:

  1. Oxygen poisoning didn’t kill all life.

  2. Stored energy in fossil fuels.

  3. Weird description of teeth.

  4. Yeast.

  5. Bleach.

  6. Music.

  7. There is evidence that practicing gratitude makes your life better.

  8. Obstruction of narratives allows truth to be found.

  9. No recent 1859-Carrington-event-scale solar flares.

  10. Large asteroids are rare.

  11. Antibiotic resistance has a cost to bacteria. → We can plausibly win the antibiotic resistance arms race long into the future.

  12. Dust/​grime accumulation is not faster.

  13. There has been a 93% decline in stomach cancer deaths over the last 100 years. On accident. Due to refrigeration.

  14. About 85% of people have toilets. This number increases by 1.5%[10] per year.

  15. Washing machines.

  16. Shoes.

  17. Size & distance of the sun. Someone might want to do something ambitious with all that matter.

  18. New Brussels sprouts taste good.

  19. “Even though we evolved as ruthless replicator machines,” we have good cultural software.

  20. Other animals see more colors, which suggests that there are unseen continents of qualia out there.

Mostly good.

I am generally fond of reminding people of the virtue of gratitude.

I also think that it is important to remind people of highly rated reasons to be grateful. There was some of this at Solstice, but I think that the rationalist community typically underrates this.

Having the talk interspersed throughout the program was fun. It gave the audience familiar reference points.

I have a few objections to the individual points:

8. I do not think that the obstruction of narratives is what allows truth to be found, or that the postmodern turn has made philosophy better at finding truth.

17. If you think that the sun should be torn for raw materials, explicitly say that. This feels like a dog whistle, which would not be epistemically virtuous.

19. This is a “Huh. That’s funny.” moment. If your belief that humans evolved as ruthless replicator machines seems in tension with the observation that humans seem moral, then maybe something’s going on here.

Bold Orion

Great song ! Stars are awesome.

See also: Constellations are Younger than Continents. I am leaning towards replacing “continents” with “commonwealths.”


The Fallen Star

This song is much more accepting of anything supernatural than the rest of Solstice. It explicitly describes stars as small points of light that you can hold in your hand, and which can talk. The belief that it is referencing is that stars are spiritual beings made of fire which can grant wishes and which are fundamentally good, so you don’t have to worry about alignment problems (unlike genies, or fey, or a monkey’s paw, or …).

I took a very different message from this song than the following speaker.

The star tells the narrator that it is very weak and is about to go out, but it still could be able to grant a wish. The narrator responds with a giant list of wishes. We don’t know if the star actually could grant a wish because it goes out while the narrator is listening to the sound of his own voice.

In this situation, you should ask for something specific and quick: ‘Can you eradicate malaria?’ or (from the song): ‘I wish my mother would be well.’ That way, the star has a chance of fulfilling the wish before its light goes out.

This is a song about being more humble in your desires—and about speaking quickly.

On Wanting Things


It was cruel of the star to make it safe to want things.

You need to be safe for your circle to grow.

We are not very good at being OK. We are better than we used to be.

We often deal with brokenness by denial. This is often acceptable and adaptive. But this night is the time to notice this.

Brokenness and mortality and existential risk.

It is good to notice your wants. Sometimes what you want is something that you can just have.

I disagree about the message of the song.

It might feel like you need to be safe in order to grow your circle, but that is wrong. One of the best ways to deal with suffering is to turn outwards and try to find ways to help others.

In material ways, we are much better off than we used to be. But it’s not clear to me that this has translated into feeling OK more of the time. This divergence between material well being and mental well being is an important modern crisis.

Existential risk features prominently in this program. More on this elsewhere.

Offer to have people step out if being in the night is too uncomfortable for them. It takes a lot of courage to walk out of something like this, so this is less real of an offer than it appears.[11]


Bitter Wind Lullaby

The second paragraph here is some notes that I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be attached to. Maybe commentary on this song by the MC.

From the perspective of not understanding winter. I interpreted it as being sung by a plant—or perhaps a small mouse. Apparently, the perspective is supposed to be early human. How early? I’m worried that the song falls prey to the fallacy that people in the past were a lot stupider than they were.

Trials scale with capabilities. We have the same monkey hardware, designed for a different setting. It is paralyzing to make decisions that impact the world. Feels impossible to live with, yet we do.

Hymn to Breaking Strain

Feels icky, although I’d have to look at the lyrics more closely to understand why.

Also probably technically false: I expect that military handbooks have estimates for how much stress men can bear before they stop being militarily effective.

For Every Ailment Under the Sun


Some grave concerns—about AI x-risk. Other disasters mentioned as an afterthought.

End of humanity = end of all good things.

Speaker is a therapist working at MIRI. “What’s worked for me as a therapist.”

Serenity Prayer by Mother Goose. Surprised that nursery rhymes can be profound.

Acceptance & agency.

X-risk is mostly in the ‘can’t control’ bucket. We are bad at acceptance as a species. Really grieving is an active process. I am in love with living and prefer not to stop. Our children might be killed by it.

After the pause—breath.

I still exist, my children too. Keep on striving in the face of obstacles. Too soon to give up. Human brains thrive on trying.

Make your little corner better. Gives permission to work on something else instead.

Don’t fail to notice the present. It is OK or better.

Joy is OK.

Hard to say if tried & true strategies will work. I have doubts. Mix in plenty of play. Good advice even if you don’t think the world will end. Happiness on short time scales.

Despite the title, this talk focused on one ailment: powerful, dangerous AI.

This talk functioned as a normalization of the belief that AI is likely to kill everyone. It did not argue for this position, but treated it as given, and demonstrated that high status people in the rationalist community have this belief.

The speaker explicitly stated that she has not figured out how to deal with living under the threat of AI x-risk. I am skeptical of the wisdom of someone giving public advice on how to solve a problem that they have not solved for themself. Working through a problem together can be good on a smaller scale, but saying the same sorts of things in front of a large group of people seems likely to make mental health problems worse. Even if she is good for MIRI’s mental health, she might not be the right person for this.

Her proposed solution /​ coping mechanism begins with a nursery rhyme. It is not surprising that it contains deep wisdom: a goal of nursery rhymes is to convey an important idea as easily as possible. But for this particular idea, there is something even more straightforward and well known: the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”[12]

Some of the advice she gave is good. The Serenity Prayer is good. Actually trying to solve the problems you’re facing is good. Caring about local problems and making your little corner of the world better is good.

Some of the advice she gave is concerning. I don’t think a good response is to just focus on happiness on short time scales: happiness intended for longer time scales is more fulfilling, even in the moment. I worry that she felt the need to tell people that joy is OK. Joy is obviously, unambiguously good.

It did not feel there was a theme uniting the advice. Instead, it felt more like a grab-bag of suggestions. I doubt that most people remembered the suggestions unless they wrote them down.[13]

The net result of the talk was probably depressing, not helpful or consoling.

No One Survives

Seems bad.

Songs Stay Sung

This is the key pivot point in the program, where the descent into darkness ends and the turn towards light begins.

I was very surprised because this song sounded Spinozist to me. I didn’t think that the rationalist community was particularly influenced by Spinoza. Other people I’ve talked to did not get this impression, so maybe I’m interpreting it wrong.

Spinoza[14] (and Einstein, who was a Spinozist) tends to think of experiencing the world as the result of an observer moving through a fully predetermined sequence of events, rather than as a continually changing present. The focus is on the ‘static’ 4D spacetime, rather than changes in 3D space. Think of the stack of frames that make up a movie, rather than the changing image on the screen. This results in a kind of indifference to how morally relevant different times are. There is no real reason to care about the present or future more than the past, because the whole thing ‘already exists’ and it’s just your experience moving through it. Despite Spinoza’s view of the world being mostly materialistic (Spinoza equates ‘God’ with all of Nature), Spinoza finds this to be a spiritually fulfilling experience.

This song treats the past as continuing to have real existence and derives hope and meaning from that, which is why it feels Spinozist to me.

Call and Response: Defiance

The thesis statement of the program.

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with it. Physics is indifferent, but physics is not all there is. We can be a light in the world, but the ultimate source of this light is from God.

The fact that there is a call and response also most precisely locates what tradition this program is modeled off of. Call and response came from African American churches, and so is much more common in American Protestantism than in European Protestantism. The fact this it is used only once suggests that this is modeled after a predominantly white church, not a predominantly black church or a church in Africa.[15]


Brighter Than Today

This was the least surprising song to be sung at Solstice: a hymn of humanistic progress.

Half Monkey, Half God


What do you see when you look at a person?

“You who was forged by the death of your father’s brothers.”

Check in with the monkey. He was not built for this. Have the monkey’s back, even when you fail.

Work with yourself. You can do powerful things if you work together (with yourself).

I probably believe the title of the talk more literally than the speaker does.

I disagree with how the word ‘God’ is used. He seems to mean ‘something that can understand and build the future.’ This is a very limited understanding of God.

This is a discussion about a kind of dualism—like body vs mind or reason vs the passions. There are extremely well developed versions of this by e.g. Hume, which I am not familiar with.

Song of the Artesian Water

Entertaining, even though somewhat anti-religious.

Portrays working to improve your situation as opposed to praying for relief, which is not typically how religious people understand things. You can do both: “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.”

This song sounded like bad geology to me. You need very particular conditions to get an artesian well: you can’t just find pick a place to drill and reasonably hope to find it. Artesian wells are also typically shallow, so if you’re 1,000 feet down and haven’t found anything, you should probably stop. Unfortunately for my intuition, the words were written by an Australian poet. Australia has the largest and deepest artesian aquifer in the world, covering the entire eastern half of the Outback. In much of Australia, it is reasonable to pick a random spot and drill thousands of feet down to find artesian water.

The song says something about how Watt defined the unit ‘horsepower.’ I don’t know the particular history for how he choose the value he did (obviously, not all horses produce the same power), but there are a lot of myths surrounding it. It’s good to be careful to not get the history wrong.

I Have Seen the Tops of Clouds



“I don’t think it’s good to be hopeless.”

Hope is an uncertainty. Your OKness shouldn’t be uncertain.

I don’t think that hope is intrinsically uncertain. You can hope for something that you know will happen in the future:

The Sun’ll Come Out … Tomorrow !

This feels much more Stoic than the rest of the program.

The song was partially fun, partially concerning.


We Will Not Die of This

Motherhood & childbirth.


(Has one leg. Is expecting a child.)

Historically, 1% of births resulted in the mother’s death. 120 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. 50% of children would die before reaching adulthood.

Now, 1% → 13000 and 50% → 4%.

Details of how this happened.

Story of Semmelweis figuring out handwashing is good in 1847.

Malnutrition & disease are intertwined.

Congenital abnormalities are the major cause of infant mortality now.

Prematurity is increasingly survivable. Baby incubators were a carnival attraction !

Still work to be done around the world—but much better than the past. Somalia has the worst infant mortality: 17, not 12.

Yay !

I knew the handwashing story, but not the preemies in the carnival story. It feels like peak nineteenth century medicine.

Ballad of Smallpox Gone

Yay !

Feels a bit militaristic, but solidly directed at the enemy of all mankind.

Hopefully, we’ll have to write some new verses about polio soon.


MC: You may be working on civilization-scale projects. I hope it goes well for you—and the world. Also people working on smaller projects.

Level Up

General call for action, without emphasizing that the actions should be good.

Feels heavily influenced by video games.

The Orange


I bought an orange at lunch today.

It made me so happy.

Ordinary things to do—peace & contentment.

“I love you. I’m glad I exist.”

Cute & fun.

The Great Transhumanist Future

There is a phenomenon in comparative theology where people are much more sensitive to whether the theology is correct in a talk than in a song. If you say a controversial doctrine in a talk, people might get upset, come up and argue with you afterwards, or even start attending a different congregation. If you put the same doctrine in a song, people are more likely to smile and sing along. People know this, and sometimes write extremely partisan songs that take advantage of the phenomenon. ‘Know This That Every Soul Is Free’ comes to mind as an example. The appropriate response is to take the content of songs as seriously as the content of talks. Their words probably do reflect the author’s intent.

This song is the most explicit statement of the future that the rationalist community hopes to build. Despite the earlier cautions about wanting things, this leans all the way into wanting everything you could possibly imagine.

The song starts with the second dog whistle for “a coder” dismantling the sun in this Solstice, although it was too obscure and so had to be explained before the song started. Other specific things mentioned include mind uploading, “branching” your self, “VR porn and a unicorn.” I know this sounds somewhere tongue-in-cheek, but I think that the people who wrote it actually would prefer a world with widely available virtual reality porn and where people could gene edit animals to make a unicorn.

This is not the future I hope for.

If you’re wondering how we took the leap from wanting to eat oranges and not die in childbirth to wanting this ‘Great Transhumanist Future,’ so am I. This is the sort of thing that makes people sometimes say that AI safety researchers have read too much science fiction.

Five Thousand Years

Mostly questions:

  • What kind of future do you want?

  • What kind of world do you hope to build?

Also gives some description of what he wants: immortality & space colonization.

This feels less concerning than the previous song about the far future, but I don’t think it actually is. Conditional on people actually wanting everything described above, I would much rather they say it publicly instead of just asking suggestive questions.

When policy makers and the public are making decisions about AI, it would be useful for them to know if some of the relevant actors have long term goals that include uploading everyone’s minds, tearing apart the sun, and sending von Neumann probes at almost the speed of light across the universe. Not telling them these goals makes the resulting decision making much less democratic.

Summary by MC

Dreaming of possible futures.

Journey through darkness to light and wealth.

What a Wonderful World

Everyone stands, links arms, and sings together.

Re-grounds the high-flying dreams about the future to the community that is currently present.

I don’t look forward to the same future as you, and so don’t end up in the same place as you do.

  1. ^

    Luckily, “nation” was not included in the song. Nationalism dates to the late 1700s /​ early 1800s, and so clearly postdates universalist ideologies. Don’t mistake Romanticism’s reaction to the Enlightenment with pre-Enlightenment thought.

  2. ^

    A neighbor is someone who lives physically close to you, but is not kin, and who you consider to be your equal morally & politically.

  3. ^

    If a king and subject interact according to their socially prescribed roles, they might be seriously following their society’s moral code, even though neither of them are ‘within each others’ circle of moral concern.′

  4. ^

    Universalist ideals are common in the New Testament: the Parable of the Good Samaritan, “love your enemies,” “there is no Jew or Greek,” etc.

  5. ^

    I notice myself being unsurprised that liberal democracy developed in the West, which had long traditions of both universalist ethics and republican government.

  6. ^

    I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I think that at least some versions of it promote universalism.

  7. ^

    Although not in other directions, like fetuses.

  8. ^

    Note that I am talking about whether or not something is sacred here, not whether or not it is good. It is possible to make something sacred to an evil cause.

  9. ^

    Symbolically contributing to a higher cause may seem arbitrary from a societal perspective, but it is definitely not from any individual’s perspective. If you decide to replace the Seder dinner at Passover with barbecue, then what you’re doing isn’t Passover anymore.

  10. ^

    I think this is percentage points, but my notes did not make the distinction.

  11. ^

    This is also a concern at various points in my religion. I think that we have made some real progress on this front, but have not fully solved it.

  12. ^

    Apparently, this Mother Goose rhyme is older than the Serenity Prayer. The oldest version is by Epictetus, a Greek Stoic.

    This still feels weird because the Serenity Prayer is so much more common. If the speaker was originally familiar with the Serenity Prayer, and then looked for a different version, then this would be refusing to acknowledge influence from religion. If she first encountered this version, then it would not be.

  13. ^

    Which is hard in the dark.

  14. ^

    I have read several of each of Spinoza’s and Einstein’s works, but I am not an expert on Spinozism.

  15. ^

    The music is also more similar to what you would hear in a predominantly white than a predominantly black American Protestant church.