comment by Yoreth ·
2021-06-07T04:07:51.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
A few thoughts on this.
First, I probably have a higher appetite for religion-ifying rationalism than others in the community, but I wouldn't want to push my preferences too hard lest it scare people off. This may stem from my personal background as a cradle atheist. Religious people don't want rationality to become rivalrous with their religion, and ex-religionists don't want it to become they very thing they escaped. To the extent that it's good for rationality to become more religion-like, I think it'll happen on its own in the next few decades or centuries without any concerted effort. I'm not in a hurry.
Second, we should avoid treating "religion" as a fixed concept already optimized for a particular social niche, as if to say that if rationality has some attributes of a religion, then it would necessarily gain by taking on the rest as well. Some of the functions that a religion might manage are:
- Marriage and family life
- Non-familial social ties
- The relationship between people and the state
- Matters of interpersonal morality
- Matters of private morality
- Explaining the origin and fate of the universe
- Explaining consciousness and death
- Ethnic identification
Different societies will have different ways of allocating these responsibilities amongst the various institutions/philosophies within it. In Western cultures we use the word "religion" because it's common for most or all of these domains to be handled by the same thing, so we need a word for whatever category of thing that is. But the Western bias is revealed whenever we try to apply the concept to non-Western societies. E.g. a Chinese person may be a Confucianist with respect to (1) (3) and (4), a Taoist for (2) (6) and (8), and a Buddhist for (5) and (7). Which of these is a "religion"? Does it matter?
Even within the West, these boundaries have shifted over time. (3) was forcibly purged from Christianity in the European Wars of Religion, leading ultimately to the 1st Amendment in the US. And (8) is common in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, while mainline Protestantism is indifferent or outright hostile towards it. We can expect that the boundaries will continue to shift in the future, which leads into the third point.
Third, we should ask ourselves (and I'd be curious to hear your answer) what kind of future we're planning for in which the religion-ification of rationalism becomes relevant. I can think of three scenarios:
- (A) A technological singularity happens within the next few decades.
- (B) A major civilizational collapse delays the singularity by hundreds or thousands of years.
- (C) Civilization doesn't collapse, but the singularity is nevertheless delayed by several centuries, due to technological stagnation (or something).
As for (A), I'm not qualified to weigh in on how likely that is; but if it does happen, then this whole question is pretty much irrelevant anyway, because there won't be any humans (as we know them) to practice any religion. The only possible relevance is that it would be bad for people to expend too much effort now in creating a rationalist religion if they could otherwise have been working on AI safety. But that probably doesn't apply to most people.
I don't think (B) is likely, but there's a compelling cultural narrative in its favor that we need to actively counterbalance in our estimates. We all like to imagine an apocalypse where we can wipe the slate clean and remake a "perfect" society. And everyone likes to look back to the Fall of Rome as an easy-to-apply historical template. If you imagine a rationalist religion in that context, you end up with something like "D&D magic + medieval Catholicism," where monks copy manuscripts to preserve knowledge that would otherwise be lost. But, again, I don't think loss of knowledge is major concern for the future, so efforts to create such an order of monks will probably be wasted.
(C) is where the question becomes most relevant, but since this scenario has no historical precedent, we can't just look to existing or past religions and think that we can just change a few incidentals and slot it into the future world. Whatever rationality ends up becoming in this world, it won't be what we'd call a "religion" (but perhaps a word for it will be devised eventually).
For example, in the future, scientific knowledge may never again be lost, but people will nevertheless feel adrift in a flood of false information so vast and confusing that they can't figure out what to believe. What sort of institution could remedy this situation? Not monks copying manuscripts, to be sure.
Lastly, some disjointed thoughts on outreach. There's a certain personality type that feels drawn to rationalist ideas, for reasons that are probably innate or at least very difficult to change. You know you're one of these people if your reaction upon finding LessWrong was "All my life people have been talking nonsense, but finally I've found something that makes sense!" Even if you don't agree with most of it.
At some point (perhaps already past), all of those people who can be persuaded will be. This will only comprise a small fraction of the population, but they will cling to the "rationalist community" with a near-religious zeal. (I have friends who absolutely loathe "rationalists" but still participate in the community online because, in their view, literally no one else even tries to make convincing arguments.) This zeal is a valuable quality, but most normal people will not sympathize. The question then becomes: For that majority of people who are not rationalists-by-disposition, is there some way they can benefit by associating with the community?
I think the answer will involve addressing this:
We don’t have rituals. Hence meetups are awkward to organize, often stilted and revolve around the discussion of readings or rationality problems or even just lack any structure at all. Contrast this to a church where you show up every Sunday, listen to a service and then make smalltalk or go to a picnic.
Maybe rationalists should give talks that are open to the public and geared towards a general audience, and encourage listeners to talk about it amongst themselves. That way there'd be less pressure to follow along with extremely esoteric conversations. But you don't have to think of it as a "religion" or a "ritual" - it's just a public lecture, which is a perfectly normal thing for someone of any religious views to attend. Putting it forward as a religion-substitute would probably turn people off.
Replies from: srdjan-miletic
↑ comment by Srdjan Miletic (srdjan-miletic) ·
2021-06-08T01:50:25.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Putting it forward as a religion-substitute would probably turn people off
I agree this is a risk. Both due to culty vibes and people not wanting a religion. I'm not sure in practice whether growing rationalism as a core identity would lead to less or more rationalists. I'm also not sure how far non-core and core identity rationalism are mutually exclusive. (Just like a lot of people are vaguely christian without belonging to a church, so maybe a lot of people would be vaguely interested in rationalism without wanting to join their local temple)
Third, we should ask ourselves (and I'd be curious to hear your answer) what kind of future we're planning for in which the religion-ification of rationalism becomes relevant
I don't think there needs to be a specific, world-altering plan in order for a rationalist religion to be something worth pursuing. If you believe as I do that rationalism makes people better human beings, is morally right and leads to more open, free, just and advanced societies, then creating and spreading it is good pretty much irrespective of social circumstances.
At some point (perhaps already past), all of those people who can be persuaded will be. This will only comprise a small fraction of the population, but they will cling to the "rationalist community" with a near-religious zeal
So I think I depart quite strongly from the lesswrong consensus here. Lesswrong has about, what, 200 active members? The broader group of people who would consider themselves rationalists or rationalist adjacent is probably less than 10'000. The world has a population of 600 Billion people. Even assuming only a tiny proportion of people are naturally inclined towards rationalism, I really don't think we're anywhere close to addressing the full market. A few things to bear in mind:
Replies from: Yoreth
- Rationalist content is mostly in english. Most people don't speak/read english. Even those that do as a second language don't consumer primarily english sources
- Rationalism is niche and hard to stumble upon. It's not like christianity or left/right ideology in the west. Whereas those ideologies are broadcasted at you constantly and you will know about them and roughly what they represent, rationalism is something you only find if you happen to just luck out and stumble on this weird internet trail of breadcrumbs.
↑ comment by Yoreth ·
2021-06-08T04:05:44.477Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I’m also not sure how far non-core and core identity rationalism are mutually exclusive. (Just like a lot of people are vaguely christian without belonging to a church, so maybe a lot of people would be vaguely interested in rationalism without wanting to join their local temple)
Agreed; finding a way for multiple levels of involvement to coexist would be helpful. Anecdotally, when I first tried attending LW meetups in around 2010, I was turned off and did not try again for many years, because the conversation was so advanced I couldn't follow it. But when I did try again, I enjoyed it a lot more because I found that the community had expanded to include a "casual meetup attendee and occasional commenter" tier, which I fitted comfortably into. Now we could imagine adding a 3rd tier, namely "people who come and listen to a speech and then make small talk and go for a picnic afterward" (or whatever).
Could this be considered a "temple"? Maybe, but I'd guess that most prospective members wouldn't think of it that way and would be embarrassed to hear such talk. "Philosophical society" might be closer to the mark. It's fun to imagine a Freemason-like society where people are formally allocated into "tiers" and then promoted to the next inner tier by a secret vote, perhaps involving black and white marbles. But at this point, such a level of ritual would probably be a waste of weirdness points [? · GW].
If you believe as I do that rationalism makes people better human beings, is morally right and leads to more open, free, just and advanced societies, then creating and spreading it is good pretty much irrespective of social circumstances.
I'm uncertain about this, but there is something I suspect and fear may be true, which is that rationalism (as exemplified by current LW members) is not actually helpful for most people on an individual level (see e.g. [LW · GW]). There are some people, like me, who are born in the Uncanny Valley and must study rationalism as part of a lifelong effort to climb up out of it. But for others, I would not want to pull them down into the Valley just so I can have company.
For example, I enjoy going to rationalist meetups and spending hours talking about philosophical esoterica, because it fills an intellectual void that I can't fill elsewhere. But most people wouldn't enjoy this, and it wouldn't be a good use of their time.
That's not to say that rationalism is totally inert in society. The ideas developed by rationalists can percolate into the wider population, even to those who are more passive consumers than active participants.
- Rationalist content is mostly in english. Most people don’t speak/read english. Even those that do as a second language don’t consumer primarily english sources
You're probably right, although as a monolingual English speaker I myself wouldn't know. I have heard of efforts to translate some of the sequences into Russian and Spanish. But for less popular languages, it may be difficult to assemble enough people who both speak the language and are interested in rationalism. In that respect it differs from Christianity in that there is no definitive text that you can point to and say "If you read and understand this, then you understand rationality." Rationality must be cultivated through active engagement in dialogue, which requires a critical mass of people.
- Rationalism is niche and hard to stumble upon. It’s not like christianity or left/right ideology in the west. Whereas those ideologies are broadcasted at you constantly and you will know about them and roughly what they represent, rationalism is something you only find if you happen to just luck out and stumble on this weird internet trail of breadcrumbs.
This is a challenge I've faced when I've tried to explain what, exactly, rationalism is when friends ask me what it's all about. I struggle to answer, because there is no single creed that rationalists believe. One could try to put together a soundbite-tier explanation, but to do so would risk distorting the very essence of rationality, which at its core is a process, not a conclusion. At best, we might try and draw up a list of 40 statements and say "Rationalists all agree that at least 30 of these are true, but there is vehement disagreement as to which."