The Craft and the Community: Post 7 – 10

7. You’re Calling *Who* A Cult Leader?

Yudkowsky doesn’t worry anymore when people accuse him of being a “cult leader” since he learnt that even fairly normal folks like Paul Graham were accused of leading a cult.

Yeah, it is true that some accusations (e.g. the ones of those Rational-Wiki guys) are over-blown. Furthermore, every cause wants to be a cult. Political or religious parties are the obvious examples.

But I also see signs of cultishness in contrarian and independent-minded (that doesn’t mean those guys are rational. They just invent lots of bullshit on their own) groups like e.g. psychedlic hippies. Folks get quickly annoyed by criticism of e.g. Terrence McKenna – which of course is understandable cuz Terrence McKenna was a pretty cool guy.

And so it’s no surprise that LW shows also signs of cultishness, probably even more than most groups. I mean, it’s mainly focused on the writings of one guy and maybe even more importantly, many lesswrongian ideas are inherently cultish. There is no possible way to talk about things like FAI, the singularity, cryonics or x-risks in a manner that doesn’t activate your cult-detectors.

Btw, there was a recent post on Lesswrong that called for even more exclusiveness. I can understand the motives but I really wish Lesswrong would become more inclusive because I don’t know of any other public forum that discusses ideas like FAI, the singularity, x-risks, etc and I don’t want to drive away folks that disagree with the local dogma. Of course, there are some cool blogs, but it’s rare to see genuine and long discussions happen. It’s mostly just a short back and forth.

OTOH, I don’t think group think is a big problem. Criticism by folks like Will Newsome, Vladimir Slepnev and especially Wei Dai is often upvoted. (I upvote almost every comment of Dai or Newsome if I don’t forget it. Dai makes always very good points and Newsome is often wrong but also hilariously funny or just brilliant and right.) Of course, folks like this Dymytry guy are often downvoted, but IMO with good reason. Well, if I thought group think was a big problem I probably wouldn’t write these summaries, right? Only true cultists read the Scripture of our Great Leader twice in less than a year and write hundreds of posts about it.

8. On Things that are Awesome

There is nothing wrong with finding something awesome. What kind of things are the most awesome? Yudkowsky thinks people and works like e.g. books or music:

What chiefly conveys to me the experience of the awesome is to see someone—pardon me, see someone’s work —that is way above me.  My most recent experience of the awesome was reading the third book in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, and realizing that although I want to write with that kind of emotional depth, I can’t, and may never be able to in this world.  I looked back at all my own tries in (unpublished) fiction, and it paled to grey by comparison.  It was the same way with reading Hofstadter the first time, and thinking that I could never, ever write as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach; or reading Permutation City, and seeing how far above me Greg Egan was as an idea-based science fiction writer.  And it would have been the same way with Jaynes, if that time I hadn’t been thinking to myself, “No, I must become this good.”  This is also something of a reply to Carl’s comment that we may feel freer to admire those who do not compete with us—for me, the experience of the awesome is most strongly created by seeing someone (or rather their work) outdoing me overwhelmingly, in some place where I have tried my hand.  I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about making this a basis of admiration.

9. Your Price for Joining

Most of us are not willing to join a cause that doesn’t agree 100% with almost anything we think. But often this is an irrational decision. You can reach your goals more effectively if you team up with people even if they only share 70% of your goals and use seemingly ineffective methods.

Yudkowsky has obviously SIAI in mind. Many people have problems with SIAI’s strategies (like me) but does this mean one shouldn’t support it (assuming one agrees with its broad mission, i.e. FAI, hard takeoff, etc.)? Problem is, there are very few good transhumanistic  organizations out there. FHI is presumably the only alternative because most of the other orgs are of rather questionable value like e.g. humanity+, Kurzweil’s movement, IEET or the Lifeboat Foundation. Obviously, things would change if folks like Wei Dai or so founded a new organization that e.g. focuses on WBE or something like that.

10. Can Humanism Match Religion’s Output?

Most atheists don’t donate as much money to altruistic causes as e.g. Catholics do. So Yudkowsky asks if and how rationalists could match the output of the Catholic Church without implementing all this religious stuff. But maybe religious folks have a genuine advantage?

Now you might at this point throw up your hands, saying:  “For so long as we don’t have direct control over our brain’s motivational circuitry, it’s not realistic to expect a rationalist to be as strongly motivated as someone who genuinely believes that they’ll burn eternally in hell if they don’t obey.”

This is a fair point.  Any folk theorem to the effect that a rational agent should do at least as well as a non-rational agent will rely on the assumption that the rational agent can always just implement whatever “irrational” policy is observed to win.  But if you can’t choose to have unlimited mental energy, then it may be that some false beliefs are, in cold fact, more strongly motivating than any available true beliefs.  And if we all generally suffer from altruistic akrasia, being unable to bring ourselves to help as much as we think we should, then it is possible for the God-fearing to win the contest of altruistic output.

Hehe, maybe Roko’s basilisk could help you with that. Anyway, the fear of eternal damnation is probably not that motivating, if you think about it. The human motivational system doesn’t “scale”, so to speak. Saving 1 human life or saving 1 million human lives feels almost the same. So why are religious folks more motivated?

Really, I suspect that what’s going on here has less to do with the motivating power of eternal damnation, and a lot more to do with the motivating power of physically meeting other people who share your cause.  The power, in other words, of being physically present at church and having religious neighbors.

This is a problem for the rationalist community in its present stage of growth, because we are rare and geographically distributed way the hell all over the place.  If all the readers of this blog lived within a 5-mile radius of each other, I bet we’d get a lot more done, not for reasons of coordination but just sheer motivation.

Good comment by infotropism:

“So inasmuch as possible, we’ll need real world meetings : humans are social beings, and it was customary to see, hear, touch, smell even, people who’d be in your group in the environment of adaptation. Do we have any rationalist bonfire in preparation ? Excursions ? Doing sport together ? Watching films ?

It’s pretty difficult to bond as strongly – and more importantly, as richly – to other people if you don’t meet them in real life. That bond is what makes us work together so well, what can oil a well working machine. Families, groups of – real life – friends, are not uncommonly the starting point for successful ventures.

And I think it’s not just the meeting in real life part. We need to build up a link, to feel the presence of the other, as another human being, as we would a friend. We need to share activities outside of just meeting an planning stuff.

We need to get to know and like each other on that fundamental level, by using the goddamn social machinery that’s in our head. We’re human beings before being rationalists, and we need to use that to our advantage, down to the last bit of it, rather than constantly forgetting about that fact. We run on corrupt hardware, we aren’t rational, disembodied pristine minds. If we deprive ourselves, as well as our community, from that social background, then we will not thrive, and may even wither.

Side question, do we have anything secular, not religious, that looks like religious institutions ? Like, non religious monasteries where people would study, work together, live together ? The closest thing I can think of is the academia, but the academia doesn’t seem like what I have on my mind.

What about religious feasts, celebrations, rituals even ? Do we have a lot of non religious rituals around, that could be recuperated, or at least inspire us ? We could use that, at least on a human level, it’d help foster people’s willpower, brighten the fire inside. So long as we can direct that energy towards rational goals, and keep watch for any sign of becoming cult-ish, couldn’t we benefit from such things ?”

Hm, should I organize another LW-meetup? Maybe in the summer.

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One Response to The Craft and the Community: Post 7 – 10

  1. Wonderful blog you have here but I was curious about
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