I'm one of those hobnobs who frequently bitches about how broken our society is, criticizing aspects of it and the people in it as though they were not responsible for my entire ability and freedom to recognize these problems I think I see and condemn them. (See also, David Brin's discussion of the concept of being a 'rebel' in America, in 'The Transparent Society,') Years ago I believe I said something to the effect of how I don't really believe in gratitude in the sense that, just because something has benefited you in some way does not mean that you need to be holden to it for eternity, or that you must love and accept and respect every aspect of it. Even the particular parts of it that benefited you, you don't have to think they're ok, but nor are you obligated to give up the benefit. Things are not dirtied by their origins; that happened in the past. There are peripheral effects where it may often make sense to reject something on account of its origin, but that would be to account for what continues to happen in the future.
Anyway, all this is to say that, some millions of years ago, some obscure collection of organisms found a survival advantage in utilizing each other and spent the next several thousand millenia building up methods to do so. But the side effect of this was that, at some point in there, the organisms started to practice something called 'awareness', and this ability to discern how the world worked was almost entirely unrelated to what they were doing with their lives. But this latter thing came late, and all the tricks, tips, and cheats they gained to deal with each other were so very familiar. So here we are in the 21st goddamn century, still treating each other, individually and in groups, and ourselves, by the same strategies and theories that happened to work well enough for creatures that didn't know what they were doing or why.
There are problems with people when they get social. There are ways our brains and emotions work that don't always make sense, or that are not even self-consistent. Your cognitive awareness comes barging in and trying to tell you what you value and want without pausing to assess the situation actually at hand, like a gross parody of a central authority sent to administer a provincial school that functions ok but doesn't go by the book. A book which was written by a completely isolated aristocrat who had never seen an actual school and had no experience with children or education.
And so there is Less Wrong. Less Wrong is some eccentric but brilliant teacher who is inexplicably at this school, trying to take the administrator aside and gently explain things to them, walk them around, point out how things actually function. "But in the handbook it says," the administrator would repeatedly protest. Less Wrong tells you forget about the handbook
. It only passingly has anything to do with reality.
Ditching this analogy before it gets even stupider, specifically the social aspects of human cognition and psychology are some of the main targets of Less Wrong, and where I personally find umbrage. And so, nestled somewhere in the Less Wrong blog are goals pertaining to fixing or replacing some aspects of society or community that err. Many of these goals are explicitly stated, others implied. At the Less Wrong meetups and in conversations with other members, I frequently hear talk of the problems that arise when people gather in numbers, there are often references to "groupthink", and not a single pinky can be twitched without the cause of its action being sourced somehow to status-seeking.
I think a lot of the rationality and truth-seeking intended to be encouraged by Less Wrong and embodied in the 'Twelve Virtues of Rationality' really are worthwhile and the sort of values I'd like to hold and live by. But, as we so often learn, there are a lot of spandrels in our psychology that end up interfering with the way we imagine we might like to act. And, at least in my estimation, a lot
of those are related, directly or indirectly, to social interaction. Combined human intelligence is smarter than any individual human (see previous post about the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom), but individual humans also get dumber when they start acting socially, if they're not careful.
And so there are some very deliberate attempts by the Less Wrong group to create a new community that's better than most of the other options available. In so far as interacting with a median human being has the ability to instantly create in me a great, heavy, sinking weight, this seems positive. People like to search out their subcultures, because whatever obscure obsessions and deranged habits they have that seem important to them need to be shared. If I fall to the ground like a bag of sand when topics like sports or television emerge, but expect an audience to be as enraptured as I am when the information content of neurodevelopment is brought up, I should probably try spending my time with people who think that mathematically calculating the answer to an emotional question is as normal as believing the coincidence you witnessed means something is insane.
But, once again our friend the damage of having a little bit of knowledge pokes its head in where it's not welcome. I'm not convinced that just because you think you're taking steps to solve a problem means you're solving it. And I'm not convinced that the strategy of trying to account for humans' pre-existing social tendencies and funnel them into more productive uses is all that effective. All I have is a very small data set of anecdotal evidence, most of which is evaluated through the filter of my emotions. I'm ready to concede that, amongst all possible options for social experience, weighted by all realistic measures, the Less Wrong group may be one of the best ones. But that doesn't mean it's great, or all that it's purported to be.
The most easily lampooned Less Wrong social filler is their habit of creating new rituals. I think the logic is something like: humans respond to such-and-such situations, embodied in rituals and ceremonies used throughout the world, and it's an effective means of imparting such-and-such responses, but generally accomplishes little of use, or is harmful in most of the situations where it is employed. At Less Wrong, we will harness the power of this primitive drive for good, and create our own rituals (most notably the famed solstice
, but other smaller instances scattered throughout the community as well). I don't personally like this idea, which is probably a significant part of me not being convinced that it's working like it should. But whether it's merely my prejudice or also some additional legitimate reasons, I have doubts about this practice.
My prejudice comes from the fact that I just plain don't like rituals. I recognize that there are probably things in my life that I participate in and enjoy that qualify as rituals that I don't recognize as such, but most things that I can identify as ritualistic repel me. What I generally understand as a ritual is some routine that has been abstracted out to bear little actual or effective resemblance to its source. In my mind, rituals are routines with the usefulness removed. You establish routines because it makes accomplishing whatever you are accomplishing more efficient. You do the same routine every morning, in the same way, because then it requires little to no thought or effort. Getting dressed and fed are chores that need to be done and it's not important to have much of an awareness of it once it's established. For pretty much every routine you have, you want to check in on it on occasion and make sure it's serving its purpose, see if it can't be improved. You may want to put some thought and effort into what your routines are before you start them. But for the most part, once you have them set, going through them frees up your attention.
Rituals seem to have a similar element of repeating something without the effort of deciding what it is you're doing, but often seem to originate from something that did matter, and have been refined over time (or at the get-go, in the case of intentionally creating them from scratch) into gestures representing
the original action, but not actually accomplishing the same goal. I'm not sure I buy into representation
in this way. Mythology is incredibly interesting, but I don't really support the adherence to mythological symbols. I'm not convinced that it's useful to perform an action that emulates another but does not actually accomplish it. The example that springs to mind is the ritual of saying "I love you" to someone every time you say goodbye. It originates in something meaningful, but turn it into a ritual that is always enacted in a particular circumstance, and you are no longer actually accomplishing the task of loving and expressing that emotion. You are emulating it without the thought or effort that originally created it. In this case, that effectively ceases the accomplishment of the original goal, and it seems to me that many of the sorts of things rituals emulate work similarly. They're not like getting dressed; merely performing the motions doesn't get the actual task done.
Maybe it's just my own peculiar psychology. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those people that doesn't have anything like spirituality. There are people who are fairly convinced atheists, but still have something like a spiritual urge. I imagine this makes some things difficult for them; but I'm sure I have my share of difficulties arising from lacking the urge entirely. I have a few related impulses: I am still strongly moved by some things like art, but from what I know of spirituality it is not at all the same thing. Maybe it's related, but whatever sense of awe or togetherness many rituals are attempting to instill in me pretty much just don't work. It just feels like I'm mouthing some words and moving my arms in a pattern, nothing more.
But insofar as a ritual might actually work, might move me or instill an emotion in me, that actually completely creeps me out. It feels like I'm being manipulated, like I'm relinquishing my mind or awareness. There actually are situations where momentarily sacrificing your autonomy or awareness is desirable, and that includes ones where what you do is guided and decided by others. Trying to think things through, especially in complex social situations like I always over-do, can often be a hindrance. My thoughts and emotional reactions are very often flawed, my awareness and sense of self are often inaccurate and undesirable. I can't always count on myself. But I'm not sure that many of the rituals I've seen guide my emotional reactions in the way that I would want them to, if they work at all. I'm not convinced that it truly is intelligent reformatting of my emotions to appreciate something important, or put my place in the world in perspective, or feel a closeness to other humans. Usually, the more these things are pushed on me, the less I feel it, the more uncomfortable I feel. I want to feel close to other people, and I treasure the sense of awe and beauty I feel at things in the world, and I think it's important to put your sense of your self in perspective, and these are the things that are often purported to be the purpose of certain rituals. But something about trying to generate these things grosses me out. Some of this may be an old-fashioned and unsupportable reflex based on ancient conceptions of what's important about being human. But, like the 'i love you' ritual, I'm not entirely convinced that inducing these reactions in yourself affect the same thing.
It may be that I'm an unreasonable skeptic about hacking your brain. In general, I think the idea of taking advantage of your insane neurological heritage to improve yourself is a good one. But maybe there are little pockets of implications in there that make me uncomfortable because it's not the way I was raised. Or maybe this problem I have of feeling disconnected and weirded out and isolated and alone when people gather in groups and do group things is merely preventing me from benefiting from something that is extremely beneficial to most people.
But also I'm just not entirely convinced that it's a good thing to use these ancestral psychological flaws to our advantage in this way. I'm not sure what my reasoning on this one is. Maybe I'm some sort of weird purist and need to get that sorted out. I guess I generally ascribe to the notion that using some aspect of your psychology strengthens it. It's nice to funnel your harmful little tics and quirks to a good cause, if you're going to be doing them anyway. But it's better to not do them at all. So maybe it really is just being practical and making do with the way things are for the time being to say, "Well, most people have this urge to engage in rituals and ceremonies, so we should carefully design a ritual that will satisfy that urge but accomplish something useful." Probably it's hard to do away with the urge altogether, and I'm just not very empathetic with that difficulty since I don't suffer from that problem.
Admittedly, my repulsion to such rituals has kept me from investing much into exploring the effectiveness of the rituals enacted by the Less Wrong group. I don't know for sure what sort of investigation has been done to see if they actually accomplish what they're supposed to accomplish. I think I may not have an accurate idea of really what they're truly intended to do, nor what the actual effect is on the people who participate. I think I have a subconscious assumption that, whatever does happen, there are some unwanted side effects. I think I have this belief that it's really reinforcing the thoughtlessness of following a group activity, that we have a ways to go before we really know how to design rituals that don't hijack your brain into groupthink mode.
And that's really the worst thing that I've experienced in the Less Wrong group: it feels at least as groupy as any other group. Having a name for a group alone seems to enhance this impression. If you're simply a collection of friends who tend to hang out together, you may act rather insular and exclusive, but you may not have a distinct, well-described identity attached to that group. Something about being able to ascribe a label to yourself imposes restrictions on your allowed actions (see the well-known Paul Graham essay on identity
.) In many groups, labeled or not, though, there aren't necessarily actual criteria for inclusion. There may not be explicit criteria for who's allowed
in Less Wrong, but there is enough discussion and literature on the blog and at the meet-ups about what is right and proper and what is wrong that it doesn't take even a person of subaverage perspicacity to figure them out.
I don't personally care for groups. There's a bit of conflict here, because I actually do desire and enjoy a feeling of belonging. But for me, that seems to work better based on individuals than any exact group charter. If I am with a small number of people that I know personally and am comfortable with, then I will feel something like that sense of belonging. It works if there are additional people present I do not know as well, so long as the ratio of known to unknown is large enough, or the total number of people is small enough and I have at least one or two others I feel very comfortable with. It's based on my individual connections with individual people. Having something in common with someone doesn't really do it for me. I have a large number of traits, all of which will be shared with someone, most of which will be shared with many people. There are probably also clumps of traits, so that once I find someone who shares some of my traits, they are likely to share others. Sharing something with someone is probably necessary for feeling connected to them, and of course makes it easier or more likely to happen. But it does not accomplish this in and of itself. So if a collection of people get together based on some shared trait or interest, I do not feel like I belong with them automatically. The more we have in common, the more interested and optimistic I may be about working on establishing those connections. But my default is to feel isolated and alone, regardless of what we ostensibly share.
And frankly, as soon as a collection of people start exhibiting group behavior, I get a little grossed out. I don't always realize it right away, and I frequently find myself participating. This results in me relatively frequently acting in ways that I feel uncomfortable with or ashamed of; sometimes I have that feeling even as I am acting, sometimes it's not until afterwards that I reflect on my behavior and regret it. Most of it isn't really all that objectively harmful, just mildly distasteful. I don't always speak up to disagree, I sometimes find myself saying the things that agree with the general consensus, joining in on something I'm not very enthusiastic about because that's the group activity. Sometimes it's something harmless like playing a group game when I'd rather we did something else; sometimes it's something a little worse like all agreeing with each other about some complaint we have about someone who's not there.
And that's really probably the main thing that repulses me. It's bad enough on its own, but it's almost worse with Less Wrong because it seems to be in direct conflict with so much of what is claimed by the group. People in Less Wrong speak often of the ills of groupthink, of the negative impact of social pressure, of all the ways in which group identity kills your ability to think rationally. But the distinction between members of the club and outsiders is harsh. A great, great deal of the conversations I witness (and begrudgingly participate in) are to the effect of "How can I deal with non-rationalists?" or "How can I convince a non-rationalist to change their mind?"
I understand the need for these conversations. There are so very, very many people in the world that I am just completely baffled as to how to relate to. I've learned some basic tricks for how to not just stare blankly at every attempt at conversation that doesn't begin with, "So I was watching this mathematics lecture the other day and..." but I still feel that roaring emptiness when confronted with the need to talk to someone who doesn't fit in my extremely limited range of acceptable acquaintances. There are so many such fundamental differences in what assumptions I have about the world and how to deal with it and talk about it that I feel adrift and having anything to do with most people seems hopeless. For people like those who tend towards Less Wrong, this sort of response is common. Many of the Less Wrongers are, loosely, nerds. Most of them are just not average in many ways. Many of them have devoted more time in their lives to whatever little eccentric pocket of knowledge interests them rather than other human beings. But they still run into those human beings, in their family, at their jobs, when just moving about in the world. And, if they've gotten that far yet, they're starting to realize that it might not be the best thing to just disregard everyone else as insufficient and not worth acknowledging. Maybe they just want to know how to not fall into awkward or disastrous disagreements; maybe they're in what appears to be the majority of Less Wrong members and want to actively manipulate the others around them to their purposes. Maybe they feel, as I often do, that so many people in the world are both suffering themselves, and contributing to the problems that cause suffering in general in the world, mostly due to some error in their thinking, and they want to correct that. Overall, they just want to be able to interact comfortably and effectively with more people than the very restricted subset they're currently competent with. Hence the very, very many conversations about "How do I deal with outsiders?"
But this contributes to the creation of outsiders, and insiders. It establishes the inclusion of those of us who fit in, and relegates the others to the category of Not-Us. Maybe it's that my ability to relate or connect to people is so limited that I don't bother creating an Us and Not-Us. The former category would be measure 0 against measure 1, so it doesn't seem worth it. I just take as given that all other people are, in fact, people; I may not care for them or understand them, I may not want to personally be around them, and I may prefer myself and those like me; but I don't consider those preferences to be absolute or objective. I still want to respect the other person's autonomy, even if it is imperfect. My autonomy is imperfect, and whether or not I want someone else who knows better than me to try to make decisions for me is complicated. I might appreciate it in the end, but I'm not ready to condone it just yet without better options explored. It may be true that there are many instances where I know better than other people, make better choices, etc etc, but I don't think that grants me a special status. And there really is this strong undercurrent of disdain in the Less Wrong group for people who aren't quite so very smart and rational and well-informed. Outsiders are either just not worth bothering with except as a means of damage control, or they need to be converted to our ways of thinking.
The drive to convert others to our ways of thinking, or somehow compete against those irrational, foolish masses worries me. I think this is another motive somewhere in the creation of rituals like the solstice - all those other
groups (particularly religions) are using these tactics successfully. We have to compete
with them, and if these methods work, it's foolish of us not to use them too. I'm actually on the fairly extreme side of thinking that religion is harmful, ignorance is almost as bad, and all those other things stated above about social groups in general. I do think it would benefit people individually and everyone else, to adopt new practices and ways of thinking, such as those advocated on the Less Wrong blog, and drop those that currently harm them. But I'm not fighting anyone. I don't want to win, or conquer, or recruit, or convert. Somehow from thinking that it would be better for people to be different, I don't draw the conclusion that the correct thing to do is fight, by any means. Maybe this means my reasoning is flawed. Maybe I've been too strongly influenced by James Carse: "The only evil in the world is the drive to eliminate evil." And recruiting, conversion, and propaganda all feel like fighting to drive out evil to me.
This coupled with what appear to be claims on the part of the group of not
wanting to be insular or exclusive leave me fairly disappointed and uninterested in participating. It's true that no one is actually turned away or even very strongly made to feel unwelcome. It's similar to churches in that respect: they open their arms to everyone, are very happy to have you there, but under the expectation that you're there to learn the true message and change your ways. There is still open disdain and dismissal of the 'outsiders', mostly people who are stupid in some way, as if they're doing it on purpose. And maybe this sort of criticism is never or rarely aimed directly at anyone present. But, seeing as how I'm not perfectly rational or informed, and frequently make foolish decisions or belief things based on vague emotional impressions, I can easily extrapolate from what's said about people not present to myself, and it makes me nervous about admitting my failures. I do try to say things like, 'Well, I do such-and-such, and this is why,' in a way to both explain possible not entirely idiotic or malicious causes for the behavior that outsiders exhibit that is held in such contempt, and to maybe even humanize them a bit. But this sort of banks on not being dismissed as a complete idiot myself, and I'm not confident that that's not what happens. And I get worn out. See previous post: it discourages me from being open about my ignorance and mistakes enough to make the improvements I'd like to.
Before joining Less Wrong, I tended to be one of the more sane and rational ones among the people I would hang out with. I didn't have a lot of patience for the clearly irrational and superstitious way people would act and think. But now I'm at the bottom of the ladder and I have a lot more sympathy. Even if you're particularly humble and open to criticism, it is trying to have many things, or very fundamental things, about your habits and outlook and self brought into question. I took the view that these criticisms really aren't about you as a person, they're just likely to be true facts about how things work, and really everything would be better if you recognized that and acted differently. I still feel that way, but responding that way does not come automatically to everyone and is difficult to achieve. I'm not sure it's apparent to outsiders that critiques of the way you think or act aren't direct attacks on your person, and I think part of the reason for that is that that's not what insiders think. Abstractly, yes, and to varying degrees with themselves or certain people, a Less Wronger might consider most "advice" to be constructive criticism. But for people too far outside the Less Wrong norm, it becomes more and more a judgment on the person themselves, that they are just too dumb or ignorant or superstitious or wrong, and if they don't respond kindly to advice, then that's just another thing wrong with them. That they're a lost cause, and merely need to be managed by those who know better, namely us.
A lot of the issues I take with the Less Wrong group are general issues I would take with any group. I think a lot of them are actually worse in this case, in part because they are so far from average: feeling so far off from most of the world can tend to make you delve more deeply into the place where you feel more comfortable. But, especially with the idea that we're 'better', it can't help but put you in opposition to everyone else. Any belief that you're better or righter or smarter than most other people is extremely dangerous, and even if there's support to it, I would be very very careful about putting any weight or action into that belief. I stumble across that feeling frequently, especially with things like science: there really is good cause to think that scientifically supported facts are true, but moving from that to how to shape other people is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Believing that you've accounted for potential problems by being aware that there might be potential problems only enhances your confidence in your own righteousness. Maybe you are right, in a lot of ways. I actually think so. But I don't think the solution to problems with people when they get into groups is to form another group. It's seductive because it's comforting, and fun, and so much nicer than feeling alone and uncertain. I don't think I really want other people to feel as alone and uncertain as I do all the time. But I don't want to mask or eliminate those feelings falsely or dangerously, either.