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Can Humanism Match Religion's Output?

45 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 11:32AM

Previously in seriesYour Price for Joining

Perhaps the single largest voluntary institution of our modern world—bound together not by police and taxation, not by salaries and managers, but by voluntary donations flowing from its members—is the Catholic Church.

It's too large to be held together by individual negotiations, like a group task in a hunter-gatherer band.  But in a larger world with more people to be infected and faster transmission, we can expect more virulent memes.  The Old Testament doesn't talk about Hell, but the New Testament does.  The Catholic Church is held together by affective death spirals—around the ideas, the institutions, and the leaders.  By promises of eternal happiness and eternal damnation—theologians don't really believe that stuff, but many ordinary Catholics do.  By simple conformity of people meeting in person at a Church and being subjected to peer pressure.  &c.

We who have the temerity to call ourselves "rationalists", think ourselves too good for such communal bindings.

And so anyone with a simple and obvious charitable project—responding with food and shelter to a tidal wave in Thailand, say—would be better off by far pleading with the Pope to mobilize the Catholics, rather than with Richard Dawkins to mobilize the atheists.

For so long as this is true, any increase in atheism at the expense of Catholicism will be something of a hollow victory, regardless of all other benefits.

True, the Catholic Church also goes around opposing the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa.  True, they waste huge amounts of the money they raise on all that religious stuff.  Indulging in unclear thinking is not harmless, prayer comes with a price.

To refrain from doing damaging things, is a true victory for a rationalist...

Unless it is your only victory, in which case it seems a little empty.

If you discount all harm done by the Catholic Church, and look only at the good... then does the average Catholic do more gross good than the average atheist, just by virtue of being more active?

Perhaps if you are wiser but less motivated, you can search out interventions of high efficiency and purchase utilons on the cheap...  But there are few of us who really do that, as opposed to planning to do it someday.

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.

But though it is a motivated continuation, let us consider this question a little further.

Even the fear of hell is not a perfect motivator.  Human beings are not given so much slack on evolution's leash; we can resist motivation for a short time, but then we run out of mental energy (HT: infotropism).  Even believing that you'll go to hell does not change this brute fact about brain circuitry.  So the religious sin, and then are tormented by thoughts of going to hell, in much the same way that smokers reproach themselves for being unable to quit.

If a group of rationalists cared a lot about something... who says they wouldn't be able to match the real, de-facto output of a believing Catholic?  The stakes might not be "infinite" happiness or "eternal" damnation, but of course the brain can't visualize 3^^^3, let alone infinity.  Who says that the actual quantity of caring neurotransmitters discharged by the brain (as 'twere) has to be so much less for "the growth and flowering of humankind" or even "tidal-wave-stricken Thais", than for "eternal happiness in Heaven"?  Anything involving more than 100 people is going to involve utilities too large to visualize.  And there are all sorts of other standard biases at work here; knowing about them might be good for a bonus as well, one hopes?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and Zen meditation are two mental disciplines experimentally shown to yield real improvements.  It is not the area of the art I've focused on developing, but then I don't have a real martial art of rationality in back of me.  If you combine a purpose genuinely worth caring about, with discipline extracted from CBT and Zen meditation, then who says rationalists can't keep up?  Or even more generally: if we have an evidence-based art of fighting akrasia, with experiments to see what actually works, then who says we've got to be less motivated than some disorganized mind that fears God's wrath?

Still... that's a further-future speculation that it might be possible to develop an art that doesn't presently exist.  It's not a technique I can use right now.  I present it just to illustrate the idea of not giving up so fast on rationality:  Understanding what's going wrong, trying intelligently to fix it, and gathering evidence on whether it worked—this is a powerful idiom, not to be lightly dismissed upon sighting the first disadvantage.

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.

I'll post tomorrow about some long-term, starry-eyed, idealistic thoughts on this particular problem.  Shorter-term solutions that don't rely on our increasing our numbers by a factor of 100 would be better.  I wonder in particular whether the best modern videoconferencing software would provide some of the motivating effect of meeting someone in person; I suspect the answer is "no" but it might be worth trying.

Meanwhile... in the short-term, we're stuck fighting akrasia mostly without the reinforcing physical presense of other people who care.  I want to say something like "This is difficult, but it can be done" except I'm not sure that's even true.

I suspect that the largest step rationalists could take toward matching the per-capita power output of the Catholic Church would be to have regular physical meetings of people contributing to the same task—not for purposes of coordination, just for purposes of of motivation.

In the absence of that...

We could try for a group norm of being openly allowed—nay, applauded—for caring strongly about something.  And a group norm of being expected to do something useful with your life—contribute your part to cleaning up this world.  Religion doesn't really emphasize the getting-things-done aspect as much.

And if rationalists could match just half the average altruistic effort output per Catholic, then I don't think it's remotely unrealistic to suppose that with better targeting on more efficient causes, the modal rationalist could get twice as much done.

How much of its earnings does the Catholic Church spend on all that useless religious stuff instead of actually helping people?  More than 50%, I would venture.  So then we could say—with a certain irony, though that's not quite the spirit in which we should be doing things—that we should try to propagate a group norm of donating a minimum of 5% of income to real causes.  (10% being the usual suggested minimum religious tithe.)  And then there's the art of picking causes for which expected utilons are orders of magnitude cheaper (for so long as the inefficient market in utilons lasts).

But long before we can begin to dream of any such boast, we secular humanists need to work on at least matching the per capita benevolent output of the worshippers.


Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

Next post: "Church vs. Taskforce"

Previous post: "Your Price for Joining"

Comments (102)

Comment author: infotropism 27 March 2009 10:14:33PM 15 points [-]

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 ?

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 27 March 2009 10:41:22PM 7 points [-]

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.

Maybe Eliezer needs to start that Bayesian conspiracy for real, eh?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 December 2010 05:11:47PM 2 points [-]

My suggestion would be to come together to do something, something that is in and of itself valuable, and allow the community rituals and the social bonding to form around that, rather than to come together with the goal of togetherness.

The latter has a way of disappearing into its own navel.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 22 April 2011 03:20:07PM 0 points [-]

the "feasts, celebrations, rituals" thing is a rather good point. Discusing a text (usualy a post from the sequences) each meetup seems to be somehting common enough that it may develop into somehting ritual like, but otherwise it's an area of deficiency.

Comment author: MicahMcC 13 December 2010 04:16:26PM 0 points [-]

I agree with much of what you posted here. I'm not sure rituals would be a good idea, but a rationalist's version of Christmas would be nice. And of course, meeting in person, perhaps even hosting talks by various speakers from the local area and beyond might be of use too. That would require a more coherent definition of secular humanism than seems to be in vogue with the masses at large at present, though. I imagine something similar to the Singularitarian movement envisioned by Ray Kurzweil.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 December 2010 04:56:00PM 5 points [-]

What's so irrational about just celebrating Christmas?

Comment author: Desrtopa 13 December 2010 05:12:03PM 0 points [-]

My family has always celebrated Christmas and Hannukah. My father comes from a Christian family (although I've never even known him to talk about religion) and my mother is a non-practicing Jew. They don't regard it as their duty to observe the religious celebrations, they just take the excuse.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 December 2010 05:53:07PM 1 point [-]

It would be possible to do ornaments based on Newton's work-- planets and prisms and rainbows.

Comment author: Br000se 27 March 2009 04:01:07PM 10 points [-]

On Kiva the group that has donated the most money is the "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious" group.

Comment author: MBlume 28 March 2009 02:44:58AM 2 points [-]

how does one contribute as part of a group on Kiva? I didn't see this.

Comment author: sketerpot 27 March 2009 07:45:27PM 9 points [-]

We should not underestimate the power of rational thinking for getting the most out of each charity dollar (or unit of effort). Maybe you've heard of charities that give people's old clothes to poor parts of Africa; while this makes people feel good, it has flooded the markets with dirt-cheap clothing, destroying the local textile industry and contributing to the very poverty that the well-meaning donors seek to alleviate.

This is what impresses me about groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: they focus on things that are less glamorous but probably more useful, like providing basic financial services in poor areas, or doing R&D on how to make good public health cheaper. This is the kind of thing that can make a difference in the long term, and lead to exponentially growing ripple effects. Charity can be a lot more effective if you spend your resources with your head, not your heart.

Comment author: Yvain 27 March 2009 01:32:02PM *  9 points [-]

The reason Catholics are better organized than humanists is that they're official, communal, and hierarchical and we're not. The reason cults are better organized than Catholics is that they're even more official, communal, and hierarchical.

If the Pope says "Donate ten percent of your money to me," then there's an expectation that ordinary Catholics will obey. They've committed to following what the Pope says.

If you, Eliezer, posted on this forum "Please donate ten percent of your money to the Institute That Must Not Be Named", well...actually, I don't know what would happen. A few rare people might do it to signal that we liked you. But although we often follow you, we are not your followers. We haven't made a committment to you. We associate with you as long as it's convenient for us, but as soon as it stops being convenient, we'll wander off.

If you really want to get an infrastructure as powerful as the Catholic Church, you need to ask us to officially swear loyalty to you and start publically self-identifying as Rationalists with a capital R (the capital letter is very important!) You need to put us through some painful initiation ritual, so we feel a commitment to stick around even when the going gets tough. You need to make us publically profess how great Rationalism is to all our friends enough times that it would be a major social embarrassment to get kicked out for not obeying you enough. You need to establish a norm that following Eliezer's requests is so completely expected it would be strange to refuse and we'd be going against all our friends. And then you need to keep telling us about how much better off we are as capital-R Rationalists than as members of the boring old general public. Then you can start ordering us to donate ten percent of our income and expect Pope-level compliance rates.

The cultists do all of this, and the Catholics try but generally fail, which is why many Catholics don't listen to the Pope nearly as much as atheists think. If you didn't want to go quite this far, even making us pay $5 for a (physical, laminated, colorful) Less Wrong membership card would probably make a difference. Once we did that, we'd be members of something, instead of people who came to a blog every so often to discuss an interest. The brain cares a lot about this sort of thing.

[edit: better explanation below in response to ciphergoth]

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 09:55:02PM 9 points [-]

That's the way they do it. I'm asking if there's a different way to do it.

Point A: A lot of rationalists think wistfully that it would be a good thing if X got done.

Point B: X gets done.

How do you get from Point A to Point B?

Comment author: pjeby 27 March 2009 10:01:21PM 6 points [-]

Step 1. Some one person decides they will do whatever it takes to ensure that X will be done (including convincing others to assist).

Step 2. ???

Step 3. Profit! ...uh, utility. ;-)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 19 September 2011 04:31:51PM *  0 points [-]

I think an important part would be separating the "decision phase" from the "action phase".

In the decision phase, it is OK to speak whether it is a good idea or not, and even if it seems like a good idea, whether you expect yourself to do it or not. If almost everyone agrees that it is a good idea, and if enough people declare they would do it, the community consensus is published and we move to the action phase.

In the action phase, the decision is already made. People are encouraged to report "yes, I did it" and receive some special "action karma". Action karma would be a system for immaterial rewards to LW members. It is only possible to achieve action karma by doing things that have reached community consensus. Action karma is remembered forever.

The essence of my proposal is that we should have some "action karma", and the only way to reach it would be to do clearly defined goals. The goals must be declared as important, desirable and realistic by rationalist community by some mechanism that makes a yes-or-no decision.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 01:43:53PM 6 points [-]

Yes, we know that churches and cults thrive by exploiting well-understood cognitive biases, but you're sort of sidestepping the central thrust of what EY is getting at in this, which AFAICT is simply:

Isn't there some way we could make use of the power of collective action because it's actually a good idea, rather than relying on cognitive bias to cohere us? Rather than hanging onto the biases that bring us together, couldn't we get there by fighting the biases that keep us apart?

Comment author: Yvain 27 March 2009 02:26:44PM *  7 points [-]

No, I'm not saying they thrive by bias, exactly, or at least not the simple kind of bias. They thrive by having a hierarchy and being official. They thrive because they've made a commitment.

Consider marriage. In an ideal world, two people would stay monogamous purely because they loved each other. In reality, that monogamy is going to be tested, and there's going to be some point at which they don't want to keep it. When they're rational, they know the best thing for their future and their children is to stay together, but they realize that they might be too short-sighted to do so later. So they use the institution of marriage to make it socially, financially, and theologically impossible for them to split up later. It's the present self binding potentially irrational future selves. Not only is it not a bias, but if it's done right it's an antidote to bias.

There's that one website, whatsitsname, where you send them money and a resolution. Maybe it's "I will go to the gym every day for a month", and you send them $100. At the end of the month, if you went to the gym every day, they send your money back; if you didn't, they keep it. I wouldn't say you were biased into going to the gym, I'd say you discovered a clever technique to make you do it.

Organizations, at least the ones you join voluntarily, are another clever technique for causing that kind of commitment. And yeah, a lot of the techniques they use to do it, like the initiation ceremonies, are biases. But I don't consider biases that smart people invoke voluntarily to control their akrasia to always be great evils.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 02:56:54PM 4 points [-]

I think using bias to fight bias is an extremely risky technique, since it must surely call for self-deception on some level. I'm not a fan of marriage or monogamy either so those examples don't ring bells for me.

Comment author: cousin_it 27 March 2009 02:50:21PM *  2 points [-]

Yvain, what's the website? I'm not skilled enough to find it from those clues. Asking because I outlined the exact same idea in a blog post in Russian about a year ago, thinking it was original, and now am curious to see the implementation.

Comment author: Yvain 27 March 2009 02:59:40PM 3 points [-]

Hmm...got it bookmarked somewhere...ah! http://www.stickk.com/

Comment author: byrnema 27 March 2009 04:22:15PM *  1 point [-]

I like your points about what makes an organization have influence over its members, and I think you are spot-on about the different ways that are effective in creating group cohesion. However, I don't think that Catholic charity is so much mandated by the church as a rule or even an expected behavior as it is a product of the culture. When Catholics give to charity, it feels like an individual and optional choice. Whereas going to church and not using birth control may feel more like following the rules. I think there is a difference between behaviors that are done to identify with a group verses behaviors that done because you identify with that group..

The analogy would be rationalists doing something rational not because they're told to, but because they believe in rationality. That's why they're in the group in the first place.

Comment author: Alicorn 27 March 2009 03:11:56PM *  8 points [-]

Perhaps part of the reason rationalists can't be "aimed" at certain charities even by our self-chosen objects of admiration is that we consider their instructions overrideable without moral cost. If Random Catholic X believes that the Pope delivers the infallible will of God, then anything Random Catholic X does that disobeys the Pope - regardless of his specific situation, assuming the Pope doesn't explicitly exclude people in that situation - is wrong. It's not necessarily that Random Catholic X is thinking occurently about the possibility that he will go to Hell for disobeying, it's that he has no avenue out.

Whereas Random Rationalist Y - I present myself as an example - admires other rationalists for at least partially cognized good reasons. If I have better reasons for doing something other than that which is recommended to me by Eliezer or Dawkins or whoever is making requests of me, than I do for listening to the person in the first place, I am unlikely to follow the suggestion. After all, I don't believe any such person was chosen by God, I don't believe they're infallible, and I also think that there are many individual features of my situation which are relevant and of which such people are generally ignorant. In short, if I have reasons to aim myself differently than the leaders of the rationalist community would like to aim me, I can override their authority without feeling bad about it.

For in-person meeting, can I suggest the vehicle of the Ethical Culture Society? If the idea is benevolent output, the fact that its primary shtick isn't rationalism shouldn't matter. The trouble is there aren't very many chapters; I can't attend one although I want to, because they're all too far away. But they already exist, and more could be started.

(As a side note, I recommend Kiva for efficient charity. It's a microloan site instead of a direct donation, so you can recycle the same contribution indefinitely after you get paid back or even withdraw it if you have to. It also contributes in a way that allows long-term sustainability instead of just throwing beans and rice at a population, because the recipients of loans have businesses that they expand and then use the income therefrom to return the money. And paying anything to the overhead of Kiva itself is explicit and optional.)

Comment author: MichaelVassar 27 March 2009 10:28:54PM 4 points [-]

Individual rationalists simply CAN be aimed at charities. Action with incomplete information IS possible or you would never do anything and the analyses that many rationalists routinely give are far better information than most people normally act upon.

Comment author: Alan 27 March 2009 04:28:05PM 6 points [-]

Eliezer wrote, "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."

I think this observation strikes very close to the heart of the matter. People will tell you they attend Catholic mass, for example, for any number of reasons, most of which are probably not available to introspection, but which actually relate to our functioning as social animals. People are motivated to meet other people, and church attendance is one of the few remaining outlets for this tendency. Whether the rationale for congregating is to uphold some deep cause is almost beside the point for the majority. Certainly there will be some for whom some cause is salient and pressing; they are the visible and the vocal, not the representative.

It is perhaps tempting to offer up Catholicism as a proxy for Christianity, and Christianity as a proxy for religion. Bear in mind, though, that Western and Eastern Christianity do not even agree on when to celebrate their holiest day, Easter. Then there are some rather yawning doctrinal disparities between Protestant sects and Roman Catholicism, and even then within itself. There is a growing movement among Catholics to have the mass recited to them in Latin. A prototypical rationalist might call this practice an example of willful obscurantism and worshipping ignorance, but that would be incorrect. It seems unlikely that the point is to comprehend the words of a dead language, but rather to use the setting as a means of priming a type of experience that William James was talking about.

In addition to Yvain's catalogue of Catholics being communal, hierarchical, and official, one could add socially reinforcing. If your co-religionist is giving 10% of his income to support church activities, and you know this is true (it's easy to find out), then there is social pressure not to be a slouch when it comes to tithing--a phenomenon of competition in terms of signaling commitment to cooperative behavior. Would rationalists would ever do that?

Comment author: Annoyance 27 March 2009 05:24:02PM 3 points [-]

"Eliezer wrote, "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.""

Why do people go to Overcoming Bias meet-ups? I doubt that those meetings in restaurants are very productive from a becoming-more-rational perspective.

Comment author: Loren 28 March 2009 03:28:31AM 1 point [-]

Motivation doesn't come mainly from fear of eternal damnation, or even from meeting with people that have a common cause (although that is closer to the truth). I think the main reason people are religious is because they have a desire to live in integrity, rather than caving in to the insticts of the reptilian and paleomammalian parts of our brain, instincts which are usually conter-productive in our current social environment. Of course, religious people don't talk like this. They call it "sinning" instead. But it means the same thing. People are especially concerned that their children join a group that encourages the avoidance of counter-productive reptilian and paleomammalian behavior (a.k.a. sin). In almost any church, there's always a significant number of new members who have children that have just reached Sunday School age. Prior to that, they were unchurched since graduating from High School.

How can rationality help people achieve their desire to live with more integrity, and have their children live with more integrity? That's the question we need to be asking. Reading blogs and books isn't going to do it. Integrity is not a solo sport. It takes strong support from other human beings to overcome our sinful instincts.

Comment author: Johnicholas 27 March 2009 02:22:21PM 6 points [-]

I apologize for the criticism, and I agree with a lot of what you're saying.

However, I want to point out that donating money (and therefore, asking for money) is a somewhat dangerous habit to get into, because it is so very, very fungible (the very essence of fungibleness). I think this is why people sometimes do canned-food drives - even with the weird inefficiencies of collecting and sending canned food instead of money, there's more trust that the money isn't being quietly (or accidentally) diverted into "self-sustaining" efforts - like asking for more money.

In your rhetoric, could you please use more variety - not just money, but also other goods like volunteering time, or a mix of time and money?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 11:26:32PM 6 points [-]

I confess I hadn't thought of that particular aspect of a canned goods drive - which may or may not be true, e.g., donated cars are sold rather than given to the poor. I had written it off as a desire to purchase moral satisfaction.

But anyone who works in the nonprofit industry knows this fact, sad but true: Volunteering money is much more helpful than volunteering time. Unless you're a professional and you're willing to volunteer large blocks of concentrated time with high work priority. The power of work concentration and specialization is the elementary reason why the whole economy runs that way.

Comment author: whpearson 28 March 2009 12:06:54AM 2 points [-]

The young idealistic people don't have enough money to devote large chunks of time.

I'm not sure what the organisation that must not be named actually needs to be done at the moment, why it needs more funding.

If you are looking for people to do things you might be able to get people newly out of university to work for you for a couple of years for a living allowance. Which would be the equivalent of donating the difference between the living allowance and the market rate for their skills. People do sacrifice potential earnings for experience all the time, PhDs for example or getting minimal wage working somewhere exotic, What people don't like doing so much is going backwards...

Comment author: JulianMorrison 28 March 2009 12:14:35AM 1 point [-]

I think E's point was that, contrary to charitable instinct, they would be better off working and tithing, in terms of charitable results.

Comment author: whpearson 28 March 2009 09:59:03AM 2 points [-]

Is one or two years not large enough blocks of time or are graduates not professional enough?

I agree that donating an hour or two a week is not efficient, I was trying to point out that there are groups of people that can donate large amounts of time/skills, iff they are given minimal money to support themselves.

Comment author: Emile 27 March 2009 02:28:28PM 1 point [-]

Such as for example asking for open-source volunteers to help improve a website?

(ok, ok, he's not using that in his rhetoric as an example, your point stands)

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 12:03:32PM *  5 points [-]

I wonder in particular whether the best modern videoconferencing software would provide some of the motivating effect of meeting someone in person; I suspect the answer is "no" but it might be worth trying.

I am almost certain the answer is "at least a little bit".

More generally, I know that Aumann's Agreement Theorem means that it should be possible for a group of self-described rationalists to agree on what they should do next, but in practice I think that any choice of subgoal would reduce the number of rationalists who would want to be on board.

Conveniently (suspiciously so perhaps) the subgoal I am increasingly convinced would do the most good for effort involved is also one which it might be easiest to get rationalists to unite around: promoting rationalism itself. Think how different the world would be if people were to shut up and multiply a little more...

Comment author: MichaelGR 27 March 2009 02:43:01PM *  4 points [-]

I am almost certain the answer is "at least a little bit".

I agree. The effect would probably be pretty big, in fact.

Even with something fairly low-tech (webcams, you look at your screen and you see little stamp-sized videos of the faces of everybody), a weekly videoconference to discuss all things rational would be a big motivator, IMO.

Just imagining it feels motivating, possibly because right now when I think of the people here, I mostly see screennames (except for Eliezer, but that's because I've seen videos of him), and for obvious evolutionary reasons that doesn't generate the same response as seeing human faces (f.ex. over the past few weeks I've been asking myself: Who's Yvain? Where is he from? What does he do? How old is he? What does he look like? Even if I know that this shouldn't, in theory, be important for the purpose of reading his stuff).

Maybe just a voice conference call could be useful (http://www.freeconferencecall.com/ ?). It probably can't replace the written word for the purpose of teaching rationality, but it can certainly help make all of this more real from a human point of view, and thus motivate us. And like a religious gathering, not everybody has to speak to feel part of it.

Real life example: For the past 3-4 years I've been working from home (in Canada) for a US company. At first we did almost everything via email and text chat. Then we started doing a few conference calls and that helped make it more real and improve esprit de corps a lot. But the game-changer was really when they flew all of us to New York to meet face to face. The effect of that is still felt; even more than a year later there's a different rapport with the people I met face to face than with those that joined after that meeting.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 03:08:15PM *  4 points [-]

...suggesting that the single thing I could do to make the biggest improvement to the world with the least effort would be to fix this bug:


Maybe we should make video of ourselves available, just so we seem more real? Maybe we should be doing promiscuous bloggingheads.tv-style conversations?

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 27 March 2009 02:49:14PM 12 points [-]

And I do care strongly about victims of torture and war. I care about those trapped in dead-end countries or existences, who can't move to seek a better life. I care about the future of myself and the rest of humanity.

Corny to say it, but it's true.

Comment author: Emile 27 March 2009 02:19:08PM 4 points [-]

I wonder in particular whether the best modern videoconferencing software would provide some of the motivating effect of meeting someone in person; I suspect the answer is "no" but it might be worth trying.

It probably would a little bit, but it would be such a hassle to set up that only a small fraction of people would do it.

A smaller but easier step in the same direction would be to use real names and real photos on this site.

As for solutions to akrasia, pjeby may have some, you have mentioned meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and other posters mentioned yoga and (some) drugs. Something in there ought to give interesting results.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 27 March 2009 04:54:18PM *  5 points [-]

As for solutions to akrasia, pjeby may have some

Reading the key paragraph in pjeby's article The Hidden Meaning of "Just Do It" has helped me to break through a 2-month-long round of procrastination.

Also, the 80/20 elimination techniques in Timothy Ferris' "4-Hour Workweek" seem to work surprisingly well for me -- especially in combination with pjeby's secret meaning of "just do it". I'm about halfway through Ferris' book, and I haven't read other pjeby's articles, but so far, this combo does wonders.

Comment author: pjeby 27 March 2009 05:12:59PM 6 points [-]

Btw, that article is embarrassingly out-of-date relative to my current methods. This video is a much better introduction to a more current method of "just doing it". In particular, it gives step-by-step instruction and is ridiculously easy to test.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 March 2009 01:03:24PM 7 points [-]

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I watched that video and did what it told me to. Since I happen to have a rather messy desk, I could just apply that example directly.

For the last three or four minutes of the video, I couldn't wait that it'd finish so I could get around to cleaning my desk. Then I did, and it's clean now. For the record: even when I clean the rest of my room, I never get around cleaning my desk. When I did it now, I found an old receipt, dated December 2006. I hadn't really cleaned my desk after that.

And now I'd done it, after watching a ten-minute video and done some simple exercises for about five minutes. Because it had made me feel I wanted to.

I don't know how much of it was me just wanting the technique to work, and if the effectiveness of the technique will wear off with time (as has often been the fate with my previous anti-procrastination techniques), but if it does work consistently... this will so change my life. I will be eternally in your debt if it will.

If anybody here has any kinds of problems with procrastination, go watch that video right now. I mean that.

Comment author: pjeby 28 March 2009 01:50:46PM 2 points [-]

I don't know how much of it was me just wanting the technique to work, and if the effectiveness of the technique will wear off with time (as has often been the fate with my previous anti-procrastination techniques), but if it does work consistently... this will so change my life. I will be eternally in your debt if it will.

If anybody here has any kinds of problems with procrastination, go watch that video right now. I mean that.

A note of caution: that technique will only work if you aren't under any pressure to perform the task. If you try to use it on something like doing your taxes because you're freaking out at how little time you have left, it's probably not going to work, because you'll have conflicting somatic markers activated. In other words, you won't be able to pass the "mmmm" test in the steps.

Most chronic procrastination takes the form of pressuring yourself to do something and thereby engaging somatic markers for "life-threatening situation" -- making it damn near impossible to do anything useful in a systematic, sustainable, or rational way. So, you'll need to use other techniques to switch off those markers if you're going to use this technique for something like that.

In other words, the technique in that video is NOT an anti-procrastination technique per se, and it's better that you don't try to use it as one. It's a demonstration of the link between somatic markers and motivation, and I specifically chose desk-cleaning as the target activity because most people are not under an urgent deadline or major pressure to clean their desk.

Now, as long as you pass the "mmmm" test for an activity, the method will work and it will work every time. The only way it will stop working is if you stop checking for the somatic marker and try to just push through without passing the "mmm" test. It's just that for "under pressure" activities this may be difficult or impossible unless you first disengage the threat response. (It's hard to do a relaxed "mmmm" or "ahhh" when you're freaking out.)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 March 2009 03:23:06PM 1 point [-]

Alright, thanks for the warning. Actually, I just finished reading "Why Can't I Change", and I see what you're talking about. You're sure you want everybody to sign up with their e-mail addy before downloading it? It made me feel like everybody should read it and made me want to share the link as widely as possible, but the sign-up requirement will considerably reduce the amount of people who'll bother giving it a look...

Comment deleted 28 March 2009 02:16:38AM [-]
Comment author: pjeby 28 March 2009 04:07:11AM 0 points [-]

The book is still being worked on, but in the meantime, there are two excellent books that might be considered CBT for the layman: "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie, and "Re-create Your Life", by Morty Lefkoe.

Both are about identifying inconsistencies between your (emotional) beliefs and reality, and work well as long as you ask the questions from a state of genuine curiosity and wondering -- that is, if you don't treat the questions as rote or things you already know the answers to.

The trick is, the purpose of the questions isn't for you to answer them, it's to draw out the memories that form the evidence for your belief, and connect them to counterexamples or alternative interpretations at the sensory/emotional "near thinking" level, rather than merely at the logical "far thinking" level. (Otherwise you can end up "not believing in ghosts" but still being afraid of them.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 28 March 2009 09:26:22AM *  1 point [-]

Btw, that article is embarrassingly out-of-date relative to my current methods

I guess I was right to just skim the article through -- I admit, I fully read only the "meaning" section, then interpreted it with my own twist and went with that interpretation. BTW, one of the side effects was a clean desk -- actually two clean desks :)

This video is a much better introduction

I spent a good chunk of my career in Photoshop, so I visualized your step 3 as having two 'reality layers', "Current State" and "Goal State", where the latter has 50% transparency :)

The approach you've shown seems to be in sync with the concept of steering the reality into a specified region -- it involves visualizing the starting point (the current state of reality) and the target region to steer the future to.

However, I'm still not sure whether this way of visualizing target states and letting our built-in planner to do it will work on tasks involving more creativity than cleaning a messy desk, or on goal states that are hard to imagine visually.

In any case, very interesting video -- tricking my motivation/planning/execution system into doing things for me definitely looks like something I should explore.

(Also, I'd be cool to have a text version of the video, for quick reference and re-reading.)

Comment author: pjeby 28 March 2009 02:06:52PM 1 point [-]

However, I'm still not sure whether this way of visualizing target states and letting our built-in planner to do it will work on tasks involving more creativity than cleaning a messy desk, or on goal states that are hard to imagine visually.

Creativity, oddly enough, is precisely what your built-in planner is good at. It's not that you have to be able to imagine the end result in perfect detail, but that you be able to know whether or not the current state matches the desired end-state. In fact, Robert Fritz calls this "the creative process". If you read any of his books, it's all about end state vs. current state comparison -- whether you're creating a painting, music, or a business.

The only thing I've added to his work in this method is the somatic marker check (aka the "mmm" test), as it's the thing that engages the planner. Without the check, people find it a lot more hit-or-miss of an affair.

Also, remember that this technique will not work if you don't engage the correct somatic marker; so don't be disappointed if you find it doesn't work on something you're stressed about, and you don't succeed in relaxing enough to pass the somatic marker check.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 28 March 2009 02:59:12PM *  1 point [-]

A note of caution: that technique will only work if you aren't under any pressure to perform the task.

don't be disappointed if you find it doesn't work on something you're stressed about

The technique I build for myself based on the article you consider outdated, "the meaning of just do it", works for me under stress perfectly well. ("Stress" here means a final release, with a clear deadline, of a software product that has been 2 years in development.)

Comment author: pjeby 28 March 2009 03:25:49PM 3 points [-]

By stress I mean that you have a "my life (or status) is in danger if I do not succeed" somatic response. Some people would have that response to the conditions you mention, others would not. I work a lot with people who are in chronic procrastination about things that will result in serious loss of money, status, or both, if they don't complete them... and they're not always able to even do the steps of "just doing it" until I teach them to disengage the negative markers.

However, if you're saying you have a significant negative somatic marker and you have a procedure that works repeatably in that context, I'd definitely be interested in hearing about it. Sometimes, people's enthusiasm for a new idea distracts them sufficiently to avoid engaging the negative marker... but then the effect goes away once the technique is no longer novel. (This used to drive me nuts when I was starting out, before I got the idea of making sure I could reliably reproduce the stress condition before testing a technique to alleviate it.)

Anyway, if you find that your method works consistently under stress conditions -- as defined by active somatic markers of life- or status-endangering threat -- then I would be very interested in finding out what, specifically, you're doing, as it would be a real improvement.

To be clear, that means you would need to have identified a thought about the project that induces an observable somatic marker of (di)stress... and then show that your method replaces it with a marker of motivation. If you can do that, I'll definitely want to see if I can reproduce the effect myself and on my clients.

Presently, I'm not aware of any such technique that does not involve first deactivating the stress marker in some fashion... which is why I suspect that either you are deactivating it in some way, not experiencing it in the first place... or else have developed a new technique that I should learn. ;-) (Or are distracted by novelty that will wear off, have a weak enough stress marker that it can be overwhelmed, etc. etc.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 28 March 2009 05:30:42PM *  2 points [-]

By stress I mean that you have a "my life (or status) is in danger if I do not succeed" somatic response.

under stress conditions -- as defined by active somatic markers of life- or status-endangering threat

I'm not sure if this applies to my situation. Was the situation life-threatening? Definitely not -- and I don't think that my mind unconsciously deemed it to be so. Was my status threatened? Perhaps yes, but I'm not sure, and I don't think that status is particularly valuable to me at this point.

The key factor was that the failure to complete that task would result in a monetary loss (or, more precisely, my company would lose several possible revenue streams.) The economic climate is not exactly warm these days, the revenues are declining despite growing website traffic (not just my case, other software firms I know experience this decline as well) -- so yes, I think money was the primary issue.

Does this count as a stress marker?

Comment author: pjeby 28 March 2009 06:11:35PM 2 points [-]

As I said, it's the physical response that counts. Did you feel stuck, paralyzed, frozen? A desire to run away? Terror? Shame? Guilt? Embarrassment? (Those last three are what I mean by "loss of status".)

I think money was the primary issue.

If you're not actually afraid of losing money then you're not going to have a somatic marker for life- or status-threatening stress. If you were afraid of losing your job, not being able to support your family, and that you'd be an utter failure as a spouse and parent, yet you felt paralyzed and unable to move forward, then that would count.

That's the kind of stress responses I mostly work with, not inconveniences or mere preference for a different state of affairs. People who are under that kind of (self-generated, but usually unaware) stress don't respond well to being told to "just do it". ;-) (Aside from not helping, it tends to enhance the shame or guilt of not being able to.)

However, for the most part, your comment sounds like analytical "far" thinking, and most often our actual motivations are unrelated to our "far" analyses of them, when you check the "near" thinking that goes on under the hood.

A minor and more common form of stress response to a situation like you describe might be an internal prediction like, "the boss is gonna be livid if we don't get this done" -- associated with apprehension and discomfort at that prospect. And if the associated somatic marker is mild, you might be able to overcome it or just ignore it... especially if you also have novelty/excitement linked to the technique you're trying.

Note that human beings always act for concrete reasons, not abstract ones... we can take our abstract rules and apply them to situations to create concrete reasons, but if we don't, then we don't actually act!

Conversely, the real reasons we avoid doing things are also concrete, not abstract. We don't get stressed about a project because "the company will lose money", but because of what that means in real-world events like, "I get yelled at" or "I get fired" or "I'll look like an idiot". Those outcomes are stored with somatic markers and linked to the abstract concept. People then confuse the abstract with the somatic, by thinking that "company loses money" equals "bad", even though that label exists only in the map, not the territory. Removing the less-helpful markers (roughly equivalent to "not looking down" in principle/effect) then restores relative rationality in that area.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 28 March 2009 08:56:05PM 2 points [-]

We don't get stressed about a project because "the company will lose money", but because of what that means in real-world events like, "I get yelled at" or "I get fired" or "I'll look like an idiot".

Bingo. My case was "my application will get rejected, and I will not pass the approval". The stress level wasn't that high -- it was an inconvenience. I didn't feel "stuck, paralyzed or frozen" -- I just felt like a dumb moron who for some stupid reason is unable to follow his own plans.

Comment author: Xenoce 24 May 2011 07:46:21PM *  3 points [-]

One short-term solution I can see helping with this problem is to have rationalists cluster closer together. This already happens indirectly, when geographic locations are occupied by organizations and cultures that attract or require people with a higher-than-average rate of rationalism. We could encourage this on different scales, clustering in cities, regions, or even in neighborhoods and houses. My housemates and I are already doing this. We collect the more interesting, motivated, insightful people we meet, mostly from the university, and integrate them into our social network. Occasionally we invite them to move in with us. On a slightly longer timescale (2 months - 2 years), we have been discussing moving into a larger house with more people. It is a slow process, but we are seeing progress.

We have managed to collect a group of 4-5 around classes and hectic life events in just under two years. While this is still too small a number to draw any firm conclusions, the rate of acquisition seems to be increasing, and I strongly suspect it will further accelerate the more people we have.

Comment author: UnholySmoke 30 March 2009 10:01:35AM 3 points [-]

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.

Agreed. As I've discussed on OB, I spent an hour a week of my first 18 years in a Catholic church, and this rings very true. When I think back to the social exchanges between the clergy, I'm struck by how comfortable they [ahem, we] all strove to make one another. All the usual ins-and-outs and cliquey elements of any close-knit group were present - and not all of them pleasant - but I never saw any overt, public, disagreement or argument. It was taboo - simply didn't happen.

More corroboration - no-one ever talked about God outside the four walls of the church. Bingo, fundraisers, family, gossip, but pretty much no religion.

But long before we can begin to dream of any such boast, we secular humanists need to work on at least matching the per capita benevolent output of the worshippers.


Those people are out there Eliezer, as you no doubt know. There are secular humanists - incredible rationalists - who spend every waking moment backing up their rational altruism with energy and action. Sadly, I fear that they have more in common with the active, benevolent religious altruists of the world than with any forum-posting aspiring rationalists.

Comment deleted 27 March 2009 05:31:06PM [-]
Comment author: sketerpot 27 March 2009 07:29:23PM 6 points [-]

I don't want to become a "cleaning up this world"-bot. I have my own goals and aims in life, and they are distinct from the goal of "producing as much positive utility for humanity" as possible. I'd rather spend £99 out of every £100 on myself than give it to a random poor person in the third world, because I am more important than s/he is (more important in the subjective, antirealist sense).

Hey, that's fine. You certainly don't have to try to justify your basic utility function. But for people who want to do more to help the rest of the world (even if we prioritize ourselves first), it can be hard just to get ourselves to act rationally in pursuit of this goal. That's the issue at hand.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 09:50:34PM 5 points [-]

It would seem that Greene has deconverted you away from objective morality along different lines than I was trying for myself.

Anyway, your comment suggests that FAI should take its funding primarily from the most selfish of rationalists who still have a trace of altruism in them, since FAI would be the only project where expected utilons can be purchased so cheaply as to move them; and leave more altruistic funding to more mundane projects.

Now, what are the odds that would work in real life? I would think very low. FAI is likely to actually need those rare folk who can continue supporting without a lot of in-person support and encouragement and immediately visible concrete results, leaving the others to those projects which are more intuitively encouraging to a human brain.

It seems to me that no matter what people claim about their selfishness or altruism, the real line is between those who can bring themselves to do something about it under conditions X and those who can't - and that the actual payoff in expected utilons matters little, but the reinforcing conditions matter a lot.

But perhaps I am mistaken.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 27 March 2009 10:27:12PM 13 points [-]

No saying the F-acronym yet.

Comment author: aausch 27 March 2009 03:57:22PM 4 points [-]

I wonder in particular whether the best modern videoconferencing software would provide some of the motivating effect of meeting someone in person; I suspect the answer is "no" but it might be worth trying.

How about trying to use Croquet (or some other 3D collaborative environment, with voice chat)?

Comment author: MBlume 27 March 2009 08:13:48PM 7 points [-]

I have seen people form strong attachments of responsibility to groups while playing World of Warcraft. A friend of mine will frequently beg off social engagements because of scheduled in-game events to which he needs to contribute. Something about the 3-D avatars seems to do the job.

In fact, I'd start even simpler. We need profiles. I'm not saying we turn LessWrong into Facebook, but our brains are wired to track humans, and specifically to respond to faces. I think if we simply had a photo of each LessWrong member appearing next to their submissions (as Emile has also suggested), it would help to excite those faculties. In addition, if each member had a place to write about themselves for a line or two, or link to a personal website, that might help.

Comment author: Tom_Talbot 27 March 2009 09:24:25PM 4 points [-]

Or start a LessWrong group on Facebook.

Comment author: MBlume 27 March 2009 10:10:39PM 3 points [-]

done -- comment here if you'd like to be an admin.

Comment author: whpearson 27 March 2009 10:15:58PM *  1 point [-]

Faces and voices are also not needed. I've played browser based games such as pardus and felt committed, if only briefly before realising real life is more important.

What I need is to be mentally committed to a project. Someone says we need to do X and asks how do we go about doing X. Discussion ensues. If the discussion ends up we need to raise Z amount of money or Y people to be on at a certain time I am likely to contribute to that or try and be that person.

Contributing to an anonymous pot won't get people committed as a specific project.

A bit like what pjeby talks about with envisaging actions, push and all that.

Comment author: thomblake 02 April 2009 07:20:15PM 2 points [-]

According to studies done by Yale's Brian Scassellati, embodiment is necessary for real social interaction. People respond differently to someone in the room than they do to someone on a screen, even if it's the same person.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 27 March 2009 04:24:34PM *  3 points [-]
Comment author: AndrewH 27 March 2009 09:00:42PM *  2 points [-]

Ease of entry and exit is really important. I want to be able to enter the world and enter a discussion asap, but I don't want to feel compelled to stay for long periods of time.

So I think a browser based program would be best, rather than Second Life.

But I think having a place such as Second Life would be good addition compared to what we have now with LW. Having a a place where people like ourselves can discuss things in practically real time, would, I think, be useful in helping to create this community of Rationalists.

Mechanisms that make it feel like we really are living together, such as a detailed virtual world, and even virtual houses, could help in making the community and keeping people participating in it. And of course, the added benefit of this is that we don't need to be physically close to each other but we could get the benefits as if we were (given a detailed enough environment).

Comment author: Emile 27 March 2009 04:59:09PM 1 point [-]

That's interesting - a previous community I was involved in also considered using Croquet for rich interaction, but at the time the technology barriers were high (they probably still are, no ? I haven't checked it out recently).

What we did (well, they did mostly - I was in the wrong timezone and couldn't take part most of the time) - was simultaneous voice chat and collaborative document editing (with an application that allowed to work at several on a text file with different colors for each user).

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 05:05:57PM 2 points [-]

A colleague of mind created this collaborative editing environment, if you think something like that would be useful:


Comment author: Mass_Driver 28 August 2011 04:50:33AM 2 points [-]

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and Zen meditation are two mental disciplines experimentally shown to yield real improvements.

Does anyone have a link or citation to actual research that supports this claim? It sounds plausible, I just want to check and see exactly how strong the evidence is before investing dozens of hours and/or a few thousand bucks.

Comment author: amitpamin 18 June 2012 10:58:53PM 0 points [-]

No need to invest a few thousand bucks - a few books and self-discipline is all that's needed (not that self-discipline is easy to arise & invest). re: zen meditation, I recommend reading Search Inside Yourself. It's a book about meditation written by a google employee. It contains a decent number of citations.

Comment author: corruptmemory 28 March 2009 06:05:19PM 2 points [-]

I don't have time to construct a full response, but I would like to hit a couple of points.

Catholics vs. rationalists: An analog seems to be large institutional investors (market makers) vs. small or independent investors. Clearly both kinds of market players (the very big vs. the small) play important roles, but the market makers, well, they have the ability to move the market in different directions because of the strength of their market position. "Following" the market makers is often viewed as a safe bet (i.e. a cheap risk computation) for a good return, but not always. Small investors seek out opportunities either missed by big investors, or misjudged by big investors.

Being an active member of the Catholic church requires forgoing critical thinking concerning a number of important aspects of reality, but such participants view this arrangement as being beneficial overall: it reduces the amount of mental computation that need be expended on a wide variety of subjects (no need to enumerate, I hope ;-) ). Some of the "benefits" gained by participants are that a number of "important causes" are prepared for them to act on, and many of them will. Although the Catholic church has it's full share of strange quirks, the thing we refer to as the Catholic church today is far more tame and humanistic than say it's 16-17th century version: many of the high-profile causes adopted by the church have pretty broad appeal as worthy issues. Of course, when Catholic missionaries go into an impoverished area to help feed and clothe people there is also an evangelical element. So, at least some of the causes picked up by the church will be "objectively" good, and some bizarre or bad (like condoms and family planning).

Rationalists, on the other hand are likely to explore many of these issues more in depth, as a result will also likely have a more diffuse impact on shaping future outcomes. Take world population (by humans) for example. Given the Catholic view of sexuality and reproduction, it is likely that the "cheap mental computation" that "participants" (and the people they effectively spread the "word" to) adhere to will likely have a negative impact on the human species' ability to survive. Rationalists are free to wander the landscape of ideas and turn their attention to many areas that the Catholic church (or any number of religious organizations) simply cannot find effective ways to engage, like the smaller investors above. In fact, it is precisely this rationalistic pressure on the Catholic church that has tamed it from the rather malevolent imperialistic beast it once was, to the more calculating and insidious beast it is today, only with a more friendly public-relations face.

On the other hand: better sanitation, and sources of clean water are probably the largest contributors to improving world health and longer lifetimes. Neither of these solutions to problems of human life came from religious organizations, and just possibly outrank the "output" of all religious organizations put together. The printing press and the "small" book did more for literacy and the development and spreading of ideas than any active effort by any European religion. The same could (should?0 be said for the Internet today. Could we come up with a better meaning for output?

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 27 March 2009 02:42:05PM 2 points [-]

Businesses have team building events which, for all the mockery they generate, seem to work.

Is there a case to organise rationalist paintball or games nights? Maybe during conferences or major gatherings.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 27 March 2009 03:05:39PM *  6 points [-]

A game of Dungeons & Discourse, anyone?

Comment author: CarlShulman 27 March 2009 05:16:38PM 5 points [-]

The Mormon Church has much higher compliance rates on tithing and gets a lot more out of its followers than Catholicism. They have Church-only welfare systems and other practical benefits conditional on membership, require spouses and family to turn their backs on those who leave, censor/forbid 'dangerous' information, have followers go on long missionary trips to make belief more of their identity, etc.

In general, I don't think you should view tithing in the face of strong Dark Side techniques as really voluntary charitable giving: people give more because of the pressure, and the religious organizations want to do visible 'good works' (other than paying priests and for temple construction) for recruiting and retention purposes.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 27 March 2009 04:05:14PM 4 points [-]

On the Wiki page for Ego Depletion linked above, there's an interesting aside. A "positive mood stimulus" like an unexpected gift or a comedy movie clip seems to be able to restore people's depleted self control reserves.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 27 March 2009 04:13:01PM 3 points [-]

As to meeting - one thing the various religious meetings aren't, is one big argument. If you're going to have rationalists meet to develop a community, there ought to be a driving purpose, something to achieve with the time besides disagree with each other. Perhaps a "virtual dojo"? Someone has to start building the "martial art", it isn't going to invent itself.

If you're going to do that, though, charge money. You said it yourself elsewhere: if you aren't prepared to pay for it, you don't care.

Comment author: James_Miller 27 March 2009 02:45:52PM 3 points [-]

You wrote "True, the Catholic Church also goes around opposing the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa. "

This might be the right rationalist position:


"That aside, the good news for the Catholic Church’s supporters is that–even if, inevitably, the Pope’s counterintuitive suggestion enraged the liberal establishment–many editorialists now accept at least part of the Catholic position that the best solution to AIDS in Africa is fundamental behavior change, rather than condoms."

Passing out condoms increases the amount of sex but makes each sex act less dangerous. So theoretically it's indeterminant whether it increases or decreases the spread of AIDS.

Comment author: grobstein 03 April 2009 05:25:41AM 0 points [-]

"Passing out condoms increases the amount of sex but makes each sex act less dangerous. So theoretically it's indeterminant whether it increases or decreases the spread of AIDS."

Not quite -- on a rational choice model, passing out condoms may decrease or not impact the spread of AIDS (in principle), but it can't increase it. A rational actor who doesn't actively want AIDS might increase their sexual activity enough to compensate for the added safety of the condom, but they would not go further than that.

(This is different from the seatbelt case because car crashes result in costs, say to pedestrians who are struck, that are not internalized by the driver.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 April 2009 10:10:24AM 2 points [-]

In theory - I say nothing of practice - this need not be true. If people get ten times as much sexual pleasure per unit risk, they may pay out more total risk. As a general principle of resource consumption this has an official name, but I forget it.

Comment author: grobstein 03 April 2009 05:57:53PM 0 points [-]

Obviously we can construct an agent who does this. I just don't see a reasonably parsimonious model that does it without including a preference for getting AIDS, or something similarly crazy. Perhaps I'm just stuck.

Comment author: ciphergoth 03 April 2009 10:48:42AM *  0 points [-]

Are you talking about the idea of a Giffen good, where bread becomes more costly, reducing your household budget, forcing you to get more of your calories from cheaper goods such as bread, meaning you buy more bread? If so I'm not sure I see how that applies in this instance.

In general I don't mean to make an argument that it's impossible for harm reduction strategies to be counterproductive, but that condoms in particular are so very effective at reducing HIV transmission that it's simply implausible to posit that any countervailing effect could do so much as to make the overall outcome worse - such an idea would need very strong evidence, which plainly isn't here.

Comment author: ciphergoth 03 April 2009 08:26:04AM 2 points [-]

We might suppose that condom promotion has two effects: a replacement effect and an encouragement effect. So there will be instances where what would have been unsafe sex at all becomes safe sex, and some instances where no sex at all becomes safe sex. Safe sex is so vastly less likely to transmit HIV that the latter effect would have to be hundreds of times larger than the former for condom promotion to have an overall increasing effect on HIV transmission; that doesn't seem plausible to me and no evidence to support it has been presented.

If you could show that condom promotion caused a lot of instances where no sex becomes unsafe sex that would change the picture, but AFAIK there's no reason or evidence to suppose that.

It's pretty clear in this instance that the desire to bash the Pope-criticising liberals came first, and the arguments second.

Comment author: ciphergoth 28 March 2009 09:23:28AM 0 points [-]

I can't find any evidence that Epstein endorses TAC's conclusion that handing out condoms can actually do harm, even though her work is the sole evidence they cite, and frankly it's pretty implausible on the face of it.

Comment author: byrnema 27 March 2009 03:51:48PM *  2 points [-]

Various themes in the culture of Catholicism make it easier to be charitable because they help Catholics avoid the rational arguments that would discourage them.

The most difficult hurdle to giving to a charity is determining if the charitable gift is worthwhile. Will the gift do enough good? Is the charity deserving? Are you just enabling poor people to stay poor? Catholicism by-passes all of these rational arguments with irrational beliefs*. These beliefs may not be universally held, but I believe they are part of the culture:

(1) Sacrifice is a good thing in of itself. Value is placed on the sacrifice itself, not just the good that comes out of the sacrifice. Thus the giving Catholic doesn't have to worry (as much) about whether the charity is really deserving.

(2) People in need have an elevated status. No need to argue within oneself about whether poor people deserve help and no need to weigh their utility function with your own -- as a Catholic, believe that they deserve the money or time more than you do.

(3) The reward is intangible. You don't need to expect or require that there will be an immediate benefit as a result of your charity. This prevents discouragement when the charity doesn't seem to be working.

Any person who gives to charity may hold any of these beliefs to any extent. I would bet that the more rational a person is, the more good they will do with a given amount of money. However, it is the irrational components that are probably most responsible for the amount of money that is given -- and the more money that is given the better, perhaps. Even though some money is wasted, there's more money going to the worthwhile charities as well.

*You could argue that the irrational beliefs are just assumptions that are made in the game. There may actually be rational arguments behind them, but the belief is a short-cut because the arguments need not be constantly re-examined, especially by the set people who are not interested in arguments.

Comment author: MBlume 28 March 2009 03:32:31AM 6 points [-]

(1) Sacrifice is a good thing in of itself.

This idea is the very first thing that any rationalist practice of altruism must eliminate.

Comment author: taw 27 March 2009 05:01:14PM 1 point [-]

I don't agree with anything about your post, from assumptions to conclusions.

I'd say it's highly irrational money to give to any charitable cause. As far as I can tell most charities have laudable goals and don't even keep track record of meeting them. The best they can tell is that they actually spent some high percent of their money taken on some efforts vaguely related to the goal, not on the most cost effective means of meeting their goals. That's assuming we know what goals to donate to, what's not really true.

Well, I know for sure that an extremely effective way of helping poor people of the world (one of the most popular targets one way or another) is selfishly trading with them. That's what I do, I buy cheap sweatshop-produced stuff. And it probably helps them more than I would by sending them money.

If there was suddenly an extra pound in the world and I had to decide best use for it - I would use it on myself. Seriously. And so by marginal reasoning I don't donate a single pound to any charity. I don't need it to feel good, and that's really what charities are about. Not about any causes.

Also - I don't know any Catholic who gives 10% of their income to charities, including the Catholic Church. Where did you come up with absurdly exaggerated figure like that?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 27 March 2009 07:15:29PM 4 points [-]

Look into www.givewell.com

Comment author: Bleys 27 March 2009 11:16:35PM *  8 points [-]

Worth noting, it's givewell.net. givewell.com links to a Visa card program, givewell.net is a site which aims to answer "Where should I donate?"

Comment author: Amaroq 27 April 2009 04:39:52PM *  1 point [-]

Your article is based on the premise that it is important for us to help complete strangers who don't mean anything to us. That sacrifice is a constant of righteousness regardless of a person's beliefs or lack thereof.

From an objective viewpoint, sacrifice is wrong. Why should we have to give value in return for lesser value, or no value at all? We should help people because they have value to us, not because they are unable to be valuable at all.

"The man with guilt is the man who will do whatever you tell him to." The reason religious people do this is because they are taught from a young age that it is moral to sacrifice and amoral to trade with the acquisition of a value in mind. Their guilt does the rest.

Maybe the reason most rationalists don't devote as much self-sacrifice to the world around them is because they hold somewhat of an objective viewpoint, and a moral code that has no room for self-sacrifice. In short, most rationalists don't feel guilty for not helping people they don't know. Why should they feel guilty for that?

Comment author: Amaroq 14 March 2010 01:10:50PM 1 point [-]

I feel I must reply to my own post to update a bit as what I believe has changed a little.

By the nature of humans, every individual human is potentially valuable to you unless they prove themselves otherwise. Humans are capable of reason, productivity, trade, etc.

Just don't go sacrificing the actual (yourself) to the potential (the usefulness of a stranger). If you can aid someone in an emergency without risking yourself, there is a selfish justification for doing so.

Comment author: Jacobian 06 November 2015 08:36:21PM 1 point [-]

Having just read this post for the first time has made me so happy!

Let me explain: Eliezer doesn't sound optimistic at all in this essay, especially compared to the gung-ho "we got this!" spirit of almost every other call to action post. And here I am, someone who's so new to LW I only just got to this post, and yet in the last year I have:

  • Enjoyed rationalist parties with dozens of people.
  • Went to over 20 weekly rationalist gatherings.
  • Ran an EA charity research meetup.
  • Got 3 other people hooked on the sequences.
  • Am taking my girlfriend to Soltice next month.

With all that I don't even consider myself a central part of the community (either LW or EA) just someone hanging around the margins and trying to contribute occasionally.

Here's another thing to keep in mind with the Catholic Church: they've been around for 2,000 years, and they're one of 2,000 cults that made it. Can it be that there's nothing going on besides time and survivor bias? 6 years after this post was written, Givewell is affecting millions and MIRI just raised $600k by itself. I don't know if we should really still be looking up to the church for organization tips.

Comment author: MicahMcC 13 December 2010 04:05:00PM 1 point [-]

Interesting article, and one of the few I've seen that has bothered with this idea. One of the big problems (as noted elsewhere) is that there is precious little that holds secular humanists together in a coherent, close knit society like religion does. In fact, that's probably why the vast majority of the planet's population professes faith in God/holy book/enlightened savior. I have never considered it likely that the average Catholic, for instance, really believes in the doctrone of transubstantiation. What is so obviously not a miracle (bread remains bread, wine remains wine) is transformed into such through the miracle of community. As a recent study points out, it's community and the sense of belonging that gives people who belong to a particular religious organization the higher sense of satisfaction than those of us who don't. Whether or not we as secular humanists can hope to achieve the output of the various religious organizations and charities will become increasingly important as the 21st century wears on. If we cannot come together as a community in more meaningful ways, and see each other as those who belong to faith communities do, the question of output will become entirely moot. Then it will become a question of whether or not such a movement can even exist and compete.

Comment author: cleonid 27 March 2009 12:16:17PM 1 point [-]

The catholics like most other religious/political/humanitarian organizations tend to agree among themselves about the causes they care about. Can you make rationalists to agree on what projects are most deserving of their money and effort (aside from preaching their own views)?

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 27 March 2009 12:22:24PM 1 point [-]

Emphasis here on "most deserving". It's probably easier to get people to agree on which causes are good than on which causes are high priority.

Comment author: cousin_it 27 March 2009 02:29:53PM *  3 points [-]

Worse. How many rationalists can honestly say, "my own life is as bright and happy as I could make it"? Why go for holy causes when you can't fix your own life - maybe it's a compensation mechanism, as Eric Hoffer suggested? Honestly the seduction community comes out looking better in this respect.

Comment author: Sebastian_Hagen 27 March 2009 11:09:03PM *  4 points [-]

Why go for holy causes when you can't fix your own life

If you're an egoist, the answer is "don't". For altruists, the answer is shut up and multiply.

You can get many more utilons if you buy them where (and while) they're cheap. If you are unhappy now, this may be very hard to change. You can probably get better mileage - in terms of expected utilons per unit of effort - if you concentrate on promoting developments that will permanently improve the human condition.

Failing that, assuming your own life is not severly messed up, you can likely still do better than by improving it further by finding people significantly less well-off than you are, and helping them. Research suggests that this is typically not as simple as giving them money, but even so it should be possible to make such help scale significantly better than attempts to significantly improve your own subjective well-being.

maybe it's a compensation mechanism, as Eric Hoffer suggested?

I don't care what you label it. I'm a bounded rationalist, and more so a bounded altruist - akrasia is a major issue for me. I will take all help from any of my mental modules to act in a more rational and altruistic manner I can get.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 27 March 2009 03:14:26PM 1 point [-]

If you donate money to a cause then obviously it's an important part of your life and you believe that the donation makes it brighter and happier.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 11:28:42PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 02:59:33PM 1 point [-]

My rationality is responsible for a lot of the good things in my life. Contrary to what the seduction community seem to believe AFAICT, being rational about sex can help get you laid, and without deception or dishonesty.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 11:29:10PM 1 point [-]

Clarification: "Rational" or "honest"? (That is, truth-believing or belief-telling?)

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 March 2009 11:52:35PM *  1 point [-]

I think I'm being both, though I'm not sure if that's your question.

The writer who most closely represents the way I think about the subject is Greta Christina, who you may know of for her excellent atheism/skepticism posts.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 22 April 2011 03:16:16PM 0 points [-]

I've been part of an attempt at a virtual meetup using skype, it did seem a fair bit more involving than text chat so it might indeed be a workable path. We certainly had great fun and will do it again.

Comment author: Annoyance 27 March 2009 03:59:57PM -1 points [-]

Nonsense is generally easier to generate than sense.

Humanism, while fairly nonsensical itself, makes more sense than most world religions. Thus, any measurable 'output' of Humanism is likely to be less than that of any other religion you might choose.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2009 11:23:15PM 2 points [-]

Hence my specification "per capita".

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 28 August 2011 06:41:41AM 0 points [-]

The Catholic Church isn't quite as bright and shiny as it used to be. If it's losing ground in Ireland, this is remarkable.

Your link doesn't prove anything about what Catholic theologians believe.

I'm not sure that Catholics actually tithe, even though they're supposed to. Does anyone have information?

More generally, trying to build irrational loyalty may have non-obvious costs.

As for rational loyalty, a while ago, I went to a workshop hosted by Unitarians about the people's long term relationship with their religion. The thing that struck me was the amount of mutual aid within religions. This is something which can build stable social structures, though I grant that there's got to be felt unity to get the mutual aid started, and you may be right that meeting is essential to make that happen.