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Qiaochu_Yuan comments on Rationalist Lent - Less Wrong Discussion

43 Post author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 06:32AM

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Comment author: [deleted] 14 February 2013 10:45:00PM *  13 points [-]

I am not interested in adopting steel-manned Christianity one tradition at a time, though it does provide many convenient rationalist Schelling points. If I need rationalist communion, confession, abstinence, washing of feet, blessing of throats, or Paschal celebration, I will take them up as they appear useful, and not because the church calender makes them salient. That might sound like reverse stupidity. It is. I am intentionally suppressing hypotheses which have been brought to my attention for the wrong reasons.

The line about Lent being scientific is cute, but really Lent is, to observing Christians, a time to practice penance, cleansing, and devotion. Which means that Lent and analogous ceremonies in other religions (Ramadan, Yom Kippur) provide data on the folk psychology of obedience and cleanliness! Let's explore.

The primary evolutionary purpose of disgust is in response to foods and scents which should be avoided because they could cause microbial contamination of one's body. Disgust drives us to avoid elicitors of disgust, such as dirt, wounds, corpses, bodily fluids and discharges (blood, feces, vomit, semen, puss, urine), unprepared foods, certain animals associated with those things (cockroaches, rats, flies, lice).

Not only does disgust cause us to avoid certain stimuli, we also often reject e.g. foods based on their past exposure to disgusting things, even when the offending odors, tastes, and sights have been neutralized. This is quite useful, because microbes are not visible to the unaided human eye and contagion is a real thing. It's also a potential source of cognitive bias. Some children don't want to eat food that they have seen touched by non friends or kin, even though cooking subsequently sterilizes it. I think a bayesian statistician might call that a spurious association that fails to consider the effect of cooking to screen off known sources of contamination. Presumably this applies to the other domains where disgust applies, which I'll address shortly.

Many religions thus have rules about which interactions between objects make them unclean, and what rituals of cleansing can restore cleanliness. Leviticus 11 is a beautiful source of zany contagion laws. Touch a carcass, and you're unclean, but only until the evening. Pick up a carcass, and you'll also have to wash your clothes. If a crawling or flying bug falls into a ceramic pot, break the pot, it can't be cleaned. Bugs with jointed legs are cool though. Feel free to eat crickets and locusts. Seeds to be planted can touch dead bugs, but water that you pour on planted seeds can't. Et cetera. And we've all heard the anecdote about doctors refusing Semmelweis's insistence to wash their hands before medical procedures, because a gentleman's hands are never unclean.

More generally, humans have rituals of purification that apply to both disease and sin: baptism with holy water, anointing (abhisheka to Jains and Hindus) with milk, butter, yogurt, honey, and oils. Interestingly, I don't know of any cultures that cleanse with alcohol, which is an actual disinfectant, unlike yogurt, which spoils easily. In addition to washing and smearing, humans use smoke and incense to cover odors (not an effective epidemiological intervention).

Next, Lent is strongly associated with atonement for sins through sacrifice. The more you suffer, the better you're doing. Christians promote a self-critial mindset, recall their past selfishness, injustices, defiance, and obscenities. They sit in little rooms with old men and confess their shame.They inhibit their impulses and addictions, which are basal, animal, and akratic. They practice celibacy, they fast, and they impose dietary restrictions, on i.e. meats, caffeine, candy, or baked goods.Sexual abstinence is performed both because sex is pleasurable, and because it is associated with perversion and depravity (spousal abuse, exploitation, rape, incest, masturbation, zoophilia, cuckoldry). Catholics temporarily redefine fish to not be a meat, which apparently fools God.

There is much concern for conformity to orthodox rituals, and for which behaviors are permissible or taboo. They devote their time to prayer, and focus on their reverence, obedience, and faith in the authority of their deity and its church.

Most of that came from a lecture by Pinker on taboo language and an article by Haidt on his theory of moral intuitionism. There are some other concepts which I associate with Lent that I'll list now, followed by lists of associated adjectives, on the hypothesis that important psychological traits have strong lexical coverage. "They" will refer generally to religious people observing periods of sacrifice, self-critical reflection, or obedience.

  • They have high standards:
    diligent, meticulous, exacting, perfecting, thorough, high standards

  • The standards center around impulse control:
    self control, discipline, restraint, mildness, moderation, conservation,

  • And denial of sensual comforts:
    sober, ascetic, abstaining, austere, sacrificing, refraining, modesty, chastity,

  • And fear of supernatural authority:
    deference, reverence, veneration, obedience, meekness, piety, humility,

  • They want to meet the standards:
    drive, purpose, focus, intent, aim, motivation, determination, commitment, conviction, resolution, vigilance

  • Failure to meet their standards will be met with bad consequences, and is no casual, laughing matter:
    solemn, stoic, grave, somber, serious, mature

  • They have respect for the virtue of attempting and or succeeding to meet their standards:
    strength, resilience, tenacity, endurance, perseverance, constancy, persistence,

  • They endure their sacrifices willingly:
    patient, calm, composed, abiding, constancy

And a few stray thoughts that don't have lexical coverage: Along with fasting and impulse control comes a desire to consume few resources and to not burden others, self reliance. Also a general disdain for personal wealth and material possession. Rather than promoting open-mindedness, flexibility to change, and experimentation, Lent enforces conformity to established traditions (which might be the rational choice if personal experimentation does not produce fruits commensurately with invested effort).

If you actually want to adopt a Lent-based rational tradition, consider some of those points.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 15 February 2013 12:25:12AM *  7 points [-]

If I need rationalist communion, confession, abstinence, washing of feet, blessing of throats, or Paschal celebration, I will take them up as they appear useful, and not because the church calender makes them salient. That might sound like reverse stupidity. It is. I am intentionally suppressing hypotheses which have been brought to my attention for the wrong reasons.

This seems mildly uncharitable. It's not obvious that traditions that have lasted for a long time are hypotheses that have been brought to your attention for the wrong reasons. At least some of them are probably worth Chesterton's-fencing, although the rest of your comment does that to some extent and is quite informative; thanks!

Comment author: [deleted] 21 February 2013 10:33:28AM *  1 point [-]

That made sense. This isn't really a reply. I was just reading from Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary and they describe a bunch of Babylonian magical rituals, and it was neat, but I don't know anyone other than you who might find it interesting. So here we go.

Patients wore amulets inscribed with incantations. So humans thought that putting words onto objects gave them powers. When we look look at words the meaning is very rapidly and involuntarily available to us, so it kind of makes sense that they'd associate "safe child delivery" with an amulet that said "safe child delivery", but that's still kind of crazy. I wonder if that kind of causal attribution to inscriptions is implicitly going on when people get tattoos that say "strength" or other virtues in the modern era.

Incantations: The Babylonians had troves of memorized spells and narratives with various powers, some taken from other cultures like the Akkadians and Sumerians. The cool part is, the incantations were eventually classified by the Babylonians according to which demons they addressed. They had a demonic nosology! So of course people in ancient times could classify different diseases according to clusters of symptoms, just like now. It's just when they got done making their diagnosis, the name they gave to the disease belonged to an ethereal soul of darkness who needed to be scared away. I totally forgot to write about exorcisms in my last comment on the folk psychology of cleanliness.

Anyway, the first incantation a Babylonian magician would incant was usually a shout-out to their favorite god, in order to identify the magician as an agent of the Light so the demon wouldn't attack the magician while the magician was dispelling whatever misfortune or ailment they had been contracted to deal with. Not surgical masks, not latex gloves. Just name-drop your city's patron deity and everything should be fine. Which is to say, humans gain unjustified courage against disease and risk from just thinking about their imagined protectors. Like the tattoo hypothesis, this is testable. Do people make less severe judgment about existential risk after donating to MIRI?

Luck: Primitive people thought bad luck was a disease, just like polio or hay fever, and the Babylonians had methods intended to deal with it. Surpu was a catch all ritual for anyone who's life sucked more than usual. Sleeplessness, constant worrying, convulsing, and foaming at the mouth, Surpu could handle them all. First you call out all of yours sins, hoping that the related offense will be among them. Interestingly, you call out your oaths, even if you didn't break them, because even oaths you intend to honor are powerful devices of cosmic magic that can awaken the forces of chaos. Humans really overestimate the power of language it seems, which is probably half the reason that contractualism and honoring one's word actually influence peoples' behavior, rather than any explicitly reasoned game theoretic considerations.

So, you call out your sins and oaths, and then you throw things into a fire. Maybe you have a branch that you can strip into pieces or a reed mat you can unravel. Toss that in, all the while the magician is saying his incantations which are counter sins. So not only do humans want to make up for the bad things we do, but we want to make up for them individually with sin-appropriate penances. Then the fire is extinguished and the sins have gone away. Which kind of poetic, but also a little sad when you think about some Babylonian woman with seizures whose husband just paid to see someone make a fire and burn some goat wool.

Another ritual, namburbu, was intended for protection against future evils. This ritual is much more elaborate. First separate the patient from the outside world in a hut or a magic circle. Just making a line on the ground makes people think that the space enclosed has different properties. Categorization has consequences. Then use some flowers or incense for a nice scent, sweep the floors, and maybe they kill a goat. Whatever it takes to make the ritual space clean. I don't know why animal sacrifice makes things clean, since people avoid animal corpses. Maybe something about life being sacred and taking a life is...I don't know. That's a different chapter of the book I haven't gotten to. Next there's some music with drums or bells. I don't know anything about the folk psychology of music, unfortunately. I really should though, since music is so rich a source of aesthetic experience: understanding its origins and cognitive processing covers a non trivial portion of human preference, which is a non trivial portion of human morality, which is non trivial. Then the magician makes offerings to a river god. Not only do people bathe in rivers, but rivers carry away human feces. If I were making cleansing rituals in ancient times, I would definitely include some rivers, and not just pools of water for bathing. That's a lovely association to use. Carrying away sin, not just dissolving it. Then the magician makes reference to the thing that gets protection, putting their hands on a patient's body, on the walls of a house, or on a effigy if the thing being blessed isn't accessible. Speaking of effigy, the Babylonians also burned statues of sorcerers and sorceress. Combine that with anecdotes I've heard about tribal cultures being scared of cameras, with Judaism having a commandment against the worship of idols, with Islam not even allowing depictions of Muhammad, with voodoo dolls, and with some Anabaptists I know who won't play with a standard deck of playing cards or watch television because of the images of people (however, they play of mean game of Uno), and I think it's also fair to say people grossly overestimate the power of displayed faces. That's super duper weird.