Tag Archives: Sacred

More Data On The Sacred

To learn more about the sacred, I tried a few more Twitter polls. And one interesting meta datum I learned here is that few are curious about the sacred; when I asked for suggestions for more questions to ask, I got only one suggestion. Seems most are embarrassed by the sacred, and would rather pretend it doesn’t exist.

I asked about 16 sacred areas, somewhat different from my prior poll. These didn’t include politics, liberty, work, humor, or math. Re these 16 areas, I asked which you see as most sacred, which others in the world so see, what you’d like us to revere more, which has low conflicts with other sacred things, which have taken up most of your time, and which you see most emphasized in fiction.

Here are best fit priorities for these areas (max set to 100 for each area):

There are strong correlations between Self and Others (0.74), More (0.68), Time (0.34) and Fiction (0.36). Others only correlates with Time (0.38). All other correlations are <0.21.

These results suggest to me that there still remains much complexity in the sacred to understand. For example: As my followers see their priorities as different from others, what do those others say? Why are health/medicine, governance, war/nation, and law/police rated so low, when they seem to be treated so sacredly? Why aren’t other themes besides love given more emphasis in fiction? Why doesn’t a degree of conflict with other sacred things influence how sacred something seems? And as honesty/truth is top rated for wanting more of it, why don’t we have special rituals and holidays for it, as we do for other top sacred things? A similar question can be asked re innovation/inquiry.

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Explaining Christmas

Less than 25% of the population seem to think religion is an important part of Christmas (more)

7 Common Tropes Found in Hallmark Holiday Movies: rekindled romance, bad boyfriends dropped, royalty, family secrets, small towns, aspirational jobs, magic. (more)

The most memorable and popular Christmas-themed [stories], each … offers up a different “True Meaning of Christmas”. For example: A Charlie Brown Christmas … birth of Jesus Christ … It’s a Wonderful Life … lives can touch one another … [also] A Christmas Carol … Miracle on 34th Street … power of faith/belief … Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer … tolerance … A Christmas Story … joy of a child at receiving gifts (more)

Reversing the meaning of pseudo-profound bullshit sentences did not impact people’s perception of their profundity. (more)

Christmas seems to me under-theorized. I find few attempts to summarize its main distinctive features, and even fewer attempts to explain such patterns. For some reason, this topic is seen as low status among intellectuals, even though Christmas is a prime example of ritual, religion, and the sacred, all topics in which intellectuals claim to be quite interested. So in this post I’ll take a first cut; I hope to inspire others to do more.

Let’s start with some styled facts. At Christmas, we mostly give presents, eat, and socialize, mostly with family. Much as we do at many other holidays. But in many places, Christmas is special; it is our premiere holiday, collecting the most time and effort. It has more of its own distinct styles in clothes, decorations, food, movies/stories, and songs. More so than at other holidays, people claim to want to “get into the spirt of” Christmas with others. We are more eager to defend Christmas against enemies real and imagined. Christmas has even induces pauses during wars.

Christmas songs tend to sound bittersweet, older/“timeless”, major key, and they can be more easily sung well by ordinary people. Christmas stories are simpler, more heart-warming, and cover a wide range of relatively sacred themes, including children, family, nostalgia, pro-sociality, and gratitude. Compared to other stories, Christmas stories are more allowed to explicitly endorse and embrace sacred themes. Two common story themes are the power of belief, and characters (re-?) discovering a “true meaning of Christmas”. For both songs and stories, the artist/author tends to fade more into the background.

We humans use gifts, food, and holiday gatherings to bond together, and we also bond via shared views of the sacred. So it makes sense that we’d associate holidays with sacred themes. However, as Christmas used to be associated with a quite religious theme, it seems puzzling that it has become all the more popular and meaningful over a period of great decline in religious influence. How could that happen?

Let me suggest that the key to Christmas’ success lies in a synergy between two key elements. First, children are given many gifts at Christmas, but on the apparent condition that they believe implausible claims about Santa, and get into a spirit of Christmas. Second, we often repeat key Christmas myths which say that adults often lose touch with that spirit, but that they can and should find it again.

To find a Christmas spirit, it can help to see Christmas through children’s eyes. And our task of getting in the spirit is made especially easy by generous criteria on what can count as your “true meaning” of Christmas. As explained in the TV Show Community:

“The meaning of Christmas is: the idea that Christmas has meaning, and it can mean whatever we want.” S2E11, min. 20.

Our many Christmas movies make clear that while we want all adults to get into a spirit of Christmas with us, we will accept reverence of quite a wide range of sacred things for this purpose.

That is, Christmas more celebrates the sacred in general, and less particular sacred things; Christmas is a more of a sacred salad than a particular structured dish. And if you can’t find such a Christmas spirit in yourself, we will accept your appreciating this spirt in the kids around you. Which we make easy by maxing out kids’ enthusiasm for Christmas, and thus their eagerness to try to believe in it, even in the face of contrary evidence.

This seems to me to add up to a pretty strong setup for getting everyone into the Christmas spirit. And it seems a stronger setup than for most other holidays. For example, while Halloween is competitive with Christmas in terms of kids’ enthusiasm, we don’t so much try to guilt adults into getting into a spirit of Halloween. And while we do try to guilt adults into getting into a patriotic spirit of nationalism on holidays like July 4 in the U.S., kids aren’t nearly as eager to find that spirit, and many adults don’t see national identity as especially sacred.

And that’s my simple theory of why Christmas is our premiere holiday, at least in places like the U.S. Which I offer to try to prod intellectuals into theorizing more about Christmas. It is actually an important and promising topic for inquiry. So if you don’t like my theory; what other theories you got?

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Sacred Money

In many important areas of life like medicine, law, counseling, education, journalism, charity, governance, etc. we rely on giving great discretion to prestigious professionals, who tell us we can trust them due their professional ethics, internal professional review, and deep devotion to these sacred causes. No need for incentives, transparency, outcome tracking, or legal liability, really; you can just trust them. We usually pay extra for this prestige, validated by prestigious schools.

Some of us suspect we might do better in such areas to instead give strong results-based financial incentives to for-profit organizations. But alas many see this as sacrilegious. Such sacred ends are instead to be pursued “for themselves”, not selfishly. Using money is seen as encouraging selfishness. In addition, money uses numbers when sacred things aren’t supposed to be measurable, and money highlights tradeoffs, when sacred things are said to not conflict; we can have them all.

Now many of these rules of the sacred are rules of delusion; while our priests in each area are well aware that tradeoffs exist, numbers are relevant, selfishness is rampant, and money deeply involved, the veneer of priestly devotion can hide all this from those who don’t want to see.

To try to break through this wall of denial, or at least to reveal its contours, I suggest a provocation: sacred money. Create a kind of money that can only be spent on sacred things. People and orgs could convert ordinary money into sacred money, but not vice versa, and then spend sacred money on sacred activities and outcomes. With sacred money, people and orgs could create sacred property, sacred debt, and sell shares in sacred ventures.

Importantly, if someone offered sacred money as an incentive to others to produce measurable sacred outcomes (as with social impact bonds), it would become harder to object that doing so was profane. After all, it would be harder to complain that people seeking to win sacred money were doing so for selfish reasons, as such money could only be spent on more sacred things.

There are many details to work out here, and I expect efforts here to expose many delusions and disagreements on what should count as how sacred. For example, a famous “Taboo Tradeoffs” study found that many are irate to hear of a hospital administrator who spent money on hospital maintenance and salaries instead of saving the life of a particular patient. And they were almost as irate if that administrator thought a lot about the decision before choosing instead to save the life. Is hospital maintenance and salary spending really profane? Are efforts spent on deciding what to do profane? And is money spent on salaries to produce sacred outcomes still sacred if recipients spend some of those salaries on luxuries rather than necessities?

I don’t have answers to offer here. The point of this exercise would be to force people to make such choices, so as to come up with a more coherent and less delusional way to manage the sacred. One that might allow for more sensible mechanisms and institutions. Such as paying for results.

Added: A relevant SMBC comic.

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More Or Less Sacred

Children were almost twice as likely to be willing to share their most treasured belonging after winning the game than after losing. … Only people in the first group—primed to consider the unreliability of their close friends or romantic partners—reported greater uncertainty that they could count on others and an increased attachment to objects. (more)

Many adults own a ‘favorite dress’ or a ‘lucky sweatshirt’ to which they feel emotionally attached, whether for aesthetic (‘I like how I look when I wear it’), sentimental (‘My mother gave me this necklace’), or superstitious purposes (‘If I wear this on gameday, my football team will win’). … For example, an older woman who possesses an art project her child made in elementary school may find that, over time, her attachment to the art project increases the more that she uses it as a cue to reminisce about her time as a young mother. (more)

We like to see sacred things as pure, lasting, clearly distinguished from profane things, and not in conflict with each other. Thus in our view things aren’t more or less sacred, there is just the mutually-supporting package of sacred things clearly distinguished from everything else, and such sacred things were always this way. We did not choose or make the sacred.

But in fact, we do choose and cause some things to be sacred, things are sacred to varying degrees, and these degrees often change gradually over time as a direct result of our choices. And I think the clearest way to see all this, and to see in detail how the sacred works, is to look at the slow personal processes by which get deeply attached to ordinary people, places, events, and things. (Children and the elderly both do this more, just as tend they both tend to be more religious.) Looking at some concrete examples, I can see how this works in me, and I think if you try you will be able to see it it you as well.

For example, when shopping for shirts, we are quite willing to consider many details and tradeoffs. But then once we buy a shirt and wear it for many years, we become much less willing to sell or trade it for other shirts. And we come to like it less for its particular features, or for particular aspects of how it fits or looks. Its details matter less; it matters more as a symbol.

Our shirt has become identified with us, and we have become identified with it. By embracing this shirt, we bond with all the other people we have been in the past, and all the people will be in the future, at least all wearing this shirt. The identify-affirming property of our shirt feels especially important to us when our identity is threatened; for example, you seem especially likely to wear your favorite shirt after a romantic breakup.

In this state, we seem quite eager to embrace implausible claims about how our favorite shirt expresses or embodies high ideals. We might see it as using our favorite color, see the words on it as the motto of our life, or see its design as the perfect quintessence of shirt design. We often similarly idealize our favorite amusement park, restaurant, person, TV show, or holiday; we are eager to find ways to see them as embodying widely accepted high ideals. And we are reluctant to see any of our favorite things as in conflict with each other; why of course I could wear my favorite shirt to my favorite restaurant on my favorite holiday.

In fact, the things we chose will vary in how easily they are in fact idealized. For example, compared to history or the arts, we find it harder to idealize sports, due to the higher salience in sports of selfishness, competition, bragging, numbers, and money. Science is easier to idealize than sports, but still harder than the arts, due to its emphasis on numbers, objective evaluation criteria, and skepticism regarding mysticism.

As another example, I grew up going to Disneyland annually, so I often long to return there regularly, and I find myself eager to frame the place as achieving high ideals, even though many other academics hate it. While no particular view or activity there seems especially appealing to me in my imagination, the abstract idea of going back to be a kid again in the place I loved as a kid seems quite appealing. That abstract appeal doesn’t depend much on when I go there, or what I do there, and I feel a bit ashamed to wonder if the price is too high to make it a good deal.

Our homes and families may not seem especially idealized when we see them up close during a holiday meal. After a few hours, we may even look to escape them. But months or years beforehand, and when far away, it seems very important to join them for that meal. There is little that inspires troops to fight for their country more than seeing themselves as defending their sacred homes and families, see abstractly from afar. And medicine inherits much of its sacred appeal from the way it is said to have helped some preserve their sacred families against the threat of death.

All of this helps us to see how the sacred works. Whatever we get attached to, we come to value. And then we naturally look for ways to idealize those things and value them more by seeing them more abstractly, as if seeing them from a distance. This distance method helps us to see and value such things the same across our lives, as our perspectives change. And it helps us to see and value such things the same across diverse communities.

While we have rules regarding appropriate beliefs and attitudes toward sacred things, we actually accept compromises quite often there. Yes we try to treat things as more sacred, but in fact that’s just one of our many relevant considerations. I think this is the answer to most questions of the form “how to we actually manage to enforce all these sacred rules?”. Such as: how do priests of sacred things avoid getting profane views from seeing sacred things up close so much? They just do, and we put up with it.

Even so, we are sometimes willing to “go to war” to express outrage when others treat sacred things in less than perfectly sacred ways. I suspect there’s a lot of opportunism in such choices.

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Sacred Pains

We see sacred things from afar, even when they are close, so we can see them the same. I’ve previously described the main cost of this as impaired vision. That is, we don’t see sacred things as well, and so make mistakes about them. But another perhaps equally big cost of this is: sacrifice. We feel inclined to sacrifice for the sacred, and to encourage or even force others to sacrifice for it, even when that doesn’t much promote this sacred thing. And sacrifice often involves: pain.

For example, someone recently used “torturing babies” to me as the one thing we can all agree is most wrong. But we actually continue to needlessly torture babies via circumcision. We once did it as a sacrifice for religion, and more recently as a sacrifice for medicine. If we are told that doctors say circumcision is healthy, that’s a sufficient reason to torture babies.

We treat love as sacred, and we often test our lovers and potential lovers, to see how strong is their love. And these tests quite often hurt, a lot. We’d feel more guilty to hurt them in the name of a less noble cause. But love, that cause is so grand as to justify most any pain. Romeo and Juliet suffer stupendously in the Shakespeare tale, and we treat them as having made the right choice, even given their terrible end.

We start wars and we continue them, when we have other options, in the name of sacred causes. Wars result in terrible pain and suffering, which we celebrate as sacrifices for our causes.

As democracy is sacred to us, so are our political fights to influence democracy. And thus so are the sloppy biased arguments we embrace, the mud we throw, the insults we fling, the relations we break off, and the lives we cancel, all in the name of our sacred political fights.

As nature is sacred, we are eager to sacrifice for it. So we are suspicious of solving global warming via nuclear energy or hydroelectricity, as those don’t seem to call for sufficient sacrifice. We’d really rather crush the economy, that will show how much we care about nature.

We feel so elevated to be treating something as sacred. And thus are eager to cause sacrifice in its name. Which often doesn’t seem such an elevated an outcome to me.

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Why We Don’t Know What We Want

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
And you leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love
Really don’t know love at all

Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell 1966.

If you look at two things up close, it is usually pretty easy to tell which one is closest. And also to tell their relative sizes, e.g., which one might fit inside the other. But if you look far in the distance, such as toward the sky or the horizon, it gets much harder to tell relative sizes or distances. While you might notice that one thing occludes another, when considering unknown things in different directions it is harder to tell relative sizes or distances.

I see similar effects also for things that are more “distant” in other ways, such as in time, social distance, or hypothetically; it also seems harder to judge relative distance when things are further away in these ways. Furthermore, it seems harder to tell of two abstract descriptions which is more abstract, but easier to tell which of two detailed things which has more detail. Thus in the sense of near-far (or construal-level) theory, it seems that we generally find it harder to compare relative distances when things are further away.

According to near-far theory, we also frame our more stable, general, and fundamental goals as more far and abstract, compared to the more near local considerations that constrain our plans. Thus this theory seems to predict that we will have more trouble comparing the relative value of our more abstract values. That is, when comparing two general persistent values, we will find it hard to say which one we value more. Thus near-far theory predicts a big puzzling human feature: we know surprisingly little about what we want. For example, we find it very hard to imaging concrete, coherent, and attractive utopias.

When we see an object from up close, and then we later see it from afar, we often remember its details from when we saw it up close. So similarly, we might learn to compare our general values by remembering examples of concrete decisions where such values were in conflict. And we do often have concrete situations where we are aware that our general values apply to those concrete cases. Such as when we are very hungry, horny, injured, or socially embarrassed. Why don’t we learn our values from those?

Here I will invoke my theory of the sacred: for some key values and things, we set our minds to try to always see them in a rather far mode, no matter how close we are to them. This enables different people in a community to bond together by seeing those sacred things in the same way, even when some of them are much closer to them than others. And this also enables a single person to better maintain a unified identity and commitments over time, even when that person sees concrete examples from different distances at different times in their life. (I thank Arnold Brooks for pointing this out in an upcoming MAM podcast.)

For example, most of us have felt strong feelings of lust, limerence, and attachment to other people at many times during our lives. So we should have plenty of data on which to base rough estimates of what exactly is “love”, and how much we value it compared to other things. But our treating love as sacred makes it harder to use that data to construct such a detailed and unified account. Even when we think about concrete examples up close, it seems hard to use those to update our general views on “love”. We still “really don’t know love at all.”

Because we really can’t see love up close and in detail. Because we treat love as sacred. And sacred things we see from afar, so we can see them together.

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Fossil Future

My main intellectual strategy is to explore important neglected topics where I can find an original angle to pursue. As a result, I tend to lose interest in topics as they get more attention. Which is why I’ve avoided climate change. Yes, it is plausibly important, but I’ve always seen it get plenty of attention, and I haven’t yet found an original angle on it. So I’ve let it lie.

But on the recommendation of my colleague Bryan Caplan, I’ve just read Alex Epstein’s contrarian new book Fossil Future. And my overall review is that, on the big issues, he’s basically right: CO2 induced planetary warming is going slowly, doesn’t remotely threaten extinction, and its harms will be more than offset by gains from our growing fossil-energy-powered wealth. It would be crazy to actually try to end fossil fuel use by 2050, as many are now “committing” to do; fossil fuels will likely remain our most cost-effective way to do many useful things long after that.

Most fundamentally, Epstein diagnoses the key problem well: the main emotional energy behind climate activism is the desire to stop humans from having any substantial impact on nature. In my terminology, they see nature as sacred, and thus as eternal, pure, not in conflict with other sacred things, and to be sharply distinguished from, not mixed with, and not at any price sacrificed for, profane things. We are not to calculate such choices, but to intuit them, aesthetically.

Epstein is right that our elite academic and media systems focus on a few celebrated and oft-quoted climate expert/activists, who are not that representative of the larger world of experts. And these activists are opposed to nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and hydroelectricity, all of which avoid CO2 warming. They even sympathize with those who oppose new solar and wind energy projects, and any land developments, that have substantial impacts on nature. It seems that, thought they may deny it in public, what they really want is a smaller human world, with fewer people using less materials and energy.

My main complaint (echoing Caplan) is that Epstein avoids and sometimes seems to reject econ-style marginal thinking. For example, he doesn’t really distinguish the marginal value of more fossil energy from that of more other kinds of modern inputs and capital. And he doesn’t seem to want to admit that CO2 emissions might have mild negative externalities which could justify mild taxes. But given how big these intellectual errors are, I’m impressed that Epstein seems so consistently right on most everything else. I guess that’s because activists on the other side also tend to be little influenced by marginal thinking.

Epstein acts as if the only force strong enough to resist pressures from seeing nature as sacred is seeing something else as even more sacred. And for that Epstein picks: human flourishing. He treats that as so sacred that not even mild taxes on fossil fuels can be tolerated. As an economist I’m sad to think we can’t make a more reasonable choice in the middle, where everything we value gets traded off via conscious calculation mediated by mundane prices. But, alas, I don’t know that Epstein is wrong on this key sacredness point.

Added 8a: I think we see this Nature-as-sacred emotional energy in those eager to dismiss concerns about falling fertility leading to a smaller human population.

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Beware Mob War Strategy

The game theory is clear: it can be in your interest to make threats that it would not be in your interest to carry out. So you can gain from committing to carrying out such threats. But only if you do it right. Your commitment plan must be simple and clear enough for your audience to see when it applies to them, how it is their interest to go along with it, and that people who look like you to them have in fact been consistently following such a plan.

So, for example, it probably won’t work to just lash out at whomever happens to be near you whenever the universe disappoints you somehow. The universe may reorganize to avoid your lashings, but probably not by catering to your every whim. More likely, others will avoid you, or crush you. That’s a bad commitment plan.

Here’s a good commitment plan. A well-run legal system can usefully deter crime via committing to consistently punish law violations. Such a system clearly defines violations, and shows potential violators an enforcement system wherein a substantial fraction of violations will be detected, prosecuted, and punished. Those under the jurisdiction of this law can see this fact, and understand which acts lead to which punishments. Such acts can thus be deterred.

Here’s another pretty good commitment plan. The main nations with nuclear weapons seem to have created a mutual expectation of “mutually assured destruction.” Each nation is committed to responding to a nuclear attack with a devastating symmetric attack. So devastating as to deter attack even if there is a substantial chance that such a response wouldn’t happen. This commitment plan is simple, easy to understand, clearly communicated, and quite focused on particular scenarios. So far, it seems to have worked.

Humans are often willing to suffer large costs to punish those who violate their moral rules. In fact, we probably evolved such moral indignation in part as a way to commit to punishing violations of our local moral norms. In small bands, with norms that were stable across many generations, members could plausibly achieve sufficient clarity and certainty about norm enforcement to deter violations via such threats. So such commitments might have had good plans in that context.

But this does not imply that things would typically go well for us if we freely indulged our moral indignation inclinations in our complex modern world. For example, imagine that we encouraged, instead of discouraged, mob justice. That is, if we encouraged people to gossip to convince their friends to share their moral outrange, building off of each until they chased down and “lynched” any who offended them.

This sort of mob justice can go badly for a great many reasons. We don’t actually share norms as closely as we think, mob members are often more eager to show loyalty to each other than to verify accusation accuracy, and some are willing to make misleading accusations to take down rivals. More fundamentally, we might say that mob justice goes bad because it is not based on a good commitment plan. Observers just can’t predict mob justice outcomes well enough for it to usefully encourage good behavior, at least compared to a formal legal system.

Now consider the subject of making peace deals to end wars. Such as the current war between Russia and Ukraine. An awful lot of people, probably a majority, of the Ukrainian supporters I’ve heard from seem to be morally offended by the idea of such a peace deal in this case. Even though the usual game theory analyses of war say that there are usually peace deals that both sides would prefer at the time to continued war. (Such deals could focus on immediately verifiable terms; they needn’t focus on unverifiable promises of future actions. In April 2022 Russia and Ukraine apparently had a tentative deal, scuttled due to pressure from Ukrainian allies.)

Many of these peace deal opponents are willing to justify this stance in consequentialist terms: they say that we should commit to not making such deals. Which, as they are eager to point out, is a logically coherent stance due to the usual game theory analysis. We should thus “hold firm”, “teach them a lesson”, “don’t let them get away with it”, etc. All justified by game theory, they say.

The problem is, I haven’t seen anyone outline anything close to a good commitment plan here. Nothing remotely as clear and simple as we have with criminal law, or with mutually assured destruction. They don’t clearly specify the set of situations where the commitment is to apply, the ways observers are to tell when they are in such situations, the behavior that has been committed to there, or the dataset of international events that shows that people that look like us have in fact consistently behaved in this way. Peace deal opponents (sometimes called “war mongers”) instead mainly just seem to point to their mob-inflamed feelings of moral outrage.

For example, some talk as if we should just ignore the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons in this war, as if we have somehow committed to doing that in order to prevent anyone from using nuclear weapons as a negotiating leverage. The claim that nations have been acting according to such a commitment doesn’t seem to me at all a good summary of the history of nuclear powers. And if the claim is that we should start now to create such a commitment by just acting as if it had always existed, that seems even crazier.

If we have not actually found and clearly implemented a good commitment plan, then it seems to me that we should proceed as if we have not made such a commitment. So we must act in accord with the usual game theory analysis. Which says to compromise and make peace if possible. Especially as a way to reduce the risk of a large nuclear war.

The possibility of a global nuclear war seems a very big deal. Yes, war seems sacred and that inclines us toward relying on our intuitions instead of conscious calculations. It inclines us toward mob war strategy. But this issue seems plenty important enough to justify our resisting that inclination. Yes, a careful analysis may well identify some good commitment plans, after which we could think about how to move toward making commitments according to those plans.

But following the vague war strategy inclinations of our mob-inflamed moral outrage seems a poor substitute for such a good plan. If we have not yet actually found and implemented a good plan, we should deal with a world where we have not made useful commitments. And so make peace, to avoid risking the destructions of war.

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Beware Profane Priests

We humans evolved a way to take some of the things that are important to us, and bind our groups together by seeing those things as “sacred”. That is, by seeing them in the same way, via always seeing them from a distance. Such things are seen more abstractly and intuitively, with less conscious calculation, and less attending to details. Sacred things are idealized, and not to be mixed with or traded off against other things. Sacred thinking can be less competent, but induces more effort, and can keep us from being overwhelmed by strong passions.

Let us call the experts associated with a sacred area “priests”. The possibility of priests raises two issues for the sacred. First, if ordinary people saw a sacred area as one where they could personally gain expertise, and where they need to think to judge the relative expertise of others, this would seem to induce conscious calculation about the details of this sacred topic, which is a no-no. Second, those who are most expert would think a lot about the topic, and often see it up close, which would make it harder for them to see it a sacred.

Humans seem to solve the first issue by treating all sacred topics as being at one of two extremes. At one extreme, e.g., medicine, there are highly expert sacred priests, which they rest of us are not to second guess nor evaluate. At the other extreme, e.g., politics or friendship, expertise via thinking is seen as not possible, making everyone’s opinions nearly as good as anyone’s opinions. In neither case does thinking help ordinary people much, either to form opinions or to choose experts.

On the second issue, experts who only rarely directly confront the most sacred versions of their subject up close, like soldiers, police, or doctors, can drill and practice in a far mode, so that they can perform well intuitively and without much thought in the rare big stakes cases. But what about the other priests, who confront their sacred subjects more often?

When we think about this question in a sacred mode, intuitively and using a few abstract associations, our minds usually conclude that as the sacred is good and ideal, contact with it makes people more good and ideal. Thus we can trust priests to act in our collective interest. But the norm that the rest of us are not to judge such experts, and are to defer strongly to their judgement, gives them a lot of collective discretion. And it seems to me that near mode engagement with the topic means we can’t count much on their reverence for it to restrain them from from using their discretion for selfish advantage.

Thus in fact priests will often act profanely, a fact that the rest of us are often unwilling to see. Beware profane priests.

Added 26Sep: Someone suggested we trust experts on the sacred due to their sacrificing more to take such jobs, I did 16 Twitter polls on 16 kinds of jobs. Here are median estimates of “% of value which workers of that type sacrifice on average to do their job”:

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Sacred Inquiry

The reason I first started to study the sacred was that “sacred cows” kept getting in my way; our treating things as sacred often blocks sensible reforms. But now that I have a plausible theory of how and why we treat some things as sacred, I have to admit: I too treat some things as sacred. Maybe I should learn to stop that, but it seems hard. So perhaps we should accept the sacred as a permanent feature of human thought, and instead try to change what we see as how sacred or how exactly we do that.

So it seems worth my trying to describe in more detail how I see something as sacred, not just habitually but even after I notice this fact. In this post, that thing will be: intellectual inquiry. In this post I’ll mostly try to describe how I revere this, and not so much ask whether I should.

All the thinking and talking that happens in the world helps us to do many things, and to figure out many things. And while some of those things are pretty concrete and content-dependent, others are less so, helping us to learn more general stuff whose usefulness plausibly extends further into the future. And this I call “intellectual progress”.

In general, all of the thinking and talking that we do contributes to this progress, even though it is done for a wide variety of motives, and via many different forms of social organization. I should welcome and celebrate it all. And while abstractly, I do, I notice that, emotionally, I don’t.

It seems that I instead deeply want to distinguish and revere a particular more sacred sort of thinking and talking from the rest. And instead of assuming that my favored type is just very rare, hardly of interest to anyone but me, I instead presume that a great many of us are trying to produce my favored type, even if most fail at it. Which can let me presume that most must know how to do better, and thus justify my indignant stance toward those who fail to meet my standards.

This sort of thinking and talking that I revere is that which actually achieves substantial and valuable progress in abstract understanding, and is done in a way to effectively and primarily achieve this goal. Thus I see as “profane” work that appears to be greatly influenced by other purposes, such as showing off one’s impressiveness, or assuring associates of loyalty.

That is, I have a sacred purity norm, where I don’t like my pure sacred stuff mixed up with other stuff. Good stuff not only has to achieve good outcomes, it also has to be done the right way for the right reasons. I tend to simplify this category and its boundary, and presume that it can be distinguished clearly. I feel bound to others who share my norms, even if I can’t actually name any of them. I don’t calculate most of this; it instead comes intuitively, and seems aesthetically elegant. And I can’t recall ever choosing all this; it feels like I was always this way.

Now on reflection this has a lot of specific implications re what I find more sacred or profane, as I have a lot of beliefs about which intellectual topics are more valuable, and what are more effective methods. And I’ll get to those soon here.

But first let me note that while many intellectuals also see their professional realm as sacred, and have many similar sacred norms about how their work should be done, most of them don’t apply such norms nearly as strongly to their personal lives. In contrast, I extend this to all my thinking and talking. That is, while I’m okay with engaging in many kinds of thinking and talking, I want to sharply distinguish some sacred versions, where all these sacred norms apply, and try to actually use them often in my personal life.

Okay, I can think of a lot of specific implications this has for what I respect and criticize. The following is a somewhat random list of what occurs to me at the moment.

For example, I take academic papers to be implicitly claiming to promote intellectual progress. This implies that they should try to be widely available for others to critique and build on. So I dislike papers that are less available, or that use needlessly difficult languages or styles. Or that aren’t as forthcoming or concise as they could re what theses they argue, to allow readers to judge interest on that basis. I dislike intentional use of vague terms when clearer terms were available, and switching between word meanings to elude criticism.

I feel that a paper which cites another is claiming that it got some particular key input from that other paper, and a paper that cites nothing is claiming to have not needed such inputs. So I disapprove of papers that fail to cite key inputs, or that substitute a more prestigious source for the less prestigious source from which they actually got their input.

I see a paper on a topic as implicitly claiming that the topic is some rough approximation to the best topic they could have chosen, and a paper using a method that some rough approximation to the best method. So it bothers me when it seems obvious the topic isn’t so good, or when the method seems poorly chosen. I’m also bothered when the length of some writing seems poorly matched to the thesis presented. For example, if a thesis could have been adequately argued in a paper, then I’m bothered if its in a book with lots of tangential stuff added on to fill out the space.

I find it profane when authors seem to be pushing an agenda via selective choice of arguments, evidence, or terminology. They should acknowledge weak points and rebuttals of which they are aware without making readers or critics find them. I dislike when authors form mutual admiration societies designed to praise each other regardless of the quality of particular items. That is, I find the embrace of bias profane. Which maybe shouldn’t be too surprising given my blog name.

Now I have to admit that it isn’t clear how effective are these stances toward promoting this sacred goal of mine. While they might happen to help, it seems more plausible that they result more from a habit of treating this area as sacred, rather than from some careful calculation of their effects on intellectual progress. So it remains for me to reconsider my sacred stances in light of this criticism.

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