Lately I’ve been implicitly writing about how religion isn’t some quirk of human cognition but the result of humans unwittingly designing something that appeals to our brain architecture. Much like how blockbuster movies, apple pie, roller-coaster rides, or even crack-cocaine are human designed. Furthermore, I’ve been writing about how religion isn’t some unique evil set loose upon the world that we must work to destroy, but rather something that we should try to harness and use as a well thought-out instrument towards our betterment.
Indeed, there’s nothing we can do to change the laws of physics, but we manipulate those laws to give us heavier than air flight, the Internet, GPS satellites that account for Einsteinian relativity, and GMO food to feed many more people than natural food. Human cognition should be “exploited” in the same manner to make life better. People already exploit human cognition for their own personal gain. We should use it instead to improve the world.
But why is it so easy to see religion as a unique evil? Memes.
Memes, just like genes, can reproduce. And in that paradigm, successful reproduction depends on not only adapting to the environment the meme/gene finds itself in, but a gene/meme that fully exploits its environment to reproduce will outcompete other memes/genes. Moreover, genes/memes can manipulate their hosts to change the environment to better fulfill that selfish gene/meme’s ability to reproduce. This happens in nature with parasites, where they change the behavior of their host to make the parasite more likely to reproduce successfully. Sometimes, to the detriment of the host.
Memes do this too.
Imagine you have an idea, much like the thesis of this post. That we should use the way we know how human cognition works in order to make the world better. A more fleshed out version of this would be filled with complexities and nuance; one that at least attempts to make sure that things don’t go awry. I mean, let’s face it: “exploiting human cognition” is ominous enough. But a successful meme is going to be successful due to the environment it finds itself in. The free market of ideas doesn’t select for truth, but for reproductive fitness.
I’ll say this again: In the free market of ideas, memes couldn’t care less about accurately modeling the world. Memes get set in the population by how virulent they are. Think viral videos. Just because a video goes viral doesn’t mean it’s true. A viral video has been “naturally selected” to propagate through memespace due to its success in a particular time period and environment. The same principle is in effect for any and all other memes or ideas that you are presented with and eventually become part of your identity. Human beings are especially susceptible to this due to our natural tendency for groupthink. Do you think you can find out what’s true just by sitting around and thinking really hard? Think again. The tools you’ll be unwittingly using will be the ones to make friends; those tools working in the service of whatever large-scale memes are part of your identity. This is generally called “bias”. You are biased, and so just like aircraft engineers account for the laws of physics and aerodynamics to build planes, you should account for human bias when attempting to navigate memespace.
So what, specifically, is the logical outcome of meme fitness? Memes that are optimized for virulence — memes, again, are not intentionally designed by humans per se — are most likely the memes that you identify with. And in the rat race of ideaspace, the optimization will take priority over any and all other goals. Indeed, it might even come to pass that you sacrifice a terminal goal for more optimization. Scott at Slate Star Codex calls this sacrificial behavior Moloch:
A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse… Any human with above room temperature IQ can design a utopia. The reason our current system isn’t a utopia is that it wasn’t designed by humans.
But these institutions not only incentivize others, but are incentivized themselves. These are large organizations made of lots of people who are competing for jobs, status, prestige, et cetera – there’s no reason they should be immune to the same multipolar traps as everyone else, and indeed they aren’t. Governments can in theory keep corporations, citizens, et cetera out of certain traps, but as we saw above there are many traps that governments themselves can fall into.
The United States tries to solve the problem by having multiple levels of government, unbreakable constitutional laws, checks and balances between different branches, and a couple of other hacks.
Saudi Arabia uses a different tactic. They just put one guy in charge of everything.
This is the much-maligned – I think unfairly – argument in favor of monarchy. A monarch is an unincentivized incentivizer. He actually has the god’s-eye-view and is outside of and above every system. He has permanently won all competitions and is not competing for anything, and therefore he is perfectly free of Moloch and of the incentives that would otherwise channel his incentives into predetermined paths. Aside from a few very theoretical proposals like my Shining Garden, monarchy is the only system that does this.
But then instead of following a random incentive structure, we’re following the whim of one guy. Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino is a crazy waste of resources, but the actual Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus wasn’t exactly the perfect benevolent rational central planner either.
The libertarian-authoritarian axis on the Political Compass is a tradeoff between discoordination and tyranny. You can have everything perfectly coordinated by someone with a god’s-eye-view – but then you risk Stalin. And you can be totally free of all central authority – but then you’re stuck in every stupid multipolar trap Moloch can devise.
The libertarians make a convincing argument for the one side, and the neoreactionaries for the other, but I expect that like most tradeoffs we just have to hold our noses and admit it’s a really hard problem.
Democracy is less obviously vulnerable, but it might be worth going back to Bostrom’s paragraph about the Quiverfull movement. These are some really religious Christians who think that God wants them to have as many kids as possible, and who can end up with families of ten or more. Their articles explicitly calculate that if they start at two percent of the population, but have on average eight children per generation when everyone else on average only has two, within three generations they’ll make up half the population.
It’s a clever strategy, but I can think of one thing that will save us: judging by how many ex-Quiverfull blogs I found when searching for those statistics, their retention rates even within a single generation are pretty grim. Their article admits that 80% of very religious children leave the church as adults (although of course they expect their own movement to do better). And this is not a symmetrical process – 80% of children who grow up in atheist families aren’t becoming Quiverfull.
It looks a lot like even though they are outbreeding us, we are outmeme-ing them, and that gives us a decisive advantage.
But we should also be kind of scared of this process. Memes optimize for making people want to accept them and pass them on – so like capitalism and democracy, they’re optimizing for a proxy of making us happy, but that proxy can easily get uncoupled from the original goal.
Chain letters, urban legends, propaganda, and viral marketing are all examples of memes that don’t satisfy our explicit values (true and useful) but are sufficiently memetically virulent that they spread anyway.
I hope it’s not too controversial here to say the same thing is true of religion. Religions, at their heart, are the most basic form of memetic replicator – “Believe this statement and repeat it to everyone you hear or else you will be eternally tortured”. A slight variation of this was recently banned as a basilisk, and people make fun of the “overreaction”, but maybe if Jesus’ system administrator had been equally watchful things would have turned out a little different… The point is – imagine a country full of bioweapon labs, where people toil day and night to invent new infectious agents. The existence of these labs, and their right to throw whatever they develop in the water supply is protected by law. And the country is also linked by the world’s most perfect mass transit system that every single person uses every day, so that any new pathogen can spread to the entire country instantaneously. You’d expect things to start going bad for that city pretty quickly.
Well, we have about a zillion think tanks researching new and better forms of propaganda. And we have constitutionally protected freedom of speech. And we have the Internet. So we’re pretty much screwed.
A topical example explains Moloch more readily: The airline JetBlue recently sacrificed customer comfort for profits:
This fall, JetBlue airline finally threw in the towel. For years, the company was among the last holdouts in the face of an industry trend toward smaller seats, higher fees, and other forms of unpleasantness. JetBlue distinguished itself by providing decent, fee-free service for everyone, an approach that seemed to be working: passengers liked the airline, and it made a consistent profit. Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.” In November, the airline, under new management, announced that it would follow United, Delta, and the other major carriers by cramming more seats into economy, shrinking leg room, and charging a range of new fees for things like bags and WiFi.
When I read Scott’s opus on Moloch, my amorphous cynicism about humanity finally solidified. And I thought “That’s why I think humanity is fucked!”
Another blog — one of the, uhh… perushim of Less Wrong — has a concept with a lot of overlap with Scott’s Moloch and breaks it down into four sort of… sephiroth, or aspects, or emanations, or… something… of what they call “Nature or Nature’s God” (“Gnon“, since you have to spell the acronym backwards to make it more ominous, right?). The four sephirot of Gnon are:
Azathoth. Death. Evolution. The blind idiot alien god that shapes our biological nature and guides our genetic destiny according to who lives and who dies. Contrary to popular belief, the telos of evolution is not progress to more “advanced” forms; it will ruthlessly twist organisms for a few points of inclusive genetic fitness, and abandon “important” features of an organism (eg. our intelligence) as soon as they stop being critical to fertility.
Cthulhu. Pestilence. Hosted Evolution. Memetics. Epidemics. The tendency for popular forms to be those most able to propagate themselves by capturing transmission institutions and getting repeated. Contrary to popular opinion, the “marketplace of ideas” does not select for truth and good, but virulence. Truth/good selection only happens if the mass idea-propagation systems structurally favor truth and good, which they often do not. The current result being that “Cthulhu may swim slowly, but he only swims left.”
Mammon. Famine. Capitalism. Techno-Economical Optimization. Production. When a form succeeds by exploiting a technological resource-use opportunity, that is Mammon at work. Thus we have an efficient and recycling biological ecosystem, and human capitalism has driven the creation of great works of technology. But Mammon will ruthlessly recycle forms not contributing to the cutting edge of production, including us, if it comes to that.
Ares. War. Conquest. Empire. Agricultural Civilization won not because it was “better” in our sense, but because 100 malnourished toothless peasants with sticks beats one of even the healthiest and best trained tribal warriors. War is computation with weapons, and the truth thus revealed is simply which sociomilitary group is stronger.
Another LW user, jaime2000, sums up Gnon:
Gnon is reality, with an emphasis towards the aspects of reality which have important social consequences. When you build an airplane and fuck up the wing design, Gnon is the guy who swats it down. When you adopt a pacifist philosophy and abolish your military, Gnon is the guy who invades your country. When you are a crustacean struggling to survive in the ocean floor, Gnon is the guy who turns you into a crab.
Basically, reality has mathematical, physical, biological, economical, sociological, and game-theoretical [my link] laws. We anthropomorphize those laws as Gnon.
So back to my original point. What would a more “rational” religion look like? I can’t really tell you (in general it’ll probably have some group dancing or group singing, maybe some extreme rituals, a good narrative/mythos/story; maybe all of that at once), but I can tell you what would probably happen to this more rational religion. Since, you know, it won’t be just itself in the world… it’ll be a religion that is stuck in a world where if that religion is to survive in the minds of us humans, it’s going to be subject to an optimization process. You can probably see where this is going.
This rational religion will be designed with a bunch of nuance and subtlety, probably about using Bayes Theorem and decision theory appropriately. And on paper it’ll be good. But human minds aren’t designed for nuance and complexity. Our minds are designed for simplicity; they are run by our intuition. And our intuition doesn’t like dealing with complexity. It likes feels. There will then grow out from this nuanced rational religion a simpler one for the masses because that’s what sticks for the lowest common denominator. The two religions carry the same name, but one spreads more rapidly due to it being optimized for spreading, not for nuance. It spreads more rapidly due to winning in the marketplace of ideas, not due to its subtlety. And so the “winning” optimized version of this new rational religion overtakes the marketplace instead of the rational-optimized version. But the original version is not doing much to correct this, because they both carry the same banner; cooperation wins over defection in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, as any rationalist would know. And as such, a Mott-and-Bailey-like situation happens between the sort of neighboring-ring-species religions. One version is the actual nuanced version and the other only pays lip service to being the nuanced version. But they both have the same name.
The fact that people Mott-and-Bailey is probably evidence enough that this has happened throughout history. There are motts/baileys for Christianity, for Communism, for feminism, for America, for The Ravens, the list is endless. There’s always the academic, nuanced version and then the version optimized for spreading; the version that beautifully haunts the halls of the academe and the version that gorges in the troughs on Tumblr; both falling under the same name.
I mean, I think that Marcionism is — was — the most rational version of Christianity. But it lost out in the marketplace of ideas in ante-Nicaea Christianity because it wasn’t optimized for its time period. Imagine a Christianity that completely ignored Jews, that didn’t have deplorable lines like Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ. ἐφ᾽ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν; a Christianity without centuries of Jewish pogroms, expulsions, and holocausts. But that more humane Christianity lost to the one better optimized for “winning”. The same thing will probably happen to any rational religion that we design, since it will ultimately be subject to Gnon and its sephirot, sacrificing its terminal goals to Moloch so that it can better optimize its winning power. Though I hope I’m wrong.