Reading about how and why religion comes about, you inevitably stumble onto the conclusion that religion isn’t just some aberration of humanity. The only thing that separates tried and true “religion” from other types of groups — or to put it in its real meaning, tribes — that people identify with is belief in the supernatural. Even if you take away belief in the supernatural, there’s nothing stopping a secular grouping (say, feminism or Objectivism) from tapping into the same family of negative behavior that religious people engage in.
The problem isn’t the supernatural. The problem is in-group vs. out-group. And this in-group/out-group animosity becomes more pronounced when you have a group that has an either implicit or explicit charge of guarding the truth:
“The Inquisition thought they had the truth! Clearly this ‘truth’ business is dangerous.” […]
Questions like that don’t have neat single-factor answers. But I would argue that one of the factors has to do with assuming a defensive posture toward the truth, versus a productive posture toward the truth.
When you are the Guardian of the Truth, you’ve got nothing useful to contribute to the Truth but your guardianship of it. When you’re trying to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry by discovering the next benzene or buckyball, someone who challenges the atomic theory isn’t so much a threat to your worldview as a waste of your time.
When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into entropy by zapping anything that departs from the Truth. If there’s some way to pump against entropy, generate new true beliefs along with a little waste heat, that same pump can keep the truth alive without secret police. In chemistry you can replicate experiments and see for yourself—and that keeps the precious truth alive without need of violence.
Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality (this is because truth and morality, in practice, occupy two different magisteria). A group that forms on the premise of some social or moral cause (like religion), and is also defending “the truth”, will inevitably lead to horrible behavior just like all of those horror stories that atheists like to blame on religion.
Yudkowsky’s use of “entropy” might muddle the concept a bit, so granting myself the liberty of rewording it, the gravity of the situation becomes clear. “When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into [the immoral past] by zapping anything that departs from the Truth”
It also might be helpful to replace “truth” with information.
I am reminded of this very phenomenon of “guardians of the truth” pointed out by one of Jerry Coyne’s recent posts:
First Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to speak at the Brandeis commencement was withdrawn, and now there are more, for Political Correctness season is upon us. Certainly universities have the right to choose their speakers, but it’s bad form to choose someone and then rescind their invitation, or to cave in to student pressures that make speakers withdraw.
The WSJ is, of course, a conservative organ, and goes on to decry the “loopiness” of the left wing and the ostracism of conservative professors, as well the tendency of universities to allow “the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.” That’s an exaggeration, but still, it’s disturbing that we see the left attacking, in effect, freedom of speech. If you don’t like Condaleeza Rice (and I sure don’t), that doesn’t mean you should mount such a protest against her that she has to withdraw. Are all speakers to be vetted for signs of cryptic conservatism? Are students that loath to hear views that might disagree with them?
I’m no conservative, but these Commencement Police frighten me, and paint students as self-entitled, fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent—unless it’s their own. At my own commencement at William and Mary in 1971, we had an undistinguished state legislator as speaker—and this after many of us wanted a more leftist person. But we didn’t shout him down, or pressure the university to withdraw his invitation. Instead, we organized a “counter commencement,” held at a different time and place, and our class invited and paid for Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers.
People! Stop the tribal thinking! Argument gets counter-argument, not reputation assassination and/or banishment from the tribe.