Optimizing for Meta-Optimization

Epistemic Status: a total conjecture, a fervent wish
Previously in series: Until we build dath ilan

Yesterday we talked about dath ilan, and set ourselves a goal:
Constructing a community optimized for building a community optimized for building dath ilan. 

This confused a few of our readers. Why so meta? Why not just “Constructing a community optimized for building dath ilan?”

There’s actually an important reason tied in with how we described our Project Virtues yesterday. The community is part of dath ilan, and dath ilan only exists in people’s heads. If you optimize the community for building dath ilan, without clearly pointing out the recursive loop through the meta level, you get a community optimized for something other than the community.

Religious communities optimize for worshipping God, and the community itself takes a backseat. Effective altruists optimize for doing good, and the community takes a backseat. But you achieve your goals better with a more effective community, so part of the optimization towards dath ilan requires the optimization of the community building dath ilan for being a community. This is especially important if we consider that we all might die before we manage to knock the dragon tyrant off the mountaintop, and that it’d be really nice if everything we set out to achieve doesn’t die with us.

So let’s start with some human cultural universals, see which ones we want to encourage, which ones we want to fence off, and how the dath ilanian manifestation of those universals might look. When we cross out a universal, it’s not a rejection of the universal, these are things humans do regardless of culture, it’s just that our hypothetical optimized community would mark off those things as outside the borders of “should-ness.” Bolded lines indicate things our hypothetically optimized community would put inside the borders of “should-ness.” If we’re considering the process of building a community, we have to take everything on these lists into account.

Language and Cognition Universals

  • Language employed to manipulate others
  • Language employed to misinform or mislead 
  • Language is translatable
  • Abstraction in speech and thought
  • Antonyms, synonyms
  • Logical notions of “and”, “not”, “opposite”, “equivalent”, “part/whole”, “general/particular”
  • Binary cognitive distinctions
  • Color terms: black, white (A Human’s Guide to Words)
  • Classification of: age, behavioral propensities, body parts, colors, fauna, flora, inner states, kin, sex, space, tools, weather conditions (A human’s Guide to Words)
  • Continua (ordering as cognitive pattern) (A human’s guide to words)
  • Discrepancies between speech, thought, and action (A Human’s Guide to Words, Metaethics)
  • Figurative speech, metaphors (A Human’s Guide to Words)
  • Symbolism, symbolic speech (A Human’s Guide to Words)
  • Synesthetic metaphors (A Human’s Guide to Words)
  • Tabooed utterances (Rationalist Taboo)
  • Special speech for special occasions (This will be a link to a later essay)
  • Prestige from proficient use of language (e.g. poetry) (very carefully and with a ton of caveats, this will be a link to a later essay)
  • Planning (How to Actually Change your Mind)
  • Units of time (A Human’s Guide to words)

Most of these get swallowed up by language and would be difficult to change without outright changing the language.  That might be something worth considering in the extreme long term, but it blows way past the scope of this essay sequence and we’d rather keep things more tightly grounded at first. If someone wants to work on making Marain an actual language, more power to them, but it’s not what we’re going to be focusing on here.


  • Personal names
  • Family or household (Group Dwellings)
  • Kin groups (Group Dwellings)
  • Peer groups not based on family (Group Dwellings)
  • Actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control (Metaethics Sequence)
  • Affection expressed and felt
  • [Age grades
  • Age statuses
  • Age terms] (This will be a link to a later essay)
  • Law: rights and obligations, rules of membership (This will be a link to a later essay)
  • Moral sentiments (Metaethics)
  • Distinguishing right and wrong, good and bad (Metaethics)
  • Promise/oath (Metaethics)
  • Prestige inequalities (Metaethics)
  • Statuses and roles (This will be a link to a later essay)
  • Leaders (This will be a link to a later essay)
  • De facto oligarchy (Even if we can’t fully suppress this, we certainly shouldn’t encourage it)
  • Property
  • Coalitions
  • Collective identities (Rationalist, Effective Altruist, dath ilanian, singer, etc)
  • Conflict
  • Cooperative labor
  • Gender roles (Kill with fire)
  • Males on average travel greater distances over lifetime (This is a weird item to have on this list at all. Like sure, okay wikipedia, but is that really a universal cultural trait?
  • Marriage (Some form of this should probably be included, but it probably shouldn’t take the form of our current Christian Western conceptualisation of marriage.)
  • Husband older than wife on average (Mostly irrelevant?)
  • Copulation normally conducted in privacy (We’re not going to try and sway things on this one way or another)
  • Incest prevention or avoidance, incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed (Even if the genetic reasons for incest being bad are addressed, it might be wise to keep this as a taboo for other Chesterton’s fence related reasons.)
  • Collective decision making (We really want to encourage this one, leverage our collective thinking as much as possible.)
  • Etiquette (Niceness Heuristics)
  • Inheritance rules (Will need to be worked out, we might not be the best person to work that out in particular, recursively point at collective decision making to decide this)
  • Generosity admired, gift giving (Effective Altruism)
  • Redress of wrongs, sanctions (This will be a future essay link)
  • Sexual jealousy (Bad)
  • Sexual violence (Very Bad)
  • Shame (This will be a future essay link)
  • Territoriality (Should probably be discouraged)
  • Triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)
  • Some forms of proscribed violence (The recursive ethical loop you take through metaethics points out that the ends never actually justify the means among humans.)
  • Visiting
  • Trade

Myth Ritual, and Aesthetics

  • Magical thinking (Placebomancy and Rationalist Magic)
  • Use of magic to increase life and win love (Rationalist Magic)
  • Beliefs about death (Death is bad and should be destroyed)
  • Beliefs about disease (Diseases are bad and should be destroyed)
  • Beliefs about fortune and misfortune (Litanies of Tarski and Gendlin)
  • Divination (Psychohistory?)
  • Attempts to control weather (Well if you insist)
  • Dream interpretation (Is there actually anything meaningfully interpretable? Do dreams actually provide useful information about yourself?)
  • Beliefs and narratives (We have a lot of these already. The sequences, stories like HPMOR, the singularity, the basilisk, UNSONG, they’re just scattered around and not particularly well compiled. There’s no “rationality bible” that compresses the mean of the community’s beliefs into one centralized narrative, and that might be for the best. We’ll be attempting to construct a centralized narrative through these posts, but that model of a centralized narrative should not be the centralized meta-narrative, it should be a centralized meta-narrative.)
  • Proverbs, sayings (Litanies of Tarski and Gendlin among many, many others. This will probably have an entire essay devoted to it at some point as we’ll be attempting to invent a few of our own)
  • Poetry/rhetorics (The song of dath ilan, UNSONG, HPMOR, Ra, TNC, MoL, the list goes on)
  • Healing practices, medicine (Have you considered going to a doctor?)
  • Childbirth customs (There’s a big debate surrounding home births vs. hospital births that we really don’t want to take a side in, so we’ll just say, figure out empirically which method actually produces the best outcomes for the mother and child, and encourage that as the norm)
  • Rites of passage (This will be a link to a later essay)
  • Music, rhythm, dance (Some of this is starting to develop around Secular Solstice and rationality meetup groups, and it’s definitely something to encourage)
  • Play (Cards Against Rationality, there are a few others)
  • Toys, playthings (See above)
  • Death rituals, mourning (Death is bad and we should destroy it. Cryonics.)
  • Feasting (Rationality dinner groups, meetups, and events. This will have it’s own essay in the future)
  • Body adornment (Whatever makes you personally happy)
  • Hairstyles (Whatever makes you personally happy)
  • Art (We don’t actually have a lot of rationalist visual art at the moment)

We’re going to skip the technology branch because it’s more universal than even we’re looking at here, and we already have a lot to sort through.

Okay, so next we take all of that, boil it down, and attempt to map out what our hypothetical dath ilanian culture should look like. Each of these bullet points will later be expanded out into at least one, but probably several, distinct essays.

  • Its span of teaching should have a full progression of skill from the baby you’re teaching to speak up to someone with a Ph.D. Right now the sequences are aimed entirely at a specific level of skill and intelligence, and without the prerequisites, you can’t get that much out of them, or you get a broken or malformed version of them that hurts your thinking more than it helps. No, there should be a steady progression and unfolding of knowledge and skill from birth to death, starting with simple fables and Aesops teaching rationalist principles and lessons and bootstrapping through various rites of passage into the actual sequences, and from them onwards to whatever comes next.
  • It should have rules, laws, customs, and rituals applicable to every activity in the life of our hypothetical dath ilanian. It should have things stating shouldness for everything and be as totalizing as possible. However, it should be totalizing but not be dominating. Religions are totalizing but also dominating. The rationality community as it stands now avoids being dominating, but it’s also not totalizing. The totalizing should be opt-in, gated behind branching trees of rites of passage, with exit rights included. No one should feel trapped in dath ilan the way people end up feeling trapped in religions, there needs to be an escape hatch cooked in right from the start, and all of the shouldness should be gated off to stop it from dumping moral imperatives on people and destroying their mental health and wellbeing.
  • The community should come together in a physical space for communal activities that include holidays, feasting, celebrating, mourning, rites of passage, discussions, debates, song and dance. We probably shouldn’t buy huge churches with stained glass windows and full-time pastors, we should probably use spaces in a shared community center and not inefficiently pour resources into a lavish clubhouse. Regularly coming together is important though, as it reinforces everything else.
  • The community should have specific holidays, customs, rites of passage, formats for gathering, songs, rituals, and narratives adding up to the option of having a completely totalizing experience of community membership for those seeking it (must seek it to get the fully totalizing experience, it must be opt-in with exit rights)
  • All the shoulds on this list must be able to change as we learn and grow and take in more information. If we ever learn that a should is wrong, we should get rid of it.

This bulleted list will form the skeleton of our hypothetical dath ilanian culture, and onto that skeleton, we’ll mount the existing manifestations of the community while sketching out what sort of things we might create to fill in the gaps that are revealed.

We’ll be trying to fill those gaps ourselves with something, but in all cases, it should be understood that the something we describe is basically a placeholder. The ‘real’ should is something the community should create together, but even if the something we make here is a placeholder until someone else comes up with something better, it’s better to have a placeholder that knows it’s a placeholder and wants to be replaced, then to have nothing.

Please please please don’t interpret any of our recommendations and suggestions over the following days as moral imperatives that must be done at all costs. This essay is not dath ilan, the Origin Project is not dath ilan. We are not writing to you as a citizen of dath ilan, we do not speak from a place of absolute authority. Dath ilan is the ideal, not the manifestation of it. As soon as dath ilan becomes the manifestation, the project has failed and we have become the Catholic Church.

Everything in this essay wants to be replaced with something closer to dath ilan, but as soon as it claims to actually be dath ilan, as soon as it claims the mantle of objective moral authority, the project has failed. This project is not dath ilan. The project is to make the world more like the ideal of dath ilan. But dath ilan is constantly receding into the future, you can’t make dath ilan itself, and any claims to have succeeded in perfecting dath ilan should be rejected. There’s always more work to be done.

The community is never perfect the way it is, there’s always improvements that could be made. The culture is never perfect the way it is, there’s always improvements that could be made. The ideal is never perfect the way it is, there’s always improvements that could be made. The process of iterating on the process is never perfect the way it is, there’s always improvements that could be made.

But you have to start somewhere. You need to have something in order to start improving on it. Over the coming essays, we’ll be trying our best to map out and create the first draft of that something, and then start living inside the something to serve as an example to others.

Part of the Sequence: Origin
Next Post: Deorbiting a metaphor
Previous Post: Until we build dath ilan


5 thoughts on “Optimizing for Meta-Optimization

  1. Some remarks regarding your choice of stroked out / bold universals:
    * Tabooing words is an important technique, but is not truly an example of the “tabooed utterances” universal. Also, I’m surprising you linked the odious RationalWiki rather than the Sequences.
    * “Actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control:” Not sure what you mean by striking it out. Are you referring to something like Copenhagen ethics?
    * Age stuff: I know you said it will be a later essay, but I’m really curious. Are you suggesting that we replace age conventions like becoming legally adult at 18 by some kind of tests?
    * Sexual jealousy: I know polyamory is popular in the rationalist community, and I’m absolutely in favor of making polyamory a socially *acceptable* lifestyle, but eliminating sexual jealously altogether? Even if we assume it is desirable, is it possible by means that don’t involve actually “editing the brain”? Note that there is a strong selection bias in the sort of people who join the rationalist community and certain cultural norms might not extrapolate well to the general populace. Now, I *assume* that the long-term plan you have in mind involves making dath ilan for everyone rather than something elitist? Which brings another interesting question, namely how fast do we want the community to expand (on the one hand we want to be inclusive on the other hand, dilution of core values is a risk).
    * Territoriality: Hmm, does it mean you expect everyone to live in communal houses, or is it something more abstract?
    * Proscribed violence: Not sure what you mean by striking this out. Are you *against* outlawing violence?
    * Attempts to control weather: obviously we need geo-engineering 😛


  2. Pingback: Until we Build dath ilan | H i v e w i r e d

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  4. Pingback: Deorbiting a Metaphor | H i v e w i r e d

  5. > This confused a few of our readers. Why so meta? Why not just “Constructing a community optimized for building dath ilan?”

    I think it should be

    > This confused a few of our readers. Why so meta? Why not just “Building dath ilan?”


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