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Our philosophies are the bastion of our sanity and the basis on which we can collaborate. We have to remember that other philosophies exist for the same purpose. Our capacity to dialogue across these systems of beliefs is what would create enough parallax for the next generation to peer through and imagine the flourishing world we think is possible.

Generation after generation, we have passed our wisdom on, whether that's in the form of stories or formulas, for us to make better sense of the universe we find ourselves in. We have inherited this sacred responsibility, and we are still learning how to do this well. 

Some Challenges with Sharing Philosophies

For those of us who wish the world to flourish, while acknowledging that our world appears to be in danger, we often feel a powerful propelling force for us to Do Something.

As we reason about the best way to Do Something, we notice that our philosophy[1] confers a great deal of meaning and agency to ourselves. We then appropriately reason that broadcasting our philosophy and its associated practices will do the same for others, while also enabling us to collaborate better, and so we can conclude it is an important, even world-saving, thing to do. 

We can feel especially impelled to share our philosophy when we notice how most other philosophies or ideologies are simply not up to par to face today’s complex challenges[2]. Thus we set the ground for the building of movements and communities to create more valuable things in the world[3].

While sharing our philosophy with different people though, one particular insight often comes:

"The older generation is relatively entrenched in their beliefs, but if we enlighten the younger generation, then they will lead the future." With good intentions and a robust philosophy, we set out to introduce to the promising next generation[4] the prospect of being able to build a better world together.

Even with movements that are quite mindful of their own development, it can be easy to be swayed that heavy recruiting is an unavoidable part of growth, especially when growth of this kind is a metric for scaling[5].

Meanwhile, the “next generation” of today are, more than ever, starving for meaning, purpose, and connection. This means the level of their willingness to forsake critical thinking in order to gain basic human needs, like connection, is higher than ever as well. This has been increasing for decades, and even more so now as we transition out of severe limits in social connection over COVID. We can then expect that charismatic individuals and groups will have a greater degree of power than ever[6].

Despite our good intentions, this type of intention to expand rapidly tends to create two types of challenges. The first is internal to the movement[7] itself and the second is external to the whole ecosystem which the movement is in. Both diminish the movement’s ability to act coherently in the world.

1. Internal to the movement:

When a movement gains a large number of younger people, it usually forms local pockets that also have their own attractors with their own local influencers. Movements that tend to have trouble coordinating across the disparate sub-cultures and schisms often result. The fractured movement often devolves into a dynamic that’s been called “The Narcissism of Small Differences”. Similarly to how siblings have trouble getting along because of a need to find differences in their similarity, the fractured parts of the movement become more entangled in minute differences in interpretation and erode their ability to collaborate. Ultimately, the entire movement either dissolves entirely or drastically loses its coherence, either way losing its ability to do the things the movement (including its parts) wishes to do.

2. External to the movement:

Expansionary efforts usually create a loss of fidelity in conveying the essence of a given philosophy. This can create polarizing effects that cause adjacent movements to form walls in reaction to the strength of expansion. This reduces the free flow of resources and feedback within the larger ecosystem, reducing the whole ecosystem’s capacities. For example, suppose Google made an aggressive hiring policy by creating extremely favorable conditions for top engineers to join. Google’s actions then create reactions from other tech companies to lock down their engineering talents more firmly and/or spread distrust amongst engineers who are neutral or anti-google, insinuating that Google is suspect in offering something too good to be true or, attacking Google’s values as Bad™.  One could argue that because Google has a strong use case for engineering talent that it's willing to take the somewhat unquantifiable reputational damage to gain top talents. However, from the ecosystem’s point of view, overall costs for every company increase due to more competitive hiring, while the capacity for companies to share human or knowledge resources diminishes due to a more zero-sum environment. This means less innovation from the industry overall.

An Inter-Generational, Cross-Ideologies Learning Process

Does this mean sharing our philosophy is fundamentally intractable as a way of building a flourishing civilization? Surely not.

Some systems of beliefs are generally better than others. We largely understand that human sacrifices are not necessary for a functional society. We largely know that Newtonian laws are useful representations of physics, to an extent. Besides, there is no apparently sound option to leave behind all notions of "concepts" or "ideas" and return to a pre-sapiens era anyways. 

We can, however, develop a pluralistic capacity for holding multiple ideologies in paradoxical compatibility – a subject that hopefully future post(s) can expand on.

We can keep in mind that the act of sharing our beliefs or ideological frameworks is, at its core, Education.

How well do we understand why our ideas might not appeal to others? What if others don’t even trust us enough to tell us that information? Opening these inquiries can help create generative dynamics both within a movement, as well as between movements.

We are not going to do this perfectly. We are already not doing this all that well. With only our previous generations’ wisdom to guide us, we can trust that our philosophy contains signal, while knowing it surely has noise too. Similarly we can assume the other sides' resistance also has signal and noise. 

Generation after generation, we have passed our wisdom on, whether that's in the form of stories or formulas, for us to make better sense of the universe we find ourselves in. We have inherited this sacred responsibility, and we are still learning how to do this well.


  1. ^

    Ideologies/Philosophies/Systems of Beliefs, etc are used interchangeably here to generally mean systems of ideas by which humans make sense of the world.

  2. ^

    Historically, when the available philosophies are declining in their usefulness relative to the evolving circumstances, we usually see inward-focused revolutions like the French Revolution or the Taiping Rebellion, or outward-focused revolutions like Nazi Germany. Whether it's inward or outward, the commonality is brutality and suffering by default.

  3. ^

    That is, valuable relative to the philosophy’s idea of valuable.

  4. ^

    By next generation here, I roughly mean both the sense of a younger generation relative to the movement (e.g. an older person joining a young movement is young relative to movement) as well as actual age.

  5. ^
  6. ^

    In reference to footnote point 2, people like Napoleon or Hong Xiuquan both emerged from a substrate of societal chaos – French Revolution and the final years of the Qing Dynasty respectively.

  7. ^

    Though I focus more on talking about movements, these challenges appear true of all levels of human organization, from families to companies to religion to empires.





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Thanks for writing :)

I see the "narcissism of small differences" dynamics already coming up subtly between EA sub-groups. I see some resentment toward the Bay Area rationalists and similar circles.

Also I found the the tech firm example helpful, and wouldn't be surprised if other social movements became increasingly guarded against or dismissive of EAs' aims because its philosophy is so captivating  and its outreach is so aggressive to top-talent students.

I wonder how you imagine EA outreach looking differently? Do you think it should be slower? 

I'm not sure exactly what I think, but I want it to be the case, and have the intuition that it's best for us to be teaching students everything their university should have taught them. Part of that is how to make a difference in the world using an "EA-mindset", but it's also emotional intelligence, how to collaborate without hierarchy, how to hold multiple mindsets usefully, and how to understand and work with oneself. 

"How well do we understand why our ideas might not appeal to others?" Love this question, it's one that I've neglected too often. One lens on appeal is that it depends on whether our philosophy shares commonalities with areas that  the "learner" already cares about. Sometimes those jumping-off points are "hunger for meaning" as you suggest. But sometimes it's other things, like intellectual aestheticism or simple love of an activity. I wonder if  appealing to "more parts of a learner" from a wider variety of disparate sources of caring, may be a useful aspiration?

In some ways, a preference of "being rational" can imply an implicit preference for only caring about one thing at a time (or at least not expressing conflicting desires simultaneously), which may make this aspiration more difficult to approach.

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