Challenging Children

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I.

The story of Adam and his father in my last essay, The Ineffability of Conservatism, generated a lot of pushback. The negative reactions mostly came from people who were never religious or who had left religion in a fashion similar to Adam. None had taken that journey when they were quite so young, but some wished that they had. And while I think religion had an important role to play in the story, a role I’ll be returning to before the end, I also think that its inclusion may have obscured the fundamental message. (Though using the word “ineffability” in the title probably didn’t help.)

Actually, I take that back. The fundamental problem is still somewhat opaque to me, which means that the fundamental message must necessarily be as well. But, the presence of religion made some points less clear than they could have been. So I decided to take another stab at the topic from a different direction. 

For those unfamiliar with the previous essay, I told the story of Adam, a young man who had decided he no longer believed in the religion of his family and local community. In an attempt to influence him towards staying, the bishop/pastor had arranged for Adam’s father to teach his Sunday School class. Adam, upon seeing that his father was going to teach, very publicly left, despite his father’s entreaties to stay. Much of the post was a reflection on how it would have never even occurred to people of my generation to do such a thing. 

As you can see the story had a very heavy religious angle. It was clearly about young people leaving the faith of their fathers. Which is happening a lot. But it’s also a story about raising children, and parenting. So I decided to write a follow up post where I approach it from that side of things. I think doing so might make certain points easier to get to.

Perhaps there’s something in the water because the minute I made that decision I came across some other people making points similar to the ones I would like to make. Let’s start with Freddie deBoer. Freddie opened the new year with a post titled, Resilience, Another Thing We Can’t Talk About. As you may or may not know, Freddie is no fan of religion. (His second post of the year bemoaned the fact that Richard Dawkins style atheism/skepticism has fallen out of fashion.) But, despite our diametrically opposed religious views, his discussion of resilience is definitely heading in the same direction I plan on going:

If I know one thing is true about every single person reading this, it’s that at some point in 2023, they will suffer. Teaching people how to suffer, how to respond to suffering and survive suffering and grow from suffering, is one of the most essential tasks of any community. Because suffering is inevitable. And I do think that we have lost sight of this essential element of growing up in contemporary society, as armies of helicopter parents pull the leash on their kids tighter and tighter and as harm reduction has eaten every other element of left politics.

Suffering is a big topic, and while Freddie seems mostly focused on involuntary suffering, people also choose to suffer. In my extended family, we frame this latter form of suffering as “doing hard things”. And it’s my contention (and perhaps Freddie’s as well) that teaching children how to do hard things is one of the central tasks of a parent. Your children are definitely going to be confronted with hard things once they’re adults, and if they haven’t mastered that skill or at least practiced it, they’re likely going to fail — maybe catastrophically.

Even if someone agrees that it’s useful to have children do hard things, they may balk at putting all suffering in the same bucket. There is an argument to be made that the challenge of studying hard enough to get a scholarship is a completely different thing than being bullied at school, and that the challenge of attending church when you would rather not, is yet a third sort of challenge. Part of the purpose of this post will be to demonstrate that there’s less difference than you might think, and I will further argue that, even if there is, the skills developed to deal with voluntary suffering can help with involuntary suffering as well. 

Unfortunately, as Freddie points out, a large part of society does not even agree with the need for voluntary suffering. Freddie asserts that everyone will end up suffering at some point during the next year, and this is true, but suffering isn’t guaranteed the way it once was. And while the effect has been gradual, this has led some to decide that suffering can and largely should be eliminated — both the involuntary and the voluntary. Often these people are parents. Freddie calls them “helicopter parents”. I prefer the more recent term “snowplow parents”, parents who clear the path in front of the child, pushing aside all obstacles. Obviously some examples of such parents are more extreme than others. But it’s gotten to the point where lots of these attitudes have spread to society at large and become the default. The question is how did this happen? And can anything be done?

II.

One of the major themes in my previous post was the difference between the conditions teenagers experience now and the conditions I experienced when I was a teenager. These differences are numerous and run the gamut from really large things, like the internet, to small things, like the proliferation of memes. We’ll examine some of the bigger things in a moment, but I would also argue that simply making a list doesn’t do justice to the profound difference between now and 40 years ago. First, we’re almost certainly overlooking some of the things which have changed, because they’re either too small to measure or no one has bothered to measure them. But more importantly, I think that we’ve yet to fully grasp the way changes combine and feed off one another. 

Out of all this, clearly one difference is a broad reduction in the amount of material suffering: The infant mortality rate in the US has nearly halved just since 1990. The child poverty rate has been reduced from 20% to 5% since 1983. And, while these numbers are harder to quantify, childhood injuries appear to also be declining. The obvious progress we’ve made has encouraged parents, who were already predisposed to do everything they can for their kids, to look for ways to eliminate all the suffering which still remains. Given our previous successes, it’s worth asking, “What’s the harm in that?” Unfortunately the answer might be “substantial”.

Obviously I’m not the first person to make this argument, nor will I be the last, but it’s worth reviewing the arguments in light of the different ways suffering can manifest. Probably the best known book to tackle this subject is The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. We don’t have the space to go into everything but a few years ago I did spend a couple of posts talking about it. The Coddling of the American Mind puts forth the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system, and society as a whole. As part of our current discussion we’re just going to look at the first one:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

Freddie calls this untruth the quest for “harm reduction [which] has eaten every other element of left politics.” Lukianoff and Haidt argue that it really kicked in on college campuses starting around 2013, so children born starting in 1995. They mention that this maps to the cohort Jean Twenge labeled as iGen, in her book of the same name. On the opposite side of things from these college kids there is, of course, Nietzsche, from whom the authors adapted their label. And, as you might imagine, since they call it an untruth, Lukianoff and Haidt, who make the case that college students (and humans in general) are antifragile — exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger, up to a point.

That last bit “up to a point” is where most of the fighting takes place. My guess is that most people reading this, and indeed most people, period, agree that children need some challenges. (If you don’t think children need to be strong and resilient this post is not for you.) The fight is over where to draw the line. Which sorts of stress and suffering should be put in the beneficial bucket and which sorts of stress and suffering should be put in the garbage? Obviously involuntary suffering, by definition, can’t be disposed of. So, taken together, we’ve identified three buckets: 

  1. Challenges you can’t avoid.
  2. Challenges you can avoid but choose not to.
  3. Challenges you can avoid and choose to.

Some people would argue that the greater ability to move things from bucket one to bucket three is the whole point of progress. And while humans have been moving things from one to three since at least the dawn of agriculture, lately we’ve gotten a lot better at it, to the point where some would argue that we’re within shouting distance of emptying bucket one. (Which might be a serviceable definition of transhumanism.)

While this movement from one to three is interesting, the subject of this post mostly hinges on whether, if the challenge is in fact voluntary, we should ever place it in bucket two rather than bucket three. And beyond that, under what circumstances the parent should be empowered to put a challenge in bucket two when the child really wants it to be in bucket three.

As I mentioned, our ability to move things out of the first bucket has been increasing for a long time, but Lukianoff and Haidt are arguing that the desirability of moving things from backet two to three has dramatically increased in just the last ten years. There are certainly lots of reasons why this has happened, and getting into the actual causes would take us too far afield, but what Lukianoff and Haidt, and for that matter deBoer are arguing is that it’s spread far and wide enough to have become a societal expectation. Particularly when you’re making the choice between bucket two and three for someone else, i.e. your kids. 

To put it in more blunt terms: it would be insane to argue that we should be maximizing the suffering of children, but on the other hand it seems equally obvious that they need some amount of resilience, some ability to do hard things. So where do we draw the line? If we need to put something into bucket two, what criteria should we use? And perhaps more importantly what criteria should be culturally acceptable? Because if there’s a disconnect between the criteria we “should” be using and the criteria society finds acceptable then society is eventually going to win.

III.

At this point we’re still dealing with fairly crude divisions. If we’re going to get to the heart of the issue we’re going to have to start slicing things more finely, if at all possible. We need to start differentiating between various kinds of stress and suffering, and specific sorts of challenges. 

To start with, homework and other associated educational activities seem to be pretty mainstream, bucket two items. Beyond that some people feel that forcing kids to take music lessons is entirely appropriate. Still other parents are going to very strongly encourage their kids to play sports. By looking at activities like these we should be able to extract some attributes that allow us to differentiate between challenges that should be in bucket two versus those that should be in bucket three. Though, before we do so, it’s sobering to note that even within these broadly unobjectionable categories the expectations we place on kids have been eroding over the last few decades. A trend that was only accelerated by the pandemic.

As a final thought, It’s probably worth mentioning a subcategory of challenges within the preceding examples that involve having children confront their fears, particularly if those fears are irrational, like performing in front of people. Thus the phenomenon music recitals and actual competition with sports. 

We’ve covered, however briefly, forcing or at least strongly encouraging kids to do certain things. What about the flip side of that, restricting kids from doing things? The challenge we’re giving them here is not to do hard things, but to avoid pleasurable things. (Though such avoidance can certainly end up being a hard thing to pull off.) Here again we notice a cultural and societal shift. Certain restrictions against pleasurable things are as old as time itself, but recently both the number and the availability of pleasurable things has increased. Which means we have to implement broader restrictions, starting much younger than in the past. The expanded scope of this task has made the problem much larger than it was in the past.

We’ve already mentioned antifragility in this space, and I think most of the things we’ve mentioned can be placed in that framework. What does this framework look like? Well as it turns out you can graph it:

Antifragility comes from paying small fixed costs which cumulatively increase the chances of massive returns. (For the purposes of our discussion the variable is time.) So if a teenager pays the cost of being a diligent student they increase their chances of getting into a good school and from there landing a great job. On the other hand if the teenager spends all of their time on social media or video games, that’s the bottom graph. They get small fixed amounts of pleasure, but that path leads towards the greater likelihood that they’ll incur some large cost in the future. Perhaps they won’t go to college at all, and end up in a crappy job, or, worse, living at home and unemployed. Obviously none of this is guaranteed, and outliers abound, but remember we’re trying to have a discussion at the level of the entire society. 

Every parent who cares about doing a good job recognizes these trade-offs instinctively. We don’t make our children do hard things because we’re gunning for them. We make them do hard things and avoid short term pleasures because over the long run we think it will make them happier, more successful people. This is what all of the things I listed, and many more that could have been listed, have in common. They require short term pain but provide long term benefits. If your children do challenging things now they’ll be able to do challenging things later, and challenging things are rewarding, both monetarily and psychologically. On the other side of things we counsel against indiscretions, even small ones, because there’s always a chance they’ll lead to irreparable harm. No one tries drugs for the first time thinking they’re going to end up hopelessly addicted to opiods, but yet that does happen. (These days far more often than it should.) 

We’ve managed to spend a lot of time giving examples of antifragile challenges, and even offering up charts, but we’re still a long way from defining at exactly what point exposure to stress and suffering goes from making kids stronger to harming them. Also it’s tempting to imagine that we can separate actually suffering from challenging activities when we seek to encourage resilience. And perhaps you can to a very limited extent, but while involuntary suffering may help you deal with voluntary challenges, I don’t think the inverse is true. I think there’s a danger in trying to move too much out of bucket one. This is the whole basis of the hygiene hypothesis with its connection to the rise of asthma and potentially fatal allergies.

As far as this post is concerned, we may have gone as far as we’re going to in defining the perfect amount of stress and suffering, and as I said, that isn’t very far. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that this is a new problem. It’s only been very recently that we’ve had the option to adjust the level of stress and suffering across a broad enough area for it to make a difference. Accordingly we haven’t accumulated a lot of wisdom on which to draw from. 

Historically the environment was challenging enough to give children all the stress and suffering they could ever possibly need in order to be strong — in order for them to be antifragile. And then in far too many instances went beyond that point to cause them harm or even death. Though it is interesting to note that from what we can tell psychological harm appears to have been rarer during those times. So it is good that we can now dial it back, but our tendency is always going to defer to the person who wants it to go the lowest. Which is to say advocating for more suffering — more things in bucket two, and especially bucket one — is always going to be difficult to defend. 

This tendency to err on the side of suffering mitigation might not be so bad if our control and understanding of the nature of challenging children was more precise. But we don’t have the ability to fine tune challenges, particularly anything in bucket one, which as deBoer points out, continues to be a thing. And even voluntary challenges vary quite a bit in difficulty as a result of individual differences. There are a few kids who love learning to play the piano, most find it difficult and boring. All of this means that efforts to calibrate how challenging we make things are going to be very crude for the foreseeable future. Given this and our natural proclivity to lessen suffering, we should probably consciously create a counter-bias towards erring on the side of greater difficulty. Instead society has done the exact opposite, and in a way that largely overlooks the complexity and ramifications of this decision.

IV.

As we adjust the dials of suffering — using technology to move suffering from bucket one, or challenges from bucket two, into bucket three — we’re playing with a machine we scarcely understand. The goal is easy to understand: make the world better. And it’s obviously admirable. But our understanding of how moving the dials relates to achieving that goal is crude and incomplete.

This ties into another piece I came across recently which appeared to be making a point similar to mine:. The Social Recession: By the Numbers by Anton Cebalo. I ended my previous post by talking about the incel phenomenon and the staggering number of people not having sex. He uses that to open the piece and ties it to a larger phenomenon:

…a marked decline in all spheres of social life, including close friends, intimate relationships, trust, labor participation, and community involvement. The trend looks to have worsened since the pandemic, although it will take some years before this is clearly established.

The decline comes alongside a documented rise in mental illness, diseases of despair, and poor health more generally. In August 2022, the CDC announced that U.S. life expectancy has fallen further and is now where it was in 1996…even before the pandemic, the years 2015-2017 saw the longest sustained decline in U.S. life expectancy since 1915-18. While my intended angle here is not health-related, general sociability is closely linked to health. The ongoing shift has been called the “friendship recession” or the “social recession.”

What he describes fits under the broad definition of suffering. The decline in sociability robs us of tools to mitigate suffering. And the rise in poor mental and physical health, causes suffering we are therefore ill-equipped to deal with. 

So how is it, if we’re turning down (what appears to be) the suffering dial, that actual suffering is going up? Are we sure we understand how the machine works? Could it be that we have no clue? To be clear I’m not claiming I understand the machine either. I don’t. But that’s precisely why I think we should be very wary about messing with the dials.

To take things from another direction Cebalo is arguing that our culture has become more fragile, and correspondingly less antifragile. Also that our fragile culture appears to be composed of fragile individuals. Of course, fragile things eventually break, which is what Cebalo is worried about, but given that our culture hasn’t broken yet, it must not have been fragile for long. What was the quality of culture before all the things Cabalo describes started happening?

The whole concept of antifragility comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and for Taleb there are only three categories. Something can be antifragile, robust, or fragile. Fragile things, by their nature, don’t stick around for very long. Things that do stick around for a long time are therefore either robust or antifragile. In practice very few things are robust — neither harmed nor helped by stress — so long standing elements are generally antifragile.

Children have been around for a long time, and, as Haidt and Lukianoff point out, they’re antifragile. Much of what falls under the heading of culture, particularly as it stood 40 years ago, has also been around for a long time and is also probably antifragile. When something persists for a long time it evolves, a process that’s great at producing things that are antifragile. When this happens with culture we call it cultural evolution, and while we understand how it works, we don’t always correctly identify which elements of culture are antifragile products of this process and which are just dumb ideas some person in power came up with. To be more specific, when your thinking about something that used to happen but no longer does it can fall into three categories:

  1. Barbaric relics of the past which never served a useful purpose.
  2. Practices which are still useful, but we’ve incorrectly identified them as barbaric relics of the past, and dispensed with them.
  3. Practices which were useful, but through progress and technology we have ended up duplicating their utility in some other way. 

To take an example (as discussed in the previous post) dragging your disrespectful kid outside and walloping them, i.e. corporal punishment. Does this practice belong in category one, something that was never appropriate or useful? Category two? It’s still useful, but temporary cultural fads have incorrectly identified it as barbaric? Or category three? It was useful, but is no longer because we have different ways of punishing kids and/or the need for obedience is not life or death, like it used to be?

You may also notice some parallels between these three categories and the buckets we’ve been discussing, though it’s not perfect. But just like with the buckets, I think we’re bad at deciding what things should be in categories two vs. category three. We’re convinced we’ve grown beyond certain things, but in reality we might just be temporarily tired of them. 

As to the separation between categories one and two, I’ve talked about that in the past, and this post has already taken way longer than it should to write. But perhaps you’re familiar with the case of manioc and cyanide. It’s a great example of cultural evolution. Tribes in South America who lived off manioc did things that seemed completely unnecessary (category one) but when the cyanide content of the manioc was actually tested it turned out that those, seemingly unnecessary steps were absolutely critical (category 2). Finally we can presumably eliminate the cyanide through industrial processing (category 3). 

The point of the discussion of categories and manioc is the idea that it can be difficult to identify practices and behavior which result in antifragility. This is both the danger of turning dials and the ineffability of conservatism. We often sense that things are important without having the data to back it up. And from all of this we finally return to religion and church attendance. Which many people, including myself, strongly feel the importance of. Though also, fortunately, we also have some data. Returning to Cebalo’s post he makes a special point of highlighting the precipitous decline in church membership since the turn of the century:

As you can see from the caption he relates this decline to the larger point Robert D. Putnam brought up in his book Bowling Alone, but I think the decline in church membership has a larger impact than just one factor among many for the increase in loneliness. Though that’s certainly a non-trivial consideration.

Even if you think I’m misinterpreting the data. It would seem foolish to dismiss the trend in the chart above as inconsequential. Something big is happening. I suppose it could be because religion was always in category one, or that it has recently been successfully moved to category three, but given the incredibly long time it’s been around, I think it’s far more likely that it’s part of the culture that has evolved to make us antifragile. I.e. it’s in category two and society has dispensed with it to its detriment. 

The chart is interesting and even startling, but it’s not the best evidence for the connection between religion and better mental health. There’s actually quite a bit of more direct evidence. To take just one example I recently came across a working paper titled: “Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion”. Here’s the abstract:

In recent decades, death rates from poisonings, suicides, and alcoholic liver disease have dramatically increased in the United States. We show that these “deaths of despair” began to increase relative to trend in the early 1990s, that this increase was preceded by a decline in religious participation, and that both trends were driven by middle-aged white Americans. Using repeals of blue laws as a shock to religiosity, we confirm that religious practice has significant effects on these mortality rates. Our findings show that social factors such as organized religion can play an important role in understanding deaths of despair.

So religion helps us deal with despair. I understand the leap I’m taking when I make that assertion. But perhaps as we draw things to their conclusion you’re willing to entertain the idea that religion is an important source of antifragility. That in making us do small hard things it enables us to do large challenging things, and moreover to survive the intense, involuntary suffering that is still humanity’s lot. Religion doesn’t just provide practice at attending long, boring meetings, though I understand that it often gives that impression, it’s part of a whole network for doing challenging things, and mitigating suffering. It’s how we used to do hard things as a community, and through its transition to civic religion it’s how we still occasionally do hard things, though that form of religion is fraying as well. 

Sure, as many people brought up, it’s also a hard thing to leave a religion, and that probably gives an individual a certain amount of toughness, but we’re not interested in individual toughness, eventually any truly great endeavor requires societal toughness. And here, at the very end, I would like you to take a moment and reflect on how tough your ancestors were. And how much they probably suffered for their religion. Why? Because however much they suffered, religion offered relief from even greater suffering. It helped them deal with despair. It’s part of what made them tough. And yes it’s a good thing that we’ve been able to move things out of bucket one, that our children no longer die, that plagues are mild, and famine is rare. But in exchange, is it too much to ask that our children sit still for a couple of hours every week and do their best to understand the faith of those incredibly tough ancestors?


Paying for writing is one of the many things which got moved out of bucket one by the internet. Now you can choose whether to bear a cost for writing. You get to choose whether it should be bucket two or bucket three. I think the mere fact that I explained the buckets to you should make it a bucket two item


The 6 Books I Finished in December

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  1. The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left by: Garett Jones
  2. The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by: Michael Easter
  3. Infinite Jest by: David Foster Wallace
  4. What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by: Randall Munroe
  5. The Sandman: Book One by: Neil Gaiman
  6. Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 by: Craig Alanson

It’s the start of 2023, so it’s probably a good time to look back at 2022. It was pretty crazy. To start with, I moved. Two words shouldn’t be able to conceal so much effort, but the process was ridiculously disruptive and time consuming. Then, the minute that was done, I went to Ireland for two and a half weeks, which was fun, but also quite time-consuming. 

In a somewhat unfortunate coincidence (I applied before deciding to move) this was also the year that I got accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business program, a 14 week intensive business course, entirely paid for by Goldman. I think it can best be described as a mini-MBA. Not only did the course itself take a lot of time and attention it encouraged me to make some major changes to my business which took still more time and attention. 

Despite all that, I ended up setting a record for the amount I read: 113 books, clocking in at just over 38k pages (so an average of 336 pages per book). It was not my intention to set a record, in fact at various points when I was buried by stuff, I thought I should do less reading. I’m way ahead. And I sort of did, but I mostly didn’t.

Of course, I need to acknowledge the contribution to the total made by the Expeditionary Force series. That was 15 books out of the total, so definitely a non-trivial contribution. I finished the final book this month so I guess it’s time to pass judgment on whether that reading was beneficial or a waste of time.

I’m hoping that 2023 will be significantly calmer. Will that result in even more books? You’ll have to keep following along to find out.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left

By: Garett Jones

Published: 2022

228 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That some immigrants are of a higher quality than other immigrants, that this quality persists across multiple generations, and corresponds very closely to the technological history since 1500 of their nation of origin. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Jones definitely has a controversial streak. This is the third book in what he calls his “Singapore Trilogy”. The first book was about national IQ. The second book made the case for “10% less democracy”. This is the third book and it might actually be the least controversial. Since Jones is basically pro-immigration, he just thinks some immigrants are better than others and we should prioritize the better ones.

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in heterodox opinions in general will probably benefit from this book. If however you’re looking for something comprehensive, this isn’t it.

General Thoughts

This was the December pick for the local SSC book club. A couple of the members of the group are alums of GMU where Jones teaches, so one of them invited him to participate. We expected that, if he did so, it would be remotely, but he actually flew out and attended in person which was very generous of him. In addition to coming to the book club we also had dinner with him beforehand which was very enjoyable. Obviously none of this has much to do with the actual content of the book, but the whole experience of meeting the author in person did introduce certain biases. But enough about Jones, what about his book?

As I already mentioned the book makes some controversial claims and several people, including Jones’s colleague Bryan Caplan, have been pretty critical of these claims. In the process of preparing for Jones’ visit members of the book club came across these criticisms and decided to bring them up. I wasn’t entirely sure how this was going to play out, but I imagined that things might get heated. They did not, instead Jones effortlessly answered all of the criticisms though in a somewhat technical fashion. This is probably the way criticisms should be answered, particularly in writing, but when you’re having a discussion it makes follow up hard. When Jones says that he analyzed the same data and got a different result, what else can you say but “interesting…” Whatever problems it presented for the questioners, Jones’ responses made him very convincing in person.

At this point I assume you want me to provide a specific example. Well, I wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I can speak a little bit about his rebuttal of the Caplan criticisms I mentioned earlier, but before I do I need to lay out Jones’ model. He uses three attributes to quantify immigrant quality:

  • State History since 0 AD
  • Agricultural History in thousands of years
  • Technological History since 1500

Together this is the SAT of a country (not to be confused with the test). The book focuses on presenting data that these three factors have predictive power for the amount of prosocial behavior the immigrant and his descendants will likely possess. But of the three, the attribute with the most predictive power is T, the technological history of the country of origin.

Jones’ rebuttal to Caplan is that Caplan only considers S and A, while neglecting T. Now I read Caplan’s book, and in addition to the initial review I did another whole essay about it. But at the moment, sitting there with Jones, despite these efforts, I had no idea whether Caplan had neglected to include T in his analysis. Nor, you will be sad to hear, have I had a chance to confirm it since then (mostly because the Caplan book is in a box somewhere.) Now, I had a couple of big problems with Caplan’s book, so I’m inclined to believe Jones, but talking to him in person just illustrated how difficult epistemology has become these days. A point I’ll return to in just a second, but before I do I’d like to bring up one final point.

If you’re using Jones’ SAT to evaluate different nations, China comes out very near the top, and indeed Jones spends quite a bit of time talking about all of the SE Asian countries who have benefitted from Chinese immigration. Many of his critics have pounced on this to discredit his thesis. If China has such a high SAT and if so many countries have benefited from Chinese immigrants, why is China itself such a basket case? This is an excellent question, but it once again illustrates the epistemic difficulties. China has been a rockstar for most of the 3000+ years of its existence. Should it be disqualified because it’s had a rough patch for the last 5% of that period? Maybe? How would you answer that question? What countries would you compare China to? What hard data would you assemble? I completely understand that this is a point that bears discussion, but how could you ever be certain one way or the other?

Eschatological Implications

This, then, is the problem. “How much immigration to allow and from where?” is one of the many large questions facing the world. Everyone seems to agree that the effects of policies which implement one answer over another will be large and consequential. The problem is that there is vast disagreement on whether the effects will be large, consequential and positive, or whether they will be large, consequential and negative. So how are we to resolve this? How does one decide between Bryan Caplan and his book showing that unlimited immigration will be awesome and Garett Jones and his book showing that unlimited immigration would devastate innovation and make the country’s culture unrecognizable?

I think the answer is that people largely decide based on their biases. And you probably can’t blame them, because there doesn’t appear to be any other way of deciding. Certainly I haven’t had any luck with other methods.

I’m not saying that I put forth the maximum amount of effort I possibly could to answer the question of how much immigration to allow, but I’ve put forth a lot. I’ve read and reviewed multiple books. I interacted with Caplan on Twitter and Jones in person. I’ve asked questions, and gotten answers. I’ve read at least a hundred essays, and the abstracts of at least a dozen papers. Beyond all that I’ve thought long and hard about it. In short I’ve done probably 100x as much as one could reasonably expect out of the average individual, and yet I suspect that whatever certainty I feel about my opinions is largely based on my initial biases, and only a small amount on the data. And I’m running out of ideas on how to change that.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self 

By: Michael Easter

Published: 2021

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That our pursuit of comfort and convenience has led, at best, to an unprecedented experiment in changing our environment, and, at worst, to a huge array of harmful second order effects.

What’s the author’s angle?

Easter is an editor for Men’s Health, and a writer for Outside Magazine, so he’s obviously predisposed to be a proponent of “uncomfortable” outdoor activities.

Who should read this book?

This is very close to being an “everyone”. The way in which he summarizes research in a broad array of fields makes it both generally applicable and interesting. But if you’re already mostly on top of your health you could probably get by with just listening to one of his podcast appearances. I heard him on Peter Attia’s, but he was also on Rogan. (Which I haven’t listened to.)

General Thoughts

A full review of this book will appear in the second issue of American Hombre (Subscribe today!) So I’m leaving the meat of my discussion for that space. I will however steal one paragraph from that review:

Before we get to the actual content of the book, I have to say something about the subtitle: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. If you’re anything like me, it might be giving you second thoughts about reading the book. It shouldn’t. I have to assume that this phrase was added at the insistence of the publisher. No version of that phrase occurs in the actual text (not even “healthy self”) and even the word “reclaim” only occurs once, and it’s unrelated. The subtitle isn’t wrong exactly, but I don’t think it strikes the right tone. If I had been in charge of subtitling the book I would have gone with: Wrestle Discomfort to Salvage Your Life Before You Die of Depression or Diabetes. But who knows if that subtitle would have sold as well.


Infinite Jest 

by: David Foster Wallace

Published: 1996

1079 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where it’s impossible to give a brief summation. But if you were looking for a main theme “addiction” would have to be near the top of the list.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a gripping plot, if tangents annoy you, or if you’ve never read a 1000+ page book then this is probably not the book for you. On the other hand if you’re looking for a deep, beautifully written, discursive magnum opus that’s also full of wisdom, then you might decide this is one of the best books ever.

General Thoughts

For me Infinite Jest seemed pretty daunting. Not merely because it’s long, it also seems pretty dense. And then there are the legendary footnotes, some of which go on for pages and have footnotes of their own. As a result I ended up taking three stabs at it:

My first attempt was last year, and my plan was to listen to the audiobook while walking with a physical copy of the book, so that whenever a footnote came up I could stop listening, pull the book out of my satchel, and read the footnote. The difficulty of coordinating all of this plus the length of some of the footnotes created enough friction that I stopped doing it for long enough that I felt like I needed to start over.

The second attempt was earlier this year, and this attempt flamed out when I realized that despite listening to the first 8 hours of the book a second time, and reading all the footnotes that I was still confused. This is when I picked up A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest (which I finished in September and reviewed here). That book helped, and it was nice, but in the end I’m going to say it was unnecessary. 

This takes us to the third attempt. Armed with a knowledge of all the characters and a plot summary I could refer to I set off again, from the beginning. And having made it all the way to the end here’s what I would recommend. Just listen to the book and focus on enjoying it. The footnotes are interesting, but you can also safely ignore them. Knowledge of the characters is helpful, but all of the important character information will become clear.

As is so often the case, if you’re going to tackle a really long book, audio is the way to go. Infinite Jest has numerous different styles and having a great narrator who can switch between these styles and do all the voices made listening a delight. And that’s really what this book is, a series of delightful stories with a moderate level of connection, but each scene is a gem, and you should just enjoy them.

I was accused recently of assuming that length is automatically a bad quality. The idea being that if you really enjoyed something wouldn’t you want it to go on as long as possible? The answer is that of course I would, but it’s pretty rare for that to happen. Well, it happened here. I would have been happy if the book had been 25% longer (but probably not more than that. It is a super long book.)


What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by: Randall Munroe

Published: 2022

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle gives a pretty good description, though I would also mention that the book is full of delightful stick figure illustrations.

Who should read this book?

I assume that a significant number of you are already familiar with Randall Munroe and his webcomic XKCD. In which case you’ve probably already made up your mind. If you aren’t familiar with it, well then what’s wrong with you? As penance you should probably read this book.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I would have been totally fine if it were longer. It went by all too quickly. Here are some of the questions Munroe answers:

What would happen if the Earth’s Rotation were sped up until a day only lasted one second?

What if I want to heat my house using toasters. How many do I need?

If the universe stopped expanding right now, how long would it take for a human to drive a car all the way to the edge of the universe?

The last one includes illustrations of the moon-sized quantity of gasoline that would be required, along with an illustration of the 10^17 tons of snacks which would be required, but he spends most of the space talking about how difficult it would be to fill the time. It would be a very, very long road trip.


The Sandman Book One 

by: Neil Gaiman

Published: The comics were originally published starting in 1989.

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The strange adventures of Dream/Morpheus/Sandman, starting with his decades long imprisonment and escape and then continuing on with his efforts to rebuild his domain. 

Who should read this book?

Sandman is everywhere at the moment. There’s the Netflix series and the Audible adaptation. But the comic books came first, so if you’re interested in things perhaps this is where you should start.

General Thoughts

I have long had the goal to read comic book series. I even bought the nice leatherbound collections, but that actually slowed me down because those seemed too nice to just read, and procrastination was easy and low cost. But then suddenly, as I already mentioned, it was everywhere, and the task became more urgent. I take great pleasure, when someone asks me about a TV show or a movie, of being able to archly respond, “No, but I’ve read the book.” And I was in danger of losing that small joy. So I bought this, less fancy collection, and read it.

It was good, but not revelatory. I think over the years I’d built it up too much in my mind. Which is not to say I’m going to stop reading it, merely that it might not be the greatest thing ever. So far the main character is cool, but kind of one-dimensional. The supporting characters are where it’s at. And really the best part of all is the world-building. The alternate universe Gaiman lays out here is really rich and interesting.

It is very definitely for mature audiences, unlike most of the stuff I review, so keep that in mind. 

Having read the book, the question then becomes do I watch the series and/or listen to the adaptation? That’s always been a tough question for me. If I enjoy something then it’s nice to go deep, but on the other hand surely there are better things to do than hear the same story told slightly differently for a third time? 

I guess I’ll finish all the books first and then see where I’m at.


Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2022

697 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conclusion to the Expeditionary Force series where the cliffhanger of Book 14 gets resolved and everyone, hopefully, lives happily ever after.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first 14 books, then you should definitely read this one. The bigger question is that now, knowing how it all ends, should you start the series in the first place? Well…

General Thoughts

I listened to this series, and if you add it all up (including books 3.5 and 7.5 which I also listened to) it comes to 286 hours. Now, of course, I didn’t listen to it at normal speed. R.C. Bray, the narrator, isn’t the slowest narrator out there, or the best at enunciation (he’s fine, just not exceptional) so I think I ended up dialing things in at around 2.7x, maybe 2.8? We’ll go with 2.8 which would put me at just over 100 hours — two and a half weeks of full time work. Obviously I was doing other things while I listened: walking, driving, cleaning, etc. And early on, the series was so enjoyable that I was listening to it even when I normally wouldn’t bother. Like during the five minutes it took me to go upstairs to get some food. In other words the initial 30 hours of the series went faster than 30 hours of listening normally would.

As part of that, the series made me realize that I could and probably should be reading more books just for the enjoyment of it. I think over the last few years, as I’ve publicly reviewed every book I read, that the amount of reading I do strictly because I enjoy it has declined. So if nothing else the series made a positive improvement on that front. And I appreciate it for doing that, but it also illustrates why, in the end, it wasn’t a good use of my time, and it’s probably not a good use of your time. This isn’t a hard and fast warning, if you really want to read the series you shouldn’t let me talk you out of it. But just based on that standard I know that there are several books I could have re-read that would have provided more pleasure than the 286 hours of Expeditionary Force. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is only 111 hours and I know I want to re-read that. 

You might now be wondering if there’s some portion of the series that’s worth reading. A stopping place where the expected value is positive? Possibly the first four books? But that’s a very weak suggestion. I think the middle books get pretty repetitive, and the final books, while slightly less repetitive, end up being more ridiculous. But it’s not as if the first four books are masterpieces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all fun, but even if you stop early I’m not sure that fun vs. time spent is ever definitely positive.

I might be singing a different tune if he had stuck the landing, but he didn’t. Part of what kept me reading was the world building, and the mysteries he hinted would eventually be revealed. On this front he did better than some. I don’t think he left any of the mysteries unresolved, but the reveals were underwhelming, particularly the very biggest mystery. I don’t want to oversell how bad it was. Ending things is very difficult and more often than not I end up feeling let down by them, so on that front the EF ending was average. Not especially bad, but not especially good either. If it had been exceptionally good, then perhaps that 100 hours would have been worth it. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and if you’re already eight books in, and I had something to do with that, then I apologize. I’m not saying that reading the final seven books won’t be enjoyable, I’m just saying that it will be time consuming.


Speaking of time consuming endeavors followed by mediocre endings, here we are closing out another long post, though this one was on the short side for one of my book review round ups. I keep saying I’m going to try to keep them shorter, and look at this! I kind of, sort of, succeeded. If you’re impressed by my kind of, sort of victory, then you should kind of, sort of consider donating.


Eschatologist #24 – ChatGPT and a Lack of Genius

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In the past this has been the time of year when I made predictions. Those predictions were somewhat different from those given by other people. I’m far more interested in being prepared for black swans than I am in predicting whether some mundane political event has a 90% or a 95% chance of happening. But one of the qualities of black swans is their rarity. As such everything I’ve predicted has yet to occur. In fact, for most of the predictions, there hasn’t even been movement over the last year towards making them more or less likely. There is however one notable exception: artificial intelligence.

In my very first set of predictions I asserted that:

General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.

Though I continue to maintain the accuracy of that prediction I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on it. More so than for any of my other predictions. This pushback has only gotten more intense as the amazing abilities of large language models (LLM) have become increasingly apparent. You may have heard about these models, particularly the one released just a month ago: ChatGPT

If you’ve had the chance to play around with ChatGPT it is pretty freaking amazing. It seems to possess some real intelligence, So am I wrong? And if I’m not wrong, then I have to at least be less certain, right? Well, I don’t think I’m wrong, yet. But it would be foolish not to update my beliefs based on this new evidence, so I have. Still… I don’t think the evidence is as strong as people think. 

We’ve got plenty of evidence for ChatGPT’s ability to produce writing that’s around the average of writing fed into it. But where’s the evidence of it producing far better content than that? Where’s the evidence of genius?

A post from Freddie deBoer sent me down this path. He asked ChatGPT to recreate the “to be or not to be” speech in vernacular African-American English, and it was profoundly mediocre. This by itself isn’t damning, the technology is still very young. But how does ChatGPT get from mediocrity to brilliance?

There are plans to throw even more writing at it, but unless there’s some cache of superlative writing they’ve been holding back on, won’t more writing just be a way of more deeply entrenching the average? 

If more writing samples isn’t the answer, then another possibility is training. If we have users provide feedback on when it’s being brilliant vs. when it’s being mediocre, then, in theory, it will become more brilliant. In the same way that they’ve trained it to avoid controversial positions. Unfortunately this sort of reinforcement training doesn’t work great even if the goal is straightforward, and identifying brilliance is anything but straightforward. Also it would seem that “be brilliant” and “avoid controversy” are going to end up being contradictory mandates much of the time.

None of this is to say that ChatGPT and similar technology isn’t going to be terrifically disruptive. It will be. (You may add that to my list of predictions if you wish.) There will be huge changes in the way writing is done, particularly required writing. We may have already seen the effective end of assigning essays as homework. But if AI is going to be as consequential as its proponents claim, it’s not enough for it to produce average work. It has to be able to produce brilliant work.

To distill it down, I have all the faith in the world that a LLM will eventually be able to do 80 or even 90 percent of what humans can do. But it’s that last and top 10% where all the magic is. And it’s not clear to me how we get genius outputs from mediocre inputs, regardless of how voluminous that input is. 


I asked ChatGPT to “write a clever appeal for patreon donations to append to the end of an article about chatGPT’s lack of brilliance”. The first result was long and mediocre, so I told it to shorten it. Then it was short and mediocre. Finally I told it to make it funny. Here’s what it came up with:

Hey there! If you enjoyed reading about chatGPT’s lack of brilliance, you might be wondering how we keep coming up with new material. The answer is simple: we have a team of highly skilled monkeys typing on old typewriters. But seriously, if you want to support our team of human writers and keep the monkey-typing to a minimum, consider becoming a patron on Patreon. Every little bit helps, and with your support, we can keep bringing you the most hilarious (and accurate) AI and NLP content around. Thanks for your help! 


The Ineffability of Conservatism

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I.

I heard a story a while ago that I’m still trying to process. The story was related to me by a friend of mine who’s also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He said that in his congregation there was a young man, who we’ll call Adam. (Details have been changed to protect the identity of “Adam”.) Adam is fourteen, and he had been reading some anti-LDS stuff on the web and because of the things he’d uncovered he decided he didn’t want to attend church any more. A combination of inertia and parental expectations had kept him coming, but it was clear that the situation was only temporary. 

His parents and the Bishop (for people who aren’t LDS bishops preside over local congregations), who were hoping to figure out some way to rebuild his faith and keep him in the church, hit upon the idea of getting his father to teach his son’s Sunday School class. The idea was that if they could shift the context somewhat, that perhaps his father’s words would be more effective than they had been. Also, while my friend wasn’t aware of all the details, he speculated that perhaps the son refused to engage in any kind of discussion at home, and they were hoping he’d be more likely to sit through it in this setting with peer pressure and what have you.

So there Adam is, waiting for Sunday School to start when his dad gets up to teach. Adam, apparently sensing where this is heading says something along the lines of: “No way. I’m not doing this”, and he stands up to leave the room. His father, in a kind of pleading voice says, “I would really like you to stay.” But Adam refuses and walks out of the room. My friend says that since this happened Adam hasn’t been seen in church. Though he still lives at home with his folks, does all the normal stuff, and even has the latest iPhone which, again according to my friend, his parents can scarcely afford.

My friend told me this story because he was struck by the difference between this event and what would have happened if he had tried the same thing forty some odd years ago when he was Adam’s age. First off he doesn’t think it would have ever even occurred to him to walk out on his dad. Given that he can’t imagine doing it, he has an equally difficult time imagining what his father would have done if he had, but he’s pretty sure that it would have gotten physical. I had to agree on both points, I never would have conceived of doing that nor can I entirely imagine the wrath that would have descended, but it feels like things would have bordered on the apocalyptic. 

II.

What are we to make of this story? Of the difference between what happened recently and what would have happened 40 years ago? And of the underlying issue: Should kids have some obligation to the “faith of their fathers”? Should they have any obligations, period, to their parents? Particularly if those parents are still feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their head? Is it a good thing that Adam discovered the truth, or at least “his truth” as early as possible? Or is it a bad thing because whatever you think about God’s actuality, religion provides a cultural grounding that will later be very beneficial? Is it a good thing that his dad acquiesced so easily? Does it represent a better and more enlightened form of parenting? Or is filial piety important, separate from the benefits of religion? Given that teens are pretty dumb might a large amount of deference to adults be a good thing on the balance?

You might already be able to guess my answers to these questions. But these days I feel like my answers are significantly different from the modern consensus. So while I’ve certainly talked about subjects like these, I’ve never been entirely sure if people appreciate such posts or if they merely endure them. I was encouraged to think that it might be the former based on some comments I got on my recent survey. Which is part of the reason why I choose to write on this topic. 

In fact one person directly requested it:

You at one point mentioned that one of your children was NOT a Mormon, or religious? That to me is a huge story, because as far as I can tell being religious is about as good as it can be done in today’s day and age. How did your boy fall off? Will you ever do an episode on that?

I am not going to speak directly about my son because too many people who read this blog know him, which makes the discussion more fraught and complicated than I want to deal with. Though I may make some general references to it.

This second comment was not directly on point, but similar to the story I lead with it’s something I’ve been chewing on for awhile. 

I sometimes wonder how much of your stances on stuff is simply downstream from having a stable family environment and good fatherly figures. It feels like there’s a very hard-to-bridge gap when talking to religious people who have had good families growing up, and I wish I could explain how helpless most secular/liberal people I know really are in this regard.

Explaining the secular benefits of religion has been a long term theme of this blog. And this comment would seem to indicate that I’m actually underselling those benefits, that I have accrued benefits I’m not even aware of. But this also leads to me underselling the difficulties of “just doing it” as it were. And of course Adam still has a good fatherly figure, even if he’s not inclined to listen to him. But you can probably imagine how it all ties together, which is to say it’s not just me, my friend, and Adam’s father who thinks Adam is making a mistake. There are people, who, having grown up without the benefits Adam had, now wish they could access them. People who wish they were in Adam’s position, and if they were, they would make a different decision. 

It is possible I’m reading too much into these comments, and we still haven’t passed from the level of anecdotes to data. But I’d like to provide one final example that very directly speaks to the situation. One of the friends I made on my mission (I served a two year proselytizing mission in the Netherlands) has since that time left the Church, come out as gay, and now lives very happily with his husband on the east coast. You might imagine from this that he wishes he had stood up when he was 14 and walked out of his Sunday School class, and that he definitely regrets wasting two years on a mission. But in fact it’s the exact opposite. He doesn’t begrudge his mission at all, and considers it a major step in turning him into the adult he is now, even though he stopped attending church or being religious decades ago. And he bemoaned the fact that my son was never going to get that experience. 

None of these examples is going to convince someone who’s strongly anti-religious that Adam is making a mistake, but I’m hoping they might do the inverse, that is, convince people who aren’t strongly religious that despite this being an explicitly religious example that Adam nevertheless screwed up. That, even if you don’t believe in the existence of God, you might entertain the idea that there are benefits to raising children in a religion with strong families and fathers, and the whole package. Or to get more basic, that society, in the form of parents, might have something beneficial to pass along to teenagers. And that there needs to be some level of friction for opting out of this transmission.

The rest of the post is going to run with this assumption. Which to me seems pretty self-evident, but if you disagree with it I’d love to hear why.

III.

So Adam made a mistake, but is he the only person responsible for that mistake, or even the primary one? Certainly we’re all ultimately responsible for our actions, but Adam’s pretty young. If we think he’s too immature to understand the benefits of religion, and spending two years on a mission (even if he does subsequently leave the church) is he also too immature to be allowed to make that mistake? In other words, was this actually the Father’s mistake because he didn’t react more forcefully? Was it a mistake to not yell, or to not ground him? Dare we imagine that it was even a mistake to not take him out to the parking lot and wallop him? 

We can’t entirely discount these possibilities, but they’re all things that parents are strongly encouraged not to do anymore, especially the walloping, but even a father grounding a kid for being disrespectful is something that’s mostly fallen out of favor, particularly if it’s related to “forcing your beliefs” on the kid. To put it another way, many, if not most, of the people who feel that Adam made a mistake, would also be of the opinion that if the father did any of the things I listed, he would have made an even bigger mistake. And all of those who think that Adam didn’t make a mistake would definitely think that. So how is the father supposed to act in these circumstances? 

The current answer is that he should show forth unlimited love and acceptance. And this answer is hard to argue with. Both love and acceptance are very important. (Though love is much more important than acceptance, and it’s important to not conflate the two, though people frequently do.) Additionally, over the short term, this tactic probably leads to the best outcomes. But what about over the long term? Does a world where 14 year olds can abandon the traditions of their fathers with impunity end up better than the one where they don’t? But all this just takes us back to the point I made already. What I really want to know is should the father have handled things differently? 

Perhaps, but it would have been very difficult to act other than he did. A father in 2022 is a long, long way from the near absolute authority exercised by the pater familias in ancient Rome. These days if Adam’s father had been too harsh with him, he could have been left entirely without allies. At that point regardless of how the father wanted things to proceed. He wouldn’t have the requisite support to actually enact his desires, and if he went too far the government might even have gotten involved. 

IV.

If Adam was too immature to have made a mistake, and his father didn’t have the backing to have acted other than he did, where was the mistake? Or rather where would we go to correct the mistake? I believe that the difference between today and 40 years ago — when my friend and I were growing up — points to the answer. Neither Adam nor his father are at fault, rather society as a whole is. Over the last 40 years we changed the nature of the water we swim in. In the past the father would have had allies. On some unexpressed level everyone was on the same page when it came to defiant children. But this also meant that the father wouldn’t have needed allies because Adam would have never done what he did. 

So, yes, it would have been a bad thing for my Father to wallop me in the parking lot, and it would have been a bad thing for me to stand up at 14 and effectively tell him to go to hell. But neither of those bad things happened. We achieved the ideal outcome without effort and without drama. And yes, I realize this is an oversimplification, but within it there is a kernel of truth. I avoided making the same mistake Adam did, and my Father didn’t have to raise his hand against me or even say anything. How did that happen? How did society back then manage to coordinate to achieve this outcome?

I’m not sure there’s a straightforward answer. Certainly there’s not some switch that we can easily flip back to its historical setting. As I said it was basically just part of the environment, the water we swam in. Back then we all knew not to mess with our fathers. And it wasn’t specific. It wasn’t don’t do X or Y will happen. Both the nature of X and the nature of Y were left ambiguous, or at least the border was, but walking out on my father in the middle of Church was clearly deep in the territory of X, and it would bring some unknown and terrible Y. Despite this ambiguity everyone was essentially on the same page. But whatever that coordination was we’ve lost it. And it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to get it back. 

This is the ineffable nature of conservatism. It’s hard to describe the water when you’re in it. What it was that kept things working this way. What it is that we’ve lost. Why Adam made a mistake. And why “secular/liberal people” feel “helpless” as mentioned by the second comment. On the other hand it’s very easy to point to the gains brought by liberalism: women’s suffrage, the repeal of Jim Crow laws, healthcare for the old and the poor, and of course fewer kids getting walloped by their fathers for expressing defiance.  

This is part of what makes the culture war so contentious, and acrimonious. It’s easy for liberals to fall into the trap of believing that conservatives are just a bunch of old people yelling at clouds, because that’s precisely how nebulous their complaints seem. But conservatives know that things are different, that the water is changed, even if it’s hard to describe and even more difficult to solve. How do you get an entire society to all agree to go back to the “old ways” when you can’t even entirely define what those “old ways” were?

V.

All of this leads one to wonder, if it’s impossible to restore the consensus that was lost, how did we arrive at that consensus in the first place? Was it just an artifact of historical barbarism, of a more benighted time when “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, and parents were strong and children were weak? Or is it possible that it evolved as part of culture and society for precisely the reasons I mentioned above. And now that it’s gone we’ve ended up with a bunch of children and young adults who have been cast adrift at the mercy of their immature desires. (This post could be expanded to include statistics on the increase in suicidality and depression among that cohort but I think if you’re not already with me on this point that additional statistics are not going to tip the scale.)

But rather than arguing over the benefits of the old system it might be useful to consider the benefits of the new system. What did Adam get by walking out of church and never returning? Here I’m obviously biased and you should definitely take those biases into account when you consider my answer. With that caveat in mind, I’m not really seeing many. Sure he saves some time, a few hours on Sunday and a few hours here and there outside of Sunday. Additionally he’s spared some aggravation, annoyance and anxiety at the whole situation. There’s also probably some things that I’m overlooking, but overall, when piled up, it doesn’t seem to amount to much in the overall scheme of things. Which is not to say that the entire project of liberalism isn’t positive on the balance, but is there no way to preserve some of the best parts of what it replaced?

The possibility exists that there is no benefit to remaining with the faith of your fathers, even just until you’re an adult. That all the people I reference in Part II are wrong. If so, then perhaps Adam did the wise thing. But that’s not how it seems to be playing out, not just with Adam, not just with people close to me, but with young men everywhere. I understand I’m retreading territory which was already well explored by Pascal, but I think the math might be in favor of religion even if we don’t bring in an eternal and infinite reward.

Moving closer to home, I know a lot of Adams, and for nearly all of them, leaving church, contrary to the desires of their parents, starts a trend of isolation and sloth. This trend does not continue forever, but it continues long enough that most end on a plateau of ambition and achievement that’s well below where they would have been had they stayed. 

If we broaden our focus to all young men, one can’t help but consider the incel phenomenon — both those who identify as such and those who are involuntarily celibate without adopting the label. This problem would also appear to be tightly related. Because you know where there’s a lot more women than men, women who have a higher than average desire to marry? Most churches!

This is only one example of conservative ineffability, and a somewhat disjointed one at that. (Though only part of that is my failings as a writer. Part is the aforementioned ineffability.) There are certainly other examples, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Society has changed in profound and often unseen ways over the last few decades. (It should be noted that the US Christian percentage hovered around 90% as recently as the 1980. And church attendance was at 70% as recently as 2000.) And, because of their subtlety these changes are still being grappled with. There are a lot of Adams, and it’s not clear what to do about them, but I would opine that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. The problem is difficult to define, but that doesn’t mean it’s not consequential and important. 


I’m posting this right before Christmas, which means the connection to donating should be obvious. But instead I’m going to ask for something else, consider reaching out to a young man who seems to be having a hard time. 


The 8 Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Psychology of Totalitarianism by: Mattias Desmet
  2. The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge
  3. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud by: Phillip Rieff
  4. Plato: A Very Short Introduction by: Julia Annas
  5. Jesus’ Son by: Denis Johnson
  6. Tombs of Atuan by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Roadside Picnic by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  8. Purple Days by: Baurus

I finally got a chance to compile all of the survey results. One of the big questions was whether I should move to Substack, and the results there were inconclusive. So if I do end up doing that it won’t be anytime soon, also I can probably achieve most of the same results if I just utilized ConvertKit better, but distribution and promotion have never been my strong suites. Beyond that I did attempt to distribute a couple of $100 Amazon gift cards. One person politely declined, but the other is now the proud owner of more books. (Or more of one of the millions of other things Amazon sells, but I hope they bought books.)

Beyond that another takeaway is that I have been spending too much time on this book review post. Reviewing books is easier than writing essays, but the book review posts have been slowly metastasizing such that frequently they take about twice as many hours to put together as an essay, and while lots of you like my reviews, it’s also evident that they’re not the star of the show. Thus, I’m planning to dial them back a little bit. For example only one Eschatological Review per month, and a greater focus on brevity with the rest of the reviews, shifting the time thus saved over to my essays, or my “always on the horizon”, “will be done someday”, book.  Less “review you might find in a magazine” (though I’m doing some of that, see here) and more “review that you might find on Amazon”. Though I will continue to keep the different sections, unless…

No pressure, but for the few who prefer my essays to my reviews, if you could let me know what you might like to see added to the reviews to make them more appealing. And for those that love the reviews, if you could let me know what parts you would hate to see go, so I don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be great. 


I- Eschatological Review

The Psychology of Totalitarianism 

By: Mattias Desmet

Published: 2022

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very ambitious book, and it covers a lot, COVID, mass formation, mechanistic thinking, etc. but if one were to try to boil it down, the common thread is that increasing technological control (in the broadest sense of that phrase) is no longer the solution to our problems, but rather the cause.

What’s the author’s angle?

Desmet is a professor and a practicing psychologist from Belgium, so the word “psychology” might mean more to him than it means to you or me.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book, but as I said it’s very ambitious, and probably too short to adequately support such ambition. As such, if you demand rigorous support for arguments this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re okay with people creating grand narratives which include a lot of speculation, this is a very interesting book. 

General Thoughts

One of the reasons I’m more forgiving of grand narratives of the sort I just mentioned is that if one is going to explain the dysfunction of the modern world something grand is in fact required. If there was just one small thing wrong then we would have figured it out long ago. Even if there were numerous small things wrong this process would still be effective, and we would notice ongoing improvement. And to be fair that was happening up until say decade or so ago. Only if the problem is deep and complex would we still be grappling with it. Still, in spite of this conclusion, I’m wary of theories, no matter how subtle and complex, which claim to explain everything. Since I think that if there was just one root problem, no matter how intricate it ended up being, that we would have figured that out as well. Though perhaps not, particularly if the problem nestles comfortably within our incentives and biases, which it almost certainly does.

In any event, I found the book interesting, but for most of the phenomena he talked about I didn’t feel like he went deep enough for me to definitively judge whether he was entirely correct, mostly correct, partially correct, or entirely wrong. My sense, which was clearly informed by my own incentives and biases, is that he wasn’t entirely wrong about anything, which means he was at least partially correct about everything. Still the book would have benefited from more depth.

For reasons too lengthy to get into this is the last review I’m writing and I’m entirely out of time, so while I wish I could go into the many subjects Desmet raises, I’m going to limit my focus to just one.

Eschatological Implications

There was one area where I think he was definitely on to something, and this was something new, or at least new to me. We like to imagine that there was this fork in the road early in the 20th century. The fascists and communists went one way, and the liberals and the democrats went another way. The former descended into totalitarianism while the latter group rejected authoritarianism in favor of freedom — free markets, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc. 

The story Desmet tells is a different one. In his telling the Enlightenment and the associated progress both before and after, particularly the increasing importance of science, created a sense of control, a mechanistic view of the world. As a result of this we experienced a constant trend towards increased governmental powers, a trend which eventually ends in totalitarianism. Without democratic norms to slow things down the fascists and the communists got their first, but it’s impossible to have a modern system of government, with a mechanistic viewpoint (which is the essence of technocracy) without following the same trend, and eventually arriving in the same place. Liberal ideas like those embodied in the Bill of Rights and similar documents may slow things down, but ultimately they’re powerless before the appeal of greater control, and the better outcomes that control promises. That, as I said in a previous post, they will have found The Answer.

Lately we’ve seen that science has not quite given us the certainty or control we had hoped. And Desmet illustrates this by opening his book with a discussion of the replication crisis. However these obvious failings haven’t really stopped people. As you might imagine Desmet uses the pandemic as exhibit number 1 for using uncertain science to impose massive, arguably totalitarian, restrictions. The point being, if people think they have or can figure out the best way to run a society (again see my previous post) then it seems immoral to them not run society in exactly that fashion, regardless of who may object or the basis for those objections. 

And who are the people objecting? What power do they have to reverse this trend? Not much. They’ve been labeled as populists and largely ghettoized. Which is to say the greater libertarian streak of Western Democracies has slowed down this trend, but it hasn’t arrested it. Whatever libertarianism there once was is draining away at an alarming rate. 

Desmet’s basic assertion is that “The solution to our fear and uncertainty does not lie in the increase of (technological) control.” On this we agree. Unfortunately it appears to be the only tool we know how to use anymore.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

By: Adrian Wooldridge

Published: 2021

504 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of meritocracy, how it contributed to the modern world, why it has recently come under attack, and how to renew it.

What’s the author’s angle?

Wooldridge is a member of the global elite and a beneficiary of meritocracy (he worked at The Economist for more than 20 years.) It’s also clear that he finds populism to be distressing

Who should read this book?

I found this book to be far more a history of meritocracy than a defense of meritocracy, though it certainly tries to do both. If you’re looking for just the latter then I would skip this book, if you’re looking for both, or just the former, then I would pick it up.

General Thoughts

Part of the problem with doing a deep historical dive into a subject in order to defend your interpretation of that subject is that in the process of laying out all the facts you give people all the tools necessary to arrive at a different interpretation than the one you’re defending. This is the experience I had with Wooldridge’s book. But it may take me a moment to get there. 

I already spent a lot of time on this book in my post, Finding “The Answer”, but that was a higher level view of the entire process of organizing society, now it’s time to examine the specific methodology of meritocracy. In his historical survey Wooldridge examines several cultures and societies. As you might imagine he spends a lot of time on the Chinese mandarins and the imperial examination, which I also spent a lot of time on in that previous post. As an additional example he spends quite a bit of time discussing the Jewish rabbis, and the vast system of Talmudic education. 

…the Jewish people played a prominent role in developing the meritocratic idea. They didn’t develop meritocracy in the narrow sense of selecting people for positions on the basis of their intellectual powers, as Plato did in theory and the Chinese did in practice. But they did so in more indirect ways. They led the world in emphasizing intellectual success as a way of securing the survival of the group. They heaped honour on people who could perform demanding intellectual feats, from rabbis to scholars. They embraced objective measures of intellectual success – particularly examinations – as ways of establishing their credentials and combating anti-Jewish prejudice. Jews played a prominent role in both developing IQ tests and opposing affirmative action: think of Hans Eysenck in the first category and Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer in the second.

After giving these two historical examples along with mentioning Plato (which will be important in just a second) he goes on to discuss how Europe adopted the Chinese exam system and the Jewish mania for learning and went on to dominate the world. Ideologically things started with the renaissance, but practically it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that we start to see large scale movement from aristocracy of birth to aristocracy of talent. As you can imagine the biggest practical changes came with the revolutions. First the American, but most notably the French. 

The French Revolution injected the question of meritocracy, like a shot of adrenalin, into the heart of European politics. Article VI of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (1789) provided the most concise statement of the emerging meritocratic idea:

Law is the expression of the general will; all citizens have the right to concur personally, or through their representatives, in its formation; it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal before it, are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity, and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents [Emphasis by Wooldridge].

This contains echoes of the Chinese idea that the mandarin elite should scour the population for potential mandarins or the Platonic idea that embryonic guardians can be found in every class. But it goes further: it suggests that all citizens are equal before the state and can push themselves forward as potential decision-makers. The onus is on individuals to compete for political positions on the basis of their talents and virtues rather than for the state to micromanage things from on high.

This is very strong evidence for the presence of meritocracy. But I don’t think it does as much to explain European dominance as Wooldridge imagines. For one thing Europe was already pretty dominant by the late 1700’s. It’s not as if Europe and America had these revolutions and only then did they proceed to make their presence felt around the world. That had been going on for hundreds of years. Perhaps you might argue that while this was the full flowering of meritocracy, that other forms of meritocracy were at work in the background. The best candidate for this background meritocracy would be schooling, in particular the universities, but even there it took a long time for full meritocracy to arrive. For example Trinity College, Cambridge, which “led the way”, only introduced written examinations for admittance in 1744 and they didn’t introduce anything resembling scholarships until 1786, which seems pretty important to the operation of a true meritocracy. And as late as 1837 when the future 10th Earl of Wemyss was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, he was asked just one question: “How’s your father?” From all this one gets the sense that while meritocracy was one of the many useful tools a confident Europe grabbed onto as part of their rise that by the time true meritocracy arrived Europe was already near its peak. 

Of course it is possible that I’m creating a strawman, that Wooldridge is not claiming that meritocracy was responsible for the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and all of the other progress which took off in Europe. However his book is subtitled “How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” so if it is a strawman it’s not much of one. 

Of course there are numerous theories for why things “took off” in Europe, with not only numerous different mechanisms, but wildly varied starting points. And I doubt that Wooldridge is claiming that meritocracy is the sole explanation. (Though it seems fair to say he’d put it in the top 3.) But even if we just limit ourselves to the data presented in his book, I think there’s a different, better explanation for the success of the Chinese, the Jews and the Europeans than the one Wooldridge provided. 

Wooldridge’s preferred explanation is that all three used meritocracy to replace rule by inheritance with rule by the most gifted, and that naturally led to better outcomes. This explanation makes sense, better rulers create better rules. Under this interpretation all we have to do is keep our focus on merit and everything will turn out great. But I think Wooldridge overlooked the truly critical component to the story of the Chinese and the Jews and later the West. And here at last we return to where I started. 

Yes, the imperial examination system sought out the most talented and made them mandarins, but it also created cultural homogeneity around a set of very pro-civilizational ideas: the civic religion of confucianism. It wasn’t just that the mandarins thus selected were smart, the system also forced them to rigorously study ideas like: righteousness, sincerity and propriety. Confucianism also includes a set of five relationships, the first of which was prince over subject. (Which fell under the principle of righteousness.) Not only was all of this part of culture. It was the subject of the most intense studying imaginable as part of the preparation for the imperial exams.

We see something similar with the Jews. There it was the rigorous study of an actual religion but with a similarly civic minded and cohesive ideology. For example the idea that Jews were a special people who had been chosen by God. In both of these cases, was it the fact that they were led by proto-technocrats that allowed them to survive as a nation for thousands of years, or was it the fact that they used meritocracy as one part of an intense effort to imbue the upper class with a strong and united national identity?

All of this takes us to Europe and the West. As I mentioned, if you’re looking for evidence of early attempts at meritocracy you need to look at the schools and universities, where giving education to the talented as opposed to those who were just well-connected started as early as the 14th century. But what sort of education was it? Western universities were basically religious institutions, where the Bible was studied maniacally, and when students weren’t studying the Bible they were immersed in the Classics, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Virgil. Up until relatively recently an intense study of Christianity and the Classics was a university education. (I uncovered an article in the Atlantic from 1917 arguing that it was finally time to dispense with mandatory Latin.) 

Again we’re forced to ask the question, did the West succeed because of meritocracy? Or did it succeed because it created a unified ideology — a civic religion — among its upper class. You might point to the Protestent Reformation as a time of disunity, but does fighting over Christianity make you less devoted to Christianity or more?

It could be argued that the focus on Classics and Christianity was not as intense as the Chinese study of Confucius or the Jewish study of the Talmud, but then we still have a long way to go before we last the thousands of years both of them did, and it kind of feels like we’re not going to. 


The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud

By: Phillip Rieff

Published: 1966

325 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the modern world has embraced a “gospel of personal happiness, defined as the unbridled pursuit of impulse, and yet we remain profoundly unhappy.” 

What’s the author’s angle?

Rieff started as a huge fan of Freud and did his doctoral dissertation on him, declaring that he had written “the masterwork of the century”. But gradually came to see that Freud’s ideas heralded the beginning of the end. To understand this transition it’s useful to compare Freud to Marx. Rieff was a fan of both, and both seemed to provide visions of a much better future. But when it came time to implement these visions, the actual result was misery for millions.

Who should read this book?

Those who are really interested in the decline of Western culture and believe that it’s primarily an issue of narcissism… otherwise, probably I would pass on it, it’s super dense and academic.

General Thoughts

There are lots of people who think that the woke have gone too far. Who see the excesses and acknowledge that things have gotten crazy, but despite this craziness they’re not worried. It seems reasonable to argue that the craziness is limited to a few individuals, and that beyond that it’s a temporary condition, similar to the campus unrest of the late 60’s and early 70s which seemed apocalyptic at the time, but which are now only dimly remembered. You might be able to talk them into the idea that it’s widespread (particularly with the advent of woke capital) but if so they will fall back to the idea that it’s transitory. A short blip before we settle into a new normal. 

I think Rieff is a valuable counterbalance to this optimism because he shows that, for those who were far sighted enough, this situation could be seen from as far back as the early 60’s (I know the book was published in 66, but books don’t spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.) In other words all of the really deep and insightful criticisms of modernity were being made by Rieff decades ago.

I won’t be doing much of a review because I’m still digesting the book. It’s dense, and important. If you’re still looking for a review other people have done a good job of distilling it. And you might want to check out my review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman, which is the book that pointed me at Rieff. Accordingly, rather than try to do my own, lesser, distillation. I thought I’d just toss out a half a dozen amazing quotes to give you a sense of his prescience. These are taken largely at random, there are dozens more.

…our presently schizoid existence in two cultures—vacillating between dead purposes and deadly devices to escape boredom.

Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going…he understands morality as that which is conducive to increased activity. The important thing is to keep going.

…clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct.

As new religions are constantly being born, so psychotherapeutic faiths are constantly breaking out of their clinical restrictions.

In Jung’s interpretation, the trouble with Freud was that he had remained a Jew who had merely exchanged ritual obedience to the laws of the Hebrew God, for intellectual obedience to the laws of sexuality. 

If yesterday’s analytic thrust is to become part of tomorrow’s cultural super-ego, it must take on an institutional form, defend itself not only as true, but also as good and dig into personality as a demand system. Yet it is precisely this that the new arts and social sciences, in their very nature, cannot accomplish. They cannot create the ardent imaginations necessary to the forming of new communities.


Plato: A Very Short Introduction 

By: Julia Annas

Published: 2003

144 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where “it does exactly what it says on the tin”.

Who should read this book?

It’s marketed towards those who don’t want to read Plato’s actual writings, but really Plato is pretty readable, and there’s really no reason to read this instead of say “Crito” (which is only 4300 words). But if you’ve read a lot of Plato and you’re looking for some context and some synthesis this is a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This is my second “Very Short Introduction” book, and so far I think they’re useful. My sense was that this was better than the one on Socrates, but neither was particularly elegant. Fitting everything into a short space, where comprehension is at a premium necessitates a pretty dry style. Which is not to say that it was annoyingly dry, more that it provides no opportunity for the book to be delightfully discursive, witty or allusive.


Jesus’ Son 

By: Denis Johnson

Published: 1992

133 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of vaguely autobiographical short stories about Johnson’s time as a druggie and lowlife among other druggies and lowlifes. The title comes from the song “Heroin” by Velvet Underground which was written by Lou Reed

Who should read this book?

This book is close to being an “everyone” book, but I resolved to be more parsimonious. It’s short and it has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever encountered. I will say that the audio version is particularly compelling. Like the saddest, most broken down person you know telling you the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. 

General Thoughts

I read this as part of Freddie deBoer’s book club. Which as of this writing is still occurring, so if you’re interested in the book, and participating alongside someone would make it better, you can still get in on that. Beyond that I’d heard people rave about this book for a long time, and I should have picked it up sooner. Johnson is an amazing writer. Though as you can imagine from the description it’s definitely for mature audiences.


Tombs of Atuan 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1971

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the second book of the Earthsea Trilogy, telling the continuing adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. But he’s not the main character, Tenar, a young priestess to the “Nameless Ones” is. She’s supposed to be the latest reincarnation of all the previous priestesses, and thus the most important priestess to the most important gods, but she’s still just a teenage girl. This tension makes for compelling reading.

Who should read this book?

I will say the same thing I said about Wizard of Earthsea: Everyone. (I know I said I was going to be more sparing.) It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short. I guess if you hate fantasy, maybe not, but even then I’d give it a try. 

General Thoughts

Despite what I just said, the lack of breadth makes this, for me, the weakest of the original Earthsea trilogy, though it’s still really, really good. And as I said this was just me personally, it’s my wife’s favorite of the three, she really loves Tenar, and her whole story. So she was shocked when I told her the audiobook had a male narrator (Rob Inglis who also did the Lord of the Rings) and I can see her point. 


Roadside Picnic 

by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Published: 1972

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Aliens have visited the Earth, but rather than conquering humans or even communicating with us they just left “Zones”, areas full of mysterious artifacts and dangerous forces. Humans are compared to insects emerging after a roadside picnic, examining: ”Old spark plugs…rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind.” (This was published in the Soviet Union in 1972; apparently picnics in the Soviet Union involved a lot of car repair.) The zones are super dangerous and off limits to all but the government. Stalkers are people who illegally enter the zone in search of artifacts to sell. The novel is the story of one of these stalkers, Redrick “Red” Schuhart.

Who should read this book?

I think if you like science fiction at all you should read this book. Particularly if you like the older stuff or if you’re trying to broaden your horizons. This is one of the best known examples of Soviet science fiction, and it’s worth reading just for that.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, though I confess that I expected the book to have more of a “Soviet feel” than it actually did, but this violation of my expectations turned out to be a good thing. The differences between this book and other old science fiction I’ve read were subtle, it was less optimistic to the point of being grim, but not dystopian. It also featured a lower class of people than most English science fiction, at least what I’m familiar with. These differences helped the book to be a great story without being either weirdly foreign or heavy-handed propaganda. 


Purple Days

By: Baurus

Published: 2021

2200 Pages (According to Goodreads, and my rough Kindle calculations)

Briefly, what is this book about?

Game of Thrones fanfiction where every time Joffrey dies his life starts over again — Groundhog Day like — at the beginning of the series. After numerous deaths he starts becoming a better person, eventually saving the world almost in the fashion of a superhero.

Who should read this book?

I thought it was pretty good. But at 2200 pages it’s difficult to recommend to anyone. Though I guess if you view it as a series it’s not that bad, though it’s not written as a series, it’s basically one enormous book. 

General Thoughts

A couple of months ago I was at a Slate Star Codex meetup, and someone mentioned that they were into ratfic (which is short for Rationalist Fiction). The best known examples of this genre would be Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) and Unsong. I had read both of those so I asked him what else he would recommend. This book was his recommendation. I’m not sure if I would classify it as rationalist work, but he did, and people have posted about it in the rationalist subreddit, though the posters there share my uncertainty. 

If I had to classify it, the book spends more time exploring humanism than rationalism, but it spends most of its time just being a straight fantasy novel. I would have actually preferred it if it had been more strictly a rationalist morality tale. All of the added fantastic elements and the discursions into Joffrey recreating the renaissance, distracted from the interesting growth that just comes from trial and error. Which is the heart of rationality.  Also there was a missed opportunity to explore the overwhelming importance of X-Risks. Baurus does some of this, but by the end it’s seriously melodramatic. Those are kind of the negatives. (In addition to the length obviously.) 

On the positive side the premise was incredibly interesting, and with 2200 pages to work with Baurus does some truly amazing exploration of the more obscure corners of the world of the Song of Ice and Fire. And while the writing isn’t as polished as what you would get from a more mainstream book, it was mostly quite good.

I did feel that it started to drag near the end (so the last 500 pages), as the aforementioned melodrama began to predominate, and I ended up partially finishing it out of the sunk cost fallacy. But also, I wanted to see how it ended, he had at least made it interesting enough for that. And while there were some great moments near the end, It cut off pretty abruptly for a 2200 page book, and I’m not sure he really stuck the landing.

Despite all of this, overall I was left with the desire to read more fanfiction. Which is probably not a great idea. Though if this same person recommends something else I might just take him up on it.


This didn’t end up being as brief as I thought, but I did end up using a lot more quotes from the books, which is content I didn’t have to write, so it is a little bit easier. If you think that paying someone to copy from other books is a worthwhile use of your money consider donating.


Eschatologist #23 – Avoiding Risk

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I’m going to talk about FTX. I know, you’re sick of hearing about it, and you’re sick of Sam Bankman-Fried’s face and seeing his name abbreviated as just SBF. But out of the thousands of “hot takes” this story has generated, this is the “hot take” you needed, but didn’t know it. Though, as with all examples of greatness, I’ll be standing on the shoulders of giants. Let’s start with Tyler Cowen, the noted economist who observed that:

Hardly anyone associated with Future Fund saw the existential risk to…Future Fund, even though they were as close to it as one could possibly be.

Future Fund was also called FTX Future Fund, and was wholly funded by “profits” from FTX. Their primary focus was on preventing future risk, so you can see how Cowen might find the situation ironic. I also think it’s super ironic, though I’m inclined to cut them a little bit of slack. Risk detection and mitigation is hard, and technology has only made it harder. 

Of course thievery predates humans by tens of millions of years, and even Ponzi schemes have been around since at least 1920 when Charles Ponzi started his. (You can see why I’m only cutting them a little bit of slack.) But the crypto-specific version of the scam was brand new. Being able to privately mint something that is half currency/half asset and then sell a small portion of it to create a scandalously inflated mark to market value for that currency/asset is an innovation. An innovation in evil but an innovation nonetheless. 

So yes, as has been pointed out, this lack of foresight is perhaps not quite the abject failure Cowen makes it out to be, but it’s still a good illustration of how difficult it is to avoid risk. You can have an organization where that’s their entire purpose, and they can be blindsided by something because they were only looking for specific kinds of risk. 

The Future Fund was focused on exotic risks, which is a fascination many people have recently developed. But in their focus on exotic risks they missed a very common risk. They could imagine a malevolent all powerful AI. (It’s the first item on their Areas of Interest list.) But they couldn’t imagine that SBF was a common criminal (or they could but didn’t do anything about it). 

The simple point would be: don’t let shiny new exotic risks distract you from common everyday risks. But the larger point is that we have to have a comprehensive approach to risk. The Future Fund and others are correct, technology has created a host of new dangers. But reality is not some game where when you reach the next level you never again see the monsters from the previous levels. We always have to deal with all the monsters, the old ones, the new ones we’ve created, and a whole host of other monsters lurking just out of sight.

The hard and uncaring universe doesn’t grade on a curve. It doesn’t imagine the answer you thought you were giving and say close enough. It doesn’t care what your intentions were — that technology is supposed to be a good thing. When it creates risk it does so randomly and capriciously. To look at just one more recent example: when you close down schools, the universe doesn’t automatically turn that into a good decision because you did it in the name of safety. Risk doesn’t just emerge from actions that are obviously bad. 

This is particularly important when considering technology. Nearly all of it was developed for the benefit of humanity, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t enabled a host of new risks. There are the obvious risks from engineered pandemics, nuclear weapons and being hit by a comet, but it has also brought a host of subtler risks: risks of stagnation, discord, and narcissism. And, as we discovered with FTX, it’s created new ways to package old risks.

So while it’s understandable that Future Fund missed the rampant fraud, it’s not forgivable. Because there is no forgiveness, there are only consequences. And if your fund, or your nation or your world ends, it doesn’t matter how it happened. And while I personally believe our souls will be graded by a kind and understanding judge and our intentions will matter. As long as we’re still in this life, we still need to be aware of all the risks, the old and the new, the big and the small, the flashy and the subtle, but most of all the thousands of new risks we’ve created for ourselves. We need to step up our game.


After all of this you may be wondering, is anything risk free? Or will we inevitably discover that it all has negative second order effects? Well, there is one thing completely free of risk: donating to this blog. And yes, I know that sounds self-interested, but as SBF once said, trust me here. I know what I’m doing.


Book Review: The Ethics of Beauty

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This is a review I did for the first issue of American Hombre, a new magazine being published by a friend of mine. I did an excerpt of it back in September, but he’s graciously agreed to let me release it in its entirety. If this makes you interested in the full magazine, the PDF is currently available for free at americanhombre.gumroad.com. But also you should consider subscribing to the print version. This magazine deserves to be held. 

You can use the coupon code ‘RW’ to get 10% off a subscription or $1 off the price of the print issue. The next issue is coming out in January and it will include another review by me. (The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter, if you’re curious.) 

The Ethics of Beauty

By: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Beauty will save the world.

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. 

And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?

This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.

But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)

I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The Cliffs of Moher, featuring the “Harry Potter Cave” (because it was used in one of the movies.) You might also be familiar with them as the “Cliffs of Insanity” which played such a prominent role in The Princess Bride.

As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise. 

But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values. 

Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.

Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.

But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. 

To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not. 

Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?

First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general. 

Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example.

II- War and the Associated Trauma

The northern transept of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which contains battle standards from previous wars in which the Irish fought.

Patitsas starts his discussion of Beauty in an unusual place. He devotes the very first chapter to a discussion of war, specifically how to heal the trauma that pervades modern warfare. He asserts that much of the reason trauma has become so pervasive is that we have abandoned all efforts at healing soldiers with beauty. We focus only on the truth of it. The deaths, the injuries, the horrible things soldiers witness. Essentially we wallow in the awful facts of war, while making no effort to craft a larger, more spiritual narrative of sin and redemption.

Patitsas asserts that in our current, trivialized conception of beauty, there is nothing beautiful about war or its aftermath. It’s all ugliness, and much of modern therapy is designed to dig up and highlight the ugliness. But under Patitsas’ broader philosophy, healing the trauma of war has to begin with a beauty-first approach to war. There’s the beauty of individuals sacrificing for their brothers in arms, which wars inevitably require. There’s the beauty of community and brotherhood, which creates the necessary bonds for that sacrifice. These are perhaps sometimes acknowledged in the treatment of trauma, but Patitsas goes even farther. 

For Patitsas, trauma is the result of anti-theophanies. Trauma comes from experiencing things that occlude the divine, that make you viscerally doubt the existence of God. It seems overly simplistic to describe it merely as ugliness, but for Patitsas that’s basically what it is — a deep, soul destroying ugliness. The only way to heal it is with true-theophanies, or Beauty. How do we give theophanies to those suffering from Trauma? Patitsas mentions things like Alcoholics Anonymous, and the larger 12-step community, with their core tenet (step 2) of belief in a higher power. But, when talking about war, he spends most of his time talking about the Iliad. 

He borrows this approach from the book Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. Shay argues that reciting the Iliad was a therapeutic act for the ancient Greeks, a way of treating the trauma of war. Patitsas interprets this as healing trauma with beauty. 

Think of how many of our own war movies today tell the story of war in terms of heroics and blood lust. But though the Iliad contains such elements, its larger message is a noble sorrow for the soldiers whose lives are cut short, who experience bad leadership, privation, homesickness, confusion, fear, and pain. The poem was recited to a group of veterans who felt all these emotions again, but on behalf of Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Odysseus, and all the other warriors who in the story go through just what these later soldiers have gone through. The listeners are healed because in grieving for the heroic and ideal combat veterans, they learn to grieve for themselves. 

Patitsas goes on to claim, based on Shay’s work, that this beauty-first approach is more effective than the truth first approach, and leads to better results and fewer military suicides. This makes intuitive sense to me, for reasons I’ll shortly get to, but I haven’t read Shay’s book, so I’m not sure what kind of factual basis he provides for the power of the Iliad. 

For me, this is one of the few weaknesses of Patitsas’ book (the other is its length, it could have been shorter). He largely alludes to other books as providing a factual foundation, which he goes on to interpret using his philosophical framework. So while it’s easy to find statistics about the increase in military suicides, until I get around to reading Shay’s book I’m not sure what kind of evidence there is for treating trauma by reading the Iliad vs. other forms of therapy. 

As I just said though, it does ring true to me, because, as long as we’re referencing other books, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, makes an analogous point. Junger, who does provide hard statistics, points out that the PTSD rate among World War II veterans was far lower than the rate among Vietnam veterans, despite the fact that WWII was far bloodier. And we see the same trend of more PTSD combined with fewer injuries when comparing Vietnam veterans to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes of this disparity are not entirely clear, but it seems safe to say that whatever we’re doing it’s not working.

Junger speaks of the same noble sorrows Patitsas does, and explains that these were sacrifices that soldiers made for their tribe, for their larger society—another way of describing a beauty-first approach. War is horrible, even soul-destroying, but at least you were doing it for your tribe. A truth-first approach focuses entirely on the first part, how horrible it is, without the second. Or as Patitsas says, “truth-first methods can take the soul apart, but they cannot put it back together.” 

III- Beauty for the Non-spiritual

The ruined cathedral, or Teampuil Mor of Kilmacduagh Monastery in Ireland. The cathedral was built in the 15th century and is mostly intact except for the roof.

When Patitsas implies that Beauty can put the soul back together, he’s asking us to assume that we in fact have a soul, and that it can be reconstructed by bringing it into contact with the divine, which must also, by necessity, exist. 

At its most stripped down Patitisas is advocating for dualism over materialism, but this advocacy is far from abstract. He wrote an explicitly Christian book from an uncompromising Christian perspective. Should one take from this that if you’re not Christian, religious, or at the very least spiritual, that the book has nothing for you? I don’t think so. Certainly, should you decide to read the book you should be aware of Patitsas’ forthright Christian advocacy, but in the midst of that he makes several points which should be valuable even for committed materialists.

Before we get into a more intellectual discussion of things, take a moment to consider beauty in raw form. Take a look at the picture at the top of this section, and if you want extra credit look at the rest of the pictures in the review as well. If we momentarily put everything else aside, are these pictures beautiful? I suspect if you’re honest you’ll admit that they all possess significant beauty. Why is that? To just take the picture at the top of the section as an example, why would a ruined chapel full of graves be beautiful? If we have a soul and God exists, the answer is straightforward. But what’s the purely materialist/scientific/evolutionary explanation for the beauty of that picture? Shouldn’t evolution want us to avoid ruin, and eschew death? 

Obviously, there are many potential answers to this question, and a comprehensive discussion of the potential evolutionary basis for beauty would take up far more space than we have. But it’s still worth taking a stab at things.

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, is a book about hemispheric differences in the way the brain operates — the old left-brained vs. right-brained idea. But this is not a book about the popular science version of this difference, it’s a 600 page multidisciplinary dive into neurology and culture, art and history and it gives us our dualism without needing to resort to theology. 

McGilchrist asserts that the right brain, the hemisphere that collates information into a cohesive worldview, and the source of our holistic, intuitive understanding of the world, has historically been the Master. This is in contrast to the left brain, the part that breaks things down, that is focused on the minutia, the parts and pieces, which historically was the Emissary — the part that was sent out to return and report. While reading Ethics of Beauty, I couldn’t help but be reminded of McGilchrist’s book, which posits that the Emissary has usurped the role of the master, that modernity has placed too much emphasis on breaking things down into comprehensible pieces. McGilchrist calls this a left-brained approach; Patitsas appears to be describing much the same thing, but calls it a truth-first approach. Both assert that by following this path we have abandoned an integrated, intuitive understanding — a right-brained understanding (McGilchrist), or a beauty-first approach (Patitsas). This obvious comparison is one of the reasons why I found Patitsas’ book to be so valuable, it dovetailed nicely with things I had read elsewhere, but from a new direction. 

Patitsas work also dovetails with the work of Jane Jacobs, and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has been called the single-most influential book written about urban planning and cities. Published in 1961, the book was a searing critique of “urban renewal”, charging that it created unnatural, sterile spaces, in the process destroying older, more organic communities.

This may seem like a somewhat unusual connection, but second only to Patitsas’ status as an Orthodox theologian, is his status as a protege of Jacobs. He worked closely with her for many years, and Ethics is peppered with anecdotes of their interactions. Once made aware of the connection between the two it’s easy to see how Patitsas’ framework fits over Jacobs’ critique. The urban renewal of the immediate postwar period was a “truth-first” approach to city planning, which supplanted the previous “beauty-first” design naturally adopted by people historically — in the absence of top down diktats such as zoning regulations, building codes, and minimum parking requirements.

Patitsas ties Jacob’s insights into a three-tiered progression for science. His first tier is the science of establishing correlation between two variables. His second tier is the science of statistical analysis. And the third tier is the science of complex systems. In this latter tier we have both strictly organic systems, like plants and animals, but also pseudo-organic systems like cities. Jacob’s genius was uncovering the presence of this third tier within the discipline of urban planning. It is also within this third tier that Patitsas locates beauty. But how does one square his initial definition of beauty as the experience of mini-theophanies with this second definition where beauty is located in complexity? For me it helped to pull in the duality described by McGilchrist — complexity and deep intuition are both right-brained tasks — which is why I did it, but Patitsas doesn’t have access to McGilchrist, he only had access to Jacobs so how does she make the connection?

…Jacobs then proposed something much more radical…which was that in studying organic systems it was a scientific fact that you would never understand such systems if you didn’t first love them! 

…Jacobs’ logic was that living systems are so complex, so alive, that you almost have to “win their trust,” or at least have to give patient, sympathetic attention to them, before you will ever come to see their surprising rational structure. This importance of love is very odd for a scientific method, and it is one more way that problems in organic complexity reverse the assumptions behind the first two kinds of science. Cold objectivity is no aid to the science of complex systems, Jacobs insisted.

The way I put it to my students is that organic systems cannot be understood or known unless we somehow let them “know us back.” For example, you won’t know a particular city until it has claimed you for itself, has changed you. This is not a principle of Enlightenment science by any means, but Jacobs says that in organic systems this is what you have to do. You have to love what you are studying, and you have to let it “know” you. You have to let this organic phenomenon you are studying impart to you a new intuition, a new faculty of awareness, appropriate specifically to it. 

You can certainly imagine this “new intuition” he mentions in connection with complexity to be essentially the same thing as the theophany definition we started with. This is also another illustration of the difference between a truth-first approach and a beauty-first approach. Traditionally science, by emphasizing cold objectivity has no room for any emotion, let alone “love”. But as we seek to understand more complex systems, it’s necessary first to appreciate their beauty, i.e. to love them, before we can truly understand them. Reductionism alone is perhaps inadequate to yield comprehension of the whole which as a cohesive entity is something other than a mere sum of its parts.

IV- Tying it all together

The N11: Star Clouds of the Large Magellanic Cloud.

As this is the first book review in the first issue of American Hombre it seems like an appropriate place to have a discussion about the point of reviewing books in the first place.

For most reviews the primary goal is to answer the question: Is this book worth reading? At its most basic this might be accomplished with a simple “yes” or “no”. But generally this sort of accuracy is only possible if you’re reviewing the book for someone you know very well. When you’re reviewing it for a more general audience, the process of conveying that information becomes significantly more difficult. Given these difficulties it might be worthwhile to break the process down into discreet steps:

  1. What is the book about? What is the author attempting to convey to the reader? 
  2. How does the person writing the review feel about the author’s attempt? (As a subset, does he think it’s true?)
  3. What should the person reading the review take from all of this? 

Most book reviews (including this one) spend nearly all of their space on the first step, which is as it should be. The book is the star, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t have anything to add to that. Without some time spent on step 2, a reviewer might as well just list the table of contents.

It’s when we get to step 3 that things get really difficult. The reviewer has to imagine not merely the average person reading his review, ideally he should cast a net that catches all of the readers. Such a thing is of course impossible, but I’d like to give it my best shot.

I’m imagining that like me you occasionally experience powerful emotions around music, art, and stories. There are things that deeply move you without needing to have any connection to your life or your loved ones: Beethoven’s 9th fills you with a sense of triumph; Michelangelo’s Pietà fills you with inexpressible sorrow; and maybe you also, like me, cry at the end of the Iron Giant. You’re not sure why you experience these emotions so powerfully, but sterile explanations of evolutionary adaptation seem inadequate. 

You’re someone who looks at the picture of stars and interstellar dust at the top of the section, and you can feel the beauty of the overwhelming vastness of space. But you wonder why that should be? Such a view has only been available for a few decades, why should it nevertheless feel familiar?

You’ve heard the explanations for why things are or aren’t beautiful. Why certain forms of art inspire emotion completely out of proportion to their impact on your day to day life. But your intuition tells you that something deeper is going on. Perhaps it’s supernatural or divine, or perhaps it’s just some profound connection to the world in its entirety. Whatever it is, it deserves a deeper discussion.

Out of all of this you came to the same starting point as Patitsas. Beauty is foundational, and the world has made it superficial. If you want to leave behind that superficiality, and see what can be built once you truly start with Beauty as a foundation, then yes, you should read this book.


After reading this you might be wondering why I don’t include more pictures in my post. Mostly it’s because I also do an audio version of the post and pictures complicate that. But as I look at the ones included here, it feels like I should figure out a way to do it anyway. If you’d like to fund that endeavor, consider donating


Finding “The Answer”

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I just finished the book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge. I’ll obviously provide a review of it in my monthly book roundup at the beginning of December. If, for some reason, you need to decide before then whether or not to read it I will say that it spends more time than I would have expected on the history of meritocracy. But if history is precisely what you’re looking for then you should enjoy it.

This post is not going to be a review—though it may end up being one incidentally—rather I bring up the book because it was the inspiration for this post. The book helped illuminate a broader category. A category which contains many possibilities, of which meritocracy is only one. For thousands of years people have been asking, “What is the best way to organize society?” Meritocracy is one of many answers to that question, though up until fairly recently most people thought that it was not merely an answer, but The Answer. As I mentioned this has recently changed and people have started to have doubts, assuaging these doubts is one of the reasons why Wooldridge wrote his book. He still believes it’s The Answer. He even calls meritocracy the “Golden Ticket”. But as I said this is not a review, nor is it the place to dissect Wooldridge, rather I want to fit meritocracy into the broader search for “The Answer”. 

I.

Somewhat hypocritically, after accusing Wooldridge of focusing too much on history, that’s where I’m going to start as well. After all he does have a point, in order to understand current conditions it’s critical to understand how we got here. In order to understand The Answer of the present we need to understand how people answered this question in the past.

The most obvious answer for how to organize a society and the one underlying all other answers is “survival”. You must first organize your society such that it survives, because, as I often point out, if it can’t survive it can’t do much of anything else. 

Closely related to survival is The Answer of “power”. Anyone who has the power to organize society will almost always organize it such that it benefits them. Or to put it another way, imagine that everyone, individually, gets asked, “How should society be organized?” To which everyone naturally answers “To my benefit!” And those who have or can acquire power are the ones who are able to turn that answer into reality. As you have probably already deduced, power is another thing which ends up being foundational to structuring how the world works.

Unfortunately for those exercising power, and perhaps fortunately for those who are powerless, organizing society for the benefit of the powerful often conflicts with organizing society such that it survives—particularly over the long term. Thus, in order for societies to continue, checks on the powerful must necessarily become part of the system by which the society is organized. This can, perhaps, be seen most clearly when it comes to warfare. The powerful can’t win wars on their own, and any society better able to marshal all of its resources will have an advantage in such conflicts. As a consequence of this, societies evolve systems and traditions that work towards these ends. It might be a culture which encourages child-bearing. Or an ideology which inspires people to feel pride in their tribe or nation, and to sacrifice for the benefit of those close to them. Or a hierarchical system designed such that the most powerful can grant power to others in a structured and useful fashion.

Eventually all of this gets packaged up and turned into something that might be called a religion, though one that only loosely resembles modern religions. But for the purposes of our topic the comparison is a useful one, since for modern religions providing The Answer is the whole point. And we see something similar here, though early on most religions were regional, and they didn’t aspire to provide The Answer, just answers. Which is to say that at the time there wasn’t a lot of zeal for evangelization, a point which will become important later on.

Obviously any discussion of religion puts us at the top of a very deep rabbit hole. We’re going to go some of the way down that hole, but in order to keep things manageable I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the civic role played by religion rather than its supernatural claims. 

At this point in our story, the various societies were still mostly focused on balancing power and survival. As they did so each society ended up with its own answers. These answers weren’t all encompassing, but rather very specific—relating to local challenges of geography, resources, and the threats posed by neighboring nations. Out of this attempt to balance power and survival, combined with all of this regional specificity, there emerged an interesting menagerie of systems. As time went on the systems grew more sophisticated, but there was still a Roman answer on how to organize things and a Chinese answer, and both were very different. 

However both were successful enough that it started to feel like their answers to the question of how to organize societies might be The Answer. This is certainly one of the reasons the end of the Roman Empire has seemed so consequential down through the ages. After being in existence for hundreds of years it seemed clear that they had The Answer and when, after centuries, that turned out not to be the case, it was a big blow. Because if the Roman empire wasn’t the answer, what was? Obviously people moved on to a reliance on Christianity, and it clearly provided The Answer to millions of individuals, but from a civic perspective its organizing powers never reached the heights achieved by the empire. More recently, one can see a very similar arc with China, and that’s where I’m going to focus. Rome is interesting, but it was long ago, and if I was going to go down that path at some point I’d have to talk about how Byzantium fits into things, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that.

II.

For China, unlike Rome, The Answer had a label, it was called Confucianism, and Confucianism had a very conspicuous manifestation: the imperial examination system. Now obviously neither the exams nor the underlying ideology turned China into some kind of utopia. There were plenty of bumps in the road, some of them very large, but for over a thousand years— two thousand if we’re liberal in our assessment—even as dynasties changed and wars raged, Confucianism acted as a lodestone for the Chinese, and indeed most of East Asia. Whether it actually was The Answer seems far less important than whether people believed it was the answer. (One detects a significant amount of secular faith in this whole undertaking.)

At some point one would think that Confucianism would inevitably fall out of favor for any number of reasons, very few ideologies survive very long, and in the end it took decades of China being humiliated by the West (part of what the Chinese later labeled the “century of humiliation”) before they officially abandoned the imperial examination system in 1905. And while the examination system has not returned, Confucianism more broadly returned almost as soon as it was able. The first conference aimed at rehabilitating it was held just a few years after Mao died. (Mao having been one of its chief opponents.) Confucianism’s hold was such that it was only out of favor for around 100 years—and that only happened under extreme pressure—before it came roaring back

The abandonment of Confucianism seems to have been largely driven by a sense of survival. During the late 1800s and early 1900s China was facing an existential crisis. Which leads back to one of my original points, if you can’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. But once China’s survival appeared to no longer be threatened it was back in the picture.

This rehabilitation of Confucianism is not my primary focus, though it is interesting evidence of its staying power. I’m more interested in the way people handle things when they think that they have The Answer. That they have unlocked the secret of building a flourishing society. 

The Europeans seemed to also feel that Confucianism might be The Answer for them as well when they first encountered it. As Wooldridge points out in Aristocracy of Talent the Europeans were particularly fascinated by the Chinese exam system and the mandarins it produced. There were immediately attempts to create something similar back home. 

But, to be clear, we’re not interested in any specific answer for how society should be organized, we’re interested in the idea that there should be one answer, The Answer, a system which is better than all the rest. And it may be that hearing about the Chinese system was when this idea started to take root in the modern imagination, though by 17th century, when this was happening, lots of ideas were taking root, and it seems clear that one way or the other Europeans would have started experimenting politically just as they were beginning to be more serious about experimenting in other areas. 

Before we leave China it’s interesting to ask how they felt about this bigger idea. Separate from the virtues of Confucianism, why should it be so important or attractive for them to discover The Answer? Important enough that once the Chinese had it they held onto it for a thousand or more years? Even as conditions, leaders and the external world changed. Attractive enough that even when Confucianism was out of favor, they always landed on another candidate. If it wasn’t going to be Confucianism then it would be something else. Historically Legalism was the primary competitor, and there were also dalliances with Taoism. And we can’t forget the eventual zeal with which they embraced communism. 

One presumes that part of this tendency had to do with effectiveness. They’d seen how transformative having an answer could be, and by “they” I’m mostly talking about the rulers. Clearly if those in power had not noticed some ongoing benefit these various systems wouldn’t have been around for 2500 years. If you’ve read Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott you might be thinking of the benefits which would accrue to them from the legibility it imparted to the population. A population that was always quite massive, generally hovering at around one-fourth of the entire global population as far back as you want to look. If every part of China works the same way, that makes the country as a whole easier to manage. But perhaps the most interesting reason to adopt and seek an answer is that it gives you a goal, something to shoot for. It basically amounts to an early form of political science.

If you have arrived at a system. If you have The Answer. Then you also have a list of things you can try to make the country better. You can implement The Answer more completely in those areas which are lagging. You can refine The Answer, figure out what parts are working and what parts are unnecessary baggage, and then you can do more of the former while jettisoning the latter. You can compare slight differences in implementation and decide which of them works best. At some level all of these things happened in China, particularly with regards to the exams. One of my favorite examples is the procedure whereby all of the exams were recopied by someone else before being submitted to the judges, eliminating any potential bias that might occur if they recognized the handwriting. They also added various features to make cheating more difficult, and the exams as a whole got progressively more brutal.

As you can imagine the importance and brutality of the exam system had obvious side effects. Here’s how Wooldridge puts it:

The examination cult imposed a terrible strain on its devotees – not just on the young but on all those middle-aged and indeed elderly candidates who continued to put themselves forward. The examination halls that littered the country were widely known as ‘examination prisons’ and were sometimes subjected to riots and arson. Many of the greatest works of Chinese literature were devoted to demonizing the system.

Wooldridge even claims that my candidate for the biggest recent event no one knows about, the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, was “driven in part by frustrations with the civil service exam”. Which is a pretty big side effect. 

All of this is relatively easy to identify retrospectively as we look back on China, but is something similar happening today? Have we taken one answer and pushed it too far? Is it possible that it’s the quest for The Answer itself that has gotten out of hand?

III.

The first thing we should consider as we move from an historical examination to the present day is what do we currently think The Answer is? Here, as is so often the case, we turn to Francis Fukuyama. The central claim of his book The End of History and the Last Man was that after centuries of trial and error, and contests between various systems that we had finally, and definitively answered the question of how best to organize society. The Answer turned out to be: liberal democracy. This was in part because of the many advantages of liberal democracy, but perhaps more importantly because, Fukuyama asserted, there were no remaining contenders. 

At the time Fukuyama was making this claim the strengths of liberal democracy were obvious, its weaknesses less so. As an example of one of these weaknesses, liberal democracy is not as well defined as Confucianism. Liberal democracy has no text that compares to the centrality of the Analects, and no activity that is as pivotal as the imperial examinations. Rather liberal democracy is more the assemblage of numerous good ideas, which Fukuyama defines directionally rather than absolutely. Liberal democracy is the endeavor of “getting to Denmark”.  

Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.

It’s less of a definition than a goal, but with that goal to aspire to, and no remaining contenders we should basically be done, right? We’ve got The Answer, the rest is just implementation? 

Unfortunately, no. First implementation has proved to be more difficult than expected, but more importantly, not everyone agrees with Fukuyama. Certainly, as you might already have guessed, the leaders of countries like China and Russia definitely don’t agree with Fukuyama. But nor do all the citizens of the liberal democracies. Meritocracy is a great example of this. While it was not mentioned in the description of Denmark, people like Wooldridge, and many others, would nevertheless argue that it’s a central component of the liberal democratic/getting to Denmark package. But the whole reason Wooldridge wrote his book is not everyone agrees that it should be. The idea is under attack from both the left and the right. 

Nor is it the only liberal democratic idea under attack. Free trade and globalism are similarly under siege, and there are people who feel just as strongly about the centrality of these ideas as Wooldridge feels about meritocracy. Part of the reason people have turned against free trade is that it didn’t work as advertised. Back in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO it was an article of faith for many that this opening would inevitably lead to China adopting the rest of the liberal democratic package. This was even more true when Fukuyama made his initial assertion. It was assumed that if you had true representative government, it would lead to meritocracy and free trade. Or that if you free trade and capitalism, it would lead to liberal speech norms and democracy. As we discovered to our sorrow with China this is not the case. We may have to settle for a world of free trade with illiberal nations. Or choose a system which minimizes inequality, or one which maximizes meritocracy. 

This is why people like Wooldridge have started picking pieces of the package to defend. If liberal democracy writ large is not The Answer perhaps meritocracy is. Or maybe it’s immigration. Perhaps we just haven’t given free trade enough time. Or perhaps it’s none of the above and we need a successor ideology. I’ve even seen more people moving back to communism. (Though because of the connotations they generally identify as hardcore socialists.)

In all of these efforts they are borrowing the evangelizing spirit that came about when people first thought they had The Answer. If you really have uncovered the one true way to organize society, why would you not want to spread it as widely and as deeply as possible? We can see this impulse playing out at least as early as the French Revolution. And down through the decades since then. It’s impractical to list all of the examples, but certainly Wilson, and his call to make “the world safe for democracy” comes to mind. You can also see it in Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, continuing up to and including our support for Ukraine in the current conflict. But this idea of evangelization wasn’t limited to liberal democracy. If anything communism had an even bigger evangelical urge, not only desiring to spread throughout the world, but going farther in their claims that it was inevitable. This was part of what made the Cold War seem so important. It was a contest between two sides that both thought that they had The Answer. 

Now, even as the liberal democratic package is fracturing, the evangelizing, if anything, is getting more intense. It’s proving difficult to be semi-meritocratic, but even more difficult to be completely meritocratic. It’s also difficult to be a semi-protectionists, but free trade has its own large set of issues. And no one says we should be semi-democratic, but everyone has their own definition of what democracy should look like, and oftentimes populism isn’t included in that definition. Don’t even get people started on the idea of being semi-unequal. 

In closing I’d like to include a long quote from a recent post from Ross Douthat. I’ve been talking about the fracturing of liberalism, he’s talking about the prospects for it’s renewal, but the underlying diagnosis is the same:

…liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.

Douthat gets to the heart of the problem, but I don’t share his implicit optimism that liberalism can be reinfused and thereby revived. And one of the sources for the chaos of our time is that people have recognized that. Thus the fracturing. And from that fracturing a landscape where rather than having one answer there are dozens. People aren’t trying to save liberalism, they’re trying to save what they feel is the critical piece. They’re rallying around their version of The Answer. Whether it’s meritocracy or social justice or globalism or Christianity. Personally I lean towards the last one, but I also don’t see any path forward to a workable Christian Nationalism or any path back to the “liberalism plus mainline Protestantism” spoken of by Douthat.

But perhaps the beginning of any path forward is to acknowledge that we haven’t found The Answer, at least not yet.


This post didn’t come together as easily as I hoped. And then there was the whole FTX/SBF explosion in the middle which I spent way too much time reading about. This not only slowed me down, it made me reluctant to give money to anyone. If you had a similar reaction, let me reassure you. If you donate to me I won’t use the money to power an elaborate fraud. I’ll probably just use it to buy a book.


The 7 Books I Finished in October

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


  1. What We Owe the Future by: William MacAskill
  2. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by: Michael D. Gordin
  3. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by: Jonathan Shay
  4. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by: C.C.W. Taylor 
  5. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy by: Mortimer J. Adler
  6. A Wizard of Earthsea by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

 

A couple of months ago I decided that it was time for another survey (I last conducted a survey in 2018.) I figured that my 300th post would provide a good excuse for it, and that the newsletter would be the best place to announce it. Looking ahead I calculated that I would have to do three essays in September and October to get the timing right, which seemed only fair since my output in July and August had been so pathetic.

On top of trying to fit in additional writing, I could have picked better months to do it in. Things have been crazy with my business. I’m enrolled in a sort of a mini-MBA, my biggest client has kept me super busy, and I hired a couple of people (only one of whom is working out, the other I’m going to have to let go.) Beyond that I still haven’t completely unpacked after the move to the new house, and to complicate the chaos, we just barely moved my mother-in-law into the basement.

I bring all of this up because there was a moment in October when I realized that I had way too much on my plate, and something had to give. In that moment I suffered a mini existential crisis where for a brief period (basically the space of an afternoon) I reconsidered everything, including reading. 

Among the many things I recognized in that moment of panic is that reading, which was usually relaxing and enjoyable, had become oppressive. The panic didn’t last, and it was mostly caused by all the other things I was trying to juggle, but I did make a few decisions: I started skimming a bit more. For obvious reasons this happened more with books I read than books I listen to. I also decided that each month I would make sure to have a book or two I actually enjoyed in the mix. Probably something I had already read, where enjoyment was guaranteed. (Thus the Wizard of Earthsea.) Also, I read a lot of recent non-fiction about how the world might be screwed up. Going forward I think I’m going to try to cut back on that, at least a little bit. It’s unclear how successful I’ll be there. The drive that keeps me writing (see the last post) also drives me to read books like that. But I think I should be alel to back off a little bit. 

But, yeah, this all kind of started with wanting to put out a survey, so it would be great if you could spend a couple of minutes filling it out if you haven’t already. I’m giving $100 Amazon gift certificate to one random person. Though some people have told me they didn’t fill it out because they didn’t want to take $100 from me. If that describes you, you can just say don’t enter me in the drawing. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

What We Owe the Future 

by: William MacAskill

Published: 2022

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The ideology of long-termism in particular our responsibility to the potentially trillions of humans who might come after us. 

What’s the author’s angle?

MacAskill is right at the very heart of the effective altruism movement, being not only one of the originators of the idea, but also the co-founder of many of the institutions most closely associated with the EA movement.

Who should read this book?

As someone who’s very familiar with effective altruism and long termism, I’m not sure how much new stuff I really got out of the book. So if that describes you, or if you’ve listened to one of the thousand or so podcasts MacAskill is on you can probably skip this book. But if you’re just now hearing of long-termism/effective altruism then this is a great introduction.

General Thoughts

When one is reviewing a book that has received as much press as this one, it becomes quite the challenge to say something which hasn’t already been said—possibly dozens of times. To this I say, “Challenge accepted!” Though of course you may already see what the problem is. Unless I have watched, listened to, or read every piece of commentary on the book (which I haven’t) and remembered it all (even more unlikely) then I will never know if I was successful in this challenge. But I trust my readers to point out if I’ve failed. 

With that throat clearing out of the way I’d like to expand on an analogy he briefly introduces in his chapter on stagnation. 

We may be like a climber scaling a sheer cliff face with no ropes or harness, with a significant risk of falling. In such a situation, staying still is no solution; that would just wear us out, and we would fall eventually. Instead, we need to keep on climbing: only once we have reached the summit will we be safe.

There is a lot of pressure these days for making things sustainable, and the point of MacAskill’s analogy is that sustainability might not be an option. Not every point in our civilizational trajectory represents a good stopping point. As an example he points to the 1920’s:

[C]onsider what would have happened if we had plateaued at 1920s technology. We would have been stuck relying on fossil fuels. Without innovations in green technology, we would have kept emitting an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Not only would we have been unable to stop climate change, but we would also have simply run out of coal, oil, and gas eventually. The 1920s’ level of technological advancement was unsustainable. It’s only with the technological progress of the last hundred years that we have the capability to transition away from fossil fuels.

That period’s lack of sustainability is obvious in hindsight. But is our current position similarly unsustainable? MacAskill thinks it is and he mentions that we’re at a point with “easy-to-manufacture pathogens and other potent means of destruction”. But he thinks that if we keep climbing the cliff then we will eventually get beyond these dangers and “reach a point where we have the technology to effectively defend against such catastrophic risks”

This is of course one possibility, that there is some sort of safe summit with respect to technology. That we’re currently in a position where we’ve created the harm but we need to go a little bit farther (or maybe a lot farther?) to create the defense. He mentions defending against pathogens but where does he get the faith that such a thing will ever be trivial? Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that it is and always will be a wickedly difficult problem. I suppose once we’ve spread outside of the solar system it will cease to be an existential risk. (See here for why it needs to be outside the solar system and not merely a Mars colony.) But if so we’ve still got a very long climb ahead of us, and if we’re already tired?

Another possibility is that there is no safe summit, that even if there was a reasonably effective defense against pathogens, by the time we’ve developed it we will have developed a host of other harmful technologies, which require us to develop still more complicated defenses. (Everyone’s favorite example here is AI.) 

This lack of a summit is another expression of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I have talked about several times, most notably here: The idea that technology is like drawing balls of an unknown shade from an urn, and if we ever draw a pure black ball that it will mean the end of humanity. In fact, it’s interesting that MacAskill should use the analogy of climbing towards a summit, because no one climbs in order to reach safety. Summit’s aren’t safe, and in fact the highest summits in the world are in something called the Death Zone. Called this because human life is unsustainable for extended periods, and the vast majority of people need supplemental oxygen. 

There’s a reading of this whole analogy where sometime around the Enlightenment we became obsessed with reaching the summit of a nearby mountain so that we could see the rest of the world, and that we’re going to succeed in reaching it, only to have no idea what to do once we get there. In fact there’s an argument to be made that our confused arrival at the summit is what’s happening at this very moment. 

Beyond the two choices of continuing to climb or falling to our deaths, there are other ways we might extend the metaphor. Perhaps MacAskill is right and we do need to reach the summit, but we’ve picked an impossible route, and if we carefully retreat there’s another route we might be able to take. Or perhaps there’s a ledge where we could rest before we continue with the route we’re already on? And why do we have no “ropes or harness” in MacAskill’s analogy? What reason did we have for creating this exceptionally fragile situation? Perhaps ropes and harnesses represent traditional methods of reducing fragility? Things like religions which encourage high birth rates and prudent behavior. This all makes one wonder why MacAskill would choose for his analogy what may be the least prudent behavior humans engage in. 

There’s another interesting dichotomy to consider here. People like MacAskill, Holden Karnofsky and others believe that we’re at a unique moment in the history of humanity. Karnofsky calls this the most important century. Still others, like David Deutch (who I recently reviewed here) and Steven Pinker think that we’re just walking up the mountain, not climbing, but rather than being alone we are in a group. Also, it’s possible that recently the terrain has gotten more difficult, and some members of our group are starting to complain. And the group as a whole is getting tired. But for them the key danger is that we’re going to end up camping in the least hospitable terrain, or worse start fighting, when in reality the difficult terrain is just a temporary inconvenience.

Eschatological Implications

In the last section I talked about our position on the mountain, in this section I want to talk about our condition. Are we tired as a civilization? Are we beginning to lose our grip? If so, why? Here I think that MacAskill suffers from focusing on the wrong thing. He has a whole chapter on stagnation, which is good, but all of his proposed solutions revolve around technology. He mentions our declining birthrate but mostly in the context of increasing the number of researchers. When he talks about whether biotechnology could help, his example does not involve how it might help with infertility, but that we could clone Einsteins. For MacAskill, stagnation is caused by the slowing of technological advancement and can thus be solved by figuring out how to speed it back up. 

But is slowing technological advancement really the cause of stagnation? I mean sure, tautologically it’s the cause of technological stagnation, but is that really the stagnation we should be worried about? 

In the chapter immediately preceding the one on stagnation MacAskill has one covering collapse. That chapter obviously discusses the potential of nuclear annihilation, and includes the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But those cities, rather than being examples of devastation, are actually examples of resilience, as MacAskill himself is at pains to point out:

Before learning about Hiroshima’s subsequent history, I would have thought that, even today, it would be a nuclear wasteland, consisting of little more than smoking ruins…Despite the enormous loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, power was restored to some areas within a day, to 30 percent of homes within two weeks, and to all homes not destroyed by the blast within four months. There was a limited rail service running the day after the attack, there was a streetcar service running within three days, water pumps were working again within four days, and telecommunications were restored in some areas within a month. The Bank of Japan, just 380 metres from the hypocenter of the blast, reopened within just two days. The population of Hiroshima returned to its predestruction level within a decade. Today, it is a thriving modern city of 1.2 million people.

The Japanese had every excuse to abandon Hiroshima. And even if they didn’t abandon it, it would have been perfectly understandable if it had stagnated, but neither of those things happened. Rather what MacAskill describes is an amazing vitality. This is the opposite of a civilization being tired, and yet it happened at the end of one of the most brutal defeats ever recorded. Technology wasn’t what prevented stagnation or collapse in the example of Hiroshima. It could have caused it, but it definitely didn’t prevent it. Something else was going on. 

The question I have is not whether technology is stagnating, though it might be. The question I have is could we bounce back from disaster as quickly as the Japanese did in 1945? If we can’t, that’s the stagnation I worry about. That’s the weariness that is going to make us lose our grip and fall off the cliff face. You might call it willpower or cohesion, but whatever it is I don’t think modernity has served to increase it. 


The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

by: Michael D. Gordin

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The controversy over Immanuel Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision, and the origins and meaning of the term pseudoscience.

What’s the author’s angle?

Gordin is a science historian who decided to spend a few hours looking at the massive, posthumous collection of Velikovsky’s papers, which had been stored and cataloged at Princeton. He was so taken by what he found there that a few hours turned into a few years and a book.

Who should read this book?

If you’re really curious about Velikovsky then this is a great book. But I suspect that not many people fall into that category. In fact Gordin claims that if you’re younger than 50 you’ve never heard of Velikovsky. For what it’s worth I had. Carl Sagan “rips him a new one” (as we used to say) in his book Broca’s Brain. The book does have some interesting things to say about our current battles, but only in a very broad sense. There’s very little specific advice.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I was stuck at work late. We were doing some kind of server migration which involved a lot of waiting. And somehow we got on the subject of pseudointellectuals. And as we discussed the topic it gradually became apparent that people were using the term differently, to the point where we stopped the conversation and asked everyone point blank to give us their definition of that word. We discovered that out of the half dozen or so people who were there that every single person was using the word differently. I regret that at the distance of nearly two decades that I can’t recall all the definitions, though I do recall that all of them essentially boiled down to “pseudointellectuals are people I don’t like”. 

I was reminded of that conversation for the first time in quite a while by this book. Because Gordin makes a similar claim. He points out that there is no universally accepted definition of pseudoscience. And that much like my coworkers all those years ago, People use it and its synonyms to refer to any intellectual effort which they find objectionable. Or as Gordin memorably says in the very first line of the book:

No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, “I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudo experiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudo-facts.

In light of this Gordin decides to dig into the history of the word, and how one of the most famous accusations of pseudoscience played out by examining the case of Velikovsky and Worlds in Collision. As I already mentioned, if you’re younger than 50 you probably have no idea who Immanuel Velikovsky is. But despite the fact that he’s entirely obscure now, he was so well known and so ubiquitous at one point that if you’re over 60 it’s impossible that you haven’t heard of him. For those who are unfamiliar with him or his book, I’ll going to steal Wikipedia’s description:

The book postulates that around the 15th century BC, the planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object and passed near Earth (an actual collision is not mentioned). The object allegedly changed Earth’s orbit and axis, causing innumerable catastrophes that are mentioned in early mythologies and religions from around the world. The book has been heavily criticized as a work of pseudoscience and catastrophism, and many of its claims are completely rejected by the established scientific community as they are not supported by any available evidence.

When you hear the description it probably sounds so fantastical you wonder that anyone took it seriously, but it was amazingly popular. The book itself was a huge bestseller. There were, ostensibly, academic (pseudoacademic?) magazines. College courses were taught around this hypothesis. Carl Sagan and Velikovsky gave contending speeches at the 1974 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where Velikovsky supporters, who had flooded the meeting, gave him a standing ovation. The thing that surprised me the most was that Velikovsky even ended up getting to be really good friends with Einstein before his death. So yeah, it was a phenomenon. 

As you might imagine many of the same dynamics are playing out today in the debates over what science is. Despite this, it’s unclear what lessons to take from these past efforts. As this statement from one of the combatants illustrates:

Dennis Rawlins, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, deftly noted the catch-22: “If one simply ignores the crank, this is ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘arrogance.’ If one then instead agrees to meet him in debate, this is billed as showing that he is a serious scholar. (For why else would the lordly establishment agree even to discuss him?) Irksome either way.” So the 1974 experiment [the AAAS meeting] was never repeated. It had been neither success nor failure. It raised the visibility of scientific opposition, but it had resolved nothing.

Currently, the more respectable scientific bodies seem to lean towards not formally engaging with ideas they consider to be pseudoscience. Deciding that it’s better to appear close-minded or arrogant, than to give it any status. I’m not entirely sure that’s the right play. But as the quote points out there is no perfect solution, it’s a catch-22. As such I don’t have many takeaways on what we should be doing. But I am very interested in how the topics we’re fighting about have changed.

Eschatological Implications

Both eras identify certain things as pseudoscience, but outside of that commonality there has ended up being a huge difference in what those things are. The fight over the veracity of Worlds in Collision had no direct impact on people’s lives. Even if it were to be established that Venus was ejected from Jupiter, for the vast majority of people that wouldn’t change anything concrete. People would still send their kids to school in the morning, go to the same job, and eat the same things for dinner. That’s not the case with the things we’re currently debating. Current battles are very different in that they have the possibility of affecting all of those things.  As with so many things the big example here is the debate we had over pandemic precautions. 

Does this mean that it’s more important to stop pseudoscience (whatever that is) cold? Because while believing that Venus dispensed manna thousands of years ago is ultimately harmless, believing that vaccines don’t work gets people killed? Or does it mean the exact opposite, that we should give these ideas as much attention as we can spare? Because lives really are at stake, and locking in the wrong consensus could have massive negative consequences?

I would personally lean towards the latter. At some point you either believe in the scientific process or you don’t. The people who decided to invite Velikovsky to speak to the AAAS, obviously really did believe in that process. They believed that if they honestly grappled with the facts that the truth would emerge, and while it appears that they didn’t consider that invitation to be successful at the time. The influence of Velikovsky arguably started to decline at around the same time and, a few decades on, no one has heard of him. 

I will say that times are very different. And also that there was a localism to solving problems back then which has largely dissipated. (Which, I would argue, is another step in the wrong direction.) But I think if scientists back then were willing to take Velikovsky seriously, that we need to do a much better job of taking current concerns seriously, and not just dismiss anything we don’t like as pseudoscience. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character 

by: Jonathan Shay

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the experience of combat, and the subsequent PTSD experienced by soldiers in Vietnam, parallels the experience of the Greeks and Trojans, and particularly Achilles, in the Iliad.

What’s the author’s angle?

Shay thinks we’re treating PTSD all wrong. In support of this hypothesis he turns to the Iliad as an example of how soldiers used to be treated, and contrasts it with the failed methods we used both during and after Vietnam.

Who should read this book?

I suspect this book might be a little bit out of date, but I’m definitely no expert on current best practices for PTSD. Also I’m curious about data on soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sebastian Junger’s Tribe (which I talked about here) seemed to indicate that PTSD has gotten even more prevalent. 

General Thoughts

I read this book because it featured so prominently in The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas, which I reviewed for the magazine American Hombre. I was particularly curious about whether Shay claimed that studying the Iliad was more effective than traditional therapy at healing PTSD. He sort of does, at the end, but I think Patitsas may have overstated the case. 

Also as I was reading the book I was reminded of a post by Bret Devereaux, ancient historian, and author of the very popular blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, where he claimed that

[T]here is vanishingly little evidence that people in the ancient Mediterranean or medieval Europe experienced PTSD from combat experience in the way that modern soldiers do.

I’m inclined to believe this, nevertheless Shay does draw some remarkable parallels between the experiences of Achilles and the experiences of the hundreds of Vietnam veterans he’s worked with. They really do seem to be describing much the same thing as Homer, and having read the book it’s hard to believe that Shay’s not on to something. But exactly what continues to be elusive.

I already mentioned Tribe by Junger, which covers similar ground. And actually claims that PTSD has gotten even worse since Vietnam. He does speculate that PTSD provides an easy path to getting declared 100% disabled and thereby being eligible to receive around $3300 a month, inflation adjusted, for the rest of your life. This is a non-trivial incentive for veterans to lie about such things. Junger also points out the very counterintuitive fact that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experienced combat are less likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. So there’s a lot about this subject that needs unraveling. 

Another thing that makes me doubt that PTSD is getting more prevalent, is just how bad Vietnam was. Shay includes story after story of truly awful events, and I know such events also took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s hard to imagine that either conflict was as bad as what the veterans in the book say about Vietnam. Still, if you just look at reported rates they’ve gone up.

In the end I’m just some guy who’s read a few books. I have no direct experience of combat and very little experience even of trauma. But I still can’t shake the feeling—a feeling this book only reinforces—that we’ve gotten a lot worse at dealing with such trauma. 


Socrates: A Very Short Introduction

by: C.C.W. Taylor 

Published: 2019

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Socrates, the historical man, the character in Plato’s dialogues, and a few other things besides.

Who should read this book?

As an audiobook this was just four hours, and in that time it distilled out a lot of information. I read it to broaden my understanding of classical philosophy, which I’m still trying to work my way through.

General Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned before in this space I’m trying to work my way through the great books of the western world. I kind of fell off the wagon this year, and I’m hoping to get back on, and I figured reminding myself of what I had already read was a good way to do that. Also this was a test of the Very Short Introduction series, a collection of books put out by Oxford on, as of this writing, 754 different topics. If they’re good they would be an excellent resource to be able to draw on. 

I found the book to be very informative, but kind of dry, though I kind of expected that. I’m going to try out the VSI for Plato as well, and we’ll see how it goes.


Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy 

by: Mortimer J. Adler

Published: 1997

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The philosophy of Aristotle summarized for a modern audience.

Who should read this book?

I read this in preparation for reading actual Aristotle (which is the next author on my great books list). It’s another short one, only five and a half hours on audio. I thought it was pretty good, but I’ll know more once I read some actual Aristotle.

General Thoughts

I thought the book was structured well. And flowed pretty easily. Also it was somewhat less dry than the Socrates book. As I alluded to, I mostly read it to lay a foundation before actually reading Aristotle, so that I don’t get too lost. Whether it fulfills that purpose is yet to be seen.


A Wizard of Earthsea 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1968

205 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ged, a talented wizard who is consumed by pride until that pride leads to a horrible mistake which he spends the majority of the book trying to rectify.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short.

General Thoughts

I suspect most of my readers have heard of A Wizard of Earthsea, so I don’t intend to spend much time discussing the actual book, rather I want to talk about why I decided to read it. I believe Tim Ferris mentioned that the audio version was fantastic, but more than that I realized recently that rather than reading 3-4 non-fiction “This is why the world sucks” books every month (which don’t get me wrong I enjoy, they’re my jam.) I could read 2-3 such books and have time to re-read a couple of books I really love, like A Wizard of Earthsea. So going forward I intend to do that. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to read next, but I’m excited to figure that out.

I will include one quote from the book that struck me on this read through:

[T]he truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.


III- Religious Reviews

Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances

by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

Published: 2012

556 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An apologetic work which examines the temple ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In particular the similarities between these ordinances, the Masonic Ordinances, and what we know about ancient temple ordinances.

What’s the author’s angle?

Over the years the Church has frequently been attacked for copying its temple rituals from the Masons. As an LDS apologist, Bradshaw sets out to show that the rituals have many elements which existed as part of ancient temple rituals, but which were not part of masonic rites. Given that these elements were not known at the time of Joseph Smith, this would imply that they came by way of revelation.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is interested in the connection between LDS temple rites, Masonic rites, and Ancient rites. (Which I assume will mostly be members of the Church, but doesn’t have to be.)

General Thoughts

Surprisingly, I don’t read as many LDS books as you might expect, so I’m not an expert on what sort of books have already been published on this subject, but this one seems pretty authoritative. It’s one of those massive books where it’s only about half primary text, and the other half is bibliography and endnotes.

As you might expect there’s no ironclad proof that the LDS Temple Ceremony was practiced anciently in its current form, but there are a whole host of elements whose existence is confirmed by ancient texts which only appear in the LDS ceremony and not the Masonic rites, and furthermore this ancient evidence was not something that Joseph Smith would have had access to. I assume as per usual, some people will find this very compelling and other people, less favorably disposed to the Church, will think that Bradshaw goes too far in the connection he draws. 

But for anyone genuinely looking for answers to this question of the connection between the Masonic Rites and the LDS Temple Ceremony, there is no better or more fascinating book on the subject.


If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that this is my 301st post. It’s possible I only had 300 of these clever(?) end of post donation requests in me, and that going forward I’m going to just have some boilerplate outro. You know one of those ones where I thank my patreons by name? If you want to see your name on a low-traffic, niche blog, with severe brevity issues, there’s an easy way to make that happen.


Eschatologist #22 – A Survey

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


This is my 300th post. It’s only my 22nd newsletter, but given that it’s 2022, that seemed numerologically significant enough for it to also count as a special occasion. An occasion on which to reflect on the whole grubby endeavor. 

Writing is a weird business. To put out any level of content consistently you have to basically treat it as a part time job. A difficult, lonely, job where you mostly work for free. So why do it? That is an excellent question. As I mentioned in a previous post, I suffer from the silly and conceited idea that I have something important to say. But why do I think that?

All of the attributes I’ve already mentioned make it very easy to get trapped in an individual echo chamber. Constantly regurgitating one good idea until everyone is sick of it. And that assumes that I have one good idea. (I actually fancy I have more than that, but once again why do I think that?)

Numerous people have sent me emails over the years, left comments, mentioned me on Twitter, or done some other form of social media shout out. But while such spontaneous feedback is always appreciated (more than you know), sometimes it’s best to be direct.

Given the numerological significance of this newsletter/post/episode it seemed the perfect opportunity to just come out and ask for feedback. In order to make it easy I’ve created a survey. Which asks all sorts of useful questions including a query about the many things I could be doing better, and even a couple about the many things I might be doing right.

Here’s the link: https://forms.gle/toRzdKPervpygw8MA 

For those who might still be hesitating, there are only 15 questions, none are required, but one lucky person who fills out all 15 will get a $100 Amazon Gift Card. And next month we’ll return to your normally scheduled pedantry.


I’m not kidding about the $100 gift card. In fact depending on the number of responses I get, I may give out two of them! So go, and fill out the survey!