How Do We Win?

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


Last week I compared life to a video game. A video game where the number of players continues to increase, meaning that our collective knowledge of how best to play the game should also be increasing, except that at the same time the version of game we’re playing is also changing. As an aside I also mentioned that it’s becoming harder to know if we’re winning. This week I’d like to take that thought and expand upon it. What does it mean to be winning the video game? Or, to go a step further why are we even playing the game?

Coincidently at around the same time as I was thinking about this issue I saw the following on the Slate Star Codex subreddit:

I have been thinking a lot about life lately and reached to some disturbing conclusions. Basically, I can see only 3 good reasons to live:

  • External meaning – worship god, raise your kids help the poor etc…
  • Fun and joy – Just plain hedonism.
  • Fear of death and instinct

I’ve come to the conclusion that for me (And I would guess for many others) the only reason I’m alive is reason number 3. For reason 1: I would say that kids are a reasonably good external meaning, all the rest seems somewhat ridiculous to me, I don’t believe in god or religion – and it seems the end game of it all is heat death of the universe in the super long future or just human replacement by AI or another type of species very far from humans in the near future, and I don’t see the point of bootstrapping it. But I don’t want to have kids because it seems pointless and cruel (See reason 2).

Looking at the second reason: It just seems that life is full of suffering and that suffering is greater than pleasure for most people in most situations throughout history…

This is not a bad list of reasons for playing the game, and by extension ways to win it. And I’ll be returning to it, but first it’s worthwhile to look at why this individual and perhaps others have decided that the game might not even be worth playing. He takes pains to clarify that he’s not depressed, and that his mental health has been confirmed by a professional, he just thinks that on net he and most people are suffering.

One of the more interesting responses is a link to a chart showing the percentage of people in different countries who rate themselves as “very happy” or “rather happy”, vs. their guess for what percentage of their fellow countrymen give that answer. It turns out that most people think they’re happy while thinking that far fewer of their fellow citizens are. Perhaps the most extreme example is South Korea where 90% of people consider themselves “very happy” or “rather happy”, but when asked to guess the percentage for the country as a whole they think it’s only 25%. (If you’re curious the numbers for the US are 90% and 49%.)

Accordingly the individual is probably wrong about how widespread suffering is, but he’s not the first to jump to the conclusion that it is. In a previous post we talked about the antinatalists who are basically arguing the same thing.

Beyond the idea that this despair may not be widespread, or at least not as widespread as the individual imagines, it’s nevertheless real enough for him and presumably many others. Given that one of the major questions from my last post was how behaviors change and how much weight we should give to history it’s interesting to ask if this sort of despair existed historically? My assumption would be that it wasn’t completely unknown, but that it’s far more common now. Maybe not, perhaps the rate hasn’t changed, but given that conditions are generally acknowledged to be much better now than they have been historically, you would expect it to be far rarer, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case. In other words, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s evidence that what should be making us happy isn’t.

It’s interesting to speculate why that might be. Is the relative lack of historical despair due to more intense and widespread religiosity? Was there just not enough time for it? If all of your attention is being directed towards survival, then you may not have the energy for an existential crisis. Or perhaps this brand of despair is something which occurs much more frequently at certain tech levels. Certainly people have been talking about the alienation produced by modern life since at least the time of Hegel, and obviously Marx made much of it. It could be that they had a point.

It is not my intention to delve too deeply into Marx and Hegel, but if winning is becoming more difficult to define even as more people play the game, that does lend support to the idea that the speed at which the game is changing is at least as important as how many people are playing it.

Of course defining what it means to win is exactly the problem this individual is expressing. He doesn’t see any way to win, which leads him to question why he’s even playing the game in the first place. As I said, his list of the various reasons for playing the game represents a reasonably comprehensive summary of the various ideologies, and as we dive into his (and others) specific complaints we might as well start with them.

He starts off by talking about external meaning, mentioning God, children and helping the poor. As I mentioned above it’d be interesting to know how many people used their religion to stave off this sort of despair historically. If we imagine that there was less despair back then how much of that was due to religion? It’s not inconceivable that much of the difference was due to religion. But regardless of whether it was used in that way in the past it doesn’t appear that this individual could use it to that end now. And there’s an increasing number in the same position. Sure, there are certainly people who go from unbeliever to believer even now, but the opposite direction, particularly if you take observance into account, is far more common. If religion was a significant source of historical meaning what do we tell people who feel their life has very little meaning (or is a net negative) and who will never be religious? That’s a good question that I don’t really have an answer for. Several people respond by suggesting the individual take up effective altruism in place of religion, and perhaps that works for some people, but he said he had tried it and it didn’t make him feel any better. The only thing remaining from his list is children, which I’ll get to in a bit.

One thing he didn’t mention in his “external meaning” list was patriotism, or anything related to finding a reason to live in your nation and culture. It’s entirely possible that more so even than religion this has been the reason many people have had for playing the game. Though as Huntington points out in Clash of Civilizations religion may be be inseparable from culture. Which all leads to the thought that if there has been an increase in existential despair (or even if it’s just stayed constant in the face of prosperity and riches) that it might be a mostly Western phenomenon. And reflects both the decline of religion and a decline national identification. Which I suppose, Huntington might argue, marks the decline of the civilization as a whole.

In any case for this individual I’m sure that the idea of finding a reason to live in his nation or culture is even less practical than the idea of finding it in God and religion. Perhaps in recognition of this fact it doesn’t come up in the 121 comments that were left on the post.

But all of this does lead into a discussion of external meaning more broadly. Historically most people have played the game as a team, and that team not only provided external meaning just by existing, but its existence was dedicated to some further external meaning. Religion is the best example of this. People gain external meaning just from being in a group of their co-religionists, but they also receive external meaning from a belief in God and the hereafter when they would be judged by their actions.

Historically, I would argue, not only were more people on teams, but team cohesion was higher. I just finished listening to an episode of the Hardcore History podcast about the Japanese during World War II. And if you ever doubt the existence of cohesive cultures all working towards a specific end, then World War II in general and Japan in particular should disabuse you of that doubt. But in our specific example, how much of the existential despair being experienced in the reddit post comes from not being on a team? And what place to teams have in the latest version of the game and how does it relate to the greater number of people playing the game?

You might assume that a greater number of people would mean more teams, or larger teams, but the opposite seems to be happening. All the way back in 2000 Robert Putnam came out with the book Bowling Alone, which documented the decline of social capital and civic engagement. His major theory was that technology was individualizing people’s leisure time, and if anything, since 2000, individualization appears to be getting worse. A search on the exact phrase “epidemic of loneliness” brings up 100,000 articles. As far as I can tell the majority written after Bowling Alone.

Tying all of this together it would appear that external meaning definitely can work as a motivation to play the game. And that, historically, many people even felt that it provided a good way of winning the game. Despite all this something about the latest version has made it more difficult to find meaning externally. In part this is because of a decline in religion and patriotism, and in part because, despite there being more people in total playing the game, there’s less playing as a team, one of the major tools for generating external meaning.

His next point was finding external meaning through hedonism. Given that I am mostly approaching things from a historical perspective it’s worth looking at the history of hedonism. It would of course be inaccurate to say that the philosophy of hedonism is of recent vintage. One of the very earliest philosophies we’re aware of. Epicureanism, was based around hedonism. But if you look into it you’ll find that it was less The Wolf of Wall Street and more Little House on the Prairie. From Wikipedia:

Epicurus believed that what he called “pleasure” (ἡδονή) was the greatest good, but that the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one’s desires. This would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear as well as an absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states constitutes happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from “hedonism” as colloquially understood.

Indeed I don’t think anyone, even now, is really advocating for “‘hedonism’ as colloquially understood.” So what sort of hedonism are they advocating? I think the most common form of hedonist philosophy currently, might be called Pinkerian Hedonism (though I’m sure Steven Pinker is not the first to notice it and I’d be happy to change the label if someone points me to someone earlier than him.) Pinkerian Hedonism, which I discussed at length in several previous posts, claims that everything is much better objectively than it ever has been, and that we basically just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Well we have at least one example of this not being a persuasive argument, and I’m sure many thousands more beyond that. And If your argument is that this is meaningless besides the billions of people it is working for then that’s a pretty good argument.

All that said, what’s interesting is that despite the quality of the argument, and the disparity in numbers, that’s not the argument most people make when they respond. Sure, as I already mentioned people point out that he’s wrong to claim that the majority of people are unhappy. But I think I saw only one individual who was attempting to convert him to happiness. If anything most people appeared to be trying to convert him to suffering. Allow me to explain what I mean.

You can easily imagine someone trying to convert him to Christianity, “Well your problem is that you just haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” You can imagine someone trying to talk him into having kids, or just surviving (which we’re about to get to) because survival has value, but the one attempt to convert him to happiness was more a story of overcoming depression (which the original individual claimed not to suffer from) and involved no references to Pinkerian Hedonism. On the other hand, as I mentioned, lots of people said, “Of course you’re suffering. Suffering is the whole point and that’s where you need to find meaning.”

What I think everything but happiness has in common is that they all have standards attached. If you belong to a religion there’s a standard attached to that religion, and you can measure how well you’re doing against that standard. Same with kids, either you have them or you don’t, and they’re either doing well or they’re not. Surviving has the easiest standard to measure of all.

As far as measuring suffering it has some similarities to happiness, in that it’s subjective, but because of the way we’re wired if we expect suffering and we get it then everything’s going according to plan, but if we expect suffering and don’t get it then that’s fine too. Also, unlike happiness suffering is easy to create, whereas, for most people, including the individual from reddit, you’re either happy or you’re not, and if you’re not, making a Pinkerian argument of, “Well you should be, you’ve got a great car, a huge TV, and a low chance of dying!” Has no effect whatsoever and may in fact make the problem worse.

Of course this being the Slate Star Codex reddit, people inevitably mention that once the singularity happens this won’t be a problem and we will be able to create happiness, so the person should lash his external meaning to hastening that.

I think we’re ready to turn to his last point. He calls it “Fear of death and instinct”. I think I’ll label it a just “survival”. We play the game because that’s what we’re supposed to do, that it is in fact what we’ve been programmed to do (which makes the game metaphor suddenly a little weird.) As I’ve mentioned I’m becoming increasingly convinced that many if not most of the fundamental ideological battles of modernity come down to a difference of core values, with one side valuing happiness/pleasure/hedonic utility and the other side valuing survival. And here again we see the same dichotomy, this individual is essentially valuing pleasure, and since he feels that he’s suffering, on net, then there’s no point in playing the game.

It should also be noted here that while he separates things into three points that the first point is largely about survival as well. Certainly historically most sources of external meaning gave meaning because they related directly or indirectly to survival. Children being the most obvious example of this, but group membership (tribe/religion/culture) being a very big one as well.

In the battle between pleasure and survival, I obviously think the core value should be survival, and for a detailed examination of why you should read my past posts on the topic, though in short if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else. Which means that the reason to play the game and the win condition are both very simple. We play the game to keep it from ending and the win condition is to have children. Or as I saw it phrased in a book I just read (The Righteous Mind by Haidt).. The point of the game is to “turn resources into offspring”. Now there is an argument to be made that humanity has too many offspring, which I’ve also covered in the past. But in that post I also pointed out the wisdom of Tommy Boy, “You’re either growing or you’re dying there ain’t no third direction.” And if that’s the case we appear to be dying.

To put it plainly, if survival is the point of the game, technology and modernity seems to have made us a lot worse at it. At least at the individual level. The individual who made the original post is a great example of this. He has thousands of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce, and yet despite all of the accumulated genes and experience, he has decided not to. I’m not holding it against him. I’m not saying it makes him objectively a worse person. Certainly it doesn’t seem malicious, in fact he claims he’s doing it for altruistic reasons because he thinks his children will, on net, suffer. But somehow after thousands of individuals being driven to reproduce this person has decided it ends with him.

This is obviously only one data point, but insofar as having children, and upstream of that, sexual activity, are proxies for survival, the society-wide view is not great either. Just in the last couple of weeks new numbers were released for the US birthrate and only Utah and South Dakota are at above replacement rates. On top of this we have articles asking “Why are young people having so little sex?” Which might be welcome news if this predilection suddenly reversed itself somewhere in the 20s but it appears to continue into adulthood. (See “epidemic of loneliness” above.) If there’s no third direction, then we appear to be dying.

This post was designed as a continuation of last week’s post. And to put it back in those terms, my argument is that the point of the game is and always has been survival, but that something in the latest version of the game makes us think that a different way to win has been introduced, and I don’t think that’s true. I think we may have hacked the game to make it more pleasurable, and convinced ourselves that’s “winning!” but we’ve only changed how the game plays, not its ultimate goal.

In addition to the metaphor of the video game I also talked about same sex marriage (SSM) in last week’s post. After which a long discussion ensued in the comments over whether SSM might be a bad thing. Many interesting arguments were made on both sides, but I’m not sure that anyone really captured the argument I’m trying to make: That SSM whatever it’s other benefits and downsides is clearly playing the game to make it more pleasurable, not in order to “turn resources into offspring”. It is true that modern technology has finally introduced a way for same sex couples to eat their cake and have it. Passing on their genes without having to do anything heterosexual, but how many of them take advantage of that really? And is it more than the number of people who used to do it while remaining closeted? And given the larger trends mentioned above is this number going up or down? Finally how does it affect the game-playing strategy of everyone else?

It’s entirely possible that SSM is just a symptom of the larger underlying problem of prioritizing pleasure over survival. That it carries with it no inherent harm. I might even go so far as to say that this is my prefered explanation. But it is an explanation which makes the problem harder not easier. One can conceive of the Supreme Court eventually reversing Obergefell v. Hodges (though I’m on record as predicting they won’t). It’s much more difficult to imagine, short of some giant catastrophe, a wholesale rejection of happiness/pleasure in favor of survival.

As is so often the case, I hope I’m wrong. I hope that humans are just as concerned with survival as they always have been. Or that if they’re not it won’t require some giant catastrophe to change things. Or that our prowess has grown to the point where we don’t need to worry about survival, that that problem has been solved once and for all. That we can survive without having to prioritize survival. But, if I didn’t think the evidence was against all of these hopes I wouldn’t have written this post.

To reiterate I think we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re playing a new game with different rules, but that’s not the case. The game is the same as it’s always been, and the only way to win is to keep playing.


I’ve convinced myself that the only way to win is to keep writing. If you’d like to help with that, and you don’t mind backing an underdog, consider donating.


The Data of History (Years vs. HEYs)

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


Frequently, in this space, I will talk about some aspect of modernity which has only been a feature of the world for the last few decades, and then contrast it with the way things were done for thousands of years prior to that. Making, what I feel to be the obvious point, that thousands of years of doing things one way should make us doubt whether we have suddenly stumbled on the correct way of doing things in just the last 20-30 years, particularly if the new way is the exact opposite of historical norms. I don’t think I have ever argued that it absolutely proved that modern ideology was wrong, more that it was a piece of evidence which people give insufficient weight to, as in no weight at all, when it probably should be one of our weightiest considerations.

Recently Boonton, a frequent commenter on the blog sent me an email and pointed out a different way of looking at it. One which deserves to be considered. With his permission, here’s a quote from that email:

Check out The funnel of human experience.   So in terms of human experience 1/2 of all human experience happened after 1309.  This is a consequence of our large population. Leave our population closer to 10B for a while and this date will advance much faster than time.  If you imagine a future where we are spread out among the solar system with, say, a few hundred billion in population and the experience funnel will get even closer to the present moment very fast.

How does this fly with the ideology of conservatism?  Conservatism privileges human experience (Burke I think called it Democracy for the dead) but that only works well if population growth remained roughly linear.  With exponential growth experience becomes newer. It will be the norm eventually that not only will most present living humans live most of their lives connected to global social media, but most of human experience was lived that way rather than not.  What trumps what then? Does a hundred billion human-lives (say of 75 years) living in information rich media count as much as a paltry few million human-lives lived under, say, ancient Greek conditions? Consider the time will come when the majority of humanity will have lived it’s life with SSM as a norm.  Will you deflate present experience and inflate past experience to counter that? Say tell ten billion people living in Asian cities that their experience-years are equal to 1/1000th of the experience years of ancient Egyptians? Or will experience be democratic, making conservatives the least historically oriented of all ideologies?

I had previously seen the article he referenced, but I don’t know if I just skimmed it or if I had read it but not quite recognized the implications. But after Boonton’s explanation I realized that it was a very interesting and also very valid point. A potentially better way of looking at things in the same way that looking at GDP per capita is a better than looking at a countries total GDP if you want to talk about how well off someone is in a particular country. (See for example Nigeria and Norway, similar GDPs, vastly different on a per capita basis.)

To restate what I think Boonton and the original article are getting at, if we want to define what’s normal or what works for human societies, we shouldn’t just look at the length of those societies we should also multiply it by the number of humans in those societies. Thus despite modern humans being around for 50,000 years, half of all human experience, as Boonton says, has happened since 1309. And if we go all the way back to the original article, it claims that “15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.” Because “50,000 years is a long time, but 8,000,000,000 people is a lot of people.”

Let’s say we make this switch from years to “human experience years” (HEYs) when considering how much weight to give something. How does that change the point I’m constantly making about historical deference? Well I think on certain things it actually makes the point stronger. Boonton mentions same sex marriage (SSM), so let’s start there.

This may have been a bad place for him to plant his flag. Yes SSM is now legal/normal in a lot of places, particularly if you include things like civil unions which aren’t quite marriage, but are close enough. It’s legal in most of Europe, most of South and Central America, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. That’s an impressive list, but when you consider that it’s not legal in China, India, almost all of Southeast Asia, or Africa outside of the one country, and further consider the population of all those countries, then switching from years to HEYs doesn’t strengthen the argument for SSM and may in fact weaken it.

At this point, I think it’d actually be interesting to run some numbers. Let’s be as liberal as possible on the number of people who are experiencing SSM as the norm, and say it’s all of Europe, and the entirety of the Americas. Using this liberal standard we have the following populations:

  • North America: 579 million
  • South America: 423 million
  • Europe: 739 million
  • South Africa: 57 million
  • Australia: 25 million
  • New Zealand: 5 million
  • Total: 1.828 billion

The total population of the world is 7.7 billion meaning that there’s just shy of 6 billion people who live in countries where it’s illegal and 1.8 billion who live where it is legal. Which means that currently every year that passes the weight of HEYs where SSM is not normal increases. Now perhaps in the next decade or so that will switch. India just decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, which is an obvious first step towards SSM, but there’s still a long way to go, and while that’s happening the disparity continues to widen, not shrink. Also it should be pointed out that the population growth in the countries where it’s not legal is projected to be greater than in those countries where it is. Meaning we could actually see this gap widen at an even faster rate in the future.

One could argue that putting all the people where it’s legal on one side of things and all the people where it’s still illegal on the other side of things is far too crude, since there are certainly people in India and China who view it as normal, just as there are people in America who still think it’s not normal. Perhaps, but breaking it down further would be difficult. And it’s very unlikely that SSM supporters form a majority in any of the countries where it’s still illegal, recall that as recently as 2008 they weren’t even a majority in California.

Now, of course, when people, particularly educated Westerners, imagine the future, they never imagine that in the great and limitless destiny which awaits us that SSM would still be illegal anywhere. For example, it’s hard to imagine a modern science fiction author writing a book where the illegality of SSM is a “feature” of future. They would only include it if they were imagining a dystopia. And thus most people, like Boonton, imagine that despite HEYs being currently against normalization and despite the weight of this steadily getting greater, that when we eventually spread out through the solar system, and perhaps beyond, the weight of HEYs will be in favor of normalization, thus they’re willing to start backing HEYs over normal years now.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. I understand that if you believe in the inevitability of progress and further believe that the normalization of SSM is an example of that progress, why it may seem inevitable. (Though I have questioned this inevitability repeatedly.) I further understand that on top of this there are many other arguments for the eventual universal normalization of SSM, and I’m not trying to speak to all of them, I am only saying that, thus far, and for the foreseeable future, using HEYs in place of years still points in the other direction.

But can HEYs always be directly substituted for years? In some cases I’m sure they can, and that it’s beneficial to do so, but I think there are also fairly significant differences between HEYs and years which need to be acknowledged. To understand these differences we need to dive into this idea of normality. What does it mean for something to be normal as opposed to abnormal? I can think of four ways to define normality in this context.

First, normality could be descriptive. If we’re saying that it’s “normal” for humans to do X, we could just be describing the fact that a certain percentage of people do X, and that this percentage is above some commonly agreed upon threshold for whether something is common enough to be considered normal, a percentage far less than a majority, maybe even as low as 1%. We don’t think it’s normal for people to stick pencils up their noses because while some people do it, the percentage isn’t high enough or the occurrence often enough for it to pass our normality threshold. But this definition of normality doesn’t help us much in determining whether something which wasn’t normal should be made normal, or whether something which was normal should be made abnormal. It can only give us a normality snapshot, taken at a specific time. Also it leads to questions of whether something like stealing is “normal”, certainly lots of people do it, enough to for it to be above our normality threshold, and yet it’s still illegal. Which brings us to our next way of viewing normality.

Second, normality could describe what works. However high the percentage of thieves is in our community, we don’t consider it normal because if we did, society would break down at least in the realm of property rights. This is the conservative position, we don’t change things because if you do they will stop working. For example every so often people question whether property rights are important, and from that, they try to establish a new definition of normal, which could be less about stealing and more about eliminating the concept of ownership all together. And yes, it all sounds good, but millions of deaths later, it turns out that property rights and ownership were important after all. I know that there are probably a few people who feel that nothing should ever change. But of course some things are going to change. In the dawn of time it probably wasn’t obvious that property rights make things run more smoothly. But that changed. The question is how fast should things change? And also how do we know when a given change will be better? Which all leads to the next definition of normality.

Third, what’s normal at any given time changes through experimentation. Similar to the second definition, normality is our current best guess at what works, but this adds the idea that there’s probably something that works better out there, and eventually we’ll find it and switch. Normality is never static, it changes from one generation to the next, as humans constantly try out new things. As you can see this definition of normality leads naturally to prioritizing HEYs over normal years. The more people there are experiencing “life” the more experiments are being run and the more likely you are to come up with something different which works better. We’ll get back to a discussion of experimentation in a second, but first we need to consider one final way of defining normality.

Fourth, “normal” is what we’ve evolved to accept as normal. If we were bees we would consider it normal that every winter all the males die off, and the rest of the bees stand around and use their wings to create warmth for the queen while occasionally suicide squads of fellow bees are sent off to fetch some stored honey. If we were a male emperor penguin our normal winter would consist of huddling in a circle while we protected an egg and drained down our fat reserves. Instead as a human I consider it normal to light a fire (or its modern equivalent) and stay inside a shelter while I eat stored food (okay the stored food is a stretch, but everything’s close enough that no “abnormal” flags are raised). The question we have to address is does evolution drive normality or is it the other way around? I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around, as external normality changes an organism has to adapt/evolve to survive the new conditions (presumably this involves some shift to experiencing it as normal) or they die. Which takes us back to the idea of experimentation.

Technology is rapidly changing our environment. In the past when change was more gradual we might have been able to rely on evolution to create a new experience of normal to match the new environmental normal. Which is not to say there weren’t sudden changes historically, just that when those happened most of the evolution happened through massive death. I think we’re hoping to avoid that with the current sudden changes. The key point being that things are moving too fast for evolution to provide the answer. All of our experimentation has to be cultural rather than genetic.

This is very important when debating whether to pay more attention to years or HEYs. Seven billion people undergoing all manner of selective pressure is much better than a million individuals in a very narrow environment if you’re hoping to maximize beneficial adaptive mutations. Accordingly, if this is what we’re aiming for then HEYs are superior. Importantly, evolution can operate at the level of an individual (or more accurately at the level of a gene.) So having more individuals (genes) is better. The problem is, I don’t think the same thing can be said of culture. We aren’t seven billion cultures all experimenting with what works best, we’re not even millions of small tribes experimenting with what works best. If anything technology is leading to fewer cultures, not more.

As an aside you may feel that this contradicts my frequent assertion that tiny political niches are proliferating, since what are those tiny niches but small cultures. The problem I see there is that these niches aren’t (yet?) in true competition. There’s no nation of Bernie Sanders supporters competing with a nation of neo-cons which is in further competition with a nation of libertarians. Perhaps there should be. Perhaps there will be. Certainly I could see it as something which fans of HEYs over years might support.

Returning to the idea of there being only a few cultures, let’s once again look at SSM. The very speed of its adoption and how quickly opposition for it went from expected, even for Obama, to a good way to lose your job speaks to the unity of Western culture. This is not what it looks like when one set of behaviors out-competes another set of behaviors, this is what it looks like when an idea reaches a critical mass within a significantly monolithic culture. And if that’s the case then HEYs have not brought us greater knowledge or effectiveness because the “experiments” aren’t sufficiently independent. The years each human experience are essentially identical. Even if you think this claim is overbroad you still have to ask at what level are experiments being performed, at the level of a culture or at the level of an individual? And how do we determine the success of these experiments? To put it another way the triumph of an idea is more likely the beginning of the experiment than its end.

Of course now that we’re firmly in the realm of discussing behavior as experiments we have lots of tools for deciding whether any given experiment is a good one. To begin with a good experiment needs a control. This is exceptionally difficult when you’re talking about reality. As people frequently mention you can’t create a clone of America where everything’s the same except there’s no social media. And it’s even hard to compare one time period to another. As an example the Economist just did a special report on children, and opened by mentioning that 30 years ago children would engage in unstructured play for hours on end, spent most of that time outdoors, largely unsupervised, and there was almost no time in front of computers. But for children today all of that is basically the exact opposite. Now say we are confronted with some distressing (or beneficial) new trend among children, which of the above is causing it? Or are none of them? Or maybe it’s all of them. It’s extremely difficult to tell.

Also note that part of why it’s difficult to tell is that this wasn’t a shift by some children, allowing us to collect data on current children whose upbringing didn’t change, and still behave exactly as they did 30 years ago and compare. The entire culture shifted. What this means is we’re not running a lot of experiments we’re running one and if we’re lucky increasing the N. Which, to be clear, is not entirely without value, but it’s less valuable than people imagine. Of course there are probably some children out there who live as children did 30 or more years ago, but generally for that to be the case there’s something else going on, meaning that their value as a control is limited by all sorts of confounders, they’re probably religious, almost certainly rural, and my guess would be the education level would skew low as well.

Beyond the lack of a good control for these experiments with reality there is a lack of replication, and here is where I take the most issue with privileging HEYs over years, and specifically privileging modern experience over historical experience, because historically conditions changed much less quickly. Back then, if my grandfather “ran an experiment” and my father “ran an experiment” and I “ran an experiment” we’re probably all doing it under relatively the same conditions. Extend that out to 100 generations and we call the experiments which have replicated “tradition”. But these days I can run an “experiment” vastly different from anything my grandfather would have tried and only superficially similar to something my father might have tried.

To put everything in terms of a metaphor, imagine life is like a video game. For a long time you’re playing the same video game over and over again. Sure things change, but new rules for this video game are introduced very slowly. Mostly it’s the same game and you play it hundreds of times. It’s not that crazy of an assumption to imagine that you’d end up with some pretty good optimizations. You’d be as close to winning the game as it was possible to be. (Though remember this video game is crazy difficult.) Now imagine that changes start happening with greater and greater rapidity, until people start to question whether it even deserves to be called the same game. Given this, what’s the best strategy?

That’s hard to say, but it’s not crazy to argue that a good strategy would incorporate skills from previous versions, even if the game is on version 119 and version 120 is going to be released tomorrow. And it’s also not crazy to argue that it’s a bad strategy to ditch all the skills picked up in previous versions and focus entirely on trying out the crazy powers made available in version 119, particularly if it’s about to be replaced with version 120. Yes it’s somewhat helpful that a lot more people are playing these later versions, but as I mentioned there’s less variety to their strategies than one might expect. Also what does it mean to play and win the latest versions of the game? The win condition used to be producing offspring, but people seem to think that’s less important in the latest version of the game. All of which is to say it’s hard to know if something was a winning strategy in version 119 if no one manages to finish it before version 120 is released.

To close, I’d like to provide a concrete example of what I mean. I recently listened to an episode of Planet Money that was about synthetic drugs. You could say that they’re a new feature of the latest version of the game. Perhaps they require a new strategy. Fortunately if you’re looking at HEYs, then all of this should be okay, depending on how you count we’ve got millions if not billions of people playing the latest version. Someone is definitely going to experiment with synthetic drugs, and we’re all going to be provided with the results. Everyone will play the game better, and all of this will be accomplished more effectively because there are so many of us.

Except that’s not what happened. Despite, according to Planet Money, the first overdose being “national news” it keeps happening. (Planet Money includes a further six examples.) And, spoiler, this is just synthetic cannabinoids we’re talking about. If we move on to synthetic opioids (also just made available in the latest version of the game) then the harm goes through the roof. Also, the idea that someone might not know about the danger becomes much harder to argue. This is not because there weren’t a lot of HEYs being dedicated to trying out new ways to play the game. We tried all sorts of experiments including, most notably, OxyContin, where we experimented with making opioids time release. We also experimented with having the government pay for it if you were poor. These experiments didn’t lead to a better way of playing the game they lead to a lot of overdose deaths. But as I pointed out in a previous post, while these new strategies didn’t work, a strategy dating from the very earliest versions of the game still works pretty well, just avoid drugs all together.

In the end it appears that we have two things that are both increasing: the number of people who are experiencing life (players) and the number of things it’s possible to experience (the version of the game) and given that because of a commonality of culture, many people can end up acting like only a few people, but, because of the power of technology, a few people can end up changing things for many people. I’m not at all sure that our ability to play the game is getting any better, and it may, in fact, be getting a lot worse.


I’ll tell you one other thing that’s new in version 119, asking for donations for one’s blog. But fortunately I’m running a different experiment every week. Maybe this is the one that will work, if so donate here.


2019 Predictions and Trends

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


It’s the beginning of a new year and this is normally the post when I revisit my long-term predictions. Though “normally” may be overstating things since I made the predictions two years ago and have only revisited them once. That’s not much of a trend. But my sense is that last year not much changed one way or the other, and so while I’ll spend some time reviewing things, I’m going to spend the rest of it looking at potential long term trends, longer in any case than my trend of doing a beginning of the year post about my predictions.

To begin with you can find the initial predictions here, and last years post where I reviewed them here. For those disinclined to go back and review them, I can sum things up for you very simply, I’m a pessimist.

My first set of predictions covered my pessimism about artificial intelligence, and despite the recent news about AlphaZero dominating Stockfish in chess, and more interestingly doing it using the same algorithm it uses to play Go and Shogi. I don’t think much changed on that front over the last year. Even if you wanted to argue that we have developed a general AI for playing games, which is already a stretch (how does it do with Poker? Or more importantly Starcraft II?) it still fails at the venerable “A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing” standard.

From there I have a pessimistic prediction about the difficulties of brain emulation, as championed, most notably, by Robin Hanson. Last year I promised that this would be the year that I read Age of Em and I kept that promise. (Can we call that a successful prediction?) You can find the post I wrote about it here. As I said at the time, it was an interesting book, but in the race between general AI and brain emulation, My bet was that we’re going to get rained out before the race finishes. Nothing that has happened this last year inclines me to change that bet.

My next predictions concern transhumanism, particularly the various ways in which life might be extended. Here the news looks even better for my pessimism, though I suppose worse for humanity in general. We are in the third year of declining US life expectancy. Our quest for immortality appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Also this year like last year I continue to be baffled that there are so few people who have signed up for cryonics. As near as I can tell the number is still less than 10,000 and maybe a lot less. If that’s any reflection at all of the strength of the transhumanist movement in general, then I don’t know that I would be looking to them for the salvation of humanity anytime soon. It sure looks like, despite at least a couple of decades of attention, that people are more interested in reading about transhumanism than actually being transhumanists.

As long as we’re on the subject of life expectancy, I recently came across an article about Jeanne Calment, the current record holder for that, which made the strong case that the person who we thought was Jeanne Calment was actually her daughter. Who had taken her place many decades before hand in order to avoid a fairly punishing inheritance tax which was in place at the time. It was very interesting, but my point in bringing it up here is that if it’s true it’s yet more bad news for those hoping for immortality. Not only is the average person getting farther away from it, but we might have to throw out one of our best data points for what’s possible.

My next section of predictions gets into my pessimism about space exploration and colonization. Here there was a smattering of interesting news:

As of this writing China has a craft orbiting the moon readying to land on the lunar farside (the first such “soft” landing ever) once that side turns toward sun in early January. After this it does appear that China has further ambitious lunar plans. Earlier this year they announced their intention of building a scientific research station on the moon though with no actual date attached. We’ll see how that plays out, and despite my pessimism I’d be as excited as anyone if this happened.

Closer to home Elon Musk and SpaceX’s dreams of Mars continue to chug along I suppose. And just the other day I saw an article arguing that the SpaceX Starlink satellites could end up providing all the money Musk and SpaceX needs for their Mars plans. That said, I don’t think anyone would argue that this was a great year for Musk, I haven’t seen any indication that Musk’s Tesla troubles have bled over to SpaceX, but they might.

In any event we still have a long way to go before I have to worry about being wrong on my prediction of no extraterrestrial colonies of greater than 35,000 people. My other prediction concerns the resolution of Fermi’s Paradox, and I think I’ve revisited that recently enough that there’s nothing more to add at this point.

The next section of predictions concerns war, and I’ll repeat what I said the last two years. As always, I hope that my pessimism is entirely misplaced.  Though I don’t think any of the events of this year have done much to calm that pessimism. Relations between Russia and the US are widely described as being as bad as they’ve ever been (at least since the end of the Cold War). Iran is testing ballistic missiles. Despite Trump’s claims, North Korea’s nuclear program appears to still be going strong. And, of course, the Middle East is as chaotic as ever.

The next set of predictions were my miscellaneous predictions. Once again not much has changed, though given that one of my predictions is that the US national debt will cause a major global meltdown, it’s useful to look at how much it increased in 2018. At the end of 2017 debt stood at $20.49 trillion and as I write this the debt stands at $21.87 trillion, so it went up by $1.38 trillion. And while that’s a lot of money (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) A better measure is the debt to GDP ratio. Which stands around 104% and has been basically flat for the last couple of years. Once again 104% is not great but the question is where does it go from there?

Some people will point out that it was 119% in 1946 at the end of World War 2 and the world didn’t end (in fact it helped keep the world from ending). Also within 10 years it had halved. If the current debt and deficit was all attributable to a single cause that had some chance of ending, then that comparison might make sense. But I don’t see anything like that. All I see on the horizon are the Trump tax cuts, an aging population and the possibility of a recession starting any day now.

My final prediction is that five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form. And here the news mostly matches my pessimism, particularly the news out of Europe. The Brexit morass continues to ooze along. Angela Merkel, after serving as prime minister for 18 years has agreed that she will not seek another term in 2021. And then there’s France, always on the bleeding edge when it comes to social discontent, with their yellow vests movement which started back in November and appears set to continue well into 2019. Layer that on top of a 26% approval rate for Marcon and it doesn’t look like his government can hang on to power for very long.

Of course none of the things I just mentioned would count as a fulfillment of my prediction, but it does provide a nice segue into the area I do want to spend the bulk of the post on. Current trends. What’s going on in Europe? What are the trends at work here?

Of course the European trend most people have heard about is the trend of nationalism. And that’s definitely at play with Brexit and to a lesser extent Merkel, but when it comes to the yellow vests that’s a bit less clear, and maybe more interesting, so we’ll return to them in a bit.

At this point every country has a nationalist party and one easy, if somewhat crude way of tracking this particular trend is to look at their level of support over the past few years. I think it’s safe to say that it’s been on the rise, though it has definitely played out differently in different nations, but I suppose that’s exactly what you’d expect from nationalist movements. That nations act differently

Somewhat paradoxically, the nation which is experiencing the largest tangible consequence of nationalism, the UK, also has the weakest of all the nationalist parties: UKIP. In fact they seem to have cratered precisely at the point where they had achieved their greatest victory. That’s a phenomenon that may be worth keeping an eye on, particularly given that it appears to be happening to Trumpism as well. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a trend yet, nor do I think anyone is likely to adopt it as a strategy, i.e. letting the nationalists win on the assumption that their support craters afterwards. I don’t imagine any anti-trumpers think the brightest possible future is on the timeline where Trump actually got elected.

Moving on, if we’re looking back at 2018, Italy actually had an election. Italian politics is always messy, and I’m no expert, but everyone seems to be able to agree on one thing. The nationalists did really well. Out of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic Five Star Movement picked up a net 119 seats for a total of 227 and the right-wing nationalists (Motto: Italians First) picked up 109 seats for a total of 125. While the center left party which had been in power up until the election, lost 180 seats dropping them to 112, and in fact the left-wing coalition as a whole lost 223 seats. If we combine the two nationalist parties and assume they represent Republicans and assume the left-wing coalition is the Democrats it would as if the Republicans had picked up 179 seats in the last house election.

Turning to Germany, as I already mentioned Merkel has agreed not to run for reelection. (Though she has given herself until 2021, and a lot could happen in the next couple of years.) And the reason she’s not running has a lot to do with the nationalists. To begin with, one of the key components of nationalism is being anti-immigration. And most people feel that the beginning of the end for Merkel was when she invited in a million refugees back in 2015. Beyond that her own party has been losing ground to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which now polls second in terms of popularity.

Thus far I’ve mostly been using the term nationalist, though there is a strong overlap between nationalism and populism. Which is what finally takes us back to France and the yellow vests movement. Which is definitely populist without being especially nationalist. It would be convenient if it slotted neatly into the same basic space as the Italian election and Merkel’s promised departure, but instead it forces us to consider whether the big trend isn’t anti-immigrant nationalism, but populism more broadly. Whereas everything we’ve spoken about thus far has at least leaned right-wing, as far as I can tell if you were forced to label the yellow vest movement as either left or right, you’d almost certainly label it a leftist movement. But that definitely doesn’t capture the entirety or even most of what’s going on. In fact I think the movement is a great example of the increasing complexity of political ideology, as even the smallest niche is able to use social media and the internet to gather hundreds if not thousands of people together.

This is not to say that the yellow vests are a niche movement, but I think it is comprised of a lot of niches each of which shares a dissatisfaction with the status quo. What this further means is that you can find nearly any form of politics within the movement. There’s people pushing for the very leftists ideas of wealth taxes and increase to the minimum wage. But, on the other hand, the movement actually started as a rejection of increased gas taxes which included a carbon tax designed to fight global warming. And above everything else, there appears to be a definite rejection of the Marcon government, who’s basically just to the left of center, but also definitely a globalist.

Beyond all this is how suddenly the yellow vest movement emerged, at least as far as I can tell. Everyone knew that Marcon was extremely unpopular, but did anyone predict that huge demonstrations were just around the corner? Let alone the worst demonstrations since 1968? It seemed to go from nothing to 300,000 people. I certainly haven’t been able to find anything talking about it before the first protest on November 17th and articles written in the days immediately following speak of it coming “out of the blue”.

Having covered all of this it’s easy to see that Europe is kind of a mess. (Though the current mess still pales in comparison to previous European messes.) But what direction is this mess headed in? What trends can we extract from all of this?

The biggest trend would appear to be the decline of Western globalism, and in fact it may be dead already. Certainly if it can’t be kept alive in America and Europe, it’s not going to be sustained outside of there by countries like Russia and China.

There’s also bad news for people who feel that global warming is the big issue for our times. If you can’t enact a carbon tax in a place like France where can you enact it? This would represent more a continuation of the current trend of inaction. But for those who continually hope for a trend of action it’s obviously disappointing.

There’s also various social media trends in there. Italy’s Five Star Movement wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-internet era. (It’s led by a blogger.) And then there’s the yellow vest movement which sprang up out of nowhere after being entirely organized on Facebook.

Outside of Italy and Eastern Europe the populists haven’t really taken power. Are trends moving in such a way that eventually every European country will be run by nationalists/populists? This seems less likely, but also I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen in at least one or two other countries. Particularly when you toss in left-wing populism. Which would include the UK Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

After going through all of this one question jumps out at me: is the US ahead of Europe or behind them? Perhaps given the specifically national nature of the various disruptions, the question is meaningless. Perhaps, having already elected our populist, we’re ahead of Europe. On the other hand, I would say we’ve yet to have our own yellow vest moment, so perhaps we’re actually behind them.

As I’ve mentioned I have an aversion to making short-term predictions. But I’m going to go ahead and make one now. There will be a US recession before the next election. Given that the yellow vest movement seems primarily economic in nature, and happened despite the economy of France doing okay (thought not spectacular) what happens both here and there if the economy tanks? Perhaps more importantly, what happens if it all comes together in the run up to an election?

I see this trend of populism combined with a generous helping of nationalism as being one of the dominant trends in the West for the foreseeable future. I would add in the additional and related trend of the conflict between nationalism and globalism, but as I said, the latter may already be dead. It seems more likely that going forward the principal area of political conflict will be between different flavors of populism, perhaps national populism and economic populism. Though there can be a fair bit of the latter in the former. But this is in the West. What’s going to be happening elsewhere?

Outside of the West the two countries that get the most attention are Russia and China and in both we see the continued entrenchment of authoritarian regimes that bear little resemblance to the ideals of western liberal democracy. Which is unsurprising given both the nature of the two countries and the perceived decrease in stability offered by the liberal democratic framework. Of more worry is how the competition between authoritarianism and democracy plays out in the rest of the world.

But returning to Russia and China. Russia had an election this year. As expected Putin easily won reelection with nearly 77% of the vote. This takes him through to 2024 when in theory he’s term-limited by the Russian Constitution. Before you start laughing at the idea of Putin voluntarily stepping down, he has in fact said that’s what he plans to do. China went the opposite way this year when, in March, the Chinese Constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits, meaning that Xi Jinping could theoretically rule China until his death (he’s 65, a year younger than Putin). Perhaps the same thing will happen in Russia, Putin still has plenty of time to change his mind. Of course, the longer a country goes with the same leader the more disruptive it is when that leader finally steps down, or dies. But overall I think we’re seeing another trend towards leaders being less likely to relinquish power. Though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this is a return to a very old trend.

I would include in this trend Recep Erdoğan of Turkey (he’s 64). Who also won an election this year. Though of possibly more significance were the constitutional reforms he pushed through in 2017. Reforms which made this year’s election far more significant because they made the office Erdoğan was elected to in 2018 far more powerful. Beyond that this also ties into another trend I think I’ve noticed, a trend towards increasing state-level conflict in the Middle East. We have the war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, and then, or course, there’s the ongoing Syrian Civil War which Trump just announced we were withdrawing from, on top of that there’s the continual wildcard that is Iran. And adding spice to all of this is the recent scandal over the murder of Khashoggi.  

From where I stand this all seems to be part of the decline of US military hegemony, a trend that has been going on for awhile and is likely to continue. While Syria marks the first time since Vietnam where we’ve completely withdrawn from a conflict (also recall that we still have troops in Korea, Japan and Germany) the US has been signaling a reluctance to go “all in” for quite a while. This creates potential opportunities for the regional powers which include the Saudi’s, Turks and Iranians, who are all now jockeying for position, and that jockeying might include war. Russia and Israel should also be included in the list, though Russia isn’t exactly regional (though it’s not that far away) and Israel is probably more interested in surviving than in assuming regional leadership.

You might think that based on this I’m opposed to Trump withdrawing from Syria. But the situation is complicated. I understand that all of what I just said argues for a more robust US military engagement, and that additionally and perhaps unforgivably, we appear to be once again abandoning the Kurds, but if the alternative is a low level war that never ends, like in Afghanistan, than Trump’s call may be the right one. To put it another way if we were really serious about removing Assad we could do it, but we obviously aren’t and if that’s the case why are we sticking around? What is our ultimate objective? If it’s just to stick around wasting money and lives until the locals outlast us, then it’s better to leave now, but that also doesn’t mean that doing so makes everything better.

As a whole this post didn’t end up being as tightly constructed as I would like, so to help with that here’s the summary of things:

  • All of my long-standing predictions continue to hold up, with some getting a little more likely and some a little less, but none in serious danger. (Oh, also China did land their rover.)
  • Populism will be the dominant force in the West for the foreseeable future. Globalism is on the decline if not effectively dead already.
  • Carbon taxes are going to be difficult to implement, and will not see widespread adoption.
  • Social media will continue to change politics rapidly and in unforeseen ways.
  • There will be a US recession before the next election. It will make things worse.
  • Authoritarianism is on the rise elsewhere, particularly in Russia and China.
  • The jockeying for regional power in the Middle East will intensify.

I didn’t get a chance to talk about India, but here at the end let me just toss in Tyler Cowen’s argument in Bloomberg that not only is “Hindu nationalism on the rise, [but] India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicity of directions, few of them familiar to most Americans.” A point which ties in well to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Cowen also talks in the same article about an increase low-level authoritarianism in China.

Finally, did you see that story out of Arizona recently about people attacking self-driving cars? I had kind of hoped it represented some kind of neo-luddite riot, but apparently the cars are just incredibly annoying to have around. I guess they have a long way to go before they’re ready for primetime. Which is to say, despite, or perhaps because of everything I already said above, remember that the future is always farther away than you think.


One future that I hope is not so far away is the future where you donate to this blog. (Is it just me or did that come out sounding like a bad pickup line?)


Five Stories of Enlightenment and Edification from My Misspent Youth

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


Story One:

When a was very young I asked my Dad what the fastest route was to some destination. At this point I forget the destination, someplace close as I recall. He responded that it basically took the same time regardless of the route. Of course being a pedantic nerd, albeit a tiny one (some things never change) I immediately seized on this statement. “Are you saying that I could drive miles out of my way and it would still take the same amount of time?!?” I asked incredulously.

Of course that’s not what he was trying to say. He was saying that if there were several obvious ways you might use to go somewhere that they all ended up taking about the same amount of time. But, realizing who he was dealing with, I’m sure that it was clear to him that trying to explain that would just lead to more incredulity so he decided to take the opposite approach, and see if that would placate the snarky little demon he had somehow ended up with. (Though insofar as genetics explain anything he wasn’t entirely blameless.) The other extreme was to give a very precise answer (or at least one that would require a lot of precision) and explained that it depended on how fast you drove, how close you cut corners, and things like that.

This answer was more satisfying to me than the first answer, which is interesting because over the years it’s become apparent to me that it was less useful. Most routes are functionally equivalent and if you accept that, there’s a whole class of decisions you no longer need to worry about. If nothing else, this can help reduce decision fatigue, a non-trivial problem these days. Far more important, the answer also embeds the wisdom that your life is better if you live it in such a way where you don’t have to worry whether one route is two minutes faster than another. My wife would be quick to point out here that I am still a long way away from living that life. She gets particularly annoyed when I ask for updates on the Google Map ETA to see if I’ve shaved any time off. (Though that is more about me speeding than choosing one route over another, though I’m not sure that clarification makes it better.)

Regardless of how good I am at being the kind of person who doesn’t worry about one route being a couple of minutes faster than another, or whether I can shave a minute off my arrival time by going 79 rather than 77 mph, I can at least recognize the wisdom of striving for that state, and the wisdom of father’s original answer. In fact, we might go so far as to say that the two answers demonstrate the difference between useless but obvious knowledge and useful but less obvious wisdom. We might go even farther than that and say that there are numerous people who are acting in the same snarky and pedantic fashion I was oh so many years ago, rejecting wisdom in favor of precise, but ultimately valueless knowledge.

Examples of this are numerous, but most fall into the category of defining grievances with ever increasing specificity. A perfect example is the term “microaggression”. Though when it comes to encyclopedic knowledge of every bad thing the other side has done, the far-right is even or ahead of the far-left.

It reminds me of a book I just got done reading: The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, it’s a history of engineering, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. One of the things that makes it interesting is that he titles each chapter with the tolerances the historical era under discussion was capable of achieving. The first chapter is 0.1 or a tenth of an inch, and in later chapters he goes down to nanometers and in final chapters well past that. The point of this tangent is that I can imagine the same thing happening with grievances. We started with normal aggressions, we are now at microaggressions and soon we’ll be measuring nanoaggressions (if we aren’t already.)

Basically, we’re in a situation where people imagine that there’s a better route out there. They’re already mad that they’re on the route society forced them to take. But then additionally everytime it seems the car is going too slow or taking a corner too cautiously they get angry because this route, which is already not ideal, is taking even longer. And yes this is probably all true, and perhaps it’s very satisfying to point it all out, to identify all the microaggressions, all the times people ask, “Where are you from?” Or to know in excruciating detail all the bad things which have happened in the past. There’s a lot of focus on that knowledge, and very little on the wisdom that most routes end up being pretty much the same, and you’d be much better off if you just focused on enjoying the ride.

Story Two:

Unlike kids these days, I had a job when I was in high school. I worked at the local pizza place. Though, during the summer between my junior and senior year, I took the high school equivalent of a sabbatical, so I could attend the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. When I returned to work I discovered that I had missed out on some high drama. Apparently two of my co-workers Cindy and Howard had sort of had a relationship, and this sort of relationship ended badly, but not in the way you might expect.

Apparently they’d been on a couple of dates and those had gone well and then they kind of got stuck in the transition to the next level. Both of them really liked the other but they were suffering from a lack of confidence and wanted the other person to make the next move. So far so normal, but both choose the tactic of subtly avoiding the other hoping to draw them out into doing something definitive. For example if I walk right by you and say “Hi” and you say “Hi” back that proves nothing, but if I walk around the other way, so that you see me, but I don’t walk past you and then you chase me down and say “Hi” well that means you like me. Such is the insanity of high school relationships. But this isn’t the point of the story.

As I reconstructed it after the fact it seems that this tactic of subtle avoidance had not worked for either of them and had escalated to outright cruelty which both had taken at face value rather than realizing that it was basically the equivalent of having their pigtails pulled. Things had gotten so bad that the pizza place had ended up divided into warring camps, with every employee forced to pick one side or the other. Such was the condition of things when I returned from my “sabbatical” and started working again. I had been friends with both Howard and Cindy, and I missed the heat of the conflict and therefore also missed having to swear allegiance to one or the other. Meaning that when I returned I was the only person, insofar as I could tell, who was still friends with both of them, and therefore the only person who could get both sides of the story I just related. The story of two people who actually liked each other, and should have been very happy together, at least for as long as high schoolers are ever happy together, but who somehow couldn’t figure out that the other person felt the same way they did.

The moral of this story is that two people can want exactly the same thing. They could be in a situation where there exists no impediment to them achieving this thing, other than themselves. And, despite all this, communication and coordination are still sometimes tricky enough that they can fail to get it. In the end my two friends were probably too concerned with signalling “hard to get” and not enough with communicating “I like you”. I haven’t talked very much in this space about signalling theory, and I probably should, but it definitely applies here.

Does this moral extend to the current political crisis? Are the two sides just like Cindy and Howard? Deep down they both love America and want to work together, but a series of ever increasing slights has convinced them that it will never happen because as far as they can tell the other side hates America and will never agree to work together?

One imagines that if Howard and Cindy had come together late one night and confessed their true feelings for each other, heedless of the rain that poured down all around them, like in the movies, that it would have all worked out. Is there some rain-soaked confession of love we could imagine between Republicans and Democrats? Left and Right? Perhaps, there did seem to be some of that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (I guess we’ve arrived at equating terrorism with rain?) but it seems unlikely. Particularly given that politics is getting more multipolar by the day, and the associated signalling is getting more and more intense. Meaning we don’t just need two people to stand in the rain and confess their love, we need hundreds of different ideologies to all confess their love simultaneously. And if you think it’s difficult with just two…

Story Three:

When I was in seventh grade I was a pretty scrawny kid, and a pretty scrawny nerd to boot. Predictably I got bullied. There was one person in particular who kept giving me crap. We’ll call him Mark. As I recall I had first period with Mark, and he would pick on me before class started, and then on the way back from class to my locker. This went one for quite a while, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I threw a punch, and started a fight.

I wish I could say that I won that fight, but I didn’t. It’s not like I was horribly injured or anything, but I definitely got the worst of it. I forget how it ended, if some teacher broke it up, or if it just kind of fizzled out after a few swings. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do that again, and probably even thinking that it was stupid, particularly given that I’d lost, but you know what? It worked. All those people who told me that bullies want easy targets and if you fight back, even if you end up losing, they’ll find someone else to pick on? They were right as far as I could tell. He stopped picking on me, perhaps not entirely, I’m sure he still made a comment here or there, but after the fight it was much better.

What’s perhaps even more interesting is that now, decades later, Mark apparently admires me? For example, he posted his yearbook picture, but not just his picture, it included a few of the pictures around his, of which mine was one, and he said something like, “And the handsome fellow just above me is Mr. Richey.” Now I was not handsome as child, and I couldn’t let such a gross inaccuracy stand, so breaking from my normal policy of never commenting on Facebook I pointed out the inaccuracy of the statement.  He retorted by saying it didn’t matter, that I was focused on the things that were truly important. (I assume he meant academics, though what I was really focused on during that time was Dungeons and Dragons.)

I talked in a previous post about the Coddling of the American Mind, the need for suffering and the difficulty of determining how much suffering was enough. Obviously getting into a fight and losing it caused me to suffer. Though apparently he suffered as well, at least enough to stop bullying me and to later think I was awesome rather than pathetic. In my case, which I understand is just a single data point, and not even a very good one, it seems clear to me that the only possible way to resolve that dispute was through violence, because my willingness to throw a punch was the only signal (yes we’re back to talking about signalling) clear enough for him to understand.

I hear a lot of talk these days about bullying in schools, but I don’t hear much about fighting. Do kids still fight in schools? I assume they must, but one wonders if it’s bifurcated, with rich, suburban schools having almost no fighting but lots of bullying, and poor inner city schools having less bullying, but the fighting they do have being more dangerous? They do say that bullying is on the rise, is there any part of that rise that can be ascribed to less fighting? Does low level fighting of the kind I described in my story, create sort of an informal justice system that’s closer to the source of the problem and thus more immediate? When talking about coddled kids is this one of the ways in which we coddling them? Do we need to allow kids to freely fight in the same way we need to allow them to freely range?

In a larger sense there’s the issue of the signal of violence. Are there some conflicts which can only be resolved when one side signals that it’s willing to inflict more violence on the opposition than opposition is comfortable with? That’s basically what happened in the story, and certainly in the past people commonly felt that some issues could only be decided by the shedding of blood. Many people now feel that we’re past that time, that we can settle our differences without resorting to violence. Let’s hope they’re correct, but it appears to be getting less likely. I have seen no evidence that we’re getting better at settling differences, and lots of evidence that things are heading towards violence.

Story Four:

This story didn’t happen to me, but it did happen while I was young, so I’m tossing it in here anyway.

My grandmother went on an expensive trip to India and Nepal. While in Nepal she had the opportunity to take a helicopter ride and see Mount Everest. I forget exactly what the helicopter ride cost. I want to say somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. She decided that was too expensive and so she declined the offer. Upon her return my father pointed out that if you live in Utah the cost to see Everest is probably thousands of dollars, and that she had just refused to pay the last $80.

I call this the Everest Fallacy and it’s sort of the opposite of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In the one you’re almost to your goal and you abandon it after paying the bulk of the cost. In the other you’re never going to reach your goal, but you refuse to abandon it because you’ve already spent so much.

I wonder if that’s where civilization is. People talk about the enormous effort and expense required to colonize Mars or make it out of the Solar System, and I don’t wish to minimize that, in fact I’ve pointed out at some length how difficult it is, so difficult I’m doubtful we’ll do it. But it’s also important to remember, when people bemoan the cost of a space program, that we’ve already spent the first quadrillion dollars, and the initial 200,000 years, we’re now just refusing to spend the last few trillion dollars. And that’s only if we go back to the first homo sapien. If we consider what it takes to go from a dead planet to life leaving the solar system we’ve spent a lot more than that, and now we’re just refusing to spend that last little bit. And yes it might take a sacrifice, in the same way that my grandmother probably felt that $80 was a sacrifice, but let’s be clear, humanity is in Nepal already and it took a lot of effort to get there…

Story Five:

If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and you’ve served a mission then it’s guaranteed that you end up with a lot of stories from that period. I’m no exception. And I could spend ten thousand more words telling you stories from the two years I spent in the Netherlands, but most don’t have a moral, or rather they do, but that moral is: Have faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of these days I’ll devote an entire post to that, but this post has developed around a more secular theme, and, fortunately, my mission produced some of those stories as well.

I mentioned earlier that I spent two years in the Netherlands, that’s not quite true, I spent two years total on my mission but only 22 months of that was in the Netherlands. The first two months I spent in the Missionary Training Center on the BYU campus in Provo learning Dutch with a group of ten other missionaries. In addition to my group there was another group learning Dutch that was four weeks ahead of us. This story concerns one of the members of that slightly older group. When I was introduced to this particular missionary I asked him where he was from, when he said Canada, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

It was a dumb throw away joke, that kind of thing that’s so obviously untrue as to clearly be a joke and as I said, not a very good one at that. I actually thought it was cool that he was from Canada, as far as I know he was the first Canadian I had met. I didn’t interact with him much beyond that, in the four weeks of overlap we had, and I didn’t think much of him or my comment.

We both ended up serving in the Netherlands (at the time some of the missionaries who had learned Dutch ended up in Flemish speaking Belgium) but we didn’t serve in any of the same areas or even any of the same zones. That is until my last area, where I ended up replacing him. I don’t remember if I noticed any initial cold shoulder or anything like that, but after the local members of the church got to know me a little bit they started to reveal that the Canadian missionary which had preceded me had told them all that I was a jerk. (He may have used stronger language than that, he may have even said it in Dutch, I don’t recall the exact terminology.) When I asked them what evidence he had produced for this calumny, they told me the story of the “I’m sorry” comment from Missionary Training Center. When I asked if there was anything else there didn’t appear to be. He had apparently obsessed over that comment for nearly two years.

Since that time I have met many Canadians and count most of them as good friends. And fortunately I haven’t met any who were as humorless as the Canadian missionary. In fact, the Canadians I’ve told this story to (all of them) think it’s pretty funny that he was offended by the phrase “I’m sorry” given how typically Canadian that word “sorry” is.

With this story we end where we began, with what I suppose is another example of a microaggression, though years before the term first appeared, and not leveled against a group that normally gets brought up in discussions of prejudice and discrimination. And once again it would have been wiser for the Canadian missionary to not have obsessed for two years over a single comment made by a dumb kid. (Notice I’m a dumb kid in both stories, I’m sure there’s another lesson there.) But, of course, the world is trending in the exact opposite direction, with more and more people latching on to smaller and smaller things over a longer and longer time horizon. If this continues it’s not going to end well, for anyone.


Most of these stories allude to my past ignorance. If you want to contribute to the ongoing effort to fight this ignorance, please consider donating.

Note: I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, so I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Fighting Fires the Wrong Way

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


If you’re anything like me you probably followed the news of last month’s California wildfires with some interest, particularly the Camp Fire. A name which now seems morbidly ironic given how deadly it ended up being. As of this writing 85 people were killed by the fire and six are still missing. That makes it the sixth deadliest wildfire in US history, and the deadliest since 1918.

I’m not sure how most people feel about that death toll. I saw a lot of posts about the fire, but not many people were reacting to the number of people who died. I get the sense that if you asked, they’d say that 85 sounds like a lot of deaths, but given that it kind of falls in the “Act of God” category, it’s far less tragic than say the Las Vegas mass shooting, even though fewer people actually died in Vegas. I’m not arguing with this, by the way, but it is interesting that there’s clearly a hierarchy attached to how tragic we consider any given death.

Most of the elements in the hierarchy are subjective to the person. It’s obviously far more tragic if someone close to you dies, or even if someone you know loses someone close to them. I think this is entirely as it should be, though there are people who would argue otherwise. Yet another subjective criteria is how the deaths play into your ideology. Gun rights activists probably find Las Vegas less tragic than people who think we should ban all guns. Though perhaps if you’re looking for ammunition (pun intended) to use in your fight over the issue it’s the exact opposite.

The California fires are no exception to seeing events through an ideological lens (is anything these days?) and there are many people who view the deaths as more or less tragic because they fit into a particular narrative. Perhaps, at this point we should broaden the discussion from “tragic” to “important”. The most frequent reason I’ve come across for attaching importance to these deaths, setting aside people actually connected to the victims, is the idea that these deaths are directly attributable to global warming.

I don’t actually want to do another post on global warming, at least not right now. But I think for a variety of reasons it’s not the primary cause of the fires, and even if it were, as I have pointed out in previous posts, it’s the hardest cause to do anything about.

On something of the other side of the issue, there are people who don’t think global warming is the problem, the problem is restrictions on logging. Included in this category is President Trump, which immediately makes the idea completely off limits to a whole host of people. I’m no fan of Trump, but I don’t immediately dismiss everything he says.  And in fact I’m inclined to believe that the right kind of harvesting might have helped. I’m no expert on logging or forestry, and at the level of exactly what sort of logging might help, things get pretty muddy.

You’ll see articles with titles like: Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat, but overlogging them will ruin our forest ecosystems. Though a closer reading of the article seems to indicate that the author is mostly referring to the danger of standing dead trees, or snag, not fallen dead trees.

You’ll see a different point of view in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine. (I mention the source this time because these days it’s always more important to quote your sources if you’re supporting Trump, however indirectly, than when you’re opposing him.) This article details the battles waged by a Forest Service ranger, who wanted to use logging to perform some selective thinning, against the environmentalists who opposed it. This ranger, who always considered herself to be an environmentalist, and did a stint in the Peace Corp, spent three years studying the situation, before eventually submitting an 81 page report, but this was when the environmentalists “pounced”. Three years later (so six in total), while her staff was in the midst of preparing what she hoped would be their final rebuttal, a fire started in the area she was hoping to thin and within a week “the whole area had burned up.”

The purpose of this is not to take sides in the logging debate, or to be exhaustive in describing all the possible contributing factors. For example I haven’t even covered the problem of people building basically in the forest, or what’s called the wildland-urban interface. This led the New York Times to declare that Trump is wrong in part because what we just saw in California weren’t technically forest fires, they were fires in the wildland-urban interface. No, putting the silliness of that aside, my point is to discuss one specific contributing factor, the one which I think has the most to do with the current problem: Decades of fire suppression and a lack of preventative burns. And more importantly to discuss how this ends up being a metaphor for everything that’s currently wrong with the world.

It is interesting that so much of the media is focused on global warming and dry conditions. (Though if you read close enough it’s a wet spring followed by a dry summer that’s really causing the problems.) Though of course this goes back to the subjective nature of prioritizing the importance of deaths. Though I haven’t bothered to look, I am sure that on some website somewhere there is a list of “Deaths Due to Global Warming” to which the 85 deaths of the Camp Fire have been added. All of this is to say that there is definitely also going to some subjectivity in my fire suppression explanation. And the subjectivity will get even greater when I then transition to using it as a metaphor. But this also doesn’t mean that it’s not an accurate description of the world.

In fact it’s telling that even the guy who wrote the article claiming that dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat is the co-editor of a book called: The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. In other words he may be anti-logging, but he’s pro-fire. In fact the phrase “Mixed-Severity” makes it sound like he’s pro-fire across the board. And, I would argue, for good reason.

It’s past time to explain what I’m talking about when I claim fires are caused by fire suppression, and by not having enough fires, though for many of you it may already be obvious. The Smithsonian article I referenced actually has a great explanation of the history of the problem.

Forests across the west are primed for catastrophic fire, in part by a government policy put in place after the “Big Blowup,” in 1910, a two-day firestorm that incinerated three million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. The fire was so ferocious that people in Boston could see the smoke. The U.S. Forest Service, then five years old, decided to put out every fire in its domain, and within three decades the agency had formulated what it called the 10 a.m. policy, directing that fires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As fire-fighting methods improved through the years, the amount of burned forest and grassland declined from about 30 million acres annually in 1900 to about 5 million in the 1970s.

But the success of fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, has turned Western forests into pyres, some experts say, with profound ecological effects. The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had as many as 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900s, in grassy parklike stands, now have 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.

Now this article was written in 2003, but it doesn’t appear that much has changed since then. We can certainly see the opposition to logging and tree thinning, but it also turns out that recreating the low-intensity fires the trees evolved with, is difficult as well. If you do a search on controlled burns in California you’ll mostly get articles wondering why they don’t happen more often. This one from a local California public radio station published earlier this year is representative: Why California’s Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used. Which explains that controlled burns are costly take a lot of effort and people don’t like the smoke.

However if you don’t do controlled burns, if you fight every fire, then you end up steadily increasing the fuel load because the deadfall never gets burned up, and eventually, even if you wanted to suppress every fire, you’d eventually end up with a fire that’s so hot and so terrible that you won’t be able to fight it.

As you might imagine the idea of a controlled burn is very antifragile, you’re paying a small, known cost (ideally) in order to reap a large unbounded benefit later on (i.e. avoiding the huge out of control fire that kills people.) Of course there’s the cost of the personnel to actually set the fire and make sure that it’s controlled, but there’s also the cost to those who will suffer worse air quality while it’s happening, and the cost of people who don’t like the way the forest looks after it’s been burned, etc. All of these are costs which people have proven unwilling to bear even if it makes things better in the long run. This introduces fragility (as we saw) and here is where we transition to fire suppression as a metaphor for modern society.

Of course, the fight over whether to blame things on global warming or insufficient logging is already a reflection of some of the ills of our society, but the ills I want to talk about run even deeper. I often talk about how technology distorts things and, as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re talking about fire we’re talking about probably the first technology ever developed. Accordingly, whatever benefits can be derived from fire, and whatever it’s harms we’ve been dealing with them for a very long time. The benefits are legion, in the last post I mentioned the alleviation of suffering, but it uses go far beyond using a fire to keep warm at night. Once you discover a great multipurpose tool like fire, you immediately search for as many ways as possible for using that tool.

I recently finished the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. And one of the things he pointed out was the way the indigenous Americans used fire, particularly on the Great Plains, where they used it to create a “prodigious game farm”. And so, similar to our last discussion, we once again have a situation where humans have been artificially controlling their environment, in this case the incidence of fire, for hundreds of years, why are things different now? And once again the answer is we’ve crossed some sort of tipping point, one that may even be more stark than the line crossed by college students in 2013.

1491 doesn’t mention if the Indians ever tried to put out fires, but beyond extinguishing an out of control fire in their actual dwellings I doubt it. This is the stark difference, the difference between setting fires and putting out fires. But why is the latter so different from the former? They’re both meddling in the “natural” cycle. And once again the answer takes us back to the concept of supernormal stimuli, though more particularly the idea that things can be bounded in one direction by reality, and thus ignored by evolution.

Yes, when you set fire after fire to clear trees and encourage grasslands, and by extension bison, then you’re messing with nature, or rather with the way things worked in the time before humans. But wherever plants grow, and whatever form they take, they had to learn to cope with fire. You’re certainly altering things if you set fires more often than they would occur just because of lightning, but in the whole sweep of evolutionary history, I’m sure that multiple fires happened in quick succession even without the intervention of humans, and those plants that couldn’t deal with this didn’t survive. So yes, the Plains Indians may have been messing with stuff, but they were doing it in a way that wasn’t outside of the bounds of what evolution had prepared plants to tolerate. What plants are unprepared for, because it doesn’t exist in anywhere in the historical record are long periods of no fires.

Thus far, this may appear less a metaphor and more a lecture, but we’re getting there. The point I want to make is that everything has adapted around certain natural processes, even humans. And when we mess with these processes, things can change in unexpected ways (and yes I would include in this a precipitous increase in the amount of atmospheric C02). This leads to the questions: What processes have humans adapted around? What’s our version of fire?

The most obvious candidate is war. Humans have more or less evolved in the presence of constant warfare, and it’s only recently that we’ve largely eliminated it. I talked about this in a previous post, but it’s worth revisiting in the light of the fire suppression metaphor. Once we decide to start drawing parallels then it’s only natural to ask what represents the deadwood accumulating on the forest floor? Are there individuals or maybe ideas who are metaphorically dead trees? Where, having a few scattered here and there is fine, even useful, but when half the forest becomes dead trees any fire becomes catastrophic? And, if war is fire, what would a controlled burn look like? Does sports fit the bill or is it closer to being equivalent to someone chopping down a tree for use in heating their home? Yes it’s a controlled burn involving the forest, but not anywhere close to the scale required to do any good.

A discussion of war as a reset button for humanity, similar to fire being a reset button for a forest puts me in mind of another past post, the post where I reviewed the book The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel. Once again there are very interesting parallels. To return briefly to the book 1491 and it’s section on fire. Mann points out that, “if ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents would be covered by climax-stage vegetation:a world of great trees, dark and silent.” Scheidel makes basically the same point but with respect to wealth inequality, the great trees are the super rich. And in the absence of violence their numbers and the associated inequality increases until all you are left with are those super rich, and the, far more numerous, small forms of life which are able to exist in their shadow, but nothing in between. And just as there are more ways than fire to interrupt ecological succession, there are more ways than war to interrupt the rise of inequality, but none of them are particularly pleasant. Or to put it in terms of my last post, they all involve suffering to a certain degree.

As you can imagine, if very large trees had a say in the matter they would prefer that there be no fires, though just like the wealthy, to whom we’re comparing them, the great trees do fine if there are small fires, it’s only the huge fires from years of pent up resentment, I mean deadwood, that threaten the truly large trees.

It may be easy to see where the metaphor lends itself easily to things like war and revolution, but it’s interesting to extend it in scope and imagine that it applies in other places as well, for example, banking.

Though, to begin with, it needs very little imagination to picture the 2007-2008 financial crisis as an out of control fire. An inferno caused by a lack of liquidity. This fire was put out by an unprecedented injection of cash into the system. Cash that mostly went to those, who by all accounts, started the fire. Incidentally the resentment this cased provided fuel for the other kind of fire we just mentioned. I think thus far most people wouldn’t object to the parallels I’ve drawn, but things get a little more controversial when I start taking about what represents deadwood and water in this example.

First does the continual extinguishing of financial crises create any deadwood? Stuff which should have been beneficially burned out during the crisis but wasn’t? During the most recent of these crises the term “too big to fail” got tossed around a lot. The term implied that a given institution should have failed, but could not be allowed to. That however much failure would have represented the natural consequences for their irresponsible behavior in the years preceding the crash, the short-term damage would have been to great. Just as we have to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface I mentioned earlier, these institutions had become so intertwined with the rest of society that they could not be allowed to burn, however much they might deserve it.

Of course “deserve” is a loaded term, but just as fire represents a natural process which helps to clear and refresh forests, one of the benefits of capitalism, many would argue, is that it has its own inherent checks and balances, among the biggest of these: risk and return should go hand in hand,  When you remove the risk you end up creating strange and unpredictable after effects as you interrupt the natural flow of capitalism.

So what about water? Well if cash in a financial crisis is equivalent to water in a wildfire, then the next question is, do we have unlimited cash with which to put out our financial fires. I talked about the people who believe this is the case in a previous post, and perhaps they’re right. But if we’re accumulating deadwood, i.e. increasing our fuel load, every time we extinguish one of these fires then we had better hope the supply of water is infinite, because if it’s not, the minute we run out, we’re going to end up with a fire/revolution that is going to put all previous ones to shame.

Outside of banking I also think this metaphor has some merit as a description of politics. There are of course many political fires burning at the moment, basically everywhere you look. And people desperately want to “put them out”. I understand the impulse, but I also think that if you put it out too quickly you once again end up in a situation where you’re accumulating deadwood, and increasing the fuel load.

As an example take any of the battles in the current culture war. I have argued in the past that people rushed to “put them out” as quickly as possible, mostly by way of the Supreme Court, rather than using the more laborious method of holding a vote, or the even more laborious method of passing a constitutional amendment. Doing it this way may have seemed like a good idea, but it also certainly came with some costs. Among these costs, I would argue, is that it increased the “fuel load” of a certain class of people. Which is to say, do you get the anger and annoyance necessary for Trump to be elected if you hadn’t been so quick to put out each and every cultural “fire”? To dismiss and shove aside what might have been legitimate complaints?

If there’s a single issue Trump has been associated with, it’s immigration, and for years polls showed that only a tiny minority wanted an increase in immigration, the vast majority wanted it kept at it’s present levels or decreased. At no point since polling started has the percent of people who want it increased been greater than the percent who wanted it to decrease even today when anti-trump pro-immigrant feelings are at their highest. (As excellently documented by Slate Star Codex recently, Trump may be very bad for Trumpism.) Despite this, what we have ended up with is a de facto policy of increased immigration despite support for it being in the teens or single digits up until very recently. Now it may be stretching the metaphor to describe the way the pro-cheap-labor Republicans and the pro-civil-rights Democrats joined together in ignoring the problem as “putting out the fire too quickly” but I have definitely seen a persistent pattern of promising to do something when the election is on, and then failing to do anything once in office. In other words putting out the fire before it removed any of the accumulated deadwood.

We’re seeing it again now. If Trump promised anything he promised a wall, now whether he actually meant it is another discussion. And yet nearly two years in it hasn’t even been started. But imagine, regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, if we decided that elections have consequences and one of those was that we would see this thing out and build the wall. Does this remove some of the “fuel load” of the angriest portion of our population? Does it allow the current fire to burn in such a way that it puts itself out? Is it in fact a controlled burn, something we can manage? (Certainly a wall doesn’t result in the end of all immigration forever.)

Is it in fact a controlled fire that helps us avoid the out of control inferno that might be coming otherwise? Or as they’ll refer to it in the history books of the future when the bloody tale is finally written, the Second American Civil War.


Of course as we learn from Alfred’s advice to Batman, some men just want to watch the world burn. Despite what you might think I am not one of those men, if you’re not either, consider donating.


How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering?

Please answer a few questions about the blog here.

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


In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the first Sunday of every month is the fast and testimony meeting. What this means is that anyone can stand up from the congregation, walk up to the pulpit and say whatever they want. They are strongly encouraged to talk about their belief in Jesus Christ, but it’s basically an open mic, and people have used it as an opportunity to air grievances against the church.

This last Sunday during our fast and testimony meeting an older lady got up and expressed how grateful she was that, when she was raising her kids, they were relatively poor and consequently couldn’t give their kids everything they wanted, particularly at Christmas time. Because if they had been wealthy they probably would have, the temptation being hard to resist, but if they had, it would have been worse for the children because they wouldn’t have learned to go without.

This is not an uncommon sentiment. I think adults have been accusing kids of being spoiled since possibly the time of ancient Greece, but I encountered two unusual forms of the argument just recently. The first place I came across it was The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

“Coddling” is mostly about the current generation of college kids, which the subtitle, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”, makes clear. The generation in question is variously call iGen or Generation Z. The authors prefer iGen, after yet another book by Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. This is the generation after Millennials, which is normally defined as everyone born since the start of the millennium, but Twenge noticed a surprisingly sharp generational discontinuity beginning with people born around 1995 and who then went on to enter college around 2013. Lukianoff and Haidt also noticed a change starting in 2013, and, in fact, it served as the genesis of the book. It’s not clear if they noticed it independently of Twenge (or vice versa) but they both feel something significant changed on college campuses starting in 2013.

One change in particular was an obsession with safety, and not merely physical safety, but emotional safety as well, leading many to believe, according to Twenge, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault, but from people who disagree with you.” I don’t think this has progressed to the point of also demanding safety from the disappointment on Christmas morning we started with, though recent stories about protesting in-class presentations would seem to indicate that we may be headed in that direction.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” blames all of this on the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system. This desire for safety stems from the first of these three great untruths:

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

On the contray, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, college students (and humans in general) are antifragile. Meaning that exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger. But this stress and suffering is exactly what the various campus movements are trying to eliminate.

That’s the first argument for the benefits of stress, the second comes from last week’s post. You may recall that I mentioned an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox called the “Galactic Stomach Ache” and said I would be talking about it “next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.” It should hopefully be obvious now where I’m headed, but the core of the Galactic Stomach Ache argument is the same as the argument Lukianoff and Haidt are making, that an obsession with safety and reducing harm is paradoxically causing harm. Here’s how it’s explained in, The Great Silence, the book I reviewed last week:

Having removed most of the stress due to our physical and biotic environment, we have with it removed low-level beneficial stress (known as hormesis). Already, the exponentially growing economic costs of maintaining health in the face of these degenerative disorders are huge in comparison to investments in space research and exploration, not to mention utilization of extraterrestrial resources. If such treads continue and are typical, humanity could end up in a state in which almost all material resources and all creative energy are expended on the maintenance of a comfortable lifestyle free of external stressors, leading to a plateau in the development of cognition, and its subsequent diminishing.

Similar to Lukianoff and Haidt, though on a much larger scale, we once again have an argument that at a certain level stress is beneficial, and that the push to eliminate it entirely, while having certain short term benefits, will in the end, on the balance, be harmful. “Silence” doesn’t mention antifragility, but once again that’s the domain we’re in.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a huge advocate for antifragility, and thus it doesn’t take much to convince me of both the danger of the “Untruth of Fragility” or the strength of the “Galactic Stomach Ache” explanation. There are certainly arguments to be made about whether Lukianoff and Haidt are exaggerating things or whether they’ve left some things out. And even better arguments could be made about whether “Galactic Stomach Ache” is the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, but I intend to proceed based on the assumption that both of them describe something that is actually happening, even if the eventual consequences are unclear. If that’s too much for you, then I would hope, at least, that we can proceed under the assumption that humans are antifragile and that stress is important for our development. If you’re still not on board then there’s probably not much point in reading the rest of this post and I would instead direct you to some of my previous posts, or, if you have the time you should just read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the person most responsible for the idea of antifragility.

If we’re all on the same page about the importance of antifragility then the next question I want to address is, “Why is it a problem now?” Certainly technology has allowed us to reduce suffering and stress from the moment hominids mastered fire. Why should it suddenly reach a tipping point five years ago? Lukianoff and Haidt’s answer is that it’s something of a perfect storm. It all starts with paranoid parenting. This front runs into a blizzard of increased polarization. All of that is bad enough and has been going on for awhile, but then coming in from the south, we have the lifestyle hurricane that is social media. This last item is the proverbial straw (to really mix metaphors) and the kids dealing with all three of these factors first arrived at college starting in 2013.

As I said Lukianoff and Haidt could be overstating how sharp this dividing line is, or how bad the problem is in general, and it’s not my intent to dive into the specifics of their argument. Also, this is just the “Coddling” side of things. The increase in degenerative diseases has been going on for a lot longer than five years. But it’s not hard to imagine a common process behind both of those, and an underlying push which gets us both paranoid parents and the rising costs of dealing with degenerative diseases.

This urge to diminish suffering and stress has been around forever, but it’s only recently that we’ve truly been close enough to eliminating it entirely that it began to seem realistic, if not ideal. Where, in other words, people began to expect it. In part this is due to the increasing power of technology, but we’ve also experienced a period of unprecedented peace and affluence as well. In the past when a mother may have lost at least one or two children to infant mortality, it’s hard to imagine that parenting would ever be so paranoid. And if granny had already lived to be 80, it’s equally hard to imagine that a family who was barely getting by as it was would want to spend any money, let alone thousands of dollars keeping her alive to 85. But at some point these expectations changed, and it had to be relatively recently. I think for a lot of things it happened so subtly that we didn’t notice it. What makes Lukianoff and Haidt’s tipping point remarkable is not that it happened, but that it was so stark when it did.

When speaking of the harm caused from eliminating all stress, and recent evidence thereof, everyone, including Lukianoff and Haidt bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which has already made at least one appearance in this blog. The theory is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. In all these cases we see evidence of harm caused by the elimination in low-level stress. The lack of hormesis mentioned in the Stomach Ache explanation, and the embrace of fragility mentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt.

Putting all of this together, the answer to the question of “Why now?” Is that we’re seeing the culmination of several trends which may have started decades ago, but have only recently become problems as a generation reached maturity, or as the impact reached a critical mass of people, or as the trend was finally translated into an expectation. There’s also the element of multiple trends all peaking and coming together at the same time, and probably feeding off each other. As I said we have been using technology to reduce suffering for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last couple of decades has it reached the point where it’s reasonable to expect that we can finally eliminate suffering entirely. And probably more than anything else it’s this gap between our expectations and reality which is causing most of the problems. Whether it’s college campuses or healthcare spending.

The next question is, “What should we be doing about it?” If I’m right, and the problem is essentially one of expectations, then our focus should be on changing these expectations. That’s largely the direction of Lukianoff and Haidt’s recommendations. But that may end up being a lot harder than it sounds.

One recommendation they make is for municipalities to implement “free range parenting” laws, like Utah. Obviously I’m always pleased to see a reference to my home state. And I’m in complete agreement that this is a good law, but I’m not sure it will have much of an effect. The big problem is that the law is unlikely to create more free range parents, it just offers protections for the ones who were already so inclined. For example, is there any mother out there who currently walks her kids to school, who will look at this law and decide, “Oh, I guess I should let them walk themselves to school. I was obviously being too paranoid.” I guess there might be a few, but I think the trend has already have gone too far and is too entrenched, for a new law to change the expectations of parents for how much effort they should put towards ensuring the safety of their children.

Once again, I think zeroing in on expectations is key here, and this is where being able to connect the separate instances of fragility comes in handy. Because one of the key drivers of the rise of healthcare costs has been a rise in expectations. Now this is not the only thing increasing costs, but it may be the biggest. As I already pointed out, it was not that long ago that people expected high infant mortality, and a life, that, on average, ended around 55, with anything past 70 as gravy. As technology got better expectations changed and along with them the cost of meeting those expectations. People have been worried about these rising costs since at least the time of Hillarycare, and yet of all the factors that go into rising costs, perhaps the least effort has been spent on changing expectations. Why? Probably because it’s the hardest factor to address. The small efforts which have been made have not merely been unsuccessful they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. There’s no quicker way to lose an election than to threaten to cut government spending on Medicare. You might also be familiar with “Death Panels”? Another example of a very strong negative reaction to the suggestion that reducing healthcare costs might entail reducing the amount of care someone actually expected to receive.

Some people may argue at this point that it’s not healthcare costs that are going to ultimately doom us, it’s the fact that we’re all turning into the overweight, hover-chair bound humans of Wall-E. And that the expectation we can eat whatever we want while being sedentary is easier to change than the expectation that we should be kept alive as long as possible regardless of the cost. The amount of effort we spend on changing these expectations certainly seems to indicate that we think this is a more pliable problem, but despite all that effort there’s no evidence of that trend reversing either.

Some people may dismiss all of the foregoing as the typical rantings of curmudgeonly old people against the dissipations of youth, and further argue that rising healthcare costs are a temporary problem, and certainly not representative of any long term existential crisis. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing I can say in this short post that will change your mind, and in any case, ultimately,  that’s not the point of the post. No, ultimately, my purpose is to examine what it looks like if we decide the world needs a certain amount of suffering.  And to argue that if we do decide that, it’s going to be very difficult to pull off. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

When I was young the start of the wilderness was a couple blocks from my house, and one of my favorite things to do was to set off towards the mountain. I was frequently accompanied by two of my cousins. Both were younger than me, one by a few months and one by a couple of years. We would be gone for hours on these excursions. A favorite destination was Eagle’s Cave. I don’t recall if you had to do any climbing to get there, but we did engage in climbing while we were out. At one point while we were climbing the older of the two cousins fell, and I have a distinct memory of him falling past me, and into the arms of his brother, who was also climbing but somehow didn’t get knocked off. I don’t know what to make of that memory at the remove of nearly forty years, but I talked to the cousin who fell recently and he remembered it exactly as I did. The “nearly forty years” is a hint, but guess how old I was. 15? 12? No the oldest I could have been was 8 because I moved from that house shortly after my 9th birthday.

This is basically exactly what Lukianoff and Haidt are advocating for right? What the advocates of the free range parenting movement are hoping for as well? You might argue that “suffering” is the wrong word to use for what I just described and what those groups are advocating for. And perhaps it is, perhaps “stressors”, or “challenges” is better, but if you don’t think my aunt would have suffered if my cousin had been injured in that fall or worse yet died, then you don’t know my aunt very well.  

Some will argue that letting kids wander into the wilderness is fine, but 8 (or in the case of my younger cousin, 6) is too young. Or that walking to school is one thing, climbing rock walls is quite another. And I totally see their point, but how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know when we have introduced enough suffering into the environment to avoid the harms Lukianoff and Haidt describe or the more theoretical crisis of the Galactic Stomach Ache? If someone says that 8 is too young they’re not basing it on some comprehensive longitudinal double blind study of outcomes based on childhood activities. They’re saying that they aren’t comfortable with 8 year olds wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, it doesn’t match what they expect, but targeting our expectations at our comfort level is exactly how we ended up in this spot.

In a sense, and this just came to me, otherwise I would have brought it up earlier, this whole problem is a supernormal stimuli problem. Evolution has programmed us to worry about our kids, and to extend our lifespan as long as possible, and to eat as much sugar and fat as we could get our hands on, because nature was such that even if we tried our best, kids were still going to undergo a lot of stress, and people were still mostly going to die young, and we were never going to eat too much sugar. But now technology has allowed us to remove most of the countervailing pressure and scarcity, so that now we can keep our kids too safe, or prolong our lives much longer but at great cost, in the same way that we can now eat way too much sugar. And of course while we can make some guess at how much sugar we should be consuming, it’s a lot more difficult to decide how much suffering we should be experiencing (do we end up setting a daily recommended allowance?)

To return to my example, I assume that today most parents would be appalled at the idea of an 8 year old wandering around in the mountains for hours, however much they were on board with the idea of free-range parenting, or providing kids with more challenges. And yet, it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still, at best, only half the man my father is (I don’t have time to get into his childhood stories, but if you think mine was appalling…) And he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if people like Lukianoff and Haidt are indeed correct about what’s happening, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. In fact, once you combine the scale of the problem with the difficulty of reversing people’s expectations, it starts to look completely intractable. It may be best to hope that I’m wrong, and that the world doesn’t need more suffering.

If, on the other hand I’m right, then we’re really only left with one question: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we also have the wisdom to bring it back?


There is definitely a dearth of wisdom in the world, and this blog is no exception. But I have a plan to create more wisdom, if you’d like to invest in that plan (think of me like an early-stage startup) then consider donating.


The Great Silence (Philosophy and Fermi’s Paradox)

Please answer a few questions about the blog here.

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 just finished The Great Silence: The Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox by Milan M. Ćirković.  Which I was made aware of after corresponding with the author some months ago. At the time, I was on a quest to send my Fermi’s Paradox as Proof of the Existence of God theory to people who had written about Fermi’s Paradox, and his name ended up on the list, though I forget why. He was very gracious and in addition to sending me some papers that touched on my theory for the paradox (none particularly close) he also recommended his forthcoming book. I’m grateful for the recommendation, since, despite having a Google Alert set to notify me if anyone talks about the paradox anywhere on the internet, I don’t think I ever saw an alert for this book. Thus, without the correspondence, I might have completely missed it, which would have been a great shame because it’s fantastic.

(Edit: Actually just this week as I was writing my post, but after composing the first paragraph, I finally got an alert which mentioned Ćirković’s book.)

This post will be split into two parts. In the first half I’ll review the book, and point out things I found particularly notable or interesting about Ćirković’s approach. In the second half I’ll examine the case for including my explanation as a contender using the standards Ćirković has laid out.

Review and Commentary on The Great Silence

Before I get into a discussion of the finer points of the book, I’ll start with a brief general review. In other words I’ll address the question, “Should you read this book?”

“The Great Silence” is the best thing I have ever read about the paradox, though to be fair, that’s a pretty small field. So I’ll point out, additionally, that I thought it was good enough to deserve a spot in the bookshelf on my desk. A bookshelf set aside for the 50 or so books I expect to reference again and again for a long time to come. That praise aside, this is not a book for everyone. It’s very scholarly, and sometimes goes too far in assuming background knowledge which not everyone will posses. (Including me.) But for that narrow slice of people who agree with Ćirković (as I do) that:

[Fermi’s Paradox] is…a conundrum of profound scientific, philosophical and cultural importance. By a simple analysis of observation selection effects, the correct resolution of Fermi’s paradox is certain to tell us something about the future of humanity.

(I would change “something” to “quite a bit”.) Also…

The very richness of the multidisciplinary and multicultural resources required by individual explanatory hypotheses enables us to claim that [Fermi’s Paradox] is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science. (Emphasis original.)

If you are in this group, then “The Great Silence” is invaluable and I could not recommend it more highly.

Like Ćirković I’m going to assume a certain amount of background knowledge as we begin our discussion. If for some reason you’re only marginally familiar with Fermi’s Paradox you should go read the Wikipedia article first. And if you’re familiar with the paradox, but not familiar with my argument for why the existence of God makes a pretty good explanation, you might want to review that post as well before diving in. Those caveats aside let’s proceed.

Obviously the first thing to be done in a book like this is to define what Fermi’s Paradox is, starting with the obligatory discussion of the famous lunch where Enrico Fermi asked his question, “Where is everybody?” Once that’s out of the way, Ćirković breaks his definition up into three levels:

  1. ProtoFP: Exactly what Fermi said. The absence of extraterrestrials on Earth is incompatible with the rest of our assumptions.
  2. WeakFP: The absence of any evidence of extraterrestrials in the Solar System  is incompatible with our assumptions:
  3. StrongFP: The absence of any evidence for extraterrestrials anywhere.

It honestly never occurred to me that someone referring to Fermi’s Paradox would be using any other definition than the strong one, but apparently it happens. Accordingly I’ll include Ćirković version of it here in full and declare that whenever I discuss the paradox I’m referring to the “Strong” version.

Strong Fermi’s Paradox(a.k.a. The Great Silence, Silentium Universi): The lack of any intentional activities or manifestations or traces of extraterrestrial civilizations in our past light cone is incompatible with the multiplicity of extraterrestrial civilizations and our conventional assumptions about their capacities.

The strength of the paradox when stated this way is perhaps most apparent when we consider how easy it is would be to detect traces of humanity if the situation were reversed and we were the extraterrestrial civilization being searched for. There are already many ways for the presence of humans to be detected by someone outside our Solar System and even more ways to detect the presence of life on Earth. All of this technology consists of things we’ve already mastered, and lack only engineering to implement them on the scale required. Meaning that it should be child’s play for a civilization even a few hundreds years more advanced than where we are currently.

Given how detectable advanced civilizations should be, Ćirković makes an interesting point, receiving an alien signal from one other civilization doesn’t necessarily resolve the strong version of the paradox. One could certainly imagine picking up a signal from someone only a few hundred years ahead of us, and still be in a situation of asking, “Where is everybody else?”

The next challenge one faces when discussing explanations for Fermi’s Paradox, is how to organize those explanations. Stephen Webb, who I’ve talked about previously, collected 75 explanations in his book, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens Where Is Everybody? Webb decided to organize them into these three buckets:

  1. They are (or were) here
  2. They exist, but we have yet to see or hear from them
  3. They don’t exist

That’s not a bad system and certainly it covers all of the possibilities, but I think Ćirković’s system is both more clever and more useful. He starts by identifying four assumptions we have made about the universe, and then grouping explanations for the paradox in buckets corresponding to which assumption would have to be incorrect for that explanation to possible.

The four assumptions are:

  1. Realism: The assumption that what we see is reality. Explanations which violate this assumption include things like the Simulation Hypothesis which posits that we live in The Matrix, and the “Include Aliens” flag has been set to false.
  2. Copernicanism: Also called the Mediocrity Principle. This is the idea that there’s nothing particularly special about humans or Earth. Explanations which violate this assumption mostly fall into the “Rare Earth” category, and include things like the theory that multicellular life is exceptionally difficult.
  3. Gradualism: The assumption that things will continue much as they have. That humanity will continue to expand outward, that the galaxy wasn’t markedly more dangerous in the past than it is now, etc. The popular worry that we’re going to wipe ourselves out with nukes is one example of something which violates this assumption.
  4. Non-exclusiveness: The assumption that there is diversity among potential extraterrestrial civilizations, that they are not likely to all behave in exactly the same manner or agree to the same things. This is closely related to the last assumption, for example maybe some civilizations will blow themselves up, but for that to be the answer we have to violate this assumption by assuming all civilizations blow themselves up.

Webb’s method works well as a logic division for all possible explanations of the paradox, but I think Ćirković’s is much better if your goal is to solve it, which takes us to the next requirement of any good book about the paradox, grading the possible solutions, which Ćirković does literally.

There are quite a few D’s and F’s (18 out of 36 total), but we’re obviously interested in the A’s. No explanation gets a straight A because that would be equivalent to declaring it The Solution, but he does give out one A- for the Gaian Window explanation. A Rare-Earth hypothesis which basically states that stable biotic feedback loops are rare, which creates several narrow bottlenecks all of which we managed to pass through, but which no else has.

Rare-Earth explanations are fairly common, indeed that’s the explanation Webb favored in his book, and to be fair there’s a lot to be said for them as potential explanations, but in general they’re the least interesting of the possibilities. In recognition of this Ćirković includes a list of his subjective favorites, these are:

  • New Cosmogony (Grade: B)- I’ll discuss this in the next section.
  • Astrobiological Phase Transition (Grade: B)- Something we don’t understand makes life possible only relatively recently, and may in fact periodically reset things such that life has to start over.
  • Deadly Probes (Grade: B+, the next highest grade and the only B+ given)- There is a galactic ecosystem of self-replicating probes that destroy all intelligent life. I discussed this at some length in my Fermi’s Paradox and the Dark Forest post, and as always the question (which I think Ćirković doesn’t pay enough attention to) is, “What are they waiting for?”
  • Transcension Hypothesis (Grade: B-)- All advanced civilizations get reduced to information flows which are hard to detect, particularly if you don’t know the protocols.
  • Galactic Stomach Ache (Grade: C)- The removal of stress becomes the dominant preoccupation of civilizations, which not only absorbs all their resources, but also removes all the beneficial stress which dominated all pre-technological progress. As you can imagine I really like this explanation, so I’ll be talking about it next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.

I agree with Ćirković that these are some of the more interesting explanations, and I’m glad he lists his favorites even if subjectivity is discouraged in science because it somewhat lets me off the hook for spending so much time on my favorite explanation, which takes us into the second half of the episode.

Supernatural Explanations for the Paradox

In one of the quotes above, Ćirković asserts that the paradox is “the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science”. But one disciple he doesn’t want to bring to the table is the discipline of theology. Specifically he says early on that he’s going to hew to “methodological naturalism” in his search for explanations. This means that he is not going to “invoke supernatural agencies and capacities in searching for an explanation for observed phenomena”. This is entirely appropriate for a book of this sort, and I have no problem with this methodology. Also it’s to his credit that Ćirković unlike so many others at least acknowledges that there might be supernatural explanations which should be in the running, absent this restriction.  No the problem I have, and you knew there was one, is where do you draw the line between the supernatural and the natural?

Ćirković offers several explanations of the paradox where that line has been drawn very expansively. I’d like to look at three of his explanations, and in particular look at where he has drawn the line with each. I’ll will open each with Ćirković’s formal defining statement of the explanation:

Zoo Hypothesis: Advanced Galactic civilizations intentionally refrain from contacting newcomers for ethical reasons, reasons to do with security, or some other reasons (which would be incomprehensible to newcomers). We are located in the Galactic analogue of a zoo or a wilderness preserve—a chunk of space set aside for the low-level civilizations to evolve without interference. This no-contact policy extends to hiding traces and manifestations of their existence. We may be confident that they observe us, as we observe animals in a zoo, a lab, or a wilderness preserve, without us being aware of the fact.

This is one of the more common explanations for the paradox, frequently encountered in popular culture, for example Star Trek’s Prime Directive. According to this explanation our observation of the rest of the universe is being severely restricted. Would it be fair to say it’s unnaturally restricted? Certainly it’s unnatural to stick animals in a zoo or even a wilderness preserve. I could see an objection in jumping from unnatural to supernatural, but at the very least this explanation places limits on our ability to use methodological naturalism to get to the bottom of the paradox, because that methodology is being subverted by our “zoo-keepers”.

The New Cosmogony: Very early cosmic civilizations (…billions of years older than humanity) have advanced so much that their artefacts and their very existence are indistinguishable from ‘natural’ processes observed in the universe. Their information processing is distributed in the environment on so low a level that we perceive it as operations of the laws of physics. Their long-term plans include manipulation of these very laws in order to create new stages of cosmological evolution. Since the whole of the observable reality is, thus, partly artificial, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Many posts ago I talked about Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. Sagan was deeply interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and appears frequently in Ćirković’s book. “Contact” was his book about SETI, and as a bonus it also gave a fictional answer to the paradox. This answer was what you might expect with a few exceptions, most notably he introduces aliens that are so powerful they can embed a code in pi, such that once you calculate it out to a few billion digits, it turns into a binary code. You can perhaps see why this explanation which involves manipulating the laws of physics reminded me of the novel. But whether it appears in Sagan’s book or Ćirković’s the question we care about is whether this explanation might be supernatural. In my opinion, something which allows you to manipulate the laws of nature is by definition supernatural.

Simulation Hypothesis: Physical reality we observe is, in fact a simulation created by Programmers of an underlying, true reality and run on the advanced computers of that underlying reality. Due to a form of principle of indifference, we cannot ever hope to establish the simulated nature of our world, provided that the Programmers do not reveal their presence. As a parenthetical consequence, the simulation is set up in order to study a rather limited spatio-temporal volume, presumably centered on Earth—there are no simulated extraterrestrial intelligent beings, so there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Another explanation that gets mentioned a lot, and also appears in popular culture, particularly The Matrix. I would assume here that the explanation’s supernatural character is obvious. Not only are “Programmers” gods in all but name, they have also specifically set up an unnatural reality where the laws of physics as we understand them would lead to you expect extraterrestrials, but the Programmers have chosen to leave them out of the simulation, which is hard to label as anything other than a supernatural act. Certainly it appears difficult to apply “methodological naturalism” to the question since nature is entirely what the programmers have decided it should be.

Difficult, but perhaps not impossible, and there have been various proposals over the years for ways we might be able to tell. And I assume that this is the argument most people would summon to create a dividing line between the natural and the supernatural, the dividing line of falsifiability. Which all of these explanations share, at least in theory. In the first, if at some future point we have spread out across the galaxy without encountering any zoo-keepers then that explanation would appear to be false. In the second, the task is a little more difficult, but as Ćirković points out it doesn’t provide a very good explanation for why there are no extraterrestrials technologically between us and those aliens with the power to rewrite physical laws. And I’ve already linked to some attempts to falsify the third explanation.

At this point I am perfectly comfortable declaring that there are certainly some religious explanations which are too supernatural to deserve discussion. Anyone offering up the explanation that the entire universe is only a little over 6000 years old and thus extraterrestrials wouldn’t have time to develop, should not be taken seriously. But that is not what I’m claiming. My explanation, if rendered in the same fashion as the others in the book might run as follows:

God Exists: As expected aliens do exist, and their technology is vastly superior to ours, so much so that it appears miraculous. In order to pass this technology along they need to ensure we will use it responsibly. Existence, as we recognize it, is a test of this. This test is similar to current proposals to minimize AI Risk. And similarly a full understanding of both the test and the alien’s existence would invalidate it. Accordingly they act more subtly through things like miracles and prayer. All of which is to say, that aliens exist, they do communicate with us, Therefore, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Stated this way I would argue that it sounds similar to all of his other proposed explanations, there’s nothing that sets it apart as being especially supernatural, particularly when compared to the other explanations I just quoted. Some people may object to the fact that I entirely leave out life after death (and in the LDS case life before birth) which is both central to the majority of religions and definitely a supernatural element, but is not the same thing possible, even likely under the Simulation Hypothesis? And yet Ćirković not only includes it, but gives it a B- grade in his assessment of how seriously it should be considered.

As far as falsifiability, I would submit that it does even better here. Most of the explanations given above are only weakly falsifiable, and in fact have a resistance to falsifiability built right into the explanation. It is not any piece of evidence, but rather a lack of evidence, that makes us think Zookeepers and Programmers might exist. On the other hand I can think of at least three straightforward ways for the God Exists explanation to be falsified:

  1. Under Christian eschatology (the one I am most familiar with and the one that fits best with the God Exists explanation) we read concerning Christ’s second coming, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” That said, I think everyone would agree that if it’s going to happen it should happen in the next few hundred years. Let’s round that up to a thousand. I will happily say that if Christ doesn’t return by 3018 that Christians are wrong about everything, including any ways in which Christianity might explain Fermi’s Paradox.
  2. As I mentioned above one of the more interesting things Ćirković points out is that the mere detection of a single alien signal would not resolve the stronger versions of Fermi’s Paradox, though it would falsify some explanations. The God Exists explanation is one of those, and to falsify it we would merely need to detect one other set of intelligent aliens anywhere. Note that none of the other three examples would be falsified by this. (Though, in theory these aliens could have a religion which corresponds to the God Exists explanation of the paradox in which case their discovery would push things the other way, and make the explanation far more likely.)
  3. The God Exists explanation makes several predictions about how things should work. As one example, for it to be true, traditional religious morality would have to have some long term value, even in the face of steadily advancing technology. If 500 years from now all religious societies have been decisively out competed by secular societies, then it would follow that we’d have good reason to reject the God Exists explanation (as well as most of the other claims of religion.) As I discussed in a previous post, the societal benefits of religion are often overlooked. As a more recent example of that, I refer you to the study showing that religion is better than cognitive-based therapy (one of the most recommended forms of treatment) for treating the most depressed.

I’m tempted at this point to give my explanation a grade, but obviously I’m not even close to being objective enough. Perhaps Ćirković will check in and do it for me. I suspect it will be lower than I would like, because even though he calls for greater attention for even radical ideas, this explanation is still probably both too supernatural and too anti-Copernican for his tastes.

I’ve already covered the supernatural angle, so I’ll close by discussing whether the explanation is anti-Copernican. It is true that most religious cosmologies are anti-Copernican. People are quick to point out that this was literally true during the time of Galileo. But here LDS/Mormon cosmology is different. It’s profoundly Copernican. It doesn’t think there’s anything special about Earth, or humanity. In the LDS version of Genesis, God tells Moses that he has created “worlds without number” and that all of them are inhabited. I would be surprised if Ćirković found this to be a very satisfying answer, but it does technically resolve that objection. And as to Ćirković’s more practical concern that latent anti-Copernicanism is fatally undermining SETI efforts, I would argue that LDS cosmology is not contributing to that. All the Mormons I know are excited by the idea.

Many of the explanations involve aliens with godlike powers and motivations, and I for one think injecting a little god and religion into the process is therefore entirely appropriate.


If you are comfortable injecting religion into Fermi’s Paradox, perhaps you’re also comfortable injecting some money into my pocket? If so consider donating.


Stubborn Attachments vs. The Vulnerable World and Fermi’s Paradox

Please answer a few questions about the blog here.

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


Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence, which I have referred to more than once in this space.

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

As an example of a “black ball technology” Bostrom asks us to imagine a hypothetical alternate history:

On the grey London morning of September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard was reading the newspaper when he came upon a report of an address recently delivered by the distinguished Lord Rutherford, now often considered the father of nuclear physics. In his speech, Rutherford had dismissed the idea of extracting useful energy from nuclear reactions as “moonshine”. This claim so annoyed Szilard that he went out for a walk. During the walk he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction—the basis for both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Later investigations showed that making an atomic weapon requires several kilograms of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which are very difficult and expensive to produce. However, suppose it had turned out otherwise: that there had been some really easy way to unleash the energy of the atom—say, by sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass.

Having asked us to imagine this alternate history Bostrom asks us to further imagine what would have happened to the world had this been the case. I suspect most of us have a hard time imagining anything other chaos and anarchy.

This is the “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) from the title. The hypothesis that somewhere in the urn there is a black ball (and probably more than one). Sure, nuclear weapons ended up being difficult to create, but perhaps engineering new, highly infectious diseases will be as easy as ”sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass”. If there is a black ball in the urn, then the worry is that if we keep drawing from the urn eventually we’ll pull it out, and as I said, the game will be over.

Once you start thinking about this idea, there are some interesting (and frankly frightening) possibilities. One of the things that Bostrom doesn’t go into very much is that the shade of the ball might change after being drawn. To begin with when you do research It’s not always clear what sort of technology you’re going to end up with. For example when Roentgen stumbled on X-rays, that ball may have looked a little greyish, but once their medicinal application became apparent the color of the “X-ray ball” ended up being very white.

One consequence of this, is that in addition to not being able to choose the shade of the ball before we draw, the balls can change color the longer they’re out. You can draw a ball which looks bright white and ends up getting darker and darker the longer the technology is in use. Certainly some people would argue that coal falls into this category. (The gradually darkening of the ball being appropriate in this example.) When people first started burning coal the ball must have seemed pretty white, but now there are at least as many people who think it’s going to destroy the planet (and very few people think it’s great.)

Social media is definitely not as black as coal (pun intended), but I think everyone agrees that it’s getting grayer with every passing year. It’s hard to imagine it will go all the way to black, but once again this illustrates that it’s impossible, if you’re actually drawing balls to not draw ones that are bad because even after you draw them the shade may not be apparent, possibly for decades, or in the case of coal, centuries. Thus even if you think that somehow humanity will coordinate in some amazing and unprecedented way if a true black ball is drawn, we might not know until it’s too late.

As you might imagine this metaphor is not encouraging. The only way humanity avoids drawing a black ball, and thus “losing the game” is if they stop drawing, or if there are no black balls. The first seems possible but very, very, unlikely, though as unlikely as the first one is the idea that there are no black balls seems even more unlikely. I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan, just because the only swans you’ve ever seen are white doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans, but of course this situation is even worse. It’s not as if we have only drawn white balls so far, and can thus plausibly hope that’s all there are. We have already drawn many balls that are very, very grey (thermonuclear weapons anyone?) and many of the balls are getting darker with each passing year.

Interestingly at around the same time as I came across Bostrom’s paper, I also finished reading Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. You could consider this book a companion to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (and Cowen mentions that book approvingly). Whereas Enlightenment Now’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t abandon the ideals of the enlightenment, Cowen’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t take our eyes off the ball of economic growth. As you might imagine the VWH doesn’t fit in very well with either model, but in particular Cowen could be said to be advocating not only that we continue to draw balls from the urn, but that we increase the speed at which we do so.

If we set aside the VWH for a moment, Cowen’s focus on growth, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, makes quite a bit of sense, and it’s worth laying out the case for it. Here’s the books own summary:

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.

Cowen is not claiming that growth makes everyone better at the same rate, or that there aren’t pockets of problems. Rather, his claim is that if you compare the world of today with the world 200 years ago that basically everything is better, even if there are individual years within that span that were worse than the previous year. Over a long enough time horizon all the problems of unequal distribution and outcomes are eventually solved..

Some people would counter that modernity has brought a decrease in contentment and happiness, but Cowen argues that this is just a problem with the way we describe happiness.

To give an example, if you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States. The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.

In other words happiness is relative, but in absolute terms Americans are way better off than Kenyans. And that this is because of economic growth. This is an important point for Cowen to clarify, and beyond that, there are of course all manner of nooks and crannies to his arguments. For example, he makes a big deal of preserving certain rights and values even if they conflict with maximizing growth. He also has interesting things to say about charitable giving and redistribution, but I don’t have the space to cover most of them. There is however one concept of his which I do need to bring up because it’s so central to the rest of the book, his idea of “Wealth Plus”.

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Thus when Cowen talks about maximizing growth, he’s talking about maximizing Wealth Plus. Which means he doesn’t think people should work fourteen-hour days, nor does he think it’s a good idea to destroy the environment. In fact to his credit Cowen advocates for very low time preference, something we share. And, insofar as leisure time, and amenities and traditional wealth contribute to happiness, maximizing Wealth Plus generates happiness as a useful byproduct.

Recently I have become more and more convinced that one of the central tensions in the modern world is the tension between the values of happiness and survival. Now, Cowen goes to great pains to say that he is not trying to maximize a single value:

…I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness.

But then he also explicitly says that he wants to maximize Wealth Plus, and as I just pointed out even if Wealth Plus is not a “single value” there is a lot of overlap between it and happiness. Also you’ll notice that survival is not mentioned in his list of potential values, either. And of course all of this takes us back to Bostrom and the urn.

It would appear that regardless of whether Wealth Plus is shorthand for happiness or not, it explicitly calls for us to draw out new balls at an ever faster rate, particularly given Cowen’s assertion that “technological progress [is] a major factor behind U.S. economic growth.”

All of this leaves us with a few possibilities:

1- We stop drawing balls. This would certainly allow us to avoid any black balls, but it’s hard to imagine how we would continue to experience any economic growth let alone the level of growth that Cowen is advocating. Also I can’t imagine any world where the policies necessary to make this happen would be implemented, even assuming they could be enforced.

2- We keep drawing balls, but we implement draconian measures to prevent black balls from truly “ending the game”. This is the suggestion Bostrom puts forth in the paper, and in fact it forms part of his definition:

VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

He then goes on to define “semi-anarchic default condition” as a world characterized by three features:

a) Limited capacity for preventive policing.

b) Limited capacity for global governance.

c) Diverse motivations.

I obviously don’t have the space to go into these three features, but his recommendations end up being quite extreme (think 1984’s Big Brother only worse). They may perhaps be more feasible than stopping technological development all together, but not by much. Making this possibility only slightly more probable than possibility number one.

3- We keep drawing balls, but there are no black balls in the urn. There is no technology that will irrevocably end humanity. For example, I mentioned thermonuclear weapons above, but perhaps their actual effect was to make war so unthinkable that it never happens again (meaning they were actually a white ball.) Or maybe even if there is a nuclear war perhaps over a long enough time horizon it would end up being just be a bump in the road, not any kind of hard stop. I think this is the option most people hope for, though I doubt there is much conscious choice involved. I have some thoughts on how to evaluate the probability of this option, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I suspect it’s lower than most people think.

Thus far none of these possibilities seems especially promising, and none seem to play very well with Cowen’s growth-will-fix-everything model, but perhaps that’s exactly the point perhaps that’s the fourth possibility:

4- Growth will fix everything even the existence of a black ball. Back under possibility number two Bostrom claims that the VWH is only a worry as long as we are in a semi-anarchic state. In an analogous fashion perhaps VWH is also only a worry if you haven’t experienced enough growth or if your rate of growth is too slow. Perhaps the best example of this: many VWH possibilities go away once we have self-sustaining populations on two planets. And it’s also possible that most black balls have a white ball which negates them, we just need to develop it. Returning one more time to nuclear weapons, some have made the argument that once submarine launched nukes were available they provided a guaranteed second strike capability. This made nuclear weapons functionally unusable because the initial aggressor couldn’t guarantee they would escape without retaliation. It could then be argued that nuclear weapons were only a “black ball” during the period between their invention and the invention of submarine launched missiles.]

Perhaps we need to add another shade of ball to the game. A pure white ball, which, when drawn, permanently wins the game once and for all. Perhaps something like creating an omnipotent AI which would fulfill all three of Bostrom’s criteria for moving us out of a semi-anarchic state.

What this means is that even though Cowen’s plan has us drawing balls out of the urn as fast as possible, it might actually be the safest plan, because it leads to the shortest time between a black ball and the white ball which counters it. And if there is a pure white ball we draw it as soon as possible as well. Perhaps this plan will work. Maybe there is a potential future where we can have our cake and eat it to. That focusing on economic growth/happiness is also the best way to ensure our survival as well.

That seems too good to be true, but how can we know? Is there any method which would allow us to evaluate the probability that there are no black balls or that if we just grow fast enough we can counter all the black balls with “defensive” technology, or that pure white balls exist?

Well one thing that would certainly help is if we could point to the example of someone else who had done it. And here we return to our old friend Fermi’s Paradox. Which once again, instead of giving us hope for the future, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Could VWH be just one more explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and further an explanation which puts the Great Filter ahead of us rather than behind us? That black balls exist and that all civilizations eventually draw one, and that’s why we’re alone in the universe?

Long time readers of the blog will know that my preferred explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that aliens are out there, but they’re so advanced that we just call them “God”. It’s not my intent to revisit that argument here, but it does give us one final possibility:

5- Someone is in charge of the game. If we return to considering possibility number three, the idea that there are no black balls just by chance, that somehow the universe is randomly set up such that there is definitely very destructive technology, but it’s always just this side of being too destructive. This seems suspiciously convenient, also unlikely, particularly when you toss in Fermi’s Paradox. But if you consider my explanation for the paradox, or even religion more generally, there is the possibility that someone is running the game, and it’s designed such that at least some people will eventually “win”. Obviously this takes us into the realm of theology, but that objection aside, I think you’ll agree that it’s clearly the most hopeful of all the possibilities. Of course, there are many people who can’t put this objection aside, which would mean our best hope is possibility four.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, my very first post talked about being in a race between a beneficial singularity and technological catastrophe. Possibility number four brings us back to the same spot, a race of drawing balls as quickly as possible and hoping we either draw a pure white ball, or that each black ball we draw is quickly negated by a white ball. The only hint we have as to whether this plan will succeed is Fermi’s Paradox, and if it has any predictive power at all we have to assume that this is a race we’re probably going to lose.

Next week I will return to Fermi’s Paradox. I’m continually amazed by how many subjects eventually end up being touched by it, and even though I’ve spent plenty of time talking about it already, we’re going to be talking about it again. I just finished another book on the subject which has revealed even more nooks and crannies to explore.


This week rather than make an appeal for donations of dubious cleverness. I’d ask that you answer a few questions about the blog. Here’s the link.


SlateStarCodex and Providing Intellectual Cover

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


One of my friends was in town for a visit last week. I had been looking forward to the visit, but I was also nervous. I had apparently written some things in this space that set him off, but I wasn’t 100% clear on what they were. When I had tried talking to him about it he said he couldn’t respond until he understood my intended audience. Which seemed strange, but I tried telling him that I mostly write for myself. That, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so after going back and forth a little bit more on it, I told him I would be happy if I could appeal to the same people who enjoyed Scott Alexander and Slate Star Codex. At that point I got the feeling that he had been waiting for this admission, and proceeded to call the whole lot of us “white supremacists” and not “the cute kind”, whatever that means.

That’s a fairly radioactive accusation, but also one that, currently, gets tossed out at the drop of a hat, and applied far too broadly, as well. Which is to say I could certainly imagine nearly anyone getting accused of that, particularly a white male like myself. But I would also expect the person leveling the accusation to identify as progressive, or otherwise hail from the left-side of the political spectrum, which my friend does not.

See, that was the confusing part. This friend of mine is, or at least was, very conservative. My impression is he voted for Trump (at a minimum he attended some Trump rallies). He was excited by the idea of Brexit (I was on Skype with him the night of the vote). And a non-trivial percentage of my previous conversations with him had consisted of railing against liberals. Though, on the other hand, he was getting his PhD in rhetoric, and in connection with that he was on the faculty of the University’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department. Which, let’s be honest, would be a hard position to maintain for someone who was staunchly conservative. Indeed, whenever I told people about my staunchly conservative friend, the Women Studies professor, they were always baffled.

Perhaps now you can understand why I was nervous about his visit. I don’t think I have a problem being friends with people from nearly any place on the political spectrum. But not knowing where he currently falls on that spectrum was kind of like being invited to a debate without knowing what side I was supposed to take, while also being unclear on the subject to be debated.

Fortunately, as I kind of hoped, being able to talk face to face was enough to mostly clear things up. Yes, he is still pretty conservative. For example, he mentioned that he watched CNN on election night because if the night had gone against the Democrats he wanted to be able to watch the panic, and experience the associated schadenfreude in real time. He felt that Acosta crossed a line with the White House intern, and he was glad Beto O’Rourke lost. But of course all this didn’t necessarily resolve my confusion, I still had to reconcile his accusations both with my behavior and with his actual ideology.

To cut to the chase, apparently his problem with me, and with Slate Star Codex, and the rationality community as a whole was that we provide intellectual cover for bad people. And before I get too deeply into things I should mention I don’t consider myself to be part of the rationalist community (and in fact I’ve frequently been critical of them) and I definitely don’t want to take any undeserved credit for their accomplishments, or saddle them with any of my many faults. However, according to my friend we’re all guilty of this same crime.

The obvious next question is who are these bad people and how do we provide intellectual cover for them. While he brought up the subject of “white supremacists” in our initial conversation online. In person we mostly talked about Men’s Rights Activists (MRA for short), as the bad people in question. I’m still confused about the white supremacist accusation, but perhaps that will have to wait until his next visit. (Also in terms of providing cover there isn’t Trump doing far more of that then a couple of bloggers?)

There is one problem with making this switch. Most people have no problem understanding why white supremacists are bad people, but they may be unfamiliar with the MRA movement. They’re mostly what the title would suggest, sort of the male version of a feminist, but obviously we’re not interested in a bland or neutral take on things. We’re interested in the ways that they’re bad people. For a sense of that, let me quote from the criticism section of the relevant Wikipedia article:

The men’s rights movement has been criticized for exhibiting misogynistic tendencies. The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that while some of the websites, blogs and forums related to the movement “voice legitimate and sometimes disturbing complaints about the treatment of men, what is most remarkable is the misogynistic tone that pervades so many”. After further research into the movement, the SPLC elaborated: “A thinly veiled desire for the domination of women and a conviction that the current system oppresses men in favor of women are the unifying tenets of the male supremacist worldview.”

Professor Ruth M. Mann of the University of Windsor in Canada suggests that men’s rights groups fuel an international rhetoric of hatred and victimization by disseminating misinformation via online forums and websites containing constantly-updated “diatribes against feminism, ex-wives, child support, shelters, and the family law and criminal justice systems”

These are the bad people my friend is worried about, though in our conversation, I think he was most worried about one specific argument MRA advocates make on the aforementioned forums and websites: the argument that evil women are “withholding” sex and love from “worthy” males.

With the bad people identified let’s move on to a discussion of how I and others might be providing intellectual cover. Like most people on most issues my friend’s sense of the other side’s arguments seemed vague. (I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself.) Which is to say, he didn’t provide any concrete examples. He, nevertheless, brought up an interesting point, and I’d like to steelman it as much as possible. Accordingly, on his behalf, I’ll be providing the three best examples I can find, of posts which could be construed as providing intellectual cover for the MRA. One example will be from SlateStarCodex, one will be from Robin Hanson, and one will be from this blog. (Should you feel there are better examples leave them in the comments.)

Starting with SSC, it was difficult to choose just one post. There’s his Untitled post, which he considers his most controversial post about feminism. There’s his post Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media (Part 5 of ∞) where he discusses false rape allegations. And then there’s his post I Do Not Understand “Rape Culture” where he argues that there really isn’t a culture of rape. But I think I will actually cover his post Radicalizing the Romanceless, since it seems most on point to the “evil women…worthy males” narrative.

Near the beginning of the post Alexander tells the story of, Henry, a patient he was treating who was picked up by the police for beating his fifth wife. When questioned, he admitted to beating the first four as well. And more interestingly the reason he was beating his fifth wife is that she was yelling at him for cheating on her with one of his ex-wife’s, yes one of the ones who already divorced him because he was violent. Obviously this guy is both not a “worthy male” nor does he have any problem getting women.

I’ve been using the term “worthy males” but another, far more common, phrase you’ll encounter a lot on the internet is “nice guy” as in “I’m a nice guy why won’t girls go out with me?” Alexander says that growing up he was a “nice guy”, not in any kind of absolute or cosmic sense, just that he was nicer than Henry. But contrary to Henry, who as we have seen had no problem attracting numerous women Alexander made it to 25 without ever having been on a date. And unsurprisingly this seemed unfair to him. He didn’t think he deserved to date any specific girl, he just felt that overall he shouldn’t be doing way, way, way worse with girls than a guy like Henry, a literal wife beater.

So here we have a nice guy, who could be said to feel entitled to some success with women. And how do feminists react to this? Well, Alexander then goes on to excerpt from four feminist websites (Jezebel, XOJane, Feminspire, and feministe) all of which basically declare “nice guys” to be infuriating, pathetic, worthy of mockery and in general horrible. In other words it could be argued that this post puts forth exactly the ideology mentioned above, that evil women are “withholding” sex and love from “worthy” males. Which is exactly what my friend was claiming. Now to be clear I think this vastly oversimplifies the point of Alexander’s post, and I’ll be returning to that, but at its core this is my friend’s argument.

Moving on to Robin Hanson. His example is more recent, and you may have heard of it, given that it ended up being national news and was mentioned in Slate, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the NYT (as an opinion piece by Ross Douthat).

It all started with a blog post, though a tweet about that post may have poured fuel on the fire. The tweet said:

Those w/ less access to sex plausibly suffer simiarly(sic) to those with low income, & might similarly hope to organize to lobby for redistribution along this axis. Strikingly, I see little overlap between those concerned about income & sex inequality.

This was written after the Toronto Van Attack by Alek Minassian, a self-proclaimed incel (involuntarily celibate) which ended up killing 10 people. And that attack was mentioned in the associated blog post, so the connection to worthy males being denied sex was obvious. As far as the “evil females” part goes, that’s less explicit, but certainly someone is preventing discussion of sexual inequality, and feminists would seem to be the obvious candidates for that. Also this is the incident I ended up discussing most deeply with my friend and he was of the opinion that the whole topic of sexual inequality was territory which was well covered by feminist intellectuals and that Hanson was opinining about things without reading the relevant literature on the other side. So one way or another it’s not hard to infer an “evil women” angle to the whole thing.

Which I guess takes us to me. While I am reasonably confident everyone I’ve mentioned thus far would confidently assert that they never intended to claim that evil women are denying sex to worthy males, I am absolutely confident that that was never my intention. But once again we’re looking more at the concept of providing intellectual cover than direct advocacy, which could come about without direct intention. Along those lines, if we’re examining my potential culpability, I do have a post called Should All Incels Be Killed Immediately or Just Banished Forever? This was mostly written in response to what happened to Hanson. Though I did go fairly deep into the idea of a sexual underclass. In particular mentioning that I knew people who almost certainly belonged in that category.

In the course of the discussion with my friend I mentioned these acquaintances, and, to his credit, his stance immediately softened. This is not surprising, it’s easy to be mad at faceless internet mobs and hard to be mad at individuals. The same thing happens to me. But to be clear I do believe there is a large sexual underclass; I was advocating for them; and I do think the actions of certain militant individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are militants of the feminist variety, make things harder for this underclass. Meaning I probably fall into the same bucket as Alexander and Hanson. Whatever that bucket is.

Have we now reached the point where we can declare that my friend was right, that we are providing intellectual cover for the MRA movement? I’m sure he might answer yes, but I don’t think the answer is nearly so clear cut, and thus far I have used the term “intellectual cover” without really explaining what it might mean.

In the conversation with my friend he offered up the example of eugenics, and laid out the following pattern: You might have an idea which starts out being uncontroversial (indeed it’s hard to find a public figure in the early years of the 20th century who didn’t support eugenics.) But, later it becomes apparent that this idea can be taken to an unfortunate extreme. In the case of eugenics this happened under Hitler and the Nazis. The same public figures, who previously supported eugenics, recognized the harm that came from the idea, and abandoned their former support. (Whether they did this out of principle or political necessity is something we didn’t get into.)

He argues that we’re seeing the same thing with the examples I gave and the MRA. If I’m understanding him correctly, his point is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with speaking up for the sexual underclass, until it becomes apparent that speaking up in this way emboldens men’s rights activists and incels who then go on to rape women and drive vans into crowds, and that just as eugenics advocacy stopped once it became clear what Hitler was doing, our advocacy (such as it is) should stop now that it’s become clear how bad the MRA and incel movement is.

As an aside it’s interesting to do a Hansonian substitution in that last paragraph, and imagine that we were talking about advocacy for the poor and underprivileged being fine until they resort to violence (as they frequently have) at which point all advocacy has to stop. Of course people are free to argue that the substitution is invalid, because there is no sexual underclass (though what else would you call adults with no access to sex?) or because there is, but they are privileged in other ways that make up for it. And maybe one or the other of those is true.

Beyond the problems of applying the pattern to advocacy for the less fortunate (recall that Eugenics was about culling the less fortunate not helping them) there are many other problems with comparing the MRA and incels to Hitler and the Nazis:

  1. It’s immediately suspect as being a Reductio ad Hitlerum argument.
  2. However bad you think the MRA and militant incels are, the Nazis were literally millions of times worse.
  3. What other examples are there of this pattern outside of eugenics and the Nazis? You might mention racism and the Confederacy. But once again, millions of times worse.
  4. There is at least one example where an ideology caused greater harm than that caused by the Nazis, but that ideology is not off limits. Of course I’m thinking of the example of communism.

If I believe that abortion is murder (or at least a close cousin, which I do) and that certain flavors of strident feminists have increased the rate of abortion (which I also believe, though accurate numbers are hard to come by) then you might put feminism in the same bucket with communism as things we can discuss despite the harm they’ve caused.

I am reasonably certain (though here we are outside the bounds of the things he and I discussed) that my friend would have argued that feminism causes very little harm, and that the harm it does cause is entirely outweighed by the good it does. Being fairly conservative he probably wouldn’t make the same argument about communism (though as far as I can tell MRAs and incels make him much angrier than communists) but there are obviously lots of people who still support communist ideology despite all the deaths.

If we switch from the argument that MRAs and incels do bad things to the argument that the things they do are so bad that it outweighs any conceivable benefit, then that’s a different argument, with a higher standard. Also recall, that my friend’s initial point was not that the people in question are men’s rights activist, but rather that we provide intellectual cover for people who define themselves as such. Meaning the harms he is so worried about are even harder to lay at our feet. Also note that we don’t have to show that MRAs and incels do more good than bad on net, we only need to show that the second order effects of being sympathetic to lovelorn nerds are a net positive.

On the bad side of the equation, have any of the people mentioned (myself included) actually done something objectively wrong?  Can you point to anyone in the community who has committed violence? Anyone who as advocated for violence? On this point, and in the interest of continuing to steelman things, at one point Hanson does say that inequalities of any sort all do frequently lead to violence, but that’s a far cry from calling for violence.

The main bad thing my friend pointed to, as I mentioned above, was speaking without first educating ourselves. Of holding forth on the subject of feminists and sexual inequality without knowing the latest thinking on the subject. And while I disagree with the assertion that, Robin Hanson, for instance, knew nothing about the topic, I wonder if my friend is falling into a similar trap, of not being entirely educated about the sort of advocacy that is happening in the posts I’ve used as examples. And here we turn to the good side of the equation.

As I’ve already made it clear in my previous post I do think there is a sexual underclass. And that some of the people in that underclass are quite literally worthy males and nice guys. The form I’m most familiar with are the socially awkward nerds. Let’s take the experiences of one of them, Scott Aaronson, who could have been used as an example of a blogger providing intellectual cover, but makes a better example as the kind of person we’re actually hoping to support:

(sigh) Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me. In a different social context—for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine.

Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them. I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds. There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect.

That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience. But I hope you now understand why I might feel “only” 97% on board with the program of feminism.

I wish I could say that the feminist portion of the internet reached out to Aaronson with compassion and understanding, but, unsurprisingly, that did not happen.

I think I can confidently say that none of the people I mentioned are claiming that worthy males or nice guys are being denied sex that’s rightfully theirs by evil women/feminist. As you can see from the above quote they’re actually going out of their way to say the opposite. But surely, the kind of experience Aaronson (and others) are having should not be off limits for discussion. Even if my friend is right about the intellectual cover argument, and I don’t think he is, how cruel would you have to be to hear a story like Aaronson’s and respond by telling him to “Shut up!”


Unlike Aaronson not only are you welcome to tell me to “Shut up!” It’s something that probably needs to happen more. But yes it is probably still rude, so if you want to consider softening the blow, considering donating at the same time. Maybe you’ll confuse me as much as my friend did.


Is the World Coming Together or Splitting Apart?

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 ended the last post promising to talk about a future dominated by the clash of civilizations. Some of you may have picked up that that was a reference to the book of the same name published in 1996 by Samuel Huntington. The books full title is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When I came up with the idea to write about Midler’s book on China, I realized that it would dovetail right into Huntington’s book, so immediately after finishing What’s Wrong with China I read (actually listened) to Clash of Civilizations. And while I don’t know that you need to read both books in exactly that fashion, the connection is very interesting.

My recollection is that when the book first came out Huntington got a lot of grief for his emphasis on the coming clash between Islam and the West. But he also predicted significant friction between the West and China, which wasn’t commented on as much but may have ended up being more important. And having read Midler’s book (and to reiterate I have no particular expertise on Islam or China) I think in the end China may end up posing the greater problem. The big difference being that the Chinese civilization has, what Huntington calls a “Core State”, while Islam does not. This makes China less inclined to random acts of terrorist violence, but far more unified in whatever actions they do take. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where I’d really like to begin is to look at Clash of Civilizations from something of a historical context. The book, as I mentioned, came out in 1996 but the article on which it was based was published in 1993. This was, as you’ll recall, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were trying to figure out what this meant for the future. Two broad theories were advanced. There was Huntington’s of course, and then there was Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, published in 1992, which advanced a very different theory, and which I’ve mentioned several times in this space. To be clear, I suspect that I’m too hard on Fukuyama, and that there are nuances which I’m missing, and ways in which it was more accurate than I give it credit for. That said if you were going to declare a winner out of the two views I don’t see any way to not declare Huntington the victor.

As you might be able to tell from the title Fukuyama asserted that the future would be fundamentally different than the past. Conspiracy theorist caricaturize this as the New World Order. (Oftentimes referencing the speech by Bush Sr.) I don’t think it ended up being quite as menacing as they thought. In fact, I think it would have been nice if there had in fact been a new world order, and for a while in the 90s it appeared as if there might be, but I think it’s evident now that it was at best a temporary transition period between the ideological conflict which defined the Cold War back to the civilizational conflict which has dominated the rest of human history. A small breather between rounds in a boxing match rather than the start of something long-lasting or genuinely different. Though I think some people still hold out hope that it’s the reverse that what we’re looking at is the last gasp of pre-modern sectarian strife before we finally make the full transition to a true global, universal culture.

As I said, I think it’s clear that the evidence is heavily in favor of Huntington. But the idea that as our world becomes more interconnected we are gradually transitioning to a universal culture, has some evidence on it’s side as well. And it’s always been one of the principal objections to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Consequently he devotes a chapter of his book to answering it and identifies four ways in which the term is meant:

First it might be referring to the idea that humanity has a universal morality. It is true that nearly all cultures are opposed to murder and in favor of families, etc. But this has so far not prevented any wars between those cultures. If you’re looking for an argument against a clash of civilizations, then this is a fatal flaw.

Second there’s the advance of civilization, increasing literacy, urbanization, and other forms of progress. Once again this is true, but irrelevant to a discussion of civilizational conflict.

Third, and what most people, including Fukuyama, mean by the idea, is a civilization based on a recognizable set of western values like liberal democracy, market economies, individual rights, etc. Huntington actually prefers to call this the Davos Culture, after the annual gathering in Switzerland, which may be a more accurate description. The key problem Huntington points out with this idea, and one of the reasons why he prefers to call it the Davos Culture is that it’s largely only shared among the elites of a society:

Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The Davos Culture hence is tremendously important. Worldwide, however, how many people share this culture? Outside the West, it is probably shared by less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population and perhaps by as few as one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population. It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in the Davos Culture do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies… its roots are shallow…

He specifically talks about how many people share the culture outside of the West, but when one considers the election of Trump and Brexit are we sure how many people share it even inside of the West?

The fourth thing people mean when they talk about universal culture is entertainment culture and in particular the dominance of Hollywood movies and Western music (not to be confused with country music). This may be the strongest claim for a universal culture. Because, while the Davos Culture may be limited to a small elite, Hollywood is making almost as much money in China as they make in the US, despite the fact, as I pointed out in my last post, that their culture is otherwise very different.

It used to be said that two democracies have never gone to war. That’s not entirely true, but along those lines can we say that two countries who both enjoy the same movies have ever gone to war? My guess is that they probably do go to war (particularly if Inglorious Bastards is to be believed.) And as Huntington points out, it’s very easy to find young men, say in Iraq. Who wear jeans, drink coca-cola, enjoy Marvel movies, and are still plotting to kill Americans. Furthermore when you look at places like Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are they more or less western culturally than they were 30 years ago?

Speaking of Turkey, their example is an interesting one. I don’t have the time to go into any great depth on it, but basically, in the wake of World War I, Kemal Ataturk rebuilt Turkish society along a western, secular, democratic model. If there was a poster child for transitioning to a universal culture, Turkey was it, and yet if you look at Turkey today, you’ll see a society that’s becoming less democratic, less secular, and less western (particularly if you count freedom of press and speech as a core western value). This is despite it being more modern in most other respects. As Huntington points out:

Modernization, in short, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions and practices. The latter, indeed, may be almost impossible: whatever obstacles non-western cultures pose to modernization pale before those they pose to Westernization. It would as Braudel observes, almost “be childish” to think that modernization or the “triumph of civilization in the singular” would lead to the end of the plurality of historical cultures embodied for centuries in the world’s great civilizations. Modernization, instead, strengthens those cultures and reduces the relative power of the West. In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more modern and less Western.

This last point is critical, and when you think about it, self-evident. If the West is completely dominant, then there’s a strong motivation to be more Western. And insofar as it’s probably unclear what part of Western practices and culture created their dominance you’re going to want to adopt them all. While this vastly simplifies things, I’m sure that it was something like this going through Ataturk’s mind as he worked to put things back together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But, once you begin to catch up with the West, the dominance gap lessens, and with it the motivation to adopt their culture, particularly those parts that seem to have nothing to do with modernization. This is the case with any country you choose to examine, not just Turkey. It was certainly the case in my last post, where we examined China. When they were struggling there were numerous reasons for change, now that they’re ascendent the impetus for any change, and particularly one which is strictly cultural, decreases more and more.

If you agree that this is a fatal blow to the idea of a universal or Davos Culture, then the next question must be, what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like? Actually, I guess we know the answer to that one, we just have to look back through history. The question is more properly what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like when you add modern technology? And more critically, does that modern technology make this competition better or worse?

At this point it’s useful to step back and define what we mean by both “clashing”, and “civilizations”. We’ll start with the second part. What is a civilization? Huntington goes all the way back to ancient Greeks to use the example of Athens and Sparta as different countries, but the same civilization, versus the Persians which was a different country and civilization

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent.

The emphasis on religion is interesting, both because it gives us a useful shorthand, but also because it immediately draws us back to the issue of a universal culture. Could a proponent of universal culture reopen the argument by claiming that it will come about through the natural progression of secularism? Perhaps claiming that while modernity doesn’t necessary lead to Western universalism, that it does lead to secular universalism and in the end that will be close enough? That we will lose the distinction between separate civilizations at the same time as we abandon religion? There’s always a chance that this is the way it will play out, but secularism also leads to a lower number of births meaning that the percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to go down in the coming decades not up. Which definitely makes it less promising as a path to a universal culture.

More speculatively if the most important element of a civilization is religion, could it be argued that people without religion are also without a civilization? Insofar as one of the key attributes of a civilization is the ability to propagate forward in time, the low secular birth-rates we already mentioned could be a fatal weakness. Might a lack of religion carry other weaknesses with it as well that make it impossible for the irreligious to ever coalesce into a full civilization?

We could get a lot deeper into the attributes of civilizations, including a discussion of the difference between being civilized in the sense of level of modernization (though I prefer to equate it to low time preference) and a Civilization. But I think everyone already has a pretty good idea of what a civilization is. It is, however, worth a brief aside to examine what Huntington (and the other scholars he draws on) count as a civilization:

Western: While Western Civilization definitely encompasses Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, the interesting question here is whether to include Latin America. There is an argument to be made for a separate Latin American civilization, and perhaps if they spoke Spanish in Brazil the answer would be obvious.

Sinic: China, along with much of Southeast Asia, the largest civilization. Definitely on the ascent, and helped out by the advantage of having a very clear core state. Being the largest and possibly the most unified as well is a big deal.

Islamic: The second largest civilization, but hampered by having no definite core state, and by the Sunni-Shia division. But also ascendent, or at least fired up.

Hindu: Narrowly the third largest civilization, at least at the time of the book, though I’m guessing if anything the gap would have widened. Since Islamic birth rates have probably exceeded Indian birth rates. Mostly restricted to a single country, and also on something of a rise.

In terms of population, those four are the big ones, and I should mention that if you include Latin America, Western Civilization would probably jump ahead of Islamic and Hindu. (Though I haven’t bothered to compile recent figures).

After that you get two small (but feisty!) civilizations:

Orthodox: This is basically Russia, with parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and perhaps Greece. As I said feisty, but unclear whether it’s about to slowly be gobbled up by Western, Sinic or perhaps even Islamic civilizations, or whether it’s ready for a re-emergence.

Japanese: This is definitely a single country civilization. And I’m not sure what the future holds here.

You’ll notice that no civilization includes Sub-saharan Africa (North Africa is Islamic). I can only imagine that some people will find that to be inaccurate, or offensive or both, but it would appear to nevertheless be true. This is not to say that one won’t develop, but without a common religion or even a common language, there’s nothing that currently fits the bill.

Once you’ve established that there is no Universal Culture, at least not one with any power. And then gone on to identify the distinct cultures that do still exist. Moving from that to a future where these civilizations clash is an obvious next step. And if, by this point, it doesn’t seem obvious to you there’s a 368 page book on the subject I’d be happy to recommend to you. As I said in the beginning what I’m most interested in is how technology changes these clashes.

First on the list, has to be nuclear weapons. I’ve talked about these a lot in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much depth here, but it boils down to an argument, on one side, for them drastically elevating the violence and destruction of civilizational clashes, and on the other side an argument that their use is so terrible as to make civilizational conflicts almost exclusively non-violent, or at the very least something which generally happens through proxies.

Next on the list, is an item we’ve already covered, does technology lead to some sort of Universal Civilization? The answer we arrived at appears to be no, it does not, despite the ease of communication, and travel and the like. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that it might do the exact opposite, which takes us to our third potential difference.

Rather than bringing us together, technology seems to be fracturing people into mini-civilizations. The internet has allowed geographically scattered people to gather into very tightly defined communities, something that previously wouldn’t have been possible. These ideological echo chambers are definitely not a “Civilization” but it’s unclear how they’ll interact with traditional civilization, particularly as there is some evidence that they can cut across civilizational lines. (Another thing that used to be very difficult.) I can think of several possibilities:

1- Somehow the fracturing, paradoxically, is what actually leads to a universal civilization, perhaps by creating a set of high level rules allowing the various factions to interact which goes on to achieve universal adoption.

I haven’t seen much evidence for this. If it were going to happen you would expect something like the First Amendment to be a very important initial foundation, and instead it appears to be increasingly controversial.

2- These factions will seem like a big deal until something catastrophic happens, like 9/11. At which point all the differences will be put aside and one civilization will rise up in anger against another civilization, and the civilizational clash will happen more or less as it always has.

Of course the post 9/11 civilizational clash we did get was pretty mild as clashes go. But it’s hard to see where it had anything to do with an incipient universal culture. It seems more related to peculiarities of Western Civilization and the fractured nature of the Islamic Civilization.

3- These factions gradually hollow out the larger civilization, sapping civilizational unity and causing most energy to be directed inward in a low intensity civil war, rather than outward at other civilizations.

Based on past experience, I would lean towards number two, but it also seems like two only operates in the presence of some strong external unifying factor. (It has often been said that the Cold War would have ended instantly if the Earth had been attacked by aliens.) And as much as we would prefer that Pinker and the rest are correct and large external catastrophes such as the great wars of the 20th century are largely a thing of the past. I have also pointed out that war might have played an important role. Leaving us in a situation where a given civilization would pull together in a heartbeat if there were another 9/11 (as Western Civilization did after the first one.) But that such catastrophes won’t happen (or won’t happen often enough.) Leaving us with possibility 3, gradually being ripped apart from within.

If civilizational clashes still end up occurring, then those who can generate strong external threats, while minimizing factionalization are going to triumph in these clashes over the long run. That may be so obvious as to go without saying. But this takes us back to the question of how technology will change these clashes, and the answer is, social media has made factionalization considerably easier, while modernity has made external threats far more rare. So yes it’s obvious that external threats bind civilizations together while factionalism tears them apart, but never before has the first been so rare while the second has been so easy.

Once we consider these factors it would appear that other civilizations may have the West beat. Islamic civilization comes with factionalism built in, in the form of the Sunni-Shia split, but we helpfully lob cruise missiles at them every so often, meaning external threats are never very far from their thoughts. And if any civilization was going to be good at reducing factionalism it would be the Sinic/Chinese.

I’m sure there are other ways in which technology changes civilizational conflict, but I think the items I just covered are the big ones. To close out I’d going to toss out a few miscellaneous questions and speculations on the topic that linger after reading the book.

What’s going to happen with Sub-Saharan Africa? If they haven’t already got a civilization are they going to develop one? How does that happen? I get the feeling that it probably helps if you have an empire combined with a religion, and I don’t see any budding African empires, and while Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly Christian, that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) seem to provide much unity to the region. When you combine that with the expected population growth you have a lot of people without a civilization, how would that fit into Huntington’s Model?

Huntington appears to be of the opinion that ideological conflicts were an historical anomaly, a brief detour before returning back to the more typical civilizational conflict. While I agree that there doesn’t appear to be much evidence for a universal civilization as the next step, I’m not convinced that the next step couldn’t be multipolar ideological conflict. As I said social media is making it easier to organize around ideologies even across civilizational boundaries. So far the Davos Culture seems to be doing this most effectively, but rather than being the harbinger of a universal culture could it instead be just the first of many trans-civilizational cultures?

FInally, while I’ve covered some of the possible effects technology might have on civilization there are probably many others. Most of the data we have on how civilizations behave and how the interact with other civilizations comes from a time before industrialization. It could be argued we have some data on post industrial civilizations, but we have essentially zero data on post internet civilizations.

Huntington identified religion as the most important element of Civilization cohesiveness, and so far changes in technology, whether from industrialization or the internet, all seem to have weakened the power of religion. I know I said earlier that the future will have less unbelievers than the present because of birth rate differentials, but that doesn’t mean that those who do believe won’t practice their belief in very different ways. What does that mean for the larger civilization if it’s religious core is constantly being altered?

We’re left in a situation where, even if we accept Huntington’s thesis, there’s still a lot of questions. Enough that we can imagine many possible futures, unfortunately out of all those futures, I think the least likely is one where everyone comes together in a universal culture where all ideological and civilizational conflicts cease. Which is to say, I’m not sure Huntington is correct in every particular, but I am sure that Fukuyama is wrong.


Have you heard that joke about two civilizations waking into a bar? No? Neither have I, but if thinking about that sort of thing is something you want to support consider donating.