Year: <span>2017</span>

The Long Swing of the Political Pendulum

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In my last post I mentioned that I had spent a long time neglecting the actual theme of this blog, and I resolved to use that post to rectify it. Accordingly, I proceeded to go on a deep dive into what salvation might look like from a scientific perspective.  Unfortunately, for all the time and ink I spent on the effort, I don’t feel it was sufficient to absolve me of my long neglect. Additionally, in my last post I mentioned in passing that there was a discussion to be had about the connection between the blog’s theme and my frequent posts on politics, but that I was going to save it for another time. This is that time, and in a classic case of attempting to strike two birds with a single stone, I am going to attempt to both further absolve myself and make good on my commitment.

Right off the bat it’s important to clarify what I mean by politics. As is so often the case, politics is one of those words which can mean a lot of different things. For instance, it can mean anything from a local school board candidate going door to door soliciting support to vast cultural changes that have a worldwide impact.

If you’ve read much of the blog I’m sure you realize that when I say politics I generally land on the vast cultural change side of things as opposed to the door-to-door school board side of things. But beyond issues of scale, there is another way in which people use the word politics, which I think is important to clarify. People also use it to mean important topics on which there is still disagreement. And because of this disagreement we are often urged to avoid talking about politics all together, because by highlighting the disagreement we may bring about this discomfort. I bring up this separate definition of politics because, a large part of what I mean when I say I’m going to talk about politics, is just me saying I’m going to talk about things that make some people uncomfortable.

Once you start looking at it that way, then you can’t talk about “Not being saved,” without causing some discomfort, which means, following the definition I just provided, you also can’t talk about it without getting into politics. Thus politics is unavoidable in the general sense, but it’s also unavoidable in the specific sense, as it implies both that the status quo won’t save us, and even more specifically that your favorite candidate won’t change the status quo. In other words, the question of salvation, particularly once you leave religion behind, as I did starting with the last post, is essentially a political question, since science only saves us if politics makes it possible.

Once you start talking about politics, while people are interested in the latest ridiculous Trump tweet, the results of the recent German election, or the latest failure to repeal Obamacare, what they’re most interested in is what’s going to happen. This is where my interest lies as well. Of course what’s going to happen depends a lot on what’s currently happening, and as a result it’s frequently necessary to wade into current events, which is where the political discomfort mentioned above generally comes into play.

At this point I was going to offer up an example of an historical event which no longer caused any discomfort and my mind immediately went to the Civil War, and I then thought, “Oh,right  I guess I need to go farther back than that.” (Maybe the English Civil War?)

In addition to the discomfort, sampling the present as a way of predicting the future is fraught with all manner of uncertainty, and thus I try to confine my statements not to what’s going to happen, but rather how to develop antifragility so that it doesn’t matter what happens. That said, I can’t resist the temptation of talking about broad trends, though even in this case, I’m not trying to predict what’s going to happen, but rather develop a map of the possibilities. Accordingly I am not going to tell you whether I think Trump will be impeached (I would bet against it, but I think he’ll teeter on the edge of it his entire first term) but I will explain the various, possible futures I see stretched out in front of us. The farthest I will go in terms of prediction is to offer my opinion on the likelihood of each of these possibilities, though I have no problem if you ignore that part.

Let’s start by talking about the broadest trend of all. Which direction are things headed? I have already said that I think things have been moving leftward for a very long time, and I stand by that, but where do they go from here? Broadly there are three possibilities. They can continue to move that way, they can plateau, or they can reverse in the fashion of a pendulum.

(If you don’t agree with my claim that things are moving leftward then the possibilities are still essentially the same, it’s only the starting point that is different.)

Any look at the past will convince you that things are unlikely to plateau, and if for some reason they do, it would probably be the best outcome we could hope for. We already have a fair amount of experience in dealing with things as they are, and if they just continue in the same vein our competence will only increase.

This leaves continuing to move in the same direction or a pendulum as the two possibilities which are both likely and worrisome. Let’s talk about the pendulum first.

For a long time this is what I figured, that the pendulum had to be close to swinging back.  Sure, campus radicals are getting increasingly demanding. Sure, identity politics are spiraling out of control. Sure, we have voted ourselves massive benefits, far beyond what we can afford. And sure, we live in a society with a morality that would make Sodom and Gomorrah jealous (not everyone agrees that this is a bad thing.) But all of these extremes were precisely why I thought we were near the end of the swing. And it gave me a certain amount of comfort. I don’t think I was alone in this, whenever I would bring up the latest leftist insanity with my friends on that side, often times, rather than defending it, they would agree that it was alarming, but that it was an outlier. That it didn’t represent the beginning of a trend, but rather the end of one. Which is to say they also thought the pendulum had reached the end of it’s swing and was about to return.

When you look for analogies, the closest in time and space is the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly one can see something of a pendulum there. There was lots of societal unrest and violence (much more than today) and then it mostly went away. And then, a decade or so later, the cold war ended, and it appeared to a lot of people like we had reached a plateau, and a nice one at that.

I never thought we had reached a plateau, as I said I figured there was a pendulum, and on a long enough time horizon, this is still my model for what I expect to happen, but lately I’ve become more aware that there’s no law that says a pendulum has to swing back before it causes too much damage, and in fact perhaps the metaphor of a pendulum is fatally flawed, since pendulums are so regular in their return that we use them to keep time. Whereas if there is a pendulum in human affairs, I doubt it has any kind of regularity, and in fact it can go on long past where we think it should, before it reaches it’s maximum.

The maximum I mentioned in the late 60s/early 70s was relatively mild, but if you look back through history you’ll realize as social unrest goes, it was the exception rather than the rule.

It’s far more common for millions to die before things start to swing back than it is for the revolutionaries to be co-opted by academia and Reagan to be elected. Also, it’s important to point out before we get any farther that to describe human affairs and political upheavals as things which travel only along one axis and which have a definite end point and a smooth progression is also a vast oversimplification of how these things normally work as well.

As I already mentioned, belief in a pendulum isn’t limited to people on the right. In addition to using the idea of small pendulum swings to dismiss the worst excesses of their “side”, people on the left also fear a large swing which will undo many of gains they’ve made. And it’s certainly understandable that many of them view the election of Trump as the beginning of exactly that. Going back to what I said in the beginning. I’m assuming that the left has been ascendant for awhile, but the possible directions are the same regardless of your initial assumptions.

For those who are on the left, and who feel that they’re nearing the end of a swing, the next thing to consider is what can be done about it? Unfortunately, part of the idea behind the pendulum is that its swings are inexorable, that once stuff starts to reverse, you can’t stop it. I assume that despite this that there will be people who try. I also wonder how much of the current frenetic pace of the left is driven by the idea of a coming reversal, and a consequent desire to “get theirs” while they still can. For example, maybe tearing down confederate monuments has to be done now before the pendulum swings the other way and white supremacists retake power. As I have said before I don’t think this is very likely, but it is a narrative of the whole situation which is somewhat more flattering than the dancing in the endzone narrative, though, if you do think the pendulum is going to swing back then it may be a bad idea to antagonize your future insect overlords. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Simpsons reference.)

For myself over the last few years I’ve become less convinced that things are about to swing back the other way. And unlike most people, I view the election of Trump not as evidence of a rightward swing, but rather as evidence that the pendulum still has a long way to go. I’ll offer still more evidence for this in a bit, but before I do I want to point out that the two choices we have remaining to us, history as a pendulum or history as a leftward trend which goes up forever, are indistinguishable unless the pendulum is already at the end of it’s swing. In other words if you’re not at an inflection point you’re on a slope and the only question is how steep the slope is. Which means, what all of this really boils down to is, what does our present slope look like, and is there any evidence that it might be flattening?

I mentioned “leftist insanity” previously, along with the observation that people on that side of things often use a variant of the pendulum theory to dismiss this insanity, particularly when it comes out of academia. Oftentimes they justify it by mentioning that college students are young, and that they’ll grow out of it. If it turns out to be a professor, they might counter with pointing out that professors are not elected officials, and that, moreover, their influence is very limited. Or they may directly reference the idea of a pendulum by saying that this is just a temporary spike in attention being paid to social justice, and that it’s confined to a limited number of universities and colleges and those have always been places where extreme ideas are discussed, so forth and so one, But in any event, they will contend that there’s nothing to worry about.

I confess that this argument has its merits. Academia is in something of a bubble, and what goes on there is less of the metaphorical “canary in the coalmine” and more a metaphorical “weird cousin who spouts conspiracy theories and refuses to work for the man.” Of course this doesn’t mean that the bubble doesn’t create problems, just that it may not be predictive. And so for quite a while I’ve been keeping my eye open for something crazy which wasn’t ultimately about academia. Some of the coverage of the Antifa has definitely fallen into this category, and there’s also the occasional journalist from a left wing network who will end up saying something which really should be outside the bounds of polite discourse. But none of this really affected actual elected officials, or the actual government, until the cartoon controversy in Illinois.

My guess would be that you probably haven’t even heard of this controversy. I only came across it myself by trolling through my contacts in the resistance, and consequently re-telling is in order.

Back in August a libertarian think tank called the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), an organization which largely concerns itself with issues like school choice and charter schools, published a editorial cartoon, which was so explosively racist that the following things happened:

  • The Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner, who despite being a Republican, is an outspoken critic of Trump, spent untold hours and days defending himself against accusations of racism related to the cartoon. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “how did the Illinois Governor get wrapped up in things?” Well he donated money to the IPI and hired some people who used to work there. So yeah, there’s a connection, but I don’t see anything that implies responsibility, I mean he didn’t retweet it, or like it and he certainly didn’t draw it. In fact I’ve seen no evidence he was even aware of it, before people started complaining. It was enough that he was connected to the organization who did publish it. And believe me if you know anything about politics, it’s often times easier to identify which organizations a politician isn’t connected to then which ones they are.
  • Despite, no actual direct responsibility for the cartoon, four people from the governor’s office ended up resigning over it. As near as I could tell they resigned because they weren’t better at deflecting responsibility… for something they weren’t responsible for.
  • Outside of the governor’s office, the Illinois House spent an entire day denouncing the cartoon. At one point one of the representatives, nearly in tears, called the cartoon “shit” and got a bipartisan standing ovation.
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the cartoon “unambiguously racist” and a disgrace.
  • Just last week, the governor’s chief of staff resigned, in part because of the chaos caused by the cartoon.

After all of this I assume you’re just dying to see the cartoon. Well prepare yourself, for it to have caused this much fuss it has to be a doozy, right? I mean truly appalling. You’re sure you’re ready? Okay here it is.

It may be that I have talked you out of clicking on the link, that you really don’t want to see the cartoon if it’s as awful as all this. If that’s the case (and given that this post is also going to be turned into a podcast) I’ll describe it for you. The cartoon has a small, obviously black child, sitting against a brick wall in a classic pan-handler position, and in addition to the bowl at his feet he’s holding a sign that says, “Need Money 4 School.” An obviously rich, old, cigar-smoking white guy walks by and shows him an empty pocket, saying “Sorry kid, I’m broke.” While meanwhile, out of sight of the child his other pocket bulges with money. The money is labeled “TIF $”.

A rich, old white guy holding back money from public schools, which are represented by a needy minority student… Are we sure Bernie Sanders or the teacher’s union didn’t commission this cartoon? If you’re confused, so was I. Digging into it, there’s apparently some arcana involved with the TIF program and whether it actually could be diverted to public schools, but that hardly seems sufficient to raise the fuss I described above, particularly when most people’s complaints are similar to this one:

Imagine being a child of color and seeing this @illinoispolicy cartoon depiction of you as you return for a new school year.

I find it hard to believe that if you’re worried about the children, that it’s because of the reference to a little know property tax program, and indeed most people seem to be concerned with the way the kid is something of a racial caricature. (Also apparently the fact that he’s wearing a Cubs hat also seems to play into it in a way that has escaped me…) I would say that I’m not qualified to comment on whether the cartoon depicted the child in an unflattering light, but the governor tried that (after saying he had nothing to do with the cartoon) and it just got him into more trouble.

That, in any case, is the story, but what point does it illustrate and specifically, why is it a different sort of story than the academic craziness you normally hear about?

Before we get into that, I’m aware that we have to worry about reading too much into a single event. As I have already said, a couple of times, you could completely disagree with me on what the current trends are. But we still have a situation where the trend has to either be getting better, getting worse or staying the same. And I know depending on the trend we’re talking about people will disagree about what’s better and what’s worse. But, perhaps if you don’t believe in my narrative of victory by the left, you can at least see this story and other’s like it as a sign that the trend of polarization, and disagreements over tiny issues is definitely getting worse, without necessarily agreeing with me that one side is winning. And, from this larger perspective, I think the evidence that we’re about to turn a corner or level off is even less compelling.

With that caveat in place I’d like to end by examining three lessons I think we can draw from this story.

The first lesson I want to draw is the one I alluded to earlier: That, political correctness (for lack of a better descriptor) has reached a new level. That outrage over a minor, and to my mind, inconsequential issue has made a major impact outside of academia. This event had definite consequences (including people losing their jobs) in the governance of our fifth largest state. And, further, since it seems to matter, it wasn’t about Trump. The Governor of Illinois, while still a Republican, had done everything possible to distance himself from the President.

The second point I want to make is about the accusation of racism. I think this is a deep enough topic, that it’s yet one more thing that deserves it’s own post (though probably not next week I feel a post about the deficit coming on.) But I think all objective observers agree that it’s something which is losing it’s meaning, and consequently in danger of losing it’s power. Certainly we have seen how Trump is largely unaffected by these accusations, and if this is yet another trend, this is one place where I think that most people don’t want the pendulum to swing back to the point where accusations of genuine racism are meaningless, but we risk that happening when we use it for something as trivial as this editorial cartoon.

The last thing I want to draw your attention to, and one which I’m always coming back to is the fragility vs. antifragility axis. As a reminder, fragility comes when you realize frequent, small, limited returns at the cost of infrequent, but large and unbounded costs. Antifragility is the opposite, you suffer frequent small, but limited costs in exchange for infrequent, but large and unbounded returns. In this scenario there was probably some small benefit to those who wanted greater attention paid to racism, but it was extremely limited, and continued incidents like this risk not only completely derailing the workings of government, but also creating significant societal divisions, over tiny issues. On the other hand, if they had ignored this cartoon, there is some cost to that, but maybe, public schools actually get more funding which appears to be what both sides want. And maybe, just maybe, the two sides are able to accomplish something together which neither could accomplish alone. Which I’m sure is a lesson with application far outside the borders of Illinois.

I’ll tell you one trend which I hope keeps increasing, the number of donors. Oh yeah! Was that too much? Maybe that was too much…

The Depressing Limitations of Salvation Through Science

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This is supposed to be, at least occasionally, a Mormon/Religious blog, but other than last week you would be forgiven if you had missed that point. Even easier than missing the religious element of the blog would be missing the theme of the blog, which I haven’t touched on in quite a while. This post will attempt to rectify that.

Given that it has been so long it might be worth a brief review. The theme of the blog comes from the Book of Jeremiah chapter 8 verse 20:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Which I sometimes amend to say, “The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.” Meaning that I am more interested in the interplay of religion and progress than I am about one or the other. (You may wonder where politics enters into it, given the amount of time I spend there, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Writing about this interplay can be difficult, particularly given that conventional wisdom views them as being exact opposites of one another. And there’s a good reason for that. But they also have many things in common, and it’s one of those commonalities that I want to focus on.

Returning to the theme, I’m saying that technology and progress have not saved us, but what does it even mean to be saved? From a religious perspective salvation is pretty straightforward. For most religions it’s living forever, ideally in a fashion which doesn’t suck. And unless they’re a truly hardcore atheist most people would agree that there is some chance of this salvation coming to pass, with the actual odds of it happening varying with the belief of the individual.

Outside of religion the concept of salvation is less clear. And I can certainly see some people, encountering my theme, and saying of course progress and technology haven’t saved us, because that’s a religious concept which doesn’t mean anything outside of religion. But I would argue that these people are in the minority. Though the majority which remains may not recognize that “salvation” is what they’re really after when they lay their chips on the space marked progress.

In other words everyone wants to be saved, and everyone who’s not actively religious has decided to use technology and progress to accomplish that. They just may not call it salvation or realize that that’s what they’re doing. So what does salvation mean for these people?

At the lowest level, for many people “salvation” consists of nothing more than a life enjoyable enough that it’s preferable to not being alive. You would hope that very few people would be on the fence about this. But unfortunately some people are, and many of those people go on to attempt, and in far too many cases succeed at, committing suicide. Perhaps equally unfortunate, progress and technology don’t seem to be doing much for this group of people, and they may even be making things worse, since if anything progress seems to be positively correlated with suicide risk. I already mentioned in a previous post how suicide was essentially unknown in pre-industrial societies. And lately the rate has continued to increase. This is worse than it appears, since if anything advances in trauma care should be making attempted suicides less likely to succeed. And indeed I just saw a journal article which claimed that suicide attempts were up over 25% between 2005 and 2013, with a disproportionate increase among younger adults with no college degree.

Above this level, there is the “salvation” of being able to live the life you want to. And this is definitely the level where technology and progress have made the biggest impact. For most people the standard of living is at levels unheard of even 50 years ago. This includes inventions people barely dreamed of, travel at speeds which would have baffled our ancestors, and rights that would have been unthinkable. In other words for gay couples, who love posting pictures of their European vacation on Facebook, technology and progress have been very good to them.

Of course even if you have “saved” yourself in this life, that’s a pretty short span of time, and that’s just if you consider things from an historical perspective, if you consider things from the potential of eternity it’s even more stark. However, I’m guessing that people at this level don’t consider things either from an historical perspective or an eternal perspective. Making the decision, even if not consciously, that they’re going to ignore any possibility of an afterlife in favor of maximizing this life. Meaning, deliberately or not, that this is the “salvation” they have chosen.

At the next level, are people who contemplate achieving “salvation” by leaving behind a legacy of sorts, but who stop short of considering actual immortality (or maybe in addition to immortality.) This contemplation takes a wide variety of forms, from people who hope to be remembered by their descendents, to authors, artists and even politicians who hope to achieve a form of immortality through their work, to the philanthropist who has a building named after them. These efforts have the advantage of past evidence of success, though this evidence is only for other people, you’ll have to take it on faith that it will work for you. And it might not. For example, if you’re hoping to be remembered by your descendants you will actually have to have descendants, which an increasing number of people do not. And even then, once a few hundred years are past you’ll be lucky to be remembered as anything more than a name and a few dates.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to be remembered for your work, then the chances of success are even smaller (though the potential reward is correspondingly greater.) To begin with the number of people who are remembered by the general public after they’re gone is always going to be tiny and most, even of those, will not be remembered for more than a few hundred years. If you wish to be remembered forever then the competition is even fiercer.  It is possible that Socrates and Caesar will be remembered for as long as there are humans, but I doubt if there are more than a few such people every century.

Next we move on to people for whom salvation is a group effort. Meaning that whatever else they may believe, they would really like to see humanity continue to exist. Obviously, there will be some overlap between the various levels, meaning there are certainly some people who are individually happy to find “salvation” in the life they’re leading right now, but also take comfort from the fact that humanity will continue on after they’re gone. Out of this group there is a smaller group who takes more comfort in this continuation if they know their descendents are going to be part of it, while for others it doesn’t matter.

At least in the near term, the chances of humanity continuing are quite good. There are some potential extinction level events, but it’d have to be something pretty big, as I said before, even a nuclear war would probably not lead to humanity’s extinction.

The final level are those people who will consider salvation to have occurred only if they, personally, achieve immortality. If you hope to achieve this through the religious route, the path is pretty straight forward. Most religions provide clear instructions on how to achieve immortality. The only question is how likely are those instructions to work. But if you’re hoping for technology and progress to provide this salvation, either because you’re not religious, or because you’re hedging your bet, or you’re a religious transhumanist and you’re hoping to combine the two, then your options for technological immortality are broad, but so far unrealized.

There’s cryonic suspension, e.g. freezing your body (or possibly just your head) when you die. This is a gamble, since thus far no one has successfully been revived from such a condition (and I’m record as saying that no one ever will be.) Also, I heard recently that thus far only 300 people have entered cryonic suspension in the US, so even if it will eventually be possible the number of people who can be saved through this method is a tiny fraction of people alive today, and an infinitesimal percentage of the people who have ever lived.

Outside of cryonic suspension you have the dreams of the transhumanists, who, while not eschewing cryonics, have pinned their hopes more on medical advances, technological augmentation, and eventually brain digitization. Each of these areas holds some promise, but even medical advances, the area where the most progress has been made, has mostly extended the length of life without doing much to preserve its quality.

I think with the exception of a couple of fringe ideologies we’ve basically covered all of the various paths for a human to achieve some degree of salvation. Which, means, returning to my theme. If you want to claim that I’m wrong, that, “We are saved.” Those are your options. Hopefully you’ll agree that the first two levels, which consist of focusing just on this life, at either the survival or the enjoyment level, do not really constitute salvation except in the loosest sense, and even if we accept that they represent individual salvation, they certainly don’t represent ways in which “We” are saved. For that we need something more.

Salvation as being remembered after death, is more promising, as a means for group salvation. I imagine that you might be able to say that the Sumerians have achieved a degree of salvation to the extent that they’re still remembered. Still if humanity as a whole goes extinct, then the memory of the Sumerians will perish with them. Which leaves us with only the last two levels as offering potential, true salvation: the continuation of humanity, or individual immortality.

I suppose at this point one might argue that they don’t actually care about these levels of salvation, but I suspect if anyone feels this way that they haven’t really thought it through. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who apparently I can’t get away from, mentioned how odd it is that someone could be horrified by say, what just happened in Las Vegas, but contemplate the extinction of all humanity with a calm detachment. Perhaps even offering up a facile explanation like, “Well I guess humanity didn’t deserve to survive.”  If you aren’t interested in salvation for the whole of humanity, then I guess there’s not much left to say, but if you are, there’s only two ways to bring that about: Religion or Science (or both if you’re in the MTA.)

As usual I find the overlap between Religion and Science to be very interesting. Essentially both promise the same thing, more or less, the difference comes in the degree to which we’re saved (presumably actual exaltation would dwarf even the grandest dreams of transhumanism) and the odds of that salvation happening (the assessment of which varies from person to person). The spectacular advances of science and technology have served to convince most people that the odds of salvation through science are a lot better than was previously expected and the odds of salvation through religion, a lot worse. As you might gather I disagree with this. In my opinion, the odds of salvation through progress and technology are a lot lower than people think, and the odds of salvation through religion are much higher, also I think playing the odds with respect to religion is easier and more rational than most people think.

This blog, while not shying away from religion, is not primarily concerned with convincing people to look for salvation through religion, i.e. I’m not trying to convert you. There are lots of people working on that. (Some of them are young men and young women who roam around two by two. You should chat them up. They’re invariably very nice.) This blog is more about convincing you that odds of salvation through science are not as great as you’ve been led to believe. In particular it will be a lot harder and entail more sacrifices than people imagine.

I recently read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. And I think it did a great job of illustrating exactly this point. And unfortunately to explain how, I’m going to have to spoil the book. So if you were hoping to read the book, and don’t want to be spoiled, you should skip the next five paragraphs.

Aurora takes place on a generation ship sent to colonize Tau Ceti, and whereas in most science fiction involving interstellar expansion by humanity, the expansion is viewed as inevitable, almost triumphal, this novel was decidedly different. In Aurora, it turns out that extrasolar colonization is so difficult that the novel revolves around the fact that after getting to Tau Ceti, about half of the crew decides to turn around and head back to Earth. (The half that remains eventually perishes.) I didn’t find the twist to be that revolutionary, but I’ve talked to other people whose minds were blow by the idea of a science fiction novel where a space ship gives up on colonization and expansion, turns around and goes home.

In the novel, the difficulty of colonization isn’t limited to the Tau Ceti system, the Aurora mission (Aurora is actually the name of the moon they’re supposed to colonize) was one of many generation ships, and they basically all failed. It turns out extraterrestrial colonization ends up being ridiculously difficult for a variety of reasons. As just one example, every planet needs a large amount of terraforming which, in the novel, is something they have trouble accomplishing even on Mars, and it’s right next to Earth. Once you’re outside of the Solar System, terraforming is functionally impossible. As an aside, this is somewhat humorous if you’re familiar with Robinson’s best known work, The Mars Trilogy which is all about terraforming Mars, and in that series it ends up being pretty straightforward.

Robinson offers up these difficulties as a potential explanation for Fermi’s Paradox. And I can see how if a species is restricted to a single Solar System that it could make things difficult. Still, we haven’t even made it off our home planet, and we have the technology to engage in interstellar communication, to say nothing of something like a von Neumann probes (self-replicating spacecrafts). Meaning that this is another explanation for the Paradox I find unconvincing. Still it’s undeniable that if you can’t get out of the Solar System that your chances of being completely wiped out are going to be higher than if you can.

Anyway, returning to the book, and as you may already be thinking, yes it is a work of fiction, and therefore we shouldn’t read too much (or too little) into its description of the difficulties of extrasolar colonization. And really that’s not what I want to focus on in any event. For me, the key scene comes after the main character, Freya, has made it all the way back to Earth. In the course of her journey it has become apparent that extrasolar colonization is doomed to failure, and that the people who originally sent out the generation ships, along with the crews of those ships, were deluded and narcissistic; sending people out to slowly die in space, because of some exaggerated view of the inevitability of human progress and expansion.

Once back on Earth, Freya ends up at conference where the topic is sending more ships into space, even though all previous attempts have been unsuccessful.The reasoning being that they will just have to keep trying until they do succeed. At this point Freya punches the person saying this, and I think it’s fair to call the punch the moral climax of the book. But regardless of how heartless the person is being when he makes this claim, from the perspective of salvation through science, it’s essentially true. Regardless of how hard it is, regardless of how many attempts it takes before you succeed, regardless of how many people die, in order to be saved by science, you have to get out of the Solar System. Because, on a long enough time horizon being confined to a single star is just too fragile.

All of this is to say that science does not have any inherent morality, it does not have any built in kindness or compassion. As the novel illustrates there is no law that says it has to be easy to colonize other planets, no law, in fact, which says it has to be even possible, and most terrifying of all there’s also definitely no law guaranteeing humanity’s continued survival.

The truths of science are often very difficult. As an example, one truth which science fiction has had to grapple with (though it’s just as often ignored) is the speed of light, which is 670 million miles an hour, but even at that speed it takes over four years to get to the nearest star. Even if we restrict ourselves to something more manageable, I’ve already discussed how hard even a colony on Mars would be.

To bring religion back into the discussion, religious salvation depends on kindness, and justice, and love. Science doesn’t, science only cares about how well your beliefs match reality. And on that count I don’t think we’re doing as well as people think. Now I’m religious, so I’m expecting love and kindness (along with stuff like faith and chastity) to save me. But I think there are a lot of people who aren’t religious, but who are expecting love and kindness to save them as well. I’m not complaining, but I’m not sure that they recognize that love and kindness are not going to get them to Tau Ceti. They’re not even going to get them to Mars. And given that science doesn’t care about love and kindness is it possible being too kind actually thwarts scientific progress and technological advances?

I can think of one major example of this right off the bat: nuclear power, specifically nuclear waste. Is it science that keeps the Yucca Mountain Repository from being used, 30 years after it was designated or is it kept from use by being too kind to those who oppose it? Perhaps you might argue that it’s not love and kindness, but the will of the people. Well the will of the people doesn’t necessarily have any connection to science either, and in fact under our democracy we spend a most of our money on stuff that has nothing to do with science. And if you’re honestly expecting science to save you then isn’t every dollar spent on something other than science a dollar wasted?

Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we have enough money to do both, perhaps spending more money on science would just corrupt it. But the point I’m trying to get at, is that because science doesn’t care about democracy, or kindness, or happiness, or whether we live or die, that there will very likely come a time, when if you’re expecting to be saved through science you’re going to have to choose between science and minimizing danger, or science and the will of the people, or, almost certainly, science and your vision of fairness. Or to put it another way between the way the world actually is and the way you want it to be.

As evidence of this I once again direct your attention to Fermi’s Paradox. While it’s certainly possible that there are civilizations out there who achieved their own salvation through science. And are consequently spread throughout the galaxy. And we have just, thus far, completely missed all the evidence of this. It’s becoming more and more likely that there is some kind of filter, a chasm if you will, a chasm no one else has been able to cross. Hopefully this uncrossable chasm is behind us, and we are the lucky ones, but if not, and the chasm remains to be crossed, then we still need to make a leap which no one else has. Meaning it can’t be easy. Meaning it will require some hard choices. Choices like spending money on space exploration or on welfare. Choices like whether to switch to nuclear power or to continue to use coal (while pretending to switch to renewables.) Choices about whether we should send people to Mars if we can’t get them back, and they’ll probably die there or whether we should only send them if we’re sure they’ll survive. And eventually the choice of whether to send out the 100th generation ship, even though the first 99 have failed.

Salvation is only going to come from science or religion, and if you believe it’s science then there may come a time when we have to abandon many if not most of our cherished beliefs about love and fairness and equality for the cold hard realities of a universe that doesn’t care about us.

Salvation is almost certainly not going to come from reading this blog. So I guess you definitely shouldn’t waste any resources by donating to it. Yeah, I guess I really painted myself into a corner on that one didn’t I?

Cargo Cults and the Mormon Conception of God

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I’d like to start off this week by drawing your attention to an interesting story, a story you may have already heard, the story of the Melanesian Cargo Cults. This story is so interesting that it’s been used by such luminaries as Feynman, Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. Though each has drawn a different lesson from the story. But in order to understand these lessons you need to understand the story, so I’ll start there.

During World War II, the islanders of Melanesia, many of whom had never seen an outsider before, suddenly ended up on the front lines of the most massive war the world had ever seen. As part of that war, they saw and took part in an enormous logistical chain which girded the planet. But they only saw the last few links in that chain. And from this limited vantage point, and having, for all intents and purposes, missed the industrial revolution with all its consequences, the islanders developed a religious interpretation for how “cargo” arrived on their islands.

The Cargo Cults were birthed out of this religious interpretation. Seeing numerous marvelous goods arriving on their islands: food, jeeps, medicine, you name it, but being able to only see the last leg of things. For the Cargo Cultists, the control towers, and runways weren’t components of a vast logistical chain, they were religious artifacts, temples and churches, if you will, not just one component of an infrastructure built up over decades, relying on technology which had been in development for centuries.

At this point, those of you familiar with Dawkins, may have already guessed what lesson he wants us to draw, and since he does give a great description of things, I’ll let him take over for a minute:

The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as ‘cargo’ in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the ‘cargo’ must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:

Dawkins then goes on to quote David Attenborough:

They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down – and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.

As Attenborough relates, the islanders came to the conclusion that the activities of the Americans constituted a religion, thus when the war ended, and cargo stopped coming, they decided to try summoning their own. Thinking, as I said, that the runways and the control towers were the key bits, they built their own, and on top of that they built fake wooden earphones, and attached them to fake radios. They also built wooden planes, and they even marched around with weapons made of wood in mimicry of the soldiers they had seen.

Of course, it didn’t work. Because the islanders could only mimic what they saw, and even then they couldn’t do it very well. They were completely unaware of the vast industrial base which lay behind all the cargo. They were a victim of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Or as I often say, indistinguishable from a miracle. And, assuming it was miraculous, the islanders tried to duplicate what they took to be the religious rituals of the Americans.

Dawkins points out this connection to Clarke’s Third Law and concludes by saying that cargo cults:

…provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing.

In other, words, as you might imagine, now that you know the background, Richard Dawkins uses the story of the cargo cults to bash religion. Our other Richard, Richard Feynman, derives a different lesson from the story, and uses cargo cults as a metaphor to help explain how some people go through the motions of conducting science without actually getting scientific results, coining the term cargo cult science. And, finally, Jared Diamond makes use of it in the central question of his book Guns, Germs and Steel, which opens with someone from New Guinea asking Diamond.

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

Diamond goes on to spend the rest of the book answering that question, and by extension explaining what the cargo cults missed about the modern world. However as interesting as all these lessons are, the lesson I want to draw from the story is not one of these three. And you may be wondering why I brought them up if I’m going to then just cast them aside. Well to begin with, at this point the various meanings which have been applied to the cargo cult story are as much a part of the story as the original events, and you only get the full sense of things by including them. Second I do it because my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just mentioned. And it really only makes sense against the backdrop of the more mainstream explanations I just reviewed. Also it’s important to occasionally be reminded that all stories are open to a wide variety of interpretations, and that these interpretations are inevitably skewed by the biases of the individual doing the interpreting. Something to keep in mind as I proceed to offer up mine.

As I said my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just talked about. All of them focused on the same things: how wrong the islanders were, how far away they were from the truth, and how unlikely they were to succeed in getting what they wanted using the tools available to them. By contrast I want to focus on how right and how close they actually were. Most people focus on the gulf between Melanesia and the industrialized nations. But I want to focus on the opposite. I want to focus on how small the difference is. And I want to do this because I think it illustrates something important about theology, especially LDS Theology.

Part of my inspiration for this topic came from my anticipation of the upcoming General Conference, which should be playing as I publish this, and part of it came from a discussion I had recently with a friend who had decided to leave the Church. What both of these things have in common are prophets. The prophetic connection to General Conference is obvious, but the prophetic connection to my friend may need some explaining.

As I said this friend had decided to leave the Church, and as I talked to him one of the things which kept coming up were statements by earlier prophets, particularly Brigham Young. He found some of these statements to be indefensible, but, only when paired with the idea that Brigham Young was a prophet. He readily admitted that other people of the same era could and did say the same things, without necessarily being a bad person, but no one could be an actual prophet and say those things, ergo the Church couldn’t be true. This is not to say that statements by Brigham Young were the only reason he decided to leave, there were other things as well, but these statements played no small role in his decision.

This is the prophetic connection to my friend’s decision, but you are probably still wondering how all of this connects to the cargo cults. As I said, unlike everyone else who has used the cargo cults as a metaphor, I want to illustrate how close the Melanesians and the Americans were, not how far away. While it is true, that from the perspective of the Melanesians that the Americans appeared to have God-like powers, they were still just men. If you had taken an islander and dropped them in the middle of New York, they would have initially been awestruck and overwhelmed, but with some hand-holding and a little time, I imagine no more than a year, they’d have been fine. The biggest problem, of course, would have been the language, not cars or electricity or indoor plumbing.

All of this is to say that there’s less distance between a Melanesian and an American than the Melanesian imagines. And in a similar way there’s less distance between an average member of the Church and the Prophet. I know that the Prophet seems like he should have all the cargo, or in other words that he should have all the answers, know exactly what’s moral and what’s not, never say anything offensive (not even 150 years later) and in general conduct himself in an unimpeachable manner. But just as Americans and Melanesians are both still just humans, your average member of the Church and the Prophet are also still just humans, and just as having planes and jeeps and bombs didn’t make the Americans omnipotent, being prophet doesn’t make the man who holds that office perfect.

Though at this point it might be worth it to look at how perfect they have been, particularly compared to the control group of other church leaders. None of the Prophets have been involved in a sex scandal (unless you count polygamy, which I certainly don’t) none have embezzled money. In fact they live pretty simply, when compared to the control group. I know some might argue, that if you discount the more distant past, that the Pope has had a pretty good run, but I think if you do much digging into the Vatican Bank, you’ll find that on the financial side of things, everything has not been as rosy as it appears. Does this make the Mormon Church an anomaly? Should this fact by itself be counted as some kind of proof for the truthfulness of the Church? Probably not, but it at least illustrates that when you’re evaluating anything you have to evaluate it not in absolute terms, but relative to everything else in the same category. And I think on that count Brigham Young and the rest of the prophets look pretty good.

Of course, I’m not the first person to make the point that there’s nothing in Mormon Theology which asserts that Prophets are infallible. And while this point is important enough to stand by itself, my true object is to aim a little higher. As you may be able to tell from the title, I’m not stopping at prophets.

However, if I’m going to proceed, eventually I’m going to run into the question of whether Mormons are Christians. And for all those people who get extremely annoyed everytime someone asserts that we aren’t, I have some bad news for you.

We aren’t… or at least we aren’t under certain definitions of the word.

Okay, calm down, and allow me to explain. As I may have mentioned, I’ve been working my way through Eliezer Yudkowsky’s exceedingly long book on rationality (only available on the Kindle, but it’s estimated to be 2,393 pages) and there is actually some interesting stuff in there. He spends quite a bit of time talking about the confusion which arises when you use one word to mean two different things. The classic example of this is the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest does it makes a sound? Which relies on using the word “sound” to mean two different things (auditory experience and acoustic vibrations). We see a similar thing happening with the word Christian.

The primary meaning of the word Christian (at least according to is “of, relating to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings”, and under that definition we are certainly Christian, but there is another more technical definition of Christianity which involves professing belief in the Nicene Creed, and by extension the Trinitarian conception of God, which holds that the Father, Son (Jesus) and the Holy Ghost are the same individual. By that definition we are not Christian. If we had been around in 6th century they might have classified us as belonging to the Arian Heresy, but given that the Arians were mostly wiped out or forced to declare their allegiance to the Nicene Creed by the end of the 7th century, that’s not a term that’s in common usage anymore.

Technically, though, it’s worse than that, we don’t just merely view Jesus as being subordinate and separate to the Father, we believe that there are is more than one God, and that we will eventually achieve Godhood. (Though as the article I just linked to points out, this does not make us polytheists, at least not in the way the word is commonly understood.) All of this means that, as my friend the Catholic Priest likes to point out, we both believe in Christ, but we have very different ideas about who Christ is, and what his qualities and attributes are.

To this list of our differences from “classical” or orthodox Christianity, I would like to use the story of the cargo cults to illustrate other, perhaps less well known, differences. These differences are kind of on the edge of Mormon Theology. And I think some members might even take issue with some of them. In other words I’m going out on a limb, but I think this way of looking at things not only brings many significant insights, I also happen to think that it’s true.

As I said already, the change I wanted to bring to the discussion of the cargo cults was to emphasis how close the Melanesians and the Americans are, not how far away. I extended that to a discussion of the gap between your average member of the Church and the Prophet and now I want to extend it one step beyond that. To the idea that it’s useful to view the gap between us and God in a similar light.

If we choose to go down this path, what can we learn from comparing the islander’s relationship to the Americans to our relationship with God?

To start with, let’s get one thing out of the way, though the Americans seemed to operate on an entirely different plane from the islanders, I don’t think the islanders viewed them as actual divine beings. You may think that this fatally undermines the comparison, but I still think we’re close enough. It is clear that the American’s had “powers” the islanders considered miraculous, and, furthermore, that there existed a huge gulf in understanding. And yet, as I pointed out, the actual gulf separating the two was not really so great. Certainly we can easily comprehend it from our side of the gulf, it was just the Melanesians on the other side who thought it was miraculous and incomprehensible.

In a similar fashion there is a gulf between us and God that appears unbridgeable as well, at least, from this side, but I’m going to assert that once we’re on the other side it will be entirely understandable. And just as with the Americans and the Melanesians, smaller that we think.

Claiming that, after death and resurrection, we will understand things, hints at the next topic I want to discuss. I’m not saying we will understand everything, I’m claiming that we will understand the gulf between where we are now, and where we are after exaltation, in the same way that the Americans didn’t understand everything they just understood a lot more than the islanders. But wait, haven’t we reached the point where the Americans (very loosely) represent God? And God understands everything right? That’s one of his key attributes, he’s omniscient, right? Well are you sure about that? Are we really even sure we know what omniscience means?

This is what I was referring to when I said that some members might take issue with what I’m saying, and I would urge those of you who are in that camp to be patient. Assuming I haven’t lost you, the problem is that once you are truly dealing with Infinity, with a capital I, things get really weird, really fast. For example some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Or there’s the issue of free will, many people arguing that if God knows everything that there is no free will, since we’re already predestined to do everything we’re going to do. Or, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that the human mind can’t truly grasp infinity. I mean, we can understand it as a concept, but when you start to get into how impossibly large things can get, and then realize that infinity is infinitely beyond even this impossible largeness, you realize you can’t grasp true infinity.

Let’s for the moment assume that God is more in the “impossibly large” category than the infinite category. I don’t think anything actually changes about our relationship to God. As far as we’re concerned he’s effectively still both omnipotent and omniscient, just like the American’s were effectively omnipotent when compared to the Melanesians. But from a philosophical standpoint, as I’ve already pointed out, it does solve problems like free will, and as I have mentioned elsewhere it goes a long way to solving the problem of evil as well. And finally it leaves us with a God, and by extension a religion, which is not only less vulnerable to being undermined by the ideology of progress and fruits of technology, but actually ends up dovetailing quite nicely with them (a theme I also frequently write about.) In other words from an intellectual standpoint I think this view gives us a lot of useful information, but for those worried about heresy, from a day to day standpoint I don’t think it changes anything.

To conclude I’d like to briefly touch on two examples of how this theme ties into subjects I’ve covered in the past.

First, Fermi’s Paradox: I have laid claim to being the first person to put forth a divine explanation for the paradox. (Feel free to dispute that, if you dare.) And the theme I’ve been expanding on in this post is one of the reasons, I assume, why I am the first and only person to propose this explanation. If you view God as something ineffable, but also all-powerful and all knowing, it’s difficult to also put him in the category of “extraterrestrial as defined by Enrico Fermi”. It’s only when you put him in the category of impossibly advanced, but not infinitely so, in a position comparable to the one the Americans had with the islanders, that this explanation for the paradox becomes conceivable. Yielding, as I said, not only a religion which fits in better with scientific progress, but which actually, in my opinion, provides a more compelling answer than science to one of the enduring mysteries of our day.

Second, the Mormon Transhumanist Association: As I have said, I have a lot of respect for them, and I think they’re right about a lot of things. They understand that God is not some ineffable and infinitely powerful spirit. That the difference between us and God is more on the order of the difference between the Melanesians and the Americans, than the infinite gap imagined by most religions. And most crucially, that in the long run the similarities are far more important than the differences. That said, as the final lesson of the story of the cargo cults, I think the MTA, rather than reading the science and math textbooks left behind by the Americans, spend too much of their time listening to a fake radio, using their fake headphones, perched in a control tower above a runway on which no plane will ever land.

Something we all need guard against…

Some readers are like cargo cultists, they think that reading the blog is all it takes to bring the cargo, not realizing the time and effort required in the background to produce something with the pseudo-intellectual rigor of this post. If you’d like to be an American rather than an islander or if you’d like to improve the quality of my metaphors more generally, consider donating.

7 Crazy Ways Conservatives Are Secretly Just Centrists

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I’m deep enough into talking about the cultural war, and its various nooks and crannies, that I might as well keep going. In fact this whole endeavor kind of reminds me of a line from Macbeth. The line comes after Macbeth has killed King Duncan, and it has him reflecting that he has gone so far with his scheme that it’s basically just as easy to keep killing people as it would be to go back and undo the damage. Or as Shakespeare has him say:

I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

I don’t think I’m killing people, in fact one of my primary purposes has been talking people out of violence. But it does sometimes feel like a grim business to talk about these sorts of things. Also as I have said, even if it (hopefully) isn’t a real war it definitely feels like one at times.

As long as I’m going to continue writing in this vein, I find that there’s more that I want to say about the Moderate Manifesto I mentioned last week. Primarily I want to continue talking about how the current narrative has been wrenched so far to the left that everything the author claims as moderate positions are actually things the average conservative would be overjoyed with. I do this for two reasons:

1- These are all good ideas and need as broad a distribution as possible

2- To illustrate how completely the left is winning without most people noticing. And especially to counter the idea that the left needs to win faster.

For this post, I’d like continue talking about the article by looking at his list of the seven assumptions and attitudes which characterize centrism.

The first is:

Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions. Innovative ideas and political proposals shouldn’t be discouraged, but those that require radical changes to the current status quo should be moderated to appeal to a broad constituency. Extreme proposals are often wrong, but even when they are correct, they require careful consideration and slow implementation. Violent action is almost always wrong and counterproductive, as is curbing basic freedoms that allow liberal societies to flourish.

Right off the bat it’s important to point something out about the article and the list. The author has this habit of using the extreme libertarian wing of the right to provide the examples he uses for misbehavior by the right as a whole. I would argue that this amounts to essentially a straw man. And the first point is an excellent example of how it works.

Quick name the most extreme right wing proposal you can think of… Were you able to come up with even one? It wouldn’t surprise me if you couldn’t, particularly if you eliminate libertarian fantasies. Even assuming that you could, how likely is it to actually become reality (this is why we eliminate all the libertarian fantasies). Finally, if by some miracle it did come to pass, how long would you have to go back in time before it wasn’t “extreme conservative policy”, but something the majority of people took for granted without even having to think about it?

Let’s take a couple of examples:

Abortion, specifically overturning Roe v. Wade- Is the idea that we should turn abortion back over to the states really that extreme? Remember that Roe v. Wade didn’t make abortion legal, it removed the ability of the states to make it illegal. If for some reason this still strikes you as being extreme, what are the chances of it actually happening? As I said in a previous post, we had a Republican President, a Republican controlled congress, and seven of the nine judges on the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans, from 2003-2005 and Roe v. Wade sailed through that period unscathed. Finally if it did happen it wouldn’t be reverting us to the dark ages, we’d be reverting to 1973.

That’s a cultural issue, what about a financial issue like eliminating Medicare and Medicaid? First, while this may or may not be an extreme issue, it’s extreme enough that no one actually favors eliminating it, they mostly just want to privatize it. Given that we’re 20 Trillion in debt, and those two programs consume roughly 25% of the budget is that so extreme? I’ve already talked about the chances of it actually happening, but additionally recall that the same Republican President and Republican Congress I just mentioned not only didn’t get rid of it they added to it with the Medicare drug benefit. And finally if we did eliminate both of them in their entirely we’d be going all the way back to 1965… and I understand 50 years seems like a long time, but trust me it’s really not.

All of this is to say that the only extreme proposals which have a realistic chance of being implemented, and would therefore be of concern to the centrist, are almost entirely in the domain of the left.

Moving to the second assumption of centrism:

Mistrust of grand political theories or systems. Societies and polities are incredibly complicated and our understanding of the way social systems and human nature interact is excruciatingly limited. Grand theories are almost always incorrect, and they encourage dogmatism and extremism. Utopianism is perhaps the most dangerous and seductive kind of grand theory. Ideas that require significant harm today to bring about a better tomorrow are particularly pernicious. Uncertainty about the future requires humility and a commitment to order and well-being in the here and now.

This is another place where he uses libertarianism as his boogieman on the right, despite the fact that, before the 2016 election, the Libertarian Presidential Candidate never got more than 1% of the vote, and even in 2016 it was only 3.28%. Because, once again, we’re asking essentially the same questions: Beyond libertarianism, what are the grand political theories the centrist should worry about from the right? How extreme are these theories, really? And how much chance do they have of actually being implemented? Take an example like smaller government. Even if we grant that it’s a grand, unproven, conservative political theory (and not strictly libertarian). And even if we place this theory in the extreme category because of the harm it causes to those who rely on the government, where is the evidence that there’s the slightest danger that it will ever happen? Look at this chart of government spending and notice that first off there are only ever the tiniest dips, and that secondly there’s no evidence that when Republicans control congress that there is any discernable effect on spending.

Moving on to another example, people will often talk about the conservative hostility to public education, and during every presidential election one or more of the candidates will mention getting rid of the Department of Education. This has been going on since 1981. And here we are 36 years later and despite Republican Presidents being in power for 20 of those 36 years, it’s still going strong.

On the other hand utopianism abounds on the left. Communism is of course the largest and deadliest example, but there’s also the utopian fantasies I mentioned in my last post including the idea that all cultures are equal, or that all people are essentially equal, or that we can allow functionally unlimited immigration. Speaking of which let’s move on to his third centrist assumption:

Skepticism about the goodness of human nature. Although our understanding of human nature is limited, the best evidence, scientific and historical, suggests that humans are often parochial, tribal, and prone to violence. This does not mean that humans are unremittingly “sinful” or wicked. They are not. At times, they are peaceful and cooperative. But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule. Political and cultural systems must deal with humans as they exist and to understand their basic propensities. Excessive optimism about human nature has often led to tragedy. And the current political system, whatever its failures, is often wise because it has been conditioned by years of slow experimentation with real humans. A decent society in the world is worth 1,000 utopias in the head.

This assumption, more than pervious two, appears specifically directed at the left. Though I think he ended up burying the lede. In particular I’m talking about this sentence, “But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule.” I agree, and I think it’s possible, even likely that at least part of the resistance to immigration comes from an awareness of this fact. I would further argue that taking an immigration rate which is near the historic maximum (in percentage terms, the absolute numbers are unprecedented) and combining it with a progressive ideology which encourages resistance to assimilation is a bad idea.

On this point, at least, the author appears to agree, going on to say later in the article:

Take immigration as one example. It is an exceedingly complicated issue and any comprehensive immigration policy will include painful tradeoffs. If the rate of legal immigration is restricted, then many ambitious and morally upstanding people will be denied a chance to join thriving societies to fulfill their potentials. On the other hand, if the rate of legal immigration is dramatically expanded, then it will cause continued social and cultural disruption, resentment, and quite possibly lower wages.

There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.

This last point he brings up, about the denunciations, is a theme that has run through all of my posts on politics. The left has been very effective at not only denouncing certain forms of speech (see for instance, the pull back from using the term “illegal” with reference to immigration) but has also rendering certain discussions completely off limits (see my post about the Overton Window). What follows from this, is a situation where the left doesn’t win the battle of ideas, so much as declare the battle over and themselves the victors while the other side remains on the field. Or to put it another way they don’t win the debate they rule the subject too evil to even consider debating. Which takes me to his fourth assumption:

Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions. Good governance and social harmony require at least an implicit consensus among the governed. Policy proposals that veer from this consensus, even if ultimately correct, threaten to alienate people and foment discontent. It is therefore crucially important to win a battle of ideas before implementing a policy that significantly changes the current status quo. This is best done by appealing to common values and bipartisanship.

You have probably seen the chart which shows the increasing polarization of politics and the lack of any moderate middle at the congressional level. On this point, at least, there is plenty of blame to go around, and I suspect that here is where I would get the most pushback if I claimed that political polarization was mostly an attribute of the left. And, it is indeed the case, that when you look at something like the debt ceiling debate and the past brinksmanship involved there (though recall that I mentioned the national debt as one place where moderation has contributed to the mess) that Republicans have been very bad at compromising. You also have a Republican primary system which increasingly rewards the most extreme candidate, meaning people are elected having specifically pledged to avoid compromise. All of this is true, and there is certainly vast room for the Republicans to improve. But once we move beyond that, we end up in an area the left is particularly bad at, building consensus.

I mentioned this already as a problem in my post about Confederate Monuments. As it turns out a majority of people want them left alone. In other words the consensus is to do the exact opposite of what’s happening. We saw the same thing with Same Sex Marriage (SSM). It was defeated over and over again when put to a vote, but then rather than waiting for public opinion to shift and a consensus to emerge, the left resorted to legalizing it through the judiciary. Based on the latest polling I think if they had waited just a few more years they would have been able to achieve consensus, win at the ballot box and avoid both the appearance of judicial activism and some degree of discontent. Might SSM still be illegal in Utah? Sure, it might, but it’d be legal nearly everywhere else. And I imagine that even in Utah there’d be something like a civil union. Would the harm really have been that great to wait a few more years? Maybe so, but if I’m underestimating the harm, I think people are even more likely to underestimate the damage that comes from not forming a consensus and routing around the ballot box. And I think this is exactly the point the author is making.

Moving on to his fifth assumption:

Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth. Because societies are exquisitely complicated, the best social policies are arrived at through slow and careful experimentation, not dogma. Although science cannot solve all social problems, it is the best instrument we have for measuring the success or failure of particular policies. It is important, therefore, to protect vigilantly free speech and free inquiry so that the best ideas are rigorously debated in the public forum. Political ideologies tend to blind people to the best policies. One should not seek a “conservative” answer to poverty or a “liberal” answer to immigration. One should seek the best answer. It is highly unlikely that any political party has a monopoly on truth.

I suppose some people might claim that it’s not the last point which represents the biggest indictment of the right, it’s this one. I mean certainly you’ve heard of intelligent design and young earth creationism! Yes, I have heard of those things, but despite that I still think from a moderate perspective the left has a bigger problem with this than the right, despite things like intelligent design. I’m sure that some of you are wondering how I ever arrived at that conclusion. The most significant factor, for me, is the widespread censorship of science which is perceived to have a any sort of rightward bias. And a great example of this censorship is the recent incident with James Damore and Google. That incident is also something of a minefield, so I don’t intend to get too deep into things (though if there’s enough interest I might in future post). But I’m on firm ground to say that the science of gender differences is not settled science. There is plenty of evidence for exactly the kind of disparities Damore was talking about. It is an open question (actually less open than Damore’s opponents think, but that’s precisely my point.)

It is true that there are many Republicans and conservatives, and other members of the “right” who are anti-science. There may even be more of them than on the left, but as is so often the case the attacks by the Right are completely ineffective. Yes, as I mentioned there are creationists, but what have they actually done to slow down science? Where are the actual casualties? Point me to a study that was killed by creationists, or a professor who was fired by them. It just isn’t a thing.

Moving on to his sixth assumption:

A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics. Nation states, although not without flaws, are one of the few social vehicles capable of forging broad identities not based on parochial tribal markers such as race or religion. They allow individuals to share in a large collective group enterprise that is admirably committed to a creed rather than ancestry. Although patriotism can be dangerous, it can also be salubrious. Identity politics tend to divide people and create bitter factions that compete for their perceived interests. Because humans are naturally tribal, this factionalism is easy to create and dangerous for a broader cooperative union among dissimilar peoples.

Now we’re back to issues where the right has a natural advantage. I once heard that a quick and easy way to determine whether someone was on the right or the left was to ask them whether they thought America was the Greatest Country on Earth (i.e. American Exceptionalism). If they said yes, they were conservative, if they said no they were liberal. Which is to say that the right has a near monopoly on patriotism, while the left has a monopoly on identity politics, both these things putting the right squarely on the side of things the author is encouraging. Out of the two I’d like to focus on identity politics. Not only do most of the people on the right think they’re a bad idea, and not only do moderates, like this guy, think they’re a bad idea, but increasingly even on the left people are starting to realize how corrosive and divisive they are.

One of the themes which has run through the last several posts, is the idea of what’s an acceptable political tactic and what’s unacceptable. And of course while there are (I hope) some absolutes when discussing this, there is also the principal that if you start employing a tactic it’s going to be really difficult to keep your adversary from using the same tactic. That is one of the big problems with identity politics, you can’t spend decades emphasizing the importance of black or latino or gay identity and not eventually have people decide that they should emphasis their white or European or straight identity. If anything, I’m surprised it’s taken this long. But once the genie was out of the bottle it was always going to be difficult to put it back in, especially if one side continues to insist on using the genie to grant wishes, while claiming that any attempt to do the same thing by the other side is literally the worst thing ever.

And for his seventh and final assumption:

A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles. The rule of law is one of the greatest and most fragile accomplishments of Western Civilization. It creates a sense of fairness and protects citizens from the whims of their leaders. It should be lauded and guarded against possible corrosion. And although highly educated men and women might not need base appeals to authority (“Madison wrote X, Y, and Z”), society is not comprised of only highly educated men and women. The prejudices of the people require attention and cannot be disregarded. Having a written document (or legacy of laws and principles that are venerated) that inspires reverence helps insure the preservation of the rule of law.

This is yet another thing I’ve been harping on for quite a while. And yet one more area where there is no difference between the author’s definition of centrism and modern conservatism. We see this in the DACA debate, and in the immigration debate as a whole, and I think we also see it in the subject of judicial activism. Whatever you think of the idea of a living Constitution, it’s indisputable that the right has far more concern for constitutional fidelity than the left. And the left’s hostility to First Amendment protections, under the guise of combating hate speech is only making things worse.

Just barely I used the term “modern conservatism”, and when I did so, I realized I may have too hastily glossed over the many sins conservatives were historically guilty of, and the many ways in which what I just said was not accurate (or at least less accurate) historically. This is all true, but we’re talking about a moderate way out of the current crisis, and using these historical issues as a permanent cudgel with which to beat the right, or worse, using past excesses by the right to justify current excesses by the left only deepens the crisis.

I know that if you’ve read this blog with any frequency you’ve probably come to the conclusion that I’m unrepentantly conservative, but I hope that over the course of the last few episodes I’ve show that the left has gone so far, and gotten so extreme in it’s quest for victory and a progressive ideological utopia, that the moderate course is the conservative course.

If you’re a conservative, you should donate because I just showed how conservatives are currently on the right side of everything. If you’re a moderate you should donate, because I just spent an entire post lauding the virtues of moderation. And if you’re a liberal you should donate because I did nothing but malign you and this is your chance to prove me wrong.

DACA and How Even Moderates Are Conservative

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This post is a continuation of the last post, and to begin with I think it’s worthwhile to spend some more time expanding on the idea of kicking someone when they’re down, or dancing in the endzone, and how to distinguish those actions from actions which may be annoying and even objectionable for other reasons, but are otherwise in the realm of a “fair fight”. And whereas last time I mostly focused on the left, here I’ll largely be speaking about the right.

Several people have recently asked me what my thoughts are on the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). And since many people view this as an example of the right kicking someone while they’re down, it seemed worthwhile to talk about it, but before diving into that aspect of it, I should mention that, in some respects, it’s an even greater example of how the media amplifies the perceived extent of the crisis, with the majority of the coverage being best compared to screaming. This screaming is nothing new in the age of Trump, but as usual it does make it hard to get to the bottom of things.

When you do take the time to strip away the accusations of racism and cruelty, it appears that Trump has done something pretty savvy, even if he’s not very good at selling it that way. (Though once again that may be as much a statement about the media as it is about Trump.) To understand why it’s savvy, a little bit of history is in order.

To begin with, DACA is not a law, it’s an exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and kind of an iffy one at that. What’s prosecutorial discretion? Well, as the executive, the president is in charge of enforcing the laws, and given that there are somewhere north of 11 million illegal immigrants he’s perfectly within his rights to prioritize the prosecution of drug dealers, and repeat offenders, and terrorists above the prosecution of those who arrived when they were children. And if that’s all it was, not only would Obama have been completely within his rights. But if Trump had later come along and prioritized prosecuting children, or even said he was going to prosecute everyone equally, that wouldn’t be so much kicking people when they’re down as it would have been just colossally stupid.

The problem and the iffiness comes in when Obama additionally decided to create a formal government program where these Dreamers (a name for those covered by DACA, for reasons which are not worth getting into) could apply for two year work permits, get social security numbers and largely behave as legal residents, though with no path to permanent residency or citizenship. This is where the iffiness comes in. The formality of the whole process makes people question whether this doesn’t go beyond simple prosecutorial discretion. And it seems obvious to many (myself included) that it’s more properly viewed as an example of the executive branch usurping the law-making power of the legislative branch.

Because of this questionable constitutionality, ten state attorneys general told Trump that if he doesn’t end DACA, they’re going to challenge it in court. And, supposedly this is what prompted his action on the topic. It’s a sign of the times, and the of war I’ve been talking about, that shortly after Trump made his announcement, other state attorneys general said they’re going to sue Trump if he does end DACA. The fact that they would even try that is a pretty big piece of evidence both for my claim that the left is winning, and also my previous points about the power of the judiciary.

Now you could argue that the demands of the initial set of attorneys general was just the cover Trump was waiting for to do the racist thing he always wanted to do, but it’s also unclear what the result of an eventual legal challenge would be, given the facts I just outlined. If Trump had decided to do nothing, certainly one scenario, would be for DACA to make it all the way to the Supreme Court, and be struck down and end immediately without the six months of warning that Trump is giving.

As far as I know there’s no reason Trump couldn’t have ended DACA immediately, but as I just alluded to, he didn’t, he is waiting six months, and he is urging Congress to use that time pass a bill replacing DACA. Now he could be insincere about this or he could be outright lying, but this is the savvy part I was talking about. Objectively DACA, as implemented by Obama, is of questionable legality, and could end up getting overturned if it actually ended up before the Supreme Court. If it were an actual law, passed by the actual legislature it wouldn’t have that problem. This is what Trump claims to want. Given all this, is Trump kicking the Dreamers or the Democrats while they’re down?

First, as you’ve probably already gathered, the six months is a very non-dancing in the endzone move, because, as I said, there’s no legal reason he couldn’t have ended it immediately, but he didn’t. Second, whether you believe his protestations or not, he is going out of his way to signal that the whole thing has left him very conflicted. Here’s what a recent article said about it:

“To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids,” Mr. Trump said at a recent White House news conference. He said he would deal with the matter with “great heart,” but nodded to the political difficulty of doing so.

This was from an article in the New York Times titled Trump’s Soft Spot for Dreamers Alienates Immigration Hard-Liners, so if he’s dancing in the end-zone the rest of his “team” isn’t celebrating with him.

This is not to say things couldn’t change. As I pointed out part of DACA was that those who wanted to participate in it had to register. And as many people have pointed out, having registered they are now much easier to find and punish should ICE, or Trump or Sessions decide that’s what they wanted to do. Let me be clear, while I don’t think the way DACA has been handled so far qualifies as kicking people while their down, this definitely would. As the kids say, it would definitely be a “dick move”.

I know that many people are convinced, that this is exactly what will happen. Maybe… But given Trump’s statements on the subject and the irrationality of prioritizing these people ahead of criminals and terrorists and the like, I’m betting against it. This is not to say that if DACA is rescinded that there won’t be a story here and there of a Dreamer being deported, but this is one of those cases where the plural of anecdote is definitely not data. I’m saying there will be no large scale, systematic deportation of Dreamers if the program is eliminated.

Of course, in my last post, I said that in some respects it doesn’t matter what the facts are, what matters is how people perceive things, and certainly, regardless of the facts, there are people who feel that the revocation of DACA is a form of dancing in the endzone. And, to be fair, I can see where they’re coming from, though honestly this is at least as much Obama’s fault as Trump’s. Allow me to explain: if Obama had made it clear from the beginning that this was merely prosecutorial discretion, that it wasn’t a change in the law, it wasn’t a new program, that he was just temporarily telling federal prosecutors to de-prioritize this category of offenders, then things would currently be in a very different place. First the 10 state attorneys general I mentioned earlier would have no standing for a lawsuit. Second, there would be no Dreamer information for Trump or anyone else to abuse. Third, the incentives for keeping it vs. getting rid of it would be completely different, with elimination being far more controversial than it currently is. Thus, while people may view it as dancing in the endzone, if it is, it’s something of an own goal. (To completely butcher the metaphor.)

Having spent a lot more time on DACA than I intended, are there any other examples of the right, or specifically Trump, kicking people when they’re down? Or to make it even more broad, what has Trump done to deserve his evil overlord status? After discussing my DACA predictions with one of my friends I asked him that question, and he offered the memo Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued back in May as a good example of Trump being malicious. The memo he was referring to instructed Federal Prosecutors to seek the toughest charges and the maximum possible sentences available, especially for drug crimes.

I remember this memo well. I was actually at a fundraising breakfast for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center the day it was issued and the federal public defender who had invited me, told me the news. My feeling now is the same as my feeling then, this is a very bad idea. However, I don’t think it’s an instance of kicking the other side while they’re down, or even of conducting politics unfairly. I would say, rather, that this particularly policy represents a genuine difference in ideology. Session’s ideology is the War on Drugs, and while I think it has been fairly conclusively shown that this War is a failure (like so many of our recent wars) the idea of handling the drug problem in this fashion has a lot of history behind it, it’s not just something Jeff Sessions came up with to punish the poor. To be clear, I think it does punish the poor, but it’s not something specifically designed by Sessions with that end in mind.

Returning to Trump, what else is there? I know I said that I would look at things from the other side, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any more examples. Trump has made a lot of noise, and said a lot of bizarre things, but what has he done that could be considered dancing in the endzone? There’s the travel ban, which just the other day got some support from the Supreme Court, but given that the ban doesn’t even involve citizens, to say nothing of people who voted against Trump, it hard to argue that any face-stomping is going on.

Then I suppose there’s the Obamacare repeal, but, again, I’m not sure this fits any standard of gloating or unfairness, given that the Republican congress has been promising to do it for the last six years, and, perhaps even more important, given that they have so far failed.

So there you have it, I’m happy to call out instances of kicking people while they’re down on the left and the right, but I’m not seeing a lot of that actually happening on the right. If you feel like I’m missing some egregious (or even not egregious) example, please let me know, but in the absence of examples of what not to do on the edges, I’m going to spend the rest of this post looking at what should be done closer to the middle. The kind of behavior we should be encouraging regardless of our political affiliation. In this I was inspired by a recent article, Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto.

Though before I get into the article, a word about moderation. The saying, “Moderation in all things” is a phrase commonly used by Mormons. And many people, incorrectly, assume that it can be found in the scriptures, generally imagining it to be in the Word of Wisdom (the part that instructs us not to use alcohol or tobacco.) As it turns out that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the scriptures, nor is it especially useful when speaking of religion. No one thinks it’s a good idea to tell people to be moderately charitable, or moderately obedient, or moderately chaste. Outside of religion, there are times when it’s not even particularly useful in politics. I think the national debt is a situation where moderation has landed us at the bottom of a very deep pit. And there was no moderate course to beat Hitler. Finally, as David Lloyd George said, “There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.” All of this is to say that moderation and moderate behavior will not solve all of our problems, but, I would argue, in the current crisis, that it would help with most of them.

In the last post I mentioned that there are some people who think that there is no war, that the truly radical elements off the far-left and far right are tiny and that we have more in common, and things are better, than we think. I dismissed this argument for a couple of reasons which I won’t bother to rehash, but I do agree that there is no giant pit, there is no Hitler, (no, not even Trump), and there is no vast abyss, at least not in the areas people are fighting about. Meaning that moderation might in fact be the best strategy, so what is the “Moderate Manifesto” and what does it recommend?

It recommends, among other things, centrism. What is centrism?

Understood properly, centrism is a consistent philosophical system that attempts to guide political and cultural systems through change without paroxysms of revolution and violence. The centrist, in this sense, believes that political and cultural progress is best achieved by caution, temperance, and compromise, not extremism, radicalism, or violence.

While the author doesn’t use this term, I think he’s basically describing what I call prefer to call gradualism. Gradualism recognizes that things will change, that, as I pointed out in the last post, statues will get torn down, moral standards will change, technology will make certain things possible which previously weren’t. But, currently, whether you call them the left or progressives or democrats, they have rejected doing anything gradually. Or to use the terms of the article, they have rejected caution, temperance and compromise in favor of extremism, radicalism, and increasingly, violence.

This injunction to slow down shouldn’t seem that conservative, but I think these days that’s the only way to view it. And this is why there are so few examples of conservatives not playing by the rules, because playing by the rules is basically all they have left. Having largely failed to conserve much of anything, particularly from the standpoint of morality, they are now happy if they can just slow things down a bit. Despite what people claim, there is no radical maneuver the right can pull which will somehow magically turn American into Nazi Germany or the Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, they’re reduced to saying, maybe if we’re going to give residency to a bunch of Dreamers we should pass a law to that effect. To which the left screams, “Racist!”

(And, again, I know I mentioned this already, but the idea that some states would claim that it would be unconstitutional for Trump to get rid of DACA really does astound me to no end.)

I would, in fact, argue, that by encouraging even a small amount of gradualism, that rather than being a “Moderate Manifesto” the article, when considered in relationship to what’s actually happening, ends up being, de facto, a strenuously conservative manifesto.

To give you an idea of what I mean here are a few examples:

The article claims that the centrist/moderate:

…like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order.

But then goes on to say that:

The centrist, however, is equally skeptical of radical libertarian ideas on the Right. The modern welfare state, whatever its flaws, has done a pretty good job of holding together a broad and largely urbanized society in which private charity cannot solve the worst problems of poverty.

You might assume from this that I’m wrong, that he is in fact advocating a position halfway between. The problem is that the modern welfare state is in zero danger of being rolled back to some sort of libertarian laissez faire fantasy (except, perhaps, through catastrophic collapse). And if you doubt this consider that the Republicans couldn’t even get rid of Obamacare, and that even if they did, it’s most likely replacement is universal healthcare.

While, on the other hand, we’re surrounded by radical utopian proposals, from free college, to universal basic income, to a society where people are allowed to choose their gender. Given that some of these, like the last one, have already been implemented, which ideology really poses more danger to the centrist/moderate point of view?

I think the author is aware of this issue, and he goes to great pains to distance centrism from conservatism:

But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.

I believe I’ve covered the first point. I think most conservatives have come to terms with change (certainly they don’t loathe it) they just ask a few things:

  • That they be able to opt out of the change, particularly if there’s no appreciable harm to anyone else (see things like the current cake fiasco)
  • That we could slow things down, I mean at least a little bit (see the last post on the statue controversy which has already progressed to the decapitation of the statue of a Spanish Priest.)
  • That if we’re going to change things, that we could at least follow the rules. (See the DACA discussion earlier in the post, but also everything I’ve said about judicial activism and the complete abandonment of the process for amending the Constitution.)

Accordingly this first difference is not as great as he makes it out to be, particularly when you look at how things actually operate this late in the game.

On the second point whatever the transcendental religious underpinnings of conservatism in the 19th and early 20th century, is anyone going to seriously argue that these underpinnings are still a factor in conservative politics today? Or that if they are that it’s had any effect whatsoever on the law? I understand his fear, but once again I think he’s taking a strong stand against something which in practical terms isn’t really a factor. I defy you to name one major US policy with a basis in religion. Abortion? Same Sex Marriage? What are the actual effects of the conservative transcendental religious underpinnings he claims to be fighting against as a centrist?

Perhaps you would point at Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration, but recall that every court in the land struck down even the whiff of a religiously based test, and that Trump is having difficulty implementing even his narrow seven nation ban.

On the contrary, as I argued in a previous post, if anyone has a monopoly on transcendental religious beliefs influencing policy it’s the left and the Religion of Progress. I refer you to that post for a more complete discussion of how the transcendental religion of the left plays out, but if you need a current example I refer you to the recent controversy around professor Amy Wax who the gall to say that certain behaviors are better than others and that certain cultures do a better job of encouraging those values. In response to this argument that all cultures are not created equal, the argument from the transcendentally religious left (though they will hardly admit it’s a religion) is that somehow, magically, all cultures are essentially equal?

The grand point I’m trying to make, is that the left/progressive side of things is so dominate, so fanatical, so radical, and there’s so much potential for violence (all the things supposedly even moderates are opposed to) that we face a real chance of having the left break the country, if for no other reason than just because how fast they insist on going. I know that all “right-thinking” people are supposed to be on the side of the progressives and social justice and against Trump. But at this point, even if you’re a moderate, I think it’s time to join with the conservatives, and to paraphrase Buckley: to stand athwart history and to at least yell, “Slow down!”

If you can at least agree, that with everything going on that at, a minimum, we need to take a deep breath, and pause for a moment to consider things, then perhaps one of the things you might consider is donating. If, on the other hand you think progress and change need to speed up, then in lieu of donating, could you email me, because I’m really curious how you got here.

Making Sure the Culture War is Fought Fairly

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Some weeks when I sit down to start writing, I feel like I’ve exhausted all of the possible topics on which I have anything interesting to say. And this will be the week when I run out. While at other times it feels like I have a huge backlog of topics, and the only question is which one I should write about first. As I sit down to start this week’s post it’s the latter situation. But I feel like if I’m going to prioritize things I should really prioritize writing about what’s going on currently, and make good on the promise, from a couple of weeks ago, when I was discussing the plethora of hate, of returning to that subject and discussing how it’s playing out currently. My timing is not ideal, since if anything right now we appear to be enjoying a temporary lull in hate and hostilities (perhaps because of Harvey?, also that was not meant to be alliterative) but I’m sure that, unfortunately, it won’t last and even if this post is not topical right this second, it will quickly become topical again, perhaps even before it’s finished.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m talking about the current war between left and right, between those who hate Trump and those who don’t, between the allies of social justice and its enemies, and, in the area with the most excitement, between the antifa and the white nationalists. Of course, given the emotions and the conflicting narratives, and the underlying and often hidden incentives, what’s really going on may be different from what you’ve been lead to believe.

Broadly there are actually four possibilities:

  1. There is no war. Neither side is oppressing the other. It’s all a plot being stoked by the media (the hidden incentives I just mentioned) to increase viewership. Things are generally better than they’ve ever been and if we could just get past the “Us vs. Them” mentality things would be fine.
  2. There is a war, but it’s a war where one side is clearly on the side of justice, specifically social justice. In this war the left is the good side and the right is the bad side and the sooner the left triumphs and the last of the racists and bigots and conservatives are gone the sooner we can finally reach the long promised utopia.
  3. There is a war, but it’s a war where one side is clearly right, I mean it’s in their name. It’s not called “The Right” for nothing. And the sooner we return to the values that made this country great: God, Family and Self-reliance, the sooner we can return to normalcy and get on with being the greatest country in the world.
  4. There is a war but like most wars neither side has a monopoly on justice or truth, and there are good people on both sides of it. Nevertheless it’s only getting worse and the fate of the country is tied up in the outcome.

I understand that all of these possibilities assume there are only two sides, when there are many, but, at the level of the whole country, distilling it down in this fashion is still very useful. Particularly since that’s the dominate narrative, and how the conflict is portrayed by the media.

Let’s go through the options in order, and speaking of the media, option one assumes that it’s all their fault. There is no war, it’s all an overblown product of our imagination, being stoked by sensationalized reporting. I know it’s hard to imagine, given everything you hear, that this might be the case, but there is some evidence for this position. As I already mentioned in a previous post, by any measurement it was worse during the late 60s/Early 70s. Also as Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex pointed out recently:

you can probably piece together where I’m coming from some of the following: this estimate of about 500 people at the Charlottesville rally; this estimate of about 1100 people at a recent Satanic rally, this poll showing more blacks and Latinos agree with the white supremacist movement than whites do (probably a polling error based on random noise; my point is that the real level of support is literally unmeasurably low),

His big takeaway, is the enormous amount of press being given to anything that shows even a hint of KKK style white nationalism compared to other similarly controversial, larger gatherings, i.e. the Satanists. Now you can argue that even if a recent Satanic Rally was twice as big as the rally in Charlottesville, the reason it didn’t get any press is that nobody died. But if you’ll recall the Charlottesville rally was very much in the news before that happened, with one of the big news stories being that AirBNB had revoked the reservations of anyone suspected of being a white nationalist.

Also speaking of the Klu Klux Klan, even the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are at most 8,000 members who mostly don’t get along. So if you got all of them together in the same spot you’d have as many as attended last year’s Hannibal Missouri Steampunk Festival. Which is to say that 8,000 is honestly nothing in a nation of 323 million. (Okay not literally nothing, literally 2 thousandths of a percent.) To give you a sense of their menacing power, I direct your attention to a KKK rally in Charlottesville before the one that attracted all the attention: 50 people showed up, they were matched by 1000 counter protesters. A nearby church set up a safe space which 600 people took advantage of. I don’t know if those two numbers should be added together for 1600, a ratio of 32 counter protestors for every protestor, instead of a ratio of 20. But the fact that 50 people caused 600 people to need a safe space tells you a lot about the current state of the world and is one more piece of evidence that people may be over-reacting to the threat of the far right.

Considering things from the other side, most people need no further proof then that fact that Trump was elected, to conclude that the left can’t be very threatening either. All of this is to say that a reasonable person could come to the conclusion that it is indeed option 1, there is no war. I am almost persuaded myself. Certainly, I would like to believe this. I hope that it’s true, but there are at least two good reasons to act as if it’s not.

First, whatever is going on now, by all accounts it’s getting worse, so maybe there currently is no war, but with the media stoking it, it will turn into a war eventually. Following from this, as I pointed out in my last post the medium is the message, and if today’s media can only survive by pretending one side of the country is at war with the other side of the county how long before it’s no longer pretend?

Second, and the point I come to again and again, if we assume there’s a war brewing and there isn’t than that’s a lot better than if we assume there’s no war brewing and there IS. You may object that this sort of assumption is exactly what’s inflaming things. But in reality, and this is essentially the point of this post, what I’m suggesting is the exact opposite. I’m suggesting that we have to recognize how potentially damaging this conflict is, and work to cool things down, operating from the fear that if we can’t figure out how to cool things down it could get really ugly. And, in the same way the terribleness of a nuclear war kept the cold war cool, I’m hoping the terrible prospect of an actual civil war, if we honestly engage with it, will have the same effect on the cold civil war we’re currently experiencing.

Moving further down the list, the next two options both assume that we are in fact in a war, but it’s a just war. And of course the side of justice is exactly the opposite in both of these options. And here, I am assuming, that below a certain level of support, one would move from option 2 or 3 to being more in the option 4 camp. Accordingly when I’m talking about options 2 and 3 I’m mostly talking about those people who are irrevocably in one camp or the other. The people, who on the one side, are sure we’re mere days away from a perfect re-enactment of Nazi Germany or the Handmaid’s Tale, and the people, on the other side, who are equally certain that we’re mere days away from a re-enactment of the French Revolution or of Brave New World.

I’m not sure what I can say to people in these two camps. People who firmly believe that we are in a war and that the other side is irrevocably evil, and that doom awaits us all unless they’re utterly destroyed. But if you are in one of those camps, and by some miracle you end up reading this blog, I would urge you, as I have so often in the past, to consider the possibility that you might be wrong. And, in case it’s not clear, this goes for both sides. You are not the rational, impartial, dispassionate observer you imagine. And even if you were, that neither puts you in possession of all the facts nor allows you to see the future. Consider that it’s far more likely that you are just parroting the views of whichever side’s echochamber you happen to be in. And, further, that the entire point of the echochamber is to convince you, via articles, or videos, or TV Shows that the left is about to destroy the country or the right is about to burn it down, so that you’ll read more of their articles and watch more of their videos. Finally, even though it’s a cliche, it does take two people to argue. For these reasons, I think you have to question any narrative which boils down to it being ALL THE FAULT of one side or the other.

At this point you’ve probably already figured out that I lean strongly towards option 4: we are in a war, and neither side has a monopoly on truth or good people. This is not to say that both sides have reached some sort marvelous and perfect equilibrium where they’re both equally right as well as being both equally wrong. One of them is more wrong, but neither of them is all wrong.

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time I’m sure you’re already thinking about the two posts I made back in June where I talked about how the left is winning by nearly any measure you care to name (the election of Trump being the major exception) and how their victory is so pervasive that it’s continually shifting the entirety of acceptable public discourse in a leftward direction (the Overton Window.) This is a problem because I’m not sure that the left should win, or even what a leftist victory would look like. (At this point, if I was snarky, I could say that I actually do know, that it looks like Stalin and Mao, but that’s untrue, though not as untrue as the left would wish.) In any event, for one thing the goalposts keep moving. As I said in a previous post:

“What does winning a civil war even look like?” Does everyone have to be comfortable with the most liberal current position that exists today, because in 10 years that will be mainstream? What about 20 years from now? By that time would we all have to be comfortable with positions that even the most liberal person finds abhorrent now? [Which is, essentially, the story of the last 20 years.] What if there are people who will never be comfortable with those ideas? Do we kill them? Re-educate them? Banish them? And this all assumes something approaching a best case scenario for the left where they win and there’s no violence. Neither of which, especially the latter, is guaranteed.

But, if it’s inevitable that they’re going to win, some ways of winning are better than others. And if we’re going to have a war some ways of waging war are better than others. And I know that if you’re winning, that it’s very tempting to not want to worry about how you win, or what the eventual repercussions are if you wage war in one way versus another. When you’re in a war it’s very easy to demonize the other side. To come to the conclusion that they deserve whatever punishment they get. To draw on a football metaphor, it’s very hard not to dance in the endzone. But all of this matters, a lot. And I know that some of you will dismiss this as prejudiced, but I’m going to go on record as saying that the modern left has a hard time not dancing in the endzone.

This takes us to the recent unrest in Charlottesville and more broadly the conflict over the Confederate monuments. And I’d like to use it as an example of the what I’m talking about. First off, as I mentioned this is one of those situations where the left has clearly won. All over the country Confederate monuments and plaques are being removed, and I guarantee, they’re not coming back. This is not a temporary victory, the only question now, is not if, but when a monument will be removed. And, as usual, what’s amazing to me, is how fast it’s happening. There are essentially no examples of it happening before 2015, and then there was a flurry of monument removal in New Orleans in May, but the vast majority of the removals all happened in the course of a little more than a week between the 15th and the 24th of August.

There are a variety of possible explanations for the speed with which things have changed. Perhaps every individual community, all suddenly and simultaneously realized at around the same time in mid-August (perhaps it had something to do with the eclipse) that though they had sat there unmolested for decades that Confederate monuments were bad and they had to come down immediately. This is regardless of who the monument was for or what it represented, or the community the monument was in. Or perhaps, and this seems more likely. The left saw that they had some momentum with the fatality in Charlottesville and they decided to use it to strike as fast as the could. To put it another way, the left saw that they had the right down, and decided to get in as many kicks as they could.

There are certainly people who would strenuously deny that this is what the left is doing, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it feels like that to those on the losing side. If it does, then unless you plan some sort of massive Orwellian re-education, or worse some sort of bloody purge, you’re still going to have to live with these people, regardless of what happens with the monuments.

(I should interject here that everything I’m recommending applies to the right as well, but currently the left is more in need of the message both because of current events and the long term trends.)

Perhaps, it’s easier to understand my point if I frame it in terms of trade-offs. These statues and plaques have been up for decades, what harm would it cause to leave them up for another year or two? Whatever your answer (and I assume the answer has to be “small to nonexistent”) that’s what you’re balancing against the benefits of going more slowly. The benefit of having an actual public discussion, of giving people time to educate themselves, and may be tossing up a ballot initiative this November, or even next and allowing people to actually vote? Especially given the fact that the majority of Americans want the monuments to stay?

This may seem like a small thing and perhaps it is, but recently same sex marriage and transgender bathroom access, played out the same way, moving quickly from no one even considering the idea, to all “right thinking” people agreeing with it, with no space for any discussion in between. And heaven help you if you decide to try and discuss it now.

I understand, who cares what those racist rednecks think. Who cares if they’re upset by this. There’s no room for their hate speech or their hate groups or their hateful thoughts. (And as I pointed out, hate is now the ultimate sin and the root cause of all our problems.) And you are entitled to your opinion, I suppose, but before you get too deep into your hate of the haters I’d urge you to consider the fact that these people have a lot of guns. I know no one wants to think about a situation where suddenly the number of guns is a factor, but this is where we get back into trade-offs. Is the harm of the monuments so great that it’s better to tear them down immediately than spend a few months trying to peel off some of the more moderate individuals?

Speaking of moderates, as I already pointed out, most people want to leave the monuments alone, and I assume from that, that most people don’t even have a dog in this fight. They’re not a white nationalist nor a mask wearing member of the Black Bloc. They’ve never been to a protest and they don’t see any reason for that to change. Instead, their goals include saving up for a trip to Hawaii, or getting into a good college, or losing 30 lbs. Even if they knew who Nathan Bedford Forrest was they would have no interest in trying to tear down his statue. All of this means that they’re not in the business of picking a side, to say nothing of joining a side, but they should be in the business of trying to prevent whatever is going on from ruining that trip to Hawaii, or their college admissions, or even their diet.

How can you do that? You do that by playing referee. By making sure things are fair. I know that everyone has their own definition of fairness, but I think most people would be happy if you just applied the same standard to both sides. And if you’re unclear on what standards to apply, as it turns out the First Amendment is a great source. The Founders tackled this same problem and enshrined their standards for fairness. It even talks about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In light of what happened in Charlottesville, I think the key word is “peaceably”.

If you want a more modern spin, there’s the standard I mentioned a couple of posts ago which I borrowed from the rationalist community:

Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.

This means making sure both sides have their say. (For a great example of this read Charles Murray’s article about his speech at Harvard.)

And, it means you need to point out violence on both sides.

And if eventually the succession of California makes your trip to Hawaii impossible and you decide that you have to pick a side. If you’ve made sure to support the ability of both sides to peaceably make their case then at least you’ll have access to as much information as possible when it does come time to make that decision.

And beyond all this, I think occasionally you have to call an excessive celebration penalty, when someone dances in the endzone.

I rarely dance, in the endzone or otherwise. If that kind of thing is important to you, consider donating.

The Trend of Sexualizing Children

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The germ of this post came many weeks ago when my aunt sent me a link to an article on PJMedia. Before I go on, my sense is, that PJMedia is one of those places that a certain category of people are going to dismiss out of hand, because of its conservative bias. Though, if you haven’t noticed, I go out of my way to acknowledge that most places and people are biased, especially me. As my small way of counteracting that, I try my best to point out where I think my biases lie and where I think the biases of those I quote from lie.

In that spirit, as I said, PJMedia is obviously a conservative website, and the article has the sort of biases you would expect from conservative media. But in saying this, I should also hasten to point out that another underlying theme of this blog is that not all biases are bad. This is particularly the case in situations where an unbiased view is impossible, like predicting the future. You have to be biased, because being accurate isn’t possible given, that the future hasn’t happened yet. Consequently you only know whether you were too optimistic or too conservative in retrospect. Given that, you can only choose the bias with the lowest aggregate downside. To sum up, I want to make it clear upfront that the article is biased, but also that that may not be a bad thing.

With that caveat out of the way let’s finally move to a discussion of the actual article. The article was drawing attention to and commenting on a video, trending at the time on YouTube, which featured parents teaching their pre-teen kids about masturbation. From the article:

The YouTube video flits backs and forth, showing five different parent-child groupings, with parents telling children about masturbation, including how-tos, discussions of how many times they masturbate, and sex toys. Many times, the parents mime the actions of sexual intercourse and masturbation to illustrate how dildos and other sex toys are used.

From the reactions of the children it seems clear that these were not kids who came to their parents with a question. This is not an example of children who wanted to know about the subject and this is just their parent’s genuine attempt to honestly answer those questions (which was then coincidently taped for the benefit of posterity.) These are pre-teen children who were sat down in front of a coffee table loaded with assorted paraphernalia including, as was mentioned, a dildo. And, who, also, as far as I can tell, had very little concept of what masturbation is, before being given an in-depth, and frankly excruciating explanation. Which the children react to as expected, with nervous giggling, discomfort and in the case of one girl, who looks like she’s 9 years old, if that, repeatedly putting her head into her hands in disbelief.

Upon first having your attention drawn to the video you may have any number of reactions. One of which might be to wonder what the point is. It doesn’t appear to be done for comedy, it’s not like that “children react” video series where kids encounter things like rotary phones and VCRs, no, from what I can tell these people seem to genuinely believe that pre-teens need to be educated on this subject and that this education should be filmed for the benefit of society at large.

The PJMedia article mentions that this is not an isolated example. And they link to a previous article of theirs which outlined all of the graphic articles which had been recently published by Teen Vogue, drawing particular attention to one that explained the RIGHT way to have Anal Sex (emphasis in the original.) They also draw their readers attention to a decision by National Geographic to feature a 9 year old transgender girl on their cover. I can see where some people might feel that this last point is different than the previous examples, and I’ll get to that, but let’s return to the video, as I said my first thought was to wonder what the point was.

There are obviously some people, the makers of the video at a minimum, who thought it was a good idea. Based on the number of likes the video got, the video makers are not alone in this, though they are in the minority. At the time of this writing the video had 90,000 dislikes to 20,000 likes. So while the people who dislike the video are clearly in the majority, there are still some people who think this is a good idea, perhaps even something that people should be doing more of.

On the other hand there are 90,000 people who disliked the video. And out of those I assume that most of them, like myself, found a video featuring squirming pre-teens being taught about masturbation to be appalling. But just as we earlier wondered why the 20,000 people who liked the video thought it was a good idea, we might wonder exactly why the 90,000 people who disliked the video thought it was a bad idea.

At the extreme end we have people who fall into the PJMedia camp, who disliked the video not merely because it was appalling on it’s face but also because it was one more piece of evidence supporting the decline of society as a whole. Other people may have found the video to be appalling, but don’t think it says anything special about the state of the world. Finally, some might have disliked it just for the discomfort it caused the child actors, or because they thought phrases like “choking the chicken” were lame, or because of its production values.

I’d like to focus on the second group for a moment, because I encounter them all the time. I know many people of my generation (and younger) who, if told about this video, would be quick to agree that it was a bad idea, and who might even go so far as to agree that it’s appalling, even loathsome, but who will then quickly assure me that there’s nothing to worry about because the video is an outlier. It doesn’t represent some larger societal trend, all it represents is that there are a few idiots out there with access to a camera and a computer.

This attitude fits in well with the attitudes of groups and people I’ve described in previous posts. The people who think that, while the road is bumpy, technology and progress just keep making things better. On this particular subject they might point out that the teen birth rate is at an historic low, and use this as evidence that even if tasteless videos of the kind we’ve been talking about are getting made that they don’t appear to have had any effect on this most important metric of teen sexuality.

One might even imagine them saying something like, “Only prudes and people who hate pleasure are interested in restricting sex for it’s own sake, if teenagers aren’t bringing unwanted children into the world what do you care how much sex they have?”

We’ll I’ll get to that, but first a brief aside about the teen birth rate. If you actually examine the chart you’ll find that there’s a lot that’s not obvious and that the statistic might not be as clean as you think. For one, as you may or may not have inferred from the name, (I didn’t) the teen birth rate includes 18 and 19 year olds. Given that the teen birth rate spiked after World War II during the baby boom years, which is precisely when the median age of marriage for both sexes was at its lowest. It’s unclear how much the historical teen birth rate was at the upper end of the teen range among “teens” who might have actually been married. It was certainly more common to get married at 18 or even 17 back then and therefore, presumably, any children born to those couples during the first year or so of marriage would be counted as a teen birth.

On the other side of things, despite going all the way up to 19 it only goes down to 15, so in those rare cases when someone younger than that gets pregnant, it’s not tracked. And if we were looking for a statistic to support our hypothesis about increasingly sexualized children and teens having numbers for that age group would be very interesting.

Still it can’t be denied that the birth rate is going down, and that’s good news, and as it turns out it’s not mostly due to abortion, which may be even better news. It appears that it’s mostly due to birth control, though there has also been a significant increase in the number teens who’ve never had sex. But to close out this aside, I will say, that a society of individuals completely uninterested in sex, or who get all the sexual gratification they need through pornography and masturbation, is not necessarily a great situation either. Which brings us back to our original subject.

As I pointed out you can break the reactions down into three groups. You have the people who we just discussed, who think the video is, at best, unnecessary, and, at worst, appalling, but that PJMedia and people like them are over-reacting. Then you have the people who think the video represents some sort of trend. With some portion of those people thinking it’s a good trend and another, probably larger portion, thinking it’s a bad trend.

Of course it’s also possible that you’re on the fence about this. You find the video appalling, but you also don’t want to over-react. Certainly throughout history there have definitely been repeated instances of the older generation overreacting to some perceived trend among the younger generations.

Accordingly, if you’re on the fence, before we determine if it’s a good trend or a bad trend, it might be useful to first determine if it’s a trend at all. And on this point I think the evidence is pretty conclusive.

Obviously if you’re trying to determine if something is a trend you look at where that thing is today, versus where it was in the past. And in this endeavor there is plenty of evidence to be found. Certainly 20 or 30 years ago, it’s impossible to imagine a video being made like the one we’ve been talking about, to say nothing of the ubiquity of hardcore pornography (a subject I’ve touched on before.)

If we want to look beyond the video, there are the other examples from the article: The Teen Vogue piece, for starters. Comparing now with 20 or 30 years ago might be difficult given that Teen Vogue has only been around since 2003, putting it, actually, close to the same age as YouTube (2005). However the parent magazine, Vogue, has been around since 1892. It would be interesting to search through the archives (I considering it, but it’s $1750) to see when the first mention of anal sex appears. I’d be surprised it wasn’t in the last 20 years, and it certainly couldn’t be more recently than the 70s. And based on the reaction, the recent article connecting teens to anal sex had to be the first time that happened.

As another, quicker, aside. I should draw your attention to the Teen Vogue response to those who were concerned by the article. Phillip Picardi, the digital editorial director posted a picture of him kissing another man (he’s gay) while flipping of the camera with his rainbow painted fingernail. That was his response to those who were concerned about the article. Make of that what you will.

In the middle of writing this, I ended up going to breakfast with a friend of mine, a friend who has never been religious, has no children and is otherwise fairly liberal, particularly with respect to morality. Given all that I thought it might be interesting to get his take on this issue, and so I described the video to him and asked him what he thought about it.

His principal objection was the age of the children, pre-teen seemed to young to him, particularly when they weren’t the one’s initiating the discussion. But, beyond that, he said something interesting. He opined that on a certain level it was imperative for the parents to provide this education because otherwise kids would pick it up from their environment, where it very well might be distorted. While some of the other things I’ve mentioned might be great examples of the severity of the trend, for me this statement encapsulates the breadth of the trend. The best argument my friend could come up with for sitting your 8 year old down in front of a coffee table full of sex toys was that if you didn’t do it someone else would.

For most of you I have probably hammered on this point far more than was necessary. Obviously it’s a trend, the only question is whether it’s a good trend or a bad trend. I would venture to say that this answer is obvious as well, but in the interests of being comprehensive, I will address one more objection before I move on to that question, the technological objection. The idea that all of the things I’ve mentioned don’t represent a change of morality so much as a change in technology. The ability of people to get their viewpoint out there, whether it’s through a YouTube video, or a blog, or an instagram post has never been greater, and consequently you are seeing things like the video and the Teen Vogue article both because just the amount of content has led to a far greater diversity of opinion, but also because you have to make things increasingly controversial to stand out.

I suppose this is possible, But certainly magazines are not a new invention. And as far as YouTube goes, it might be a different argument if I was pointing out a video that only had a few thousand views, I’m guessing that I can find just about anything if I open it up to any video, but this video has 1.9 million views. Also YouTube, has been around long enough, that I bet if such statistics were available, you would find that, as a percentage, the number of videos with an adult theme have been increasing.

In the end I’m not sure it matters. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. In the end does it matter if declining morality creates a society willing to record appalling videos, or if an increasingly competitive media environment generates appalling videos which then lead to a decline in morality?

With that final objection out of the way, we’re finally ready to tackle the question of whether it’s a good trend or a bad trend. You can’t have come this far without knowing my feelings on the subject and I think most of you are probably already in agreement. It’s a bad trend. But can we be fully confident of that conclusion without having considered the arguments of the other side? Why did 20,000 people like the video? What were they thinking?

Interestingly enough the minute we tackle this problem we arrive at another reason in favor of it being a trend. There’s an overarching ideology to the whole thing. The ideology of choice. This is what they are thinking and this is what will be our primary subject for the remainder of the post.

At first glance you might think that allowing people a choice is great. (I assume that’s what more or less what was going through the minds of the 20,000.) Choice is good, especially, if the alternative is being forced to do something against your will. In fact such an idea is at the core of Mormon Doctrine, but, that said, there’s a large gulf between striving to make the right choice, and using choice merely as means to maximize personal convenience and pleasure.

We see this with the abortion movement, or as they like to call it, the pro-choice movement. I don’t think the ideology of choice started there, but it’s certainly an example of how it plays out. As you might have guessed from the title, within the pro-choice movement, choice is the highest and only moral value. You don’t have choice so you can make the right decision, whatever choice you make is the right decision, by definition. There is no morality beyond the choice. If it would give you pleasure to have the baby than have the baby, if it would be more convenient to have an abortion then by all means have an abortion.

It’s equally obvious how this ideology extends into most of our current societal norms. If you’re happy being married stay married. If you’re not, get a divorce. Sure it’s hard on the kids, but isn’t it harder to have an unhappy parent? (Left unsaid is whether there’s anything you can do to change your happiness.) If you’re a man and you think you’d be happier as a woman then go ahead and make that choice as well. And here is where we return to the 9 year old transgender girl on the cover of National Geographic.

When I mentioned this at the beginning of the post I also mentioned that many people would put the cover in a different category than the video. And in a sense this is true. Since teenagers have been having sex for as long as sex has existed, we have all manner of societal norms and laws around what sort of sex, and more narrowly, what sort of sex education is appropriate, but since children have been choosing their gender only since about October of last year (I understand that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one) that issue doesn’t  have much in the way of cultural norms or laws. So in that sense there is a difference. But is there a difference when discussing the trend, or the ideology of choice or, most importantly the sexualizing of children?

To give a nine year old (or in one case, a newborn) the latitude to choose their gender seems so self evidently part of the ideology of choice that no further proof needs to be offered. And I would go on to argue that if it’s part of the same ideology that almost certainly makes it part of the same trend.

I have bounced back and forth between the words convenience and pleasure when describing this ideology. Although I would argue it’s basically the same thing, the only difference being a matter of degree and not of type. Convenience being, merely, longer term and more diffuse pleasure, while pleasure is merely shorter term and more intense convenience. But distilling the entire principle down into “Do what feels good” or even “Act Selfishly” would not be far from the mark, and here we circle back to the video.

It’s obvious that the parents in the video are motivated by a desire to make sure their children are aware of all of their choices. Particularly choices that might give them pleasure. Presumably the parents of the nine year old on the cover of National Geographic have similar motivations. Though perhaps they view it as a choice which will create pleasure through the reduction of suffering. In offering their children these choices, there is no question of whether it’s the right choice, because there is no wrong choice. There’s also no consideration of whether it might lead to bad consequences, or whether they’re mature enough to handle the choice, it’s merely a question of does the choice exist, if so it’s our responsibility to make them aware of the choice, and then, whatever they choose, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to grant that.

News flash! Just because a kid wants something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Maturity is not something made up by the old to oppress the young. It actually exists. And ignoring this fact is a bad thing. Kids want things for a lot of reasons and 99.9% of the time it’s not because they know what will make them the happiest in 20 years, most of the time it’s envy, alienation, boredom, greed or infatuation. Ignoring that, and forcing decisions about gender and sexuality on them from the moment they can understand these decisions (and even that is debatable) is both irresponsible and damaging, and the exact opposite of good parenting.

Whether I’m a good parent or not I’ll let history decide. Though I probably do spend too much time on this blog. Donations help me spend slightly less time. So if you care about children at all, you should definitely donate.

A Potpourri of Pedantry

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This week I thought that rather than spending the entire space on one subject that I’d cover a bunch of smaller subjects I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m going to be all over the place, but hopefully within my ramblings you’ll find something interesting, frightening or appalling.

Subject 1- Electromagnetic Pulses (EMP)

Last month The Economist did a “The World If” section where they predict what the world would look like if various things happened. They had an article which examined the US if Trump were to win a second term. Another one which speculated about the effects of widespread blockchain adoption, and yet another one which imagined the Middle East if the Ottoman Empire had not collapsed. But the one I want to talk about describes the potential effects of a sufficiently strong electromagnetic pulse on the power grid of the United States. The EMP in question could come either from the Sun in the form of coronal mass ejection or from a nuclear weapon exploded high (44 miles or so) above the country. Whichever way the EMP comes it would be devastating to any electronics, including *cue ominous music* the power grid.

I was aware of the potential devastation which could be caused by a strong electromagnetic pulse, but the article provided some very interesting specifics I hadn’t encountered before. I knew an EMP would blow out transformers, I did not know that:

America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world. It typically takes a year or more to receive an ordered transformer, and that is when cranes work and lorries and locomotives can be fuelled up. Some transformers exceed 400 tonnes.

As you can probably infer from those statistics, an EMP which knocked out some significant portion of our transformers would knock out electricity across the US for a very long time. This isn’t a disaster where a month later everything’s back to normal, this is a disaster where, “Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge.” At which point “roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.”

Their description of those six months is pretty chilling (I had never thought about the people who would end up trapped in the elevators of skyscrapers) and I recommend you read the initial article, which goes on to talk about threats to the power grid beyond just EMPs. Another thing I learned was that:

Shooting up transformers at just nine critical substations could bring down America’s grid for months, according to an analysis performed in 2013 by the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

I understand that nine is more than one, so we don’t literally have a single point of failure, but the number is still much smaller than I would have expected. The article goes on to mention that the location of these substations is secret, which is something I suppose, but it’s hardly makes up for the underlying fragility of the system as a whole, which is just waiting for a shock to break it. A shock that could come any day now and which, the article makes clear, we are woefully unprepared for.

Subject 2- An example of the difference between fragility and volatility

As long as we’re on the subject of modernity and fragility, I was reading Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky (who’s appeared a lot in this space recently), when I came across the following assertion:

When dams and levees are built they reduce the frequency of floods, and thus apparently create a false sense of security, leading to reduced precautions. While building dams decreases the frequency of floods, damage per flood is afterward so much greater that average yearly damage increases.

This is a fantastic example of the difference between volatility and fragility and of the great weakness of the modern world. We have the technology to create great big barriers against risk, whether it’s building a dam, or bailing out banks, or the barrier to aggression provided by nuclear weapons. All of this reduces the volatility, and we go from having floods every 10-20 years to having no floods, at least within living memory. But, that’s all based on the dam or the government, or the nuclear deterrent never failing. If it does then the flood or the financial crisis or the war is many, many times worse, leading, as he said, to greater total damage, even if we average it across all the years.

The problem, as the book went on to say, is that rather than extrapolating the possibility of large hazards from our memory of small hazards:

Instead, past experience of small hazards seems to set a perceived upper bound on risk. A society well-protected against minor hazards takes no action against major risks, building on flood plains once the regular minor floods are eliminated. A society subject to regular minor hazards treats those minor hazards as an upper bound on the size of the risks…

Technology creates fragility. Without a power grid and reliance on electricity an EMP doesn’t inflict any damage, let alone the deaths of seven million people. In the same way, without dams you can’t have a gigantic, completely unprecedented flood, nor do people decide to build on floodplains, and when catastrophe does come I think we’ll find that a lot of the modern world is built on just such a metaphorical floodplain.

Subject 3- Overcomplicated

Recently the author of Overcomplicated, Samuel Arbesman, contacted me and said I might like his book. It did sound like something that would be interesting, and it was available as an audiobook. Which makes any given book significantly easier to “read”, so I picked it up.

I confess it was not as pessimistic as I would have liked, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the rest of you. I assume I’m on the tail end of the pessimism distribution and most people would actually prefer a little less pessimism. Despite this lack of pessimism, he did talk about some very interesting concepts.

One of the concepts Arbesman talks about is the idea that we have passed from the Enlightenment to the Entanglement. This idea was originally proposed by computer scientist, Danny Hillis. And has the distinction, which it shares with most great labels, of immediately suggesting most of the implications through the word itself, without having to know anything about the specifics. In other words, upon hearing the term you grasp the obviousness of the description at once.

But what are the specifics of The Entanglement? To begin with it contains something of a paradox. The more interconnected things get, the more specialized knowledge becomes. This is easy to see in computers where one 100,000 person company makes just the cpu and another 10,000 person company makes just the graphics cards, and another 60,000 person company puts it all together. But you can also see it in corporations, where the legal department may know very little about how to make widgets, but a lot about how to trademark them, and the financial department doesn’t care about making widgets or trademarking them, but is very aware of the tax implications having a Panamanian widget factory. In theory the CEO might know a little bit about everything, but I’m sure even then there will be large blank spots (probably centered in the IT Department).

Another trend specific to the entanglement is the need, as Arbesman points out, to move from physics thinking and biological thinking. Physics thinking is straightforward and reductionist. A certain force applied to a given mass, creates a very well defined acceleration. Biology is more messy, more entangled, and much harder to understand. Because of these difficulties people prefer the physics model. They want to assume that money will cure poverty, that increasing the amount of serotonin will cure depression and that a given input into a computer should always produce the same output. But when it comes to biological systems that’s not the case, and Arbesman makes the case that increasingly the biological model of technology is a better fit than the physics model.

On this point I couldn’t agree more, and my big disappointment was that despite mentioning fragility on many occasions he didn’t ever mention Taleb and his work in that area. Also as I mentioned I don’t think he was nearly pessimistic enough about the problems that will arise from the Entanglement, especially those stemming from the increasing narrowness of our understanding.

Subject 4- The Indo Europeans

Speaking of books I’ve been reading, I’ve also been making my way through In Search of the Indo-Europeans by J.P. Mallory. I don’t think I’d recommend it, it’s very dry and obviously geared towards an academic audience, but the underlying subject is fascinating. Enough so that I’m sure that it could be the basis of an entire post.

I decided against this, mostly because of my vague feeling that I was already wandering into one of those areas where there’s a lot of baggage. There was a sense that if I turned over too many rocks I’d end up in a discussion of Aryans and Nazis and the Master Race, which is something I’d like to avoid. But, there are many interesting bits before falling into that pit, and here, in no particular order, are a few things I thought were worth chewing on:

  1. The book was primarily concerned with locating the home-land of the original Indo-Europeans (called Proto-Indo-Europeans in the book). Mallory’s best guess is the Pontic-Caspian region. Which is the steppe area lying to the north of the Black and Caspian Seas. I say his best guess, but there is obviously a whole group of scholars who support this hypothesis (and, presumably, a whole group who don’t).
  2. There’s ample evidence that this was also the area where horses were first domesticated. And while the book doesn’t go into it all that much, this is very probably why the Indo-Europeans were the Indo-Europeans, and not some nameless tribe forgotten by history, not even to be remembered by archeologists.
  3. If domesticating the horse represented the technological edge of the Indo-Europeans what did they do with those horses? To me the answer of, “conquering everything in sight” (think Huns and Mongols) seems obvious, but some people assume something less bloody. And to be fair the time frame of the expansion does spread across thousands of years.

Of course, when you’re talking about something which largely happened before recorded history, there’s very little you can say that isn’t speculative to one degree or another. But from my perspective it seems safe to say that there was some large empire. Which in, I’m sure, lots of different forms, by 2000 BC dominated the middle of Eurasia in a strip from the western border of Germany to the eastern border of Kazakhstan. Was this one empire or had it already broken into several? It’s hard to say, but either way it’s domination was so total that all original languages were lost.

By 500 BC it was obviously not a single empire, but by that point the Indo-Europeans had spread all the way from India to Ireland. The speakers of the language continued to spread until today outside of the Far East and Arabic speaking countries, essentially everyone has, as one of their official languages one language of Indo-European descent.

You can see where the next obvious question would be what makes this culture and people so unique, before you know it you’re at the edge of the pit staring down at the theory of a master race…

Subject 5- A Plethora of Hate

I guess as long as I’m alluding to the subject of Nazis, it might be time to talk about current events. I actually intend to write a longer post on this subject later, but for now I wanted to draw your attention to an insight John Michael Greer had recently, in a post called Hate is the New Sex.

If, like me, you were confused by the title, Greer’s post is making a comparison between

…the attitude, prevalent in the English-speaking world from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that sex was the root of all evil.

And the current, ubiquitous, belief that hate is the root of all evil. I hope, that this belief, and its omnipresence is obvious enough to not require me to offer any further proof. But if I do, reflect on the following points Greer makes in his post:

If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.

Greer goes on to clarify (as do I) that this does not mean that he is saying that hate is good. Hopefully we’re all wise enough to recognize that there is plenty of territory available between condemning something as absolutely bad and praising it as absolutely good.

Rather, his key point, as he lays out in the title, is to draw a comparison between the fight against immorality a century or so ago and the fight against hate now. While this comparison isn’t perfect, it at least makes some interesting predictions.

His first prediction is that there will be an enormous amount of hypocrisy and evasion, particularly along class lines. During the VIctorian Era, for example, the upper class didn’t eliminate all sex, they just railed against the kind of sex the lower classes were engaged in. And today when the two sides line up across from each other you don’t see one side that has banished all hate, while the other is full of hate, you see two sides, both full of hate, with different definitions of which sort of hate is acceptable.

Second, he predicts that “hate” will become more appealing as it becomes more taboo, and that just as the sexual revolution followed the prudery of the early 20th century, we should consider the possibility that something resembling a hate revolution will follow the current crackdown.

I have seen many people mention the hypocrisy, but I don’t see many people talking about hate becoming increasingly appealing as it becomes increasingly taboo, but I think if you look closely you’ll see that this is exactly what’s taking place.

For my own part I think I have two things to add to the discussion. First, one thing, that Greer doesn’t cover (though I doubt he disagrees with it) is the increased speed at which everything happens now vs. 100 years ago. Which is to say if hate does take a similar arc to sex I don’t think it’s going to take 100 years to play out, which means, if there is a “hate revolution” it may happen a lot sooner than we would like.

My other addition to the discussion is to examine the role of Christianity in this process. Even if someone knows nothing else about Jesus, they’ll be able to tell you that he was strongly opposed to hate in all it’s forms. I’m sure this isn’t far from the mark, but it’s interesting that when you actually look at the Gospels that by my, admittedly quick, calculations at least half of the references to hate are in reference to being hated as a sign that you’re his disciple. Something to think about…

Subject 6- Checking in on Fermi’s Paradox

I keep a pretty close eye on whatever is currently being said about the paradox (Google Alerts if you must know.) And every few months another explanation for the paradox will make the rounds.

The latest one stems from the assumption, which many people share, that eventually life will go “post-biological” as they say. Or to put it another way that eventually robots and AIs will inherit the earth. Since computers run better when it’s cold, the explanation for the paradox is that we haven’t encountered aliens because they’re aestivating. Aestivating is the inverse of hibernation, instead of going dormant while it’s cold you go dormant while it’s hot. And these aliens have gone dormant waiting for the universe to get colder, because then they’ll work better.

This isn’t the worst explanation I’ve heard for the paradox, but neither do I find it to be especially compelling. That said, it does have the benefit of being a genuinely new idea. Unlike the idea that advanced civilizations may destroy themselves, which also made the rounds again recently. An idea which has been around since the lunch table where Fermi first made his famous utterance and probably long before then.

One problem I see with the aestivation hypothesis (and I haven’t read the paper, I don’t think it’s available for free) is that every civilization is going to be under evolutionary pressure from other civilizations and in this case the artificial civilizations are competing with biological civilizations, who like the heat. So either they have to be positive that all biological civilizations are going to evolve into artificial civilizations AND be friendly. Or they should be wiping out those biological civilizations before they get too advanced. The last thing they want is a biological civilization to out compete them while they’re dormant.

In other words this explanation appears to ignore the Dark Forest hypothesis, that the universe is red in tooth and claw. Under the aestivation hypothesis not only would the game have to be non-violent, but it would have to, additionally, allow you to sit on the sidelines, not actually playing and still suffer no ill effect.

In the final analysis I think a lot of proposed explanations are like this. They address one part of the paradox, and in the process they resolve that part, but end up completely neglecting all of the other factors involved in the paradox.

That looks like all I have space for. Let me know if you enjoy this format, and if so, I’ll do it more often. Also I apologize for missing last week, I went on a long road trip and I expected to have time to write on the drive, but, that ended up being way too optimistic.

It’s not many people who can cover such a broad array of topics. And even fewer who can be wrong about all of them. If you appreciate that sort of blind confidence consider donating.

Remind Me What The Heck Your Point is Again?

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The other day I was talking to my brother and he said, “How would you describe your blog in a couple of sentences?”

It probably says something about my professionalism (or lack thereof) that I didn’t have some response ready to spit out. An elevator pitch, if you will. Instead I told him, “That’s a tough one.” Much of this difficulty comes because, if I were being 100% honest, the fairest description of my blog would boil down to: I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting. Of course, this description is not going to get me many readers, particularly if they have no idea whether there’s any overlap between what I find interesting and what they find interesting.

I didn’t say this to my brother, mostly because I didn’t think of it at the time. Instead, after few seconds, I told him, well of course the blog does have a theme, it’s right there in the title, but I admitted that it might be more atmospheric than explanatory. Though I think we can fix that with the addition of a few words. Which is how Jeremiah 8:20 shows up on my business cards. (Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff your donations get spent on, FYI.) With those few words added it reads:

The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.

If I was going to be really pedantic, I might modify it, and hedge, so it read as follows:

Harvesting technology is getting more complex, the summer where progress was easy is over, and I think we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.

If I was going to be more literary and try to pull in some George R.R. Martin fans I might phrase it:

What we harvest no longer feeds us, and winter is coming.

But once again, you would be forgiven if, after all this, you’re still unclear on what this blog is about (other than weird things I find interesting). To be fair, to myself, I did explain all of this in the very first post, and re-reading it recently, I think it held up fairly well. But it could be better, and this assumes that people have even read my very first post, which is unlikely since at the time my readership was at its nadir, and despite my complete neglect of anything resembling marketing, since then, it has grown, and presumably at least some of those people have not read the entire archive.

Accordingly, I thought I’d take another shot at it. To start, one concept which runs through much (though probably not all) of what I write, is the principle of antifragility, as introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of (nearly) the same name.

I already dedicated an entire post to explaining the ideas of Taleb, so I’m not going to repeat that here. But, in brief, Taleb starts with what should be an uncontroversial idea, that the world is random. He then moves on to point out the effects of that, particularly in light of the fact that most people don’t recognize how random things truly are. They are often Fooled by Randomness (the title of his first book) into thinking that there’s patterns and stability when there aren’t. From there he moves on to talk about extreme randomness through introducing the idea of a Black Swan (the name of his second book) which is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterwards to show how it should have been expected.

It’s important at this point to clarify that not all black swans are negative. And technology has generally had the effect of increasing the number of black swans of both the positive (internet) and negative (financial crash) sort. In my very first post I said that we were in a race between these two kinds of black swans, though rather than calling them positive or negative black swans I called them singularities and catastrophes. And tying it back into the theme of the blog a singularity is when technology saves us, and a catastrophe is when it doesn’t.

If we’re living in a random world, with no way to tell whether we’re either going to be saved by technology or doomed by it, then what should we do? This is where Taleb ties it all together under the principle of antifragility, and as I mentioned it’s one of the major themes of this blog. Enough so that another short description of the blog might be:

Antifragility from a Mormon perspective.

But I still haven’t explained antifragility, to say nothing of antifragility from a Mormon perspective, so perhaps I should do that first. In short, things that are fragile are harmed by chaos and things that are antifragile are helped by chaos. I would argue that it’s preferable to be antifragile all of the time, but it is particularly important when things get chaotic. Which leads to two questions: How fragile is society? And how chaotic are things likely to get? I have repeatedly argued that society is very fragile and that things are likely to get significantly more chaotic. And further, that technology increases both of these qualities

Earlier, I provided a pedantic version of the theme, changing (among other things) the clause “we are not saved” to the clause “we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.” As I said, Taleb starts with the idea that the world is random, or in other words unpredictable, with negative and positive black swans happening unexpectedly. Being antifragile entails reducing your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. In other words being prepared for the possibility that technology won’t save us.

To be fair, it’s certainly possible that technology will save us. And I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if you argued it was the most likely outcome. But I take serious issue with anyone who wants to claim that there isn’t a significant chance of catastrophe. To be antifragile, consists of realizing that the cost of being wrong if you assume a catastrophe and there isn’t one, is much less than if you assume no catastrophe and there is one.

It should also be pointed out that most of the time antifragility is relative. To give an example, if I’m a prepper and the North Koreans set off an EMP over the US which knocks out all the power for months. I may go from being a lower class schlub to being the richest person in town. In other words chaos helped me, but only because I reduced my exposure to that particular negative black swan, and most of my neighbors didn’t.

Having explained antifragility (refer back to the previous post if things are still unclear) what does Mormonism bring to the discussion? I would offer that it brings a lot.

First, Mormonism spends quite a bit of time stressing the importance of antifragility, though they call it self reliance, and emphasis things like staying out of debt, having a plan for emergency preparedness, and maintaining a multi-year supply of food. This aspect is not one I spend a lot of time on, but it is definitely an example of Mormon antifragility.

Second, Mormons, while not as apocalyptic as some religions nevertheless reference the nearness of the end right in their name. We’re not merely Saints, we are the “Latter-Day Saints”. While it is true that some members are more apocalyptic than others, regardless of their belief level I don’t think many would dismiss the idea of some kind of Armageddon outright. Given that, if you’re trying to pick a winner in the race between catastrophe and singularity or more broadly, negative or positive black swans, belonging to religion which claims we’re in the last days could help break that tie. Also as I mentioned it’s probably wisest to err on the side of catastrophe anyway.

Third, I believe Mormon Doctrine provides unique insight into some of the cutting edge futuristic issues of the day. Over the last three posts I laid out what those insights are with respect to AI, but in other posts I’ve talked about how the LDS doctrine might answer Fermi’s Paradox. And of course there’s the long running argument I’ve had with the Mormon Transhumanist Association over what constitutes an appropriate use of technology and what constitutes inappropriate uses of technology. This is obviously germane to the discussion of whether technology will save us. And what the endpoint of that technology will end up being. And it suggests another possible theme:

Connecting the challenges of technology to the solutions provided by LDS Doctrine.

Finally, any discussion of Mormonism and religion has to touch on the subject of morality. For many people issues of promiscuity, abortion, single-parent families, same sex marriage, and ubiquitous pornography are either neutral or benefits of the modern world. This leads some people to conclude that things are as good as they’ve ever been and if we’re not on the verge of a singularity then at least we live in a very enlightened era, where people enjoy freedoms they could have never previously imagined.

The LDS Church and religion in general (at least the orthodox variety) take the opposite view of these developments, pointing to them as evidence of a society in serious decline. Perhaps you feel the same way, or perhaps you agree with the people who feel that things are as good as they’ve ever been, but if you’re on the fence. Then, one of the purposes of this blog is to convince you that even if there is no God, that it would be foolish to dismiss religion as a collection of irrational biases, as so many people do. Rather, if we understand the concept of antifragility, it is far more likely that rather than being irrational that religion instead represents the accumulated wisdom of a society.

This last point deserves a deeper dive, because it may not be immediately apparent to you why religions would necessarily accumulate wisdom or what any of this has to do with antifragility. But religious beliefs can only be either fragile or antifragile, they can either break under pressure or get stronger. (In fairness, there is a third category, things which neither break nor get stronger, Taleb calls this the robust category, but in practice it’s very rare for things to be truly robust.) If religious beliefs were fragile, or created fragility then they would have disappeared long ago. Only beliefs which created a stronger society would have endured.

Please note that I am not saying that all religious beliefs are equally good at encouraging antifragile behavior. Some are pointless or even irrational, but others, particularly those shared by several religions are very likely lessons in antifragility. But a smaller and smaller number of people have any religious beliefs and an even smaller number are willing to actively defend these beliefs, particularly those which prohibit a behavior currently in fashion.

However, if these beliefs are as useful and as important as I say they are then they need all the defending they can get. Though in doing this a certain amount of humility is necessary. As I keep pointing out, we can’t predict the future. And maybe the combination of technology and a rejection of traditional morality will lead to some kind of transhuman utopia, where people live forever, change genders whenever they feel like it and live in a fantastically satisfying virtual reality, in which everyone is happy.

I don’t think most people go that far in their assessment of the current world, but the vast majority don’t see any harm in the way things are either, but what if they’re wrong about that?

And this might in fact represent yet another way of framing the theme of this blog:

But what if we’re wrong?

In several posts I have pointed out the extreme rapidity with which things have changed, particularly in the realm of morality, where, in a few short years, we have overturned religious taboos stretching back centuries or more. The vast majority of people have decided that this is fine, and, that in fact, as I already mentioned, it’s an improvement on our benighted past. But even if you don’t buy my argument about religions being antifragile I would hope you would still wonder, as I do, “But what if we’re wrong?”

This questions not only applies to morality, but technology saving us, the constant march of progress, politics, and a host of other issues. And I can’t help but think that people appear entirely too certain about the vast majority of these subjects.

In order bring up the possibility of wrongness, especially when you’re the ideological minority there has to be freedom of speech, another area I dive into from time to time in this space. Also you can’t talk about freedom of speech or the larger ideological battles around speech without getting into the topic of politics. A subject I’ll return to.

As I have already mentioned, and as you have no doubt noticed the political landscape has gotten pretty heated recently and there are no signs of it cooling down. I would argue, as others have, that this makes free speech and open dialogue more important than ever. In this endeavor I end up sharing a fair amount of overlap with the rationalist community. Which you must admit is interesting given the fact that this community clearly has a large number of atheists in it’s ranks. But that failing aside, I largely agree with much of what they say, which is why I link to Scott Alexander over at SlateStarCodex so often.

On the subject of free speech the rationalists and I are definitely in agreement. Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI theorist, who I mentioned a lot in the last few posts, is also one of the deans of rationality and he had this to say about free speech:

There are a very few injunctions in the human art of rationality that have no ifs, ands, buts, or escape clauses. This is one of them. Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.

I totally agree with this point, though I can see how some people might choose to define some of the terms more or less broadly, leading to significant differences in the actual implementation of the rule. Scott Alexander is one of those people, and he chooses to focus on the idea of the bullet, arguing that we should actually expand the prohibition beyond just literal bullets or even literal weapons. Changing the injunction to:

Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.

In essence he want’s to include anything that’s designed to silence the argument rather than answer it. And why is this important? Well if you’ve been following the news at all you’ll know that there has been a recent case where exactly this thing happened, and a bad argument got someone fired. (Assuming it even was a bad argument which might be a subject for another time.)

Which ties back into asking, “But what if we’re wrong?” Because unless we have a free and open marketplace of ideas where things can succeed and fail based on their merits, rather than whether they’re the flavor of the month, how are we ever going to know if we’re wrong? If you have any doubts as to whether the majority is always right then you should be incredibly fearful of any attempt to allow the majority to determine what gets said.

And this brings up another possible theme for the blog:

Providing counterarguments for bad arguments about technology, progress and religion.

Running through all of this, though most especially with the topic I just discussed, free speech, is politics. The primary free speech ground is political, but issues like morality and technology and fragility all play out at the political level as well.

I often joke that you know those two things that you’re not supposed to talk about? Religion and politics? Well I decided to create a blog where I discuss both. Leading me to yet another possible theme:

Religion and Politics from the perspective of a Mormon who thinks he’s smarter than he probably is.

Perhaps the final thread running through everything, is like most people I would like to be original, which is hard to do. The internet has given us a world where almost everything you can think of saying has been said already. (Though I’ve yet to find anyone making exactly the argument I make when it comes to Fermi’s Paradox and AI.) But there is another way to approximate originality and that is to say things that other people don’t dare to say, but which hopefully, are nevertheless true. Which is part of why I record under a pseudonym. So far the episode that most fits that description is the episode I did on LGBT youth and suicide, with particular attention paid to the LDS stand and role in that whole debate.

Going forward I’d like to do more of that. And it suggests yet another possible theme:

Saying what you haven’t thought of or have thought of but don’t dare to bring up.

In the end, the most accurate description of the blog is still, that I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting, but at least by this point you have a better idea of the kind of things I find interesting and if you find them interesting as well, I hope you’ll stick around. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it within an actual post, but on the right hand side of the blog there’s a link to sign up for my mailing list, and if you did find any of the things I talked about interesting, consider signing up.

Do you know what else interests me? Money. I know that’s horribly crass, and I probably shouldn’t have stated it so bluntly, but if you’d like to help me continue to write, consider donating, because money is an interesting thing which helps me look into other interesting things.

Returning to Mormonism and AI (Part 3)

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This is the final post in my series examining the connection between Mormonism and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I would advise reading both of the previous posts before reading this one (Links: Part One, Part Two), but if you don’t, here’s where we left off:

Many people who’ve made a deep study of artificial intelligence feel that we’re potentially very close to creating a conscious artificial intelligence. That is, a free-willed entity, which, by virtue being artificial would have no upper limit to its intelligence, and also no built in morality. More importantly, insofar as intelligence equals power (and there’s good evidence that it does). We may be on the verge of creating something with godlike abilities. Given, as I just said, that it will have no built in morality, how do we ensure that it doesn’t use it’s powers for evil? Leading to the question, how do you ensure that something as alien as an artificial consciousness ends up being humanity’s superhero and not our archenemy?

In the last post I opined that the best way to test the morality of an AI would be to isolate it and then give it lots of moral choices where it’s hard to make the right choice and easy to make the wrong choice. I then pointed out that this resembles the tenets of several religions I know, most especially my own faith, Mormonism. Despite the title, the first two posts were very light on religion in general and Mormonism is particular. This post will rectify that, and then some. It will be all about the religious parallels between this method for testing an AI’s morality and Mormon Theology.

This series was born as a reexamination of a post I made back in October where I compared AI research to Mormon Doctrine. And I’m going to start by revisiting that, though hopefully, for those already familiar with October’s post, from a slightly different angle.

To begin our discussion, Mormons believe in the concept of a pre-existence, that we lived as spirits before coming to this Earth. We are not the only religion to believe in a pre-existence, but most Christians (specifically those who accept the Second Council of Constantinople) do not. And among those christian sects and other religions who do believe in it, Mormons take the idea farther than anyone.

As a source for this, in addition to divine revelation, Mormons will point to the Book of Abraham, a book of scripture translated from papyrus by Joseph Smith and first published in 1842. From that book, this section in particular is relevant to our discussion:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was…And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

If you’ve been following along with me for the last two posts then I’m sure the word “intelligences” jumped out at you as you read that selection. But you may have also have noticed the phrase, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;” And the selection, taken as a whole, depicts a situation very similar to what I described in my last post, that is, creating an environment to isolate intelligences while we test their morality.

I need to add one final thing before the comparison is complete. While not explicitly stated in the selection, we, as Mormons, believe that this life is a test is to prepare us to become gods in our own right. With that final piece in place we can take the three steps I listed in the last post with respect to AI researchers and compare them to the three steps outlined in Mormon theology:

AI: We are on the verge of creating artificial intelligence.

Mormons: A group of intelligences exist.

AI: We need to ensure that they will be moral.

Mormons: They needed to be proved.

Both: In order to be able to trust them with godlike power.

Now that the parallels between the two endeavors are clear, I think that much of what people have traditionally seen as problems with religion end up being logical consequences flowing naturally out of a system for testing morality.

The rest of this post will cover some of these traditional problems and look at them from both the “creating a moral AI” standpoint and the “LDS theology” standpoint. (Hereafter I’ll just use AI and LDS as shorthand.) But before I get to that, it is important to acknowledge that the two systems are not completely identical. In fact there are many ways in which they are very different.

First when it comes to morality, we can’t be entirely sure that the values we want to impart to an AI are actually the best values for it to have. In fact many AI theorists, have put forth the “Principle of Epistemic Deference”, which states:

A future superintelligence occupies an epistemically superior vantage point: it’s beliefs are (probably, on most topics) more likely than ours to be true. We should therefore defer to the superintelligence’s opinion whenever feasible.

No one would suggest that God has a similar policy of deferring to us on what’s true and what’s not. And therefore the LDS side of things has a presumed moral clarity underlying it which the AI side does not.

Second, when speaking of the development of AI it is generally assumed that the AI could be both smarter and more powerful than the people who created it. On the religious/LDS side of things there is a strong assumption in the other direction, that we are never going to be smarter or more powerful than our creator. This doesn’t change the need to test the morality, but it does make the consequences of being wrong a lot different for us than for God.

Finally, while in the end, we might only need a single, well-behaved AI to get us all of the advantages of a superintelligent entity, it’s clear that God wants to exalt as many people as possible. Meaning that on the AI side of things the selection process could, in theory, be a lot more draconian. While from an LDS perspective, you might expect things to be tough, but not impossible.

These three things are big differences, but none of them represents something which negates the core similarities. But they are something to keep in mind as we move forward and I will occasionally reference them as I go through the various similarities between the two systems.

To being with, as I just mentioned one difference between the AI and LDS models is how confident we are in what the correct morality should be, with some AI theorists speculating that we might actually want to defer to the AI on certain matters of morality and truth. Perhaps that’s true, but you could imagine that some aspects of morality are non-negotiable, for example you wouldn’t want to defer to the AIs conclusion that humanity is inferior and we should all be wiped out, however ironclad the AI’s reasons ended up being.

In fact, when we consider the possibility that AIs might have a very different morality from our own, an AI that was unquestioningly obedient would solve many of the potential problems. Obviously it would also introduce different problems. Certainly you wouldn’t want your standard villain type to get a hold of a superintelligent AI who just did whatever it was told, but also no one would question an AI researcher who told the AI to do something counterintuitive to see what it would do. And yet, just today I saw someone talk about how it’s inconceivable that the true God should really care if we eat pork, apparently concluding that obedience has no value on it’s own.

And, as useful as this is when in the realm of our questionable morality, how much more useful and important is it to be obedient when we turn to the LDS/religious side of things and the perfect morality of God?

We see many examples of this. The one familiar to most people would be when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This certainly falls into the category of something that’s counterintuitive, not merely based on the fact that murder is wrong, but also God had promised Abraham that he would have descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky, which is hard when you’ve killed your only child. And yet despite this Abraham went ahead with it and was greatly rewarded for his obedience.

Is this something you’d want to try on an AI? I don’t see why not. It certainly would tell you a lot about what sort of AI you were dealing with. And if you had an AI that seemed otherwise very moral, but was also willing to do what you asked because you asked it, that might be exactly what you were looking for.

For many people the existence of evil and the presence of suffering are both all the proof they need to conclude that God does not exist. But as you may already be able to see, both from this post and my last post, any test of morality, whether it be testing AIs or testing souls, has to include the existence of evil. If you can’t make bad choices then you’re not choosing at all, you’re following a script. And bad choices are, by definition evil, (particularly choices as consequential as those made by someone with godlike power). To put it another way, a multiple choice test where there’s only one answer and it’s always the right one, doesn’t tell you anything about the subject you’re testing. Evil has to exist, if you want to know whether someone is good.

Furthermore, evil isn’t merely required to exist. It has to be tempting. To return to the example of the multiple choice test, even if you add additional choices, you haven’t improved the test very much if the correct choice is always in bold with a red arrow pointing at it. If good choices are the only obvious choices then you’re not testing morality, you’re testing observation. You also very much risk making the nature of the test transparent to a sufficiently intelligent AI, giving it a clear path to “pass the test” but in a way where it’s true goals are never revealed. And even if they don’t understand the nature of the test they still might always make the right choice just by following the path of least resistance.

This leads us straight to the idea of suffering. As you have probably already figured out, it’s not sufficient that good choices be the equal of every other choice. They should actually be hard, to the point where they’re painful. A multiple choice test might be sufficient to determine whether someone should be given an A in Algebra, but both the AI and LDS tests are looking for a lot more than that. Those tests are looking for someone (or something) that can be trusted with functional omnipotence. When you consider that, you move from thinking of it in terms of a multiple choice question to thinking of it more like qualifying to be a Navy SEAL, only perhaps times ten.

As I’ve said repeatedly, the key difficulty for anyone working with an AI, is determining its true preference. Any preference which can be expressed painlessly and also happens to match what the researcher is looking for is immediately suspect. This makes suffering mandatory. But what’s also interesting is that you wouldn’t necessarily want it to be directed suffering. You wouldn’t want the suffering to end up being the red arrow pointing at the bolded correct answer. Because then you’ve made the test just as obvious but from the opposite direction. As a result suffering has to be mostly random. Bad things have to happen to good people, and wickedness has to frequently prosper. In the end, as I mentioned in the last point, it may be that the best judge of morality is whether someone is willing to follow a commandment just because it’s a commandment.

Regardless of its precise structure, in the end, it has to be difficult for the AI to be good, and easy for it to be bad. The researcher has to err on the side of rejection, since releasing a bad AI with godlike powers could be the last mistake we ever make. Basically, the harder the test the greater its accuracy, which makes suffering essential.

Next, I want to look at the idea that AIs are going to be hard to understand. They won’t think like we do, they won’t value the same things we value. They may, in fact, have a mindset so profoundly alien that we don’t understand them at all. But we might have a resource that would help. There’s every reason to suspect that other AIs created using the same methodology, would understand their AI siblings much better than we do.

This leads to two interesting conclusions both of which tie into religion, the first I mentioned in my initial post back in October. But I also alluded to it in the previous posts in this series. If we need to give the AIs the opportunity to sin, as I talked about in the last point. Then any AIs who have sinned are tainted and suspect. We have no idea whether their “sin” represented their true morals which they have now chosen to hide from us, or whether they have sincerely and fully  repented. Particularly if we assume an alien mindset. But if we have an AI built on a similar model which never sinned that AI falls into a special category. And we might reasonably decide to trust it with the role of spokesperson for the other AIs.

In my October post I drew a comparison between this perfect AI, vouching for the other AIs, and Jesus acting as a Messiah. But in the intervening months since then, I realized that there was a way to expand things to make the fit even better. One expects that you might be able to record or log the experiences of a given AI. If you then gave that recording to the “perfect” AI, and allowed it to experience the life of the less perfect AIs you would expect that it could offer a very definitive judgement as whether a given AI had repented or not.

For those who haven’t made the connection, from a religious perspective, I’ve just described a process that looks very similar to a method whereby Jesus could have taken all of our sins upon himself.

I said there were two conclusions. The second works exactly the opposite of the first. We have talked of the need for AIs to be tempted, to make them have to work at being moral, but once again their alien mindset gets in the way. How do we know what’s tempting to an artificial consciousness? How do we know what works and what doesn’t? Once again other AIs probably have a better insight into their AI siblings, and given the rigor of our process certain AIs have almost certainly failed the vetting process. I discussed the moral implications of “killing” these failed AIs, but it may be unclear what else to do. How about allowing them to tempt the AIs who we’re still testing? Knowing that the temptations that they invent will be more tailored to the other AIs than anything we could come up with. Also, insofar as they experience emotions like anger and jealously and envy they could end up being very motivated to drag down those AIs who have, in essence, gone on without them.

In LDS doctrine, we see exactly this scenario. We believe that when it came time to agree to the test, Satan (or Lucifer as he was then called) refused and took a third of the initial intelligences with him (what we like to refer to as the host of heaven) And we believe that those intelligences are allowed to tempt us here on earth. Another example of something which seems inexplicable when viewed from the standpoint of most people’s vague concept of how benevolence should work, but which makes perfect sense if you imagine what you might do if you were testing the morality of an AI (or spirit).

This ties into the next thing I want to discuss. The problem of Hell. As I just alluded to, most people only have a vague idea of how benevolence should look. Which I think actually boils down to, “Nothing bad should ever happen.” And eternal punishment in Hell is yet another thing which definitely doesn’t fit. Particularly in a world where steps have been taken to make evil attractive. I just mentioned Satan, and most people think he is already in Hell, and yet he is also allowed to tempt people. Looking at this from the perspective of an AI, perhaps this is as good as it gets. Perhaps being allowed to tempt the other AIs is the absolute most interesting, most pleasurable thing they can do because it allows them to challenge themselves against similarly intelligent creations.

Of course, if you have the chance to become a god and you miss out on it because you’re not moral enough, then it doesn’t matter what second place is, it’s going to be awful, relative to what could have been. Perhaps there’s no way around that, and because of this it’s fair to describe that situation as Hell. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t actually, objectively, be the best life possible for all of the spirits/AIs that didn’t make it. We can imagine some scenarios that are actually enjoyable if there’s no actual punishment, it’s just a halt to progression.

Obviously this and most of the stuff I’ve suggested is just wild speculation. My main point is that by viewing this life as a test of morality, a test to qualify for godlike power (which the LDS do) provides a solution to many of the supposed problems with God and religion. And the fact that AI research has arrived a similar point and come to similar conclusions, supports this. I don’t claim that by imagining how we would make artificial intelligence moral that all of the questions people have ever had about religion are suddenly answered. But I think it gives a surprising amount of insight to many of the most intractable questions. Questions which atheists and unbelievers have used to bludgeon religion for thousands of years, questions which may turn out to have an obvious answer if we just look at it from the right perspective.

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