Month: <span>December 2022</span>

Eschatologist #24 – ChatGPT and a Lack of Genius

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

In my very first set of predictions I asserted that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


The Ineffability of Conservatism

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I.

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

In fact one person directly requested it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The 8 Books I Finished in November

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Review

The Psychology of Totalitarianism 

By: Mattias Desmet

Published: 2022

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

By: Adrian Wooldridge

Published: 2021

504 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud

By: Phillip Rieff

Published: 1966

325 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Plato: A Very Short Introduction 

By: Julia Annas

Published: 2003

144 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


Jesus’ Son 

By: Denis Johnson

Published: 1992

133 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


Tombs of Atuan 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1971

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


Roadside Picnic 

by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Published: 1972

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


Purple Days

By: Baurus

Published: 2021

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

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


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