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All Eschatologies Are Both Secular and Religious

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As I look back over my posts, I notice that some of them are less about being interesting in and of themselves, and more part of building the foundation for this crazy house I’m trying to erect. Some posts are less paintings on a wall than the wall itself. Having recognized this tendency, I’m giving you advance warning that this looks to be one of those foundational posts. I do this in order that you might make an informed decision as to whether to continue. That said, I’m hoping that there will be some who find the process of wall construction interesting in and of itself, and will continue to stick around in hopes of seeing something well made. Though I offer no guarantee that such will be the case. Quality is always somewhat elusive.

With the insufficiently committed having been dispensed with, we can proceed to the meat of things.  

In 1999 the Matrix was released in theaters. Beyond being generally regarded as one of the better sci fi action movies of all time it was also most people’s introduction to the idea that, by using sufficiently advanced technology, we might be able to simulate reality with such a high degree of fidelity that an individual need not ever be aware they were in a simulation.

A few years later, In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom put forward the Simulation Hypothesis which took things even farther, going from being able to imagine we might be in a simulation to asserting that we almost certainly are in a simulation. As this is something of a bold claim, let’s walk through his logic.

  1. Assume that if computer power keeps improving, that computers will eventually be able to run simulations of reality indistinguishable from actual reality.
  2. Further assume that one sort of simulation that might get run on these superpowered computers are simulations of the past.
  3. If we assume that one simulation could be run, it seems further safe to assume that many simulations could and would be run. Meaning that the ratio of simulations to reality will always be much much greater than 1. 
  4. Given that simulations are indistinguishable from reality and outnumber reality, it’s highly probable that we are in a simulation, but unaware of it.

As you can see The Matrix only deals with step 1, it’s steps 2-4 that take it from a possibility to a near certainty, according to Bostrom. Also for those of you who read my last post you may be curious to know that Bostrom also offers up a trilemma:

  1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or
  2. “The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running simulations of their evolutionary history, or variations thereof, is very close to zero”, or
  3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one”

Regardless of whether you think the probability that you live in a simulation is close to 100% or not, it’s almost certainly not 0%. But, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with eschatology? As it turns out everything. It means that there is some probability that the end of the world depends not merely on events outside of our control, but on events outside of our reality. And if Bostrom is correct that probability is nearly 100%. Furthermore, this is similar, if not nearly identical to how most religions imagine the end of the world as well. Making a strong connection between religion and the simulation hypothesis is probably an even harder pill to swallow than the idea that we’re in a simulation, so let’s walk through it.

To begin with, a simulation immediately admits the existence of the supernatural. If the simulation encompasses the whole of our perceived reality, and if we equate that reality with what’s considered “natural”, then the fact that there’s something outside of the simulation means there’s something outside of nature, and that something would be, by definition, supernatural. 

It would also mean that god(s) exists. It would not necessarily say anything about the sort of gods that exist, but someone or something would need to create and design the simulation, and whatever that someone or something is, they would be gods to us in most of the ways that mattered. 

Less certain, but worth mentioning, these designers would probably have some sort of plan for us, perhaps only at the level of the simulation, but possibly at the level of each individual. 

When you combine the supernatural with a supreme being and an overarching plan, qualities that all simulations must possess just by their very nature, you end up with something that has to be considered a theology. The fact that simulations have a theology doesn’t demand that there is also an associated religion, but it also doesn’t preclude it either. If you’re willing to accept the possibility that we’re living in a simulation, then it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that one or more of the religions within that simulation might espouse beliefs which happen to match up with some or all of the theology of that same simulation. In fact I would even venture to argue that it would be more surprising if they didn’t. Even if you want to argue that it might be strictly by chance.

To be clear, yes, I am saying that if you’re willing to grant the possibility that we are currently in a simulation, then you should also be willing to grant that some religion, be it Muslims, Mormons or Methodists, might have elements within their doctrine which map to the theology of the designers, either by chance or by supernatural inspiration. And one of those elements, possibly even the most likely element to have in common, is how things are going to end. If anything was going to “leak through”, how it all ends would be a very strong candidate.

I know some people are going to be tempted to dismiss this idea because when one imagines a simulation they imagine something involving silicon and electricity, something from a movie, or a video game. And when one imagines the supernatural and God they imagine clouds, angels, robed individuals and musty books of hidden lore. But in the end most religions come down to the idea of a body-spirit dualism, which asserts that there are things beyond what we can see and detect. As opposed to materialism which asserts that everything comes from interactions between things we can see and measure. A simulation is obviously dualistic, and definitionally, what criteria can we use to draw a sharp line between the dualism of religion and that of a simulation? Particularly when you consider that both must involve supernatural elements and gods? 

I understand that the religious view of the world is entirely traditional, and seems old and stuffy. While the idea that we’re in a simulation encompasses futurism and transhumanist philosophy. But that’s all at the surface. Underneath, they’re essentially identical.

To put it another way, if a Catholic were to say that they believe we live in a simulation and that furthermore Catholicism is the way that the designers of the simulation reveal their preferences for our behavior, what arguments could you marshall against this assertion? I’m sure you could come up with a lot of arguments, but how many of them would boil down to: “well, I don’t think that’s the way someone would run a simulation”? Some of them might even sound reasonably convincing, but is there any argument you could make that would indisputably separate Catholicism from Simulationism? Where knowledge about the character of the simulation couldn’t end up filtering into the simulation in the form of a religion?

For those who might still be unconvinced, allow me to offer one final way of envisioning things. Imagine everything I just said as the plot of a science fiction novel. Suppose the main character is a maverick researcher who has become convinced that we live in a simulation. Imagine that the novel opens with him puttering around, publishing the occasional paper, but largely being ignored by the mainstream until he discovers that designers of the simulation are about to end it. Fortunately, he also discovers that they have been dropping hints about how to prevent the end in the form of obscure religious prophecies. Is that plot solid enough to sustain a book? Or would you toss it aside for being completely impossible? (I think it’s a great plot, I may even have to write that book…)

If you happen to be one of those people who worries about x-risks, and other end of the world type scenarios. What I, at least, would call secular eschatologies. Then unless you’re also willing to completely rule out the idea that we might be in a simulation, it would seem obvious that as part of your studies you would want to pay at least some attention to religious eschatology. That, as I suggest in the title, all eschatologies might end up being both secular and religious.

You might think that this is the only reason for someone worried about x-risks to pay attention to religion, and it may seem a fairly tenuous reason at that, but as I’ve argued in the past there are other reasons as well. In particular religion is almost certainly a repository for antifragility. Or to put it another way religion is a storehouse of methods for avoiding risks below the level of actual x-risks. And even if we’re speaking of more dramatic, extinction threatening risks, I think religion has a role to play there as well. First, we might ask why is it that most religions have an eschatology? That is, why do most explicitly describe, through stories or doctrine, how the world will end? Why is this feature of religions nearly ubiquitous?

Additionally there’s a good argument to be made that as part of religion people preserve the memory of past calamities. You may have seen recently that scientists are saying some of the aboriginal Australians might have passed down a tale that’s 37,000 years old. And then of course there’s the ongoing speculation that Noah’s flood, which also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, also preserves the memory of some ancient calamity.

Having made a connection from the religious to the secular, you might ask whether things go in the other direction as well. Indeed they do, and the connection is even easier to make. Imagine that you’re reading the Bible and you come across a passage like this one in Isaiah:

For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.

For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.

If you believe that this sort of thing is going to come to pass, then it would appear that there are modern weapons (including nukes) that would fit this description nicely. More broadly while it’s somewhat more difficult to imagine how:

…the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

-Revelation 6:14

Such descriptions are the exception, rather than the rule. Most eschatological calamities included in the doctrines of the various religions, like plagues and wars, are likely to have secular causes, and the potential to be made worse by technology. (Note the rapid global spread of COVID-19/coronavirus.) And while I think many people overfit religious doctrine onto global trends, I certainly can’t imagine that it would be tenable to do the opposite. How someone interested in religious eschatology could ignore what’s going on in the larger world. 

In the end, as I said during my previous post on the topic, I’m very interested in expanding the definition and scope of the discipline of eschatology. And even if you don’t agree with everything I’ve done in service of that expansion, I think bringing in Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis opens up vast new areas for theorizing and discussion. Yes, the hypothesis itself is very speculative, but the most compelling argument against it is that there will never be humans capable of making such simulations, which argument, itself, represents a very strong eschatological position. One way or another you have to take a position on how the world is going to turn out. And given the enormous stakes represented by such a discussion, I think it’s best if we explore every possible nook and cranny. Because in the end there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know, and I for one don’t feel confident dismissing any possibility when it comes to saving the world.


If we are in a simulation I wonder how the designers feel about those people who are “on to them”? Do they react with pleasure at our cleverness? Or do they unleash all the plagues of Egypt? If it’s the latter I might soon find myself in need of some monetary assistance.


The Secular Answer To Fermi’s Paradox

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Having explored at some length in our last post the idea that Fermi’s Paradox may offer strong support for the existence of God.  As well as the idea that assumptions made about extraterrestrial communication line up better than might be expected with the process of prayer. I want to flip the coin and look at what the conventional wisdom is as far as the Paradox. For my examination I will be mostly drawing from If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, by Stephen Webb. There has obviously been quite a bit written about the paradox, but this appears to be one of the only (if not the only) book length treatments. My discussion will use the first edition of the book, which has 50 potential explanations for the Paradox. The second edition, which I have yet to acquire has 75 potential explanations. I cannot speak definitively about the second edition, but of the 50 potential explanations in the first none resemble the explanation I offered in my last post. But otherwise it is admirably comprehensive.

Webb breaks extraterrestrials into three broad categories:

  1. They are here.
  2. They exist but have not communicated with us.
  3. They don’t exist.

The first possibility is broader than the initial title would suggest. It essentially encompasses all scenarios under which aliens exist, and are aware of us. These explanations range from the humorous (They are here and they call themselves Hungarians) to explanations for why, if they exist, they might choose to hide from us. The classic example of this thinking is the Prime Directive from Star Trek, the principle that the federation will not interfere with any less advanced civilizations.

Interestingly enough the final explanation in the “They are Here” section is titled “God Exists”. From the title, at least, it sounded like it must be very similar to my own thinking. It wasn’t. Webb spends a couple of paragraphs talking about some vague theological issues, but then spends the rest of the section (four more pages) examining the idea that there seems to be no good reason for the constants of the Universe to have the values they do (for example the strength of the weak nuclear force or the mass of an electron.) From there he goes on to discuss a theory of universe evolution under which new universes might be created by black holes so universes would “evolve” to maximize black hole production. If the physical constants which lead to the creation of black holes are similar to the constants necessary for the emergence of life you might end up with the second condition being a byproduct of the first.

The second possibility, that they exist but have not communicated with us, generally boils down to the idea that on top of the enormous number of stars and the enormous amount of time that has passed, which argue in favor of alien life, that there are other enormous numbers: the distance between habitable planets (less now than a couple of weeks ago); the number of ways language and communication could develop; the different types of intelligent life; and so forth, which argue against alien communication. This could mean that it’s just too far, or that they are communicating with us and we don’t understand, or in one of the more off-beat explanations, perhaps most worlds have skies perpetually shrouded in clouds. In which case, would they ever even develop astronomy, or even a full Newtonian understanding of the Universe?  

The final possibility is that there is some kind of filter which works against intelligent extraterrestrial life. Some process which keeps life from starting at all, from reaching sufficient complexity, from developing consciousness, from lasting long enough to spread, or from accomplishing any of the thousands of steps required to have a truly interstellar civilization. As you can imagine, such a filter might be behind us, or it might be in front of us. Examples which have been offered for filters we have already passed, have included: the difficulty of moving from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, galactic catastrophes like supernovas, getting life started in the first place, and even plate tectonics.  

Examples which have been offered for filters yet to come include: blowing ourselves up with nukes, losing ourselves in virtual reality, civilizational collapse, or of course galactic or solar catastrophes yet to come. Another explanation is that aliens do exist, but they’re aggressive and warlike and no one wants to risk initiating communication (or what’s termed Active SETI) because they’re all afraid they’ll be discovered and destroyed.

This is of course one of the things that makes Fermi’s Paradox so fascinating, the number of possible explanations is huge and those explanations can tie into anything (from the Runaway Consumerism to having a particularly large Moon.)

I said that Webb’s book offered up 50 explanations for the paradox. That’s not entirely true. He actually offers up 49 explanations and then for the 50th he offers his own explanation. He mentions in one of the introductory sections that the 50th explanation will be his explanation for the paradox, and while reading the book I was intensely curious about what his explanation would be. And if, for whatever reason you were thinking of reading the book (which I recommend only if you are REALLY interested in the paradox) and you don’t want to be spoiled you should stop reading now…

Webb’s final solution titled “The Fermi Paradox Resolved…” is not unique, it’s not some new take on things or an explanation that hasn’t been offered already, it’s the combination several explanations. Having gone through 49 possible explanations for the paradox Webb’s answer is that we are alone. This is an interesting conclusion. And I think he reaches it somewhat reluctantly, but it carries an enormous number of consequences, not all of which he’s willing to grapple with. But before we get to that let’s examine how he arrives at his conclusion.

In a similar fashion to how Fermi and Drake arrived at their numbers, Webb comes up with is own filter for determining how many intelligent civilizations there should be. All of his filters come from the previous 49 explanations of the paradox already laid out in his book. And in a fashion similar to Drake, he starts with the number of stars in the galaxy. He then multiplies that by the average number of planets per star. This gives him a number of 10^12 or one trillion potential planets. Starting from there he begins to filter planets out. His filtering process is somewhat involved and scholarly, but it’s interesting enough that I’d like to walk through it. He goes through seven steps (actually 8, but one of his steps doesn’t actually filter anything, so we’ll skip it.)

Step 1- Eliminate any planets not in the galactic habitable zone. Most people are familiar with the solar habitable zone, (discussed more in step 3). This is the same thing on the galactic scale, and mostly has to do with the frequency of large scale galactic catastrophes. If you’re too close to the center of the galaxy, then the density of stars is such that galactic catastrophes would be frequent, potentially too frequent for life to ever establish a foothold. Consequently only stars out on the rim of the galaxy would accident free enough for life to develop, and this region is the galactic habitable zone. Webb uses an estimate of 20% of stars being in this zone so that takes us down to 200 billion planets.

Step 2- Eliminate any planets which don’t orbit sun-like stars. Bigger stars burn too fast and smaller stars don’t give off enough energy. Only 5% of stars are sun-like (G-Type) which leaves us with 10 billion planets.

Step 3- Eliminate any planets which aren’t in the continuously habitable zone (CHZ) of the star. This means, not only do they currently have to be at a distance from the star where water is liquid, but they have to have always been at that distance. He puts this number at 0.1% of planets. Which frankly seems extremely conservative particularly in light of the data we’re getting from Kepler which is biased against Earth-sized planets. To be fair to Webb part of the low estimate comes from the idea that the Sun was much fainter in the past. That filter takes us to 10 million planets.

Step 4- Eliminate any planet in the CHZ on which life doesn’t actually emerge. After saying that he considers life to be a probable occurrence for planets in the CHZ he, somewhat unexpectedly, goes on to say that it would happen on only 5% of them. Which takes us to half a million.

Step 5- Eliminate any planet where life gets wiped out by a supernova or some similar solar or galactic catastrophe. Here he’s fairly optimistic and thinks that only about 20% of life would be eliminated in this fashion. I think on this step, contrary to all the other steps he is too optimistic, that possibly far more than 20% could be wiped out by something like a supernova or some giant collision. Though we have also eliminated the planets most prone to this in Step 1. In any event this takes him to 400,000.

Step 6- Eliminate any planet where life doesn’t ever get to be multicellular. Conveniently he places the odds at life making the jump from single celled to multi celled at 1 in 40 which works out nicely to give us 10,000 planets with multicellular life.

Step 7- Eliminate any planets where life doesn’t produce an intelligent, tool-using, mathematical species capable of developing technology. He thinks the odds of this happening are least 1 in 10,000 (0.01%) and possibly much greater which means that there is only one of those civilizations, us. We are alone.

At first glance the whole process seems scientific, but similar to the Drake equation Webb has very little evidence for any of his estimates. The late Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain fame once gave a talk about the Drake Equation at Caltech. His purpose was to take a shot at global warming, and perhaps you’ll dismiss it on that grounds, but his point was nevertheless valid:

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice.

Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion.

His point about SETI being a religion is particularly telling for the purposes of this blog and our discussion. As is his point that the guesses are an expression of prejudice. In the case above it’s obvious that Webb already has a final answer in mind before he started plugging in his guesses, it didn’t just happen to come out with one to his amazement and surprise, he arranged his guesses so that it would come out as one.

Think about that for a second, you start off with one trillion, and in the end you’ve created a filter that leaves just one planet left out of the one trillion you started with?  Not zero, not a million? Imagine that you were going to create a set of seven filters which when applied to 7+ billion humans left you with one and only one person, and that you could only use natural criteria, like weight and height, not artificial filters like a social security number or the name of the town they were born in. It would be impossible, and recall that Webb starts with one trillion planets, not seven billion, so he’s already dealing with potential set over 100 times as large.

But let us for the moment assume that he’s correct. That in all the galaxy we are the only intelligent, technological life. As I already mentioned, the consequences of that are far-reaching and extreme.

First it reverses one of the major trends in science. The trend towards de-emphasizing humanity’s place in the universe.

In the beginning if you were the ruler of a vast empire you must have thought that you were the center of creation. Alexander the Great is said to have conquered the known world. I’m sure Julius Caesar couldn’t have imagined an empire greater than Rome, but I think Emperor Yuan of Han would have disagreed.

But surely, had they know each other, they could agreed that between the two of them they more or less ruled the whole world? I’m sure the people of Americas, who were entirely unknown to them, would have argued with that. But surely all of them could agree that the planet on which they all lived was at the center of the universe. But then Copernicus comes along, and says, “Not so fast.” (And yes I know about Aristarchus of Samos.)

“Okay, we get it. The Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. But at least we can take comfort in the fact that man is clearly different and better than the animals.”

“About that…” says Darwin.

“Well at least our galaxy is unique…”

“I hate to keep bursting your bubble, but that’s not the case either,” chimes in Edwin Hubble.

At every step in the process when someone has thought that humanity was special in anyway someone comes along and shows that they’re not. It happened often enough that now they have a name for it, The Copernican Principle (after one of the biggest bubble poppers). Which, for our purposes, is interchangeable with the Mediocrity Principle. Together they say that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos, or us, or the development of life. Stephen Hawking put it as follows:

The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.

This is what scientist have believed, but if we are truly the only intelligent, technology using life form in the galaxy, then suddenly we are very special indeed. Which, as you’ll recall, is what religion has been arguing all along, and it is primarily against religion that these various attacks at uniqueness have been leveled.

Now obviously it’s not impossible for the Copernican principle to be wrong, but you can still imagine that it presents a problem for scientists to explain. Particularly for scientists who would rather not give any ammunition to the unbelievers. In other words, for militant atheists, the idea that we might be unique and special, that the universe and the galaxy and the solar system might have been designed for us, is deeply troubling. And if you talk to any of them who are knowledgeable about this issue, they have a response ready, the Anthropic Principle.

The Anthropic Principle is complicated enough that it almost certainly deserves it’s own post, particularly as we are already 2500+ words into this post, but in short what it says is that there’s nothing remarkable about our uniqueness, because only our uniqueness allows it to be remarked upon.

To expand on that a little bit. Conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking.

As I said the subject is deep enough that it will probably eventually get it’s own post (though not next week I’m feeling a hankering for something different.) But I will end with four points about the anthropic principle to chew on:

1- It’s logically true, but logically true in the sense that a tautology is logically true. It basically amounts to saying I’m here because I’m here, or if things were different, they’d be different. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it discourages further exploration and a deeper understanding rather than encouraging it.

2- It’s generally used as an answer to the question of why all the physical constants seemed fine tuned for life. To which people reply there could be an infinite number of universes, so we just happen to be in the one fine tuned for life. Okay fine, but is there any evidence that the physical constants we experience don’t apply to the rest of the galaxy? Because that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Fermi’s Paradox. In fact we don’t even have any evidence that they are different anywhere in the visible universe of the 100 billion additional galaxies. In other words if the Earth is fine-tuned for life as far as physical constants, so is the rest of the galaxy, at a minimum.

3- It’s an argument from lack of imagination. Or in other words Webb asserts that we are alone because there has not been any evidence to the contrary. It is entirely possible that we have just not looked hard enough. Webb admits this possibility of course, but it is not his preferred explanation, which is that we’re alone, because of the factors which I mentioned above, but all of those factors could just be a lack of imagination. Imagining how life could develop in the center of the galaxy, how life could develop outside of the CHZ (say Europa) or, especially, imagining how we might already be in contact with extraterrestrials and just call it prayer.

4- It’s not science. Just as Crichton (and others) argue that SETI is a religion, so is the anthropic principle. In this particular religion it’s easier to believe that we’re alone and use the anthropic principle as justification then to think that we’re not alone and that God exists. It’s the religion of, humanism, especially the belief that there is nothing beyond the limits of rationality and science.

When I said the consequences are far-reaching and extreme, this is what I meant. If we are truly alone, if we are the lone intelligence in the entire observable universe then that puts us in a position of awful responsibility, and takes us back to the premise of the blog. My assertion is that the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. If you assert that humanity is alone, that we are all there is, then what you’re saying is:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we HAVE to be saved.


The 9 Books I Finished in March

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  1. Secular Cycles by: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov
  2. Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past by: J. Storrs Hall
  3. A Short Stay in Hell by: Steven L. Peck
  4. Cibola Burns by: James S. A. Corey
  5. Nemesis Games by: James S. A. Corey
  6. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1 by: Peter Adamson
  7. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games by: Jon Peterson
  8. Earth Abides by: George R. Stewart
  9. The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel by: Eliyah Goldratt

I keep a daily journal, as many writers do. In addition to that habit, every day I am also in the habit of re-reading the entries from a year ago, and five years ago, etc. Which means I spent this month re-reading my journal entries from March of 2020, when everything was shutting down.

As always the exercise was both thought-provoking and cautionary. Reading the March 2020 entries was an experience rich in dramatic irony. But really that’s the case when I read nearly any past journal entry. I know what’s going to happen, the person writing the entry doesn’t. The person writing is frequently wrong. I am that person. It gives one a certain humility. 

There were lots of things I didn’t suspect a year ago. I didn’t imagine that the pandemic and wearing masks would become so politicized. I should have. I didn’t think we’d have vaccines so quickly, that mistake was probably more forgivable.

In other areas I was more prescient. I could already sense in my gut by the end of last March that the Rhine River Cruise my wife and I had booked for July (in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary) was going to get cancelled. We have rebooked it for June of this year, and my gut is once again telling me (as I look at the climbing numbers in Europe) that it’s not going to happen. On the other hand my head is telling me that there’s no way Europe is going to miss another tourist season. Let’s hope my head is right.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Secular Cycles 

By: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov

350 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The repeated historical cycles of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression experienced by all nations, with two examples each from England, France, Rome and Russia.

Who should read this book?

I’ve wanted to dive into Turchin for a while, and I couldn’t get any clear sense on where to start. Of all his books I already owned this one, so eventually I decided to start with it. So far I think that may have been a mistake. Not that it’s a bad book, I just get the sense that it’s not a good starting point. But I’ll know more once I read some of his other books. Which I intend to do. All of which is to say at the moment I’m not sure who should read this book.

General Thoughts

The idea of historical cycles has been around for a long time. I’m no expert on this particular area (nor really any particular area) but as far back as the Greeks there was the idea of Kyklos, which I think just literally means cycle. Though they seemed to mostly use this term to describe the transition between the various systems of government, not quite using it so expansively as to describe the broad sweep of societal boom and bust we’re interested in.

In more modern times, my sense is that Oswald Spengler is the person most associated with applying the idea of cycles to Europe and the West. Asserting not merely that the West was caught in the same historical cycles which affected all civilizations, but that we were also nearing the end of that cycle. That our best days were behind us. The idea of cycles was also a big part of Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12 volume, A Study of History, which was enormously popular in the 40’s and 50s. But after this surge of popularity, Toynbee’s books and the idea of cycles fell out of favor, particularly once the Cold War ended. At least that’s how it appears to me.

As you might imagine, with the increasing unrest we’ve been seeing since at least 2016 interest in the subject of cycles has been rekindled. And Turchin is clearly at the head of the pack here, particularly since he started talking about it long before 2016. He’s been predicting worldwide civil unrest during the 2020’s since at least 2010. Which may not seem like much, but for a prediction that’s pretty good.

This book is not about the current day, or even the United States, it’s about him laying out, in meticulous detail, the historical case for cycles. This is not precisely what I was looking for and it’s probably not what you’re looking for either, but building out the foundation of his theory might be a good place to start. But as I already said in the previous section the jury’s out on that for now. 

The key problem with any theory like Turchin’s which attempts to predict the future by drawing on what happened in the past — deriving trends or cycles or general rules — is that it’s very difficult to make it even approach science. You have no control group to compare against. There’s no way to account for the effects of new technology. And your sample size is tiny. Turchin’s sample size is eight, or four if you only count the nations, and it was the work of hundreds of people and decades of research to compile the information necessary for even this small sample. So you’re faced with a situation where making a case is fantastically difficult and the case you can make isn’t very scientific even if you do go to the effort. 

Within the context of these limitations, I don’t think it’s possible to do a better job of making a case than Turchin has. He has pulled in data from several different angles. It’s full of charts, statistics and comparisons. He’s applied his theory successfully to multiple nations, in multiple different settings and historical periods. So, If you’re willing to at least entertain the idea that it’s possible to predict the future by looking at the past, then Turchin has done everything that might be expected towards making such a prediction. I understand he still may be wrong, that he has “proved” nothing, but it’s hard to imagine a more serious attempt than Turchin’s.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, making this case, and assembling all of the data proves to be a very dry read. Which is another reason why I’m not sure who to recommend it to. It probably serves better as a work of reference than something you just sit down and read from cover to cover.

Eschatological Implications

At a high level the eschatological implications of Turchin’s theory of cycles should be reasonably obvious. Unfortunately this book doesn’t give much guidance on where we are at in our own cycle and how that might play out. Though even without being familiar with anything else he’s said this book would lead you to the conclusion that we’re on the downhill side of the cycle and more chaos should be expected. 

One draws this conclusion from the many similarities our situation shares with the situations Turchin documents. A few are worth discussing briefly.

First, his analysis and theory owe a lot to Malthusian thinking. Good times lead to an increase in population which eventually outstrips the carrying capacity of the land leading to a stagnant and eventually collapsing population. We don’t seem to be having any problems with food, at least not yet, but we are suffering from a collapsing population. Is this a new thing or is food only the most visible example of “carrying capacity”? Have we reached other less obvious limits to our capacities?

A more obvious commonality is Turchin’s idea of “elite overproduction”. Most people who study civil unrest agree that generally the lower classes don’t spontaneously organize and revolt on their own, they have to be harnessed to that end by disaffected elites who have been excluded from wielding power more directly. Diving into how elite overproduction is playing out currently is beyond the scope of this review, but there are few two word phrases that are more evocative of our current condition. 

Finally, plagues play a major role in most of his examples of civilizational crisis, but what’s strange is they aren’t the instigating factor. Generally the crisis and decline has already begun and then a plague comes along. Turchin doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why that might be. (Rural overpopulation leads to increasing urbanization, leads to ghettoization, leads to poor sanitation, leads to disease, maybe?) But reading this in light of the recent pandemic was frankly a little bit eerie.

It’s interesting to draw such parallels, but not particularly useful. What we really want is to be able to translate Turchin’s theory into a course of action for our country or our politicians or even just ourselves. Which is not to say I have no ideas, I actually have lots of advice on this subject, I just don’t think reading Turchin’s book has added much to my store of practical wisdom on this topic. It’s added a huge amount of data, and I think the idea of elite overproduction is worth a deeper dive, but beyond that it doesn’t offer much solace for someone observing the end times.


Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past 

By: J. Storrs Hall

627 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very detailed examination of why we don’t have flying cars, which ends up pulling in all of the technology we might have had but don’t. Beyond the subject of flying cars this book also includes in depth discussions of nanotechnology, nuclear energy and even cold fusion. 

Who should read this book?

In the last post before this one I talked about the metaphorical knobs of society. If you want someone to paint a picture of what it would look like if the knob of “technological progress” was turned up to 11, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

I should state up front that while I try to limit discussion of individual books to my review posts that this book deserves and is going to get it’s own post, which will be the next one after this one. Why is that? Because this book has enormous bearing on the discussion of technocracies, and the pandemic, and just about everything else I’ve been talking about. As such it deserves a deeper discussion than what I have room for here. 

That discussion will be both theoretical and hypothetical, so I’m going to use this space to make sure I cover the practical side of the book. In particular Hall leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the issue of flying cars, going so far as to get his pilot’s license so that he has first hand experience on the difficulties of flying. He also goes into detail about engineering challenges, the disadvantages of helicopters, the unfulfilled promise of the autogyro, and every attempt, no matter how small, at making a commercial flying car.

Obviously one of the big things people think of when they consider the flying car are the numerous times futurists and science fiction authors confidently predicted their imminent arrival, and how wrong all of these predictions were. Less discussed is why these predictions were wrong. Most of the time when I see them offered up, the assumption is just that prediction is hard and the people making these predictions were not as far-sighted as they thought. Storrs went into things with basically this attitude, but ended up concluding that we really should have had flying cars and on the timeline people predicted, but there are four reasons why we don’t:

  1. Flying is harder than driving.
  2. The transition from driving to flying (i.e. taking off and landing) is a difficult technical problem. Airplanes require lots of room, and don’t like flying low and slow. Helicopters are exceptionally difficult to fly and don’t go very fast once they are flying and autogyros never received widespread support.
  3. Flying is expensive, especially for what you get. The amount of additional travel one gets for each additional dollar spent goes down as costs rise. For example helicopters cost easily 10x what a car costs, but only travel at best 3x as fast.
  4. But sitting behind all of the previous points there is the legal and regulatory landscape. Which according to Hall was “insanely overdone”.

In other words the reason those predictions were wrong is only a tiny bit reasons 1-3, and mostly reason 4. And 1-3 would be straightforward to fix, without 4 looming over everything, disincentivizing investment and innovation. Thus, the biggest blindspot of futurists, was the evolution of the regulatory state, and the product liability revolution.

Eschatological Implications

I’ll use my next post to really get into the eschatological implications of this book, including a discussion of the regulatory state, but I thought it was important to point out that unlike most of the books I review in this section, this book puts forth a positive eschatology. It’s all about the wonderful things we can do with technology, and presumably will do with technology once we can get past our current period of stagnation.

This book paints a picture of Jetson like flying cars powered by small nuclear reactors, super abundant food grown with nearly unlimited energy in massive greenhouses, incredibly precise nanotechnology, and trivial control of global warming and the weather. In that last item you may recognize another link to my last post, and hints at interventions which scare a lot of people. Of course as Hall will point out we are already messing with global warming, we’re just doing it in a very unconstructive and damaging fashion.

My overall reception of this book reminds me of a scene from the New Testament. In the book of Acts, chapter 26, Paul is brought before King Agrippa and asked to defend Christianity. Agrippa is obviously hostile towards the faith, but Paul’s defense of it is so stirring that by the end Agrippa says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” As you may have noticed from the last few posts, I’m somewhat hostile to technocracy, but having read Hall’s defense, I’m inclined to say the same thing, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a technocrat.” 

Now to be fair to me, what Hall is describing bears very little resemblance to what we’re actually doing, and we’ll spend the next post disentangling that.


II- Capsule Reviews

A Short Stay in Hell 

By: Steven L. Peck

108 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Mormon, who upon dying, discovers that Zoroastrianism was the true religion. As penance for not holding the correct beliefs during his life he must spend the afterlife in a library with all possible books, searching for his life story.

Who should read this book?

There is a genre of science fiction novellas, which prioritize M. Night Shyamalan-esque plots over character development. Another apt comparison for such novellas might be the Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone.  If you’re familiar with novellas of this style or if this otherwise sounds appealing this book is just the thing to scratch that itch.

General Thoughts

One might almost think that I would put this in the religious reviews section given the subject matter. (And also I have nothing for that section this month.) Though, if it does have a religious message it seems like it would be ‘You better hope the Zoroastrians aren’t right!” Beyond that I liked what Peck did with his initial premise, in particular the book has an unflinching quality which I appreciated.

The book is based on the short story The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges which imagines a library containing all possible books. These have been divided into 410 page chunks. And by all possible books he means not that it collects books that have actually been written but that it contains all possible characters combined in all the possible ways they could be combined over the length of 410 pages. 

As is often the case with ideas like this, someone actually implemented it. If we go there and take an example book at random the first 20 characters are:

m.eygvh rbzefwss,ctj

This implementation only includes lowercase letters, periods, commas and spaces, but beyond that, somewhere in its vast virtual bowels there is any book which has ever been written and any book you could imagine being written. Soren Johansson, the main character of the book is tasked with finding the book that tells the story of his life, I don’t want to give anything away, but as you can imagine that is an essentially impossible task. And it’s this impossibility which makes the book strangely compelling.


Cibola Burns (The Expanse #4)

By: James S. A. Corey

624 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the eternal story of poor squatters vs. an avaricious corporation. Only in this telling the squatters and the corporation are fighting over a planet which was once inhabited by a super advanced alien civilization, which adds all kinds of interesting chaos to the equation.

Who should read this book?

I have quite enjoyed the Expanse series. If you’re considering starting it I would. If you’re considering whether to continue past book 3, I would also do that. 

General Thoughts

This book somewhat reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Aurora which I brought up in a previous post, specifically the dangers of an alien biosphere, a theme which features prominently in both books. These dangers certainly add an exciting layer to an inflammatory human conflict that is already pretty exciting.

As with all of The Expanse books, this book also engages in the completely ridiculous conceit of having a small group of people end up in the center of all of the action. And the equally ridiculous conceit of that action always being of the super-exciting, nail biting, cinematic sort. The kind you’re lucky to survive once, but these guys have survived similar circumstances over and over and over again.

But if you can ignore how implausible that all is (and I think you should) they’re great books.


Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

By: James S. A. Corey

576 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four individual stories, one for each of the four main characters, which come together in spectacular fashion.

Who should read this book?

The same people who fit my recommendation for the last book.

General Thoughts

I mentioned the extreme implausibility of these books in my previous review, and it was during this book that I switched from treating them as an attempt to describe the future to viewing them as the log of a role-playing campaign. Unlike most campaigns this one isn’t set in a world of tolkien-esque fantasy, but in the near future, with the crew of the Rocinante obviously being the “player characters” or “party” as they say. You would think that splitting them up would be proof that this is not what’s happening (“Don’t Split the Party” as they say) but in actuality the opposite happened. It could not have been more clear that this book was the retelling of the four side quests created by the Gamemaster to flesh out the character’s back story, a common trope in role-playing games.

Yes I know that this comparison won’t make sense to some of you, but for those for whom it does make sense I think it’s the clearest way of describing the book. Though before I move on two other quick notes.

First other than the implausibility of all the characters being intimately involved in every exciting thing that’s ever happened, the series itself is pretty hard sci-fi. In fact it kind of has an old-school Heinlein vibe to it, particularly since AI and cybernetic enhancements are basically MIA in The Expanse.

Second, it’s tough to talk about this series without referencing the TV show. I watched the first season, and I might, some day, watch the rest. I found all of the actors to be spot on, with the exception of the guy they got to play James Holden, the main, main character. I’m sure he’s a fine person, but he’s not a great actor, IMHO. 


Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1

By: Peter Adamson

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Western philosophy from the very beginning (there are 12 chapters on the pre-socratics) up through Aristotle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a general overview of ancient greek philosophy, this provides that in an easily digestible form. I’m not sure if it’s worth reading on it’s own, and I’m about to discover if it’s useful for providing the background one needs before reading the actual works of those ancient greek philosophers. 

General Thoughts

This book went down easy. In fact I got the feeling that it went down too easy, and I’m not sure why. Possibly I have that feeling because I’ve been conditioned to expect that reading philosophy is supposed to be hard and if it’s not hard then you’re not doing it right. Possibly it’s because in covering such a large number of people and ideas Adamson doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and in consequence, the book is superficial. 

I’m expecting to be able to answer this question once I start actually reading Plato. He is up next in my “great books of the western world project”. If this book makes Plato easier to understand and particularly if it helps place him in context, then it will have been a success. I’ll make sure to report back.


Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games

By: Jon Peterson

698 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An encyclopedic history of tabletop strategy games as they evolved towards Dungeons and Dragons. 

Who should read this book?

The feeling I had while reading this is the same feeling I imagine a rabbi might have while reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. Most other people reading this book will probably have a very different feeling, that of anyone other than a Rabbi reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. 

General Thoughts

Earlier in this post I said that I’m not really an expert in any particular area. Well Dungeons and Dragons may be the exception to that statement. I’ve been playing it almost continuously since 1980. In fact in addition to the books I read in March I also attended a virtual D&D convention (GaryCon). Which was quite a bit of fun, though a pale imitation of attending in person. 

As I alluded to, this book is something of the Torah for role-playing nerds, and any details I could go into would be of limited interest to anyone outside of that group. In spite of that I will go into one part of the early history of D&D because I think I can extract a larger lesson from it.

D&D was initially created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Later Arneson was fired, written out of things and denied royalties. These actions have always been held against Gygax, and while opinions vary on how big of a role Arneson did play, the consensus seems to be that Gygax was selfish and greedy. Having read this book I’m much more on Gygax’s side. Yes, it’s possible it could have been handled better, but the key fact in my opinion is this. TSR, the company producing D&D, was a startup. This makes Arneson basically a co-founder with Gygax, and while Gygax was busting his ass putting out book after book, and tens of thousands of words beyond that in the form of magazine articles and correspondence, Arneson produced basically nothing

I know people think ideas are worth something, and they are, but not nearly as much as people think. But particularly when it comes to starting a business hard work is vastly more important. If you aren’t willing or able to do the work, then you don’t deserve the money. And to be clear Arneson sued and did get the money. So, after hearing all the details, from my perspective Arneson got more than he deserved out of things rather than less. 


Earth Abides

By: George R. Stewart

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The handful of people who survive a global pandemic, and what life is like in the ruins of civilization.

Who should read this book?

This book was published in 1949, before science fiction had really congealed, and it’s a great early example of the form. It’s particularly interesting in light of recent events. If you enjoy either disaster stories or old sci-fi, you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this came out before some of the tropes of science fiction had congealed and as such it’s a different take on how people would react to the apocalypse and the story also takes place over a longer period of time. These differences took a little bit of getting used to, but eventually I really came to appreciate them.

Also while it’s clear that there are lots of things he got wrong — for example he made the same mistake nearly everyone does, gas does not remain good for years — he mentioned a lot of things which I haven’t seen anywhere else, but which seem likely to happen in some form. Most of these involve a rebalancing of animal species after the disappearance of humans, with the additional factor of suddenly abundant food, i.e. human corpses, though Stewart mostly avoids the more morbid facts of the apocalypse. 

All of which is to say that if you want to know what the apocalypse will really look like I think Earth Abides has a lot to contribute. And it’s a great story beyond that.


The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel

By: Eliyah Goldratt

143 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a graphic novelization of The Goal, a business book originally published in 1984. Both are about the theory of constraints

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. This book was recommended to me, and these days my book buying is so reflexive that I had purchased the graphic novel version without really realizing it. But if you’re interested in learning more about the theory of constraints, doing it in graphic novel format is actually kind of cool.

General Thoughts

Having read the graphic novel version I’m not sure if I’m going to go on to read the actual book. In large part this is because I have already read the The Phoenix Project, which is basically the IT version of The Goal. The Goal deals with manufacturing, and if that’s what you’re doing then I would probably read the actual book rather than the graphic novel. But if you’re in software like me then I would just skip straight to The Phoenix Project. 

From a conceptual standpoint the theory of constraints is very interesting. And I can see it applied to a wide variety of undertakings (as demonstrated by The Phoenix Project) but within the confines of a graphic novel things have to be kept fairly focused. So I’ll probably look into these ideas some more but don’t expect a review of the full book anytime soon.

My average book length for the year is up 13% over last year. That may not seem like much but under the old average I would have read three additional books. If you like the fact that I read long books so you don’t have to (or more likely so you can know if they’re worth reading) consider donating.


The 8 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by: Joseph Henrich
  2. Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition by: Stephen R. Bown
  3. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by: Thomas Frank
  4. Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt by: Clay Moyle
  5. The Landmark Thucydides by: Thucydides Edited by Robert B. Strassler
  6. The Abolition of Man by: C. S. Lewis
  7. Orthodoxy by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by: Bart D. Ehrman

My wife was a big Star Trek: Voyager fan, so I ended up watching a fair bit of it myself back in the day. Out of all the episodes I saw, one in particular keeps coming back to me, probably because it seems to speak to the situation we’re in. And more specifically the situation I found myself in last month.

The episode was titled The Voyager Conspiracy and in it Seven of Nine “decides to increase the amount of information she receives from the ship’s database by directly assimilating as much of Voyager’s data as possible”. After doing so she starts to see conspiracies everywhere, eventually deciding that the whole “being lost in the Delta Quadrant” is an intricate plan to capture a borg drone, i.e. her. This causes her to flee the ship. Eventually they convince her that she’s sick and the episode resolves in the usual semi-artificial way. 

This is not a subtle way of saying that I’ve descended into conspiracy theories. What resonated with me is the danger of seeing connections where none exist. I feel like lately I’ve been making a lot more connections between disparate bodies of material and I’m ever so slightly worried that rather than elegantly integrating various strands of knowledge into a brilliant thesis, I’m in the situation of Seven of Nine. The doctor’s diagnosis of her could apply equally well to me:

Seven has downloaded more information than she can handle…

I guess we’ll have to see.

Of course, beyond my own situation, the parallels between that episode of Star Trek: Voyager and the current state of the country are probably too obvious to be worth belaboring. But comparing social media to an out of control Borg implant would not be far from the truth.

Oh, also I turned 50 in February… It’s been a little bit surreal.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

by: Joseph Henrich

682 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democractic. Combine that with the subtitle and you actually have a pretty good summary, though it neglects to foreshadow the enormous amount of time Henrich spends talking about the importance of Western Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a powerful counter narrative for much of what people believe about the world. Though it’s written in such a way that I don’t think most people realize how radical of a book it is. As such I think just about everybody should read it. Certainly if you’ve ever considered reading a nearly 700 page non-fiction book by a Harvard professor, you should read this one.

General Thoughts

This is Henrich’s follow up to The Secret of Our Success, which I reviewed last month, so obviously, of the many connections I made this month, one was the connection between those two. Though it is certainly not necessary to have read that book in order to understand this one. In fact Henrich doesn’t pull in cultural evolution (the main subject in Secret) until the end of WEIRDest. Probably because in this book he’s going in a different direction. In Secret he was going from the general idea of the importance of cultural evolution, to the specific examples of it in action. While in WEIRDest he’s going from the specific, a detailed history of the development of Western/WEIRD culture, and then only later tying it in to the general subject of how cultures evolve. 

I mentioned in the last post how this ends up being very similar to what Charles Taylor did in A Secular Age, only Taylor approached it from an historical perspective, while Henrich was looking at it from more of a sociological perspective. The other book WEIRDest connected to for me was The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist which I did an extensive writeup of back in August

McGilchrist’s book is all about the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere and WEIRDest starts with a prelude titled,“Your Brain has Been Modified”. It then goes on to list seven changes to the brain which might have been pulled straight from McGilchrist. In particular #7 is almost precisely McGilchrist’s thesis:

Your default tendency toward holistic visual processing [has been reduced] in favor of more analytical processing. You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns. 

You could shorthand all of this to The West = WEIRD = Post-Christianity = Left hemisphere dominance, and there are other connections beyond that. In fact, WEIRDest could act as supporting documentation for the majority of the contentions I’ve made over the last five years. 

Henrich has his own list of contentions which understandably have a different focus from mine. Another way in which we’re different is that he mostly shys away from making strong connections between these contentions and the cultural debates which are currently raging. Which is to say, the books stop short of making any recommendations. I consider this a weakness of his books, though perhaps from Henrich’s perspective it’s a strength. Certainly it’s probably better for him if his books don’t get swallowed into the blood-soaked trenches of the culture war. As evidence of this, while there are connections he doesn’t make, if there are any particularly inflammatory connections which could be made, he does point those out, and makes sure to disavow them. 

So let’s look at the sort of recommendations one might infer from this book, the kind of things Henrich himself might suggest if he were as foolish as me. Though even I’m not foolish enough to cover everything one might infer from the book. In any case, let’s talk about the book’s…

Eschatological Implications

Even though Henrich points out the connection between WEIRDness and prosperity (it’s right there in the title) he doesn’t spend much time advocating for more WEIRDness. This is all part of the lack of recommendations I mentioned, and perhaps it’s just him exercising scientific distance. But not everyone reading this book will be a scientist. What are you supposed to do with this book if you’re a policy maker?

This is not a book for cultural relativists. The strong implication of both of Henrich’s books is that some cultures are better than others at doing certain things. This is the point where Henrich generally stops, but if you’re a policy maker and you want to encourage “certain things” then a logical path to get those things would be to evangelize the culture which is the best at those things. Perhaps this is difficult to determine so, as a policy maker, you have an excuse for not doing it. But then along comes Henrich who writes a 700 page book claiming that Western Culture equals prosperity. He even places a big emphasis on monogamy, and the critical role of religion. So what is one supposed to do with this information? I mean you’re not anti-prosperity are you? In fact if you’re a technocrat of the Steven Pinker school, prosperity is kind of your core metric. So what do you do?

There are lots of things you might do, but let’s start with one of the more obvious areas: immigration. Here you are taking people with very different cultures, cultures which, according to Henrich, are worse at doing all the things we associate with modernity. Do you make them conform to the WEIRD culture? Do you leave them alone? Do you celebrate their culture and disparage WEIRD culture? The answer to these questions are well beyond the scope of this review, but that last option, celebrating other cultures and disparaging the WEIRD culture as being the height of evil seems the very least likely to end up being the right one.  

And then there’s all the religious ideas which are out of fashion like monogamy and the associated sexual continence, to say nothing of religious prohibitions against things like same sex marriage. How important are these things? Can we continue without them? How important is the basis of Christianity to the modern world? Japan and Korea have imported the modern world without Christianity and both have ended up with legendarily low birth rates. Is this a coincidence? 

I’m aware of the criticism of taking the WEIRD/left-brained stuff too far. I wrote a whole post on it, but how do we determine what to keep and what to abandon? My sense is that we’ve largely abandoned the important things and kept the things that seemed nice in the short term. That we have essentially used the stability, progress and prosperity given us by the WEIRD package (i.e. Christianity) and used it as an excuse to do whatever we want.

That we got going so fast we didn’t realize we’d driven off the edge of a cliff, and for the moment the view is amazing, but the bottom is coming up fast.


II- Capsule Reviews

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition

by: Stephen R. Bown

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Two expeditions which were sent out by Russia to explore Siberia, and the northern Pacific. Both expeditions were initiated by Peter the Great and prominently featured Vitus Bering. 

Who should read this book?

If you enjoy other stories of exploration and survival, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s also very interesting as a history of Siberia, and the “discovery” of Alaska.

General Thoughts

As I already mentioned in my first post on technocracies, this book was very interesting as an example of the kind of top down governmental efforts popular during the Age of Enlightenment. And while it’s clearly an overgeneralization to claim that Europeans thought they could will into existence whatever they imagined, neither is such a generalization entirely inaccurate. This includes things like exploring the world, cataloging all the species of the Earth, as well as colonizing and civilizing “primitive” people. Of course, one of the ways they imagined this would happen was just by throwing sheer manpower at the problem. And while there are many differences between such efforts then, and such efforts now, it’s the scale of these efforts that keeps jumping out at me as I read about them.

To illustrate what I mean let’s bring in another, very similar book I read back in November, The Man Who Ate His Boots. In Boots it was the British trying to find the Northwest Passage, in Island of the Blue Foxes it was Russia trying to claim the North Pacific, explore Siberia and connect it’s far flung empire. In both cases it wasn’t small groups travelling light, but rather massive expeditions with huge resources, and an enormous number of people. In Bering’s case it ended up being three thousand people journeying across the length of Siberia, in what almost looked like an invasion, except (as I said when I brought it up before) it was an invasion of interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia.

I say it was an invasion, and in some senses it was, in other senses it would have been more effective had it been planned as invasion, since then they would have expected nothing from the people already in Siberia. By contrast the rulers in Moscow expected those people to do all manner of impossible things, like assemble vast quantities of food and construct housing for thousands of people, and they expected it to be done just because they had ordered it. 

In the case of Boots, it was only after decades of failed expeditions by ships with hundreds of people that the Europeans abandoned the idea of using the large ships to explore, and instead turned to using the ships as a base from which to send out small sled teams. And of course, this culminated in the most famous polar explorer of all, Roald Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole with a team of only five people. 

Of course Amundsen made his journey in 1911, while the massive expedition Bering was in charge of, stretched from 1733 to 1741. So even if it could be argued that people eventually learned it took an awfully long time. Beyond this the case could be made that they still hadn’t entirely learned, since Robert Falcon Scott attempted to reach the South Pole at the same time as Amundsen (only to have Amundsen beat him by 30 days) and ended up perishing. This was due both to bad luck and the fact that his plans were more complicated than Amundsen’s, and included not only more men, but motorized sleds, dogs and horses. As it turns out Bering also perished while returning from America.

I wonder if this is a lesson we’re still learning, not in the realm of exploration, but in the realm of getting things done in general. Even today we often end up throwing more men and resources at things, assuming that that’s what’s lacking. Or we imagine that just by declaring something to be the case that reality will conform to our wishes, similar to how the rulers in Moscow dealt with the inhabitants of Siberia. 


The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism 

by: Thomas Frank

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of populism, mostly assembled by clarifying the origins of populism, and how it operated historically.

Who should read this book?

If you like the idea of populism, but don’t like Trump, this book is for you. Yes, you might in fact say that this is aimed at supporters of Bernie Sanders. 

General Thoughts

This book, as you might have guessed, has very interesting things to say on the subject of technocracies, and since they’ve dominated my thoughts as well over the last month it was good to get this perspective on things. 

Some of the things Frank says are exactly what you would expect. He’s not a fan of technocracies, particularly insofar as they are frameworks for the elites to keep the masses away from the levers of power. He further argues that one of the chief tools technocracy uses to accomplish this has been to turn the term “populist” into a pejorative and use it to reject everything non-elites do that elites don’t like. These are the bits that are unsurprising, the bit that is unexpected is that he argues populist movements throughout history beat the experts when it comes to policy details. That their recommendations are universally better than those made by the elites. What most people would also find surprising is he argues that populist movements were historically not xenophobic or racist. 

There’s a lot going on, and the whole book is delivered in a pretty student tone (I listened to the audiobook which was read by the author) but I’ll try and divide it up into three themes.

First, I would say that the bulk of this book is dedicated to trying to rehabilitate the word “populist” by showing how great historical populists were. How their positions were eventually proven to be correct (particularly with stuff like abandoning the gold standard and fiat currency). And how most of the things populists get accused of these days were not part of the historical platform of populism, and were in fact the opposite of what the populists stood for. As you can imagine he talks a lot about William Jennings Bryan but he also applies the populist label to FDR, mostly on the basis of how united the elites were in the opposition to him in 1936.

He also claims Martin Luther King, Jr under this banner. I’m sure there’s lots of evidence for this, but what stuck in my memory is a speech where MLK argues that populists were trying to unite the southern whites and blacks, but that in an effort to stop populism, the Democrats implemented Jim Crow laws which created special privileges for the poor whites, so while they were still poor at least they could take comfort in the fact they weren’t black.

The second part of the book is showing where things changed. Frank argues that the left’s rejection of populism started as a reaction to Mccarthyism (the book is almost entirely directed at the left, the right is presumably beyond hope). This percolated into academia where it became the perceived wisdom that populism was the problem. The 60s might have been able to reverse that, but most of the campus activists abandoned the American working class in favor of a global proletariat, which was easy to do while the Vietnam war raged. Accordingly by the time the Clintons, and even Obama came along this attitude had hardened to the point we find it today, where Trump could come along and steal white working class voters and win elections because the left had a built in negative opinion of them as irrational xenophobes. (See Obama’s “cling to their guns” remark and Hillary using the phrase “basket of deplorables”. Both examples Frank brings up.) They had in effect abandoned them, a statement which could serve as the book’s thesis.

All of this takes us to the third part. Which was noticeable more by its lack. Certainly you could make an argument that maximum democracy yields the best outcomes if the elites are just smart enough to get out of it’s way. And that, to the extent you think Trump was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake which originated from voters, but one which originated from the elites. But most people would expect that the person making this argument would have the burden of proof. They would expect you to provide lots of evidence. This book is not completely devoid of such evidence, but the impression I got was less of a carefully reasoned argument and more a variant of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. That every time the vast masses of people go awry (Trump, French Revolution, Fascism) it’s not really populism but everytime the masses are correct it is.

In short I really expected a lot more effort to identify what separates mass movements with bad outcomes from mass movements with good outcomes.


Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt

by: Clay Moyle

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Billy Miske, a boxer from the early 1900s whose promising career was cut short by Bright’s disease

Who should read this book?

There is a fantastic story in this book, the kind of story that should be made into a movie, but I’m going to tell it to you in this review. If after hearing it you want more details you should read this book. You should also read this book if you’re into early 19th century boxing, but I imagine the overlap between that fanbase and mine is pretty small.

General Thoughts

Billy Miske was a fantastic boxer and an all-around great guy. He was considered one of the toughest boxers of the era, though he never held the heavyweight championship. He was, however, a contender, he just happened to not be able to get past Jack Dempsey, who was the dominant boxer of the day. In Billy’s defense it seems pretty clear (though not certain) that he was not at full strength at the time of his fight because of the Bright’s disease. 

As an aside you’ve probably heard the name Jack Dempsey, even if you couldn’t have said where you’d heard it. As long as we’re on the subject of Dempsey. I will mention, despite him being from my hometown, he doesn’t come across as a particularly admirable guy. It’s not horrible, but his tactic of standing over opponents who were trying to get up and immediately hitting them again before they were even back on their feet (which was legal, but frowned on at the time) left a bad taste in my mouth.

So in any case the story. Billy’s illness had progressed to the point where he had stopped fighting, and it was clear that the end was near, but because of some bad business decisions he was, in his own words, “flat broke”. It was coming up on Christmas and he really wanted the last one his family would ever have with him to be a special one. So he told his manager to set up a fight for him. His manager refused, saying another fight would kill him. Billy persisted. The manager offered to get him a fight if he could get back into shape. Billy said that was impossible, but he was going to fight anyway, and he needed the manager’s help. Finally his manager gave in.

A newspaper reporter found out and was going to expose the manager as a despicable lowlife who was only interested in money. So the manager and Billy visited the reporter, the reporter also strenuously objected, but eventually he acquiesced to the plan saying, “I’ll keep your secret. For one fight. And God help us all.”

The fight was on November 7, 1923. And… Billy knocked out his opponent in the fourth round. He took the money, used it to give his family a fantastic Christmas, including buying a baby grand piano for his wife which she had for the rest of her life. 

The day after Christmas Billy woke up in excruciating pain, and after it became clear it wasn’t going away he was taken to the hospital. His health continued to decline swiftly and he died on New Year’s Day. I think it’s fair to say that he was hanging on for that last Christmas, and when it was over, he couldn’t hold on any longer.


The Landmark Thucydides

By: Thucydides

Edited by: Robert B. Strassler

714 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which was waged between Sparta and Athens between 431 and 404 BC. A history written by someone who was there. You may have heard of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition which is the most notable event in the book. 

Who should read this book?

This book is part of my project to read the foundational books of Western culture. If you have a similar project, this book should definitely be on the list. I would highly recommend this edition of the book as well. In between the appendices, the numerous footnotes, and the ubiquitous maps (probably 1 every half dozen pages) it has all the supplementary material you need to jump right in.

General Thoughts

I just spent a couple of posts talking about religion in general and civic religion in particular. And of course this book has a lot of interesting things to say about both of those things, given that Sparta and Athens had the same religion, but different forms of government. Athens was of course a democracy and Sparta was an oligarchy. What I didn’t realize is that Athens abandoned democracy near the end of the war in an effort to curry favor with the Persian Empire. This was after the Sicilian Expedition and the Athenians needed all the help they could get. What was even more interesting is that most of Sparta’s victories came by fomenting revolution among cities dominated by the Athenian Empire with a promise of “Freedom!” Not the playbook you would normally expect out of an oligarchy.

These two forms of government largely resulted in very different civic religions, but these civic religions were not what the war was about. Athens wasn’t trying to make the world safe for democracy and Sparta wasn’t defending slavery (which was extensive in Sparta). And in fact the discussions and disagreements about the different governments seemed to be remarkably civil. Today we can’t even maintain civility when discussing the difference between mail-in and in person voting. I’m not sure if this counts as progress or not. I’m mostly just pointing it out.

As far as the actual religion. You get the feeling it might have contributed to this civility. To offer a couple of examples: After every battle it was just given that you would grant a truce to the other side so they could come retrieve the bodies of the fallen. And then when (*spoiler alert*) the Spartans finally won the war, there was a call by the allies of Sparta to destroy Athens (think of what a loss that would have been) and to enslave all of the citizens. “However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece.”

After a very acrimonious 27 year war, Sparta still recognized that they were both still Greek. That’s pretty impressive. I would hope we might make a similar realization should this situation come for us. I fear that it already has and we didn’t.


III- Religious Reviews

The Abolition of Man 

by: C. S. Lewis

116 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book is a defense of objective value.

Who should read this book?

If you like Lewis at all this is as good as anything he’s written, and short to boot. Why wouldn’t you read it?

General Thoughts

I’ve already told you it’s a book about objective value by C. S. Lewis. I think you have a pretty good idea of what Lewis is going to say and what I’m going to say, but the way Lewis says it, is as always, magnificent. With that in mind I’ll content myself with giving you one quote from the book as representative of my own thoughts as well:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.


Orthodoxy 

by: G. K. Chesterton

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Chesterton’s defense of how he came to believe in Christian Orthodoxy, it is more “measured argument” than Road to Damascus

Who should read this book?

I am not a Chesterton expert, but this is a companion to his book Heretics, and having read both they seem like an excellent place to start with Chesterton. And really everyone should have read some Chesterton! 

General Thoughts

First, as a logistical matter, I would recommend that you not read Lewis and Chesterton at the same time. Their styles and subject matter are very similar, and while, as I’ve been pointing out, connections are good, the connections here were too close, to the point of temporarily confusing me everytime I started reading one or the other.

Second as long as we’re on the subject of objective values it’s interesting to tie things back to The WEIRDest People In the World. Because in a sense Henrich is arguing both sides of this. First he’s arguing that what we used to think were objective values are really just Western values, but on the other hand he’s arguing that these values are objectively better at accomplishing certain things, that together the values form a cultural package which has led to nearly everything we associate with modernity. In a sense Lewis and Chesterton are arguing the same thing, the three are even united in recognizing the importance of Christianity. 

But having spent a lot of time on the values part I’d like to turn to look at the package part of things, because Chesterton has something very interesting to say about that. Most Christian writers express their dismay at the vices which have been let loose, but Chesterton points out:

[T]he virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. 

One of the things I keep coming back to in this space, is that many people will acknowledge that there is some good in religion, but then go on to think they can easily identify which parts are good and which parts are bad, and thereby excise the latter, and keep the former. But it’s really the whole package that got us to where we are. 


Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife 

by: Bart D. Ehrman

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The historical evolution of our concept of the afterlife. That initially there was no afterlife, no heaven, and no hell in Judaism or Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

This book tries to do two things. First, it’s a historical overview of the evolution of concepts like resurrection, heaven and hell. Second, it’s sort of an anti-apologetic book, attempting to show that modern Christians don’t know what they’re talking about. If you’re interested in the former it’s fascinating. If you’re interested in the latter I would skip it.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case this review post is pretty long, so I’ll just end with two final connections:

Ehrman, like so many working in the anti-apologetic space (I just made up the word “anti-apologetic”, there’s probably a better one) seems to feel that uncovering the evolution of religious doctrine acts as something of a slam dunk for refuting that religion. But here’s Chesterton writing on exactly that subject from Orthodoxy:

It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods. We must have a long historical experience in supernatural phenomena—in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I find the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins, quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told that the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any research to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important, just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only slowly that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite.  

One of Ehrman’s claims is that hell is something evil men made up as a form of religious abuse, but then we read in The WEIRDest People In the World:

Based on global data from 1965 to 1995, statistical analyses indicate that the higher the percentage of people in a country who believe in hell and heaven (not just heaven), the faster the rate of economic growth in the subsequent decade. The effect is big: if the percentage of people who believe in hell (and heaven) increases by roughly 20 percentile points, going from, say, 40 percent to 60 percent, a country’s economy will grow by an extra 10 percent over the next decade… believing in just heaven (but not hell) doesn’t increase growth… Since many people seem keen to believe in heaven, it’s really adding hell that does the economic work…

As I keep saying it’s all part of the package…

The theme of this post was tenuous connections. But that’s always the theme of this bit at the end, the tenuous connection between writing and asking for money.  So now I’m making a tenuous connection between tenuous connections. If making ever slighter connections appeals to you, consider donating


The Missing Piece of the Present Moment Is Religion (But Not in the Way You Think)

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

Or download the MP3


I.

This post is a continuation of the last post, but it’s okay if you came straight here without reading my previous post. When you’re writing you always have a destination in mind, and sometimes that destination seems pretty close, and you figure you have time to take a detour, so when you pass a sign that says, “World’s Largest Ball of Twine! 25 miles!” You think, “Sure we have time to go see that,” but the next thing you know you’ve not only spent hours traveling back roads, but you’re deep into the competing claims over which ball of twine really is the biggest, and you decide to travel to all of them, and… Well you get the picture. 

With that introduction, if you understandably decide not to go back and read the last post, here is a distillation of the three claims I made: 

  1. Uniting large groups of people is very difficult, and it’s a project that ultimately comes down to your foundational epistemology. How does a system construct the truth which goes on to inform its policies?
  2. When looking at these foundational epistemologies technocrats would seem to have an edge because in theory they arrive at the truth, they don’t construct it. But not only does their method have some notable blind spots, it’s also not very good at uniting the masses. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. 
  3. Religion is something that is both very good at constructing a truth framework and uniting people, and that is what we used to have in this country in the form of a patriotic civic religion, but that recently we had abandoned it, and the hole left by its absence is large contributing factor in the current unrest. 

To give you an example of what I mean here, let’s take something smaller than an entire theory of government. The above is also essentially the point I’ve been making when it comes to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the alternative macroeconomic theory that’s been much discussed recently. It may be that the MMTers have genuinely figured out some more accurate model for how government debt works. (Though I doubt it, even Krugman has referred to it as Calvinball.) But more important than the accuracy of the idea, is how it ends up getting translated when it filters down to citizens/voters. The average voter has no interest in the actual wonky policy debate. They have no understanding of monetary supply or inflation or the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Consequently they’re either going to ignore the whole debate, or it’s going to get translated into something they can understand. The most likely candidate for the latter is a conviction that deficits don’t matter and the government can spend whatever it wants, and so what possible reason could there be for not spending money? Particularly if people are in need.

Now of course it’s going too far to say that this conviction would be equivalent to a religion. It may be easier at this stage of things to view such an idea as a myth. A myth which is a distortion of MMT, but which arises out of it in a fairly natural fashion. And even if we imagined that people could understand all of the ins and outs of Modern Monetary Theory, you can see how the myth is much more appealing. Not merely is it simple and straightforward, but it appeals to their self-interest. When given a choice between doing the hard work of understanding the in-and-outs of things, listening to the experts, or believing a simple and compelling myth. Most people are going to go with the myth. Technocracy imagined that most people even even if they’re reluctant to do the hard work, will still go with believing the experts, but that’s simply not the case, 

What’s actually happening is that people are choosing between two myths. The other myth is a myth about debt. It is also simple and compelling. It says that debt is bad. As it turns out that’s not the case, governments need to be able to borrow. This is what makes it a myth, but it’s nevertheless a simple and straightforward idea that people can organize around. Experts, such as they are, may direct people towards one or the other myths, but essentially they’re a side show. 

II.

As I mentioned in that last post there are lots of books that speak to the importance of religion, but since we’re starting with myths and working our way up to religions, let’s start with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In yet another stab at explaining the uniqueness of humans Harari puts forth the idea that our uniqueness comes from our ability to craft these myths. That through myth-making we can create imagined orders and frameworks, which allow us to exceed the limits set by the natural order. You might notice that this is very similar to the other candidate for “human uniqueness” I recently mentioned in my review of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. For Henrich it was culture, for Harari it’s myths, but as you can imagine the two end up having substantial overlap.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s been awhile since I read Sapiens, and my note taking back then had not reached its current heights. Fortunately I did come across a blog post where someone had summarized the book. Accordingly, for convenience, I’ll be referencing that rather than Harari’s book. 

In doing so let’s review what we’re trying to do. Our overarching question is how do we beneficially unite large groups of people. Well setting aside the “beneficial” bit for the moment. Historically, uniting people above the level of a tribe has always begun with the application of force, or at least a form of power which was ultimately backed up by such force. I’ve talked about this before at some length, but as it turns out, even though in that last discussion I peeled away the veneer of democracy, I didn’t go deep enough. There was at least one more layer. From the Sapiens summary:

A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion.

To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

To maintain an imagined order, we need people who believe in it – the military, the elites, and the peasants.

In other words behind the threat of force is a myth that makes the force cohere into something useful, and beyond that myths are ultimately responsible for all cohering even if you’re not talking about the military—as our recent myth-induced chaos bears testament to. But if all power structures are ultimately built on a foundation of belief in some myth, then what myth forms the foundation of a modern technocracy? I suspect the answer is that there isn’t one, and as I concluded in my last post, this lack represents its fundamental weakness. But it’s only fair that we consider some possibilities before definitely concluding that.

III.

A technocracy is rule by technical experts. So perhaps the foundational myth is in the power of experts. Like all good myths this would be one with quite a bit of truth behind it. But is that all that’s required for a good myth? That it be a simplification of some more complicated truth, designed for easy ingestion by the masses? Probably not, at least as I consider examples of unifying myths, the amount of truth they contain seems mostly incidental to their success. What really seems to determine how successful they are is the emotional appeal of their core idea. To return to the other two frameworks I talked about in my last post: national greatness and Trumpism. The former’s emotional appeal is right there in the name. The powerful idea that the United States is a nation with a destiny! While the latter both borrows the appeal of the former—Make America Great Again—and the age-old appeal of unifying around a single, charismatic figure. In this case the idea that Trump is a transformative figure in his own right, something of a Moses who will set his people free. Do you see any similar appeal around the idea of “listen to the experts”? I don’t. It sounds more hectoring than inspiring, as I think recent events have shown.

What if we take it back a step and make our unifying myth the myth of science. Well we’re immediately faced with an oxymoron, since science is all about puncturing myths, or at least getting to the bottom of them. Which is to say the great strength of science, that it is self-critical, is exactly what we don’t want in this situation. It prioritizes doubt, but unity requires at least some degree of certainty. You can neither imagine someone storming the Capitol in the name of science nor facing down such a mob in the name of science either. You can imagine both happening in the name of justice or duty, but not science. 

Perhaps technocracy can unify people using the myth of progress? This seems like the best candidate, and to the extent that technocracy has been successful this is probably the unifying myth it has drawn on. But I think there are several reasons to think that this myth isn’t really capable of “going the distance” as they say. First off, while progress doesn’t come embedded with quite the same level of doubt as science it still invites a certain amount of criticism and reflection. All of which is to say that people feel they should be able to measure progress, and that, because it’s “progress” every time they measure it, there should be more of it. This gives progress a certain fragility. As long as progress is obvious it makes a great unifying myth, but if it stalls or reverses or takes a form that’s difficult to quantify, it’s utility as a myth quickly disappears. Also what if you end up with progress in some areas, but not in others? And what if some groups are doing great while things are getting worse for other groups? Suddenly progress isn’t unifying, it’s divisive. Which, once again is something we’ve seen play out in recent events. 

Perhaps the key problem with all of these myths is that in order for a myth to be useful it has to inspire people during both the good times and the bad. It has to not merely unify people when things are going great—nearly anything will work for that. No, it’s when times are tough that a unifying myth is put to the test. Does it continue to function when unity is both important and difficult? In order to do this there has to be something about the myth which encourages sacrifice, or at the minimum naturally assembles people into teams. One could argue that a great nation shouldn’t have to sacrifice, but at least that myth encourages everyone to want their nation to win, and from there the necessity of making sacrifices becomes pretty obvious.

In the final analysis technocracy may be antithetical to both unity and sacrifice. Under the idea of national greatness we’re all citizens, all part of the vast arc of destiny that has carried the United States from a hall in Philadelphia, through numerous wars against evils like slavery and facism, all the way up to walking on the Moon. Trumpism is not nearly so majestic, but it nevertheless formed people up into teams and gave them a goal to strive for. Even democracy at its most vanilla puts forth the idea that every voter has a part to play in government. But a technocracy contains none of these elements. The average citizen isn’t part of something grand they’re just a piece in a puzzle the technical experts are trying to solve. Through their behavior they may make the puzzle easier or more difficult to solve, they are not the prime movers in the story. They’re not the people playing the game of chess, they’re the pieces on the board. (I can’t decide if using the word “pieces” in two different contexts is clever or confusing…)

There is one other important point to be made in this discussion: unity can either be something which is cultivated internally or it can be imposed externally. I’m not going to spend a lot of time going down this path since I covered it in a previous post, but I would argue that the long period we’ve experienced without any wars has also contributed to our lack of unity. War’s have rarely been truly existential threats for the United States, but even so, knowing that great harm will befall you unless you pull together with the rest of the country is a powerful motivation to do just that. And as I mentioned in the last post, it is during such times as war, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the feeling of national greatness always reached its peak. 

At this point you may agree that myths are useful, you may even agree that technocracies are bad at cultivating unifying myths, but you might still think that they’re more effective, by virtue of the fact that they’re based on science, evidence and data rather than conspiracies (Trumpism) or a history which has been white-washed of all the bad things (national greatness). That in the long run technocracies will be a better framework for beneficially unifying people than any framework which relies on simplifying myths. This would appear to be the contention of a lot of people, and one of the great debates of the age. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.

IV.

To start with I’m going to jump ahead somewhat. I’m going to go straight from talking about myths to talking about religion. Ideally I would carefully build that progression, but I think it’s pretty obvious that religions are collections of myths. Myths which happen to be based on eternal truths if you’re a believer, or myths which may nevertheless be useful even if you’re not. But clearly everything I said above about myths—that they are coherent, easy to understand, and inspiring during both good times and bad—also applies to religious beliefs. It might even be useful to think of religions as mythplexes—aggregations of useful myths. 

If we accept that religions are the preferred framework for managing people via myths, then that’s what we should be measuring technocracies against. And unless I’ve completely missed the point, its supporters make the fundamental claim that technocracies are better than religions at unifying large groups of people. Regardless of whether we’re comparing it against traditional religions like Hinduism or Christiantiy. Or comparing them against civic religions, like the ideology of patriotic national greatness which held sway in the US until very recently. Though calling this a “fundamental claim” may give an inaccurate impression of how much attention technocrats pay to this comparison. I think most of them consider this superiority so blindingly obvious as to be unworthy of discussion, not something people are still fighting over. If this is the case, where are technocracies superior? What standards are we using for our comparison, and how does one even make the comparison? If we have a modern Scandanavian technocracy on one side, and, say, Christianity on the other, what are we looking for?

Obviously this is a big subject with a lot of potential areas where one could focus. Also it’s one where my opinion by itself isn’t worth very much. Fortunately, as I mentioned in the last post there are numerous books that have weighed in on this subject. Though before I dive in, it’s obvious I’m biased on this subject, and it’s almost certain that this bias extends to the selection of books I’ve read. So the fact that I can come up with far more books making the case for religion, than making the case for secular technocracies, may say more about me than about the state of scholarship on the subject. Accordingly if you know of any books making the case for technocracies which I haven’t read please let me know. The chief one I’m aware of is Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, and I’m not going to spend any time with it, because I already did a whole post on it, and this post is focused on the religious side of the debate. 

With those biases noted, let’s take a look at what we’ve got. I’ll be covering a lot of books, so by necessity I’m going to be brief, but in nearly all cases I’ve reviewed these books already and I’ll link back to those, more extended discussions. And in the one case where I haven’t discussed the book I’m about to so you’ll just have to tune back in at the beginning of March. 

Let’s start with the book in this last category, a book I just finished The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich. This one has a particularly interesting contribution to make on the topic. First off it makes the claim that just about everything you might think of as attributes of a modern technocracy is the result of Western Christianity’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). That this MFP produced WEIRD people, an acronym which stands for:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

These five words are also among the first words someone might think of when describing a technocracy, which would mean that technocracies aren’t in competition with religions; they are in fact only possible after hundreds of years of religious influence! Now this still leaves open the argument that technocracies are the stage of evolution past religion, that they are an improvement, which we will get to in a minute, but at a minimum I think anyone making this sort of argument would carry the burden of proof.

Beyond this WEIRDest People also spends a lot of time pointing out the enormous changes religion was able to make through the MFP, taking thousands if not tens of thousands of years of kin based organizational structures and remaking them into structures capable of much greater cooperation across a much larger number of people. Exactly the sort of beneficial organization I keep referring to.

As long as we’re on the subject of Henrich, his other book, Secret of Our Success, makes the strong case for the power of cultural evolution to organize societies as opposed to the method of rationally arriving at solutions and policies. Does not the former essentially describe the development of religion? While the latter is nearly an exact description of the technocratic mindset?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, makes much the same point as WEIRDest People, though from a very different angle. In Taylor’s case he spends 900 pages disproving the idea that secularization is a story of subtracting the bad bits of religion (for our purposes, if we equated “bits” to “myths” that’s pretty close to the mark). In place of this he argues that secularization has been an additive process, that everything associated with it was built on a vast foundation of progress that was driven by religion in all of its aspects. 

Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, makes the comprehensive claim that civilization is impossible in the absence of religion. That all civilizations have to be built around the framework of a common system of myths and beliefs. 

That’s four books, to these we could easily add four more: Marriage and Civilization by William Tucker, together with Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin which (along with WEIRDest People) all make the point that monogamous marriage is critical to civilization as we understand it. Perhaps technocracies share religion’s dedication to this subject, if so I’ve yet to come across any evidence of it. There’s also Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, which is yet another indictment of technocracy’s ability to plan and manage complex societies, with illustrations of how long it takes for such failures to manifest. Finally there’s Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which speaks to the deep dissatisfaction and the lack of unity so many people experience while living in modern technocracies. 

To these eight I could add still more, but that’s enough for now, and as I said, my own studies of this subject may be biased, and if so I welcome correction. But, as far as I can tell, religion has been absolutely critical to developing the society we currently have and we abandon it in favor of a secular technocracy at our peril. Though as I said perhaps technocracy is a natural evolution from where we were. Either an advancement which eliminates the need for religion or one which ushers in some new quasi religion which will fill the hole left by traditional religions.

V.

Even the most cursory review of the state of the world would have to conclude that technocracies are not doing well. This is not their moment, and it’s hard to discern any sense in which they have allowed us to transcend the need for myths and religions. They have not demonstrated any permanent and unshakable advantage over previous forms of government. In fact, at the moment they seem very shaken. But even more than their current distress, we get the best evidence in favor of my thesis when we look at what has shaken them. 

Obviously, I am most familiar with the US, and here, when you dig into what’s happening to shake the foundations of the technocratic order, it’s myths as far as the eye can see. There’s the myths underlying Trumpism, which were powerful enough to rally 74 million voters. There’s the myths of police violence against minorities, but particularly blacks, which were powerful enough to give us a whole summer of protests. There’s the myths of a socialist revolution sweeping away late-stage capitalism in an environmentally friendly way, which have provided enduring support for Bernie Sanders and The Squad. And somewhere in there, there is still the myth of national greatness, and American exceptionalism.

Like all good myths these are all based on a significant body of truth, but that’s not what makes them powerful. Technocrats who come along and point out Trump’s flaws, or that the circumstances of some of the police shootings were not quite as egregious as has been claimed, make very little headway against these myths. More facts are not what the people crave. They obviously crave something the technocrats have a difficult time providing. 

To these observations we should add the point that technocracies have not been around for very long, and while perhaps this means we should give them more time—that they have not been given a fair chance. I view it in the opposite fashion. Whatever success they have had, has been during a brief period of exceptional peace and stability. This has provided the illusion that they work, when, as I already pointed out, in good times nearly every system works. 

Taken together it seems pretty clear that technocracies are not an advancement which have allowed us to abandon myths and religion, that we still need them as much as ever and technocracies cannot fill that hole. So what about the idea that we might be transitioning to a new civic religion? 

I first encountered this idea in the Slate Star Codex post, Gay Rites Are Civil Rites, which right off the bat is a very clever title, particularly given the subject matter. In the post he argued that the old civic religion of national greatness and patriotism, which I’ve spent so much time talking about with its emphasis on patriotism, American History, and a parade on the 4th of July might be getting replaced by a new civic religion which emphasizes tolerance, progress towards the future, and a parade celebrating Gay Pride. For a label you might call it Wokeism, or the Religion of Progress, but regardless of what you call it or what you think about it’s chances for success, it’s a fascinating idea. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts I would urge you to read that post, because I’ve only scratched the surface. But I do see several issues with the idea:

  1. As I keep pointing out, one of the key features of a religion is that it works during good times and bad. How does wokeism encourage sacrifice? And not just the sacrifice of advantaged groups for those that have been disadvantaged but the sacrifice of all of its adherents in exchange for something they believe to be the greater good?
  2. And while it’s possible I could have made this clearer, it’s not that we need a religion, it’s that we need a religion that can unify us all, in the way that national greatness used to unify the nation or the way Christianity unified the West. At least so far whatever Wokeism is, it’s been pretty divisive.
  3. Even if we grant that it’s a new and better religion which has arrived just in time to replace the old and make us an even better nation. Transitioning to a new religion is not something to be undertaken lightly. Look at everything that went into the creation of the civic religion of patriotism: a revolution, a war, the creation of a new nation built exclusively around the religion, not to mention the extraordinary people. Just George Washington’s contribution as the first president was a huge factor. One that would be difficult to replicate. 

Put all of this together and the best case scenario is a tumultuous and contentious transition to a new set of myths with unknown efficacy, and it could end up being something far worse than that. The American Revolution was the best case scenario for transitioning to a new religion. If you want the worst check out the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Still it’s fair to ask what our actual options are.

That’s a tough question. I still think it might be easiest to retreat back to a religion of national greatness, but I’m worried that Trump has rendered that idea permanently toxic to at least half the country. There are of course traditional religions, and perhaps that’s a closer destination, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the path to that destination has been lost for a long time.

I wish there was a simple answer. But I think the overarching lesson here is that, in our hubris, in our certainty that we could just sit down and invent the perfect system, we ended casting aside the only thing that really could have saved us. 


People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge. (No, really!) And I’d probably do something both silly and petty. Like make everyone sign-up for my patreon. Click here if you want to get in on it before it’s mandatory. 


Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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I.

I was on a Discord chat the other day and someone exclaimed, “man substack is like too much content”. When he said that I knew exactly what he meant. At the moment when I’m writing this I have three substack newsletters waiting to be read in my inbox. Two are 4500 words and the “short” one is 3900 words. They all arrived today. Given that the average page of a book is 250 words, that’s over 50 pages of material which has arrived just today. 

(Before we get any farther, let me be clear. I realize that I often publish stuff which is that long, and I am infinitely grateful that anyone reads it. But you will notice that my newsletter is always less than 750 words and only comes out once a month. So while I am a hypocrite about many things, this hypocrisy does not extend to newsletters.)

The newsletters are not merely “too much content” they might also be “too much” to digest. Recently the value of technocracies seemed to be having their moment in my corner of the zeitgeist, and these same newsletters were holding forth on the value of that construct. One writer, somewhat in contradiction of previous comments he had made, was saying they were good. Another writer was also arguing that they’re good, but only so long as their policies are legible. And yet a third was saying that the first two have merely defined technocracies as governments that implement policies they like without describing what principles unite those policies. 

As if that weren’t enough I’m reading or have recently finished several books which would appear to weigh in on the topic. There’s: Seeing Like a State, which seems to be on the anti side of the technocracy debate. Secret of Our Success, also anti. The follow up to that book, WEIRDest People in the World, which so far also seems anti. (Representative quote, “What doesn’t happen is that rational parties sit down, put their heads together, and hash out effective institutional design.”) Island of the Blue Foxes, the story of mid-18th century Russia spending 1/6th of their annual budget on the ill-conceived mission of sending three thousand interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia. (Though with that many people invasion may be a more appropriate term than expedition.) Reviews for the latter two books will be coming soon, but once again both seem to make a powerful argument against big top down programs of the sort we imagine coming out of a technocracy. 

Finally on top of all of this, there’s the position I’ve taken on this subject already in my various posts. How do these newsletters (Presumably written by people whose opinion I admire, otherwise why would I subscribe?) and these books serve to update my old beliefs? Is anything I’ve read strong enough to overturn one of my beliefs in its entirety? To make me recant one of my previous posts. Unlikely, though I should be careful not to rule that out. But short of reversing my position I still should be updating my beliefs based on this new evidence, but that requires understanding what all of these multitudinous claims are evidence of. I’m sympathetic to the argument presented by the third newsletter that they don’t really represent arguments for or against technocracy, because no seems quite able to agree on exactly what technocracy is. Still the arguments are probably evidence of something, but already it’s obvious that we’re travelling through a complex intellectual landscape.

Furthermore, if this is the situation I’m in, as a bona fide pseudo-intellectual, imagine the situation of someone without such mastery of facts and reasoning? What are they to make of these various arguments? You may accurately assert that most people, even if they’re familiar with the word “technocracy” have very little interest in debates over its efficacy as a system. But the argument I’ve been describing is taking place as part of a larger discussion, one which they are interested in. A discussion that has been front and center since November 3rd: 

How do we come together as a people and enact long term, beneficial policies?

II.

Years ago, a very wise friend of mine made the assertion that the crisis of modern politics was a crisis of epistemology. His politics are very different from mine (though they appear to be converging in weird ways recently) and I suspect that my bias against those politics made me overlook the prophetic character of his words. But I’m paying attention now because everything he has foretold has come to pass. But before we go any further, we should define epistemology for those few who are unfamiliar with the term. This is not the first time I’ve brought up the topic. The last time around I defined it as: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Which is a pretty good definition (and one I stole from Wikipedia). But recently, I encountered the idea that epistemology can be broken up into three questions. And this may be an easier jumping off point for the discussion I want to have. These three questions are:

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. Can we have knowledge?
  3. How do we get knowledge?

It is assumed that if we can identify knowledge and acquire it, that we can then go on to apply that knowledge to our various problems in the form of policies, and all epistemological frameworks are designed to bridge that gap. But as we’ll see the chasm between facts and policies is wider than people realize, and this even if we assume that we actually can reliably acquire facts, which is by no means certain. 

This is clearly a place where some examples are in order. My first example is from a previous post on the topic. While I included it there as something of an aside—an idea that occurred to me while I was writing, but which I hadn’t given much thought to—it has since grown to seem more and more germane. This is the epistemological framework of national greatness. 

For this example I want you to picture old school patriotism. The kind one would have experienced during World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But also the lower intensity form that was ubiquitous in the 50’s. This is the framework that prevailed in my primary education up at least though High School. It was a civic religion where the Revolutionary War was the creation myth, the Constitution the tablets of Sinai and the Founding Fathers its prophets. With that picture in your mind let’s return to our questions and see how this framework treats them.

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the principles that went into the foundation of this country. The way those principles were used to do good things and improve the world.
  2. Can we have knowledge? We can not only have this knowledge, it is our duty as good citizens to acquire a good civic education. To understand the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
  3. How do we get knowledge? By studying the history of the country. Noting the throughline of principles from the pilgrims to the founders through to the present day. And how all of this makes the United States unique and special.

When it came time to translate this knowledge into policies, that was relatively easy. Not because specific policies are obvious but because it acted as a religion, and in so doing encouraged belief and unity. This provided a foundation for agreement between various policy makers and had the power of creating a united front out of the entire country, for example the one presented to Russia during the Cold War. The benefits of this framework are less about getting everything right than in acting together. 

Our second example is more recent, it’s the epistemological framework of all the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen. While this isn’t entirely accurate, for the moment let’s label this framework as Trumpism. Being more nascent, it’s contours have not quite come into focus, but you have the same process going on:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the things those in power don’t want us to know—the methods the elites use to retain power, and oppress the common man.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but not by listening to the mainstream media. We have to actively seek out the truth, which is only available through people on the fringe, who are constantly being censored.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By diligent search; by looking at the facts behind the scenes; by putting together the pieces of the conspiracy.

When people use this framework, the knowledge thus acquired translates into knowing “what needs to be done”. These are policies but they are necessarily of a desperate and radical nature because this epistemology encodes the idea that we are already at war. Or that in any case if we’re not at war with the elites they are already at war with us. That this is a life or death struggle, an existential crisis, requiring extraordinary measures.

The final example is of course a technocracy, which at least as I understand it, looks something like this:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of things we have uncovered using the scientific method.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but “we” should be construed fairly narrowly. This is not populism. We’re not aggregating the knowledge of the masses. We’re relying on the knowledge of experts.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By funding research; by collecting sociological data; by studying what other countries do. 

Advocates of technocracy assume that their methodology results in purer knowledge than the other two examples, and that the purer the knowledge the better the policies which derive from that knowledge. I think this often leads its advocates to be lazy, to assume that pure knowledge will naturally lead to good policies without much in the way of additional effort, which leads them to emphasize some things and neglect others. But of course the other frameworks do the same thing, each choses something different to focus on. 

III.

Technocracies seem to focus on the input. If we just make sure that we have truth going in the one side, then good policies will automatically come out the other side. This is why I was so impressed when Matthew Yglesias pointed out that policy has to be legible. Impressed enough that I wrote a whole post on it. Because this is one of the key weaknesses of a technocracy, it’s not enough to just work on the inputs into the system you have to polish the outputs as well. Implementation matters. And while I say this is a key weakness it’s not the only weakness or even the biggest weakness, it may just be the most obvious. No, the fatal weaknesses of technocracy are far more subtle, and often in the areas that look like strengths to its practitioners. As the first example of this, they emphasize measurement and accuracy, but by limiting themselves to what can be easily measured it fatally undermines both the inputs and the outputs. But as they emphasize inputs, let’s start there.

It would be nice to imagine that by using the epistemological framework of science that we can extract pure Truth and that having done that we can filter it through the medium of experts, generating perfect policies on the other end. But of course for all it’s strengths science does generate pure Truth, it generates a collection of insights with various levels of confidence, and these insights are only those which can be gathered using certain methodologies, in narrow domains while working under obvious limitations. 

As an example of how this operates we need merely look at how the pandemic was handled. We can measure the number of deaths, hospital capacity, and the rate at which the disease spreads, but we can’t measure the psychological toll of isolation, non-standard schooling, and a hundred other second order effects which will only manifest years later. So we focus on what we can measure, deaths. This is good and proper, but no one should pretend it’s perfect or that we have somehow arrived at an optimal solution to the problem. And of course it’s worse than that. Because as it turns out the technocrats have not even been particularly good at managing the problems they’re supposedly good at. You can blame Trump all you want, but it was technocrats who told people that masks weren’t effective, that travel bans were a bad idea, and possibly the least technocratic state in the country, West Virginia, is doing the best on vaccines (Wait, scratch that, my own home state of Utah apparently passed them recently… But WV is still second.) And don’t even get me started about the slow vaccination rate in Europe

This problem becomes even more difficult when you move from hard sciences like epidemiology to the social sciences. At least with the pandemic you had deaths to track and a virus to sequence. Tracking polarization is significantly more difficult and error prone, and there is no gene we can sequence which will allow us to target the source of the despair and anger which has been on display recently.

All of the foregoing is indisputably true, but proponents of technocracy will still argue that it’s better than Trumpism at solving this despair and anger. But is it? First there’s an argument that technocracy created those problems in the first place. Under a very narrow definition of technocracy it may be possible to argue that it didn’t, but expand it out a little bit and it’s hard not to see a correlation (even if causation is difficult to prove). Perhaps you remain unconvinced, but one still has to ask, “Better in whose estimation?” It would be unsurprising if the technocrats thought it was better, but what about the people actually experiencing the despair and anger?

If we take the people who stormed the Capitol as a representative sample, 60% of them, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, had prior financial troubles. Why would they blame technocrats for these troubles? Well let’s look at other data, this time from the RAND Corporation who found that if the income trends which existed from 1945 to 1974 had just continued to the present day that the bottom 90% would have ended up with $47 trillion dollars more in aggregate taxable income. Instead that money ended up with the top 10%. If you were going to apply a label to the top 10%, “technocrats” is as good a description as anything else. Certainly the voting pattern of the top 10% would skew heavily technocratic.

Interestingly technocracies are very good at taking numbers like this and inputting them into their system. We hear all about rising inequality, but under technocracy how do those inputs turn into outputs which actually end up reducing despair and anger? So far there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that they do.

All of this is not an argument to switch from technocracy to Trumpism. I’m making a point about the blind spots of both frameworks. The blindspots of Trumpism are easy to spot. The blindspots of technocracy are less obvious, but they are even more consequential. Trumpism has really never been the law of the land, even while Trump was president. The same can not be said of technocracies, which are in power all over the world, including the US.

Having covered the problems with the inputs, what about the outputs?

IV.

It’s easy to imagine that if you just have all the information about an issue that the policies for dealing with that issue will be obvious. But it’s also possible that there is no connection between facts and policies. In one sense this is just the old saw that correlation does not equal causation. In a larger sense we’re talking about making a connection between how things are and how things ought to be, what’s often referred to as the Is-ought problem, or Hume’s guillotine. It’s called that because Hume was the first to point out the impossibility of logically deriving a morale system from a starting point completely lacking in morality, for example, raw facts. That no matter how good the inputs into a framework, if they didn’t come with some morality attached, no morality will emerge out the other side. 

Now this is not to say the technocracies have zero embedded morality but, if you think back to the epistemologies of the three different frameworks, it’s clear that it has the least built in morality of any of them and the morality it does have is pretty sterile. On the other hand Trumpism is essentially a moral crusade. I think it’s pretty embryonic and poorly considered, and while Trump himself was able to get it started, and in fact proved fairly adept at it. He seemed unable to hammer it into anything effective. Which is to say, it doesn’t appear that either technocracy or Trumpism has a great plan for getting unity back. This leaves our third framework, national greatness. Thus far I haven’t spent much time talking about it, but it also has quite a bit of embedded morality, which provides interesting lessons for our current crisis, and those lessons are even more pertinent when we contrast it with a technocracy.

It might be most useful to start with a discussion of why we largely abandoned the framework of national greatness. After 200 or so years of using this framework as our default what made us decide that it was inadequate? As far as I can tell it was because of the morality embedded in its epistemology. In putting together its knowledge base it was decided it would be better (i.e. more moral) to overlook some inconvenient facts. For example the treatment of Native Americans; the restriction of suffrage to white, land-owning men; and most of all slavery, including the fact that most of the founders were slave owners. But that was part of the point, whereas technocracy emphasizes increasing the accuracy of the inputs, national greatness emphasized the efficacy of the outputs. This framework sacrificed accuracy for unity. But by embedding moral decisions in the inputs they were able to more easily output morality on the other side. Put more simply they created a civic religion, this is more important than it seems, since historically religions have always been the best place to put moral content.  

Contrast that with a technocracy which mostly eschews morality, and the morality it does put forth is limited to material issues, issues which are unavoidably competitive. (As much as self help gurus might preach otherwise, most people still have a zero sum mindset.) Accordingly not only is it a weaker morality than that put forth by a framework of national greatness, what morality it does contain serves to divide rather than unite. 

This finally takes us to the biggest weakness of a technocracy, it is not a religion. This is obviously a controversial assertion. Particularly since its supporters view this as one of it’s greatest strengths, but it is nevertheless true. 

V.

Even if you accept that some form of religion is the only way out of this mess—even if it’s an ersatz one like the civic religion of national greatness. We’re still a long ways away from anything approaching a concrete solution. And I’m already a couple of days past my self imposed deadline for this post, so we’ll have to explore what that might mean in our next post. But obviously I can’t just leave it here. So allow me to briefly toss out some thoughts to give you a sense of where I’m headed.

I imagine that some of you are still a long way away from believing that religion is the answer, so any post on this subject is going to have to spend at least some time creating that foundation. But I think there are plenty of books that make this exact argument. Just drawing on books I’ve reviewed there’s Clash of Civilizations, A Secular Age, Marriage and Civilization, Sex and Culture, Secret of our Success and the one I’m currently working on The WEIRDest people in the World. 

A quote from that last book seems particularly appropriate at this moment:

…throughout human history, rulers needed religions much more than religions needed rulers.

However important some sort of religion might be, our options are limited:

  • It seems difficult to imagine that we could go back to a unifying ideology of national greatness, and arguably that’s what Trump was trying to do. It’s possible to imagine that someone other than Trump might have been able to pull it off, but now that we’ve had Trump I think he might have burned that bridge.
  • It seems equally difficult to imagine some large scale return to an existing religion, however much some believers might wish for this. 
  • If we can’t retrace our steps is there some new religion we’re travelling towards? This is an interesting idea and one I’ve covered already in this space, and which I’ll certainly return to in the next post. But for now let’s just say that even if we can make such a transition it’s likely to involve serious upheaval if not actual bloodshed. (And perhaps this is what’s already happening.)

Everyone agrees that the country is sick. This might seem like a radical (not to mention underdeveloped) proposal for its cure, and in some respects it clearly is, but on the other hand I’m merely suggesting that we should look another look at what worked for thousands of years. 


I have a framework as well, I input books on one end of things and spit out posts on the other. This is just one of many possible frameworks. Other people input sanctimoniousness and spit out judgement. Still others input hot takes and spit out even hotter takes. If you think my framework is better than those and worth supporting consider donating


Books I Finished in October

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October definitely felt like the calm before the storm. COVID numbers were rising everywhere, but with death’s lagging (and apparently a lower CFR in general) it was still possible to think that we could get through it without doing anything extraordinary. But as the numbers continued to remain high it became more and more apparent that something major would happen. Hospitals would eventually fill up, laws would be passed, things would close back down, etc. 

And as if that weren’t bad enough there’s the election. I have obviously said quite a bit about it already, and I suspect following the “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation” maxim that we still have quite a bit of ruin left before things get truly apocalyptic (though I also think we’re still on a course towards that which is going to be hard to reverse) but our “ruin reserve”, even if it exists, doesn’t preclude all manner of short term black swans which could end up haunting our lives for quite a while. And the election certainly falls into the category of a short term black swan.

The former two paragraphs were written before election day, and since this is being posted after the election I thought I’d slip in my initial reaction to the last few days:

Even if Biden ends up winning, once again the polls and projections were very misleading. Note I didn’t say wrong. Perhaps when all is said and done, they will have been less wrong than they were in 2016. But just like 2016 I doubt that anyone will remember that “National polls ended up falling within the margin of error” when they remember 2020. And what will be even more memorable (or damning if you prefer) is the fact that both times they were wrong in the same direction.

The clearest example so far is Florida, 538 gave Biden a 69% chance of winning Florida with an expected 2.5% margin. In the end Trump won it by 3.3% and it’s not like Florida was sparsely polled or that no one paid attention to it. Also, remember that if the bias was random then in theory it should have been possible for it to have been wrong in either direction. Conceivably if Trump can win it by 3.3% then Biden could have won it by 5.8% and the whole thing would have been over by 9 pm on election night. 

I think from the perspective of healing the nation and unifying the country we ended up with the worst possible outcome, a narrow one… And this is part of why I’m so annoyed at the polls. Once again we were promised a potential blow-out, something way more certain than 2016, and in fact the uncertainty people expressed in 2020 mostly only came about because they were so wrong in 2016. One imagines that If we hadn’t had the huge mistakes of 2016 to teach pollsters humility, the predictions about 2020 would have been even more fantastically wrong. As it was they were merely about same amount wrong as they were in 2016 and in the same direction. All of which feeds into the general impression held by Trump supporters that the system is rigged, which is one part of the fuel feeding the fire which is gradually consuming us.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

By: Geoffrey West

482 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’ve tried to be better recently about taking notes, and tagging them into categories for later retrieval. One of my categories is “This Explains Everything” which I apply to books and other theories which seek to explain why the world is the way it is. This is one of those books, and if you’re looking for grand theories, and in this case even math, which can be used to explain the world, this is a great book for that. West does an admirable job of connecting biological rules for scaling, which were interesting all on their own, to a large number of things, including, most notably, cities and companies.

General Thoughts

I had really hoped that as part of his discussion of scale that he would end up explaining how scaling works with respect to nations and governments. Give something of a mathematical basis for the principle of subsidiarity, or at least some analysis of what the tradeoffs are between larger and smaller governments. Unfortunately the book did not end up going in this direction, which was too bad. I think it was a missed opportunity. That said it was still pretty thought provoking. To begin with here are some interesting bits of trivia that I thought were worth passing along:

  • Once the generalized growth of the entire market is factored out (which I assume is different than inflation) all large mature companies have stopped growing. (Understandably “mature” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.)
  • History is full of examples where someone successfully tweaked something by 5% in some direction. And also numerous examples of where they tried to change it by 30% or 40% and it ended in disaster.
  • On average our bodies go through 170 lbs of ATP every day. Obviously it’s not all in existence at the same time.
  • For those people interested in immortality, it should be noted that entirely eliminating heart disease would only increase average life expectancy by six years, and entirely eliminating cancer would only increase it by three.
  • Unlike animals, companies, and countries, cities apparently last forever.
  • Following from that last point, it’s interesting to speculate if the combination of the internet, virtual meetings and COVID might finally put an end to that. Certainly James Altucher has argued that New York is done. As they say, “Big if true.”

Finally, something that requires a little bit of backstory. A month or so ago I was listening to an episode of the Podcast Radiolab that was all about fungal infections, and as part of the discussion they brought up that fungi can’t stand heat, so one huge advantage mammals have, dating back all the way to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, is that being warm-blooded makes them mostly immune to fungal infections. But obviously maintaining a temperature higher than that of your surroundings requires calories, accordingly it would be inefficient to maintain a higher core temperature than was necessary. And so some scientists ran the numbers looking for the sweet spot where calories were minimized and fungal protection was maximized and found out that the perfect balance was… wait for it… 98.6 degrees! Which honestly seems too good to be true and I want to dig into that some more before I fully believe it, but then, in this book, West mentions that If our body temperature was cooler we’d live longer, which tied into his discussion about life spans (and relates to scale because bigger mammals live longer). 

As an inveterate pessimist, I can just imagine that one of the things people will try to do to extend life spans is reduce body temperature, either unaware of the danger from fungi, or thinking that the danger is manageable, and indeed whether it’s related to human intervention or not, our average temperature has been falling for quite awhile. This has recently led to a big increase in fungal infections, which was one of the main points of the Radiolab episode.

Eschatological Implications

Like many of the books I review this book ended up making some predictions about the future. As I already mentioned West contends that cities don’t die, and that as they grow bigger they bring numerous advantages. Particularly in the realm of innovation. But they also bring about various disadvantages. Innovation comes with a cost. Some of these costs appear relatively mild, like an increased pace of life, or lowered trust among members of the community. Others are obviously bad, like an increase in crime. But increasingly even those costs which appear to be mild initially, are blamed for causing a greater and greater share of the ills of the world. In fact it might even be argued that the internet could be viewed as something of a giant city, with yes, far greater innovation, but also much lower trust, higher crime and something which results, inevitably, in lives which are ever more frenetic. To put things in more general terms, it’s unclear whether the advantages “scale” faster than the disadvantages, nor is there any reason why they necessarily should.

At the same time I was reading this book I was working through a long essay on cultural evolution. The first full post from Sachin Maini’s newsletter Living Ideas. And it provided an interesting counterpoint to some of the points being made by Scale. Maini’s post was all about the importance of cultural evolution, going back tens of thousands of years. And in essence, when West is talking about innovation he’s talking about speeding up cultural evolution. But as I pointed out, the last time I discussed the rate of cultural evolution, greater speed, particularly if it’s coupled with greater conformity, is not necessarily a good thing. Maini pointed out that if you have too few people collaborating you can end up with negative innovation. That you can actually go backwards as was the case with the Tasmanians. West examines what happens if you just keep increasing the number of people collaborating and the speed at which they can do so.

On the one hand if things go well, then the terminal point would appear to be something similar to what was described by Robin Hanson in his book  The Age of Em. Where sped up emulated minds cluster in server-farm cities and experience hundreds of years for every actual year. Or in other words taking the features and advantages of a city and scaling them up essentially to infinity. On the other hand, things don’t actually scale to infinity very well. Generally they hit some sort of bottleneck. West recognizes this (and in fact frequently mentions Malthus in this context) and posits that the bottleneck might be energy, and as I’ve pointed out, our energy usage can’t scale exponentially forever. But these days it seems more likely that it might be trust, or social cohesion, or some other thing that gets worse as the environment for innovation gets better. 

In the end, one of the central themes of the book is that when it comes to biology there are limits to how big things can get. Presumably, over the billions of years life has been evolving, bigger things have been “tried” only to eventually fail. Presumably something similar might also be true with respect to cultural evolution, that things can only get so big, or so fast, or so connected. I guess we’ll find out.


II- Capsule Reviews

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By: Pankaj Mishra

356 Pages

Who should read this book?

It is said that history is written by the victors, this book attempts to reverse that trend, and tell the history of the Middle and Far East from the perspective of those who were colonized and humiliated by the West, particularly in the 19th century. If that sounds appealing this is a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

I always had a sense that the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in which the Japanese fleet all but obliterated the Russian fleet, was a big deal, but I confess I had always viewed it from a Western perspective. As a demonstration of the decline and decadence of Russia rather than the arrival of Japan. Of course I have the benefit of knowing how well the Japanese navy fought in World War II, so the idea that they might come off the victor in a naval battle a few decades before that doesn’t seem particularly surprising. And, I also know what happened to Russian in World War I, so their defeat a few years beforehand is also unsurprising. Finally, I’ve always felt that there’s something darkly comic about the Russian Fleet travelling 18,000 nautical miles only to suffer one of the worst losses in the history of naval warfare. An outcome that seems all but foreordained to anyone familiar with Murphy’s Law. In any case, however it was viewed by me or the larger Western world it was a very big deal in the East, and Mishra uses it to open the book. Claiming that it was the first time the many countries subject to European colonization and domination thought that they might be able to throw off their yoke. That this battle marks the start of the East asserting itself and stepping into the modern world.

In using the phrase “stepping into the modern world” I am aware that I’m over-simplifying a very complex project and doing so from essentially a Western point of view. What constitutes the modern world? Is that what the people in the book were trying to do? (Certainly it wasn’t really Gandhi’s goal.) Is the modern world inherently a secular one? Does it have to take the same form it does in the west, i.e. liberal democracy in the mold of what Fukuyama keeps talking about? Etc. To be fair the book does lend support to Fukuyama’s idea about it being necessary to wage modern war. But it also lends support to the idea that people in the East were also trying to do something different and better. 

It’s clear that they were envious for a very long time of Western technology and military prowess, and most of the people Mishra profiles start off wanting to emulate the enlightenment, but eventually, and without exception, at some point they all end up talking about the moral bankruptcy of the West, and it’s lack of spirituality. In other words the history Misthra tells contains numerous intellectual currents and inevitably lots of contradictions, some of which he acknowledges and some of which he seems to ignore.

As a more concrete example the book is full of references to racism, from mentions of social darwinism, to the perpetual feelings of superiority possessed by the white Europeans, to efforts by the countries discussed to enshrine racial equality, the most famous of which is Japan’s efforts to get it included in the charter of the League of Nations. But while Mishra wants to make it look like the Japanese and others were way ahead of the curve on anti-racism, the events of World War II (and even these countries current policy on immigration) would show that the nations of the east could be and were just as racist as the Europeans, and arguably, particularly at this point, moreso. 

As a final note, this is not the only way that the book goes too far in it’s Eastern apologetics. Arguably the most glaring oversights in the book are the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, which rates just a sentence in the book. And the Armenian Genocide, which also get’s just one sentence and is described in the book merely as “an act that later invited accusations of genocide”. 

It’s important to read things from the “other side” of history, but finding something truly unbiased is really hard. 


Just Like You

By: Nick Hornby

368 Pages

Who should read this book?

People who like Nick Hornby? I wouldn’t start with this book if it’s going to be your first by him, but if you’ve read other stuff by Hornby and enjoyed it you’ll probably enjoy this one.

General Thoughts

This is the fifth Nick Hornby book I’ve read, and there’s a reason that they keep getting made into movies. He’s a great writer who tells engaging stories. This book was no exception, though it had one big issue. It was trying very hard to be socially conscious, and dare I say, politically correct, perhaps even woke? Now this is not a bad thing, it is in fact one of the great things literature can do, but particularly when you’re writing about something so current, there’s a real danger of laying it on to thick, and in Just Like You it felt like the politically progressive angle was always right on the edge of overwhelming the story. And probably actually crossed over the edge on a few occasions. Even if you were to end up disagreeing with me on this, at a bare minimum I still think you would find it to be distracting.

To give you just a brief taste of what I mean, it’s about a romance between an older educated white woman, and a young black man with dreams of being a DJ. It includes racial profiling by police, ackward dinner parties where the idea of “privledge” is front and center, and if all that wasn’t enough, the whole thing takes place in the shadow of Brexit, which ends up being almost as important to the plot as the romance itself.


Seven Types of Atheism

By: John N. Gray

170 Pages

Who should read this book?

I think anyone interested in atheism, either as an opponent or a practitioner would find this book to be very useful. In particular just knowing that the militant new atheism that has gotten the most attention recently is just one type out of seven proves to be very illuminating.

General Thoughts

As I was getting ready to write this review I checked over at Goodreads to see what others had said about it. One of the reviewers mentioned that he had the sneaking suspicion that Gray wrote the book “entirely out of irritation with the ‘New Atheists’.” Which is the impression I got as well. Not only does he lead with that version of atheism, but he draws attention to the fact that once he’s done talking about it, he’s never going to mention it again.

Lest the new atheists feel uniquely targeted, Gray goes on to mention that he disagrees with the first five of the the seven types he covers, and he labels these five as negative atheism, only being partial to the last two, which he defines as positive atheism. It’s interesting that he should single out the last two, because while all seven categories have significant overlap, and some fuzziness in how they’re defined, the last two are the worst of all. In part this comes from Gray’s definition of an atheist: 

Anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.

This definition admits the possibility of something supernatural but less focused and with no intentionality. And of course this could end up resulting in some very fuzzy atheism, but it still feels odd to me that some of the types should be so difficult to pin down, particularly since most atheists (as far as I can tell) gravitate to it because they feel it simplifies things, but the types of atheism Gray is most drawn to are the ones which end up being the most complicated. Which takes us to a brief description of each the seven types: 

  1. New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. Basically the people who think religion sucks and is a relic of a primitive past.
  2. Secular Humanism: Gray makes the point that this form of atheism is almost entirely reliant on Christian morality, and as a result has a hard time justifying its morality without that foundation.
  3. Faith in Science: Gray mostly brings up stuff like eugenics to show that science frequently or perhaps mostly doesn’t deserve our faith. 
  4. Modern Political Religions: Think communism, nazis, etc. I assume that atheists don’t like being lumped in with nazis even if communism was explicitly atheistic, but what Gray mostly seems to be talking about is substituting politics for religion, which is a caution more people might need to hear these days.
  5. God-Haters: Certainly there are people who are outright nihilists who hate the world, who think that freedom is a curse, etc. But they’re pretty rare. Still it’s totally fair to include them as a type, but their importance and numbers should not be overstated
  6. Atheism without progress: As I said this one was kind of fuzzy. He seemed to be talking about religion as a valuable social construct, even if there is no “divine mind”, an opinion I can definitely get behind, but he also seemed to be saying that if you assume that there is some sort of implacable drive for progress, some utopia we’ll eventually reach, that you can’t be this type of atheist… 
  7. Mystical Atheism? (which is my title, he labeled this type “The Atheism of Silence”): Again the exact specifics were fuzzy, but he includes in this category Spinozian pantheism (God is the sum total of everything in existence.) And I guess he would probably include James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis in here as well? 

Why Not Parliamentarism? 

By: Tiago Ribeiro dos Santos

146 Pages

Who should read this book?

Really hardcore political science junkies. I mean really hardcore.

General Thoughts

This book makes the case for the superiority of parliamentary forms of democracy over presidential ones. Which seems particularly appropriate right at the moment. In fact I think it’s an idea I’d like to spend a whole post on, not that I think that there’s any chance of the US transitioning to a parliamentary system, at least not without something truly unprecedented happening, but as part of a general overview of different potential political systems which might be better than the chaos we’re experiencing I think tossing it into the discussion could be very interesting. 

As far as this book goes, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been less technical and data heavy and more philosophical. Obviously data is nice, and he makes a pretty strong case that parliamentary systems achieve better outcomes, but the problem with this approach is twofold. First we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have anywhere near a sufficient amount of data to make some kind of firm evidentiary claim. Dos Santos hasn’t proved anything, he’s just suggested a lot of possible connections. Second, any potential shift is not going to be accomplished because people have looked at a bunch of numbers, it’s going to happen when they sense that a parliamentary system is the answer to the problems they’re having. Consequently he could have done with a lot more real world examples. Like, under a parliamentary system this person probably wouldn’t have been the leader, or they wouldn’t have been able to do this thing you didn’t like, or, speaking to the present moment, this election would have been far less chaotic.


An Instinct for Dragons 

By: David E. Jones

188 Pages

Who should read this book?

If an examination of why dragons are present in every culture sounds appealing, or if you’re otherwise into cryptozoology, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

As just mentioned this book is all about answering the question of why dragons appear in every culture no matter how much time and space separates them. The answer to the question is given fairly early on, and then the rest of the book is spent defending that answer, so it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal it. Essentially Jones hypothesizes that the dragon is a composite of the three major predators early hominids and primates had to deal with, namely raptors, snakes and big cats. 

The idea is fairly interesting, but Jones takes a strange path with it, at times being very mythic and at times very scientific, though seemingly refusing to go too far in either direction. On the mythic side he gets positively jungian in drawing on the collective unconscious, and also includes relatively modern accounts of giant sea serpents, but if he wanted to go full mythic he could have used such accounts and the many others out there to claim they actually existed. It’s probably good that he didn’t make such a claim, but he gets pretty close.

On the scientific side Jones brings in studies of infant and primate fear responses to buttress his claims for the primacy of the three predators that form the basis of his theory. He further attempts to pull in various neurological concepts to explain the space saving measures which lead to the three predators being collapsed into one. But then the next logical step would seem to be showing pictures of dragons to babies, apes and monkeys to see if they exhibited the same fear response to the dragon as they did to the other predators. And perhaps he didn’t have the money to do his own research, or perhaps it would be difficult to do the experiment using just pictures, but it feels like he could have done a lot more to test his hypothesis.

Beyond all of the above I had a couple of other issues. First, he didn’t spend very much effort at all rebutting the theory that dinosaur bones provided the basis for legends about dragons. He was aware of it, and it was mentioned in the book, but the few times it came up Jones was pretty dismissive. Second he put a lot of effort into showing that dragons were ubiquitous in both time and space, but then does very little with how the dragon is portrayed today, the huge volume of fantasy literature, or the vast popularity of the the game Dungeons and Dragons (of which I myself am a partaker). 

It was a very interesting premise, but the execution could have been a lot better.


Aristophanes: The Complete Plays 

By: Aristophanes Translated by: Paul Roche

716 Pages

Who should read this book?

This was next on the list of great books I’ve been working through. If you have a similar list it might be next on your list as well. I will say that I’m less of a fan of Aristophanes than I have been of previous authors. But I’ll get to that.

General Thoughts

In deciding what classic books to read I’ve been following the Harold Bloom list from the Western Canon. It has never been my intention to read everything on the list, (the man was an classics machine) and as such I didn’t read every extant play, as I had with the tragedies, but rather just the ones on the list: 

The Birds; The Clouds; The Frogs; Lysistrata; The Knights; The Wasps; The Assemblywomen.

In part this is because I realized that I’m going to die long before I finish if I don’t pick up the past a bit, and in part this is because I just don’t like the comedies as much. At least for me the tragedies seem timeless while the comedies seem very specific to a certain place and time, with most humor either being so foreign as to be of only academic interest or alternatively, the kind of thing you might hear in a junior high locker room. (I lost count of the number of jokes about erections, homosexuality and defecation.) To be clear it was fascinating to see how many of these jokes there were, and I really appreciated this translation, which went out of it’s way to clearly present these jokes but also to put them in the common vernacular (there were many f-bombs as they say). 

As far as whether you should read them, I think I have a much clearer picture of ancient Athens, which is good. But on the other hand, I can’t really say I liked any of these plays.


Battle Ground: Dresden Files, Book 17

By: Jim Butcher

432 Pages

Who should read this book?

You might recall that I read the book just before this one in the series back in August. And I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine that you would read it if you hadn’t read the previous 15. That statement is even more true because now there’s 16 previous books, and this book is essentially part 2 of Peace Talks, the book I read in August. 

General Thoughts

As I read this book I think I hit on why I find the series increasingly annoying. It’s very melodramatic, and my sense is that the melodrama has increasingly crowded out the humor that used to be a hallmark of the series. Which is not to say that he doesn’t still include some bits of humor, but they often fall flat because they end up being surrounded by ponderous statements, about the stakes of the conflict, the tragedy of the deaths, or the courageous sacrifice someone just made. And all of it delivered (and this may be a problem unique to the audiobook) with a grave and overwrought sentimentality. On top of that, or perhaps because of it, I find that I like Harry Dresden less and less. He’s always been hard-headed, but as time goes on it seems less rational and more just a way of making circumstances within the book more difficult and annoying.

As a result of this I very nearly put the book down (metaphorically, as I said I was listening to the audio version). But part of me didn’t want to get into the habit of stopping books (which ended up happening last month, though in reality I probably should do a lot more of it) and part of me did want to know what was going to happen. In the end I was glad I continued, the coolest part came right after the moment I most seriously considered stopping, and it redeemed the book. But I don’t know that it redeemed the series. I suspect this will be the last Dresden book I read. 


It may be the last Dresden book I read, but it certainly won’t be the last book I read. I’m going to keep reading and keep reviewing, and if you appreciate it, consider donating. Or just drop me a line at wearenotsaved [at] gmail [dot] com.


Books I Finished in September (with one I didn’t)

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

Or download the MP3



September ended up being kind of crazy meteorologically, particularly the first 10 days. The month opened with only the third 100 degree day in September we’ve ever had (as measured at the SLC airport). This was followed a few days later by hurricane force winds (100 mph, perhaps higher) as a massive cold front moved in. The high one day was 90 and the next it was 54. As you might have surmised, we don’t get hurricane force winds very often in Utah. I think most of the houses were okay, but the winds brought down hundreds if not thousands of large trees, leaving over a quarter of a million people without power. I was one of those people, and our power was out for 33 hours, which was pretty annoying, but people directly across the street from me were without power for 96 hours!

As an (aspiring, largely secular) eschatologist I try to be on the lookout for impending cataclysms, but also careful to not overreact to things. Catastrophe’s happen all the time, and sometimes they even happen in clusters, and most of the time this doesn’t translate into serious long-term chaos. Still sometimes your emotions go places you don’t expect. Such was the case the Saturday before the windstorm. I had left the house early and I was driving east. The Sun had risen, but I could look straight at it, because with all the smoke it was nothing but an angry red orb, almost Sauron-esque in its appearance. And I was suddenly overcome by a sense of dread and impending doom. I can only imagine what sort of emotions people were experiencing this month when they looked at the skies in California. All of which is to say, despite my apocalyptic interests I don’t think the world is going to end any time soon, but 2020 is sure doing everything in its power to make me doubt that belief.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

By: Christopher Ryan

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in a rebuttal to modern optimists like Steven Pinker will find that this book does a pretty good job of exactly that.

Beyond that if you agree with Jared Diamond that “Agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Then you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

I already took aim at this book in a previous post and I’d rather not repeat too much of what I already said, so if you want more discussion of Ryan and his book than what’s provided here, I would recommend reading that as well (if you haven’t already). 

To begin with, and I probably didn’t emphasize this enough in that last post, I did enjoy this book, and he brought up all manner of issues which are not only ignored by the cheerleaders of modernity like Pinker and others, but issues which are also ignored by the vast majority of “normal” people as well. And as I mentioned in that last post, insofar as you apply these things to yourself and actions you take in service of your own health and happiness then the book has a lot of great advice. For example, using his description of the horrors of medically prolonging life to encourage you to draft a living will. It’s when the book tries to tackle the bigger issues that problems start to emerge. Speaking of which…

In that previous post I pointed out Ryan’s contention that he is fine trading additional deaths if in exchange we get “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. And by the way his trade didn’t involve a few additional deaths, but rather the deaths of nearly half of everyone before the age of 15 and many more deaths beyond that. Claiming you’re willing to make such a trade is easy enough when it’s hypothetical, or when you’re referring to people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago. Where it gets much more difficult is when you’re talking about the deaths of people right here, and right now. In other words having read the book I was very curious about his views on the current pandemic.

It seems reasonable to expect that having written a whole book on the tradeoff between an increased chance of death and “health, happiness and personal freedom” that he would be eager to explain how this tradeoff works when applied to the biggest news story since at least 9/11, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t undertaken that exercise. Which is too bad, because at first glance, it does kind of seem that most people are trading happiness and personal freedom (and possibly health as well, certainly mental health) for a slightly reduced chance of dying (certainly nothing close to the chances he was throwing out for hunter-gatherers in the book). And this would appear to be the exact opposite of what he’s advocating. I could imagine him offering an explanation for why this seemingly obvious interpretation was in fact not the interpretation one should draw after reading his book, but there’s no evidence of him attempting that. Mostly what I found when I searched his twitter account is the kind of the garden variety exhortations to wear masks, and retweets about how much Trump sucks that you might expect out of any urban liberal. (Which is not to say that’s what he is, merely that his tweets contained nothing to set himself apart from that stereotype.)

Though, in the process of searching, I did find this tweet:

Every time you hear someone say, “We’ll get through this,” remember that they’re denying the existence of those who won’t.

Viewed in light of his own very blase attitude towards the 46% of children in forager societies who “don’t get through it” this statement seems at best oblivious and at worst massively hypocritical. 

Eschatological Implications

A long time ago there were these text only story games. One of which was based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In the game there was a path you could follow which closely resembled the plot of the book. However someone once told me (i.e. this might not be true) that that wasn’t the way to win. To win, very early on, before even leaving Earth, you had to do something completely unexpected and it was that path, completely different from the book, and only available if you made a radical choice right at the beginning which led to victory.

I was reminded of this by a story Ryan told in his book of a man by the name of Brian Stevenson who, in 2003, while attempting to help secure a hot air balloon ended up hanging on to the balloon as it was carried away, and hung on so long that when he finally lost his grip he was hundreds of feet in the air and ended up falling to his death. This story ends up providing one of the central metaphors of the book, that the invention of agriculture was like grabbing on to a hot air balloon as it gets blows away and then despite being in a very bad place (cultivators as opposed to foragers) we get to a point where we can’t let go. Where, like the game, we needed to make a different decision right at the beginning, but now we can’t because we’re hundreds of feet in the air. Perhaps this is so, but telling us we should have let go a long time ago isn’t very helpful. What we really need is advice on how to climb into the balloon and descend safely.

From the standpoint of how things end, e.g. eschatology, this makes Ryan’s book post-eschatological. The end isn’t out there somewhere, rather it happened a long time ago in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and ever since then we’ve been consigned to a hell of our own making.


The End of History and the Last Man 

by: Francis Fukuyama

418 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone who snorted derisively at the idea that history ended at the same time as the cold war (like me) should read this book as penance.

Or, if you’re familiar with the term “Whig history” and you want a modern and sober assessment of it, this is also a great book for that.

General Thoughts

I spent my last post talking about this book, and my next post will talk about it as well, so I’ll try and keep my review on the short side. 

At a more general level, beyond all the stuff I’ve been discussing, Fukuyama’s claims can be reduced into a set of tiers of decreasing plausibility:

  • His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
  • His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. (Certainly it’s not something Ryan’s foragers could do.)
  • Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.

A lot of stuff gets added on top of this framework, but in the end his claim that there are no alternatives left to liberal democracy basically comes down to the idea that no other system of government can beat it in a fight. Which is kind of an interesting way to show that we’re at the “End of History”.

Eschatological Implications

In order to show that we’ve reached some kind of end point (albeit, as we’ve seen a somewhat different end point than most people imagine) you have to assume that history is directional. If we reverse that we find that any claim that history has a direction, like Fukuyama’s, automatically becomes an eschatological claim. However, as you can see from the framework above it’s not a very strong eschatology, Fukuyama predicts neither a utopia (apparently we still have the threat of war and racial animosity) nor an apocalypse, but rather sort of a weird local (or maybe global?) maximum created by the scientific method. The maximum is easy to slip off of, but there are no other heights, at least not nearby, from which it can be challenged. Or is there? China seems to be giving us a lot of problems despite not being a liberal democracy, and this will be the subject of my next post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Siddhartha

By: Herman Hesse

160 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’ve seen this on a lot of lists. And furthermore many people recommend it as one of the best books of all time. On the off chance that it will end up on your “Best of” list you should probably read it. Even if it doesn’t (as was the case with me) it’s still a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This was an interesting book to read in the immediate aftermath of finishing The Master and His Emissary which was all about the need to strengthen the right hemisphere, and in any assessment Siddhartha is a very right-brained book, though perhaps too right-brained. While the quest of Siddhartha is beautiful and simple, his final philosophy ends up being a little too broad, seemingly reducible to the tautology that everything is everything. 

That said I still think there’s a lot a wisdom in here and in particular, like Tim Ferris (who may have provided the recommendation necessary to push me into reading it) I love the response Siddhartha provides when the merchant asks him what he can do: “I can think, I can wait and I can fast.” I would have to say we need a lot more of all three of those in our current world. 

Beyond that, while the book was beautiful and inspiring, I’m not sure how much practical advice there was, or how much you would want to emulate Siddhartha or whether such emulation is even possible. To give one example, which I assume will seem very picky to the many fans of the book, but which I think gets at an important criticism of a lot of books like this. For all of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, for all of his wisdom, he can’t figure out two of the most basic things. How to be a good Son and how to be a good Father. And it’s not as if he decides that those roles are unimportant. In the book, the only thing he wants more than to be a good Father is to achieve enlightenment, and he also realizes, in the process of being a father, how much he has wronged his own father. And yet this thought, rather than prompting him to immediately to make amends, passes with kind of an “Oh, well” shrug. 

The central point being, if enlightenment can’t give you the skills necessary to be even average at some of the most fundamental roles of existence (father and son) what exactly is the point of it? I guess you might say happiness, but clearly his failures as a father make him unhappy and cause him pain, so he doesn’t even get that.

All that said, it’s not inconceivable that I’m missing the whole point of the book…


The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom

By: Slavomir Rawicz

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I couldn’t finish this book, which almost never happens (though it should probably happen more often to be honest) which I guess means that nobody should read this book.

General Thoughts

I assume most people don’t go into books blind, though maybe I’m wrong about that. Speaking for myself I like to at least know what kind of book it is, and a general overview of where it’s headed before I start reading. Wikipedia is usually a pretty great source for that sort of information, and that’s what I consulted before beginning this book. Once there I found out that the book, in addition to being a tale about prisoners escaping a camp in Siberia and making their way to India in the early years of World War 2, might also be entirely made up.

As you can imagine that cast a pall over things, but the book had been recommended to me by the little old lady of my acquaintance who I’ve mentioned in this space before and she normally has pretty unerring tastes when it comes to what makes a good story, so I figured even if it was fictitious I’d get a “ripping yarn” out of it. Accordingly I started reading it (actually listening to it) despite my misgivings.

As I mentioned I didn’t finish it, but I did get around 70% of the way through it, and perhaps the ending is incredible, but the part I did read wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Still, given my desire for completeness, I probably would have pushed through if it had continued to at least maintain the veneer of realism. Unfortunately it couldn’t even do that. What finally made me stop was when, in the process of crossing the Gobi Desert, they ended up going without water for 13 days!!! And this wasn’t 13 days without exertion in mild conditions where there would be no need to sweat for temperature regulation, this was 13 days of walking in the heat. By itself, this is a pretty unbelievable claim, but my choice to abandon the book probably had more to do with his description of the events. I’ve read a fair number of survival books, and his version of going without water seemed almost laid back, in comparison to the frantic, insanity inducing accounts of the other books I’ve read.

Lest I give you the impression that the novel was entirely without merit. I thought the first part of the book, which took place before being sent to Siberia, and mostly consisted of different descriptions of Soviet interrogations was actually quite good. But beyond that I wouldn’t otherwise recommend this book.


Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

By: Kevin Peter Hand

248 Pages

Who should read this book?

People interested in xenobiology.

General Thoughts

If you read anything at all about Fermi’s Paradox you’ll encounter the idea of a habitable zone. That place where a planet is neither too close to the sun, nor too far away. Where most of the time water is a liquid. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find discussions of galactic habitable zones, where the solar system itself is not so close to the center of the galaxy to be overwhelmed by supernovas and high energy gamma radiation bursts, but also not so far away that there are no nearby stars, or previous supernova to supply the heavy elements. To these first two Hand adds a third a habitable zone for planetary satellites, where a moon is close enough to a large planetary body that tidal flexing provides sufficient heat to support oceans of liquid water. As it turns out there are quite a few of these moons just in our own solar system. The most promising candidates being Europa and Enceladus, and Hand goes into quite a bit of detail on why these oceans buried under an external layer of ice make such promising environments for life. But he also covers other moons, and even Pluto as part of the book.

For myself I don’t think Alien Oceans did much to increase the probability I would assign to life on one of these moons, which I already felt was pretty high (which in the xenobiology game is probably equates to anything above 5%) but after reading the book I had a much better foundation for my beliefs than previously. All of which is to say I found the book interesting but mostly unsurprising. And something which tied in well to the recent discovery of phosphine on Venus as another reason to have serious doubts about all of the “Rare Earth” answers for Fermi’s Paradox. 


Kansas City Noir

by: Various

240 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned noir short stories this isn’t a bad collection. 

General Thoughts

I’m doing an embarrassing amount of remote role-playing right now. One of the campaigns I’m playing in is an homage to True Detective set in 2016 Kansas City and environs. On a whim, in an attempt to get more material for things I picked up this book and decided to listen to it. In all my reading I have actually not done a lot of noir reading, and so I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge the quality of this book in relationship to other collections of noir short stories, but I enjoyed it, it seemed to largely do a good job of getting the feeling correct. I understand this isn’t a stirring recommendation, but it is a recommendation nonetheless (for those looking for this specific thing.)


Innsmouth: (The Weird of Hali #1) 

by: John Michael Greer

278 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you like the Lovecraftian mythos, and you’re looking for something different, but still within that “world” this should be right up your alley. 

General Thoughts

I like John Michael Greer a lot, which is not to say that I agree with him on everything, in fact I think we have very different world views, but his thoughts on the problems of modernity are spot on, and I’ve referenced him quite a bit in this space. That, however, is his non-fiction, this book is (hopefully) fiction. Though as you might expect his somewhat eccentric worldview does have a big impact here, so big in fact that *minor spoiler* the followers of Dagon, Cthulhu and the rest are the good guys. I say that’s only a minor spoiler because you found out pretty early on that that’s the way it’s going, so yes, if you know this it will eliminate some of the early suspense, but I think it’s the reason you’re most likely to decide to read the book, so I wanted to get it out there.

Beyond this fascinating premise, the rest of the book was quite good, and I tore through it pretty quickly. That said, there were some bits that didn’t quite work when translated from unnamable horror to defender of magic and mystery, and while Greer is a good writer, he’s not a great writer, and his characterization is a little flat. Even so I quite enjoyed it. And I’ll add it to the list of series (there are at least four more books) which I have started, but not yet finished.


The Kill Chain: How Emerging Technologies Threaten America’s Military Dominance

by: Christian Brose

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re a military buff, I would recommend this book. If you’re a military buff who’s also worried about China then you absolutely have to read this book.

General Thoughts

Last month I ended up reading two books focused on the threat of China, of which this was the first. Reading the two together, with some additional pollination by ideas from End of History and to a lesser extent A World Undone (the last book I’ll be reviewing in this post) led to an interesting and hopefully fruitful alchemical combination. Which, as I have extensively foreshadowed, will be the subject of my next post. I hope that the ideas look as good on paper [BLOG] as they do in my head. In addition to stoking your excitement, this is also my way of saying that this review is only a partial exploration of the book, that I’m saving much of it for that next post.

This book is a deep exploration of the emerging areas of weakness in the US military, compared to the emerging areas of strength in the Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian militaries. As a former aide to John McCain and the Staff Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee the thing that Brose brings to the table is an incredible understanding of the relationship between the military and the government. I imagine that it’s possible to get a sense of the danger China poses militarily from lots of sources. (To be clear they’re really only dangerous in their own backyard, no one is saying China is going to invade and conquer the US.) Indeed I think I already had a pretty good sense of the danger just from stuff I picked up on the internet, what I didn’t have a sense of was how hard it’s going to be for the US military to pivot in such a way that they can effectively counter China in places like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

While it’s hard to know exactly how effective the Chinese military is, (though according to Brose over the last decade in war games intended to simulate a conflict with China the US side has lost every single time) or how good they are at acquiring and using weapons systems. We do have a very clear idea of how good the American military is at such use and acquisition. And the answer is not very. 

A good example of how defense acquisition can go wrong is the Army’s attempt to buy a new pistol a few years ago. It issued a request for proposals that ran over 350 pages of cumbersome details and envisioned years of costly development and testing before soldiers would ever get a new sidearm. Even Army leaders were surprised. They learned about it when McCain and I told them, and then they were as outraged as we were. “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing,” said an outraged General Mark Milly at the time, when he was chief of staff of the Army, “This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million?” he vented. “You give me $17 million on a credit card and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”

This example is just the tip of the iceberg. It pretty much doesn’t matter which aspect of the military or its relationship to the government you look at, it’s all bad. And it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.


Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat 

by: Newt Gingrich

408 Pages

Who should read this book?

Of the two books I’m reviewing that deal with China, if your worry is primarily military in nature, and only secondarily about China read The Kill Chain. But if your worry is primarily China, and only secondarily about their military strength, read this book. Also I’m reasonably certain there are better books about China than Trump vs. China. I’m not certain that there are better books about the current problems facing the US Military than The Kill Chain.

General Thoughts

I feel like this book needed a different title, I think I would have gone with “The US vs. China” rather than “Trump vs. China”, because the problems Gingrich outlined existed long before Trump came into office and will continue to exist long after he’s gone. Nor (and here my biases may be affecting things) did he make a very strong case for Trump being uniquely focused or effective when it came to this problem. Which is not to say that Biden would be better, I don’t think there’s much evidence he would be, but if you imagine that the scale of the problem is 1000, does it really make much difference to have Trump who treats it like a 30 in office vs. Biden who only treats it like a 10? Either way the effort being put forth is completely inadequate to the problem. The thing that Trump should get the most credit for, tariffs, takes up only a small part of the book, and while they’ve probably been better than nothing (for those convinced of China’s perfidy) there impact was pretty small, and there’s ever indication that even Trump might back down before they have the necessary impact. 

Where the book really shone was in crafting an overarching narrative for the Chinese strategy, though even here Gingrich could have done better. He uses the idea that the Chinese treat their international efforts like they are playing a game of go, as opposed to the West which treats it like a game of chess. He also demonstrated how everything China is doing makes sense if you consider it to be part of the high level Belt and Road Initiative. But in both cases he introduced these frameworks well into the book’s second half, which was a weird decision, almost as if he only thought of them after he’d been writing for awhile and rather than go back and introduce them earlier and incorporate them into the stuff he’d already written they just got included at the point at which they occurred to him. Nevertheless their explanatory power was great enough that it was easy to see how they provided excellent analogies for the situation.

The go vs. chess analogy ends up being very illuminating when applied to the situation with Taiwan and the South China Sea. If you view the region as a chess game, then Taiwan is obviously the king, aircraft carriers are the queen and other ways of projecting force are analogous to rooks, bishops and knights. But as a game of go, it’s all about making small incremental moves to take more territory. Building up artificial islands in the South China Sea, moving anti ship missiles to the coast and gradually increasing their range. Getting countries to no longer recognize Taiwan, etc. The analogy is not perfect of course, but in the end I think the Chinese strategy is a better one. Particularly for controlling the area right in their backyard. 

As far as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, I admit to being initially dismissive of the idea when I first heard about it. What do I care if the Chinese build a road that connects China to Rotterdam? I kind of assumed that it was already possible to make that drive and the Chinese were just making it easier, but once you start to view it more figuratively, the initiative becomes a lot more worrisome. What do I mean by that? Well perhaps you’ve heard of the fight over 5G? Well as Gingrich points out the Chinese are well ahead of us on this, and using a spectrum for transmission which the US hasn’t even gotten around to making available yet, and while that’s interesting, I only really grasped it’s true impact when I envisioned 5G as yet another road, one that China is building, one that might be so advanced that a significant portion of the world’s communication ends up on a Chinese road rather than something built using American technology. This same pattern applies to their activities in space, and even the manner in which they work with organizations like the NBA and Hollywood. 

There’s obviously a lot more to things, but as with the previous review I intend to expand on all of these topics in my next post. 


A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 

by: G. J. Meyer

778 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a book on World War I, I would read Guns of August first, but this is a strong contender for second particularly if you’re focused on the actual hostilities. (If you’re looking for a more political angle with a focus on America, Meyer’s other book, The World Remade, is better.) 

General Thoughts

I sort of stumbled into reading several books on World War I. This has given me the idea of choosing some piece of history at the beginning of each year and really focusing on it. Though we’ll have to see how that works out, some periods probably need more than a year, and some probably just need one good book. 

Also I don’t intend to abandon World War I because it’s so fascinating. I know World War II get’s far more attention, and certainly it’s flashier, but WWI was really when the world changed, when old ideologies fractured, when the nature of war was forever unmasked, when the communists took power and the Tsar, Kaisar and monarchs not only lost the war, but lost their countries and in some cases their lives as well. It’s a time that was only 100 years ago, and yet people alive today can’t even fathom doing what those people and nations did. And yet despite this, particularly in the way the nations rushed into war, I still think it holds a tremendous number of lessons.


Ten books last month, that feels like a lot. I’ve always dreamed of getting paid to read. If you want to make that dream a reality consider donating.


Books I Finished in August (of 2020)

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

Or download the MP3


Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk by: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by: Iain McGilchrist

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by: John Coates

Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by: Jim Butcher

Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by: Euripides

Cutting for Stone by: Abraham Verghese

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by: Francis A. Shaeffer 


August was pretty quiet for me, though much hotter than I would have liked. I’m not sure how many days were 100 or above but it was at least a half dozen, and just about every day hit a high of at least 95. I’m hoping we’re done with triple digit days now that September is here, but I guess we’ll see. 

As I said August was quiet for me, but I don’t think the same could be said for the rest of the country. I’m not sure where things are headed, though in general I get the sense that things are escalating. And if they’re escalating now, one can only imagine how much worse they might get as the election draws closer. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk 

By: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

226 Pages

Who should read this book?

This is another book which puts forth a theory for why the current world is so fractious, and as these things go, it’s better than most. It’s not the best I’ve read, but if the premise is intriguing to you at all, I think you’ll be happy you picked it up.

General Thoughts

I’ve read quite a few of these books, and it’s always interesting to consider why so many people are convinced that the modern world is broken in dramatic and fundamental ways. It is of course possible that people are wrong, that modern media and communication is biased towards amplifying negative events and trends, but that in reality things are actually great. We only think it’s horrible. But it also seems possible that Western Civilization in general and the US in particular is suffering from the cultural equivalent of multi-system organ failure.

In the case of grandstanding, it’s the organ of “moral talk” that’s failing. As the authors point out, moral talk is an essential tool for getting others to behave morally, and for bringing about positive social change. Grandstanding is the equivalent of that organ becoming cancerous, of a runaway expansion in moral talk, and unrestricted, ever more extreme versions of it. (The cancer analogy is mine not theirs, but it’s a good one, I’ll have to use it again. Technology and progress as a beneficial process suffering from uncontrolled growth makes a lot of sense.) 

So what exactly is grandstanding? According to the book grandstanding has two parts. The first is the grandstander’s desire to impress others with their moral qualities. The second is their attempt to satisfy this desire by proclaiming these qualities in public, ideally to a large and appreciative audience.

Some of my readers may hear that description, and assume that the authors have just come up with another term for virtue signalling. As it turns out they have been working on this book for so long that the term virtue signalling wasn’t around when they started, and even if it had been they feel that grandstanding is still the superior label, because it’s not politically charged (yet), it’s always intentional whereas most signalling isn’t, and not all grandstanding is about virtue, much of it is about communicating to your in-group. But let’s return to this idea of runaway growth.

In a sense, though the authors didn’t make this connection, grandstanding is to displays of morality as spam emails are to marketing. In the past a far greater percentage of marketing happened in person, in the presence of the product. It’s harder to reach people that way but far more effective when you do because you’re demonstrating features in a tangible fashion. In a similar manner, in the past if you wanted to impress others with your moral qualities you had two choices: Do something moral in their presence or talk about your morality. Before social media came along when you only interacted with a handful of people it was nearly as easy, and far more effective to just do moral things, the people you interacted with were about as likely to see you do something moral as they were to hear you talk about it, and actions are always the more effective signal. But if you suddenly can talk to millions of people for essentially free then that equation changes. Why bother showing off a product in person when you can tell a million people about through an essentially free email. And why bother doing something moral when you can tell a million people how moral you are, thus the runaway growth. Which takes us to the next section…

Eschatological Implications

Anytime you encounter runaway growth, you’re also encountering something with eschatological implications, because there are really only three possibilities. If the runaway growth is positive then we stand back and wait until it reaches some sort of beneficial singularity. If, on the other hand, it’s negative, then hopefully we’re able to arrest it at some point, but the question is how are we able to arrest it? And why didn’t we do it sooner? Perhaps it’s impossible, in which case we’re left with the final option, this negative runaway growth continues until something catastrophic happens. 

The book identifies five attributes of grandstanding, and all five of them have either recently experienced runaway growth because of the internet and social media, or they’re still experiencing runaway growth. These five attributes are:

1- Piling on: This refers to people’s ability to add their voices to some instance of moral talk generated by someone else. The way social media has enabled righteous mobs. Accordingly when a teenage girl in my home town of Salt Lake City posted a picture of her Chinese prom dress, the problem it wasn’t that one person called her out for cultural appropriation, it’s that

hundreds of thousands of other people were able to join in and say, “I agree with what that first person said, ‘you’re a no-good horrible individual.’” Obviously this connectivity and group formation represent the whole point of social media.

2- Ramping up: The story of the Chinese prom dress also represents another aspect where social media has brought runaway growth, and where it still has plenty of room to metastasize. One can hardly imagine that a teenage girl’s prom dress is really the best example people can come up with of cultural appropriation, but when you’re grandstanding, pointing out the same egregious examples of moral harm as everyone else doesn’t get you nearly as much attention as pointing out some new and even more extreme crime. “Oh, you have a problem with cultural appropriation? Well, so do I, and I’m so attuned to that sin that I’m going to target high school girls and their prom dresses!”

3- Trumping up: Closely related to the last item is the concept of Trumping up. While the last attribute was focused on stronger and stronger reactions to smaller and smaller crimes, this is the idea of taking something that historically hasn’t been immoral and pulling it into that sphere. Of taking something that wasn’t a crime and making it one. The example the book provides is when Obama saluted two Marines while carrying a cup of coffee. Military protocol is that you don’t salute when carrying an object, but given that presidential salutes are a recent invention to begin with, this would appear to be a mistake, not a sin. Still as you might imagine the right-wing media spun it into a condemnation of Obama’s patriotism, his stance on the military, and probably his upbringing as well.

4- Strong emotions: As you’re doing all of the above your moral talk ends up having more force if it’s accompanied by strong emotions. One hopes that there’s no infinite increase in how strong these emotions can get, but as the book says, “Where moral outrage gains social purchase, the implicit assumption is that the most outraged person has the greatest moral insight” (emphasis mine).

5- Dismissiveness: Grandstanders generally refuse to engage, and such refusal is offered as proof of the strength of their moral stand. “If you can’t see that police brutality/abortion/COVID is an unmitigated disaster, and the most important issue facing our country than you are beneath contempt and I refuse to engage with you any further.” As you can imagine this attribute, as well as all of the previous attributes are fatal to public discourse. 

With all of this in mind, I think it’s easy to see how social media creates a mechanism for “piling on”, adds in the incentives necessary to reward “ramping up”, “trumping up”, and “strong emotions”, and finally the separation necessary for “dismissiveness”. It’s much harder to tell someone in person that they are beneath contempt, but thousands of people have found it easy to do that and all the rest online. Worse, most of these things continue to trend negative, and as it becomes harder and harder to get noticed, the grandstanding is just going to get more and more outrageous. 


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

by Iain McGilchrist

588 Pages

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Which is not to say that I think everyone would enjoy it (which is normally what I’m aiming for in this section) more that I think everyone would benefit from it. That said, I am not 100% confident that McGilchrist’s science holds up in every particular, and I’m even less confident about his historical narrative, but I nevertheless think that he has pinpointed something profoundly relevant to any diagnosis of the ills of the modern world. Something that is being almost entirely overlooked.

General Thoughts

I already spent quite a bit of time on this book in my last post, and if you haven’t already read it and you want to get deeper into things I would point you there. My intention this time around is to briefly cover a bunch of other things I thought were interesting, Mostly as a way of piquing your interest, given that I just said that everyone should read it.

To start with, if you’re anything like me, one of the chief hurdles I imagine people running into when making the decision whether or not to read this book is thinking, “Wait, wasn’t the whole pop culture idea of the left brain being logical, and the right brain being emotional and all the stuff that went along with that, debunked, or at least exaggerated?” And the answer to that is yes, but as McGilchrist explains in the preface:

‘Psychiatrist debunks the left brain/right brain myth,’ the headline proclaimed. Always interested to learn more, I read on, only to discover the psychiatrist in question is – myself.

This puts its finger on the nub of the matter. I don’t believe in the left brain/right brain myth: I believe in discovering the truth about hemisphere difference. There can be no question that it would be foolish to believe most of what has passed into popular culture on the topic of hemisphere differences. And yet it would be just as foolish to believe that therefore there are no important hemisphere differences. There are massively important ones, which lie at the core of what it means to be a human being.

With that established it’s time to get into some of those differences, that is, beyond the ones I already covered in my last post. And rather than go into a lot of detail I’m just going to give you a quick list of bullet points:

  • Many languages have two words for knowing. For example in German you have “kennen” and “wissen”. One for knowing someone and one for knowing something. This apparently is a decent way of describing the hemispheric split.
  • The hemispheric differences are exhibited in the size of the hemisphere’s themselves, the right is larger in some areas and the left in others. In fact, every known creature with a neuronal system no matter how far back you go, has a system with asymmetries.
  • You know that thing when you’re trying to come up with a name, and you just can’t remember and then the minute you stop trying it’s there? McGilchrist says that’s an example of the difference between the two hemispheres, the left struggling to pin it down in the first case, and the right easily retrieving it in a holistic manner once the left gets out of the way.
  • McGilchrist asserts that the concept of boredom didn’t arise until the 18th century. That until we “left-brained” time making it a Platonic concept rather than something we inhabited, that boredom was not something people experienced.
  • The book reminded me a lot of Neil Postman’s Technopoly, which I discussed previously here and here. One of Postman’s arguments was that technology requires applying discrete values to everything and that by doing that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. This very closely mirrors the way McGilchrist describes left hemisphere dominance.
  • Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphors, and “metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world”. This was good to hear since I presented my own defense of analogies and metaphors in this space, in particular how they provide a useful secondary framework for understanding the world which can often be more productive than science alone.

Most of these points represent curiosities. The kind of thing that you might see in an end of year trivia game the professor has put together as a reward for reading the book. But this book is not a collection of gee whiz “Did you know?” reveals, it’s a book that claims that Western Civilization is profoundly sick, and it’s this claim which should draw the majority of our attention, which takes me to the next section.

Eschatological Implications

In a sense we’re dealing with the same problem here that we were dealing with in the last review. If you have a positive feedback loop or some other runaway process, how does it come to an end? One of the many assertions McGilchrist makes is once the Emissary starts to displace the Master that this usurpation is self reinforcing, that the focus of the left-hemisphere sees a world in need of yet more focused attention. (This was part of the point I was making in my last post.) In other words it’s another positive feedback loop. And, if, as he said, this is a bad thing then we’re presented with the same questions. How do we arrest this runaway process? And if we can’t arrest it what doom awaits us? 

Let’s take the last part first. Once again, I think there’s so much to cover I’m just going to spit out a bunch of bullet points:

  • First, there are all the harms I mentioned in my last post. A fixation on data and pieces of evidence which creates a very black and white view of the world.
  • While McGilchrist doesn’t deny the many technological advances attributable to a more left-brained view of the world, he wonders if it ends up forcing us to choose either material prosperity or psychological health. A choice that many people are remarking on. 
  • Worryingly, McGilchrist has noticed that without the context provided by the right hemisphere that the left often ends up doing the opposite of what it intends. “How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal?” 
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, religion seems inextricably linked to culture and civilization, it might even be said to act as a link to right-brained modes of thought. As we concentrate more and more on banishing it from society, does this accelerate whatever problems were already occurring?
  • Finally, McGilchrist claims that an overactive left hemisphere is responsible for a host of psychological issues, including autism, schizophrenia and anorexia. (I may have more to say about this in a future post.)

While you may disagree with some of the harms I just outlined, you might nevertheless be convinced that the world needs to be more “right-brained”. If so, to return to our question, how do we arrest this process? 

McGilchrist doesn’t offer any simple or straightforward solutions, and it would be suspect if he had. It’s hard to claim that something which started at the dawn of civilization could be corrected by some simple tweak we’ve overlooked. That said McGilchrist does mention that the eastern mindset might be more conducive to a balanced approach. He also points out that despite the runaway nature of the problem that hemispheric dominance does appear to pendulum back and forth over long enough periods. It’s to be hoped that we’re experiencing one of those pendulum swings right now. Certainly I see hints of it in the rise of things like the minimalist movement, a greater focus on diet and health, the popularity of meditation, and even psychedelic microdosing. For my part, I spent quite a bit of effort arguing for a greater focus on mercy.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust

By: John Coates

340 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re in a stressful job, and you want to read a neurological examination of how to know when your stress is productive vs. destructive, I think this is a great book. I’ve occasionally mentioned some of my own past work experience (startups, a lawsuit, failed businesses, etc.) and there were many points over the last decade or so when I would have really benefited from this book.

General Thoughts

John Coates was a derivatives trader who worked for some of the big banks during the dot-com bubble, and it was around this same time that he got interested in neuroscience, later leaving trading to train as a neuroscientist. But even after he switched careers he was still interested in trading, particularly the hormonal and cognitive changes wrought in this high stress environment, so that became his area of study and this book represents his conclusions. 

My big takeaway from the book is that the body does really well at dealing with short term stress. When it’s temporarily put into fight or flight mode, but such incidents of stress need to be followed by an extended period of rest and recovery. When these stressful incidents are infrequent, but similar enough that some learning can take place, the body’s automatic response, your “gut”, if you will, gets pretty good at reacting in a rapid and sensible fashion. On the other hand if you get stuck in something of a permanent fight or flight mode — which happened to me for several years (though I doubt my example was at the extreme end of things) and happens to traders when the market is tanking — then not only is the perpetual stress profoundly unhealthy, but all of your decisions get worse as logic and even good instincts get warped by constantly bathing in cortisol and adrenaline. 

Beyond that there are some great “behind the scenes” stories of trading floors from the time when the bubble burst. And some general discussion of managing stress that I found very interesting. Coates ends the book with some recommendations, which may have been the weakest part of the book. As is so often the case there are many ideas which sound great in isolation, but which would require a complete reworking of the industry and probably human nature in order to actually be implemented.


Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16)

By: Jim Butcher

352 Pages

Who should read this book?

I can’t imagine why you would even consider reading this book if you haven’t read the 15 preceding books. But on the other hand if you have done that then it almost feels like you have to read this book, right? Unless you feel like this is the time to write the series off as a sunk cost, and if so, given the length of time between this book and the last, that might not be a bad idea.

General Thoughts

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Part of the problem is that this is the first Dresden Files novel I really had to wait to read. I came to the series late, and while the book before this one had not been released when I started the series, I think at most I waited a few months for it. If Butcher had kept up his previous pace of one novel a year, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but for reasons I never bothered investigating, there ended up being a 6 year gap between this one and the last (the aforementioned 15th book). That gap made my experience of reading this entry into the series very different from my experience of reading past entries.

First off, while I had no problem remembering the main characters, there were numerous minor characters, allusions to past events, plot points, and other miscellaneous references to the previous novels that were completely opaque to me. I can’t imagine I’m the only one suffering from this problem and it really feels like Butcher could have done a better job reminding his readers of things given how much time had passed. Second, and this is going to sound cheesy, I think I’m a different person and a different reader than I was six years ago, and the things that appealed to me back then about the Dresden Files (mostly his world building) are now no longer sufficient. Or at least that’s my theory of why this entry in the series felt flat to me. 

I guess the next obvious question is whether I’m going to read book #17 when it comes out later this year. Probably, I’m kind of a completist and even though I understand the sunk-cost fallacy, I’m not very good at incorporating it into my behavior. Also I thought I’d heard that he was ending things around book 20, and it seems a shame to give it up this close to the finish line. I guess my plan with future books would be to wait a little longer before jumping in. Give it a month or two so that the reviews can accumulate, see how they’re trending, verify that whole “ending at 20” thing and then decide. 

Having talked around the book quite a bit, let me try and quickly sum up some of the good and bad points. I’ve always felt that Butcher’s primary strength is world building, and in Peace Talks that continues to be excellent. Character wise, I think he’s lost a step, or perhaps painted himself into a corner, as quite a few characters have the same, virtually identical quality of being unreasonable hard-headed brawlers. Other than that the plot is pretty good, though it follows the typical Dresden formula of being an unending series of crises, which frankly can get a little bit tiring, also it’s basically only part one of the story. Which I guess means, to tie it all together, that you should wait until book 17 comes out and then read both of them. If Amazon is to be believed you’ll only have to wait until the end of the month.


Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus

By: Euripides

284 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you expect to find yourself transported back in time to a university in the late 18th century, and you’re too lazy to learn Greek, then you should at least read all of the Greek Tragedies in English. If you’re lucky this will be enough for you to bluff your way through things. If this scenario seems unlikely, then you should still read them unless you want to be an uncultured schlub your whole life.

General Thoughts

I have reached the end of the extant Greek tragedies, and it’s time for me to move on to the comedies, though if I live long enough I expect I’ll want to return to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides at some point. 

Having reached the end I’m not sure what overarching statements I can make, or at least what I can say that hasn’t been said in previous reviews. Though I will repeat my assertion that though they were written over two thousand years ago, the tragedies seem surprisingly modern, in a way that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and even the Iliad and the Odyssey didn’t. There’s some recognizable shift between those works and these, and I’m sure other people have done a much better job of identifying what that shift might be, but it’s definitely there and it appears to mark the beginning of a long, long road. One that we still haven’t reached the end of.

I guess, just like with the last review, that I should say something specific about this book, rather than opining on the series in general. Continuing the subject of how modern these tragedies are, The Bacchae is either the precursor of the modern horror movie or an example of how “primitive” they still were. It ends with a mother killing her son using her bare hands and carrying the head into town unaware of what she’s done because Dionysius has made her insane. On the other hand Iphigenia in Aulis has a scene that just breaks your heart

Agamemnon has been told by a prophet that the only way for the Greeks to make it to Troy is if he sacrifices his eldest daughter to Artemis. So he decides on a plan of sending for his wife and telling her to bring Iphigenia using the lie that she’s going to be wed to Achilles. But then he has a change of heart and sends another message telling his wife to turn back, but of course the second message never gets there.

This might not have been a problem except Odysseus knows about the prophecy, and in typical Odysseus fashion when it looks like Agamemnon might have a change of heart, he tells the entire army knowing that if they realize that the only things standing between them and Troy is Iphigenia, they will demand that the sacrifice proceed. In any event the scene that broke my heart is when Iphigenia arrives and joyously runs to meet her father, and it’s revealed how close the two of them have always been. The scene continues, with Agamemnon undergoing the severest torture as he talks to his daughter, knowing about what’s going to happen if he follows through on the prophecy, but also what will happen to his whole family, as they sit in the center of the army, if they refuse.

For my money it’s one of the greatest tragic scenes I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. And a fitting end to the whole series.


Cutting for Stone 

by: Abraham Verghese

658 Pages

Who should read this book?

This book was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and it sold over a million copies. Obama put it on his summer reading list. I’m sure it’s been read by thousands of book clubs (including my wife’s). It isn’t the Great American Novel it’s more like the great Ethiopian/Indian/surgical novel, but it is pretty great. If any of that entices you, you should read this book.

General Thoughts

You can easily find a plot summary for this book if you wish, as well as thousands of reviews. So doing much of either seems kind of pointless. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re looking for a great novel to read, I feel pretty confident in saying you won’t be disappointed by this one. Still, once can’t help but wonder what kind of legs this book will have. Will people still be reading it 100 years from now? Is it an actual classic? I’m not sure, I kind of suspect that it won’t be. But maybe I’m wrong, it feels like it’s right on the edge of things. That fate could easily consign this book to the ash heap of history, or alternatively it could still be on whatever passes for a bookshelf decades from now.

As a final note I will say that personally my favorite characters were Hema and Ghosh. Forget the main character I would read it just for the parts featuring those two.


III- Religious Reviews 

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture 

By: Francis A. Shaeffer 

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. It comes across as pretty dated, but if you’re interested in a fairly simple defense of Christianity told through the lens of history, then that’s what this is. It also has an accompanying TV series which is available on Amazon Prime, which has some surprisingly high production values. Apparently the whole package was a big deal in the 70’s among evangelicals.

General Thoughts

For the moment imagine that you had someone who had their doubts about the importance of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilization. And you found out that the TV series, which was based on this book, was playing at some church, so you took this person to go see it. I can imagine that you would spend most of the time cringing, because in 2020, the arguments made by this book and its accompanying show look pretty simplistic. 

In saying this I don’t mean to imply that the arguments are wrong, more that they are the product of a simpler more straightforward time, when people cared more about the overarching narrative than getting the details of every last particular correct. But things are different now, and probably the first thing a modern academic would do is point out all the mistakes Shaeffer makes, all the factual errors, large and small. For example these days historians are pretty sure that the Roman persecution of Christians has been greatly exaggerated, and barely happened at all. And while people might be right to point out these mistakes (or not, see my last post) what’s interesting is that Shaeffer’s central point, as far as I can tell, is still true. A Secular Age (which I reviewed last month) and Francis Fukuyama’s books on the origins of the state (reviewed here and here) don’t simplify things, and are otherwise punctilious about the facts. You might even say the level of detail they engage in is excruciating, and yet they both still arrive at the same fundamental conclusion about Christianity’s importance that Shaeffer does.

A few posts ago I talked about epistemology, and I mentioned that in the past people adopted an epistemology of national greatness. In this book Shaeffer is pushing an epistemology of Christian greatness, and while the negatives of this epistemology are obvious to nearly everyone these days, reading this book once again reminded me that there are probably some positives to this approach as well, particularly from the standpoint of keeping a civilization and a culture unified and happy. And it would be one thing if this epistemology were untrue, if America actually was horrible, or if Christianity had nothing to do with the development of the modern state or Western Civilization. But it’s not untrue, America is a great nation relative to essentially every other nation you can think of, and Christianity was central to what we think of as the West. Which means, in the final analysis, if I found the TV Series cringe worthy maybe the problem isn’t with it, maybe the problem is with me.


As I’ve mentioned in the past I frequently forget who recommended a book or how it ended up on my list. The last book was a great example of that, but starting now, I pledge to write it down! If you want to help me with the purchase of a pen and a pad of paper so I can do that, consider donating. (Okay I’ll actually probably use a computer but those are even more expensive.)


Justice, Mercy, Data, Evidence, BLM and QAnon

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On occasion, if you read blogs written by rationalists, you’ll come across posts that start with a notice about their epistemic status. This is particularly the case when such status is still fluid, i.e. the post is highly speculative. Given that this might be the most speculative post I’ve ever done, perhaps I should follow suit:

[Epistemic status: wildly speculative, mixes religion, science, and neurology in a way that is almost certainly overly simplistic, and furthermore advances a “this explains everything” argument which obviously overlooks much of the subtlety and complexity of our moment. All that aside I think there’s something to it….]

Many things came together to create the theory I’m about to expound. And I’m hoping that if I lay these things out as sort of a foundation, that you might see the same connections I did. So let’s start with that.

I.

I just barely mentioned religion, and we might as well get that out of the way. For the non-religious out there who might be worried, I assure you that the religious element is not necessary for the rest of the argument, but there’s a specific parable I heard long ago that encapsulates what I think is one of the central insights. This parable was given in a speech all the way back in 1977, by Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon). It went something like this:

There once was a man who wanted something very much, and went into debt to get it. Under the terms of the debt, payment was due in its entirety many years later. And while the debtor didn’t entirely ignore the debt, when it eventually came due he had paid off only a small faction of it. And it was only then he realized that if he couldn’t pay the debt in full that the creditor would send him to prison. In deathly fear of being imprisoned, he pleads for mercy. In response the creditor demands justice. Both justice and mercy are important principles, but it’s clear that in this case you can’t have both, if the creditor forgives the debt, that’s merciful, but it would ignore the justice of his claim, on the other hand if the creditor throws the debtor into prison this would be just, but no one would say that it is also merciful. 

Fortunately a friend of the debtor intervenes. He pays off the creditor, thus fulfilling the demands of justice, while also rescuing the debtor from prison, and thus also fulfilling the demands of mercy. In the process he restructures the debt into something the debtor can conceivably pay. (This being a religious parable the friend represents Jesus, and his paying off the debt is analogous to the way in which Jesus paid for our sins.) For our purposes I want to take away three things:

  1. The conflicting demands of justice and mercy.
  2. The need for a third party to resolve this conflict.
  3. The idea that mercy doesn’t eliminate the debt, but it does restructure it into something that can be paid.

The next piece in my foundation is the play Fences by August Wilson. I first saw it at the nearby Pioneer Theater a few years ago, and I remember, at the time, expecting it to be about a noble black father and his family who had been thwarted by 1950s racism. And to a certain degree it was, but the main character, Troy, was also a deeply flawed individual, and at the time I left with mixed feelings. It was hard to take the side of someone who *spoiler alert* had cheated on his utterly faithful wife, Rose, only admitted to the affair when his mistress got pregnant, refused to stop seeing his mistress even then, and finally, when his mistress died in childbirth, asked his wife to help raise a child that wasn’t hers. But then, a few weeks ago, I watched the movie adaptation with Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose (btw I cannot praise the acting highly enough, they were both beyond amazing) and I finally realized that rather than marring the play, Troy’s “sins” were what made the play a masterpiece.

This realization had an interesting impact on the way I view the current BLM protests, and while I understand trying to make this connection might get me in trouble, I think it nevertheless might be an important one. That first time around I wanted Fences to be a straightforward tale of injustice, of a black family and a black father that could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. In a similar fashion I think the people protesting also see things as a straightforward case of injustice, of black families who could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. Not only is that narrative attractive, it’s simple, probably too simple, because just like the story of Troy in Fences, the story of race and racism is a complicated mix of justice and mercy, of things that should have been done much better, and other things where people did the best they could. In the play Rose knew that despite all the wrongs which had been done to her, that it was still important to keep her family together, and that justice for Troy would have meant injustice for the daughter, and so she raised the daughter of her husband’s mistress, but in the process declared to Troy, that “you’re a womanless man.” Thus mercy and justice were both served but it took the sacrifice of a third person.

Unfortunately, no straightforward policy recommendations fall out of this observation. Though I think the need for more mercy among all the parties to the current unrest is self-evident. I also admit that it’s not entirely clear who the third party is that needs to make a sacrifice so that both justice and mercy can be served in this situation. But despite that it does serve as another point towards my claim that perfect justice is not only unattainable, but in conflict with many other important values, especially mercy. 

The final piece of the foundation is a book I’m reading, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. It’s a book about hemispheric differences within the brain, and it’s yet another one of these very dense, massive books, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and as I alluded to I’m not done, but for the purposes of this subject McGIlchrist makes two very important points. First that hemispheric differences are real, though much more nuanced than popular culture has led us to believe. And that the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere is responsible for much of what makes Western culture unique, but also responsible for much of what ails it as well.

As I said it’s a massive and densely argued book, and I’ll get into it more in my month end round-up, but for our purposes the key difference between the two hemispheres is that the left is the half that focuses in on something, and breaks it down into parts, while the right is the half that assembles discrete things into a coherent whole. The title of the book comes from a story Nietzsche told about a spiritual master who manages a large domain, and while his concerns must be for the whole domain, and everything associated with it, he does occasionally need to focus on specific places, and urgent issues. To do this he appoints an emissary who can act in his name and go forth to deal with localized problems, or perhaps gather the knowledge the master needs. In this analogy the right brain is the master, and the left brain is the emissary, but McGilchrist contends that the emissary has usurped the authority of the master, and it’s this imbalance, this perversion of the way things should work that’s causing many of our modern problems. 

It’s at this point, in an attempt to ground my theory in actual neurology, that I make my biggest conceptual leap. And believe me I’m aware that I’m doing it, but I’m hoping that you’ll at least stick with me to the end of the post before you pass judgement. That plea in place, my core observation is that we are currently suffering from an overactive drive for justice, and that at a larger level this overactive drive for justice is part of a dangerously ascendant left hemisphere. That to a certain extent we have a neurological problem. More controversially, I’m going to make the claim that it is useful to equate left hemisphere attributes to the concept of justice and right hemisphere attributes to the concept of mercy. 

It’s not my intention to give a full review of McGilchrist’s book at this point. For the moment I just want to bring him in as a buttress for my theory, but in order to do that, some additional context would be helpful. McGilchrist places the start of this trend of leftward ascendence at the start of Western civilization and philosophy, especially Plato, and in bringing his book to bear, I’m not willing to go that far, but we don’t have to in order for this theory to have some predictive power. You can even imagine that the left and the right hemisphere’s are in perfect harmony up until the end of the last century, all you have to accept is that the left hemisphere is all about the specific. It’s the half of the brain that reaches out to grasp something. And my argument is that even if this “grasping” nature is unchanged since our first ancestors descended out of the trees, that modern technology, and social media in particular has led to a sky-rocketing in the number of things available to grasp. That a profusion of stories, and anecdotes, and data, and hypotheses and accusations rather than being our salvation is proving to be our doom.

II.

While the three things above proved to be the theoretical foundation of my hypothesis, the practical expression of it hit me while I was putting together my last post. For those who may have missed it, I spent nearly 5000 words examining just one tiny set of data: police officers killed since 1965 by left or right wing extremists as reported by the Anti-defamation League. It is possible that I exhausted what could be said about those numbers, but I suspect not, and even if I did, I reached no unassailable conclusion. At best I demonstrated that the ADL had incorrectly interpreted the numbers to emphasize right-wing extremism, but that was about the extent of it. So I spent 5000 words on a very focused examination of a small set of data, and ended up without much to show for it, and as I went through this laborious exercise, it hit me, data isn’t the solution, it’s the problem

That’s a pretty bold statement, and many people are going to start by questioning not the last half of that statement but the first half, the idea that the bulk of people have an ideology driven by evidence and facts, so let’s start by tackling that. Obviously the scientific revolution happened centuries ago, but I would argue that it didn’t percolate down to the “masses” until after World War II. As just one data point, the number of people graduating from high school doubled between 1940 and 1970 going from around 40% to around 80%. As a consequence of this and other trends just about everyone absorbed some part of the scientific method, with all of its associated recommendations: backing up arguments with data, the way in which biases can influence data, etc. And not only was the importance of the scientific method impressed upon the minds of nearly everyone, more importantly, they also had revealed to them the great reward this methodology could provide. If it were followed it would spit out the (blog) Truth. And once you had the (blog) Truth, you could use it to pursue (blog) Justice! Furthermore, and most distressingly, if your Justice was based on objective, data-driven, verifiable (blog) Truth, there would be no need for mercy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This state of things was already pretty well developed when the internet, and later social media arrived on the scene, and their advent only served to make things worse. First by creating an even greater emphasis on data and evidence. (I know that the internet seems like a cesspool of biases and baseless insults, but it’s also equally full of people challenging and/or providing evidence for every assertion.) And second by vastly increasing the amount of data available. 

This is the world we live in. For what still seem like very good reasons, we have spent decades emphasizing the values of science, testing, experimentation, data, etc. And we expected this sanctification of data to lead us to an evidence based progressive and technological utopia. But it hasn’t happened and for the longest time the feeling has been that we’ve just needed to push harder. Place an even greater emphasis on evidence and rationality, but I would say that among the many “gifts” 2020 has brought us, one would have to be a realization that this approach is definitely not working. Why? 

Well after reading McGilchrist, one theory would be that this whole drive is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of it. That an emphasis on evidence, and discrete bits of data has not come about because we’re all committed scientists, but because it’s the perfect tool for an out of control left hemisphere trapped in a positive feedback loop. In other words, and I want to be very clear about this, what we’re seeing is not a failure of science but a perversion of it. Certainly the behavior we’re seeing is exactly how McGilchist describes what happens when the emissary usurps the master. From the book we read that:

  • The left hemisphere offers simple answers.
  • The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.
  • The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.
  • The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 
  • The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.
  • And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I assume that at this point most people would like to see these points applied to something specific. Something that’s happening right now. So let’s take that most infamous of all current conspiracy theories: QAnon

III.

It’s possible that you are entirely unfamiliar with the QAnon theory, or that you only recently heard about it after Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the theory, won the Republican primary for Georgia’s 14th Congressional district, putting her on a probable path to win the election in November in heavily Republican Georgia. And to be clear I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert but I think I know enough about it and have interacted with enough people who believe it to explain how it fits into the framework I laid out above. 

To begin with I need to start by clearing up some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. The most common being that the conspiracy is baseless. And before you unleash on me, allow me to explain what I mean by that. When talking about QAnon people will mention that it’s fringe, or crazy, or something else essentially synonymous with the sentence immediately following the initial description in the Wikipedia article, “No part of the theory has been shown to be based in fact.”

I fully agree with all of these statements, but the problem is that this leads people to misunderstand the phenomenon, to assume that QAnon supporters are ignoring data and evidence, when in fact it’s the opposite they’re fixated on the data and evidence. This is not to say that the evidence and data would not be more properly characterized as a collection of anecdotes, or that it fits into anything resembling a broader model of the world, or that it’s not entirely circumstantial or that the evidence doesn’t follow from the theory rather than the theory following from the evidence. But rather to say they’re fixated on data and evidence in exactly the fashion you would expect from an overactive left hemisphere after reading McGilchrist’s book. Returning to the attributes I pulled from McGilchrist’s book:

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

The whole point of conspiracies is they offer simple answers. The idea that there’s a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running things, and that Trump is the only person who can stop them, is a pretty simple tale of good and evil. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this world, and whatever else may be said of QAnon, it’s a worldview that’s far simpler than the real one. Further it allows people to justify their support for Trump. He wasn’t the best out of two bad options, he’s the only thing standing between us and Satanic pedophiles. And voting for him was the right thing to do.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

Trump has made numerous mistakes as president. With QAnon it’s easy to avoid responsibility for those mistakes because they were all in service of a much more important goal. It’s everyone else that needs to be held responsible for tolerating the worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

Certainly among some groups being a QAnon supporter is being a conformist, but obviously being indifferent to discrepancies is the attribute that really applies here because there are lots of discrepancies.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

This may be one of the best descriptions of what QAnon looks like that I’ve come across, it’s a narrow focused beam of attention which has all the time in the world to think about Epstein and the people who associated with him and very little time for anything that doesn’t fit the theory.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

Replace reductionism with QAnon and the statement remains just as true.

But beyond all of this, and most important for my purposes, QAnon is a search for justice. To the extent that Epstein and his many crimes serve as the kernel of QAnon, you could say that justice obviously wasn’t served. Epstein was a very, very bad dude. And while I’m not certain he didn’t kill himself (how could you be) I don’t think we can discount it either. But they have taken this kernel and allowed their left-brained thirst for justice to grow so large that it encompasses incidents and individuals who almost certainly were guilty of no more than being naive or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe even nothing whatsoever. But I would still argue that justice is a huge part of it. It’s a simple theory where they end up in the position of both being the only ones who are right, and also the heroes. And in addition to bringing to justice all the pedophiles they also get to reverse the grave injustices which have been done to Trump, who really has been the target of an enormous amount of hate. How much of that hate is deserved or whether hate is ever appropriate I leave for the listener to decide.

Now, lest you think that this is only a phenomenon of extremists on the right, I would argue that if anything the list is more widely applicable to what’s currently happening on the left. At the risk of making this post ridiculously long (too late?) Let’s go through the list again and apply it to the current protests. 

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

“White Fragility” and “Systemic Racism” are all pretty simple and straightforward answers to what is actually a devilishly complex problem. To this you might add assertions like, “Race and Gender don’t exist.” A statement that simplifies things almost to the point of ridiculousness. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

Obviously as I go through this list, the observations being made are my observations. But when I see the protesters chanting and yelling, the overwhelming impression I come away with is their absolute certainty in the justice of their cause, and their unassailable moral correctness.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

George Floyd had a large amount of fentanyl in his system, but to even suggest that he might have been the tiniest bit responsible for what happened to him is essentially inconceivable. (Which is why, to be clear, I am also not suggesting that.) And in a broader context any discussion of responsibility that doesn’t involve racism by white people is also inconceivable. 

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

The degree and speed to which people pledged their support to Black Lives Matter was frankly astonishing. It would be difficult to find something post 9/11 which had greater public support. Nor is there much tolerance for discrepancies, for example the inconvenient discrepancy in the narrative illustrated by the Ferguson Effect. Something I keep bringing up.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

As many people have remarked on, it was amazing how fast attention shifted from COVID to BLM. And how long that beam has been focused on a single killing, when killings of one sort or another happen nearly every hour of every day in the US.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I believe I covered this one in my post, Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM) and also several of the posts that followed it. 

After applying this list to both sides, I feel like McGilchrist’s theory has a lot of explanatory power. That people are looking at the data and evidence, but in a monomaniacal fashion which throws away the actual world which is messy, nuanced and complicated and replaces it with a simpler world of good guys and bad guys, of righteous acts and heinous atrocities. That, in other words people have dispensed with mercy, and are interested only in justice. They have beheld the world and passed absolute judgement upon it.

IV.

We covered a lot of territory in those first three parts so I’m going to try to bring it all together, but let’s take a different path. This time around let’s start with people doing things we disagree with and consider stupid. Let’s assume that we’re even correct, that these things are stupid, that we’re not suffering from our own biases, our own overactive left-hemisphere. How do we get these people to stop doing these stupid things? One method, which has been drilled into us since we started school is to prove that these things are stupid. How do we prove that these things are stupid? With evidence and data!

But we immediately run into several problems with this approach.

  1. There are mountains of data out there, and not only is that mountain growing it’s growing faster than it ever has.
  2. Even if the majority of the data supports one position there is always going to be data that supports the opposite position. Plus point 1 makes it even more difficult to survey enough data to determine what constitutes a majority.
  3. The only choice left is to focus in on a selection of data or to prioritize certain pieces of evidence over other pieces of evidence.
  4. But as I showed in my last post, not only can a narrow focused reading of the data back up nearly any position, but it becomes a positive feedback loop of validation and the push for more focus. This is particularly dangerous if McGilchrist is right about the prevalence of overactive left hemispheres.
  5. Even if McGilchrist isn’t right, we still have to grapple with things like confirmation bias, selection effect, echo chambers and the memefication of discourse.

As I went through that list I kind of ended up lumping together both sides of things. As in the side where you dispense wisdom and the side where you receive (or gather) wisdom. But both suffer from the same problems. Whatever knowledge you’ve received through this method is bound to be fragmentary and biased, but in spite of this it also ends up laden with certainty, both because of its perceived scientific basis, but also because, as we’ve seen, that’s how the left hemisphere operates. And then when you turn to the project of dispensing that info, of explaining what a just world looks like, you run into the same problems, and that’s even if the person you’re dispensing it to is a blank slate. It’s actually far more likely that they have followed this same procedure and ended up with their own completely different vision of a just world, also imbued with the certainty that comes from focused but fragmentary evidence.

This idea that people don’t respond to facts and evidence is well covered territory (though hopefully I’ve approached it from a very different angle) and is so often the case, Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex’s contribution to the discussion is particularly brilliant. He argued that rhetoric and other similar tools are available to both sides and indeed any side of a debate, and thus the side you’re on accrues no inherent advantage by using these tools. But if the tool you’re using is the truth, then it does give you an advantage over those without it, even if that truth is hard to communicate, and percolates outward only very slowly. I have no strong disagreements with this view and indeed I’ve forwarded that post to many people, but I think it needs to be amended to include everything I’ve mentioned above.

More specifically I would argue that there’s a way of getting at something which feels a lot like the (blog) Truth, through a method that looks a lot like Science! A way that comes naturally to us, probably because we’re dealing with an overactive left-hemisphere, but that this is exactly the path that helped to get us into this mess. And that the most natural takeaway of a post like Alexander’s is to put people on this same path. I would amend it to guide people towards a path that is more subtle, and less certain, but that ultimately leads to deeper truths. If McGilchrist is correct it’s because this would be a more right-brained approach, but even if he’s not, I think it’s clear that we’ve been way too focused on data and evidence, and not enough on a broader picture of the interrelated nature of the world. Or to put it even more simply, that Alexander’s rationalism is best applied in service of mercy not justice. (For awhile that last bit was going to be the title of this post.)

This post is already 50% longer than one of my normal posts, and those were already too long. So I’d better wrap it up. Though I had a lot more thoughts on this subject. Some of which will hopefully appear when I review The Master and His Emissary, some of which may be developed in future posts. (This post should be considered a very rough draft of these ideas, a first pass on a collection of topics that’s pretty complex.) And some of which I’m going to quickly spit out here at the end.

  • I’m not sure how well it worked to frame all of this as a conflict between mercy and justice, but if this idea is to have any impact, it has to eventually take a form that’s easy to understand. Mercy and justice was my stab at that.
  • To put this in context with some of my other recent posts. One of the most important developments of classical liberalism is the creation of mediation and the rule of law, which acts as the third party I mentioned at the very beginning the party required to balance the demands of justice and mercy which are otherwise incompatible.
  • One problem with a more right brained approach is that if the right brain is The Master in charge of the entire empire, that empire is vastly greater today than it was for our hunter-gatherer/agrarian/medieval-village-dwelling ancestors. And it might be that it’s too big and too complex to allow for a return to a “right-brain” mode.
  • I think there’s an interesting connection between this topic and the discussion of theodicy that I mentioned in my review of A Secular Age. Theodicy deals with the evil in all of us, and mercy and justice are ways of coming to terms with our own evil. I mentioned that lately an alternative has come to the fore whereby if someone takes on the mantle of victimhood they can claim absolute innocence while placing 100% of the guilt on their oppressor. This is both, justice taken to its extreme, as I’ve discussed, and also a pretty left-brained view of things as well.

If you’ve made it this far I appreciate it. This ended up rougher and more scattered than I had hoped, that said I think I’m on to something here, and I’d love to know if you agree, and love to know even more if you disagree, and particularly what part you disagree with. If you take away nothing else I hope that in some respect I demonstrated, however strangely, the importance of mercy. Something that seems like a quaint and outdated concept, but perhaps that just means that it’s needed now more than ever.


There was a time when people were paid by the word. This is one of those posts where I wish that was the deal I had. Instead I get paid by my patrons, if that’s you, thanks! If it’s not, perhaps consider it? These long posts are even harder than they look.