Category: <span>Religious</span>

Epistemology as Revealed by “Murder Among the Mormons”

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I.

In the course of the last few essays I’ve been discussing the weaknesses of technocracies. That discussion began with the idea that one of the things they think is a strength, that they have a firm epistemological basis (i.e. technocracies are based on truth as uncovered by science) turns out to be a weakness. Because the important thing isn’t the epistemology per se it’s how it gets translated into a form which is not only palatable to the masses but which can be clearly understood and followed. A major theme of the ensuing posts was that science-based technocracy is bad at these important steps of palatability and simplicity, and that some part of our current crisis is due to the fact that many people believe the exact opposite. That the solution to all of our problems, both epistemological and otherwise, is simple, we just need to, as they say, “follow the science”.

This advice only works if science produces easily digestible, straightforward guidance. Rather than provisional probabilities which invariably involve numerous tradeoffs. And to be clear I’m glad we have some way of quantifying these tradeoffs, even if it’s through the use of muddled probabilities. But such knowledge, at best, only represents what is, it cannot give us our ought. What we ought to do, or ought to be. All of which is to say science is one part of any epistemological framework, but not a totalizing solution. Crafting a civilizational epistemology is and always will be a fantastically difficult problem, but rather than spend another post at the same well of epistemology through the lens of politics I thought it was time for a little break. Both to keep things fresh, but also because looking at epistemology from a different angle might help clarify some of the issues.

As you may have noticed, I was already a little bit in the headspace of religion, and then Netflix released the series, Murder Among the Mormons. Initially I wasn’t going to watch the series, because I felt I already knew the story. (This was true, though some of the details were surprising.) My dismissive familiarity derived not only from it happening where I grew up, but when I grew up. (I was in junior high at the time.) As a result I thought I had more productive things to do with my time, but then my wife watched it and told me that I would enjoy it just from a nostalgic angle. So I changed my mind. She was right, I did enjoy it and it was very nostalgic. In particular it was surreal to see footage of all the old news anchors who I had grown up watching, back when the evening news was a thing. But once I got past the nostalgia, I also realized that the series brought up some very interesting epistemological issues, and that these would be worth exploring, particularly in light of my latest blog posts.  

First, for those who haven’t seen the series, a brief summary: Mark Hoffman was a dealer in antique documents. In particular documents written by people involved in the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons). His specialty was uncovering documents long thought lost, or revelatory documents no one ever suspected the existence of. He accomplished this mostly not by being a great detective, but by being one of history’s all time greatest forgers (that we know of, we’ll get to that can of worms in a moment). As you might imagine, no one knew he was a forger, and if he had been a little bit less greedy, or a little bit more frugal, perhaps we never would have known. But apparently despite making lots of money off of his various forgeries he spent it even faster, always assuming that whatever debts he racked up could be paid off by an even more spectacular, future forgery. This pseudo-ponzi scheme meant that by 1985 he was in deep financial trouble. His solution to this crisis was to make some bombs. I don’t think it’s ever been entirely clear how these bombs would solve his problems, in particular what his endgame was. Initially I thought that perhaps it was just me, but Jared Hess who directed the documentary (and also Napoleon Dynamite…) Came to the same conclusion:

I’m curious what was going through [Hoffman’s] head leading up to the decision to kill people. Truthfully, what did he plan to accomplish if he had gotten away with it? What would have been his next steps? What was his long-term game plan? Truthfully, it doesn’t seem like he ever thought that far ahead because he obviously got in so much trouble with the Ponzi scheme that he had created and was just in over his head with debt and owing people money. He maybe didn’t think that far ahead, but I’d be curious to hear it from him now, after being in prison this long, how he puts that all together.

His first bomb killed a document collector he had been working with, Steve Christiansen, and presumably this death took some of the pressure off of Hoffman. The second bomb was targeted at Christiansen’s business associate, Gary Sheets, though it ended up killing his wife instead. (And they have a recording of Hoffman saying he didn’t care who it killed, even if it was a kid.) Apparently this second bomb was designed to make the murders seem related to a failing business both Christiansen and Sheets were involved in, and at this point I guess it was going according to plan, though as I said it’s not clear what that plan was. But then the third bomb went off accidentally in Hoffman’s car, seriously wounding him. This and a few other things turned him into the prime suspect, which led them to raid his house, which in turn led them to uncovering proof he was forging historical documents.

II.

Out of all this we actually end up with three different areas of epistemology:

First there’s the epistemological madness one gets when you consider the idea of undetected frauds. By definition the greatest forgery would be the one that was never revealed as such. It seems clear that if Hoffman had just been a little bit less greedy, and maybe a little bit less crazy, that his frauds might have remained forever undetected. Had this happened, parts of history we considered true and verified by the evidence would have in fact been false. Science is based on examining the evidence but if some percentage of evidence is flawed or fabricated, then using science as a basis for our epistemology will be similarly flawed.

Second, there’s the task of historical epistemology which concerns itself with reconstructing what actually happened. Why did Mark Hoffman plant the bombs, what was his endgame? How many historical documents were forged by Hoffman?  More controversially, how much pressure did the LDS church exert on the investigations? Did they hide any of their dealings with Hoffman? As I’ve looked into things a little bit more there seem to be disagreements about the answers to all of these questions. Meaning that the version of the story as told by Murder Among the Mormons, may not be entirely truthful. Or it may be perfectly truthful, and other versions of the story may be the false ones. I don’t know that much hinges on getting the facts perfect for this event, but there are many events where quite a bit hinges on which interpretation you accept.

Finally, there is the question of religious epistemology. This is an enormously broad and complicated topic, so we’re just going to examine the small niche where it intersects with the bombings. The biggest part of the Mark Hoffman story outside of the murders was a document called the Salamander Letter. This was a document purportedly written by Martin Harris, who, when Joseph Smith first started translating the golden plates, acted as Smith’s scribe. (He was also one of the Three Witnesses.) If you’re familiar with the golden statues on top of most LDS temples, those are statues of the Angel Moroni who revealed the location of the plates to Smith. The “Salamander Letter” had Harris’ description of this event, and in it rather than being an angel it was a “spirit [that] transfigured himself from a white salamander”. The LDS Church purchased the letter. There are various theories as to why (see my point on reconstructing history) but presumably one reason was they thought it was genuine. And here’s where the angle of religious epistemology enters the picture, if the LDS Church is led by a prophet who can communicate with God, why did he not know the Salamander Letter was a forgery?

Having identified the different flavors of epistemology touched on by the series, let’s take a deeper dive into each one.

III.

It’s easy to imagine the epistemological distortions created by actual forgeries. We need look no farther than the Donation of Constantine (a forgery granting the Pope authority over the Western Roman Empire) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (A fabricated plan describing Jewish plans for world domination) to see the way such fictions can warp the world’s understanding. And, of course, these are fabrications which were revealed as such. I’m sure that if we are ever able to view the whole scope of history—say as one of the benefits of the afterlife, or if we finally crack the simulation we’re all living in—that we will be amazed by the number of things that were accepted as true but which were actually fraudulent.

As it turns out science is actually pretty good at detecting frauds, particularly within science itself. In fact one of its primary tasks is to combat the uncertainty and epistemological madness caused by undetected frauds and errors. Because of how successful it’s been at this task, the sort of mendacity that occurs in the cause of overt fraud should probably not be our primary concern, at least not at the moment. No, currently we’re facing a far more pernicious problem, a problem eating away at the foundation of science itself.

This problem has been labeled the replication crisis, and this is not the first time I have blogged about it, though it’s been a few years. This is a crisis arising out of incentives and biases, rather than overt attempts to deceive (though that also happens more often than it should). Among these biases is one for experiments that reveal something new rather than confirming or disconfirming something old; another is for exciting, unexpected results, rather than modest, common results; still others involve more general issues of respectability, and influence. These are the biases of the person publishing the results and they go on to distort the incentives of those generating the results. (Though these people are also biased.) The ultimate consequence of all this has been that in some fields less than half of studies can be reproduced and in some areas it’s less than 15%

As I’m still basically in the mindset of talking about how epistemology affects politics, it’s interesting to examine how the broader replication crisis plays out when viewed through this lens. On the low end of things, some of the stuff that hasn’t replicated just seems vaguely silly. Like the idea of power poses, ego depletion and priming (for example seeing old people makes you walk more slowly). But when you move up to things like the implicit association test (which claims to be able to measure innate racism), pandemic triggered school closures, and interpreting the recent increase in murders, suddenly you’re dealing with questions that could have a profound effect on society, particularly given the current climate. 

If the replication crisis had left us with one bucket of definitely provable things, and one bucket of definitely disproved things, and it was just a matter of using the first bucket when it came time to act or make policy, then there would be very little to be concerned about. But the number of things in those two buckets is very small. Instead the vast majority of findings end up in the “We’re still arguing about this” bucket. To take one of the silliest examples, in 2017 various studies appeared to debunk the idea of power poses, but then in 2018 Amy Cuddy, the chief advocate for the idea, came out with meta-study which appeared to support it. Now whatever rigor Cuddy applied to this meta-examination, no one could argue that she’s unbiased. Her reputation was built on the idea of power poses.

If we’re still fighting over power poses, you can imagine the kind of fights we’re having over important stuff, and the broader implications when it comes time to translate “science” into actual policy. Of course because of the hyper-partisanship of the moment, just about everything has policy implications and everyone wants to claim that facts are on their side. All of this serves to illustrate the claim I made at the start: following the science is easier said than done. Particularly when so much science has been exiled from the “definitely provable” bucket into the “we’re still arguing about this” bucket. Add to this the biases of those conducting the science (like Cuddy) and then add to that the biases of the general public, which have only been strengthened in the echo chambers of social media. That’s a pretty murky situation, meaning, as an individual matter, “following the science” becomes non-trivial even for stuff like vaccines and mask-wearing, and difficult bordering on impossible for just about everything else.

So, while the current world is not dealing with an epidemic of deliberate fraud—as least not yet, see the next section—we are dealing with very similar issues of uncertainty. The modern form of fraud currently happening in science is both subtle and mostly unintentional and the forgeries are inadvertent, but all the more difficult to detect because of that. That said as contentious as science has gotten, outside of science things are even worse. 

IV.

On August 9, 2014, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. That’s the part pretty much everyone agrees on. But immediately the shooting became one of the precipitating events of the Black Lives Matter movement, and when that happened it became difficult to get people to agree about anything else related to the event. Initially numerous people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting, further claimed that Brown’s hands were up when he was shot by Wilson. This led to the phrase Hands up, don’t shoot! becoming one of the mantras of BLM activists. The problem with this mantra is that it’s not what happened.

Because upon questioning, to quote from St. Louis Public Radio:

 

DOJ investigators found the accounts of all 22 witnesses to be unreliable because other parts of those witnesses’ stories conflicted with physical or forensic evidence or with the accounts of credible witnesses.

Many of these witnesses denied incontrovertible evidence that Brown reached into the police car, struck Wilson in the face, was wounded by a gunshot inside the car, fled 180 feet, suffered no wounds in the back and then moved back at Wilson immediately before the fatal shots.

In many instances, the discounted witnesses repeated what they had heard from neighbors or on the news. Some witnesses admitted they made up stories so they could be part of a big event in their community.

Brown’s companion, Dorian Johnson, and friends quickly spread the word that Wilson had killed Brown execution style. An iPad recording and videos that captured conversations among the gathering crowd document the development of the false narrative.

Despite the DOJ investigation (and recall at the time of the investigation that Obama was still president) and articles by the Washington Post and New York Times pointing out that Brown did not have his hands up, the slogan still seems to be in fairly common usage. It was definitely still being used during the protests which happened last summer, and was the title of a book published in 2019, long after the investigation. Occasionally the phrase is accompanied by the claim that eyewitnesses reported that his hands were in the air at the time of the shooting, without going on to mention the results of the investigations into the credibility of those eyewitnesses.  As if hinting at the report for those who are aware of the problems without conceding any ground.

The slogan’s ongoing use is an extreme example of the epistemological rabbit hole posed by our second area of inquiry: the difficulties of historical epistemology. Here we have an extensively documented event, from the recent past, but when asked in a poll “Did the Obama administration’s investigation of the Ferguson shooting find merit in claims that Michael Brown held up his hands in surrender before he was shot by police officer Darren Wilson?” 63% of all voters and 81% of all democrats answered in the affirmative. That they had found merit. Now this poll was taken in 2016, by what appears to be a partisan polling organization, and I would guess that mentioning Obama prejudiced the answers. But generally the passage of time only makes correct information harder to come by. I’m not sure there are any completely independent polling organizations left. And if mentioning Obama did prejudice the answers I’m not sure in what direction that prejudice operates.

There is a similar controversy in Murder Among the Mormons. In this case people on both sides have a lot at stake over what role the LDS leaders played in the whole affair. With faithful members obviously interested in putting the best light on things, while those people who are opposed to the church want to make it seem as if LDS leaders were applying inappropriate pressure at various stages.

Here I confess that I have not delved deeply enough into the minutia of things to know which of the supposed damning facts are true and which have been exaggerated or fabricated. I did however come across a podcast shortly after watching the series which featured a presentation given by George Throckmorton, one of the people who was finally able to conclusively establish that the Salamander Letter had been forged. He mentioned one incident which was featured in the book The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit and Death. (I believe, it wasn’t 100% clear if it was this book or another.) The book described leaders of the Church visiting Throckmorton and his associate, and while they asked a lot of questions they never, to the astonishment of Throckmorton, asked whether the documents were genuine. In the podcast Throckmorton pointed out that this incident had never happened. 

Going farther back there are similar controversies over the events surrounding the founding of the LDS Church. And how could there not be? You have the combination of some extraordinary claims about, from a historical perspective, some very recent events. (Everything happened no earlier than 1820.) 

The question is why? Why is it so important to get to the bottom of what happened to Michael Brown? Or to discover whether LDS leaders were inappropriately influencing things? Or to uncover what Joseph Smith was really up to in 1820?

I would contend that, as I pointed out at some length in a previous post, we have a mania for justice, and the only way to make sure we achieve justice is by knowing exactly what happened. This requires collecting facts and evidence, but as I have pointed out already there is nothing connecting the “is” of those assembled facts to the “ought” of just outcomes. In a sense we’re like Grand Moff Tarkin, the more we squeeze the more things slip through our fingers. We are never going to be able to perfectly reconstruct past events in some way that’s universally persuasive. (I haven’t even touched on the potential carnage of deep fakes.) And the more we try the more uncertainty we introduce which paradoxically means the more facts and evidence we assemble the harder it becomes to achieve the appearance of justice.

V.

Like most epistemologies, religious epistemologies come in two parts. There’s the part concerning how truth is arrived at, and then there’s the process of adapting that truth to people’s actions and behaviors. Murder Among the Mormons touches quite a bit on that first part. Doctrinally, the LDS Church asserts that its leaders receive revelation from God, that they are in a sense directly communicating with Him. Now there’s a whole other discussion to be had about what form that communication might take, how it operates, and how specific it is. But as you might imagine many people thought that, at a minimum, regardless of the exact mechanism, that it should have been sufficient to enable the leaders to determine that the Salamander Letter was fake.

Of course this also touches on historical epistemology, because there is also a debate over what they believed at the time. Were they convinced of its authenticity? Or were they on the fence about it? I have no problem accepting that they did in fact believe it was genuine, nor does this idea particularly bother me from a religious perspective either. Because, should He exist, I don’t think acting as a perfect fact checker, or as some infinitely comprehensive version of snopes.com plays much of a role in God’s plan. I have talked at some length about what I feel the best model is for understanding God’s plan, but if you’re not up for 10,000 words on the subject, the tl;dr of it is that God treats us the same way someone worried about AI Risk would treat a newly created AI. And this treatment does not include correcting every potential mistake in judgement that we or an AI might make. 

One doesn’t have to get that deep into the theological weeds or even necessarily be a believer to accept that God’s failure to reveal a forgery is insufficient grounds to falsify His existence. Just the concept of faith should be enough to explain why it didn’t happen. And it’s this same concept of faith that then goes on to be the primary tool for making religious epistemology actionable. If there’s a certain amount of trust involved in deciding what is true, and beyond that only completely trusting in God, that would seem to lead to a certain amount of epistemic humility.

Of course you can make the point that this humility was not always present in all times and in all places, that in fact it’s less a concrete universal rule and more an aspirational guideline which is generally only applied to other christians and even then, inconsistently. But having noted all of these exceptions, it’s hard to imagine that you get the idea of mercy without this foundation. Without believing that your judgment might be wrong and that the perfecting of justice is something you can leave to God. In contrast to this, as I mentioned in my previous post about our mania for justice, we now feel that we can arrive at perfect justice. That if we just assemble all of the evidence that there will be no need for mercy, and thus we have largely abandoned it as a principle.

I mentioned the nostalgia that came with watching Murder Among the Mormons. Of seeing 80s era local TV personalities and coverage from back when I was still in junior high. While not featured in the documentary, one bit of TV that was in constant rotation back then were commercials for Mr. Mac. Mr. Mac was a suit store specializing in cheap suits targeted at LDS Missionaries. It was owned by Mac Christensen, the eponymous Mr. Mac, who also acted as the spokesperson on all of these commercials. Mac Christensen was the father of Steve Christensen, one of the two people murdered by Hoffman. I had not made this connection until my wife pointed it out to me. After mentioning it she went on to tell me about an event she had attended where Mac Christensen was speaking. As part of his speech he related how difficult and time consuming it had been to forgive Hoffman, but how he had eventually done so. Nothing in the process of forgiveness involved figuring out which documents Hoffman had forged or trying to reconstruct the minutiae of October 15, 1985, the day his son was murdered. Nor did it involve figuring out the theological implications of divine communication. 

None of this is to say that delving into theological minutiae is pointless, or that uncovering facts and evidence isn’t valuable. It’s just to say that for Christensen personally, none of it was as valuable is the peace he found through mercy and forgiveness.


The last couple of posts took longer than I expected. I ended up suffering from a little bit of writer’s block. You know what’s a sure fire cure for that? New donors


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


The 7 Books I Finished in January

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  1. Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts by: Ilya Shapiro
  2. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by: Joseph Henrich
  3. Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) by: Brandon Sanderson
  4. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by: Margaret MacMillan
  5. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by: Steven Pressfield
  6. The Minuteman by: Greg Donahue
  7. There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days by: Hyrum Lewis

January started off with a bang, and I was worried that there would be more bangs in between the 6th and the 20th, but fortunately things were pretty quiet. Also, as far as that subject goes I think I’ve already said quite a bit, and other people have said quite a bit more than that, so I thought I’d talk about something lighter. Since this is my book review post it always feels appropriate to talk about books and reading, so let’s do that.

January is a weird month for me when it comes to reading. Every year I have a big annual goal, plus I’m motivated to beat the previous year’s page count (last year it was 37,215, a new record). What this means is that I generally push to finish any book I’m in the middle of by December 31st, so when January dawns I’m not in the middle of any books I’m starting fresh with everything. Since some books may take me several months to finish, I end up doing a significant amount of reading in January I don’t get credit for, i.e. it’s not reflected in the books that show up as being finished that month, it shows up in subsequent months.

At this point you’re all thinking that this is exceptionally boring, and more than you wanted to know, but I do have a point, and as is so often the case that point is that I screwed up. Knowing that this is how January always goes, instead of focusing on some shorter books, I decided to read the latest 1200 page monstrosity from Brandon Sanderson. Which was so huge and started off so slowly, that there was a small chance that when it came time to do this, that would be the only book I would be reviewing. Fortunately, I was incredibly disciplined in January, and I managed to finish just slightly less than my average number of books. Though I will say that as of the 28th of last month, I had only finished three of them, the other four books were all finished during the last three days of the month…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts 

by: Ilya Shapiro

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Supreme Court confirmation battles throughout history, with some additional emphasis on the more recent battles (This was written after Kavanaugh but before Barrett.)

Who should read this book?

People who want historical context for the current battles over nominations. Or people who want a deeper dive on what happened during those battles, along with opinion on the same from a moderate libertarian perspective.

General Thoughts

The look back through history was very interesting, and I recommend the book just for that part. Obviously contentious politics was not invented in 2016, or in 1987. It’s been around for a lot longer than that, and that goes just as much for the Supreme Court as for anything else. But it is clear that the post war years were unusually calm, and when we compare something happening today to how it’s “always been done” we’re comparing today to that post war period, if you go farther back most of the things that are happening now happened at some point historically. That said, though the fights look similar, Shapiro argues, and I agree, that the stakes are different, but before we get to that some random notes I made while reading the book:

  • Early on in the country’s history they were less concerned with the ideological balance of the court and more concerned with regional balance. It was felt that one member needed to be from Virginia, and one member had to be from New England, etc. So that regional concerns were properly protected. Interesting to think about this in the context of how balanced the current Supreme Court is on specific dimensions, for example: Ivy League vs. Non-Ivy League. (Spoiler: It’s currently 9-0. And arguably worse than that, all current justices went to law school at either Harvard or Yale.)
  • Shapiro puts forth the theory that if Reagan had nominated Bork first, and then Scalia, rather than the other way around, that he probably would have gotten both nominations through. Scalia was charming and would have gotten through regardless, and Bork, who was frank to the point of being combative, would have had an easier time if he hadn’t been the second conservative nominee.
  • Shapiro spent a lot of time praising Clarence Thomas, particularly his work ethic. (I myself have often thought that Thomas is unfairly maligned.)
  • With that partiality in mind, his take on Anita Hill and the nomination of Thomas to the bench was interesting. I had always had the impression that it came down to his word against hers, and they went with him. But Shapiro seems to indicate that there was almost no evidence to support Hill’s accusations and significant evidence contradicting it. That at best she was exaggerating incidents, and at worst she was outright lying.
  • As you might imagine, after the controversy over Merrick Garland not receiving a hearing, Shapiro spends quite a bit of time talking about nominations near the end of a President’s term. He calls it the Thurmond Rule, after it’s first invocation in 1968. And it turns out that not a lot of justices have been nominated and confirmed near the end of a President’s term. Of course having been written between Garland and Barrett he doesn’t cover the full impact of its presence in modern times. But overall the book gives an interesting history of the idea without either dismissing it or advocating for it.

Eschatological Implications

I have often talked in this space about the way in which the Supreme Court has increasingly become the de facto rulers in America, and even the way that this transition somewhat mirrors the end of the Roman Republic. This is increasingly why presidential elections are often decided by what sort of justices the president will nominate. (Would Trump have won in 2016 without this consideration?) A President’s later success is judged by what justices they did nominate. And the nomination of those justices have become far more contentious than any potential legislation because the Supreme Court will be the ones who ultimately decide whether that legislation will take effect. 

Various ideas have been offered for how to reverse this trend including getting rid of lifetime tenure, giving each president a set number of nominations, expanding the number of seats, etc. Shapiro reviews several such proposals in the book, but in the end he contends that none of the proposals is going to work as long as the Supreme Court continues to wield such enormous power. That there is no way for the nominations to become less contentious if you’re fighting over the ultimate power to decide the course of the country. Now obviously, as a well known libertarian, Shapiro is going to make this argument, but at the same time it seems self-evident to the point of being tautological. People are going to fight for power, and if ultimate power is vested with the Supreme Court, that’s what they’re going to fight over. 

The historical stuff in the book is all important because it illustrates that the Supreme Court didn’t always wield such power, and so perhaps they can return to that state. In this endeavor Shapiro praises the idea of textualism, and in particular Scalia’s championing of it. And he is very critical of Roe v. Wade, pointing to it as the point when things went off the rails. Now it is not my intent to relitigate Roe v. Wade, I have said that I don’t think it will be entirely reversed, even after Barrett’s nomination. (Though certainly if it were ever going to happen this would be the time.) Also it’s worth pointing out that even the Ginsburg thought it was a bad ruling from a legal standpoint.  All that aside, I think there’s a credible argument to be made (which is what Shapiro does) that this is when the court took a decisive turn in the direction of absolute power.

I see some similarities here to how the Gracchi brothers used their near absolute power as Tribune of the Plebs to implement their reforms. Reforms which were sorely needed. (This is what the pro choice crowd also argues.) However in the end the only response to such absolute power was for one of the brothers to be clubbed to death (the first such political violence in 400 years) and the other to commit suicide before he could be clubbed to death.

I keep bringing Rome into things because I feel like there’s this similar process happening where loopholes and legalistic interpretations are being invoked more and more rather than relying on the initial understanding of how things are expected to work. The Tribune of the Plebs was not supposed to threaten to veto everything. The Supreme Court was not supposed to invent rights from “penumbras and emanations”, the minority party in the Senate was not supposed to filibuster everything, and the Vice President is not supposed to have the power to change the counting of the Electoral Votes in such a way that it reverses the election. And yet all these things have been attempted. It’s interesting that only the last one failed.


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

by: Joseph Henrich

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another answer to the age old question of what separates humans from animals. Our contender this time is the human ability to transmit knowledge in the form of culture. That we don’t just adapt to our environments through genetic mutations but through cultural mutations as well.

Who should read this book?

Similar to Seeing Like a State, a book I reviewed last month, this book was also the subject of a Slate Star Codex review. Both reviews were so good they just about obviate the need to read the actual books. The one for Secret was thorough enough that I used it as the basis for a podcast episode of my own which, even after having read the book, I still stand by. That comparison aside if you felt the need to read one of the two books I would recommend this one over Seeing Like a State.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I already wrote a blog post about this book. In preparation for this review I re-read that post and I think it still mostly covers my thoughts on the subject of cultural evolution. But, as not all of you will read it, and as it is pretty long. I’ll summarize my previous point.

Cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution in that it can lead to things which take up a lot of resources, but which don’t actually provide a survival advantage. The classic example from biological evolution is peacock feathers. They may be useful for convincing peahens to mate with you, but they don’t do much to help you get away from predators, i.e. it’s an adaptation which is good for the genes but bad for the individual carrying those genes. From the standpoint of cultural evolution you can imagine funny memes occupying a similar position. Being funny helps the meme to propagate, but spending all of your time on reddit consuming memes may have a negative impact on the survival of the person engaged in the behavior. As memes, and culture more broadly, can be created with less time and effort then developing six foot long feathers, one expects that maladaptive examples of the former should be more common. Accordingly, anytime we examine things that have evolved culturally whether they be traditions, taboos, flourishes, art or what have you, we are faced with two questions. Was this bit of culture useful? That is, did it help people with that cultural package survive? And is it still useful? That is, could it help us survive?

At one point the knowledge of how to make stone weapons was fantastically useful, but these days even if you could somehow acquire it, it would have no value other than as an object of curiosity. To see how we might apply it to the debates of our own day: historically there has been a strong tradition of monogamous heterosexual marriage (MHM) among nearly all cultures, especially larger ones. When we ask our two questions about stone tools the answers are obvious, “yes, it was useful” and “no, it’s not still useful” respectively. When we ask our two questions about MHM, the answers are not nearly so clear. In my previous post I gave some standards for how to answer the first question, and concluded that MHM probably had been useful, but it’s possible that it’s not still useful.

Eschatological Implications

While there is and will continue to be lots of debate over whether a particular bit of culture was useful in the past, there are vast implications for the future of any culture in figuring out what traditions and practices are still useful. I think people want to imagine that the forward march of technology has changed everything, but I strongly suspect it has changed far less than people think. While Henrich doesn’t directly address MHM, or, probably wisely for him and his career, really any of the hot button cultural issues of the day, he does address, and at significant length, how difficult it can be to determine what utility a particular cultural practice has. Things that seem clearly to be nothing more than primitive superstitions like reading animal remains to determine where to hunt, turn out to play a critical role. And as both this book and Seeing Like a State point out the negative effects of abandoning a particular tradition or practice can take decades or even centuries to manifest. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) 

by: Brandon Sanderson

1232 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The fourth book of a planned 10 (supposedly two five book series) in Sanderson’s epic saga of the world of Roshar, and the return of the Knights Radiant. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first three and enjoyed them you’ll probably enjoy this one, though it was my least favorite of the four.

General Thoughts

Sanderson has the life I dreamed of when I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’m bitter about that, but I might be, so you should take that into account with this review. With that potential bitterness in mind let’s start with the bad stuff:

  • As already mentioned this was my least favorite of the four books.
  • Sanderson is great at writing action and there just wasn’t very much of it in this book.
  • I’ve had the impression since book two, but particularly after book three, that whatever character progress was made in the last book gets undone at the beginning of the next book. This is particularly true with Kaladin and Shallan.
  • I don’t have any problems with characters dying, but in high fantasy you expect characters to die in a noble fashion. Sanderson seems to do the opposite of that. (I’m thinking in particular of a specific death at the end of the previous book, but a similar thing happens in this book.)
  • There’s some big developments right at the end that feel like they came out of left fied.
  • There had to be some way to make this book shorter.

And now for the good:

  • While I can’t stand Moash and cringe every time he shows up, some of the other bad guys were really good in this one.
  • Adolin continues to be one of my favorite characters and I really liked his arc in this one.
  • Despite what I said above, this book’s resolution of Shallan and Kaladin’s arc was more satisfying than I expected. Though I fear in book five we’ll be back to square one or at least several squares behind where we ended in this book.
  • As usual Sanderson’s world-building is top notch and the way in which he expanded on the “physics” of the world in this book was both cool and interesting.

If you’re interested in having a spoiler filled discussion feel free to email me. In particular if you’ve also finished the book. I’m curious what other people think.


The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 

by: Margaret MacMillan

744 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Events in Europe leading up to the start of World War I

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned I have read a lot of books about World War I recently. I think I would put this at the bottom of the list. Even if your interest was specifically the pre-war years I would read Dreadnought by Robert Massie before this one, despite Massie’s narrower focus. 

General Thoughts

This was the final book of my year long dive into World War I. From the previous section you may come away with the impression that I thought that it was bad. This is untrue. It’s more that the other books were all so good. This book did have lots of details about the various crises leading up to the war, particularly those centered in Austria-Hungary’s relationship to the Balkans. This included the Bosnian Crisis and the Balkan Wars.

I’m sure these events were mentioned in the other books I read, but it wasn’t until this book that I quite realized how close in time they were to the actual war. The Bosnian Crisis was 1908-1909 and the Balken Wars happened from 1912-1913. Despite this 1914 started relatively peacefully.

From this sequence I think we can draw three potential lessons:

First, each crisis depleted the “crisis handling reserves” each nation possessed. Everytime they backed down they looked weak. Everytime they peacefully resolved a crisis only to have a new one erupt a couple of years later, the tactic of peaceful resolution suffered. And after each crisis their views inevitably shifted from, “we avoided war” to, “we should have ended up in a better position or gotten more concessions”. Essentially the whole idea that peace was better gradually eroded, and it had been so long since the last war that the idea was never that strong to begin with.

Second and somehow working in the opposite direction, with each crisis that didn’t end in war, it seemed more obvious that such crises would always be peacefully resolved. And therefore (following the above) we can demand more and be more intransigent. (See the demands Austria-Hungary made of Serbia right before the war started.)  

Finally, and perhaps most troubling. In the end it would have been better for Germany to have started the war sooner. Had they begun things in 1908 Russia’s position would have been much worse, and even France would have not been quite as prepared as they were in 1914.

And of course there’s the lesson one takes away from all books on World War I. The Kaiser really made things much worse. 

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to draw parallels between all of the above and our own time, but there are a lot of them.


Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t 

by: Steven Pressfield

210 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How to write well, with a particular look at the various genres of writing (Advertising, screenplays, novels, etc.)

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who wants to be a better writer could benefit from this book. It’s short, dense with information, and entertaining to boot. 

General Thoughts

There are many self-help books out there, though sometimes they’re disguised as autobiographies. And there are many examples, particularly in that latter category of people who claim to give you the secret to success, but what their story really boils down to is, don’t be lazy and get lucky. “I worked really hard while I was at Harvard and had the good fortune to meet <Fill in name of famous person>.” The idea being that the numerous things which had to happen in order to get admitted to Harvard were not the lucky bits, it was developing a relationship with the professor while you were there.

On the other hand, occasionally you come across a book by someone who really struggled, who spent decades failing before they finally started to get a little bit of success. Who really did have to figure out how to do something, they weren’t just handed it. Steven Pressfield is in this latter category. And I find books written by such people to be both far more enjoyable, and far more useful. 

If you have any interest at all in writing I would recommend this book.


The Minuteman

by: Greg Donahue 

Only available on Audible 1 hr 54 minutes

Briefly, what is this book about?

Domestic Nazis and the Jewish gangsters who beat the crap out of them in the years before World War II.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a domestic predecessor for Antifa, or you really like stories of Nazis getting punched. This is your book.

General Thoughts

During prohibition Sidney Abramowitz, aka Nat Arno was an enforcer for the Jewish mob. When prohibition ended that job largely ended as well. Fortunately for Arno shortly thereafter Hitler came to power and with that came the rise of Nazism in America. This book is the gleeful recounting of how Arno organized former enforcers like himself and other New Jersey Jews into a band of vigilantes dedicated to disrupting American Nazi rallies by throwing in stink bombs and then ambushing the attendees as they ran away—beating them with baseball bats and brass knuckles.

At least it came across as gleeful, also vigilante is my term. I don’t recall it ever being used in the book.

Everyone who reads this book understands how bad Nazis are. And I admit there is a certain pleasure at hearing how Jews “fought back” in America. But before lionizing Arno it’s important to remember that this is pre World War II. Most of the evidence we draw on for how horrible Nazis are is based on what happened during World War II, so the people beating the crap out of German Americans couldn’t use that as justification. Also Arno did it in opposition to the police, and to many leaders of the Jewish community, who thought he was making things worse. Also it’s not clear how much of this was actually fighting back. The stories of the Nazis beating up Jews are relatively sparse, but this book has lots of stories of the reverse.

All of which is to say that I think, particularly based on what was known at the time, that Arno was the bad guy. And I’m not even sure his actions are defensible even in retrospect. Certainly I don’t think Arno should be used as a role model for anyone operating today. And this book rather than dealing with any of these issues, mostly came across as a celebration of vigilantism.


III- Religious Reviews

There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days 

by: Hyrum Lewis

162 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re expecting to have a debate soon with a New Atheist this is a great book to help you prepare for that debate. Similarly if you’re wondering what sort of arguments you might make against a New Atheist even if you never plans to ever use them, you might also want to read this book.

General Thoughts

This book is a pretty good collection of arguments against New Atheism. I keep qualifying that we’re talking about New Atheism and not atheism in general, because as we saw in the book The Seven Types of Atheism, which I reviewed back in October, New Atheism is only one of several types of atheism. And even John Grey who felt compelled to write a whole book on the many different types of atheism doesn’t think much of it. Which is to say the book is focused on only a narrow slice of atheism, and not a well regarded one at that. The book’s utility grows more narrow still when you consider that there is much more to winning an argument than logic and reason. It’s entirely possible that Lewis’ arguments are all but ironclad. (And indeed, particularly when paired with Grey’s, they do seem pretty solid.) Despite this I still very much doubt that if I gave this book to someone who was deeply atheist that reading it would turn him into a Christian. 

This outcome is what we would expect no matter how carefully crafted the book, but I still think that Lewis could have done better. His tone is pretty combative. A weakness he admits to in the introduction. Beyond that the book is long on argument and short on persuasive rhetoric. My own son considers himself to be an atheist, and while there were moments when I thought about trying to get him to read this book, by the end I felt that the experience would be counterproductive. 

None of this is to claim that writing such a book would be easy, merely that knowing he was being too combative it should have been possible for Lewis to tone it down more than he did.


A better writer would have taken Pressfield’s book, used the tactics therein to combine the themes of combativeness, preemptive action and Germans into some wisdom for the ages. Unfortunately I am not such a writer, if you want to help me become such a writer, consider donating.


Books I Finished in July

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

Or download the MP3



In July I took what passes for a vacation during these unusual times. I was gone for a week and a half, and I ended up stringing two vacations together. (This is the big reason this post is a little bit late.) The first was a family trip down to Georgia. It was an interesting trip, essentially 116 years ago my Great-Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandmother were buried on a small family plot near Augusta but their graves were never marked, for reasons too complicated to get into. And over the years we even lost track of where the family plot was, once again for reasons too complicated to get into. Finally, to make things even more difficult, the land was purchased and incorporated into a nearby military base. But after a lot of hard work by my Aunt, and one of my cousins, the graves were finally located, and July 24th (a day of special importance to Mormons) was designated as the day when the graves would finally receive a monument. 

Of course all of that was decided at Thanksgiving of last year, and when the day finally arrived the pandemic had made things considerably more complicated, and it required a special dispensation from a general for us to even get on the base, but that dispensation was granted, and the whole thing was pretty awesome. 

While in Georgia I stopped by Stone Mountain to get a look at the giant bas-relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson before it’s inevitably dynamited, or something similar. I actually predicted all the way back in 2017 that it was no longer a question of if the Confederate monuments would come down, but when, so I’m not surprised that Stone Mountain is in the crosshairs, but I did think it was worth making an effort to see it before that happened. As part of it’s inevitable destruction they already seem to avoid any mention of who’s depicted in the carvings. The tram guide didn’t bring it up, and I saw no plaques with that information either.

The second half of the vacation was what passed for GenCon this year. It consisted of spending a week at my friend’s house, and doing a mix of in-person and virtual gaming. I hope things are back to normal by next year, but that’s by no means certain. 

Finally, a bit of meta commentary, someone mentioned that they liked the “Who should read this book?” Section of my reviews, which I had actually discontinued, but since it isn’t something that would be hard resurrect, I thought I’d go ahead and give the people what they want.


I- Eschatological Review

Super Cooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behavior (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) 

By: Martin Nowak

330 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the game theoretical case for cooperation, then this is a very comprehensive book, covering the research of one of the major figures in the field, but if that doesn’t describe you, you can probably skip it.

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned my interest in cooperation from an evolutionary/game theory perspective. I have a great deal of respect for this friend’s opinion and so when he recommended it, I ordered it and began reading it without bothering to do much research on either the book or Nowak, so I was completely surprised when I came across this:

The phone rang one day, when I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Within a minute or two I found myself explaining my research to a stranger who had introduced himself as Jeffrey Epstein.

Nowak goes on to describe how he and Epstein immediately hit it off and from there it goes on to talk about how he visited Epstein’s “tropical island” and how Epstein was the “perfect host”. In fact everything he says about Epstein is laudatory. Of course, once I read about all of that, I did start looking into things, and discovered that I was not the only one concerned by this connection. That Harvard had placed Nowak on academic leave in May of this year because of his association with Epstein. In bringing all of this up, I’m not looking to discredit Nowak’s work, or even saying that Nowak is a bad guy, there’s always the possibility that he’s just incredibly naive. No, the reason I bring it up, besides it being newsworthy, is that it’s an interesting real world example of what Nowak is talking about.

This book is about how a naive assessment of Darwinian evolution would lead one to believe that organisms should never cooperate because cooperation imposes an expense on the fitness of the organism choosing to cooperate while giving another, competing organism a benefit. And yet we see cooperation in nature all the time. This presents something of a paradox and Nowak’s life work has been creating mathematical models which illustrate how this cooperation actually makes sense. 

The ur-model/example in this field is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two “prisoners” are presented with a choice of either staying silent (i.e. cooperating with the other prisoner) or turning on the other prisoner and blaming the crime on him (i.e. defecting). If both defect, both are punished. If one defects and the other stays silent the former is rewarded and the latter is punished, but if both cooperate (stay silent), both get rewarded. Though the reward for being a sole defector is greater. Civilization is based on creating systems that encourage people to cooperate, not only because that’s what works best for society as a whole but because even for the individuals it’s better than the possibility that both end up defecting. But despite this there’s always going to be a temptation to defect, particularly if you can count on the other party to cooperate.

Bringing it back to Nowak’s relationship with Epstein. I imagine that after studying the benefits of cooperation for years and years that Nowak has a strong impulse to do just that, whereas I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Epstein a defector, someone who preyed upon the strong desire to cooperate in society to get away with some absolutely horrible crimes.

Of course it’s possible I’m wrong and that Nowak was just as much of a defector as Epstein, which wouldn’t surprise me either, defectors are always going to be with us. But the more important point made by the book is that the stronger the expectation of cooperation, and the larger the number of cooperators, the better defection is as a strategy, and the greater the temptation for an individual to defect. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I said that prisoner’s dilemma was the model everyone starts with, but a single game doesn’t tell you much, so when someone like Nowak wants to model things they generally run iterated games of the dilemma where every agent has a particular strategy and they see what strategy dominates over the long run. This better models a population over time, and in this case, if the agents play a sufficient number of games cooperation comes to dominate, which is the point of the book, but it’s precisely when the population has reached this height of cooperation that a strategy to always defect works the best, and if allowed to crop up via a simulated mutation it promptly becomes the most successful strategy, e.g. defectors cause the most harm when cooperation is at its highest.

Combining this observation with our own situation creates a host of questions. Was Epstein able to get away with so much because he was operating in a society where cooperation is the norm? Are his crimes a modern phenomenon or the sort of thing that’s been happening forever? Have we reached some peak in cooperation which makes defection more successful? Is that what civilization is, peak cooperation? If so, should we be expecting widespread defections? Is that what Epstein was doing? Is that what Trump supporters are doing currently? Is that what the protests are? Is this baseless speculation or am I on to something here? 

Going down this path opens up a whole can of worms. Obviously society is more complicated than a game of prisoner’s dilemma, for one thing the benefits of cooperation could be asymmetrical. Poor people could get less out of it than rich people, making it understandable that they might want to defect. But that doesn’t change the fact that defection on a massive scale would be very bad, and according to the models, it’s exactly the sort of thing which should eventually happen. Is it? Is modern politics a massive shift from a policy of default cooperation to default defection? Maybe? I think all that can be said conclusively is that this possibility deserves a deeper discussion than what I was able to provide here.


II- Capsule Reviews

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

By: Satya Nadella

304 Pages

Who should read this book?

I guess if you were the CEO of a mid-tier company looking to mimic Microsoft’s culture, this might be a good book for you, otherwise, unless you’re some sort of CEO-book completist, I don’t think I would recommend it.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I’m not entirely sure who recommended it, or why I decided to add it to my Audible library. It is short, which probably had a lot to do with it. 

In my reviews from last month I mentioned that White Fragility was an interesting snapshot into a certain moment in time, but that I doubt that it would be remembered at all 10 years from now. I could say the same about this book. It’s a very optimistic book, sort of Enlightenment Now if it was written by a tech CEO, and of course this book was written by a tech CEO, nor is it the first such book. In fact if we expand things to include all books written by CEOs there end up being so many they’re almost a genre unto themselves. And the question is always how much is a book by a CEO marketing for his company, and how much is it an instruction manual you can follow to duplicate their success?

Looking back on previous entries in this genre I would say that they certainly want you to think that it’s the latter. That they’re giving you the formula to run a successful company, but that it’s always at best an exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie. How much of whatever success Nadella has achieved is contained in his unique management style which he explains in the book, and how much is a pivot any reasonably competent CEO could have made if they had $22 billion in annual profits to throw around? 

That’s a really hard question to answer. I don’t deny that there are great CEOs. I just also know that there’s an awful lot of luck involved and even for those that have real skill I don’t know how much can be passed along. Look at Jack Welch and GE. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and now 20 years later GE has been delisted from the Dow, and most people think it’s all but dead. To be blunt one assumes that everyone that followed Welch as CEO read all of his books, to say nothing of being personally mentored by him. And yet…

Also, I’m not convinced there’s much unique to Nadella’s book. If Sundar Pichai had written a book about Google, I’m guessing it would read pretty much the same. There seems to be ideology that technology is the eventual answer to all of our problems common to these companies, and I’m not entirely sure how well that belief is going to survive 2020. 


The Chronicles of Prydain

By: Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three 

190 Pages

The Black Cauldron

208 Pages

The Castle of Llyr

208 Pages

Taran Wanderer

256 Pages

The High King

272 Pages

Who should read these books?

If you like YA fantasy novels, or fantasy in general, or coming of age stories, or Wales, or just literature in general, you will like these books.

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned my recent goal to do more re-reading, and in a moment of nostalgia I decided to re-read this series. I first read them in the 5th grade, and while that wasn’t the last time I revisited Prydain, the last time I read them was probably 15 years ago. As is usually the case with stuff like this, you forget how delightful it is. I believe that these books are the equal of anything J. K. Rowling has put out and deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

This is not to say that these books are the equal of the Harry Potter series in every respect. In some ways they are worse, but in many they are better. For example, I would say that some of the supporting characters are kind of one note (for example Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam), but, on the other hand, Taran (the protagonist of these books) is miles ahead of Harry Potter as a character. In particular his growth, experiences, and overall arc are both more serious and more satisfying. I will admit that the movie adaptation of Harry Potter was handled much better than Disney’s adaptation of The Black Cauldron, which I’m sure has probably harmed the series in the long run, or at least not helped.

Speaking of The Black Cauldron, I think that book offers a good comparison between Taran and some of the other bildungsroman heroes in fantasy novels (including Harry Potter). Taran does some decidedly dumb things, like all of such heroes, but the growth from these mistakes is both obvious, and believable. In so many of these books the hero’s character is mentioned but they’re either inherently good or their growth is done in a kind of hand wavy fashion. Also in other books so much of the hero’s status comes not from their character, but from powers or a destiny inherent to them. Taran is not destined, and not special, and in the Black Cauldron, he actually acquires some powers, but by the end of the book he chooses to give them up for something more important. 

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed these books. And I would definitely recommend them, particularly if you’re looking for something to give your child to read.


Euripides IV: Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes 

by: Euripides

290 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re desperately trying to recreate the classical education you missed as a youth (or from being born in the 20th or 21st century) like me, then you should read Euripides, and frankly all of the Greek tragedies. But if you’re content to continue your vulgar plebeian lifestyle, I suppose you can skip them.

General Thoughts

What struck me while reading this latest collection of Greek tragedies was how focused the Greeks were on the stories of just a few families and events. Out of curiosity I decided to go back through all the books (and forward into the final book) and count it up. Here are the numbers I came up with:

Trojan War: 8 plays

The Family of Oedipus: 6 plays

Agamemnon’s Family: 8 plays

Hercules: 4 plays

None of the above: 8 plays

Does it seem interesting or remarkable to anyone other than me that over 75% of the extant plays are about four subjects? (And it might even be worse than that, the Trojan War looms pretty large in all of the plays about Agamemnon’s Family.) Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this, but I don’t recall coming across any in-depth discussion of this quirk. Of course, I did use the word “extant” just then, and it’s possible that what I’m actually noticing is a selection bias present among the people preserving the plays, but that doesn’t change the strangeness it just moves it to a different location. Someone thought these few events and families were particularly important or story worthy, why was that? 

I don’t expect to offer any sort of satisfactory answer to that question in the space of a few paragraphs, but is it possible that we’re the outlier, not them? That most cultures and civilizations latch on to just a few defining events and stories, and that by having thousands of stories, we’re the weird ones? In support of that it would appear that this situation is relatively new historically. That before the advent of the TV, Americans were similar Greeks. Most of our stories were about the Founding or perhaps the Civil War. And before that stories from the Bible dominated things. 

As is so often the case in this blog we’re led to ask, has modernity made us better off or worse? What are the pros and cons? When there are only a few stories it’s easy to see how that might translate into a more unified culture, or even a religion. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods, and Christianity generally acted as a unifying force in the history of Western Europe. Finally the stories of the founding were unquestionably a large part of American civic religion. What happens if we don’t have stories to unify us? Does it indicate an inevitable fracturing of culture? If so is it a cause of the fracturing or a symptom?


A Secular Age

By: Charles Taylor

896 Pages

Who should read this book?

Someone who has many, many hours to spare and is deeply interested in modern secular behavior as compared to historical religious behavior, and how the latter led to the former.

General Thoughts

I mentioned this book in my last post, and it’s going to be impossible to do it justice in the space I have, not only is it long, but there are great insights on nearly every page, something illustrated by that last post when the whole thing derived from a single page of content.

Moving from the specific to the general, the book starts with the question, how did we go from a world in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which it’s just one choice among many, and not even a particularly high status one. The most common story told about this transition, particularly among unbelievers, is the story of subtraction. The idea that long ago the world was full of irrational ideas and behavior, but that progress and science gradually swept those things away, leaving only knowledge and morality until eventually all that was left was the enlightened state we’re in now. 

Taylor spends 800 pages comprehensively disproving that idea, if you’re lucky I may spend 8 paragraphs covering the whole book, but to give you a taste of the argument here’s one brief selection:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal, nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

The key point Taylor is making is that our modern concept of human welfare isn’t what remains after we’ve eliminated religion, or even just once we’ve eliminated the “bad” parts, like superstitions and authoritarian tendencies. But rather religion is foundational and necessary. That even those parts people view as horribly backwards were important and necessary building blocks. That modern enlightened values would look very different if they didn’t start from a foundation of Western Christianty (and indeed such values are very different elsewhere in the world). 

I found this explanation interesting both for what it had to say about religion, but also what it had to say about progress in general. We see this same sense that subtraction is the answer in so much of the current social justice movement, for example the push to defund the police. With people claiming that if we just strip away the power of the police, that we’ll have less violence, but so far there’s good reason to believe that it’s the exact opposite. That modern policing has a lot of problems, but that it’s build on centuries of experimentation, that it’s not the last gasp of a racist past, but rather, as I said in another post, “it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

All of this ties into the deeper subject of human evil in a very interesting fashion. How do we deal with the fact that everyone is at least a little bit evil and some people are a lot evil. One answer, the one that people are protesting against, is that we set up a state, that state has a monopoly on the use of force and they grant that monopoly to the police, who then go around trying to prevent evil. But what Taylor points out is that the ideology of victimhood has a different answer for where evil resides and how to deal with it:

Then there is the victim scenario. This can colonize the Left. All evil is projected onto the others; they alone are the victimizers; we are pure victim. The liberal self feels relatively innocent, because (a) it sees the whole picture clearly, and (b) it is part of the solution. But this is compatible with recognizing some degree of one’s own fault in the disorder of the world. The victim scenario, on the other hand, a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them.

I, for one, feel like he gets at something deep and important there, something entirely overlooked by other commenters. And also something that deserves a much fuller treatment than what I’m able to provide. Particularly since I still want to talk about the book from a religious angle. But I’ll put that in it’s own section. 


III- Religious Reviews 

A Secular Age (Continued)

Any discussion of a decline of religion, must inevitably touch on the place of religion in society. Is it, as atheists claim, the barbaric relic of an uncivilized past, something that should be dispensed with as soon as possible? Or is it a useful social construct, a piece of what it means to be civilized? Or is it a manifestation of something actually transcendent, whether that be God or some more nebulous universal force? Taylor himself is a believer, though I was hundreds of pages into the book before I was sure of that because his discussion of things was so objective. (Or so it appeared to me, I imagine others may quibble.)  And it was only at the end of the book that he really started to discuss the place of religion in society. And given that I can’t cover everything he discussed I’m going to focus on just a little over one page from the book, which has the added advantage of demonstrating how dense the book is. 

He starts by contrasting our belief in God to leaving the house without an umbrella:

I may leave the house without an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable, and it predicted fair weather. But the difference between this kind of case and the issue we’re dealing with here, is first, that the weather, beyond the inconvenience of getting wet today, doesn’t matter to me in anything like the same way, and second that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s weather than the forecast.

These two considerations are quite different when it comes to the existence of God. First, the answer to this question matters quite a bit, it may even be argued that the answer is the most important detail of our existence. Second, the whole promise of religion is that faith and the practice of that religion allows us an alternative and independent means of getting at the answer. Taylor points out that if we ignore these other means, and rely entirely on “science” to provide us with the answer that we are much like Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. What makes Othello a tragedy, and not just a tale of misfortune, is that we hold its protagonist culpable in his too-ready belief of the evidence fabricated by Iago. He had an alternative mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself, if he could only have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. The fatal flaw in the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this…

The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted God”, without any supplement, as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is that we are on this issue like Othello, rather than the person listening to the forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. We can’t just explain what we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources, without seeing what we made of the internal ones.

[And so] the question remains: if the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive, why do they seem so convincing, where at other times and places God’s existence [seemed] just… [as] obvious? 

I latched on to this analogy because I have the same question as Taylor. I understand people who have queried these internal sources and in return have gotten nothing but silence. Who realize the importance of the question, just as Othello should have, and have done everything in their power to get information from Desdemona only to find her evasive or unavailable. It is the people who have never bothered to “question Desdemona” that I find so baffling. 


Let’s be honest I’m a pretty small fish, in a massive pond, but the advantage of that for you is that I’m actually very responsive to feedback. For example reinstituting one of my book review sections based on an off-handed remark on Twitter. But of course what I respond the best to are donations.


Review: Sex and Culture, or Greatness Through Sexual Frustration

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When people consider what’s wrong with the world there are three schools of thought. The first, which I’ve mentioned frequently, and the one championed by Steven Pinker in his books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, is that there’s nothing wrong with the world, that things are as great as they’ve ever been and almost certainly just going to keep getting better. The other two schools of thought are not quite so optimistic, some people feel that there certainly might be problems with the world but mostly it’s things we’re aware of and if we could just get our act together, nothing we can’t solve. Other people don’t think that there might be something wrong with the world, they think that there is definitely something wrong. And furthermore that we might not even be aware of how bad those problems are, and those we do have a handle on are proving to be largely intractable. 

From what I can observe the vast majority of people fall into one of the latter two camps. And I sincerely hope that all of them turn out to be wrong and Pinker turns out to be right, but as you may have gathered I don’t think he is, and I don’t think they are.

If you’re like me and in the something is definitely wrong camp, the next obvious step is to figure out what that something is. This is the whole point of the discipline of eschatology, at least as I practice it, and there are of course numerous candidates, everything from runaway environmental damage, to the looming threat of an eventual nuclear war, to a breakdown of culture and morality. And it seems only prudent to examine each and every candidate in as much detail as possible, in order that the true illness at the heart of modernity (assuming there’s only one, there could easily be more than one) might be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Before the condition is terminal. I understand that this is a profound oversimplification of what this process looks like, if it’s even possible, but regardless of the difficulties involved in correcting the ills of the world, the process can’t even begin without identifying the problem in the first place.

The book Sex and Culture by J. D. Unwin, written in 1934 while Unwin was a professor at Cambridge, is one theory of what the problem might be, and one that, so far as I can tell, has not gotten a lot of attention. This is almost certainly because Unwin’s claim is entirely at odds with modern thinking, what is that claim you ask? 

That a culture is successful to the extent that it restricts pre-nuptial sex. 

I assume that most people can immediately grasp why such a claim has been almost entirely ignored. If not, imagine any current professor getting up and attempting to present this as a topic up for debate at any university or college. And yet, as I pointed out, if we care about the health of society, and we’re not convinced that everything is going smoothly, we really should examine all possible threats, even the ones most people find horribly old-fashioned and retrograde. (In fact, I would argue, especially those threats.)

I said the claim was almost entirely ignored, fortunately Kirk Durston wrote a post about it, which brought Sex and Culture to my attention and convinced me to read it. Though, on doing so, I discovered another reason why the book was largely forgotten. It is not an easy read, and I don’t think I would recommend that you try. The majority of the book is an exacting and detailed examination of the traditions and behavior of 80 different “uncivilized” cultures. So detailed that even I skimmed some of the chapters.

Given all of this, I imagine you’re unlikely to read it, so it’s up to me to tell you what it’s about. Though I would also strongly recommend Durston’s post in addition to mine. 

For my part, I’m going to start by asking, “Why do nearly all cultures have traditions and taboos around sex?” From a straight evolutionary perspective you might imagine that other than some incest prohibitions to prevent genetic issues, that more sex would equal more babies and that greater reproduction confers an obvious benefit to survival. And yet over and over again, regardless of the society we find taboos around sex. With, historically, the strictest taboos being found in the largest civilizations.  Why is that? Unwin wondered the same thing, and Sex and Culture is his answer. It’s obvious from the book that the first step he took was to make an exhaustive study of all the anthropological reports he could get his hands on. I’m sure that quite a bit of newer information has come out since then, but based on what was included in the book it’s hard for me to imagine that he overlooked much of anything that was known at the time.

(As a side note, I didn’t realize until I linked to Unwin’s entry on Wikipedia for this post, but the book was published only two years before his death at the age of 41. One wonders what he might have done with the idea if he’d had several more decades.)

In any event after engaging in a massive survey of the anthropolocial data his conclusion was that more energetic and advanced societies are characterized by greater restrictions on pre-nuptial sex. From that conclusion you might imagine that the book is written primarily from a religious perspective, or as a commentary on modern sexual mores, but that’s not the case at all. In fact one of the reasons for the book’s length is that he goes to great effort explaining what measures he has taken to make his cultural survey as scientific as possible. He throws out a lot of cultures because he doesn’t think there’s enough information.  He also spends quite a bit of time examining the various ways in which the information could have been corrupted by issues of translation and data collection. Furthermore he simplifies his criteria to things that are easy to observe, meaning both that such behavior is more likely to have been accurately reported, and that comparisons between cultures should be relatively accurate.

As I said, out of all of this he is mostly interested in information on a culture’s sexual taboos, but if he merely categorizes cultures according to this single measure all he has shown is that different cultures have different taboos, what he needs is a second measurement to set against a culture’s sexual behavior as an independent guide for how advanced a culture is. The methodology he arrives at is actually pretty clever. He observes that every culture has to deal with two questions:

  1. What powers manifest themselves in the universe?
  2. What steps are taken to maintain the right relationship with these powers?

From these questions he derives four “cultural conditions”, the first three are:

  1. Deistic: Cultures which build temples.
  2. Manistic: Cultures which do not build temples but which do engage in some form of post funeral attention to their dead. (i.e. ancestor worship).
  3. Zoistic: Cultures which do neither of the above.

It might be obvious how those questions about universal powers are answered at each cultural level, but in short, Zoistic cultures don’t really attempt to answer them. Manistic cultures answer it by assuming that the “powers” which were present recently, that is to say other people, are probably still around. And Diestic cultures are those who come to understand that there’s too much going on for it to just be explained by the dead, leading them to conclude that there are even more powerful forces, i.e. deities which need temples and worship. (All of this seems to point to a natural progression where monotheism would be at the very top, but Unwin doesn’t seem to go that far.)

You might notice that I said there were four cultural conditions. The fourth is Rationalistic, which is when a culture finally starts answering the two questions with the scientific method. Once he comes up with these four levels the next step is to see if they bear any relationship to that same culture’s restrictions on pre-nuptial sex, and out of the 86 cultures he studied he discovers that:

  1. All the zoistic societies permitted pre-marital sexual freedom; conversely, all societies which permitted that freedom were in the zoistic condition.
  2. All the manistic societies had adopted such regulations as compelled an irregular or occasional continence; conversely, all the societies which had adopted such regulations were in the manistic condition.
  3. All the deistic societies insisted on pre-nuptial chastity; conversely, all the societies which insisted on pre-nuptial chastity were in the deistic condition. 

Giving evidence to support this correlation takes up the vast majority of the book, but of course you’re probably not that interested in zoistic and manistic societies, and even your interest in deistic societies is probably not all that significant either, what you’re really wondering is what Unwin has to say about the sexual restrictions of societies in a rationalistic condition. Unfortunately, compared to all the other cultural conditions he spends the least amount of time discussing the rationalistic. Perhaps because he assumes that his readers would be the most familiar with it. However the book is long enough that there’s still quite a bit of discussion it’s just more scattered, and in particular Unwin never presents a bright dividing line between sexual restrictions in a diestic society and a rationalist one in the same way he does with the other conditions. Rather he explains the transition as follows (I’m paraphrasing):

The enormous energy available to a deistic society practicing strict monogamy manifests first as a dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by their geographic environment. This leads to an initial, expansionary phase. The sort of behavior we saw from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, etc. And, for many societies, this is where things end, as sexual taboos are loosened and things like polygamy begin to florish. If, on the other hand, they’re able to maintain the initial sexual restrictions and taboos they pass from this expansionary phase into a phase where, “The great mental energy of such a society is directed to every detail of its environment, to every item of human activity, and to every problem of human life.” This is when they pass into the rationalist condition. 

It probably goes without saying that the rationalistic condition is where you want to be, or failing that, in the deistic condition, but either way, in order for that to happen, according to Unwin, you need to have serious restrictions on pre-marital sex. And yes, to be clear, Unwin’s whole model is based on the idea that some cultures are superior to others at least according to certain measurements. And if you’re not willing to grant that I’m surprised you made it this far. 

I imagine there are some out there who would assume that, having finally reached a “rationalistic condition”, a society could ease up on the restrictions. Unwin argues that this is not the case, that within a few generations of backing off a culture begins to slip back into the “lower” conditions. How many generations? Unwin claims, “It takes at least three generations for an extension or a limitation of sexual opportunity to have it’s full cultural effect” Unwin defines a generation as being around 33 years, so three generations is essentially a century.

Before we can begin commenting on this theory there’s one other aspect which needs to be considered. Beyond documenting the relationship between sexual taboos and a culture’s condition, he also goes on to propose a mechanism for that connection. At the time the book was written Freud’s psychoanalytic system was probably the most influential system for explaining human behavior, and Unwin based his own theory on that foundation. He hypothesized that a civilization has a certain amount of energy, but all if it ultimately sexual energy (this is a Freudian theory remember). In a culture with no limits on sex, all of that energy get’s used up. But once a culture starts putting limits on things, some energy ends up unused. This energy needs to be channeled somewhere, and it inevitably ends up getting channeled back into society, creating an energetic culture. One that can expand, or build temples, or eventually, develop science.

With Unwin’s theory stated more or less in its entirety, we can now put forth how it explains what’s wrong with the world:

When sexual restrictrictions of all kinds were eliminated or lessened during the sexual revolution the energy available to our civilization was similarly lessened. This began the 100 year process of leaving the rationalistic condition and heading towards the essentially zero energy zoistic condition. 

With this explanation in hand the next step is to ask what we should do with it? I assume many people would be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. Merely including words like Freudian, and manistic, may incline them to think the whole thing is ludicrous. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but even if you reject Unwin’s data for some reason, doesn’t it strike you as odd that so many large, expansive civilizations had such draconian taboos around sex outside of marriage? I mean we’re talking Romans, Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese. In fact, can you give me a historical example of a large culture that didn’t have such restrictions? Perhaps they’re  not quite as tightly correlated as Unwin would suggest, but could it really be that they are entirely uncorrelated? With any measure of civilizational and cultural success? 

If you were going to be scientific about it, the next step would be to examine Unwin’s data. One would imagine that information on the various customs and taboos of primitive cultures has only increased since 1934 (though perhaps not as much as you might think, proximity in time counts for a lot.) Not only should it be possible to attempt a replication, but Unwin’s claims are so strong that they should be easily falsifiable. Has anyone done this? (Some cursory Google searches didn’t reveal any promising leads.)

Alternatively, and this is what I’m inclined to do, you could broadly accept his conclusion (the data seems accurate to me) but question the mechanism. One could imagine lots of reasons why sexual continence correlates with civilizational success (on certain metrics). Certainly the discipline required to abstain from sex outside of marriage might also translate into the kind of discipline that makes a country energetic. There’s also a huge body of evidence on the importance of intact families, and in particular the presence of a father. It’s certainly possible that civilizations which prohibited pre-nuptial sex ended up with stronger families which translated into stronger, more energetic cultures. If everything else Unwin says is mostly true then discovering the exact mechanism doesn’t matter very much.

To be fair, even if someone is prepared to grant the connection, we still have to grapple with the question of how things play out in the modern world. It’s entirely possible that this is something which was very important a hundred or a thousand years ago, but because of recent advances (the social safety net? Birth control?) it doesn’t matter at all now. I certainly understand the appeal of that argument, but when evidence for such prohibitions are so ubiquitous, appearing in the earliest writings we possess (and no, not just the Bible, they also appear in the Code of Hammurabi) it certainly feels like the burden of proof should rest with the people arguing that after several thousand years, things have somehow changed in the last 50. 

Speaking of the modern world, and falsification, it could be argued that we’re halfway towards falsifying Unwin’s theories ourselves since it’s been around 50 years since the sexual revolution. That being the case it’s reasonable to ask where the evidence is pointing. When we look around does it appear the Unwin was wrong or right? If you read my reviews for March, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat was a book of nothing but evidence that Unwin was correct. Douthat makes the compelling case that the US has entered a period of stagnation, and not only does that sound precisely like the lack of energy Unwin predicted, but the timeline of the stagnation is eerily accurate as well. And, as long as we’re on the subject of last month’s book reviews, I’m also reminded of the quote I included from Will Durant: 

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

While this isn’t quite as on point as Douthat’s book, Durant nevertheless seems to be talking about much the same thing. Which takes us back to the original question, now that we have considered the candidacy of Unwin’s theory for the position of “What’s wrong with the world?” What should we do with it?

Given everything I read and everything I see, I would argue we should take it seriously. Yes, that would mean undoing the sexual revolution, which is both straightforward and also so difficult I don’t imagine that we have even one chance in a thousand of pulling it off. 


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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 Good Place”, Brain-uploading, and Eschatology

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***Warning: Massive spoilers for The Good Place ahead. If you don’t want to be spoiled don’t read this post.***

The Good Place recently ended after four seasons. The show was praised for its various twists, and it’s “exploration and creative use of ethics and philosophy”. But of course it was also a show about eschatology, in fact it may be argued that this was it’s primary subject matter. Given this focus it’s reasonable and even important to examine the nature of the eschatology it espoused. There are of course a wide variety of imagined eschatologies out there, and numerous definitions of the word itself beyond that. So what was The Good Place’s contribution to this topic?

Before answering that question we first need to set some parameters for the discussion. To begin with, I want to discuss this subject in a very practical fashion. Obviously, despite my argument that the show’s primary theme was eschatology, that wasn’t the show’s purpose. It’s purpose was to entertain, and as such it was far more interested in taking a humorous look at a potential afterlife than it was in taking a serious and consistent approach to things. On the other hand, I would like to set aside the humorous bits and strip away things which are present only for their entertainment value, but in order to accomplish this I need to do two things:

First, while a large part of this post will be dedicated to pointing out the various flaws I noticed in the show’s handling of how an afterlife might work. I need to make it clear that this should not be construed as an attack on the show, or any indication that I didn’t enjoy it or that you won’t enjoy it. In particular I don’t want people to be distracted by defending the show, as I said the show’s purpose was to be entertaining, not philosophically rigorous. And as a sitcom it was one of the best, but it did propose an eschatology, and it’s worth examining whether that eschatology hangs together.

Second, in order for those flaws to have any resonance, we have to be willing to imagine that we’re critiquing something which might actually exist, that there might, in fact, be an afterlife, and additionally that there might be god-like beings in charge of that afterlife, or at least something supernatural about how it’s put together. Otherwise any discussion of how it should work, and how that might be different than how it worked on the show, will be, at best superficial, and at worst, entirely pointless. For anyone who’s religious, imagining an afterlife and the supernatural qualities which would have to attend such a place, is easy. But I don’t want to rely too much on religion (though I can’t avoid it entirely) because it will inevitably be off-putting for those who are not religious, or who belong to a different denomination than those I ended up using in my examples.

Fortunately, this is an ideal place to bring in my extensive work imagining how certain religious ideas (including the afterlife) resemble ideas for dealing with AI risk. Meaning, that for those who aren’t religious, rather than imagining what happens or should happen to the souls of the departed, we can imagine the eschatology associated with AIs or, their close cousins, individuals who have had their brain uploaded into a virtual environment where the natural rules don’t apply (an environment which is supernatural by definition.) Obviously, I’m not going to want to type out that entire explanation every time I refer to these individuals, so instead I’ll just use Robin Hanson’s shorthand and call them Ems. Presumably even those who are not religious can imagine that someday we might develop the ability to construct (or reconstruct) a person in a virtual environment, and thereby realize a technological eschatology. And considering how that environment should work gets us to an afterlife or at least a “heaven” very similar to one imagined by many religions and by The Good Place itself.

Having hopefully given everyone a little more skin in the game on this topic, let’s proceed to our examination of what The Good Place got right, but probably more importantly what it got wrong about eschatology and potential afterlifes. 

Let’s start with one of the very first things I noticed, and one of the elements the show mangled the most. To repeat, I’m sure they made things this way for entirely understandable reasons, it was both comedic and necessary for the character arcs of nearly all the people on the show.  But, their representation of the “Good Place Committee” (GPC) represented a fundamental and almost insulting misunderstanding of the nature of good. I am assuming that most of those reading this had a chance to see the show, but if not, in the show, after people die, they can go either to the “Good Place” or the “Bad Place” and there isn’t much to distinguish these two places from common conceptions of heaven and hell, so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably.

Heaven is run by a committee, and apparently in this version of the world being good (or at least qualified to run the Good Place) comprises a combination of fawning politeness with absolute and total ineffectiveness. This seems clearly to be one of those things that was done the way it was for both the humor value and as a way to give the main characters something to do because certainly this bears no resemblance to the theology of any of the world’s religions, and even if we imagine that the “souls” in question are Ems and that humans are running the show rather than an omniscient creator it’s still impossible to imagine that the best governing structure they could come up with is the committee from the show (or any committee for that matter.)

Of course this leads to the question of what sort of people we should expect to be running or even just inhabiting heaven. And here I will allow that it’s a difficult question. One of the chief lessons to come out of recent philosophical work on AI risk has been the realization that coming up with a fool proof standard for morality is both enormously important and enormously difficult. That defining an objective, and it should be added, secular standard for what’s good and what’s not is a challenging task. But even with those difficulties in mind I think we should at least expect that any morality worthy of the name has to have some backbone to it, that this is in fact almost the definition of morality. And while, as I said, there were probably several good reasons for portraying it the way they did, I also wonder if they could have portrayed it in any other way, and if equating being obsequious for being good was the only way to not get overly political. 

(It should be noted it’s not just the GPC, in the show the paragon of “virtue” on the earth, Doug Forcett is also a gigantic pushover.)

I feel like this was not always the case, that there was a time when you could have pointed to a society-wide morality, and that being able to draw on a more robust morality would have allowed them to construct a far more convincing heaven (can you imagine what the Good Place would have looked like in the 1920’s?) but that such universality is no longer present. All that said, perhaps I’m reading too much into things, but at its most essential when anyone imagines heaven and hell you always imagine a war existing between the two. In the show it’s clear that the Bad Place is waging such a war against the Good Place, which the Good Place has been losing for centuries, apparently without even noticing it, or having the ability to fight back if they had. And it’s hard to imagine that any functional organization, much less one designed to be the ultimate ideal, could ever be that inept. But it makes you wonder, is there any chance that this is a reflection of our own failings in this area? Because it gets worse.

In the final few episodes we find out that not only have the effective “rulers of heaven” been too polite and willing to compromise and that they are losing a war with Hell they don’t even seem to be aware of, but on top of all this they’re actually terrible at running heaven. Somehow they have managed to create another version of hell, which is so bad that when it’s announced to those souls who’ve made it to heaven that they will be allowed to effectively commit suicide in order to leave, they cheer, and it’s implied that it’s the first cheer that’s been heard there in hundreds if not thousands of years. 

Here is where we turn to the things The Good Place did well. To begin with they tackle head-on the question of whether immortality would be a blessing or a curse. This idea that immortality might get old (pun intended) is one of the more interesting philosophical topics the show tackles, and a serious subject for debate among actual philosophers. One of the reasons to favor the idea that it’s a curse (which ends up being the show’s position) is illustrated by the pseudo-hell of boredom the characters find when they arrive in the Good Place. A boredom so soul-crushing that even with access to anything they could possibly imagine suicide seems preferable. Certainly claiming that regardless of how good it was, that one would eventually tire of life is not an unreasonable position to take, but neither does it feel particularly creative either. Regardless, one assumes that the GPC still could have done a better job of dealing with that boredom than they did, but if we keep our same basic emotions and appetites, even after having our brain uploaded into a virtual heaven, then boredom would still probably be a real concern. It should be mentioned that Hanson cleverly solves this problem for Ems by running them at a lower speed. As I said the “immortality is a curse” option is reasonable, but surely we can imagine ways to change that.

To flip it around and look at what people might want rather than what they’re trying to avoid, any system like this would, in theory, be trying to maximize human flourishing. One of my readers recently pointed me to an article where the Royal Society suggested that future technological systems should have “promote human flourishing” as their primary imperative. And The Good Place does a great job of illustrating how this is much easier said than done. 

For all of the characters in the show it quickly becomes obvious that even in heaven in order to be happy, that is to flourish, they need to have a work to do, something to occupy their attention. It’s not clear if this is an innovation introduced by the main characters or if all the previous inhabitants of the Good Place have exhausted this avenue before they arrive, but you get the impression it’s the former. And it illustrates another failure mode of heaven and immortality, the hedonic treadmill. If you give people everything they’ve ever wanted, the increased happiness is temporary. (The classic example is lottery winners.) That along with rewards there has to be continual challenges. And it occurs to me that beyond being interesting dilemmas, boredom and a hedonic set point are problems we’re already facing without having to imagine a heaven, virtual or otherwise.

It’s something of a cliche to talk about how in a developed country even relatively poor people live better than the kings of old. And while the situation is more complicated than that, it’s remarkable how much the modern world already resembles the Good Place of the show. One of the characters, Jason, apparently wants to play Madden forever. Well it’s my understanding that you can already do that. It probably helps if your parents let you live in their basement, or if you’ve got some other minimal level of support (I don’t think it takes that much. UBI or disability might be sufficient.) But that is something that’s already within reach and is probably just going to get easier. But is it flourishing? Are we sure we know what flourishing is? One of the whole points of the show is that no one, even in the afterlife, actually does. 

Hovering in the background of the show, but never mentioned, is the question of a designer. And while this part ends up being the most metaphysical, it’s also the part I find the most interesting. In most mythologies, or theologies, or even most systems in general, there’s a very prominent creation story. In Greek mythology there’s Gaia and Uranus. For the Abrahamic religions there’s Adam and Eve. For Facebook there’s Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room. But The Good Place pays almost no attention to any sort of “origin story”.

The closest we come is to find out that the Judge can destroy creation, and then reset it, but the “demons” running the Bad Place are not affected by this destruction so they exist outside of creation? But beyond this, the list of things we don’t know is staggering. Who created the point system? Why is there a point system? Who’s the judge? Where do the GPC and the Demons come from? And those are just questions directly relating to the show. There are still all the normal questions of why suffering and evil exist. What is the point of having a hell? And what is the source of morality?

In the end it definitely feels that there had to be a designer, whatever else you may say about things they definitely don’t feel organic. It seems clear from the show that someone came along and set all of this up, the point system, the existence of a Bad Place and a Good Place. The angels and the demons had to come from somewhere as well. But apparently whoever this person was, despite being effectively omnipotent, they don’t appear to have been omniscient, or even particularly wise. I’ve already talked about the various issues with the committee that runs the Good Place, but more than that the central premise of the show is revealing how poorly designed the afterlife actually is.

This is yet another similarity with our own condition. Being omnipotent without being omniscient or even very wise is not that far off from describing our own situation. Particularly if we’re ever able to upload our consciousness into a rules free virtual environment. How concerned should we be by this mismatch? If there’s one actual lesson to be taken from the show, it might be that we should be very concerned. And it actually works from both directions, in addition to showing a heaven where no one is actually happy, the show begins with the premise that, despite having infinite power to inflict torture on humans, they’re apparently looking for better ways of making them suffer as well. And part of the genius of the show is that both ring true, both happiness and misery end up being more complicated than expected, and being omnipotent is not the same as being omnicompetent. 

Obviously drawing a direct connection between a TV show and hypothetical future technology is of very limited utility, but I would argue that the utility is not zero. We’ve had the ability to satisfy our appetites beyond anything our ancestors imagined for quite some time (see my episodes on supernormal stimuli) and thus far the best we can say is that results have been mixed. And while we’re definitely going to get better at satisfying our appetites, it’s not clear that we’re going to get any better at managing the outcome of that.

We’re quick to imagine that if we ever get to the point where we can upload our brains into a virtual world of our own devising, crafted in such a way that our wildest dreams become reality, that all our problems will be solved. And if it’s not exactly this scenario there are still a lot of people with the same basic eschatology as the show: There’s a Good Place out there and we need to get to it. But just like the characters, there’s some chance that when we get there, it will turn out that it’s not as straightforward as we thought. And to the extent that we’re already there this is becoming increasingly obvious.


As those of you who have watched the show know. There’s also a Medium Place, inhabited by exactly one individual. And despite being only one person out of billions and despite being deeply flawed, this person exercised disproportionate influence on the rest of “creation”. I’m guessing there’s some lesson in there about the power we all have, but mostly I’m just making the connection that there was one person in the Medium Place and there’s one person writing this blog, so donate, I guess? 


Pornography and the End of the World

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It may seem strange to declare that going forward this blog is going to be entirely focused on eschatology, and then to choose pornography as the very next subject. Most people scoff at the idea that pornography could lead to the end of the world all on it’s own. And I mostly agree with that, but as I said, part of what I want to do is expand the discussion of eschatology vertically to encompass things that aren’t commonly considered, but may represent more subtle threats, and I would argue that pornography might be just such a threat. 

In part this is precisely because very few people take it seriously. Everyone understands that if we get hit by a comet, or if the ice caps melt, or if there’s a nuclear war, that even if humanity survives, things will be pretty grim, whereas with pornography, we have the exact opposite situation. There’s a substantial segment of the population who feels that it’s entirely benign, and some who even feel that it’s healthy. As you may have guessed I’m not in either camp, and I’ll explain why.

To start with, if people were certain that some aspect of society was definitely going to end in catastrophe, or worse, end up causing the destruction of that very society. Then they would definitely do something about it. When there’s a clear and present danger, like being invaded by a foreign army, people are pretty good about doing whatever it takes. Unfortunately most dangers are not so obvious, nor so inevitable. Many dangers are subtle, and those which aren’t, are generally improbable. And yet it is from the universe of these subtle and improbable dangers, that catastrophe often emerges. I think we can safely say that no one foresaw that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand would lead to 40 million deaths (more if you count World War II). And even if we move the causation down a few steps, there were hardly any people who thought war between the Great Powers would cause 40 million deaths. But if we’re going to have any chance of preventing catastrophes, then identifying all the many potential dangers beforehand is a necessary first step.

All of this means that a large part of any study of eschatology has to involve a discussion of catastrophes with a very low probability. As I said, I think it’s extremely unlikely that pornography is going to lead to the end of the world all on it’s own, but I do find it fascinating that numerous people don’t even view it as a danger. This was illustrated by a recent Twitter debate between cultural conservatives and more libertarian conservatives on the topic. I’m sure it doesn’t take much to imagine what that debate was about. The cultural conservatives think that pornography is a huge danger and the government should do more to keep it out of people’s home’s, and the libertarian’s think the pornography is not that big of a deal, and that if you’re worried about it you just need to “parent better”. As you might imagine I’m firmly on the cultural conservatives side. I think that pornography is dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted. 

As part of that debate someone linked to an article in the The Dallas Morning News that illustrates all of these attributes, particularly the idea that you just need to “parent better”. The author describes how something was obviously weighing on her daughter. It took some coaxing, but the daughter eventually revealed what it was:

At a friend’s birthday party, they were playing on the little girl’s phone. The girl handed it to my daughter and said, “Boys are disgusting.” My daughter clicked on a male classmate’s Snapchat story to find a video of him and a few other boys from her class laughing as they watched “rape porn”. She said the woman was bound up, saying “no” as a masked man approached her.

[She] went on to describe a group of boys in her sixth grade class frequently joking about assaulting the girls in the parking lot. She said if any of the girls aren’t sitting with their legs closed, the boys will ask if they want to get pregnant. And if the girls’ legs are crossed, boys from this group often walk by and say, “Spread ‘em.”

To begin with we need to ask if the story is true. I see no reason do doubt that, it doesn’t strike me as being implausible. The behavior described in the last paragraph seems a little over the top and caricatured, but not so much that it seems unrealistic. Perhaps some parts of it are exaggerated, maybe the boys only joked about assault once or twice. Or maybe if we’re really skeptical, it didn’t happen to the author’s daughter it happened to the daughter of a friend, and she was 15. But does anyone doubt that at some point a child was exposed to “rape porn” through some, supposedly benign portal, like Google?

After considering whether the story is true, we have to ask if it’s representative. Again this is hard to say, but every statistic I’ve seen indicates that pornography is ubiqitious, and I’d be very much suprised if most statistics don’t understate the true percentages of teenagers who’ve been exposed to it. Asking a kid if they’ve viewed pornography has the same declaration against interest problem that asking about drugs has. Which is to say, you can definitely trust that everyone who says they have viewed it is telling the truth, but you should definitely carry some doubt about everyone who says that they haven’t.  But regardless of whether it’s 28% of 11-12 year olds, or closer to 50% or 80%, does anyone doubt that children are being inadvertently exposed to really upsetting pornography all the time?

Many people, even those who defend pornography, would basically agree with the first two points (if not the exact details of the example I provided). Which is that children, even those as young as 11, are consuming pornography, and that this consumption is not isolated. But after granting this, many people don’t see any particular harm, and they certainly don’t think that the government needs to do anything about it. Rather, as I mentioned at the beginning, they think that if I or people like me have a problem with it, that we just need to “parent better”. This is a great example of how difficult that is.

This girl wasn’t exposed to “rape porn” because she ended up on Pornhub on the home computer, and it’s the mother’s own fault because she didn’t install content filtering software. She was exposed to it on Instagram. I have no direct knowledge of how common that is on Instagram specifically, but I do know that there are numerous mainstream sites that also host an awful lot of porn (not extreme stuff like in the example, but still) for example Reddit and Imgur. Meaning that a parent can install ironclad content filtering software in their home, but what happens the minute your child goes over to a friends house, or ends up in the presence of a smartphone that doesn’t have filtering software. Or if it ends up on a site like Instagram that isn’t filtered. And of course, no kid has ever figured out how to get around content blocking. The key point being that “rape porn” is easily available on any internet connection unless special, even extraordinary care is taken. 

I said that the story would illustrate that pornography is “dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted” and I think it does, but now that we’re through discussing the provence and how difficult it is for even good parents to restrict, it’s time to get into a specific discussion of the subtle and multifaceted danger of porn. For myself, I have a hard time imagining that sixth graders consuming “rape porn” could be viewed as anything other than dangerous, and even if we assume that most childhood consumption of pornography is not so extreme, they’re still viewing stuff which is almost entirely composed of unhealthy examples of sexual relationships, and it would be difficult to argue that they’re not learning from these examples and translating that into expectations. Indeed, there’s broad evidence for that, and it’s also what happened to the boys in the story I provided as an example. 

Even if you are making the argument that pornography is harmless for most people, (which I don’t agree with) the same could be said of alcohol and yet we universally restrict that to people over 21. Can we at least agree that pornography requires a certain amount of maturity to handle? More maturity than that possessed by the average 11 year old?

Thus far we have only discussed the obvious dangers, but as I said there are more subtle dangers as well. Many people want to focus on the ways in which pornography degrades women. And indeed there was some of that present in the example I provided. But what about the effect it has on men? I know that there are arguments that it warps their expectations of sex (indeed I already made that argument) but let’s set that aside for the moment. You could imagine that pornography could be an entirely healthy outlet (again I don’t think it is) but if it replaced the need for actual sex with real people that would still be bad.

Back in May of 2018 I did a post about incels, (people, especially men, who are celibate, but not by choice) and at the time I posted a graph showing a large upswing in the men aged 22-35 who reported having no sex in the previous year, and speculated that it was probably connected to pornography. And indeed, in terms of the effort required for gratification, you can hardly compare the two. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, finding someone to actually have sex with requires leaving the house, spending some amount of time at a bar, displaying a certain level of charm while at the bar, and whatever additional logistics might end up being required. And normally a lot more than that. While achieving gratification with pornography doesn’t even require someone to get up out of their chair. This asymmetry is hard to ignore, and it’s equally hard to imagine that it doesn’t carry any additional consequences. 

Finally I claimed that the danger from pornography was multi faceted. Which it is. There’s the danger it poses to children, there’s the danger it poses to those who are married (studies indicate it increases the risk of divorce), there’s the danger it poses to people trying to start a relationship, and the danger to those people who will never have a relationship because pornography is easier. But all of those dangers are really only about what is happening right now. Another facet to the potential danger is where things are headed. As I pointed out the last time we were on this subject, we’re only about a dozen years into the era of streaming video, which means that it’s reasonable to assume that the full effects of that innovation are yet to be felt. And I would argue that this is particularly true when it comes to pornographic videos. On top of that there are probably second order and downstream effects. Some of which I’ve already touched on and some of which have yet to be uncovered. 

This is where we get to the other reason for bringing up this subject now, so far what I’ve covered is fairly typical of the debate between cultural conservatives and basically everyone else. But in addition to the twitter debates which define every subject these days, including pornography, there are other, deeper, historical reasons for concern, as laid out in the recent article, Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought by Kirk Durston. I would urge you to read the entire article, but if you don’t have time it’s a discussion of the book Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin, which was published in 1934. At the time Unwin had engaged in an exhaustive survey of past cultures, and as part of that he came to a somewhat startling conclusion:

If total sexual freedom was embraced by a culture, that culture collapsed within three generations…

Obviously this is an extraordinary claim? What are we to do with it? 

To begin with we can examine it in the light of the subject we were already discussing, pornography. None of the civilizations Unwin studied had anywhere close to the level of pornography that ours does, for technological reasons if nothing else. Does this mean that ours will collapse faster? Maybe it won’t make any difference. Or, I could actually see some people arguing that it will somehow slow the collapse, but honestly, I can’t take either of the final two arguments seriously. Pornography allows people to engage with their depravities to an extent never before possible. And to return to where I began, while I still don’t think it will cause the end of the world all on it’s own, if we take the Unwin’s conclusion seriously, it certainly might contribute. And indeed a civilization of men (and I use that term loosely) who spend more time closeted in their room in the onanistic enjoyment of pornography than out there getting married, having offspring and working to make the world better for their offspring, doesn’t seem like a healthy civilization by any measurement.

Of course most people aren’t asking whether pornography speeds up the collapse of civilization predicted by Unwin, because they reject his prediction all together.  I have a few friends that I can use to take the temperature of the modern world. Friends who are essentially archetypical, intelligent, secular liberals, and all of them considered this prediction to be ludicrous. I’m not surprised by this, but neither do I agree with it, and I think it illustrates one of the key divides in society, one which doesn’t get a lot of airplay.

Many people, including myself, recognize that civilizations do collapse, catastrophe’s do occur, and that to a first approximation certain cultures are present when nations are ascendent and other cultures are generally present when nations are in decline. And while three generations does seem fast. (Unwin’s generations appear to be approximately 33 years, so around 100 total.) The kind of culture where pornography is ubiquitious and sexual restraint lacking does seem to be one of the cultures more often present when a nation is declining than when a nation is ascendent. 

On the other side of that divide, we have the people who think that this time it’s different. That progress and technology have allowed us to create a civilization immune from the problems that plagued past civilizations. Or, perhaps more charitably, that, “Yes, this civilization is fragile just like every other civilization, but it’s not going to be brought down by ‘total sexual freedom’. That’s not a problem with our civilization, that’s what makes it awesome!” 

After considering all of the foregoing we’re left with a host of questions

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? 

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction?

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? 

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have purchased Sex and Culture, and I will read it and let you know (it is massive), but questions like these are at the core of any study of eschatology. And, as I have said, identifying all of the potential dangers is a necessary first step but it’s not sufficient. And most of the time the potential that any given danger will actually come to pass is going to be difficult if not impossible to assess. So what do we do once we think we’ve identified a danger? Well, as I’ve mentioned before it’s far easier to identify the danger than to know what to do about it, though just awareness can be palliative, but if we’re looking to go beyond that, this is also where the precautionary principle kicks in. Another thing that’s going to come up a lot in any discussion of eschatology. 

I think I’ll save a full discussion of this principle for another time, but I would think that if there are things which could be easily done to minimize future danger, even if that danger has a very low probability, that we should do them. As one example, the Supreme Court has definitely ruled that you can segregate adult content without running into any free speech issues. One way of doing that would be to create a top level domain, say .xxx and require that all pornography be hosted on one of those domains. I understand that there are some technical challenges here, but it’s still a reasonably straightforward low cost solution to the problem of pornography. Whether you think it’s all bad or whether you would just like to keep 11 year old girls from inadvertently viewing “rape porn”. And yet somehow, to my continued bafflement, there is enormous resistance towards any kind of regulation. 

I guess I shouldn’t be baffled. Most people view the current availability of pornography as a minor change in the way the world works. And I understand, that’s an easy position to fall into, progress brings new innovations, society adapts, the world continues. But there’s no guarantee that the world, as we know it, will continue, and lots of reasons to believe that when we’re messing with sex and reproduction, even if it’s just through the avenue of pornography, that we’re messing with something deep rooted and fundamental, possibly in ways we don’t understand. (I didn’t even bring in the idea that pornography is a supernormal stimuli.)

Also, I think people underestimate how much has changed. I remember a time when having HBO in the home was a big deal, and the “Playboy Channel” was the stuff of legends, but just a few decades later and now a large number of people see no problem with giving their kid a smartphone that can access stuff that makes the Playboy Channel look like Barney the Dinosaur.

As I’ve said countless times, predicting the future is impossible. And when I say that people often accuse me of hypocritically doing just that by, for example, entertaining the idea that total sexual freedom, and particularly pornography, will bring down civilization within three generations, but isn’t the opposite true as well? That on the other side they’re predicting that total access, at all ages, to the hardest of the hardcore will have no negative effects? Which is really the more implausible position? 

I agree that there are lots of open questions and that we don’t know what is going to happen, but lets review the questions I posed above one more time, and add a little bit more thought to each.

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? Speaking just of pornography if the choices are “eventual contributor to catastrophe” and “things which make modern civilization immune to catastrophe”. It seems far more at home in the first bucket than in the second.

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I intend to take every prediction of civilizational collapse seriously.

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? Durston certainly thinks it does and his entire article was written in support of that idea. For myself I think three generations seems remarkably specific, but when I look around I don’t see much that would convince me Durston and Unwin are wrong either.

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology? We don’t.


It’s Christmas Eve as I publish this, and I know all of you are wondering, what do I get the eschatologist who has everything?  Well how about a recurring donation? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.