Category: Religious

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.


The Blind Spots of Atheism

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As long as we’re discussing the decline of religion and the increase in atheism (see last week’s post) this seems as good a time as any to discuss a few interesting arguments concerning the existence of God I’ve come across recently. The first couple are from Miles Mathis. I forget where I got the link from, and as I was writing this up I googled Mathis, and it appears that some people really loathe him. Perhaps there’s a good reason for this, I have no previous acquaintance with his work, but I’d like to think I’m one of those increasingly rare individuals who feels that arguments can and should be judged in isolation without having to consider whether someone has committed a thoughtcrime in some other unrelated domain. I actually doubt that I am quite so pure, but it’s still a worthy goal.

So, what are these arguments you ask? Well Mathis begins by explaining that he is not an atheist, nor an agnostic, nor even a skeptic. As a defense, for eschewing all of these various labels, he points out that all of them depend on having a certain amount of data. Data that people who do adopt these titles simply don’t possess. He illustrates what he means by making the very valid point that commenting on, or in the extreme case, ruling out the existence of God is a very different endeavor from commenting on the existence of, say, Big Foot.

Of course, with the existence of Bigfoot and unicorns and so on we do have a great deal of information. We have made searches. The Earth is a limited environment and we have populated it widely and heavily and long. Even so, the mountain gorilla was not discovered until 1902, and huge populations of lowland gorillas were only recently discovered in the Congo. Which is to say that we may lean a bit to a “no” answer for existence of larger beings in smaller areas we have scoured quite thoroughly, but even then we may be wrong.

But in looking for proof of gods, our search is pathetically limited. By definition, a god is a being whose powers are far greater than ours, who we cannot comprehend, and whose form we cannot predict. This would make our failure to locate a god quite understandable. A very large or small god would be above or below our notice, and a distant god would also evade our sensors. Not to mention we only have five senses. If we are manipulated by gods, as the hypothesis goes, then it would be quite easy for them to deny us the eyes to see them. Only a god of near-human size in the near environs would be possible to detect. [links added by me]

This is not only an excellent point, but it would seem to go beyond being just a clever observation, perhaps Mathis has more properly identified a new sort of cognitive bias. Though it has elements of the ambiguity effect, anthropocentric thinking, attribute substitution and availability cascade, and that’s just in the A’s. Though perhaps we can boil it all down to metaphysical hubris. Mathis himself describes the position of the atheist as being “epistemologically stronger”:

By [epistemologically] stronger, I do not mean that the atheist is more likely to be right, I mean that the position of the atheist requires more proof. The theist does not say he knows that God exists, he says he believes it. Faith is a belief whereas knowledge is a certainty. This gives the religious person some wiggle room. He doesn’t need to talk of proofs, since a belief is never based on proofs. Belief and faith are built mainly on willpower. Atheists will say that such a foundation is quicksand, and I tend to agree, but atheists stand in even waterier mud.

From here he goes on to make another argument, one that’s very similar to the point I brought up in my post Atheists and Unavoidability of the Divine. That when atheists and agnostics engage in even the smallest amount of metaphysical imagination they come up with something very much equivalent to a God. They avoid labeling it as such, but despite this lack of a label they imagine something unequivocally god-like. 

I’m grateful to Mathis for providing yet another excellent example of this phenomena: 

…let us consider Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has been called one of the four horsemen of atheism (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), and knowing him, it is likely a self-naming and self-glorification. Problem is, Hitchens is also famous for saying,

My own pet theory is that, from the patterns of behavior that are observable, we may infer a design that makes planet earth, all unknown to us, a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by a far-off and superior civilizations.

Hmmm. I suspect that the other three horsemen would have preferred he hadn’t said that. Why? Because proof of a superior civilization using the Earth as a dumping ground would be proof of gods, heaven, hell, judgment, and a host of other things. If the Earth is a dumping ground for the unfit, that makes it hell, or very close, and makes the planet of the superior civilization heaven, or very close. It makes the superior civilization a race of gods, since they have powers we do not, are unknown to us, and have long evaded our detection. And to find us unfit, they must judge us, almost as a god does. Since we are born here, not transported bodily here in later life, we are either damned as spirits, which would prove a soul, or we are damned by the lives of our ancestors, which would prove a “sins of the fathers” theory. Regardless, it is clear that Hitchens, no matter his opinion of Christians, has a heavy Biblical residue. Also notice that he believes all this without proof, and without apology for his lack of proof. Clearly, he is allowed to believe what he wants to, while other people can’t, even when his beliefs are shadows of theirs. Why he is allowed when they aren’t is not so clear, but we may conjecture that it is because he is a loudmouthed bully.

Once again we have another piece of evidence illustrating that atheists have no problem imagining a God, it seems to be more that they just find the ones put forth by the various religions to not be to their tastes. I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing my own arguments in this space, but for those without the time to go back and read my previous post, here’s another example:

Richard Dawkins, widely regarded as the poster child for aggressive atheism said the following:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way.

I’m not arguing that the distinction he makes concerning the provenance of gods isn’t an important one. But what if there were a religion that both understands that distinction and comes down on the same side of it as Dawkins? As a matter of fact there is, what Dawkins describes is in all essential respects what Mormon’s believe. Does this mean that Dawkins is on the verge of converting? I very much doubt it. In other words both Dawkins and Hitchens can imagine the existence of god-like beings. They just can’t imagine these god-like beings behaving like the God that all those creepy religious people believe in.

For the final argument I want to revisit Pascal’s Wager, or rather a variant of the wager those in the rationalist community have labeled Pascal’s Mugging. And I’ve always got the impression that the latter was devised in order to make the former seem more silly.

Presumably all of my readers are familiar with the wager, so let me explain what the mugging is. First the scenario assumes that you are a utilitarian, that you “choose those actions with outcomes that, after being weighted by their probabilities, have a greater utility”. As a utilitarian your forced to make any number of difficult choices, where the probabilities are unclear, but in this particular scenario, you’re approached by someone claiming to be able to cause an implausible level of harm unless you give them all your money. You’re being mugged, but in a way that resembles Pascal’s wager.

To make the example more concrete, imagine that the “mugger” says that they are an alien, of god-like power (note the connection to the above) and that unless you give them all of your money that they will use their alien superpowers to destroy the planet Omicron Persei 8 along with its 8 billion sentient inhabitants. As a true utilitarian you’re now forced to calculate the probabilities involved and decide whether to give the person all of the money you’re currently carrying (let’s say it’s $100 to make it easier) or whether, with infinitesimal probability, to refuse, and by so doing doom 8 billion Omicronians to death.

As I said, the probability that the mugger is in fact an immensely powerful alien is infinitesimal, but how infinitesimal? There are various ways to try to judge this probability, but they mostly boil down to the message, the messenger, and your priors. 

One of the first things that jumps out at you is how self-serving his message is. How much incentive he has to lie in order to get the money he obviously needs. And of course the idea that he has the god-like powers he describes and yet still needs you to give him $100 is also a huge red flag. But what if instead he’s offering to help you. Maybe instead of trying to take $100 he’s insisting that he has to give you $100 or they will all die. You would still assign a low probability to the story being true, but the whole character of the interaction has changed. Also you would probably have no problem taking the money “just in case”.

You might recognize that Omicron Persei 8, is a Futurama reference. That would probably also make his threat less credible. But what if, instead of claiming billions of sentients would die, the mugger made the claim that giving him $100 would be a good deed, and provide spiritual benefits, both in this life and the life to come. Suddenly, for many if not most people, the connection is a lot easier to swallow. Finally, what if his message wasn’t limited to the brief threat I outlined above, what is he had a whole book on the subject which you could read? (Perhaps at gunpoint?) And what if the book was persuasive and well written? How does that affect things?

Moving on to the messenger, perhaps it shouldn’t make a difference, but I think most of us would react differently if the messenger were in a suit and spoke with a British accent, as opposed to a messenger who was tattooed, appeared high, and leavened his demands with profanity. What if the messenger wasn’t a stranger at all, but rather your father? Or what if there were more the one person telling you about this event? What if there were millions? What if they included all of your ancestors? (We’ll set aside for the moment how these ancestors communicate with you.) 

Finally, if we’re talking about a bayesian utilitarian (or even if we’re not) we have to consider their prior estimates for there being ultra-powerful aliens, and whether any given individual, particularly one demanding $100, might be one of these aliens. Understandably when all of this combined together the prior probability is going to be very low, but we’ve also show that once you start tweaking the message and the messenger the probability can change pretty dramatically. In fact even if we moderate everything about the “mugging” and leave only the ultra-powerful alien, what’s your prior probability on that?

This is one of the justifications for why I keep bringing up Fermi’s Paradox. It’s a paradox for a reason. Our prior estimate for the probability of other intelligent aliens should by all accounts be very high. And further, we would also be very surprised if they weren’t vastly more powerful than us. Accordingly it’s mostly the implausible threat (plus the Futurama reference) that gives us such low priors. Strip those away and at the very least you would no longer call the probability infinitesimal. 

Obviously there are a lot of moving parts at this point, and just as obviously you probably know what direction I’m headed with all this. As I said, my impression is that lots of people use Pascal’s Mugging as a quick and dirty way to dismiss Pascal’s Wager. But as I’ve hopefully shown, each step one takes towards making the example more closely resemble how religion actually works, makes it less silly and more probable. 

A belief in God and religion does not come from nowhere. It’s not something you’re hearing about from one person with no prior context. It’s something that’s been around for thousands of years. Nor is there a single messenger, not only are there millions of other believers, but for most people there is a long line of ancestors. All of whom thought belief and religion were good ideas to one degree or another. Finally, I know people are going to disagree about money as a motivation and using the threat of harm befalling people in a world outside of this one, but as I and others have pointed out, religion makes the lives of its adherents better. Which is to say, most people are paradoxically better off agreeing to be mugged. 

The point of all of the above is not to talk someone into religion solely by pointing out more problems with some common atheist arguments. Such an endeavor would obviously be futile. Nor is the point to stretch these arguments beyond where they can reasonably be applied, they’re interesting, but the argument over God’s existence has been going on for a very, very long time and these points are only the tiniest additions to that argument. 

Also, if I’m being honest, part of my reason for bringing these points up, is that they make my team look better and the other team look worse. Sort of a Christians rule atheists drool motivation, if you will. But that point aside, what I’m hoping people will take away from this post and all of my posts on this topic is a caution against being overly flippant about the question of God’s existence.

Critics of Pascal’s Wager often ask us to consider it in isolation shorn of emotion, community, history or earthly benefits, reducing it to something shallow and silly like Pascal’s Mugging. That it’s a choice rational people consider once and just as quickly dismiss before moving on with their life. But in reality all of life and all of history is tied up in this choice. 

Perhaps there is no God. I believe that there is, and I’ve bet my entire life around that belief. I freely admit that everyone is free to make that bet however they choose, and that many people are going to make a choice different than mine. What I will not concede is that this choice is silly or trivial, rather I believe it’s the most important choice we’re ever called upon to make.


A far less important choice is deciding whether or not to support this blog. I make light of that choice every time I post, but I consider it neither trivial nor silly. And for those who do support it, my gratitude, much like the reward of Pascal’s Wager, is infinite. Should you want a piece of that, consider donating.


Post Christianity

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I.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

This is not the first time I have used this quote. The last time it came up, I was quick to point out that the horrible nihilism predicted by Nietzsche had not come to pass. That despite the predictions of not only Nietzsche, but many others, it is possible to be an atheist and still be good. But I was also quick to point out that this “goodness” was still largely derived from a religious foundation, and it’s unclear how long that foundation would last in the absence of a belief in God. Or to pull in another quote from Nietzsche:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.

Again, most atheists and even most intellectuals will argue that Nietzsche was once again proven wrong, that the “whole” of morality has not been broken. But it’s worth asking, as I did the last time around, is it possible that he was just premature in his pessimism? Is it possible that as we look at the fights over morality we’re having today, or the culture wars as they’re often called, that we’re finally seeing the realization of Nietzsche’s predictions.

To be clear, we have obviously been able to hang on to large parts of Christian morality, even without faith in God, the question Nietzsche asks and which deserves to be asked again, is have we been able to hang on to the necessary parts? For a while it appears we did, in part because genuine secularization at the level Nietzsche foresaw actually didn’t start happening until fairly recently. As an example, the percent of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated was flat at between 5 and 10 percent in the 20 years between 1972 and 1992 (it was 6% in 1991) before beginning a steady climb to 29% in 2018. It’s easy to maintain Christian morality if you still have a lot of Christians, but around 1992 (end of the Cold War?) it starts suddenly draining away, and it’s hard to imagine this will only affect the unnecessary bits. Christianity is leaving the stage, or being altered so completely that it can no longer fulfill its historical role, whatever that might be.

II.

From here I could go off on a jeremiad about the wickedness of the modern world, and certainly someone with the pen name Jeremiah should never shy away from that sort of thing, but in this post I want to go in a different direction. I don’t think there’s any question that Christian morality has been draining away, and many jeremiads could indeed be written on that topic, but the objective of this post is to point out the lesser known side effects of this decline, in particular how it affects the logistics of governing and of holding nations together.

To begin with, there’s the idea that all civilizations are inextricably intertwined with a specific religion. You may recall my post on the ideas of Samuel Huntington, in particular his book The Clash of Civilizations. At the time, one of the things that stood out to me about his thesis was the idea that you can’t have a civilization without having a religion to define that civilization. Or as he said:

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

Hearing of this idea you may have several reactions:

  1. You may think Huntington is right and that by losing our link to religion we’re in a lot of trouble.
  2. You may think that Huntington is right about the importance of a religion, but that Christianity is no longer the religion of Western Civilization, and that therefore we don’t have to worry about its disappearance. We have a new religion, that of social justice or something similar, and that new religion might even come with a new, global civilization.
  3. You may think Huntington was right, but that he isn’t any longer. That something has changed recently either at a political, social, or technological level which makes his assertions about religion no longer valid, even if they were at some point.
  4. You may think Huntington is right, but only in a very weak, almost tautological sense. Maybe what he’s saying is something akin to, “A culture needs a culture.” In other words, how does this argument apply in a place like China? Is Confucianism really a religion? And if it is, are the Chinese actually believers in it in the same sense that people in America are believers in Christianity?
  5. You may think Huntington is just plain wrong. This is certainly possible, but he’s got a lot of evidence on his side and the point of this post is to martial yet more evidence in his favor.

Let’s take each of these reactions in order. The first is fairly straightforward. If you believe this then you’re on the same page with Nietzsche and Huntington and for that matter, me, and any further discussion of this would just be preaching to the choir. 

As far as the second possibility, a replacement religion, I’ve already discussed it at some length, and there’s a lot of evidence that this might in fact be what’s happening. For one thing it also mostly follows the thinking of Huntington and Nietzsche. The key problem here is that I don’t think it avoids the “we’re in a lot of trouble” part from possibility one. You can read my previous post for a deeper dissection of this, but I’ve seen zero historical evidence that transitioning a civilization from one religion to another has ever been a peaceful or straightforward process.

For this possibility, the most charitable reading of history is that Western Civilization already abandoned Christianity around when Nietzsche said they would and successfully replaced it with enlightenment values. But as you may recall that transition was anything but smooth. And even optimists like Steven Pinker believe that enlightenment values are under serious attack.  

Possibility three is perhaps the most interesting, that we needed religion, but we don’t any longer. Despite being interesting it has several things working against it. To begin with if you acknowledge that this is how things used to work, you have to come up with a credible mechanism for why things no longer work this way. Why politics and technology have somehow removed culture as a factor in maintaining a civilization. This becomes particularly difficult in light of the culture war we’re currently experiencing which has arguably been made worse by technology. To put it all together, you’re arguing that technology has made culture less contentious when the evidence all points in the opposite direction, and furthermore, in this argument the burden of proof would all be on your side of the argument. 

In discussing possibility number four I offered up China as a counterexample, and I take it seriously. No one would describe China as a particularly religious country even if you grant that Confucianism is a religion, and at first glance this seems to seriously weaken Huntington’s argument (and by extension my own) but I believe there are some additional things to consider here. First and most obviously, no one would say, as protests in Hong Kong enter their 20th week that China is a model of cultural cohesion in the absence of a religion. Second, one would assume that if you have the all-encompassing top down dictatorship like China does, having a strong religion on top of that to fall back on becomes far less important. Or to put it another way, the fight over something like abortion looks a lot different in China. Something we’ll return to in a moment.

III.

This takes us to the final possibility, that Huntington is wrong, and refuting this possibility is where I plan to spend the remainder of the post.

As a foundation to that, I’d like to talk about Power Games vs. Value Games, I’m borrowing this labeling from the current series Tim Urban is doing on Wait but Why (which I’ve mentioned before in this space). Though you can find references to the overarching concept all through my work. But Urban’s definitions are more succinct. 

The Power Games basically goes like this: everyone acts fully selfish, and whenever there’s a conflict, whoever has the power to get their way, gets their way. Or, more succinctly:

Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.

There are no principles in the Power Games—only the cudgel. And whoever holds it makes the rules.

The animal world almost always does business this way. The bear and the bunny from the beginning… found themselves in a conflict over the same resource—the bunny’s body. The bunny wanted to keep having his body to use for being alive and the bear wanted to eat his body to score a few energy points from his environment. A power struggle ensued between the two, which the bear won. A bear’s power comes in the form of being a big strong dick. But power isn’t the same as strength. A bunny’s power comes in the form of sensitive ears, quick reflexes, and running (bouncing?) speed—and if the bunny had been a little better at being a bunny, he might have escaped the bear and retained the important resource. [emphasis original]

As Urban points out this is how things are in a state of nature, and it’s mostly how things were historically. People and nations did whatever they wanted as long as they had the power to pull it off. But there is another way to resolve disputes, Value Games:

In the Power Games, people who have cudgels use them to forcefully take the resources they want. In the Value Games, people use carrots to win resources over from others.

The Value Games are driven by human nature, just like the Power Games are. The difference is the Power Games is what humans do when there are no rules—the Value Games is what humans do when a key limitation is added into the environment:

You can’t use a cudgel to get what you want.

If I want something you have, but I’m not allowed to get it by bullying you, then the only option I’m left with is to get you to give it to me voluntarily. And since you’re selfish too, the only way you’ll do that is if I can come up with a “carrot”—a piece of value I can offer—that you’d rather have than the resource I want from you. 

I will add that one aspect of Value Games that Urban doesn’t pay a lot of attention to is that such games are a lot easier to engage in if people have many values in common. It’s one thing to offer people carrots if everyone loves carrots. It’s quite another if they don’t. Or to put it another way, imagine that instead of offering carrots you’re offering pork. Your ability to trade for things you want is going to be very different depending on whether the person you’re dealing with is Catholic or Muslim. Value Games depend a great deal on having common values. This becomes even more important when you’re talking about sacred values, i.e. a religion.

Furthermore, Urban didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked explaining why you wouldn’t be able to use a cudgel to get what you want. In truth the cudgel is always an option. It always hangs in the background. All Value Games have a bit of a Power Game in them. It’s just that you’re unlikely to bring out the cudgel if the carrot is going to be more effective. Also, the more sacred the value the more likely you are to use force to defend it, making shared religious values the most important shared values of all. But once religion goes away, once people no longer have faith that there’s some supernatural source of sacred values, that foundation of morality Nietzsche talked about, then inevitably (though not immediately) Value Games become harder, and Power Games become more likely.

IV.

Let’s look at some examples of this dynamic in action. You have almost certainly heard about the tweet Daryl Morey, owner of the Houston Rockets, sent in support of the Hong Kong protesters and the controversy it caused between China and the NBA. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this is a Power Game. The Chinese can talk about their hurt feelings till they’re blue in the face, but in the end China wants something and they have the power to get it (withholding billions of dollars) so that’s what’s happening. 

This part is straightforward enough. But dig a little bit deeper and a few other interesting points emerge. First, China is still playing Value Games with the protests in Hong Kong, they haven’t yet resorted to the cudgel. One Value Game is with the actual people protesting and another is with the international community. In contrast the way they manage their citizens who live outside of Hong Kong largely takes the form of a Power Game. On the other side of things while the NBA is playing (and apparently losing) a Power Game with China, what was it doing when it boycotted North Carolina in 2016 for the state law which was perceived to be biased against the LGBT community? And is it hypocritical as so many people have accused?

Now I suppose that you could argue that North Carolina’s law was so much worse than what China is doing in Hong Kong that in the one case a boycott was appropriate, but in the other a groveling apology was called for, but I don’t think anyone seriously buys that. No the difference is that in the case of North Carolina, we’re still playing Value Games. The NBA was hoping that by boycotting North Carolina that their values would shift in the direction of the NBAs values. (Or what they saw as the center of gravity for the whole country. The NBA is a business after all). When the NBA caved in to China it wasn’t because of their deeply held values. (Other than their deeply held avarice.) It was because China had the power to compel them to submit. Would the controversy have played out differently if China (or for that matter the US) was Christian? One would certainly hope so. 

Let’s look at another example. I just finished reading the book Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age by Arthur Herman. I’ll do a more detailed review of it at the end of the month, but right now I want to focus on the independence negotiations between the United Kingdom and India. Certainly power played a large part in these negotiations, British military power and the power of the Indian masses which Gandhi was able to effectively marshall, but it’s remarkable to what extent Christian and Hindu values played a part as well. Gandhi was a huge admirer of Christianity and of the British in general. If he hadn’t he wouldn’t have attempted his campaign of passive resistance. If you doubt this just imagine how his campaign would have gone if he had tried it with the Nazis rather than the British. 

But set aside all of that for the moment, the really interesting thing is that the two sides could sit down together. They could negotiate and reach an agreement, and this, in spite of ongoing atrocities that today are barely imaginable. When you imagine politics today, who do you imagine sitting down together? (Certainly not Pelosi and Trump.) It seems that the most alarming sign that Value Games are over and we’re in the realm of Power Games is the fact that the two sides of the current conflict can’t have those negotiations, in fact they can barely watch football together, if the recent dust-up over Ellen and Bush is any indication.

For my final example I want to revisit abortion where we appear to be on the cusp of transitioning from Value Games to Power Games. Let’s begin that examination by looking at how abortion is handled by some of the systems we’ve already touched on. 

Religion- I’m not an expert on how various religions view abortions, but I’m reasonably certain that they all take a stand on it. In other words, to return to my primary point, Value Games work better in the presence of a religion because there is an agreed upon value baseline. 

China- Given that China generally operates in a Power Game space with its population, they can basically dictate whatever abortion policy they want. At the moment it’s legal, but if tomorrow they decided to make it illegal would anyone be surprised? Would you expect massive demonstrations? I wouldn’t.

Switching to Enlightenment Values from Christian Values- What does The Enlightenment say about abortion? Is it pro-choice? I know that many people would argue that it is, but if so, it took a long time to get there. In fact, pro-choice organizations argue that abortion was basically legal everywhere until the enlightenment. After that initial rush of anti-abortion laws, it appears that the first place to make it legal in all cases was the Soviet Union in 1920 under Lenin. I don’t know about you, but I generally avoid using examples from the Soviet Union to buttress my case. After that the next place for it to be made legal was Mexico in 1931 and then only in cases of rape. It didn’t arrive in the US until 1967 when Colorado legalized it in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother. Needless to say it doesn’t sound like it was a big part of the core Enlightenment values.

All of this takes us to the battles over abortion we see today. As I said, up until recently these debates seemed to revolve around a discussion of values, but more and more they’ve moved into the realm of power. Who can do what. So far the Power Games are operating within the framework of laws, which are a form of values, but when you pay more attention to fighting over who can interpret those laws than the laws themself I think some important rubicon has been crossed on the power/value continuum

As further evidence that we have crossed over from arguing about values to exercising power I offer up the venom present in the current debate, where even repeating Bill Clinton’s assertion that abortions should be safe, legal and rare provokes enormous blowback from the pro-choice side of things. Or to frame it another way. Gandhi and the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin were able to sit down and negotiate despite excessive violence on the side of the British and mass uprisings among the Indians. Who can we imagine doing the same today? 

V.

It’s important to note that to the extent that the West is “post-christian” it hasn’t been post-christian for very long, and it’s still unclear what system will come along and replace religion as a civilizational bedrock. Even if you don’t agree that it has to be another religion, I think we can agree that it has to be something, if we’re going to avoid slipping back into power games. And thus far the options do not appear promising:

To complete the circle, it should be noted that Nietzsche had a solution to this problem. It was the Übermensch, but it’s hard to imagine anything less likely to fill in as a core civilizational value in this day and age.

To continue with Nietzsche, people took a watered down version of his ideas, combined it with the ideas of progress more generally and came up with eugenics. And it’s hard to find a major figure who didn’t support it in the first half of the 20th century. Also, it should be noted, abortion was a major component of that movement. 

It’d be nice to say that Christianity was still powerful enough that it put a stop to eugenics. It was not, it had much more to do with the evils of Nazism, but it is interesting to note that when the Supreme Court ruled that state laws requiring compulsory sterilization of the unfit were constitutional, that a Catholic judge was the only one to dissent, and he did so because of his religious beliefs.

For those celebrating the decline of Christianity. This has to provide a cautionary tale, and, further, a strong piece of evidence that abandoning religion is more difficult and error-prone than people think. In any case it is no longer a candidate as an alternative to religion.

Moving on, other people such as Steven Pinker put a lot of stock in Enlightenment values, but they’re not holding up so well either. (Which is part of the reason Pinker had to write a whole book defending those same values.) Certainly, as I pointed out above, they seem unequal to the task of solving the current crisis.

Still other people hold out hope that some entirely new civic religion will come along, and magically solve everything. And perhaps it will, but large failures like eugenics and smaller failures like the blind spots of the enlightenment should make us cautious about the effectiveness of reasoning our way into a cohesive set of effective values. And even if that’s something we can do, the transition might be brutal.

It would appear that a return to Christianity is the only thing that’s left, but of course that’s much easier said than done and I suspect the process is past the point of no return. It part it’s because they were right, all those people who claimed that it was possible for an individual to abandon religion and still be good. The part I think they and everyone else missed is how difficult it is for a civilization to abandon religion and still be unified. 


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Is There a Utopia out There After All?

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For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the time you have to squint quite a bit to see it. Last week I said I was going to talk about how communism might be implemented, which makes this a weird time to remind people I’m a Mormon, since, at first glance, Mormonism and communism would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, if anything, the recent past is full of well known Mormons who were extremely anti-communist. Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church had a particularly strong reputation for being opposed to communism, penning such books as An Enemy Hath Done This as well as being (for awhile) a big supporter of the John Birch Society. But once you go farther back in Church history, the picture looks different.

In the early days of the Church, on and off starting in 1830, but reaching a peak between 1874 and 1877, Brigham Young (the second president of the Church after Joseph Smith) implemented something called the United Order. Now, since that time, the Church has taken great pains to clarify that this was not Marxist communism, and indeed there are many differences, some subtle, some less so. But it was a collectivist arrangement as well as an attempt to practice Christian communalism (the Christian part is one of those less subtle differences), so it had lots of elements in common with communism. But all that aside, it was nevertheless an attempt at creating a society which worked better than the one they already had in place. Of moving from one system to a better system, but whatever its aspirations and whatever its differences, similar to communism, it failed. 

Based on these failures and other similar failures it’s easy to assume that communalism/socialism/communism will never work. Indeed there’s a meme going around, where they take the list of 7 things every kid needs to hear, initially created by Josh Shipp, which is full of advice like telling your kid you love them and you forgive them, and replacing one of the items with “Communism has failed every time it was tried.” And to be fair, perhaps every kid does need to hear that. I’m certainly no fan of Communism. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s worse even than most people realize, but as I have previously pointed out, this fact wasn’t apparent at the beginning. Nor was it apparent at the beginning of our own republic that it was going to be a success, and yet in the intervening years it clearly was.

In all these cases (and there are many more) people were trying to move to a new system, one which fixed some of the weaknesses of the old system. And most of the time when people make this attempt, it fails, somewhat unusually the American Revolution succeeded. A group of people did move to a different system, and whatever your complaints about the founding and the founders it was definitely a better system as well. You might label this system democratic capitalism, and while the United States was the first to try it on a large scale (a point we’ll get to) many nations, though not all, have gone on to adopt it. When one sees how successful it’s been, it’s worth asking why no one did it sooner and why some nations still haven’t done it.

Starting with the first question, people had tried democracies and republics before, but the conventional wisdom at the time of the revolution was that democracy could only work on a small scale, in places like Switzerland or Ancient Athens. This thinking explains why we ended up with a republic and not a democracy and is one of the reasons why the battle between Jefferson and Hamilton was so fierce, but regardless of the measures they took to mitigate the perceived failures of democracy or the passion they brought to the task of ensuring the success of the new country, it was still a huge risk. So why did it work in North America, but not in Afghanistan, or Venezuela, or for that matter Russia in the 90s?

Speaking of that time period in Russia, I just got done reading the book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. (I’m still playing around with how I’m going to do book reviews, so I may or may not end up doing a full review later.) The book discusses the chaotic time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and what came out of that chaos. In a very real sense, the Russians were trying to accomplish the same thing that the early Americans did. They were attempting to transition from one, obviously broken system to a presumably new and better system. In this effort they had lots of people willing to help, and the citizens really wanted to make the transition. Beyond that, there were lots of successful countries to copy from. And despite all of these factors very few people would look at Russia today and consider it a fully functioning constitutional democracy. What happened? Why did they fail?

On one level the failure to successfully transition came from numerous sources:

  • Yeltsin tried to reform the economy too quickly. 
  • The West offered a lot of useless advice, but not much actual help
  • Rather than creating prosperity for everyone the reforms made most people poorer while creating vast wealth for a few oligarchs. 

And if the economic problems weren’t bad enough, there was also:

  • Corruption
  • Terrible infrastructure
  • Weak respect for the law
  • And the general hangover of 70+ years of Soviet dysfunction. 

But considered from another angle the failure was caused by just one problem: Transitioning to a new system requires more than just ideology, it requires an enormous web of systems to support the ideology.

If we consider Russia and Eastern Europe, based on the things I read both at the time and since then, they would have liked nothing more than to have transitioned to mature capitalism, with public corporations, investors and a stock market. Instead they ended up with oligarchs and Ponzi schemes. Why? Because, among other things, they didn’t have a robust legal system, with things like contract enforcement, or a justice system free of corruption. And even if they had possessed all those things the actual logistics of a fully operational stock market are not trivial either. And this takes us to the answer to the second question I posed above, if democratic capitalism is so successful why hasn’t every country transitioned to it?

Certainly there are some countries where it’s not in the leader’s best interest to make the transition. (See my review of The Dictator’s Handbook.) And accordingly they prevent it from happening, but by all accounts Yeltsin and Gorbachev desperately wanted to make this transition yet were unable to because they didn’t have the necessary institutions, customs and attitudes in place. 

Thus far most of what I’ve said is not particularly original, though given how much blood and treasure we’ve spent failing in exactly this fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps these ideas are more obscure than one would think. Or perhaps those people trying to move from one system to the next recognize that supporting institutions are necessary, but feel that they should be easy to create. In any case at some level people have dramatically misjudged things, and as a consequence caused all kinds of problems. But, while that is definitely an interesting subject, it is not the subject of this post. No, in this post I want to approach things not from the perspective of what’s possible now, but from the perspective of what might be possible in the future.

I started off talking about communism and communalism, and asserting that attempts to implement them had repeatedly and spectacularly failed. But couldn’t the same thing be said about large scale democratic capitalism before the creation of the Constitution? What was different in 1788? The argument I’ve presented thus far is that the necessary framework of supporting institutions, cultural systems and laws finally existed which would allow it to succeed. From this it follows that it’s possible that there is a similar combination out there, waiting to be implemented which would allow communism or communalism to actually succeed as a system of government. 

I stole this idea from friend of the blog Mark over at Pasteur’s Blend. Here’s the paragraph where he explains the core idea

But what if there’s another way to look at it?  If it’s true that any system of government requires specific institutions to be successful, we should apply this same understanding to communism.  Certainly the Russian experience demonstrated that capitalism requires certain institutions or it won’t work well. We might look back to attempts at establishing communism through this lens and say, “Of course it didn’t work, they didn’t have the institutions required for making it work.”

To be clear, I’m not asserting that there are definitely institutions out there which would make communism/communalism work. (And specifically work better than democratic capitalism.) Only that there might be. There are still several reasons that such a system of government might be impossible.

For one, while this is an interesting possibility, it’s not even clear that this is how it normally works. The founding of the United States may be a unique exception. As I said above, we have lots of examples of failed attempts to dramatically transition from one system to another and very few examples of where it succeeded. Most of the time when we look through history it seems clear that most systems “evolved gradually” rather than “changed suddenly”. And I see very little evidence that this is the way things are evolving.

Speaking of which it should be pointed out, additionally, that there is no reason to limit this to communism/communalism, if progress and technology are going to create the culture, institutions and systems necessary for a dramatic shift to a new system of government it would seem that libertarianism is at least as likely as communalism, if not more so. 

Finally, you’ll notice that when I talk about the “web of support” required to make a certain system work, that I go farther than Mark’s original idea and toss in culture as well. Certainly culture played a huge part in the successful formation of the United States, and equally it has always been the biggest problem with the successful implementation of any form of communalism. Or as Madison put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

All this said, it is possible that a communist utopia will arrive as soon as we have the appropriate institutions and the right attitude. But, more broadly, it has to be acknowledged that even if we’re unlikely to transition to some dramatically better system of government after the fashion of the American Revolution, technological innovation is continually providing us with lots of tools to make our current system better. And this is the point where, finally, as promised, this post ties into the last post. This post is an argument against my last post. On one hand, as we saw in that last post, if system goes on long enough, it starts to accumulate deviations and those deviations end up being normalized. This leads to cycles where greater deviations eventually lead to catastrophe followed by retrenchment around improved norms. On the other hand technology gives us ways to mitigate system deviations, and may in fact provide a completely new and better system which will replace the old system before it fails catastrophically. Which would have the effect of breaking the cycle.

As a brief example, the last post spent quite a bit of time talking about plane crashes. One of the key methods for preventing these crashes is the checklist, and while the core technology for maintaining a checklist has been around since the invention of writing, it’s clear that even in the case of a simple system like this that technology has made things easier to implement and maintain. Consequently, there is less incentive for deviation because not-deviating requires only minimal additional effort. All of this then presumably pushes back potential catastrophes.

As is so often the case, all of the above takes us back to the same question we return to again and again, “Will technology save us?” And as usual, my answer (and I believe the safest way to bet) is, “We are not saved.” Nevertheless, as I repeatedly point out, I could be wrong. (That’s why I mention betting.) 

There is no way to know how the future will turn out, but I think it is safe to say, as I did in my very first post, that we’re in a race between technological salvation and technological catastrophe. Meaning that, at least at first glance, there’s nothing particularly new about the topic of this post. I’ve been talking about this exact issue since the very beginning. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what this latest twist adds to the discussion. To begin with, I spend a lot of time in this space discussing different ways for catastrophe to occur, but not very much time on how it might be avoided. How the cycles of civilization, which have been present throughout all of recorded history, might be broken. Part of the reason is that there are always more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But part of it is also probably a genuine bias on my part. Thus, when I encountered this idea I thought it was worth investigating as a counterweight to that bias. 

Beyond that, the key difference between this discussion and what I’ve written before, is that lots of people imagine that technology alone might save us. Particularly something like fusion, or superintelligence. I think there were a lot of people who thought the internet might even fill this roll. In contrast, the current discussion involves things which are helped by, but don’t require technology. Just institutional and cultural changes which might be brought about by sufficiently motivated individuals, allowing us to imagine “salvation” in a form which doesn’t hinge on one dramatic technological development. Technology is still very important, perhaps the most important element of the modern world, but many of the most impactful systems, as we saw with the checklist example (but also democratic capitalism) don’t necessarily require any specific technology. And, with technology appearing ever more destructive to systems, particularly political systems (think the polarization brought on by social media) this sort of salvation starts to appear more and more like our best hope.

However, in order to take this hope seriously you have to assume that we’re going to break out of the cycles and patterns that have defined human existence for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, that this time really is different. That, despite recent evidence to the contrary, technology will assist rather than hinder setting up the institutions and culture required to finally make the leap to a dramatically better system, a communist or a libertarian or a “something else” utopia. Or that, at a minimum, we’ll create something less earth shattering, but which nevertheless manages to save humanity from itself. Because that’s looking like an increasingly difficult task.

In my next post I’m going to finish out the series by examining that challenge, in particular the practical difficulties of implementing new systems, the historical cycles such systems would have to contend with, and the conflict between the new and better ways we’ve developed for managing those systems and the inevitable temptation to deviate from them, and to call those deviations “normal”.


Perhaps we will push through to a communist utopia where money is meaningless, but until that time we’re stuck with the next best system, democratic capitalism, which requires exchanging money for things you want to see more of. On the off chance this blog is in that category consider donating.


Normalization of Deviance and the Modern World

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I recently read an article titled How I Almost Destroyed a £50 million War Plane and The Normalisation of Deviance. The article opens with the story of a multinational military exercise, which the author, Tim Davies, participated in back in the mid 2000s. As part of this exercise, everyone was assigned to a specific jet, and if your jet was having problems you couldn’t switch. This is, unfortunately, exactly what happened to the Davies.

Our jet had a problem with the undercarriage or landing gear – it wouldn’t lock up under normal flight conditions; the wheels couldn’t be stowed away.

The engineers had found significant and unfixable wear to the mechanical uplock. It would only lock up under 0g and this would mean that I would have to bunt the aircraft, nose down, towards the ground whilst selecting the gear ‘up’.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, a bunt is half an outside loop, meaning you start out straight and level, then dive in a curve, eventually ending upside down.)

With this “solution” in hand and not wanting to be grounded for the remainder of the exercise Davies (and his Weapons Systems Officer) decided to try it out. And lo and behold, it worked. They’d have to do it every time they wanted to fly, right after takeoff, at the point when they had the maximum amount of fuel (five tons), but they had figured out a way to keep flying. So that’s what they decided to do. And this, if you haven’t guessed, was a deviation from the normal guidelines for safely flying a £50 million war plane.

Despite comments from other pilots, and the concerns of their Programme Director, who Davies managed to avoid, they continued performing this maneuver, and everything went great until the last day of the exercise when the weather was worse than expected. It was then, while performing the maneuver, that they entered a cloud, and when they finally emerged from that cloud Davies realized he was in a very bad place.

We were low on energy and the nose was rising too slowly to recover the aircraft before we would hit the ground.

The Ground Proximity Warning System sounded.

‘WOOP, WOOP – PULL UP, PULL UP!’

‘7, 6, 5 – that’s 400 ft Tim!’, called my WSO.

The jet was shuddering against my demands, it just didn’t have the performance to pull out of the dive.

The cockpit was silent. To make things worse, due to our high rate of descent, we were well outside of any ejection option.

I quickly selected full flap and slats to increase the lift over the wing.

The sudden increase in lift meant that the nose started to pitch faster towards the horizon.

A bad picture was starting to look better.

Eventually I levelled the jet at around 2-300 ft above the ground and gradually I climbed us back up into cloud.

The gear had never locked up. It was going to be a long, and a very quiet, journey home.

Why had all this happened? How had it come to pass that in addition to almost destroying a £50 million war plane, he had almost killed himself and his Weapons Systems Officer? It happened because they had taken that initial deviance and normalized it.

I was an experienced pilot but in the bracket where my over-confidence could well have been my downfall. The longer we’d continued performing the manoeuvre the more confident we’d become at doing it.

We had convinced ourselves that the rule breaking was for the benefit of the exercise and that what we were doing was essential.

But I’d almost destroyed a £50 million aircraft.

My actions in performing a zero ‘g’ bunt after take-off, in order to secure the gear, as outside of the rules as it was, had become the normal way to get airborne – I thought that what I was doing was right.

But I was wrong.

Knowing what happens it’s obvious he was wrong, but it’s also easy to see where it might not have been quite that obvious the first time he tried it. And it’s equally obvious where this problem might not be limited to flying. Life is full of very important rules for how things should be done, but it is also full of situations where it would be convenient and seemingly harmless to violate those rules. The initial violation almost always appears to be minor and in any event it will obviously be only temporary, but once we’ve done it the first time it becomes even easier to do it again and again and again… Until, before you know it, we’ve “normalized the deviance”. 

That article offers this formal definition for the normalization of deviance, from Diane Vaughan:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.

Vaughan coined the term “normalization of deviance” in the course of reviewing the organizational and management failures which lead to the Challenger and Columbia disasters. This is yet another example where it’s easy to identify which choices were wrong in hindsight, but apparently more difficult to avoid making those ultimately fatal decisions in the absence of such foreknowledge. And while there is some utility to identifying the problem after it’s happened it’s vastly preferable to identify it before the disaster. With that in mind I’m going to attempt some identification in advance. Also while the examples I’ve offered thus far, and most of the examples you’ll find, deal with small scale “deviance normalization”, as you might imagine I’m far more interested in whether we have any deviance normalization going on at a societal level.

Let’s take the last point first, what would it look like to normalize deviance at the level of a whole society? 

Let’s start by dipping back into the article. One of the things Davies mentions is how it can be very difficult to define what deviant behavior is at the extreme ends of things. While he admits that his take off maneuver was very obviously deviant, what if you’re trying to perform that evaluation on one of the military’s flight demonstration squadrons? In America we have the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, in the UK they have the Red Arrows, and Davies was involved in an inquiry after two of his friends were killed. As part of that he spoke to other people tasked with assessing the standards of the Red Arrows, one of them:

…told me that, when assessing a Red Arrows pilot, he found himself upside down at 100 ft over RAF Scampton’s runway in formation with two other jets only a couple of feet away.

How on earth was he supposed to know if this was normal?

How indeed? Davies doesn’t say except to point out that no organization is ever so specialized that it’s beyond needing external assessment. But the question of evaluation at the extremes is an interesting one, since that appears to be where modern society has ended up. In the same way that there’s not a lot of flight data for going hundreds of miles an hour, 100 ft off the ground with other aircraft only a couple of feet away, there’s not a lot of historical data about being able to form ideological echo chambers with anyone on Earth, with the ability to instantly communicate to any of those people, all while having less and less ability to know if that communication is actually truthful. That seems kind of abnormal or deviant, but how do we know?

To take another more recent, and perhaps more concrete example. News recently broke that Facebook paid contractors to transcribe it’s user’s audio chats. (Most of the other tech companies have been similarly accused.) Is this just a cool thing we can now do which well help Facebook deliver content people will appreciate more? Or is it a horrible invasion of privacy? Regardless of your answer to that question, it shouldn’t change when we get to the point where the transcription doesn’t require contractors; when there’s an AI that can do it. But I think it will. Perhaps more importantly, to get back to Davies’ point about needing external assessment, what do you think Facebook’s answer would be to these questions? (Spoiler: They think it’s awesome, particularly if they could get an AI to do it.) Pulling all this together, my first stab at spotting a normalization of deviance before it happens it to point out that technology is going to create a lot of “deviance” and that it’s going to be difficult to recognize, particularly if we don’t demand external assessment.

From there let’s move on to politics. To start, one imagines that deviations from the norm accumulate the longer an organization is around, and that this would apply at least as much to governments as it would to corporations, and probably much more so. As I have pointed out in the past, the United States and its government is older, relative to other nations, than most people think. All of this means that there should be plenty of examples of accumulated political deviations which have been normalized, and indeed I can think of several. I intend to provide a couple of examples of what I mean, but before I do, it’s important to point out that each could easily be the subject of its own post, and that by necessity, I am going to be leaving a lot of things out. Also, I’m sure that whether you view something as a deviation which has been normalized depends on your core political leanings.

With those caveats aside let’s start by talking about criminal justice. There are lots of things I could talk about in that space, but I’m going to focus on plea bargaining. Currently over 95% percent of federal cases end in a plea deal rather than a trial, and it’s not much better at local level. My sense, when I first thought of this as a potential deviation that has been normalized, is that it had only gotten this high recently, but when I looked into it I discovered that as long ago as 1945 it stood at 70%, and that it actually dipped to 63% in 1982 before starting a steady rise to where it is now. 

(I just gave two links to what appear to be the same statistic from the same governmental report, but while they agree on the general trend there’s a lot of variation in the statistics. For example, the Washington Post has it at 85% in 2000 while Albany University has it at 95% in 2000. Strange, but it doesn’t matter very much to the point I’m trying to make.)

Despite the fact that I was wrong about the increase in plea bargaining being a recent phenomenon, it was nevertheless definitely not a part of normal jurisprudence at the time of the Constitution. Once you start to dig into the history of it, it turns out that it wasn’t practiced with any frequency until “well into the nineteenth century“ and it didn’t come to the “attention of the public” until the 1920s. When “the general reaction-of scholars, of the press, and of the crime commissions themselves [which had publicized the practice]-was disapproval.” On top of this, apparently as late as 1958 it looked like the Supreme Court might declare the practice to be illegal, and while it didn’t, it didn’t formally sanction the practice until 1970. And while it seems normal now, this is all a deviation. The original guidelines for “safe jurisprudence” (similar to the rules for safe flying) included lots of rules about trial by jury, how the jury should work, the rights of the accused, what was and wasn’t permissible evidence, etc. But, at some point, after the system had been working well for possibly as long as a century, someone came along and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we skipped the trial and you just agreed to plead guilty to X, and in exchange we’ll make sure that your punishment is only Y?” And it was easier that once. In fact it was probably eminently sensible. But now, a century or more later, the original concept of trial by jury is used, at most 5% of the time (here’s yet another set of numbers from the NYT saying it’s 3% of federal cases and 6% of state cases) and the deviation has been made into the norm.

Why hasn’t this deviation been corrected? Probably because it only harms (or is perceived to harm) the powerless. Insofar as plea deals (and the associated practice of charge stacking) are bad they’re only bad for potential criminals. Not necessarily a coalition which is essential to anyone staying in power (see my review of The Dictator’s Handbook) and possibly a coalition whose support you would actively avoid.

The question of who the deviation harms is an important one, and comes up again when discussing my other example, though in a more complicated way. What is this example, you ask? It’s the current and growing practice of ignoring immigration laws. As with plea bargaining it’s somewhat difficult to tell exactly when or how this deviation started, but it’s easy enough to imagine why. Immigration enforcement is difficult, with lots of areas of questionable morality, and hard choices that have to be made. Still the current state has not existed for all that long. While the first sanctuary city was Berkeley in 1971, and a few other cities adopted that designation in the 1980s, most cities and states didn’t get serious about it until the 2010s. Meanwhile in the 90s there was serious concern about the state of US immigration policy. From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, ran from 1990 to 1997. The Commission covered many facets of immigration policy, but started from the perception that the “credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in, are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave”. From there, in a series of four reports, the commission looked at all aspects of immigration policy. In the first, it found that enforcement was lax and needed improvement on the border and internally. For internal enforcement, it recommended that an automated employment verification system be created to enable employers to distinguish between legal and illegal workers. The second report discussed legal immigration issues and suggested that immediate family members and skilled workers receive priority. The third report covered refugee and asylum issues. Finally, the fourth report reiterated the major points of the previous reports and the need for a new immigration policy. Few of these suggestions were implemented.

The yardstick mentioned in the article could be used in a Trump campaign ad, and indeed last year Trump put out a presidential message honoring Barbara Jordan, which upset numerous people since Jordan was a black female Democrat. It would certainly be hard to imagine someone similarly situated today being a Trump supporter, or even making similar recommendations. Indeed these days, many people consider it inappropriate to even use the word illegal. But, beyond what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it’s worth going into a deep dive on how this is a deviation which has been normalized, since I suspect you either already entirely agree with me or are never going to agree, but I would like to look at who it harms.

I said earlier that the harms of this normalization are more complicated. In particular there are a lot of fairly powerless people who are helped, and indeed that’s a good argument for the continuance of the practice. But beyond that there are also a lot of powerful people who benefit as well, and that, more than the powerless people it helps, is why it continues. As I pointed out in a previous post, other than Trump and a handful of other politicians, the lax enforcement of immigration is something which is supported by nearly every member in congress despite a majority of actual voters being against it.  The harm, or perceived harm, all falls, once again, on a group of people who have largely been without power, that is until Trump came along. Which is to say even if you don’t see any other harms from this particular normalization of deviance, it probably pushed Trump over the top in the last election…

Finally when we’re talking about deviations being normalized it’s hard not to turn our minds towards behaviors formerly classified as deviant. The entire culture war revolves around this process, and obviously there are quite a few people who believe that quite a few activities should not have been normalized. That “progress” is just another word for the greatest “normalization of deviance” of all. There are of course an equal if not larger number of people (depending on the country) who think this is ridiculous. It would be nice if sheer numbers could decide the issue, but I don’t think they can. All of these issues remain contentious, but, for the moment, let’s assume that in addition to being (at one point) labeled as deviations, that they are actual deviations. What would this mean? In the story I started with, that deviation almost led to a fatal crash. Is that also what we should be worried about here? Perhaps, perhaps not. The modern world is very different from the world of even 50 years ago, accordingly I would never claim that the normalization of these particular deviations will inevitably result in a “crash”. They may in fact be desirable in our current situation. Still, as I have repeatedly pointed out, there just might have been a reason for declaring these behaviors “deviant” beyond just massive historical bigotry. 

If we were to systematize all of this, you could imagine that things might operate in a cycle. Some “bad thing” happens, and as a result rules are put into place to ensure that particular “bad thing” doesn’t happen again. Initially, when the memory of the “bad thing” is still very fresh, those preventative rules would carry a great deal of weight, people would be eager to follow them, and they certainly wouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Gradually, however, the connection between the rules and the “bad thing” would fade in the minds of those forced to follow the rules. These rules would start to appear more onerous and less necessary. As this process continues, eventually rules start being broken. Initially this rule breaking wouldn’t cause any harm, and the longer things went without any harm the more the process of rule-breaking accelerates. All of this would continue until eventually, the “bad thing” the rules were trying to prevent, happened again. Naturally the rules would be reimplemented (and perhaps strengthened) and the cycle would begin anew. 

I’m obviously not the first nor the last to suggest that history, behaviors, and events might be cyclical, but my particular suggestion would be that while this is certainly true, it is also horribly complicated. Yes, history does move in cycles, many, many cycles which overlap, feed on one another and are weak or strong at various times and places. For the next couple of posts I’m going to examine a couple of other cycles and look at which might be strong or weak in our own day and age. As a teaser, in my next post I’m going to talk about how a nation would successfully implement communism. 


There might be some who argue this entire blog is a normalization of deviance! 

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The Rise of a Civic Religion

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I.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you know that I live in Utah, a state which has a number of interesting qualities, particularly when it comes to politics. To begin with, as you’re all probably aware, Utah is not a swing state, its electoral votes have gone to the Republican Presidential candidate in every election since 1968. Now, Trump may change all of that (though based on the current crop of democractic nominees I’m guessing that he won’t) but Trump’s standing in Utah is a topic for another time. As an additional peculiarity, and something that most people don’t know, Utah is the only state where Clinton came in third place to Perot in 1992. But of all the political oddities peculiar to Utah, the one I want to focus on is lawn signs.

If I’ve done my job right, you are now overcome with curiosity and wondering what possible peculiarity there might be when it comes to Utah and lawn signs. Well to begin with, after considering everything I’ve already said, one would naturally assume that if there was any place where you would expect to see lawn signs for the Republican Presidential Candidate it would be in Utah. And yet, at least in Salt Lake, I not only don’t remember any signs for Trump in 2016. I very clearly remember there being no signs for McCain in 2008 when he was running against Obama. Why, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, would there be no lawn signs for the Republican Nominee? 

One possibility is that I’m just wrong, there were lawn signs and I just didn’t see them or don’t remember them.

Or perhaps, knowing how solidly Republican Utah was, the campaign didn’t bother to send any lawn signs to Utah. But if that’s the case why were there plenty of Obama and Clinton lawn signs? Wouldn’t the same not-worth-fighting-over logic apply?

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in Salt Lake, which is actually pretty blue. Sure, the state is pretty Republican, but perhaps Salt Lake City might as well be San Francisco. Well, if we look at the actual numbers we find that Obama did in fact win Salt Lake County, by the massive margin of 0.1%, 49.2% to 49.1%. In 2016 the margin was greater, 41.99% to 32.96% but that’s still a fair amount of Trump supporters, for there to not be a single yard sign.

As you can tell, none of these three theories seems very compelling, at least to me, but there is another theory that I like better. A theory which combines signalling, with what it’s acceptable to signal. If we start from a very naive view of things, we might expect that the number of yard signs would be proportional to the percentage of eventual voters, but this is obviously not the case. In San Francisco, of those who voted for either Clinton or Trump, one in ten voted for Trump, but I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money that one in ten election signs in San Francisco were not similarly in support of Trump.

If visible signs of support are not proportional to eventual vote totals what does determine people’s desire to signal and the acceptability of such signalling? You might think that if each candidate will eventually get a roughly equal number of votes, that the visible signs of support would also be equal, and that from this point of rough equilibrium, visible support would drop off faster than actual support as one candidate ended up in the minority. That basically, as one candidate’s majority becomes greater and greater, signalling support for the minority candidate has less and less utility. But in the example I just gave from Salt Lake City, McCain and Obama’s eventual support was as close to even as you can get, and yet I would swear that I didn’t see a single McCain campaign sign. Is it possible that it’s disproportionately beneficial to signal support for a Democratic candidate and disproportionately harmful to signal support for a Republican candidate? 

I’m well aware that this is mostly based on a single observation, so one point of this post is to see if anyone else has a similar experience to mine, where you live in a city with lots of Republican voters, but very little visible evidence of these voters? I suspect there are a lot of examples of this. I would even go so far as to say that I’d be surprised if anyone’s experiences didn’t match my own. That is, the percentage of visible support being less than the percentage of actual support given as votes. Beyond the reluctance of people on the right to visibly signal, even while in the majority, as I described above, I have also noticed the opposite situation with those on the left, actual eagerness to signal, even while in the minority, and I would be curious to hear about other people’s experiences. Assuming that all of the foregoing is correct, why might this be?

II.

As part of my answer I’d like to start by relating yet another observation, this one much more recent. As I mentioned in the post just before this one I spent the first few days of August at a gaming convention. (Which convention is probably easy enough to figure out, but I shall leave it unnamed for a variety of reasons.) I’ve been attending the same convention for many years, and for as long as I can remember people have been attaching ribbons to the bottoms of their badges. Generally these ribbons represented one or the other niches at the convention. As an example, a fan of Settlers of Catan might have a ribbon each for brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. Last year I noticed some new, rainbow colored ribbons. (You can probably already guess the nature of the ribbons.) One said “Gaymer”, and for those who weren’t actually gay, there was an “Ally” ribbon. Somewhat subconsciously I added these as another niche. There were fans of Settlers of Catan and there were people who wanted to combine LGBT advocacy with their gaming. 

When I attended this year, I quickly realized that I had been wrong. Last year, I saw just a few people wearing these ribbons and while I hesitate to put forth any hard numbers, my guess would be that, at most, 5% of badges had one of these ribbons last year. And, as I said, I subconsciously added it as another niche.

This year, the number was much higher, again I’m reluctant to put forth a hard number, but it could have easily been 25%, and perhaps higher. Also this year a new variety of ribbon had been added which allowed people to announce their preferred pronouns. (I was surprised by the number of They/Them ribbons I saw.) Once again I’m dealing with only a small amount of data, but at a minimum I’m already curious about what this percentage is going to look like next year. 

All of this is to say that it seems unlikely that the actual number of gay gamers and their allies has quintipled since last year. No it’s more likely that the phenomenon of rainbow ribbon badges and republican candidate lawn signs are actually similar, that both come down to signalling, and what it’s acceptable to signal, or more accurately what it’s unacceptable to signal. As an example of what I mean, imagine that I printed up some ribbons that said “Straight” or “Not an Ally” or “Gamers opposed to Same Sex Marriage”. (That last one wouldn’t fit on a badge, and I think the difficulty of signalling opposition illustrates my point.) But to return to my point can you imagine how unacceptable it would be to signal opposition to LGBT tolerance? And, in fact, I think this leads to the point I’ve already noted, that not only would it be entirely unacceptable to wear any of the ribbons just mentioned, that it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable to not have an “Ally” ribbon showing your support. 

It’s not hard to imagine that this might happen at a gaming convention which mostly skews younger and “woker”, but I believe it’s happening more widely, and that’s why I started out by talking about the lawn signs. This is not only, I would submit, an example of the same thing, but furthermore an example illustrating how long this has been going on for and in places you wouldn’t expect. To be clear, what I’m arguing is that just as it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to not signal support for LGBT issues, that it was already unacceptable for many years, even in very conservative states to visibly signal support for Republican Presidential Candidates. Once again, why might this be?

III.

On one level the answer to this question is that both stories are just examples of the ongoing social progress that has been happening for decades if not centuries, but I find that particular answer lacking. In the first example, it’s not that people are changing how they vote it’s that they’re changing what they’re willing to visibly signal. In the second example, we see a trend (which to be fair, may or may not continue) where once again people expect certain signalling above and beyond someone’s actual behavior. In other words, in both cases, we’re not seeing “progress” in behaviors or progress in what’s allowed, in part because both of these have just about topped out, we’re seeing “progress” through an increasingly unified idea of what attitudes and beliefs it’s acceptable to display openly. That most individuals have moved beyond expecting to be allowed to do and believe certain things, to fashioning a set of attitudes and beliefs which they expect everyone to adopt.

Thus far none of this is particularly new or surprising. Conservatives and other people worried about overactive political correctness have long warned about this transition from allowing people to do certain, previously taboo, things to demanding that everyone enthusiastically support people doing these certain things. But I want to go beyond just identifying the trend, or expressing short-term alarm to categorizing the trend as something specific, consequential and long-term.

A few posts ago I touched on Scott Alexander’s idea that social justice might be a new civic religion. For this to be the case, if social justice is going to supplant the old civic religion of patriotism, it has to be growing. It has to be vibrant and powerful. It has to be able to sweep the old civic religion away. It has to be able to dominate the “signaling space”. In both of the examples I provided this is what appears to be happening. That what people support has decoupled from what people decide to signal. That these examples illustrate not a change in inner beliefs or behavior, but the rise of a different public dogma or in other words a new civic religion.

Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, and certainly there’s a lot of discussion about what makes something a religion, and wading into that is way beyond the scope of this post, but the expectation that everyone will outwardly display specific beliefs has to be a big part of it, particularly in the case of civic religions.

Pulling everything together, I increasingly agree with Alexander that social justice is a nascent civil religion, that the lawn signs and the badge ribbons should be considered as evidence that something new is dominating the signalling space and that these are examples of the presence and growth of this religion, a different, more extreme, and more cohesive phenomenon than the generic social progress we’ve seen previously. 

Before moving on, I should mention that I’m fully aware that just as one swallow does not a summer make, neither does two examples a civic religion make. But my guess is that at this point you’re in one of two categories. Either you can think of a dozen other examples of this and you’re nodding along in agreement, or you’ve completely dismissed my point as conservative paranoia. And in neither case will providing more examples move the needle very much. Assuming that you’re one of the people who’s nodding along, the next question, once we’ve figured out why it’s happening, is to ask what happens next?

IV.

If you are in the “conservative paranoia” camp, and you’ve made it this far. I’ll start off with the possibility you might actually like. It’s possible that what happens next is that, by degrees, we enter a social justice utopia. That all the things people hope for come to pass as people “join” the new religion. That systemic racism is done away with, along with all other forms of bigotry. That gaps in pay and education between minorities and genders vanish. That when everyone is an “Ally” there are no LGBT issues because that distinction no longer makes any sense. That everyone is treated with fairness and kindness and as a result global peace and prosperity will reign. That, in essence, I end up being wrong about everything. This would be great. I could stop writing, buy a nice recliner and finally catch up on all the TV shows people keep recommending to me. Unfortunately, despite my desire to finally watch all six seasons of the Sopranos, nothing about how events are playing out leads me to believe that this possibility has any chance of happening.

Another possibility would be some kind of fusion between the new civic religion and the old, that patriotism and the 4th of July meld with social justice and gay pride to form some hybrid civic religion, better than the old civic religion, or maybe just able to thread whatever needle we’re going through now, and get us to something resembling normality after Trump, but if anything this seems less likely than the previous possibility, given how irreconcilable the differences between the two sides appear to be. Also while I’m not an expert on the rise of new civic religions, I don’t get the sense that “peaceful fusion with the old religion” is something that ever happens. Part of the problem is a relative paucity of examples. I think historically actual religions were the norm and that replacing an actual religion with a civic religion is a relatively new innovation, but insofar as we have examples, most of them have been bloody. Which takes us to the next possibility.

Having talked a lot about possibilities which are unlikely, let’s turn to a possibility that seems more and more likely. Widespread and perhaps even bloody conflict between the two civic religions, old and new. Obviously on some level this is bad, but an argument could be made, that on net, the outcome in its totality might be good. I was having a discussion with a friend recently on this very topic where he made just such an argument. In the course of the discussion, I had brought up previous upheavals which occurred as countries switched civic religions. In particular the decades of revolution that France went through as it, arguably, switched from the civil religion of the monarchy (or the empire) to the civil religion of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Revolutions in which hundreds of thousands of people died (millions if you include the Napoleonic Wars). My friend argued that as bad as all this was that in the long run the French were better off going through all of it than remaining under the monarchy as it stood in 1788. Perhaps this is true, though I’m not the best person to ask. I have a tendency to give fewer points for historical wrongs than other individuals. Also this imagines that there were only those two options, but in reality there were lots of options, and among all the various options I suspect that there were several which would have given them the same amount of liberté, égalité, fraternité with less violence. 

Which is to say, even if conflict is inevitable, it would be nice if we could minimize the actual bloodshed and violence. Given that conflict seems to have already begun this is the course I’m continually advocating for, pointing out that this may require us to end up with two civic religions, which are separated in some fashion. To me this seems markedly better than re-enacting any of the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But in order to do this, I think it’s necessary, first of all, to slow down the pace of change, something the adherents of social justice seem disinclined to consider.

Of course, as I alluded to just now, all conflicts eventually end, and usually (though not always) one side is victorious. What happens if the religion of social justice is eventually victorious? It is certainly possible that conflict, even very violent conflict, could end up being a roundabout way to arrive at the first possibility, the social justice utopia. That in the end, just like the French (if my friend is to be believed) we’ll be better off, despite whatever blood that gets spilt. But we should also consider the possibility that if social justice is triumphant we will end up with something closer to a dystopia instead. Recall that both facism and communism were essentially civic religions. And that communism, at least (but perhaps facism also) promised justice. It wasn’t social justice, it was economic justice, but how sure are we that if the civic religion of social justice ends up triumphing (with or without conflict) that it won’t fail in a similar fashion? In other words, one possibility is that the new religion does wipe out the old one, but that this ends up being a very bad thing.

V.

In the end, the question of whether we’re witnessing the rise of a new civic religion is an important one. Because if we are then the best historical evidence would indicate that such transitions are rarely accomplished without extreme upheaval. Looking back, I probably should have spent more time discussing historical examples of religious transitions, rather than spending so much time on a couple of marginal examples of the current evidence. (Though I find both examples fascinating.) And perhaps I will dive more into the historical record in some future post. Though I can already tell that it will offer very little comfort.

As one final possibility, there is, as always, a very good chance that I’m wrong, that we aren’t currently in the beginnings of a conflict between the old civic religion of patriotism and a new one of social justice. But if I am wrong about things, my guess is that it’s because I’ve vastly undercounted the number of new civic religions, that rather than one new civic religion we might actually end up with dozens, all in competition. Certainly we’ve seen evidence of that happening in the past when the previous civic religion began to run out of steam. Toss in the internet and social media this time around and we might end up with a lot more of it. And while I personally think that one in particular deserves most of the attention, it’s hard to say what will happen.

I guess the one thing I didn’t spend a lot of time was the weakness of the old civic religion, so let me share one brief, final anecdote. On Sunday I happened to be rewatching The Avengers. (Yes, I know I could be watching the Sopranos instead, but I can rewatch The Avengers while doing something else.) And there’s a scene where Agent Coulson mentions to Steve Rogers that they have a new uniform for him, and Rogers responds by asking, “Isn’t the Stars and Stripes a little old fashioned?” I remember being struck by this question, since it gets to the root of the problem. When even Captain America is questioning the power of the flag you know that the current civic religion is getting near the end of its lifespan. And it’s imminent death leaves us with some very important questions to consider, perhaps the most important facing our country right now:

  • How will it die?
  • Is that death going to be violent?
  • And, what comes after? Will it be a utopia or a dystopia?

As you can probably guess, going to gaming conventions to make sweeping predictions about colored ribbons is not cheap. If you’d care to assist me in that endeavor consider donating.


How Do We Adapt to Things?

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When I started my last post I had intended to examine the various ways in which humans adapt to their environment. Four thousand words later, and I’d spent all of them on a defense of cultural evolution/tradition, which is of course just one of the ways we adapt to things, and probably (based on the comments) more interesting when considered in connection with other methods of adaptation than when considered in isolation. Though I still think my last post was important because there’s not nearly enough attention paid to cultural evolution as compared to other methods of adaptation, so establishing some kind of grounding there before proceeding will probably turn out to have been useful. But in any event, I didn’t even get to a discussion of other ways in which humans can adapt to their conditions, so I’m going to take another shot at it and see if I can do better this time. That resolution in place I’m going to immediately go in the opposite direction and spend just a minute or two clarifying some things left over from the last post.

I ended up posting a link to the last post in one of the SSC open comment threads. In addition to the link I laid out my four alternative criteria for judging a tradition. In response to this someone pointed out that in addition to being applied to same sex marriage that these criteria could also be applied to slavery: 

  1. The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
  4. The domain of the tradition. Does it relate to survival or reproduction? –> “The Confederacy decided slavery was so vital to their survival, they went to war for it. See again the Spartacus rebellion.”

To begin with, I found his response to the fourth point not very on point, and probably even a little flippant, but that still leaves the other three. Obviously it’s hard to talk about slavery in any fashion other than righteous flaming denunciation without it getting messy, but I guess I’m going to try it anyway. First, we need to remember that cultural evolution doesn’t care about morality, it cares about survival. Essentially what he’s arguing is that nothing immoral could possibly also be important for survival, which doesn’t follow at all. Second, this is precisely why the fourth point is important, I don’t think slavery does have any relationship to survival or reproduction. Finally, if we are going to add morality to the criteria, as this person seems to be doing, slavery has always provoked intense moral debates, while such debates over SSM are very recent.

In fact everything about SSM is very recent, which leads to the other observation I wanted to make before we move on. After finishing the last post, and discussing it a bit with some people, I realized I left out one of my main motivations. Given that it makes me look better (I think) it seemed wise to include it. I imagine that a lot of people would take that last post as evidence that SSM keeps me up at night, particularly if they also know that I’m religious. They might even assume, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I’m an extreme homophobe. But honestly, my interest is largely intellectual. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight on any one piece of data, but I keep coming back to the content disparity present in the Timeline of Same Sex Marriage article on Wikipedia. How is it that evidence before 1970 could be so slim? Not only does it represent a mere 4% of the article, but it’s clear that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get even that. If you haven’t bothered to check out the article here are some examples of evidence for SSM  before 1970.

  • They mention a single marriage in Spain from 1061.
  • There’s a paragraph on it being referred to in a derisory fashion to describe political opponents during the Roman Empire.
  • It appears to have been legal in ancient Assyria.
  • The emperor’s Nero and Elagabalus married men.
  • It was part of the culture of an oasis in Egypt of about 30,000 people (that is its modern population, I assume anciently it was even less).

Reviewing this list you might assume that I cherry picked the least impressive examples, but actually the list I just gave is more or less comprehensive. These are essentially all of the  examples they could come up with. How is it that something which was so incredibly rare in the past has become such a huge deal in only the last few decades? One of my commenters suggested that perhaps it had just not occurred to anyone before 1970. I suppose that’s possible but if anything that just makes things more interesting. We have lots of examples of historical taboos, I can’t think of another example of something never even being considered before the present, certainly not outside of new technology, which SSM is not.

If my interest in SSM is mostly intellectual, you might wonder if I can provide any more visceral examples, reports of traditions under threat where my reaction involves more anger. I can. In particular I remember being very annoyed by the story making the rounds last month about training being given by the New York City Department of Education where things like “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word,” were labeled as “White Supremacy Culture”. This is only one data point, but it was a piece of data that fed into a feeling I’ve had for awhile. While I mostly talk about the erosion of moral traditions because that erosion is so obvious, it feels like there’s something deeper going on. I’ve had the sense for awhile that the attack on traditions might not stop there. And when I hear someone label objectivity as “White Supremacy” it seems to confirm those deeper fears. 

With the last post put to bed let’s finally turn to a discussion of the various ways humans can adapt to their environment.

The first and most obvious method of adaptation is evolution through natural selection, which is a large topic unto itself, so for our purposes I just want to point out a few key features. To begin with, it operates through genetic mutations, which occur randomly. Most of the time these mutations are benign, some of the time they’re maladaptive and a tiny minority of the time they’re actually beneficial. (Commentators may notice that I borrowed some of their wording.) Despite the fact that these mutations are beneficial only a tiny minority of the time, the vast majority of what we see when we look are beneficial mutations, because that’s what’s being selected for, and is in fact the definition of beneficial since in this context that just means it makes the organism more likely to reproduce in such a fashion that the gene is transmitted to the next generation. To boil everything down, at this level adaptation:

  1. Is initiated randomly.
  2. Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
  3. Takes a very, very long time.

The next method of adaptation, is the one I discussed at such length in the last post, that is cultural evolution. I obviously spent quite a bit of time on it in the last post, so you would expect there wouldn’t be much left to say on the subject. But I think it’s important to draw some sharp lines about what it is and what it isn’t. To begin with, while evolution through natural selection operates on the level of genes. Cultural evolution operates at the level of practices that can be transmitted by language. Which I shorthanded as traditions, and it makes having a common language pretty important (though being able to translate might get you most of the way.) The first thing that’s interesting about this, is that it makes culture harder to transmit in some respects, but easier in others.

Genes represent a common language for everything, meaning we get them from all over the place, not merely from Neanderthals, but from viruses as well. The same can not be said for traditions. We didn’t get any traditions from viruses, and it seems pretty unlikely we got any from the Neaderthals either. This is where traditions and culture are harder to transmit, but if you speak the same language, they suddenly become much easier to transmit than genes. Which makes it faster as well. So then how is it tested? This is the part of cultural evolution where all the debate is happening, and where I spent a lot of time in the previous post. But certainly survival has to be in there, and not merely survival of individuals, but survival of the whole culture. In fact I would argue that humans being what they are, that if your culture, taken in its totality, can’t survive conflict with other cultures (i.e. war). Then sooner or later your culture isn’t going to be around and there will be no traditions left to transmit.

Beyond survival, if traditions are the unit of evolution they have to be easily transmissible as well. They also have to be sticky, otherwise they wouldn’t be around long enough to have any effect. That makes traditions sound like memes, but I think there is one big difference. I think for a tradition to be considered part of cultural evolution it has to be attached to its host’s reproduction and survival. I think a meme just has to be able to ensure its own survival.  This takes us to the final and weirdest way for humans to adapt. But before we go there let’s summarize the attributes of cultural evolution:

  1. Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
  2. Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
  3. Is much quicker than genetic evolution, but still kind of slow.

At last we reach the final method of adaptation, memetic evolution, and yet again I’m indebted to Scott Alexander of SSC for so clearly identifying it and I would encourage you to read the original post he did on it. But I also think there’s more to the story than what he points out, in particular I think he undersells the role of survival as the key differentiator between cultural and memetic evolution. But before we jump ahead I should explain the differences between the two as Alexander sees them. For him it mostly revolves around the idea of “convincingness”. That memetic evolution is about doing what sounds good (with competition happening around what that is at any given moment) while cultural evolution is about doing what worked in the past. 

As you can see from the previous list, cultural evolution probably starts in very much the same way. Despite this there are at least two significant differences in how this process works for each. To begin with, in cultural evolution, the space of things eligible to be considered “good ideas” is much smaller, both because of greater resistance to change and because, due to technology, the list of things which could possibly be changed is also vastly smaller. The other difference is that at some point or another the “good idea” is going to be tested to see whether it actually improves the culture’s fitness or makes it worse. Neither of these things is true when it comes to memetic evolution. In the first case it’s a difference of degree, resistance to change still exists, but it’s decreased while the list of potential good ideas just keeps growing. But in the second case it’s a difference of kind, and I would contend that with memetic evolution we have reached a point where “good ideas” are completely disconnected from fitness. The test never happens. Accordingly the attributes of memetic evolution are:

  1. Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
  2. Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
  3. Much quicker than cultural evolution, and it can be made quicker still by technology.

While we have mostly covered the first point, the remaining two require further discussion. While I think point two is self evident, it immediately leads to a very important follow-up question, how can we get away with no longer worrying about survival? There are three possibilities:

  1. We have progressed to the point where survival is no longer in doubt, therefore we can safely ignore it. The old rules really don’t apply. Perhaps because everything promised by the advocates of posthumanism is coming to pass.
  2. Survival and reproduction and evolutionary fitness still lurk in the background, but we have managed to make significant progress in lessening their importance, allowing us to profitably focus on other things, perhaps in something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. We can’t get away with it. Survival and reproduction are just as important as ever, but they’ve been completely overshadowed by the variety and speed of memetic evolution. That eventually cultural evolution will still be important.

You can probably guess which possibility I favor, but I’m not the only one to notice that we have developed lots of behaviors that have little to do with ongoing survival. Robin Hanson calls it Dreamtime, and describes it thusly, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” But I’m jumping ahead, each of these possibilities has some interesting and possibly disturbing implications. 

The first possibility represents the most extreme shift. Because, as I said, the old rules don’t apply. Under the old rules it was all about us, the humans, and whether we continued to exist or not. With possibility number one it’s all about ideas, and humans are just a place for ideas to reside, and not even a particularly good place now that we have computers, which takes us to my posthuman reference. If ideas are all that matter what’s to say we even have a role in the world of the future. Certainly there are lots of posthumanists who worry that we don’t.

Under the second possibility, one imagines that, civilizationally, we’re perched near the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the areas of love, esteem and self-actualization, and that this is a good thing. But in this model the bottom level with the physical needs of food and water is still down there. Is there ever a point where we forget how to supply those needs? Certainly on an individual level, almost no one in the US knows how to grow or kill enough food to feed themselves for an extended period. We still possess this knowledge at a civilizational level, fortunately, but it’s unclear how robust this knowledge is. I say this, primarily, because it hasn’t been put to the test recently, There are lots of ways for something like this to be tested, but if nothing else in the past there were frequent wars which acted to test the mettle of a civilization. We haven’t had one of those recently, and to be clear, that’s a good thing, but it also seems like the kind of thing where the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it finally happens. And I’m by no means convinced that there will never be another great power war.

Turning to the third possibility, the first thing we need to do is decide what it means for survival to be “just as important as ever”. From one perspective, of course it’s as important as ever, as I frequently point out, if you can’t survive (and reproduce) you can’t do anything else either. So on reflection, it’s more accurate to say that the third possibility asserts that survival is just as difficult as ever. Stating it this way I assume a lot of people are going to immediately dismiss it as obviously incorrect, since that’s not what the numbers show at all. Rather they show a huge increase in life expectancy and vast decreases to most of the causes of death people had to worry about historically, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. This is a pretty good argument, but let me offer at least one counterargument (there are many).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that technology and progress have not created any decrease in fragility, that rather, if anything, they have increased it, which would mean that, currently, survival is not merely as difficult, it’s more difficult. But what about the numbers? Here Taleb argues that though technology doesn’t decrease fragility it does allow you to dampen volatility, particularly in the short term. I say in the short term because what we’re really doing is postponing volatility and making things that much worse when whatever tools you’ve been using eventually reach the limits of their effectiveness

You can see how this all might play out using the example of nuclear war. It is widely agreed that a large part of the reason for the Long Peace is the horror of nuclear weapons. This is the low volatility. However if war ever does come the eventual volatility will be far greater than any previous war. Additionally, while no previous war ever threatened the survival of humanity, a nuclear war very well might, leading to exactly the situation I described. Survival isn’t just as difficult, it’s actually much more difficult.

The last issue we have to deal with is the speed of memetic evolution. Recall the title question, “How do we adapt to things?’ Or to take it from another angle, what are we adapting to? In the past all adaptation was in service of survival and reproduction, and the fact that cultural evolution was faster than genetic evolution allowed humans to adapt more quickly to a variety of conditions. Certainly I’m not aware of any other animals which have adapted to live nearly anywhere. But if we’re not adapting to survive in changing conditions because our survival is no longer in question than what are we adapting to? And how does doing it faster help? If anything it appears that things are reversed. That the changes brought about by memetic evolution aren’t helping us to adapt they’re what we have to adapt to. In which case, the fact that it just keeps going faster isn’t a feature, it’s a bug…

If we have passed into the era of memetic evolution. And if it has the qualities I describe. Both of which seem very likely. Then there doesn’t seem to be much of a silver lining. It would appear that the best case scenario would be to hope that we have progressed into a new and better world where ideas are the only thing that matters, and then to further hope that we can manage to find a place in that world. The other possibilities all seem to boil down to a rapidly changing world where survival is still important but the conditions we’re trying to adapt our survival to are changing with ever greater rapidity.


These ending blurbs are actually examples of memetic evolution. No, really. I never said they were good examples, in fact they’re more akin to the random mutations of genetic evolution. But maybe this is the random mutation that will work, and you’ll be convinced to donate.


And There Was Silence in Heaven…

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And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

Revelation 8:1

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

I sometimes worry that I have made it impossible for anyone to read my blog unless they think exactly the same as I do (or are REALLY open-minded). For anyone who’s not religious, there’s too much religion. For anyone who is religious there’s too much science fiction. For anyone who’s a religious science fiction buff, there’s too much that’s specifically Mormon. For Mormon science fiction buffs there’s too much pessimism. If, after all that, you happen to be a pessimistic Mormon science fiction buff, then you may have felt right at home so far. Well we can’t have that, so for this post I’m going to throw in some crazy speculation, and engage in the sort of thing normally restricted to numerologists, apocalyptic prophets, and seminary teachers. Okay, I’m not going to get into as much speculation as the average seminary teacher, but I wanted to err on the side of over-selling things.

I started the post off with a couple of scriptural references. I’ll be contrarian by discussing the second verse first. That verse is from D&C 87, the section of the D&C where in 1832 Joseph Smith predicts that there will be a Civil War and it will start in South Carolina. Which is at least somewhat impressive considering that this was almost 30 years before the actual Civil War, which actually did start in South Carolina. But more important for our purposes he goes from predicting the Civil War in basically a straight line to verse 6, quoted above, which ends by predicting a “full end of all nations.” So what happened? It’s been over 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we certainly haven’t seen the “full end of all nations.” And, frankly, the famines, plagues and vivid lightning have been underwhelming as well.

You might reply that Joseph was wrong, and that he wasn’t a prophet (though I would argue that just being wrong on this point doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a prophet.) This is certainly one possibility. But this is a Mormon blog, so we’re obviously not going to spend much time on the idea that Joseph was wrong. We’re going to proceed from the assumption that he was right. But of course even if he wasn’t, he is not alone in predicting some sort of apocalypse. Not only do we have the rest of Christianity to add to that, but there’s also a pancultural millennial impulse appearing even in places not know to be bastions of Christianity like India and China. And this was all part of the zeitgeist before we even had nuclear weapons. Surely if it seemed like the apocalypse was inevitable before that, the addition of nukes could only change things from “maybe” to “definitely.”

And yet, since those two terrible days in 1945, when nuclear weapons were actually used in anger things have been fairly calm. Nukes have not been used again (outside of tests). There have been no wars between the great powers. The whole period is unusual enough that people have called it the Long Peace, and other people have written books about the eventual extinction of war in books like The Better Angels of our Nature and The Remnants of War. So if Joseph Smith predicted that the American Civil War would be the beginning of the end, why have we had 70 years of relative peace?

And here we finally turn to the first scripture and the theme of this post, the silence in heaven and here, we begin our speculation. Obviously speculation can’t get anywhere without making some assumptions. Our first assumption will be that the silence spoken of refers to a period of relative calm. No big disasters, no big wars, no worldwide famines or plagues, etc. The second assumption is that the opening of the seventh seal refers to the time immediately preceding the Second Coming (an assumption backed up by McConkie’s chapter heading). The final assumption (at least to start) is that the half hour is based on a day lasting a 1000 years. With all these initial assumptions in place we can begin by speculating that the Long Peace is just the half hour of silence mentioned in Revelation before the action really starts. In other words the Long Peace is part of the plan, and Joseph wasn’t wrong, we just needed to combine his apocalyptic prophecies with the apocalyptic prophecies of John and it all makes sense. Except…

Except that 1000 / 24 = ~42. So one hour in a thousand year day only equals around 42 years, which means that half an hour is only around 21 years, which is way too short to account for the 70 years of peace we’ve had. Of course it does say “about” the space of a half an hour, but you would assume that anything above around 31 years and it would have been more accurate to say “about” the space of an hour. So at this point we’ve realized that it’s a dead end and we end this post and I see you next week, right? No! What kind of rampant speculator would I be if I just called it a day there? The next step is obviously to take our period of 70 years and see if we can find some 21-31 year slice which might fit the bill. In other words we have to take parts of that 70 years and make them, metaphorically, noisy.

As grim as it might be, in this case deaths are a useful proxy for “noise”, thus, not to get too clinical about it, if a lot of people died at the beginning or end of those 70 years we’d start our half hour clock after that or end it before that.

Looking towards the beginning of the period, while it’s commonly believed that World War II wrapped everything up in a tight little bow, Stalin and Mao were still out there. And even if you ignore the Cold War they were killing millions of their own citizens in the years following the war. Presumably Stalin stopped killing people when he died in 1953 (though you never know, killing people beyond the grave is exactly the kind of thing Stalin would do.) But Mao was around much longer, and is thought to have (indirectly) caused the deaths of nearly 45 million during the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t end until 1961. Most of those people died from famine, which is one of the things mentioned in section 87. In the end, regardless of the cause, the premature deaths of 45 million people or more than half of everyone who died during World War II gives us ample justification for moving the start of the half hour of silence to at least 1962.

If the silence begins in 1962, it would have to have ended sometime between 1983 and 1993.  That obviously still doesn’t get us where we want to be, since if anything rather than marking the renewed start of violence and famine and plagues and earthquakes* that period contained the end of the Cold War. But if we’re trying to extend the “noisy” period, what about the Cold War? Would it count? I said already that I was going to use death as a proxy for noise and in this particular case the Cold War was not particularly “noisy”. Of course there was the Korean War and Vietnam. Both of which saw the deaths of a few million people. And while I don’t want to minimize either war, they don’t quite seem to rise to the level of what we’re looking for. But if we abandon the standard of deaths (I know I’m abandoning a standard I proposed, but trust me you do this all the time during rampant speculation.) Could we make a case for the Cold War?

*Speaking of earthquakes there was an earthquake in China in 1976, which you have probably never heard of, which is estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people. Still nothing to compare to the Great Leap Forward. But, in terms of percent of population this would be equivalent to 94,000 people dying in the US, or 50x as bad as Katrina.

The best case to be made would be built around the potential for death and destruction. And while it never came to that (though it came close several times) the potential was there on a scale never before imagined. If we decide to assume that the Cold War fits our criteria for “noise” and that the half hour of silence would have to start after it ended, then that pushes the start all the way from 1945 to 1989. (I’m going with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of the end). When you combine the unraveling Soviet Union with the Tiananmen Square protests, which also happened in 1989, it really seemed like a long nightmare had just ended. It was earth-shattering enough to lead people like Francis Fukuyama (who we pick on a lot) to declare the end of history. (The essay on which the book as based was also written in 1989.) Frankly, I’m getting a pretty good feeling about 1989. (To cap it all off that’s the year I graduated from high school.)

All of this is of course rampant speculation and of limited (if not nonexistent) utility. So why engage in it? While there is a certain esoteric draw in trying to understand the scriptures in this fashion, I do it more to bring out a larger point. (Though I shouldn’t minimize the pleasure I take in engaging in a little apocalyptic nerdery.) And the larger point is that we shouldn’t mistake the current “silence” for the first day of summer, when it’s actually just a temporary calm as we pass through the eye of the storm. And I believe that it’s safe to say that we’re more likely in the eye of the storm regardless what you believe about Joseph Smith, or the Bible.

There are four reasons why the eye of the storm model is better:

1- It corresponds more closely to reality. People want to talk about the Long Peace, but as I pointed out 45 million people died in a four year period under Mao. This event was unique only in scale. Something similar happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when 25% of the population died. While this only represents 2 million people, it was still 25%!!! I know this trick is getting old, but if translated to the US that would represent the deaths of 80 million people. Would anyone be making the Long Peace argument if that many people had died in the US regardless of the whether a foreign power had anything to do with it? In other words the Long Peace argument would appear to dismiss entirely or seriously undervalue internal political strife.

2- It is mathematically more robust. I already mentioned this in a previous post, but Taleb has show that the work of Pinker and others on this subject is not statistically valid. You can read his paper for a more detailed analysis, but in short, when you’re talking about the average level of violence in a period, that average is completely dominated by large, rare events. The example Taleb gives is of saying someone is extremely virtuous except for that time he gunned down 30 students. Our own period could be extremely peaceful except for that one nuclear war in 2027.

3- If we assume that the storm is about to start again, and we prepare accordingly, this has very little downside. As I’ve said before. If you’re wrong and it is the start of summer, than having been more cautious carries minimal expense. But if you’re right and it was just the eye of the storm then being more cautious may save your life.

4- Finally, if you are an active member of the Church with a testimony of Joseph Smith it accords better, not only with what he said but with what more recent prophets have been saying

Of course just knowing that you’re in the eye of the storm doesn’t allow you to stop the hurricane. You can only survive it.

There are, of course, people who don’t agree with these points. Certainly 1 could be a matter of opinion. I will leave Taleb to defend point 2, a task he is more than capable of. And of course point 4 is all about faith, which leaves us with point 3.

I see two avenues for attacking point 3. The first is that it pulls resources away from things that are more probable and more important and more beneficial. The second would be that it actually leads to dangerous millennialism where people either stop doing things in expectation of the end of the world, or they try to hasten the end of the world in some fashion reasoning that the perfect world only comes after the tribulations. The two objections are related, with the one being, essentially, just an extreme version of the other. I separate the two because the second case can snowball into something that can only be described as a mass hysteria. Of course examples like Harold Camping’s predictions in 2011 are easy to identify and ridicule, as are early examples like the Millerites. But more disturbing are the secular millennialists, since this is arguably what was going on during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cambodian genocide mentioned earlier. (See how I tie it all together.)

I think in discussing this it’s useful to examine the LDS Church’s stance on the matter. While not incredibly common it’s easy to find General Conference talks about the Second Coming. And you can even find talks about preparing the world for the Second Coming. Yet if you read these talks there is very little beyond exhortations to do more missionary work, and have more faith. Mormons have to no mass project to save the world (or to kill all people with glasses, like the Cambodian genocide) nor have the brethren given any hint of a date. In fact what the brethren constant urge is that we stay out of debt, have a 72 hour kit, and as much food storage as is practical. In other words, even in a religion with the concept of the Second Coming right in it’s name. It’s certainly possible to avoid the more extreme strands of millennialism.

But of course that still leaves us with the idea that by focusing too much on potential bad stuff that we can slow down or prevent the good stuff. Many people will confidently argue that if we spend all of our time fearing worst case scenarios that the best case scenarios will never come about. Well first, there is definitely a difference between taking precautions and being afraid. As the Mormons like to say, if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. And I don’t think that as a society that we spend too much time and money on preparedness for potential disasters. And I think all of the people involved in Hurricane Katrina would probably agree with me. I think if there’s any misallocation of resources it would be that we spend too much on short term band-aids and not enough on preventing long term calamities. That concept deserves it’s own post, but allow me to illustrate how it ties into our current subject.

My argument is that while it looks like the dawning of a new age of peace, prosperity and progress that this is actually just the eye of the hurricane. We want to believe, that with the exception of a few pesky terrorists that we’re still at the end of history, and it’s only a matter of time before peace and democracy and freedom will triumph everywhere. This is why people have no problem expanding NATO and pissing off the Russians (did you notice that a rollback of NATO was part of the demands Russia made when they suspended the arms control deal?) or deciding to risk war with Russia over Syria. Which might be forgivable if it was clear what we expected to accomplish. As far as I can tell we want to save lives and depose Assad and eliminate ISIS and promote a moderate, secular replacement and eventually rebuild the country into a modern democracy. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but it is certain that in trying to contain and manage this regional conflict we have increased tensions with Russia.

Tensions with Russia are bad because they have nukes, which I worry about, a lot. Obviously they’re pretty scary all on their own, but I worry that we have no experience conducting diplomacy in the presence of nukes. Allow me to explain what I mean. The history of the world since the invention of nuclear weapons can be divided up into three periods:

Period one: The US has nukes and no one else does. This lasted basically four years from the end of 1945 till the end of 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke. I don’t know what diplomacy was like then. The war has the effect of overshadowing everything after it. But if we engaged in any diplomacy it should have been designed to prevent proliferation at all costs. Based on everything I know about Stalin it wouldn’t have worked. Churchill’s solution was to keep the war going and immediately pivot to the Soviet Union. I can certainly see where it might be argued that war-weariness kept us from achieving a truly decisive victory. And I see parallels between the two World Wars and between the two Gulf Wars. But I’m inclined to think that Churchill was wrong. Still if World War III had happened, say in the 60’s, if for instance the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone another way, then Churchill would have seemed prescient, but the farther we get from 1945 the less of a good idea it seems. (And as I said I think on balance it’s already a bad idea.)

Period Two: The bipolar cold war of mutual assured destruction. Here our diplomacy was all designed around getting countries into our sphere and keeping the Soviets from getting people into their sphere. And avoiding war through the promise that whatever the Soviets did to us, we’d do back to them. I’m not honestly sure how good we were at this sort of diplomacy or even if we were pursuing the right goals. (The older I get the more impressed I am by Nixon’s trip to China though, I can tell you that.) But regardless we survived, which was by no means a sure thing.

Period Three: A multipolar world where many countries have nukes. With the end of the Cold War it’s no longer just us vs. Russia, there are a lot of players. It’s entirely possible the biggest risk of nuclear war is between India and Pakistan, and however hard diplomacy was in bipolar world, it’s even more difficult in a multipolar world. And yet rather than being aware of that fact we seem to have reverted to some version of pre-1945 diplomacy, only with the addition of Churchill’s idea of imposing our will on the Russians, after they have nukes. While Churchill’s idea was misguided, doing it after the invention of the ICBM is suicidal.

What do we do about all this? You may have noticed that when I finally ended my speculation by concluding that the half hour of silence ended in 1989, that I never took the obvious next step and calculated when that would put the end of the half hour. You may have already done the calculation, but if not, it would put the end sometime between 2010 and 2020. Let’s all hope that I’m wrong.