Category: Singularity

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.


Christianity, the Singularity and Getting a Driver’s License

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As I mentioned in my initial post, I had a difficult time imagining anything after the year 2000. Any examination of those difficulties would have to include my religious upbringing. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has the end of days built right into their name, apocalyptic thinking is built right into our DNA. On top of that toss in the Cold War and nuclear weapons, sprinkle in the coming turn of the millennium, place the cherry of my own innate pessimism on top of it all and you end up with a teenager who was pretty sure that the end was nigh.

I am sure I’m not the only teenager to have visions of Armageddon. And I’m equally sure that had I been born in some different era I probably would still have had feelings of impending doom. This is not to say that the 80’s didn’t have their share of existential angst, but if you were going off nearness to nuclear war we were closer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if you were going by the actual intensity of the conflict World War II was orders of magnitude worse. Still in the 80’s, looking at things through the lens of religion, it appeared that the combatants were set, the doomsday weapons were primed and ready, and the clock was ticking down. Everything seemed to be pointing in the direction of Armageddon.

But then, of course, the Soviet Union fell, and for a while it appeared that we were not so very close after all. In fact, Francis Fukuyama famously speculated that we were at the end of history. Liberal democracy had triumphed; global antagonism was practically non-existent; and to top it all off we had the internet, and a promise of a connected world where everyone could join together in harmonious and enlightened forums. You may think that the last bit is hyperbolic, but I assure you it’s not (and that was written in 2010, it was even worse in 1999).

Having passed from doom to optimism, you might wonder where things stand for me now. To begin with I no longer entertain any illusions that I can predict the year or the actors or the manner of the apocalypse. I am definitely operating from a thief in the night viewpoint. But while I’m far less confident about the specifics of the catastrophes, I’m more confident than ever that they’re coming.

From a secular perspective they’re coming because chaos is the default state of the universe. And they’re coming because in our efforts to decrease volatility we have increased fragility, meaning that when black swans arrive they have a far greater impact. But all of this is a subject for another time. This post is about examining things from a religious perspective. Obviously I’m coming at things from an LDS viewpoint, but I think any form of Christianity will take you to the same place.

Even the mildest religion or the vaguest spirituality assumes that there is some kind of plan. A plan that has a happy ending, and from this it naturally follows that there is a power greater than ourselves. Presumably it could be part of this plan that having reached this point in human progress and evolution that no further bad things will happen. And there are probably some logically consistent frameworks out there that would lead to just that result. But as I said I want to go a step farther and talk broadly about what the plan might be from a Christian perspective.

Going back to my last post I posited that there were two possible paths: the apocalypse or the singularity. Taking Christianity as our framework can we deduce which of these two paths Christianity would point to?

Well to begin with Christianity Theology has a pretty strong end of the world component. Thus, right off the bat you’d have to say that it points to the apocalypse. But I want to ignore that element of things. If I say the Bible predicts an apocalyptic end of the world, then I might as well not even bother to blog. I’m sure there are thousands of blogs and millions of people who already agree with me there. But the theme of this blog is to go deeper and bring in arguments beyond just “and that’s what the bible says.”

In fact let’s set aside the idea of an apocalypse and Armageddon entirely for the moment. What does Christianity have against the singularity? In order to answer that question let’s start by reminding ourselves of some of the principal tenets all (or at least most) Christians have in common:

Tenet 1: We cannot be saved without the atonement. (John 14:6)

Tenet 2: God has some reward waiting for us. (Matthew 5:12)

Tenet 3: We have to die in order to receive the reward. (Hebrew 9:27, Alma 42:1-6)

It would appear on its face that several possible singularities like radical life extension or uploading our brains into a computer would violate all three of these tenets, but in particular #3. But even other singularities run into doctrinal issues. The chief appeal of AI is that we could create something smart enough to solve all our problems. In essence creating a sort of mini-god. How on earth would this not be a violation of several tenets of Christianity, not the least of which would be Commandment #1. I began by asking what does Christianity have against the singularity. Well I don’t know that it has something against every possible singularity, in fact the Second Coming of Christ is a huge singularity, but it definitely has issues, with many possible singularities.

In addition, the whole history of Christianity is one of struggle, and bearing our cross (Matthew 16:24). If we did create something that prevented disasters, and prevented opposition would we not have perverted the plan? Here I am starting to get more into Mormon theology and perhaps it’s best to make that jump. While all christianity has elements which would speak against a singularity Mormon theology is particularly damning on the subject. In particular there is the idea of deification, as embodied in the well know saying: As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be(come).

There are certain singularities that promise to grant deification. Or at least effective deification. In particular I’m thinking of being able to upload our minds into a computer. In effect something like this would allow us to achieve godhood under our own power. But if we become gods without the atonement (see tenet 1) what was the point of Jesus’ suffering? If we achieve the rewards without God (tenet 2) are his promises meaningless? And finally if we conquer death (tenet 3) why did Christ die on the cross, and what need do we have of the resurrection?

And here, perhaps, a metaphor is in order. Let us compare deification to getting a driver’s license. In particular I want to look at the destructive power it provides to the new driver, which is orders of magnitude greater than anything they’ve had before. Deification carries a similar (albeit vastly greater) increase in power. And in making this comparison I don’t want to minimize something that is both sacred and incomprehensible. But if this life is a test (Revelation 3:21) then we can compare mortality to driver’s ed. And you don’t pass driver’s ed by figuring out how to build a car. We are not saved by technology. We are granted salvation by following the commandments, and seeking after righteousness. Just as we get a driver’s license by following the rules, learning what is necessary and proving that we can be trusted with a car. The singularity will not save us. We can only be saved by the atonement of Jesus Christ, if we can be saved at all.

Through progress we have gained immense power, with the promise of even greater power. But gaining the power has no relationship to whether we have the wisdom to use that power. Just as building a car has no relationship to how skilled of a driver we are. The wisdom necessary for salvation does not come from progress. I comes from God. And we forget that at our peril.

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