Category: We Are Not Saved

Humanity on the Cusp of Eternity

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Nietzsche claimed that, “God is dead” (or for the purists “Gott is tot”). When I first heard this (I’m guessing in high school?) I assumed that it was just a particularly direct version of what atheists have been saying for decades. Notable only in that it was an early example of this sentiment, but not otherwise especially unique or interesting.

Since then I have come to understand that Nietzsche was making a deeper point. Though in claiming this I am wandering into the deep weeds of philosophy and it’s entirely possible that I am about to vastly over simplify Nietzsche’s point, or mis-represent it entirely, similar to Otto in a Fish Called Wanda, though this possibility has never stopped me before, so with that caveat out of the way…

As I understand it Nietzsche was saying that progress and technology and the enlightenment had ruled out the possibility of God, and in doing so had removed one of the central pillars of Western-Christian Civilization. And without that pillar, which includes God as a source of absolute morality, that we were inevitably doomed to nihilism. I think you get a sense of this just from considering a more extended selection of what Nietzsche said, which is frankly pretty powerful.

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?

These are all important, if heavily metaphorical questions, and, of course, to that last question the transhumanist would reply, “Maybe so, maybe we do have to become gods, fortunately that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

Two of the topics I come back to over and over again, Artificial Intelligence and Fermi’s Paradox, relate to this question of the absence of God. And next week I’m going to be doing an hour long presentation on both of them at the annual Sunstone Symposium.

(If you happen to be attending the symposium, I’ll be doing my AI presentation at 11:30 am on Thursday the 26th in room 200-B, and I’ll be doing my Fermi’s Paradox presentation at 10:15 am on Friday the 27th in room 200-D. Please stop by and say, “Hi!”)

Given that I was already doing a bunch of work to prepare for these presentations, I had initially thought that this week’s post would be on AI and then next week’s post would be Fermi’s Paradox. But as I got into things, I realized that for those who have actually read the blog there’s not much point in posting the stuff I’m preparing to present at Sunstone, which is understandably going to be more introductory, and probably a repeat of a lot of things I’ve already said, and which you’ve already read. I’m still hoping they film both presentations, and put them online, so that I can post links to them. I guess we’ll see. It’s my first time so I’m not sure what will happen.

Instead I thought I’d look for a subject which combined the two topics in an interesting way, and I believe the quote from Nietzsche does exactly that, though at a pretty high level (which is to be expected when combining these two subjects.)

It may not be apparent what the quote from Nietzsche has to do with Fermi’s Paradox. Well, if Nietzsche is correct and we have metaphorically killed the traditional Christian God, (and given the similarities probably the Muslim God as well.) Then there’s still the possibility that there might be other god-like beings out there, specifically god-like extraterrestrials. I have not encountered any evidence that Nietzsche considered this possibility, but his statement obviously doesn’t preclude it, and for obvious reasons even if Nietzsche didn’t consider it, we should. One could imagine that if the two main things that Christianity supplied were morality and salvation, that sufficiently advanced aliens could provide both, or perhaps just one or the other.

The first thing that’s evident once we turn to consider this idea is the possibility that if god-like extraterrestrials are going to provide morality it may not be a morality we particularly like. Many people, when considering Fermi’s Paradox have come to the conclusion that the universe is a dark forest. A place of incredible danger. This theory takes its name from the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin where it was the title of one of the books. Here’s how it’s described there:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds another life—another hunter, angel, or a demon, a delicate infant to tottering old man, a fairy or demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.

Liu is not the only person to put forth this theory (he just gave it the catchiest name). Years before Liu wrote his books other people were arguing that we shouldn’t engage in Active SETI for very similar reasons (this included the late Professor Hawking). For myself I wrote a whole post explaining why I didn’t think the Dark Forest explanation of the paradox was very likely, but for those that do think it’s likely, it entirely undermines the idea of a universal morality, or at least posits that if there is a universal morality, it’s a morality of universal violence. Which takes us to a place not that much different than Nietzsche’s original thought. Instead of being alone, bereft of morality and adrift in an uncaring universe, we could be surrounded by genocidal aliens, gifted with a morality of unceasing violence, and adrift in a malevolent universe. I think most people would actually prefer the first option. But either way, the eventual nihilism Nietzsche predicts is just as likely, if not moreso.

Of course there are a broad range of possible moral codes which extraterrestrials might possess. But within all the speculation it’s very hard to find anyone arguing that there is some universal system of morality which all aliens must, by necessity embrace. And of course my argument is, that if such a system exists, Occam’s Razor would suggest that we already have it, even if we’ve been given the basic, “early reader” version of this morality. And, once we add Fermi’s Paradox to Nietzsche’s observation. If we take that further step and place ourselves outside a human frame of reference, universal morality, or a morality which easily replaces Christianity, becomes impossible to imagine. With this in mind, what makes atheists and similar individuals so certain that there is morality outside of the concept of God? Certainly Nietzsche didn’t think so:

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.

Nietzsche argues that even if you maintain the rest of Christianity (and certainly it could be argued that we mostly did, at least initially) that without “faith in God…nothing necessary remains”. And indeed, it certainly appears to me that once people abandoned the lynchpin of “faith in God” that it began a slow erosion of everything else which was once considered Christian morality. Further, as I pointed out, while there’s no evidence that Nietzsche considered the possibility of god-like extraterrestrials, even if we add them to our consideration, there’s no reason to think that they would halt this erosion. Aliens, at least as they are typically imagined, don’t solve the problem of God’s absence, or at least I think we can conclude that they don’t solve the problem of morality. That still leaves us the problem of salvation. Will god-like extraterrestrials come along and save humanity?

Here, before going any further we have to acknowledge that salvation looks different to different people. In its most minimal sense it’s just a synonym for survival. Being saved just entails not ceasing to exist. On the other side of the spectrum salvation is used interchangeably with exaltation. Not only do you survive, but you achieve a state of perfect happiness. On the survival end it makes sense to talk about humanity surviving, and that being a good thing, regardless of whether any individual human survives. But on the exaltation end of things, it’s much more common to look at things from the level of an individual, is any given person immortal and happy. Is that person saved?

In a world which largely acts as if God is dead, it’s interesting that as the rest of Christian morality has eroded away, the two remaining pillars of moral high ground, of terminal value, end up falling into these same two categories with survival on one end and happiness (or technically hedonism) on the other. I discussed the tension between these two values previously and argued, that if we were going to try to construct a morality in the absence of God that it’s better to build it around the value of survival, if for no other reason that happiness is impossible in the absence of survival. I’ve already hopefully shown where aliens are unlikely to be able to help us with morality, and it seems equally unlikely they would be able to do much for our happiness, leaving only helping us to survive. This idea has appeared in science fiction, though far less often than the opposite trope of aliens looking to exterminate humanity. That said, there are still plenty of interesting examples. For myself I quite enjoyed the book Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

However, if being rescued from extinction by aliens is a possibility, then, as I pointed out in another recent post, they need to have either saved us already (perhaps through means we can’t detect?) or they probably aren’t going to save us. And of course this applies to everything I’ve said thus far. If god-like extraterrestrials are going to step in and take the place of Nietzsche’s dead god, in any capacity, they need to have done so already.

Thus far we’ve been looking at what the ramifications would be if god-like aliens do exist, but more and more people feel that’s the wrong way to bet. That odds are we’re entirely alone. As examples of this, I just talked about the paper which claimed to “dissolve Fermi’s Paradox” and previously I discussed a book dedicated to the paradox which concluded, after offering up 75 potential explanations, that the most likely explanation is that we’re all alone in the visible universe. If this is the case, then it would appear that Nietzsche was entirely correct about the essential emptiness of existence despite completely ignoring potential god-like extraterrestrials who could step in and fill the gap. Accordingly, we are left with two possibilities. There are aliens, but they almost certainly won’t provide either morality or salvation, and definitely not both, or there are no aliens, god-like or otherwise. Meaning that after a long detour through Fermi’s Paradox, the reality of Nietzsche’s claim has not been significantly altered. We’re still in the same situation we were before, and possibly worse, since, in my opinion, if it did nothing else, the detour provided good reasons for doubting that any sort of universal morality exists in the absence of God.

I should interject here, again, that personally I think there is a God, and I think assuming his existence, along with the existence of religion and all that entails, is the best way to answer all of the issues we’ve covered so far, but I think this puts me in the minority of people with an interest in the paradox.

The main thrust of Nietzsche’s argument, from my limited understanding, is that people have not sufficiently grappled with the implications of there being no God. Now, according to polls, this doesn’t necessarily apply to most people, who still believe in God, and would therefore, presumably, be exempt from any need to “grapple”. Rather, Nietzsche appeared to mostly be talking to intellectuals. In his day and age they occupied the salons and drawing rooms of Europe, and discussed things like evolution and emancipation. In our day and age they occupy the internet and discuss things like Fermi’s Paradox and artificial intelligence. And just as Nietzsche accused the intellectuals of his day of not coming to terms with the ramifications implied in their discussions, I’m accusing the intellectuals of our day of the same thing. Particularly those people who believe that Fermi’s Paradox has been dissolved, who believe we are all alone in the universe. Which, let’s be clear, is a pretty big deal.

If you are one of those people who don’t believe in God, and who further believe that we’re all alone in the universe (or if that we’re not alone that it doesn’t help.) What do you do now? This is where Nietzsche may be at his most impressive. Lots of people pointed out that the decline of religion was going to cause unforeseen issues, though perhaps with less panache than Nietzsche, but when he goes on to say, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” He manages to precisely describe the transhumanism movement a century or more in advance of its appearance. (Interestingly, his big prediction, a descent into nihilism, has mostly not happened. But maybe it just hasn’t happened… yet.)

I mentioned up front that I was going to be discussing AI, which is the subject we turn to now. And which is less us becoming gods than us creating gods, but the basic principle remains the same. And the question I had with Fermi’s Paradox remains essentially the same was well. If there are no god-like extraterrestrials to step into the gap Nietzsche noticed, is it possible we could create a god-like AI to fill that gap?

Once again those who have abandoned a belief in God are looking to this “substitute god” to provide them with morality or salvation or hopefully both. Though in this case they do have one very important advantage, instead of being required to accept what the universe offers, as is the case with aliens (should they exist), in the case of artificial intelligence we get to design our deity. (I’m actually a little bit surprised no one has started an AI company with the name “Designer Deities”.)

This means, first off, that we’ll almost certainly combine the morality part with the salvation part. Or, to put it another way, we’ll do our best to make sure that whatever morality the AI ends up with, that one of the values is human salvation (definitely in the survival sense and if possible in the exaltation sense as well.) Which means that a century after Nietzsche pointed out the problem, we’ve come up with a straightforward solution: All we have to do is figure out how to teach computers to be good. (They would, of course, also need a certain amount of power beyond that, but most people assume that this is just a matter of time.) All of the problems Nietzsche describes can be reduced to the single problem of AI morality. Unfortunately even though it’s only one problem it’s an extraordinarily difficult problem.

As you may know from reading other posts of mine, or from following the subject in general, no one is exactly sure how you get a computer to be good. In fact no one is entirely sure what good means in this context, and there are lots of things which seem like a good way to implement morality, which could, in practice, turn out to be very bad. I’ve given numerous examples elsewhere, but let’s briefly consider Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which are often mentioned in this context. The first of these is:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

It’s not hard to see where taking all humans and locking them up in a padded room with a set number of optimally healthy calories delivered every day would conform with this rule, and fit the survival definition of salvation. This is one of the reasons why some people contend that it’s not enough for our AI deity to ensure our survival, they really need to exalt us.

(It’s interesting to note here the general principle, that survival is easy, exaltation is tough. Which may end up being the subject of a different post…)

We’ve once again arrived at a place where it becomes apparent that no one is 100% confident that we can formulate a universal system of morality, particularly if it needs to be defined with enough precision to feed into a computer. Now I’m sure there are some atheists out there that will scoff at the idea that religion provides a universal system of morality, but they’re missing the point. Religious people don’t think you can just give the Bible (or the Koran) to your new AI and grant it instant perfect morality. In other words, they don’t think it provides a perfect system of morality applicable in all times and all circumstances. (Though maybe some do.) It’s that they have faith that religious belief combined with God’s omnipotence, creates a perfect system. Which is why, I believe, Nietzsche felt that “By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” That faith is the critical component.

I understand people who don’t have faith, or think they shouldn’t have to have faith. Or who scoff at the very idea of faith. But I think these people will also find that it’s difficult to universalize morality without it. That becoming gods or creating gods is a difficult project.

Not too long ago, someone close to me came and told me that he had decided to leave the Mormon Church. The person said that he was now an atheist, or at least an agnostic. (I suspect the latter term is closer to the truth.) And he mentioned that one of the turning points was when he encountered something Penn Jillette had said, that you could be an atheist and still be good. I agree with this statement, and I would also agree that the horrible nihilism Nietzsche predicted would accompany the decrease in religion has also largely not come to pass either. But I think, as we examine the various developments in the realm of replacing god (if he is in fact dead, remember I argue that he’s not) it becomes clear that there isn’t some alternate system of morality which slots into the spot once occupied by Christianity. That when Penn says that you can be good and be an atheist, he’s largely saying that you can continue to maintain religiously derived morality without believing in God.

But, the neo-christian morality which seems to dominate these days, and which I assume Penn is referring to, is obviously getting farther and farther away from its core, and when it comes both to morality and nihilism it’s entirely possible that all of Nietzsche’s worst predictions will come true, it’s just taking longer than he expected. That people really haven’t grappled with the Death of God, and that as morality continues to erode, as it becomes more difficult to define, as we seek to replace God, that the reckoning is coming. Yes, it’s slower than Nietzsche expected. And yes, it’s very subtle, but the reckoning is coming.


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The Harvest is Past

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The theme of this blog comes from the book of Jeremiah, verse 20 of chapter 8, and though that verse is included conspicuously in numerous places, it doesn’t hurt for it to appear again.

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

For this post I’d like to focus on that first phrase. What do I mean when I claim that the harvest is past?

We all basically understand harvesting, it’s when you take the food that has been grown and remove it from the plants where it grew, presumably storing it for later use. If we look a little deeper, the harvest is really the final step of turning energy from the Sun into something usable.

It’s not just food that is ultimately made by the Sun, with a few exceptions (nuclear, geothermal and tidal) all energy comes from the Sun. Fossil fuels included. I’m sure this won’t surprise any readers of this blog, but I think that many people are unaware of the fact that fossil fuels are just stored solar energy. Thus when we burn oil, and coal, and natural gas for power, we are withdrawing solar energy that was saved up millions of years ago.

Consequently, when we talk about the total energy available, if we exclude nuclear (geothermal and tidal power being not significant enough to matter) we’re limited to the amount of sunlight which reaches the Earth. We’ve been able to reach back and withdraw the energy of past sunlight, but at some point, as every family knows, you have to stop spending more than you bring in. When we say that all energy comes from the Sun we’re more or less saying that everything comes from the Sun. (I know what you’re thinking. I promise we’ll get back to nuclear power before the end.) Our economy, the conveniences of modern life, economic growth, employment, etc. are all intimately connected with energy usage. And all of these things have been supercharged by the extraction of additional energy. That is the harvest. That is the summer, and as I will show they can’t last forever, if in fact they haven’t ended already.

As we get into things, I’m hugely indebted to a couple of posts by Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. If you want to really get into the math of things and if you’d like to see more charts and graphs, I would check out both articles:

Galactic-Scale Energy

Can Economic Growth Last?

Murphy begins by pointing out that since about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, the United States (or what would become the US) has grown at a fairly steady rate of 2.9% per year, on average. This has continued down to the present day, though recently there are signs that it’s been slowing. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.8%.) One might usefully ask, what was the long term average growth rate before 1650, or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was next to zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%. So hurrah for the industrial revolution, but how did we go from nearly zero to 2.9%? What changed?

Put simply, we did it by spending a million years worth of accumulated solar energy, in the space of a few centuries.

Now, when I say something like that, there’s a danger that you’re going to tune out, thinking, that this is going to be some kind of environmental rant. You may even be thinking that the next step is for me to start talking about Peak Oil. Certainly a discussion of environmental issues, or whether we’re about to run out of oil is interesting, but for the purposes of this illustration it’s beside the point, because it doesn’t matter if we’re about to run out of oil, or if oil is naturally produced deep in the earth and effectively unlimited (a theory with a surprising amount of traction in Russia) or if we’re going to destroy the earth with global warming, or if fusion will save the day. When you actually look at the numbers, in the long term none of those things matters.

Yes, I do think that for a variety of reasons that the enormous growth rate spike we’ve experienced over the last several centuries is nearing an end. That we have essentially had the biggest harvest ever, as we’ve extracted the accumulated solar energy of all the previous epochs. But even if we leave fossil fuels out of the equation we are still reaching the limits of growth. And that is what I found so interesting about Murphy’s posts, and why I decided to write about them.

As I said, let’s keep fossil fuels out of it and just focus on the solar energy we’re receiving at this moment. Also let’s follow Murphy’s lead and reduce the annual growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3%. This translates into an easy to remember 10x increase every 100 years. So if we’re currently using 12 terawatts of power every year then in 100 years we’ll be using 120 terawatts.

First the good news. We get more energy from the Sun every hour (174,000 terawatts) than we use all year. Of course only 70% of that energy reaches the surface (the rest is reflected back into space.) And only 28% of the earth is land, and thus currently eligible for solar collection, and of that land we’re using 50% for agriculture (which sounds high, but who am I to argue with National Geographic?) And finally our current solar panels are only 15% effective. Taking all of that together we end up with 2558 terawatts of currently usable solar power which still seems pretty good. It’s over 200 times what we’re using now.

The problem is when you have exponential growth, things that aren’t problems can quickly become problems. And they have a tendency to sneak up on you. In 100 years, at a growth rate of 2.3% as I said above, we’re still only using 120 terawatts. Still lots of room, but then 200 years from now we’re using 1200 terawatts (10x every 100 years remember). That’s still less than half, how bad could it be right? Well it only takes another 35 years and we’re out. So in 235 years, at the current rate, we’re using all of the sun’s available energy. Now I understand that 235 years seems like a long time. But it’s less time than the US has existed.

In other words if we expect the US to be around for at least as long as it’s already has been (if we don’t want to believe we’re past the mid-point) and further if we expect it to continue in roughly the same trajectory. Then we have to increase the efficiency of solar panels, start putting them onto the ocean and/or into space, or grow less food. The problem is, that because of exponential growth, none of that buys us very much time.

Let’s assume that we’re able to increase the efficiency of the solar panels to 100%. That buys us 319 years (an additional 84 years.) Or if we’re looking in reverse back to around 1700. Once again that seems like a long time, but we’ve had longer than that to become accustomed to 2.9% growth as a law of nature. Once again we’re looking at being past the midpoint of our growth, in a best case scenario that involves every square inch of land being covered by solar panels or used for farming, and which also involves a premise (100% efficiency) which is physically impossible.

Let’s then assume that we get rid of all the land being used for agriculture. I’m not sure how, perhaps we grow things underground. Doing that adds another 31 years and gets us to 350 years from now. Or looking back it gets us to around 1666, very close to the start of the big harvest. But now of course every square inch of land from Antarctica to the remotest part of Siberia is being used for solar collection.

As you can see once you start running up against the limits, then even doing something as radical as doubling the amount of land being used doesn’t buy you much time. And recall that we are talking about theoretical limits. This is as good as it’s possible to be. Practical limits are likely to be 10x more restrictive. In other words we might be bumping up against those limits a lot sooner than we think. But let’s continue with our thought experiment.

We can add in the oceans, which buys us another 55 years. 405 years into the future or back to about 1600 or when Shakespeare was alive. Historically we’re still talking about a time that was fairly recent. In fact as Murphy points out in order to continue on the same growth rate for 1200 years (so the Dark Ages if you’re looking back) we’d have to use all of the Sun’s energy. And I mean all of it, the Sun would have to be completely encircled by solar panels. And if we wanted our energy use to continue to grow at the same rate for 2500 years we’d need to use all of the solar energy produced by our entire galaxy. Which to put it bluntly, seems unlikely.

I know that some of you have been screaming, “But what about nuclear power? What about fusion?” Here we run into a different problem. Heat. I said above in 1200 years our energy requirements are going to be equal to the entire output of the Sun. What do you think happens if you’re generating as much energy as the Sun, through fusion, in a space much, much smaller than the Sun? The implacable laws of thermodynamics dictate that the Earth, because it’s much, much smaller, would end up, much, much hotter. As I said if you want to look at the math and see some graphs I refer you to Murphy’s paper, but according to his calculations, if terrestrial energy use continues at it’s current rate, the Earth gets hotter than the surface of the Sun in less than 1000 years.

I think you can see now that things are unsustainable. To steal Murphy’s key point:

Continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes.

Thus far I’ve been using something of a sleight of hand. I’ve mostly used growth and energy growth interchangeably. And in fact for most of human history they have basically been the same thing, though in the last 50 years or so we have started to see a divergence between economic growth and energy growth. This is good news, if we don’t need growth in energy use to get economic growth, then perhaps everything’s okay, and we won’t need to cover the entire Earth in solar panels, or heat the surface to the point where steel melts (730 years). It would be nice if it were true, but there are also insuperable problems with this line of thinking as well.

Basically if at some point we have to keep energy use flat, while the economy keeps growing then the percentage of the economy made up by things that don’t use any energy get’s bigger and bigger. What part of the economy doesn’t use energy? Stuff like fashion, certain innovations, education, and most of all financial transactions. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Perhaps it sounds like the world we already live in? And maybe you’re thinking hey this isn’t so bad. Is it that big of a deal that the UK’s GDP is 10% financial services, and that the economy of New York City is 35% financial services?

First I’m not sure that financial services are as divorced from energy use as even Murphy thinks. Secondly, yes it may be fine that 35% of New York City’s economy is financial services. (I actually think the housing crash proves the exact opposite, that it was not fine, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) Will it be fine when that number is 90%? What about when it’s 99%? Or 99.9%? Because at some point that’s what has to happen if we divorce energy growth from economic growth, and economic growth continues at the same rate.

And what happens to the people who are forced to work in the 0.01% of economy which still uses energy? For example we are presumably still going to have to eat, and presumably even if all of the food is planted and harvested by robots, that someone is going to have to be involved with food production on some level. How do these people get paid? In order for all this to happen, food, manufactured goods, new houses, etc. would all have to be virtually free.

Accordingly, it’s not just energy growth which has to stop at some point. In fact, at some point, all growth has to stop. The problem is, that’s not the way the modern world is set up. All of our assumptions, all of our institutions, all of our systems are built around the idea that growth will continue. Therefore transitioning to a system where growth is flat is not going to be pretty.

Perhaps you’re comforted by the fact that 235 years is a long way away. Long enough away that even your grandkids won’t have to deal with it. But I would argue that we’re already starting to see this world. I already mentioned the increasing percentage of the economy that’s made up by financial services. And of course there’s the giant share of the economy devoted to services (which is sort of halfway between in terms of energy use.) This is not to mention the persistent negative interest rates, not only with government bonds but now extending even to corporate bonds.  And of course I explicitly avoided talking in any great detail about global warming or any of the other potential catastrophes which may befall us before we even get to the point where we’re worried about covering the world with solar panels.

For a long time we have looked to progress and technology to save us. But if they can (and I would offer the opinion they can’t) then they’re running out of time.

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


We Are Not Saved

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

Jeremiah 8:20

When I was a boy. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the year 2000. I’m not sure how much of that had to do with the supposed importance of the beginning of a new millennium, how much of it is just due to the difficulty of extrapolation in general, and how much of it was due to my religious upbringing. (Let’s get that out of the way right up front. Yes, I am LDS/Mormon.)

It’s 2016 and we’re obviously well past the year 2000 and 16 years into the future I couldn’t imagine. For me, at least, it definitely is The Future, and any talk about living in the future is almost always followed by an observation that we were promised flying cars and spaceships and colonies on the moon. This observation is then followed by the obligatory lament that none of these promises have materialized. Of course moon colonies and flying cars are all promises made when I was a boy. Now we have a new set of promises: artificial intelligence, fusion reactors, and an end to aging, to name just a few. One might ask why the new promises are any more likely to be realized than the old promises. And here we see the first hint of the theme of this blog, But before we dive into that, I need to lay a little more groundwork.

I have already mentioned my religious beliefs, and these will be a major part of this blog (though in a different way than you might expect.) In addition to that I will also be drawing heavily from the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s best known book is The Black Swan. For Taleb a black swan is something which is hard to predict and has a massive impact. Black swans can come in two forms: positive and negative. A positive black swan might be investing in a startup that later ends up being worth a billion dollars. A negative black swan, on the other hand, might be something like a war. Of course there are thousands of potential black swans of both types, and as Taleb says, “A Black Swan for the turkey is not a Black Swan for the butcher.”

The things I mentioned above, AI, fusion and immortality, are all expected to be positive black swans, though, of course, it’s impossible to be certain. Some very distinguished people have warned that artificial intelligence could mean the end of humanity. But for the moment we’re going to assume that they all represent positive black swans.

In addition to being positive black swans, these advancements could also be viewed as technological singularities. Here I use the term a bit more broadly than is common. Generally when people talk about the singularity they are using the term with respect to artificial intelligence. But as originally used (back in 1958) the singularity referred to technology progressing to a point where human affairs would be unrecognizable. In other words these developments will have such a big impact that we can’t imagine what life is like afterwards. AI, fusion and immortality all fall into this category, but they are certainly by no means the only technology that could create a singularity. I would argue that the internet is an excellent example of a singularity. Certainly people saw it coming, and and some of those even correctly predicted some aspects of it (just as, if we ever achieve AI, there will no doubt be some predictions which will also prove true.) But no one predicted anything like Facebook or other social media sites and those sites have ended up overshadowing the rest of the internet. My favorite observation about the internet illustrates the point:

If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?

I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.

I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

Everything I have said so far deserves, and will eventually get, a deeper examination, what I’m aiming for now is just the basic idea that one possibility for the future is a technological singularity. Something which would change the world in ways we can’t imagine, and if proponents are to be believed, it would be a change for the better.

If, on the one hand, we have the possibility of a positive black swans, technological singularities and utopias, is there also the possibility of negative black swans, technological disasters and dystopias on the other hand? Of course that’s a possibility. We could be struck by a comet or annihilate each other in a nuclear war or end up decimated by disease.

Which will it be? Will we be saved by a technological singularity or wiped out by a nuclear war? (Perhaps you will argue that there’s no reason why it couldn’t be both. Or maybe instead you prefer to argue that it will be neither. I don’t think both or neither are realistic possibilities, though my reasoning for that conclusion will have to wait for a future post.)

It’s The Future and two paths lie ahead of us, the singularity or the apocalypse, and this blog will argue for apocalypse. Many people have already stopped reading or are prepared to dismiss everything I’ve said because I have already mentioned that I’m Mormon. Obviously this informs my philosophy and worldview, but I will not use, “Because it says so in the Book of Mormon” as a step in any of my arguments, which is not to say that you will agree with my conclusions. In fact I expect this blog to be fairly controversial. The original Jeremiah had a pretty rough time, but it wasn’t his job to be popular, it was his job to warn of the impending Babylonian captivity.

I am not a prophet like Jeremiah, and I am not warning against any specific calamity. While I consider myself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, as I have already mentioned, this blog will be at least as much informed by my being a disciple of Taleb. And as such I am not willing to make any specific predictions except to say that negative black swans are on the horizon. That much I know. And if I’m wrong? One of the themes of this blog will be that if you choose to prepare for the calamities and they do not happen, then you haven’t lost much, but if you are not prepared and calamities occur, then you might very well lose everything. As Taleb says in one of my favorite quotes:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.

I have already mentioned Taleb as a major influence. To that I will add John Michael Greer, the archdruid. He joins me (or rather I join him) in predicting the apocalypse, but he does not expect things to suddenly transition from where we are to a Mad Max style wasteland (which interestingly enough is the title of the next movie.) Rather he puts forward the idea of a catabolic collapse. The term catabolism broadly refers to a metabolic condition where the body starts consuming itself to stay alive. Applied to a civilization the idea is that as a civilization matures it gets to the point where it spends more than it “makes” and eventually the only way to support that spending is to start selling off or cannibalizing assets. In other words, along with Greer, I do not think that civilization will be wiped out in one fell swoop by an unconstrained exchange of nukes, and if it is than nothing will matter. I think it will be a slow-decline, broken up by a series of mini collapses.

All of this will be discussed in due time, suffice it to say that despite the religious overtones, when I talk about the apocalypse, you should not be visualizing The Walking Dead, The Road, or even Left Behind. But the things I discuss may nevertheless seem pretty apocalyptic. Earlier this week I stayed up late watching the Brexit vote come in. In the aftermath of that people are using words like terrifying, bombshell, flipping out, and furthermore talking about a global recession, all in response to the vote to Leave. If people are that scared about Britain leaving the EU I think we’re in for a lot of apocalypses.

You may be wondering how this is different than any other doom and gloom blog, and here, at last we return to the scripture I started with, which gives us the title and theme of the blog. Alongside all of the other religions of the world, including my own, there is a religion of progress, and indeed progress over the last several centuries has been remarkable.

These many years of progress represent the summer of civilization. And out of that summer we have assembled a truly staggering harvest. We have conquered diseases, split the atom, invented the integrated circuit and been to the moon. But if you look closely you will realize that our harvest is basically at an end. And despite the fantastic wealth we have accumulated, we are not saved. But in contemplating this harvest it is easier than ever before to see why we need to be saved. We understand the vastness of the universe, the potential of technology and the promise of the eternities. The fact that we are not wise enough to grasp any of it, makes our pain all the more acute.

And this is the difference between this blog and other doom and gloom blogs. Another blog may talk about the inevitable collapse of the United States because of the national debt, or runaway global warming, or cultural tension. Someone with faith in continued scientific progress may ignore all of that, assuming that once we’re able to upload our brains into a computer that none of it will matter. Thus, anyone who talks about about potential scenarios of doom without also talking about potential advances and singularities, is only addressing half of the issue. In other words you cannot talk about civilizational collapse without talking about why technology and progress cannot prevent it. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

That’s the core focus, but this blog will range over all manner of subjects including but not limited to:

  • Fermi’s Paradox
  • Roman History
  • Antifragility
  • Environmental Collapse
  • Philosophy
  • Current Politics
  • Book Reviews
  • War and conflict
  • Science Fiction
  • Religion
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Mormon apologetics

As in the time of Jeremiah, disaster, cataclysms and destruction lurk on the horizon, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.

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