Tag: <span>Pinker</span>

Eschatological Frameworks

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I just finished reading the book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. It’s an explicitly Christian book, and it sets out to discuss eight different modern belief systems—things like individualism, scientific naturalism, or consumerism—and then to demonstrate why these other worldviews are inferior to Christianity. I’ll have a review of it in my monthly round-up, but I found the structure to be very interesting: this idea of explicitly breaking down the different ways one might see the world. It gave me the idea of explicitly breaking down and examining the different ways people have come up with for envisioning the future, of exploring the various eschatological frameworks, some religious, but most of them secular.

As I mentioned in my very first post (which, coincidently, went up almost exactly six years ago) the future can really go in only one of two ways. We could achieve some sort of technological singularity, a development so radical that the world is unrecognizable. This term is most commonly used with AI, but there are other possibilities, for example the internet was a soft singularity. Alternatively, modern civilization could take a sharp downward turn into collapse and catastrophe. There is no middle ground. The world of 2122, or 2100, or even 2060  is going to be very, very different from the world of 2022. I am not the only one making this claim. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWall, has said that this is the most important century ever for humanity. Ian Morris, professor of Classics and author of such books as, War! What is it Good For? (see my discussion here) goes even further and says the same thing but claims it will all be taking place within the next 40 years

To be fair, basically everyone thinks the world of 2060 will be different than the world of 2020, the question is how different? Will it be surprisingly similar to today, just better? Or will it be unrecognizable? If so, will it be unrecognizable in a good way or in a bad way? Will it be an undreamt of utopia or a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’m not sure, I have made some predictions, but revisiting those is not the point of this post. No, in this post I want to look at various frameworks people might use to make such predictions, examine the fundamental embedded assumptions within those frameworks and, most of all, discuss where each framework thinks salvation, or potential destruction, lies. Let’s start with the framework where the least is expected to happen:

Pinkerism/Neoliberalism/Fukuyama’s End of History  

Embedded assumptions: All of the statistics show that things are going great. Poverty is down and living standards are up. Everyone has more rights. Violence has dropped across the board, including that most important category: war, which hasn’t happened between Great Powers for 75 years. Beyond that, as long as we don’t sabotage ourselves, progress and technology will take care of problems like climate change and political discord as well.

What is the source of our salvation: We basically already are saved; people just don’t realize it because the process has been so gradual. But by any objective measure, the violence and want of the past have been left behind.

When Fukuyama declared an end to history in his book of the same name, he was making an eschatological claim. If you’re just going off the title, he appears to be declaring that we have already and permanently been saved. If his critics bothered to read the book they would discover that he is far more nuanced about how permanent things actually are. What he’s more arguing is that we have discovered all the tools necessary for salvation. Tools like science, market economies, free flow of migrants, etc. And there don’t appear to be any better tools out there. This is the end he’s talking about.

Steven Pinker goes even farther and claims in his book Enlightenment Now, that not only do we have the tools for salvation, but that they’re working great. We just need to keep using them, and not toss them away because they’re not working fast enough. That to the extent we have a problem it’s that we don’t have enough faith in these tools, and the minute they don’t work perfectly we immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t work at all. 

Of course, speaking of faith, Pinker has been accused of having too much faith that these tools will continue to work in the future, despite whatever new problems arise. This is why this framework ends up with the least dramatic view of the future, because it asserts that even if something changes, and we have to transition to a new reality, that our current tools are more than capable of smoothing that transition. There will be no hard takeoff due to AI, nor a global catastrophe due to climate change. The scientific method and progress more broadly has everything necessary for success and salvation, we just need to not abandon them.

Transhumanism

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This allows us to change what it means to be human, making them better or develop powerful artificial intelligence, or other amazing things we can scarcely imagine.

What is the source of our salvation: Technology is going to allow us to get rid of all the bad parts of humanity, things like death, scarcity, and stupidity, but also violence and want. Once we’ve gotten rid of all of those things, and added lots of cool things besides, we will have essentially achieved a secular version of heaven.

Once again this framework is based on the tools of technology and progress, only in this case it’s focused not on the tools we already have, but on the tools that are being worked on. It is, of course, always possible that these tools won’t be able to do everything transhumanists imagine. As an example, some people still think that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will prove to be far more difficult to create than people imagine, but to be fair these people are rarely transhumanists. Rather transhumanists are those who believe that such developments are right around the corner. 

Robin Hanson, who doesn’t consider himself to be a transhumanist, and who also believes that AGI will be difficult to create, nevertheless wrote an entire book (see my discussion here) on uploading our brains to computers called The Age of Em. (Em is short for emulated person.) I bring this up both to demonstrate some of the debates within this ideology, but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of transhumanism’s eschatological bent. It combines immortality, a postmortal utopia, and a single salvific event. Hanson doesn’t imagine a day of judgment, the Age of Em will actually last two years in his opinion (the book is remarkably specific in its predictions) but during that time Em’s will experience a thousand years of subjective time. My religious readers may see a parallel between this and the concept of millennialism.

A few people, like our old friends the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), who have not made an appearance in this space for a long time, but who have been on my mind a lot recently, explicitly link religion and transhumanism. Similar to Pinker they believe that technology has reduced violence and want, but they go beyond that to imagine that it will completely eliminate it, and allow resurrection and eternal life as well—that most of the things promised by Christianity (and specifically the Mormon version of it) will be brought to pass by technology.

Despite the foregoing, I don’t want to play up the religious angle of transhumanism too much, but it does rely on two kinds of faith. Faith that the miraculous technology envisioned will actually materialize, and faith that when it does it will be a good thing. For a group that doesn’t have that second form of faith we turn to a discussion of:

Existential Risk

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This acceleration will shortly outstrip our ability to manage the risks that inevitably accompany new technology. Not only will we be unable to keep ahead of the risks, but the more technology advances the bigger the risks get.

What is the source of our destruction: While the possibility exists that we might be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid. It’s far more likely we will be destroyed by the tools we’ve created, whether it be nukes, or bioweapons, or an aggressive AI. 

As you might be able to tell there is broad overlap between transhumanists and people who worry about existential risk. You might say that the former are technological optimists while the latter are technological pessimists. From my limited perspective, I think most of these people have been drifting towards the pessimistic side of things.

For an illustration of why people are pessimistic, and this eschatological framework in general, it’s best to turn to an analogy from Nick Bostrom, which has appeared a couple of times in this space:

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

Bostrom puts forward this analogy as a way of describing the potential benefits and harms of new technologies. Many, perhaps most will be beneficial, but some will be harmful, and it’s possible that one will end up causing the end of humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably impossible to stop the development of new technology, to stop drawing balls from the urn, but we can try and imagine what sorts of technology might be dangerous and take steps to mitigate it in advance.

For most people in this space the thing they worry about the most is AI Risk. The idea that we will develop AGI but be unable to control it. That we will create gods and they will turn out to be malevolent.

Speaking of God…

Christian Eschatology

Embedded assumptions: Christian eschatology comes in lots of flavors, but at the moment the discussion is dominated by the aforementioned millennialism, which assumes that things like the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are right around the corner. 

What is the source of our salvation: God. 

It might seem strange to discuss Christian eschatology alongside things like transhumanism and neoliberalism. On the other hand, as it’s the OG eschatology, it would seem strange not to discuss it.

As the original eschatology, Christian beliefs and language are woven all through this discussion. This is what allows me to discuss Robin Hanson’s version of “heaven”. This is what enables the MTA to imagine that technology will be the means of bringing about the end of the world, but in a good way. This cross-pollination has also gone the other way.

To be a modern eschatological framework, you have to have something to say about progress and technology. For many, perhaps even most Christians the modern world is evidence that the end must be close, that we are essentially building the Tower of Babel. (As you might imagine the MTA disagrees with this.) In this sense Christians are somewhat related to the people who worry about existential risk, though in this case they have faith that while things are going to get bad, that eventually Jesus will return and everything will turn out okay. As I’ve said before, when considering the alternatives, I think this view has a lot to recommend it.

New Age Spiritualism

Embedded assumptions: That the world has passed into a new, more enlightened era. As a consequence, we have left behind much of the evil and selfishness that used to afflict humanity, and we are on our way to embracing universal acceptance, tolerance and love.

What is the source of our salvation: An underlying spirit of progress, paired with a greater awareness of the higher morality brought about by this spirit of progress. 

It is my impression that almost no one uses the term “New Age” any more, so if you have a better term for this framework let me know. However, if you followed the link in the section heading you’ll see that “New Age” beliefs are still very common, as such it seemed worth including.

Whatever you want to call it and whatever its current influence, this framework is far less “in your face” than preceding ones. In part this is because its adherents generally feel that it’s going to be eventually successful regardless of how people act. That love, tolerance, and kindness will eventually triumph. That the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice”.

That said, there does appear to be a lot of frustration—by people who have a vision of what progress entails and where we’re headed—with those who don’t share their vision. It might be too much to declare that “woke ideology” overlaps with modern New Age eschatology, but it does seem to borrow a lot of the same principles, albeit with a more militant twist. But both imagine that we’re progressing towards a utopia of tolerance and kindness, and that some people are dragging their feet. 

I confess that this is the framework I understand the least, but it does seem like the foundation of much that is happening currently. And overall it translates into an eschatology that doesn’t revolve around technology, but around human attitudes and behavior.

Catabolic Collapse

Embedded assumptions: That civilization is reaching the point of diminishing productivity, growth and innovation. As a consequence of this we can’t build new things, and shortly we won’t even be able to maintain what we already have. 

What is the source of our destruction: A slow cannibalism of existing infrastructure, government programs, and social capital. 

Here we have come full circle. This is yet another slow moving eschatology, similar to Pinkerism, but in this case we’re not already saved, we’re already damned. This particular eschatological framework was first suggested by John Michael Greer, who got his start as part of the peak oil movement and has gradually shifted to commenting on late capitalism from kind of an ecosocialist perspective. Which is to say he’s very concerned about the environment and he talks a lot about the discontent of the average blue collar worker.

As a formal framework, it’s pretty obscure, but as a generalized sense of where the country is, with gas at $5/gallon, inflation, all the after effects of the pandemic, and a divided country. I think there are a lot of people who believe this is what’s happening even if they don’t have a name for it. 

The point, as I have mentioned before, is that the apocalypse will not be as cool or as deadly as you hope. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation and it’s going to take a long time for that ruin to manifest. Even if there’s a huge worldwide pandemic, even if there’s a nuclear war. Humans are tenacious. But absent divine intervention I don’t think permanent salvation is in the cards. And I think destruction is going to end up being long and painful. 

Conclusion

In 1939, Charles Kettering, a truly amazing inventor (He held 186 patents!), said:

I am not disturbed about the future. I think it is going to be a wonderful place. I don’t like people to talk about how bad it is going to be, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in the future.

You may have heard the shortened version, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” But what form should that concern take? And will it be a “wonderful place”? These are incredibly important questions, and it is my hope that by going through the various frameworks I’ve helped you develop some answers. 

As to my own answers to these questions, first we should note that the years immediately following Kettering’s pronouncement ended up being anything but wonderful. Instead war broke out on a scale never before seen and never since equaled. And yet I strongly suspect that Ian Morris is right, that the next forty years will be more impactful than the forty years leading up to the end of World War II. Even though those years contained World War I. And more impactful than the 40 years which started at the beginning of World War II, even though we landed on the Moon.

Because of this I think we should have an enormous amount of concern for the future because there’s a significant chance that it won’t be a wonderful place. We’ve never before been in a situation where things are changing so fast on so many fronts. And the faster things change the harder it is for us to adapt and the less likely a “wonderful” future becomes. 

I certainly hope that Pinker’s right, and we have been saved, or we will soon be saved. And certainly that idea deserves a seat at the table, but as you can see there are several other ideologies also seated at the eschatological table. Some are scary, some are interesting, but they’re all dramatic. Which is to say hang on, the next few decades are going to be bumpy.


I considered putting in Marxism as a framework, but is that really still a going concern? If it is let me know. The best way to do that is to send me money, which is both a great idea anyway, but also, if I’m not mistaken, ideologically appropriate. 


The Religion of Progress

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Last week I recorded the Freedom of Religion Episode and wrote the post about How to Save Humanity, and in both cases I mentioned the religion of progress. This made me realize that outside of a mention here and there I’d never really done a complete post on the subject, which it certainly deserves. In other words this post is long overdue.

In discussing this subject I’m indebted to John Michael Greer, the Archdruid, and I’ll start off by borrowing/stealing from his own writing on the topic. In addition to the two blog posts of my own I just mentioned, one of Greer’s recent posts, which made reference to the religion of progress, was also a factor in selecting the subject for this post. In particular he clarified something which I had also noticed, though not to the same degree that he had. Recently there’s been something of a spiritual cast to certain elements of the left. With one of the recurring terms being the evolution of consciousness. He and I both were somewhat confused by what that was supposed to mean, but Greer actually did the legwork:

Among a good-sized fraction of American leftist circles these days, it turns out it’s become a standard credo that what drives the kind of social changes supported by the left—the abolition of slavery and segregation, the extension of equal (or more than equal) rights to an assortment of disadvantaged groups, and so on—is an ongoing evolution of consciousness, in which people wake up to the fact that things they’ve considered normal and harmless are actually intolerable injustices, and so decide to stop.

Those of my readers who followed the late US presidential election may remember Hillary Clinton’s furious response to a heckler at one of her few speaking gigs:  “We aren’t going back. We’re going forward.” Underlying that outburst is the belief system I’ve just sketched out: the claim that history has a direction, that it moves in a linear fashion from worse to better, and that any given political choice—for example, which of the two most detested people in American public life is going to become the nominal head of a nation in freefall ten days from now—not only can but must be flattened out into a rigidly binary decision between “forward” and “back.”

As he points out, when people speak of consciousness evolving they’re not talking about evolution in the normal scientific sense of being subject to pressure from natural selection, or of certain organisms being better adapted to survival than others. They’re talking about the process of evolution making things better period. This is just one example of the theology of the religion of progress. Of course in using the word theology I’m jumping right past what many people might consider to be the most important question. Why should we consider it a religion? And perhaps I should deal with that first.

For the purposes of this discussion I’ll be focusing on the most extreme adherents to the religion of progress, and while I understand that this is like using ISIS to define Islam, there’s a reason for that. People use ISIS when they want to illustrate the worst case scenario, I am similarly interested in the worst case scenario. So who are these extreme adherents to the religion of progress? Their enemies call them Social Justice Warriors or SJWs, and while I understand that it’s annoying to end up with the label your enemies chose for you, it does seem to be the simplest way of identifying the group I’m talking about. Also while I am not trying to fall into the enemy camp myself, I think it’s only fair to say that I am probably not their ally either. Finally, they’re not the only adherents (we’ll be talking about others), but they are the most visible.

Having identified our subjects, how does this group of people compare to a traditional religion? Well to begin with they are a group, which is a bigger part of what makes a religion than I think most people want to admit. Beyond that one of the big factors in defining a religion is the presence of things both sacred and profane, with commandments built to encourage the sacred and punish the profane. Obviously much of what they put into these categories has to be unique to the group, different than the traditional commandments and beliefs of the culture from which they spring. In other words this is not just Christianity-lite, these are not just lapsed believers in another religion, this is a new religion. Should you doubt the existence of commandments and the categorization of certain things as sacred, and certain things profane, try walking around your local university campus in a Nazi Uniform or a KKK robe (or even just try waving an Isreali flag). And what is a safe space other than a sacred site? In fact given the intolerance for certain speakers and opinions you might make the case that entire campuses are considered sacred spaces by SJWs.

Another element, important to classifying something as a religion, is belief in the supernatural. This is where the idea of an evolving consciousness comes in. Though it takes several other forms as well. You might have heard the term the right side of history (along with the inverse wrong side of history) or the arc of history. These terms are beloved of former president Obama, who may actually be something of a prophet for the religion of progress. Perhaps you feel that describing him as a prophet is over the top, but there are certainly people who feel or at least felt that way. One of my favorite articles from just before the 2008 election describes how Obama is a “Lightworker” who will usher in in a new way of being on this planet.

In Better Angels of Our Nature, which I keep coming back to, Pinker was trying to describe the same arc of history, though as a declared atheist he tried to rob it of its supernatural overtones by ascribing it to game theory (specifically what he calls the pacifist’s dilemma). Of course it’s also present in a group I talk about often, the transhumanists, who add in another common religious element, eternal rewards. Which in their case takes the form of uploading themselves into a computer or something similar.

At this point we have everyone from SJWs, to Obama, to Pinker, to Leftist, to transhumanists believing in the inevitability of progress and the arc of history, and, in the end, it’s probably not important if you’re 100% on board with describing it as a religion as opposed to a movement, or a memeplex, or what have you, at this point it’s mostly just important that we’re on the same page in agreeing that the ideology exists and it’s pervasive. From there the next step would be to ask if it’s a useful ideology. And here, my answer may surprise you. In the short term it might in fact be useful for certain people and for certain things. But, as always, we’re not interested in the next few years, we’re interested in the next few centuries. And in my experience the longer your time horizon the more the utility of something converges with the truth of something. There are useful lies, and convenient delusions, but their utility and convenience are always short term. All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the real question I want to ask. Is the religion of progress true?

Of course, you already know that I’m going to say that it’s not true, but how do you convince its believers of this fact? Assuming they would listen. At this point it’s useful to divide those believers up into two camps: those who favor a supernatural basis, like those who believe that Obama is a Lightworker or in the evolution of consciousness, and those who eschew any kind of supernatural explanation like Pinker and most of the transhumanists. I’ll address the non-supernatural contingent first.

If you look back through the history of the Earth, and the even more recent history of humanity you will see several external cataclysms which almost wiped out any potential for progress or intelligence. Whether it was the two times that the Earth was basically completely encased in ice, any of the 190 times (that we know about) when a large asteroid or comet has hit the earth, or the various super volcanos, one of which, the Toba Supervolcano, took humanity down to around 5,000 individuals (with some people saying there were only 40 breeding pairs.) There have been plenty of occasions where the inevitable march of progress was anything but, and a stiff breeze one way or the other could have ended it all.

Obviously if you’re an atheist like Pinker you may quibble with the impact of some of the items above, but you’re not going to deny that catastrophes take place. The question only becomes at what point did we become immune to catastrophes? What was the innovation that protected us from unrecoverable setbacks and made progress inevitable? As I pointed out in my Review of Better Angels, a lot depends on when the inflection point was, and to be fair Pinker is probably on the conservative end of this. I doubt he thinks that progress is irreversible, he probably just thinks it’s tenacious. But let’s turn to the transhumanists, who would also probably grant that all or most of the disasters I mentioned did in fact happen, but that they, personally, expect to live forever. Which takes us back to the question when, exactly, did we go from being susceptible to being wiped out by global catastrophes to not?

Did it happen with the dawn of modern man and the creation of human-level intelligence 200,000 years ago? I don’t think so, particularly since we had Neanderthals alive around the same time and by all accounts they were at least as smart if not smarter, and look at what happened to them. Did it happen with the creation of writing? I assume that was important, but I don’t think it would have saved the Sumerians there had been another supervolcano, or if a comet had smacked into the Earth. What about the enlightenment, was that the inflection point? Well I renew my point about the Sumerians, but let’s assume that at some point you’re close enough to the finish line to not have to worry about supervolcanoes and comets. The period since the enlightenment has been pretty incredible, but it also brought us a lot closer to nuclear annihilation than it did to a permanent extraterrestrial colony, which, as I argued in the last post might be the first credible point to start arguing that progress is unstoppable. Which is to say that if there is an inflection point we haven’t even reached it and it’s not clear that we will.

Turning to those who believe that progress is being powered by something supernatural, all of the above arguments still apply. Where was the mystical force of progress, and the evolving consciousness during the Great Permian Extinction, or the aforementioned Toba Supervolcano or the various near misses with World War III? And even if those were somehow “ordained” or otherwise all part of the plan, why did this force, which seems specific to humanity by the way (just ask the dodo and the Neanderthal) spend tens of thousands of years not acting while modern humans, as hunter gatherers, engaged in an unending cycle of insane violence (if Pinker is to be believed) before finally swooping in sometime in the recent past and deciding that enough was enough, it would be onward and upward from here on out.

You might argue that all of the above arguments could be applied with equal force to traditional religions. But in traditional religions God has a plan, one which we may not even understand, but if suffering is part of the plan (as it is with most traditional religions) then I see no reason that the Toba Supervolcano is not also part of the plan. This is not to say that the supernatural branch of the religion of progress doesn’t also have a plan. It’s just kind of childish. Their plan is that a tiny percent of the hundred (plus) billion people who have ever lived will get to play World of Warcraft (or perhaps the Sims) for the rest of eternity. Yes, this is a caricature, but not as much of one as they might claim.

This illustrates one of the problems. Even under the most draconian of traditional theologies, uncivilized pagans from the Fifth Century are still part of the plan. They may be participating in the plan through eternal torment, but at least they’re considered. If Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, and one of the greatest prophets of the religion of progress dies tomorrow then he is almost certainly not going to be one of those saved by the religion of progress. Which is to say that the religion of progress is a religion which mostly offers salvation to those who haven’t even been born yet. In fact the entire thing, to borrow again from Greer, is remarkably chronocentric, i.e. biased towards a specific time. In this case the chronocentrism does not claim that the current era is best, or that there is some edenic past, two claims which you can actually marshall evidence for. Their chronocentrism claims that 50 years into the unknown future is obviously the best time of all.

As part of this bias the religion of progress pays very little attention to the past. And certainly they seem blind to, or at least dismissive of, ancient history and prehistory, but beyond that even the recent past is largely opaque to them. To once more draw upon Greer, and a subject he’s more familiar with than me. Much of the current progressive agenda is very recent, and only a few decades ago the progressive viewpoint was the exact opposite. The example Greer gives is gay rights. As it turns out gays had it pretty good for the first few decades of the 19th century with their, “own bars, restaurants, periodicals, entertainment venues, and social events, right out there in public.” The vast majority (including myself) upon hearing this would assume that if this was the case then surely some furious attack by the right wing must have ended it. I’ll let Greer answer:

No, and that’s one of the more elegant ironies of this entire chapter of American cultural history. The crusade against the “lavender menace” (I’m not making that phrase up, by the way) was one of the pet causes of the same Progressive movement responsible for winning women the right to vote and breaking up the fabulously corrupt machine politics of late nineteenth century America. Unpalatable as that fact is in today’s political terms, gay men and lesbians weren’t forced into the closet in the 1930s by the right.  They were driven there by the left.

The picture that emerges is not that of an unstoppable set of truths forever in the background of human affairs, but rather an ideology of very recent origin, which changes into whatever form makes people feel the best.  Returning back to our original question, is the religion of progress true? I think we have assembled ample evidence that it’s not. Rather it seems more to be an ideology which captures the attitudes and events of a specific moment, and with the inauguration yesterday of the religion of progress’ antichrist, we could easily be seeing the end of that moment.

Having gotten this far you may be thinking, so what? Perhaps the religion of progress isn’t true, perhaps it’s just about reached the end of its useful life, perhaps it’s even silly and childish. Where’s the harm? This is another time where the biases brought on by chronocentrism once again manifest themselves. This is not the first time a progressive utopian vision of ever escalating progress has taken the stage, and if the adherents of the religion of progress were more aware of what had come before then perhaps they would be more worried. Also we’re not even talking about going that far back. This is all stuff that happened in the 20th century.

Our first example is eugenics. The full history of the early 20th century eugenics movement is beyond the scope of this post, but, trust me, it was a progressive issue. The mere mention of eugenics is horrible enough in most people’s estimation that you hardly have to go beyond the initial mention. But it was also responsible for lobotomies, forced sterilizations, and by some accounts much of what people find most appaling about the Nazis. Could I have written a similar post in 1932 talking about the religion of eugenics? Probably. And I assume that the people who now defend or excuse the religion of progress would be using the same arguments to excuse and defend the practice of eugenics.

The other example I want to draw to your attention is the example of communism. Communism may have been the first great example of a secular religion with things designated as sacred (the proletariat) and profane (capitalism), commandments (the Communist Manifesto) and of course the promise of secular salvation resulting in an unending paradise (The Worker’s Paradise). And of course even today you don’t have to look very deep to find communist ideology buried in the religion of progress, despite it being responsible for the deaths of 94 million people.

None of this means the religion of progress will fail as spectacularly, or even fail in a similar fashion as these first two examples. But unless you’re going to make the argument that something has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and I admit there is some evidence for that assertion, just not nearly as much as its supporters imagine, the religion of progress will be another utopian vision which will ultimately fail. And it’s reasonable to ask what if any damage it will cause on it’s way out. And is there anyway to limit that damage?

Of course as the dominant religion it’s very easy to point out the benefits progressive ideology is alleged to provide and much harder to point out it’s flaws. And in fact, perversely, flaws can be seen as benefits. In the early 20th centuries lobotomies and forced sterilizations were seen as good things. Just as some people now think that performing gender reassignment surgery on four year olds is a good thing. Pointing out the potential harms of the religion of progress can easily get you labeled as a hateful or racist. Despite that, in closing, I’ll take a stab at pointing out a couple:

Eugenics and communism are both blamed for a lot of deaths. Where are the deaths from the religion of progress? Well as I said it’s not necessarily going to fail as spectacularly or in the same way, but if you’re looking for a lot of deaths it’s hard to ignore abortion. Obviously there is a lot of disagreement about whether abortion is murder. Also to do any sort of real analysis you’d want to compare abortion rates before the “progress” of legalizing abortion, to rates after it was legalized. I spent a bit of time looking for this and honestly the subject is so heated it’s impossible get any unbiased numbers on the subject. That said, I have a very hard time believing that legalizing abortion did not increase the number of abortions by a significant amount. And even increasing it by a small amount yields a pretty big number. From 1970 (when legalization got going) through 2013 there were just shy of 52 million abortions. If we assume that legalization only increased things by 20% (which seems incredibly conservative) then that’s still 10 million additional abortions. Maybe that doesn’t bother you at all, but I suspect that it’s something we’ll eventually look back on with horror.

Finally, one of the things that is most alarming to me and carries with it the most potential for harm is the ideological intransigence of the religion of progress, which we have seen sprinkled all throughout this post, and on vivid and constant display since the election of Trump. Does this intransigence turn to violence? If so how violent? Will there just be scattered riots? Or are we looking at an eventual second Civil War? Obviously it takes more than just one violent faction to have a war, but as I said in a previous post, in the end there are only two ways to decide anything, the rule of law or application of violence and as I sit here on the weekend of the inauguration I see a lot of people who seem to prefer the violent option.


Reframing Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

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The title of this blog is “We Are Not Saved”. I just got done reading a book by Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard professor, which easily could have been titled “We Are Saved”. Obviously reading a book with a conclusion so different from my own required a blog post. Pinker’s book is actually titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But before getting into it, if I’m going to keep my recent resolution to avoid the curse of knowledge, it’s necessary to give a brief summary.

If you’ve heard of the book at all, it’s probably from the standpoint of the decline of war. And most of the criticism of the book has been in that vein. Perhaps the key question on that front is whether the Long Peace, the absence of conflicts between major powers since World War II, is just a random lucky run, like a winning streak in sports, or whether it represents a new and improved era for humanity. On this point Pinker comes down on the side of it being a new era, while Taleb is of the opinion that it’s random, and as we saw in the last post, Taleb knows how easy it is to be fooled by randomness.

That’s the big headline, but the book is much broader than that. Pinker covers the decrease of violence in all forms, the general march of civilization, increases in humanitarian impulses, and the rights revolution. I said that it could easily have been titled “We Are Saved”, and in Pinker’s opinion things are not only getting better but will continue to get better. As an explanation he offers up the march of technology, reason and the values of The Enlightenment. With reason and technology taking a center stage, his view of religion is mixed to say the least. To be fair, even though he’s a self-admitted atheist, he’s not as bad as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens. But the book is full of shots at religion and he has nothing but disdain for religion in its ancient form, particularly the Old Testament.  

Hopefully that’s enough of an overview get our discussion started. The book is over 800 pages and I’m obviously only going to be able to talk about a small part of it in the few thousand words available to me in a blog post. And further I’m going to use some of those words to introduce the concept of the motte and bailey argument. This idea was popularized by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex (though not his idea originally) and I can’t really improve on his description, so I’ll just quote it.

[The motte-and-bailey was] a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Instances of this tactic abound, and if you were paying attention there were numerous examples of it during the recent election. As in when Trump starts off by saying he’s going to round up all of the illegal aliens (the bailey), but when pressed, he says he’s only going to deport the criminals (the motte). He whips up his base with the bailey, and then retreats to the motte when closely questioned.

I bring up the motte and bailey tactic because it’s woven all throughout Better Angels, and accordingly makes a good framework for my criticism of the book. With respect to numbers and data, the book is very solid. In every area he covers, he can show a clear trend of things getting less violent. Whether it’s a decrease in deaths due to warfare from prehistory to the present day, a decrease in English homicides since the 1600, or decrease in domestic violence since 1970, things have clearly been getting better. This is his motte. His bailey is to extrapolate that trend forwards in time. But when someone accuses him of that, of claiming the age of war is over, he falls back to the motte and claims that he has made no predictions about the future, he’s just assembling statistics from the past. For example:

I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them….The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and present, not to augur the hypotheticals of the future…The truth is, I don’t know what will happen across the entire world in the coming decades, and neither does anyone else.

As I said the motte is the unassailable part of the argument, and I think largely Pinker has succeeded in this. But even here he uses some slight of hand. As I mentioned above, we can extrapolate warfare deaths back thousands of years, with archeological data all the way back to 10,000 BC in some places. This gives a pretty clear trendline for violent deaths due to war. But it’s a trendline with big gaps in it. We have data stretching back thousands of years, but if you go back more than a few centuries that data is really sparse. What this means is that it’s hard to know if the decrease in deaths from warfare is the trend a thousand years in the making or a only a few hundred. And even if it is a thousand years in the making the sparsity of data means that we don’t know how smooth the trend is. How many giant peaks of violence are there? And how many valleys of peace?

Whether or not it was intentional, by pulling in data going back thousands of years and comparing hunter-gatherer society to modern civilizations Pinker appears to be making the case that the decrease in violence represents a trend that’s thousands of years old, which is much more impressive than if it’s just a few centuries old. And this is the first example of the bailey, the impression that decreasing violence of all types is a trend stretching thousands of years into the past and therefore likely to continue indefinitely into the future. Even though from the perspective of data we can only talk about warfare deaths and even then the data is spotty.

As I said, Better Angels is not just a book about war, Pinker wants to show that the past was more violent on nearly all measurements. In service of his thesis he moves from deaths due to war to deaths from homicides. Here he’s only able to go back to the 13th century (and I think there’s some significant assumptions involved to get back that far.) And again we see a graph that starts high and slopes downward, giving us the impression that we’re dealing with a trend that’s that’s been progressing in the same direction for a hundreds and hundreds of years. The problem once again comes from the data that’s missing. His numbers are largely from Western Europe, this gives him a particularly low endpoint since present day Western Europe is extraordinarily nonviolent by historical standards, and without saying it explicitly, Western Europe ends up as a proxy for the world at large, and by extension the endpoint to which we’re all headed. However once you’re outside of Western Europe the trend is a lot less obvious, for example the current murder rate in Venezuela is as bad as it ever was in Europe even if you go all the way back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I assume Pinker doesn’t think it will take another 700 years for Venezuela to reach the level of Sweden, but since he never mentions Venezuela it’s hard to say. Instead he selects data in a way designed to give the impression that the downward trend in violence is global, and hundreds of years in the making, when, on closer inspection it appears to be both more recent and more localized.

From homicides he moves on to domestic abuse. Once again we see a distinct downward trend, but with each new category of violence his data is restricted to a smaller and smaller time frame. For war deaths he was able to go back thousands of years, for homicides, hundreds of years, for domestic violence he’s only able to go back a few decades to the 1970’s, and nearly all of that data is from the US. A trend that’s thousands or hundreds of years old is impressive, a trend that’s only as old as I am, less so. But the way it’s structured you get the impression that everything from war deaths, to murders, to domestic violence all the way through to spanking is part of a vast arrow of progress carrying us forward to a continually brighter tomorrow.

This is Pinker in his bailey getting rich, it’s this claim of a trend stretching into the future coupled with the triumph of progress that gets people’s attention, it’s this claim that gets Slate to call the book a monumental achievement. Of course, when necessary, Pinker retreats to his motte and claims that he’s not predicting anything, but the whole appeal of the book is what it implies about the future, and the longer he can extend the arrow of progress into the past, the father it appears to extend into the future.

In tying everything together in a single arc, he does two things. First there’s the structure I already mentioned where he anchors your thinking thousands of years in the past by using archaeological data on warfare deaths and then layering the rest on top that base. And then, secondly, he fills in the missing data, particularly in the realm of domestic abuse and rights more broadly, with the use of countless anecdotes. These anecdotes are naturally compelling. As humans we love stories, and Pinker knows that, but he also knows that they’re no substitute for actual data. Still he uses them to construct something that looks like the fortified tower that is the motte, but really isn’t.

Using both of these techniques together Pinker makes it seem like the decrease in violence is a historical juggernaut whose speed is only increasing as both social and technological progress becomes more rapid. He may deny that he’s making any predictions about the future, but once the reader has an unstoppable, accelerating juggernaut in his head, it’s going to be hard for him to imagine it stopping suddenly, let alone going in reverse. I see, and agree with the same data Pinker does, I just don’t see a juggernaut, I see something far more fragile.

In service of his argument Pinker is very committed to painting the past in as violent a light as possible. The first chapter of the book is titled “A Foreign Country” as in the past is a foreign country. Well the future is a foreign country as well, and I see at least six ways in which the decrease in violence is more fragile than Pinker’s book would indicate. Even if we grant a trend in decreasing violence lasting hundreds of years, which, itself, is a shakier thesis than Pinker wants to admit.

First while Pinker offers various explanations for why violence has decreased. One that he comes back to over and over to is the Leviathan, a term coined by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 to describe an all powerful state. In Pinker’s opinion decreases in violence are directly tied to increases in state power. That in fact if you look closely at his data you’ll find that the clearest trendline for a decrease in violence isn’t the length of time which has passed, but the trend from hunter-gatherer to hunter-horticulturalist to full agriculture, with the accompanying increase at each step in the centralization and power of the state. If you have any libertarian leanings, this trend should worry you, but even if you don’t, by tying up everything into a single larger and larger entity we introduce fragility, even if it’s just through the single points of failure we create. You may agree that this is still a great deal, but is it still a great deal if the endpoint of the trend is zero murders, but a 1984 style surveillance state?

Second, and closely related to the last point, it would appear that Pinker’s juggernaut relies on the continued health and stability of the state. As I said his warfare data had a lot of gaps, even though it went back thousands of years. One of the gaps that seemed particularly noteworthy was the period after the fall of the Roman Empire. Pinker gives the impression that violence has decreased on a smooth line since the Sumerians first planted wheat in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But if the Leviathan collapses, I can only assume that violence rockets back up. Pinker doesn’t touch on this point, but the biggest single point of failure in the Leviathan is the Leviathan itself. And this time around if there’s any collapse of the state we’ll get to add nukes to the mix. In other words we are only saved if the state remains healthy, and I think that at present there’s reason for a lot of concern on that count.

Third, even if the Leviathan remains healthy, the modern world in general is more fragile. Pinker can be right about everything and still have a single bioterrorist bring the entire thing down, illustrating that however peaceful we’ve become that one big difference between the future and that past is the amount of damage a single individual can do. Catastrophes caused by more powerful weapons aren’t just limited to bioterrorism, they include the potential threat of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the grandaddy of threats, nuclear war. Pinker doesn’t spend any time on the first two, but as you might imagine he spends significant time with nuclear weapons. On this count he has some compelling arguments, but I think that he overlooks one big part of the argument. Whether this is purposeful or not I don’t know, but the part he overlooks is the enormous time horizon he’s dealing with. Perhaps it’s true that nuclear weapons won’t be used in the next 50 or the next 100, but what about the next 500? Even if we somehow get rid of them all the technology will still be around.

Fourth, even though I claim that the harvest is past and the summer is ended, I don’t claim that there was no harvest or that there was no summer. There was a harvest and there was a summer, I’m merely saying it can’t last forever, and that it won’t provide permanent salvation. If you look at Pinker’s data, and even his anecdotes, you’ll find that they mostly concern this same summer and this same harvest that I’ve talked about. The period that starts roughly with The Enlightenment and continues to the present day. Where we disagree is how long it can last. As I pointed out in my blogpost about the limits of growth, there are limits to progress, limits we may have already reached. As I said in the last post we may already be out of dragons to slay. The technological progress which has enabled the decrease in violence may be about to hit a wall. Historically the few hundred years of progress we’ve experienced is not in the general scheme of things, all that long, the only difference between this period and previous periods of relative stability is the speed of technology, a speed which is ultimately unsustainable.

Thus far I’ve been focusing on more tangible and quantifiable concerns, but for the last two points I’d like look at a couple of things that are more speculative. Thus far I’ve largely talked about the decrease in violence, but Pinker’s writing reaches out to encompass the entire arc of progress, including what he terms the rights revolution. Under this heading he includes everything from civil rights to gay rights to animal rights and unlike with the other trends, he admits that recognition of most of these rights is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As my fifth point I worry about where it all ends. When speaking of rights I agree with Pinker that there is a trend and the trend is accelerating, but we’re running out of road. We already have rights movements for everything imaginable, from animals, to transgendered individuals, to children (though not fetal rights.) What else is there? It may be too soon to tell but it appears now that the only thing left is to restrict the rights of those who’ve traditionally been privileged, a weird circular progression with strange unknowable consequences (including, possibly, the election of Trump?) It is possible to have too much of a good thing? Antibiotics were a true miracle when discovered, but using them for everything eventually makes them completely ineffective. As bacteria develop resistance. I’ve seen the same argument made about accusations of racism. Initially they were useful and very effective, but we’ve gotten to a point where the accusations have been overused. Once again it may not be a big deal, but there are a lot of times where things work until suddenly they don’t, where violence decreases until suddenly it doesn’t and I wonder if the rights revolution is an early example of that.

Finally, when I have an idea there’s one friend in particular that I always run it by. First off explaining it to him inevitably clarifies my thinking, secondly if this friend sees a hole in my argument he’s going to pounce on it, and most of my discussions with him end up more as low intensity debates. Additionally, in any discussion/debate with this friend he wants to make sure that he understands the core value(s) of the other person. Since it’s hard to have a productive debate if the two people can’t even agree on what’s important. For example a productive debate on whether incarceration rates are too high is going to prove difficult if one person’s core value is maximum liberty, and the other person’s core value is zero crime.

And this takes me to my final point. What is our core value? Pinker’s is the reduction of suffering and violence. This is laudable, and I certainly don’t fault Pinker (or anyone) if that is in fact his core value. But it’s not my core value and it probably shouldn’t be yours. To begin with, if you’re Mormon, you believe we already rejected the plan of zero sin and zero suffering. If you’re not Mormon, but you’re still Christian your core value should be to do God’s will. (A sentiment Pinker finds abhorrent.) But what if you’re an atheist like Pinker? Well then a reduction in violence may be your core value, but I can think of one that’s better. It’s the core value of my friend. His core value is “For Intelligence to Escape This Gravity Well.”

You may not initially agree that this is a better core value. But if this doesn’t happen then we’re definitely not saved. Humanity could end up perfectly peaceful and nonviolent, but if they don’t eventually leave the Earth they’re going to be wiped out anyway, even if it’s several billion years from now when the Earth can no longer support life, but it would probably be a lot sooner than that. Or perhaps you do agree that it’s probably a better core value, but you don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both. I’m not so sure about that. The countries that are the farthest along the Better Angels path spend vast sums of money on the welfare state which is essentially a nonviolent humanitarian project, and very little on making humanity a two+ planet species. A staggeringly difficult project regardless of what Elon Musk says.

I’m glad that we live in a time of unprecedented peace, and I thoroughly enjoyed Pinker’s book. But despite this I think he falls into the trap common to most defenders of modernity: thinking that the recent summer of progress is an eternal summer and that the harvest of technology will last forever.


The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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At the moment I find myself in the middle of two books by Steven Pinker. The first, Better Angels of Our Nature, has been mentioned a couple of times in this space and I thought it a good idea to read it, if I was going to continue referencing it. I’m nearly done and I expect that next week I’ll post a summary/review/critique. The second Pinker book I’m reading is his book on writing called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. When the time comes you’ll see that my review of Better Angels of Our Nature is full of criticisms, but a criticism of Pinker’s writing will not be among them. Sense of Style is his book of writing advice, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It continues a wealth of quality advice on non-fiction writing.

One piece of advice in particular jumped out at me. Pinker cautions writers to avoid the curse of knowledge. This particular example of bad writing happens because authors are generally so immersed in the topics they write about that they assume everyone must be familiar with the same ideas, terms and abbreviations they are. You see this often in academia and among professionals like doctors and attorneys. They spend so much of their time talking about a common set of ideas and situations that they develop a professional jargon, within which  acronyms and specialized terms proliferate leading to what could almost be classified as a different language, or at a minimum a very difficult to understand dialect. This may be okay, if not ideal, when academics are talking to other academics and doctors are talking to other doctors, but it becomes problematic when you make any attempt to share those ideas with a broader audience.

Pinker illustrates the problems with jargon using the following example:

The slow and integrative nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviorally by observations such as the “rabbit illusion” and its variants, where the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is influenced by poststimulus events arising several hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.

Pinker points out that the entire paragraph is hard to understand and full of jargon, but that the key problem is that the author assumes that everyone automatically knows what the “rabbit illusion” is, and perhaps within the author’s narrow field of expertise, it is common knowledge, but that’s almost certainly a very tiny community, a community to which most of his readers do not belong. Pinker himself did not belong to this community despite the fact that the quote was taken from a paper written by two neuroscientists and Pinker, himself, specializes in cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Harvard.

As an aside for those who are curious, the rabbit illusion refers to the effect produced when you have someone close their eyes and then you tap their wrist a few times, followed by their elbow and their shoulder. They will feel a series of taps running up the length of their arm, similar to a rabbit hopping. And the point of the paragraph quoted, is to point out that the body interprets a tap on the wrist differently if it’s followed by taps farther up the arm, then if it’s not.

This extended preface is all an effort to say that in the past posts I may have have fallen prey to the curse of knowledge. I may have let my own knowledge (meager and misguided though it may be) blind me to things that are not widely known to the public at large and which I tossed out without sufficient explanation. I feel like I have been particularly guilty of this when it comes to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, thus this post will be an attempt to rectify that oversight. It is hoped that this, along with a general resolve to do better about avoiding the curse of knowledge in the future will expulcate me from future guilt. (Though apparently not of the desire to use words like “expulcate”.)

In undertaking a survey of Taleb’s thinking in the space of a few thousand words, I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I’m optimistic that I can at least give you the 10,000 foot view of his ideas.

Conceptually Taleb’s thinking all begins with the idea of understanding randomness. His first book was titled Fooled by Randomness, because frequently what we assume is a trend, or a cause and effect relationship is actually just random noise. Perhaps the best example of this is the Narrative Fallacy, which Taleb explains as follows:

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Upon initially hearing that explanation you may be thinking of the previous paragraph about the “rabbit illusion”. I think Taleb’s writing is easier to understand, but the paragraph is a little dense, so I’ll try and unpack it. But first, what’s interesting, is that there is connection between the “rabbit illusion” and the narrative fallacy. As I mentioned the “rabbit illusion” comes because the body connects taps on the wrist, elbow and shoulder into a narrative of movement, in this case a rabbit hopping up the arm. In the same way the narrative fallacy comes into play when we try to collect isolated events into a single story that explains everything, even if those isolated events are completely random. This is what Taleb is saying. It’s almost impossible for us to not try and pull events and facts together into a single story that explains everything. But in doing so we may think we understand something when really we don’t.

To illustrate the point I’ll borrow an example from Better Angels, since I just read it. The famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand, and when he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms eat other glowworms) each worm kept a minimum distance. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.

It’s important to understand this way in which our mind builds stories out of unconnected events because it leads us to assume underlying causes and trends when there aren’t any. The explanations going around about election are great examples of this. If 140,000 people had voted differently (125k in Florida and 15k in Michigan) then the current narrative would be completely different. This is, after all, the same country who elected Obama twice, and by much bigger margins. Did the country really change that much or did the narrative change in an attempt match the events of the election? Events which probably had a fair degree of randomness. Every person needs to answer that question for themselves, but I, for one, am confident that the country hasn’t actually moved that much, but how we explain the country and it’s citizens has moved by a lot.

This is why understanding the narrative fallacy is so important. Without that understanding it’s easy to get caught up in the story we’ve constructed and believe that you understand something about the world, or even worse that based on that understanding that you can predict the future. As a final example, I offer up the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 people (and probably a lot more). And all because of the narrative: Islamic bad-guys caused 9/11, Sadaam is only vaguely Islamic, but definitely a bad guy. Get him! (This is by no means the worst example of deaths caused by the narrative fallacy, see my discussion of the Great Leap Forward.)

Does all of this mean that the world is simply random and any attempts to understand it are futile? No, but it does mean that it’s more important to understand what can happen than to attempt to predict what will happen. And this takes us to the next concept I want to discuss, the difference between the worlds of Mediocristan and Extremistan.

Let’s start with Mediocristan. Mediocristan is the world of natural processes. It includes things like height and weight, intelligence, how much someone can lift, how fast they can run etc. If you’ve ever seen the graph of a bell curve this is a good description of what to expect in Mediocristan. You should expect most things to cluster around the middle, or the top of the bell curve, and expect very few things to be on the tail ends of the bell curve. In particular you don’t expect to see anything way off to the right or left of the curve. To put it in numbers for anything in Mediocristan 68% will be one standard deviation from the average, 95% will be within two standard deviations and 99.6% will be within three standard deviations. For a concrete example of this let’s look at the height of US Males.

68% of males will be between 5’6” and 6” tall (I’m rounding a little). 95% of males will be between 5’3” and 6’3” and only one in a 1.7 million males will be over 7’ or under 4’7”. Some of you may be nodding your heads and some of you may be bored, but it’s important that you understand how the world of Mediocristan works. The key points are the average, and the median are very similar. That is that if you took a classroom full of students and lined them up by height the person standing in the middle of the line would be very close to the average height. The second key point is that there are no extremes, there are no men who are 10 feet tall or 16 inches tall. This is medicrostan. And when I said it’s more important to understand what can happen, than attempting to predict what will happen, in Mediocristan lots of extreme events can not happen. You’ll never see a 50 foot tall woman, and the vast majority of men you meet will be between 5’3” and 6’3”.

If the whole world was Mediocristan, then things would be fairly straightforward, but there is another world in which we live. It takes up the same space and involves the same people as the first world, but the rules are vastly different. This is Extremistan. And Extremistan is primarily the world of man-made systems. A good example is wealth. The average person is 5’4”, the tallest person ever was 8’11” tall. But the average person in the world has a net worth of $26,202 while the richest person in the world (Currently Bill Gates) has a net worth of $75 billion which is 2.8 million times the worth of the average person. Imagine that the tallest person in the world was actually 2,800 miles tall, and you get a sense of the difference between Mediocristan and Extremistan.

The immediate consequence of this disparity is that the exact opposite opposite rules apply in Extremistan as what applies in Mediocristan. The average and the median are not the same. And some examples will be very much on the extreme. In particular you start to understand that in a world with this sorts of extremes in what can happen it becomes very difficult to predict what will happen.

Additionally Extremistan is the world of black swans, which is the next concept I want to cover and the title of Taleb’s second book. Once again this is a term you might be familiar with, but it’s important to understand that they form a key component in understanding what can happen in Extremistan.

In short a Black Swan is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterword to show how it should have been expected.

You’ll notice that two of those points are about the prediction of black swans. The first point being that they can’t be predicted and the third point being that people will retroactively attempt to show that it should have been possible to predict it. One of the key points I try and make in this blog is that you can’t predict the future. This is terrifying for people and that’s why point 3 is so interesting. Everyone wants to think that they could have predicted the black swan, and that having seen it once they won’t miss it again, but in fact that’s not true, they will still end up being surprised the next time around.

But if we live in Extremistan, which is full of unpredictable black swans what do we do? Knowing what the world is capable of is one thing, but unless we can take some steps to mitigate these black swans what’s the point?

And here we arrive at the last idea I want to cover and the underlying idea behind Taleb’s final book, Antifragility. As I mentioned the concept of Antifragility is important enough that you should probably just read the book, in fact you should probably read all of Taleb’s books. But for the moment we’ll assume that you haven’t (and if you have you why have you even gotten this far?)

Antifragility is how you deal with black swans and how you live in Extremistan. It’s also your lifestyle if you’re not fooled by randomness. This is why Taleb considered Antifragile his mangum opus because it pulls in all of the ideas from his previous books and puts them into a single framework. That’s great, you may be saying, but you’re unclear on what antifragility is.

At it’s core antifragility is straightforward. To be antifragile is to get stronger in response to stress. (Up to a point.) The problem is when people hear that idea it sounds magical, if not impossible. They imagine cars that get stronger the more accidents they’re in or software that becomes more secure when someone attempts to hack it, or a government that gets more stable with every attempt to overthrow it. While none of this is impossible, I agree, that when stated this way the idea of antifragility seems a little bit magical.

If instead you explain antifragility in terms of muscles, which get stronger the more you stress them, then people find it easier to understand, but at the same time they will have a hard time expanding it beyond natural systems. Having established that Extremistan and black swans are mostly present in artificial systems antifragility is not going to be any good if you can’t extend it into that domain. In other words if you explain antifragility to people in isolation their general response will be to call it a nice idea, but they may have difficulty understanding the real world utility of the idea, and it’s possible that my previous discussions on the topic have left you in just this situation. Which is why I felt compelled to write this post.

Hopefully by covering Taleb’s ideas in something of a chronological order the idea of antifragility will be easier to understand. And it comes by flipping much of conventional wisdom on it’s head. Rather than being fooled by randomness, if you’re antifragile you expect randomness. Rather than being surprised by black swans, you prepare for them, knowing that there are both positive and negative black swans. Armed with this knowledge you lessen your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. All of this allows you to live comfortably in Extremistan.

If this starts to look like we’ve wandered into the realm of magical thinking again, I don’t blame you, but at it’s essence being antifragile is straightforward, for our purposes antifragility is about making sure you have unlimited upside, and limited downside. Does this mean that something which is fragile has limited upside and unlimited downside? Pretty much, and you may wonder if we’re talking about man-made systems why would anyone make something fragile. This is an excellent question. And the answer is that it all depends on the order in which things happen. In artificial systems fragility is marked by the practice of taking short term, limited profits, but having the chance of catastrophic losses. On the opposite side antifragility is marked by incurring short term limited costs, but having the chance of stratospheric profits. Fragility assumes the world is not random, assumes there are no black swans and ekes out small profits in the space between extreme events. (If this sounds like the banking system then you’re starting to get the idea.) Antifragility assumes the world is random and that black swans are on the horizon and pays small manageable costs to protect itself from those black swans (or gain access to them if they’re positive).

In case it’s still unclear here are some examples:

Insurance: If you’re fragile, you save the money you would have spent on insurance every month, a small limited profit, but risk the enormous cost of a black swan in the form of a car crash or a home fire. If you’re antifragile you pay the cost of insurance every month, a small limited cost, but avoid the enormous expense of the negative black swan, should it ever happen.

Investing: If you put away a small amount of money every month you gain access to a system with potential black swans. Trading a small, limited cost for the potential of a big payout. If you don’t invest, you get that money, a small limited profit, but miss out on any big payouts.

Government Debt: By running a deficit governments get the limited advantage of being able to spend more than they take in. But in doing so they create a potentially huge black swan, should an extreme event happen.

Religion: By following religious commandments you have to put up with the cost of not enjoying alcohol, or fornication, or Sunday morning, but in return you avoid the negative black swans of alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, and not having a community of friends when times get tough. If you don’t follow the commandments you get your Sunday mornings, and I hear whiskey is pretty cool, but you open yourself up to all of the negative swans mentioned above. And of course I haven’t even brought in the idea of an eternal reward (see Pascal’s Wager.)

Hopefully we’ve finally reached the point where you can see why Taleb’s ideas are so integral to the concept of this blog.

The modern world is top heavy with fragility, and the story of progress is the story of taking small limited profits while ignoring potential catastrophes. In contrast, Antifragility requires sacrifice, it requires cost, it requires dedication and effort. And, as I have said again and again in this space, I fear that all of those are currently in short supply


Nukes

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The key theme of this blog is that progress has not saved us. It has not made us any less sinful, it has not improved our lives in any of the ways that really matter, but has rather introduced opportunities to sin that for someone living 200 years ago would beggar the imagination.

Of course it’s easy and maybe even forgivable to think this is not the case. We live longer, there’s less hunger and poverty, along with this comes more freedom and less violence. For now we’re going to focus on that last assertion, that things are less violent. And since we already broached the subject of nukes in our last post, we’re specifically going to continue to expand on that idea.

One of the best known arguments about a decrease in violence comes from someone who I actually admire quite a bit, Steven Pinker. He made the argument in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. Taleb, as you might imagine, disagrees with Pinker’s thesis and in what is becoming a common theme, asserts that Pinker is confusing the absence of volatility with an absence of fragility. If you want to read Taleb’s argument you can find it here. Needless to say, as much as I admire Pinker, on this issue I agree with Taleb.

As I have already said, this post is going to be an extension of my last post. In that last post I urged people to take a longer term outlook, and to eschew the immediate political fight in favor of a longer term historical outlook. In other words that post was about being wise, and this post is about what will happen if we aren’t wise. In particular what things look like as far as nukes.

As you can imagine if our survival hinges on our wisdom, then I’m not optimistic, and I personally predict that nukes are in our future. In this, I think, as with so many things, that I am contradicting conventional wisdom, or at least what most people believe about nuclear weapons, if they in fact believe anything at all.  If they do they might be thinking something along these lines: It’s been over 70 years since the last nuke was exploded in anger. (In fact I am writing these words on the 71st anniversary of Nagasaki, though they won’t be published until a few days later.) And they may further think: Yes, we have nukes, but we’re not going to use them. Sure some crazy terrorist may explode one, but the kind of all-out exchange we were worried about during the cold war is not going to happen. First don’t underestimate the impact of a loan terrorist nuke, and secondly don’t write off an all-out exchange either. Particularly if we’re going to poke the bear in the manner I described in my last post.

The first question to consider is why are we still worried about nukes even 70 years after their invention? Generally the development of a technology is quickly followed by the development of countermeasures. To take just one example, being able to drop bombs from the air was terrifying to people when that first became a possibility, but it didn’t take long to develop fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. Then why, 71 years after Nagasaki and 50+ years after the development of the ICBM, can we still not defend ourselves? Can’t we shoot missiles down? Well first off even if we could a lot of people think building a missile defense system is the ultimate way of poking the bear. For what it’s worth I don’t fall into that camp despite my reluctance, in general, to poke the bear. But even if we decide that’s okay, right now it just isn’t technologically feasible to make a missile defense system that works against someone like Russia or China.

At this point I’d like to offer up data on the effectiveness of various anti missile systems and unfortunately there’s not a lot of it, and what there is isn’t good. If North Korea or Iran happened to launch a single missile at the United States we might be able to stop it, but when asked what he would do in that case one knowledgeable US official is reported to have said:

If a North Korean ICBM were launched in the direction of Seattle, …[I] would fire a bunch of GMD interceptors and cross [my] fingers.

Some clarification: GMD stands for Ground-based Midcourse Defense and is our current anti-ballistic missile platform, also North Korea currently doesn’t have a missile capable of reaching Seattle. But it’s interesting to note what they do have, given how impoverished the country is in all other respects.

As I said I’d like to offer up some data, but there isn’t much of it. Recent tests of our anti-missile systems have been marginally promising but they have mostly been conducted in a reasonably controlled environment, not on actual missiles being fired by surprise from a random location, at a time chosen by the aggressor for optimal effectiveness.

Tacked on at the end of the Wikipedia article on the US’s efforts at missile defense is a great summary of the difficulties of defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. In short:

  • Boost-stage defenses are the only layer that can successfully destroy a MIRV (an ICBM that has multiple warheads.)
  • Even so, boost stage interception is really difficult particularly against solid fuel ICBMs of the type that Russia and China use.
  • And even then the only current technology capable of doing it has to be within 40 km (~25 miles) of where the missile is launched. For those in Utah that means that if you had an anti missile defense system located at Hill Air Force Base it could shoot down missiles launched from no farther away than downtown Salt Lake City.

The Wikipedia article concludes by saying that, “There is no theoretical perspective for economically viable boost-phase defense against the latest solid-fueled ICBMs, no matter if it would be ground-based missiles, space-based missiles, or airborne laser (ABL).” (A reference from the following paper.)

In the end it’s not hard to see why nuclear missiles are so hard to defend against. Your defense can’t be porous at all. Letting even a single warhead get through can cause massive destruction. Add to that their speed and small size and you have the ultimate offensive weapon.

Thus far we’ve talked about the difficulties in defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. But of course we haven’t done anything to address why they might decide to nuke us. I did cover that at some length in my last post, but before we dive back into that, let’s look at people who we know want to nuke us, terrorists.

Obviously there are no shortage of terrorist groups who would love to nuke us if they could get their hands on one. Thus far we’ve been lucky and as far as we know there are no loose nukes. And I’m sure that preventing it is one of the top priorities of every intelligence agency out there, so perhaps it won’t happen. Still this is another situation where we’re in a race between singularity and catastrophe. On a long enough time horizon the chances that there will be some act of nuclear terrorism approach 100%. To argue otherwise would be to assert that eventually terrorism and nukes will go away. I will address the later point in a minute, but as to the first I don’t think anyone believes that terrorism will disappear. If anything, most sources of grievance have increased in the last few years. If you think I’m wrong on this point I’d be glad to hear your argument.

Of course, if we never have an incident of nuclear terrorism, then, as I frequently point out, that’s great. If I’m wrong nothing happens. But if I’m right

Perhaps you might argue that a single nuke going off in New York or Paris or London is not that bad. Certainly it would be one of the biggest new stories since the explosion of the first nuclear weapons and frankly it’s hard to see how it doesn’t end up radically reshaping the whole world, at least politically. Obviously a lot depends on who ultimately ended up being responsible for the act, but we invaded Iraq after 9/11 and they had nothing to do with it (incidentally this is more complicated than most people want to admit, but yeah, basically they didn’t have anything to do with it and we invaded them anyway.) Imagine who we might invade if an actual nuke went off.

And then of course there’s the damage to the American psyche. Look at how much things changed just following 9/11. I can only imagine what kind of police state we would end up with after a terrorist nuke exploded in a major city. In other words, I would argue that a terrorist nuke is inevitable and that when it does happen it’s going to have major repercussions.

But we still need to return to a discussion of a potential World War III, a major nuclear exchange between two large nation states. What are the odds of that? Since the end of the Cold War the conventional wisdom has been that the odds are quite low, but I can think of at least a half a dozen factors which might increase the odds.

The first factor is the one I covered in my last post, and that is that we seem determined to encircle and antagonize the two major countries that have a large quantity of nuclear weapons. I previously spoke mostly about Russia, but if you follow what’s happening in the South China Sea (that article was three hours old when I wrote this) or if you’ve heard about the recent ruling by the Hague we’re not exactly treating China with kid gloves either. I’ve already said a lot about this factor so we’ll move on to the others.

The next factor which I think increases the odds of World War III is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I know that most recently Iran looks like a success story. Here’s a country who wanted nuclear weapons and we stopped them. Well of course that remains to be seen, but it does seem intuitive that the longer we go the more countries will have nukes. Perhaps it might be instructive to determine a rate at which this is happening. In 1945 there was one country. Today in 2016, everyone pretty much agrees that there are nine. Dividing 71 years by 8 we get a new nuclear nation every nine years. Which means that in 99 years we’ll have another 11 nations with nuclear weapons, assuming that the rate of acquisition doesn’t increase. But actually most technological innovation doesn’t follow a linear curve. Consequently we may see an explosion (no pun intended) in nations with nuclear weapons, or it may be gradual or it may not happen at all (again this would be great, but unexpected.)

But let’s assume the rate at which new countries are added to the nuclear club stays constant and it takes 9 years on average to add a nation to the club and that in 100 years we’ve only added 11 more countries. On the face of it that may seem fairly minor, but if we assume that any two belligerents could start World War III then we would have 55 potential starting points for World War III rather than the one starting point we had during the bipolar situation which existed during the Cold War.

In saying this I realize, of course, there were more than two nations with nukes during the Cold War, but everyone had basically lined up on one side or another, in 100 years who knows what kind of alliances there will be. Even France and the United States have had rocky patches in their relationship over the last several decades. (More about France later.)

The third factor which might increase the odds is the wildcard that is China. As I mentioned in my last point for a long time we had a bipolar world. The Soviet Union only had to worry about the United States and vice versa. Now we have an increasingly aggressive China whose intentions are unclear, but they’re certainly very ambitious. And, from the standpoint of nuclear weapons, they’re keeping their cards very close to their chest.

Most people have a tendency to dismiss China, because they are still quite far behind the US and Russia. But they’re catching up fast, and also since they weren’t really part of the Cold War there’s a lot of restrictions that apply to Russia and the US which don’t apply to China’s weapons, allowing them (from the article I just linked to)

…considerably more freedom to explore the technical frontiers of ballistic and cruise missiles than either the US or Russia.

The fourth factor involves a concept we’re going to borrow from Dan Carlin, of the podcast Hardcore History, it’s the concept of the Historical Arsonist. These are people like Hitler, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. Who burn down the world, generally not caring how many people die or what else happens, in their quest to remake things in their image. You can see people like this going back as far as we have records up to as recently as World War II. While it’s certainly possible that we no longer have to worry about this archetype, they seem to be a fairly consistent feature of humanity. If they haven’t disappeared, then when the next one comes along he’s going to have access to nuclear weapons. What does that look like? During Hitler’s rise he was able to gain a significant amount of territory just by asking, how much more effective would he have been if he had threatened nuclear annihilation if he didn’t get his way?

This brings up another point, are we even sure we know all the ways someone could use nuclear weapons? In the past one of the defining features of these historical arsonists was they took military technology and used it in a way no one expected. Napoleon was the master of the artillery and was able to mobilize and field a much bigger army than had previously been possible. Hitler combined the newly developed tank and aircraft into an unstoppable blitzkrieg. Alexander the Great had the phalanx. Nuclear weapons, as I’ve mentioned, are hard enough to defend against in any case, but imagine the most deviously clever thing someone could do with that, and then imagine that it was even more devious than that. With something of that level, you might have historical arson on a scale never before imagined.

The fifth factor which makes the odds of World War III greater than commonly imagined is the potential change in the underlying geopolitics. By this I mean, nations can break up, they change governments, national attitudes mutate, etc. We’ve already seen the Soviet Union break up, and while that went fairly smoothly (at least so far, it actually hasn’t been that long when you think about it.) There’s no reason to assume that it will go that smoothly the next time. Particularly when you look at the lesson of the former Soviet Republics who did give up their weapons. When you look at what’s happening in Ukraine it seems probable that they might now regret giving up their nukes.

Of course the US isn’t going to last forever. I have no firm prediction what the end of the country looks like, and once again it’s possible that we’ll reach some sort of singularity long before that, but it may happen sooner than we imagine, particularly if the increased rancor of the current election represents any kind of trend. Thus if, but more likely when, something like that happens, what does that look like in terms of nukes? If Texas breaks off that’s one thing, but if you end up with seven nations who ends up with the nukes?

And then of course you could have the possibility of a radical change in government. Some people think that Trump would be catastrophic in this respect. On the other side of the aisle, many conservatives think that a country like France might get taken over by Muslims if demographic trends continue and immigration isn’t stopped. Certainly a book about the subject has proven very popular. Does a Muslim run France with nukes act exactly the same as the current nation? Maybe, maybe not.

The final factor to consider, at least for those who believe in revelation and scripture, are the various references to the last days which fit very well with what might be expected from nuclear warfare. We believe that war will be poured out upon all nations, and that the elements will melt with a  fervent heat and finally that the earth will be baptized by fire. Obviously saying I know what this prophecy means is a dangerous and prideful game, and that is not what I’m doing. What I am saying is that this is one more factor to be added to and weighed alongside the other factors which have already been mentioned.

The point of all this is not to convince you drop everything and start building a bomb shelter (though I think if you already have one you shouldn’t demolish it.) Along with everything I’ve said I still believe that no man knoweth the hour. I’m also not saying I know that some form of nuclear armageddon will accompany the second coming. My point as always is that we are not saved and cannot be saved through our own efforts. Only the Son of Man and Prince of Peace has the ability to bring true and lasting peace. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, thinking we have or even can achieve peace on our own, that we just need to keep pushing the spread science, or liberal democracy, or our “enlightened” western values, is more dangerous and more likely to hasten what we fear than reminding ourselves of the fallen nature of man and restricting ourselves to the preaching of gospel, while eschewing the preaching of progress.

In the end, attempting to eliminate World War III may paradoxically hasten its arrival…`