Tag: <span>Religion</span>

The 8.5 Books I Finished in October

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  1. Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by: Michael J. Sandel
  2. Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by: Jesse Singal
  3. Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) by: John Michael Greer
  4. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by: H. W. Brands
  5. Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by: Norm Macdonald
  6. The Silmarillion by: J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by: Carlo M. Cipolla
  8. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by: Roland Huntford
  9. How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion by: David DeSteno

Over the last few months I’ve been enjoying Holden Karnofsky’s newsletter “Cold Takes”. One of his central arguments is that this is the most important century. 

In this opinion we are basically aligned, but whereas I am largely pessimistic about our ability to handle the ramifications of this moment, Karnofsky is more of an optimist. Perhaps I’ll go into his assertions more on some other occasion, but for now I merely wanted to provide some context around Karnofsky before I introduce his deplorable advice on how one should read books. Which, since I’m about to review a bunch of books I’ve read, would appear to be germane

He starts off with the idea that we overestimate how much we retain from reading a book. Which is almost certainly true. Though I think his assertion suffers from never going to the trouble of rigorously defining the word “retain”. Is retention measured by telling someone to write down everything they remembered from the book, and comparing it to the actual book? Or is it measured by being able to summon forth a point from the book when it’s relevant? Or could someone be said to retain something if they can call it to mind after being prompted:

Do you remember that part in Dune when Paul chooses his name?

Oh, yeah. He asks the name of the mouse shadow in the second moon. And they tell him that they call it Muad’dib. And that’s the name he chooses.

Additionally his measurement of retention is just a percentage—what portion of the book was retained using the various methods (skimming, reading slowly, re-reading, etc.) And beyond the fact that his percentages are ridiculous, which I’ll get to, certain parts of a book are far more valuable to retain than other parts. The first 10%, the stuff that everyone knows about the book, is likely to be in such common circulation that any interesting insights will similarly be widely available. Whereas the 10% you extract after reading the whole thing, or reading it multiple times is likely to be the most valuable, or at least the rarest.

But I’m sure you want to know why I think his percentages are ridiculous. You should check out his post if you want to see his entire table but to give you a couple of examples. He asserts that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but I’m particularly flabbergasted by his contention that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title. 

Beyond his exaggeration of the importance of reading titles, he contends that in general it’s a far better use of your time to read what other people are saying about the book then it is to read the book itself. And this is where we return to the idea of the varying quality of retaining some parts of the book vs. retaining other parts of the book. As an example if you were to compare my book reviews to the reviews found on Amazon you would find that I’m frequently talking about the book in a way that no one else is. Which means my insights can only come from reading the actual book, not reading what other people say about the book, because no one is saying what I am. Now this still leaves unaddressed the question of whether my insights have any value, I could just be insane. I’ll let you be the judge of that:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

by: Michael J. Sandel

342 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

As meritocracy has become more deeply entrenched it has begun to take the form of a system of morality, where being successful equals having moral worth.

Who should read this book?

At any given moment some books are part of the larger conversation. This is one of those books, and if you want a better understanding of the conversation around meritocracy you should read it. 

General Thoughts

The book opens with by recounting the admissions scandal which ensnared people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Sandel chooses this story because it’s a clear example of merit-seeking corruption. But beyond this it illustrates that it’s not actual merit the parents were seeking—I haven’t come across anything indicating these parents were “tiger moms” obsessed with making their children practice various skills—no, what they were buying was the appearance of merit. While he didn’t reference it, Sandel essentially wrote a book length treatment of Campbell’s law (and also the closely related, Goodhart’s law) as it applied to merit:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

This is also closely related to the discussion from a few years ago when Bryan Caplan published his book, The Case Against Education, which argued that college was not about knowledge and increasing human capital, it was about signalling intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. The book also reminded me a lot of Freddie deBoer’s book, Cult of Smart, which I read back in April. As I mentioned already there is definitely a robust conversation around this topic. 

If I were to try to distill out Sandel’s contribution to the topic, I would say he really leans into the moral angle of the whole phenomenon. The idea that if we assume this is a meritocracy, then we further have to assume that positions are earned. That the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. And gradually the definition of deserve creeps from an evaluation of economic worth in a capitalist system to moral worth in a more transcendent system.

In large part this happens because those in charge are incentivized to move the definition in this direction. Not only that, but it only takes a little bit of bias to believe this narrative. Meritocracy has made it so that at least some hard work is required to succeed, people are no longer born to positions. Therefore those at the top of the meritocracy will emphasize their hard work while overlooking outside help and luck.

It’s the dash of hard work with the ratcheting effect of the bias that, in Sandel’s account, differentiates meritocracy from previous social systems. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

Meritocracy is a relatively new invention. Previous to it’s introduction religion and nobility were the primary systems for deciding who was in charge. In both cases people quite obviously ended up in positions of power without any hard work. One might think that this is a bad thing, and it almost certainly was for the people who were subject to this power, but it was a good thing for the system as a whole because it forced a certain amount of humility to be present. It didn’t force every individual to be humble, but the system as a whole necessarily created some humility. 

As Sandel points out:

[T]he more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.

The meritocratic concept of being self-made is also something which wasn’t present in the past systems. Under a system of nobility you were always answerable to some higher noble. Unless you were the King, and indeed that was also generally the failure point in the system. Under a system of religion you were always answerable to God. Or rather the actions of people in power would be circumscribed by the perception of their righteousness. You could only ratchet your own importance so much.

Now I understand that this overview of past systems has overlooked all kinds of nuance and exceptions, and been largely written from a Western, Christian perspective. But I think Sandel is right in pointing out that the incentives of meritocracy have produced some weird, and pernicious outcomes. None of which is to say that Sandel is advocating for a return to earlier systems. And, while I think the world needs more religion, neither am I.

For all the harms caused by meritocracy, I’m still glad that doctors, pilots, and politicians (mostly) are selected by merit. And it may be that meritocracy is similar to democracy. The worst system except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time. Let us hope that this continues to be the case. But there is an argument to be made that the harms of meritocracy are multiplying at the same time that its benefits are diminishing.


Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills

by: Jesse Singal

334 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the popularization of psychology has incentivized scientists to produce “quick fixes”, even if they have to ignore the scientific process in order to do so. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve noticed the parade of techniques that are supposed to be the solution to everything, from improving self esteem, to positive psychology and emphasizing grit. Techniques that flare in a blinding fashion before fading into irrelevance, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

For anyone who’s been following the replication crisis this book will not be surprising. Though I’m sure you’ll still come across stuff that you hadn’t heard. For myself I had forgotten about the panic over super predators and I had no idea that positive psychology had essentially taken over the military. 

But of course this latter example illustrates the point, these concepts have, when ascendent, penetrated nearly everywhere. Even power posing, which always seemed a little bit silly, ended up being prominently featured in the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg which spawned a whole movement around women in the workplace. Nor has power posing been entirely abandoned, it still has it’s defenders.

But eventually after this moment in the spotlight the principles fade, the results don’t match the hype, and (hopefully) the science eventually catches up Though, rather than being abashed that they fell for yet another fad, people immediately start looking for the next fad, the next golden bullet to solve all the problems.

Interestingly, though Singal approaches with caution, his book ends by speaking approvingly of nudges. Targeted, and limited interventions designed to accomplish very narrow aims. The classic example is the idea that people donate more to their 401k if you make them have to opt out of it, rather than opting into it. I get this, but whatever his caution I think Singal may be falling for some of the same faddish adulation he’s decrying everywhere else. 

I think the nudges that work best are just people exercising a little more intelligence when they design systems, like the 401k example. I think other nudges will appear to work initially, but then the effectiveness will fade with time. My power company tries one of the classic nudges with me every month. They show my power usage with respect to my neighbors. And initially, when I saw that I used more power I tried various things to use less, as intended, but then when it kept coming in high I realized that there were (at the time) six people in my house. And two retirees in most of the houses I was being compared against. And now even though there are fewer people in my house I haven’t looked at those comparisons in months, nor do I care much what they show. 

All of which is to say that individual nudges may have a small effect but the concept of nudges as a new tool that will change everything (particularly divorced from any larger concepts, a point I’ll get to it a bit) is yet another fad that will fade. Which Singal allows for, but maybe not enough.

Eschatological Implications

I think most of the implications here are one’s I’ve already spent a lot of time covering in this space. For the last few centuries progress and science have given people a reason to be optimistic about the future. But it’s been apparent for a while that we were running out of things for science to revolutionize. However there was always one thing left on the list, and it’s been on the list of things to improve for at least the last century and probably longer than that. Of course I’m talking about humanity. Quick Fix is both valuable and depressing. Valuable for the truths it points out, depressing in that one of those truths is that humanity is becoming more intractable rather than less. Meaning that if you want to be optimistic about the future, science no longer provides that. If you want optimism you have to find it in the perfectibility of humanity which every day seems more impossible.


II- Capsule Reviews

Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) 

by: John Michael Greer

247 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young girl who reconnects with her extended family who are worshippers of the Elder Gods. Only unlike most novels of this sort, such worshippers are the good guys.

Who should read this book?

Greer mostly writes non-fiction and I think his fiction writing somewhat reflects that, thus you should read the book only if you feel intrigued by its unique premise.

General Thoughts

After reading the first book in this series I was kind of underwhelmed. I had enjoyed it, but I felt it hadn’t crossed the line into being exceptional. I intended to finish the series, just because that’s what I always intend, even if it never happens, but I wasn’t particularly excited for the next book. 

But, as the months went by I found myself unable to stop thinking about it, and more and more eager to find out where Greer was going to go with this unique “worshipers of the elder gods are the good guys” premise. So I picked up the second book, and once again the writing was a little dry, and the characters were a little bit flat, but the premise continues to be endlessly fascinating, and I’m really interested to see what happens in the rest of the books.


The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

by: H. W. Brands

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The post World War II career of General MacArther, and in particular his conflict with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. 

Who should read this book?

If you like history and biography at all this is one of the better examples I’ve come across. Also if you feel like you have a blindspot when it comes to the Korean War this is a great entry point.

General Thoughts

The book starts out by talking about how much the Japanese revered General MacArthur. I’m curious to know if that’s still the case. (I have a friend in Japan I’ve been meaning to ask but I haven’t gotten around to it.) It’s nice that it starts out that way because the remainder of the book is increasingly hard on him, and by the end he doesn’t come out looking very good. Which I think is the impression I absorbed of him growing up in the 70s and 80s. (Certainly the show M.A.S.H. didn’t help.) Obviously I had heard about Truman firing him, but it always felt more like a piece of trivia than a national scandal. This book definitely made me feel the magnitude of the act. And the magnitude of the Korean War, which is another thing which doesn’t carry the weight it deserves, stuck as it is between Vietnam and World War II.

If you’ll forgive me for going on a brief eschatological tangent, one of the really interesting things about the Korean War is how pivotal it was when it came to the question of nuclear weapons. At this point it was still an open question whether nukes were going to be just another weapon in a countries arsenal or whether they were going to be treated as being on a whole, separate, almost unthinkable level. It’s a credit to Truman that it was the latter not the former.

One of the things I did in October, which didn’t get mentioned in the intro, was I took a trip to Albuquerque to visit family. While there I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. I highly recommend it, particularly for those who have any doubts about the unclear status of nuclear weapons in the 50’s. You’ll see all manner of things including nuclear artillery and the infamous nuclear bazooka

To the extent I have a criticism and it’s a very small one, this book, despite its subtitle, might have been even better if Brands had spent more time examining this inflection point in the use of nuclear weapons.


Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir

by: Norm Macdonald

242 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A somewhat surreal pseudo-memoir of Norm Macdonald. About 99% untrue, but 100% of his essence. Perhaps if Vonnegut had written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is what would have come out.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who REALLY liked Norm Macdonald already has. But if, like me, you only truly recognized his genius once it was gone, this is a great way to both bask in it and pay homage to it.

General Thoughts

I was not a hardcore Norm Macdonald fan. He was rather someone I wanted to hear more from, but never got around to it. When he died, that snapped me into action and I picked up his book. It was the audio version and he did the narration which was great. 

I think the comment I made about Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson sums it up pretty well. This book is not for everyone, and it’s pretty crass to boot. But if you felt like Macdonald was taken too soon this is a great way to celebrate his comedic genius. 


The Silmarillion 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

If the Lord of the Rings is the New Testament, The Silmarillion is the Old. It’s a record of all the things that happened beforehand which were only alluded to in the trilogy. It’s also far more tragic.

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone who likes The Silmarillion, who doesn’t already like the Lord of the Rings, but liking LotR is no guarantee that you’ll like this book. I only know a few people who love it. 

General Thoughts

I am one of those who love The Silmarillion. My favorite scene from the trilogy is when Gandalf confronts the Lord of the Nazguls at the gates of Minas Tirith. The Silmarillion is full of scenes like that. It can do this because it covers thousands of years, and it basically only includes these scenes. As a consequence of this there is very little in the way of character development. And while there is something of an overarching plot the book is not a novel, it’s a collection of myths. And as such it’s not for everyone. But after reading it this time, I think I actually like it better than the original trilogy. 

On this read through one scene in particular really moved me. It concerns Húrin, a mighty warrior, who ends up being imprisoned in the dungeons of the dark lord for 28 years before he is finally released. Wandering about, old and bowed down he comes across his wife, sitting at the graves of his children:

But Húrin did not look at the stone, for he knew what was written there; and his eyes had seen that he was not alone. Sitting in the shadow of the stone there was a woman, bent over her knees; and as Húrin stood there silent she cast back her tattered hood and lifted her face. Grey she was and old, but suddenly her eyes looked into his, and he knew her; for though they were wild and full of fear, that light still gleamed in them that long ago had earned for her the name [Morwen], proudest and most beautiful of mortal women in the days of old.

‘You come at last,’ she said. ‘I have waited too long.’

‘It was a dark road. I have come as I could,’ he answered.

‘But you are too late,’ said Morwen. ‘They are lost.’

‘I know it,’ he said. ‘But you are not.’

But Morwen said: ‘Almost. I am spent. I shall go with the sun…

…and they sat beside the stone, and did not speak again; and when the sun went down Morwen sighed and clasped his hand, and was still; and Húrin knew that she had died. 


The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by: Carlo M. Cipolla

64 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The 5 Laws of human stupidity.

Who should read this book?

The introduction is by Nassim Taleb. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, you should read this book. Also it’s super short (this is my ½ book for the month.)

General Thoughts

Here are the five laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and Inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. Stupid people are the most dangerous kind of people. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The rules are interesting, but it’s the idea of the bandit that’s going to stick with me. Cipolla divides people into four quadrants:

  1. The Intelligent: Those who act in such a way that it benefits themselves and others.
  2. The Bandits: Those who act to benefit themselves while causing harm to others.
  3. The Helpless: Those who harm themselves while benefiting others. (I feel like there should be a better term for this than helpless.)
  4. The Stupid: Those who cause harm to both themselves and others. 

He further divides the bandit in two. Bandits who help themselves more than they harm others— so on net they benefit society. And bandits who harm others more than they help themselves—someone who breaks a $500 car window to steal the $5 in change sitting in the center console. Obviously, just by the nature of banditry the latter type is far more common than the former. But I think the former has an interesting place in the capitalist structure. Particularly when you start to consider harms that are more diffuse.


The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

by: Roland Huntford

640 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The lives of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen and their race for the South Pole.  

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes stories of survival and exploration, but it also works as a business book.

General Thoughts

To start with I’m glad I read The Man Who Ate His Boots before reading this. The foundation it gave me on the previous era of arctic exploration was very helpful particularly at the beginning of this book.

As far as the book itself, my sense of Scott was developed in a similar fashion to my sense of MacArthur. I had evidently picked up some stuff by osmosis. Before reading this book I had a vague sense of Scott’s heroism and a vague annoyance with Amundsen, but if you had asked me to explain where I got those impressions I would have been unable to point to anything specific. Having read the book I’m not surprised by those opinions, they’re basically the opinions which suffuse the anglosphere. Though the fact that I was unaware of this osmosis might bear further examination. Particularly since the impressions I had were entirely wrong. Everyone should strive to emulate Amundsen, while Scott should be a cautionary tale for anyone engaged in any high risk endeavor.

So how is it that the conventional wisdom is lukewarm towards Amundsen, while Scott is still thought of with reverence? There are three factors: first, whatever other faults Scott may have had he was a gifted writer, and when his journal was published posthumously (and also after some extensive editing) it gave the whole enterprise a heroic narrative, which bore only a passing resemblance to reality. Second, Scott died. Objectively this can’t help but count against him, but emotionally it ends up providing a huge boost to someone’s reputation to die young. Also there’s this sense that Amundsen, by being close and winning the race, somehow contributed to it. Third, Scott’s journey was more exciting.

It’s this last bit that I want to focus on in particular, and what makes this something of a business book. How often do we judge people’s efforts by how many near death experiences come out of it, rather than how safe and effective it was. Certainly the near death stories are more exciting and get retold more often. In this case Scott was heroic because he died, while Amundsen was not because his expedition was meticulously planned and executed. Of course what we should want is not excitement and heroism, we should want things to be meticulously planned and executed. But that’s often not the way people think. 

I wonder if movies have made this problem worse? Something to chew on.


III- Religious Reviews

How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

by: David DeSteno

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How most of the stuff scientists think of for improving humanity is already being done by religion and in a more effective fashion.

Who should read this book?

People who want their support of religion confirmed or people who think that religion is entirely valueless.

General Thoughts

This book makes the argument I’ve long made. That religion isn’t a harmful batch of superstitions that idiots waste their time with, but rather a rigorously evolved package of beneficial behaviors. So in a very broad sense it’s supportive of one of the core missions of the blog. But as I’ve spent a lot of time already on that subject I’d like to talk about the interesting addendum it provides to one of the previous books I reviewed, Quick Fix.

To begin with, DeSteno’s point is very similar to Singal’s. There are no quick fixes. If you want to change human behavior it takes something massive and integrated; something that has been developed over centuries. Nor are these changes massive, mostly they are small improvements, but there are improvements which last, they’re not transitory. 

But then interestingly DeSteno ends up in the same place as Singal, talking about nudges. And there’s this sense that for DeSteno that’s all religion is. (DeSteno himself is not a believer.) That it’s a collection of nudges. For example, we know meditation is good, religion tells you to pray which is a nudge to meditate. And indeed that’s probably all that DeSteno’s data can tell him, but I think he’s only scratching the surface on the benefits of religion. That nudges are just what can quickly be measured, that the benefits of religion are mostly felt over the span of decades. This is also the scope for the harms of its absence to be felt as well. Harms which every day seem more and more apparent.


I guess this end bit that I always do is also a nudge. Let’s hope it’s one that is bundled up into a larger system of value rather than one of those nudges that fade with time. Either way if you have felt the nudge to donate, give into that impulse, it’s what science would want you to do. 


Eschatologist #8: If You’re Worried About the Future, Religion is Playing on Easy Mode

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As has frequently been the case with these newsletters, last time I left things on something of a cliff hanger. I had demonstrated the potential for technology to cause harm—up to and including the end of all humanity. And then, having painted this terrifying picture of doom, I ended without providing any suggestions for how to deal with this terror. Only the vague promise that such suggestions would be forthcoming. 

This newsletter is the beginning of those suggestions, but only the beginning. Protecting humanity from itself is a big topic, and I expect we’ll be grappling with it for several months, such are its difficulties. But before exploring this task on hard mode, it’s worthwhile to examine whether there might be an easy mode. I think there is. I would argue that faith in God with an accompanying religion is “easy mode”, not just at an individual level, but especially at a community level.

Despite being religious it has been my general intention to not make any arguments from an explicitly religious perspective, but in this case I’m making an exception. With that exception in mind, how does being religious equal a difficulty setting of easy?

To begin with, if one assumes there is a God, it’s natural to proceed from this assumption to the further assumption that He has a plan—one that does not involve us destroying ourselves. (Though, frequently, religions maintain that we will come very close.) Furthermore the existence of God explains the silence of the universe mentioned in the last newsletter without needing to consider the possibility that such silence is a natural consequence of intelligence being unavoidably self-destructive. 

As comforting as I might find such thoughts, most people do not spend much time thinking about God as a solution to Fermi’s Paradox, about x-risks and the death of civilizations. The future they worry about is their own, especially their eventual death. Religions solve this worry by promising that existence continues beyond death, and that this posthumous existence will be better. Or it at least promises that it can be better contingent on a wide variety of things far too lengthy to go into here.

All of this is just at the individual level. If we move up the scale, religions make communities more resilient. Not only do they provide meaning and purpose, and relationships with other believers, they also make communities better able to recover from natural disasters. Further examples of resilience will be a big part of the discussion going forward, but for now I will merely point out that there are two ways to deal with the future: prediction and resilience. Religion increases the latter.  

For those of you who continue to be skeptical, I urge you to view religion from the standpoint of cultural evolution: cultural practices that developed over time to increase the survivability of a society. This survivability is exactly what we’re trying to increase, and this is one of the reasons why I think religion is playing on easy mode. Rejecting all of the cultural practices which have been developed over the centuries and inventing new culture from scratch certainly seems like a harder way to go about things.

Despite all of the foregoing, some will argue that religion distorts incentives, especially in its promise of an afterlife. How can a religious perspective truly be as good at identifying and mitigating risks as a secular perspective, particularly given that religion would entirely deny the existence of certain risks? This is a fair point, but I’ve always been one of those (and I think there are many of us) who believe that you should work as if everything depends on you while praying as if everything depends on God. This is perhaps a cliche, but no less true, even so.

If you are still bothered by the last statement’s triteness, allow me to restate: I am not a bystander in the fight against the chaos of the universe, I am a participant. And I will use every weapon at my disposal as I wage this battle.


Wars are expensive. They take time and attention. This war is mostly one of words (so far) but money never hurts. If you’d like to contribute to the war effort consider donating


Remind Me What The Heck Your Point is Again?

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The other day I was talking to my brother and he said, “How would you describe your blog in a couple of sentences?”

It probably says something about my professionalism (or lack thereof) that I didn’t have some response ready to spit out. An elevator pitch, if you will. Instead I told him, “That’s a tough one.” Much of this difficulty comes because, if I were being 100% honest, the fairest description of my blog would boil down to: I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting. Of course, this description is not going to get me many readers, particularly if they have no idea whether there’s any overlap between what I find interesting and what they find interesting.

I didn’t say this to my brother, mostly because I didn’t think of it at the time. Instead, after few seconds, I told him, well of course the blog does have a theme, it’s right there in the title, but I admitted that it might be more atmospheric than explanatory. Though I think we can fix that with the addition of a few words. Which is how Jeremiah 8:20 shows up on my business cards. (Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff your donations get spent on, FYI.) With those few words added it reads:

The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.

If I was going to be really pedantic, I might modify it, and hedge, so it read as follows:

Harvesting technology is getting more complex, the summer where progress was easy is over, and I think we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.

If I was going to be more literary and try to pull in some George R.R. Martin fans I might phrase it:

What we harvest no longer feeds us, and winter is coming.

But once again, you would be forgiven if, after all this, you’re still unclear on what this blog is about (other than weird things I find interesting). To be fair, to myself, I did explain all of this in the very first post, and re-reading it recently, I think it held up fairly well. But it could be better, and this assumes that people have even read my very first post, which is unlikely since at the time my readership was at its nadir, and despite my complete neglect of anything resembling marketing, since then, it has grown, and presumably at least some of those people have not read the entire archive.

Accordingly, I thought I’d take another shot at it. To start, one concept which runs through much (though probably not all) of what I write, is the principle of antifragility, as introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of (nearly) the same name.

I already dedicated an entire post to explaining the ideas of Taleb, so I’m not going to repeat that here. But, in brief, Taleb starts with what should be an uncontroversial idea, that the world is random. He then moves on to point out the effects of that, particularly in light of the fact that most people don’t recognize how random things truly are. They are often Fooled by Randomness (the title of his first book) into thinking that there’s patterns and stability when there aren’t. From there he moves on to talk about extreme randomness through introducing the idea of a Black Swan (the name of his second book) which is something that:

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

It’s important at this point to clarify that not all black swans are negative. And technology has generally had the effect of increasing the number of black swans of both the positive (internet) and negative (financial crash) sort. In my very first post I said that we were in a race between these two kinds of black swans, though rather than calling them positive or negative black swans I called them singularities and catastrophes. And tying it back into the theme of the blog a singularity is when technology saves us, and a catastrophe is when it doesn’t.

If we’re living in a random world, with no way to tell whether we’re either going to be saved by technology or doomed by it, then what should we do? This is where Taleb ties it all together under the principle of antifragility, and as I mentioned it’s one of the major themes of this blog. Enough so that another short description of the blog might be:

Antifragility from a Mormon perspective.

But I still haven’t explained antifragility, to say nothing of antifragility from a Mormon perspective, so perhaps I should do that first. In short, things that are fragile are harmed by chaos and things that are antifragile are helped by chaos. I would argue that it’s preferable to be antifragile all of the time, but it is particularly important when things get chaotic. Which leads to two questions: How fragile is society? And how chaotic are things likely to get? I have repeatedly argued that society is very fragile and that things are likely to get significantly more chaotic. And further, that technology increases both of these qualities

Earlier, I provided a pedantic version of the theme, changing (among other things) the clause “we are not saved” to the clause “we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.” As I said, Taleb starts with the idea that the world is random, or in other words unpredictable, with negative and positive black swans happening unexpectedly. Being antifragile entails reducing your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. In other words being prepared for the possibility that technology won’t save us.

To be fair, it’s certainly possible that technology will save us. And I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if you argued it was the most likely outcome. But I take serious issue with anyone who wants to claim that there isn’t a significant chance of catastrophe. To be antifragile, consists of realizing that the cost of being wrong if you assume a catastrophe and there isn’t one, is much less than if you assume no catastrophe and there is one.

It should also be pointed out that most of the time antifragility is relative. To give an example, if I’m a prepper and the North Koreans set off an EMP over the US which knocks out all the power for months. I may go from being a lower class schlub to being the richest person in town. In other words chaos helped me, but only because I reduced my exposure to that particular negative black swan, and most of my neighbors didn’t.

Having explained antifragility (refer back to the previous post if things are still unclear) what does Mormonism bring to the discussion? I would offer that it brings a lot.

First, Mormonism spends quite a bit of time stressing the importance of antifragility, though they call it self reliance, and emphasis things like staying out of debt, having a plan for emergency preparedness, and maintaining a multi-year supply of food. This aspect is not one I spend a lot of time on, but it is definitely an example of Mormon antifragility.

Second, Mormons, while not as apocalyptic as some religions nevertheless reference the nearness of the end right in their name. We’re not merely Saints, we are the “Latter-Day Saints”. While it is true that some members are more apocalyptic than others, regardless of their belief level I don’t think many would dismiss the idea of some kind of Armageddon outright. Given that, if you’re trying to pick a winner in the race between catastrophe and singularity or more broadly, negative or positive black swans, belonging to religion which claims we’re in the last days could help break that tie. Also as I mentioned it’s probably wisest to err on the side of catastrophe anyway.

Third, I believe Mormon Doctrine provides unique insight into some of the cutting edge futuristic issues of the day. Over the last three posts I laid out what those insights are with respect to AI, but in other posts I’ve talked about how the LDS doctrine might answer Fermi’s Paradox. And of course there’s the long running argument I’ve had with the Mormon Transhumanist Association over what constitutes an appropriate use of technology and what constitutes inappropriate uses of technology. This is obviously germane to the discussion of whether technology will save us. And what the endpoint of that technology will end up being. And it suggests another possible theme:

Connecting the challenges of technology to the solutions provided by LDS Doctrine.

Finally, any discussion of Mormonism and religion has to touch on the subject of morality. For many people issues of promiscuity, abortion, single-parent families, same sex marriage, and ubiquitous pornography are either neutral or benefits of the modern world. This leads some people to conclude that things are as good as they’ve ever been and if we’re not on the verge of a singularity then at least we live in a very enlightened era, where people enjoy freedoms they could have never previously imagined.

The LDS Church and religion in general (at least the orthodox variety) take the opposite view of these developments, pointing to them as evidence of a society in serious decline. Perhaps you feel the same way, or perhaps you agree with the people who feel that things are as good as they’ve ever been, but if you’re on the fence. Then, one of the purposes of this blog is to convince you that even if there is no God, that it would be foolish to dismiss religion as a collection of irrational biases, as so many people do. Rather, if we understand the concept of antifragility, it is far more likely that rather than being irrational that religion instead represents the accumulated wisdom of a society.

This last point deserves a deeper dive, because it may not be immediately apparent to you why religions would necessarily accumulate wisdom or what any of this has to do with antifragility. But religious beliefs can only be either fragile or antifragile, they can either break under pressure or get stronger. (In fairness, there is a third category, things which neither break nor get stronger, Taleb calls this the robust category, but in practice it’s very rare for things to be truly robust.) If religious beliefs were fragile, or created fragility then they would have disappeared long ago. Only beliefs which created a stronger society would have endured.

Please note that I am not saying that all religious beliefs are equally good at encouraging antifragile behavior. Some are pointless or even irrational, but others, particularly those shared by several religions are very likely lessons in antifragility. But a smaller and smaller number of people have any religious beliefs and an even smaller number are willing to actively defend these beliefs, particularly those which prohibit a behavior currently in fashion.

However, if these beliefs are as useful and as important as I say they are then they need all the defending they can get. Though in doing this a certain amount of humility is necessary. As I keep pointing out, we can’t predict the future. And maybe the combination of technology and a rejection of traditional morality will lead to some kind of transhuman utopia, where people live forever, change genders whenever they feel like it and live in a fantastically satisfying virtual reality, in which everyone is happy.

I don’t think most people go that far in their assessment of the current world, but the vast majority don’t see any harm in the way things are either, but what if they’re wrong about that?

And this might in fact represent yet another way of framing the theme of this blog:

But what if we’re wrong?

In several posts I have pointed out the extreme rapidity with which things have changed, particularly in the realm of morality, where, in a few short years, we have overturned religious taboos stretching back centuries or more. The vast majority of people have decided that this is fine, and, that in fact, as I already mentioned, it’s an improvement on our benighted past. But even if you don’t buy my argument about religions being antifragile I would hope you would still wonder, as I do, “But what if we’re wrong?”

This questions not only applies to morality, but technology saving us, the constant march of progress, politics, and a host of other issues. And I can’t help but think that people appear entirely too certain about the vast majority of these subjects.

In order bring up the possibility of wrongness, especially when you’re the ideological minority there has to be freedom of speech, another area I dive into from time to time in this space. Also you can’t talk about freedom of speech or the larger ideological battles around speech without getting into the topic of politics. A subject I’ll return to.

As I have already mentioned, and as you have no doubt noticed the political landscape has gotten pretty heated recently and there are no signs of it cooling down. I would argue, as others have, that this makes free speech and open dialogue more important than ever. In this endeavor I end up sharing a fair amount of overlap with the rationalist community. Which you must admit is interesting given the fact that this community clearly has a large number of atheists in it’s ranks. But that failing aside, I largely agree with much of what they say, which is why I link to Scott Alexander over at SlateStarCodex so often.

On the subject of free speech the rationalists and I are definitely in agreement. Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI theorist, who I mentioned a lot in the last few posts, is also one of the deans of rationality and he had this to say about free speech:

There are a very few injunctions in the human art of rationality that have no ifs, ands, buts, or escape clauses. This is one of them. Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.

I totally agree with this point, though I can see how some people might choose to define some of the terms more or less broadly, leading to significant differences in the actual implementation of the rule. Scott Alexander is one of those people, and he chooses to focus on the idea of the bullet, arguing that we should actually expand the prohibition beyond just literal bullets or even literal weapons. Changing the injunction to:

Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.

In essence he want’s to include anything that’s designed to silence the argument rather than answer it. And why is this important? Well if you’ve been following the news at all you’ll know that there has been a recent case where exactly this thing happened, and a bad argument got someone fired. (Assuming it even was a bad argument which might be a subject for another time.)

Which ties back into asking, “But what if we’re wrong?” Because unless we have a free and open marketplace of ideas where things can succeed and fail based on their merits, rather than whether they’re the flavor of the month, how are we ever going to know if we’re wrong? If you have any doubts as to whether the majority is always right then you should be incredibly fearful of any attempt to allow the majority to determine what gets said.

And this brings up another possible theme for the blog:

Providing counterarguments for bad arguments about technology, progress and religion.

Running through all of this, though most especially with the topic I just discussed, free speech, is politics. The primary free speech ground is political, but issues like morality and technology and fragility all play out at the political level as well.

I often joke that you know those two things that you’re not supposed to talk about? Religion and politics? Well I decided to create a blog where I discuss both. Leading me to yet another possible theme:

Religion and Politics from the perspective of a Mormon who thinks he’s smarter than he probably is.

Perhaps the final thread running through everything, is like most people I would like to be original, which is hard to do. The internet has given us a world where almost everything you can think of saying has been said already. (Though I’ve yet to find anyone making exactly the argument I make when it comes to Fermi’s Paradox and AI.) But there is another way to approximate originality and that is to say things that other people don’t dare to say, but which hopefully, are nevertheless true. Which is part of why I record under a pseudonym. So far the episode that most fits that description is the episode I did on LGBT youth and suicide, with particular attention paid to the LDS stand and role in that whole debate.

Going forward I’d like to do more of that. And it suggests yet another possible theme:

Saying what you haven’t thought of or have thought of but don’t dare to bring up.

In the end, the most accurate description of the blog is still, that I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting, but at least by this point you have a better idea of the kind of things I find interesting and if you find them interesting as well, I hope you’ll stick around. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it within an actual post, but on the right hand side of the blog there’s a link to sign up for my mailing list, and if you did find any of the things I talked about interesting, consider signing up.


Do you know what else interests me? Money. I know that’s horribly crass, and I probably shouldn’t have stated it so bluntly, but if you’d like to help me continue to write, consider donating, because money is an interesting thing which helps me look into other interesting things.


A View From Inside the MTA Conference

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

Or download the MP3


Last Saturday I attended the annual Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured at a minimum I could get a blog post out of it. There was a lot going on, if you include the two keynote speakers, there were 17 speakers in total, talking about everything from brain uploading to crucifixion. And I know that, at this point, you may be sick of me talking about the MTA, and I wouldn’t blame you if you are, but I think there were some themes in the conference which will be of interest to even those who feel that they’ve had enough of the MTA for awhile. But the MTA is still going to feature prominently in this post, so if you want to skip it that’s also a totally valid option as well..

To begin with they started 35 minutes late. Anyone who knows me knows that that’s a quick way to get on my bad side. As a note to future MTA Conference organizers if you say that something starts at 9:00, that shouldn’t be when the first speaker takes the podium, that should be when registration opens. Also if your goal is to become gods through the use of technology it looks bad when you can’t even keep a conference running on time through the use of technology…

Okay, I admit, that was a little snarky. I’ll try to be nicer going forward, though no promises…

When the conference did get going the first speaker opened up with a scripture which had been featured prominently in one of my previous posts: Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

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

He then said “Or…” and proceeded to read Isaiah 11:6-9:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

It was obvious that he was trying to draw a contrast between two visions for the future. Either we are doomed to bloodshed and disaster or we are blessed with peace and knowledge. Of course my immediate retort is why couldn’t both be true? Nevertheless it was interesting that he used the scripture from the D&C, as I mentioned that scripture featured very prominently in one of my posts. And it was interesting that he talked about two possibilities for the future, since that was the way I introduced things in my very first post. I know that some members of the MTA are familiar with my blog and have read some or even most of the posts, and it’s interesting to speculate whether I might have influenced them. Ultimately pointless, but interesting nonetheless.

Having drawn out these two visions of the future he came down on the side of Isaiah. (And I’m still unclear why it can’t be both)  In support of his more optimistic view of the future he listed all of the cool things that are happening. Included in the list was:

  • YouTube
  • Google
  • GitHub
  • Kickstarter
  • The Mars Rover
  • Mobile tech
  • Wearable tech
  • Reusable rockets
  • Solar shingles
  • The Higgs Boson
  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • Advances in robotics
  • CRISPR
  • Watson
  • AlphaGo
  • Alexa
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Moore’s Law

These are all very exciting technologies, but, for me, the list only reinforces my central criticism of the MTA. That for all of their talk of being Mormons and Disciples of Christ, and the assertion that their unreserved embrace of technology just makes them better disciples of Christ, that instead what they really are is just your garden variety tech enthusiasts. How does being Mormon inform their engagement with technology? Are there any technologies they’re not a fan of because of their religion? If the MTA made a list of technological advances over the last 10 years they considered important, would I be able to distinguish that list from a list I might find in a mainstream media outlet or in a magazine like Popular Science?

The speaker went on to say that going forward they wanted to focus more on the T (transhumanism) and less on the M (Mormon). But from what I could tell there wasn’t much “M” to begin with, and certainly very little of it at the conference. I’m honestly not sure that there’s any practical difference between a Mormon transhumanist and a regular transhumanist. I imagine that they have very different reasoning, but I think that reasoning ends up with both of them arriving in exactly the same place.

The question, as always comes back to how do we know whether to expect the D&C future or the Isaiah future (though, again, I’m not sure why it can’t be both). Does the existence of YouTube really make the Isaiah future more likely? I personally don’t think the list he made establishes a prima facie case for the Isaiah future. But for the moment, let’s assume that it does. Would a similar list compiled in support of the D&C future be more or less convincing? Let’s give it a shot:

Well? What do you think? Which list is the more compelling? Even if you decide that the Isaiah list is more compelling. (I certainly admit that it’s more pleasant.) In the end, it matters less than you think, for two reasons. First, in order for the MTA’s vision of things to work out. Ethics has to progress at the same rate as technology, otherwise you end up possessing godlike power without the wisdom or morality to use those powers righteously. Take another look at that first list, is there anything in it that points to an increase in morality and ethics? While all the items from the second list point to exactly the opposite happening.

Secondly, neither the MTA nor I knows for sure what will happen in the future. In fact neither of us even knows for sure what the two scriptures are foretelling, and even if we did, they definitely don’t come with dates attached. As I said in a previous post I really hope the MTA is right, and that I’m wrong, but who suffers the most if they’re wrong? If we end up in the D&C future and we didn’t prepare for it, that’s a lot worse than if we end up in the Isaiah future without preparation.

This represents one of the big problems I have with the MTA, There’s too little focus on the potential downsides. Within the transhumanist declaration there is a point about reducing existential risk, but there was very little said on that subject at the Conference. (Perhaps that’s how you can tell the difference between a Mormon Transhumanist and a normal transhumanist, the Mormon is more optimistic.) To be fair, while there wasn’t much said, that doesn’t mean nothing was said. In fact there was another speaker later on who was even more explicit in describing the two potential futures, calling our efforts a race between innovation and catastrophe. Again, it’s probable that this gentleman came up with the idea on his own, but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his presentation and my first blog post.

At this point I’ve spent over a third of my allotted space on just one presentation, so it’s obvious that I’m only going to be able to touch on a tiny amount of what took place at the conference. Though if you don’t mind podcasts, which you might, seeing as how you’re reading this rather than listening to it, I released a bonus podcast with some additional thoughts on the conference, specifically the keynote speakers. But as I said at the start rather than providing a blow-by-blow of each presentation, I’m more interested in tying together some of the broader themes. One theme that ran through all of the talks, and, in fact, runs through the entire MTA endeavor, is the idea of continually accelerating growth. One obvious question, you might be tempted to ask, is whether there is any limit to this growth, and on that count the vast majority of the people at the conference seem to agree that there isn’t.

This makes sense. If there isn’t any limit to growth than transhumanism is just a reflection of the way the world works, rather than a weird quasi religion. But I’m sure that any one of us can think of lots of reasons why growth might not continue, or why it might not carry everyone along with it.

This latter point is a problem for transhumanism, particularly the charitable Mormon variety. They can be absolutely right about the continual growth, but still wrong about it’s impact. There are numerous scenarios under which Silicon Valley billionaires have full access to the promises of transhumanism while poor people end up with a situation that’s actually worse than what they have currently.

During lunch I brought up this idea with one of the other conference attendees. Specifically the idea that as the slope of the growth curve gets steeper and steeper the cost of being even slightly behind someone else on that curve gets larger and larger. For example imagine you’re holding a car race and one car, say a Tesla in ludicrous mode, can accelerate at 1 meter/second/second and the other car, say a Tesla that only has insane mode, can accelerate at 0.99 meters/second/second, or 99% of the acceleration of the first car. In this example it takes less than 10 minutes for the two cars to be over a mile apart, and in an hour the faster car will be 40 miles ahead of the other car, even though the difference in acceleration is only 1%

Now you may retort that cars can’t accelerate forever. (You may also be upset that I switched between metric and imperial in the example.) And this is true, but if you’re a transhumanist then it’s an article of faith that society is different, it can accelerate forever. But even if this is true, if Silicon Valley billionaires are accelerating at ludicrous speed, it doesn’t matter if everyone else is accelerating at insane speed they’re still going to get left behind. You may have heard of the recent concerns over rising inequality, well as much of a problem as it is right now; transhumanism has the potential to make it a lot worse. This is what I pointed out to the gentleman I was talking to.

Of course, it’s difficult to engage in a meaningful dialogue under these circumstances, at least for me. You have a few minutes to cover a massively complicated subject in a way that someone, who’s already predisposed to disagree with you, will understand and assimilate, not assimilate in the sense of changing their mind, but assimilate in the sense that they understand what you’re saying well enough that when they fire off a retort they’re actually aiming in the right direction. Obviously this works both ways, I’m sure I only absorbed part of the point he was trying to get across.

With all of those caveats in place, he responded by pointing out that world population was about to peak, and that would solve the problem of ever accelerating growth. You can see here what I mean about firing in the right direction. I’m not sure that the problem of the billionaires leaving poor people behind is solved by having slightly fewer poor people. Still demography and falling birth rates are interesting topics, and I’ll have to return to them at some point in the future. In any case it was one of the many enjoyable conversations I had at the conference, and not only can I not do justice to all of the conversations, I can’t even do justice to this conversation.

The last topic I want to address involves a question that has haunted me since long before I was even aware of the existence of the MTA, though the MTA is precisely the sort of organization that makes me ask this question. And that is, where do you draw the line between a healthy discussion and an actual schism? To reframe the question with respect to the MTA. Is the MTA involved in a healthy discussion of the place of technology in religion or are they actually pushing for things contrary to the stated position of the church? I hoped that after attending the conference, I’d fall on the healthy discussion side of things, but if anything the conference left me leaning more towards the schismatic side.

Of course it is fair to ask whether it even matters what side of things the MTA falls on, particularly if you’re not especially religious. If you’re an atheist, the sectarian conflicts of the superstitious may be amusing, but they’re hardly consequential. In fact the only group for whom this question matters at all are members of the LDS Church, and going forward we’re going to be speaking from that frame of reference. In other words this discussion is going to assume you’re a Mormon and that you believe that the Mormon Church possesses some unique truths which are important for our salvation.

Certainly the Church operates under this assumption. We send out missionaries to preach these truths. We do work for the dead, partially as a way of transmitting those truths beyond the Veil And the most fundamental truths, like faith, repentance and baptism are hammered over and over again in General Conference. Less visibly there’s the Church’s efforts to correlate everything, from Sunday School lessons to the doctrine taught by the missionaries. And, of course, the church also puts out Handbooks of Instruction. In other words it’s clear that the leadership of the Church has decided that it’s very important for everyone to be on the same page, which makes sense if people’s salvation is at stake.

Framed in this way it’s easy to spot people who are doing their best to be “on the same page”. And one way of examining this question is just to say that people who are trying their best in this fashion are on the healthy discussion side of things, while those who aren’t are schismatic to one degree or another. I think this is the position I default to, but of course I can already predict that there will be people who object to me saying that it’s easy to distinguish between those who are doing their best versus those who aren’t. I will continue to maintain that it is, but I can see where a more specific definition of things might be in order.

The idea of being on the same page assumes a fairly hierarchical structure. In short, someone has to decide what the page says before anyone can “be on it”. As members we believe this someone is the President of the Church, currently Thomas S. Monson, and we say that he is the only one who can exercise all the keys of the priesthood. Of course he can’t do everything, and so much of what’s “on the page” gets determined by the general authorities, who are sometimes just referred to as “the brethren”.

Thus a more specific definition of whether someone is doing their best can be reframed as a question of whether they support the brethren. This doesn’t mean that they consider the brethren to be perfect, rather the question of support hinges on whether they give the brethren the benefit of the doubt. But support also takes the form of acknowledging their leadership, and not directly contradicting them.

Having said all this let me reiterate that the foregoing is how I draw the line. You may draw the line in a different fashion. Also I haven’t said anything about how we should treat people who fall on the schismatic side of the line, because that’s not the point of the post. But, hopefully it goes without saying that we should treat them with love and compassion.

Having arrived, somewhat tortuously, at the standard of support, how did the MTA fare? Well there were three presentations (at least) which I felt were very clearly on the unsupportive side of the line.

The first of them dealt with the idea of prophets, and it began promisingly enough by arguing that we needed prophets now more than ever, but then it used that as a jumping off point to argue that 15 prophets (the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) is too few. That prophecy had become institutionalized. That true prophets don’t wear suits and work 9-5 jobs. True prophets are iconoclasts, who may appear to actually betray their religion and culture. In support of this he mentioned Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite. That’s an interesting point, but without offering up his candidates for modern day Abinadis and Samuels he’s mostly just saying that the brethren are uncool and stuffy.

The second presentation which I felt crossed the line was titled “Post-genderism”, and it was pretty much as you’d expect from the title, with the presenter going so far as to say that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing, and further that the future will essentially be genderless. I understand that this is a ridiculously complicated topic, one which I am almost certainly not qualified to comment on, but it’s one thing to acknowledge that complexity and quite another to declare that you’ve figured it out, to the point where you’re deciding that certain words mean the opposite of what everyone (including the brethren) think they mean. Also lest you think this is a minority opinion among members of the MTA the presenter in this instance was the MTA’s president.

The final presentation in the line-crossing category was titled the “Mystical Core of Mormonism”. I initially assumed that the high point of the presentation was going to be when he compared Joseph Smith’s First Vision to the experience of ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms. That was until he produced his own seer stone, which he not only claimed to be using in a fashion similar to Joseph Smith, but which he had also named…

Hearing the summary of these three presentations you may disagree with me, and that is as it should be. if you wish to watch the presentations for yourself they should eventually appear on this page (currently they don’t appear to have cut up the videos into separate presentations.) I think everyone needs to decide for themselves where to draw the line between discussion and schism. As I said in the beginning it’s a question that’s haunted me for a long time. And it’s obvious that it’s only going to get worse.

That’s the end of my partial recap of the MTA Conference. If you want more of my impressions (and really who wouldn’t?) you can check out the bonus podcast I already mentioned. As my final thought, I’ll try to make up for some of my harshness by recommending a book to the MTA. As I mentioned in my review of it, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, might as well be titled “We Are Saved” and thus contains a lot of support for the fundamental ideology of the MTA. If you’re an MTA member you should definitely read it. And with that I promise to leave the MTA alone for at least a couple of months.


If you like overly detailed posts about small, unusual religious groups, the consider donating, since that’s most of what I’ve been doing. And if you don’t like these sorts of posts, also consider donating so I have the resources to cover larger more mainstream groups.


A Different Take On Pascal’s Wager

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

Or download the MP3


I’ve been to a lot of funerals lately. As I write that it seems too casual and mundane a statement with which to describe the solemnity that attends death. If I only have to change the word “funerals” to “movies”, to instead be talking about frequent trips to the cinema, then maybe I need to use a different phrase. But I’m not sure there is actually something that really encompasses the enormity of death. There is something of the infinite in death even if, or especially if, you don’t believe in an afterlife. For those who don’t believe, death is an infinite loss.

Actually, I should be careful about speaking for those people who don’t believe in an afterlife. I freely confess to having a hard time getting into the mindset of the true atheist when it comes to this subject, and this is assuming that there is just one mindset, which is obviously not the case. I’ve already mentioned those atheists who feel that death is the ultimate evil, and the transhumanists who believe that defeating death might be the single most important issue. And if for some reason I was absolutely convinced that there was no afterlife I imagine I might fall into this camp.

I haven’t yet talked about the atheists who take the opposite approach and feel that this life is amazing enough without worrying about trying to prolong it, or whether there’s anything after. For example, to quote from Richard Dawkins:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

(I have many criticisms to level at Dawkins, but being a bad writer is not one of them.)

As another example, Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan’s wife, said something similar:

Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting.

This quote brings up a common attitude among those who aren’t religious or don’t believe in an afterlife, the idea that those who do believe in those things are seeking refuge in illusions, specifically the illusion of religion, and that by seeking this refuge we are weaker than those who face death with “courage”.  I guess maybe that’s true on some level. And if courage is the ultimate virtue then perhaps there’s a moral framework in which this is the most virtuous path.

But if courage isn’t an end unto itself, and I don’t think it is, then what did Carl Sagan gain from this courage? Did it make him happier? Did it make life easier to bear? Perhaps for Sagan the answer to both of these questions is yes. But I doubt that this approach would work for the vast majority of people. I think most people are made happier by the hope of an afterlife, regardless of whether they’re otherwise religious, or even spiritual. Therefore telling all of these people that they lack courage is not very helpful, regardless of whether it’s true. What harm are they trying to prevent by telling these people they lack courage? I know that for many atheists, such as Dawkins, removing a belief in the afterlife is supposed to make people less recklessly violent, by, for example, reducing the number of religiously-inspired suicide bombers. But how does their proposed alternative, that there are no consequences to anything we do and that this life doesn’t matter, make a problem of reckless violence any better?

As I said maybe this view is more courageous on some level, but even this courage is insufficient to truly grapple with a purely materialistic view of life. And by a materialistic view of life I’m not talking about being obsessed with possessions I’m talking about believing that there is nothing spiritual, that nothing exists except matter. The fact is, that if you really want to be as materialistic and scientific as possible, then you should acknowledge that as far as science is concerned, we’re nothing more than organic robots. Brought about by the process of evolution in a series of largely arbitrary steps, to fit into a certain niche for the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the universe, a fraction just long enough for us to hopefully reproduce. And the joy, affection, and love experienced by Ann Druyan towards Carl Sagan was nothing more than a complicated chemical and biological process designed to make this reproduction happen.

You may think I’m exaggerating when I talk about organic robots, but from a scientific, materialistic viewpoint there is no evidence that humans have free will. Thus the “organic robot” viewpoint would appear to be the most scientific and the most courageous, but I’m not currently aware of anyone, even among the hardcore atheists, who hold this particular point of view. Which leaves me to wonder, how is one simultaneously certain that there is no afterlife, but also equally certain that we aren’t soulless automatons for whom consciousness is an illusion? But to repeat my initial caveat, I have a hard time getting into the mindset of an atheist, so maybe this viewpoint is more common than I think.

In any event, the purpose of this extended introduction is to point out that technology and science have made the problem of death more complicated rather than less. And this complication extends even to people who believe in the afterlife. The Mormon Transhumanist Association is a great example of this intersection. It used to be that there was no question of avoiding death. If you believed in an afterlife, death is just part of the plan. Now technology has enabled transhumanists to decide that death shouldn’t be part of the plan and Mormon Transhumanists to assert that death isn’t part of the plan and that the afterlife may not be after anything, but rather just a continuation of this life.

And the complications go beyond merely questioning the role of death, they extend the other direction into complete apathy about death. If nothing else, progress eliminated a lot of death, particularly among the young. And as a result we’re able to mostly ignore death, and on those occasions we can’t ignore it we compartmentalize it. This has not always been the case, and I’m not sure it should be the case now. Death is still with us, and as I’ve hopefully shown there are a lot of ways for dealing with it, and, if you’re not in that small slice of people we discussed, who are both fine with death and don’t believe in an afterlife, then it’s perfectly reasonable to look for ways to extend things past death, particularly in this day and age when it appears that we might be able to cheat death entirely.

For those who aren’t excited about passing into nothingness, which I assume is the majority of people, there are a variety of options, but none of them offer any absolute certainty, and because of this uncertainty each option is a wager of one sort or another. The best known of these wagers, particularly if you restrict yourself to that label, is Pascal’s Wager. But despite it being the best known wager, it is not the one most commonly chosen. And thus we’ll set it aside for the moment.

The award for the most commonly chose wager belongs to procreation, or having children. I know it’s not commonly framed as a wager, but it is one way in which someone can live on after they’re dead. And sure, this wager is best suited at providing immortality for your DNA. But in the shorter term, as long as your descendents remember you and something about your life that is a form of immortality.

Of course someone isn’t limited to only being remembered by their genetic descendents, and thus another wager (though again not labeled as such) is seeking after fame (or infamy as the case may be) through doing noteworthy things. Certainly Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Plato, and Johann Sebastian Bach all have a degree of immortality. But while the first two are famous as rulers and conquerors, the last two are famous for what they created, and here we get into what might be considered a separate avenue for immortality: immortality through the arts and sciences. Plato and Bach are famous in a different way than Caesar and Genghis Khan. Plato is famous for his writings, and I can still read what he wrote (albeit not in the original Greek) even thousands of years later. Caesar did write, but that’s not why he’s famous and as far as anyone can tell Genghis Khan was illiterate, so while I can read about both of them, it’s not the same thing as living through the end of the Roman Republic or the Mongol invasion. But reading Plato today is very similar to reading Plato while he was still alive. As is listening to Bach, despite purists arguing about the difference between catgut and metal strings.

In any case, while very few of us will have the opportunity to become famous as rulers and conquerors, all of us have the opportunity to achieve some immortality through our work, even if very few people ever interact with it. (Almost no one reads Newton’s Principia, but everyone knows who Newton is.) I assume that even Sagan and Dawkins, despite whatever else they might have said on the subject, hope(d) that people are still reading their books after they’re dead, and, while not precisely the same thing, I imagine that Ann Druyan may have hoped for a form of immortality by having her brain waves recorded and placed on the golden record included on Voyager 2.

As I said all of these activities represent wagers. You wager when you have kids that they’ll tell their kids about you, and maybe those kids will tell their kids. You wager when you write a book, or record a piece of music, that people will still be reading it, or listening to it, long after you’re gone. But all of these wagers are limited. Even if you are one of those people who assume that humanity will still be around in 10,000 years, it’s almost certain that people will have forgotten about even Plato and Caesar, definitely they will have been long forgotten in 100,000 years. And, undoubtedly, people have kids and write books and record songs for many other reasons beyond a quest for immortality, but it’s always in there somewhere. The point is that there’s really only one wager you can make that has some chance of not only sparing you from death, but of doing it for all eternity, and that is Pascal’s wager.

In short, for those of you who might not be familiar with Pascal’s wager. If we assume that there are two possibilities, either God exists or he does not, and if we have two ways of acting, either we believe or we don’t. We end up with four possible outcomes:

  1. God does exist and we believed he existed- We receive infinite joy for an infinite time.
  2. God does exist but we didn’t believe he existed- We receive no reward, or we are punished. But in any case the outcome is not as good as in #1.
  3. God doesn’t exist but we believe he did- We suffer a finite loss of all the things we gave up by believing in God’s existence.
  4. God doesn’t exist and we didn’t believe he did- We benefit from a finite gain of not wasting time believing in his existence.

As you can see the only logical thing to do when presented with these four choices is to bet on God. Reducing it to these four choices is somewhat simplistic and as you might imagine there are many objections to Pascal’s wager. If you’re interested in a reasonably comprehensive list of objections with a rebuttal of each using decision theory and logic I would direct you here. My point is not to answer every objection (though perhaps in time I will). What I purpose to do is approach the whole thing from a different angle.

The first thing I want to bring to the discussion is the point I already discussed. If you aren’t a member of the small minority who welcomes death despite also believing in its finality, then the options you have for achieving some measure of immortality are limited. And Pascal’s wager, regardless of what you think of its likelihood, is the only one that offers the possibility of true immortality.

The second thing I want to add to the discussion is the concept of antifragility. As we discussed in a previous post one of the key elements of things which are antifragile is that they engage in small, repeated sacrifices (or costs) in order to access large unbounded gains. It’s not hard to see how Pascal’s wager and religion in general are perfect examples of this. So perfect that it’s hard to imagine that Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the sage of antifragility hasn’t written about it. And indeed he has. His discussion of it is too lengthy to fully excerpt here, though if you’re curious you can find it on page 210 of The Black Swan. But this small selection should hopefully give you an idea of his argument:

All these recommendations have one point in common: asymmetry. Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.

Indeed the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book… This idea is often erroneously called Pascal’s wager…I know that I have nothing to gain from being an atheist if [God] does not exist, whereas I have plenty to lose if he does…

Pascal’s argument is severely flawed theologically: one has to be naive enough to believe that God would not penalize us for false belief…

But the idea behind Pascal’s wager has fundamental applications outside of theology. It stands the entire notion of knowledge on its head. It eliminates the need for us to understand the probabilities of a rare event… rather we can focus on the payoff and benefits of an event if it takes place.

You’ll notice that Taleb says that the wager is severely flawed theologically. And that brings me to my final point: answering objections to Pascal’s wager. I am not so presumptuous as to claim that I am answering all objections to Pascal’s wager or even Taleb’s objection, because it is clear that people are either intrigued by Pascal’s wager or they find it risible, and it is unlikely that whatever few words I write will move someone from the risible camp to the intrigued camp (though a man can dream) nevertheless I should at least provide my own response for why I am in the camp of those who are intrigued.

It should be noted that no one, starting off as a committed atheist, hears Pascal’s wager and says, “Well that makes sense I’m going to abandon my atheism and spend the rest of my life pretending to believe.” Despite this fact, most people approach Pascal’s wager as if this is the only scenario they can imagine. To call this a strawman is probably overkill, but it certainly has the scent of the barnyard about it. I think it’s far more common in practice to approach it from the other direction.

Imagine that instead of being an atheist that you’re a believer of one variety or another. You’ve been raised up in an organized religion, your family believes, your wife or husband believes, etc. Does this mean your faith is perfect? That it is without the slightest crack? Probably not, particularly in this day and age. But you do believe and when you have doubts you work to overcome them. And one very effective weapon in that effort might very well be Pascal’s wager. With the wager in mind you might ask yourself what if I am wrong? What if my family, my wife, and all my co-religionists are all wrong? Well then I will have lost very little. Only a few finite years against the vast measureless emptiness of eternity, and I will have not even lost my life, but only the way I choose to live it. Yes, I will have wasted some percentage of my time in church. But hopefully that time will have been spent learning to be charitable and loving. (We know that there will be people who argue that this is not in fact what I’m learning, but that’s a subject for another post.) But, if I’m right… If I’m right, than what a thing to be right about!

This is the key point I want to make in this post. If you are already a believer, many of the objections to Pascal’s wager take on an entirely different character. For example another very common objection to Pascal’s wager is that there are hundreds if not thousands of different religions, how does one know which one to wager on? Once again most of the objections appear to assume that the only possible scenario for Pascal’s wager coming into play is a hard-core athiest with no built in preference for any religion suddenly deciding that they’re going to join a religion and place a bet on the existence of God. Only how are they ever going to decide which religion to pretend to believe in? Should they worship Odin or Vishnu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Once again things reek of the barnyard…

If someone is already following a religion then sticking with that religion is a pretty good wager for a lot of reasons. First there’s the aforementioned wife and family, who are also probably part of the same religion. Secondly, there are the expectations of God. And on this point Mormonism has a lot to add. The LDS Church teaches that this life is a test. I don’t think it’s uncalled for to use the sorts of test we’re familiar with as a way of understanding the testing we might undergo in mortality. If you were going to give a test to the typical junior high student, you would not give them a test on quantum mechanics or partial differential equations, but on the other hand you wouldn’t test them on single digit arithmetic or whether they can recite the alphabet

In a similar fashion if we accept that life is a test, we can also expect that the true religion is not some long vanished faith which was only practiced in the steppes of central Asia. But on the other hand, neither can we assume that God intended us to blindly and unquestioningly accept the religion we were born into. And, certainly, faith is part of the test, and another thing God asks of us that is neither impossible nor inconsequential.

Death is a serious and solemn business, and it was not my intention to treat the subject with anything less than the respect and reverence it deserves. But because of seriousness of death we rarely think about it. A situation which the modern compartmentalization of death only exacerbates. But everyone, sooner or later, is going to be forced to grapple with death, especially their own death. And, in that grapple, if the hypothetical wager of an obscure 17th century mathematician and philosopher makes it any easier, then I think you should go right ahead and take advantage of it.


If you’re not quite ready to grapple with death, maybe you should grapple with the question of whether to donate to this blog.


Doom vs. Optimism

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As I frequently mention, I’m wrong about a lot of things. But I know this, which means that if someone accuses me of being wrong, rather than ignoring them, I actually try to pay closer attention. Unfortunately this system relies on being able to identify the accusation in the first place. This is easy if you’re talking to someone face to face. Or if someone actually comes to your blog and tells you that you’re wrong, but for me (though perhaps not most people) potential accusations of wrongness occur far more frequently when I’m reading something. And it’s not always clear if the accusation applies to me.

For example when Thoreau says: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Is he talking to everyone else, but not me? Or is he, perhaps, just wrong about general levels of desperation? Or am I actually leading a life of quiet desperation, even though I don’t feel particularly desperate? In other words, am I wrong? It would be so much easier if it just said, “Jeremiah, you’re leading a life of quiet desperation and you don’t even realize it.” Then my only concern would be whether he’s wrong or whether I’m wrong. I would not have to decide if he’s even talking to me in the first place. All of this is a very roundabout way of saying, that I’m open to soul-searching if that’s what’s required, but I’m not always sure when it is.

I came across an example of this recently while reading through the Gordon B. Hinckley manual, the one we’re using in Priesthood and Relief Society this year. It happened as I was reading Lesson 3 which is titled Cultivating an Attitude of Happiness and a Spirit of Optimism. This lesson really jumped out at me, and in the Church that’s something you’re told to pay attention to. It’s not hard to imagine why it jumped out at me. I will freely admit to being very cynical by nature. If someone were to accuse me of being grumpy by default I don’t think I would argue with them very much. Consequently, this definitely seemed like one of those times where someone might be trying to tell me that I’m wrong.

As I mentioned above in the Thoreau example. There are three possibilities. First, President Hinckley could be talking about someone else. Second, he could be wrong. Or third, I could be wrong. The first possibility is unlikely given the natural cynicism I already mentioned. Also he is the leader of MY church, which means I’ve already decided he’s talking to me, and then finally there’s the whole bit about the lesson jumping out at me.  The second possibility, that President Hinckley is wrong, is something, which, for religious reasons, I’ve already basically ruled out. Which only leaves the final possibility, that I’m wrong, or at a minimum that I need to do some soul-searching, and, lucky you, I’m inviting you along for the ride.

Of course, wrongness operates on a continuum. On the one end it can be very black and white, as was the case when a one of my 2nd grade classmates bet me a “hundred bucks” that the speed of light was only 1,000 miles per hour. Needless to say he didn’t have a “hundred bucks”, and if I could remember his name maybe I’d try to track him down and collect it now. On the other end of the continuum are opinions like declaring Harry Potter the greatest fantasy series ever (for future reference it is, and always shall be, the Lord of the Rings.) So though I expect to be find some places where I’m wrong, I hope that it might fall more on the Lord of the Rings end of the spectrum, than on the speed of light end. Also, while, I’ve already admitted that I have a “bad attitude” what’s more important, particularly from the standpoint of the church is what I say and do.

One of the things I do (and also say) is this blog. Does it reflect a bad attitude? Probably. I wouldn’t blame anyone if that was their impression after reading posts about nuclear war, the end of progress, the near impossibility of space travel, etc. etc. In fact reading the last two posts they might specifically point to a lack of optimism about technology. Fortunately, there is a section in the lesson which appears to address that very subject. And given that at least one other person has pointed this out as an area where I may be wrong, it’s probably a great place to start. Here’s the relevant quote:

There never was a greater time in the history of the world to live upon the earth than this. How grateful every one of us ought to feel for being alive in this wonderful time with all the marvelous blessings we have.

When I think of the wonders that have come to pass in my lifetime—more than during all the rest of human history together—I stand in reverence and gratitude. I think of the automobile and the airplane, of computers, fax machines, e-mail, and the Internet. It is all so miraculous and wonderful. I think of the giant steps made in medicine and sanitation. … And with all of this there has been the restoration of the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I are a part of the miracle and wonder of this great cause and kingdom that is sweeping over the earth blessing the lives of people wherever it reaches. How profoundly thankful I feel.

You can probably see where this quote might have some bearing on my last two posts about technology, specifically what I was saying about the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). And, in my experience, this is the sort of quote the MTA loves. Does this mean I’m about to say that my last two posts were wrong? No. Definitely not. I’ve already written two posts on the subject (and the last one even addressed the idea that I might be wrong), so I don’t want to rehash all that here, but I continue to maintain that the technology President Hinckley is talking about and the technology the MTA is talking about are very different. That said, I could certainly see where someone might accuse me of underselling the awfulness of the past and overemphasizing current problems. And this is a great time to correct that impression.

When speaking on this subject I am reminded of my Grandma, who was born in 1912. Near the end of her life, she would often talk about how difficult young people have it these days. How hard it is to get started financially. She might also express her worries about war and disease. Oftentimes using some variant of the idea that “It’s never been worse.” Of course this is not true. My Grandmother lived through the Great Depression and World War II (also World War I though she probably didn’t remember much) not to mention the Spanish Flu Pandemic. But all of those things happened at least half a century ago, while the latest crisis, whatever it was, was always front and center. I don’t think I’ve ever said that that there was less violence or less sickness or less poverty in the past, but I also haven’t done perhaps as much as I should to emphasis the many ways in which modern life is pretty amazing. We do live, as President Hinckley said, in the greatest time in history, and we should be grateful for that.

By returning to the neglected theme of the blog, Jeremiah 8:20, I think we might find some clarity. Jeremiah said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.” Implicit in that scripture is the idea that there was a harvest, and a summer. And when President Hinckley talks about the wonderful technology of the modern world, that is precisely what he’s talking about. I don’t disagree with President Hinckley or the MTA about that. Where I disagree with the MTA is whether this harvest of technology and this summer of progress, has saved us or whether if it hasn’t. I think it has not and based on the rest of the President Hinckley quotes in the lesson I think he agrees. But getting to the bottom of President Hinckley’s feelings on technology is not the point of this post, the point is to get to the bottom of what he’s saying about happiness and optimism, and if you look at the full lesson you’ll see that references to modern conveniences makes up just a small portion of it. (In fact it basically just appears in the two paragraphs I quoted.)  So what does President Hinckley offer up as the keys to happiness and optimism?

Absent a better way of approaching things (and believe me I did spend a lot of time trying to come up with one) it’s probably best to just go through the various sections in the lesson. The first section is all about cultivating a spirit of happiness and optimism. As I’ve already mentioned this is where I could do better. I’m not someone who brims with happiness and optimism and I’m not someone whose writing brims with happiness and optimism either. I could do better and I’ll try to do better going forward, but I’m not committing to anything. Particularly since in the middle of this section President Hinckley says that he’s not asking for a silencing of all criticism. And he points out that:

Growth comes with correction. Strength comes with repentance. Wise is the man or woman who, committing mistakes pointed out by others, changes his or her course.

Someone who chooses the alias of Jeremiah is never going to shy away from pointing out mistakes, offering criticism or calling people to repentance. Nevertheless, I should remember to do it in the most loving way possible, and that probably hasn’t been the case thus far.

Section two is where his discussion of technology and the modern world appears, and since we’ve already covered that, we’ll jump ahead to section three.

The title of section three is “The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a reason for gladness.” And I think here is where the lesson really gets into the meat of things, and the section where President Hinckley and I largely agree. It begins with a quote from the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 25 verse 13:

Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made.

I think there are a lot of people that have no problem with the first part, but don’t pay much attention to the second part. The part about actually keeping the covenants we’ve made. Obviously covenant keeping is something which largely applies to people inside of the Church but if we speak of commandments more generally, then I would have to say most people don’t agree with this connection between being happy and obeying the commandments. In fact my strong sense is that most people think that it’s the exact opposite. That obeying commandments is the biggest obstacle to happiness.  That telling people not to have sex outside of marriage or to avoid drugs or to do anything else to restrict their natural urges is the chief cause of unhappiness. President Hinckley makes it very clear that this is not the case:

Transgression never was happiness. Disobedience never was happiness. The way of happiness is found in the plan of our Father in Heaven and in obedience to the commandments of His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the point most people overlook, and while I’m sure, as this lesson demonstrates, that we need to be reminded from time to time to be optimistic and happy. When I look at the world I see at least as much need if not more of reminding people to keep the commandments. And while I am horrible at the former I don’t think anyone can say that I’ve avoided doing the latter.

President Hinckley goes on to make another point which I think a lot of people miss. Many people in the world today think that happiness comes from being able to do what we want to. This is why most people think that keeping the commandments is the opposite of happiness, but President Hinckley points out that happiness comes from faith in things which are outside of ourselves, that in fact if we can only derive happiness from things going the way we want that we’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time. To illustrate this he offers up an old newspaper clipping:

Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.

Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise…

Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.

The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.

Thanking the Lord for letting us have the ride is an example of looking for a foundation outside of ourselves, an idea President Hinckley expands on in the fourth section, so we’ll move on to that.

The overarching message of section four and perhaps of the whole lesson, is faith. Specifically the idea that everything will work out. In fact the lesson says that this may have been the assurance President Hinckley repeated most often to family and friends. This may seem at odds with the newspaper clipping I just included, but President Hinckley’s point is more that everything will work out eventually, rather than that everything will work out immediately. Once again people reading my blog could find ample places where I appear to be saying that things won’t work out. But what I’m saying is the complement to what President Hinckley is saying, he’s saying that in the end everything will be okay, and I’m saying that before the end their might be some times when things are not okwy. In other words, I think we’re saying the same thing, in any event where we both agree is that we definitely need the help of God. That we will not be saved through our own efforts. President Hinckley states it this way:

The Lord never said that there would not be troubles. Our people have known afflictions of every sort as those who have opposed this work have come upon them. But faith has shown through all their sorrows. This work has consistently moved forward and has never taken a backward step since its inception.

This idea of troubles and afflictions runs through the last part of the lesson, continuing from section four into the concluding section, section five. Section five is more about recognizing our status as Children of God, but it ends on a note that I think ties in with many of the things I’ve already written on the topic.

In a dark and troubled hour the Lord said to those he loved: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

These great words of confidence are a beacon to each of us. In him we may indeed have trust. For he and his promises will never fail.

Right at the beginning of the lesson we’re urged to not fret about the future. The word future is mentioned a couple of other times, but on those other occasions it’s in reference to the future of the Church. This is the only time where specific instructions are given about the future in general, but in reality the future and worrying about the future form the background for the entire lesson. When President Hinckley urges us to be optimistic it’s understood that we should be optimistic about the future. When he mentions keeping the commandments, once again he’s referencing the future, specifically how we should act in the days and months to come. Of course he also mentions troubles and afflictions. It may seem counterintuitive to emphasis both troubles and optimism. While we can draw a certain amount of optimism from the assurance that everything will work out eventually, that only gets us so far. How do we maintain a spirit of optimism and happiness in the meantime? We don’t do it by ignoring potential catastrophes, or by blindly assuming everything is going to be great, we do it by protecting ourselves against those catastrophes. This largely takes the form of keeping the commandments, but it also takes the form of savings and food storage and strengthening families and communities. While it’s true I may spend too much time emphasizing the bad things which may happen, I did it largely to assist with this preparation.

Certainly, like President Hinckley I believe that everything will work out eventually, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of bad might not happen in the next 10 years or the next 20. And, obviously, it is exactly that sort of statement that makes me seem pessimistic, but the way to happiness and optimism is not through ignoring the future or naively assuming we’ve progressed past the point of worry, the way to happiness and optimism is knowing that you’re prepared. It didn’t come up in the lesson, but President Hinckley gave an entire talk on the idea that if we are prepared we shall not fear.

This is why we’re urged to keep the commandments. What does anyone have to fear if they’re prepared to meet their maker? Death itself holds no terror if we’ve done what we were supposed to. In the shorter term the Church encourages us to stay out of debt, assemble food storage, live modestly, support one another. All of these are things which increase our happiness and optimism because we have less to worry about. And here, rather than being wrong, I think President Hinckley and I are in exact agreement. This is the whole concept of Antifragility which I’ve talked about in numerous places. Keeping the commandments makes you antifragile. Having savings and food storage makes you antifragile. Having a loving and strong family makes you antifragile. And as much as I need to work on my attitude I think doing all of this is the surest way to happiness and optimism.


If you’re feeling happy and optimistic, consider donating, it might decrease your happiness, but it will increase mine.


Why I Hope the MTA Is Right, but Also Why It’s Safer to Assume They’re Not

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Last week’s post was titled Building the Tower of Babel, and it was written as a critique of the position and views of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Specifically it was directed at an article written by Lincoln Cannon titled Ethical Progress is not Babel. In response to my post Cannon came by and we engaged in an extended discussion in the comments section. If you’re interested in seeing that back and forth, I would recommend that you check them out. Particularly if you’re interested in seeing Cannon’s defense of the MTA. (And what open-minded person wouldn’t be?)

I was grateful Cannon stopped by for several reasons. First I was worried about misrepresenting the MTA, and indeed it’s clear that I didn’t emphasize enough that, for the MTA, technology is just one of many means to bring about salvation and in their view insufficient by itself. Second a two-sided discussion of the issues is generally going to be more informative and more rigorous than a one-sided monologue. And third because I honestly wasn’t sure what to do with the post, or with the MTA in general. Allow me to explain.

In a previous post I put people into three categories: the Radical Humanists, the Disengaged Middle and the Actively Religious. And in that post I said I had more sympathy for and felt more connected to the Radical Humanists than to the Disengaged Middle. The MTA is almost unique in being part of both the Radical Humanist group and the Actively Religious. Consequently I should be very favorably disposed to them, and I am, but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re right, though if it were completely up to me I’d want them to be right. This is the difficulty. On the one hand I think there are a lot of issues where we agree. And on those issues both of us (but especially me) need all the allies we can get. On the other hand, I think they’re engaged in a particularly seductive and subtle form of heresy. (That may be too strong of a word.) And I am well-positioned to act as a defender of the Mormon Orthodoxy against this, let’s say, mild heresy. And it should go without saying that I could be wrong about this. Which is one of the reasons why I think you should go read the discussion in the comments of the last post and decide for yourself.

Perhaps a metaphor might help to illuminate how I see and relate to the MTA. Imagine that you and your brother both dream of selling chocolate covered asparagus. So one day the two of you decide to start a business doing just that. As your business gets going your father offers you a lot of advice. His advice is wise and insightful and by following it your business gradually grows to the point where it’s a regional success story. But at some point your father dies.

Initially this doesn’t really change anything, but eventually you and your brother are faced with a business decision where you don’t see eye to eye, and your father isn’t around anymore. Let’s say the two of you are approached by someone offering to invest a lot of money in the business. You think the guy is shady and additionally that once he’s part owner, that he may change the chocolate covered asparagus business in ways that would damage it, alter it into something unrecognizable or potentially even destroy it. Perhaps he might make you switch to lower quality chocolate, or perhaps he wants to branch into chocolate covered broccoli. (Which is just insane.) Regardless, you don’t trust him or his motives.

On the other hand, your brother thinks it’s a great opportunity to really expand the chocolate covered asparagus business from being a regional player into a worldwide concern. In the past your father might have settled the dispute, but he’s gone, and as the two of you look back on his copious advice you can both find statements which seem to support your side in the dispute. And, not only that, both of you feel that the other person is emphasizing some elements of your father’s advice while ignoring other parts. In any event you’re adamant that you don’t want this guy as an investor and part owner, and your brother is equally adamant that it’s a tremendous opportunity and the only way your chocolate covered asparagus business is really going to be successful.

None of this means that you don’t still love your brother, or that either of you is any less committed to the vision of chocolate covered asparagus. Or that either of you is less respectful of your late father. But these commonalities do nothing to resolve the conflict. You still feel that this new investor may destroy the chocolate covered asparagus business, while your brother feels that the investor is going to provide the money necessary to make it a huge success. And perhaps, most interesting of all, if you could just choose the eventual outcome of the decision you would choose your brother’s expected outcome. You would choose for the investment to be successful, and for chocolate covered asparagus to fill the world, bringing peace and prosperity in it’s wake.

But, you can’t choose one future over another, you can’t know what will happen when you take on the investor. And in your mind it’s better to preserve the company you have than risk losing it all on a unclear bet and a potentially unreliable partner.

Okay that metaphor ended up being longer than I initially planned, also, as with all metaphors it’s not perfect, but hopefully it gives you some sense of the spirit in which I’m critiquing the MTA. And perhaps the metaphor also helps explain why there are many ways in which I hope the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. Finally I hope it also provides a framework for my conclusion that the best course of action is to assume that they’re not right. But, let’s start by examining a couple of areas where I definitely hope they are correct.

The first and largest area where I hope the MTA is right and I’m wrong is war and violence. There is significant evidence that humans are getting less violent. The best book on the subject is Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which I reviewed in a previous post. As I mentioned in that post I do agree that there has been a short term trend of less violence, and also, a definite decrease in the number of deaths due to war. This dovetails nicely with the MTA’s assertion that humanity’s morality is increasing at the same rate as its technology, and given these trends, there is certainly ample reason to be optimistic. But this is where the Mormon part of the MTA comes into play. While it’s certainly reasonable for Pinker and secular transhumanists to be optimistic about the future, for Mormons and Christians in general, there is the little matter of Armageddon. Or as it’s described in one of my favorite scriptures Doctrine and Covenants Section 87 verse 6:

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

I assume that the MTA has an explanation for this scripture that is different than mine, but I’m having a hard time finding anything specific online. If I had to guess, I imagine they would say that it has already happened. But in any case, they have to have an alternative explanation because if we assume that the situation described above has yet to arrive, then the MTA will have at least two problems. First the trend of decreasing violence and increasing morality will have definitely ended, and second I think it’s safe to assume that if we have to pass through the “full end of all nations”, that what comes out on the other side won’t bear any resemblance to the utopian transhumanist vision of the MTA. Again, I hope they’re right, and I hope I’m wrong, I hope that scripture has somehow already been fulfilled, or that I’m completely misinterpreting it. I hope that humanity is more peaceful than I think, rather than less. But just because I want something to be a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how it’s actually going to play out.

For our second area, let’s take a look at genetic engineering. Just today I was listening to the Radiolab podcast, specifically the most recent episode which was an update to an older episode exploring a technology called CRISPR. If you’re not familiar with it, CRISPR is a cheap and easy technology for editing DNA, and the possibilities for it’s use are nearly endless. The most benign and least controversial application of CRISPR would be using it to eliminate genetic diseases like hemophilia (something they’re already testing in mice.) From this we move on to more questionable uses, like using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos (very similar to the movie Gattaca). Another questionable application would involve using CRISPR to edit some small portion of a species and then, taking advantage of another technique called Gene Drive, use the initially modified individuals to spread the edited genes to the rest of the species. An example of this would be modifying mosquitos so that they no longer carry malaria. But it’s easy to imagine how this might cause unforeseen problems. Also how the technique could be used in the service of other, less savory goals. I’ll allow you a second to imagine some of the nightmare scenarios this technique makes available to future evil geniuses.

CRISPR is exactly the sort of technology the MTA and other transhumanists have been looking forward to. It’s not hard to see how the cheap and easy editing of DNA makes it easier to achieve things like immortality and greater intelligence. But as I already pointed out even positive uses for CRISPR have been controversial. According to the Radiolab podcast the majority of bioethicists are opposed to using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos. (Which hasn’t stopped China from experimenting with it.)

As far as I understand it the MTA’s position on all of this is that it’s going to be great, that the bioethicists worry to much. This attitude stems from their aforementioned belief that morality and technology are advancing together. Which means that by the time we master a technology we will also have developed the morality to handle it. As it turns out DNA editing is another area of agreement between the MTA and Steven Pinker, who said the following:

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

Given this description perhaps you can see why I hope the MTA, and Pinker are right. I hope that CRISPR and other similar technologies do yield a better life for billions. I hope that humanity is mature enough to deal with the technology, and that it’s just as cool, and as transformative as they predict. That the worries of the bioethicists concerning CRISPR and the warnings of scripture concerning war, turn out to be overblown. That the future really is as awesome as they say it’s going to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true.

But perhaps, like me, you don’t think it is. Or perhaps, you’re just not sure. Or maybe despite my amazing rhetoric and ironclad logic, you still think that the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. The key thing, as always, is that we can’t know. We can’t predict the future, we can’t know for sure who is right and who is wrong. Though to be honest I think the evidence is in my favor, but even so let’s set that aside for the moment and examine the consequences of being wrong from either side.

If I’m wrong, and the MTA is correct, then my suffering will be minimal. Sure the transhumanist overlords will dredge up my old blog posts and use them to make me look foolish. Perhaps I’ll be included in a hall of fame of people who made monumentally bad predictions. But I’ll be too busy living to 150, enjoying a post scarcity society, and playing amazingly realistic video games, to take any notice of their taunting.

On the other hand, if I’m right and the MTA is wrong. Then the sufferings of those who were unprepared could be extreme. Take any of the things mentioned in D&C 87:6 and it’s clear that even a little preparation in advance could make a world of difference. I’m not necessarily advocating that we all drop everything and build fallout shelters, I’m talking about the fundamental asymmetry of the situation. Which is to say that the consequences of being wrong are much worse in one situation than in the other.

The positions of the MTA and the transhumanists and of Pinker are asymmetrical in several ways. First is the way I already mentioned, and is inherent in the nature of extreme negative events, or black swans as we like to call them. If you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once to make all the preparation worth while, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. To use an example from a previous post, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with shelf after shelf of canned goods. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people mock me, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. At that point, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of modernity and progress, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

The second way in which their position is asymmetrical is the number of people who have to be “good”. CRISPR is easy enough and cheap enough and powerful enough that a small group of people could inflict untold damage. The same goes for violence due to war. It’s not enough for the US and Russia to not get into a war. China, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, France, Japan, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Vietnam, the Ukraine, and on and on, all have to behave as well. The point being that even if you are impressed with modern standards of morality (which I’m not by the way) if only 1% of the people decide to be really bad, it doesn’t matter how good the other 99% are.

The final asymmetry is that of time. A large part of the transhumanist vision came about because we’re in a very peaceful time where technology is advancing very quickly. Thus the transhumanists came into being during a brief period where it seems obvious that things are going to continue getting better. But they seem to largely ignore the possibility that in 100 years an enormous number of things might have changed. The US might no longer exist, perhaps democracy itself will be rare, we could hit a technological plateau, and of course we’ll have to go that entire time without any of the black swans I already mentioned. No large scale nuclear wars, no horrible abuses of DNA editing, nor any other extreme negative events which might derail our current rate of progress and our current level of peace.

As my final point, in addition to the two things I hope the MTA is right about I’m going to add one thing which I hope they’re not right about. To introduce the subject I’d like to reference a series of books I just started reading. It’s the Culture Series by Iain M. Banks, named after the civilization at the core of all the books. Wikipedia describes Culture as a utopian, post-scarcity space communist society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences. We find out additionally that its citizens can live to be up to 400. So not immortal, but very long lived. In other words Culture is everything transhumanists hope for. As far as I can tell citizens of the Culture spend their time in either extreme boredom, some manner of an orgy or transitioning from one gender into another and back again. Perhaps this is someone’s idea of heaven, but it’s not mine. In other words if this or something like it is what the MTA has in mind as the fulfillment of all the things promised by the scriptures, then I hope they’re wrong. And I would offer up that they suffer from a failure of imagination.

I hope that resurrection is more than just cloning and cryonics, that transfiguration is more than having my mind uploaded into a World of Warcraft server, that “worlds without number” is more than just a SpaceX colony on Mars. That immortality is more than just the life I already have, but infinitely longer. If you’re thinking at this point that my description of things is a poor caricature of what the MTA really aspires to then you’re almost certainly correct, but I hope that however lofty the dreams of the MTA that those lofty dreams are in turn a poor caricature of what God really has in store for us.

Returning to my original point. I am very favorably disposed to the MTA. I think they have some great ideas, and I’ve very impressed with the way they’ve combined science and religion. Unfortunately, despite all that, we have very different philosophies when it comes to the business of chocolate covered asparagus.


Given that we don’t yet live in a post-scarcity society consider donating. And if you’re pretty sure we eventually will, that’s all the more reason to donate, since money will soon be pointless anyway.


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.


And There Was Silence in Heaven…

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

Revelation 8:1

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

Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fermi’s Paradox As a Proof of the Existence of God

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It all began one day sometime in 1950 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Enrico Fermi and some other scientists were discussing UFOs over lunch. It was the dawn of the atomic age (as they all well knew, working at Los Alamos) and anything seemed possible. Consequently their conversation covered all manner of speculative topics, including the potential for FTL travel. In the midst of their discussion, and seemingly out of nowhere, Fermi exclaimed, “Where are they?” The conversation had been so wide ranging, that it took the other scientists a moment to understand that he was talking about extraterrestrials. But in that moment the paradox which bears his name was born.

It was immediately apparent that Fermi’s question had touched on something deep. As the story goes Fermi went back to his office and ran some numbers (these calculations apparently pre-date the Drake Equation) and confirmed what he had already suspected, that even using incredibly modest assumptions, we should have been visited by extraterrestrials long ago and many times over. Instinctively Fermi and the other scientists recognized that the question touched on a deep paradox, which is why this question, out of all the questions ever asked while eating lunch, have survived to the present day.

I mentioned the Drake Equation, and it’s closely tied to Fermi’s Paradox, and it might be worth taking a brief detour into the question of what the Drake Equation is. One day in 1961 Frank Drake was preparing for a meeting on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and, according to his recollection, the equation came about during that preparation:

As I planned the meeting, I realized a few day[s] ahead of time we needed an agenda. And so I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it’s going to be to detect extraterrestrial life. And looking at them it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy.

Drake’s equation essentially acts as a series of filters. (The concept of a filter will be very important in discussing Fermi’s Paradox.) You begin with the number of stars (technically the rate of star formation.) You then filter out any stars without planets. From there you filter out any planets which don’t have life, and then filter out that life which isn’t intelligent, and finally you filter out any life which is incapable of communicating on an interstellar scale. After filtering out all the possible stars and planets and life forms that aren’t communicating with us, you arrive at a number of, as Drake said, “detectable civilizations in our galaxy.”

What Fermi’s numbers and later Drake’s showed was that the first number, the number of stars, is so massive, (100 billion in the Milky Way) that even if you’re pretty conservative with your filtering you still end up with a big number. And even if you are very pessimistic with your estimates, and the number of expected civilizations ends up being small, another large number, the age of the galaxy, means that even if there only ended up being one star-faring civilization, they would have had plenty of time to spread out across the entire galaxy under almost any conceivable scenario.

The Drake Equation article on Wikipedia is fascinating, as is the article on Fermi’s Paradox, and I have borrowed heavily from both. In fact, rather than trying to restate everything I would just suggest that you read those articles. What I’m more interested in is viewing Fermi’s paradox through the lens of LDS Doctrine and LDS Cosmology. In the process, I don’t guarantee that we won’t end up fairly far afield, though I don’t imagine we will arrive anywhere too controversial.

LDS beliefs aside, from a broadly religious perspective it can only be viewed as fortunate that we haven’t been visited by extraterrestrials, or at least extraterrestrials of the sort envisioned by most science fiction. I don’t have the required background to speculate on the impact of such a visit on the eastern religions, but it could only be a huge blow to all the Abrahamic religions if aliens shows up and their belief system didn’t incorporate the idea of a single omniscient deity. It would therefore follow that Fermi’s Paradox works in favor of religion. In fact I would go so far as to say that Fermi’s Paradox is in fact a strong argument in favor of God generally, but, I hope to show that it’s even a stronger argument in favor of the specifically LDS conception of God.

The LDS conception of God is, as far as I know, unique among the religions. We’re basically in a category by ourselves when it comes the way extraterrestrials fit into our conception of God. To take just one example, directly from the scriptures:

And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

Abraham 3:9

Obviously one can get pretty deep in the weeds when you start talking about Kolob and the more esoteric aspects of LDS cosmology, so I’ll try to keep that sort of speculation to a minimum. Even so, I don’t think one has to engage in much speculation to say that Mormons believe that God is an extraterrestrial, using the broadest definition of that term. Which, then means, if we follow that thought to it’s logical conclusion, that Mormons have the answer to Fermi’s Paradox. Fermi’s numbers suggested to him that we should have been visited by extraterrestrials long ago and many times. Well if God is an extraterrestrial then we have. There is no paradox. Additionally this would explain why no other extraterrestrials from visiting us (if there are other extraterrestrials in any meaningful sense in this scenario.)

On it’s face this argument seems perfectly reasonable to me, but I guess for most people it seems crazy, or impossible, or somehow unthinkable, because in all the time I’ve been interested in the paradox I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone make this argument. (Though if past experience is anything to go by five minutes after I post this I’ll find someone making this exact argument.) I’ve have seen people come close. Interestingly one of the people who came the closest is Michael Shermer, a noted religious skeptic (he’s the founder of the Skeptics Society and Editor in Chief of Skeptic Magazine) In his answer to one of the Edge Questions of the Year he up the following:

Is God nothing more than a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence?

As you can see he get’s really close, but he never draws the connection between this question and the paradox, or makes the leap that I’m going to make which is to say that Fermi’s Paradox could be considered proof of God’s existence. I use proof in the sense of something which helps to establish the truth, not something which is ironclad and irrefutable. This proof would go something like this:

  1. Because of the huge number of stars and planets, it is inconceivable that we are the only intelligent life.
  2. Because of the huge amounts of time involved it is inconceivable that other intelligent life hasn’t spread through the galaxy and visited Earth.
  3. Because of the inevitable gigantic technological disparity which would exist between us and any spacefaring extraterrestrials they would appear to us as gods.
  4. Therefore the simplest explanation is that the being we refer to as God exists and fulfills all of the above criteria.

I feel like we should give this proof a name. Fermi’s Paradox’s indirect Proof for the Existence of God, seems too long, maybe Proof by Extraterrestrial Exclusion? In any event if someone out there thinks they see any big holes in this line of reasoning I’d welcome the chance to hear them. But I would argue that not only are there no holes in this line of thinking, but that most of the explanations which are offered for the paradox provide indirect support for this explanation.

I just got done watching The Big Short, which covers the housing crisis and the few people who were betting it would happen, and one of the main worries of the people in the movie was that they were overlooking something. That they had missed some key piece of information. If no one else was betting against the housing market maybe everyone knew something that they didn’t. They weren’t missing anything, but they were right to be skeptical, and at this point I should engage in similar skepticism. If no one has come up with this same line of thinking, am I missing something?

To continue with the comparison to the Big Short, a large part of the blindness which afflicted the people who were involved in the housing crisis was the assumption that you would never have a simultaneous nationwide decline in housing prices, in large part because it hadn’t ever happened before. I think a similar blindness affects the people thinking about Fermi’s Paradox. When people imagine aliens they mostly imagine a sort of ray-gun-flying-saucer sort of thing. Or they imagine something so inhuman that we might not even recognize it as life. Imagining that our contact with aliens might take the form of prayer is both too mundane and too fantastic. But to offer up an adaptation to Clarke’s Third Law (and I am not the first to suggest this modification):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a miracle.

Of course as all “educated” people know there aren’t any miracles, consequently when people involved in SETI look for signs of alien life they look for signals in the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves, or possibly lasers. And when they think of aliens visiting they think of something similar to Independence Day. But what should we be expecting if we really approach things without preconception or bias? (And by no means am I claiming that I am free from bias, only that I have a completely different set of biases.)

The first thing we should expect if we give any credence to Fermi is that they should already be here. This is obviously not what most people think. In fact most people have a bias towards expecting them to show up in the near future. A bias which got it’s start at the dawn of the age of science fiction with HG Wells and War of the Worlds (and almost certainly earlier than that, but Wells is probably the first author most people are aware of.) A bias which continues through to the present day with movies like the aforementioned Independence Day and the soon to be released Arrival.

But of course the chances that, in the 4.543 billion years of the Earth’s existence that aliens will pick next 50 to arrive are 0.00000001%. Aliens have either already visited or they never will. Communication would appear to be different than visiting, but not really. Think about it, if incredibly advanced aliens are out there then either they want to talk to us or they don’t. If they do want to talk to us then we should assume that, given that they’re thousands if not millions of years ahead of us in technology that they should have figured out a way to do it. Accordingly even if we restrict it to communication, I would once again say that there’s a strong bias towards it already happening, or never happening. Of course I’ve completely breezed past the idea that they’re waiting for something to happen before they talk to us. But that is an interesting enough topic that it deserves it’s own post. The point is, outside of some fringe theories about pyramids and Mayans the only current candidate for extraterrestrial communication is prayer.

I understand this will strike many people as an entirely ludicrous idea. But why? On what basis do they rule out this idea? I understand I may be accused of constructing a strawman, but since I haven’t seen this theory in print, let alone any objections to it, I don’t have any actual objections to answer, so we’ll have to imagine some. Still I think these won’t be too far from the mark.

Objection 1: Prayer is scientifically impossible.

Honestly I hope they’re smarter than this, and that this isn’t one of the objections, but I could certainly imagine that it would be. Everyone agrees that any potential aliens (LDS doctrine or no) would be at least thousands if not millions of years ahead of us technologically. How do we know, at our level of development what is or isn’t possible? I could trot out a list of everything we thought was impossible scant decades before it became commonplace. How can anyone have any confidence about predicting what is and isn’t possible with thousands, if not millions of years of additional progress?

Objection 2: Prayer is not the way aliens would contact us.

For people raised on the biases I already mentioned, when they imagine alien contact they imagine a single flying saucer landing in Washington DC or a scientist working late at night at some radio observatory. What they do not imagine is communication with single individuals that appears unreliable at best, mostly involves people asking for, or expressing gratitude for mundane things and is responded to with vague feelings of peace and the occasional (unconfirmable) vocalization. But why couldn’t it be? Once again it’s dangerous to make any assumptions about what extraterrestrials can and can’t do or would or wouldn’t do. To return to the Big Short, it opens with a quote by Mark Twain:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

In future posts I’ll get more into why prayer may be precisely the way that an advanced race of beings may want to talk to us, even if it were unmoored from its religious origins.

Objection 3: Prayer is inexplicably selective.  

Similar to the last objection, but this gets more into the fact that even if prayers are answered there a certainly cases where one set of prayers are answered while another are not. Non-mormon’s might also wonder why extraterrestrials would select 15 men to receive the best communication of all. Are we to imagine that aliens are Christian? (Why not?)

I’m sure there are other objections, but for the moment let’s stop with that last one, because I think the answers are similar, and this point it may be best to turn to an examination of what we, as humans, do in a similar situation.

There are in the world, many tribes which have no significant contact with global civilization. And it’s instructive to examine how we have chosen to deal with them, but also to examine more broadly what is and isn’t acceptable behavior towards them.

The first thing that we obviously don’t do, and that no one has suggested doing, is giving them a huge dump of technology. Whether that would be, in the worst case, a bunch of guns and ammo, or in the most innocuous case a set of encyclopedias. At the moment, what we mostly do is leave them alone. Though in the not too distant past we would contact them, and while this risks getting into an argument on how best to deal with indigenous people and colonialism, etc. such contact actually was largely religious in nature. The first people to show up when a new people were found were missionaries. And what did they try to do? Give them instruction in morality, build schools, and convert them to Christianity.

Interestingly I can’t think of any science fiction novel where the aliens set up schools, or educated humans in the dominant galactic religion (though Childhood’s End is sort of in that vein.) I think this is largely because people expect religion to disappear at a certain point in a civilization’s development. (I know the Hyperion Cantos keeps religion around, but his treatment of Christianity is pretty appalling.) I’m not claiming that a book written along those lines isn’t out there, but I know of no well known book written along that premise. What we mostly see are mysterious communications, or ships showing up with unclear intentions. There are of course war-like aliens, and those stories map well with the way civilization has dealt with more primitive tribes, but if there are aliens and they’re bent on war then we’re already screwed.

Let’s instead turn towards looking at how the objections to prayer might look if we applied them to contact with previously uncontacted people. The first objection was that prayer wasn’t scientific. I imagine that there are numerous ways we could use to contact these tribes which would seem equally miraculous as prayer seems to us, and remember that they’re only a few thousand years behind us in technology. We could be dealing with aliens that are millions of years ahead of us.

The second objection is that prayer isn’t how aliens would contact us. Okay, now take that thought and for a moment imagine that you’re an anthropologist studying an uncontacted tribe. Imagine that any individual in this tribe could send you a message, which would be instantly translated into your native language, and the message would describe in a detail not even available in a written journal the person’s deepest concerns, and the whole of their inner life? Yes there would obviously be privacy concerns, but for the moment put that aside (or you could assume that the anthropologist is maximally benevolent.) Wouldn’t that be the ideal way to allow that tribe to make contact? I think so. Perhaps you disagree. But I would think that you could at least see where such a system might have some significant advantages.

The final objection is that prayer is selective. Well so are we. You could certainly imagine that you might decide to contact one group of the previously uncontacted people without deciding to open the floodgates and contact all of them. You might do this because this particular group was in danger, or if they had developed a certain level of technology, or if they asked for help, or if you were experimenting with a new method of making contact. There are all manner of reasons why you might leave one group alone while making contact with another.

My point is not that prayer is so obviously alien communication as to preclude any other possible explanation, anymore than I am arguing that Fermi’s Paradox is obviously proof of God, but given how little we actually know, and given the assumptions that we can safely make, it fits at least as well as any other explanation and in some ways even better.