Tag: <span>Singularity</span>

Eschatologist #15: COVID and Ukraine (The Return of Messiness)

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These days everyone worries about the dangers of technology. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine these worries have become very focused on one specific technology: nuclear weapons. Despite this danger and the other dangers technology has introduced, there are still many people who expect the exact opposite, that technology will be our salvation. I brought this dichotomy up in my very first newsletter. Looking back I might have given the mistaken impression that whichever it ends up being, salvation or destruction, that it will be simple. We will either be permanently saved or permanently destroyed.

This is not just my mistake, most people make this mistake, particularly when it comes to our current worry, nuclear war. They take a horribly complicated event and simplify it down to a single phrase: “The end of the world.” And nuclear war is not the only technological danger where this simplification happens. People often use similar language when talking about climate change.

On the other side of things, the imagined salvation is perhaps not as dramatic or as sudden, but it is imagined as being just as straightforward. Last week I attended a lecture by Steven Pinker, who made the argument that progress is continuing and things will just keep getting better, a subject he has written several books about. In support of this argument he offered numerous graphs showing that trends in everything from violence to wealth have been steadily improving for decades if not centuries. From this he asserted that there is no need to worry, just as we solved all of our past problems we will solve all of our future problems as well.

The belief in humanity’s unstoppable progress and the fear that we will annihilate ourselves in a nuclear war represent the extremes of optimism and pessimism. On the one hand is the claim that science and progress have solved or will solve all of our problems, on the other hand is the claim that if the situation in Ukraine escalates 7.9 billion people will die. Neither of these claims are true, but we have a tendency to think in extremes because they’re easier to understand.

As it turns out, even a war involving all of the nukes will not kill everyone. Recently a Reddit user put together a simulation which predicted that around 550 million people would die from the war, and the ensuing fallout and nuclear winter. That’s about 7% of everyone. Obviously the simulation could be wildly inaccurate, though it does claim to be based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN and CIA, but even if it was off by an order of magnitude that would still only be 70% or 5.5 billion people, leaving 2.4 billion people alive. An inconceivable tragedy, but not the end of the world. Also, these people might wish they were dead, because living after a nuclear war would be exceedingly difficult.

However, historically life has always been exceedingly difficult, not to mention messy. The Native Americans survived the loss of 90% of their total population. During the Black Death, Europeans survived death rates of up to 50%, with some people suggesting it was as high as 60%, very close to the extreme estimate of 70% above. 

Despite this sort of messy middle being the historical default, we don’t like it. We want either the steady and implacable march of progress, or a quick end that absolves us of hard work. Even when we imagine surviving “the end”, we cut out most of the messy stuff, like raising crops, and making tools in favor of more simple apocalyptic stories, where there’s always plenty of canned food and lots of guns and ammo—even when we imagine a gigantic mess, we cut out all the truly difficult bits.

The modern world has made a lot of things easy that used to be incredibly complicated. It has made a lot of things possible that were previously impossible. In the process it has weakened our ability to deal with complicated and messy situations. We want the pandemic to go away if everyone just wears a mask, or if everyone gets vaccinated, or if we just ignore it. We want the invasion of Ukraine to stop if we implement the right level of sanctions, or institute a no fly zone, or, again, if we just ignore it. But the truth is that simplicity and ease are temporary aberrations, messiness has returned and we’d better get used to it.


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The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope

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Every so often someone reads one of my posts. And sometimes this same person will even talk to me about it afterwards. Most often this happens with something I wrote recently, but every so often it happens with something I wrote quite a while ago. This makes the discussion somewhat difficult because whatever I wrote is fresher in the mind of the individual I’m talking to than it is in my own mind. That difficulty aside I’m delighted that something I wrote several months ago is still being consumed, and I’m overjoyed when they point out an idea, or a refinement or even a criticism that I hadn’t considered. Which is what happened a couple of days ago.

As it turns out, the actual episode he listened to doesn’t matter that much, because the discussion ended up covering a topic which appears in many if not most of my episodes. And while it’s a topic that has made a lot of cameos in previous episodes, after this recent discussion I think it has at last solidified to the point where it’s finally ready for a starring role.

The subject is endings. Whether it’s the ending of death or the ending of civilization, or even the ending of all life on the Earth. But my subject is also to a certain extent about extreme thinking in general. We might even give it the title “Thinking About the Middle is Difficult.” We might, but we didn’t because, whatever it’s accuracy, that title is kind of lame. The actual title I choose is cooler as evidenced by the fact that it actually has “cool” in the title.

To begin with, bad events come in different forms. I have, on many occasions, talked about various cataclysms, catastrophes and disasters. All of which are bad, but not equally bad. I’ve talked about a peaceful dissolution of the United States into fiefdoms; I’ve speculated about a jobless future where people have lots of time, but little meaning; I’ve spoken about how hard it is for a nation to remain intact; I’ve dissected global warming; sounded the alarm about nuclear war, and examined the probability of earth being struck by a comet. All of these are significantly different in their impact, (no pun intended) but if you’re a fan of the status quo, and are happy going to a job, collecting a paycheck and binging The Big Bang Theory on the weekend, then it’s easy to lump all catastrophes into a single category of, “Well I sure hope that doesn’t happen!” Those who are a little bit more sophisticated might have two categories, catastrophes which are survivable and catastrophes which aren’t survivable. But even here things get fuzzy. Many people automatically equate lots of people dying with everyone dying, but when you’re talking about humanity’s extinction the difference between most and all is entirely the point.

And it is here that I would like to introduce one of the major themes of this post. People want their catastrophes to be simple. They don’t want cataclysms that require numerous demanding sacrifices, but which, for someone with sufficient resources who makes all the right choices, are ultimately survivable. They want cataclysms where it doesn’t matter what they do. They want to be able to sit on the couch and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones secure in the knowledge that TV, or something better, will be around forever, or, alternatively, they want to know that one day it will all end suddenly and they’ll be dead and free of care without ever having to actually exert themselves in between those two points. Perhaps this portrait of the average individual is a stretch, but if it is, it’s not much of one.

As an example of what I mean by this, let’s look at global warming, if it’s going to be a disaster people want it to be a true apocalypse. Something which scours the Earth of the wickedness of humanity. Though actually, as I already pointed out, this vague longing for global warming to wipe out humanity is really not about whether people are wicked or not, it’s about the fact that it’s far easier to toss up your hands and say, “Well we’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then it is to really figure out what you should be doing and then do it.

John Michael Greer, who I reference frequently, described the state of people’s thinking about global warming in this way:

It’s a measure of how drastic the situation has become that so many people have fled into a flat denial that anything of the kind is taking place, or the equal and opposite insistence that we’re all going to die soon so it doesn’t matter. That’s understandable, as the alternative is coming to terms with the impending failure of the myth of progress and the really messy future we’re making for those who come after us.

All of which is to say that people don’t really like doing hard things. And they don’t want to consider a messy future, they want a simple future or no future at all, which, as it turns out, is pretty simple. As I have already pointed out, any plan for preventing global warming is ridiculously difficult, meaning, as Greer said, most people default to one of the two extremes. Specifically, there’s no plan which grants the truth of global warming, but also allows us to prevent it, while still continuing to live as we always have. Lots of things are going to continue, just about regardless of what happens, but sitting on the couch, enjoying the bounty of technology: watching TV, being cooled by central air, and distracted by your iPad, is not necessarily one of those things.

What will continue? Or, to frame the question in a form closer to my subject, what won’t end? To begin with, life, almost regardless of the catastrophe, will continue. From the simplest microbe to most complex water flea (31,000 genes as compared to humans 23,000), life is remarkably tenacious. The poster child for this tenacity is the Tardigrade, also known as water bears. Allow me to quote from Wikipedia:

Tardigrades are one of the most resilient animals known: they can survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms. They can withstand temperature ranges from 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) (close to absolute zero) to about 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C) for several minutes, pressures about six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 30 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.

You may be thinking that this is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t matter, how tough the tardigrade is, if the Earth itself is destroyed like Alderaan in Star Wars, or more realistically by some giant comet, the tardigrades will perish like all the rest of us. While that would certainly slow things down. It by no means guarantees the end of life. To illustrate my point, one of the big worries about any trip to Mars is contaminating it with earth-based bacteria. Given how tenacious life is, most scientists think Earth-life gaining a foothold on Mars is more a matter of when than if. There are some, in fact, who will allege the exact opposite, that life started on Mars and then spread to Earth. Either way, the point is, many scientists think that life spreading from one planet to another is not only possible, but very likely, particularly when you consider that it has had billions of years in which to do so.

Before leaving this topic, it’s instructive, and interesting, to describe how this sort of thing happens. The details are fascinating enough that they could easily form the basis for completely separate post. But, essentially, every time there’s a large enough impact, material is flung into space, and if the impact is big enough things can get flung all the way out of the Solar System. You might be skeptical at this point, and that would only be natural. I mean even if material from Earth gets ejected all the way out of the Solar System, how much material is it really and how much of it would actually end up on an exoplanet as opposed to floating in the interstellar vacuum forever? Because unless you can show that a significant amount actually ends up on another planet, then you’ve just moved the extinction of life from the end of the Earth to the end of the Solar System.

Well, as it turns out some scientists decided to run the numbers, with respect to the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And what they found was very interesting.

The scientists wanted to know how much of the ejecta from this impact would have ended up in various locations. Among the locations they looked at were the Jovian moon Europa (a promising candidate for life) and a super-earth orbiting Gliese 581.

For the answer to the first they discovered that almost as much material would have ended up on Europa as ended up on the Moon, because of the assistance Europa would get from Jupiter’s gravity. The scientists estimated that 10^8 (100 million) rocks would have traveled from Earth to Europa as the result of that explosion. But what was more interesting is what they discovered about the Gliese 581 exoplanet. According to their calculations 1,000 Earth rocks would have ended up there, though after a journey of a million years. A million years is a long time, and astrobiologists generally think even the most hardy life can only last 30,000 years, but given all of the above do you really want to bet that life is confined to the Earth and nowhere else?

That ended up being quite the tangent, but the impact/ejecta stuff was too interesting to leave out. The big thing I wanted to get across is that whatever the cataclysm it probably won’t wipe out all life. Also given its frequent appearance in this space I should also point out that this is another reason why Fermi’s Paradox is so baffling. (Well not for me.) All of this is to say that even if all life on the Earth is completely destroyed, whether in 5 billion years when the Sun expands or in 7.5 billion years when it engulfs the Earth or whether Earth’s surface gets completely sterilized by a high energy gamma ray burst, life will find a way, as they say.

But when people imagine apocalypses what they are mostly worried about is the end of all humans, not the end of all life, and admittedly humans are not as resilient as the tardigrades. Unlike them we can’t handle hard vacuum, or temperatures from 300 °F to −458 °F. Even so humanity is a hardy species, with lots of tools at its disposal. Humans have survived ice ages and supervolcanoes and that was when the most technologically advanced tools we had were fur clothes and flint spears. Now, we have vast amounts of knowledge, and underground bunkers, and seed vaults, and guns and nuclear power. Of course the last item is a double edged sword, because in addition to (relatively) clean power it has also given us very dirty weapons.

In the past I have used nuclear war as something of a shorthand for THE apocalypse, as an event which would mark the end of current civilization. And consequently you may have gotten the impression that I was saying that nuclear war would mean the end of humanity. If you did get that impression I apologize. What I intended to illustrate was that large enough disasters are just singularities of another sort.

As you may recall when people started to use the word singularity, in this context, they were borrowing an idea from astrophysics, specifically the idea that you can’t see past the event horizon of a black hole, singularity being another word for black hole. And this is mostly what nuclear war is, something, past which, it’s impossible to predict, but while it’s the case that a post nuclear world would be difficult to imagine, there are some things we can say about it, and one of them is that humanity would survive. It might be only a small percentage of humanity, which makes it an inconceivable tragedy, but nuclear war all by itself would not mean the end of our species. As I said, you may have gotten a different impression in previous posts, and if so I apologize, mostly I was just using it as shorthand for a very, very bad thing. In fact if you only take one thing from this post it should be this, nuclear war would not mean the end of humanity.

Why is this important? Because it’s another example of the same thing we saw with global warming, people assume that it’s either not going to happen or that if it does they’re going to be dead so it doesn’t matter.

Though, there also seems to be a third group who feel like if it does happen and they do survive that it will be awesome. That it will be one long desert chase scene involving impossibly cool cars with flame throwing double-necked guitar players attached to the front, like in Mad Max. Or that it will involve lots of guns and zombies like in the Walking Dead. Or perhaps that it will be some sort of brutal, all-encompassing dictatorship, like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But if it is, they always imagine that they would be part of the resistance. What they don’t imagine, as part of any apocalypse, is slowly sinking into despair and eventually overdosing on heroin. Or standing in long bread lines, waiting for a small amount of food, with no guns or glamorous resistance fighters any where to be found. Or unemployment at above 20%, and being homeless and hungry. And of course all of these things have already happened or are happening in decidedly non-apocalyptic situations. It’s sheer madness to assume that things would be better during an actual apocalypse. But once again, people assume it either won’t happen or they’ll be dead, not that they’ll have to wake up every day with an empty stomach, not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.

You may have noticed that this post has been largely free about discussions of specific apocalypses or catastrophes. And in that way I have contributed to the problem I’m trying to solve, though in my defense I’m going to say that it was done intentionally to illustrate the point. Also there are so many potential unforeseeable disasters, that the one’s we can name and describe might not be the ones to worry about. But perhaps, as we’ve been discussing it, you can see that visions of the future end up in one of three categories. Either the future will be awesome, or it will basically be the same (TV, couches and central air will all still exist) or the world will end, and we’ll all be dead. What this post is trying to point out is that far more likely than the world ending suddenly and irrevocably, is the world continuing, but going through some kind of crisis. Whether that’s temporary or long term, whether it’s nuclear war, or something like the 2007 crisis, in all of these situations there would be a good chance you would survive. Even in a nuclear war you would have a better than even chance of surviving. The question is not would you survive, but how long would you survive. My go-to disaster book, Global Catastrophic Risks, illustrates the point, in a quote about the effects of an all out war on America.

In addition to the tens of millions of deaths during the days and weeks after the attack there would probably be further millions (perhaps further tens of millions) of deaths in the ensuing months or years. In addition to the enormous economic destruction caused by the actual nuclear explosions, there would be some years during which the residual economy would decline further, as stocks were consumed and machines wore out faster than recovered production could replace them… For a period of time, people could live off supplies (and in a sense, off habits) left over from before the war. But shortages and uncertainties would get worse. The survivors would find themselves in a race to achieve viability… before stocks ran out completely. A failure to achieve viability, or even a slow recovery, would result in many additional deaths, and much additional economic, political, and social deterioration. This postwar damage could be as devastating as the damage from the actual nuclear explosions.

Notice that this assessment is not just a repeat of Private Hudson’s quote from Aliens. “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”, but rather a very sober assessment which points out that a lot of people would live and it would be really horrible.

In bringing this up, my primary point is not that people are inadequately prepared for the eventuality that they might survive a nuclear war, preferring instead to believe that they would be instantly killed, though that statement is certainly true. My primary point is that people are equally unprepared for smaller catastrophes.

I started this post off by mentioning a conversation I had had with a friend, and a desire to talk about endings in general. In that conversation we didn’t talk about the end of life, or the end of humanity, we talked about the eventual end that comes to us all, death. Which even more than the end of life or the end of humanity is an end everyone should be worried about.

Specifically the conversation was about how non-religious people dealt with death, and he, being a non-religious person, claimed that they don’t ignore it, that most of them have come to terms with the fact that they are eventually going to die. I replied that I was unconvinced. That if this was really the case, how many had taken some concrete action to illustrate that fact? If I were to survey the non-religious and ask them whether they had come to terms with their mortality, how many would say yes? If I then asked all of those people whether they had life insurance, or a graveyard picked out, or if they had a living will? How many of the group who answered yes to this first question would answer yes to the second? And maybe that list is too bourgeois for my non-religious friends, particularly those who don’t have any dependants to worry about, but if they don’t like that list what other concrete evidence would they offer to show that they had really grappled with death other than them just saying that they had?

It’s easy to say, whether it’s the possibility of our own death, or the possibility of global warming or nuclear war, well it won’t matter, I’ll be dead. And perhaps with the first that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you’ve come to terms with it. But also, there are of course lots of catastrophes and mini-apocalypses which could happen which won’t kill you, and if your view of the future is limited to: its going to be awesome, it’s going to be the same or I’m going to be dead. I think there’s a good chance you’re going to be very alive, and very disappointed.


You know what’s not disappointing? Donating to this blog. I can personally vouch that several people who’ve done it have described it being followed by a warm satisfied glow. Though It may have been indigestion. Apparently my blog causes both.


Catastrophe or Singularity? Neither? Both?

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One of the central themes of this blog has been that the modern world is faced with two possible outcomes: societal collapse or technological singularity. For those of you just joining us, who may not know, a technological singularity is some advancement which completely remakes the world. It’s most often used in reference to creating artificial intelligence which is smarter than the smartest human, but it could also be something like discovering immortality. This is the possible future where technology (hopefully) makes everything alright. But it’s not the only possibility, we’re faced with salvation on one hand and disaster on the other.

This dichotomy was in fact the subject of my very first post. And in that post I said:

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

Once again, in my ongoing effort to catch up on past promises, this is that future post. It’s finally time to fulfill the commitment I made at the very beginning, and answer the question, why can’t it be both or neither?

Let’s start with the possibility that we might experience both at the same time. And right off the bat we have to decide what that would even look like. I think the first thing that pops into my head is the movie Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9. In this movie you have a collapsed civilization on the planet’s surface and a civilization in orbit that has experienced, at a minimum, a singularity in terms of space habitation and health (they have machines that can cure all diseases). At first glance this appears to meet the standard of both a collapse and a singularity happening at the same time, and coexisting. That said, it is fiction. And while I don’t think that should immediately render it useless, it is a big strike against it.

As you may recall I wrote previously about people mistaking fiction for history. But for the moment let’s assume that this exact situation could happen. That one possibility for the future is a situation identical to the one in the movie. Even here we have to decide what our core values are before we can definitively declare that this is a situation where both things have occurred. Or more specifically we have to define our terms.

Most people assume that a singularity, when it comes, will impact everyone. I’ve often said that the internet is an example of a “soft” singularity, and indeed one of its defining characteristics is that it has impacted the life of nearly everyone on the planet. Even if less than half of people use the internet, I think it’s safe to assume that even non-users have experienced the effects of it. Also, since the number of internet users continues to rapidly increase, it could be argued that it’s a singularity which is still spreading. Whereas in Elysium (and other dystopias) there is no spread. Things are static or getting worse, and for whatever reason the singularity is denied to the vast majority of people. (And if I understand the ending of the movie correctly it’s being denied just out of spite.) Which is to say that if you think that a singularity has to have universal impact, Elysium is not a singularity.

If, on the other hand, you view collapse as a condition where technological progress stops, then Elysium is not a story of collapse. Technological progress has continued to advance. Humanity has left the Earth, and there appears to be nothing special stopping them from going even farther. This is where core values really come into play.

I’ve discussed the idea of core values previously, and when I did, I mentioned a friend of mine whose core value is for intelligence to escape this gravity well, and Elysium either qualifies or is well on it’s way to qualifying for this success condition. Which means if you’re my friend Elysium isn’t a story of collapse it’s a story of triumph.

You may feel that I’ve been cheating and that what I’m really saying is that collapse and singularity are fundamentally contradictory terms and that’s why you can’t have both. I will admit that there is a certain amount of truth to that, but also as you can see a lot depends on what your “win” condition is. As another example of this, if you’re on the opposite side of the fence and your core values incline you to hope for a deindustrialized, back to nature, future, then one person’s collapse could be your win condition.

You may wonder why I’m harping on a subject of such limited utility, and further using a mediocre movie to illustrate my point. I imagine before we even began that all of you were already on board with the idea that you can’t have both a technological singularity and a societal collapse. I imagine this doesn’t merely apply to readers of this blog, but that most people agree that you can’t have both, despite a talented performance from Matt Damon which attempts to convince them otherwise. But in spite of the obviousness of this conclusion, I still think there’s some fuzzy thinking on the subject.

Allow me to explain. If, as I asserted in my last post, all societies collapse, and if the only hope we have for avoiding collapse is some sort of technological singularity. Then we are, as I have said from the very beginning, in a race between the two. Now of course structuring things as a race completely leaves out any possibility of salvation through religion, but this post is primarily directed at people who discount that possibility. If you are one of those people and you agree that it’s a race, then you should either be working on some potential singularity or be spending all of your efforts on reducing the fragility of society, so that someone else has as long as possible to stumble upon the singularity, whatever that ends up being.

I admit that the group I just described isn’t a large group, but it may be larger than you think. As evidence of this I offer up some of the recent articles on Silicon Valley Preppers. Recall, that we are looking for people who believe that a collapse is possible but don’t otherwise behave as if we’re in a race in which only one outcome can prevail. In other words, if, like these people, you believe a collapse could happen, you definitely shouldn’t be working on ways to make it more likely, by increasing inequality and fomenting division and anger, which seems to have been the primary occupation of most of these wealthy preppers. On top of this they appear to be preparing for something very similar to the scenario portrayed in Elysium.

Tell me if this description doesn’t come pretty close to the mark.

I was greeted by Larry Hall, the C.E.O. of the Survival Condo Project, a fifteen-story luxury apartment complex built in an underground Atlas missile silo….“It’s true relaxation for the ultra-wealthy,” he said. “They can come out here, they know there are armed guards outside. The kids can run around.” …In 2008, he paid three hundred thousand dollars for the silo and finished construction in December, 2012, at a cost of nearly twenty million dollars. He created twelve private apartments: full-floor units were advertised at three million dollars; a half-floor was half the price. He has sold every unit, except one for himself, he said…. In a crisis, his swat-team-style trucks (“the Pit-Bull VX, armored up to fifty-calibre”) will pick up any owner within four hundred miles. Residents with private planes can land in Salina, about thirty miles away.

A remoted guarded luxury enclave where they can wait out the collapse of the planet? This seems pretty on the money, and don’t even get me started on Peter Thiel’s island.

Far be it from me to criticize someone for being prepared for the worst. Though in this particular case, I’m not sure that fleeing to the rich enclave will be as good of a tactic as they think. John Michael Greer, who I quote frequently, is fond of pointing out that every time some treasure seeker finds gold coins which have been buried, that it’s evidence of a rich prepper, from history, whose plans failed. Where my criticism rest is the fact that they seem to spend hardly any resources on decreasing the fragility of the society we already have.

Reading these prepper stories you find examples of people from Reddit and Twitch and Facebook. What do any of these endeavors do that makes society less fragile? At best they’re neutral, but an argument could definitely be made that all three of these websites contribute to an increase in divisiveness and by extension they actually increase to the risk of collapse. But, as I already alluded to, beyond their endeavors, they are emblematic of the sort of inequality that appears to be at the heart of much of the current tension.

As a final point if these people don’t believe that a societal collapse and a technological singularity are mutually exclusive, what do they imagine the world will look like when they emerge from their bunkers? I see lots of evidence of how they’re going to keep themselves alive, but how do they plan to keep technology and more importantly, infrastructure alive?

A few years ago I read this fascinating book about the collapse of Rome. From what I gathered, it has become fashionable to de-emphasis the Western Roman Empire as an entity. An entity which ended in 476 when the final emperor was deposed. Instead, these days some people like to view what came after 476 as very similar to what came before only with a different group of people in charge, but with very little else changing. This book was written to refute that idea, and to re-emphasis the catastrophic nature of end of Rome. One of the more interesting arguments against the idea of a smooth transition was the quality of pottery after the fall. Essentially before the fall you had high quality pottery made in a few locations and which could be found all over the empire. Afterwards you have low quality, locally made pottery that was lightly fired and therefore especially fragile, a huge difference in quality.

It should go without saying, that a future collapse could have very little in common with the collapse of Rome, but if the former Romans couldn’t even maintain the technology for making quality pottery, what makes us think that we’ll be able to preserve multi-billion dollar microchip fabrication plants, or the electrical grid or even anything made of concrete?

The point is, if there is a collapse, I don’t think it’s going to be anything like the scenario Silicon Valley Preppers have in their head.

And now, for the other half of the post, we finally turn to the more interesting scenario. That we end up with neither. That somehow we avoid the fate of all previous civilizations and we don’t collapse, but, also, despite having all the time in the world to create some sort of singularity, that we don’t manage to do that either.

At first glance I would argue that the “neither” scenario is even more unlikely than the “both” scenario, but this may put me in the minority, which is, I suppose, understandable. People have a hard time imagining any future that isn’t just an extension of the present they already inhabit. People may claim that they can imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but really they’re just replaying scenes from The Road, or Terminator 2 (returning to theaters in 3D this summer!). As an example, take anyone living in Europe in 1906, was there a single person who could have imagined what the next 40 years would bring? The two World Wars? The collapse of so many governments? The atomic bomb? And lest you think I’m only focused on the negative, take any American living in 1976. Could any of them have imagined the next 40 years? Particularly in the realm of electronics and the internet. Which is just to say, as I’ve said so often, predicting the future is hard. People are far more likely to imagine a future very similar to the present, which means no collapses or singularities.

It’s not merely that they dismiss potential singularities because they don’t fit with how they imagine the future, it’s that they aren’t even aware of the possibility of a technological singularity. (This is particularly true for those people living in less developed countries.) Even if they have heard of it, there’s a good chance they’ll dismiss it as a strange technological religion complete with a prophet, a rapture, and a chosen people. This attitude is not only found among those people with no knowledge of AI, some AI researchers are among its harshest critics. (My own opinion is more nuanced.)

All of this is to say that many people who opt for neither have no concept of a technological singularity, or what it might look like or what it might do to jobs. Though to adapt my favorite apocryphal quote from Trotsky. You may not be interested in job automation, but job automation is interested in you.

All of the lack of information, and the present-day bias in thinking, apply equally well to the other end of the spectrum and the idea of society collapsing, but on top of that you have to add in the optimism bias most humans have. This is the difference between the 1906 Europeans and the 1976 Americans. The former would not be willing spend anytime considering what was actually going to happen even if you could describe it to them in exact detail, while the latter would happily spend as much time, as you could spare, listening to you talk about the future.

In other words, most people default to the assumption that neither will happen, not because they have carefully weighed both options, but because they have more pressing things to think about.

As I said at the start I don’t think it can be neither, and I would put the probability of that, well below the probability of an eventual singularity, but that is not to say that I think a singularity is very likely either (if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know that I’m essentially on “Team Collapse”.)

My doubts exist in spite of the fact that I know quite a bit about what the expectations are, and the current state of the technology. All of the possible singularities I’ve encountered have significant problems and this is setting aside my previously mentioned religious objection to most of them. To just go through a few of the big ones and give a brief overview:

  • Artificial Intelligence: We obviously already have some reasonably good artificial intelligence, but for it to be a singularity it would have to be generalized, self-improving, smarter than we are, and conscious. I think the last of those is the hardest, even if it turns out that the materialists are totally right (and a lot of very smart, non-religious people think that they aren’t) we’re not even close to solving the problem.
  • Brain uploading: I talked about this in the post I did about Robin Hansen and the MTA conference, but in essence, all of the objections about consciousness are still essentially present here, and as I mentioned there, if we can’t even accurately model a species with 302 neurons. How do we ever model or replicate a species with over 100 billion?
  • Fusion Power: This would be a big deal, big enough to count as a singularity, but not the game changer that some of the other things would be. Also as I pointed out in a previous post, at a certain point power isn’t the problem if we’re going to keep growing, heat is.
  • Extraterrestrial colonies: Perhaps the most realistic of the singularities at least in the short term, but like fusion not as much of a game changer as people would hope. Refer to my previous post for a full breakdown of why this is harder than people think, but in short, unless we can find some place that’s livable and makes a net profit, long-term extraterrestrial colonies are unsustainable.

In other words while most people reject the idea of a singularity because they’re not familiar with the concept, even if they were, they might, very reasonably, choose to reject it all the same.

You may think at this point that I’ve painted myself into a corner. For those keeping score at home I’ve argued against both, I’ve argued against neither and I’ve argued against a singularity all by itself. (I think they call that a naked singularity, No? That’s something else?) Leaving me with just collapse. If we don’t collapse I’m wrong, and all the people who can neither understand the singularity or imagine a catastrophe will be vindicated. In other words, I’ve left myself in the position of having to show that civilization is doomed.

I’d like to think I went a long way towards that in my last post, but this time I’d like to approach it from another angle. The previous post pointed out the many ways in which our current civilization is similar to other civilizations who’ve collapsed. And while those attributes are something to keep an eye on, even if we were doing great, even if there are no comparisons to be drawn between our civilization and previous civilizations in the years before their collapse, there are still a whole host of external black swans, any one of which would be a catastrophic.

As we close out the post let’s just examine a half dozen potential catastrophes, every one of which has to avoided in the coming years:

1- Global Nuclear War: Whether that be Russia vs. the US or whether China’s peaceful rise proves impossible, or whether it’s some new actor.

2- Environmental Collapse: Which could be runaway global warming or it could be a human caused mass extinction, or it could be overpopulation.

3- Energy Issues: Can alternative energy replace carbon based energy? Will the oil run out? Is our energy use going to continue to grow exponentially?

4- Financial Collapse: I previously mentioned the modern world’s high levels of connectivity, which means one financial black swan can bring down the entire system, which almost happened in 2008.

5- Natural disasters: These include everything from super volcanoes, to giant solar storms, to impact by a comet.

6- Plagues: This could be something similar to the Spanish Flu pandemic, or it could be something completely artificial, an act of bioterrorism for example.

Of course this list is by no means exhaustive. Also remember that we don’t merely have to avoid these catastrophes for the next few decades we have to avoid them forever, particularly if there’s no singularity on the horizon.

Where is the world headed? What should we do? I know I have expressed doubts about the transhumanists, and people like Elon Musk, but at least these individuals are thinking about the future. Most people don’t. They assume tomorrow will be pretty much like today, and that their kids will have a life very similar to theirs. Maybe that’s so, and maybe it’s not, but if the singularity or collapse don’t happen during the life of your children or of their children, it will happen during the lives of someone’s children. And it won’t be both and it won’t be neither. I hope it’s some kind of wonderful singularity, but we should prepare for it to be a devastating catastrophe.

I repeat what I’ve said from the very beginning. We’re in a race between societal collapse and a technological singularity. And I think collapse is in the lead.


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Building the Tower of Babel

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I spent this past weekend visiting some old friends. One of my friends is a Dominican Friar who was gracious enough to allow me to stay in one of the guest rooms at his Priory. One night while I was there he invited me to sit down with the other friars during their social hour. I think mostly he just wanted me to meet them, but as I was sitting there they ended up on the subject of what level of human technological enhancement was appropriate. Obviously this is a somewhat fraught issue for most religions, and definitely all of the traditional religions. I don’t want to misconstrue what my hosts said, nor do I claim any great insight into Catholic doctrine on this matter, so I won’t attempt to reconstruct the discussion. But it led to a conversation with my friend afterwards where I mentioned the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I’ve always felt that the MTA seemed to have missed the point of the story of the Tower of Babel, and my friend the Dominican (without any prodding from me) jumped to an identical conclusion. It was nice to have the support of someone else on this point and additionally it reminded me that I had wanted to write a post examining just this question. That is, does the story of the Tower of Babel speak to the goals religious transhumanism?

To conduct the examination we need to answer two questions: First is the story of the Tower of Babel a caution about using technology in an attempt to become like God? Second is using technology to become like God one of the primary goals of the MTA? The second question is easier to answer than the first so we’ll begin there.

It is always dangerous to speak for a group you do not belong to, particularly when you are a critic of the group. I could point out that my criticism is meant in the most constructive and friendly way possible. But, even so, as a reader you would have every right to question my objectivity on this point. If you have any worries on this point I would urge you to follow all the links and educate yourself by reading what the MTA says about itself. That said I am not trying to be unfair or prejudiced, and in that spirit here is my best summary of what the MTA believes: All of the promises made by Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, (resurrection, immortality, the creation of worlds, etc) are going to be accomplished through human ingenuity, in the form of technology. As I said you should follow the links to their website, but I think point four of the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation says much the same thing:

We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.

Perhaps, this, by itself, is already enough, and, from the standpoint of religion, you can already easily see why the Tower of Babel story is applicable. But for those that are not convinced or would like more evidence, let me break it down. First the principles I’ve already pointed out are just the Mormon veneer on top of main body of transhumanism. The MTA is not merely espousing a particular Mormon take on transhumanism they fully endorse the goals of the broader transhumanist movement. This is made clear when they explain what it takes to join the MTA:

The association requires that all members support the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.

The Transhumanist Declaration gives one the impression that the sky’s the limit with respect to technological enhancement. For example let’s look at points 1 and 8 of the declaration (the first and last points):

Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.

We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

If you’re still not convinced let me close this section by providing a few examples of things transhumanists and the MTA in particular are definitely in favor of:

Cryonics: That is freezing or otherwise preserving someone when they die with a view towards bringing them back from the dead at some future point.

Genetic Modification: Obviously genetic modification can take many forms, but under the heading of human modification and enhancement the MTA is in favor of using it to the maximum extent possible as a means of increasing intelligence and of course, eventually providing immortality. If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca that’s probably a pretty fair representation.

Cybernetic enhancements: This category might cover getting rid of perfectly functional eyes and replacing them with more advanced robotic eyes, or some sort of direct connection between your brain and a computer (think the headjack from the Matrix.)

Mind uploading: The most radical idea of all would be the ability to copy your mind and then upload it to some sort of computer, allowing you to live on as a virtual being. This enhancement encompasses the benefits of all the previous enhancements, but is also probably the most difficult technically.

As I said I’m reluctant to speak for a group I’m critical of, and if you have doubts as to whether I’m accurately portraying the principles espoused by the MTA then you should definitely follow the links and read things for yourself, but from where I stand there can be very little doubt that the answer to my second question is: yes, one of the MTA’s primary goals is to become like God through the use of technology. With that, hopefully, out of the way let’s turn to the first and more important question. For the religious, is the Tower of Babel story a caution against efforts like this? Or more broadly what is the official LDS stance on achieving divinity through technology?

There will of course be people who think this sort of technological enhancement is a good idea regardless of what I say about the Tower of Babel or anything else. And there will be people who think it’s a bad idea, also regardless of what I say, but for those in the middle the Tower of Babel is a good place to start. Particularly if you’re Mormon. (Though as I pointed out even my very Catholic friend immediately made reference to the story of Babel.)

The reason it’s particularly good for Mormons is that it’s one of the few Old Testament stories to be mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And of those it’s definitely the most prominent. If we proceed from the assumption that everything in the Book of Mormon was put there for a reason why was it necessary to have a second telling of the story of the Tower of Babel? If you accept the idea that it’s a cautionary tale about using technology to achieve divinity in circumvention of God then the straightforward answer is that this is an issue modern saints would be grappling with and it was therefore helpful to have a reminder. I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, this connection, along with the underlying moral, make a lot of sense. And in fact I’m going to call this the traditional interpretation. However for the moment let’s assume that this is not the moral of the story of Babel. This is obviously the MTA’s position. And if it isn’t the moral why do we need a duplicate account? What is the alternative moral which is so important that the story needed to be repeated?

Lincoln Cannon is one of the founders of the MTA and a past president and therefore among its most vocal defenders. As you might imagine he has written an article explaining that the goals of the MTA are not the same thing we are being warned about in the story of Tower of Babel. This article is titled Ethical Progress is Not Babel, and I intend to deal with it in depth, but for the moment we’re just looking to see if he has an alternative moral for the story. I would say that he alludes to one. Drawing on a quote from Lorenzo Snow (which we’ll return to) Cannon writes:

Snow suggests that the builders’ moral failing was in allowing technical achievements to outpace moral achievements. The technical achievements in themselves were not the problem, but rather the problem was the relative lack of virtue.

To begin with even if we grant this moral, which we’ll call the MTA interpretation, I’m not sure that our technical achievements haven’t outstripped our moral achievements. A subject I’ll be returning to. But, also, why would this moral be more likely than the more obvious moral. Or to put in other terms how can we go about deciding which moral is more likely to be correct? Of course as religious people we are entitled to receive revelation with something like this, but as that is largely a personal endeavor we’re going to leave it out. What methods can we turn to in the absence of revelation?

Well first, most of the lessons contained in the scriptures are pretty simple. We’re told to have faith, repent, get baptized, love God and each other. I’d be willing to grant that the traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story is not quite that simple, but it’s certainly more simple than the MTA interpretation.

Second, when the Lord does instruct us through the scriptures, the obvious explanation is almost always the correct one. (I understand saying “correct” is a loaded term, but I think you know what I mean.) This is not to say there aren’t layers of meaning to the scriptures. But that’s not what we’re seeing here, the MTA interpretation ends up in a place that’s almost the exact opposite of the obvious meaning. I definitely can’t think of any scripture where God commands people to, for example, tell the truth, and the correct interpretation ends up being that lying is the only way to be saved.

Finally most gospel principles are repeated multiple times, but I can’t think of another place where we’re urged to not let our technology outstrip our ethics. Or where we’re urged to pursue technology as the true source of all the long promised blessings. In other words what other scriptures support the MTA interpretation? On the other hand there are lots of examples of scriptures which support the traditional interpretation. To give just a few examples:

  • When the Children of Israel made the Golden Calf: This may not seem very high tech to you, but for the time it was. Also this is another example of finding salvation in something we’re able to build for ourselves while ignoring the plain commandments of God.
  • Another, similar example is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Once again we have someone using wealth, power and yes, technology to redirect legitimate worship away from God and to something constructed and conceived by humans. And once again the right course was to refuse to bow down, even if it meant being thrown into the fiery furnace.
  • Moving from the Old Testament to the New we have the story of Simon, who sought to buy God’s power. At first glance you may not immediately see a connection, but if we do manage to reverse aging or resurrect people, or upload their mind into a computer. It’s going to be far easier to access that technology with money than by living a good life.
  • Moving to the Book of Mormon, not only do we have a repeat of the story of Babel, but we also have the story of the Rameumptom. Again, it may not seem like technology, but it’s another example of people building something designed to act as a shortcut to salvation. It’s basically an exact mirror of the Tower of Babel story only on a smaller scale.

It’s possible that you don’t see the connection in one or more of the examples I just cited. But for the MTA interpretation to be the best interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, you have to:

  1. Reject all the supporting examples for the traditional interpretation.
  2. Find other scriptural examples which support the MTA interpretation.
  3. Explain why the MTA interpretation is the more correct interpretation despite being more complicated.
  4. Justify why an interpretation which is exactly the opposite of the obvious interpretation is nevertheless the correct one.

As I mentioned already, Cannon has an article explaining how the Tower of Babel doesn’t mean what I (or my friend the Catholic Priest) think it means, and it’s finally time to turn to that article and examine his argument. Though if you’re expecting him to cover all four of the points I just made (or actually any of the points I just made) you’re going to be disappointed. Still he brings in some interesting sources, so it’s worth taking a look at what he has to say.

The first quote, which I already alluded to, is from Lorenzo Snow:

We should strive earnestly to establish the principles of heaven within us, rather than trouble ourselves in fostering anxieties like the foolish people of the Tower of Babel, to reach its location before we are properly and lawfully prepared to become its inhabitants. Its advantages and blessings, in a measure, can be obtained in this probationary state by learning to live in conformity with its laws and the practice of its principles. To do this, there must be a feeling and determination to do God’s will.

This is the statement Cannon draws on for his moral for the story of Babel, that is, that we should not let technology get ahead of morality. To be honest I’m not really getting that from this quote. I think, if anything, a better interpretation would be that we need to focus on our personal righteousness, rather than being anxious or even concerned about whether we can hasten salvation with technology.

Also, I find the term “lawfully”, and his discussion of conforming to the laws, to be interesting as well. There are certain covenants associated with salvation. And some of those are associated with major life events. We’re baptized when we reach the age of eight, we prepare for the afterlife by going through the temple at around the time we are considered to be adults. Additionally, while they aren’t technically covenants, we have baby blessings for the newly born and we dedicate the graves of the newly dead. What sort of law or ritual applies to being revived from cryonics, or being reconstructed from DNA? Are the brethren just waiting until the technology is ready before introducing the ordinance of cloning?

Returning to the Snow quote. I could certainly see how other people might have a different interpretation of it than I do, but I can’t see anyone declaring it to be slam dunk for the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel.

The second quote he references is a long one from John Taylor. In fact Cannon’s article is 2/3rds quotes from early Church leaders and only 1/3rd his explanation of those quotes. He is making a complicated and controversial claim and one of my criticisms is that 400 words does not seem sufficient to explain it. In any event back to the Taylor quote. I won’t include all of it, but Cannon helpfully bolds two sections, the second of which appears to be speaking the most directly to his point:

We are here to do a work; not a small one, but a large one. We are here to help the Lord to build up his kingdom, and if we have any knowledge of electricity, we thank God for it. If we have any knowledge of the power of steam, we will say its from God. If we possess any other scientific information about the earth whereon we stand, or of the elements with which we are surrounded, we will thank God for the information, and say he has inspired men from time to time to understand them, and we will go on and grasp more intelligence, light and information, until we comprehend as we are comprehended of God.

I have no problem agreeing that John Taylor is here saying that technology comes from God. That technology is not evil. But there is a huge difference between saying that technology comes from God and saying that technology is how we become Gods. Additionally there is a difference of kind and not merely of degree between using technology to broadcast General Conference to, say, Tierra del Fuego and using technology to live forever. Again, it’s an interesting quote, but it is not even close to being the same as the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel story. Still, if you have any doubts, I urge you to read Cannon’s entire article.

The final quote he includes is from Joseph Smith:

This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory.

(The spelling and punctuation are from the original document.)

At this point I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but yes, we agree technology is not evil by itself. Technology can be useful both in general and as it relates to the specific goals of the Church. But none of these quotes speak to the specific idea of using technology as a way of accomplishing all the things God has promised. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that in the middle of the 1800’s when the Presidents of the Church talked about technology that they were not speaking about mind uploading, cybernetic replacement or cryonic resurrection. Fortunately one of the great things about the LDS Church is that we have ongoing revelation, and 15 prophetic leaders who give us counsel twice a year. And as far as I can tell none of them have come out in support of any of these technologies, certainly not as the means for achieving something like the resurrection of the dead as described in scriptures

And yet if the MTA is to be believed this is how it’s going to be done. Which means these aren’t marginal issues that reasonable people might disagree on, like whether it’s okay to take doctor prescribed marijuana in states where it’s now legal. Rather, issues like resurrection and immortality are fundamental to the entire gospel plan. And if the brethren aren’t pursuing them or investing in them or even talking about them, what does that say? And remember the Church does invest in things, if this is as important as the MTA claims, what does it say when the Church invests in the City Creek Mall, but not in life extension technologies? If these things are as critical to the gospel plan as the MTA claims then the only conclusion is that the brethren have completely failed in their jobs. It’s difficult to see how these two viewpoints can even co-exist, and one is tempted to view the MTA as more of a schismatic offshoot, than anything else.

In closing, let’s change tacks, and imagine that it’s true. Imagine that the MTA is everything it claims to be and God’s plan is to allow us to discover and perfect the technology necessary to achieve Godhood on our own. The MTA itself admits that this is only possible if our morality keeps pace with our technology. As you look around and take stock of the modern world, do you really think that’s the case? Are we really that much more righteous with our computers and jet airliners than the early saints were with their electricity and steam engines? Are we a thousand times more righteous than the twelve disciples and the people who followed Jesus because their technology was a thousand times more primitive? Is the modern world really so righteous that people who can barely be trusted with iPhones, are nevertheless on course to be trusted with omnipotence?


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Christianity, the Singularity and Getting a Driver’s License

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We Are Not Saved

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

Jeremiah 8:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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