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Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Long Swing of the Political Pendulum

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In my last post I mentioned that I had spent a long time neglecting the actual theme of this blog, and I resolved to use that post to rectify it. Accordingly, I proceeded to go on a deep dive into what salvation might look like from a scientific perspective.  Unfortunately, for all the time and ink I spent on the effort, I don’t feel it was sufficient to absolve me of my long neglect. Additionally, in my last post I mentioned in passing that there was a discussion to be had about the connection between the blog’s theme and my frequent posts on politics, but that I was going to save it for another time. This is that time, and in a classic case of attempting to strike two birds with a single stone, I am going to attempt to both further absolve myself and make good on my commitment.

Right off the bat it’s important to clarify what I mean by politics. As is so often the case, politics is one of those words which can mean a lot of different things. For instance, it can mean anything from a local school board candidate going door to door soliciting support to vast cultural changes that have a worldwide impact.

If you’ve read much of the blog I’m sure you realize that when I say politics I generally land on the vast cultural change side of things as opposed to the door-to-door school board side of things. But beyond issues of scale, there is another way in which people use the word politics, which I think is important to clarify. People also use it to mean important topics on which there is still disagreement. And because of this disagreement we are often urged to avoid talking about politics all together, because by highlighting the disagreement we may bring about this discomfort. I bring up this separate definition of politics because, a large part of what I mean when I say I’m going to talk about politics, is just me saying I’m going to talk about things that make some people uncomfortable.

Once you start looking at it that way, then you can’t talk about “Not being saved,” without causing some discomfort, which means, following the definition I just provided, you also can’t talk about it without getting into politics. Thus politics is unavoidable in the general sense, but it’s also unavoidable in the specific sense, as it implies both that the status quo won’t save us, and even more specifically that your favorite candidate won’t change the status quo. In other words, the question of salvation, particularly once you leave religion behind, as I did starting with the last post, is essentially a political question, since science only saves us if politics makes it possible.

Once you start talking about politics, while people are interested in the latest ridiculous Trump tweet, the results of the recent German election, or the latest failure to repeal Obamacare, what they’re most interested in is what’s going to happen. This is where my interest lies as well. Of course what’s going to happen depends a lot on what’s currently happening, and as a result it’s frequently necessary to wade into current events, which is where the political discomfort mentioned above generally comes into play.

At this point I was going to offer up an example of an historical event which no longer caused any discomfort and my mind immediately went to the Civil War, and I then thought, “Oh,right  I guess I need to go farther back than that.” (Maybe the English Civil War?)

In addition to the discomfort, sampling the present as a way of predicting the future is fraught with all manner of uncertainty, and thus I try to confine my statements not to what’s going to happen, but rather how to develop antifragility so that it doesn’t matter what happens. That said, I can’t resist the temptation of talking about broad trends, though even in this case, I’m not trying to predict what’s going to happen, but rather develop a map of the possibilities. Accordingly I am not going to tell you whether I think Trump will be impeached (I would bet against it, but I think he’ll teeter on the edge of it his entire first term) but I will explain the various, possible futures I see stretched out in front of us. The farthest I will go in terms of prediction is to offer my opinion on the likelihood of each of these possibilities, though I have no problem if you ignore that part.

Let’s start by talking about the broadest trend of all. Which direction are things headed? I have already said that I think things have been moving leftward for a very long time, and I stand by that, but where do they go from here? Broadly there are three possibilities. They can continue to move that way, they can plateau, or they can reverse in the fashion of a pendulum.

(If you don’t agree with my claim that things are moving leftward then the possibilities are still essentially the same, it’s only the starting point that is different.)

Any look at the past will convince you that things are unlikely to plateau, and if for some reason they do, it would probably be the best outcome we could hope for. We already have a fair amount of experience in dealing with things as they are, and if they just continue in the same vein our competence will only increase.

This leaves continuing to move in the same direction or a pendulum as the two possibilities which are both likely and worrisome. Let’s talk about the pendulum first.

For a long time this is what I figured, that the pendulum had to be close to swinging back.  Sure, campus radicals are getting increasingly demanding. Sure, identity politics are spiraling out of control. Sure, we have voted ourselves massive benefits, far beyond what we can afford. And sure, we live in a society with a morality that would make Sodom and Gomorrah jealous (not everyone agrees that this is a bad thing.) But all of these extremes were precisely why I thought we were near the end of the swing. And it gave me a certain amount of comfort. I don’t think I was alone in this, whenever I would bring up the latest leftist insanity with my friends on that side, often times, rather than defending it, they would agree that it was alarming, but that it was an outlier. That it didn’t represent the beginning of a trend, but rather the end of one. Which is to say they also thought the pendulum had reached the end of it’s swing and was about to return.

When you look for analogies, the closest in time and space is the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly one can see something of a pendulum there. There was lots of societal unrest and violence (much more than today) and then it mostly went away. And then, a decade or so later, the cold war ended, and it appeared to a lot of people like we had reached a plateau, and a nice one at that.

I never thought we had reached a plateau, as I said I figured there was a pendulum, and on a long enough time horizon, this is still my model for what I expect to happen, but lately I’ve become more aware that there’s no law that says a pendulum has to swing back before it causes too much damage, and in fact perhaps the metaphor of a pendulum is fatally flawed, since pendulums are so regular in their return that we use them to keep time. Whereas if there is a pendulum in human affairs, I doubt it has any kind of regularity, and in fact it can go on long past where we think it should, before it reaches it’s maximum.

The maximum I mentioned in the late 60s/early 70s was relatively mild, but if you look back through history you’ll realize as social unrest goes, it was the exception rather than the rule.
It’s far more common for millions to die before things start to swing back than it is for the revolutionaries to be co-opted by academia and Reagan to be elected. Also, it’s important to point out before we get any farther that to describe human affairs and political upheavals as things which travel only along one axis and which have a definite end point and a smooth progression is also a vast oversimplification of how these things normally work as well.

As I already mentioned, belief in a pendulum isn’t limited to people on the right. In addition to using the idea of small pendulum swings to dismiss the worst excesses of their “side”, people on the left also fear a large swing which will undo many of gains they’ve made. And it’s certainly understandable that many of them view the election of Trump as the beginning of exactly that. Going back to what I said in the beginning. I’m assuming that the left has been ascendant for awhile, but the possible directions are the same regardless of your initial assumptions.

For those who are on the left, and who feel that they’re nearing the end of a swing, the next thing to consider is what can be done about it? Unfortunately, part of the idea behind the pendulum is that its swings are inexorable, that once stuff starts to reverse, you can’t stop it. I assume that despite this that there will be people who try. I also wonder how much of the current frenetic pace of the left is driven by the idea of a coming reversal, and a consequent desire to “get theirs” while they still can. For example, maybe tearing down confederate monuments has to be done now before the pendulum swings the other way and white supremacists retake power. As I have said before I don’t think this is very likely, but it is a narrative of the whole situation which is somewhat more flattering than the dancing in the endzone narrative, though, if you do think the pendulum is going to swing back then it may be a bad idea to antagonize your future insect overlords. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Simpsons reference.)

For myself over the last few years I’ve become less convinced that things are about to swing back the other way. And unlike most people, I view the election of Trump not as evidence of a rightward swing, but rather as evidence that the pendulum still has a long way to go. I’ll offer still more evidence for this in a bit, but before I do I want to point out that the two choices we have remaining to us, history as a pendulum or history as a leftward trend which goes up forever, are indistinguishable unless the pendulum is already at the end of it’s swing. In other words if you’re not at an inflection point you’re on a slope and the only question is how steep the slope is. Which means, what all of this really boils down to is, what does our present slope look like, and is there any evidence that it might be flattening?

I mentioned “leftist insanity” previously, along with the observation that people on that side of things often use a variant of the pendulum theory to dismiss this insanity, particularly when it comes out of academia. Oftentimes they justify it by mentioning that college students are young, and that they’ll grow out of it. If it turns out to be a professor, they might counter with pointing out that professors are not elected officials, and that, moreover, their influence is very limited. Or they may directly reference the idea of a pendulum by saying that this is just a temporary spike in attention being paid to social justice, and that it’s confined to a limited number of universities and colleges and those have always been places where extreme ideas are discussed, so forth and so one, But in any event, they will contend that there’s nothing to worry about.

I confess that this argument has its merits. Academia is in something of a bubble, and what goes on there is less of the metaphorical “canary in the coalmine” and more a metaphorical “weird cousin who spouts conspiracy theories and refuses to work for the man.” Of course this doesn’t mean that the bubble doesn’t create problems, just that it may not be predictive. And so for quite a while I’ve been keeping my eye open for something crazy which wasn’t ultimately about academia. Some of the coverage of the Antifa has definitely fallen into this category, and there’s also the occasional journalist from a left wing network who will end up saying something which really should be outside the bounds of polite discourse. But none of this really affected actual elected officials, or the actual government, until the cartoon controversy in Illinois.

My guess would be that you probably haven’t even heard of this controversy. I only came across it myself by trolling through my contacts in the resistance, and consequently re-telling is in order.

Back in August a libertarian think tank called the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), an organization which largely concerns itself with issues like school choice and charter schools, published a editorial cartoon, which was so explosively racist that the following things happened:

  • The Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner, who despite being a Republican, is an outspoken critic of Trump, spent untold hours and days defending himself against accusations of racism related to the cartoon. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “how did the Illinois Governor get wrapped up in things?” Well he donated money to the IPI and hired some people who used to work there. So yeah, there’s a connection, but I don’t see anything that implies responsibility, I mean he didn’t retweet it, or like it and he certainly didn’t draw it. In fact I’ve seen no evidence he was even aware of it, before people started complaining. It was enough that he was connected to the organization who did publish it. And believe me if you know anything about politics, it’s often times easier to identify which organizations a politician isn’t connected to then which ones they are.
  • Despite, no actual direct responsibility for the cartoon, four people from the governor's office ended up resigning over it. As near as I could tell they resigned because they weren’t better at deflecting responsibility... for something they weren’t responsible for.
  • Outside of the governor's office, the Illinois House spent an entire day denouncing the cartoon. At one point one of the representatives, nearly in tears, called the cartoon “shit” and got a bipartisan standing ovation.
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the cartoon “unambiguously racist” and a disgrace.
  • Just last week, the governor’s chief of staff resigned, in part because of the chaos caused by the cartoon.

After all of this I assume you’re just dying to see the cartoon. Well prepare yourself, for it to have caused this much fuss it has to be a doozy, right? I mean truly appalling. You’re sure you’re ready? Okay here it is.

It may be that I have talked you out of clicking on the link, that you really don’t want to see the cartoon if it’s as awful as all this. If that’s the case (and given that this post is also going to be turned into a podcast) I’ll describe it for you. The cartoon has a small, obviously black child, sitting against a brick wall in a classic pan-handler position, and in addition to the bowl at his feet he’s holding a sign that says, “Need Money 4 School.” An obviously rich, old, cigar-smoking white guy walks by and shows him an empty pocket, saying “Sorry kid, I’m broke.” While meanwhile, out of sight of the child his other pocket bulges with money. The money is labeled “TIF $”.

A rich, old white guy holding back money from public schools, which are represented by a needy minority student… Are we sure Bernie Sanders or the teacher’s union didn’t commission this cartoon? If you’re confused, so was I. Digging into it, there’s apparently some arcana involved with the TIF program and whether it actually could be diverted to public schools, but that hardly seems sufficient to raise the fuss I described above, particularly when most people’s complaints are similar to this one:


I find it hard to believe that if you’re worried about the children, that it’s because of the reference to a little know property tax program, and indeed most people seem to be concerned with the way the kid is something of a racial caricature. (Also apparently the fact that he’s wearing a Cubs hat also seems to play into it in a way that has escaped me...) I would say that I’m not qualified to comment on whether the cartoon depicted the child in an unflattering light, but the governor tried that (after saying he had nothing to do with the cartoon) and it just got him into more trouble.

That, in any case, is the story, but what point does it illustrate and specifically, why is it a different sort of story than the academic craziness you normally hear about?

Before we get into that, I’m aware that we have to worry about reading too much into a single event. As I have already said, a couple of times, you could completely disagree with me on what the current trends are. But we still have a situation where the trend has to either be getting better, getting worse or staying the same. And I know depending on the trend we’re talking about people will disagree about what’s better and what’s worse. But, perhaps if you don’t believe in my narrative of victory by the left, you can at least see this story and other’s like it as a sign that the trend of polarization, and disagreements over tiny issues is definitely getting worse, without necessarily agreeing with me that one side is winning. And, from this larger perspective, I think the evidence that we’re about to turn a corner or level off is even less compelling.

With that caveat in place I’d like to end by examining three lessons I think we can draw from this story.

The first lesson I want to draw is the one I alluded to earlier: That, political correctness (for lack of a better descriptor) has reached a new level. That outrage over a minor, and to my mind, inconsequential issue has made a major impact outside of academia. This event had definite consequences (including people losing their jobs) in the governance of our fifth largest state. And, further, since it seems to matter, it wasn’t about Trump. The Governor of Illinois, while still a Republican, had done everything possible to distance himself from the President.

The second point I want to make is about the accusation of racism. I think this is a deep enough topic, that it’s yet one more thing that deserves it’s own post (though probably not next week I feel a post about the deficit coming on.) But I think all objective observers agree that it’s something which is losing it’s meaning, and consequently in danger of losing it’s power. Certainly we have seen how Trump is largely unaffected by these accusations, and if this is yet another trend, this is one place where I think that most people don’t want the pendulum to swing back to the point where accusations of genuine racism are meaningless, but we risk that happening when we use it for something as trivial as this editorial cartoon.

The last thing I want to draw your attention to, and one which I’m always coming back to is the fragility vs. antifragility axis. As a reminder, fragility comes when you realize frequent, small, limited returns at the cost of infrequent, but large and unbounded costs. Antifragility is the opposite, you suffer frequent small, but limited costs in exchange for infrequent, but large and unbounded returns. In this scenario there was probably some small benefit to those who wanted greater attention paid to racism, but it was extremely limited, and continued incidents like this risk not only completely derailing the workings of government, but also creating significant societal divisions, over tiny issues. On the other hand, if they had ignored this cartoon, there is some cost to that, but maybe, public schools actually get more funding which appears to be what both sides want. And maybe, just maybe, the two sides are able to accomplish something together which neither could accomplish alone. Which I’m sure is a lesson with application far outside the borders of Illinois.




I’ll tell you one trend which I hope keeps increasing, the number of donors. Oh yeah! Was that too much? Maybe that was too much...

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Depressing Limitations of Salvation Through Science

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This is supposed to be, at least occasionally, a Mormon/Religious blog, but other than last week you would be forgiven if you had missed that point. Even easier than missing the religious element of the blog would be missing the theme of the blog, which I haven’t touched on in quite a while. This post will attempt to rectify that.


Given that it has been so long it might be worth a brief review. The theme of the blog comes from the Book of Jeremiah chapter 8 verse 20:


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


Which I sometimes amend to say, “The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.” Meaning that I am more interested in the interplay of religion and progress than I am about one or the other. (You may wonder where politics enters into it, given the amount of time I spend there, but that’s a subject for another time.)


Writing about this interplay can be difficult, particularly given that conventional wisdom views them as being exact opposites of one another. And there’s a good reason for that. But they also have many things in common, and it’s one of those commonalities that I want to focus on.


Returning to the theme, I’m saying that technology and progress have not saved us, but what does it even mean to be saved? From a religious perspective salvation is pretty straightforward. For most religions it’s living forever, ideally in a fashion which doesn’t suck. And unless they’re a truly hardcore atheist most people would agree that there is some chance of this salvation coming to pass, with the actual odds of it happening varying with the belief of the individual.


Outside of religion the concept of salvation is less clear. And I can certainly see some people, encountering my theme, and saying of course progress and technology haven’t saved us, because that’s a religious concept which doesn’t mean anything outside of religion. But I would argue that these people are in the minority. Though the majority which remains may not recognize that “salvation” is what they’re really after when they lay their chips on the space marked progress.


In other words everyone wants to be saved, and everyone who’s not actively religious has decided to use technology and progress to accomplish that. They just may not call it salvation or realize that that’s what they’re doing. So what does salvation mean for these people?


At the lowest level, for many people “salvation” consists of nothing more than a life enjoyable enough that it’s preferable to not being alive. You would hope that very few people would be on the fence about this. But unfortunately some people are, and many of those people go on to attempt, and in far too many cases succeed at, committing suicide. Perhaps equally unfortunate, progress and technology don’t seem to be doing much for this group of people, and they may even be making things worse, since if anything progress seems to be positively correlated with suicide risk. I already mentioned in a previous post how suicide was essentially unknown in pre-industrial societies. And lately the rate has continued to increase. This is worse than it appears, since if anything advances in trauma care should be making attempted suicides less likely to succeed. And indeed I just saw a journal article which claimed that suicide attempts were up over 25% between 2005 and 2013, with a disproportionate increase among younger adults with no college degree.


Above this level, there is the “salvation” of being able to live the life you want to. And this is definitely the level where technology and progress have made the biggest impact. For most people the standard of living is at levels unheard of even 50 years ago. This includes inventions people barely dreamed of, travel at speeds which would have baffled our ancestors, and rights that would have been unthinkable. In other words for gay couples, who love posting pictures of their European vacation on Facebook, technology and progress have been very good to them.


Of course even if you have “saved” yourself in this life, that’s a pretty short span of time, and that’s just if you consider things from an historical perspective, if you consider things from the potential of eternity it’s even more stark. However, I’m guessing that people at this level don’t consider things either from an historical perspective or an eternal perspective. Making the decision, even if not consciously, that they’re going to ignore any possibility of an afterlife in favor of maximizing this life. Meaning, deliberately or not, that this is the “salvation” they have chosen.


At the next level, are people who contemplate achieving “salvation” by leaving behind a legacy of sorts, but who stop short of considering actual immortality (or maybe in addition to immortality.) This contemplation takes a wide variety of forms, from people who hope to be remembered by their descendents, to authors, artists and even politicians who hope to achieve a form of immortality through their work, to the philanthropist who has a building named after them. These efforts have the advantage of past evidence of success, though this evidence is only for other people, you’ll have to take it on faith that it will work for you. And it might not. For example, if you’re hoping to be remembered by your descendants you will actually have to have descendants, which an increasing number of people do not. And even then, once a few hundred years are past you’ll be lucky to be remembered as anything more than a name and a few dates.


On the other hand, if you’re hoping to be remembered for your work, then the chances of success are even smaller (though the potential reward is correspondingly greater.) To begin with the number of people who are remembered by the general public after they’re gone is always going to be tiny and most, even of those, will not be remembered for more than a few hundred years. If you wish to be remembered forever then the competition is even fiercer.  It is possible that Socrates and Caesar will be remembered for as long as there are humans, but I doubt if there are more than a few such people every century.


Next we move on to people for whom salvation is a group effort. Meaning that whatever else they may believe, they would really like to see humanity continue to exist. Obviously, there will be some overlap between the various levels, meaning there are certainly some people who are individually happy to find “salvation” in the life they’re leading right now, but also take comfort from the fact that humanity will continue on after they’re gone. Out of this group there is a smaller group who takes more comfort in this continuation if they know their descendents are going to be part of it, while for others it doesn’t matter.


At least in the near term, the chances of humanity continuing are quite good. There are some potential extinction level events, but it’d have to be something pretty big, as I said before, even a nuclear war would probably not lead to humanity's extinction.


The final level are those people who will consider salvation to have occurred only if they, personally, achieve immortality. If you hope to achieve this through the religious route, the path is pretty straight forward. Most religions provide clear instructions on how to achieve immortality. The only question is how likely are those instructions to work. But if you’re hoping for technology and progress to provide this salvation, either because you’re not religious, or because you’re hedging your bet, or you’re a religious transhumanist and you’re hoping to combine the two, then your options for technological immortality are broad, but so far unrealized.


There’s cryonic suspension, e.g. freezing your body (or possibly just your head) when you die. This is a gamble, since thus far no one has successfully been revived from such a condition (and I’m record as saying that no one ever will be.) Also, I heard recently that thus far only 300 people have entered cryonic suspension in the US, so even if it will eventually be possible the number of people who can be saved through this method is a tiny fraction of people alive today, and an infinitesimal percentage of the people who have ever lived.


Outside of cryonic suspension you have the dreams of the transhumanists, who, while not eschewing cryonics, have pinned their hopes more on medical advances, technological augmentation, and eventually brain digitization. Each of these areas holds some promise, but even medical advances, the area where the most progress has been made, has mostly extended the length of life without doing much to preserve its quality.


I think with the exception of a couple of fringe ideologies we’ve basically covered all of the various paths for a human to achieve some degree of salvation. Which, means, returning to my theme. If you want to claim that I’m wrong, that, “We are saved.” Those are your options. Hopefully you’ll agree that the first two levels, which consist of focusing just on this life, at either the survival or the enjoyment level, do not really constitute salvation except in the loosest sense, and even if we accept that they represent individual salvation, they certainly don’t represent ways in which “We” are saved. For that we need something more.


Salvation as being remembered after death, is more promising, as a means for group salvation. I imagine that you might be able to say that the Sumerians have achieved a degree of salvation to the extent that they’re still remembered. Still if humanity as a whole goes extinct, then the memory of the Sumerians will perish with them. Which leaves us with only the last two levels as offering potential, true salvation: the continuation of humanity, or individual immortality.


I suppose at this point one might argue that they don’t actually care about these levels of salvation, but I suspect if anyone feels this way that they haven’t really thought it through. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who apparently I can’t get away from, mentioned how odd it is that someone could be horrified by say, what just happened in Las Vegas, but contemplate the extinction of all humanity with a calm detachment. Perhaps even offering up a facile explanation like, “Well I guess humanity didn’t deserve to survive.”  If you aren’t interested in salvation for the whole of humanity, then I guess there’s not much left to say, but if you are, there’s only two ways to bring that about: Religion or Science (or both if you’re in the MTA.)


As usual I find the overlap between Religion and Science to be very interesting. Essentially both promise the same thing, more or less, the difference comes in the degree to which we’re saved (presumably actual exaltation would dwarf even the grandest dreams of transhumanism) and the odds of that salvation happening (the assessment of which varies from person to person). The spectacular advances of science and technology have served to convince most people that the odds of salvation through science are a lot better than was previously expected and the odds of salvation through religion, a lot worse. As you might gather I disagree with this. In my opinion, the odds of salvation through progress and technology are a lot lower than people think, and the odds of salvation through religion are much higher, also I think playing the odds with respect to religion is easier and more rational than most people think.


This blog, while not shying away from religion, is not primarily concerned with convincing people to look for salvation through religion, i.e. I’m not trying to convert you. There are lots of people working on that. (Some of them are young men and young women who roam around two by two. You should chat them up. They’re invariably very nice.) This blog is more about convincing you that odds of salvation through science are not as great as you’ve been led to believe. In particular it will be a lot harder and entail more sacrifices than people imagine.


I recently read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. And I think it did a great job of illustrating exactly this point. And unfortunately to explain how, I’m going to have to spoil the book. So if you were hoping to read the book, and don’t want to be spoiled, you should skip the next five paragraphs.


Aurora takes place on a generation ship sent to colonize Tau Ceti, and whereas in most science fiction involving interstellar expansion by humanity, the expansion is viewed as inevitable, almost triumphal, this novel was decidedly different. In Aurora, it turns out that extrasolar colonization is so difficult that the novel revolves around the fact that after getting to Tau Ceti, about half of the crew decides to turn around and head back to Earth. (The half that remains eventually perishes.) I didn’t find the twist to be that revolutionary, but I’ve talked to other people whose minds were blow by the idea of a science fiction novel where a space ship gives up on colonization and expansion, turns around and goes home.


In the novel, the difficulty of colonization isn’t limited to the Tau Ceti system, the Aurora mission (Aurora is actually the name of the moon they’re supposed to colonize) was one of many generation ships, and they basically all failed. It turns out extraterrestrial colonization ends up being ridiculously difficult for a variety of reasons. As just one example, every planet needs a large amount of terraforming which, in the novel, is something they have trouble accomplishing even on Mars, and it’s right next to Earth. Once you’re outside of the Solar System, terraforming is functionally impossible. As an aside, this is somewhat humorous if you’re familiar with Robinson’s best known work, The Mars Trilogy which is all about terraforming Mars, and in that series it ends up being pretty straightforward.


Robinson offers up these difficulties as a potential explanation for Fermi’s Paradox. And I can see how if a species is restricted to a single Solar System that it could make things difficult. Still, we haven’t even made it off our home planet, and we have the technology to engage in interstellar communication, to say nothing of something like a von Neumann probes (self-replicating spacecrafts). Meaning that this is another explanation for the Paradox I find unconvincing. Still it’s undeniable that if you can’t get out of the Solar System that your chances of being completely wiped out are going to be higher than if you can.


Anyway, returning to the book, and as you may already be thinking, yes it is a work of fiction, and therefore we shouldn’t read too much (or too little) into its description of the difficulties of extrasolar colonization. And really that’s not what I want to focus on in any event. For me, the key scene comes after the main character, Freya, has made it all the way back to Earth. In the course of her journey it has become apparent that extrasolar colonization is doomed to failure, and that the people who originally sent out the generation ships, along with the crews of those ships, were deluded and narcissistic; sending people out to slowly die in space, because of some exaggerated view of the inevitability of human progress and expansion.


Once back on Earth, Freya ends up at conference where the topic is sending more ships into space, even though all previous attempts have been unsuccessful.The reasoning being that they will just have to keep trying until they do succeed. At this point Freya punches the person saying this, and I think it’s fair to call the punch the moral climax of the book. But regardless of how heartless the person is being when he makes this claim, from the perspective of salvation through science, it’s essentially true. Regardless of how hard it is, regardless of how many attempts it takes before you succeed, regardless of how many people die, in order to be saved by science, you have to get out of the Solar System. Because, on a long enough time horizon being confined to a single star is just too fragile.


All of this is to say that science does not have any inherent morality, it does not have any built in kindness or compassion. As the novel illustrates there is no law that says it has to be easy to colonize other planets, no law, in fact, which says it has to be even possible, and most terrifying of all there’s also definitely no law guaranteeing humanity’s continued survival.


The truths of science are often very difficult. As an example, one truth which science fiction has had to grapple with (though it’s just as often ignored) is the speed of light, which is 670 million miles an hour, but even at that speed it takes over four years to get to the nearest star. Even if we restrict ourselves to something more manageable, I’ve already discussed how hard even a colony on Mars would be.


To bring religion back into the discussion, religious salvation depends on kindness, and justice, and love. Science doesn’t, science only cares about how well your beliefs match reality. And on that count I don’t think we’re doing as well as people think. Now I’m religious, so I’m expecting love and kindness (along with stuff like faith and chastity) to save me. But I think there are a lot of people who aren’t religious, but who are expecting love and kindness to save them as well. I’m not complaining, but I’m not sure that they recognize that love and kindness are not going to get them to Tau Ceti. They’re not even going to get them to Mars. And given that science doesn’t care about love and kindness is it possible being too kind actually thwarts scientific progress and technological advances?


I can think of one major example of this right off the bat: nuclear power, specifically nuclear waste. Is it science that keeps the Yucca Mountain Repository from being used, 30 years after it was designated or is it kept from use by being too kind to those who oppose it? Perhaps you might argue that it’s not love and kindness, but the will of the people. Well the will of the people doesn’t necessarily have any connection to science either, and in fact under our democracy we spend a most of our money on stuff that has nothing to do with science. And if you’re honestly expecting science to save you then isn’t every dollar spent on something other than science a dollar wasted?


Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we have enough money to do both, perhaps spending more money on science would just corrupt it. But the point I’m trying to get at, is that because science doesn’t care about democracy, or kindness, or happiness, or whether we live or die, that there will very likely come a time, when if you’re expecting to be saved through science you’re going to have to choose between science and minimizing danger, or science and the will of the people, or, almost certainly, science and your vision of fairness. Or to put it another way between the way the world actually is and the way you want it to be.


As evidence of this I once again direct your attention to Fermi’s Paradox. While it’s certainly possible that there are civilizations out there who achieved their own salvation through science. And are consequently spread throughout the galaxy. And we have just, thus far, completely missed all the evidence of this. It’s becoming more and more likely that there is some kind of filter, a chasm if you will, a chasm no one else has been able to cross. Hopefully this uncrossable chasm is behind us, and we are the lucky ones, but if not, and the chasm remains to be crossed, then we still need to make a leap which no one else has. Meaning it can’t be easy. Meaning it will require some hard choices. Choices like spending money on space exploration or on welfare. Choices like whether to switch to nuclear power or to continue to use coal (while pretending to switch to renewables.) Choices about whether we should send people to Mars if we can’t get them back, and they’ll probably die there or whether we should only send them if we’re sure they’ll survive. And eventually the choice of whether to send out the 100th generation ship, even though the first 99 have failed.


Salvation is only going to come from science or religion, and if you believe it’s science then there may come a time when we have to abandon many if not most of our cherished beliefs about love and fairness and equality for the cold hard realities of a universe that doesn’t care about us.






Salvation is almost certainly not going to come from reading this blog. So I guess you definitely shouldn’t waste any resources by donating to it. Yeah, I guess I really painted myself into a corner on that one didn’t I?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Cargo Cults and the Mormon Conception of God

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I’d like to start off this week by drawing your attention to an interesting story, a story you may have already heard, the story of the Melanesian Cargo Cults. This story is so interesting that it’s been used by such luminaries as Feynman, Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. Though each has drawn a different lesson from the story. But in order to understand these lessons you need to understand the story, so I’ll start there.


During World War II, the islanders of Melanesia, many of whom had never seen an outsider before, suddenly ended up on the front lines of the most massive war the world had ever seen. As part of that war, they saw and took part in an enormous logistical chain which girded the planet. But they only saw the last few links in that chain. And from this limited vantage point, and having, for all intents and purposes, missed the industrial revolution with all its consequences, the islanders developed a religious interpretation for how “cargo” arrived on their islands.


The Cargo Cults were birthed out of this religious interpretation. Seeing numerous marvelous goods arriving on their islands: food, jeeps, medicine, you name it, but being able to only see the last leg of things. For the Cargo Cultists, the control towers, and runways weren’t components of a vast logistical chain, they were religious artifacts, temples and churches, if you will, not just one component of an infrastructure built up over decades, relying on technology which had been in development for centuries.


At this point, those of you familiar with Dawkins, may have already guessed what lesson he wants us to draw, and since he does give a great description of things, I’ll let him take over for a minute:


The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:


Dawkins then goes on to quote David Attenborough:


They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down - and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.


As Attenborough relates, the islanders came to the conclusion that the activities of the Americans constituted a religion, thus when the war ended, and cargo stopped coming, they decided to try summoning their own. Thinking, as I said, that the runways and the control towers were the key bits, they built their own, and on top of that they built fake wooden earphones, and attached them to fake radios. They also built wooden planes, and they even marched around with weapons made of wood in mimicry of the soldiers they had seen.


Of course, it didn’t work. Because the islanders could only mimic what they saw, and even then they couldn’t do it very well. They were completely unaware of the vast industrial base which lay behind all the cargo. They were a victim of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Or as I often say, indistinguishable from a miracle. And, assuming it was miraculous, the islanders tried to duplicate what they took to be the religious rituals of the Americans.


Dawkins points out this connection to Clarke’s Third Law and concludes by saying that cargo cults:


...provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing.


In other, words, as you might imagine, now that you know the background, Richard Dawkins uses the story of the cargo cults to bash religion. Our other Richard, Richard Feynman, derives a different lesson from the story, and uses cargo cults as a metaphor to help explain how some people go through the motions of conducting science without actually getting scientific results, coining the term cargo cult science. And, finally, Jared Diamond makes use of it in the central question of his book Guns, Germs and Steel, which opens with someone from New Guinea asking Diamond.


Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?


Diamond goes on to spend the rest of the book answering that question, and by extension explaining what the cargo cults missed about the modern world. However as interesting as all these lessons are, the lesson I want to draw from the story is not one of these three. And you may be wondering why I brought them up if I’m going to then just cast them aside. Well to begin with, at this point the various meanings which have been applied to the cargo cult story are as much a part of the story as the original events, and you only get the full sense of things by including them. Second I do it because my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just mentioned. And it really only makes sense against the backdrop of the more mainstream explanations I just reviewed. Also it’s important to occasionally be reminded that all stories are open to a wide variety of interpretations, and that these interpretations are inevitably skewed by the biases of the individual doing the interpreting. Something to keep in mind as I proceed to offer up mine.


As I said my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just talked about. All of them focused on the same things: how wrong the islanders were, how far away they were from the truth, and how unlikely they were to succeed in getting what they wanted using the tools available to them. By contrast I want to focus on how right and how close they actually were. Most people focus on the gulf between Melanesia and the industrialized nations. But I want to focus on the opposite. I want to focus on how small the difference is. And I want to do this because I think it illustrates something important about theology, especially LDS Theology.


Part of my inspiration for this topic came from my anticipation of the upcoming General Conference, which should be playing as I publish this, and part of it came from a discussion I had recently with a friend who had decided to leave the Church. What both of these things have in common are prophets. The prophetic connection to General Conference is obvious, but the prophetic connection to my friend may need some explaining.


As I said this friend had decided to leave the Church, and as I talked to him one of the things which kept coming up were statements by earlier prophets, particularly Brigham Young. He found some of these statements to be indefensible, but, only when paired with the idea that Brigham Young was a prophet. He readily admitted that other people of the same era could and did say the same things, without necessarily being a bad person, but no one could be an actual prophet and say those things, ergo the Church couldn’t be true. This is not to say that statements by Brigham Young were the only reason he decided to leave, there were other things as well, but these statements played no small role in his decision.


This is the prophetic connection to my friend’s decision, but you are probably still wondering how all of this connects to the cargo cults. As I said, unlike everyone else who has used the cargo cults as a metaphor, I want to illustrate how close the Melanesians and the Americans were, not how far away. While it is true, that from the perspective of the Melanesians that the Americans appeared to have God-like powers, they were still just men. If you had taken an islander and dropped them in the middle of New York, they would have initially been awestruck and overwhelmed, but with some hand-holding and a little time, I imagine no more than a year, they’d have been fine. The biggest problem, of course, would have been the language, not cars or electricity or indoor plumbing.


All of this is to say that there’s less distance between a Melanesian and an American than the Melanesian imagines. And in a similar way there’s less distance between an average member of the Church and the Prophet. I know that the Prophet seems like he should have all the cargo, or in other words that he should have all the answers, know exactly what’s moral and what’s not, never say anything offensive (not even 150 years later) and in general conduct himself in an unimpeachable manner. But just as Americans and Melanesians are both still just humans, your average member of the Church and the Prophet are also still just humans, and just as having planes and jeeps and bombs didn’t make the Americans omnipotent, being prophet doesn’t make the man who holds that office perfect.


Though at this point it might be worth it to look at how perfect they have been, particularly compared to the control group of other church leaders. None of the Prophets have been involved in a sex scandal (unless you count polygamy, which I certainly don’t) none have embezzled money. In fact they live pretty simply, when compared to the control group. I know some might argue, that if you discount the more distant past, that the Pope has had a pretty good run, but I think if you do much digging into the Vatican Bank, you’ll find that on the financial side of things, everything has not been as rosy as it appears. Does this make the Mormon Church an anomaly? Should this fact by itself be counted as some kind of proof for the truthfulness of the Church? Probably not, but it at least illustrates that when you’re evaluating anything you have to evaluate it not in absolute terms, but relative to everything else in the same category. And I think on that count Brigham Young and the rest of the prophets look pretty good.


Of course, I’m not the first person to make the point that there’s nothing in Mormon Theology which asserts that Prophets are infallible. And while this point is important enough to stand by itself, my true object is to aim a little higher. As you may be able to tell from the title, I’m not stopping at prophets.


However, if I’m going to proceed, eventually I’m going to run into the question of whether Mormons are Christians. And for all those people who get extremely annoyed everytime someone asserts that we aren’t, I have some bad news for you:


We aren’t… or at least we aren’t under certain definitions of the word.


Okay, calm down, and allow me to explain. As I may have mentioned, I’ve been working my way through Eliezer Yudkowsky’s exceedingly long book on rationality (only available on the Kindle, but it’s estimated to be 2,393 pages) and there is actually some interesting stuff in there. He spends quite a bit of time talking about the confusion which arises when you use one word to mean two different things. The classic example of this is the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest does it makes a sound? Which relies on using the word “sound” to mean two different things (auditory experience and acoustic vibrations). We see a similar thing happening with the word Christian.


The primary meaning of the word Christian (at least according to dictionary.com) is “of, relating to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings”, and under that definition we are certainly Christian, but there is another more technical definition of Christianity which involves professing belief in the Nicene Creed, and by extension the Trinitarian conception of God, which holds that the Father, Son (Jesus) and the Holy Ghost are the same individual. By that definition we are not Christian. If we had been around in 6th century they might have classified us as belonging to the Arian Heresy, but given that the Arians were mostly wiped out or forced to declare their allegiance to the Nicene Creed by the end of the 7th century, that’s not a term that’s in common usage anymore.


Technically, though, it’s worse than that, we don’t just merely view Jesus as being subordinate and separate to the Father, we believe that there are is more than one God, and that we will eventually achieve Godhood. (Though as the article I just linked to points out, this does not make us polytheists, at least not in the way the word is commonly understood.) All of this means that, as my friend the Catholic Priest likes to point out, we both believe in Christ, but we have very different ideas about who Christ is, and what his qualities and attributes are.


To this list of our differences from “classical” or orthodox Christianity, I would like to use the story of the cargo cults to illustrate other, perhaps less well known, differences. These differences are kind of on the edge of Mormon Theology. And I think some members might even take issue with some of them. In other words I’m going out on a limb, but I think this way of looking at things not only brings many significant insights, I also happen to think that it’s true.


As I said already, the change I wanted to bring to the discussion of the cargo cults was to emphasis how close the Melanesians and the Americans are, not how far away. I extended that to a discussion of the gap between your average member of the Church and the Prophet and now I want to extend it one step beyond that. To the idea that it’s useful to view the gap between us and God in a similar light.


If we choose to go down this path, what can we learn from comparing the islander’s relationship to the Americans to our relationship with God?


To start with, let’s get one thing out of the way, though the Americans seemed to operate on an entirely different plane from the islanders, I don’t think the islanders viewed them as actual divine beings. You may think that this fatally undermines the comparison, but I still think we’re close enough. It is clear that the American’s had “powers” the islanders considered miraculous, and, furthermore, that there existed a huge gulf in understanding. And yet, as I pointed out, the actual gulf separating the two was not really so great. Certainly we can easily comprehend it from our side of the gulf, it was just the Melanesians on the other side who thought it was miraculous and incomprehensible.


In a similar fashion there is a gulf between us and God that appears unbridgeable as well, at least, from this side, but I’m going to assert that once we’re on the other side it will be entirely understandable. And just as with the Americans and the Melanesians, smaller that we think.


Claiming that, after death and resurrection, we will understand things, hints at the next topic I want to discuss. I’m not saying we will understand everything, I’m claiming that we will understand the gulf between where we are now, and where we are after exaltation, in the same way that the Americans didn’t understand everything they just understood a lot more than the islanders. But wait, haven’t we reached the point where the Americans (very loosely) represent God? And God understands everything right? That’s one of his key attributes, he’s omniscient, right? Well are you sure about that? Are we really even sure we know what omniscience means?


This is what I was referring to when I said that some members might take issue with what I’m saying, and I would urge those of you who are in that camp to be patient. Assuming I haven’t lost you, the problem is that once you are truly dealing with Infinity, with a capital I, things get really weird, really fast. For example some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Or there’s the issue of free will, many people arguing that if God knows everything that there is no free will, since we’re already predestined to do everything we’re going to do. Or, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that the human mind can’t truly grasp infinity. I mean, we can understand it as a concept, but when you start to get into how impossibly large things can get, and then realize that infinity is infinitely beyond even this impossible largeness, you realize you can’t grasp true infinity.


Let’s for the moment assume that God is more in the “impossibly large” category than the infinite category. I don’t think anything actually changes about our relationship to God. As far as we’re concerned he’s effectively still both omnipotent and omniscient, just like the American’s were effectively omnipotent when compared to the Melanesians. But from a philosophical standpoint, as I’ve already pointed out, it does solve problems like free will, and as I have mentioned elsewhere it goes a long way to solving the problem of evil as well. And finally it leaves us with a God, and by extension a religion, which is not only less vulnerable to being undermined by the ideology of progress and fruits of technology, but actually ends up dovetailing quite nicely with them (a theme I also frequently write about.) In other words from an intellectual standpoint I think this view gives us a lot of useful information, but for those worried about heresy, from a day to day standpoint I don’t think it changes anything.


To conclude I’d like to briefly touch on two examples of how this theme ties into subjects I’ve covered in the past.


First, Fermi’s Paradox: I have laid claim to being the first person to put forth a divine explanation for the paradox. (Feel free to dispute that, if you dare.) And the theme I’ve been expanding on in this post is one of the reasons, I assume, why I am the first and only person to propose this explanation. If you view God as something ineffable, but also all-powerful and all knowing, it’s difficult to also put him in the category of “extraterrestrial as defined by Enrico Fermi”. It’s only when you put him in the category of impossibly advanced, but not infinitely so, in a position comparable to the one the Americans had with the islanders, that this explanation for the paradox becomes conceivable. Yielding, as I said, not only a religion which fits in better with scientific progress, but which actually, in my opinion, provides a more compelling answer than science to one of the enduring mysteries of our day.


Second, the Mormon Transhumanist Association: As I have said, I have a lot of respect for them, and I think they’re right about a lot of things. They understand that God is not some ineffable and infinitely powerful spirit. That the difference between us and God is more on the order of the difference between the Melanesians and the Americans, than the infinite gap imagined by most religions. And most crucially, that in the long run the similarities are far more important than the differences. That said, as the final lesson of the story of the cargo cults, I think the MTA, rather than reading the science and math textbooks left behind by the Americans, spend too much of their time listening to a fake radio, using their fake headphones, perched in a control tower above a runway on which no plane will ever land.


Something we all need guard against...





Some readers are like cargo cultists, they think that reading the blog is all it takes to bring the cargo, not realizing the time and effort required in the background to produce something with the pseudo-intellectual rigor of this post. If you’d like to be an American rather than an islander or if you’d like to improve the quality of my metaphors more generally, consider donating.