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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Remind Me What The Heck Your Point is Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antifragility from a Mormon perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what if we’re wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this brings up another possible theme for the blog:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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