Month: <span>May 2018</span>

Religion vs. Atheism vs. Transhumanism vs. Apathy

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Every single person alive today makes a choice about how to live their life, specifically whether to believe in God and an existence beyond this one or not. Though, rather than being two choices I think it’s best to think of there being four possible choices.

The first choice, and still by far the most common, though declining every year, is to identify with a religious ideology. Of course there are various levels of religious belief and adherence, but currently 84% of people worldwide identify as a member of a religion. That sounds high, but it is down from the 99-100% it was just 50 years ago. As far as an existence beyond this one, it is assumed that people in this group hope that their religious belief will provide them with that.

The second choice is the choice of the traditional atheist, Bertrand Russell described it thusly:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Russell’s case is unambiguous, and one I agree with, if you’re going to reject religion and embrace atheism, then this is what you have to confront, but not every traditional atheist agrees with Russell’s point about “unyielding despair”. I believe I’ve mentioned Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan before in this space. Ann believed just as much as Bertrand Russell in the finality of death. But she fell in a different camp:

We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful…I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.

In any case regardless of whether they view the world with despair or wonder, the traditional atheist acknowledges both that death is unavoidable, and also that there is nothing beyond it.

The third choice is one that has only lately come on the scene, the choice of transhumanism. Most of these people (though not all, thus my fascination with the Mormon Transhumanist Association) are also atheists, but rather than reacting to the prospect of death with despair like Russell, or just being grateful for the extreme improbability of the life they did get, the transhumanists desire immortality without involving God (again, with the notable exception of the MTA.)

I suppose you could argue that, were they to achieve immortality, they would not be entering into an existence separate from this one. That rather they are extending the existence we already have. This may be technically true, but for tens of thousands of years (at least) human existence has involved death, creating an existence without death should surely count as something different, even if technically it may look very similar. And of course this assumes that transhumanism takes the form of simple immortality and doesn’t involve things like transferring consciousness to one of Robin Hanson’s EMs, or something even more futuristic.

The fourth choice is the choice of apathy and inaction. All the people who aren’t declared atheists (or agnostics) or transhumanists, or who are religious, but other than attending church once to be baptized, have never attended since. Depending on how you define this group it’s possible it’s even bigger than the first group, at least in America and Europe. I’m probably not the best person to talk about this group because, despite their numbers, these people honestly baffle me. I understand the appeal of dealing with what’s right in front of you. Of enjoying what you have without thinking too much about what does or doesn’t happen when you die, which is anyway decades away. But at some point you have to grapple with it, don’t you? Perhaps this is just a difference in levels of belief between the old and the young or to put it another way, those who are about to die and those who are a long way from death, though I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

In any event why do I bring these choices up? As long time readers will know, this isn’t the first time, and if I haven’t made any impact on groups two through four already, what makes me think it will be different this time?

Very likely it won’t be, but I intend to persist anyway, in part because I’m hoping that this blog will become a resource for Mormon apologetics and more broadly Christian apologetics. Though to be clear, I’m not sure how good of a job I’m doing. In part, I’m sure it’s because the apologetics I do engage in are not always easy to recognize as such. If you’re trying to increase people’s engagement with religion, there are a couple of well-trod paths, and my stuff has a tendency to fall into the no-man’s land between those two paths.

On the one hand, you can talk about spiritual experiences, relate faith promoting stories and discuss people whose lives have been changed through their religious belief, or through Jesus Christ or through reading the Book of Mormon.

On the other hand, there are those apologetics who spend most of their time rebutting specific arguments, explaining historical events in a way which is favorable to the church or answering pointed criticism.

Given that I do almost none of the former and very little of the latter I don’t think my blog is what most people expect. If you were being charitable you could say I’m working at a higher level, but it might be more accurate to say I’m just esoteric. That said, I do aspire to comment on things from a high level view, to show how religion is integral to civilization, how the latest ideology is not as revolutionary as people think, how current philosophy and ideology has not left religion behind, but only made it more important, and so on. In an effort to be less esoteric, in this post I want to get into the nuts and bolts, numbers and figures that really show how beneficial religion is even if we set aside the promise of potential salvation offered by most religions.

I’m going to take much of what I say from a talk given at the 2017 Fair Mormon Conference, by Dan Peterson, titled What Difference Does It Make? I’ve already stolen the Russell quote from the speech, and as I say so often you should read the entire thing, or possibly better yet, in this case, you can listen to it.

Also before I get into things, as I mentioned in the last post I’ve been reading Skin in the Game by Taleb, and he makes the very valid point that not all religions would be considered religions in the classic “freedom of religion” sense, which is to say not all religions accept the division between church and state. Meaning that, going forward, I’m going to be talking about benefits of religion in the American Judeo-Christian context, and these benefits may not exist outside of the context. It’s certainly possible that the points I’m about to make apply to other religions in other places, but Peterson’s data all comes from America and Europe.

With that out of the way, as I said at the beginning, everyone is making a choice between one of four options (or perhaps not choosing in the case of option 4) and the position that Peterson champions is that the first option is the best choice even without considering whether it leads to some sort of existence after this one. To begin with he argues that it improves a person’s health, particularly their mental health. And of course the irony is that so many people in groups 2-4 actually make the opposite argument, that religion is something of a mental illness. (Peterson offers up quotes from both Dawkins and Sam Harris in support of this.)

It’s easy to make that claim, and I’m sure it plays well with the sort of people who like Dawkins and Harris, but is there any truth to it? Here we turn to Peterson:

Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Duke University, has established himself as a premier authority in this area. He and his collaborators argue that religious involvement is correlated with better mental health in the areas of depression, substance abuse and suicide, and, somewhat less certainly, with better results in the treatment of stress-related disorders and dementia.

Moreover…Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University…confirms the links that previous scientific investigation had identified between attendance at religious services and enhanced health. Regular attendance is associated, for example, with “a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression”…

Regular participation in communal religious worship [also] appears to be associated with “greater likelihood of healthy social relationships and stable marriages; an increased sense of meaning in life; higher life satisfaction; an expansion of one’s social network; and more charitable giving, volunteering, and civic engagement,” says VanderWeele.

One might perhaps conclude that it’s the social support afforded by religious participation that confers such benefits. VanderWeele, however, says that social support accounts for only about 20-30 percent of the measured results. The self-discipline encouraged by religious faith and the optimistic worldview that it supports also appear to be important contributing factors to physical health and longevity.

The “five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide” is particularly interesting. First, because the effect is so large. Second, because, just in the last few days I’ve seen several articles reporting that the rate of hospitalization for attempted suicide and suicidal ideation has more than doubled among teens and children, and third because Peterson opened his talk with a story of someone who committed suicide after leaving the Church, seemingly because of his anger at the Church for, what he perceived to be, its many lies. To say that this particular individual would still be alive if he had never left the Church, is both callous and unwarranted, since it’s impossible to say what would happen with any given individual, but if VanderWeele’s claims are to be believed, and we instead look at the aggregate, there might be thousands of people if not more who would be alive today if they had been active in a religion.

Peterson goes on to quote Dr. Andrew Sims, former president of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Psychiatrists and professor of psychiatry at the University of Leeds:

The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry, and medicine generally…If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land! Churches are almost the only element in society to have offered considerate, caring, long-lasting and self-sacrificing support to the mentally ill… [which is one of the reasons why] religious involvement results in a better outcome from a range of illnesses, both mental and physical.

At this point you may want to argue that there are other confounders that were missed by VanderWeele and Sims, and maybe there are, but I think Sims makes an excellent point that if the research (a “huge volume” recall) had gone in the opposite direction it would have been front-page news, and my guess is that very little attention would have been paid to possible confounders in that case. Instead it’s mostly ignored, and my sense is that such research is becoming rarer. Possibly this is because the conclusions are solid enough to not require further support. More likely it’s because in this day and age no one wants to engage in the study of religion at all, particularly if that study is going to force them to arrive at a conclusion they don’t like. If you still have your doubts Peterson goes on to further summarize Sims’ findings:

In the majority of scientific studies…religious involvement correlates with enhanced well-being, happiness and life-satisfaction; greater hope and optimism, even when facing serious diseases, such as breast cancer; a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better responses to bereavement; greater social support; less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; reduced rates of suicide; decreased anxiety; better coping with stress; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; and greater marital stability and satisfaction.

Indeed, correlations between religious faith and improved well-being “typically equal or exceed correlations between well-being and other psychosocial variables, such as social support.” And, he adds, this substantial assertion is “comprehensively attested to by a large amount of evidence.”

“The nagging question we are left with is, why is this important information” — “epidemiological medicine’s best-kept secret,” [Sims] calls it — “not better known?”

“If it were anything other than religious belief or spirituality resulting in such beneficial outcomes for health, the media would trumpet it and governments and health care organizations would be rushing to implement its practice.”

Here I diverge somewhat from Sims and Peterson, I don’t know that health care organizations and governments could successfully duplicate the positive benefits of religion. In particular, it doesn’t seem that forcing someone to join a religion probably gives the same benefits as someone voluntarily joining a religion, or staying in the religion of their parents. But even if these benefits can’t easily be duplicated, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. To begin with, these results certainly point to a policy of not mocking the people who are religious. Modern atheists are an obvious target for this policy, but I think it extends to a lot of the modern left in general. Recall Obama’s statement about bitter people who cling to their religion, and here’s a whole column in “The Atlantic” talking about the Democrats religion problem.

I think the quotes also strongly argue against policies which are anti-religious. Unlike some people I don’t think there’s a “War on Christians”, but neither do I think that the current political environment is particularly friendly to Christians at the moment either. Just today I read that the city of Philadelphia had ended its association with two Christian foster care and adoption organizations because they won’t place kids with gay parents. I might be sympathetic to the city if these were the only organizations in the city providing this sort of service, or if there was no need for additional help with foster care and adoption, or if these organizations did not offer referrals to other organizations who do work with same sex couples. But none of those conditions is true. And in fact at the same time this was happening Philadelphia tweeted about the urgent need for foster parents. I understand this is just one story, and I’ve already talked at some length about freedom of religion in another post, so I’ll leave it there.

I find that I am most of the way through this post and I’ve only covered the first of several points Peterson makes about the value of religion. Perhaps I’ll cover the others in a future post, but for now I need to talk about group three, the transhumanists. While, Peterson did an excellent job of covering groups one and two (and to a certain extent to group four) he understandably didn’t spend any time talking about transhumanism. Therefore this is one area where I thought I might be able to add something to the discussion.

To begin with, one of the advantages of religion is that it seems to work even for the very poorest and most disadvantaged people. In fact, it may be that among those people is precisely where it’s the most useful, particularly when compared with other “interventions”. In contrast, the transhumanist ideology is almost entirely restricted to affluent first worlders with a predilection for technology. Now it is possible that combining the two gives the best outcome of all, which is the entire point of the MTA, but it is also possible that the combination results in something which abandons the caution of either in favor of something that is far too optimistic and utopian. Regardless, at the moment the idea of combining the two has an influence far too small to make much of an impact either way.

If we consider the route to “salvation” provided by transhumanism on its own it has the advantage of potentially providing immortality and eternal happiness even if there should turn out to be no God, this is counterbalanced by the disadvantage I already mentioned of, at least initially, only being available to a select few. Also it’s unclear if the transhumanist ideology would create any of the advantages I mentioned above as far as mental and physical health. Unless we assume that all the benefits of religion come because of its promised immortality, which I strongly doubt, transhumanism is unlikely to act as a substitute. But maybe I’m wrong, there is unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no data comparing outcomes between the religious and the transhumanists. Also to be fair the Effective Altruism movement is pretty big in that space, and it has the very religious sounding rule of giving 10% of your income to charity.

Also, the reason I talk about transhumanists so much is not because I dislike them, but because, they appear to be doing the best they can in the absence of religion. That said, I think they overstate the advantages (immortality is going to be ridiculously difficult, and yet it’s child’s play compared to ensuring eternal happiness) and understate the disadvantages, particularly the small number of people for whom it has any effect at all. And it is a small number, I mentioned at the beginning that the number of religious people in the world has fallen from essentially 100% to around 84%. As the number of religious individuals has decreased every other category I mentioned above has increased, though I would argue that the biggest increase has not been among atheists and transhumanists, but among category 4, the apathetic and inactive.

To conclude, let’s for the moment imagine that being an atheist or a transhumanist is a good thing, that somehow it replaces all of the benefits of religion with something as good or better. I very much doubt this is the case, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that it is. We still have the problem that the vast majority of people have not left religion for atheism and transhumanism. The vast majority of people have left religion for nothing. Thus we have not replaced believers, with all the benefits attached, with intellectually courageous atheists, or futuristic transhumanists, but with a vast and increasing mass of shallow, materialistic, status seeking people who have lost the benefits of religion without any compensation.

I repeat again, the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Is there any benefit to donating to a religiously themed blog? Maybe… There’s only one way to be sure.

Antinatalism and Happiness vs. Survival

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There are many people who claim that in the future everything will be better. As an example of this I will point out Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now, which I just covered and which is most notable for having lots of graphs which all go up. As you may recall, Pinker (along with many others) claim that we’ve mostly eliminated war and famine, and that we’ll soon eliminate disease. Leaving death as the only remaining horseman of the apocalypse. But if we go farther and bring transhumanists into the discussion, then even death will shortly be eliminated through things like cryonics, brain-uploading and cool cyborg enhancements.

Despite these upbeat predictions of a brilliant future where humanity will either be gods, or at a bare minimum live in a super awesome society, (as best as I can tell you should picture a place like Norway only even better) anytime someone writes about the future, they generally end up creating something strongly dystopian.  Now I have said before this is more a reflection of the art of a good story, and to a lesser extent Tolstoy’s observation that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, than any sort of actual divination. Accordingly it would be misguided to use the existence of science fiction dystopias as proof that actual dystopias are inevitable.

That said, Tolstoy did make a good point in what has come to be known as the Anna Karenina Principle. For things to go the way you want everything has to go right. Thus happy families are alike because they all have the same set of things going well. On the other hand any number of different things could be causing the unhappiness of an unhappy family. In the same way, there are any number of things that could go wrong which would derail the predictions of Pinker and the transhumanists, and, on the other hand, everything has to go right for those predictions to come to pass.

However, all of this is tangential to my real point. As I said, there are numerous science fiction dystopias, and along with that, for the most part, there is widespread consensus that we should do what we can to avoid these dystopias, however unlikely they might be. I said “for the most part”, I imagine that there are some transhumanists who would prefer the world of Neuromancer or Altered Carbon to the current world. Which is not to say they wouldn’t tweak some things if they had the chance. But this is not the sort of thing which concerns me. What concerns me is that there is at least one dystopia out there, which is actually viewed as a utopia by some. What is this dystopia and who are these people? The dystopia is Children of Men by P.D. James and the people are antinatalists, people who are opposed to humans reproducing.

This is one of those posts where everything seems to be pointed in the same direction. To begin with over a month ago one my readers sent me a video about antinatalists which started me thinking about the subject. Second, one of the things which I failed to cover when I was talking about Pinker’s book, is his lack of any discussion about the importance of reproduction and survival, which I feel is one of the major weaknesses of the book. Finally there’s last week’s discussion of incels, which, regardless of your personal feelings on the movement itself, touches on this issue as well. And then of course there are previous posts in this space which touch on the issue.

Let’s start with the video I got sent. It’s a presentation by Dr. Tom Moore of University College Cork, Ireland where he discusses David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. His discussion starts with a skeptical air (probably reflecting the attitudes of his audience) before ultimately coming to the conclusion that despite antinatalism appearing ridiculous on its face, that there are no successful counter arguments to Benatar’s version of it (at least not that he’s aware of.) As you might gather I am not an antinatalist, so either I must have taken that position on faith (which is not the worst thing in the world) or I must believe that I have a successful counterargument. In the end it’s a little bit of both, but I assume my readers are more interested in a successful counter argument.

Obviously, it would be inappropriate to launch into a counter argument without first presenting the argument itself. To begin with antinatalism can be divided into three sub-ideologies:

  1. Antinatalism as a solution to overpopulation, and as a tool in the prevention of a Malthusian catastrophe. I.e. being alive is good, but better if it’s limited to a “privileged” few.
  2. Humans are bad, they ruin everything and “things” would be better, particularly for other species if humans weren’t here. I.e. Being alive is bad, but not for humans, for everything else.
  3. Being alive is so bad that it’s better to have never lived at all. I.e. Suffering sucks, and that’s what being alive is all about.

The first two positions are easy to understand even for those people who don’t agree with them. It’s the third that Benatar advocates for, and which requires some explanation.

For Benatar there are two possibilities, being born and not being born. If someone is born they experience some happiness and some suffering. If the happiness is greater than the suffering then being alive was a good thing. On the other hand if someone isn’t born, they can’t experience any suffering. We have prevented it. And the prevention of suffering is obviously a moral good. Of course we have also prevented them from experiencing happiness, which most people would count as a bad thing. But Benatar argues that non-existent individuals cannot have regrets, accordingly rather than counting the missing happiness as a bad thing, we should assign it a value of zero. Something that is neither good nor bad. To put it another way no one imagines the anger of the children they didn’t have (well actually I know some religious people who do, but I think they’re an edge case.)

What this means is that unless the net happiness of those who are alive completely swamps the prevented suffering of those who were never born (which will be difficult, since the number of people who could have been born but have not could be in the trillions) then it would be better for all of humanity to go extinct.

This is the argument Dr. Moore found so compelling, and I agree, if you accept all of the assumptions, the logic is essentially irrefutable. But should we accept all of the assumptions?

The most critical assumption in this chain of logic is that the happiness of those who are unborn have zero value. That if, say for instance, Shakespeare had never been born that it wouldn’t have been a loss to humanity, because we would never know what we were missing. I might grant Benatar’s point, but only when evaluating one life at a time. As productive and consequential as Shakespeare was we still probably wouldn’t notice the space where he would have been.

There are in fact very few individuals whose lack would be noticeable, even if we could compare the reality in which they were present against the reality in which they are not. Particularly on a time scale of hundreds or thousands of years. Even without Shakespeare we would still have Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and later Keats, and Byron and Shelley. But what if we eliminated England in its entirety? Is it possible we might notice a lack then? That we might decide that however bad life is, that this was not a trade worth making? Maybe, hard to say. And some anti-colonists might argue that the world in fact would be better without the English. But I am positive that they in turn would be appalled if I suggested that we wipe out all Africans. Why is that? Perhaps they just don’t understand Benatar’s iron-clad logic. Or perhaps there’s something else going on, if despite all the suffering they claim for the continent and its inhabitants and those who were carried away as slaves, they still wouldn’t want Africa to cease to exist.

But Benatar doesn’t just want to eliminate all the English or all the Africans, he wants to eliminate everyone. I think at this point it’s hard to argue that we would be oblivious to the positive contributions of all those who would not be born under this plan. It may be hard to model the contributions of the sibling you might have had, but didn’t. It’s a lot less difficult to model the contributions of all of humanity. In other words Benatar isn’t merely assigning a value of zero to one hypothetical unborn life. He’s assigning a value of zero to all of the happiness, art, science and other achievements for all of humanity from the point of extinction forward.

That phrase, “point of extinction” brings us to another interesting inflection in Benatar’s ideology, at least as it was explained by Moore (I may eventually read Benatar’s book, but you can imagine why it’s not very high on my list.) Given that Benatar views human extinction as a way of reducing suffering, he doesn’t want to do anything to cause any more suffering even if it’s in furtherance of his ideology. What this means is that he doesn’t advocate suicide (because of the suffering it causes to those around you). Nor does he advocate homicide, forcible controls on reproduction or even euthanasia. Additionally, any anticipation of the extinction would also cause suffering as well. Meaning that Benatar’s ideal solution would be an instantaneous extinction which was completely unanticipated.

As regular readers know I have my disagreements with Eliezer Yudkowsky, but on this issue he made an excellent observation. There are people who would be horrified at the murder of a single individual, who would never in a million years consider killing someone, but yet, when you wrap it up in enough philosophy will calmly contemplate, and even advocate the murder of everyone who’s currently alive or who ever will live. In Benatar’s case the only condition is that it needs to be sudden and painless. But let’s not overlook the fact that he advocates murdering everyone.

Benatar’s argument has one further assumption, and this is an assumption which is made by Pinker as well. They assume that happiness/pleasure/lack of suffering is the thing we want to be optimizing for. And as long as I’m mentioning Yudkowsky, he had something interesting to say on this subject as well. When talking about rationality he made the point that people can get so caught up with the idea of what is or isn’t rational, that they overlook the key thing, which isn’t rationality for rationality’s sake, but overall success, or as he phrases it: Winning. Which is to say, even if by some logic, Benatar is being completely rational, the extinction of all of humanity is probably not winning.

As I said a lot of this comes back to whether or not happiness/pleasure/reduction of suffering is our terminal value. If it’s not, then what is? I’m half way through Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (post coming soon) and he speaks to this issue and how it connects to rationality on multiple occasions:

Reality doesn’t care about winning arguments; survival is what matters.

What is rational, is what allows the collective–entities meant to live for a long time–to survive.

Rationality does not depend on explicit verbalistic explanatory factors; it is only what aids survival, what avoids ruin.

Along with Taleb, my argument would be that survival should be our core value, and by mentioning survival, we can no longer avoid the elephant in the room: evolution and Darwinian natural selection. As far as I can tell every, even somewhat rational, antinatalist admits that our survival instinct is far too strong for voluntary extinction to work, which leaves only murder (which Benatar at least opposes) or some sort of instantaneous extinction, which appears to be impractical.

From a certain point of view, this is the best counter-argument of all, “It’s absolutely impossible.” And for my own part it adequately answers  the second form of antinatalism (Humans ruin everything). And we’ve already covered the third form of antinatalism, but what about the first form of antinatalism, avoiding the Malthusian catastrophe? This is where, I would argue, all of the various threads come together.

As I pointed out when I originally brought it up, the first kind of antinatalists believe that life is grand, but that it should be reserved for a select few. As it turns out there’s a logical proof concerning this as well, though it comes to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion, and while there’s a fair amount going on with it, in essence, it says that if everyone is experiencing at least some amount of net happiness, that maximizing happiness requires as many people as possible. I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other on the Repugnant Conclusion as a guide to action (though it does support the religious injunction to multiply and replenish the earth). Rather, I bring it up at this point for three reasons:

1- It’s a compelling and logical counter-argument of the sort that Moore said he was unable to find. And it directly speaks to the first form of antinatalism.

2- However “repugnant” this conclusion is, I can’t imagine anyone arguing that it’s more repugnant than the extinction of all of humanity.

3- The first form of antinatalism at least pays some attention to the issue of survival.

At this point the common thread, from Benatar to the Repugnant conclusion, up to and including even Pinker, is a debate over whether happiness or survival should be our guiding value. On the one side, to use the technical term, Pinker and Benatar and Dr. Moore, are all hedonists. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, and I think most people, hedonism has a negative connotation. One I think it’s earned. I know there are hedonists who will argue that their philosophy is more nuanced and complex that just doing whatever is the most pleasurable in any given moment. And I’m sure they’re correct, but I don’t think it matters.

I’m not sure what to call those people on the other side of the hedonists. Maybe the survivalists? But on this side, in addition to myself, and Taleb, you have all humanity, and indeed all life back to the beginning. It’s only in the world of the last few decades, that one could argue that happiness is so good, or suffering so bad, that it should override survival.

To put it another way, there are really only two logical positions. You can either think being alive is preventing happiness (by causing suffering) in which case you’re allied with Benatar, or you can think being alive is a necessary precondition for happiness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the vast majority of people reject the first position almost as soon as they hear it, and if not I’ve provided several counter arguments. Leaving only the second position, being alive is necessary to being happy. In which case survival precedes and takes priority over happiness, by virtue of the obvious: you can’t be happy if you don’t exist.

If it’s down to a battle between happiness and survival, what does that mean? At this point maybe you’re convinced that survival should be the ultimate value or maybe you’re not. But for the moment let’s move past that and assume that it is. I mean sure “The Children of Men” is a bleak future, and you may still have a hard time imagining that there are people pushing for just that future, but we’re surely not in any danger of that, right? Well I definitely hope not, but if we do avoid it it won’t be because we’ve taken any precautions against it. In fact much of what Pinker and people like him find so great about modernity are precisely those things which nibble away at our chances for survival. And this is a problem.

Why is it a problem? Well, the essential danger of having incorrect priorities is that we are getting better and better at pursuing our priorities. With this in mind the question becomes how much does the pursuit of happiness overlap with ensuring that we survive? I’m becoming increasingly convinced that they don’t overlap at all. Thus prioritizing happiness has nothing to do with prioritizing survival.

I’m reminded of this everytime I see an article by someone explaining that people without kids are way happier than people with kids. How is it that we’ve reached a point where our urge to survive is so weak that the combined strength of all of our selfish genes put together is not enough to outweigh the pursuit of slightly increased happiness? Even if there is some overlap between survival and happiness, to the extent that they diverge (and as this example shows, they don’t even have to diverge by very much) survival is going to increasingly be left behind, as we put more and more effort into pure happiness and less and less effort into pure survival.

I would argue that the accumulated survival efforts of all those who have gone before us have created a surplus which masks the extent of the problem. In reality, if you were to take a snapshot of modern society, say take 1000 individuals, and remove them from the rest of civilization, your only conclusion would be that they were in a lot of trouble. If you were to apply the same standard you use for pandas, tigers and mountain gorillas you would definitely classify them as endangered, and not because of their numbers. You would be way more concerned about their below replacement birth rate. The significant and increasing minority who don’t even engage in sexual activity that results in procreation. And the fact that when children are conceived there’s a non-trivial chance that the child will be aborted in-utero. You might even conclude, that somehow, evolution has stopped working with this species. And yet everything I just listed is considered progress by people like Steven Pinker. It is progress towards some definition of happiness. It is not progress towards ensuring our survival.

The point I’m trying to get at is that when taken to its logical conclusion, prioritizing happiness over survival leads to things like Benatar’s antinatalism. But even when not taken to such extremes, such as the case Pinker makes in “Enlightenment Now” it can still end up emphasizing the wrong thing, emphasizing a soft but nevertheless toxic hedonism while completely ignoring stagnation and decline in the only thing that matters, our very existence, itself.

My survival is contingent on eating, eating is contingent on money, money is contingent on your donations, thus my very survival is contingent on you donating. If you’re experiencing any guilt at all right now, then, mission accomplished!

Should All Incels Be Killed Immediately or Just Banished Forever?

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I’d like to dive into a controversy you might be familiar with. It began when Alek Minassian drove a rented van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16. It came out shortly thereafter that Alek identified as an “incel”, and at a stroke the latest group of modern villains was discovered. For those unfamiliar with the term, incel is short for involuntarily celibate, though to identify as an incel you have be especially angry about your involuntary celibacy. Thus Alek’s murderous rage was brought on by the fact that no girls would have sex with him. As you can imagine, anything that even hints at a demand for women to provide sex or to do anything they don’t want to do with their body, did not go over well with the vast majority of people. But this is not the controversy I want to talk about.

The controversy I want to talk about came when Robin Hanson, a George Mason economist, (and recent commenter on this very blog), posted a question on his blog. The question amounted to, “Why are we concerned about income inequality, but not concerned about inequalities in access to romance and sex? Especially given that most people would say the latter matters more to their happiness?” But that post is not the post I want to cover, the post I want to cover is at least three levels deep (maybe more?) The post I want to cover is Scott Aaronson’s response to Robin Hanson’s post on the original news. In most cases I would suggest reading the original in its entirety. In this case, before doing so I offer a couple of caveats. First the post is directed at those already familiar with the Robin Hanson controversy, if you aren’t a lot of it will be wasted. Second it’s pretty long, around 6000 words. If the length doesn’t bother you, then I would definitely recommend it. I would particularly recommend it if you came to this post hating Robin Hanson, because Robin Hanson does not deserve your hate.

Despite Aaronson’s defense of Hanson, who he knows very well, his advice to him would have been “DON’T DO IT!” Perhaps the reason for this advice is obvious, but I’ll let Aaronson explain it:

My view is this: the world in which a comparison between the sufferings of the romantically and the monetarily impoverished could increase normal people’s understanding of the former, is so different from our world as to be nearly unrecognizable.  To say that this comparison is outside the Overton window is a comic understatement: it’s outside the Overton galaxy.  Trying to have the conversation that Robin wanted to have on social media, is a little like trying to have a conversation about microaggressions in 1830s Alabama.  At first, your listeners will simply be confused—but their confusion will be highly unstable, like a Higgs boson, and will decay in about 10-22 seconds into righteous rage.

For experience shows that, if you even breathe a phrase like “the inequality of romantic and sexual fulfillment,” no one who isn’t weird in certain ways common in the hard sciences (e.g., being on the autism spectrum) will be able to parse you as saying anything other than that sex ought to be “redistributed” by the government in the same way that money is redistributed, which in turn suggests a dystopian horror scenario where women are treated like property, married against their will, and raped.  And it won’t help if you shout from the rooftops that you want nothing of this kind, oppose it as vehemently as your listeners do. For, not knowing what else you could mean, the average person will continue to impose the nightmare scenario on anything you say, and will add evasiveness and dishonesty to the already severe charges against you.

I guess I’m weird in that certain way (though to the best of my knowledge I’m not on the autism spectrum…) Because I can see a lot of ways in which this statement could be read other than treating women like property. For example when there was a greater emphasis on monogamy and marriage, sexual inequality was lower, these pro-marriage policies are probably a form of this redistribution (and in fact people have offered marriage as a solution to income inequality as well.) I might even go so far as to add sexual and romantic inequality to the list of problems attendant to the generalized disintegration of traditional institutions. That said, I would have probably also given Hanson the same advice, though I hope the impossibility of floating somewhat crazy and transgressive ideas like this, is not quite as great as Aaronson makes it out to be. Though I think it probably is.

From there, Aaronson goes on to bring up Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times about the controversy (the Hanson one, not the original.) I don’t intend to spend a lot of time on Douthat’s column, particularly since this one I would recommend you just read. But I found this section to be particularly interesting:

As offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life…

First, because like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.

Second, because in this new landscape, and amid other economic and technological transformations, the sexes seem to be struggling generally to relate to one another, with social and political chasms opening between them and not only marriage and family but also sexual activity itself in recent decline.

Third, because the culture’s dominant message about sex is still essentially Hefnerian, despite certain revisions attempted by feminists since the heyday of the Playboy philosophy — a message that frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states. And this master narrative, inevitably, makes both the new inequalities and the decline of actual relationships that much more difficult to bear …

… which in turn encourages people, as ever under modernity, to place their hope for escape from the costs of one revolution in a further one yet to come, be it political, social or technological, which will supply if not the promised utopia at least some form of redress for the many people that progress has obviously left behind.

There is an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.

But this is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them.

There are two parts to this, the first is a defense of Hanson’s idea, and the second, a description of how we ended up with a sexual underclass. I think we’ve covered the first part enough (though I think Douthat lays it out with admirable clarity) and I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about this sexual underclass. And this is where the Aaronson article really shines by laying out the brutality of the situation.

(Before I get to that, it should be clear that when people talk about incels they aren’t necessarily talking about the sexual underclass in its entirety. There’s some motte and bailey stuff going on in both directions which I don’t have the time to get into. Aaronson updated his original post to address it, so if you’re curious that’s a good place to start.)

Aaronson’s commentary on Douthat’s column, rather than dwelling on the section I pointed out, revolves around the part where Douthat compares Hanson’s article with an article by Amia Srinivasan called Does anyone have the right to sex? Srinivasan covers much the same territory as Hanson, but decides to focus on disabled people, minorities, and the overweight. Aaronson describes the reaction:

All over social media, there are howls of outrage that Douthat would dare to mention Srinivasan’s essay, which is wise and nuanced and humane, in the same breath as the gross, creepy, entitled rantings of Robin Hanson.  I would say: grant that Srinivasan and Hanson express themselves extremely differently, and also that Srinivasan is a trillion times better than Hanson at anticipating and managing her readers’ reactions. Still, on the merits, is there any relevant difference between the two cases beyond: “undesirability” of the disabled, fat, and trans should be critically examined and interrogated, because those people are objects of progressive sympathy; whereas “undesirability” of nerdy white and Asian males should be taken as a brute fact or even celebrated, because those people are objects of progressive contempt?

To be fair, a Google search also turns up progressives who, dissenting from the above consensus, excoriate Srinivasan for her foray, however thoughtful, into taboo territory.  As best I can tell, the dissenters’ argument runs like so: as much as it might pain us, we must not show any compassion to women and men who are suicidally lonely and celibate by virtue of being severely disabled, disfigured, trans, or victims of racism.  For if we did, then consistency might eventually force us to show compassion to white male nerds as well.

It’s hard to know which is worse, the hypocrisy of the first group or the cruelty of the second, probably the latter. Though it gets worse. Aaronson continues:

Here’s the central point that I think Robin failed to understand: society, today, is not on board even with the minimal claim that the suicidal suffering of men left behind by the sexual revolution really exists—or, if it does, that it matters in the slightest or deserves any sympathy or acknowledgment whatsoever.  Indeed, the men in question pretty much need to be demonized as entitled losers and creeps, because if they weren’t, then sympathy for them—at least, for those among them who are friends, coworkers, children, siblings—might become hard to prevent…

So where are we today?  Within the current Overton window, a perfectly appropriate response to suicidal loneliness and depression among the “privileged” (i.e., straight, able-bodied, well-educated white or Asian men) seems to be: “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum, and remove your garbage DNA from the gene pool.”  If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter. I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted, by people who probably go to sleep every night congratulating themselves for their progressivism, their egalitarianism, and—of course—their burning hatred for anything that smacks of eugenics.

As a white cis male (I thought the autocomplete suggestions for that term were interesting, second result: “white cis male shitlord”) who’s also clearly something of a nerd I find these threats somewhat alarming. I myself am married with kids, but I have plenty of friends who aren’t and likely never will be, who fall into the involuntary celibate category even if they aren’t part of the incel movement. But if we’re going to treat this subject with less emotion than what’s been described so far we need to answer a few questions:

1- How big is this sexual underclass? I suspect, like me, most people know people in this category, but if we move beyond the anecdotes how big is it really?

2- Is Aaronson accurately describing the reaction?

3- Is the reaction Aaronson is describing appropriate to the situation?

4- If it’s not appropriate how large and powerful is the group engaged in this inappropriate response? How much do we have to worry about it?

5- If it is worrisome, what can we do about it?

On the first question, the size of the sexual underclass, fortunately we have an answer for that. @lymanstoneky tweeted the following graph:

As you can see things are more or less flat from 1989 to 2008, and then suddenly start a steady climb during which the number of unmarried, sexless men doubles in the space of eight years. Also like most graphs of this sort it doesn’t go nearly far enough back. Recall that this graph starts 20 years after the sexual revolution, so it’s possible that the long term rate is really 2% and it was already pretty bad in the 80’s and 90’s. Finally, while the male percentage has almost always been above the female percentage, that the divergence recently is pretty stark. Meaning that while everyone is having less sex, the problem is particularly acute for males.

Later in the Twitter thread, Stone speculates that pornography may be having something to do with it. A subject I’ve covered in this space. And indeed if you were looking for something which happened around that time, the late aughts was when bandwidth was finally sufficient for streaming to start taking off. (Youtube was founded in 2005. Netflix’s streaming service started in 2007 and in that same year Pornhub was launched.) But regardless of the cause of the sexless male phenomenon there’s clearly a strong recent upward trend.

As far as the second question, the accuracy of Aaronson’s description, that one is a little bit more difficult to evaluate. Certainly this is exactly how I expect things to play out in this day and age, and Aaronson himself does claim that, “If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter.  I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted…” I followed this advice and I found plenty of pretty extreme tweets (try searching #incel scum) but I’m not much of a twitter user and it’s hard to aggregate the numerous anecdotes into actual data (particularly given the number of fake and sock puppet accounts on twitter). In other words, on the issue of size it may be difficult to say conclusively how large the “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum” group really is. It might be more useful to ask whether the reaction is a bad thing, and how much power these people have, which takes us to the third and fourth questions.

The answer to the third question, “Is it appropriate?” would seem to obviously be, “No, of course not.” I can’t imagine that saying the sorts of things Aaronson reports would ever be appropriate regardless of the context or crime. But if it’s so obviously wrong, why are people doing it? I’m sure that part of it is the horror and shock they feel at the crimes of Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian. But as Aaronson points out:

There really do exist extremist Muslims, who bomb schools and buses, or cheer and pass out candies when that happens, and who wish to put the entire world under Sharia on point of the sword.  Fortunately, the extremists are outnumbered by hundreds of millions of reasonable Muslims, with whom anyone, even a Zionist Jew like me, can have a friendly conversation in which we discuss our respective cultures’ grievances and how they might be addressed in a win-win manner.  (My conversations with Iranian friends sometimes end with us musing that, if only they made them Ayatollah and me Israeli Prime Minister, we could sign a peace accord next week, then go out for kebabs and babaganoush.)

My understanding is that it is a horrible crime, the kind of thing only terrible nazi racists do, to blame all muslims for the actions of a radical few. They have a name for it, Islamophobia, and we’re all strenuously instructed that only really bad people do it, and yet once again it appears that what is and isn’t allowable depends a lot more on whom it’s being done to than what is being done.

The answer to the fourth question, how powerful are they? Might be the most important of the five, and the evidence here is that, like most flash-in-the-pan outrage cascades, they’re loud and angry, but their power at the level of policy is non-existent. In this case I can’t even point to individual victims. So that’s a relief, right? Maybe, but perhaps we should consider this tweet from Ellen Pao before we write things off entirely:

CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?

Pao was the CEO of Reddit and the plaintiff in a big sexual harassment case against Kleiner Perkins, so she’s not without her influence. One can hardly imagine what she expects tech CEOs to do about incels in their ranks, and it’s hoped, if only for logistical reasons that no one took her question seriously, but as Aaronson points out (and as I’ve pointed out repeatedly) todays fringe leftist opinions become tomorrow’s company policy. All of which is to say, if nothing else, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this issue by a longshot.

Which brings us to the final question, what should we doing about all this? Well I think understanding the situation is a good first step, which is of course part of the point of this post. Though understanding is one of those things which is easier said than done, particularly when your speaking about understanding at the highest levels. For my own part, I hope that at a minimum I’ve managed to convey some facts about the situation, and maybe, if I’m lucky, some sense of what’s at stake, what’s been happening and what kind of questions we should be asking. I doubt I’ve changed anybody’s mind on this subject, and I would be very surprised if I had changed anyone’s behavior.

But if I could advocate for a behavior and have it stick I would do much as Aaronson did and advocate for the behavior of compassion. This may be the post with the highest ratio of quotes to original content, but this is another area where Aaronson nailed it, so I’ll quote from him one last time.

But my aspiration is not merely that we nerds can do just as well at compassion as those who hate us.  Rather, I hope we can do better. This isn’t actually such an ambitious goal. To achieve it, all we need to do is show universal, Jesus-style compassion, to politically favored and disfavored groups alike.

To me that means: compassion for the woman facing sexual harassment, or simply quizzical glances that wonder what she thinks she’s doing pursuing a PhD in physics.  Compassion for the cancer patient, for the bereaved parent, for the victim of famine. Compassion for the undocumented immigrant facing deportation. Compassion for the LGBT man or woman dealing with self-doubts, ridicule, and abuse.  Compassion for the nerdy male facing suicidal depression because modern dating norms, combined with his own shyness and fear of rule-breaking, have left him unable to pursue romance or love. Compassion for the woman who feels like an ugly, overweight, unlovable freak who no one will ask on dates.  Compassion for the African-American victim of police brutality. Compassion even for the pedophile who’d sooner kill himself than hurt a child, but who’s been given no support for curing or managing his condition. This is what I advocate. This is my platform.

It’s a good platform. Maybe a little utopian. Maybe a little too idealist. Maybe compassion should work on a scale, with depressed white male nerds who can’t get dates being pretty low on that scale. Maybe you’d rather save your compassion for impoverished orphans in Africa, or for groups that have been historically oppressed, unlike white male nerds, regardless of how depressed they are. That’s okay, it’s okay to ration your compassion and the energy it takes to express it. If you don’t want to spend any energy on the suicidally depressed nerdy male demographic, I’m not sure anyone would care or even notice. Where it gets baffling is when you take this limited energy and use it to not merely refuse compassion, but to urge these individuals to “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum!”

If creating a post mostly composed of quotes from other people with little of my own original content is what you’ve been waiting for all along, then consider donating. Though even I would find that a little bit weird, not as weird as discussing sexual inequality, but still pretty weird.

Nuclear Power and Winning through Intolerance

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Last week I talked about Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. As I mentioned at the time I probably wasn’t doing it justice because that’s just the reality when you try to cover a 500 page book using a 3500 word post. In contrast, this week, rather than trying to cover what amounts to Pinker’s grand unified theory of civilization, I’d like to focus on just one point he brought up.

As I mentioned in the last post, I enjoy Pinker’s books, and find myself largely in agreement with him on most things (long tail risk being my big disagreement) and one of the things I was glad to see him make a strong case for was nuclear power. As I pointed out, Pinker feels that there are really only two existential crises we need to worry about: climate change and nuclear war.  As part of my disagreement with him about long tail risks, I would argue that there are a lot more than just these two, but they are interesting in that they are both issues which are entirely within humanities power to solve, it would just require a lot of coordination. Or rather, it would require a lot of positive coordination. Natural incentives have lead to significant, albeit selfish, coordination on the burning of fossil fuels and to a lesser extent on the building of nukes. But this is equivalent to both prisoners defecting, we need them to both cooperate. But as you might imagine, and as I assume even Pinker would admit, such coordination is hard, and takes a long time. Climate change is interesting because there is a step most countries could take, which requires no cooperation, no signing of any accords, no locking other countries, like China, into specific actions, and which wouldn’t slow down growth or significantly change the way we use energy. Of course I’m talking about nuclear power, and one of the highlights of “Enlightenment Now” was Pinker’s defense of it.

As I said though, Pinker and I share a very different level of concern for long tail risks. Given that he worries less, his advocacy of nuclear power seems obvious. But what about me? How do I get off championing nuclear power? Certainly, it would be very ironic if using nuclear power to combat the potential existential crisis of climate change, lead to the very real existential crisis of full on nuclear war. Accordingly, the first thing we need to discuss is whether nuclear power increases the threat of nuclear weapon proliferation. The answer to that question is that it’s hard to say, this is particularly the case when you’re trying to compare these two separate worlds in their entirety. One where we continue much as we have, with haphazard development of nuclear power, inconsistent policies, and no real plan for the weapons grade plutonium and uranium we already do have (except for using it in weapons.) And another world where we focus on more advanced reactors with much less risk of proliferation (particularly once you start talking about thorium and depleted uranium reactors) and with a pathway to use weapons grade material in places other than weapons. All of which is to say that the risks, are somewhat unknown. But if you really believe that climate change represents an existential crisis (I don’t, but I do think it’s worth taking precautions against) then some level of risk may be unavoidable, and that’s one of the themes I’ll be returning too.

It’s been awhile since I covered asymmetric risks, particularly in terms of fragility vs. antifragility. So as a reminder, one of the key points of this dichotomy is that both costs and benefits can have one of two sets of attributes, they can either be known and limited or they can be unknown and unlimited. If the benefits are known and limited, while the costs are the reverse, then that thing is fragile. If it’s the opposite, unlimited benefits with limited costs, then that thing is antifragile. In theory it’s straightforward, in practice it can be more complicated, particularly with situations where there are lots of competing costs and benefits, with varying levels of severity and probability. As, for example, in the situation I just described, deciding whether to use nuclear power to reduce the risk of climate change.

This is the case even if we assume that nuclear power will entirely prevent climate change. You could argue (and I have) that the cost of climate change, even under the worst case scenario is not unlimited. (I have even argued that the cost of nuclear war is not unlimited, ie that it won’t wipe out humanity permanently and forever.) That said, it would be pretty bad, bad enough that most people would place it the unlimited cost category. Additionally, while I think most people would place climate change in the “very high probability” category, there is still a lot we don’t know.

What about the other side, proliferation brought on by the increased use of nuclear power? On this side, there are two ways proliferation could happen. The first and most likely is that a non-state actor could get their hands on some weapons grade uranium or plutonium. In that case they would still have to use it to make a bomb, which is not impossible, but it’s definitely not trivial either. How many bombs could they make and successfully detonate? I think most people would say one, if they’re lucky, but I guess if we’re looking at the worst case scenario it’s conceivable that they could build perhaps half a dozen. In any case, it’s hard to imagine the number would be more than a handful. And at best they’re equivalent to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (crude design, fission not fusion.)

Okay, now let’s say they actually detonate them. Is this bad? Of course! It makes 9/11 into a historical footnote, but, does it end civilization? Not unless we enormously over-react (another comparison to 9/11). And, is the worst case nuclear terrorism as bad the worst case climate change? Probably not, and I think, probability wise, climate change is vastly more likely than nuclear terrorism to boot. Recall that we have had nuclear weapons for quite a while, they passed through the fall of the Soviet Union, and were kept secure for the last 20 years through the height of Islamic-extremism in Pakistan, a majority Muslim country. To return to Pinker, he apparently considers the possibility to be so remote that he doesn’t even bother to mention nuclear weapons in his chapter on terrorism. (At least as far as I recall, and the index backs me up.) As I have already pointed out I am more pessimistic than he is, but I still see multiple hurdles standing between a non-state actor and the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

The other way proliferation could happen is that a state could use their nuclear power to create nuclear weapons, and they could use it to create far more than one, or six. Obviously this is a concern, and I’m already on record as saying that I don’t think the number of states with nukes will ever go below the number it’s currently at, and further, I think we might see states that previously relied on the US nuclear umbrella getting nukes of their own as Pax Americana fades. All this may happen (contra Pinker) but the question remains will the increased use of nuclear power have anything to do with it? The connection seems tenuous. On the one hand we have North Korea which has nuclear weapons, but no working nuclear reactor. On the other hand we have Japan which has nuclear power, but no nuclear weapons. And if, someday, they decided they needed nuclear weapons, I doubt, at that moment, that the lack of nuclear power would slow them down very much, even if that were the case. At a minimum this seems to suggest that the technology and infrastructure needed to build nuclear weapons is less than that required to build nuclear reactors. And if reactor technology were to be imported I imagine it would be the kind of proliferation resistant reactors I already talked about.

Once we eliminate worries about proliferation, then the case for nuclear power (particularly for those most worried about climate change) becomes pretty solid. But people have concerns about nuclear power beyond just proliferation and as long as we’re on the subject I might as well address them.

The next highest item on the list for most people (and the highest for some) is nuclear waste. And I admit that with my emphasis on low time preference, creating something that’s dangerous for thousands of years is viscerally unappealing to me. But of course it’s important to look behind that initial visceral reaction (something far, far to few do, particularly with this issue) and consider the actual data.

First, it’s not as if radioactive waste is unique in its longevity, we’re creating lots of concentrated  heavy metal waste (eg cadmium, mercury, and maybe you’ve heard of the problems with lead?) which is dangerous essentially forever. Will the Yucca Mountain Repository (should it ever be built, which seems doubtful) be as dangerous in 1000 years as Norilsk, Russia, or even Flint, Michigan, when you consider how inaccessible the waste will be?

Second, and related to the first point, the amount of high level waste created is tiny. Enough so that you don’t need some giant site with armed guards and lasers. In fact one suggestion has been to take the small amount of waste and disperse it rather than concentrating it. For example, mix it with dirt and rocks and refill old uranium mines with it, diluting it enough that the background radiation is at the same level as it was before you mined the uranium.

Finally, one thing that most people don’t consider is that if we’re going to create pollution or waste anyway, it’s best to diversify. I first came across this point in one of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books (I don’t recall which one). He pointed out that it is far better to create small amounts of many pollutants than a large amount of only one. You may be wondering why this is. Well as it turns out the harm from toxicity is not linear. To use an example many people would be familiar with, alcohol.  (Not me actually, I had to look it up, I’ve never had a drink.)  A blood alcohol level of 0.1 is drunk, but not ridiculously so, twice that and you’re probably vomiting. Three times that and you’re probably unconscious. Four times that and you’re in a coma and possibly dead. As you can see the harm jumps a huge amount at each step, particularly between 3x and 4x where the harm jumps to infinity (if you’re the person who ended up dying.)

Now of course we don’t exactly know where the big jump is in carbon emissions, if a CO2 level of 500 ppm is 10x as bad as one of 400 ppm (where we are now) and if 600 ppm is 1000x as bad. And that if it ever hit 700 ppm we’d turn into Venus, and all life would be wiped out. But regardless it’s almost certainly non-linear, and since nuclear power (and by extension nuclear waste) would be removing CO2 “off the top” so to speak, you’re looking at trading a pollutant on the low end of the harm curve for the very top of the curve of another pollutant. All of which is another way to say the same thing which has been said since ancient times, that the dose makes the poison. Yes, nuclear waste is bad, but by removing the top end of our CO2 emissions it may be replacing something much, much worse.

Having covered proliferation and nuclear waste, we at last reach the concern potentially shared by the most people, but which has the least basis in reality: a nuclear reactor disaster, a Three Mile Island, a Fukushima or a Chernobyl. Here Pinker and I are entirely on the same page, so I’ll turn things over to him:

[Nuclear power] has a lower carbon footprint than solar, hydro, and biomass, and it’s safer than them, too. The sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the result of extraordinary Soviet-era bungling, together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population. The other two famous accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, killed no one. Yet vast numbers of people are killed day in, day out by the pollution from burning combustibles and by accidents in mining and transporting them, none of which make headlines. Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many, and coal 387 times as many–perhaps a million deaths a year. (emphasis on 387 in the original)

Perhaps you’re amazed by these figures or perhaps not, they’ve been available for a long time, and possibly, given the demographics of my readership, you are all entirely unsurprised, but when I look out at the broader world, I can detect nothing which would indicate a recognition of how safe nuclear power actually is. Certainly not among the general population, nor among the politicians, and despite the repeated pleas of desperate need, not even very much among self-professed environmentalists.

Now to be fair even if Fukushima didn’t kill anyone it has proved to be tremendously expensive to clean up, with the latest estimate putting the figure at 21.5 trillion yen, or $188 billion, and I suppose an argument could be made against nuclear power solely from the perspective of cost, and indeed a quick search reveals that this is a very common concern. The question is why is it so expensive to build new plants and to clean up Fukushima. Is it because if we spent $100 billion rather than $188 billion Fukushima would go from a situation where no one died, to a situation where 10,000 people died? If we spent less money on regulating and building nuclear reactors would we go from having two accidents where no one died and one where a few thousand died, to having dozens of accidents and tens of thousands of casualties? (Even if that were the case I think nuclear power would still be ahead of petroleum and coal, and probably even biomass.)

I don’t actually think either of these things would happen, rather I think the word “nuclear” and “radiation” are in the same category as “racist”, words were the reaction engendered is sometimes dramatically out of proportion to the actual harm, and where, if the word sticks, it can make a topic completely off limits. Accordingly, Fukushima isn’t just a disaster, it isn’t another industrial cleanup, it’s a nuclear disaster, and a radioactive cleanup, and no expense should be spared in containing the dangerous waste. But maybe that’s a good thing, no telling what would happen if we just spent a couple of billion slapping some concrete and steel over everything and walked away, with some signs telling people to avoid the area.

Oh wait… that’s basically exactly what happened with Chernobyl which was objectively a far worse accident. Maybe by looking at what happened in the aftermath of that we can get some sense of what might happen if Japan decides to spend less than $188 billion to clean up Fukushima. It doesn’t take much searching to find articles talking in excited terms about the amount of wildlife found in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). One article declares that it’s a nature reserve. Another mentions that within the CEZ wildlife is flourishing. This was unexpected, in one article from National Geographic I came across, they quote a biologist who “studies chernobyl” (one wonders if his studies have included a visit) as predicting that when the author of the article goes to Chernobyl that he won’t “see any roadkill in the exclusion zone—and would be lucky to hear any birds or see any animals.” Instead the author reports:

Walking along sandy firebreaks used as forest highways…we found the tracks of wolf, moose, deer, badger, and horses. I counted scores of birds: ravens, songbirds, three kinds of birds of prey, and dozens of swans paddling in the radioactive cooling pond.

The article goes on to report that in a study of 14 species of mammals one scientist found no evidence that any of those populations were “suppressed” within the CEZ.

I am sure that there are some health impacts on this wildlife and positive that the CEZ is not without its negative effects. I’m sure that if people were allowed to live there, that there would be higher rates of cancer, among other things. But, also recall, that this is the worst of the disasters, combined with the least cost and effort at cleanup.

In addition to offering a defense of nuclear power, I wanted use this post to examine why it has faced so much resistance. Why haven’t we embraced it, given everything I’ve already mentioned? I would argue that nuclear power is among the best examples of one of modernity’s more distressing trends: veto through intolerance. Or as Taleb describes it, the most intolerant wins. He describes how:

It suffices for an intransigent minority –a certain type of intransigent minority –to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences. Further, an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority.

Let’s take Yucca Mountain for example. Nearly everyone who’s aware of the problem of high level nuclear waste is in favor of it, and those who aren’t in favor of it can be divided up into two camps, those who don’t care either way, and Nevadans. And the opposition of the Nevadans, who represent less than 1% of the US population was enough to kill it.

I assume much the same thing is happening when we look at the reaction of people to even the very mention of the words, nuclear and radioactive. There is obviously a small minority for whom these words are as garlic to vampires, if not worse. And then there’s the vast majority who really don’t care, but, as Taleb points out, appear, to the naive observer to be concerned as well, and then there’s a few people who actually understand the risk-reward tradeoff (like Pinker, probably) who are in favor of it. To put it in more concrete terms, how much of the $188 billion is being spent to calm the 1% of the population who is the least tolerant? I guarantee it’s far out of proportion to their numbers.

I’m guessing at this point that you can already see where this applies to various social justice causes. And what’s important to point out here, is not the old “Social Justice Warriors be crazy, yo.” But the fact that both the concerns about nuclear power and the concerns about social justice are based on real risks. In the case of nuclear power there is a real risk that expanding our use of it will contribute to proliferation, or that there will be a disaster involving high level waste, or that a nuclear reactor will suffer a meltdown. But for all the reasons I pointed to above, I think these risks are low and worth taking.

The intolerance towards certain kinds of speech, particularly speech related to social justice issues, comes from fear of risk as well. There is a risk it could lead to a recriminalization of homosexuality, or to violence and the resumption of things like lynchings, or we could even end up in a world that was indistinguishable from the Handmaid’s Tale. But all of these risks are tiny. The question is are there any compensating rewards if we continue to support free speech and free expression (even for the alt-right and neo-nazis)? I believe there are, but much like the benefits of nuclear energy, they’re diffuse, and will take a long time to fully be realized.

If we are at a point where the smallest of minorities can veto even the tiniest of risks, what does that mean going forward? We have already seen how this tactic has completely tabled one of the most effective precautions we could take against global warming. What other future risks are we going to ignore in order to address the short-term concerns of various minorities? I know that people like Pinker have basically argued that the future is just going to get increasingly less risky, but this is one of the points I disagree with him on. I think going forward, risks are going to be less frequent (lower volatility) but of greater impact when they do occur (higher fragility). Thus not only are the risks greater, but we will have much less experience in dealing with them when they do occur, add to all of that the ability of frightened minorities to derail the plans of the far-sighted, and there’s ample cause to once again claim, “We are not saved.”

I’m trying to think of some way that I could win through intolerance, but even though the number of people necessary to do that is getting smaller and smaller, I don’t think it’s reached the point where one, slightly weird blogger with a fixation on clever appeals for donations has any leverage, yet.