Category: <span>We Are Not Saved</span>

Humanity on the Cusp of Eternity

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Nietzsche claimed that, “God is dead” (or for the purists “Gott is tot”). When I first heard this (I’m guessing in high school?) I assumed that it was just a particularly direct version of what atheists have been saying for decades. Notable only in that it was an early example of this sentiment, but not otherwise especially unique or interesting.

Since then I have come to understand that Nietzsche was making a deeper point. Though in claiming this I am wandering into the deep weeds of philosophy and it’s entirely possible that I am about to vastly over simplify Nietzsche’s point, or mis-represent it entirely, similar to Otto in a Fish Called Wanda, though this possibility has never stopped me before, so with that caveat out of the way…

As I understand it Nietzsche was saying that progress and technology and the enlightenment had ruled out the possibility of God, and in doing so had removed one of the central pillars of Western-Christian Civilization. And without that pillar, which includes God as a source of absolute morality, that we were inevitably doomed to nihilism. I think you get a sense of this just from considering a more extended selection of what Nietzsche said, which is frankly pretty powerful.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

These are all important, if heavily metaphorical questions, and, of course, to that last question the transhumanist would reply, “Maybe so, maybe we do have to become gods, fortunately that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

Two of the topics I come back to over and over again, Artificial Intelligence and Fermi’s Paradox, relate to this question of the absence of God. And next week I’m going to be doing an hour long presentation on both of them at the annual Sunstone Symposium.

(If you happen to be attending the symposium, I’ll be doing my AI presentation at 11:30 am on Thursday the 26th in room 200-B, and I’ll be doing my Fermi’s Paradox presentation at 10:15 am on Friday the 27th in room 200-D. Please stop by and say, “Hi!”)

Given that I was already doing a bunch of work to prepare for these presentations, I had initially thought that this week’s post would be on AI and then next week’s post would be Fermi’s Paradox. But as I got into things, I realized that for those who have actually read the blog there’s not much point in posting the stuff I’m preparing to present at Sunstone, which is understandably going to be more introductory, and probably a repeat of a lot of things I’ve already said, and which you’ve already read. I’m still hoping they film both presentations, and put them online, so that I can post links to them. I guess we’ll see. It’s my first time so I’m not sure what will happen.

Instead I thought I’d look for a subject which combined the two topics in an interesting way, and I believe the quote from Nietzsche does exactly that, though at a pretty high level (which is to be expected when combining these two subjects.)

It may not be apparent what the quote from Nietzsche has to do with Fermi’s Paradox. Well, if Nietzsche is correct and we have metaphorically killed the traditional Christian God, (and given the similarities probably the Muslim God as well.) Then there’s still the possibility that there might be other god-like beings out there, specifically god-like extraterrestrials. I have not encountered any evidence that Nietzsche considered this possibility, but his statement obviously doesn’t preclude it, and for obvious reasons even if Nietzsche didn’t consider it, we should. One could imagine that if the two main things that Christianity supplied were morality and salvation, that sufficiently advanced aliens could provide both, or perhaps just one or the other.

The first thing that’s evident once we turn to consider this idea is the possibility that if god-like extraterrestrials are going to provide morality it may not be a morality we particularly like. Many people, when considering Fermi’s Paradox have come to the conclusion that the universe is a dark forest. A place of incredible danger. This theory takes its name from the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin where it was the title of one of the books. Here’s how it’s described there:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds another life—another hunter, angel, or a demon, a delicate infant to tottering old man, a fairy or demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.

Liu is not the only person to put forth this theory (he just gave it the catchiest name). Years before Liu wrote his books other people were arguing that we shouldn’t engage in Active SETI for very similar reasons (this included the late Professor Hawking). For myself I wrote a whole post explaining why I didn’t think the Dark Forest explanation of the paradox was very likely, but for those that do think it’s likely, it entirely undermines the idea of a universal morality, or at least posits that if there is a universal morality, it’s a morality of universal violence. Which takes us to a place not that much different than Nietzsche’s original thought. Instead of being alone, bereft of morality and adrift in an uncaring universe, we could be surrounded by genocidal aliens, gifted with a morality of unceasing violence, and adrift in a malevolent universe. I think most people would actually prefer the first option. But either way, the eventual nihilism Nietzsche predicts is just as likely, if not moreso.

Of course there are a broad range of possible moral codes which extraterrestrials might possess. But within all the speculation it’s very hard to find anyone arguing that there is some universal system of morality which all aliens must, by necessity embrace. And of course my argument is, that if such a system exists, Occam’s Razor would suggest that we already have it, even if we’ve been given the basic, “early reader” version of this morality. And, once we add Fermi’s Paradox to Nietzsche’s observation. If we take that further step and place ourselves outside a human frame of reference, universal morality, or a morality which easily replaces Christianity, becomes impossible to imagine. With this in mind, what makes atheists and similar individuals so certain that there is morality outside of the concept of God? Certainly Nietzsche didn’t think so:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.

Nietzsche argues that even if you maintain the rest of Christianity (and certainly it could be argued that we mostly did, at least initially) that without “faith in God…nothing necessary remains”. And indeed, it certainly appears to me that once people abandoned the lynchpin of “faith in God” that it began a slow erosion of everything else which was once considered Christian morality. Further, as I pointed out, while there’s no evidence that Nietzsche considered the possibility of god-like extraterrestrials, even if we add them to our consideration, there’s no reason to think that they would halt this erosion. Aliens, at least as they are typically imagined, don’t solve the problem of God’s absence, or at least I think we can conclude that they don’t solve the problem of morality. That still leaves us the problem of salvation. Will god-like extraterrestrials come along and save humanity?

Here, before going any further we have to acknowledge that salvation looks different to different people. In its most minimal sense it’s just a synonym for survival. Being saved just entails not ceasing to exist. On the other side of the spectrum salvation is used interchangeably with exaltation. Not only do you survive, but you achieve a state of perfect happiness. On the survival end it makes sense to talk about humanity surviving, and that being a good thing, regardless of whether any individual human survives. But on the exaltation end of things, it’s much more common to look at things from the level of an individual, is any given person immortal and happy. Is that person saved?

In a world which largely acts as if God is dead, it’s interesting that as the rest of Christian morality has eroded away, the two remaining pillars of moral high ground, of terminal value, end up falling into these same two categories with survival on one end and happiness (or technically hedonism) on the other. I discussed the tension between these two values previously and argued, that if we were going to try to construct a morality in the absence of God that it’s better to build it around the value of survival, if for no other reason that happiness is impossible in the absence of survival. I’ve already hopefully shown where aliens are unlikely to be able to help us with morality, and it seems equally unlikely they would be able to do much for our happiness, leaving only helping us to survive. This idea has appeared in science fiction, though far less often than the opposite trope of aliens looking to exterminate humanity. That said, there are still plenty of interesting examples. For myself I quite enjoyed the book Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

However, if being rescued from extinction by aliens is a possibility, then, as I pointed out in another recent post, they need to have either saved us already (perhaps through means we can’t detect?) or they probably aren’t going to save us. And of course this applies to everything I’ve said thus far. If god-like extraterrestrials are going to step in and take the place of Nietzsche’s dead god, in any capacity, they need to have done so already.

Thus far we’ve been looking at what the ramifications would be if god-like aliens do exist, but more and more people feel that’s the wrong way to bet. That odds are we’re entirely alone. As examples of this, I just talked about the paper which claimed to “dissolve Fermi’s Paradox” and previously I discussed a book dedicated to the paradox which concluded, after offering up 75 potential explanations, that the most likely explanation is that we’re all alone in the visible universe. If this is the case, then it would appear that Nietzsche was entirely correct about the essential emptiness of existence despite completely ignoring potential god-like extraterrestrials who could step in and fill the gap. Accordingly, we are left with two possibilities. There are aliens, but they almost certainly won’t provide either morality or salvation, and definitely not both, or there are no aliens, god-like or otherwise. Meaning that after a long detour through Fermi’s Paradox, the reality of Nietzsche’s claim has not been significantly altered. We’re still in the same situation we were before, and possibly worse, since, in my opinion, if it did nothing else, the detour provided good reasons for doubting that any sort of universal morality exists in the absence of God.

I should interject here, again, that personally I think there is a God, and I think assuming his existence, along with the existence of religion and all that entails, is the best way to answer all of the issues we’ve covered so far, but I think this puts me in the minority of people with an interest in the paradox.

The main thrust of Nietzsche’s argument, from my limited understanding, is that people have not sufficiently grappled with the implications of there being no God. Now, according to polls, this doesn’t necessarily apply to most people, who still believe in God, and would therefore, presumably, be exempt from any need to “grapple”. Rather, Nietzsche appeared to mostly be talking to intellectuals. In his day and age they occupied the salons and drawing rooms of Europe, and discussed things like evolution and emancipation. In our day and age they occupy the internet and discuss things like Fermi’s Paradox and artificial intelligence. And just as Nietzsche accused the intellectuals of his day of not coming to terms with the ramifications implied in their discussions, I’m accusing the intellectuals of our day of the same thing. Particularly those people who believe that Fermi’s Paradox has been dissolved, who believe we are all alone in the universe. Which, let’s be clear, is a pretty big deal.

If you are one of those people who don’t believe in God, and who further believe that we’re all alone in the universe (or if that we’re not alone that it doesn’t help.) What do you do now? This is where Nietzsche may be at his most impressive. Lots of people pointed out that the decline of religion was going to cause unforeseen issues, though perhaps with less panache than Nietzsche, but when he goes on to say, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” He manages to precisely describe the transhumanism movement a century or more in advance of its appearance. (Interestingly, his big prediction, a descent into nihilism, has mostly not happened. But maybe it just hasn’t happened… yet.)

I mentioned up front that I was going to be discussing AI, which is the subject we turn to now. And which is less us becoming gods than us creating gods, but the basic principle remains the same. And the question I had with Fermi’s Paradox remains essentially the same was well. If there are no god-like extraterrestrials to step into the gap Nietzsche noticed, is it possible we could create a god-like AI to fill that gap?

Once again those who have abandoned a belief in God are looking to this “substitute god” to provide them with morality or salvation or hopefully both. Though in this case they do have one very important advantage, instead of being required to accept what the universe offers, as is the case with aliens (should they exist), in the case of artificial intelligence we get to design our deity. (I’m actually a little bit surprised no one has started an AI company with the name “Designer Deities”.)

This means, first off, that we’ll almost certainly combine the morality part with the salvation part. Or, to put it another way, we’ll do our best to make sure that whatever morality the AI ends up with, that one of the values is human salvation (definitely in the survival sense and if possible in the exaltation sense as well.) Which means that a century after Nietzsche pointed out the problem, we’ve come up with a straightforward solution: All we have to do is figure out how to teach computers to be good. (They would, of course, also need a certain amount of power beyond that, but most people assume that this is just a matter of time.) All of the problems Nietzsche describes can be reduced to the single problem of AI morality. Unfortunately even though it’s only one problem it’s an extraordinarily difficult problem.

As you may know from reading other posts of mine, or from following the subject in general, no one is exactly sure how you get a computer to be good. In fact no one is entirely sure what good means in this context, and there are lots of things which seem like a good way to implement morality, which could, in practice, turn out to be very bad. I’ve given numerous examples elsewhere, but let’s briefly consider Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which are often mentioned in this context. The first of these is:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

It’s not hard to see where taking all humans and locking them up in a padded room with a set number of optimally healthy calories delivered every day would conform with this rule, and fit the survival definition of salvation. This is one of the reasons why some people contend that it’s not enough for our AI deity to ensure our survival, they really need to exalt us.

(It’s interesting to note here the general principle, that survival is easy, exaltation is tough. Which may end up being the subject of a different post…)

We’ve once again arrived at a place where it becomes apparent that no one is 100% confident that we can formulate a universal system of morality, particularly if it needs to be defined with enough precision to feed into a computer. Now I’m sure there are some atheists out there that will scoff at the idea that religion provides a universal system of morality, but they’re missing the point. Religious people don’t think you can just give the Bible (or the Koran) to your new AI and grant it instant perfect morality. In other words, they don’t think it provides a perfect system of morality applicable in all times and all circumstances. (Though maybe some do.) It’s that they have faith that religious belief combined with God’s omnipotence, creates a perfect system. Which is why, I believe, Nietzsche felt that “By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” That faith is the critical component.

I understand people who don’t have faith, or think they shouldn’t have to have faith. Or who scoff at the very idea of faith. But I think these people will also find that it’s difficult to universalize morality without it. That becoming gods or creating gods is a difficult project.

Not too long ago, someone close to me came and told me that he had decided to leave the Mormon Church. The person said that he was now an atheist, or at least an agnostic. (I suspect the latter term is closer to the truth.) And he mentioned that one of the turning points was when he encountered something Penn Jillette had said, that you could be an atheist and still be good. I agree with this statement, and I would also agree that the horrible nihilism Nietzsche predicted would accompany the decrease in religion has also largely not come to pass either. But I think, as we examine the various developments in the realm of replacing god (if he is in fact dead, remember I argue that he’s not) it becomes clear that there isn’t some alternate system of morality which slots into the spot once occupied by Christianity. That when Penn says that you can be good and be an atheist, he’s largely saying that you can continue to maintain religiously derived morality without believing in God.

But, the neo-christian morality which seems to dominate these days, and which I assume Penn is referring to, is obviously getting farther and farther away from its core, and when it comes both to morality and nihilism it’s entirely possible that all of Nietzsche’s worst predictions will come true, it’s just taking longer than he expected. That people really haven’t grappled with the Death of God, and that as morality continues to erode, as it becomes more difficult to define, as we seek to replace God, that the reckoning is coming. Yes, it’s slower than Nietzsche expected. And yes, it’s very subtle, but the reckoning is coming.

You may think that it’s easy doing a cursory and ill-informed survey of one philosophical statement, taken out of context, but it’s not, it takes a certain bull-headed determination, and if you appreciate that determination, regardless of how misguided it is, then consider donating.

Catastrophe or Singularity? Neither? Both?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’re interested in ways to prevent collapse you should consider donating. It won’t stop the collapse of civilization, but it might stop the collapse of the blog.

Doom vs. Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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