Rao’s Divergentism

The main point of this post is to encourage the reader who has not yet done so, to read Venkatesh Rao’s essay Can You Hear Me Now. I will not say too much about it. The purpose is potentially for future reference, and simply to point out a connection with some current topics here.

Rao begins:

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.

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Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

The entire essay is worth reading.

I would question whether this is really the “fundamental question of life, the universe, and everything,” but Rao has a point. People do tend to think of their life as meaningful on account of social connections, and if those social connections grow increasingly weaker, they will tend to worry that their life is becoming less meaningful.

The point about the intellectual life of an individual is largely true. This is connected to what I said about the philosophical progress of an individual some days ago. There is also a connection with Kuhn’s idea of how the progress of the sciences causes a gulf to arise between them in such a way that it becomes more and more difficult for scientists in different fields to communicate with one another. If we look at the overall intellectual life of an individual as a sort of individual advancing science, the “sciences” of each individual will generally speaking tend to diverge from one another, allowing less and less communication. This is not about people making mistakes, although obviously making mistakes will contribute to this process. As Rao says, it may be that “the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing,” but this will not prevent their intellectual lives overall from diverging, just as the divergence of the sciences does not result from falsity, but from increasingly detailed focus on different truths.

Technical Discussion and Philosophical Progress

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (p. 19-21), Thomas Kuhn remarks on the tendency of sciences to acquire a technical vocabulary and manner of discussion:

We shall be examining the nature of this highly directed or paradigm-based research in the next section, but must first note briefly how the emergence of a paradigm affects the structure of the group that practices the field. When, in the development of a natural science, an individual or group first produces a synthesis able to attract most of the next generation’s practitioners, the older schools gradually disappear. In part their disappearance is caused by their members’ conversion to the new paradigm. But there are always some men who cling to one or another of the older views, and they are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work. The new paradigm implies a new and more rigid definition of the field. Those unwilling or unable to accommodate their work to it must proceed in isolation or attach themselves to some other group. Historically, they have often simply stayed in the departments of philosophy from which so many of the special sciences have been spawned. As these indications hint, it is sometimes just its reception of a paradigm that transforms a group previously interested merely in the study of nature into a profession or, at least, a discipline. In the sciences (though not in fields like medicine, technology, and law, of which the principal raison d’être is an external social need), the formation of specialized journals, the foundation of specialists’ societies, and the claim for a special place in the curriculum have usually been associated with a group’s first reception of a single paradigm. At least this was the case between the time, a century and a half ago, when the institutional pattern of scientific specialization first developed and the very recent time when the paraphernalia of specialization acquired a prestige of their own.

The more rigid definition of the scientific group has other consequences. When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced. That can be left to the writer of textbooks. Given a textbook, however, the creative scientist can begin his research where it leaves off and thus concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group. And as he does this, his research communiqués will begin to change in ways whose evolution has been too little studied but whose modern end products are obvious to all and oppressive to many. No longer will his researches usually be embodied in books addressed, like Franklin’s Experiments . . . on Electricity or Darwin’s Origin of Species, to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead they will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them.

Today in the sciences, books are usually either texts or retrospective reflections upon one aspect or another of the scientific life. The scientist who writes one is more likely to find his professional reputation impaired than enhanced. Only in the earlier, pre-paradigm, stages of the development of the various sciences did the book ordinarily possess the same relation to professional achievement that it still retains in other creative fields. And only in those fields that still retain the book, with or without the article, as a vehicle for research communication are the lines of professionalization still so loosely drawn that the layman may hope to follow progress by reading the practitioners’ original reports. Both in mathematics and astronomy, research reports had ceased already in antiquity to be intelligible to a generally educated audience. In dynamics, research became similarly esoteric in the later Middle Ages, and it recaptured general intelligibility only briefly during the early seventeenth century when a new paradigm replaced the one that had guided medieval research. Electrical research began to require translation for the layman before the end of the eighteenth century, and most other fields of physical science ceased to be generally accessible in the nineteenth. During the same two centuries similar transitions can be isolated in the various parts of the biological sciences. In parts of the social sciences they may well be occurring today. Although it has become customary, and is surely proper, to deplore the widening gulf that separates the professional scientist from his colleagues in other fields, too little attention is paid to the essential relationship between that gulf and the mechanisms intrinsic to scientific advance.

As Kuhn says, this tendency has very well known results. Consider the papers constantly being published at arxiv.org, for example. If you are not familiar with the science in question, you will likely not be able to understand even the title, let alone the summary or the content. Many or most of the words will be meaningless to you, and even if they are not, their combinations will be.

It is also not difficult to see why this happens, and why it must happen. Everything we understand, we understand through form, which is a network of relationships. Thus if particular investigators wish to go into something in greater detail, these relationships will become more and more remote from the ordinary knowledge accessible to everyone. “Just say it in simple words” will become literally impossible, in the sense that explaining the “simple” statement will involve explaining a huge number of relationships that by default a person would have no knowledge of. That is the purpose, as Kuhn notes, of textbooks, namely to form connections between everyday knowledge and the more complex relationships studied in particular fields.

In Chapter XIII, Kuhn relates this sort of development with the word “science” and progress:

The preceding pages have carried my schematic description of scientific development as far as it can go in this essay. Nevertheless, they cannot quite provide a conclusion. If this description has at all caught the essential structure of a science’s continuing evolution, it will simultaneously have posed a special problem: Why should the enterprise sketched above move steadily ahead in ways that, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not? Why is progress a perquisite reserved almost exclusively for the activities we call science? The most usual answers to that question have been denied in the body of this essay. We must conclude it by asking whether substitutes can be found.

Notice immediately that part of the question is entirely semantic. To a very great extent the term ‘science’ is reserved for fields that do progress in obvious ways. Nowhere does this show more clearly than in the recurrent debates about whether one or another of the contemporary social sciences is really a science. These debates have parallels in the pre-paradigm periods of fields that are today unhesitatingly labeled science. Their ostensible issue throughout is a definition of that vexing term. Men argue that psychology, for example, is a science because it possesses such and such characteristics. Others counter that those characteristics are either unnecessary or not sufficient to make a field a science. Often great energy is invested, great passion aroused, and the outsider is at a loss to know why. Can very much depend upon a definition of ‘science’? Can a definition tell a man whether he is a scientist or not? If so, why do not natural scientists or artists worry about the definition of the term? Inevitably one suspects that the issue is more fundamental. Probably questions like the following are really being asked: Why does my field fail to move ahead in the way that, say, physics does? What changes in technique or method or ideology would enable it to do so? These are not, however, questions that could respond to an agreement on definition. Furthermore, if precedent from the natural sciences serves, they will cease to be a source of concern not when a definition is found, but when the groups that now doubt their own status achieve consensus about their past and present accomplishments. It may, for example, be significant that economists argue less about whether their field is a science than do practitioners of some other fields of social science. Is that because economists know what science is? Or is it rather economics about which they agree?

The last point is telling. There is significantly more consensus among economists than among other sorts of social science, and consequently less worry about whether their field is scientific or not. The difference, then, is a difference of how much agreement is found. There is not necessarily any difference with respect to the kind of increasingly detailed thought that results in increasingly technical discussion. Kuhn remarks:

The theologian who articulates dogma or the philosopher who refines the Kantian imperatives contributes to progress, if only to that of the group that shares his premises. No creative school recognizes a category of work that is, on the one hand, a creative success, but is not, on the other, an addition to the collective achievement of the group. If we doubt, as many do, that nonscientific fields make progress, that cannot be because individual schools make none. Rather, it must be because there are always competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others. The man who argues that philosophy, for example, has made no progress emphasizes that there are still Aristotelians, not that Aristotelianism has failed to progress.

In this sense, if a particular school believes they possess the general truth about some matter (here theology or philosophy), they will quite naturally begin to discuss it in greater detail and in ways which are mainly intelligible to students of that school, just as happens in other technical fields. The field is only failing to progress in the sense that there are other large communities making contrasting claims, while we begin to use the term “science” and to speak of progress when one school completely dominates the field, and to a first approximation even people who know nothing about it assume that the particular school has things basically right.

What does this imply about progress in philosophy?

1. There is progress in the knowledge of topics that were once considered “philosophy,” but when we get to this point, we usually begin to use the name of a particular science, and with good reason, since technical specialization arises in the manner discussed above. Tyler Cowen discusses this sort of thing here.

2. Areas in which there doesn’t seem to be such progress, are probably most often areas where human knowledge remains at an early stage of development; it is precisely at such early stages that discussion does not have a technical character and when it can generally be understood by ordinary people without a specialized education. I pointed out that Aristotle was mistaken to assume that the sciences in general were fully developed. We would be equally mistaken to make such an assumption at the present times. As Kuhn notes, astronomy and mathematics achieved a “scientific” stage centuries before geology and biology did the same, and these long before economics and the like. The conclusion that one should draw is that metaphysics is hard, not that it is impossible or meaningless.

3. Even now, particular philosophical schools or individuals can make progress even without such consensus. This is evidently true if their overall position is correct or more correct than that of others, but it remains true even if their overall position is more wrong than that of other schools. Naturally, in the latter situation, they will not advance beyond the better position of other schools, but they will advance.

4. One who wishes to progress philosophically cannot avoid the tendency to technical specialization, even as an individual. This can be rather problematic for bloggers and people engaging in similar projects. John Nerst describes this problem:

The more I think about this issue the more unsolvable it seems to become. Loyal readers of a publication won’t be satisfied by having the same points reiterated again and again. News media get around this by focusing on, well, news. News are events, you can describe them and react to them for a while until they’re no longer news. Publications that aim to be more analytical and focus on discussing ideas, frameworks, slow processes and large-scale narratives instead of events have a more difficult task because their subject matter doesn’t change quickly enough for it to be possible to churn out new material every day without repeating yourself[2].

Unless you start building upwards. Instead of laying out stone after stone on the ground you put one on top of another, and then one on top of two others laying next to each other, and then one on top of all that, making a single three-level structure. In practice this means writing new material that builds on what came before, taking ideas further and further towards greater complexity, nuance and sophistication. This is what academia does when working correctly.

Mass media (including the more analytical outlets) do it very little and it’s obvious why: it’s too demanding[3]. If an article references six other things you need to have read to fully understand it you’re going to have a lot of difficulty attracting new readers.

Some of his conclusions:

I think that’s the real reason I don’t try to pitch more writing to various online publications. In my summary of 2018 I said it was because I thought my writing was to “too idiosyncratic, abstract and personal to fit in anywhere but my own blog”. Now I think the main reason is that I don’t so much want to take part in public debate or make myself a career. I want to explore ideas that lie at the edge of my own thinking. To do that I must assume that a reader knows broadly the same things I know and I’m just not that interested in writing about things where I can’t do that[9]. I want to follow my thoughts to for me new and unknown places — and import whatever packages I need to do it. This style isn’t compatible with the expectation that a piece will be able to stand on its own and deliver a single recognizable (and defensible) point[10].

The downside is of course obscurity. To achieve both relevance in the wider world and to build on other ideas enough to reach for the sky you need extraordinary success — so extraordinary that you’re essentially pulling the rest of the world along with you.

Obscurity is certainly one result. Another (relevant at least from the VP’s point of view) is disrespect. Scientists are generally respected despite the general incomprehensibility of their writing, on account of the absence of opposing schools. This lack leads people to assume that their arguments must be mostly right, even though they cannot understand them themselves. This can actually lead to an “Emperor has No Clothes” situation, where a scientist publishes something basically crazy, but others, even in his field, are reluctant to say so because they might appear to be the ones who are ignorant. As an example, consider Joy Christian’s “Disproof of Bell’s Theorem.” After reading this text, Scott Aaronson comments:

In response to my post criticizing his “disproof” of Bell’s Theorem, Joy Christian taunted me that “all I knew was words.”  By this, he meant that my criticisms were entirely based on circumstantial evidence, for example that (1) Joy clearly didn’t understand what the word “theorem” even meant, (2) every other sentence he uttered contained howling misconceptions, (3) his papers were written in an obscure, “crackpot” way, and (4) several people had written very clear papers pointing out mathematical errors in his work, to which Joy had responded only with bluster.  But I hadn’t actually studied Joy’s “work” at a technical level.  Well, yesterday I finally did, and I confess that I was astonished by what I found.  Before, I’d actually given Joy some tiny benefit of the doubt—possibly misled by the length and semi-respectful tone of the papers refuting his claims.  I had assumed that Joy’s errors, though ultimately trivial (how could they not be, when he’s claiming to contradict such a well-understood fact provable with a few lines of arithmetic?), would nevertheless be artfully concealed, and would require some expertise in geometric algebra to spot.  I’d also assumed that of course Joy would have some well-defined hidden-variable model that reproduced the quantum-mechanical predictions for the Bell/CHSH experiment (how could he not?), and that the “only” problem would be that, due to cleverly-hidden mistakes, his model would be subtly nonlocal.

What I actually found was a thousand times worse: closer to the stuff freshmen scrawl on an exam when they have no clue what they’re talking about but are hoping for a few pity points.  It’s so bad that I don’t understand how even Joy’s fellow crackpots haven’t laughed this off the stage.  Look, Joy has a hidden variable λ, which is either 1 or -1 uniformly at random.  He also has a measurement choice a of Alice, and a measurement choice b of Bob.  He then defines Alice and Bob’s measurement outcomes A and B via the following functions:

A(a,λ) = something complicated = (as Joy correctly observes) λ

B(b,λ) = something complicated = (as Joy correctly observes) -λ

I shit you not.  A(a,λ) = λ, and B(b,λ) = -λ.  Neither A nor B has any dependence on the choices of measurement a and b, and the complicated definitions that he gives for them turn out to be completely superfluous.  No matter what measurements are made, A and B are always perfectly anticorrelated with each other.

You might wonder: what could lead anyone—no matter how deluded—even to think such a thing could violate the Bell/CHSH inequalities?

“Give opposite answers in all cases” is in fact entirely irrelevant to Bell’s inequality. Thus the rest of Joy’s paper has no bearing whatsoever on the issue: it is essentially meaningless nonsense. Aaronson says he was possibly “misled by the length and semi-respectful tone of the papers refuting his claims.” But it is not difficult to see why people would be cautious in this way: the fear that they would turn out to be the ones missing something important.

The individual blogger in philosophy, however, is in a different position. If they wish to develop their thought it must become more technical, and there is no similar community backing that would cause others to assume that the writing basically makes sense. Thus, one’s writing is not only likely to become more and more obscure, but others will become more and more likely to assume that it is more or less meaningless word salad. This will happen even more to the degree that there is cultural opposition to one’s vocabulary, concepts, and topics.

Age of Em

This is Robin Hanson’s first book. Hanson gradually introduces his topic:

You, dear reader, are special. Most humans were born before 1700. And of those born after, you are probably richer and better educated than most. Thus you and most everyone you know are special, elite members of the industrial era.

Like most of your kind, you probably feel superior to your ancestors. Oh, you don’t blame them for learning what they were taught. But you’d shudder to hear of many of your distant farmer ancestors’ habits and attitudes on sanitation, sex, marriage, gender, religion, slavery, war, bosses, inequality, nature, conformity, and family obligations. And you’d also shudder to hear of many habits and attitudes of your even more ancient forager ancestors. Yes, you admit that lacking your wealth your ancestors couldn’t copy some of your habits. Even so, you tend to think that humanity has learned that your ways are better. That is, you believe in social and moral progress.

The problem is, the future will probably hold new kinds of people. Your descendants’ habits and attitudes are likely to differ from yours by as much as yours differ from your ancestors. If you understood just how different your ancestors were, you’d realize that you should expect your descendants to seem quite strange. Historical fiction misleads you, showing your ancestors as more modern than they were. Science fiction similarly misleads you about your descendants.

As an example of the kind of past difference that Robin is discussing, even in the fairly recent past, consider this account by William Ewald of a trial from the sixteenth century:

In 1522 some rats were placed on trial before the ecclesiastical court in Autun. They were charged with a felony: specifically, the crime of having eaten and wantonly destroyed some barley crops in the jurisdiction. A formal complaint against “some rats of the diocese” was presented to the bishop’s vicar, who thereupon cited the culprits to appear on a day certain, and who appointed a local jurist, Barthelemy Chassenée (whose name is sometimes spelled Chassanée, or Chasseneux, or Chasseneuz), to defend them. Chassenée, then forty-two, was known for his learning, but not yet famous; the trial of the rats of Autun was to establish his reputation, and launch a distinguished career in the law.

When his clients failed to appear in court, Chassenée resorted to procedural arguments. His first tactic was to invoke the notion of fair process, and specifically to challenge the original writ for having failed to give the rats due notice. The defendants, he pointed out, were dispersed over a large tract of countryside, and lived in many villages; a single summons was inadequate to notify them all. Moreover, the summons was addressed only to some of the rats of the diocese; but technically it should have been addressed to them all.

Chassenée was successful in his argument, and the court ordered a second summons to be read from the pulpit of every local parish church; this second summons now correctly addressed all the local rats, without exception.

But on the appointed day the rats again failed to appear. Chassenée now made a second argument. His clients, he reminded the court, were widely dispersed; they needed to make preparations for a great migration, and those preparations would take time. The court once again conceded the reasonableness of the argument, and granted a further delay in the proceedings. When the rats a third time failed to appear, Chassenée was ready with a third argument. The first two arguments had relied on the idea of procedural fairness; the third treated the rats as a class of persons who were entitled to equal treatment under the law. He addressed the court at length, and successfully demonstrated that, if a person is cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may lawfully refuse to obey the writ. And a journey to court would entail serious perils for his clients. They were notoriously unpopular in the region; and furthermore they were rightly afraid of their natural enemies, the cats. Moreover (he pointed out to the court) the cats could hardly be regarded as neutral in this dispute; for they belonged to the plaintiffs. He accordingly demanded that the plaintiffs be enjoined by the court, under the threat of severe penalties, to restrain their cats, and prevent them from frightening his clients. The court again found this argument compelling; but now the plaintiffs seem to have come to the end of their patience. They demurred to the motion; the court, unable to settle on the correct period within which the rats must appear, adjourned on the question sine die, and judgment for the rats was granted by default.

Most of us would assume at once that this is all nothing but an elaborate joke; but Ewald strongly argues that it was all quite serious. This would actually be worthy of its own post, but I will leave it aside for now. In any case it illustrates the existence of extremely different attitudes even a few centuries ago.

In any event, Robin continues:

New habits and attitudes result less than you think from moral progress, and more from people adapting to new situations. So many of your descendants’ strange habits and attitudes are likely to violate your concepts of moral progress; what they do may often seem wrong. Also, you likely won’t be able to easily categorize many future ways as either good or evil; they will instead just seem weird. After all, your world hardly fits the morality tales your distant ancestors told; to them you’d just seem weird. Complex realities frustrate simple summaries, and don’t fit simple morality tales.

Many people of a more conservative temperament, such as myself, might wish to swap out “moral progress” here with “moral regress,” but the point stands in any case. This is related to our discussions of the effects of technology and truth on culture, and of the idea of irreversible changes.

Robin finally gets to the point of his book:

This book presents a concrete and plausible yet troubling view of a future full of strange behaviors and attitudes. You may have seen concrete troubling future scenarios before in science fiction. But few of those scenarios are in fact plausible; their details usually make little sense to those with expert understanding. They were designed for entertainment, not realism.

Perhaps you were told that fictional scenarios are the best we can do. If so, I aim to show that you were told wrong. My method is simple. I will start with a particular very disruptive technology often foreseen in futurism and science fiction: brain emulations, in which brains are recorded, copied, and used to make artificial “robot” minds. I will then use standard theories from many physical, human, and social sciences to describe in detail what a world with that future technology would look like.

I may be wrong about some consequences of brain emulations, and I may misapply some science. Even so, the view I offer will still show just how troublingly strange the future can be.

I greatly enjoyed Robin’s book, but unfortunately I have to admit that relatively few people will in general. It is easy enough to see the reason for this from Robin’s introduction. Who would expect to be interested? Possibly those who enjoy the “futurism and science fiction” concerning brain emulations; but if Robin does what he set out to do, those persons will find themselves strangely uninterested. As he says, science fiction is “designed for entertainment, not realism,” while he is attempting to answer the question, “What would this actually be like?” This intention is very remote from the intention of the science fiction, and consequently it will likely appeal to different people.

Whether or not Robin gets the answer to this question right, he definitely succeeds in making his approach and appeal differ from those of science fiction.

One might illustrate this with almost any random passage from the book. Here are portions of his discussion of the climate of em cities:

As we will discuss in Chapter 18, Cities section, em cities are likely to be big, dense, highly cost-effective concentrations of computer and communication hardware. How might such cities interact with their surroundings?

Today, computer and communication hardware is known for being especially temperamental about its environment. Rooms and buildings designed to house such hardware tend to be climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibration, dust, and electromagnetic field intensity. Such equipment housing protects it especially well from fire, flood, and security breaches.

The simple assumption is that, compared with our cities today, em cities will also be more climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibrations, dust, and electromagnetic signals. These controls may in fact become city level utilities. Large sections of cities, and perhaps entire cities, may be covered, perhaps even domed, to control humidity, dust, and vibration, with city utilities working to absorb remaining pollutants. Emissions within cities may also be strictly controlled.

However, an em city may contain temperatures, pressures, vibrations, and chemical concentrations that are toxic to ordinary humans. If so, ordinary humans are excluded from most places in em cities for safety reasons. In addition, we will see in Chapter 18, Transport section, that many em city transport facilities are unlikely to be well matched to the needs of ordinary humans.

Cities today are the roughest known kind of terrain, in the sense that cities slow down the wind the most compared with other terrain types. Cities also tend to be hotter than neighboring areas. For example, Las Vegas is 7 ° Fahrenheit hotter in the summer than are surrounding areas. This hotter city effect makes ozone pollution worse and this effect is stronger for bigger cities, in the summer, at night, with fewer clouds, and with slower wind (Arnfield 2003).

This is a mild reason to expect em cities to be hotter than other areas, especially at night and in the summer. However, as em cities are packed full of computing hardware, we shall now see that em cities will  actually be much hotter.

While the book considers a wide variety of topics, e.g. the social relationships among ems, which look quite different from the above passage, the general mode of treatment is the same. As Robin put it, he uses “standard theories” to describe the em world, much as he employs standard theories about cities, about temperature and climate, and about computing hardware in the above passage.

One might object that basically Robin is positing a particular technological change (brain emulations), but then assuming that everything else is the same, and working from there. And there is some validity to this objection. But in the end there is actually no better way to try to predict the future; despite David Hume’s opinion, generally the best way to estimate the future is to say, “Things will be pretty much the same.”

At the end of the book, Robin describes various criticisms. First are those who simply said they weren’t interested: “If we include those who declined to read my draft, the most common complaint is probably ‘who cares?'” And indeed, that is what I would expect, since as Robin remarked himself, people are interested in an entertaining account of the future, not an attempt at a detailed description of what is likely.

Others, he says, “doubt that one can ever estimate the social consequences of technologies decades in advance.” This is basically the objection I mentioned above.

He lists one objection that I am partly in agreement with:

Many doubt that brain emulations will be our next huge technology change, and aren’t interested in analyses of the consequences of any big change except the one they personally consider most likely or interesting. Many of these people expect traditional artificial intelligence, that is, hand-coded software, to achieve broad human level abilities before brain emulations appear. I think that past rates of progress in coding smart software suggest that at previous rates it will take two to four centuries to achieve broad human level abilities via this route. These critics often point to exciting recent developments, such as advances in “deep learning,” that they think make prior trends irrelevant.

I don’t think Robin is necessarily mistaken in regard to his expectations about “traditional artificial intelligence,” although he may be, and I don’t find myself uninterested by default in things that I don’t think the most likely. But I do think that traditional artificial intelligence is more likely than his scenario of brain emulations; more on this below.

There are two other likely objections that Robin does not include in this list, although he does touch on them elsewhere. First, people are likely to say that the creation of ems would be immoral, even if it is possible, and similarly that the kinds of habits and lives that he describes would themselves be immoral. On the one hand, this should not be a criticism at all, since Robin can respond that he is simply describing what he thinks is likely, not saying whether it should happen or not; on the other hand, it is in fact obvious that Robin does not have much disapproval, if any, of his scenario. The book ends in fact by calling attention to this objection:

The analysis in this book suggests that lives in the next great era may be as different from our lives as our lives are from farmers’ lives, or farmers’ lives are from foragers’ lives. Many readers of this book, living industrial era lives and sharing industrial era values, may be disturbed to see a forecast of em era descendants with choices and life styles that appear to reject many of the values that they hold dear. Such readers may be tempted to fight to prevent the em future, perhaps preferring a continuation of the industrial era. Such readers may be correct that rejecting the em future holds them true to their core values.

But I advise such readers to first try hard to see this new era in some detail from the point of view of its typical residents. See what they enjoy and what fills them with pride, and listen to their criticisms of your era and values. This book has been designed in part to assist you in such a soul-searching examination. If after reading this book, you still feel compelled to disown your em descendants, I cannot say you are wrong. My job, first and foremost, has been to help you see your descendants clearly, warts and all.

Our own discussions of the flexibility of human morality are relevant. The creatures Robin is describing are in many ways quite different from humans, and it is in fact very appropriate for their morality to differ from human morality.

A second likely objection is that Robin’s ems are simply impossible, on account of the nature of the human mind. I think that this objection is mistaken, but I will leave the details of this explanation for another time. Robin appears to agree with Sean Carroll about the nature of the mind, as can be seen for example in this post. Robin is mistaken about this, for the reasons suggested in my discussion of Carroll’s position. Part of the problem is that Robin does not seem to understand the alternative. Here is a passage from the linked post on Overcoming Bias:

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

“I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.”

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

There is a false dichotomy here, and it is the same one that C.S. Lewis falls into when he says, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” And in general it is like the error of the pre-Socratics, that if a thing has some principles which seem sufficient, it can have no other principles, failing to see that there are several kinds of cause, and each can be complete in its own way. And perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, since I said this discussion would be for later, but the objection that Robin’s scenario is impossible is mistaken in exactly the same way, and for the same reason: people believe that if a “materialistic” explanation could be given of human behavior in the way that Robin describes, then people do not truly reason, make choices, and so on. But this is simply to adopt the other side of the false dichotomy, much like C.S. Lewis rejects the possibility of causes for our beliefs.

One final point. I mentioned above that I see Robin’s scenario as less plausible than traditional artificial intelligence. I agree with Tyler Cowen in this post. This present post is already long enough, so again I will leave a detailed explanation for another time, but I will remark that Robin and I have a bet on the question.

Pope Antiochus Epiphanes

The first book of Maccabees tells the history of Antiochus Epiphanes:

From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus; he had been a hostage in Rome. He began to reign in the one hundred thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks.

In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

This led to the persecution discussed in the last past.

It is not difficult to find analogies with the Jewish attitude described there, that one should not depart from one’s traditions in any detail, neither to the right nor to the left. This compares pretty well, for example, with the attitudes of many Catholic traditionalists today. Simply consider this post the other day by Steve Skojec:

OnePeterFive exists because we have a vision for the Church. It is a vision not of our own making, but one that has been inherited from our forebears in the Faith. We look back over the continuity of 20 centuries. We observe the struggles, the heartache, even the martyrdom — but also the accomplishments, the civilization-building prowess, the glory and honor of Christendom. Our motto here seems simple, but it entails a great deal. How do we “rebuild Catholic Culture and restore Catholic Tradition?”

One painstaking day at a time.

We confront what is happening in the Church because we know this is not how it should be. We know, by reviewing times past, what the Church could be again. Catholicism is the greatest thing that has ever happened to the world — first and foremost, through the unique and exclusive salvific graces Our Holy Mother Church provides to mankind — but also through her influences on art, music, law, governance, science, education, and everything that makes civilization possible. And we know that the Church can be — that it will be — the guiding force of the world again.

Every day, we get up and ask God for help and guidance in this overwhelming task. We brace ourselves as we survey the devastated visage of this crowning achievement of human history. We look for the evil lurking in the shadows, and we shine the light. We look for the good that is, or was, and we begin the process of restoration and recovery.

We do this work because we love the Catholic Church, and we want to see it made great again. Because we believe that nothing is more important than returning the Church’s focus to her most important mission: the salvation of souls — knowing that all these other things will flow naturally from the first.

There are some differences, of course. The purposes seem to be different, insofar as Steve says that the purpose is “the salvation of souls,” while Mattathias says that the purpose is to “live by the covenant of our ancestors.” And Steve is interested in restoration and rebuilding, while Mattathias wants to preserve what is already present, or at least was recently present, in his community. But the fundamental orientation is the same: it is such and such a concrete culture, as a whole and in every detail, that must be preserved, or if no longer present, restored. One should depart from that culture neither to the right nor to the left.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium discusses his intentions:

25. I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be “permanently in a state of mission”.

26. Paul VI invited us to deepen the call to renewal and to make it clear that renewal does not only concern individuals but the entire Church. Let us return to a memorable text which continues to challenge us. “The Church must look with penetrating eyes within herself, ponder the mystery of her own being… This vivid and lively self-awareness inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged her and loved her as his holy and spotless bride (cf. Eph 5:27), and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today… This is the source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar, Christ, points out to her and condemns”. The Second Vatican Council presented ecclesial conversion as openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling… Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth”.

There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective.

An ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred

27. I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.

If we do not read carefully, and if we were completely ignorant of the conditions of the real world, this could seem pretty consistent with Steve Skojec’s remarks. The Pope wants “renewal,” while Steve wants “rebuilding” and “restoration.” The Pope says that the Church should be faithful to her calling, and it is hard to see Steve disagreeing with that.

Nonetheless, a more careful reading, and knowledge of the real world, leads one rather to say that we have here virtually the most violent opposition possible. Pope Francis in fact more or less foresees the difference between the careless and careful readings when he says, “I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences.”

The basic difference is this: for Steve, renewal would consist in rebuilding and restoring. What Pope Francis wants, as Steve would consider it, would consist in tearing down and destroying. This is made clear most of all when the Pope says that the Church needs an impulse “capable of transforming everything,” in such way that things are “channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her [the Church’s] self-preservation.”

Steve might agree that everything needs to be transformed. But definitely not in the way that the Pope wants it transformed, but rather in the way the Pope rejects in the phrase, “rather than for her self-preservation.”

What does Pope Francis mean by this? It is easy to see that the Pope wants to preserve the existence of the Church, and in fact is proposing a means to accomplish it. Earlier in the text, the Pope says:

Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.

The Church is to be preserved by transforming everything in such a way that it becomes attractive to those outside, who will then enter it for the sake of the joy and the beauty they see. Once again, Steve Skojec might find himself mainly in agreement, but the disagreement is about what kind of transformation is needed. For Steve, we need to rebuild what already was in the past. For the Pope, we have to leave that behind forever. This is actually why he rejects “self-preservation,” even while proposing a means for the Church to preserve itself. His real rejection is a rejection of preserving what was in the past.

The Pope is not wrong that the Church has often been harmed in the past by a “self-preserving” attitude, as for example in the case we discussed concerning the text of St. John. But it does not follow that the Pope’s proposal to “transform everything” is necessarily a good idea either. In any case, we can leave this for another time.

The disagreement at least is clear. Steve wishes to rebuild and restore all that was; the Pope wishes to abandon all of that, and transform everything in a completely new way. This is why I said that there is really the most violent opposition possible here. For the traditionalist, the intentions of Pope Francis are like the intentions of Antiochus Epiphanes in the passage above: the elimination of the previously existing culture and its replacement with something new.

The natural consequence of this situation is this kind of talk about persecution.

We Didn’t Really Mean It

The Holy Office later published an interpretation of its 1897 ruling on the letter of John:

At this response there arose on June 2, 1927, the following declaration, at first given privately by the same Sacred Congregation and afterwards repeated many times, which was made a part of public law in EB n. 121 by authority of the Holy Office itself:
“This decree was passed to check the audacity of private teachers who attributed to themselves the right either of rejecting entirely the authenticity of the Johannine comma, or at least of calling it into question by their own final judgment. But it was not meant at all to prevent Catholic writers from investigating the subject more fully and, after weighing the arguments accurately on both sides, with that and temperance which the gravity of the subject requires, from inclining toward an opinion in opposition to its authenticity, provided they professed that they were ready to abide by the judgment of the Church, to which the duty was delegated by Jesus Christ not only of interpreting Holy Scripture but also of guarding it faithfully.”

It seems reasonable to take this more or less at face value. However, it is not really an interpretation of the meaning of the earlier ruling, but rather of its motive, and one that basically undercuts the original ruling.

Why was it necessary for this interpretation to be given privately “many times” before it was published? The original ruling essentially said that one could not even call the authenticity of the text into question. This would leave people who desired to be obedient to the ruling with no alternative but to firmly assert the authenticity of the text. Since many Catholic scholars could see that this went against the facts in manifest ways, there were consequently many who appealed in private for an interpretation which would permit them to question the authenticity of the text.

Even if we accept the basic honesty of the explanation, however, the original ruling exists in a broader context, of which the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement on Genesis is one example, which suggests a more general idea: the “audacity of private teachers” is doing damage to the Church, and therefore such audacity must be repressed. Regardless of whether repression was the correct response, the first part was true: damage was indeed being done. Audacity however was no necessary part of this process, since seeking the truth would do just as well.

Truth and Culture

Just as progress in technology causes a declining culture, so also progress in truth.

This might seem a surprising assertion, but some thought will reveal that it must be so. Just as cultural practices are intertwined with the existing conditions of technology, so also such practices are bound up with explicit and implicit claims about the world, about morality, about human society, and so on. Progress in truth will sometimes confirm these claims even more strongly, but this will merely leave the culture approximately as it stands. But there will also be times when progress in truth will weaken these claims, or even show them to be false. This will necessarily strike a blow against the existing culture, damaging it much as changes in technology do.

Consider our discussion of the Maccabees. As I said there, Mattathias seems to suggest that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is bad for anyone, not only for the Jews. This is quite credible in the case in the particular scenario there considered, where people are being compelled by force to give up their customs and their religion. But consider the situation where the simple progress of truth causes one to revise or abandon various religious claims, as in the case we discussed concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If any of these claims are bound up with one’s culture and religious practices, this progress will necessarily damage the currently existing culture. In the case of the Maccabees, they have the fairly realistic choice to refuse to obey the orders of the king. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have any corresponding realistic choice to insist that the world really did end in 1914. So the Jews could avoid the threatened damage, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot.

Someone might respond, “That’s too bad for people who believe in false religions. Okay, so the progress of truth will inevitably damage or destroy their religious and cultural practices. But my religion is true, and so it is immune to such effects.”

It is evident that your religion might true in the sense defined in the linked post without being immune to such effects. More remarkably, however, your religion might be true in a much more robust sense, and yet still not possess such an immunity.

Consider the case in the last post regarding the Comma. We might suppose that this is merely a technical academic question that has no relevance for real life. But this is not true: the text from John was read, including the Trinitarian reference, in the traditional liturgy, as for example on Low Sunday. Liturgical rites are a part of culture and a part of people’s real life. So the question is definitely relevant to real life.

We might respond that the technical academic question does not have to affect the liturgy. We can just keep doing what we were doing before. And therefore the progress of truth will not do any damage to the existing liturgical rite.

I am quite sympathetic to this point of view, but it is not really true that no damage is done even when we adopt this mode of proceeding. The text is read after the announcement, “A reading from a letter of the blessed John the Apostle,” and thus there is at least an implicit assertion that the text comes from St. John, or at any rate the liturgical rite is related to this implicit assertion. Now we might say that it is not the business of liturgical rites to make technical academic assertions. And this may be so, but the point is related to what I said at the beginning of this post: cultural practices, and liturgical rites as one example of them, are bound up with implicit or explicit claims about the world, and we are here discussing one example of such an intertwining.

And this damage inflicted on the liturgical rite by the discovery of the truth of the matter cannot be avoided, whether or not we change the rite. The Catholic Church did in fact change the rite (and the official version of the Vulgate), and no longer includes the Trinitarian reference. And so the liturgical rite was in fact damaged. But even if we leave the practice the same, as suggested above, it may be that less damage will be done, but damage will still be done. As I conceded here, a celebration or a liturgical rite will become less meaningful if one believes in it less. In the current discussion about the text of John, we are not talking about a wholesale disbelief, but simply about the admission that the Trinitarian reference is not an actual part of John’s text. This will necessarily make the rite less meaningful, although in a very minor way.

This is why I stated above that the principle under discussion is general, and would apply even in the case of a religion which is true in a fairly robust sense: even minor inaccuracies in the implicit assumptions of one’s religious practices will mean that the discovery of the truth of the matter in those cases will be damaging to one’s religious culture, if only in minor ways.

All of this generalizes in obvious ways to all sorts of cultural practices, not only to religious practices. It might seem odd to talk about a “discovery” that slavery is wrong, but insofar as there was such a discovery, it was damaging to the culture of the Confederacy before the Civil War.

Someone will object. Slavery is actually bad, so banning it only makes things better, and in no way makes them worse. But this is not true: taking away something bad can certainly makes things worse in various ways. For example, if a slaver owner is suddenly forced to release his slaves, he might be forced to close his business, which means that his customers will no longer receive service.

Not relevant, our objector will respond. Sure, there might be some inconveniences that result from releasing the slaves. But slavery is really bad, and once we’ve freed the slaves we can build a better world without it. The slave owner can start a new business that doesn’t depend on slavery, and things will end up better.

It is easy to see that insofar as there is any truth in the objections, all of it can be applied in other cases, as in the case of liturgical rites we have discussed above, and not only to moral matters. Falsity is also a bad thing, and if we remove it, there “might be some inconveniences,” but just as we have cleared the way for the slave owner to do something better, so we have cleared the way for the formation of liturgical rites which are more fully rooted in the truth. We can build a better world that is not associated with the false idea about the text of John, and things will end up better.

I have my reservations. But the objector is not entirely wrong, and one who wishes to think through this line of argument might also begin to respond to these questions raised earlier.

Questions on Culture

The conclusion of the last post raises at least three questions, and perhaps others.

First, something still seems wrong or at least incomplete with the picture presented. It is one thing to suppose that things can tend to improve. It is another to suppose that they can get constantly worse. You can count to higher and higher numbers; but you cannot count down forever, because you reach a lower limit. In the same way, insofar as culture seems a necessary part of human life, there seems to be a limit on on how degraded a culture could become. So if there is a constant tendency towards the decline of culture, we should have already reached the lower limit.

Second, if one looks at history over longer time scales, it seems obvious that there are also large cultural improvements, as in the history of art and so on. It is not clear how this can happen if there is a constant tendency towards decline.

Third, we argued earlier that the world overall tends to be successful in the sense defined here. The conclusion of the last past seems to call this into question, at least in the sense that we cannot be sure: if things are improving in some ways, and getting worse in others, then it remains unclear whether things are overall getting better or worse. Or perhaps things are just staying the same overall.

It may be some time before I respond to these questions, so for now I will simply point out that their answers will evidently be related to one another.