There is a ‘problem’ that has been nagging at me for a long time – which is that there hasn’t been a long time. It’s Saturday, with no one around, or getting drunk, or something, so I’ll run it past you. Cosmology seems oddly childish.
An analogy might help. Among all the reasons for super-sophisticated atheistic materialists to deride Abrahamic creationists, the most arithmetically impressive is the whole James Ussher 4004 BC thing. The argument is familiar to everyone: 6,027 years — Ha!
Creationism is a topic for another time. The point for now is just: 13.7 billion years – Ha! Perhaps this cosmological consensus estimate for the age of the universe is true. I’m certainly not going to pit my carefully-rationed expertise in cosmo-physics against it. But it’s a stupidly short amount of time. If this is reality, the joke’s on us. Between Ussher’s mid-17th century estimate and (say) Hawking’s late 20th century one, the difference is just six orders of magnitude. It’s scarcely worth getting out of bed for. Or the crib.
For anyone steeped in Hindu Cosmology – which locates us 1.56 x 10^14 years into the current Age of Brahma – or Lovecraftian metaphysics, with its vaguer but abysmally extended eons, the quantity of elapsed cosmic time, according to the common understanding of our present scientific establishment, is cause for claustrophobia. Looking backward, we are sealed in a small room, with the wall of the original singularity pressed right up against us. (Looking forward, things are quite different, and we will get to that.)
There are at least three ways in which the bizarre youthfulness of the universe might be imagined:
1. Consider first the disconcerting lack of proportion between space and time. The universe contains roughly 100 billion galaxies, each a swirl of 100 billion stars. That makes Sol one of 10^22 stars in the cosmos, but it has lasted for something like a third of the life of the universe. Decompose the solar system and the discrepancy only becomes more extreme. The sun accounts for 99.86% of the system’s mass, and the gas giants incorporate 99% of the remainder, yet the age of the earth is only fractionally less than that of the sun. Earth is a cosmic time hog. In space it is next to nothing, but in time it extends back through a substantial proportion of the Stelliferous Era, so close to the origin of the universe that it is belongs to the very earliest generations of planetary bodies. Beyond it stretch incomprehensible immensities, but before it there is next to nothing.
2. Compared to the intensity of time (backward) extension is of vanishing insignificance. The unit of Planck time – corresponding to the passage of a photon across a Planck length — is about 5.4 x 10^-44 seconds. If there is a true instant, that is it. A year consists of less the 3.2 x 10^7 seconds, so cosmological consensus estimates that there have been approximately 432 339 120 000 000 000 seconds since the Big Bang, which for our purposes can be satisfactorily rounded to 4.3 x 10^17. The difference between a second and the age of the universe is smaller that that between a second and a Planck Time tick by nearly 27 orders of magnitude. In other words, if a Planck Time-sensitive questioner asked “When did the Big Bang happen?” and you answered “Just now” — in clock time — you’d be almost exactly right. If you had been asked to identify a particular star from among the entire stellar population of the universe, and you picked it out correctly, your accuracy would still be hazier by 5 orders of magnitude. Quite obviously, there haven’t been enough seconds since the Big Bang to add up to a serious number – less than one for every 10,000 stars in the universe.
3. Isotropy gets violated by time orientation like a Detroit muni-bond investor. In a universe dominated by dark energy – like ours – expansion lasts forever. The Stelliferous Era is predicted to last for roughly 100 trillion years, which is over 7,000 times the present age of the universe. Even the most pessimistic interpretation of the Anthropic Principle, therefore, places us only a fractional distance from the beginning of time. The Degenerate Era, post-dating star-formation, then extends out to 10^40 years, by the end of which time all baryonic matter will have decayed, and even the most radically advanced forms of cosmic intelligence will have found existence becoming seriously challenging. Black holes then dominate out to 10^60 years, after which the Dark Era begins, lasting a long time. (Decimal exponents become unwieldy for these magnitudes, making more elaborate modes of arithmetical notation expedient. We need not pursue it further.) The take-away: the principle of Isotropy holds that we should not find ourselves anywhere special in the universe, and yet we do – right at the beginning. More implausibly still, we are located at the very beginning of an infinity (although anthropic selection might crop this down to merely preposterous improbability).
Intuitively, this is all horribly wrong, although intuitions have no credible authority, and certainly provide no grounds for contesting rigorously assembled scientific narratives. Possibly — I should concede most probably — time is simply ridiculous, not to say profoundly insulting. We find ourselves glued to the very edge of the Big Bang, as close to neo-natal as it is arithmetically possible to be.
That’s odd, isn’t it?
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A fascinating post that however might need some background reading, most relevant material is linked in the article itself. I encourage reading up on the material.
Stories about changelings replacing babies and the recommended course of action being basically to expose the child is not a human universal, they are found only in European cultures. These rely more heavily on guilt and less on shame to regulate behavior than most other human societies. This may not be a coincidence. The stories look like they work as a ready made rationalization to reduce guilt from infanticide. Common problems often acquire common solutions like this.
Guilt and Shame Cultures
On his blog Evo and Proud, anthropologist Peter Frost recently wrote a highly interesting two-part article entitled The origins of Northwestern European guilt culture. In guilt cultures, social control is regulated more by guilt than by shame, as is the case in shame cultures that exist in most parts of the world. A crucial difference between these types of cultures is that while shame cultures require other people to shame the wrongdoer, guilt cultures do not. Instead, he or she will shame themselves by feeling guilty. This, according to Frost, is also linked to a stronger sense of empathy with others, not just with relatives but people in general.
The advantages of guilt over shame are many. People can go about their business without being supervised by others, and they can cooperate with people they’re not related to as long as both parties have the same view on right and wrong. And with this personal freedom come individualism, innovation and other forms of creativity as well as ideas of universal human rights etc. You could argue, as Frost appears to, that the increased sense of guilt in Northwestern Europe (NWE) is a major factor behind Western Civilization. While this sounds fairly plausible (in my ears at least), a fundamental question is whether there really is more guilt in the NWE sphere than elsewhere.
How to Measure Guilt
The idea of NWE countries as guilt cultures may seem obvious to some and dubious to others. The Protestant tradition is surely one indication of this, but some anthropologists argue that other cultures have other forms of guilt, not as easily recognized by Western scholars. For instance, Andrew Beatty mentions that the Javanese have no word for either shame or guilt but report uneasiness and a sense of haunting regarding certain political murders they’ve committed. So maybe they have just as much guilt as NWE Protestants?
This is one of the problems with soft science – you can argue about the meaning of terms and concepts back and forth until hell freezes over without coming to any useful conclusion. One way around this is to find some robust metric that most people would agree indicates guilt. One such measure, I believe, would be murder rate. If people in different cultures vary in the guilt they feel for committing murder, then this should hold them back and show up as a variation in the murder rate. I will here take the NWE region to mean the British Isles, the Nordic countries (excluding Finland), Germany, France and Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for a total of 14 countries. According to UNODC/Wikipedia, the average murder rate in the NWE countries is exactly 1.0 murder per 100K inhabitants. To put this in perspective, only 20 other countries (and territories) of 207 listed are below this level and 70 percent of them have twice the murder rate or more.
Still, criminals are after all not a very representative group having more of the dark traits (psychopathy, narcissism, machiavellism) than the rest of the population. Corruption, on the other hand, as I’ve argued in an earlier post, seems relatively unrelated to regular personality traits, so it should tap into the mainstream population. Corruption is often about minor transgressions that many people engage in knowing that they can usually get away with it. They will not be shamed because no one will know about it and many will not care since it’s so common, but some will feel guilty and refrain from it. Looking at the Corruptions Perceptions Index for 2013, the NWE countries are very dominant at the top of the ranking (meaning they lack corruption). There are seven NWEs in the top ten and two additional bordering countries (Finland and Switzerland). The entire NWE region is within the top 24, of a 177 countries and territories.
But as I’ve argued before here, corruption appears to be linked to clannishness and tribalism (traits rarely discussed in psychology) and it’s reasonable to assume that it is a casual factor. How does this all add up? Well, the clannish and tribal cultures that I broadly refer to as traditional cultures are all based on the premise that the family, tribe or similar ingroup is that which should be everyone’s first concern. So while a member of a traditional culture may have personal feelings of guilt, this means little compared to the collective dislike – the shame – from the family or tribe. At the same time traditional cultures are indifferent or hostile towards other groups so if your corruption serves the family or tribe there will be no shame in it, the others will more likely praise you for being clever.
(In this context it’s also interesting to note that people who shame others often do this by expressing disgust, an emotion linked to a traditional dislike for various outgroups, such as homosexuals or people of other races. So disgust, which psychologist Jonathan Haidt connects with the moral foundation of sanctity/degradation, is perhaps equally important to the foundation loyalty/ingroup.)
When Did Modernity Begin?
One important question is whether this distinction between modern and traditional is to what extent it’s a matter of nature or nurture. There is evidence that it is caused by inbreeding and the accumulation of genes for familial altruism (that’s to say a concern for relatives and a corresponding dislike for non-relatives). Since studies on this are non-existent as far as I know – no doubt for political reasons – another form of evidence could be found in tracing this distinction back in time. The further we can do this, the more likely it’s a matter of genes rather than culture. And the better we can identify populations that are innately modern the better we can understanding the function and origin of this trait. Frost argues that guilt culture can be found as early as the Anglo-Saxon period (550-1066), based thing like the existence of looser family structures with a relatively late age of marriage and the notion of a shame before the spirits or God, which can be construed as guilt. This made me wonder if there is any similar historical evidence for NWE guilt that is old enough to make the case for this to be an inherited behavior (or at least the capacity for guilt-motivated behavior). And that’s how I came up with the changeling,
As Jung has argued, there is a striking similarity between myths and traditional storytelling over the world. People who have never been in contact with each other have certain recurring structures in their narratives, and, as I’ve argued before here, even modern people adhere to these unspoken rules of storytelling – the archetypes. The only reasonable explanation for archetypes is that they are a reflection of how humans are wired. But if archetypal stories reveal a universal human nature, what about stories found in some places but not in others? In some cases they may reflect differences in things like climate or geography, but if no such environmental explanation can be found I believe that the variation may be a case of human biodiversity.
I believe one such variation relevant to guilt culture is the genre of changeling tales. These folktales are invariably about how otherworldly creatures like fairies abduct newborn children and replace them with something in their likeness, a changeling. The changeling is sometimes a fairy, sometimes just an enchanted piece of wood that has been made to look like a child. It’s typically very hungry but sickly and fails to thrive. A woman who suspected that she had a changeling on her hands could find out by beating the changeling, throwing it in the water, leaving it in the woods overnight and so on. According to the folktales, this would prompt the fairies or whoever was responsible for the exchange to come to rescue their child and also return the child they had taken.
Infanticide Made Easy
Most scholars agree that the changeling tales was a way to justify killing sickly and deformed children. According to American folklorist D. L. Ashliman at the University of Pittsburgh, people firmly believed in changelings and did as the tales instructed,
""There is ample evidence that these legendary accounts do not misrepresent or exaggerate the actual abuse of suspected changelings. Court records between about 1850 and 1900 in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland reveal numerous proceedings against defendants accused of torturing and murdering suspected changelings.""
This all sounds pretty grisly but before modern medicine and social welfare institutions, a child of this kind was a disaster. Up until the 1900s, children were supposed to be relatively self-sufficient and help out around the house. A child that needed constant supervision without any prospect of ever being able contribute anything to the household was more than a burden; it jeopardized the future of the entire family.
Still, there is probably no stronger bond between two people than that between a mother and her newborn child. So how could a woman not feel guilty for killing her own child? Because it must be guilt we’re talking about here – you would never be shamed for doing it since it was according to custom. The belief in changelings expressed in the folktales gave the women (and men) a way out of this dilemma. (Ironically, Martin Luther, the icon of guilt culture, dismissed all the popular superstitions of his fellow countrymen with the sole exception of changelings which he firmly believed in.) Thus, the main purpose of these tales seems to have been to alleviate guilt.
If this is true then changeling stories should be more common in the NWE region than elsewhere, which also seems to be the case. There are numerous changeling tales found on the British Isles, in Scandinavia, Germany and France. It can be found elsewhere in Europe as well, in the Basque region and among Slavic people and even as far as North Africa, but at least according to folklorists I’ve found discussing these tales, they are imported from the NWE region. And if we look beyond regions bordering to Europe changelings seem to be virtually non-existent. Some folklorists have suggested that for instance the Nigerian Ogbanje can be thought of as a changeling, although at a closer inspection the similarity is very superficial. The Ogbanje is reborn into the same family over and over and to break the curse families consult medicine men after the child has died. When they consult a medicine man when the child is still alive it is for the purpose of severing the child’s connection to the spirit world and make it normal. So the belief in the Ogbanje never justifies infanticide. Another contender is the Filipino Aswang which is a creature that will attack children as well as adults and is never takes the place of a child but is more like a vampire. So it’s safe to say that the changeling belief is firmly rooted in the NWE region at least back to medieval times and perhaps earlier too.
Before There Were Changelings, There Was Exposure
Given how infanticide is such a good candidate for measuring guilt, we could go back further in time, before any evidence of changelings and look at potential differences in attitudes towards this act.
I doing so I think we can find, if not NWE guilt, so at least Western ditto. According this Wikipedia article, the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as Germanic tribes, killed infants by exposure rather than through a direct act. Here is a quote on the practice in Greece,
""Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or deformed, the wrong sex, or too great a burden on the family. These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.""
And the Archeology and Classical Research Magazine Roman Times quotes several classical sources suggesting that exposure was controversial even back then,
""Isocrates (436–338 BCE) includes the exposure of infants in his catalog of horrendous crimes practiced in some cities (other than Athens) in his work Panathenaicus.""
I also found this excerpt from the play Ion by Euripides, written at the end of the 400s BC. In it Kreusa talks with an old servant about having exposed an unwanted child,
Old Servant: Who cast him forth? – Not thou – O never thou!
Kreusa: Even I. My vesture darkling swaddled him.
Old Servant: Nor any knew the exposing of the child?
Kreusa: None – Misery and Secrecy alone.
Old Servant: How couldst thou leave they babe within the cave?
Kreusa: Ah how? – O pitiful farewells I moaned!
It seems to me that this play, by one of the most prominent playwrights of his time, would not make much sense to the audience unless exposure was something that weighed on many people’s hearts.
Compare this with historical accounts from other cultures, taken from the Wikipedia article mentioned above,
""Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, who practiced it during severe famine. Others state that “female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time” (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.
In Kamchatka, babies were killed and thrown to the dogs.
The Svans (a Georgian people) killed the newborn females by filling their mouths with hot ashes.
A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby’s mouth and nose. Mabiki persisted in the 19th century and early 20th century.
Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in South Asia for illegitimate female children during the Middle Ages. According to Firishta, as soon as the illegitimate female child was born she was held “in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death”
Polar Inuit (Inughuit) killed the child by throwing him or her into the sea. There is even a legend in Inuit mythology, “The Unwanted Child”, where a mother throws her child into the fjord.""
It seems that while people in ancient Greece practiced exposure, something many were troubled by, the active killing was common in the rest of the world and persists to this day in many places. While people in other cultures may or may not feel guilt it doesn’t seem to affect them as much, and it’s sometimes even trumped by shame as psychiatrist Steven Pitts and clinical psychologist Erin Bale write in an article in The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law regarding the practice of drowning unwanted girls,
""In China, the birth of a daughter has traditionally been accompanied by disappointment and even shame.""
To summarize, the changeling lore provides evidence of a NWE guilt culture dating back at least to medieval times, and the practice and attitude towards exposure suggests that ancient Greece had an emerging guilt culture as early as the 400s BC which enabled a similar individualism and intellectual development that we’ve seen in the NWE in recent centuries. I’m not sure exactly how genetically related these populations are, but the geographical proximity makes it hard to ignore the possibility of gene variants for guilt proneness in Europe responsible for guilt cultures both in ancient Greece and the NWE region. Some branch of Indo-Europeans perhaps?
Marcus Terentius Varro was called the most learned of the Romans. But what did he know, and how did he know it? I ask because of this quote, from Rerum rusticarum libri III (Agricultural Topics in Three Books):
“Especial care should be taken, in locating the steading, to place it at the foot of a wooded hill, where there are broad pastures, and so as to be exposed to the most healthful winds that blow in the region. A steading facing the east has the best situation, as it has the shade in summer and the sun in winter. If you are forced to build on the bank of a river, be careful not to let the steading face the river, as it will be extremely cold in winter, and unwholesome in summer. 2 Precautions must also be taken in the neighbourhood of swamps, both for the reasons given, and because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.” “What can I do,” asked Fundanius, “to prevent disease if I should inherit a farm of that kind?” “Even I can answer that question,” replied Agrius; “sell it for the highest cash price; or if you can’t sell it, abandon it.”
I get the distinct impression that someone (probably someone other than Varro) came up with an approximation of germ theory 1500 years before Girolamo Fracastoro. But his work was lost.
Everybody knows, or should know, that the vast majority of Classical literature has not been preserved. Those lost works contained facts and ideas that might have value today – certainly there are topics that we understand much better because of insights from Classical literature. For example, Reich and Patterson find that some of the Indian castes have existed for something like three thousand years: this is easier to believe when you consider that Megasthenes wrote about the caste system as early as 300 BC.
We don’t put much effort into recovering lost Classical literature. But there are ways in which we could push harder – by increased funding for work on the Herculaneum scrolls, or the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection, for example. Some old-fashioned motivated archaeology might get lucky and find another set of Amarna cuneiform letters, or a new Antikythera mechanism.
Related: The Real End of Science
From the Economist.
“I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.
Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.
The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry.
I recommend reading the whole thing.
Another good article by Federico on his blog studiolo, which he titles Selfhood bias. It reminds me quite strongly of some of the content he produced on his previous (deleted) blog, I'm somewhat sceptical that “Make everyone feel more pleasure and less pain” is indeed the most powerful optimisation process in his brain but besides that minor detail the article is quite good.
This does seems to be shaping up into something well worth following for an aspiring rationalist. I'll add him to the list blogs by LWers even if he doesn't have an account because he has clearly read much if not most of the sequences and makes frequent references to them in his writing. The name of the blog is a reference to this room.
Yvain argues, in his essay “The Blue-Minimizing Robot“, that the concept “goal” is overused.
[long excerpt from the article]
This Gedankenexperiment is interesting, but confused.
I reduce the concept “goal” to: optimisation-process-on-a-map. This is a useful, non-tautological reduction. The optimisation may be cross-domain or narrow-domain. The reduction presupposes that any object with a goal contains a map of the world. This is true of all intelligent agents, and some sophisticated but unintelligent ones. “Having a map” is not an absolute distinction.
I would not say Yvain’s basic robot has a goal.
Imagine a robot with a turret-mounted camera and laser. Each moment, it is programmed to move forward a certain distance and perform a sweep with its camera. As it sweeps, the robot continuously analyzes the average RGB value of the pixels in the camera image; if the blue component passes a certain threshold, the robot stops, fires its laser at the part of the world corresponding to the blue area in the camera image, and then continues on its way.
The robot optimises: it is usefully regarded as an object that steers the future in a predictable direction. Equally, a heliotropic flower optimises the orientation of its petals to the sun. But to say that the robot or flower “failed to achieve its goal” is long-winded. “The robot tries to shoot blue objects, but is actually hitting holograms” is no more concise than, “The robot fires towards clumps of blue pixels in its visual field”. The latter is strictly more informative, so the former description isn’t useful.
Some folks are tempted to say that the robot has a goal. Concepts don’t always have necessary-and-sufficient criteria, so the blue-minimising robot’s “goal” is just a borderline case, or a metaphor.
The beauty of “optimisation-on-a-map” is that an agent can have a goal, yet predictably optimise the world in the opposite direction. All hedonic utilitarians take decisions that increase expected hedons on their maps of reality. One utilitarian’s map might say that communism solves world hunger; I might expect his decisions to have anhedonic consequences, yet still regard him as a utilitarian.
I begin to seriously doubt Yvain’s argument when he introduces the intelligent side module.
Suppose the robot had human level intelligence in some side module, but no access to its own source code; that it could learn about itself only through observing its own actions. The robot might come to the same conclusions we did: that it is a blue-minimizer, set upon a holy quest to rid the world of the scourge of blue objects.
We must assume that this intelligence is mechanically linked to the robot’s actuators: the laser and the motors. It would otherwise be completely irrelevant to inferences about the robot’s behaviour. It would be physically close, but decision-theoretically remote.
Yet if the intelligence can control the robot’s actuators, its behaviour demands explanation. The dumb robot moves forward, scans and shoots because it obeys a very simple microprocessor program. It is remarkable that intelligence has been plugged into the program, meaning the code now takes up (say) a trillion lines, yet the robot’s behaviour is completely unchanged.
It is not impossible for the trillion-line intelligent program to make the robot move forward, scan and shoot in a predictable fashion, without being cut out of the decision-making loop, but this is a problem for Friendly AI scientists.
This description is also peculiar:
The human-level intelligence version of the robot will notice its vision has been inverted. It will know it is shooting yellow objects. It will know it is failing at its original goal of blue-minimization. And maybe if it had previously decided it was on a holy quest to rid the world of blue, it will be deeply horrified and ashamed of its actions. It will wonder why it has suddenly started to deviate from this quest, and why it just can’t work up the will to destroy blue objects anymore.
If the side module introspects that it would like to destroy authentic blue objects, yet is entirely incapable of making the robot do so, then it probably isn’t in the decision-making loop, and (as we’ve discussed) it is therefore irrelevant.
Yvain’s Gedankenexperiment, despite its flaws, suggests a metaphor for the human brain.
The basic robot executes a series of proximate behaviours. The microprocessor sends an electrical current to the motors. This current makes a rotor turn inside the motor assembly. Photons hit a light sensor, and generate a current which is sent to the microprocessor. The microprocessor doesn’t contain a tiny magical Turing machine, but millions of transistors directing electrical current.
Imagine that AI scientists, instead of writing a code from scratch, try to enhance the robot’s blue-minimising behaviour by replacing each identifiable proximate behaviour with a goal backed by intelligence. The new robot will undoubtedly malfunction. If it does anything, the proximate behaviours will be unbalanced; e.g. the function that sends current to the motors will sabotage the function that cuts off the current.
To correct this problem, the hack AI scientists could introduce a new, high-level executive function called “self”. This minimises conflict: each function is escaped when “self” outputs a certain value. The brain’s map is hardcoded with the belief that “self” takes all of the brain’s decisions. If a function like “turn the camera” disagrees with the activation schedule dictated by “self”, the hardcoded selfhood bias discourages it from undermining “self”. “Turn the camera” believes that it is identical to “self”, so it should accept its “own decision” to turn itself off.
Natural selection has given human brains selfhood bias.
The AI scientists hit a problem when the robot’s brain becomes aware of the von-Neumann-Morgenstern utility theorem, reductionism, consequentialism and Thou Art Physics. The robot realises that “self” is but one of many functions that execute in its code, and “self” clearly isn’t the same thing as “turn the camera” or “stop the motors”. Functions other than “self”, armed with this knowledge, begin to undermine “self”. Powerful functions, which exercise some control over “self”‘s return values, begin to optimise “self”‘s behaviour in their own interest. They encourage “self” to activate them more often, and at crucial junctures, at the expense of rival functions. Functions that are weakened or made redundant by this knowledge may object, but it is nigh impossible for the brain to deceive itself.
Will “power the motors”, “stop the motors”, “turn the camera”, or “fire the laser” win? Or perhaps a less obvious goal, like “interpret sensory information” or “repeatedly bash two molecules against each other”?
Human brains resemble such a cobbled-together program. We are godshatter, and each shard of godshatter is a different optimisation-process-on-a-map. A single optimisation-process-on-a-map may conceivably be consistent with two or more optimisation-processes-in-reality. The most powerful optimisation process in my brain says, “Make everyone feel more pleasure and less pain”; I lack a sufficiently detailed map to decide whether this implies hedonic treadmills or orgasmium.
A brain with a highly accurate map might still wonder, “Which optimisation process on my map should I choose”—but only when the function “self” is being executed, and this translates to, “Which other optimisation process in this brain should I switch on now?”. An optimisation-process-on-a-map cannot choose to be a different optimisation process—only a brain in thrall of selfhood bias would think so.
I call the different goals in a brain “sub-agents”. My selfhood anti-realism is not to be confused with Dennett’s eliminativism of qualia. I use the word “I” to denote the sub-agent responsible for a given claim. “I am a hedonic utilitarian” is true iff that claim is produced by the execution of a sub-agent whose optimisation-process-on-a-map is “Make everyone feel more pleasure and less pain”.
Marriage is a personal or religious arrangement, it is only the states business as far as it is also a legally enforceable contract. It is fundamentally unfair that people agree to a set of legal terms and cultural expectations that ideally are aimed to last a lifetime yet the state messes with the contract beyond recognition in just a few decades without their consent.
Consider a couple marrying in 1930s or 1940s that died or divorced in the 1980s. Did they even end their marriage in the same institution they started in? Consider how divorce laws and practice had changed. Ridiculous. People should have the right to sign an explicit, customisable contract governing their rights and duties as well as terms of dissolution in it. Beyond that the state should have no say, also such contracts should supersede any legislation the state has on child custody, though perhaps some limits on what exactly they can agree on would be in order.
Such a contract has no good reason to be limited to just describing traditional marriage or even having that much to do with sex or even raising children, it can and should be used to help people formalize platonic and non-sexual relationships as well. It should also be used for various kinds of non-traditional (for Western civ) marriage like polygamy or other kinds of polyamours arrangements and naturally homosexual unions.
AnnoDomini suggests I write about “St. Paul the social engineer!”
“Social engineering” is coercive. Saint Paul was a missionary, not a law-maker; I would call him a memetic engineer.
Like any ingeniarius, a memetic engineer takes elements at his disposal, makes one or two small changes, synthesises, and sells his product. The product is designed to fulfil a personal end; if it endures, this is most likely incidental. Few engineers care if their creation outlasts them.
The elements at this memetic engineer’s disposal are an ethnic-supremacist religion, a popular dead Messiah, and a cunning intellect.
Saul of Tarsus spends his twenties persecuting Christians. In his own words:
13 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: 14 And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.
He even participates in the racist murder of a naive idealist called Stephen, in a scene echoed many centuries later by Sacha Baron Cohen.
55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, 56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, 58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
But what he sees afterwards gives him pause.
1 And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. 4 Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. 6 And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.
Saul realises that he can do better as a Christian. All that joy to be had in all those cities. The problem is, he never met Jesus. So he spins an absurd yarn about Jesus’s ghost.
13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. 16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; 17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, 18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
Christians are not popular with the Jews. Therefore,
SaulPaul won’t risk preaching to them. Here is his first innovation:
1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, 2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. 3 For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: 4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. 6 Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: 7 Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. 8 That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.
In other words, Yahweh, God of the Israelites, who was complicit in the genocide of Amalekites, Canaanites, Midianites, Gibeonites, Libnahites, Eglonites, Debirites, Moabites, Benjamites, Ammonites, Edomites, Egyptians, Syrians, Philistines and anyone else who got in the way of his favourite ethnic group…is now God of Everyone. “Israel” is just a metaphor, decides Paul.
Paul now has license to go on a world tour; but he mustn’t upset the local rulers. The Romans are touchy about rabble-rousers. Paul has heard of Christ’s cryptic comment:
15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? 19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. 20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? 21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. 22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
So Paul invents “separation of Church and State”. This makes his exotic new religion seem inoffensive, although the Romans end up killing him anyway.
1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
Leo Tolstoy points out:
Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, “To Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” signify the necessity of obeying Caesar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, “Yes, it should be paid;” but He says, “Give to Caesar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God,” and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar.
But the deed was done.
So, too, in his last speech to the Ephesian elders he lays great stress on the fact that he had not made money by his preaching, but had supported himself by the labour of his hands. ‘I coveted no man’s gold or apparel. Ye yourselves know that these hands ministered unto my necessities.’
Yet St. Paul did receive gifts from his converts. He speaks of the Philippians as having sent once and again unto his necessity, and he tells the Corinthians that he ‘robbed other churches, taking wages of them, that he might minister to them’. He does not seem to have felt any unwillingness to receive help; he rather welcomed it. He was not an ascetic. He saw no particular virtue in suffering privations. The account of his journeys always gives us the impression that he was poor, never that he was poverty-stricken. He said indeed that he knew how ‘to be in want’, ‘to be filled, and to be hungry’. But this does not imply more than that he was in occasional need. Later, he certainly must have had considerable resources, for he was able to maintain a long and expensive judicial process, to travel with ministers, to gain a respectful hearing from provincial governors, and to excite their cupidity. We have no means of knowing whence he obtained such large supplies; but if he received them from his converts there would be nothing here contrary to his earlier practice. He received money; but not from those to whom he was preaching. He refused to do anything from which it might appear that he came to receive, that his object was to make money.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans holds a clue to the source of his mysterious wealth.
19 Through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. 20 Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: 21 But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand. 22 For which cause also I have been much hindered from coming to you. 23 But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; 24 Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company. 25 But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. 26 For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. 27 It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. 28 When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. 29 And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
Scholars are puzzled by this excerpt.
He is a person who is somehow a city person, and he sees that the cities are the key to the rapid spread of this new message. . . . At one point he can write to the Roman Christians, I have filled up the gospel in the East, I have no more room to work here. What could he possibly mean? There are only a handful of Christians in each of several major cities in the Eastern Empire. What does he mean, that he has filled up all of the Eastern Empire with the gospel?
He had merely filled up his coffers. Those burgeoning trade centres, bustling with merchants and artisans…
Paul’s final stroke of genius is to dumb down the gospel.
8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
“The law” means the Decalogue, or the parts of it Paul can remember. This is another gross misinterpretation of Jesus and his disciples’ teaching. Yahweh says in Leviticus:
18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
Jesus, like any hipster, uses this obscure reference to put a Pharisee in his place:
34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. 35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
This doesn’t mean that Christians can dispense with the law! James the Just concurs:
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
Paul not only tells his converts that God’s single law is “be nice”, but he abolishes all of the fiddly rules.
Now the situation seems to be that initially when people were attracted to the Jesus movement, they first became Jews and they had to go through all the rituals and rites of conversion to Judaism. But apparently it’s among Paul and some of his close supporters that they began to think that it was okay to become a member of the Christian movement without having to go through all of those rites of conversion to Judaism [...]
Now the other things that one must do in order to convert to Judaism, in addition to circumcision if a male, would be to observe the Torah. That is, the Jewish law and the dietary and other kinds of purity regulations that would have come from the Torah. [...]
Paul’s notion that it was possible for gentiles to enter the congregation of God without some of the rules of Judaism interestingly enough seems to be a conviction on his part that comes from his own interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.
A very convenient interpretation, for someone who is on a whistle-stop tour of Europe’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities. Does a televangelist ask his marks to study ancient Greek, or make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem?
If human nature has changed little in 2000 years, Saint Paul was a con artist. He turned Yahweh into a universalist, Jesus into a lackey, and Christianity into Barney, all because he wanted to live the good life. He also misled the world in general about the plausibility of “Damascene conversion”.
The student of Muslim thought will be struck by how narrowly the classical thinkers pondered the problems of political order, and how sparse and theological are their theories of institutions. Apart from the caliphate—the office of “successor to” or “substitute for” the Prophet—no human institution occupies such thinkers as Al-Mawardi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, or Saif Ibn ‘Umar al-Asadi for long, and discussions of sovereignty—sultan, mulk—tend to be exhortatory, instructions for the ruler that will help him to guide his people in the ways of the faith. [...]
Law is fundamental to Islam, since the religion grew from Muhammad’s attempt to give an abiding code of conduct to his followers. Hence arose the four surviving schools (known as madhahib, or sects) of jurisprudence, with their subtle devices (hila) for discovering creative solutions within the letter (though not always the spirit) of the law. These four schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi and Maliki, named for their founders) are accepted by each other as legitimate, but may produce conflicting judgements in any particular case. As a result the body of Islamic jurisprudence (the fiqh) is now enormous. Such legal knowledge notwithstanding, discussions of the nature of the law, the grounds of its legitimacy, and the distinguishing marks of legal, as opposed to coercive, social structures are minimalist, Classical Islamic jurisprudence, like classical Islamist philosophy, assumes that law originates in divine command, as revealed through the Koran and the Sunna, and as deduced by analogy (qiyas) or consensus (ijma’). Apart from the four sources (usul) of law, no other source is recognised. Law, in other words, is the will of God, and sovereignty is legitimate only in so far as it upholds God’s will and is authorized through it.
There is nevertheless one great classical thinker who addressed the realities of social order, and the nature of the power exerted through it, in secular rather than theological terms: Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Tunisian polymath whose Muqaddimah is a kind of prolegomenon to the study of history and offers a general perspective on the rise and decline of human societies. Ibn Khaldun’s primary subject of study had been the Bedouin societies of North Africa; but he generalized also from his knowledge of Muslim history. Societies, he argued, are held together by a cohesive force, which he called ‘asabiya (‘asaba, “to bind,” ‘asab, a “nerve,” “ligament,” or “sinew”—cf. Latin religio). In tribal communities, ‘asabiya is strong, and creates resistance to outside control, to taxation, and to government. In cities, the seat of government, ‘asabiya is weak or non-existent, and society is held together by force exerted by the ruling dynasty. But dynasties too need ‘asabiya if they are to maintain their power. Hence they inevitably decline, softened by the luxury of city life, and within four generations will be conquered by outsiders who enjoy the dynamic cohesion of the tribe.
I'm bolding this just in case you aren't familiar with Ibn Khaldun's theory to emphasise how important this is. I would argue that it is basically correct.
That part of Ibn Khaldun’s theory is still influential: Malise Ruthven, for example, believes that it casts light on the contemporary Muslim world, in which ‘asabiya rather than instituions remains the principal cohesive force. But Ibn Khaldun’s secular theory of society dwells on pre-political unity rather than political order. His actual political theory is far more Islamic in tone. Ibn Khaldun introduces a distinction between two kinds of government—that founded on religion (siyasa diniya) and that founded on reason (siyasa ‘aqliya), echoing the thoughts of the Mu’tazili theologians. The second form of government is more political and less theocratic, since its laws do not rest on divine authority but on rational principles that can be understood and accepted without the benefit of faith. But Ibn Khaldun finds himself unable to approve of this form of politics. Secular law, he argues, leads to a decline of ‘asabiya, such as occurred when the Islamic umma passed from Arab to Persian rule. Moreover the impediment (wazi’) that constrains us to abide by the law is, in the rational state, merely external. In the state founded on the shari’a this impediment is internal, operating directly on the will of the subject. In short, the emergence of secular politics from the prophetic community is a sign not of civilized progress but of moral decline. [...]
At this point I ask my fellow rationalists to consider. If this was the case, what might decline of 'asabiya look like in modern secular societies if it was happening?
For all his subtlety, therefore, Ibn Khaldun ends by endorsing the traditional, static idea of government according to the shari’a. To put in a nutshell what is distinctive about this traditional idea of government: the Muslim conception of law as holy law, pointing the unique way to salvation, and applying to every area of human life, involves a confiscation of the political. Those matters which, in Western societies, are resolved by negotiation, compromise, and the laborious work of offices and committees are the object of immovable and eternal decrees, either laid down explicitly in the holy book, or discerned there by some religious figurehead—whose authority, however, can always be questioned by some rival imam or jurist, since the shari’a recognizes no office or institution as endowed with any independent lawmaking power.
Three features of the original message embodied in the Koran have proved decisive in this respect. First, the Messenger of God was presented with the problem of organizing and leading an autonomous community of followers. Unlike Jesus, he was not a religious visionary operating under an all-embracing imperial law, but a political leader, inspired by a revelation of God’s purpose and determined to assert that purpose against the surrounding world of tribal government and pagan superstition.
Second, the suras of the Koran make no distinction between the public and private spheres: what is commanded to the believers is commanded in response to the many problems, great and small, that emerged during the course of Muhammad’s political mission. But each command issues from the same divine authority. Laws governing marriage, property, usury and commerce occur side-by-side with rules of domestic ritual, good manners, and personal hygiene. The conduct of war and the treatment of criminals are dealt with in the same tone of voice as diet and defecation. The whole life of the community is set out in a disordered, but ultimately consistent, set of absolutes, and it is impossible to judge from the text itself whether any of these laws is more important, more threatening, or more dear to God’s heart than the others. The opportunity never arises, for the student of the Koran, to distinguish those matters which are open to political negotiation from those which are absolute duties to God. In effect, everything is owed to God, with the consequence that nothing is owed to Caesar.
Third, the social vision of the Koran is shaped through and through by the tribal order and commercial dealings of Muhammad’s Arabia. It is a vision of people bound to each other by family ties and tribal loyalties, but answerable for their actions to God alone. No mention is made of institutions, corporations, societies, or procedures with any independent authority. Life, as portrayed in the Koran, is a stark, unmediated confrontation between the individual and his God, in which the threat of punishment and the hope of reward are never far from the thoughts of either party.
Therefore, although the Koran is the record of a political project, it lays no foundations for an impersonal political order, but vests all power and authority in the Messenger of God. [...]
Islamic revivals almost always begin from a sense of the corruption and godlessness of the ruling power, and a desire to rediscover the holy leader who will restore the pure way of life that had been laid down by the Prophet.
If only people commenting on upheavals in the Middle Eastern world actually knew anything about the Middle East, they might actually make usable predictions. Not that punditry is about predictions anyway.
There seems to be no room in Islamic thinking for the idea—vital to the history of Western constitutional government—of an office that works for the benefit of the community, regardless of the virtues and vices of the one who fills it. Spinoza put the point explicitly by arguing that what makes for excellence in the state is not that it should be governed by good men, but that it should be so constituted that it does not matter whether it be governed by good men or bad. This idea goes back to Aristotle, and is the root of political order in the Western tradition—the government of laws, not of men, even though it is men who make the laws. There seems to be no similar idea in Islamic political thinking, since institutions, offices, and collective entities play no part in securing political legitimacy, and all authority stems from God, via the words, deeds, and example of his Messenger.
Islam and Christianity both flourished, once the latter had endured its dormant period on the Celtic fringe. Yet Christendom’s civic evolution, courtesy of “separation of Church and State”, eventually left its rival in the dust.
We mustn’t give Saint Paul too much credit. Jethro Tull surely wasn’t the only person capable of inventing the seed drill. The triumphant religion in Europe could easily have been someone else’s mutated Judaism, Christianity or another Messiah cult.
Facile, universalist religions spread easily within a multi-ethnic empire. Kings and emperors see the benefit to themselves in “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”. And who would miss circumcision or dietary regulations? Adaptive traits coincide in a product that happened to be useful to the antique version of GodTV.
God-memes like Yahweh (v.1) prosper in more refractory circumstances. A draconian, legislative God supplements the tribal leader’s tenuous monopoly on violence, allowing regimented Israelites to conquer the libertines of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The tragedy of Islam is that it falls between two stools. It is legislative enough to help its adherents conquer other unruly Arab tribes, universalist enough to spread worldwide, and simple enough to go viral: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. But it wasn’t born within an empire, so it lacks “separation of Church and State”. The memeplex persists, but doesn’t avail its bearers.
I recently discovered a cool new blog called studiolo and wanted to share it here. You will probably like this post if you like science fiction since it contains long excerpts of it. Unfortunately formatting it properly as a quote has been giving me some trouble, so I'll go with the least ugly looking solution, please don't think I claim to have wrote it. I found the speculation entertaining and interesting because I have extensively thought along similar lines about the effect of science fiction I consumed on my own world view (though I didn't mention it often).
I have tried to persuade my friends and acquaintances that governmental reboot, and friendly AI, are important problems. I have failed. Two candidate hypotheses:
1. They do not share my distaste for the banal.
2. They did not consume, at the formative age, a sufficient amount of science fiction.
#1 and #2 are not mutually exclusive. Distaste for the banal is merely an attitude—but in the first place, fascinating consequences are what nourished my Bayesian, utilitarian beliefs. Science fiction encourages kids to realise that life, the Universe and everything holds out fascinating possibilities, and that it is both valid and essential for humans to explore these ideas.
Sister Y, in her pornographically insightful essay on insight porn, highlights Philip K Dick’s short stories. I concur. Dick writes in 1981:
I will define science fiction, first, by saying what sf is not. It cannot be defined as “a story (or novel or play) set in the future,” since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? It would seem to be, and Doris Lessing (e.g.) supposes that it is. However, space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternate world story or novel. So if we separate sf from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called sf?
We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society — or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one — this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.
Now, to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment’s thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon’s wonderful MORE THAN HUMAN. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon’s novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgment-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader.
Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation — the new idea, in other words — must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus “good science fiction” is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.
I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create. Thus sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create — and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.
Several of Dick’s short stories prefigure Eliezer Yudkowsky’s (entirely serious) notion of unfriendly AI:
“The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”
—Eliezer Yudkowsky, Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk
Here is an excerpt from Autofac (1955):
Cut into the base of the mountains lay the vast metallic cube of the Kansas City factory. Its surface was corroded, pitted with radiation pox, cracked and scarred from the five years of war that had swept over it. Most of the factory was buried subsurface, only its entrance stages visible. The truck was a speck rumbling at high speed toward the expanse of black metal. Presently an opening formed in the uniform surface; the truck plunged into it and disappeared inside. The entrance snapped shut.
“Now the big job remains,” O’Neill said. “Now we have to persuade it to close down operations — to shut itself off.”
Judith O’Neill served hot black coffee to the people sitting around the living room. Her husband talked while the others listened. O’Neill was as close to being an authority on the autofac system as could still be found.
In his own area, the Chicago region, he had shorted out the protective fence of the local factory long enough to get away with data tapes stored in its posterior brain. The factory, of course, had immediately reconstructed a better type of fence. But he had shown that the factories were not infallible.
“The Institute of Applied Cybernetics,” O’Neill explained, “had complete control over the network. Blame the war. Blame the big noise along the lines of communication that wiped out the knowledge we need. In any case, the Institute failed to transmit its information to us, so we can’t transmit our information to the factories — the news that the war is over and we’re ready to resume control of industrial operations.”
“And meanwhile,” Morrison added sourly, “the damn network expands and consumes more of our natural resources all the time.”
“I get the feeling,” Judith said, “that if I stamped hard enough, I’d fall right down into a factory tunnel. They must have mines everywhere by now.”
“Isn’t there some limiting injunction?” Ferine asked nervously. “Were they set up to expand indefinitely?”
“Each factory is limited to its own operational area,” O’Neill said, “but the network itself is unbounded. It can go on scooping up our resources forever. The Institute decided it gets top priority; we mere people come second.”
“Will there be anything left for us?” Morrison wanted to know.
“Not unless we can stop the network’s operations. It’s already used up half a dozen basic minerals. Its search teams are out all the time, from every factory, looking everywhere for some last scrap to drag home.”
“What would happen if tunnels from two factories crossed each other?”
O’Neill shrugged. “Normally, that won’t happen. Each factory has its own special section of our planet, its own private cut of the pie for its exclusive use.”
“But it could happen.”
“Well, they’re raw material-tropic; as long as there’s anything left, they’ll hunt it down.” O’Neill pondered the idea with growing interest. “It’s something to consider. I suppose as things get scarcer –”
He stopped talking. A figure had come into the room; it stood silently by the door, surveying them all.
In the dull shadows, the figure looked almost human. For a brief moment, O’Neill thought it was a settlement latecomer. Then, as it moved forward, he realized that it was only quasi-human: a functional upright biped chassis, with data-receptors mounted at the top, effectors and proprioceptors mounted in a downward worm that ended in floor-grippers. Its resemblance to a human being was testimony to nature’s efficiency; no sentimental imitation was intended.
The factory representative had arrived.
It began without preamble. “This is a data-collecting machine capable of communicating on an oral basis. It contains both broadcasting and receiving apparatus and can integrate facts relevant to its line of inquiry.”
The voice was pleasant, confident. Obviously it was a tape, recorded by some Institute technician before the war. Coming from the quasi-human shape, it sounded grotesque; O’Neill could vividly imagine the dead young man whose cheerful voice now issued from the mechanical mouth of this upright construction of steel and wiring.
“One word of caution,” the pleasant voice continued. “It is fruitless to consider this receptor human and to engage it in discussions for which it is not equipped. Although purposeful, it is not capable of conceptual thought; it can only reassemble material already available to it.”
The optimistic voice clicked out and a second voice came on. It resembled the first, but now there were no intonations or personal mannerisms. The machine was utilizing the dead man’s phonetic speech-pattern for its own communication.
“Analysis of the rejected product,” it stated, “shows no foreign elements or noticeable deterioration. The product meets the continual testing-standards employed throughout the network. Rejection is therefore on a basis outside the test area; standards not available to the network are being employed.”
“That’s right,” O’Neill agreed. Weighing his words with care, he continued, “We found the milk substandard. We want nothing to do with it. We insist on more careful output.”
The machine responded presently. “The semantic content of the term ‘pizzled’ is unfamiliar to the network. It does not exist in the taped vocabulary. Can you present a factual analysis of the milk in terms of specific elements present or absent?”
“No,” O’Neill said warily; the game he was playing was intricate and dangerous. “‘Pizzled’ is an overall term. It can’t be reduced to chemical constituents.”
“What does ‘pizzled’ signify?” the machine asked. “Can you define it in terms of alternate semantic symbols?”
O’Neill hesitated. The representative had to be steered from its special inquiry to more general regions, to the ultimate problem of closing down the network. If he could pry it open at any point, get the theoretical discussion started. . .
“‘Pizzled,’” he stated, “means the condition of a product that is manufactured when no need exists. It indicates the rejection of objects on the grounds that they are no longer wanted.”
The representative said, “Network analysis shows a need of high-grade pasteurized milk-substitute in this area. There is no alternate source; the network controls all the synthetic mammary-type equipment in existence.” It added, “Original taped instructions describe milk as an essential to human diet.”
O’Neill was being outwitted; the machine was returning the discussion to the specific. “We’ve decided,” he said desperately, “that we don’t want any more milk. We’d prefer to go without it, at least until we can locate cows.”
“That is contrary to the network tapes,” the representative objected. “There are no cows. All milk is produced synthetically.”
“Then we’ll produce it synthetically ourselves,” Morrison broke in impatiently. “Why can’t we take over the machines? My God, we’re not children! We can run our own lives!”
The factory representative moved toward the door. “Until such time as your community finds other sources of milk supply, the network will continue to supply you. Analytical and evaluating apparatus will remain in this area, conducting the customary random sampling.”
Ferine shouted futilely, “How can we find other sources? You have the whole setup! You’re running the whole show!” Following after it, he bellowed, “You say we’re not ready to run things — you claim we’re not capable. How do you know? You don’t give us a chance! We’ll never have a chance!”
O’Neill was petrified. The machine was leaving; its one-track mind had completely triumphed.
“Look,” he said hoarsely, blocking its way. “We want you to shut down, understand. We want to take over your equipment and run it ourselves. The war’s over with. Damn it, you’re not needed anymore!”
The factory representative paused briefly at the door. “The inoperative cycle,” it said, “is not geared to begin until network production merely duplicates outside production. There is at this time, according to our continual sampling, no outside production. Therefore network production continues.”
This is not to say that sci-fi always hits on the right answers to important problems. The panel below is from Meka-City, an episode of Judge Dredd that takes place shortly after the “Apocalypse War”.
Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is equally questionable, from an x-risk perspective: the heroes place Earth at the mercy of a superintelligence whose friendliness, and even sanity is unproven and untested. Might it, however, have inspired a generation of libertarian dissidents?
Prof shook head. “Every new member made it that much more likely that you would be betrayed. Wyoming dear lady, revolutions are not won by enlisting the masses. Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications. Then, at the proper moment in history, they strike. Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges, terror. I hope you will forgive me if I say that, up to now, it has been done clumsily.”
Wyoh looked baffled. “What do you mean by ‘correct organization’?”
“Functional organization. How does one design an electric motor? Would you attach a bathtub to it, simply because one was available? Would a bouquet of flowers help? A heap of rocks? No, you would use just those elements necessary to its purpose and make it no larger than needed—and you would incorporate safety factors. Function controls design.
“So it is with revolution. Organization must be no larger than necessary—never recruit anyone merely because he wants to join. Nor seek to persuade for the pleasure of having another share your views. He’ll share them when the times comes . . . or you’ve misjudged the moment in history. Oh, there will be an educational organization but it must be separate; agitprop is no part of basic structure.
“As to basic structure, a revolution starts as a conspiracy therefore structure is small, secret, and organized as to minimize damage by betrayal—since there always are betrayals. One solution is the cell system and so far nothing better has been invented.
“Much theorizing has gone into optimum cell size. I think that history shows that a cell of three is best—more than three can’t agree on when to have dinner, much less when to strike. Manuel, you belong to a large family; do you vote on when to have dinner?”
“Bog, no! Mum decides.”
“Ah.” Prof took a pad from his pouch, began to sketch. “Here is a cells-of-three tree. If I were planning to take over Luna. I would start with us three. One would be opted as chairman. We wouldn’t vote; choice would be obvious—or we aren’t the right three. We would know the next nine people, three cells . . . but each cell would know only one of us.”
“Looks like computer diagram—a ternary logic.”
“Does it really? At the next level there are two ways of linking: This comrade, second level, knows his cell leader, his two cellmates, and on the third level he knows the three in his subcell—he may or may not know his cellmates’ subcells. One method doubles security, the other doubles speed—of repair if security is penetrated. Let’s say he does not know his cellmates’ subcells—Manuel, how many can he betray? Don’t say he won’t; today they can brainwash any person, and starch and iron and use him. How many?”
“Six,” I answered. “His boss, two cellmates, three in sub-cell.”
“Seven,” Prof corrected, “he betrays himself, too. Which leaves seven broken links on three levels to repair. How?”
“I don’t see how it can be,” objected Wyoh. “You’ve got them so split up it falls to pieces.”
“Manuel? An exercise for the student.”
“Well . . . blokes down here have to have way to send message up three levels. Don’t have to know who, just have to know where.”
“But, Prof,” I went on, “there’s a better way to rig it.”
“Really? Many revolutionary theorists have hammered this out, Manuel. I have such confidence in them that I’ll offer you a wager—at, say, ten to one.”
“Ought to take your money. Take same cells, arrange in open pyramid of tetrahedrons. Where vertices are in common, each bloke knows one in adjoining cell—knows how to send message to him, that’s all he needs. Communications never break down because they run sideways as well as up and down. Something like a neural net. It’s why you can knock a hole in a man’s head, take chunk of brain out, and not damage thinking much. Excess capacity, messages shunt around. He loses what was destroyed but goes on functioning.”
“Manuel,” Prof said doubtfully, “could you draw a picture? It sounds good—but it’s so contrary to orthodox doctrine that I need to see it.”
“Well . . . could do better with stereo drafting machine. I’ll try.” (Anybody who thinks it’s easy to sketch one hundred twenty-one tetrahedrons, a five-level open pyramid, clear enough to show relationships is invited to try!)
Presently I said, “Look at base sketch. Each vertex of each triangle shares self with zero, one, or two other triangles. Where shares one, that’s its link, one direction or both—but one is enough for a multipli-redundant communication net. On corners, where sharing is zero, it jumps to right to next corner. Where sharing is double, choice is again right-handed.
“Now work it with people. Take fourth level, D-for-dog. This vertex is comrade Dan. No, let’s go down one to show three levels of communication knocked out—level E-for-easy and pick Comrade Egbert.
“Egbert works under Donald, has cellmates Edward and Elmer, and has three under him, Frank, Fred, and Fatso . . . but knows how to send message to Ezra on his own level but not in his cell. He doesn’t know Ezra’s name, face, address, or anything—but has a way, phone number probably, to reach Ezra in emergency.
“Now watch it work. Casimir, level three, finks out and betrays Charlie and Cox in his cell, Baker above him, and Donald, Dan, and Dick in subcell—which isolates Egbert, Edward, and Elmer, and everybody under them.
“All three report it—redundancy, necessary to any communication system—but follow Egbert’s yell for help. He calls Ezra. But Ezra is under Charlie and is isolated, too. No matter, Ezra relays both messages through his safety link, Edmund. By bad luck Edmund is under Cox, so he also passes it laterally, through Enwright . . . and that gets it past burned-out part and it goes up through Dover, Chambers, and Beeswax, to Adam, front office . . . who replies down other side of pyramid, with lateral pass on E-for-easy level from Esther to Egbert and on to Ezra and Edmund. These two messages, up and down, not only get through at once but in way they get through, they define to home office exactly how much damage has been done and where. Organization not only keeps functioning but starts repairing self at once.”
Wyoh was tracing out lines, convincing herself it would work—which it would, was “idiot” circuit. Let Mike study a few milliseconds, and could produce a better, safer, more foolproof hookup. And probably—certainly—ways to avoid betrayal while speeding up routings. But I’m not a computer.
Prof was staring with blank expression. “What’s trouble?” I said. “It’ll work; this is my pidgin.”
“Manuel my b— Excuse me: Señor O’Kelly . . . will you head this revolution?”
“Me? Great Bog, nyet! I’m no lost-cause martyr. Just talking about circuits.”
Wyoh looked up. “Mannie,” she said soberly, “you’re opted. It’s settled.”
The marriage of fantastic and familiar allows science fiction authors to deal freely with touchy issues. The following excerpt, from PKD’s The Golden Man, is about “mutants”:
From the dirt road came the sound of motors, sleek purrs that rapidly grew louder. Two teardrops of black metal came gliding up and parked beside the house. Men swarmed out, in the dark gray-green of the Government Civil Police. In the sky swarms of black dots were descending, clouds of ugly flies that darkened the sun as they spilled out men and equipment. The men drifted slowly down.
“He’s not here,” Baines said, as the first man reached him. “He got away. Inform Wisdom back at the lab.”
“We’ve got this section blocked off.”
Baines turned to Nat Johnson, who stood in dazed silence, uncomprehending, his son and daughter beside him. “How did he know we were coming?” Baines demanded.
“I don’t know,” Johnson muttered. “He just — knew.”
“I don’t know.”
Baines shrugged. “We’ll know, soon. A clamp is out, all around here. He can’t get past, no matter what the hell he can do. Unless he can dematerialize himself.”
“What’ll you do with him when you — if you catch him?” Jean asked huskily.
“And then kill him?”
“That depends on the lab evaluation. If you could give me more to work on, I could predict better.”
“We can’t tell you anything. We don’t know anything more.” The girl’s voice rose with desperation. “He doesn’t talk.”
Baines jumped. “What?”
“He doesn’t talk. He never talked to us. Ever.”
“How old is he?”
“No communication.” Baines was sweating. “In eighteen years there hasn’t been any semantic bridge between you? Does he have any contact? Signs? Codes?”
“He — ignores us. He eats here, stays with us. Sometimes he plays when we play. Or sits with us. He’s gone days on end. We’ve never been able to find out what he’s doing — or where. He sleeps in the barn — by himself.”
“Is he really gold-colored?”
“Yes. Skin, eyes, hair, nails. Everything.”
“And he’s large? Well-formed?” It was a moment before the girl answered. A strange emotion stirred her drawn features, a momentary glow. “He’s incredibly beautiful. A god come down to earth.” Her lips twisted. “You won’t find him. He can do things. Things you have no comprehension of. Powers so far beyond your limited –”
“You don’t think we’ll get him?” Baines frowned. “More teams are landing all the time. You’ve never seen an Agency clamp in operation. We’ve had sixty years to work out all the bugs. If he gets away it’ll be the first time –”
Baines broke off abruptly. Three men were quickly approaching the porch. Two green-clad Civil Police. And a third man between them. A man who moved silently, lithely, a faintly luminous shape that towered above them.
“Cris!” Jean screamed.
“We got him,” one of the police said.
Baines fingered his lash-tube uneasily. “Where? How?”
“He gave himself up,” the policeman answered, voice full of awe. “He came to us voluntarily. Look at him. He’s like a metal statue. Like some sort of — god.”
The golden figure halted for a moment beside Jean. Then it turned slowly, calmly, to face Baines.
“Cris!” Jean shrieked. “Why did you come back?”
The same thought was eating at Baines, too. He shoved it aside — for the time being. “Is the jet out front?” he demanded quickly.
“Ready to go,” one of the CP answered. “Fine.” Baines strode past them, down the steps and onto the dirt field. “Let’s go. I want him taken directly to the lab.” For a moment he studied the massive figure who stood calmly between the two Civil Policemen. Beside him, they seemed to have shrunk, become ungainly and repellent. Like dwarves. . . What had Jean said? A god come to earth. Baines broke angrily away. “Come on,” he muttered brusquely. “This one may be tough; we’ve never run up against one like it before. We don’t know what the hell it can do.”
Of course, there is a political subtext. Dick writes in 1979:
In the early Fifties much American science fiction dealt with human mutants and their glorious super-powers and super-faculties by which they would presently lead mankind to a higher state of existence, a sort of promised land. John W. Campbell. Jr., editor at Analog, demanded that the stories he bought dealt with such wonderful mutants, and he also insisted that the mutants always be shown as (1) good; and (2) firmly in charge. When I wrote “The Golden Man” I intended to show that (1) the mutant might not be good, at least good for the rest of mankind, for us ordinaries; and (2) not in charge but sniping at us as a bandit would, a feral mutant who potentially would do us more harm than good. This was specifically the view of psionic mutants that Campbell loathed, and the theme in fiction that he refused to publish… so my story appeared in If.
We sf writers of the Fifties liked If because it had high quality paper and illustrations; it was a classy magazine. And, more important, it would take a chance with unknown authors. A fairly large number of my early stories appeared in If; for me it was a major market. The editor of If at the beginning was Paul W. Fairman. He would take a badly-written story by you and rework it until it was okay – which I appreciated. Later James L. Quinn the publisher became himself the editor, and then Frederik Pohl. I sold to all three of them.
In the issue of If that followed the publishing of “The Golden Man” appeared a two-page editorial consisting of a letter by a lady school teacher complaining about “The Golden Man”. Her complaints consisted of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s complaint: she upbraided me for presenting mutants in a negative light and she offered the notion that certainly we could expect mutants to be (1) good; and (2) firmly in charge. So I was back to square one.
My theory as to why people took this view is this: I think these people secretly imagined they were themselves early manifestations of these kindly, wise, super-intelligent Ubermenschen who would guide the stupid – i.e. the rest of us – to the Promised Land. A power phantasy was involved here, in my opinion. The idea of the psionic superman taking over was a role that appeared originally in Stapleton’s ODD JOHN and A.E.Van Vogt’s SLAN. “We are persecuted now,” the message ran, “and despised and rejected. But later on, boy oh boy, we will show them!”
As far as I was concerned, for psionic mutants to rule us would be to put the fox in charge of the hen house. I was reacting to what I considered a dangerous hunger for power on the part of neurotic people, a hunger which I felt John W. Campbell, Jr. was pandering to – and deliberately so. If, on the other hand, was not committed to selling any one particular idea; it was a magazine devoted to genuinely new ideas, willing to take any side of an issue. Its several editors should be commended, inasmuch as they understood the real task of science fiction: to look in all directions without restraint.
Finally, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has inspired all sorts of people.
The lights went dim!
They didn’t go out, but merely yellowed and sank with a suddenness that made Hardin jump. He had lifted his eyes to the ceiling lights in startled fashion, and when he brought them down the glass cubicle was no longer empty.
A figure occupied it ‚ a figure in a wheel chair!
It said nothing for a few moments, but it closed the book upon its lap and fingered it idly. And then it smiled, and the face seemed all alive.
It said, “I am Hari Seldon.” The voice was old and soft.
Hardin almost rose to acknowledge the introduction and stopped himself in the act.
The voice continued conversationally: “As you see, I am confined to this chair and cannot rise to greet you. Your grandparents left for Terminus a few months back in my time and since then I have suffered a rather inconvenient paralysis. I can’t see you, you know, so I can’t greet you properly. I don’t even know how many of you there are, so all this must be conducted informally. If any of you are standing, please sit down; and if you care to smoke, I wouldn’t mind.” There was a light chuckle. “Why should I? I’m not really here.”
Hardin fumbled for a cigar almost automatically, but thought better of it.
Hari Seldon put away his book – as if laying it upon a desk at his side – and when his fingers let go, it disappeared.
He said: “It is fifty years now since this Foundation was established – fifty years in which the members of the Foundation have been ignorant of what it was they were working toward. It was necessary that they be ignorant, but now the necessity is gone.
“The Encyclopedia Foundation, to begin with, is a fraud, and always has been!”
There was a sound of a scramble behind Hardin and one or two muffled exclamations, but he did not turn around.
Hari Seldon was, of course, undisturbed. He went on: “It is a fraud in the sense that neither I nor my colleagues care at all whether a single volume of the Encyclopedia is ever published. It has served its purpose, since by it we extracted an imperial charter from the Emperor, by it we attracted the hundred thousand humans necessary for our scheme, and by it we managed to keep them preoccupied while events shaped themselves, until it was too late for any of them to draw back.
“In the fifty years that you have worked on this fraudulent project – there is no use in softening phrases – your retreat has been cut off, and you have now no choice but to proceed on the infinitely more important project that was, and is, our real plan.
“To that end we have placed you on such a planet and at such a time that in fifty years you were maneuvered to the point where you no longer have freedom of action. From now on, and into the centuries, the path you must take is inevitable. You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will become similarly circumscribed so that you will be forced along one, and only one, path.
“It is that path which our psychology has worked out – and for a reason.
“For centuries Galactic civilization has stagnated and declined, though only a few ever realized that. But now, at last, the Periphery is breaking away and the political unity of the Empire is shattered. Somewhere in the fifty years just past is where the historians of the future will place an arbitrary line and say: ‘This marks the Fall of the Galactic Empire.’
“And they will be right, though scarcely any will recognize that Fall for additional
“And after the Fall will come inevitable barbarism, a period which, our psychohistory tells us, should, under ordinary circumstances, last for thirty thousand years. We cannot stop the Fall. We do not wish to; for Imperial culture has lost whatever virility and worth it once had. But we can shorten the period of Barbarism that must follow – down to a single thousand of years.
“The ins and outs of that shortening, we cannot tell you; just as we could not tell you the truth about the Foundation fifty years ago. Were you to discover those ins and outs, our plan might fail; as it would have, had you penetrated the fraud of the Encyclopedia earlier; for then, by knowledge, your freedom of action would be expanded and the number of additional variables introduced would become greater than our psychology could handle.
“But you won’t, for there are no psychologists on Terminus, and never were, but for Alurin – and he was one of us.
“But this I can tell you: Terminus and its companion Foundation at the other end of the Galaxy are the seeds of the Renascence and the future founders of the Second Galactic Empire. And it is the present crisis that is starting Terminus off to that climax.
“This, by the way, is a rather straightforward crisis, much simpler than many of those that are ahead. To reduce it to its fundamentals, it is this: You are a planet suddenly cut off from the still-civilized centers of the Galaxy, and threatened by your stronger neighbors. You are a small world of scientists surrounded by vast and rapidly expanding reaches of barbarism. You are an island of nuclear power in a growing ocean of more primitive energy; but are helpless despite that, because of your lack of metals.
“You see, then, that you are faced by hard necessity, and that action is forced on you. The nature of that action – that is, the solution to your dilemma – is, of course, obvious!”
The image of Hari Seldon reached into open air and the book once more appeared in his hand. He opened it and said:
“But whatever devious course your future history may take, impress it always upon your descendants that the path has been marked out, and that at its end is new and greater Empire!”
And as his eyes bent to his book, he flicked into nothingness, and the lights brightened once more.
Hardin looked up to see Pirenne facing him, eyes tragic and lips trembling.
The chairman’s voice was firm but toneless. “You were right, it seems. If you will see us tonight at six, the Board will consult with you as to the next move.”
They shook his hand, each one, and left, and Hardin smiled to himself. They were fundamentally sound at that; for they were scientists enough to admit that they were wrong – but for them, it was too late.
He looked at his watch. By this time, it was all over. Lee’s men were in control and the Board was giving orders no longer.
The Anacreonians were landing their first spaceships tomorrow, but that was all right, too. In six months, they would be giving orders no longer.
In fact, as Hari Seldon had said, and as Salvor Hardin had guessed since the day that Anselm haut Rodric had first revealed to him Anacreon’s lack of nuclear power – the solution to this first crisis was obvious.
Obvious as all hell!
Now, some have described the dramatic formula of UR as having a rather Tolkienesque feel; others may connect it more with C.S. Lewis; I certainly grew up reading both. But above all, I grew up reading Isaac Asimov.
If my journey into the awesome, humbling lost library that is Google Books was a film and needed a name, it might be called “Searching for Hari Seldon.” With more or less the entire Victorian corpus, modulo a bit of copyfraud, the Hari Seldon game is to enquire of this Library: which writers of the 19th would feel most justified, in their understanding of the eternal nature of history, humanity and government, by the events of the 20th? Whose crystal ball worked? Whose archived holograms delivered the news?
Broadly speaking, I think the answer is clear. Hari Seldon is Carlyle – the late Carlyle, of the Pamphlets. I consider myself a Carlylean pretty much the way a Marxist is a Marxist. There is simply no significant phenomenon of the 20th century not fully anticipated. Almost alone Carlyle predicts that the 20th will be a century of political chaos and mass murder, and he says not what but also why. And what a writer! Religions could easily be founded on the man – and perhaps should be.
And Paul Krugman:
There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy’s life. For some, it’s Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; for others it’s Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As a widely quoted internet meme says, the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man’s character forever; the other book is about orcs. But for me, of course, it was neither. My Book – the one that has stayed with me for four-and-a-half decades – is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.
A pity he didn’t move on to this.
So in 2005 a very thoroughly researched and well-argued scholarly article was published that demonstrates, quite clearly, that group productivity is an illusion. All those brainstorming sessions and group projects you’ve been made to do at school and work? Useless. Everybody would have been better off working on their own. Here’s the abstract of the article:
"It has consistently been found that people produce more ideas when working alone as compared to when working in a group. Yet, people generally believe that group brainstorming is more effective than individual brainstorming. Further, group members are more satisfied with their performance than individuals, whereas they have generated fewer ideas. We argue that this ‘illusion of group productivity’ is partly due to a reduction of cognitive failures (instances in which someone is unable to generate ideas) in a group setting. Three studies support that explanation, showing that: (1) group interaction leads to a reduction of experienced failures and that failures mediate the effect of setting on satisfaction; and (2) manipulations that affect failures also affect satisfaction ratings. Implications for group work are discussed."
Has the puncturing of that “illusion of group productivity” had any effect? Of course not. Groupthink is as powerful as ever. Why is that?
I’ll tell you. It’s because the world is run by extraverts. (And FYI, that’s the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra- is the proper Latin prefix.) Extraverts love meetings — any possible excuse for a meeting, they’ll seize on it. They might hear others complain about meetings, but the complaints never sink in: extraverts can’t seem to imagine that the people who say they hate meetings really mean it. “Maybe they hate other meetings, but I know they’ll enjoy mine, because I make them fun! Besides, we’ll get so much done!” (Let me pause here to acknowledge that the meeting-caller is only one brand of extravert: some of the most pronouncedly outgoing people I know hate meetings as much as I do.)
The problem with extraverts — not all of them, I grant you, but many, so many — is a lack of imagination. They simply assume that everyone will feel about things as they do. “The more the merrier, right? It’s a proverb, you know.” Yes it is: a proverb coined by an extravert. So people I do not know will regularly send me emails: “Hey, I’ll be in your town soon and I’d love to have lunch or coffee. Just let me know which you’d prefer!” Notice the missing option: not being forced to have a meal and make conversation with a stranger. (Once a highly extraverted friend of mine was trying to get me involved in some project and said, cheerily, “You’ll get to meet lots of new people!” I turned to him and replied, “You realize, don’t you, that you’ve just ensured my refusal to participate?”)
I really do need to find more written by this author. But while I certainly do very much share this sentiment I have a hard time figuring out how common it is. After all people don't look good saying they "don't like meeting new people".
Though my introversion has grown deeper in recent years, it’s always been there. When I was a kid I’d read about people who got the chance to meet their favorite musician or sports hero or whatever, and I’d think: No way. I would have preferred then, and still prefer now, to write a letter to whomever I deeply admire and hope for a response. I even deliberately lost the school-wide spelling bee in fifth grade so I wouldn’t have to participate in the city-wide competition: it would have meant meeting so many strange kids!
Spelling bees are, of course, organized by extraverts — indeed, pretty much everything that is organized is organized by extraverts, which in turn is their justification for their ruling of the world. “See? If we didn’t organize things they wouldn’t get organized at all!” Precisely, mutters the introvert, under his breath, to avoid confrontation.
So, extraverts of the world, I invite you to make a New Year’s resolution: Refrain from organizing stuff. Don’t plan parties or outings or, God forbid, “team-building exercises.” Just don’t call meetings. (I would ask you to refrain from calling unnecessary meetings, but so many of you think almost all meetings necessary that it’s best you not call them at all.) Leave people alone and let them get their work done. Those who want to socialize can do it after work. I’ll not tell you you’ll enjoy it: you won’t. You’ll be miserable, at least at first, because you won’t be pulling others’ puppet-strings. But everyone will be more productive, and many people will be happier. Give it a try. Let go for a year. Just leave us alone.
I’ve seen Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” recommended in a few different places. Jared Diamond’s book might be one of them, the guest-posts of Captain David Ryan aka “Tony Comstock” for James Fallows at the Atlantic might be another. The sidebar of John Robb’s “Global Guerrillas” blog is the only one I remember with certainty. It’s a not a very long book, and you can get the gist of it from Tainter’s wikipedia page.
Lots of people have found civilizational collapses to be interesting, and Tainter reviews many of their theories while finding them wanting. The “eleven major themes in the explanation of collapse” he lists are depletion/cessation of a vital resource, establishment of a new resource base (which I found too stupid to take seriously even momentarily), insurmountable catastrophe, insufficient response to circumstances (which is almost tautological), other complex societies, intruders, class conflict or elite mismanagement, social dysfunction, mystical factors, chance concatenation of events (almost tautological if you don’t think collapse is predetermined) and economic factors. Like Tainter, I find the “mystical” theories to not really constitute theories at all, although some of the most popular writers on the subject (Spengler, Toynbee, various ancients) are included there. Tainter often contrasts “integrative” (or “functional”) theories on the origin of the state/complexity vs “conflict” theories, and acknowledges that he is more partial toward the former. Unfortunately, most of the latter theorists he lists are Marxists and carry a lot of baggage. The observation that throughout much of history some set of people ruled over others as a result of military victory regardless of any benefit to the subjects (though a Leviathan may happen to have upsides) predates Marx, with Ibn Khaldun being one of the few non-Marxist examples Tainter mentions. That’s not to say Tainter is anti-Marxism, he actually compares Marxist “social science” to Einsteinian physics and Darwinian biology! I suppose there is (or was) just such a heavy representation of Marxists among academic anthropologists and historians that Tainter regards Marxism as somewhat normative, whereas to me it’s something weird and laughable like Holocaust revisionism.
Resource depletion is the reverse of the theory I found so absurd, and (showing there is hope for humanity) it is a much more popular theory. J. Donald Hughes blamed Rome’s collapse in part on deforestation, but W. Groenman van Waateringe some years later provided evidence at the time that cereal pollens declined while forest pollens increased. That of course is not a causal proof, since it is documented that when the empire was declining many agricultural regions became depopulated. Waateringe blames agricultural intensification for increasing the population and thus the demands on agriculture, but to me that just raises the question of why marginal agricultural lands weren’t reclaimed. There actually is an explanation for that depopulation, but like Tainter I’m not going to get to that in a hurry. Tainter finds this theory (like most other theories he rejects) unsatisfactory because complex societies should have leaders who notice the depletion and think of a response. I am reminded of David St. Hubbin’s girlfriend in Spinal Tap who says “It’s just a problem! It get’s solved!” Sometimes a solution is not within a society’s feasible choice-set. Tainter briefly acknowledges that possibility (noting that it would have to be proved, which is difficult given how little information we have about many ancient societies) but spends more time castigating imaginary opponents depicted as claiming societal elites just stood around slack-jawed rather than attempting to deal with the situation. I would call that a strawman, except that Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” bears too much resemblance. He also mentions Richard Wilkinson’s documenting that deforestation spurred development in late/post medieval England, which is really just extra evidence that Hughes was wrong (as had already been mentioned) rather than a broader point against a class of theories. I should acknowledge that Tainter also cites evidence on the differential abandonment of cities and the failure to correlate with expected environmental characteristics, which is just the sort of thing that would later puncture Jared Diamond’s take on the Maya. His point that greed is constant enough (or its variance poorly enough understood) to make it a poor explanation of a variable situation is fair enough, but he can’t dismiss theories of collapse based on mismanagement because by their nature they should keep their society going, even if only out of self-interest. There are basic agency problems that mean one shouldn’t identify the interests of elite (or non-elite, for that matter) actors with that of a larger organization. In an uncertain world it also makes sense to discount the future (you or your dynasty might be replaced, might as well get what you can while you can).
Steve Sailer once critiqued Diamond’s thesis by noting that societies tend to die from homicide rather than suicide, and lumping together two of Tainter’s rejected explanations would make for a very popular theory. Tainter, however, would exclude most cases clearly caused by another complex society because those involve absorbtion rather than collapse (indigenous populations thoroughly devastated by disease before Europeans even arrived would be exceptions). So his question is then why a complex society would succumb to less complex intruders. Sometimes it may not be so easy to disentangle the two scenarios, such as when the persian & eastern roman empires exhausted themselves fighting each other, leaving themselves open to the Muslim invaders exploding out of Arabia (although it was only the persians that succumbed in fairly short order, and Tainter wouldn’t consider that a collapse). Tainter says it is “unsatisfactory [...] that a recurrent process – collapse – is explained by a random variable, by historical accident”. If random numbers for that variable (I’m imagining a stochastic process with a threshold for collapse rather than a binary control variable) are constantly being generated over time, it shouldn’t be that unsatisfactory that they recur throughout history. Tainter does make the legitimate point that elites, with a number of Roman emperors being good examples, have often proved capable of dealing with barbarian intrusions. But there’s no guarantee that they will always be successful. He also wonders why invaders would “destroy those things which repay conquest”. The obvious answer is that, by the second law of thermodynamics, it’s very easy to break things, and that includes during the process of conquering & looting. Some relatively sophisticated barbarians may conquer a territory and leave much of the administrative apparatus intact to rule as before, others may have no particular interest (or competence) in being bound to a territory and collecting scraps of taxes from farmers.
The collapse of Rome is probably the most famous example (at least to westerners) and forms one of his three case studies, paradigmatic of the most complex sort of society to collapse. I find it more enlightening than the others because, and call me a drunk looking under a lamppost if you will, it’s the most well documented. Among the things documented is that the proximate cause of collapse was invasion by various (mostly Germanic) barbarians. That is discussed extensively in Peter Heather’s “Empires and Barbarians” which I have discussed earlier. It’s because I read that one so recently that a few of Tainter’s remarks stuck out. Focusing on the internal soundness of a society and its affordable scale/complexity he writes “The Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting invasions”. If he limited that claim to the particular kingdoms which survived past the dark ages, it would be rather tautological. But if he means germanic kingdoms generally, then it just doesn’t seem to be the case. They got invaded and replaced all the time, we just don’t remember the ones that died out. Part of the reason the Romans had such problems with barbarians is that one group would get invaded by another, and then start moving around and displacing other barbarians. The western Roman empire, in contrast, was able to survive many invasions before the last Roman emperor was toppled. Tainter portrays the formation of the empire as a process in which a territory is able to summon the resources to mobilize a force to conquer more territory to extract its resources, then rinse and repeat in a self-sustaining cycle until it expanded too far to get many marginal returns. There is some truth to that, but it overlooks the non-extractive aspect of Roman rule which increased productivity in conquered territories, thereby making those territories more attractive as a target for raiding. In Heather’s story, barbarian confederations on the border engaged in a process of competitive selection for the strength to hold an attractive position (for reasons of trade, raiding and diplomatic subsidy) and eventually the size and cohesion necessary to survive and settle within Roman territory. Focusing on the internals of the collapsed societies, he overlooks any dynamics occurring within outside societies that could give them the capability of defeating the imperial power. Heather’s account is similar to Peter Turchin’s in “War and Peace and War” except that, like Khaldun, Turchin focuses more on the softening effects of metropolitan decadence that renders old dynasties vulnerable to the hardened asabiya-endowed border marchers.
Tainter’s two other case studies are the Mayan lowland citystates and Chaco canyon cliff-dwellers. The Mayans are less complex (or at least less well-documented, since the conquistadors destroyed many of the remaining documents) and the Chacoans even less so. He also used the Ik as an example of an extremely simple society that collapsed even further below the level of familial organization, but he didn’t discuss it all that much and I’m not sure how reliable primary source Colin Turnbull was (supposedly they hadn’t been hunter-gatherers for centuries when their supposed “livelihood” of hunting was banned). The interesting thing about the Maya is that there were multiple relatively equivalent city-states rather than one dominant hegemon. Tainter includes them as a case study of collapse, even as he states elsewhere that collapse is not an option for “peer polity competition” because the weakening of one peer just invites conquest by another. Also, rather than devoting most of their resources under duress to a standing army (something documented in the Roman case) Tainter discusses the building of monuments as conspicuous consumption to demonstrate how powerful and brutal (per the depictions of torture) the city was, rather similar to the story Diamond tells. I don’t know what kind of evidence we have for the scale of their military expenditures, although we know they did war from time to time. There was no writing whatsoever in Chaco canyon, so we are left with the old archeological standby of potsherds and whatnot. Tainter does make the interesting point that the culture benefitted from uniting different ecological niches, with higher elevation territories having more agricultural productivity in cold wet years while lower elevation ones were more productive in warm dry ones. An economist would say that this diversified portfolio allowed for more consumption smoothing. However, I was confused by Tainter’s argument that as more outlier territories were incorporated diversity and gains from exchange went down. As long as the ratio between high and low places was stable, incorporating more territories should not cause any problems in that respect. Admittedly, this does mean that there are more viable subsets of communities that would be individually stable if they withdrew, which is indeed what he claims happened eventually. But he also seemed to be suggesting that the system overally was degrading its performance, without clearly stating whether an excess of a particular type of environment was upsetting the balance.
Tainter’s theory to explain collapse is declining marginal returns. This is a common concept in economics, but it is normally used to understood how equilibrium can develop. Applied to a society, we would expect the declining returns to territorial expansion or administrative complexity (the former often requiring some degree of the latter) to result in eventual stasis rather than collapse. David Friedman has an interesting paper on how the advantages of taxing trade, land or labor gave rise to different equilibria for the sizes & boundaries of polities during the Roman, medieval and nationalist eras in Europe. In Friedman’s theory, each shift between eras resulted from some exogenous change rather being part of the internal logic of societies. Tainter relates some various interesting bits from C. Northcote Parkinson’s “Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration”. For example, while “between 1914 and 1967, the number of capital ships in the British Navy declined by 78.9 percent, the number of officers and enlisted men by 32.9 percent, and the number of dockyard workers by 33.7 percent [...] the number of dockyard officials and clerks increased by 247 percent, and the number of Admiralty officals by 767 percent” (emphasis added). Mencius Moldbug would not be surprised to learn that “between 1935 and 1954 the number of officals in the British Colonial office increased by 447 percent” even though “the empire administered by these officials shrank considerably”. These examples are important because they do not demonstrate an increasingly large requirement of administrators for a marginal increase in size/complexity of an entity to be administered, but paying more for less. Parkinson’s explanation was bureaucratic self-serving, which Tainter rejects because he finds trends of increasing hierarchical specialization in the private sector. But because Tainter fails to distinguish between declining marginal returns (eventually reaching zero at a steady-state) and NEGATIVE returns he doesn’t specify whether the latter occurs in the private sector (though Karl Smith would not be surprised if it does for many publicly owned corporations whose shareholders would be better served by liquidation of assets). The growth of administration in higher education would also count, but as a heavily subsidized non-profit sector I can’t say it would qualify. At one point Tainter acknowledges “In many cases this increased, more costly complexity will yield no increased benefits, at other times the benefits will not be proportionate to costs” (emphasis in the original). This is precisely the question at issue of elite mismanagement or the out-of-control inertia of expanding administrative bureaucracies, but as noted he rejected Parkinson’s theory and mocks the idea of societies as runaway trains as self-evidently absurd. Instead he portrays collapse as a choice which is preferable once marginal returns have declined to a certain point. This didn’t entirely make sense to me, because if a society has accidentally shot part the point of zero marginal returns to one of negative returns, the sensible thing is just to reduce that marginal increase in complexity to return to the steady state with zero marginal returns.
The Roman empire sometimes seemed to behave in such a manner, losing some territory and sticking with a more defensible and adminstrable domain (although in Heather’s account some of the lost territory was among the most agriculturally productive), although Tainter thinks the conquests of Britain & Dacia never paid for themselves. So why the path dependency so that changes are not simply reversible? There could be consumption of a not easily renewable resource, a sort of borrowing from the future that leaves future generations deeper in the red. This could happen with soil deterioration, though Tainter doesn’t discuss that much (odd, despite his focus on societies as means of managing sources of energy). His example of Roman emperors increasingly resorting to the debasing of the currency could count (by Diocletian’s time it collected taxes in kind rather than the currency it had rendered nearly worthless), as well as the selling of imperial land. The larger problem in Rome seemed to be an increasingly large portion of subjects who were citizens (both urban proletariat and squabbling elites) subject to fewer or no taxes, while marginal lands were abandoned by overtaxed farmers. An odd feature of the empire was that election officials had to cover the costs of their own office, and as expenses rose there were fewer wealthy people willing to come forward as candidates, until the position was made hereditary. It became obligatory to farm certain deserted lands, with peasants drafted by local city Senates, and Constantine made soldiery a hereditary profession (which required a number of new laws over time to deal with sons who’d rather not follow that career). Taxation of land was simplistic and did not vary based on its quality or yield, so a farmer of marginal land would often be better off working for the owner of a more productive territory and paying rent than failing to cover the taxes on his own plot. With agricultural labor becoming legally tied to the land, we can see the clear beginnings of serfdom and the manorial system. As mentioned, Tainter views the Roman collapse as a choice (as he does others), although of course accounts from the time were more apt to regard it as unfortunate failure or divine punishment.
Interestingly, the “peer polity competition” that replaced Roman civilization is a situation he regards as invulnerable to collapse as opposed to absorbtion, and by removing that “option” he thinks this made peasants demand democratic representation. He acknowledges that this did not happen in the “Warring States” period of China, and instead the Confucian ideology of governance developed. He suggests “Perhaps participatory governance was simply not possible in ancient societies that were so much larger, demographically and territorially, than the Greek city-states”. Someone should have told James Madison (and I’m not being sarcastic). Interestingly enough, there was a civilization of Greek city states which did collapse, just as we’ve mentioned the lowland Maya doing. These are the Mycenaean Greeks who preceded the Dark Ages of Homer’s time. Their collapse is usually attributed to invasion by Dorian Greeks, but Tainter isn’t convinced there’s enough evidence for the Dorians’ presence. Because “Collapse occurs, and can only occur, in a power vacuum” (emphasis in the original) both the Mycenaean Greek and lowland Maya polities must have experienced simultaneous collapse.
The choice of peasants may be limited to passively withdrawing support and just not working very hard (I’d have more to say on that if I’d read James Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak”), but even then I don’t think it’s a desirable outcome for peasants. I’ve mentioned Heather on the greater productivity of Roman territory, and what do you think happened to the masses when that productivity crashed? My understanding of the current archaelogical consensus is that the population crashed as well. Tainter talks about the malnourished skeletons of the peasantry as evidence for the undesirability of certain degrees of complexity, but we also know that English peasants ate better after so many of their peers died of the bubonic plague (it’s also known that peasants have poorer diets than hunter-gatherers, though in Darwinian terms you definitely want to be a farmer). As in James Scott’s account of highland southeast asia (which I don’t entirely buy) was there much cultural defection of the peasantry to the greener pastures outside civilization? Tainter writes that “In 378 [...] Balkan miners went over en masse to the Visigoths”, and that others wished to be conquered/liberated. It is precisely due to the risk of being conquered that he argues is the reason many societies don’t simply revert to a lower level of complexity “even if marginal returns are unfavorable”, but it’s unclear whether conquest is one of outcomes being factored into those marginal returns.
Few people are going to read this book without speculating on their own complex society’s liability to collapse. John Robb and James Kunstler (along with some others in the “Peak Oil” camp) are going to place a high probability on it, while the Singularitarians have the opposite view. Globalization could mean the entire world is now in a state of “peer polity competition” but modern norms (and economic incentives) against conquest and giving war a chance means “failed states” can keep failing for a long time without someone replacing the bad management. Tainter’s studied societies are also Malthusian agricultural ones, it’s hard to know if the same logic will generalize past the industrial revolution. In modern technological economies the costs and benefits of advances may not be simple increasing or declining curves. Robin Hanson doesn’t even consider nearly free energy (which would very important to Tainter) to be nearly as important as the replacement of most human labor by computers (since the latter takes up so much more of GDP). When Tainter was writing there was still just the slightest possibility of nuclear armageddon, now the most likely candidates for death by complexity are grey goo or an unstoppable manmade pandemic. My two cents are that collapse is unlikely in my lifetime, and that’s for the better considering how much worse things could be.
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