The Prayer to the Dynamo

[This letter written to me is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. I did not write it, and thus do not necessarily agree with everything said. I post it because it worth engaging with. I am always accepting letters.]

Dear Sebastian,

I just read “Meditations on Moloch” as well as Ginsberg’s poem, and his footnote thereto. Here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to repost them if you like. (Having just completed this I realize my tone is a bit cruel. But you know me, I like polemics!)

Henry Adams in the late 19th century felt that his country, and the western world as a whole, were grappling with two opposing forces. In his poem “Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres”, he compares these forces, the Virgin–feminine, medieval, receiving and bestowing grace, and the Dynamo–modern technological power, masculine, forceful, manipulating nature into our control. For Adams the contrast between the two brings him great anguish, because he realizes the emptiness of this new zeitgeist, but he cannot accept the image that gave order and harmony to the medievals. He is, as it were, stuck in the middle.

Allen Ginsberg, in his own way, seems to be stuck between the same conflicting forces, albeit, in a much deeper way; despite framing his Howl within “the best minds of my generation”, one does not get the impression that this pain and suffering is in any way merely a historical phenomenon. This is the anguish of what it means to be human: Moloch is eternal. Nevertheless, without refuting any of this nihilism, he can still say with true sincerity, “holy, holy, holy” after all that. But this is precisely what I find so interesting in Scott Alexander’s commentary on “Howl”. He recognizes the same problem, the same deep cry of anguish from the depths of the human soul, but unlike Ginsberg, he has a response: a response that is a fascinating blend of nihilism and utopian optimism.

In a series of brutally accurate examples, Alexander brings our attention to the many ways Moloch is present in our world, as cited in “Howl”. Nations’ arms races, corporate welfare, education in America, third world plantations, and the exploitation of laborers, etc. All have the common thread of a harsh system that manipulates the weak and perpetuates its own chokehold on civilization, all without ever being necessarily endorsed or supported by those who give it their lifeblood. Sure there have been Henry Fords, Cecil Rhodeses and Josef Stalins in the past. But the genius of this system is that it does not need its slaves’ approval of it, for it to maintain control. Thus, the image of a demon from the ancient world is appropriate.

How can we break free from this system? How can we kill Moloch? Alexander dismisses Marxism as far too shallow. Greed, Capitalism, while a significant portion of Moloch’s ubiquitous body, will not bring us to the heart of the monster. Similarly, he does not want to consider religion, severally, or as a whole, as any kind of response. Sure a religion like Christianity encourages altruism–even demands it in the Golden Rule. But if we take a step back we realize that Christianity (and really all organized religions) is but another part of Moloch’s body. Do these good things or you will be eternally tortured. Likewise, you are required to spread this religion across the whole world, and enjoin it upon your children–or you will be eternally damned. This caricature of religion is so simple that he doesn’t even think it’s controversial.

‘”I hope it’s not too controversial here to say the same thing is true of religion. Religions, at their heart, are the most basic form of memetic replicator – “Believe this statement and repeat it to everyone you hear or else you will be eternally tortured.”’

Alexander then considers another way to defeat Moloch, to create a bubble of sanity and reason in which all of the members are deliberately, and consciously resisting Moloch’s reign. “My love is an enclosed garden”, we read in the best book in the Bible (my opinion, but also the medievals’). He doesn’t specify whether this enclosed garden could be an entire nation, a city, a community, or even a family, (dare we suggest, Scott, a marriage, as in Song of Songs??) because in whatever manifestation, it wouldn’t work.

“As foreigners compete with you – and there’s no wall high enough to block all competition – you have a couple of choices. You can get outcompeted and destroyed. You can join in the race to the bottom. Or you can invest more and more civilizational resources into building your wall – whatever that is in a non-metaphorical way – and protecting yourself.”

Even an entire civilization, he goes on to say, that has the perfect conditions to manipulate the system against the manipulator, will not keep Moloch out. The wall can never be high enough.

“Hint: is it part of the cosmos? Yeah, you’re kind of screwed.”

This was by far my favorite part of his essay. Because finally, here, he gets into the depth of the matter. Moloch is not this unfortunate demon who happens to live within the cosmos, and gives us trouble every now and again: he is the cosmos, Alexander seems to be saying. Or as he says repeatedly in UNSONG he is “a facet of God.” This is why I find Alexander’s analysis to be much more interesting than Adams’. Moloch, suffering, “nature and nature’s gods” or “Gnon” (a mixture of Darwinian and Hobbesian metaphysics), etc–all these are one and the same. You can’t try to make peace with them. You can’t try to compromise with them (“they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin”, from Alexander’s favorite poem in UNSONG). So you have to kill it. Nothing short of total destruction will suffice. No enclosed garden that does not enclose all things will be good enough. Those who attempt to create some pocket of sanity and rationality to hedge out Moloch fail to see the point entirely. To make a compromise with him is to already concede that he is master. If he rules in one place he rules everywhere, for his presence is woven throughout the cosmos.

How do we free ourselves from him, then? Ginsberg saw no way forward, hence his unrequited howl. He was content to accept that despite Moloch’s presence everywhere, despite the best minds of his generation all falling to this madness, each in his own way, despite all this pain and suffering, the soul could still cry amidst its howl, “holy, holy, holy holy…!” But Alexander has a solution, a clear, lucid, reasonable, optimism. “I am luckier than Ginsberg. I got to see the best minds of my generation identify a problem and get to work.”

This exciting work (irony of ironies) is nothing less than a twenty-first century rendition of Henry Adams’ Dynamo.

“And the whole point of Bostrom’s Superintelligence is that this is within our reach. Once humans can design machines that are smarter than we are, by definition they’ll be able to design machines which are smarter than they are, which can design machines smarter than they are, and so on in a feedback loop so tiny that it will smash up against the physical limitations for intelligence in a comparatively lightning-short amount of time. If multiple competing entities were likely to do that at once, we would be super-doomed. But the sheer speed of the cycle makes it possible that we will end up with one entity light-years ahead of the rest of civilization, so much so that it can suppress any competition – including competition for its title of most powerful entity – permanently. In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it’s on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.

And if that entity shares human values, it can allow human values to flourish unconstrained by natural law.”

Reading this, one has the impression that if only Ginsberg, writing in the fifties, had a deeper appreciation for the computing potential of computers, if only he could have lived in an age of more sophisticated processing units, and data analysis he could have encouraged the best minds of his generation into something more productive than their primal howl.

Alexander, in his defense, recognizes the hubris of his statement. But he does not apologize for it. Rather, he genuinely sees the possibility of mankind creating a more intelligent processing unit, which will in turn create a more intelligent one, etc, until one has emerged with such power that it will eliminate all of man’s competition, and thus Moloch himself, as Moloch will no longer have the lifeblood of human victims to sustain himself.

Finally, once Moloch has been cast down, not in one enclosed place only, but across the world, this machine, given that its origin, however far back, was born from human values, will share them with all mankind, and usher in a technological utopia. [Alexander, incidentally, is very free with this phrase “human values”. He never attempts to define it, nor even suggest that there may be some disagreement about what this is. He refuses to present his anthropology, as if his entire argument didn’t hinge upon it].

Thus he has brought us full circle. (1) Man is evil, or at the very least is constrained by an evil force so ubiquitous he cannot be cast off; nor can one compromise with the evil, because to compromise is to be his slave. (2) Man now has the ability to develop and program a machine that shares his human values. (3) Eventually, a much greater machine, far surpassing the processing ability of man will come to be, one that still shares the original human values its ancestor machine was given. (4) This machine can create a utopia for us, free from the evil of Moloch, because it is not human itself. (5) This utopia is born of, and built on, human values.

Therefore, somewhere along the way, this machine must have recast those vague human values, the ones that were bad in man, but are now good because they’re not in man. That seems to be the thrust of his argument. He’s already established that man cannot simply want good things, because Moloch is in him, and Moloch makes him evil. But somehow this machine, which is in one way a reflection of its original human creators, and in another way an entirely separate entity, a dynamo, that is free from Moloch because it’s really, really smart.

So much for Alexander’s Dynamo, then. But let’s return to the image of a garden. I find Alexander’s imagery here especially interesting, given his deep knowledge of the Tanakh. Although he dismisses the idea of an enclosed garden, Alexander still recognizes that it is a garden that we are after here. Let the machine bring us to a verdant, fruitful place with enough of everything to share. (Which is also why he thinks people with many children are deep in Moloch’s grasp–I mean, just look at how those people live!)

“The opposite of a trap is a garden. The only way to avoid having all human values gradually ground down by optimization-competition is to install a Gardener over the entire universe who optimizes for human values.”

This image of a Gardener in an excellent image: one who tends to everything, cultivates each plant to enable it to flourish, prunes and trims so that one plant cannot take over everything, one who takes what is unorderly and wild, in a constant state of competition, and brings all into harmony and beauty. Surely we can all agree that this is what humanity needs.

Well, I for one, couldn’t agree more with Alexander. He is absolutely right–until we have this Gardener (capital G) we will always be compromising with sin. What I wonder, though, is why he would choose such a personalist image to describe his perfect machine; gardeners typically do not optimize, they cultivate. They don’t rationalize, they beautify. Thus, I would add to his perfect machine: let’s develop one that cares for each person as a person, not merely a “cog in the Machine”. Let’s create a machine that will never sacrifice the one for the many, that will never accept the necessary burden of allowing one person to suffer and be marginalized for the sake optimizing the happiness of 100. Rather, let’s have a machine that goes in search of the one lost person, while the 99 are safe. Let’s have a machine that can empathize with our weakness for it has been tempted in every way that we are yet it does not sin.

Alexander has tried to work out a system in which through our own sinfulness we can give birth to something like us in all things but sin. Something that is human yet is beyond human. Something born of a woman yet of another origin (in a Kantian way, insofar as this thing is perfect in its rationality, one could even say it was “from the beginning”). Something that has the power to defeat the ancient curse, and free us from ourselves.

Ginsberg did not attempt to present a way out of Moloch’s clutches. He was content to praise God (in his own way) even as the evil drove him to madness. Adams too, did not see a way forward for his America. The Dynamo would consume them, the Virgin shrines would be desolate, yet he could not turn back to her. Alexander is right to recognize that this paradox can be broken. But he has not seen that this paradox can only be shattered by a greater paradox, the paradox of the Virgin, who resides still in her garden, enclosed, yet open to all the world.


A Networked Identity May Be Better

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. You can read Jared’s response here.]

Dear Jared,

Vogue ideas come in two types: the useful and wrong and the right but unproven. The idea of keeping one’s identity small is the former. Even a modest amount of questioning of the injunction to keep one’s identity small produces a much richer and more robust account of identity and how we should frame it to ourselves. You may start adulthood by pruning your identity, by all means, but to keep it small in perpetuity, I think, does violence to true flourishing.

‘Small id’ as I’ll call the concept begins from a good place. Two motivations led to Paul Graham’s ‘small id’ theory. The first, a desire to be able to think clearly about one’s own life without falling into cognitive traps, traps like motivated reasoning, taking only the inside view, or becoming immune to new information, and the second, a desire to stand outside the ceaseless cacophony of identity-based moralizing and prejudging, that is, to avoid the identity language which replaces explicit reasoning with a signal of group belonging. Both motivations aim towards making the world a kinder and more rational place.

The idea of the small identity attracts people who prefer propositions to group-based thinking – decouplers, Scott Alexander calls them, and for good reason. Identity words in language contain more connotation than denotation, and such a linguistic situation drives explicit reasoners mad. To identify as a rationalist, a philosopher, a Lord of the Rings fan, a Catholic, carries with it all sorts of unwanted associations, misapprehensions, and prejudgments from others. And to the explicit reasoner the only gain of identifying as something is belonging to a tribe at the cost of thinking clearly about any of those identities. But this is a false dichotomy and a confused formulation.

Around college, I stopped identifying as Catholic. When the topic of religion came up, I said instead, “I practice Catholicism,” which to me freed me from the notion of belief and the baggage of the -ism. At the time I rejected the existence of belief and identity! Furthermore, I did not want to be associated with a particular set of propositions, but instead with a particular set of actions. This was not a case of wishing to clear the space to think about the propositions more clearly. I simply didn’t want to use any identity-based terms in my vocabulary, but only to refer to actions themselves under the theory that action captured reality better than these nouns. But in truth, did anyone notice the language game I was playing? Nay, no. The absurdity here is obvious. If small identity were the right prescription, then why not reject all identity as I did? “I’m not your husband, honey, I just practice husbandry (and by the way I am great at it)!”

Rejecting all identity is impossible nonsense. But even aiming for smaller identities poorly applies to the goal of clearer thinking. A smaller identity does not free one from cognitive bias any more than a small kingdom is less worth defending to its inhabitants. A person might be more reasonable about a thousand things that have nothing to do with him, but still be infused with a blind and passionate zeal about the few remaining things. A balanced mind can illuminate all aspects of life without becoming far-sighted or near-sighted.

Julia Galef offers a different formulation to counteract the objection here, “Hold your identity lightly.” The phrasing here offers an elegant image of the soft touch. She has said that reducing one’s identity seems like it is asking too much, so she offers this seemingly more achievable advice. I think lightly held identity improves upon the small id concept, but still, we need clearer methods for achieving lightly held identity. To do so we need to define our key term.

Identity is used in many ways. Some people equate it with the thing one is tribal about, i.e. irrationally committed to. This relies upon reducing the entire concept of identity to one negative connotation “of caring too much.” In this view, having hills to die on at all is seen as suspicious. Julia Galef gives the example of programmers who overcommit themselves into some dogmatism about programming languages. I object that the problem of most nerdy people is not that their identities are too big, but rather that their identities are too small and thus they become a cartoon character, a two-dimensional caricature, focused upon trivialities because their identity has not expanded to contextualize their interests and loves. It is a little soul which doesn’t keep deeper thoughts and feelings in the background of their life.

Some people use identity to mean the whole person from the roles one occupies, to principled beliefs, to personal history. In this view identity simply means the explicit aspects of a person we can identify: Father, brother, husband, classicist, philosopher, teacher, rationalist, administrator, fan of LOTR, the Decemberists, Joel Coen movies, skier, rock climber, canoer, ex-traditionalist boarding school student, liberal, conservative, American, cosmopolitan, Catholic, nerd, and on and on forever. The problem with this maximalist view is that it totally ignores what motivates this conversation in the first place, which is that certain principles and loves, especially ones which are socially reinforced, are really dang difficult to examine well.

However, I think starting with the acknowledgment that identity is naturally large instead of the idea that identity is naturally irrational, gives us a better springboard for coming to hold ourselves lightly. As one reflects upon the multidimensionality of one’s own identity, I believe it becomes easier to scout out the geography of the self, to weigh the forces, to identify principal landmarks worth defending, and to choose better which hills to love dearly. Consider the self as a network. The more nodes and connections in the network, the less essential any single node is for the preservation of the network. In this model, self-examination is the process by which we knit together the nodes of self into a more coherent and better whole, while still maintaining a federated system.

Scrutiny of self causes less discomfort and criticism loses its sting when we can maneuver our mental forces among a variety of pathways. Sometimes a severe amendment of one node results in the loss of several others or whole branch gets pruned. I’d rather prune a great pine than a bonsai tree. I contend that a big identity adapts far better to the vicissitudes of life, is more open to critical inquiry, and can afford to change precisely because no single alteration to the ship of self undoes its entire identity, or in the case of the bonsai tree causes its death. Investigate your own nature to discover whether this frame works for you.

Thank you for entertaining my wandering thoughts on this little matter. In a very short time, I have grown a strong appreciation of your friendship and conversation.

Willing your good,

Questions on a Very Long Life

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis]

Dear Hamuel,

About 10 years ago my grandmother and I leaned on a balcony under moonlight in Florida. The black ocean licked sand so white that beneath the pale moon the sand glowed like an enormous, bioluminescent eel, a littoral Jörmungand waiting to be scratched by the bare toes of vacationers. My grandma said to me that summer night, “You know though I’m 68, in my heart I still feel like I’m 17.” When she was 17, she had her first kid, and thus that was the year of her adulthood. The implication was that the body ages but the soul still savors life, still loves youth and laughter, friends and song. If the eyes didn’t dim, and the mind didn’t go, and the knees didn’t ache, would we want to retire to eternal rest? Or would the sweetness inherent in life keep us here?

You and I discussed at length previously the passage in De Anima in which Aristotle posits that it is not vision which fails, and the soul does not grow old, and the intellect has the capacity to be eternal.

The case of mind is different; it seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. If it could be destroyed at all, it would be under the blunting influence of old age. What really happens in respect of mind in old age is, however, exactly parallel to what happens in the case of the sense organs; if the old man could recover the proper kind of eye, he would see just as well as the young man. The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle, as occurs in drunkenness or disease. Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassible. – De Anima 1.4 408b

As per our previous conversation about the immortality of the soul, I have some follow up questions about long-livedness. Let’s imagine, as an intuition pump, that you will live out your body’s 40’s over the course of about 500 years, during your last 50 years of life you will age normally. (A small population of people also partaking in the thought experiment may also live this long, but not very many as we don’t have FDA approval for mass testing). Given a much longer life span what would change?

  1. Would you change your behavior in life? If so, how and why?
  2. Would the nature of the good life change? No? But the requirements you would need to procure a good life would change, right? And if the necessary accidents for securing a good life change, then in what sense are they accidents if they are necessary? There’s a bit of a puzzle here.
  3. Do you think human psychology can adapt to deal with such an extended lifespan? Why or why not?
  4. If you could adjust the number of years you will live in those long 40s to any round number what is farthest you would be willing to go?

As always, I cast the questions in the most misleading and equivocating manner I could. Avoid the traps and hooks and take the best bait you can without getting reeled in.

Good swimming,