[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.]
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.