In the Electron Sea pt 1/6.

Father Peter Sal S.J. and Father Pierre Aristide S.J. walked along a mildly cracked sidewalk. Tiny green shoots clawed their way between the fractured tectonic plates of the concrete firmament. Next to the sidewalk a large sign before a small high tech building plainly sported the wafting gold logo ‘Shahrazad’, the logo of the most profitable tech company in the physical world. The two fathers walked in, they both supposed, for the last time.

Shahrazad was the largest Artificial Universe, AU, for short. An AU was like a tech platform and like a country. Like a tech platform it was a service provider, which other people could use to create content, talk with each other, and build things. Shahrazad was also like a country, in that once one emigrated there, you were then bound by the laws, rules, and limitations of this particular Artificial Universe. Shahrazad was not designed by humans but a third generation Artificial General Intelligence. Humans designed the first generation. The first generation designed the second, and the second designed the third. Humans built the hardware though (well, more or less), own the company, and allow the continued existence of Shahrazad.

Shahrazad, the official literature says, offers a platform for a flourishing and totally fulfilled life. It’s goal is a benevolent universe free from the harms of normal life in the prime Universe of gravity, scarcity, and chaotic events. To get in one must allow a scan of their entire physical structure to be recorded and uploaded over the course of three days, the body is left behind limply stretched out on a table, but the mind is then freely existing in a new universe adjacent the normal world of decay. Other AUs had existed. They were small, sometimes very unfortunate affairs. But by the current year Shahrazad was the only AU whose name anyone could remember. They were practically synonymous. At the time these priests entered the scene, approximately 200 million people lived in the Shahrazad universe.

The Catholic Church, committed to a consistent life ethic, the value and necessity of the human body, and preserving the body’s life until a natural death, had ample reason within its tradition to condemn the new technology; furthermore, fear of the possible powers humans could gain over one another in playing with the brain caused concern worldwide across religions and ethical systems. For twenty years no practicing Catholic had stepped into an AU, but through the still existing internet there were rumors of a small Catholic community formed within the Shahrazad AU who requested a priest to be sent in.

After six additional years of training the two Peters, Peter and Pierre were ready to begin a ministry without their original bodies and enter the Artificial Universe. Why had the Church agreed to this seemingly clear break from Catholic anthropology? For one, it was disputed whether a digital body is a body. People inside Shahrazad, unlike in previous AUs, professed that they did in fact have bodies that were in some hard-to-understand way continuous with their old bodies. Most theologians strongly disagreed with this self-assessment of the digital reprobates, but still there was no official condemnation of Shahrazad. A second reason was that the alleged Catholic community inside Shahrazad had produced some of the most amazing rpgs, games, music, literature, and philosophy. They fueled a small religious revival in the outer world with their creations, inspiring the young towards virtue and the old to reform. Their requests for ministers, though perhaps odd (why didn’t they think of themselves as religiously self-sufficient? Isn’t it surprising they wanted priests? There can’t be digital sacraments, can there?), could not be ignored.

One series created by this community concerned a powerful stateswoman, known for her sincere work for the common good, and her mentor, a well-seasoned people person, with clear vision on how respect and honor allow for cooperation and justice between governments. He had stopped several small wars and brought swift salvation to millions locked in impending humanitarian crises. He seemed a saint – always benevolent, helpful, fatherly. But, when he died, and his protege found his diary, she learned he was something quite different, a monster, not in deed, but in thought, in his mindset. Shocked by the revelation that her mentor’s inner thoughts were all ego, love of being a savior, and an insatiable pride locked in a prison of self-love, she was thrown into a crisis of faith, seeing that all the good done could be done for strange, barbaric, blasphemous motives. Questioning her own motives too, she quit government and joined a convent to pray and work in the most humble jobs she could. In turn, her former colleagues and enemies decided she resigned with the intention of embarrassing the government. Visiting her in the convent they were persuaded, not that she was seeking spiritual regeneration, but that she intended to sell state secrets. Taken from the convent under arrest, she was tried and condemned to Suspended Life, a type of digital suspended animation which at that time had replaced the death penalty. Her last words in the series were, “I go in humility to a new convent. I will pray for you all there.”

The series was such a successful drama that it inspired religious and irreligious people alike to search out and care for their motives and intentions. It’s authors were a certain Elias Elias and Takayama Ukon from the AU; they had made it for the outside world, for only the outside world watches series like that.

As they approached the glass cube building, Peter said, “I hope we don’t get bored in there.”

“If we do,” said Pierre, “then you’ll just have to teach me how to play Go.”

“I think even Go can get boring after a few thousand years.”

“But the AU is a type of jail. When you Go to Jail, you do not pass Go. Thus Go lasts forever since one can never get past it,” laughed Pierre.

“On the contrary, Go gets one to Saint Joseph, i.e. carpentry. ‘Go to Joseph’ is the saying. And carpentry offers infinite delights.”

“Not even a smiling Buddha would smile at that one.”

“Yeah, my puns today are touch and Go.”

“Go to Hades… and preach to the souls there.”

“We are about to, I believe,” Peter sad flatly.

“There are hearts of gold in the AU,” Pierre reminded him as they passed through the doors.

“If we didn’t believe it, we wouldn’t be here.”

At that moment, a burst of polyphonic song filled the atrium, Psalm 148 in Latin. The brothers had gathered to bid farewell to two of their number. Peter and Pierre made the rounds said their goodbyes, and went with the company receptionist into the uploading rooms to begin the process.

Mankind: The Dynamo

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. It is a response to John’s letter “The Prayer to the Dynamo” found here.]

Dear John,

What can human society become? Can human society be improved? Fear and trembling! The Third Reich wished to purify a nonexistent race! The Bolsheviks sought to reshape the conditions of society itself! They brought death and destruction. Robespierre enthroned another Moloch and called her Reason, and the Alhambra Decree sought to improve Spain through the dispossession of Muslims and Jews.

But has society improved? No small feat, yes, in many places all around the world. Rule of law, norms of civility, balance of powers, federalism, the incremental process, standardized production, specialization, high yield agriculture, the end of serfdom, literacy, numeracy, and online booksellers have created a freer, more prosperous, and a more fecund world. But even these little triumphs seem tiny compared to the problems we face as a society.

Society’s norms and technologies can improve, but each individual still suffers the same issues of impulse and weakness, fear and anger, love and death. The essential problem of life for the individual still concerns becoming a full person, even when basic needs are met. We still know the difference between what we wish for and what we have. That gap can only begin to be healed through transformations of the mind and heart, society may help or hinder but it can’t solve this problem for us.

I suppose you grant me all this, and you will even concede that our society can become a greater and grander and freer, more prosperous, and more creative thing than it is today. But you take exception to the idea that our machines will help us achieve this. Surely, though, machines are merely the most obvious outgrowth of the human genius, which has invented many subtle technologies such as the subjunctive and the subpoena.

Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm gray sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labor of stallion teams.
The light-boned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish, with one fling of his nets
woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
man the skilled, the brilliant!


The Chorus of Antigone goes on to say that man has a mind for law, law which he has taught himself. Without the law, man is a beast. Yet, not even this technology of man always secures a good society. Some laws are beastly. (Hence the play!) Some research programs lead only to destruction. Some technologies surely could destroy us, and in all honestly, the future holds more destructive ideologies and technologies than the past or present.

You say you know the supernatural destiny of man. But, the natural destiny of human societies remains a mystery. Death? Yes, ultimately. But when and where and how? What will we have become by that point? How much better could society become? Perhaps Moloch had us licked a million years before we got here. Yet we don’t know the destiny of society, but we should wish for its constant renewal and progress, even on the purely natural level of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and victory over chaos.

We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
1886 Bradshaw Tables

So I ask, is there any contradiction between a human society which overcomes its troubles and masters more and more of nature and an assembly of people whose souls have been healed? I see none; I want both! Thus we should hope for and work for both, for they will complement and invigorate each other.

Some see a contradiction because their religious instinct says there is only One Good, and that this love of productivity makes an idol of the Amazon Warehouse. (Moloch in the Warehouse pissing corporate profits into a bucket!) But I say, the Amazon Warehouse only exists because it provides goods, true goods to fellow people! Rejoice and thank the delivery person for their service. For this little package in the mail, while but a small good in the grand cosmic creation, truly is a good which one harvest day will be gathered up for the Sower who seeded all the goods of creation. And on that day all the goods created by the heart and mind and voices and hands of our human societies, including the little package that saw a dozen hands made of materials from a dozen countries, He will reckon up as a credit to humanity. He will give us our reward.

Thus, “Produce!” I shout. “Propagate!
Ensoul matter, ye rites rational!” For in utility’s gallant gait
Truth is put to use of soul and matter transubstantiates.

The Child of Generations Responds to Auden

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,

Building a Little Letter Republic

[This is an experimental project in letter writing as a renewed art form. You can read CeltAtom’s reply here.]

Dear CeltAtom,

You wrote to me recently mentioning what a pity it was that your friend was pulled in to the “California rationalists.” The implication, of course, was that this was a misuse of his great intellectual talents. Whether or not it was a misuse, I think, is a question worth pursuing at some other time (as you know, I’m more optimistic). But if we consider the likely causes of an intellectual move into the Less Wrong crowd, I think we can discover important lessons for ourselves and our own goals of building community in St. Louis.

The Rationalists come together in digital and sometimes physical space to engage in discoveries, projects, and conversations. And while most of this activity takes place online, nonetheless, the majority of participants are curiously located in the same geographic area. The reclusive rightly guided caliph of the rationalist blogosphere Scott Alexander moved to the Bay from Michigan. Even he needs community. Tyler Cowen, who is intellectually adjacent to the rationalsphere, mentioned that his Emergent Ventures applicants are dominantly from the “usual places” especially the Bay, even though there is no geographic barrier to entry. I think the lesson is that geography matters for community — even open, digital intellectual community.

Your puritanical commitment on the geographically local perplexed me for years. Yet considering that you coined the term “California rationalists” and I knew exactly what you meant speaks louder than my manifold protestations that community can easily be geographically agnostic — the word ‘easily’ was greatly mistaken. Yes, you are correct. I see that if we are to build ourselves an intellectual home it will be local. It must be here.

On the other hand, what good is a community that can’t attract people like your friend? Would I want to be part of a community which can’t be discovered and joined by great people, people filled with potential, who will keep me sharp and help draw out of me a better version of myself? This is another lesson. People leave their native lands for Oakland, not for Oakland, but for the community they discovered and engaged with digitally. They received some benefit from its open output, and now they will make a home there physically. I think the lesson is clear: agglomeration is key to community.

A paraphrase of Marshall’s economics text makes the point.

When a [community] has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same [mode of existence] get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in [community], in processes and the general organization of the [institutions] have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas. And presently subsidiary [groups] grow up in the neighbourhood, supplying it with implements and materials, organizing its traffic, and in many ways conducing to the economy of its material.

Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, 1890 – bracketed terms are mine

What the Bay Area has done is created an agglomeration of different types of rationalists and rationalist adjacent people through precisely these effects.

When you read the works of Seneca, Cicero and St. Augustine, you might notice that much of their work is actually in the form of long discursive letters. These letters, like Seneca’s on friendship were both public and private. On the private side they were motivated by the conversation with a particular person; they are addressed to that person; and they are written to persuade that person. On the public side, the author expected the letter to be shared, shown, distributed, copied, and forwarded to anyone who could benefit from its contents. This is why we still have these letters today.

Similarly, the Enlightenment era Republic of Letters allowed people from the salons and clubs of Europe to stay in touch, receive encouragement, hear of latest discoveries, and, importantly, extend its reach to promising new members. Most of the American Founders were were part of a community of letters: Benjamin Franklin had David Hume, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Condorcet internationally, but locally he had his Junto, which was probably important for development in Philadelphia in many not-so-obvious ways. Letters and local community however were separate affairs in that era. Nonetheless, Franklin brought the value of an international community to his local community by founding a library which housed the latest volumes. He tried to build the culture he wanted to see in the world.

These Antique and Enlightenment era letters also revealed a certain code of conduct, a morality of the scholar, which was built upon a level of courtesy, (the Newton and Leibniz episode excepted), scholarly integrity, and open-handedness combined with rigor and a critical eye.

I submit that if we are to build community in St. Louis, its existence should be discoverable online, but its activity and direction should be local. If we are good, we will attract new good people – like your friend – to us. Nonetheless, our focus should be geographically constrained, because the thing to build and improve is a community here.

You, CeltAtom, are my primary audience. But if others can benefit from this communication, I want them to.

Cheerfully yours,

At Wendy’s Near an Interstate

He sits slumped over with a Where’s Waldo scarf

Slowly sucking down salty Wendy’s fries.

Slowly drooping over like an overladen branch

Slowly shutting down his eyes like a sun eclipsed.

His limp wrist dangles his five purple thumbs

Suspended by an elbow planted firmly on the table.

By that planted elbow a notepad sits with some ink.

The booth is overflowing with his girth, with his mass. 

“Is he breathing?” question the people as they pass.

I return to that notepad, which somber makes me think

A suicide note, or manifesto of a dream gone down the sink,

Or it could be a wish that’s at last been fulfilled.

Is that body breathing? Has he been killed?

His alarm beeps every five, for some meds or is it work?

He doesn’t stir or answer, but his fingers twitch and jerk.

It could be diabetes, a seizure, or a stroke.

Perhaps Lazarus is sleeping, the normal weary folk.

I creep to observe, as the alarm goes off again.

And sure enough he’s breathing, his life goes on and then,

My thought return to that notepad. Alack! What does it say?

Perhaps he’s dying very slowly, and the notepad points the way

To save him from this process of very slow decay.

Closer yet I get and entitled on the page.

3/15/21 it reads, a journal entry of a sage!

Do I dare read on, this man’s soul which laid bare?

I dare not, I dare not, for fear of what lies there.

I get my Wendy’s order. And awake the sleeping man.

“We thought it was a heart attack.”

He wakes, “Long week. Pretty sucky.

“No, not a heart attack – I’m not that lucky.”

Science and Technology Read 2020

The Devil’s Doctor by Philip BallTerribly meandering book. Had very little to do with Paracelsus, mostly because the author realized that Paracelsus is an incomprehensible charlatan. However, The book offers a very pleasant overview of 16th century flavor. And has good references to more interesting vistas, namely De Re Mettalica.
De Re Metallica by Georg AgricolaA thorough and systematic treatment of metals from finding the ore, to setting up the company, to digging, refining, and crafting. I wish more books were like this! This is a true science and engineering text. Perhaps the first truly comprehensive one in history. The Hoovers were wise to translate this and promote its place in the history of science.
Every Tool’s A Hammer by Adam SavageInspirational anecdotes about creating things.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua FoerJournalist adventures into the art of memorizing. This volume while filled with stories, had just enough information for the reader to figure out how to start crafting memory palaces, and begin their own adventures in memorization.
Speed Reading in a Week by Tina KonstantI wanted to investigate the speed reading literature because even a modest improvement in my reading speed could mean an extra book or two read per year.
Evelyn Wood Speed ReadingBut it turns out that speed reading only kind of exists as a learnable skill. Most of the techniques are actually just extensions of the methods for reading well found in How to Read a Book, which is a far better use of one’s time.
Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, Mark LynasMark Lynas is environmental activist who advocates nuclear and GMO proponent. In the book he talks about the anti-nuclear myths held by a lot of green activists which are holding back the fight against climate change.
I didn’t know about these myths, but somehow I had come to believe some of them, especially the idea that nuclear waste is a BIG PROBLEM holding back scaling up nuclear power production. Turns out it’s not.

People are the under the impression that if a reactor goes bad or is hit by an earthquake it will explode killing hundreds of people and damaging the environment for centuries. But a Japanese Nuclear Plant close to the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake took no damage, and while Fukushima melted down, 1 person died and there was some environmental contamination.

But other sources of power contaminate the lungs of workers, spill in the oceans, and spread CO2 in the atmosphere (or as the other alternate fuels are – inefficient and are NIMBY’d to death). To the bigger political point though, nuclear energy summons great fears in the minds of people; the grassroot support isn’t there.
Wiring CompleteVery helpful guide in how to wire things around the house! Highly Recommended!

Philosophy and Economics Read 2020

De Anima Commentaries by Themistius, Avicenna, Therese Corey, Averroes. Reading De Anima and the history of commentaries upon is like watching the same movie as imagined by many different directors. This philosophical tradition is so thorough in its discussion of questions that anything short of this method feels inadequate.
Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen. He’s not Aristotle, but he offers a fresh take on what it means to be a worldly philosopher, in other words, a philosopher interested in the good of the world. Although I still have no idea what the title of this book means, I can tell you that content concerns a eloquent apologia for making sustainable economic growth as moral concern, something we should care about. I would be sold but moral concerns and logical arguments only work on honest and virtuous people.
The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior by David C. Rose considers the basic decalogue that must be secured in order for there to be economic behavior. Inspired by his rule-based vision of moral foundations, I wrote a little list of seven rules that match it with the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Painting and Reality by Etienne Gilson. You can’t recreate the Sistine Chapel without the Michelangelo’s dyes! Beautiful reflection on the unique aesthetic qualities of painting.
De Rhetorica by Aristotle plus a few commentaries by Adam Smith. How is that one mind can speak so well on so many topics? In this blockbuster Aristotle instructs the eager philosophical public on how to bend the mind and emotions towards truth through the power of language. Adam Smith offered a pleasant insight in his Belles Lettres lectures when he cautioned that when the audience is positively disposed be like Aristotle, when they are negatively disposed be Socratic in one’s speech.
Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. This was pleasant dose of encouragement on how to survive in the age of information and noise and to be more accommodating to people who differ from me. The book is really a call for magnanimity. But most importantly it pointed me in the direction of Das Glasperlenspiel.
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. The book on social capital, but do I even recommend it? It was solid, but soulless.
Big Business A Love Letter to an American Antihero by Tyler Cowen. While the author sees this book as a failed project, I came away with some important data and hard to rebut counterarguments to some common cultural assumptions about how business works. Some arguments I thought were quite weak or unappealing (I would prefer if businesses unrelated to culture did not become the arbiters of culture and orthodoxy…), but the chapters on CEO pay, inequality, and big tech made up for the small weaknesses. To me it was a huge success. Recommended.
Creative Destruction: Globalization and the World’s Cultures by Tyler Cowen. Look on the sunny side of globalized culture… there are Swedish musicians who specialize in Americana and Blues Rock, and Turkish musicians who make rap. But it cuts the other way too. I get to listen to Turkish folk music and Finnish pop and All of Bach! Demand for all genres is actually up, and musicians can access a global audience.
The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat. A rhapsody on American culture. I like Ross’ writing.
A Time to Build by Yuval Levin. A fairly light read, it is more of a sermon than a serious treatise. The thesis of the book is that institutions are supposed to form each of us into a particular type of person. They ought not be mere platforms for self-glorification and expression. The goal of an institution is to coordinate people around certain ideals and mission, not merely to apply intelligence and efficiency to solving problems, but to apply character and integrity in the fulfillment of obligations and responsibilities. (It’s some timely moralizing, I’d say!) Here is a nice quote from the book:
“Many Americans are not lucky enough to have the benefit of a flourishing family, or the opportunity for rewarding work, or an uplifting education, or a thriving community, or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings. All of these institutions now need us, and we can help by taking them seriously.”
Russian Conservatism by Paul Robinson. “There are more types of Russian Conservatism, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Revolt of the Public

Ex-CIA digital media analyst, Martin Gurri, explored the politics of negation in 2014 and updated his thesis in 2018 in The Revolt of the Public.

The Revolt comes in pink.

The major thesis is that while the public becomes more highly networked and integrated with each other, elites have remained about as removed as they were pre-internet. This high visibility highlights their many failures, creates widespread distrust in their authority, and enables various revolts against the status quo in the form of (usually unreasonable) demands. The typical elite response is bewilderment and indignation. The savvy elite response is joining the public in blaming the leaders, the bureaucracy, or whatever malevolent force it is, and denouncing the system they are apart of.

Chesterton’s quip about love gains new meaning when the concept of neighbor becomes everyone we encounter on and because of the internet. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people,” (Illustrated London News, July 16, 1910). This is why Christians are known for their calm and loving presence in the midst of Facebook flame wars…

The key, I believe, to getting the most out of this book, is to avoid thinking about the book in terms of our own favored political armies, and instead to focus on our personal self-adaptation. A noisier world is upon us. Living well within it is the challenge. The movements of today flash out like solar flares. Suddenly a mass of people can turn against an election, or a particular company, a particular minority, a city government, a court, a religion or a statue, a sector of the economy, or a nation. Indeed, anyone can be a besieger and anyone can be besieged by a suddenly formed public. And since criticism is cheap and available, we tend to engage in it too and judge ourselves vigilant and intelligent for seeing all the wrong.

Chesterton’s response is that “what embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism,” (“On Bright Old Things and Other Things,” Sidelights on New London and Newer New York). For if we fail to see our own failures, we will fail to forgive others their own. Martin Gurri’s response adds a little more detail than this. Building trust across a nation built on traditional brick-and-mortar hierarchies requires humility, integrity, and openness. He spells this out as the only way forward for systems to appear legitimate in a highly connected world.

I am concerned with how to build trust in an age of distrust. How to build well and offer a positive vision despite all noise, much of it vile. Martin Gurri’s book lays out a solid analysis of one level of the forces at work, but there are many others. Ideology, economy, laws and culture still matter. However all of these are influenced by the lightning fast information age.

Fortunately integrity in the internet age is about the same as integrity has always been, we just have to use the new tools to fulfill it. At the personal level: never lie, explain your reasons for what you’re doing/believing, be open about the good you wish to do, be open for input, strive for virtue, take responsibility for your actions. In your organizations, serve your clients and colleagues, take responsibility for their good, encourage them to also strive for virtue, be open for input, create goals (and be led by them!), and never lie.