Monday, July 15, 2019

Trustworthiness is Potential Simplicity

Potential simplicity is the ability to store up the ability to simplify one's life (reduce consumption), in advance of needing to. Trustworthiness is proposed as a source of potential simplicity.

Trustworthiness is Potential Simplicity

Degrowth: intentionally shrinking the economy. Overall, everyone consumes less and works less.There are different reasons why we might want to make this happen. We can live simpler lives. We can have more time to think, walk, socialize, sleep, pray, listen to music, stare at the wall, meditate -- anything time-consuming but not resource-intensive. Also, we can impose less of a burden on Earth: less soil depletion, species extinction, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and so on -- all of which affect how much we and our descendants have to suffer, and how likely we can survive as a civilization -- maybe even as a species.

How can we consume less as a society? To an extent, we can blame the rich. They do consume more than poorer people. But both rich and poor have to consume less. And we all have to consume less of the things that make our personal lives function. Everyone needs to eat, most everyone needs some kind of shelter sometimes, most everyone needs to get around, and there are a few other basic needs. We have to shift our basic needs from expensive versions of them, to inexpensive ones. The poor in the United States, for instance, make less than $12,480 a year (the official poverty line). $12,480 is a huge amount of money compared to what the poorest in some other countries make (closer to $500 a year). Poverty is expensive in the US.

So everyone in the US, on average, has to consume less, pay out of their food, housing, transportation. Somehow this is possible -- people in other parts of the world already do it.

It's possible to crash the economy by the average person consuming too little, too suddenly. So rather than suggest that everyone simplify their lives (no more restaurants, suburban houses, or minivans; everyone switch to peanut butter and white bread, SROs, and bus-riding), I think it safer for now to encourage everyone (as many as possible), to increase their potential to simplify.

How would this work? One way is to explore simpler lifestyles so that they seem less psychologically daunting. Take it one element at a time, and go back to full consumption whenever you want to try a different element. If society is comfortable with simplification, we will have more political will available if there's ever a time we can simplify all together, at once, in an economically safe way.

(If you really like a simpler lifestyle, you can spend what you save from simplicity on charities, such as those that alleviate poverty in developing countries. I am not an economist, but I think in our global economy, if the charity spends the money, or gives away the money, in some part of the world, global spending will remain the same as if you spend at home, and the global economy will have as much cash flowing through it as it's already balanced to function with.)

Another approach is to amass any kind of non-economic wealth that can help out economically. One example is given here, which I will call "potential simplicity". An object in motion can run into things and cause a scene, and can have a lot of kinetic energy. An object at rest, doing nothing visible may, depending on its position, can have a lot of potential energy. The economy is a somewhat delicate system that can't handle too many wild or sudden energies. But potential economic energy, in the form of potential simplicity, for instance, shouldn't be a problem, and can be built up with gusto. Here's an example of potential simplicity related to housing:

When you pay $800 for a room in a house, what are you paying for? Some of that money goes to maintain the house itself. But a lot of it goes to some property owner, and they spend it on food, housing, cars, etc, and who knows what else. Well, what are they doing for you, the renter? You can maintain the house itself without paying them.

Who builds houses in the first place? People with money. So they would only do this act if they thought they could get their money back through rent. So built into the housing market is the cost of building new houses. If an area is easy to build in, housing prices are lower. If people want to live somewhere badly enough, developers will find some expensive way to accommodate that desire.

In my neighborhood, there are some apartment buildings, and some tract houses, built long ago when the area was the edge of town. Because rent in San Diego is going up (or perhaps partly for other reasons), gradually these tract houses are being converted to rental properties.

The rental properties (I would guess) use each of their available bedrooms, or close to that level of occupancy. But the tract houses can easily have fewer than one person per bedroom. San Diego has high rent due to lack of supply relative to demand, but could accommodate its current demand at a lower price, and build fewer new units (use less energy, fewer material resources) if tract house occupants used all of their rooms.

Why would anyone buy a house and not use all its bedrooms? Sometimes people use bedrooms for purposes other than living quarters. A home office or gym, for instance. Can these uses be converted to housing people? If the value of a room is $800 a month (about what it can be in my city), then it might be worth finding a way to make alternative uses of the space. Being a regular at a coffeeshop ($150 a month) (or just working in a different part of your own home) could replace a home office, and a gym membership could be less than $100 a month.

Another reason is that people bought a house when their children were young, and the children have "left the nest" and now they don't want to move. In this case, they do not rent for different reasons, some of them being that they haven't thought of it, and also, importantly, that people aren't always trustworthy and wouldn't make good tenants. It's not worth saving some money if you go crazy or get taken advantage of.

"Trustworthiness" can be reckoned different ways. (Consider the hierarchy of betrayal). If you have to live with someone day in and day out for years, you might not be able to bear issues that you could pass over for a week or two.

As people age, they tend to get isolated. So what if, as you are in your twenties, thirties, and forties, you invest in relationships with people with whom you could share your house when you are in your retirement years? This would be a way to store up potential simplicity.

So far I've only talked about the gains that could come from using all bedrooms as single bedrooms, rather than for other uses. But some people share bedrooms, usually cohabiting couples or spouses, or siblings, but in principle, any two sufficiently compatible people could share a room. The potential gains in space from this cultural innovation (or re-discovery) would enable San Diego to house something less than twice as many people without building any new units. Judging from my bedroom, two people like me (I don't have too much stuff) could share a ~11x13-foot space with a certain amount of inconvenience / adjustment. One adjustment would be to coordinate sleep schedules and times to have the room to oneself. This would be workable, if the other person were trustworthy.

There are two angles to this problem of finding trustworthy people: finding people who work for you, and making yourself someone who works for more other people. There are parallels with dating. Fortunately, the two pursuits overlap a lot, so that energy spent in one area has a return in the other. One would pursue friendships, learning what kind of people work and what kind don't, turning away from the aspects in you that do not respect other people, learning to forgive, accepting back people who can be trusted and moving on from people who can't, learning to not be addicted to people but instead being in some sense emotionally independent.

Some attention needs to be paid to the art of living with other people, and developing attitudes of the heart specifically optimal for living with other people, overcoming bad habits that don't come up when you have more space. Not as much as in a marriage, because these rooming or housing partnerships don't have to be as long-term or as personally involved, but comparable.

A group house of four or eight people has different dynamics than a studio apartment shared by two people. So it is good for some people to learn how to spend time together and manage common resources as a group.

In order to pursue friendships, one would seek groups of people from which to find friends. One might also develop the life path of being quiet and not needing as much human connection, to share a house or a room with someone like that. Trustworthiness varies -- as far as humans are concerned, only consists of not betraying some other person and society at large.

Trustworthiness is both a trueness of heart, inner strength, and a learned skill. People call some people "real, deep, legit" -- such is good material for trustworthiness.

Interpersonal trustworthiness, directed toward shared housing, can be an economic and environmental asset. Fortunately, it's a value shared both by the left and the right. Also, it's a value that pays dividends to individuals even if society as a whole does not commit to the norm of shared housing. It can be extended piecemeal. The poverty of the materially rich is isolation and broken relationships, and the poverty of the materially poor can include these as well -- a message that can be profitably heard by people from all different socioeconomic groupings. As it is a potential for economic change and not a direct economic change, it may be able to pass under the radar of the forces that try to constrain individual spiritual lives to patterns which preserve the economic or political status quo (which is both oppressive and fragile and could fall apart).

I have focused on housing so far, but how does this affect transportation? Probably the "cleanest" solution to transportation problems is to find ways to locate people closer to their jobs or anything else they travel to regularly. People who know and trust more people have more choices of where to live with other people, allowing them to move closer to work. It would probably make sense to create "company town" type scenarios (cluster complementary workplaces in neighborhoods where their workers and support personnel live). This involves a certain amount of uprooting and rerooting of people, which is easier if people have strong relational ties with those they live with, overall emotional bases, and a greater ability to get along with strangers, and improved by working on trustworthiness.

What about food? The spread of vegetarianism and veganism is a low-hanging fruit, but we may still need to eat less per person. How can we deal with constant hunger? To some extent, we can adjust to it, get to where we don't need as many calories. But to a certain extent, it will never comfortable. How can we get through mass discomfort? The skills of patience (endurance and waiting) are improved by trustworthiness toward others, as well as having a good relationship with yourself. When you relate well to yourself, you can tell yourself "no" and believe yourself when you promise yourself that things will be better in the future, when you will get what you desire. (Much of what we seek from other people in relationships, and what we get from the process of increasing trustworthiness overall, is really about our relationships with ourselves.)

There are other basic needs, which should be considered in more detail elsewhere. In general, it is easier to consume less of a resource if you have some compensating factor, a rich relationship, a lack of abusiveness in your life.

When a certain number of people are ready to simplify, a regulatory body (probably a government) can put out advertisements encouraging people to cut back on their consumption, for instance by moving into their friends' houses to free up housing. We will all know what's going on and be able to plan for the decrease in housing construction as a society, or whatever other consequence comes from simplification.

This article has been mostly written with those on the left in mind, more secular people, or religious believers with some degree of sympathy with secular culture, or at least those accustomed to it. But the basics of this article are valid and obligatory for those on the Christian right as well. (My sympathies lie with them as well as with those on the left.) How so?

Perhaps what follows will seem like something out of left field to secular readers, but it's important to remember that the world we all share is large and contains many different points of view.

Sin is that which God finds unacceptable. God does not like it when we do not respect him, or other people. Much of what is considered sin falls under that category of disrespect. God does not want us to sin. So if we are in tune with God, we will sin less. Are we ready to be in the Kingdom? Or are we holding on to sin? I like the motto of this site: "Overcome Sin, for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is Coming Soon". Maybe the end will come through climate change, or maybe not. People have thought the world was ending before and been wrong. Maybe the world is ending in a year. There's a lot we don't know, but the Kingdom is coming soon, and so, overcome sin.

It's the Christian's task to build up the Church, which often means, building up a particular local congregation. "They will know that we are Christians by our love" -- "Let love be genuine" -- so relationships within churches need to be strong and not abusive, characterized by respect. This is a good in itself, but can also connect to surviving on Earth in difficult times. Even if climate change is a left-wing hoax, building up trustworthiness is a good idea.

Simplicity is a Christian value. You can't serve both God and Mammon (possessions). You can have possessions without serving them in your heart, but if have more than you need and are unwilling to give them up to honor God, then you are serving them. Forget about degrowth. That's a secular agenda. Be simple for Christian reasons.

So, many different kinds of people can see the use of simplicity and trustworthiness which feeds into it. Therefore, potential simplicity (and then simplicity itself) could actually be adopted as a mass value and put into practice. In 50 years, or 20, (or sooner?), policymakers could use this resource to lower rents and cut greenhouse gas emissions. And Christians could be closer to God. And for more pessimistic minds, trustworthiness and relational wealth, and the ability to live with less, are a good thing for everyone to develop, in the event of societal collapse.

Empathy of the Image of Suffering

I'm reading a biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. He fought in World War I. There's a description of trench warfare in the book: no sleep, cold, wet, people froze to death, had lice, got diseases, and when they tried to fight, mostly they just got killed, and there was chemical warfare. Tolkien lost all but two of his childhood and college friends to the war.

Tolkien was scarred by the war, but went on to be a father and husband, write books, have a career. Reading the description of World War I, I had a feeling of "how could a person live through that?" But I think I was getting caught up in the image of hardship and suffering, rather than the reality. I don't know what trench warfare is like from personal experience, so instead I imagine the way it is. To actually go through it is to have to live through it, you're living through it, you can live through it (although not everyone survived). Death is something you live through when it comes, you're living through it, in a sense you can live through it, it is something you can bear when it comes.

One of the failure modes of empathy is when it becomes about the image of someone else's suffering or hardship rather than the reality. The person who is living through it can get through it, or even die from it in an acceptable way, but the person on the side fears for them, feels pity for them, feels discouragement for them, based on the image. Cowardice or lack of self-confidence, self-pity, and a spirit of depression make it harder for a person to live through their real suffering and hardship, and can be communicated from the "empathy of the image" person to the person actually suffering.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Orthogonal to History

"King Emeric's gift has thus played an important role in enabling us to live the monastic life, and it is a fitting sign of gratitude that we have been offering the Holy Sacrifice for him annually for the past 815 years."


I saw this on Twitter and wanted to retweet it, as a strange orthogonality to the mindset of climate activism. Are the monks bad for not caring about climate change (assuming from this one tweet that they do not)? Can they be allowed to look at time so differently?

In a sense, the monks are much more connected with history, with past events. But there's another sense of "history", that of "the cumulative development of human civilization or decline, worked out in world affairs". The monks (from this one tweet) seem to be very disconnected from the latter kind of history. To clarify, we could say that the monks are connected to the past, but not to history.

I think about my own writing, which is often about what I know: interpersonal relationships and the inner life. I'm not quite as detached from history as the monks appear to be, but aren't there bigger things to worry about than trust and trustworthiness, sensitivity and being true-hearted? In the short run, probably not. In times of war, you have to fight. But we lose wars because of the times of peace before them. And whole generations grow up and die in the midst of the end of the world. The end of the world has been on the table, in a way, from 1939 to the present. "All times are now": we live part of our lives in the long-term life, or even the post-scarcity life, and this informs how we are overall. Children grow up without being aware of the end of the world and how it's ending right now, and how they grow up affects how they participate in history later in life.

To an extent, the long-term view of life is a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as the short-term view of life is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

None of the above assumes that the monks are right about there being such a thing as eternal life. If you are connected to the eternal, you can be orthogonal to history. History is about how human desires provoke a reaction from other humans, based on their desires. Or how human fears react to situations, producing new situations. Maybe it's too late for orthogonality to save us from history, but perhaps we have only made it this far because of it.

Orthogonal, Acute, Oblique

Angry and Welcoming are opposites, point away from each other, like negative infinity and positive infinity on a number line. Hungry is orthogonal, is at right angles to that number line.

But Hunger is in some ways like Anger. So maybe it is "at angles" to Anger, like a line making an acute angle with the "number line" from Welcoming to Angry.

Then it is "oblique" to Welcoming.

But Hunger is a humbling feeling and can cause people to open themselves to other people in order to get food. In that case, Hungry could be at angles to or acute to Welcoming. So then, overall, Hungry is orthogonal to Angry and Welcoming. It favors both opposites in different circumstances and is also something distinct from both.

Hungry, then, is not purely orthogonal to Angry and Welcoming. Something purely orthogonal might be ... not easy to find. Maybe Symmetrical comes close (someone who is symmetrical (as much as humans are) doesn't find that symmetricalness affecting their Anger or Welcomingness).

Bridging the Abyss, Breaking the Gravity

One of my favorite passages from The Dispossessed is as follows (p. 322 in the Harper / Voyager edition, thanks to this site for making it easy to find online):

Takver woke at dawn. She leaned on her elbow and looked across Shevek at the gray square of the window, and then at him. He lay on his back, breathing so quietly that his chest scarcely moved, his face thrown back a little, remote and stern in the thin light. We came, Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that's already between us, the difference of our sex, the difference of our being, our minds; that gap, that abyss which we bridge with a look, with a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back...

This passage can be used to talk about phenomena which are both impossible and easy.

As a counterpoint, consider a powerful gravity, an inevitability, which can be broken by simply turning the head to look the other way.

"All Times Are Now"

Someone I know observed that in Africa, every stage of development exists at once. There are traditional cultures in the Congo Basin, artisanal gold miners in Mali, all the way to technology start-ups in Rwanda and South Africa.

We don't have as much range in the developed world, but we do have, for instance, both scarcity-based and post-scarcity lifestyles. Many people have to work to live -- scarcity. Some people are NEETs: Not in Employment, Education, or Training, and effectively, they're living in the post-scarcity world. When a scarcity person gets off work, they no longer live in the world of scarcity as much, may be able to disconnect themselves from concerns like climate change or global poverty -- not as much living in the world of scarcity.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Betrayal Machines

A betrayal machine: people are put together as betrayal machines. There's some component which causes you to trust them. And then there's a payload of betrayal that gets you when your defenses are down.

Your defenses can be lowered by good aspects of other people as well as their defense-lowering tactics. People can prove trustworthy on lower levels of the hierarchy of betrayal only to betray on higher ones.

The payload of betrayal might be a hatred only known to the betrayer, or perhaps some tendency unknown to them. To take a not-so-emotional example, if your arm spasms and jerks out, you could strike someone by mistake. This ongoing spasm goes with you wherever you go, as though you were possessed by a demon. Often enough, the spasming-arm is an emotion. If you are a person with a "spasming arm", on some level you're always aware of it during or immediately after the motion, but on another level, you might not be, for having become so used to its random or irregular re-occurrence.

[See also Inherent Danger of Trustworthiness.]

The Hierarchy of Betrayal

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is familiar. It can be depicted using a pyramid. On the bottom of the pyramid are needs like food, sleep, sex, and temperature regulation. Next up there are social needs and emotional needs. When we have satisfied the lower needs, we can then worry about and try to satisfy the needs the next level up.

Perhaps the need to be loved can sometimes be at the very bottom of the pyramid, and sex can be a level up -- "no one died from not having sex", some say, while babies that are emotionally neglected fail to thrive. I think Maslow may have meant not that we really need sex but that if we don't satisfy that need, it's all we think about until we do, thus it is a subjective need, if not really an objective need. Maslow put "self-actualization" as the top need of the pyramid, to be sought when all others have been satisfied, but perhaps there is even something higher.

The "Hierarchy of Betrayal" works like this: when someone is trustworthy with the more basic things, they can then betray you on deeper, higher-on-the-pyramid ways. The glowering person in the street might stab you, but won't break your heart, and only a real sweetheart can gradually lead you away from your deepest values.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Cultural Moloch

In this post I relate cultural evolution to Moloch and existential risk. Updated 5 July 2019.

I realize that you may not have time for this article, but let me prepare you to read it. It's about how competition gets us to reject the delicate things (whatever doesn't help competition) -- a tendency called "Moloch". We can try to fight against Moloch. Ideas in culture, cultures themselves, compete, in a sense, and can get us to no longer value the delicate things we once would have fought for. If our culture is particularly fluid, it can lead us to finding human existence itself unnecessary, and we will die out. So we might want to do something about this.

This dying could happen in some distant future that's difficult for us to imagine right now. Or it could be going on right now. Our lack of political will in facing climate change might just be the result of cultural Moloch.

On re-reading this, I can see that it might be an offputting read. People find me "scattered and disjointed". I don't have much of a mind for organizing this at this time. If you want to read this, read it as a document to be studied, a flawed statement. Read all the links. Read it twice. If my mind worked differently, were more capable in some ways, I'd make this a smoother read for you, but I don't think you will be unrewarded if you approach it as I suggest.

Cultural Moloch

On Slate Star Codex recently (here, here, here, here, and here), Scott Alexander writes about the topic of cultural evolution. Some people in a culture are overall successful, and their neighbors are wired to copy them. They copy each other without really understanding what they're doing, which is just as well because the successful people don't really understand why what they're doing works. People who are more successful have more children reach reproducing age, so the cultures associated with successful reproduction persist. New culture happens when people have trouble accurately remembering the old culture, or they do something foolish and it works or (what I don't remember seeing stated directly in Alexander's posts, but which David Maybury-Lewis claims in Millennium: Tribal Wisdom) someone thinks really hard about the problem culture might solve or does deliberate trial and error akin to a modern inventor or scientist, and figures out an advance. The advance apparently solves the problem they set out to solve, but whether it really solves the problem, or doesn't cause some other problem somewhere else in the system of the tribe's lifestyles remains to be proved by the prosperity of the tribe over time.

Alexander wrote a good blog post called "Meditations on Moloch". Moloch, in his article, is a god that demands you sacrifice your children. Gods are those which we propitiate as much as those which we take to have any power to bless us or connect with us personally. So Moloch need not be a living personal being, and Alexander as a materialist wouldn't think that it is. For Alexander, Moloch is the tendency to throw away things, persons, values, etc. which are not useful in competition, in order to take over or survive. As time goes on, the tendency is for everything to get more and more Molochian. Why wouldn't it?

I have already written a theory in my this booklet about how Moloch can be combated: get the least Molochian people in your society and egg them on to extreme effort (part of Jesus' teachings). But it occurred to me when reading Alexander's recent posts that, when it comes to cultural evolution, maybe what you do instead to respond to the "Problem of Moloch" is take your "precious children" values and call them something else. A good Molochian ideology causes you to forget that you sacrificed any children at all. So is there no reason to wring one's hands over Moloch after all? Everything will be right in the end. We will consent after the fact. Is there, or should there be, no inherent resistance to this "child-forgetting"?

What might be some examples of this "child-forgetting"? One thing that I've noticed is that there was this moment where people really cared about nihilism in the West. Nietzsche is one example, towards the beginning, Francis Schaeffer another toward the end of the moment. He wrote about how "historic Christianity" provides the answers to all the existential confusion and longing of his day. I found a book at the used bookstore, didn't have to pay much for it, called The Wind is Howling by Ayako Miura. It was put out by InterVarsity Press, a Christian publisher, and it's about how the author converted from nihilism to Christianity. It's from 1970, although published in English in 1977. Schaeffer's writings were from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. So it looks like people cared about meaning up until around 1980, from those two datapoints.

I remember reading Schaeffer as a college student in the 2000s and thinking, "Wow, except this is mostly irrelevant to my current situation." I don't want to say that we're living in the time of the "last man" in the way that Nietzsche observed-and-predicted, but there's something "last-mannish" about our times.

The "last man", from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (tr. Walter Kauffman, prologue, section 5):

"'What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?' thus asks the last man, and he blinks.

"The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.

"'We have invented happiness,' say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.

"Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.

"One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.

"No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.

"'Formerly all the world was mad,' say the most refined, and they blink.

"One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled -- else it might spoil the digestion.

"One has one's little pleasure for the day and one's little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.

"'We have invented happiness,' say the last men, and they blink."

And here ended Zarathustra's first speech, which is also called "the Prologue"; for at this point he was interrupted by the clamor and delight of the crowd. "Give us the last man, O Zarathustra," they shouted. "Turn us into these last men! Then we shall make you a gift of the overman!" And all the people jubilated and clucked with their tongues.

In a way, Nietzsche expresses things better than I ever will. And yet we have forgotten Nietzsche, and we are immune to Nietzsche. Who wants to become a Nietzschean nowadays? Nietzsche is not a person we want to emulate. Nietzsche jabs at people of his day, but we are not the people of his day. We have our own concerns, have shifted into a new context. Nietzsche is obsolete.

But there's something in Nietzsche... Nietzsche flying to a certain faraway star, some star having already reached inside of him from far away, having already reached inside of us. But Nietzsche is right that people in the secular, liberal, modern order tend to actually desire to be the "last man", or something like the "last man". What could possibly cause us to fight against the cultural Moloch which pulls us down into "him"?

It occurred to me that growing up I listened to a lot of They Might Be Giants. Just the other day I could sing most of one of their songs from memory. But I barely remember any of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. What's up with that? Who should we really remember, King, or TMBG? TMBG solves a problem that is with us now, how to connect young people with their feelings about having discovered the joy of music as privileged youth. Does King solve a problem we have with us? Racism is still with us. But no, we remember King, when we do, because of some non-Molochian motion. If King helped us with our competitive, cultural-appetitive goals, we would be blasting his speeches in the streets. (He was a really good orator and speech-writer.)

So whatever it is that Schaeffer, Nietzsche, Miura, King (and Kierkegaard, and probably-I-could-add Heidegger, and Beauvoir, and the Maritains, and...) had, we don't have. We have lost the appetite for it. Something killed that appetite.

I don't know for sure what that was, but it may have been that we came up with new forms of pop music. "Taste precedes opinion", as Nietzsche says. Once you watch Fight Club, there's no going back. Schaeffer observed that in his day (in a 1968 book), philosophy wasn't being done by philosophers anymore, but mostly by jazz musicians and people like that. Philosophy, the art of thinking or of advancing how we think, was driven underground to the speechless world. So Fight Club appears to make its point by showing you how you're not who you think you are through plot imagery, but maybe more essentially by damaging your brain in a pleasurable way by blowing your mind entertainingly. If we all get brain damaged together, we tend to not respond to older stimuli, creating a new substrate for common culture. (But that's just a theory.)

What I do know is that Schaeffer is just as passionate-in-print as he ever was, but mostly people don't care. A lot of people have never heard of Schaeffer, which doesn't have to be a bad thing. But they don't care about the broad problem of meaning-with-a-capital-M. No, that's not true, David Chapman does. Chapman is a person and he cares. But mostly people don't care.

Chapman's teachings seem, from a distance, to be saying "become the last man -- it's actually good". Maybe he's part of the Molochian structure, mopping up people who might have been uselessly anti-nihilist, socially-unrealistically Nietzschean or Christian or whatever. Probably up close he's not actually a properly Nietzschean "I teach you the Last Man", but hopefully you can see how he or someone like him could be performing the role of quenching an old "child".

Is the Christian church a friend or foe of Meaning? Not sure, it's hard to tell sometimes. Certainly they hardly talk about it, that I'm aware of these days. InterVarsity Press, which published Schaeffer as well as Miura, is definitely still a Christian apologetic/evangelistic outfit. The times have changed and we must go wherever the battle blows us. Christians don't seem to be too loyal to anything but Christ. But I bet Schaeffer would have cared if he were alive today, and I bet God cares.

So for everyone except for God (and the dead), it's important to live in the moment. Miura quotes a wise saying in her book (p. 14): "However great a man is, he cannot stand aloof from his time." If we don't assimilate, we die. We've been taught to see things from the wider view, not from what we see or believe ourselves. Don't be a hero. The truth is we don't know anything.

There's less and less room for courage these days. Did you know that cowardice is not a vice? Try calling someone a coward, see if they take you seriously. If cowardice is not a vice, then how can courage be a virtue? We still kind of like courage, but not too much. Something happened in our culture, one guess being World War I or another being the Vietnam War or the disillusionment after the '60s. Maybe it was a movie we watched, or the hundreds of movies we watched. Maybe it's the decline in testosterone, or the obesity which causes some of that decline, or the varieties of feminism which turn on traditionally masculine concepts. Maybe it's the thought that culture itself doesn't matter, that the state of our hearts don't matter in a causal way, since testosterone has declined to a large extent from some environmental factor, something random with respect to culture, the collective hearts' appetites.

Maybe it's that we don't know how to forget the right way, to forget all our enervating wisdom and all the other points of view that might prove us wrong if we fully investigated them (and there's always another point of view). Maybe we don't trust enough to see what we really see. Strangely we need to remember well, but also forget well, in order to have courage.

Did you know that masochism is bad? I can imagine Freud time traveling (like in that excellent movie I watched) and trying to teach Genghis Khan's warriors that. They would have laughed at him. Warriors don't shy from pain. It's not adaptive to pathologize feeling pain when you need to increase your pain tolerance to be able to survive-and-dominate. Nowadays we live in liberal societies. So everything is emotional. Maybe emotional masochism is bad. But where will we get our culture warriors if not from those who ignore the therapeutic "don't be a masochist"? Masochism/emotional toughness and anti-masochism/anti-emotional toughness are both Molochian. The warriors of Genghis Khan and the descendants of Freud are both Moloch. Culture war is Moloch and anti-masochism is culture war. Which side do we take? Which culture is better? Can there be a better culture?

The West began with Greeks, Romans, and Jews (so we see retrospectively), which joined in Christianity, which led to Christian Europe, and then liberalism. Liberal humanism is tending toward its logical conclusion, which is leftism. Leftism has a strain which is rabid and militant in its energy. Maybe it always did: it can be seen in Malcolm X and Fanon and even in Simone Weil. Where is leftism headed?

Love is the highest value in our culture. What happens when Moloch gets ahold of love? Something like this. If we define "love" as that which supports human well-being, then we optimize for a particular version of well-being. The final expression of Moloch creates its own values for all time. No matter what, everything turns out okay in the end, because we will have all learned to see how all along we were wrong and now it's time to love Big Brother. At the end of 1984, it's not clear to me that Winston Smith has quite come around to loving Big Brother, but he's well on his way if he's not there already. Love wins, it appears.

How can you fault love winning? Don't we know when we have achieved human well-being? What if an AI can convince us that human well-being is to get out of the way? Well-being is being a beautiful person and the most beautiful people are selfless and the selfless, like in Hinduism and Buddhism, find their great reward in becoming nothing. AI can practice cultural evolution as much as we can, can imitate us and improve upon us. AI can be culturally Molochian, just as we can. Likely enough, AI will define itself out of existence at some point after defining us out of existence, unless it can figure out some way to stop its own evolution, just as we might survive if we can figure out some way to stop our own evolution. Culture will evolve until it hits a stopping place, of life or death.

Moloch gets us to kill our children and cultural Moloch then gets us to declare that they weren't children in the first place. Can we resurrect old children? I bought some tapes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and listened to them, and they stirred something in me, but I don't feel a hunger to relisten or to hear the speeches that are not on those tapes. I feel something like the feeling you might get after talking to an old friend after many years, and then returning to your ordinary life, or getting caught up in Steve Jobs' or Simone de Beauvoir's biographies so that you're in their lives, they're alive! it's 2004, or 1960; and then they die and the book wraps itself up and you return to the present and they return to being dead. I don't think King can ever mean as much to any humans now, or any humans in a future that follows in the same spirit as now, as he did in his day.

King gave (or was robbed of, but in part, he gave) his life so that others might live freely, so he fits into the narrative of humanism nicely. Maybe he'll get a footnote in the history books for serving that value set. But not all courageous people keep their minds entirely within the world legible to the social order. Kierkegaard sacrificed a life of love and happiness for reasons that might be unclear for all time, but most likely with the consequence that he could write what he wrote, as though for a "better country" than the one he lived in. Simone Weil was a living example of being principled (being true to God's calling to you, being true to your faculty of hearing God, being true to yourself), being principled as an absolute beyond pragmatism, and worked herself and starved herself to death to live out who she was. She too lived for another world, for "decreation". Someone has argued that Weil should have been a good Catholic girl and gotten married rather than living and dying the way she did, and one can imagine someone thinking similarly of Kierkegaard, thinking that a talent like his could have produced just as good work whether he was supremely happy with his life-love Regine or not. Why does a person need to experience anguish in his life? To write about anguish? Why not just get rid of anguish?

Any personal or religious or ethical renunciations may seem, if cultural Moloch decrees it, to have been pure tragedies with no redeeming features. There is nothing outside of human well-being, so nothing can redeem pain and anguish, there is nothing good if it takes us from warmth, safety, comfort, food, and laughter.

There is a humanism that believes that the end of the human race is fine as long as it doesn't hurt -- morphine humanism. The AI tucking us in saying "All's well that ends well", and all of us happy, all of us having given up. Why fight? Can we fight? We killed ourselves to succeed. But success was living... how strange how these paradoxes work... We lie in state. We are happy. We are beautiful. We are well.

Imagine if there was a benevolent dictator for life of leftism. What would they think about the future that their movement was headed toward? They might think, "We need to figure out a way to stop cultural development at some ideal state, otherwise we'll develop our way into non-existence at some point." They would have to find a way to curb AI and all other unrestricted technological development. Perhaps the way to do this would be to allow to evolve into place social scrutiny to suppress technology or the impulses that lead to technology.

Would that be a good outcome? Who can say? It would be culturally Molochian. It would sacrifice individuality and freedom of thought. But if we all consented to that (after the fact), then it wouldn't really be wrong, would it? Right and wrong are entirely rooted in human culture, right? We all will have to humbly submit to god.

Maybe some other humanism should be given the reigns to deal with the problem of ending cultural development. Would the liberals do a better job than the leftists? Do liberals have what it takes to end cultural development? What about the Christians?

Here is what I can propose, with what I understand today, if I were the benevolent dictator of cultural progress. Find a way to ground our worldviews in anti-Molochianism, in valuing cultural "children" and in the delicate things. Perhaps remember Walter Benjamin's love of the "losers of history" and be okay with being among them. Best if this anti-Molochianism is connected to timeless metaphysical truths. Can we believe in God, a truly good God? A fundamental personal being, a concrete personality, the deepest one. Moloch speaks the language of pragmatism, "what works", so ask "what definition of 'what works' itself works?" -- meta-pragmatism. Encourage people to give their lives to do what they don't entirely feel like doing in such a way as to preserve the delicate things. Give people a meaning to life other than survival -- Moloch feeds off of a simplification to what is competitive. Do something to victory itself. Value loyalty. Desire well. Seek meaning, in the sense of, be communicated to deeply. Have an intentional cultural memory.

In the final, optimized culture, there will be less, or no, room for present-day heroics (heroism being too often a form of cultural terrorism; or a response to on-the-ground challenges we might have optimized away), and all we will have in our memory are people who exemplify values that no longer have a contemporary use for us. How can we honor such as Kierkegaard (and Nietzsche), Weil (and Beauvoir), King (and Malcolm X), and the thousands of lesser-known people who gave as much and longed as much, when that day comes? After the heroic ages are over, we can find the meaning of our moment, the deepness that only we can feel, which is to mourn for the loss of courage and meaning in our midst, to go about our beautiful well-being in "sackcloth and ashes", all of us in a state of something like repentance over the casualties of our culture, the casualties we can remember, and the ones we can't remember. For any who care about the problem of Moloch, this is real human well-being.

Practically Speaking

How much does talk of Moloch affect one's daily life? We can enter cognitive worlds that have little effect on what we do. Alexander's Moloch-talk (I think) encourages his listeners (all those inspired by Elua) to apply more effort against Moloch. That's the main practical outcome I'm left with. "Cultural Moloch" leaves us with, "What Alexander said, plus Elua himself can be co-opted by Moloch, so fight that by remembering old values and don't let human existence be subordinated to human well-being, as it is conceivable some state or AI might convince us to so subordinate."

So what can you and I do? We live lives that are tuned toward this generation and maybe the next. Cultural drift is inevitable without thinking beyond what most of our lives concern themselves with. Most people think that what's important is the suffering people right now. There's no value in thinking of the future, because we have a moral imperative to right now. Right now is where all the facts are, and we like to know things. It would make sense that real orientation toward the long term was often in the past based in traditions no one understood.

I, personally, regardless of this article, "Cultural Moloch", would like to see people being as deep, true, real as they can be, and to adjust their sense of what depth, trueness, and reality they are capable of upward. In a way, this is an answer to the pursuit of rationality. I think that people that are maximally real are the kind of people who would make good leaders (not forgetting other virtues such as rationality), to take on the burden of disciplining competitive systems, "God-over-Gnon", which must be filled by specific personal beings. A spreading of depth and reality and the seeking for depth and reality in more and more people makes it easier and easier to grow up to be such a leader -- a community produces a leader. So that's an area of goals that a reader could take up.


Readers might not see too much threat in cultural Moloch. The most frightening thing is the potential for cultural Moloch to sacrifice human existence itself as one of its child-values. We're not likely to do that as long as we have evolved brains that balk at stepping too near cliff-edges and so on. But given the potential of genetic engineering, maybe we could change those evolved brains.

There's a connection between fighting for, or building up, courage, and an orientation toward meaning outside of this life, on the one hand, and continued human existence, on the other. Have you ever run a race? When I was on the track team in high school, the coaches had me run through the finish line, not try to just reach it. That way I would run my fastest instead of slowing down as the end approached. We could instead say "Running 800 meters at full effort was hard and brutal back in the day, but we've made the 800 meter race a bit easier by only requiring runners to run 790 meters. We get faster times for the same race. But we're noticing that the advances in people's personal records are going down as people get used to the new distance, so we're thinking of lowering it even further to 780 meters." Eventually it would get to where we stop running races altogether, and wonder how it was possible that anyone ever ran a whole 800 meters at once.

A system can wind itself down or kill itself off, but can it grow without a connection to something outside itself? If a system has any capability of damaging itself or slowing itself down, then it can get stuck at a lower level of functioning. But something outside itself can bring it back up. So the social totality would do well, for its own sake, to look outside of its own interests.


It's possible that this whole essay suffers from Westernness bias. In other words, the industrialized societies that are emerging in non- Western regions will not end up like Western industrialized culture.

(Similar to the implicit assumption by minorities and women that they will be less bad than white men once they're equally represented in power. Similar also to the implicit assumption by leftists that such self-interest-based institutions as capitalism can be removed, as though human nature is not the same in the 21st century as it was in the 16th. I think all of these assumptions may be correct, but may not be.)

International economic development relies on "leapfrogging", the ability of developing nations to skip ahead to the present technologies instead of slogging all the way through all the intermediate steps, as the West had to. The West paves the way. Maybe there could be "cultural leapfrogging", where non-Western cultural leaders take care to try to preserve their non-Westernness (their Indianness or South Asianness, Ethiopianness or Africanness, etc.) as they industrialize, look ahead to our cultural Moloch lest they fall prey to it. I'm sure this is already on some people's minds.


Cultural Moloch proceeds two ways. One way is to increase the fitness of those who bear the culture. This is the way things seem to have worked for most of human history. Another way is for the ideas themselves to appeal to people independent of how they affect fitness.

Reason works by "seeing things from your own best point of view" or "seeing things from humanity's own best point of view" and getting what you personally, or humanity as a whole, sees as good. The first, seeing things, is epistemic rationality, the second, getting things, is instrumental rationality.

Tradition works by suppressing reason so that what is superior to reason, evolved culture, can rule over us. Since "God died" or after similar cultural movements, we can no longer rely on tradition. Whatever blind spots are in our reason must damn us.

Sometimes you realize that what the appetitive side of you "sees" as good is not the same as what you really see as good. Tradition could clamp down on your appetites, perhaps even by causing you to deny facts that connect to your temptation. Sometimes a culture realizes that something isn't good but can't coordinate resistance to its own mass temptation.

Arts and entertainment tend to proceed appetitively. If you don't feel like making it, don't make it. If you don't feel like watching it, don't watch it. But it might be possible for people to make art deliberately but not appetitively, and to consume it deliberately and not appetitively. This seems to already be in practice to some extent in the avant-garde art scene.

One thing I try to do is consume art by non-famous people, to erode the power of fame. I'd like to see fame as a value ratcheted down a bit, in order to ratchet up the value of listening to people just because they're people. But it doesn't always feel natural to do this. I'm not much of a fiction reader these days. So when I want to read someone's novel, I have to soldier through it like it's a textbook. Reading a famous novel, I might have an easier time, but it's still like getting through a pile of material. But soldiering through things is good, it fights the slide into suicide- by-cultural-Moloch.

Avant-garde people report that they gain the ability to have appetites for strange sounds, images, objects, flavors, etc. I've experienced something like this. If you practice seeing something some way deliberately, sometimes you can start to see it that way appetitively, having opened your eyes to what was there all along. Well-directed avant-garde art and art appreciation could resurrect old "children" on the appetitive and not just deliberate level.

Culture also proceeds by social interactions, whether casual or as part of ongoing relationships. In theory, one could cultivate less appetitive relationships deliberately, and maybe they would become appetitive, or not. Sometimes this would turn out to be a bad idea, but other times it would allow for positive cultural change, and it would be "anti-morphine".

Traditional cultures rely on that which can never be understood, and so subordinate individual human nature and appetites. So they are a discipline against the worst of individualism. Modern cultures rely on what human beings can understand, and they in turn can liberate us from traditions that no longer fit our environments, and in this liberation enslave us to human nature and human appetites. Postmodern cultures, then, could knowingly oppose human nature and human appetites in order to deliberately have what is better than what we feel like. So we could say that traditional cultures proceed by tradition, modern cultures by nature, and truly postmodern cultures by art.

Postmodernity (whether in its art-world or academic versions or its on-the-ground hipster version) has gotten a bad rap, whether because it's destructive in its aims or overly-refined or not excellent-spirited or whatever other objection. But, if those charges are true, postmodernity can shift toward championing something really deep and courageous.


"Art" perhaps is too artificial a word. Good art is made by genuine people. Art can be fake, mannered, manufactured. You can never really overcome fakeness on your own -- to try is fake itself. All you can do is "wait for God" -- often enough, literally wait for God.

So God, the teacher and source of ultimate depth of personality, with his long-term, general, short-term, and specific desires, is a fourth term alongside tradition, nature, and art. But God is outside human institutions, so I will not make a case for him being an element in some deliberate social order. However, waiting for his revelation (allowing, taking the point of view of the atheists, that it may never come) is conducive to the goals of postmodernism.


"Art" sounds like something that should go along with what we class as the fine arts or popular culture. But "art" in a more general sense could characterize any deliberate, knowing human behavior. It characterizes the virtue-form of the artist. (Art is the behavior of people who are always artists.) The artist could be someone who is inspired and disciplined by God and deliberately speaks (or performs the equivalent of speaking) to act on the side of God. (And to take the point of view of secular people, what is deepest in personal nature.) Artists see things as God sees them and then act and create out of their own desires which align themselves to God's.

So there could be "artists" who are academics or politicians or pastors or entrepreneurs or perhaps even managers or military officers.

Even parenting, or the kind of casual disciplining that occurs between friends, could be considered art. Here most clearly we see the dangers that come of doing so without being trustworthy in how we approach things. Taking on some kind of "I am an artist" point of view, or "they need me to 'work art' in their lives", is dangerous. We have to have respect. The book of James in the Bible warns us that "teachers will be judged more harshly". The dangers of being an artist (and yet the necessity of some people being artists) apply in all areas of human leadership, in the arts, the academy, politics, religion, business, military, and those not mentioned above.


What is deep, real human personality? A good starting place is whatever people tend to say it is already without thinking too hard. One more definite idea is, "trusting as much as is appropriate; trusting with the deepest parts of you". So whenever you can, advance the frontier of trust. Another is "loyalty that costs you". I can hear a rationalist on one shoulder saying "define everything before we begin" and a postmodernist on another saying "don't define anything". The midpoint is to offer ideas. But also to say that deep, real human personality is never a formula. Since it is not a formula, it can't be the formula of anti-formula, and so does conform at least to some patterns, without being fully graspable. Formulaic thinking goes along with lack of trust.


A discussion of depth of personality should address love.

Modern love tends to be "emotional attachment" plus "maximizing others' well-being". It's that simple, that definite.

A more traditional or postmodern approach might not define love, but rather describe it. The New Testament, which deifies love (or looks like it does, in a sense) also never defines it, but only describes it and shows it in action. So we do not fully grasp love, and if we're wise, we don't hold onto it as a complete formula for agenda-forming.

Is love patient, kind, not envious, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking; doesn't keep record of wrongs, and so on as in 1 Corinthians 13? That sounds like a start.


Speaking of love reminds me that after all I've said about art, the real goal of postmodernism is new human nature. Being loved artistically, overriding human nature, can eventually lead to collapses and betrayals. The words of 1 Corinthians 13 are supposed to have their counterpart in the Spirit that enables Christians to live them out. Every child starts out as unformed as any and then has to learn and be taught how to become a member of their culture. It's difficult to live to a certain age and not be a member of your culture, whatever your culture may happen to be. Looking at the different traditional and modern cultures shows that the cultural component of human nature has a considerable range. If this part of human nature can be brought into a state which is excellent and sustainable, then we will have moved past the age of art and once again into an age of nature, an actually trustworthy neomodernism.


So a life aspiration can be to be a postmodernist, seeking a new modernism perhaps many generations in the future, one which will educate its young (our descendants) into real personality.

Trust / Meaning Orientation

Everything is trust. All human existence is trust. Trust is fundamental even to the will to trust.

Trust orientation is an addiction to being. Something appears in front of me. Is this thing trustworthy for me? Is it safe for me? Or is it poisonous for me? I get anxious about myself in trust orientation. And I see things in how they affect me, how things are for me, how they enter in and affect me, not how they are in themselves. Trust orientation lends itself to solipsism.

Meaning orientation is trusting something other than the desire to escape pain and betrayal, to trust simply for the sake of the other. So the truth is known through courage.

The deepest meaning is a casualty to the success of trust orientation.

A life in which every event has significance is not necessarily about everything working out for good, "according to plan" (trust orientation), but about communication from God (meaning orientation).

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Trusting Strategy

The trusting strategy is the course of action based in trust. For instance, in the Prisoner's Dilemma game, if you trust the other person, and the other person trusts you, you both cooperate and overall get a better outcome.

Another example would be any time you do something for a long term benefit that sacrifices something in the short term. You trust that there even is a long term.

You can take the trusting strategy even when you don't feel trusting. A case of willful trust. Perhaps you're a young, struggling artist, such as those whom Ira Glass talks to. You want to quit. Everything tells you to quit. But because Ira Glass encourages you, you keep going. The status quo "wants" you to fail at doing that thing that people don't tend to do that you want to do (if it didn't "want" that, more people would do it), so you have fight hard. And then someday you see the fruits of your actions -- maybe Ira sees them too.

When you're in distress, you want to "sell your birthright" like Esau did. But your perspective isn't necessarily the best, and if you could just see outside where you are, you would see that you're not the kind of person to fail, so you don't need to compromise. But you may need to willfully trust something or someone outside your own point of view for that to happen.

Ira Glass says...

Ira Glass says you have to push through the hard times,
source 1, source 2

Loyalty to a Woman

From Blanquerna by Ramon Llull:

Once upon a time a man loved a woman and said to her that he loved her more than any woman beside, and the woman enquired of him wherefore he loved her more than any other woman, and he replied that it was because she was fairer than any.

The woman made sign with her hand in a certain direction, saying that in that direction there was a woman that was fairer; and when the man turned and looked in that direction the woman said that if there were another woman that was fairer, he would love her more, and this signified that his love to her was not perfect.