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.

Intellectual Courage

Intellectual courage is when you believe what you actually see to be true instead of what your fears incline you to believe.

Closed-minded people don't always or usually think this or decide this consciously, but it is as though by being closed-minded they're saying "I'm okay with killing myself or other people or betraying my deepest values by my actions which are taken without a thorough review of all of the rest of reality."

There is a kind of open-mindedness based in fear. Such people are (if not consciously, then implicitly) saying "I am terrified that I could be wrong about something." A maximally open-minded person doesn't do anything.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Social Scrutiny and the Outsider

There is a drive in some people, and in our culture sometimes, to demand that every person be legible to the people around them. If you have some behavior, it needs to make sense to everyone else in your life, and to society as a whole. It needs to stand up to social scrutiny.

One benefit of this is the ability to hold everyone accountable. You could, in theory, have a world where everyone's thoughts were out in the open and no one could have any antisocial thoughts. And while that is Orwellian and frightening, it is also Le Guinian and inspiring. We could have a world of true fraternity-and-sorority. There would be no more barriers between people, as though each person had a passport into every other person's nation, into every nation on Earth.

A downside of this is that if there is anything that the unified human nation doesn't value, there's no space for anyone to think outside society's values to see whatever that other value might be. When social scrutiny is finally and fully implemented, that's it, unless someone who sees something different becomes a cultural terrorist in the eyes of the consensus, puts themselves outside society and attacks it.

We are getting a bit closer to a norm of social scrutiny as we go along. It goes along with humanism and humanistic purity . If everyone's nice to each other and friends with each other, there's not as much room to be mean and alone. Isn't it bad to be mean and alone? When people are mean, we need to know why, so we can make them not be mean anymore. When people are alone, though, they think things that we aren't let in on, become a person hidden from us. We want to understand people so that we know why they do what they do. Then we can trust them.

Analytic philosophy, with its emphasis on legibility, reigns over continental philosophy, with its emphasis on the reader submitting to the views of an outsider figure in society. The outsider might actually see God, but the crowd can only see what the crowd can see, and if the crowd can't see God, then God can't be believed in. There would have to be something antisocial about belief in God.

Is it possible for the crowd to see God? Arguably, this is the way things are or were in premodern cultures. It used to be that some kind of authority from fact, in sympathy with or enforced by social or political powers, would enable us to "see God", to have to break out of our sufficiency to open ourselves to what is deepest in personality. Tradition ruled over us (when Nietzsche's "God" was "alive"), but now we see through tradition and there is no one higher than the collective "we". So then, how can "we", as a (sufficient?) god recover our connection to what is deepest?

Naturally, being tolerant of (many) unusual people is a wise idea as a society. But also the crowd can begin to prepare themselves for this deepest by knowing that they do not know -- not with a safe agnosticism, but with a longing agnosticism, which still longs to know. The innermost heart of someone who is safely agnostic is the same as someone who thinks they know everything, but the person who longs for knowledge and knows their own lack of it has a different heart.

There is a conflict, perhaps a perennial one, between the outsider and the scrutinizer. The first has the task to see God, to see reality in itself, and the second has the task to preserve the social status quo, to make sure that every sheep is safely on the ark and that nothing bad happens to the ark, the only ark we will ever build. Why would anyone want to see a reality that the social order doesn't currently see? And yet some people want reality, just because it is real.

Further, the personality of an outsider is different than that of the scrutinizer. Scrutinizers want everything, not to be the same, but to be within a certain range. Outsiders index themselves to what they observe, without regard for remaining within range, sometimes staying within it, sometimes not. Scrutinizers like openness and sharing and connection, but outsiders are mistrustful and value aloneness and either disconnection, or connection with the ultimate and unseen; disconnection, or connection with the ultimate and unseen -- which is it?

The dream of social scrutiny doesn't have as much flesh if we have our eyes somewhere other than on earth, the world most straightforwardly legible to the social order. Both the outsider and scrutinizer will find their opposition to each other and to their intrinsic concerns set to one side by the connection with personal reality from beyond the social totality, when the totality itself seeks the reality beyond itself.

Humanistic Purity

Imagine there's a bridge that crosses a river. During an earthquake, it collapses and hundreds of people on the bridge die. A tragedy.

What if we could live in a world without bridges? Then this tragedy would never occur again. Those hundreds of people would live forever.

There are two ways to not have bridges. One is to do without, and the other is to invent some other way to move people across rivers. These new ways would somehow have to never lead to deaths in order to be humanistically pure.

According to humanism, human suffering and death are bad. If you agree that they are bad, raise your hand. Huh, it looks like everyone in the room has their hand raised. So everybody believes this... you can't go against it now.

Okay, so if you really believe that human suffering and death are bad, what then? How can you not make human well-being your ultimate value? (Or the avoidance of harm to humans.) What kind of person are you, if you don't? You will be asked by people around you, asked searchingly and demandingly. What kind of person are you if you don't find something precious, ultimate, first in your heart, sharply and deeply poignant to you? And what kind of person are you if you don't find human well-being to be that value? How can you possibly have friends with any but the maximally prosocial point of view? The social pressure to be the real version of some societal value causes a society to become more intense, monocultural, rigorous, emphatic, pure.

People have a thirst for reality, to be real people, to have contact with reality outside themselves. They will seek reality wherever it leads them.

No, people don't live forever. Maybe you would think that that would cause a society to let go. "Okay, people have to die sometime, maybe prolonging every life doesn't have to be our priority." But oddly enough, the awareness that people don't live forever makes us look at life as precious, and thus at every individual life as precious. So when we get around to it, at great expense, we will replace bridges with the next, safer option. Because we get so much benefit from crossing rivers, we have to have bridges. We have to have expensive bridge replacements. We have to save every life if we possibly can because we have to seek the highest, as we understand it.

So we make prosociality our god in this respect, as we do in others.


(If you found this post interesting, you can read my book Letters to People Who Care which talks about this in its own way.)


Sufficiency is when you live in a place of having enough.

Here are three kinds of insufficiency:

Inadequacy: "What you have is not enough." Without inadequacy, it is impossible to be spoken to on the deepest level. Inadequacy is quiet-hearted, mourns, waits and listens, is modest in demands, is alive.

Dissatisfaction: "What you have is not good enough." Dissatisfaction is annoyed, entitled, bored, greedy, blank-eyed.

Inferiority: "You are not good enough." Inferiority is self-attacking, worrying, panicking, feels no right to make demands but may crave to make them, vulnerable to self-pity, envy, feelings of worthlessness and despair, but alive.

We try to fight dissatisfaction and inferiority with an overall sufficiency and make that our picture of human flourishing (even thinking in terms of "human flourishing" begs the question toward sufficiency). By this we quench our inadequacy.