13 October 2020: I split off the last section ("Practically Speaking") onto its own page.
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.
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.