Having put down Homo Deus several years ago with the distinct impression that Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari made a far better historian than futurist, I recently came across a summary of this 2016 book by fellow defi degen Nat Eliason (archived) and a few new things jumped out, viz. that humanism is at least a much a pox on mankind as nationalism ever was, and that it’s equally on its way out the door. To quote liberally (emphasis added):
Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo sapiens.
It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion – namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them.
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
Even if you are quite satisfied with your current conditions, you should strive for more. Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities. If once you could live well in a three-bedroom apartment with one car and a single desktop computer, today you need a five-bedroom house with two cars and a host of iPods, tablets and smartphones.
What, then, rescued modern society from collapse? Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a revolutionary new religion – humanism.
The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without predicating it upon some great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.
According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.
Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose.
If we start using the attention helmet in more and more situations, we may end up losing our ability to tolerate confusion, doubts and contradictions, just as we have lost our ability to smell, dream and pay attention. The system may push us in that direction, because it usually rewards us for the decisions we make rather than for our doubts. Yet a life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions.
The number one humanist commandment – listen to yourself! – is no longer self-evident. As we learn to turn our inner volume up and down, we give up our belief in authenticity,i because it is no longer clear whose hand is on the switch. Silencing annoying noises inside my head seems like a wonderful idea, provided it enables me to finally hear my deep authentic self. But if there is no authentic self, how do I decide which voices to silence and which to amplify?
It’s not hard to see the difficulties of humanism, what with its equivalencing of serious expertise with squidgy anecdote, not to mention its utter malleability in the hands of Kahneman-powered data scientists, which is really to say that the whole framework lacks ECC RAM, ie. error-correction. For without external accountability, how can evolution of either individual or society take place at all? As David Deutsch (archived) explores in his recent conversation with Tyler Cowen, from which we will now also quote liberally (emphasis added):
COWEN: Say the world forks and it’s possible both that you do and do not step into the machine. Isn’t it the case that some version of the earlier you is still existing along one of the forks, so you have nothing to worry about?
DEUTSCH: Some version of me . . . whenever I make a decision which could go either way, some version of me will have presumably made the other decision. Although that’s not as simple as it sounds, because both the other version of me and me are error-correcting entities. That’s the whole point of what human thought is: it’s error correction. Therefore, it will take more than just a cosmic ray hit to make the difference between deciding something yes or no. This would have to be an inconsequential decision, which (unbeknownst to me) will have a large effect, and then later cause me to be a different person, and so on.
That’s happening all the time, independently of Star Trek machines or anything like that. That is the case and fortunately, it turns out — at least if ordinary decision theory is true in nonquantum cases, then it turns out that ordinary decision theory with randomness produces the same rational decisions as quantum decision theory with the multiverse. It shouldn’t make any difference to decisions, and that includes the decision whether to use the Star Trek transporter.
COWEN: If, say, an eight-year-old who is not being physically abused wanted to run away from home, that child would have the right to do so?
DEUTSCH: It’s the same kind of question that used to be asked about democracy before viable democracies were implemented. That is, people used to say, in many kinds of dispute, only one thing can be done. Different people have different views, someone A, B, C, D, E; but only one of them can be done. Therefore, the others have to be prevented from getting their way.
If you have a democracy, then all that means is — is exactly like having a monarchy or a tyranny, except that the monarch or tyrant is 51 percent of the people. Obviously, when you have a democracy, 51 percent of the people will vote to dispossess the 49 percent of the people. And, indeed, if you just impose voting in isolation from other institutions,ii that is exactly what happens. But if you institute voting as part of a sophisticated system of error correction and institutions of criticism, and you gradually introduce it there, it simply doesn’t have that property. It doesn’t happen.
COWEN: It does seem to me that, compared to you, the libertarians are a kind of metaphysical totalitarian, though not political totalitarian — that there’s just more freedom in all aspects of your worldview, right?
DEUTSCH: Well, I think I agree with you, if I understand correctly what you’re saying. I think the libertarian movement has, first of all, a revolutionary political agenda. Even if it’s not revolutionary, even if they say, “We want to implement it over a period of 100 years,” they know what they want to implement; they know what the endpoint is going to be in 100 years’ time. They don’t take into account, first of all, that there are going to be errors in whatever they set up. That the correction of those errors is more important than getting it right in the first place — much more important.iii
Secondly, they don’t take into account that the relevant knowledge is contained in institutions, an inexplicit knowledge that people share. By institutions, I don’t mean buildings like the Supreme Court building or something. I mean the manner of thinking: in the case of the Supreme Court, the manner of thinking that’s shared by hundreds of millions of Americans, that makes them not just behave in a certain way but expect society, the government, the legal system, the state — they expect certain things of those things. It’s those expectations that make up 90 percent of the institution of the Supreme Court.
Libertarians think that’s unimportant and basically want to throw it away, by and large.
COWEN: A few very practical questions to close. Given the way British elections seem to have been running, that the Tories win every time, does that mean the error-correction mechanism of the British system of government now is weaker?
DEUTSCH: No. Unfortunately, the — so, as you probably know, I favor the first-past-the-post system in the purest possible form, as it is implemented in Britain. I think that is the most error-correcting possible electoral system, although I must add that the electoral system is only a tiny facet of the institutions of criticism and consent. In general, it’s just a tiny thing, but it is the best one.
It’s not perfect. It has some of the defects of, for example, proportional representation. Proportional representation has the defect that it causes coalitions all the time. Coalitions are bad.
COWEN: How would you improve error correction mechanisms in the world of science — Western science?
DEUTSCH: Oh, OK. Well, you left a very long answer for the last question, and I don’t think I can give my full answer. But I think the present system of funding scientific research is terribly perverse and has caused a stagnation in many areas. The present system of careers is perverse in a parallel way and causes people to do the wrong kind of research and causes people who want to do the right kind of research to leave research.
If I can answer in a single word, the way I would improve it is diversity. There should be diversity of funding criteria. There should be diversity of funding sources. There should be diversity of criteria for choosing research projects, and there should be diversity of criteria for choosing people for promotion and for being funded.
Arbitrary rules about this, such as the rule that you can’t hire people whom you have previously collaborated with, or anti-nepotism rules, and rules about — what’s it called? — objective testing. What is objective testing called, currently?
COWEN: Standardized testing.
DEUTSCH: Standardized testing. Standardized tests. That’s a terrible idea! Any kind of standardization is the opposite of diversity. Just like I say you should have disobedience lessons in schools, so you should have unstandardizing objectives for science education and for how you run scientific research.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but we’re not going to rid ourselves of humanism and its lack of error-correction overnight. We haven’t what to replace it with yet!
So let’s just keep building, and keep pickling… and we’ll see y’all next Sunday.
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- Which goes some ways to explaining why we’re so starved for authenticity. It’s scarce! And we love scarcity! ↩
- This tragically explains basically all of the US’ foreign interventions and petrodollar-enforcing “coloured revolutions” to “spread democracy,” but I suppose that’s not really news at this point. ↩
- I have to agree with Deutsch’s analysis of the swiss cheese that is libertarianism. I came to similar conclusion with my 2016 dissertations on “The thing Libertarians get wrong about property rights, or why I’m not a Libertarian” and “On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, adnotated. Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4”
This comparison between supposedly perfect design and iterated design also reminds me of the Bitcoin vs. Ethereum debate. Bitcoin was pretty well done and baked by 2011 (v0.5.4 era) just two years after its launch, but Ethereum will likely be developed for closer to a decade before it starts to ossify as well. Does that give Ethereum a running chance at improving upon Bitcoin’s “royal flush”? Maybe BTC was more of a straight flush after all and the journey isn’t over yet? Whatever poker analogy we choose, I’m increasingly inclined to see the crypto world more broadly and to accept that there are more applications to blockchains than just sound money, which is about as heretical as a Protestant loving the Pope for anyone who spent as much time as I did on the IRC channel formerly known as #bitcoin-assets, but hey, I kinda like to fail! ↩