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The Devil Is in the Denial

The religious, who possess only tacit knowledge of the pragmatic truths inhering in religion, should be forgiven their occasional intellectual backwardness, for the same reason we forgive the idiocy of someone who recently suffered brain damage in a car accident. The religious today are still in a state of cognitive whiplash from the scientific revolution.

A great deal of what the devout feel is no longer expressible in terms they can justify, but this is because science updates fast and wisdom updates slowly. Wisdom is a crystal leftover from that which goes fast and fails. The scientific revolution is a supernova that is still exploding; religion, as encoded wisdom, will never "keep up with" what is explosive, even if — for all we know — it turns out to be vindicated after the dust has settled.

In their whiplash, those who insist on the truth of religion despite modernity are often guilty of misdirection. Rather than give science all of its due and admit the consequences, the religious often insist despite their rational conscience (telling themselves this is the meaning of "faith"). It seems to me that if, despite everything, there remain honest religious people today, then they would have to admit that the epistemic character of their own religiosity is itself an utter mystery. Obviously, it was never justified by science but now it no longer even enjoys the social conditions for its traditional functioning as an extra-rational social-pyschological structure. It's hard for me to see how religious experience today could be something other than the experience of making no sense, which does not mean there do not still exist real religious people or that one should not be religious—it only means that if a religious person today makes too much sense, I doubt them. One may believe in God, but this belief is weak indeed if one cannot also admit that God is dead. These cognitively aligned religious types, these blessed souls who make good sense to themselves, it is as if they have closed their eyes to the empirical phenomena that can be summarized as the murder of God, which would mean their faith is little more than willfully out of date information.

Mary punching the devil in the face (13th century). Credit: ChurchPop, Public Domain via the British Library.

Insisting that God is not dead in a world in which God has been killed, tends to manifest as a neurotic dissimulation of unstated instrumental motives (and it often is). The religious are correct to be religious, I believe, but they tend to dissimulate on the grounds that only the human folly of overzealous science has made them wrong, and so it is just and true for them to ignore human follies as if they have not occurred, even if those follies have in fact taken over many national majorities the world over. The stubborn dedication of the devout is impressive but unfortunate, because it contributes to the impression that science is "right" and religion is "wrong," at best a dubious symbolic game that's not exactly up front about its real cognitive-emotional character, probably serving some ulterior purposes. Faith that does not confront the death of God is a signal that falls beneath the noise-gates of all modern communication.

The devil is winning, and the religious are failing to update, because the religious are too devout to let themselves be as wrong as they truly are. Allowing oneself to be wrong is a necessary precondition for updating; coming to terms with the degree to which science has rendered religion wrong, is a precondition for religion to determine how its truth might once again be correctly expressed.

WYRD PATCHWORKSHOP

I was recently approached by Diffractions Collective in Prague, who are working with a group called Sdbs, about hosting a discussion event on my livestream. The topic is patchwork. I don't know exactly what to expect, but naturally I said sure. They will be hosting a semi-public IRL event in Prague, and will join the livestream with one account. They will have people speak, I'll be on one account, and I believe we will also be joined by Xenogothic.

The live chat will be open to the public, and I'll be keeping an eye on it for interesting comments and questions, to bring into the discussion.

This event will take place this Saturday, September 22nd at 2pm UK time  (9am in NYC). Like all my livestreams, it will be automatically archived for watching later.

The watch/chat page will be at bit.ly/wyrdpatch. You can go there now and request to receive a reminder when it goes live.

Why Do Muslim Immigrants and Western Leftists Like Each Other?

It's fairly well known that Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to support left-wing political parties, but it's not obvious why, given that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of Western social liberalism. It's even more puzzling why Western leftists so actively support the in-migration of Muslims, given that Western leftists just as actively excommunicate from their own ranks anyone who opposes key planks of social liberalism — nay, anyone who does not sufficiently profess their love for key planks of social liberalism. So then why do Muslim immigrant populations like left-wing parties, and why do Western leftists want Muslim immigrant populations, when each group hates the defining features of the other group's worldview?

Perhaps one might question the premises of this puzzle, so before I attempt a solution to the puzzle, let's go over the premise that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of social liberalism and the premise that Muslims in the West support left-wing parties.

If you think I'm exaggerating the deep ideological conflict between Islam and social-justice leftism, consider the following. One Gallup poll in 2009 found that zero of the 500 British Muslims in the sample found homosexuality "morally acceptable" — and only about half thought it should be legal (a rather low bar for social liberalism). If you look for the most generous estimates of Islamic sexual liberalism in the West, you can find about 52% of American muslims in 2017 saying that homosexuality should be accepted by society. You can find other estimates in between these two, for different countries and years in the recent past. Presumably, assimilation has some effect, so you have to imagine that new immigrants and asylum-seekers are, on average, on the lower end of these estimates.

One might also wonder if Islam really makes immigrants more likely to support left-wing parties (controlling for other factors correlated with leftism, such as youth). Maybe Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to be socially illiberal only because they are disproportionately young, uneducated, and poor. Nope. The graph below is from Piketty's recent paper on political cleavages, specifically from his discussion of the case of France, where support for left parties is 42% higher among Muslims than non-Muslims.

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Those other factors do have effects, but being Muslim still has a unique positive correlation with support for left-wing parties:

More precisely, socio-economic control variables reduce the Muslim left-wing preference from +42 points to +38 points in 2012, and adding foreign origins (including separate dummies for each region of origin) further reduces the effect to +26 points (see Figure 2.6k). In other words, for given gender, age, education, income, wealth and region of origin (for instance North Africa), there is still a sizable effect associating self-reported Muslim identity and left-wing vote. One natural interpretation is that Muslim voters perceive an additional, specific hostility from right-wing parties (and/or an additional, specific sympathy from left-wing parties), as compared for instance to voters with North African origins but who do not describe themselves as Muslim. [Emphasis added. -JM]

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Piketty finds the same pattern for Britain. Piketty's explanation is probably not wrong but it's rather unsatisfying. It's not the focus of his paper so don't write him rude emails expressing dissatisfaction with this explanation. It's just that... to say that Muslims like left-wing parties because right-wing parties hate Muslims, is only to rewrite the algebra. We can just as well pose our puzzle as: Why does antipathy to Muslim immigrants come in a right-wing package, when the offending Muslim viewpoints are primarily offensive to left-wing social liberalism? Right-wingers in the West might very well think, "Good! These incoming Muslim men know a thing or two about enforcing traditional gender norms and keeping out the gays! Maybe they'll rub off on us and forestall our downward spiral of degeneracy!" This sounds impossible to imagine, but that's the puzzle; why is this impossible to imagine when it's at least as plausible, and arguably more plausible, than what we are observing empirically. It sounds very implausible that someone who likes to wave a placard expressing love for brown-skinned folks who hate most queers also likes to denounce white people for only loving nine out of ten queers. And yet this occurs today. If Piketty's solution is unsatisfying, then what's a better explanation?

Wait no longer, because I have the answer. Well, a hypothesis. Which means I personally believe it is the answer (at the time of this writing).

We are accustomed to seeing today's leftist activists as extreme ideologues. The reason contemporary leftist culture is so baffling to so many people is that — it's presumed — they are overly possessed by an ideology; they are extremists on some set of principles; they are crazy because they are too radical, with respect to some set of ideas that is assumed to be underlying their speech and behavior.

Recall my article from a few months ago, analyzing the General Social Survey. I found that the anti-free-speech leftists, the most visible of left-wing activists today, are not technically more extreme leftists; rather, these 'authoritarian leftists' seem to be drawn from those who identify as only somewhat leftist. In other words, they are extreme on some dimension, but it's not leftism per se.

This dovetails with the hypothesis I would like to make here. Contemporary left-wing activists do not suffer from ideological possession or overly extreme devotion to any ideology. In fact, they lack ideology. That's the answer. The contemporary left is simply a grievance processing machine. Ideology has nothing to do with it. Ideology has as much to do with left-wing activism as Mozart has to do with the garbage disposal beneath your kitchen sink: You might hear it on their commercials, but that's about it. The inventors were not listening to it when the idea first presented itself. It plays zero role in the machine's function, which is why the machine runs perfectly fine no matter what the user happens to be listening to. This is why many left-wing activists today can hate one person for being a queer-hater and then profess love for some other queer-haters, all in the same day.

Many people will not believe my hypothesis, because it seems obvious that left-wing activists are constantly referring back to certain shared mental structures. That's true, but that's not all that ideology involves. Political scientists have long observed that vague 'worldviews' don't necessary qualify as ideologies. One of the key marks of ideology, properly understood, is constraint (Converse 1964):

"constraint" or "interdependence" refers to the probability that a change in the perceived status (truth, desirability, and so forth) of one idea-element would psychologically require, from the point of view of the actor, some compensating change(s) in the status of idea-elements elsewhere in the configuration. 

Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, 1964

When I say that left-wing activists are relatively non-ideological, I am not saying that they are not possessed by certain consistent social-psychological processes; I am only saying that the main process is not primarily ideological in this technical sense, because a hypothetical change in one node of the belief-web does not require any change in any other node of the belief-web. Ideology implies a kind of automatic, mechanical updating of the belief-web, given some exogenous shock. It's this functional automaticity, taken to extremes, that makes us think of ideologues as robot people.

And there is good empirical evidence that, in fact, it's conservatives who are motivated by ideology, while leftists mostly care about group interests. See Grossmann and Hopkins (2016). In a nutshell, they look at the language used by lefties and righties when they articulate their likes and dislikes. Do they relate their likes and dislikes to certain ideas or principles, or do they refer to how different groups are affected? They find a pretty huge difference, as revealed in this graph from their 2015 paper (which pretty much speaks for itself):

This finding deserves to be better known. If there is an ideology of left-wing activists, it is that there are no principles other than getting stuff for groups who don't have as much stuff as other groups. If you fervently believe that, it can look and sound a lot like an ideology. And you can call it an ideology if you'd like — if it looks like a duck, and walks and quacks like one, then ain't it a duck?—the only problem is that this will make you baffled by all the patent logical inconsistencies. One of the reasons why leftism today is so baffling to so many people is because people expect these "ideologues" to be possessed by some set of principles, and then people burn a lot of glucose trying to infer what these principles are. To no avail.

This non-ideological ideology of left-wing activists also helps to explain why leftists love Muslim immigrants, and why Muslim immigrants vote for left-wing parties. Leftists love Muslims because Muslims have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them. Why Muslims love left-wing parties should now be obvious: it's because they have grievances in need of processing, and the left-wing parties are structurally incapable of opposing, let alone stopping, anything Muslim immigrants think or do — on account of their non-ideological, i.e., unconstrained operating philosophy.

Make Communism Elite Again (Corralling Desperate Hordes Is Not a Blueprint)

Any serious theory of communism needs to have not only an account of how and why communism has always failed, but also an account of how and why it could work differently now. Ideally, a parsimonious theory would solve both of these puzzles at once: the specification of some key macro-systemic variable(s) that explain why communism has always failed in all of its previous instantiations — a variable which, it just so happens, recently changed in a direction unlocking the communist possibility.

Ever since the rise of the world wide web, we've seen a thriving cottage industry of thinkers who claim that the world wide web might be one of these magic variables. In a way, I suspect that the works of this industry might end up being vindicated to some degree, but they're mostly premonitions rather than blueprints. There's been a sense that this revolutionary event in the history of information-communication technology appears to take place on a vector toward something beyond capitalism, but the construction of its engineering diagram is always postponed.

I believe there are two broad sets of reasons why previous communist patches have failed in the past. It seems to me that the solution of each one is now in reach, but only time, and experimentation, will tell. Whether there exist human beings still desirous, able, and willing to take it — that's another question. It might be the case that human being as such has been pacified to such a degree that even a workable and immediately available blueprint for the achievement of the communist dream will not be taken up.

This post will focus on only one of the broad sets of reasons why communism has failed. I have a draft on the second one, but this took all of my free time for this evening. I'll either post it later or include it in some future, longer volume of some kind. If you're an editor at a major press, I will consider forwarding you a private draft, but if too many of you write me at once I might not be able to respond to all of you.

This first basket of reasons we might simply call "the rational-choice critique." Rational-choice theory and game-theory are roughly synonyms. For a few different reasons, typically communism is just not a game-theoretic equilibrium. The big kahuna of this class of problems is the basic prisoner's dilemma (any situation where cooperation would be better than mutual cheating, but cheating when others cooperate would be the best). For the most productive producers, it will always be in their rational self-interest to quit the commune and choose to profit on the open market—even though a society of generalized competitive brutality is least desirable. In the rational-choice literature, liberal rule of law with a little bit of welfare redistribution is generally seen as the best you can get, because a well-fed and stable populace is in the interests of Capital. Try to take more from Capital, and they'll leave you. The common view tends to see the Capitalists as the evil defectors from the common good, but it's not really this simple. In a recent but not-popularly-discussed book by political economist Carles Boix, we learn about another major problem, which is that the masses cannot credibly commit to not take everything from Capital. That is, if the masses could somehow tie their hands, to ensure that they will not absolutely fleece the Capitalists and leave them dead in a ditch, they could potentially get way more redistribution than they do today. It's this rational fear that always makes Capital want to escape greater social accountability.

Another sub-problem roughly in the rational-choice perspective is self-selection: modern people who are willing to embark on some crazy life experiment to alter the basic parameters of their existence are going to be disproportionately desperate people. This camp certainly includes people who are quite skilled and capable — but, almost by definition, they are never in the top, top percentiles of money makers. There are some in the top percentiles who profess communistic sympathies no doubt, but they rarely if ever risk their wealth on joint schemes with the larger bulk of desperate folks (they fall in the camp, discussed above, of Capitalists afraid of grabbing hands that cannot credibly limit themselves). This has always been one of the more magical aspects of capitalism, that it tends to pay people just enough that it would be irrational for them to play any game other than capitalism; it pays them according to a kind of weighted function of precisely those traits that would allow them to contribute to alternative ways of life, for the simple reason that real human powers are real human powers, whether they're given to capitalism, communism, or an idiosyncratic new-age death cult.

Today "communism" is championed almost exclusively by the desperate, those who — quite transparently — are barely able to participate in frank speech, call their mothers on a semi-regular basis, or keep their rooms clean, let alone engineer an alternative way of life.

(By the way, I'm not money- or status-desperate, and I don't really care about making or keeping bullshit friends, which is why I can help solve communism — I'm doing pretty well under capitalism to be honest, so you can trust I'm not reaching for any words that can get me some crumbs of money or status. For me, it's just a fun challenge that seems like a beautiful and noble goal that I would like to be the first person in history to achieve, for glory. I'm not going for crumbs, I'm going for the huge status reward, the one that only comes from being super real, from going hard and fast after what's real for a really long time. This is a motive that certainly has its pitfalls, and you should watch me vigilantly and judge me accordingly for my vulnerability to those pitfalls, but for the purpose of thinking honestly and seriously about communism, my incentives and motives are well aligned for you to take me very seriously.)

Today, class consciousness refers to members of the desperate horde selling each other goods and services that make them feel like they can engineer something. Typically, the implicit rationale is that the quantity of their ranks will make up for their lackluster skills and productivity relative to the evil capitalist overlords. How many mentally ill people with humanities degrees does it take to equal the political-engineering power of Elon Musk? My guess is that the reigning left-wing thought leaders really do believe that there exists an answer to this question — and the entire extent of their implicit engineering diagram, the one on which they operate behaviorally, is to merely corral this number of followers. One piece of evidence for this inference is that, generally, the concrete engineering questions are usually deferred until some critical popular mass is reached. This often doubles as an anti-authoritarian reassurance as well: "We can't engineer it until we have the participation of enough people. If I could give you the engineering diagram right now, that would make me like Stalin!" OK, so can you give me the engineering diagram showing how a certain critical mass of followers should trigger some reduction of the search space—or whatever it is you think it will unlock? Crickets. Thus, I must believe that "build the ranks" is the engineering diagram.

I've digressed, but the basic point up there is that communist movements are generally composed of those who can't make communism work, and capitalism wins the strongest loyalty from those who are the very best at making things work. This also explains why the major modern efforts to create communism have been led by extreme authoritarian personalities. People like Stalin almost certainly would have had the intelligence to get on at least as well as the median person without totalitarian revolution, but their psychopathic tendencies would be at odds with their self-advancement through peaceful trade. Their psychopathic traits put them in the 99th percentile of "leading huge desperate hordes in murderous personality cults," but maybe only in the 65th percentile of being a normal civilized person. (If it's not obvious, I'm pulling these numbers out of thin air just to sketch a hypothesis.) I am guessing that the only strong, smart, and powerful people who opt into communism tend to be somewhat evil, "Dark Triad" types. After the disgrace of modern Communism, the desperate horde-base for communism became so small and desperate that it's not even worth it to potential psychopathic leaders. Psychopaths are now free enough to thrive under globalized cybercapitalism; for anyone at all above average in intelligence and conscientiousness, even in the 65th percentiles with some Dark Triad traits, the gains from trade are now way larger than the gains from leading a small and factious horde of deplorables. Sorry, I meant to say desperates.

Although this class of problems is correctly placed under the label of rational-choice or game-theoretic problems, it's crucial to understand that there are very strong emotional stakes involved. As we've seen, for highly productive people, and people with very profitable skills in fields such as engineering or computer science, capitalism will pay you very well and at least leave you alone to work your 60-hour weeks in "peace." Because the whole point of communism is to pay for the life of the desperate horde (and this is good, indeed it is the definition of Nobility), you're obviously not going to be paid as much, but in modern Communism — adding insult to injury — you're also going to be positively denied the social status proportionate to your contributions. Often, you will have to submit to the disingenuous, confused, often bitterly resentful, and sometimes downright psychotic attitudes and behaviors of many damaged people, the kind that self-select into communism. But as communists will tell you themselves: to be systematically denied the recognition you deserve is to suffer literal violence. Whatever you want to call it, the pain is real and deep, and nobody will submit to it for long, including capitalists.

I think this constitutes a decently charitable and effective summary of why and how communism has always failed in the past, at least for one class of reasons. It just so happens that I've already sketched a positive solution, meeting the criteria I set out at the top: that the solution must be based on something new, that was not available in all previous implementations of communism. I admit I do some hand-waving of my own, in that I do think the digital revolution is a relevant game-changer for tying much of this together, without fully specifying how, although I have specified somewhat. In short, I believe this set of problems could be solved by an engineering blueprint that mimics the medieval arrangement known as nobless oblige, although the seeming absurdity and generally unfashionable nature of the idea helps to explain why uptake has not been widespread and immediate. Communists don't want communism badly enough to submit to the reality-disciplining it would require.

Motives and Institutions with Robin Hanson

Robin Hanson is an economist, futurist, and blogger at overcomingbias.com. I've been following Robin for a while now because he's a genuine intellectual: he thinks, speaks, and writes intensely and prolifically about whatever he wants, even if it seems weird to other people. His recently published book, co-authored with Kevin Simler, is called The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 

In this podcast, we talked about the new book; Robin's larger motivation behind the book; which minds Robin would like to change; the internet; academia; Robin's strategic insights on how to be an intellectual, especially for young-ish academic types such as myself; the near future; Robin's ideas about "futarchy;" Robin's book The Age of Em; how to incentivize honesty in small groups; the profit motive and the space of institutions beyond the profit motive; and a few other things.

Download this episode.

Why Write One Book When You Can Speak 18 Volumes?

Have you ever wondered how and why The Life of Samuel Johnson is so damn long (and influential), even though he's just rambling like a livestreamer on adderall? Some thoughts on the current frontiers of idea production.

Organic conversation is one of the most effective ways to generate thoughts; and passive audio recording of organic conversation is one of the most effective ways to convert thoughts into an external output. But audio is highly sub-optimal for searching, arranging, or creatively aggregating recorded fragments into higher-level projects. This is one of the major bottlenecks that has, so far, prevented the explosive production efficiency of podcasting/livestreaming technology from flowering into a proportionately explosive renaissance of independent book publishing in the more sophisticated intellectual domains.

Whoever can solve this bottleneck, or I should say, whoever is at the front of iteratively solving this bottleneck right now, may very well enjoy a unique and substantial intellectual-political edge, perhaps not unlike that enjoyed by Luther. Or so it seems to me, at least — which is why I've been investing some time into testing the current frontiers of speech-to-text technologies (here, and here).

I recently used Youtube's editing tool to split off a 5-minute clip from a recent conversation I had with Michael James, just because it felt like a not-so-bad draft of something I've been thinking about recently but never yet even tried to jot down. Then, for the trivially low cost of $0.1, I had Temi transcribe it. It took me about 10 minutes to edit it, and post it as a blog post. For now, it's not yet worthwhile to transcribe every audio/video conversation I conduct, but as the transcription gets ever more accurate, it will be trivially easy and cheap to make perfect full-text versions of any recording. Put them in a folder, tag the sections, identify higher-order patterns, cut the chaff; repeat until something substantial emerges, concentrate where necessary, extend where necessary, and extraordinary things might be produced more efficiently than ever.

The implications are potentially profound for intellectuals and creative folks. It's also a potential opportunity for internet upstarts to achieve a substantial edge over legacy establishment intellectuals. Those people will be very late to this game. Three crazy people and a little bit of adderall could easily produce a damn interesting book in one weekend, plus a few days of editing and arranging, or just pay a freelance editor on fiverr or upwork...

Thus, here is my proposed answer to the original question, namely, how and why is The Life of Samuel Johnson so damn long (and influential)? It's because Samuel Johnson just rambled for days on end, used James Boswell as a transcription AI, and self-published an 18-volume monstrosity on Amazon.com. Although it was probably only read by .001% of the people who claimed to read it, everyone nonetheless was forced to concede, "Wow, this guy must be freakin' legit!"

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