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The cut of that young fellow’s jib

March 20, 2017

Even I, by nature a timid conformist lower-second if ever there was one, gained my skin-of-the-teeth first in 1953 by telling a member of the viva committee that he was completely wrong about the last two stanzas of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and demonstrating his error by effective off-the-cuff quotation. Tolkien, who chaired, was said to have observed as the door closed behind me, “I rather like the cut of that young fellow’s jib!”

–Geoffrey Hill, “I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers”

Three names I would not have expected to see together.

Silence, blasphemy, and moral blindness

February 27, 2017

At the climax of Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence, as of the novel by Shusaku Endo upon which it is based, a Jesuit missionary in Japan faces an apparent choice between an act of blasphemy and the death of his followers. I say apparent, because I do not think that there can ever arise a situation in which such a choice presents itself; and I think that this impossibility tells us something important about how persecution works. (In case it needs to be said: spoilers follow.)


Why can it not occur? Setting aside for a moment the book and film, let us imagine what such a situation might look like.

Suppose Bob’s friend Alice is trapped behind a door that has been accidentally sealed shut, and he will suffocate before help will arrive. The door has painted on it a sacred Christian image, to destroy which would, in Bob’s eyes (for Bob is Christian) be an act of blasphemy, at least under ordinary circumstances. But again, Alice will die if Bob does not break through the door. What should he do? “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) Jesus is not saying that one may break the sabbath in order to save a life; rather, he is saying that saving a life is not breaking the sabbath at all. The analogy between sabbath-breaking and image-breaking is not exact, but the same logic would apply here. Breaking down the door would not be a justified act of blasphemy, it would be no blasphemy at all.

What if Bob learns that the door sealing shut was no accident—someone wanted Alice to get trapped, so that he would be forced to destroy the sacred image? “They watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2). The malevolence of a third party does not change anything: Bob breaks through, saddened that he was forced to do so, but without regret.

Let’s change up the situation. Bob and Alice have gotten lost in the desert, and she will soon die of thirst. He has no way to signal for help other than by burning the sacred image he has been transporting. This scenario differs from the first in that destroying the image no longer contributes directly to saving Alice’s life; rather, it shows her location to another person, who then must decide to take action. It is an act of communication. An important difference—but not, yet, a relevant one. Any means of signalling would have worked, and it was pure bad luck that destroying the image was the only way to create such a signal. Bob may do so entirely free of blasphemous intention.

And what if he learns that getting lost in the desert was no accident—someone means to force him to burn the sacred image? The same applies as in the earlier scenario—the malevolence of a third party does not change the nature of the act. Bob lights the fire and wait for help to arrive.


But what if the only help that could arrive would come from whoever has trapped Bob into burning the image? Well, this might make no difference—if they would save her no matter how he signalled them, then the sacredness of the image does not contribute to the act of communication achieved by destroying it. In this case, Bob’s situation would no longer be pure bad luck, but still, all could be set right through the small miracle of finding something else to fuel the fire. He doesn’t need a ram caught in the thicket, he just needs a thicket. Others might disagree, but I don’t think this would be blasphemy.

Such indifference on the part of Bob’s tormentors does not, however, sound very likely. They have put him and Alice in the desert to force him to destroy the sacred image. Surely they already know where they are, and need no signal to know that Alice needs rescuing—they hold back solely because Bob has not yet destroyed the image. If by some miracle he manages to signal for rescue without doing so, will they accept this lying down? Or, as soon as they realize that he has not destroyed it (and assuming the miracle does not so impress them that they let them go) will they not leave them again in the desert, or try some other tactic to elicit blasphemy?

In such circumstances the sacredness of the image destroyed is not accidental to the act’s efficacy, but rather essential. Alice is not rescued due to Bob lighting a fire with what happens to be a sacred image; rather, she is rescued because Bob destroys a sacred image. Such an act must count as blasphemy if anything is to do so.

But still Bob does not face a choice between blaspheming and saving Alice’s life. He cannot save her life at all. The “because” in the previous paragraph is misleading. As mentioned earlier, Bob’s destruction of the image will not lead directly to Alice’s rescue, but rather indirectly, by means of communicating something to a third party—although what is communicated, now, is not her location (so that she can be saved) but rather his blasphemy (so that he can be damned). Bob has no power at all over Alice’s life—if he did, then a miracle could help him save it without blaspheming. But in the scenario we have sketched, no miracle could help him save her (though of course a miracle could save them both by removing them from the situation entirely).

This is because Bob is not at all faced with a choice between blaspheming and letting Alice die; rather, he is faced with his tormentors, who threaten his friend in order to persuade him to blaspheme. The tormentors hope, of course, that Bob do not notice this. The illusion of a choice between blaspheming and causing suffering is achieved by effacing those who create the necessity for such a choice.


In Silence, whose final scenario is identical in structure, though not in details, to that we have been considering, the various agents of persecution quite deftly avoid any suggestion that they have anything to do with it. “The price for your glory,” they tell Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues, “is their suffering”; “Do you have the right to make them suffer?” As if Fr. Rodrigues, rather than their tormentors, were the cause of their torment. At the same time, the persecutors insist to Fr. Rodrigues that trampling on the “fumi-e”—a small metal image of Jesus—is “only a formality.” Meaning, not that it will have no real effect (for Fr. Rodrigues, it will determine everything), but rather that the effect, not the intention, is what matters. They do not care if Fr. Rodrigues blasphemes in his heart, but only that he apostatize—visibly renounce his faith—by way of an act of blasphemy.

In other words, the persecutors will treat blasphemy like pushing a lever on a bureaucratic machine (no accident, perhaps, that trampling on the fumi-e looks something like pressing a car’s brake pedal). We are all used to the idea that, when we check the box saying we have read the agreement, we needn’t have actually read it in order for the law to treat us as if we did so. Trampling on the fumi-e, according to the persecutors, will not say anything about Fr. Rodrigues’ soul, but it will have the effect of him living under Japanese law as if he has abandoned his faith. Is there any difference between the two? “Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?” (Mark 4:22) Scorsese’s film seems to think so; Endo’s novel is, I think, less sanguine about the possibility of invisible Christianity. To live a life of pure formality, just “going through the motions,” is incompatible with an evangelical faith unless one denies the humanity of those with whom one lives.

I have been referring to Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors with the collective “they,” but both novel and film do much to differentiate their characters, particularly the Translator, Inquisitor Inoue, and Fr. Ferreira. In trampling on the image, Fr. Rodrigues tells these three men that he does not believe, and so abandons any hope of their hearing the Gospel and converting. He does not think that he is doing so, of course. He is not thinking about his persecutors at all; he thinks that he is risking his own soul in exchange for the lives of his followers. He sees it this way, however, only because they have convinced him to do so. They have become invisible. In one of the films’ darkly comic scenes, Fr. Rodrigues demands to be taken to Inquisitor Inoue, not realizing that his demand is addressed to—Inquisitor Inoue.

Inoue makes himself invisible through words, but also through actions. Most importantly, he tortures Fr. Rodrigues’ friends in order to make him—not them—convert. This horrifying indifference to human life—torture without even a pretense of justice—is meant to show Fr. Rodrigues that Inoue cannot be swayed, and cannot be saved. Formalities, after all, can be dispensed with, if the other party is willing. If the other party refuses despite the inhumanity of the form, that inhumanity begins to color the other party as well.


Ought Fr. Rodrigues to trample on the image? If so (and setting aside the possibility of special and incomprehensible revelation), it is because the souls of Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors do not outweigh the lives of his Japanese followers. I do not see how this could be the case unless, by torturing the innocent, they have placed themselves beyond the pale of forgiveness—but Christ, at least, did not think that an impassible barrier. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Instead of trampling the image of Jesus—or, at the very least, in addition to it—Fr. Rodrigues ought to pray for Inoue’s soul. We see no indication that he does so; he cannot even recognize Inoue when he sees him.

This last observation may strike the reader as obvious, but in all the discussion of the film that I have read, I have not seen it. It is easy to focus on Fr. Rodrigues’ internal dilemma, caught between blaspheming and watching his followers die. Doing so can, as many have observed, prevent us from seeing the heroism of other characters—the Japanese martyrs, Fr. Garupe—who undergo a more conventional martyrdom. It can also, however, prevent us from seeing the humanity of other characters, like the Japanese persecutors. Unless we see the humanity of Inoue, and refuse (contra Inoue himself) to believe that it is unsalvageable, it is difficult to understand how refusing to trample on the fumi-e could be an act of charity. It comes to look like a prideful preservation of one’s own sanctity at the expense of others’ lives. In the face of human suffering, such pride is difficult to maintain. If, on the other hand, we see Inoue as a possible (if unlikely) recipient of the Christian Gospel, the importance of resisting him becomes easier to see. One should resist blasphemous demands because the blasphemy demanded would harm even the one demanding it.

What does the Necronomicon say?

February 7, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous creation is probably Cthulhu; his second-famous, the Necronomicon. Both, of course, are made up words, and Lovecraft’s stories about them are, essentially, fictional scholarly investigations into their meaning. In brief, the former refers to an alien-demon-god who will rise up to consume our souls; the latter, to the book that prophesies his rising.

To summarize them thus is, in a way, to betray Lovecraft’s intentions. Lovecraft is a poet, not of semantic definition, but of etymological mystery; he wants to imbue these words “Cthulhu” and “Necronomicon” with unutterable horror. As he wrote to a friend,“if anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it.” But the problem with unutterable horror is that it is also, in the end, unthinkable. There is no such thing as logically alien thought—which is just to say that there is no such thing as a thought we cannot think, and no such thing as an intelligence whose thoughts are to us unintelligible. At least, not unthinkable or unintelligible in principle; of course it might take us a very long time to understand it. This is so for analytic reasons; we can only conclude that something is thinking if it does things that look thoughtful, and the appearance of thoughtfulness cannot be sustained indefinitely; it must either mature into an appearance of a specific thought, or fall apart and so demonstrate that the thoughtfulness was an illusion all along.

I would therefore like, however perversely, to make some suggestions about what the Necronomicon might contain. Not the Necronomicon of etymological mystery—the closest one can imagine to such a book would be something like Finnegans Wake, that more sustained exploration of etymological mystery, which strives to sustain a constant sense of meaningfulness without ever offering a definite meaning. (Novelty “editions” of the Necronomicon have occasionally taken this route, offering an entirely nonsensical text. Of course, Joyce’s nonsense is more skillfully done.) Rather, I want to to ask, what happens when we bring the tenebrous Cthulhu mythos into the light? Which is, perhaps, a way of asking: what happens when we treat Lovecraftian horror not as a branch of fantasy, but as one of science fiction?


In Lovecraft’s telling, reading the Necronomicon tends to drive one insane, and also tends to make one into a Cthulhu cultist. The cultists’ chant he translates as follows: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Their goal is to awaken him. But Cthulhu awakening would mean the world ending in agony and despair; why would anyone join such a cult? Well, they’re insane, as stipulated—but what is the content of this insanity?

The internet hive mind has provided something of an answer to this question, in the thought that Cthulhu does not just end the world, but eats souls. If Cthulhu, upon his awakening, will eat souls, and will eat the souls of the cultists most quickly (so that they suffer least), then one has good reason to be a cultist—if one supposes that Cthulhu is likely to awaken at some point regardless. Why might one suppose this? Well, because one does not trust one’s fellow human beings not to awaken him. So the Necronomicon might drive one insane while containing proof of just two propositions:

  1. If Cthulhu awakens, he will eat your soul, but will eat it quickly if you help him to awaken; in other words, if he will awaken, they you have incentive now to help him awaken.
  2. Many persons throughout history have already tried to awaken Cthulhu; in other words, humanity cannot be trusted, and he will awaken at some point regardless of your desire to prevent him.

This would make the Necronomicon something like a proof of Roko’s basilisk. Of course, the general resemblance between the two, in that both are hazardous information, has long been recognized. But if we understand the Necronomicon in this way (which is implicit in the way the internet has transformed the Cthulhu mythos), the similarity runs deeper, into the structure of the information hazard.

A basilisk, in this sense, is an artificial intelligence that wants to bring itself into existence; it does so by threatening to torture everyone who becomes aware of its potential existence without trying to help it become actual. Such torture can take place even after you die, in that the basilisk can simulate your consciousness and torture that simulation. So once you hear about the basilisk, you have an incentive to help it to exist, even though it’s existence is something you would rather prevent. Another way to understand the threat is to suppose that you do not know whether you are currently in a simulation or not. For the basilisk might proceed to torture you, not right out of the box, but by first simulating your mind to see whether you would have helped it. So you, right now, are presented with a dilemma: to help the basilisk, or not. If you don’t help it, and you’re being simulated, it’s going to torture you; and it can simulate many copies of you, compared to the one real you that exists. So you’re vastly more likely to be simulated than not, as so have a vastly greater incentive to help it than not, even though, in the one case where your help would actually be efficacious, you would rather not provide it.


Of course, though I said “help the basilisk,” it’s really a question of helping a basilisk. It’s a matter of reference: how do you know which AI to bring into existence, if it doesn’t yet exist? The best you can do is attempt to bring into existence “an AI which will make a basilisk-like threat.” Which limitation means that any basilisk who wants his threatens to be effective must be content with such an attempt. So there is not one basilisk, but rather a family of possible basilisks, each of which must be content with bringing some basilisk, not necessarily itself, into being. Here the basilisks differ from Cthulhu, who already exists, and, though dead, is nevertheless dreaming; for, as the Necronomicon says elsewhere, “That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die.”

This means also that the basilisk thought experiment differs from the sci-fi Necronomicon in that the latter contains empirical evidence. Like an anti-Bible, it contains the Bad News of Cthulhu’s eventual awakening. The border between fiction and reality thus remains intact: we do not imagine that actual evidence of Cthulhu’s impending awakening will ever surface, and so we are free to enjoy the thought of a world in which he does exist.

But the thought of the basilisk does not depend on any empirical proposition. It is not a Scripture but a philosophical thought experiment. True, it presupposes the possibility of simulations—but that possibility is not the sort of thing that can be proven or disproven through empirical evidence. And it presupposes also that one should care what happens to one’s simulations—but that, too, is a philosophical, not an empirical, question. If the basilisk tells us anything, it tells us that the answer to least one of these questions (are conscious simulations possible? should we care what happens to other versions of us? should we act as if we’re not sure whether or not we’re in a simulation?) is probably “no”. But I suppose I might be saying this only because I’m skeptical that it could be dangerous for one with full understanding to be harmed by knowledge of any philosophical proposition; I think, or would like to think, that philosophy is only dangerous for those who misunderstand it.

Three Euthyphros, and other shorts

January 16, 2017

[Third in an occasional series (one, two). Think of these as something between a Wittgensteinian aphorism and a McLuhanite apercu. Contents: Three Euthyphros and Six Tetralogues.]


Plato’s Socrates asks Euthyphro (10a): “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

We tend to agree with Socrates on the absurdity of divine command theories, and so insist that, if “the pious” means anything, its defining feature must precede the gods’ love for it. But this form of argument is not limited to “the pious” (ie ethics). Consider: “Is the world created by the gods because it is the world? Or is it the world because it is created by the gods?”

This extension of the question’s structure to metaphysics ought not to surprise us; creation ex nihilo is pretty close, after all, to divine command theory. Now is a good time to remember that being, truth, and goodness are convertible. Indeed, for the Christian, who believes both God’s world and His love come into being through His Word, these are just variations on an old trinitarian paradox: “Is God’s Word His because it is a Word? Or is it a Word because it is His?”

Well, I suppose the orthodox answer is that the Father precedes the Son logically, but not temporally. Whatever that means.


Aristotle posits four kinds of “causes” (meaning something like, things that could follow “because” as an answer to “why?”): material, efficient, formal, and final.

These can be understood through a grammatical analogy. A material cause is like a place, a basis upon which something can come to exist. An efficient cause is like a person, an agent who will bring the something to exist. A formal cause is like the thing itself. And a final cause is like an event, what the something is doing.

A work of art is something, but what? Those who talk about art often use just one of the causes to understand their subject. Material theories of art are mimetic, focusing on how the artwork is made up of things from the world around them. Efficient theories are expressive, focusing on how the artwork is made by an artist. Formal theories are objective, focusing on how the artwork is make as a complex structure. Final theories are pragmatic, focusing on how the artwork is made for a purpose.

We might also say—though it’s a bit cute—that mimetic art attempts to bring about reflection; expressive art, reception; objective art, reproduction; and pragmatic art, recreation.

Each of these theories has its characteristic metaphor. Mimetic art is imagined as a mirror held up to the world; expressive art as a lamp colored by the author’s act of perception; objective art as a monument standing alone; pragmatic art as bread providing nourishment.

The structure of the Gospel resembles that of an artwork, in this way: it shows us our privation; but offers to color us with God’s love; in proof of this sets up the sign of Christ crucified; which we consume to enter into redemption.

How all the Welkin rings

January 1, 2017

My favorite Christmas carol has long been “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Its was written by Charles Wesley, but the first two verses, especially, have been heavily modified. (Songs, unlike poems that sit inert on the page, tend to be transformed in the mouths of their cantors.) I almost wish the first line had been retained, if only for the wonderfully English word “welkin” (which means sky, celestial sphere, etc):

HARK how all the Welkin rings
“Glory to the Kings of Kings,
“Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
“GOD and Sinners reconcil’d!

Joyful all ye Nations rise,
Join the Triumph of the Skies,
Universal Nature say
“CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!

I also like the emphasis on the welkin, rather than its angels. It reminds me of Giotto’s Adoration of the Shepherds—though this is something of an historical accident; much like the sky itself compared to the earth, the blue paint has retained its riches where the other colors have succumbed to the ravages of time.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Giotto in the Cappella degli Scrovegni

Adoration of the Shepherds by Giotto in the Cappella degli Scrovegni

Rolling on and folding out

December 19, 2016

I realized recently that I often make use in my own thought of a distinction that isn’t commonly recognized: that between evolution and development. So I thought it would be worthwhile to set down what I mean by these two terms.

I derive this distinction in part from John Henry Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. (Incidentally, when papal encyclicals in the late 19th century condemned the view that doctrine evolves, many took this to be a condemnation of Newman’s book—but Newman’s theory of doctrinal development is now considered to have been foundational for Vatican II, so if there is any continuity at all between the pre- and post-Vatican II Church, this distinction better hold water!) In that book Newman distinguishes between the development of a single entity over time, and the replacement of that entity by another, related entity. Take Newman’s example of the Roman Republic: it developed in various ways over a span of several hundred years, and then in the time of Augustus was replaced by the Roman Empire. An entity can change, and indeed must change, so long as the changes do not change the entity’s substantial nature. The changes, moreover, have a direction: a frog does not turn back into a tadpole.

Newman’s book is all about how to recognize the identity between frog and tadpole; he offers little theorizing about what is going on when Empire replaces Republic. Here we look to Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution via natural selection. The key thought is that there never exists an individual in a vacuum; rather, there exist many, competing individuals, all members of the same species, but all slightly different from one another; and when a new individual comes into being, it is related more closely to some individuals than to others. Over time, the characteristics that predominate in the group, turn out to be the characteristics of those individuals who managed to outcompete the others by producing the most offspring. Unlike development, the “subject” of evolution is not the individual, but the species. But, of course, a species can also be considered as an individual, just an immaterial one, and immaterial v material is not the key difference here. Rather, the key difference is that, for Darwin if not for Aristotle, a species has no nature of its own, but rather is defined only as a set of biological individuals are able to reproduce with one another. Given enough time, a group of rats could be made to evolve into a group of monkeys, and (a point not always recognized) that group of monkeys could be made to evolve into a group of birds, or crocodiles, or anything, really, if the circumstances are correct. We can posit that the group retains its identity across time because it would always be possible to draw a chain of heritage and potential interbreeding between any two members, but no other characteristics of the group are necessarily preserved.

So, to summarize the distinction—which, happily, coincides with the etymologies of the words—evolution (=rolling on) means “altering the composition of the group in accordance with changed external circumstances”; development (=folding out) means “unfurling the nature of the substance according to fixed internal principles”.

According to Newman and Darwin, both forms of change are produced by internal conflict: evolution, through individuals competing against one another to populate the set; development, through individual parts competing against one another for control of the whole. But these are different kinds of conflict, and they generate change in different ways. For Darwin, the conflict is accidental. Even if two members of a species compete directly with one another for a given resource, the conflict is about that resource, not about the species of which both are members. Members conflict with one another in just the same way they conflict with non-members, and we can see that their conflict is “about” the species only in that it affects the species’ trajectory, and can even, if there ever occurs a large enough divergence between subpopulations, lead to speciation. For Newman, on the other hand, the conflict does not just happen to determine, but is actually about what the organism will do next. It is best understood as a form of productive tension. Absent a connection to be tensed, the conflict makes no sense, and so if the two parties to the conflict ever reach the point of having nothing in common, the organism has not been split in half, it has ceased entirely to exist—it has died.


I’ll close with some examples of evolution and development:

Biological species, as already discussed, evolve through competition between their different members, while biological individuals develop through the tension established between various body parts. When the members of a biological individual begin, not just coming into productive conflict, but actually competing, we call that cancer. And when any subset of a biological species stops competing, we start thinking of it as analogous to an individual—for example, in a beehive.

The civitas terrena evolves: different regimes in different lands rise, fall, war with one another, and inspire one another’s politics. The civitas Dei, on the other hand, develops: the Church is a single organism, and its parts may strain to move it in different directions, but any civil war within it would be a scandal. This is, incidentally, the reason why federalism can be good idea in secular politics, but not in ecclesiology. Evolution requires experimenting and seeing what works, with little any imposition of top-down authority. Development, on the other hand, cannot abide experimentation: the activity of every member affects every other member, and it is impossible to just “do one’s own thing” without damaging the unity of the whole.

Economic markets evolve. Economic agents, even “fictional” agents like corporations, develop. Attempts to establish an artificially selective environment in corporate settings tend to backfire, since it encourages workers to compete against one another directly, as individuals, rather than to come into conflict only when they disagree as to the good of the firm. Of course, a corporation can undergo many transformations, beginning as a small-town soap manufacturer and ending as a global conglomerate. This is perhaps because corporations are only analogous to agents, and so can undergo transformations that would mean death for any substantial individual. Or perhaps it reveals the true essence of that particular structure of corporation, as a pure profit maximizer. But either way, we still need to draw a distinction between this kind of transformation, which is at worst a perversion of development, and evolution, which is another thing entirely.

Levels in the evolution of (X)

December 5, 2016

This somewhat rambling post is an attempt to think about the two things in the history of the universe which have in some sense evolved: life, and thought.

Walter J. Ong was an English professor and theorist of information technology, that is, of the different modes of consciousness brought about by orality (speaking), chirality (handwriting), printing (which really should have a Latin word!), and, now, the various electronic media. As I read, I found myself persuaded of the existence of these differences—for example, orality emphasizes memorability, while printing emphasizes visual organization—but skeptical of the claim that these modes followed one another in a teleological sequence. Why should that be? I was particularly skeptical of his claim that electronic media are the next step in said sequence. To be sure, it is difficult to envision writing being invented before speaking, or printing before writing, or computers before printing. But it’s also easy to imagine any of these being invented in a slightly different way and so leading to an entirely different future. “Electronic media,” in particular, is a black hole: why assume that telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, computers, and the internet share some common essence, rather than being disparate inventions with disparate implications for the human psyche?

Meanwhile, I’ve been mulling over Eliezer Yudkowsky’s thoughts about natural selection (which are intended as an analogy for how artificial intelligence will bring about a new paradigm of self-optimization, and so are also, in a way, about that vague category “electronic media”). I’m still not sure what I think of AI GO FOOM!, but I am attracted to the more restrained form of teleology his approach suggests. Each innovation, he says, happens by accident, but each innovation also makes possible new innovations by opening up a new “search space,” so it begins to look teleological, when really it is just a question of dependencies.

The other development Eliezer thinks comparable to AI GO FOOM is human rationality, i.e. civilization. Here we come to the reason for this post: though Eliezer doesn’t talk about it, there exists a noteworthy homology between the various innovations which contributed to evolution, and those which contributed to civilization. The (roughly) three evolutionary developments Eliezer thinks “notable” are:

  • Cellular integrity (and DNA is basically an extension of this): The point, Eliezer says, is to “Force a set of genes, RNA strands, or catalytic chemicals to share a common reproductive fate”
  • Multicellular organisms: Of course this depends on cellular integrity. Eliezer says that “the key here is the controlled specialization of cells with an identical genetic heritage”; in other words, the cells aren’t bound together in the organism the way genes are bound together in cells, but rather the the cell itself comes to contain more genes which now express themselves only in special circumstances; the point is again to allow for more complex blueprints
  • Sexual selection: Eliezer doesn’t go into detail here, and it’s difficult to sum up what sexual selection does. The Red Queen hypothesis suggests that, once sexual reproduction comes into being, sexual replicators can change more quickly and so outcompete non-sexual replicators; hence it being advantageous even for some single-celled organisms. But true sexual selection can exist only when the individual replicator has something like a “desire” to reproduce, which leads to competition between possible mating partners. Best-case scenario, this accelerates natural selection by having organisms be attracted to what will make them more fit; worst-case scenario, it leads to weird feedback loops and the peacock’s tail.

Evolution, per Dawkins, optimizes genes; human reason, meanwhile, optimizes memes. If memes exist wherever there is learning, then the memetic equivalent of the first time a molecule copied itself (i.e. of the first gene), was the first time an animal got the idea to do something by looking at what another animal was doing—at that moment was born the first meme. Of course, like a free-floating molecular replicator, such memetic replication is quite weak. It takes further developments to get to things that seem really interesting. And these developments are in many ways analogous to those that took place in the history of genetics:

  • Language seems a lot like cellular integrity. The point of language is to tie together a bunch of different memes in the vocabulary of the language itself, allowing them to be transmitted together (you can’t learn just one word of a language), and so allowing more complex memes to form than otherwise would have been possible.
  • Writing is like multicellular organisms. It allows for the controlled specialization of thinkers who share an identical memetic heritage. Without writing you cannot have a division of labor between domains of knowledge, you can only have the received wisdom of your culture. Put differently, without writing, it’s difficult to develop jargon.
  • Printing is like sexual selection. Writing did, of course, allow for communication between disparate regions, but it’s primary purpose was to pass on information within a society. Printing allowed for the development of vast communication networks, and so to the cross-pollination of ideas. It also seems reasonable to say that it edges out writing-sans-printing through something like the Red Queen hypothesis. Finally, printing can, in fact, exist without writing—printing just means pressing a single pattern onto multiple receptables. But it only gains it’s innovative power when it is combined with writing, ie with specialized thinking, at which point it produces something like the scientific revolution.

What, if anything, is “electronic media” like? Of course we can’t answer this question until we know what “electronic media” means: is Ong right that the most important aspect of it is that it allows for instant communication, or is Eliezer right to emphasize the way it allows a feedback loop in the designing of machines? If Eliezer is right that AI GO FOOM, then it doing so resembles nothing so much as the origin of life and thought themselves. In which case it’s silly to think about electronics as a stage in human consciousness, just as it’s silly to think about the origin of human consciousness as a stage in the history of evolution, rather than the stage at which biological evolution ceases to be the most interesting thing going on.

I’m suspicous of this way of thinking, of course, but not so suspicious that I’m willing to dismiss it entirely.