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Books I Finished in May
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The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity By: Toby Ord Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction By: Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner Dune By: Frank Herbert Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human By: William Tucker Euripides II: Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliant Women, Electra By: Euripides 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less By: Garett Jones Saints Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand By: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Some of you might have noticed that May was a pretty slow month as far as posts. Part of that was due to the last post, which was not only long, but seemed to require some additional care and attention. Some of it was due to spending several days traveling from Utah to Arizona to New Mexico and then back to Utah on a trip to help my brother move. But most of it is that I'm trying to make sure I spend some of my writing time every day working on a book. I'm pretty sure I mentioned my intention to write a book previously in this space, but it is definitely happening and I expect it to be out this year for sure, and maybe if I'm lucky it will be out this fall.
Beyond that 2020 continues to be interesting, in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." And as an (aspiring, mostly secular) eschatologist, it seems like I should say something about the ongoing protests/unrest/riots happening in the wake of George Floyd's death. but I think now is not the time. (Though I may allude to it here and there in my reviews) It will probably come up as part of the next post, though as more of a tangent than the primary subject. Also I think it's easier to be wise when events aren't quite so fresh. For now I would just refer people to my post about civil unrest being like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your town.
I- Eschatological Reviews
By: Toby Ord 480 Pages
As you might imagine I’ve read several books with more or less the same subject as The Precipice. And, as of this moment, if I were asked which of them I would recommend as an entry point, it’d probably be this one. It’s short — the page count above is misleading, the book ends on page 241 and the other half is appendices, notes, etc. — well written, and a good introduction without being dumbed down. And if you do want to dig deeper the other half of the book contains pointers to all the additional information you could ever want. Finally, while I’m wary of placing precise numbers on the chances of a particular existential risk (x-risk) happening, since I worry those numbers will be used to justify inaction, for those that are prepared to use them responsibly, having numbers provides a useful place to start a discussion. Assuming that all of my readers fall into this latter category here they are:
Existential catastrophe via Chance within the next 100 years Asteroid/comet Impact ~1 in 1,000,000 Supervolcanic eruption ~1 in 10,000 Stellar explosion ~1 in 1,000,000 Total natural risk ~1 in 10,000 Nuclear war ~1 in 1,000 Climate change ~1 in 1,000 Other environmental damage ~1 in 1,000 Naturally arising pandemics ~1 in 10,000 Engineered pandemics ~1 in 30 Unaligned artificial intelligence ~1 in 10 Unforeseen anthropogenic risks ~1 in 30 Other anthropogenic risks ~1 in 50 Total anthropogenic risks ~1 in 6 Total existential risk ~1 in 6
In addition to the value of having an estimate of the various odds, of even more interest is comparing the categories against one another. To begin with Oord contends that anthropogenic risks completely overwhelms natural risks. Which is to say that we will probably be the architects of our own destruction. Of further interest, his rating of the risk from artificial intelligence almost completely overwhelms the other anthropogenic risks. I don’t agree with this second contention, though given my uncertainty, I suspect the amount of money I want to spend on the issue is not all that different from Oord’s figure. At a minimum we both want to spend more.
All of which is to say it's a great book which makes a powerful case for paying attention to existential risks, and it backs up this case with a large quantity of useful information. If I had any complaint it would be that it doesn't mention Fermi's Paradox. As anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows, from a purely secular perspective I believe that the paradox represents the best proof of x-risks, particularly of the anthropogenic sort, which Oord himself considers to be the most dangerous, and the idea that intelligent species inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction remains one of the leading explanations for the paradox. All of this combines to leave the paradox as one of the best reasons to take x-risks seriously. Which is why it’s unfortunate he doesn't include it as part of the book. Even more unfortunate is the reason why.
When I said it wasn't included in the book, I meant it wasn't included in the main text. It is brought up in the supplementary material, and it turns out that Oord was one of the co-authors of the infamous (at least in my eyes) paper that claimed to dissolve Fermi's Paradox. I have written extensively about my objections to that paper, and it was only after I finished Precipice that I made the connection and I have to say it surprised me. And it may be the one big criticism I have of the book and of Oord in general.
What This Book Says About Eschatology
I’m sure that other people have said this elsewhere, but Oord’s biggest contribution to eschatology is his unambiguous assertion that we have much more to worry from risks we create for ourselves than any natural risks. Which is a point I’ve been making since my very first post and which bears repeating. The future either leads towards some form of singularity, some event that removes the risks brought about by progress and technology (examples might include a benevolent AI, brain uploading, massive interstellar colonization, a post-scarcity utopia, etc.) or it leads to catastrophe, there is no a third option. And we should be a lot more worried about this than we are.
In the past it didn’t really matter how bad a war or a revolution got, or how angry people were, there was a fundamental cap on the level of damage which humans could inflict on one another. However insane the French Revolution got, it was never going to kill every French citizen, or do much damage to nearby states, and it certainly was going to have next to no effect on China. But now any group with enough rage and a sufficient disregard for humanity could cripple the power grid, engineer a disease (something I touched on in a previous post) or figure out how to launch a nuke. For the first time in history technology has provided the means necessary for any madness you can imagine.
II- Capsule Reviews
By: Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner 352 Pages
After writing the post Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting (originally ‘limitations’ was ‘ridiculousness’) I got some pushback. And it occurred to me that it would be easier to respond to criticism if I had read the book. So I did. And then I wrote another post on the subject. As such most of my thoughts on the book and the topic will appear in one of those two posts. In those posts I was trying to be as objective as possible, but I would assume that I’ll be forgiven if in the actual review I end up being slightly more opinionated.
To begin with the idea of tracking and grading predictions is a good one, and an obvious refinement from making random pronouncements on TV. The first part of the book is largely Telock railing against these bad predictions and the bad predictors of the past. Which I suppose is interesting, but it’s also largely unsurprising. The last part of the book is a gushing love letter to superforecasters, with over half the book talking about how great they are and how to achieve this greatness on your own. This part is interesting but, and it should be noted that I’m pretty biased, I found it to be heavy handed with large doses of self-congratulation in there as well.
What he didn’t spend much time on was proving the connection between accurate forecasting and better decisions based on that forecasting. But I’ve spent far too much time on that subject already.
In the end, and with my biases once again noted. I thought it was the kind of thing where 95% of the book could be gleaned from a long article.
By: Frank Herbert 518 Pages
I think I already mentioned this, but I'm experimenting with doing more re-reading of books I've enjoyed in the past, which is how I came to read Dune for (I'm guessing) the fourth or fifth time.
Dune is inarguably one of the greatest science fiction novels ever, which came back to me powerfully as I was reading it. But, also, as I carefully went through it again, marking passages I liked, and really attempting to breathe deeply of it, I noticed that some aspects of the novel are actually a little bit silly.
To be fair, much of this is due to the fact that I've gone from being the wide-eyed youth who read it for the first time in high school, to an obvious curmudgeon. But on top of that, noticing what was silly made me appreciate even more the bits of the book that were so fantastic. So which parts were silly? Well to pick just a couple, and remember I love this book:
First, the ecology of the sandworm makes very little sense. Herbert imagines a species of megafauna a hundred times larger than anything which ever existed on Earth, and puts them in the most inhospitable place imaginable. What do they eat? They have these giant maws which are great for swallowing thopters and spice harvesters, but what are they used for in the absence of these things?
Second, a great deal of the plot revolves around the idea that difficult conditions produce better warriors, and moreover that this is some kind of secret. For example the fact that there's a connection between the Sardukaur and the Emperor's prison planet is incredibly dangerous to even mention. But the general connection between fighting and difficult training has been known since at least the time of Alexander and presumably long before that.
I could go on, but it's not my point to savage Dune. I come to praise it not to bury it. And my point is that knowing about some of its weaknesses makes its strengths all the more remarkable. What are those strengths? I think it mostly boils down to his depiction of the Fremen. And there's one scene in particular that encapsulates this the best. Thufir Hawat, the Atreides mentat, has survived the betrayal and encountered some Fremen. His goal is to continue fighting, but he's got numerous wounded men, and he's hoping that the Fremen will help him with both problems, but they keep telling him that he hasn't made the “water decision”.
[Hawat] "I wish to be freed of the responsibility for my wounded that I may get about it."
The Fremen scowled. "How can you be responsible for your wounded? They are their own responsibility. The water's at issue, Thufir Hawat. Would you have me take that decision away from you?"
"What do you do with your own wounded?" Hawat demanded.
"Does a man not know when he is worth saving?" the Fremen asked. "Your wounded know you have no water." He tilted his head, looking sideways up at Hawat. "this is clearly a time for water decision. Both wounded and unwounded must look to the tribe's future."
The Fremen is asking which of his wounded men Hawat wants to sacrifice and have their water rendered out, because without water nothing can happen on Arrakis. There's other great stuff going on in this scene as well, but I think much of the appeal of Dune crystalizes around the purity of the Fremen's relationship with water. It combines stoicism, sacrifice, and being part of a closely bound tribe. (For more on why that’s appealing see my review of the book of the same name.) It's a world stripped down to only the essentials. Something that was lacking even in 1965 when the book was written and is even more sorely missing now.
As much as we love our comforts there’s something deeply appealing about the Fremen and their water.
By: William Tucker 290 Pages
Marriage and Civilization covers much of the same territory as Sex and Culture, by J.D. Unwin, a book I reviewed previously, but whereas Sex and Culture was deep, anthropological and freudian, Marriage and Civilization is broad, evolutionary, and current. And if you’re one of those rare people who’s on the fence about whether monogamy is important and you’re looking for a book to help you decide I would definitely recommend the latter over the former.
Of course most people aren’t on the fence. Most people have already taken sides in the debate on marriage and monogamy, and from my perspective most people have decided it doesn’t matter. The question is, what’s in this book that might convince them to change their mind? Well frankly lots, though out of a consideration for space I’ve found a quote that hopefully gives a pretty good summary:
...the modern package of monogamous marriage [has] been favoured by cultural evolution because of [its] group-beneficial effects—promoting success in inter-group competition. In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery...fraud...personal abuses...the spousal age gap...gender inequality… [and] increases savings, child investment and economic productivity.
The anthropological record indicates that approximately 85 per cent of human societies have permitted men to have more than one wife...The 15 per cent or so of societies... with monogamous marriage fall into two disparate categories: (i) small-scale societies inhabiting marginal environments with little status distinctions among males [i.e. hunter-gatherers] and (ii) some of history's largest and most successful ancient societies.
Lest you think that’s an example of Tucker’s writing, it’s actually a quote from a paper he excerpted from called The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage, but it was the best summary I could find quickly. And it’s interesting that there have been papers on it, since when I reviewed Sex and Culture I wondered why no one had tried to Unwin’s findings, and I continue to be pretty sure no one has, particularly the zoistic, manistic, diestic split, but here we have a paper which does basically confirm his central point. And the excerpt I included can be found in a book full of similar pieces of evidence.
As I’ve said before and I’ll say again. People living in the past were not nearly as ignorant as some people think, in fact they may have even been on to something important.
By: Euripides 268 Pages
For those who’ve been following my path through the Greek tragedies, this collection continues the trend I mentioned before of lionizing Athens. This time around I recognized how often Theseus, the rule of Athens, swoops in at the end of the play and manages to “save the day.” Growing up, I remember people talking about the Greek tradition of deus ex machina, which is when a god shows up at the end and solves everything, but from what I’ve seen Theseus ex machina is a lot more common.
Beyond this I continue to be surprised by the antiquity of civilized customs. This time around it was respect for the dead of your enemy, something which everyone agrees is civilized, but which we have a hard time doing even now. But in the play The Suppliant Women people are willing to go to war not merely to recover their own war dead, but to recover the war dead of another city state. Any guess who these people might be? Yep. The Athenians, and they’re led into war by Theseus…
By: Garett Jones 234 Pages
Growing up I read a lot of politically themed science fiction collections which had been edited by Jerry Pournelle. The best known of which was the There Will be War series. (The first volume featured the short story version of Ender’s Game.) Intermixed with science fiction short stories were essays, some by Pournelle, and in my memory a significant fraction of his essays dealt in some fashion or another with restricting democracy. Pournelle’s idea being that a government was only as good as it’s rulers, and given that the rulers of a democracy are its voters, it might make sense to not let just anybody do it. That restrictions put in place to improve the quality of the voters would be a good thing. Those were simpler times, calls for restricting democracy are more dangerous these days, and yet Jones has decided to brave the same treacherous waters as Pournelle did back in the 80s with a book calling for exactly that.
Despite the aforementioned danger I will admit that I have a certain amount of sympathy for these arguments. As a thought experiment, imagine a policy that takes the segment of the population who’s never voted, who doesn’t want to vote, who’s apathetic and uninformed about the issues and makes these people vote, does this improve our system of government or not? If the number of voters added is small enough, it probably doesn’t matter, but if we imagine that this group comprises 33 million people (or 10% of the country) would adding these millions of voters improve things or make them worse?
This is along the lines of what Garret’s imagining as well. He feels that Democracy might be similar to taxes, that just as taxes of 100% wouldn’t maximize revenue, 100% democracy doesn’t maximize good governance. From there he suggests various ways to make slight reductions to democracy in a targeted fashion. Examples range from things like not letting felons vote, appointed, rather than elected judges, and independent central banks through things like longer terms for elected officials, and restoring earmarks, all the way up to proposals like making the Senate into a Sapientum, by requiring that only people with college degrees are allowed to vote in those elections.
All, or at least most of these proposals are encapsulated by the subtitle of the book, “Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less”. As I’ve said I have some sympathy for some of these ideas, but I also have a big problem with elite consensus, and the key word in that phrase is “consensus”. I worry that if we’re all doing the same thing and if that thing ends up being a mistake, then everyone ends up making that mistake. Which is not only bad in and of itself but given that the damage from mistakes often scales exponentially rather than linearly with the number of people making mistakes widespread mistakes are generally far worse than mistakes made insolation.
III- Religious Reviews
By: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints 833 Pages
Several years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) decided to be more proactive about confronting and explaining subjects that some people found troublesome, mostly subjects of doctrine and history. In other words they essentially created an internal apologetics department. As part of this initiative they released the Gospel Topics Essays. These mostly focused on the doctrine side of things. For dealing with the history side of things they put together a group of editors and writers and tasked them with producing multi volume history of the Church. The first volume was released in 2018 and covers from Joseph Smith’s youth all the way up to the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple in 1846 (two years after Smith’s martyrdom). This is a review of volume 2 of that project which picks up where the last one left off and goes up through the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893.
As I indicated, one of the major motivations for the project was apologetic, and to be honest I’m not sure I’m a fan of how this gets reflected in the writing and tone of the book. In particular two, somewhat objectionable things end up happening. First, because good apologetics requires a strict adherence to primary sources the writers have no latitude for embellishment. They can’t speculate on what an early saint might have been thinking or on their inner motivations or anything like that. If it isn’t mentioned in a primary source like a journal or a newspaper article, it isn’t included.
Second, because it’s a work of apologetics it has to make sure to hit all of the incidents and events which might benefit from an apologetic defence. This leads to a lot of jumping around, where once incident after another is touched on and explained, but without much space to do anything beyond that. In my opinion this has resulted in a choppy and disjointed style, though I will say that I thought Volume 2 was much better about this than Volume 1. So, perhaps I wasn’t the only one who remarked on the problem and they have worked to smooth it out in the second volume.
These are all fairly minor quibbles. What’s most important is that this period of LDS history is objectively amazing and interesting even if you aren’t a member of the church, and I’m looking forward to volume 3.
I’ve been saying for a long time that bad things have not been eliminated by progress and technology. In a moment filled with bad things I warned about, let me reiterate the other thing I’m always saying, “I would have rather been wrong.” If you’d like me to continue saying things that might later turn out to be true but hopefully won’t be, consider donating.