Straddling Optimism and Pessimism; Religion and Rationality
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One of the regular readers of this blog, who also happens to be an old friend of mine, is constantly getting after me for being too pessimistic. He’s more of an optimist than I am, and this optimism largely derives from his religious faith. Which happens to be basically the same as mine (we’re both LDS and very active). Despite this similarity, he’s optimistic and hopeful, and I’m gloomy and pessimistic. Or at least that’s what it looks like to him, and I’m sure there’s a certain amount of truth to that. I do have a tendency to immediately gravitate to the worst-case scenario, and an even greater tendency to use my pessimism to fuel my writing, but I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as my friend imagines or as one might assume just from reading my posts. I already explored this idea at some length in a previous post, (a post he was quick to compliment) but I think it’s time to revisit it from a different angle.
The previous post was more about whether my outward displays of pessimism reflected an inward cynicism that needed to be fixed, i.e. was I being called to repentance. (I think the answer I arrived at was, “Maybe.”) This post is more about what the blog is designed to do, who the audience is, and how writing in service of those two things is a lot like serving two masters (wait… Is that bad?) And therefore may not give an accurate impression of my core beliefs, beliefs which I’ll also get into. Yes, I’m writing a post about the blog’s mission nearly a year into things. Make of that what you will. Though I think we can all agree that occasionally it’s useful for a person to step back and figure out what they’re really trying to accomplish.
I think the briefest way to describe the purpose of this blog is that it’s designed to encourage antifragility. Hopefully you’re already familiar with this concept, and the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in general, but if not I wrote a post all about it. But if you don’t have the time to read it, in short, one way to think about antifragility is to view it as a methodology for benefitting from big positive rare events and protecting yourself against big negative rare events. In Taleb’s philosophy these are called black swans. And here we touch on the first area in which writing about a topic may give an incorrect view of my actual attitudes and opinions. In this instance, writing about black swans automatically makes them appear more likely than they actually are, or than I believe them to be. Black Swans are rare, and if I wrote about them only in proportion to their likelihood I would hardly ever mention them, but recall that a black swan, by definition, has gigantic consequences, which means they have an impact far out of proportion to their frequency. Thus, if you were to judge my topic choice and my pessimism just based on the rarity of these events, you would have to conclude that I spend too much time writing about them and that I’m excessively negative on top of that. But if I’m writing about black swans in proportion to their impact I think my frequency and negativity end up being a much better fit.
Of course writing about them, period, is only worthwhile if you can offer some ideas on how individuals can protect themselves from negative black swans. And this is another point where my writing diverges somewhat from my actual behavior, and where we get into the topic of religion. As a very religious person I truly believe that the best way to protect yourself from negative black swans is to have faith, keep the commandments, attend church, love your neighbor, and cleave to your wife/husband. But as long time readers of this blog know, while I don’t shy away from those topics, neither are they the focus of my writing either. Why is this? Because I think there are a lot of people already speaking on those topics and that they’re doing a far better job than I could ever do.
If there are already many people, from LDS General Authorities to C.S. Lewis who are doing a better job than I could ever do, in covering purely religious topics, I have to find some other way of communicating that plays to my strengths, without abandoning religion entirely. But just because I’m not going to try and compete with them directly doesn’t mean I can’t borrow some of their methodology, and one of the things that all of these individuals are great at is serving milk before meat. Or starting with stuff that’s easy to digest and then once someone can swallow that, moving on to the tougher, chewier, but ultimately tastier stuff. and in considering this it occurred to me that what’s milk to one person may be meat to another. As an example, if you have a son, as I do, who is nearly allergic to vegetables (or so he likes to claim). And you want him to eat more vegetables, you wouldn’t start out with brussel sprouts or spinach. You’d start with corn on the cob soaked in butter and liberally seasoned with salt and pepper. On the opposite side of the equation if someone were to decide, after many years, that they are done being a vegetarian, you wouldn’t introduce them to meat by serving them chicken hearts or liver.
In a like fashion, there are, in this world, many people who already believe in God. And for those people starting with faith, repentance, and baptism is a natural milk, before moving to the meat of chastity, tithing and the Word of Wisdom. There are however other people who think that rationality, rather than faith, is the key to understanding the world. With these people, it is my hope, that survival is the milk. Because if you can’t survive, you can’t do anything else, however rational you are in all other respects. And then, once we agree on that, we can move on to the meat of black swans, technological fragility, and what religion has to say about singularities.
It should be mentioned that before we leave the topic of “milk before meat,” that it’s actually got something of a bad reputation in the rationalist community (to say nothing of the ex-mormon community). They view it as a Mormon variant of a bait and switch, where we get you into the Church with the promise of three hour meetings on Sunday, paying 10% of your income to the church, giving up all extramarital sex, along with booze, drugs and cigarettes (recall, that you have to agree to all of this before you can even be baptized.) And then I guess only after that do we hit you with the fact that you might have to one day be the Bishop or the Relief Society President? Actually I’m not clear what the switch is in this scenario. I think all of the hard things about Mormonism are revealed right at the beginning. Also I’m not quite sure why they take issue with the idea of starting with the easier stuff. We literally do give children milk before meat; we teach algebra before calculus; and don’t even get me started on sex ed. In other words this is one of those times when I think the lady doth protest too much.
Moving on... Choosing a different audience and a different approach does not mean that I am personally any less devoted to the faith and hope inherent in my religion. And that hope comes with a fair amount of optimism. Certainly there are people more optimistic than me, but I am optimistic enough that I have no doubt that things will work out eventually. The problem is the “eventually,” I don’t know when that will be, and until that time comes, we still have to deal with competing ideologies, with different ways for arriving at truth, and with the world as it exists, not as we would like it to be. Also if we’re only able to talk to other Christians (and often not even to them) then we’re excluding a large and growing segment of the population.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and much of the motivation for this blog came from seeing areas of surprising overlap between technology and religion, particularly at the more speculative edge of technology. As an example, look at the subject of immortality. In this area the religious have had a plan, and have been following it for centuries. They know what they need to do, and while everyone is not always as successful as they could be in doing what they should, the path forward is pretty clear. They have a very specific plan for their life which happens to include the possibility of living forever. Some may think this plan is silly, and that it won’t work, but the religious do have a plan. And, up until very recently, the religious plan was the only game in town. Which doesn’t mean that everyone bought into it, but, as I mentioned in a previous post, If you were really looking for an existence beyond this one that involved more than just memories, then it was the only option.
Obviously not everyone bought into the plan, people have been rejecting the religion for almost as long as it’s been in existence. But it’s only recently that there has been any hope for an alternative, for immortality outside of divine intervention. Some people hope to achieve this through cryonic suspension, e.g.freezing their body after death in the hopes of revival later. Some people hope to achieve this by digitizing their brain, or recording all of their experiences so that the recordings can be used to reconstruct their consciousness once they’re dead. Other people just hope that we’ll figure out how to stop aging.
These different concepts of immortality represent an area of competition between technology and religion, but the fact that both sides are talking about immortality is, I would opine, a neglected area we see the overlap I mentioned. Previously only the religious talked about immortality and now transhumanists, are talking about it as well. When presented with this fact, most people focus on the competition and use it as another excuse to abandon religion. But there are a few who recognize the overlap, and the surprising consequences that might entail. Certainly the Mormon Transhumanist Association is in this category and that’s one of the things I admire about them.
To take it a little farther, if we imagine that there are some people who just want a chance at immortality, and they don’t care how they get it, then previously these people would have had no other option than religion. Whether religion is effective, given such a selfish motivation, is beyond the scope of this post though I did touch on it in a previous post. But in any event it doesn’t matter because, here, we’re not concerned with whether it’s a good idea, we’re concerned with whether such a group of people exists and whether, given the promise of technological immortality, how many have, so to speak, switched sides.
I’m not sure how many people this group represents. Also I’m sure the motivations of most religious individuals are far more complicated than just a single minded quest for immortality. But you can certainly imagine that the promise of immortality through technology might be enough to take someone who would have been religious in an earlier age and convince them to seek immortality through technology instead. If there are people in this category, it’s unlikely that much is being written specifically with them in mind. All of this is not to say that my blog is targeted at “people who yearn for immortality, but think technology is currently a better bet than religion.” A group that has to be pretty small regardless of the initial assumptions, but this is certainly an example, albeit an extreme one, of the ways in which technology overlaps not only the practice of religion, but also the ideology, morals and even philosophy.
It’s easy to view technology as completely separate from religion, and maybe at one point it was, but as we get closer to developing the technology to genetically alter ourselves and our descendents, eliminate the need for work, or create artificial Gods (and recall we already have the technology to destroy the world) then suddenly technology is very much encroaching on areas which have previously been the sole domain of religion. And taking a moment to examine whether religion might have some insights into these issues before we discard it, is, I believe, a worthwhile endeavor. This is where, by straddling the two, I hope to cover some ground the General Authorities and people like C.S. Lewis have missed.
Interestingly, this is where religion ends up providing both the source of my pessimism as well as the source of my optimism. I have already mentioned how faith in God is a source of limitless hope, but on the other hand it also provides a framework for understanding how prideful technology has made us, and how quick we have been to discard the lessons of the both history and religion. We are faced with a situation where people are not merely ignoring the morality of religion, they are in many cases charting a course in the opposite direction. In this case, what other response is there than pessimism?
Of course, and I should have mentioned this earlier (both in this post and in the blog as a whole.) You have probably guessed that my name is not actually Jeremiah, that it’s a pseudonym I adopted for the purposes of this blog. Not only because I took the theme from the book of Jeremiah but also because I think there are some parallels between the doom he could see coming and many potential dooms we face. I assume that Jeremiah had faith, I assume that he figured it would all eventually work out for him, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t pessimistic about the world around him, enough so that a we still use the word jeremiad to mean a long, mournful complaint. And I think he was onto something. I know it’s common these days to declare that we just need to be optimistic and love people regardless of what they’re doing. But I’m inclined to think a pessimistic approach which is closer to Jeremiah’s might actually produce better results. And this is where we return to antifragility, which is another area of overlap between religion and technology, though probably less clear than the immortality overlap we talked about (which is why I started with it.)
The great thing about striving to be antifragile is that it’s a fantastic plan regardless of whether you’re religious or not. As I mentioned earlier my hope is that survival may provide a useful entry point, the milk so to speak, even for people who aren’t religious. In particular I think self-identified rationalists place too much weight on being right in the short term and not enough weight on surviving in the long term. Which are strengths of both antifragility specifically and religion generally. Obviously we don’t have the time to get into a complete dissection of how rationalists neglect the long-term, and I have definitely seen some articles from that side of things that did an admirable job of tacking the potential of future catastrophe. Perhaps, it’s more accurate to state that whatever their consideration for the long term that religion does not factor in at all.
But religion is important here for at least three reasons. First as I said in a previous post, even if there is no God, the taboos and commandments of religion are the accumulated knowledge about how to be antifragile. Second religion is one of the best ways we have for creating resilient social structures going forward. Which is to say, who’s better at recovering from disaster? The rationalists in San Francisco or the Mormons in Utah? Finally, if there is a God, being religious gives you access to the ultimate antifragility, eternal life. Obviously this final point is the most controversial of all, and you’re free to dismiss it, (though you might want to read my Pascal’s Wager post before you do.) But, with all of this, are you really sure that religion has no value in our modern, technological world? To return to the main theme of this post, I think people underestimate the value that comes from straddling the two worlds.
The problem with all of this is that in trying to speak on these subjects the minute you bring in religion and God many people are going to tune out entirely. Thus, despite this being an emphatically LDS blog, I don’t spend as much time speaking about religion as perhaps you might expect. In part this is because I honestly think you can get to most of the places I want to go without relying on deus ex machina. Believing in God does make everything easier to a certain extent (across all facets of life) but what if you don’t believe in God? Does that mean that you can throw out religion in it’s entirety, root and branch? I know people want to dismiss religion as a useless or even harmful relic of the past, but is that really a rational point of view? Is it really rational to take the position that countless hours, untold resources, and millions of lives were wasted on something that brought no benefit to our ancestors? Or worse caused harm? If this is your position then I think it’s obvious that the burden of proof rests with you.
There is a God in Heaven. And so I have all the optimism in the world. But, when so called rationalists, mock thousands of years of wisdom, then I’m also a huge pessimist. To use another quote from Shakespeare, remember “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I think it’s obvious that whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, religious or rational (or ideally both) that we’re basically on the same page. So why not donate?