Month: April 2017

Children, Overpopulation and Tommy Boy

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Frequently, in this space, as I’m discussing one topic, I’ll mention another, tangential topic, and declare that it “deserves a post of it’s own.” In order to help me remember, I keep a list of the topics I’ve promised to revisit, and I was looking through it recently when I realized that I haven’t done a very good job of making good on those promises, so for the next few posts I plan to, at least partially, rectify that. I’ve chosen to start with one of my more recent promises, the promise to talk about demography and population growth.

For most people the term “population growth” immediately brings to their mind the dangers and challenges of overpopulation. They may be thinking of the explosion of people which occurred during the last century, or they may be visualizing the graph of world population which looks like a giant, impossibly steep, peak rising up out the flat valley that was the world’s historical population. Or they may remember China’s recently abolished one-child policy and the tragedy of the accompanying gendercide. (Though I recently heard that China’s missing girls are not as missing as we thought and have started showing up in censuses when they get older.)

These people worry about overpopulation despite the fact that the crises predicted in the late 60’s by such books as the Population Bomb and Make Room! Make Room! (the basis for the movie Soylent Green) never came to pass. And also despite the fact that birth rates are falling everywhere and below replacement level in most of the developed nations.

In light of this, are the people who worry about overpopulation worrying unnecessarily? Do we no longer have to worry about overcrowding and famines and being forced to resort to cannibalism? (Soylent Green is people!) It’s hard to say, but this post will attempt to clarify things, with the caveat that, as always, I’m wary about any predictions of the future.

One of the first people to worry about overpopulation, or more specifically the idea that population growth would outstrip food supply, was Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar. In 1798 he published his influential book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. The central idea was that food supply increased arithmetically while population increased geometrically. In the late 60’s, for someone considering a world where the population had all but doubled in the previous 50 years. It certainly must have have appeared that the Malthusian vision of mass starvation was finally about to come to pass.

But at the very same moment as the new Malthusians were predicting doom, the Green Revolution was taking root (no pun intended) all around the world and in developing countries like India and the Philippines, vastly increased food production was keeping the long predicted famines at bay.

When I was in high school I did two man policy debate and one of our topics concerned US agricultural policy. That year my debate partner and I constructed an affirmative plan around food aid to Africa. This was in the late 80’s and the Ethiopian Famine from earlier in the decade was still fresh in everyone’s mind. As we proceeded to debate this topic we encountered a lot of counter arguments involving the dangers of overpopulation. In particular some people actually argued that it’s better to let 10 people starve now than to let them reproduce resulting in 100 people starving in the future. As you can see things get twisted and dark pretty fast when you’re dealing with this issue.

By the end, after spending a year defending against these sorts of arguments I was convinced that Malthus was just wrong, food production could and would keep up with population. Additionally, even back then it was apparent that, on top of increasing food production, the world’s population growth was slowing.

As you can imagine, a high school student in suburban Utah wasn’t the first to put all this together, and while I don’t know if this belief is as widespread as the belief about overpopulation, people were starting to talk about population decline, or what some people call the demographic winter. And several decades on many countries, most notably Russia, Japan and even Germany have seen years where their total population fell. Obviously this is not unprecedented, but in the past when a country’s population declined year over year there was generally some external cause like war or disease. Historically it didn’t decline by choice.

Of course, as they say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and the fact that population has started to decline in a few countries doesn’t mean that world population is declining, but even if it’s not, the proponents of demographic winter point to a time, not far distant, when worldwide population will peak, and after that, start to decline. In other words, when you combine the Green Revolution with the trend towards declining fertility, it’s very reasonable to take the position that we don’t need to worry about overpopulation. And indeed that is the position I myself held until very recently, but over the last couple of years I’ve started to entertain the idea that maybe things aren’t as cut and dried as I had hoped.

To begin with, predictions that world population will peak rely on fertility rates continuing to decrease, especially in Africa as the continent becomes more developed. All of this results from projecting the declining birth rates experienced by most of the developed world into underdeveloped places that still have high fertility rates. And indeed fertility rates in developing countries had been following that trend. But that trend has slowed recently, as evidenced by this quote from The Economist:

Alarmingly, population growth in Africa is not slowing as quickly as demographers had expected. In 2004 the UN predicted that the continent’s population would grow from a little over 900m at the time, to about 2.3 billion in 2100. At the same time it put the world’s total population in 2100 at 9.1 billion, up from 7.3 billion today. But the UN’s latest estimates, published earlier this year, have global population in 2100 at 11.2 billion—and Africa is where almost all the newly added people will be. The UN now thinks that by 2100 the continent will be home to 4.4 billion people, an increase of more than 2 billion compared with its previous estimate.

So which is it? Is overpopulation still a concern? Or is the population in decline? If it is in decline might that also be a problem? (Particularly when you consider that the modern world was built around an expectation of an ever-expanding workforce.) Where do things really stand at this point?

Of course so far when speaking of overpopulation I’ve mostly focused on whether we can feed everyone, but there are obviously a lot of people for whom the problem of population is much greater than just whether or not people are going to starve. For example many environmentalists are desperately concerned about the ecological impact of the people we already have without even factoring in whether world population is going to continue to increase. (Fun fact, the most extreme example of this is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.) Once you turn to looking at the environmental impact you quickly realize that there are a lot of contradictory dynamics in play.

It is widely agreed that the trend of falling fertility is powered by modernization, development, urbanization, etc. Thus, people have speculated that one of the reasons birthrates, in places like Africa, haven’t fallen as much as expected is that development has slowed. From this it seems logical that we should do what we can to speed up development, but development comes with a large environmental toll. For starters more developed countries emit significantly more CO2 on a per person basis than less developed countries. This creates something of a Catch-22. We can have a lot of people whose individual impact on the environment is low, or we can have fewer people whose environmental impact is a much greater.

To show you what I mean let’s take the country of Kenya as an example. If we look at the graphs provided by the United Nations, we see that, taking the low estimate, the Kenyan population starts leveling off around 2100 at slightly more than 100 million people. Up from approximately 50 million right now. If we assume that in order to keep Kenya’s population at the lower end of the estimate that Kenya has to become at least as developed as, say, Brazil, then in the process of doubling its population it will also end up increasing its per capita emissions by eight times the current level.

In other words, following these assumptions, emissions for the entire country of Kenya will increase to 16x their current level, even though the population only doubles. If on the other hand it’s per capita emissions remain constant then it’s population can increase by 16 times without the actual level of Kenyan emissions being greater in this scenario than in the more developed, lower-population scenario. The actual high-end estimate is that Kenya ends up with 220 million people by 2100 which means the population would only be about four and a half times its current level, so well below the 16x increase required for this option to have the same emissions as the lower population/higher per capita emissions scenario.

Of course this is a crude estimation and doesn’t take into account the fact that better technology should hopefully lower carbon emissions across the board. But even these back-of-the-envelope calculations show that if carbon emissions were your only standard then it’s better for Kenya to be fecund and poor than barren and rich. The colonial overtones of this section have probably already gotten me in trouble. But I wanted to illustrate some of the competing priorities that come into play when you talk about this issue. And this is part of what I was aiming for in my post on global warming. That there are a variety of complex situations facing us in the future and they’re all interconnected. But despite all of the complexities. Everyone agrees that population growth is bad. And that while implementing repressive programs to curb the population, like China’s one-child policy (which I mentioned earlier) are also bad. That, if people, naturally, and of their own choice, start having fewer children that’s great.

But does everyone truly believe this? Or are there some people who actually believe that population growth is good?

I think there is such a group. A group that speaks frequently about the importance of having children. A group that further might even use the word “multiply”, when speaking of child-bearing, as in the phrase multiply and replenish the earth. And while I am loath to speak on their behalf, I don’t think I’m stretching things to claim that they strongly support bringing more children into the world. (Though they get hung up on wanting to make sure these children have two parents who are married.) If you haven’t already guessed I’m talking about the leadership of the LDS Church.

If you do a search on this topic on lds.org you’ll find that there are numerous talks which reemphasis, what is often called, the first commandment. The command to multiply and replenish the earth. A commandment given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Elder Boyd K. Packer gave particular emphasis to this commandment in the last talk he gave before his death:

The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth has never been rescinded. It is essential to the plan of redemption and is the source of human happiness. Through the righteous exercise of this power, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy, even godhood. The power of procreation is not an incidental part of the plan; it is the plan of happiness; it is the key to happiness.

A very similar phrase is found in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. So, as I said, I don’t feel like I’m stretching anything to call this the official position of the Church.

Interestingly as I was going through the talks I came across one given by Elder Joseph W. Sitati titled Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Subdue the Earth. Elder Sitati is from Kenya, which is the reason I used Kenya in my example above. Whatever colonial overtones may be present in my discussion of these issues, I hope you’ll agree that he suffers from no such handicap.

Now does all this mean that the leaders of the Church are advocating for unchecked population growth? What might essentially be called “the more the merrier philosophy”? I don’t think so, though I did find a quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks where he said, back in 1993, that you should have as many children as you can care for. That aside I don’t think LDS Leaders are pushing to have as many people as possible. I think rather that they understand that not wanting to have children is a sign of an unhealthy society.

What do I mean by this? Well as usual the answer can be found in that greatest of all American movies, Tommy Boy. At one point in the movie the advisers are urging Tommy’s father (played by Brian Dennehy) to wait it out, and he tells them that he can’t because, “In auto parts, you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As it is in auto parts so it is with humanity. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there ain’t no third direction. Perhaps you think I’m being flippant, but let’s take a moment and break it down.

As we have seen it’s fairly easy to have a growing population. Such has been the case for all of human history up until a few years ago, and is still the case in much of the world. Apparently it’s also fairly straightforward to get to a level of progress and development where your population falls. In fact, it’s alarmingly straightforward. There doesn’t appear to be any special trick or policy, nor do you have to be especially advanced. Countries from Azerbaijan to Brazil have below replacement fertility. Even though one’s a post-soviet, 98% Muslim, central European country of 10 million people and the other is a religiously and ethnically diverse, Latin American country of 210 million people. Evidently we’ve mastered growing and dying, but what about the holding steady. Is there a number of people such that when we reach it we’ll just start having kids at exactly the replacement rate?

I don’t know that there is. Certainly countries who are experiencing a declining population and below replacement level fertility rates have tried various policies to encourage people to have more kids but these policies have largely been ineffective. The most extreme example of falling birth rates is Singapore which has a total fertility rate of 0.82. (Replacement rate is currently 2.1.) They have tried a number of policies aimed at increasing their birthrate including sponsoring a National Night party in which Singaporean couples were euphemistically encouraged to “let their patriotism explode” in order to give their country “the population spurt it so desperately needs.” (The party was sponsored by Mentos: the Freshmaker!)

Some of these tactics have been modestly successful, but none have come even close to raising fertility to the point where the population would be stable. And as you can imagine going from 0.82 to 2.1 is going to be very, very difficult, and involve huge societal changes in everything from marriage, to work, to the underlying culture. If Singapore is the future (and many people think that it is) then the challenge humanity faces is not that of bumping a 1.9 total fertility rate up a few points to 2.1, it’s a matter of taking a world that “naturally” wants to be at 0.82 (or even lower) and then somehow figuring out how to increase that by two and half times.

To return back to the LDS leadership, they encourage people to have children because they want society to be healthy, and a society that stops having children is unhealthy because it’s dying, and by definition that’s unhealthy. As I said above, I’m generally loathe to speak for the Church and it’s leadership, but I’m certain they think that poverty and starvation are bad. And insofar as those follow from overpopulation I imagine that they think that overpopulation is bad too, but there are lots of people who are worried about that. It’s well covered territory, even now, when fertility is falling. What isn’t being talked about is the myopia and selfishness present in a society that has stopped having kids. Perhaps that accusation seems unfair, but I don’t think that it is.

The accusation of myopia, interestingly enough, relates back to last week’s post. For those that need a reminder, I talked about human happiness deriving from being part of a community of sufferers. Beyond the obvious jokes about children causing suffering to their parents, traditionally this suffering has centered around raising and providing for a family. We suffered because we wanted a brighter future, and without children there was no future. These days the future seems pretty well taken care of, and suffering has largely been eliminated (at least in those countries with low birth rates.) Thus there’s no need to worry about the future, and certainly no need to undergo any suffering for it.

As far as selfishness, in countries with a below replacement level fertility, what have people traded their children for? I understand that childless adults get to travel more. I hear from my friends who are childless that they’re able to play more video games. Not having children obviously increases your disposable income and it also unquestionably increases your discretionary time. Both the additional money and the additional time can be used by individuals to pursue personal fulfillment. How is all of this not selfish? I understand that I am simplifying things enormously, but I also think that being selfish is more clear-cut than many people want to admit.

Returning to overpopulation, I am not blind to the potential problems, but neither am I convinced that a society which is still growing is less healthy that one that is atrophying. The more I dig in and discuss these issues the more convinced I am that there are some deep malignancies present in modern society. And that in our pursuit of material comfort that we have profoundly damaged our souls.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved…


I mentioned that kids are expensive, well I have four, so consider donating. And if you don’t have any kids, and I this post upset you, you should also consider donating, I mean think of all the money you’ve saved.


Tribe by Sebastian Junger and the Strange Diseases of Progress

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The subject of unsolved mysteries is one of those topics which can be reliably counted on to spark people’s interest, making it ideal for clickbait lists, questionable cable programs, and, in our own case, blog introductions. Though the unsolved mystery I want to start with does not involve pyramids, or Atlantis, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, you’re probably not even aware that it is a mystery. But not only is it one of the most profound mysteries of our age, but unlike the pyramids, Atlantis, and Jack the Ripper this mystery has serious implications for the future of society.

I first encountered this mystery when I read a review of Empire of the Summer Moon. The review was written by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (though it appeared in his previous blog.) The review mentions a curious fact:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

This is the mystery. If modern society is so awesome why did it hold no appeal for the American Indians? At the time, I just filed this fact in the bin, unsure at the moment of what to do about it. Then, a couple of months ago I read the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. And he also mentioned this same mystery. Of course Alexander and Junger are not the first people to notice this, and both of them end up quoting from Benjamin Franklin who witnessed this phenomenon first hand:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Junger also quotes from a french émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur who was writing in 1782:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

What made the American Indian tribes so appealing to the Europeans, and made the Europeans so unappealing to the Indians? And does this imbalance hold any lessons for us today? Junger’s book tries to answer that question, and it ends up being one of the few books where I wish it had been longer, but what he did write about was so great that I immediately knew it deserved a post.

Before I get into the book, however, I want create a framework for things first. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the vast majority of people feel like 2017 is a lot better than 1917 or 1817 and it’s certainly a lot better than 1017. I would probably count myself among those people. But how do we know that the past was worse? And what standard are we using to decide that it was worse? We can use things like deaths, or disease, or caloric intake, or maybe percentage of people in slavery to estimate what things were like, but when it really comes down to it we don’t know. Especially as we begin to consider more subtle topics like life satisfaction or the ideal way to build a community.

As an example of what I mean, let’s go back to a book I frequently reference, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. One of the big themes of the book is that deaths from warfare have declined dramatically over the last few centuries. And that consequently the world is a better place. In support of this Pinker provides lots of graphs, one of which looks at various archaeological digs, and extrapolates the percentage of violent deaths in different eras. If you look at this graph you’ll see that by far the highest percentage of violent deaths was found at an archeological dig in South Dakota dating to the 1300s. This event has come to be known as the Crow Creek Massacre. And it might be an outlier, but even if it is, everyone pretty much agrees, Pinker especially, that American Indians experienced violent death at easily 10 times the rate  present in any modern society. But yet these are the same American Indians Benjamin Franklin and Crèvecoeur were talking about, whose society was so attractive that no one ever voluntarily left it. If violent death is a one to one proxy for unhappiness then this would have never been the case. We all assume that a lower chance of death leads to greater unhappiness, and yet this is evidence that that’s not the case. That we might not understand the past as well as we thought.

If American Indians provided the only example of this counterintuitive result, it would still be a mystery, and it would still be interesting, but I wouldn’t be writing about it. But as Junger shows in his book, this is not the only example of things being the opposite of what we might expect. And consequently the topic deserves a closer look because something similar is happening even today.

For a look at more recent examples of this Junger turns to his experiences during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 90’s. As you can surely imagine the conditions were terrible. Junger described it thusly:

Over the course of the three-year siege almost 70,000 people were killed or wounded by Serb forces shooting into the city–roughly 20 percent of the population. The United Nations estimated that half of the children in the city had seen someone killed in front of them.

Violence on that scale is scarcely imaginable for most people in a developed country. And the natural assumption is that all of the people who lived through the siege must have been scarred for life, particularly the children, and yet when Junger returned there 20 years later he found that people missed the war, that “they longed for those days. More precisely they longed for who they’d been back then.”

Junger interviews one Bosnian journalist who was seventeen at the start of the siege. After being severely wounded by shrapnel, she was eventually evacuated to Italy. But she missed the wartime camaraderie so much that she went back to Sarajevo, crossing the lines to do so. Twenty years later when Junger talks to her he asks her if people had ultimately been happier during the war. Her response was, “We were the happiest, and we laughed more.”

Sarajevo is by no means the only example of this. At the beginning of World War II when the United Kingdom was preparing for inevitable aerial bombardment by Germany, or what came to be called the Blitz, the government assumed that it would cause mass hysteria among the population. But nothing of the sort happened. As Junger describes it:

On and on the horror went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people [roughly 10% of the population], but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down… Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.

That last bit is particularly interesting. It’s not just that normal people pulled together during the Blitz, but more interestingly, the number of people suffering from mental illness and the severity of those illnesses actually declined. And, lest you think this was a particularly English, stiff upper lip response, the same thing happened in Germany which suffered far worse aerial bombardment than England. The Allies expected that this massive bombing campaign would destroy German resolve, and in the end it did the opposite. Industrial production actually rose during the war, and the cities in Germany which hadn’t been bombed ended up being where morale was the lowest.

But of course, as I said in the beginning this sort of thing is the opposite of what we’re lead to expect. We expect war to be psychologically damaging in a way that nothing else is. This expectation certainly didn’t start with Vietnam, but it was arguably popularized by it. Everyone has seen movies depicting Vietnam vets as broken individuals, who were never quite the same after their experiences, and this trend has continued through to the present wars. But how do we reconcile this idea with the stories and examples I’ve already related?

You might not think that it needs to be squared, that everything I’ve said thus far can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, but this is an issue that has been studied and the results are unequivocal: Large scale disasters improve mental health. The only question is why. For Junger the answer that it re-establishes the tribal societies of the past. This is the link between Sarajevo and the American Indian, between the English and the Germans, and this is where the title of the book comes from. But unlike Junger I’d like to focus more on the disease than on the cure.

If psychological damage due to war and disaster is part of the disease, then the most common symptom of that disease is PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  And indeed the rates of PTSD among returning veterans has reached an historic high, and yet, combat deaths are as low as they’ve ever been. Junger compares the various wars:

This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite…a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.

If you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets! You may or may not have noticed that I engaged in a subtle flip. We were talking about how warfare improves mental health and suddenly we’re talking about how modern wars appear to do the opposite. But of course these two things are just opposite sides of the same coin. All of things we talked about leading up to this involved intense bonding experiences, which affected an entire community all at once. Creating what one of the people who’s studied this issue called a “community of sufferers”. With that in mind the difference between World War II and Vietnam and the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan becomes obvious. At each step war become less of a community effort and more something that some people do in a far away place that has nothing to do with the rest of us.

In fact people who do more fighting end up with fewer psychological issues. As illustrated by the following statistics:

  • During the Yom Kippur War Israeli rear-base troops had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of the frontline troops.
  • 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties in the US Army’s VII Corps came from support units which were never under fire.
  • During World War II, American airborne units, which saw the most intense fighting had some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates.
  • Returning to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli commanders suffered four times the mortality rate but had only one-fifth the rate of psychological breakdown.

It appears that the more modern and safe the war experience is, the more likely someone is to develop some form of disability. As the final example, Junger reports that, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, but only 10 percent experienced any actual combat. Obviously one possibility for explaining this is that people may be imagining, exaggerating or even faking their symptoms. Junger mentions that possibility, of course, but even after accounting for that the increases in psychological disability remain. Additionally there is another statistic which is also going up and is unlikely to be faked, and that’s veteran suicides.

If PTSD is the most common symptom of the disease then the worst symptom is suicide, and here again the situation is counterintuitive. Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post much of what we know about suicide runs contrary to expectations regardless of whether it’s the suicides of veterans or the suicides of teens. Though this observation does nothing to make it less tragic.

Suicide is another area where the comparison between modern society and tribal societies is illuminating. Among the American Indians depression based suicide was essentially unknown. And when the Piraha, a tribe that lives deep in the Amazon, were told about suicide they laughed because the idea was so hard to comprehend. Sometimes I don’t think we’re any closer than the Piraha to comprehending suicide, but despite that, no one is laughing.

When examining veteran suicides we see the same things that we saw with PTSD. Specifically that there is no relationship between suicide and combat. Veterans who were never under fire are just as likely to commit suicide as veterans who were under fire, and in fact among recent veterans, “deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan actually lowers the risk of suicide.” As I said at the start this is one of the great unsolved mysteries.

Having spent most of our time looking at the disease through the lens of war and the military it’s time to ask if it’s present in society at large. And the answer to that would have to be yes. In fact the evidence is all around us. If suicide and depression are its symptoms then there is no shortage of examples.

The question we then have to ask is whether these symptoms are getting worse or better, and this is where we come back to one of the subjects I started with. The idea that we can’t, or in any case don’t, know what the past was like. This is particularly true when it comes to a condition like PTSD, which wasn’t even added to the psychological lexicon until 1980 (though there were precursors as early as 1952). Thus, we don’t know if Roman centurions had PTSD, we don’t know if survivors of the Black Death, or of the Lisbon Earthquake had PTSD. And when it comes down to it, we don’t even know much about PTSD outside of richer countries. But as I pointed out what we do know seems to indicate that it might in fact be a modern phenomenon

If Junger is right and the disease stems from not having to struggle, and feeling isolated, then it makes sense that lots of people should be grappling with this disease, since the modern world abounds in both those qualities, in fact you would expect it to be getting worse. But is there any evidence for that?

You may have recently heard that recently there has been a big increase in deaths among the white working class. This was first pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case when they published a paper showing that while every other group was experiencing a decrease in mortality, for white working class individuals the death rate was going up. It’s unclear why it took so long to notice this, but now that it’s been pointed out the trend is an obvious one and it meshes very well into the opiate epidemic which I wrote about previously. As more information has come out about the nature of these deaths and as the phenomenon get’s more attention it’s acquired a label: Deaths of Despair.

I’m going to go a little bit out on a limb here, and engage in some speculation, as well, by declaring that rising levels of PTSD and deaths of despair are just the tip of the iceberg. That we have a real and growing problem and that progress is making it worse. Most people are going to find that hard to believe, and it’s easy to talk about the benefits of progress and modernity if you’re not one of those that progress has left behind. And to be clear its beneficiaries get to do most of the talking, while it’s victims have been largely silent. Thus you end up in a situation where when the half of the country that hasn’t gotten quite as good deal elects someone which, at one point, was declared to have a better chance of playing in the NBA Finals than winning the presidency, it’s doubly shocking. First, that it happened at all, and second that no one saw it coming. But that’s the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We may notice the deaths (eventually) but they sit on top of a huge number of people who are experiencing all of the things that Junger was talking about: They don’t have anything left to struggle for, and they certainly don’t have a community to struggle with.

The drug overdoses, the alcoholism and the suicides all sit on top of a large group of people suffering from the disease, whose symptoms are largely invisible. These sufferers include males who don’t have a single close friend or spouse to say nothing of a community. It includes the millions of people who’ve given up looking for work. It includes some of the 1 in 3 millennials who live at home with their parents, 25% of whom are not working or going to school. And it probably includes the people who have decided that it’s easier to sit at home and play video games all day.

Normally it’s easy to dismiss stuff like this by saying that things are getting better, the world is getting richer, technology is getting cooler, everything is getting easier. But those arguments don’t work in this case, because all of those things are very probably making the situation worse. And if they are making it worse how much worse is it going to get?

Our world is full of assumptions. We assume that eliminating struggle is a worthwhile goal. We assume that an eventual life of leisure is what everyone needs. We assume the past was worse than the present. We assume we know what we’re doing. And we assume that peace is always good and war is always bad. And when we make an assumption with disastrous consequences, we correct it, but what about when we make assumptions that have subtle negative consequences, creating diseases of society that only turn up only years or decades later?  If this is what’s happening, will we be wise enough to examine all of these assumptions and admit that maybe we’re wrong?


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A View From Inside the MTA Conference

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Last Saturday I attended the annual Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured at a minimum I could get a blog post out of it. There was a lot going on, if you include the two keynote speakers, there were 17 speakers in total, talking about everything from brain uploading to crucifixion. And I know that, at this point, you may be sick of me talking about the MTA, and I wouldn’t blame you if you are, but I think there were some themes in the conference which will be of interest to even those who feel that they’ve had enough of the MTA for awhile. But the MTA is still going to feature prominently in this post, so if you want to skip it that’s also a totally valid option as well..

To begin with they started 35 minutes late. Anyone who knows me knows that that’s a quick way to get on my bad side. As a note to future MTA Conference organizers if you say that something starts at 9:00, that shouldn’t be when the first speaker takes the podium, that should be when registration opens. Also if your goal is to become gods through the use of technology it looks bad when you can’t even keep a conference running on time through the use of technology…

Okay, I admit, that was a little snarky. I’ll try to be nicer going forward, though no promises…

When the conference did get going the first speaker opened up with a scripture which had been featured prominently in one of my previous posts: Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

He then said “Or…” and proceeded to read Isaiah 11:6-9:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

It was obvious that he was trying to draw a contrast between two visions for the future. Either we are doomed to bloodshed and disaster or we are blessed with peace and knowledge. Of course my immediate retort is why couldn’t both be true? Nevertheless it was interesting that he used the scripture from the D&C, as I mentioned that scripture featured very prominently in one of my posts. And it was interesting that he talked about two possibilities for the future, since that was the way I introduced things in my very first post. I know that some members of the MTA are familiar with my blog and have read some or even most of the posts, and it’s interesting to speculate whether I might have influenced them. Ultimately pointless, but interesting nonetheless.

Having drawn out these two visions of the future he came down on the side of Isaiah. (And I’m still unclear why it can’t be both)  In support of his more optimistic view of the future he listed all of the cool things that are happening. Included in the list was:

  • YouTube
  • Google
  • GitHub
  • Kickstarter
  • The Mars Rover
  • Mobile tech
  • Wearable tech
  • Reusable rockets
  • Solar shingles
  • The Higgs Boson
  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • Advances in robotics
  • CRISPR
  • Watson
  • AlphaGo
  • Alexa
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Moore’s Law

These are all very exciting technologies, but, for me, the list only reinforces my central criticism of the MTA. That for all of their talk of being Mormons and Disciples of Christ, and the assertion that their unreserved embrace of technology just makes them better disciples of Christ, that instead what they really are is just your garden variety tech enthusiasts. How does being Mormon inform their engagement with technology? Are there any technologies they’re not a fan of because of their religion? If the MTA made a list of technological advances over the last 10 years they considered important, would I be able to distinguish that list from a list I might find in a mainstream media outlet or in a magazine like Popular Science?

The speaker went on to say that going forward they wanted to focus more on the T (transhumanism) and less on the M (Mormon). But from what I could tell there wasn’t much “M” to begin with, and certainly very little of it at the conference. I’m honestly not sure that there’s any practical difference between a Mormon transhumanist and a regular transhumanist. I imagine that they have very different reasoning, but I think that reasoning ends up with both of them arriving in exactly the same place.

The question, as always comes back to how do we know whether to expect the D&C future or the Isaiah future (though, again, I’m not sure why it can’t be both). Does the existence of YouTube really make the Isaiah future more likely? I personally don’t think the list he made establishes a prima facie case for the Isaiah future. But for the moment, let’s assume that it does. Would a similar list compiled in support of the D&C future be more or less convincing? Let’s give it a shot:

Well? What do you think? Which list is the more compelling? Even if you decide that the Isaiah list is more compelling. (I certainly admit that it’s more pleasant.) In the end, it matters less than you think, for two reasons. First, in order for the MTA’s vision of things to work out. Ethics has to progress at the same rate as technology, otherwise you end up possessing godlike power without the wisdom or morality to use those powers righteously. Take another look at that first list, is there anything in it that points to an increase in morality and ethics? While all the items from the second list point to exactly the opposite happening.

Secondly, neither the MTA nor I knows for sure what will happen in the future. In fact neither of us even knows for sure what the two scriptures are foretelling, and even if we did, they definitely don’t come with dates attached. As I said in a previous post I really hope the MTA is right, and that I’m wrong, but who suffers the most if they’re wrong? If we end up in the D&C future and we didn’t prepare for it, that’s a lot worse than if we end up in the Isaiah future without preparation.

This represents one of the big problems I have with the MTA, There’s too little focus on the potential downsides. Within the transhumanist declaration there is a point about reducing existential risk, but there was very little said on that subject at the Conference. (Perhaps that’s how you can tell the difference between a Mormon Transhumanist and a normal transhumanist, the Mormon is more optimistic.) To be fair, while there wasn’t much said, that doesn’t mean nothing was said. In fact there was another speaker later on who was even more explicit in describing the two potential futures, calling our efforts a race between innovation and catastrophe. Again, it’s probable that this gentleman came up with the idea on his own, but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his presentation and my first blog post.

At this point I’ve spent over a third of my allotted space on just one presentation, so it’s obvious that I’m only going to be able to touch on a tiny amount of what took place at the conference. Though if you don’t mind podcasts, which you might, seeing as how you’re reading this rather than listening to it, I released a bonus podcast with some additional thoughts on the conference, specifically the keynote speakers. But as I said at the start rather than providing a blow-by-blow of each presentation, I’m more interested in tying together some of the broader themes. One theme that ran through all of the talks, and, in fact, runs through the entire MTA endeavor, is the idea of continually accelerating growth. One obvious question, you might be tempted to ask, is whether there is any limit to this growth, and on that count the vast majority of the people at the conference seem to agree that there isn’t.

This makes sense. If there isn’t any limit to growth than transhumanism is just a reflection of the way the world works, rather than a weird quasi religion. But I’m sure that any one of us can think of lots of reasons why growth might not continue, or why it might not carry everyone along with it.

This latter point is a problem for transhumanism, particularly the charitable Mormon variety. They can be absolutely right about the continual growth, but still wrong about it’s impact. There are numerous scenarios under which Silicon Valley billionaires have full access to the promises of transhumanism while poor people end up with a situation that’s actually worse than what they have currently.

During lunch I brought up this idea with one of the other conference attendees. Specifically the idea that as the slope of the growth curve gets steeper and steeper the cost of being even slightly behind someone else on that curve gets larger and larger. For example imagine you’re holding a car race and one car, say a Tesla in ludicrous mode, can accelerate at 1 meter/second/second and the other car, say a Tesla that only has insane mode, can accelerate at 0.99 meters/second/second, or 99% of the acceleration of the first car. In this example it takes less than 10 minutes for the two cars to be over a mile apart, and in an hour the faster car will be 40 miles ahead of the other car, even though the difference in acceleration is only 1%

Now you may retort that cars can’t accelerate forever. (You may also be upset that I switched between metric and imperial in the example.) And this is true, but if you’re a transhumanist then it’s an article of faith that society is different, it can accelerate forever. But even if this is true, if Silicon Valley billionaires are accelerating at ludicrous speed, it doesn’t matter if everyone else is accelerating at insane speed they’re still going to get left behind. You may have heard of the recent concerns over rising inequality, well as much of a problem as it is right now; transhumanism has the potential to make it a lot worse. This is what I pointed out to the gentleman I was talking to.

Of course, it’s difficult to engage in a meaningful dialogue under these circumstances, at least for me. You have a few minutes to cover a massively complicated subject in a way that someone, who’s already predisposed to disagree with you, will understand and assimilate, not assimilate in the sense of changing their mind, but assimilate in the sense that they understand what you’re saying well enough that when they fire off a retort they’re actually aiming in the right direction. Obviously this works both ways, I’m sure I only absorbed part of the point he was trying to get across.

With all of those caveats in place, he responded by pointing out that world population was about to peak, and that would solve the problem of ever accelerating growth. You can see here what I mean about firing in the right direction. I’m not sure that the problem of the billionaires leaving poor people behind is solved by having slightly fewer poor people. Still demography and falling birth rates are interesting topics, and I’ll have to return to them at some point in the future. In any case it was one of the many enjoyable conversations I had at the conference, and not only can I not do justice to all of the conversations, I can’t even do justice to this conversation.

The last topic I want to address involves a question that has haunted me since long before I was even aware of the existence of the MTA, though the MTA is precisely the sort of organization that makes me ask this question. And that is, where do you draw the line between a healthy discussion and an actual schism? To reframe the question with respect to the MTA. Is the MTA involved in a healthy discussion of the place of technology in religion or are they actually pushing for things contrary to the stated position of the church? I hoped that after attending the conference, I’d fall on the healthy discussion side of things, but if anything the conference left me leaning more towards the schismatic side.

Of course it is fair to ask whether it even matters what side of things the MTA falls on, particularly if you’re not especially religious. If you’re an atheist, the sectarian conflicts of the superstitious may be amusing, but they’re hardly consequential. In fact the only group for whom this question matters at all are members of the LDS Church, and going forward we’re going to be speaking from that frame of reference. In other words this discussion is going to assume you’re a Mormon and that you believe that the Mormon Church possesses some unique truths which are important for our salvation.

Certainly the Church operates under this assumption. We send out missionaries to preach these truths. We do work for the dead, partially as a way of transmitting those truths beyond the Veil And the most fundamental truths, like faith, repentance and baptism are hammered over and over again in General Conference. Less visibly there’s the Church’s efforts to correlate everything, from Sunday School lessons to the doctrine taught by the missionaries. And, of course, the church also puts out Handbooks of Instruction. In other words it’s clear that the leadership of the Church has decided that it’s very important for everyone to be on the same page, which makes sense if people’s salvation is at stake.

Framed in this way it’s easy to spot people who are doing their best to be “on the same page”. And one way of examining this question is just to say that people who are trying their best in this fashion are on the healthy discussion side of things, while those who aren’t are schismatic to one degree or another. I think this is the position I default to, but of course I can already predict that there will be people who object to me saying that it’s easy to distinguish between those who are doing their best versus those who aren’t. I will continue to maintain that it is, but I can see where a more specific definition of things might be in order.

The idea of being on the same page assumes a fairly hierarchical structure. In short, someone has to decide what the page says before anyone can “be on it”. As members we believe this someone is the President of the Church, currently Thomas S. Monson, and we say that he is the only one who can exercise all the keys of the priesthood. Of course he can’t do everything, and so much of what’s “on the page” gets determined by the general authorities, who are sometimes just referred to as “the brethren”.

Thus a more specific definition of whether someone is doing their best can be reframed as a question of whether they support the brethren. This doesn’t mean that they consider the brethren to be perfect, rather the question of support hinges on whether they give the brethren the benefit of the doubt. But support also takes the form of acknowledging their leadership, and not directly contradicting them.

Having said all this let me reiterate that the foregoing is how I draw the line. You may draw the line in a different fashion. Also I haven’t said anything about how we should treat people who fall on the schismatic side of the line, because that’s not the point of the post. But, hopefully it goes without saying that we should treat them with love and compassion.

Having arrived, somewhat tortuously, at the standard of support, how did the MTA fare? Well there were three presentations (at least) which I felt were very clearly on the unsupportive side of the line.

The first of them dealt with the idea of prophets, and it began promisingly enough by arguing that we needed prophets now more than ever, but then it used that as a jumping off point to argue that 15 prophets (the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) is too few. That prophecy had become institutionalized. That true prophets don’t wear suits and work 9-5 jobs. True prophets are iconoclasts, who may appear to actually betray their religion and culture. In support of this he mentioned Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite. That’s an interesting point, but without offering up his candidates for modern day Abinadis and Samuels he’s mostly just saying that the brethren are uncool and stuffy.

The second presentation which I felt crossed the line was titled “Post-genderism”, and it was pretty much as you’d expect from the title, with the presenter going so far as to say that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing, and further that the future will essentially be genderless. I understand that this is a ridiculously complicated topic, one which I am almost certainly not qualified to comment on, but it’s one thing to acknowledge that complexity and quite another to declare that you’ve figured it out, to the point where you’re deciding that certain words mean the opposite of what everyone (including the brethren) think they mean. Also lest you think this is a minority opinion among members of the MTA the presenter in this instance was the MTA’s president.

The final presentation in the line-crossing category was titled the “Mystical Core of Mormonism”. I initially assumed that the high point of the presentation was going to be when he compared Joseph Smith’s First Vision to the experience of ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms. That was until he produced his own seer stone, which he not only claimed to be using in a fashion similar to Joseph Smith, but which he had also named…

Hearing the summary of these three presentations you may disagree with me, and that is as it should be. if you wish to watch the presentations for yourself they should eventually appear on this page (currently they don’t appear to have cut up the videos into separate presentations.) I think everyone needs to decide for themselves where to draw the line between discussion and schism. As I said in the beginning it’s a question that’s haunted me for a long time. And it’s obvious that it’s only going to get worse.

That’s the end of my partial recap of the MTA Conference. If you want more of my impressions (and really who wouldn’t?) you can check out the bonus podcast I already mentioned. As my final thought, I’ll try to make up for some of my harshness by recommending a book to the MTA. As I mentioned in my review of it, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, might as well be titled “We Are Saved” and thus contains a lot of support for the fundamental ideology of the MTA. If you’re an MTA member you should definitely read it. And with that I promise to leave the MTA alone for at least a couple of months.


If you like overly detailed posts about small, unusual religious groups, the consider donating, since that’s most of what I’ve been doing. And if you don’t like these sorts of posts, also consider donating so I have the resources to cover larger more mainstream groups.


A Different Take On Pascal’s Wager

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I’ve been to a lot of funerals lately. As I write that it seems too casual and mundane a statement with which to describe the solemnity that attends death. If I only have to change the word “funerals” to “movies”, to instead be talking about frequent trips to the cinema, then maybe I need to use a different phrase. But I’m not sure there is actually something that really encompasses the enormity of death. There is something of the infinite in death even if, or especially if, you don’t believe in an afterlife. For those who don’t believe, death is an infinite loss.

Actually, I should be careful about speaking for those people who don’t believe in an afterlife. I freely confess to having a hard time getting into the mindset of the true atheist when it comes to this subject, and this is assuming that there is just one mindset, which is obviously not the case. I’ve already mentioned those atheists who feel that death is the ultimate evil, and the transhumanists who believe that defeating death might be the single most important issue. And if for some reason I was absolutely convinced that there was no afterlife I imagine I might fall into this camp.

I haven’t yet talked about the atheists who take the opposite approach and feel that this life is amazing enough without worrying about trying to prolong it, or whether there’s anything after. For example, to quote from Richard Dawkins:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

(I have many criticisms to level at Dawkins, but being a bad writer is not one of them.)

As another example, Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan’s wife, said something similar:

Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting.

This quote brings up a common attitude among those who aren’t religious or don’t believe in an afterlife, the idea that those who do believe in those things are seeking refuge in illusions, specifically the illusion of religion, and that by seeking this refuge we are weaker than those who face death with “courage”.  I guess maybe that’s true on some level. And if courage is the ultimate virtue then perhaps there’s a moral framework in which this is the most virtuous path.

But if courage isn’t an end unto itself, and I don’t think it is, then what did Carl Sagan gain from this courage? Did it make him happier? Did it make life easier to bear? Perhaps for Sagan the answer to both of these questions is yes. But I doubt that this approach would work for the vast majority of people. I think most people are made happier by the hope of an afterlife, regardless of whether they’re otherwise religious, or even spiritual. Therefore telling all of these people that they lack courage is not very helpful, regardless of whether it’s true. What harm are they trying to prevent by telling these people they lack courage? I know that for many atheists, such as Dawkins, removing a belief in the afterlife is supposed to make people less recklessly violent, by, for example, reducing the number of religiously-inspired suicide bombers. But how does their proposed alternative, that there are no consequences to anything we do and that this life doesn’t matter, make a problem of reckless violence any better?

As I said maybe this view is more courageous on some level, but even this courage is insufficient to truly grapple with a purely materialistic view of life. And by a materialistic view of life I’m not talking about being obsessed with possessions I’m talking about believing that there is nothing spiritual, that nothing exists except matter. The fact is, that if you really want to be as materialistic and scientific as possible, then you should acknowledge that as far as science is concerned, we’re nothing more than organic robots. Brought about by the process of evolution in a series of largely arbitrary steps, to fit into a certain niche for the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the universe, a fraction just long enough for us to hopefully reproduce. And the joy, affection, and love experienced by Ann Druyan towards Carl Sagan was nothing more than a complicated chemical and biological process designed to make this reproduction happen.

You may think I’m exaggerating when I talk about organic robots, but from a scientific, materialistic viewpoint there is no evidence that humans have free will. Thus the “organic robot” viewpoint would appear to be the most scientific and the most courageous, but I’m not currently aware of anyone, even among the hardcore atheists, who hold this particular point of view. Which leaves me to wonder, how is one simultaneously certain that there is no afterlife, but also equally certain that we aren’t soulless automatons for whom consciousness is an illusion? But to repeat my initial caveat, I have a hard time getting into the mindset of an atheist, so maybe this viewpoint is more common than I think.

In any event, the purpose of this extended introduction is to point out that technology and science have made the problem of death more complicated rather than less. And this complication extends even to people who believe in the afterlife. The Mormon Transhumanist Association is a great example of this intersection. It used to be that there was no question of avoiding death. If you believed in an afterlife, death is just part of the plan. Now technology has enabled transhumanists to decide that death shouldn’t be part of the plan and Mormon Transhumanists to assert that death isn’t part of the plan and that the afterlife may not be after anything, but rather just a continuation of this life.

And the complications go beyond merely questioning the role of death, they extend the other direction into complete apathy about death. If nothing else, progress eliminated a lot of death, particularly among the young. And as a result we’re able to mostly ignore death, and on those occasions we can’t ignore it we compartmentalize it. This has not always been the case, and I’m not sure it should be the case now. Death is still with us, and as I’ve hopefully shown there are a lot of ways for dealing with it, and, if you’re not in that small slice of people we discussed, who are both fine with death and don’t believe in an afterlife, then it’s perfectly reasonable to look for ways to extend things past death, particularly in this day and age when it appears that we might be able to cheat death entirely.

For those who aren’t excited about passing into nothingness, which I assume is the majority of people, there are a variety of options, but none of them offer any absolute certainty, and because of this uncertainty each option is a wager of one sort or another. The best known of these wagers, particularly if you restrict yourself to that label, is Pascal’s Wager. But despite it being the best known wager, it is not the one most commonly chosen. And thus we’ll set it aside for the moment.

The award for the most commonly chose wager belongs to procreation, or having children. I know it’s not commonly framed as a wager, but it is one way in which someone can live on after they’re dead. And sure, this wager is best suited at providing immortality for your DNA. But in the shorter term, as long as your descendents remember you and something about your life that is a form of immortality.

Of course someone isn’t limited to only being remembered by their genetic descendents, and thus another wager (though again not labeled as such) is seeking after fame (or infamy as the case may be) through doing noteworthy things. Certainly Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Plato, and Johann Sebastian Bach all have a degree of immortality. But while the first two are famous as rulers and conquerors, the last two are famous for what they created, and here we get into what might be considered a separate avenue for immortality: immortality through the arts and sciences. Plato and Bach are famous in a different way than Caesar and Genghis Khan. Plato is famous for his writings, and I can still read what he wrote (albeit not in the original Greek) even thousands of years later. Caesar did write, but that’s not why he’s famous and as far as anyone can tell Genghis Khan was illiterate, so while I can read about both of them, it’s not the same thing as living through the end of the Roman Republic or the Mongol invasion. But reading Plato today is very similar to reading Plato while he was still alive. As is listening to Bach, despite purists arguing about the difference between catgut and metal strings.

In any case, while very few of us will have the opportunity to become famous as rulers and conquerors, all of us have the opportunity to achieve some immortality through our work, even if very few people ever interact with it. (Almost no one reads Newton’s Principia, but everyone knows who Newton is.) I assume that even Sagan and Dawkins, despite whatever else they might have said on the subject, hope(d) that people are still reading their books after they’re dead, and, while not precisely the same thing, I imagine that Ann Druyan may have hoped for a form of immortality by having her brain waves recorded and placed on the golden record included on Voyager 2.

As I said all of these activities represent wagers. You wager when you have kids that they’ll tell their kids about you, and maybe those kids will tell their kids. You wager when you write a book, or record a piece of music, that people will still be reading it, or listening to it, long after you’re gone. But all of these wagers are limited. Even if you are one of those people who assume that humanity will still be around in 10,000 years, it’s almost certain that people will have forgotten about even Plato and Caesar, definitely they will have been long forgotten in 100,000 years. And, undoubtedly, people have kids and write books and record songs for many other reasons beyond a quest for immortality, but it’s always in there somewhere. The point is that there’s really only one wager you can make that has some chance of not only sparing you from death, but of doing it for all eternity, and that is Pascal’s wager.

In short, for those of you who might not be familiar with Pascal’s wager. If we assume that there are two possibilities, either God exists or he does not, and if we have two ways of acting, either we believe or we don’t. We end up with four possible outcomes:

  1. God does exist and we believed he existed- We receive infinite joy for an infinite time.
  2. God does exist but we didn’t believe he existed- We receive no reward, or we are punished. But in any case the outcome is not as good as in #1.
  3. God doesn’t exist but we believe he did- We suffer a finite loss of all the things we gave up by believing in God’s existence.
  4. God doesn’t exist and we didn’t believe he did- We benefit from a finite gain of not wasting time believing in his existence.

As you can see the only logical thing to do when presented with these four choices is to bet on God. Reducing it to these four choices is somewhat simplistic and as you might imagine there are many objections to Pascal’s wager. If you’re interested in a reasonably comprehensive list of objections with a rebuttal of each using decision theory and logic I would direct you here. My point is not to answer every objection (though perhaps in time I will). What I purpose to do is approach the whole thing from a different angle.

The first thing I want to bring to the discussion is the point I already discussed. If you aren’t a member of the small minority who welcomes death despite also believing in its finality, then the options you have for achieving some measure of immortality are limited. And Pascal’s wager, regardless of what you think of its likelihood, is the only one that offers the possibility of true immortality.

The second thing I want to add to the discussion is the concept of antifragility. As we discussed in a previous post one of the key elements of things which are antifragile is that they engage in small, repeated sacrifices (or costs) in order to access large unbounded gains. It’s not hard to see how Pascal’s wager and religion in general are perfect examples of this. So perfect that it’s hard to imagine that Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the sage of antifragility hasn’t written about it. And indeed he has. His discussion of it is too lengthy to fully excerpt here, though if you’re curious you can find it on page 210 of The Black Swan. But this small selection should hopefully give you an idea of his argument:

All these recommendations have one point in common: asymmetry. Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.

Indeed the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book… This idea is often erroneously called Pascal’s wager…I know that I have nothing to gain from being an atheist if [God] does not exist, whereas I have plenty to lose if he does…

Pascal’s argument is severely flawed theologically: one has to be naive enough to believe that God would not penalize us for false belief…

But the idea behind Pascal’s wager has fundamental applications outside of theology. It stands the entire notion of knowledge on its head. It eliminates the need for us to understand the probabilities of a rare event… rather we can focus on the payoff and benefits of an event if it takes place.

You’ll notice that Taleb says that the wager is severely flawed theologically. And that brings me to my final point: answering objections to Pascal’s wager. I am not so presumptuous as to claim that I am answering all objections to Pascal’s wager or even Taleb’s objection, because it is clear that people are either intrigued by Pascal’s wager or they find it risible, and it is unlikely that whatever few words I write will move someone from the risible camp to the intrigued camp (though a man can dream) nevertheless I should at least provide my own response for why I am in the camp of those who are intrigued.

It should be noted that no one, starting off as a committed atheist, hears Pascal’s wager and says, “Well that makes sense I’m going to abandon my atheism and spend the rest of my life pretending to believe.” Despite this fact, most people approach Pascal’s wager as if this is the only scenario they can imagine. To call this a strawman is probably overkill, but it certainly has the scent of the barnyard about it. I think it’s far more common in practice to approach it from the other direction.

Imagine that instead of being an atheist that you’re a believer of one variety or another. You’ve been raised up in an organized religion, your family believes, your wife or husband believes, etc. Does this mean your faith is perfect? That it is without the slightest crack? Probably not, particularly in this day and age. But you do believe and when you have doubts you work to overcome them. And one very effective weapon in that effort might very well be Pascal’s wager. With the wager in mind you might ask yourself what if I am wrong? What if my family, my wife, and all my co-religionists are all wrong? Well then I will have lost very little. Only a few finite years against the vast measureless emptiness of eternity, and I will have not even lost my life, but only the way I choose to live it. Yes, I will have wasted some percentage of my time in church. But hopefully that time will have been spent learning to be charitable and loving. (We know that there will be people who argue that this is not in fact what I’m learning, but that’s a subject for another post.) But, if I’m right… If I’m right, than what a thing to be right about!

This is the key point I want to make in this post. If you are already a believer, many of the objections to Pascal’s wager take on an entirely different character. For example another very common objection to Pascal’s wager is that there are hundreds if not thousands of different religions, how does one know which one to wager on? Once again most of the objections appear to assume that the only possible scenario for Pascal’s wager coming into play is a hard-core athiest with no built in preference for any religion suddenly deciding that they’re going to join a religion and place a bet on the existence of God. Only how are they ever going to decide which religion to pretend to believe in? Should they worship Odin or Vishnu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Once again things reek of the barnyard…

If someone is already following a religion then sticking with that religion is a pretty good wager for a lot of reasons. First there’s the aforementioned wife and family, who are also probably part of the same religion. Secondly, there are the expectations of God. And on this point Mormonism has a lot to add. The LDS Church teaches that this life is a test. I don’t think it’s uncalled for to use the sorts of test we’re familiar with as a way of understanding the testing we might undergo in mortality. If you were going to give a test to the typical junior high student, you would not give them a test on quantum mechanics or partial differential equations, but on the other hand you wouldn’t test them on single digit arithmetic or whether they can recite the alphabet

In a similar fashion if we accept that life is a test, we can also expect that the true religion is not some long vanished faith which was only practiced in the steppes of central Asia. But on the other hand, neither can we assume that God intended us to blindly and unquestioningly accept the religion we were born into. And, certainly, faith is part of the test, and another thing God asks of us that is neither impossible nor inconsequential.

Death is a serious and solemn business, and it was not my intention to treat the subject with anything less than the respect and reverence it deserves. But because of seriousness of death we rarely think about it. A situation which the modern compartmentalization of death only exacerbates. But everyone, sooner or later, is going to be forced to grapple with death, especially their own death. And, in that grapple, if the hypothetical wager of an obscure 17th century mathematician and philosopher makes it any easier, then I think you should go right ahead and take advantage of it.


If you’re not quite ready to grapple with death, maybe you should grapple with the question of whether to donate to this blog.


What’s the Best Way to Reduce Sexual Violence?

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I was riding in a car with my sister the other day and she mentioned that she had just listened to the But What If We’re Wrong? episode (from the podcast version of the blog) where I talked about women in the military. And she expressed her annoyance with the section where I talked about an integrated military possibly leading to more sexual violence (i.e. sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape). The section in question ran as follows:

The stories and numbers I do see mostly concern harassment. The most recent story making the rounds is of a vast network among the marines for sharing nude photos of female soldiers. Less publicized, are stories of the Navy having a growing problem with pregnancy among women who’ve been deployed. Apparently rising from 2% of women in 2015 to 16% currently. Both of these stories come on top of persistent stories of sexual harassment in the military going back to at least the Tailhook Scandal in 1991. (It’s certainly possible that there were reasons other than combat effectiveness for historically not having women in the military.)…Are we enabling a large amount of sexual harassment that might not otherwise happen?

My sister’s position was that we shouldn’t forbid women from doing certain things because it opens them up to sexual violence. That if a man sexually harasses, assaults, or rapes a woman that the fault lies completely with the man who committed the crime. That women aren’t asking for it by wearing revealing clothing, or because they were drinking and they especially weren’t asking for it by joining the military. That essentially, if a man harrasses a woman the man is 100% at fault and talking about the woman’s role in any context risks opening up the idea that some part of it was the woman’s fault.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with my sister on this point. Everything she said is correct. I’m reasonably certain that this is another post which might get me in trouble (at this point maybe it’s easier to identify the posts that won’t get me in trouble) and before you get mad I want you to absorb the fact that I agree with everything my sister said. But, (you knew there was a “but” coming) I do have to clarify some things.

First, we need to differentiate between sexual violence and claims of sexual violence, which is to say that the US has an adversarial justice system and the process of investigating claims of sexual violence can often create a situation where the victim (who knows the violence was actual, not merely alleged) feels that they’re the ones on trial. Unfortunately this is inherent to the adversarial process, which is not to say there isn’t room for improvement.

The second clarification I need to make, and the point of this post, is that discussing the role of society or of policy or of education or of alcohol is different than discussing what a woman should or shouldn’t have done after the harassment or the assault or in the worst cases, the rape, has already happened. I can totally agree that second-guessing or picking apart someone’s actions after they’ve been the victim of a crime is not only unproductive, it’s cruel. But telling someone in advance that they shouldn’t get really drunk at a frat party is different than telling a rape victim it’s all their fault because they got really drunk at a frat party. In other words there may be some common sense changes to policy and education that should be made, which have nothing to do with blaming the victim.

For the purposes of our discussion we’ll mostly be focusing on colleges and the military, both because that seems to be where the biggest perceived problem is, where we have the most information at our disposal, and finally where we can talk about specific policies.

But before we can discuss what we should change, we should talk about the status quo. What are we doing now to decrease sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape at colleges and in the military? As far as I can tell, currently, the vast majority of our effort is put into education. Teaching people (men especially) what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. As I look around I see some minor procedural changes, most of which involve making it easier to report and prosecute sexual offences after they already happen, but as far as prevention, almost all of it falls under the general heading of education. In essence we’re just telling people to not do it. Not do what? Well as far as I can tell the curriculum for this education at the college level, at least goes something like this:

Any kind of sex you can think of is great, healthy and completely natural. Except sex where your partner isn’t completely 100% on board and then that’s full on rape, and that’s the worst thing ever.

If that definition seems over the top, you are free to suggest your own form of the “modern day sexual curriculum”, as it is taught at colleges and in the military. But I think, based on the current atmosphere at colleges and universities that you’ll agree that however it’s phrased, it’s targeting a very small slice of all sexual behavior. While at the same time anything that’s not forbidden is encouraged and even celebrated. For example, as part of this education, they’re not telling people to practice abstinence. Or to not make out or to not do any of the hundreds of things which lie somewhere between a chaste peck on the check and actual intercourse. As far as I can tell they’re not advocating waiting until a certain age. And they’re certainly not telling them to avoid pornography or to wait until marriage.  In other words they’re trying to bridle one of the strongest desires a human being can have by giving it full rein except for in a few, sometimes not entirely obvious situations.

The military is a little bit different and as far as I can tell, you’re not supposed to have sex while out at sea if you’re in the Navy, or during actual deployment, if you’re in, say, the Army, but beyond that it’s similarly anything goes. Also there’s ample proof (the pregnancy statistic I cited earlier) along with anecdotal evidence, that despite this prohibition that people still have plenty of sex both on ships and while deployed. Once again they’re targeting very specific circumstances, and once again there’s evidence that it’s not working. Of course sex isn’t sexual violence, but you’re still looking at a situation where proximity and availability overwhelm rules and education.

As an aside, speaking of human sexual desire. I’d be fascinated in knowing from what framework the current ideology operates. If they’re basing their policy on science wouldn’t they have to admit that an overwhelmingly powerful sex drive is basically mandated by evolution? I can see speaking about men as inherently good people who should know better and just need be reminded, if you’re operating from a religious framework, but I’ve seen no evidence that they are operating from a religious framework, and if they were, why aren’t they also pushing chastity or marriage?

In any event by trying to limit just a small slice of sexual behavior while encouraging everything else, it’s as if they pointed to a giant wall of soda and said “You should grab a can and drink some it’s great. Oh, but there are some cans of poison in there as well, but those cans are clearly marked, normal cans are red, the poison cans are orange. Of course sometimes you’re going to be picking these cans while you’re drunk or tired and other times you’re going to be in a situation where you’re really, really thirsty. And sometimes you’ll be picking a can when you’re all three.”

Of course sex isn’t the only human desire we try and put limits on, but I can’t think of any other desire where a similar strategy is employed. We don’t go up to people who are overweight and tell them. “Well, evidently you haven’t heard this already because if you had I’m sure you would have acted on it, but you should really eat less and exercise.” We don’t put shots of whiskey in front of alcoholics and tell them to just pretend those shots aren’t there. We don’t take our kid who has a D average and mountains of homework and buy him a new video game. So why do we take libidinous young adults, put them in stressful situations, perhaps with copious alcohol and tell them to have all the sex they want, but just make sure that they can completely turn it off the minute there’s any hesitation on the part of the other party or the minute they board a ship.

Perhaps you disagree with all of these analogies. Perhaps you don’t think that sexual violence has anything to do with dieting or video games or alcohol. Maybe you’re right. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape all involve more than one person, but at it’s core you’re still saying that if you just tell people to stop doing something that it should just work. That if someone tells me to stop procrastinating that I’ll never procrastinate again. If only….

Also as long as we’re still exploring the effectiveness of just telling someone to stop doing something, how is it that the people most dismissive of abstinence only education feel that in this case just telling men to stop is going to work when telling teenagers to not have sex apparently doesn’t work? Isn’t the failure of preaching just abstinence alone another giant piece of evidence in favor of the idea that you can’t just tell someone to not do something and think that it is going to be effective?

Later on I want to look at the kind of tradeoffs we’re making, but for now let’s stick with the idea of education. Imagine that for whatever reason that education was the only tool you had. (Which is apparently exactly the position we’re in). You couldn’t segregate the sexes, or make women wear burkas. You can’t disown your daughter if she had a baby out of wedlock. All you can do is educate people. If that was the only tool available and you were really serious about stopping sexual violence, how would you go about it?

Well first, you might start by educating them to stay away from all of the soda, not just the orange cans. In other words you might teach them that sex is serious business, regardless of who it’s with. And since you would want them to exercise good judgement you might also teach them to avoid alcohol and drugs. And it wouldn’t be enough to teach them these things at the last minute just before they’re presented with the temptation to have soda, you’d want to start teaching them these things as soon as possible. You might also want to put together a whole moral system which teaches not only the dangers of sex and drugs and alcohol but, which ties in with other bad things like lying and stealing. In fact you might want to actually start with education on lying and stealing and then once they have a firm understanding that some things are right and some things are wrong, you can add in whatever commandments you have about sex. And, finally, since consent seems to be at the heart of the problem, you might teach them that the best way to go about it, is to have a very public declaration of consent. Maybe even turn it into a ceremony, and bring witnesses.

Does any of that ring a bell? Does it sound like any organization you might already be familiar with? As it turns out the LDS Church is a big believer in education as well, but rather than focusing on a very narrow definition of improper sexual conduct, the Church focuses on avoiding all sex outside of marriage. And rather than starting the education when someone joins the military or enters college, our education begins the moment a child enters Primary at the age three when they join Sunbeams. And yes there are no chastity lessons in Sunbeams, (at least not that I’m aware of) but they are taught that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. Thus when they’re later taught, sometime in their teens, the Church’s commandments with respect to sex. These commandments fit right into the framework of right and wrong the Church has been talking about since they were three years old.

In other words if people only cared about reducing the incidence of sexual violence, and even if they only had access to education there is a lot more they could be doing. I suppose that some people might argue that this approach makes the problem worse. The claim wouldn’t surprise me, but I honestly can’t imagine on what basis they would make it. But if you want to make the claim that a long term emphasis on chastity and morality makes the problem of sexual violence. worse, I’m happy to examine whatever evidence you might have.

So why doesn’t everyone adopt the same approach as the LDS Church? (Note I said the LDS Church, not BYU.) First, I doubt the idea has crossed anyone’s mind. Not only that, I assume that if I did go to someplace like Baylor University (or another college with a recent scandal) and pitched the idea of implementing LDS religious standards across the entire campus that I would not get very far. (I think the real bet would be whether I would literally be laughed off of campus or not.) Second it requires starting very young, it requires organization, it requires an entire moral framework, in short it requires a religion.

But, in what can only be a complete coincidence, the role of religion in America is at an all time low. Surely this decrease in the number of active believers couldn’t have anything to do with the increase in sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape? That would be inconceivable!

Despite it being inconceivable, as far as I can tell this is in fact the conventional wisdom, that there is no connection between the diminished role of religion and the current sexual violence crisis on campuses and in the military. In fact generally when people mention the crisis and religion together it’s in part to blame religion, for example the abstinence only education mentioned above, or they might claim that religion empowers the patriarchy. Certainly it’s possible that religion has no effect on the rates sexual violence. It’s even possible that religion causes more harassment, but less rape, or vice versa. Just as it’s possible that long term education on chastity is less effective than a two hour lecture on consent, but I find claims like this very hard to believe.

The fact is that in addition to religion, there is a whole host of options that modern culture has ruled to be inadmissible, despite the seriousness of sexual violence. Not only can I not find any one (outside of people who are explicitly religious) making any kind of connection between a decrease in religion and an increase in these sorts of crimes, but it’s equally rare to find people who are willing to suggest things like segregation by sexes or limiting alcohol or heaven forbid anything resembling a chaperon. And yet all of these things were very common historically.

We are so prone to dismiss historical norms and morals, including religion, as retrograde and primitive superstitions; which we’ve not only grown out of, but were silly even at the time they were being practiced, that despite the increase of something truly awful (how else can you describe sexual violence) it’s still unthinkable that maybe our ancestors had a point. That maybe having, at a minimum, a separate men’s dorm and women’s dorm wasn’t a crazy idea? As an example of what I mean here’s an article explaining that the vast majority of sexual assault happens in on-campus housing. And here’s another article mocking the GOP for objecting to coed dorms. Are we really serious about this problem or not? If we are, should we maybe consider some radical options? (Or not so radical if viewed historically.)

Are there downsides to having separate dorms or a less integrated military? Are there downsides to not allowing alcohol? Are there downsides to religion? Are there downsides to the BYU Honor code? Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes. Of course there are. I would never deny that there aren’t trade-offs to all of those things, but are we sure we know the trade-offs we’re making? To just take the most basic adjustment, is the incidence of sexual violence less in sex segregated dorms? What about sexual violence in the military if you have completely segregated units (all female or all male)? Perhaps it’s fine to have women in combat, but should women combat units be separate from male combat units? Is there any data on that? Has anyone even thought to do the experiment? If there are differences then what benefits does the current set up provide? If the current way of doing things leads to demonstrably more sexual violence then what is the fantastic upside that balances that out? If it turns out that coed dorms and integrated military units experience the same amount of sexual violence as segregated dorms and segregated military units I’d love to see the evidence. And even if there is evidence for that, which I seriously doubt, what about alcohol, what about encouraging promiscuity in general?

You may think from this that I’m advocating that every college be just like BYU, or some Amish equivalent. I’m not. What I want to know is, are there small common sense changes which could be made that have minimal disadvantages, but huge payoffs in reducing sexual violence?  Are we not making those changes because they seem prudish, or too much like what those religious fanatics are advocating? Would keeping men and women in separate military units give women all the benefits of being in the military with less sexual violence to boot? If it would why aren’t we doing it?

At this point many people are going to argue that we shouldn’t have to do any of that. It shouldn’t be that hard to just train men (and everyone) to not engage in sexual violence. Again, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of education, particularly education that’s so narrowly focused, and so limited to such a small behavioral slice. But even if it is effective, unless it’s 100% effective we’re still trading some level of sexual violence for benefits which still seem pretty vague to me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a different tack. Perhaps rather than deriding everything that happened before the Sexual Revolution as barbaric and misguided. We might want to take a closer look at the customs and religions that have served humanity for hundreds of years, and see if perhaps whether those who came before us, might have had to solve the same problems we’re currently grappling with, and whether if somewhere in those customs and religions there might be a better way.


If like me, you’re not a big fan of BYU (GO UTES!) then consider donating to a fellow contrarian. If on the other hand you’re a big fan of BYU, well I basically just did an entire post defending the honor code, so you should also donate.