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As I mentioned, this week on Thursday and Friday, I gave two presentations at the Sunstone Symposium, and when the week began, I was not quite as prepared for those presentations as I would have liked. What this meant is that time I would normally have spent on my weekly post ended up getting spent on preparing my presentations instead. Accordingly, I considered skipping this week’s post, but I’m skipping next week to go to GenCon and also skipped a week not that long ago, so as a compromise I decided that I won’t skip this week, but I will take the somewhat easier option of putting together a few short pieces on some things I’ve been thinking about recently, rather than taking the time to construct a single, more involved piece.
Also, related to that, I apologize that I didn’t engage at all with the comments from last week’s post. It was a good discussion, but I didn’t have the time to contribute to it, which is sometimes how it goes.
With the grovelling apologies out of the way, let’s move on to the actual topics.
The Sunstone Symposium
Obviously it would be odd if I went to something like the Sunstone Symposium and then had nothing to say about it. But before I get into that I imagine some people are curious about my presentations, and might even appreciate a link. Unfortunately the presentations weren’t filmed, though they were recorded, but buying a recording is $12/presentation, which may be an entirely appropriate price for the other presentations, but it’s way too much to pay for mine. However, I did the presentations in Google Slides and I made pretty extensive notes to go along with them, so I will link to that. Here are the links for the AI Presentation (slideshow, notes) and for the Fermi’s Paradox Presentation (slideshow, notes). Also, you should put the slideshow into presentation mode for the full effect.
With that out of the way, what about the rest of it? I don’t think I’m going to do a blow-by-blow of things, though there were a couple of moments of note which I’ll mention at the end. Instead, what I mostly want to focus on is a higher level discussion of things. I want to start with discussing ecclesiology. As with so many things I first encountered this term in a blog post by Scott Alexander on SlateStarCodex, though it’s one of those things I should have known about earlier.
Technically it’s the study of theology as it applies to the nature and structure of the Christian Church. But Alexander was using the term in a somewhat broader sense, as a study of the trade-offs between the level of agreement you have in a group, and the number of people in that group. Basically, if you require that everyone agree about absolutely everything you’ll have a very focused and ideologically united group with exactly three members (if you’re lucky). If, on the other hand, you have very few requirements for what someone should believe before they join your group (or religion). Then you’ll have a very large but very unfocused group.
Every group has to deal with this problem, and religions are no exception. Though if you came up with a score based on multiplying the number of adherents by the strength of their beliefs. You would find that religions generally score higher than any other kind of group. Additionally the relationship between the rigidity of beliefs and the number of adherents is not entirely linear. After a certain point, the further watering down of a religion’s beliefs leads to fewer adherents rather than more. Otherwise Unitarian Universalism would be the world’s largest religion. All of which is to say that there’s a bunch of factors which go into getting a high “score”. Further you’re perfectly within your rights to argue that the score doesn’t matter. And if it does matter, it’s still probably not a direct correlation to power and influence, but it is nevertheless something all groups and religions are going to be affected by.
All of this is a long-winded lead-in to saying that Sunstone is an example of what gets created at the intersection of this trade-off between strengthening (or in this case holding fast) to beliefs and having more adherents. As an aside, talking about ecclesiology in this context ignores, of course, whether the religion is actually true, because if it’s true, then this mostly shouldn’t matter (though I suppose there some wiggle room around the edges where it still would.) But it’s hard to get a read on how much truth the average Sunstone attendee feels is contained in the Mormon Church (and all of its various offshoots), which is why I choose to focus on the question of ecclesiology. And what I find interesting about this question is that despite Sunstone being right in the middle of it, all of the presentations I went to either entirely ignored it, or came out 100% in favor of watering down the doctrine in order to attract more adherents, without speaking at all about how this might affect the overall cohesiveness and unity of the church.
To be fair watering down some of the prohibitions is a strategy, and a straightforward one at that, but it’s not without its consequences, even if you set aside any claims of truth. The world already has one Unitarian Universalist church, it doesn’t need another one, and even if it did that’s not some guaranteed path to success. Essentially every religion (particularly in the developed world) is bleeding members, and it’s not clear that the LDS Church is bleeding members at a faster rate than other churches, in fact it might even be slower…
As I mentioned these are all going to be short topics, so I’m not going to say anything beyond that, but maybe in a future post I’ll circle back and talk more about Sunstone, or the subject of ecclesiology. Though, before I leave the subject of Sunstone entirely, I did say there were a couple moments from the Symposium that were worth relating.
The first was Thursday night. The program suggested that people might be eating at Joe’s Crab Shack. I didn’t necessarily have anyone to go to dinner with, but I thought I’d wander over to Joe’s and see if I could crash someone else’s group. I arrived at the same time as a couple of gentleman, and asked if I could join them, they said sure, and we sat down for dinner along with four other individuals. It was only after I was seated that I found out that I was with a bunch of Community of Christ leaders including two Apostles and one of the Presidents of the Seventy. If you don’t know much about the various sects of Mormonism (according to them I’m a Brighamite and they’re Josephites) this won’t mean much to you, but trust me it was a big deal. It was also delightful. I had a great time chatting with them about all manner of things. And it it ended up being a fantastic bit of serendipity.
The second moment was Friday morning. I decided to go to a presentation entitled “Transfeminist Critique” (in this case it was a Transfeminist Critique of the LDS Church). I obviously assumed that I would disagree with the presenter on just about everything, but I was interested in the current arguments going around in this space. That said, I confess I didn’t listen as closely as I might have. Partially that was my fault. I had my computer open and I was catching up on all the email I’d neglected while doing last minute prep on my presentation (this presentation immediately followed mine). But in part it was because the presenter just read her paper (she was a transwoman) without any accompanying slides or even standing up, which, I’m going to be honest, made things somewhat monotonous.
Those caveats aside, the overwhelming impression I came away with was that this person was putting forth a worldview completely incompatible with reality as I understand it… I know that’s a strong statement, and as I said it was just an impression. Also I hope I’m wrong, I hope there is some way to peacefully integrate her worldview with all the other world views out there. World views which have existed for an awfully long time and don’t have much room for extreme and widespread gender ambiguity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this presentation was another example of the world fracturing into numerous groups with competing values that appear entirely irreconcilable.
Which takes us directly to our next point.
I’ve already mentioned Scott Alexander and SlateStarCodex in this post, and it’s somewhat embarrassing to mention him again, but recently one of the interesting debates which has raged over there (actually does Alexander ever rage? Maybe “simmered over there”?) is whether there are values which are completely irreconcilable. Whether when everything is said and done it’s as Justice Holmes said, “Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.”
Alexander, ever the peacemaker, argues that they’re aren’t. And I mostly agree with him. And I think the point he makes that tradition, and evolution are actually better at accomplishing certain things than being really intellectual about it, is exactly the point I’ve made over and over again. And his example is worth quoting:
A natural interpretation: people with explicit modeling are smart and good, people who still use metaphysical heuristics are either too hidebound to switch or too stupid to do the modeling.
I think this is partly right, but since our goal is to make value differences seem less clear-cut and fundamental, I want to make the devil’s advocate case for respecting metaphysical heuristics.
First, the heuristics are, if nothing else, proven to be compatible with continuing to live; the explicit models often suck.
Soylent uses an explicit model of nutrition to try to replace our vague heuristics about “eating healthy”. I am mostly satisfied with the quality of its research; it generally avoids stupid mistakes. It does not completely avoid them; the product has no cholesterol, because “cholesterol is bad”, but the badness of cholesterol is controversial, and even if we grant the basic truth of the statement, it applies only at the margin in the standard American diet. If you eat only one food item, you had better get that food item really right, and it turns out that having literally zero cholesterol in your diet is long-term dangerous. This was an own-goal, and a smarter explicit modeler could have avoided it. But explicit models that only work when you get everything exactly right will fail 95% of the time for geniuses and 100% of the time for the rest of us.
And even if Soylent had avoided own-goals, they still risk running up against the limit of our understanding. Decades ago, doctors invented a Soylent-like fluid to pump into the veins of patients whose digestive systems were so damaged they could not eat normally. These patients tended to get a weird form of diabetes and die. After a lot of work, the doctors discovered that chromium – of all things – was actually a really important dietary nutrient, and nobody had ever noticed before because it’s more or less impossible to run out of chromium with any diet except having synthetic fluids pumped into your veins. After years of progress on nutritional fluids, the patients who need them no longer die; we can be pretty sure we’ve found everything that’s fatal in deficiency. But these patients do tend to feel much worse, and be much less healthy, than people eating normal diets. How many mildly-important trace micronutrients are left to discover? And how many of these are or aren’t in Soylent?
This all relates to a discussion where certain people seem like hateful bigots, but are really just following a heuristic. And they don’t differ in values with those who have an explicit model as much as we think.
Okay, so I agree with Alexander, enough to include a huge quote from him. (Though partially that’s me padding my word count.) Why did I even bring this issue up? Well first, it’s an interesting debate, and it wouldn’t be a horrible use of your time to read the three posts I linked to above. But second, because I think he misses two things:
First, technology lets us refine things to a degree we never could before, meaning that while previously, humanity was a giant mishmash of values which mostly evened out in practice. These days we can take a naked value and turn it up to 11. Alexander points out that even people who are adamantly against foreign aid, might still donate to tsunami relief for Japan after the 2011 earthquake. This is probably not the case with a naked value turned up to 11, there would be no room for exceptions. I’ve talked about the tension between survival and happiness. As Alexander points out, no human is going to entirely ignore either, but we could create systems which do. And even if the system is set up not to ignore a value, by explicitly defining values, as is the case with Soylent, you could overlook some critical part of how that value actually works in practice.
Second, Alexander could be entirely correct, but it may not matter, because people think there are irreconcilable differences. The perception of those differences may be all that matters. It is conceivable that in this day and age people might not put in the hard work to understand the other side. Speaking of which, let’s move on to discuss Trump, the greatest current flashpoint of irreconcilable values, whose summit with Putin was very much in the news recently.
Trump and Russia
There are people who think Trump is a master strategist, despite the fact that to all appearances he looks like a bumbling, mercurial, ill-tempered oaf. That rather, this apparent oafishness is all part of a master strategy playing out at a level most people (including myself) can’t understand. That Trump is playing 4D chess. Interestingly enough, it’s apparently not just his supporters who think this, it’s also the Chinese according to a recent article in the Financial Times:
I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician…He [Yafei] worries that strategic competition has become the new normal and says that “trade wars are just the tip of the iceberg”.
…In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington. Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong…
My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the first US president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skillful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.
I am still inclined to think he’s an oaf, but this seemed worth sharing. Though I still haven’t talked about Russia. Well, I bring up the report from China to introduce the idea that even if you think he’s an oaf (as I do) that things still might not be as catastrophic as you’ve been lead to believe.
If you go back far enough into my archives, you’ll encounter the idea that what we should really be paying attention to at the level of the Federal Government is preventing big black swans, and I gave the example of the Sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols. In the current world our Sack of Baghdad would be a war involving nuclear weapons. Accordingly if we strip away all the talk of Trump as traitor, and what he may or may not have said about Russian election interference or however much he may have stabbed the American intelligence agencies in the back, did the Trump-Putin summit increase or decrease the chances of this particular black swan?
I haven’t spent as much time as I probably should have reading about the summit, part of the problem is that the anti-trump hysteria is so widespread that it’s hard to wade through. But my impression is that very few people are focused on this angle. And that those who have mentioned it can’t agree on whether the summit increased or decreased the chances of nukes being used. People who think it’s made the problem worse argue that the summit increased Putin’s confidence, which makes him more expansionist, which leads to wars which leads to nukes. People who think it’s made the problem better, think that the friendlier we are with Russia, the less likely they are to nuke us, and that this policy is definitely better than the policy of encirclement which preceded Trump and almost certainly would have continued had Clinton won. (Specifically I’m talking about the policy of continuing to add more nations to NATO.) Which boils down to: is a confident, expansionist Russia or fearful, hemmed in Russia more likely to used nukes?
I’m going to argue strongly for the latter, that if you’re worried about nukes, creating a fearful Russia through encirclement is worse. Sure in the past, expansionist impulses have often led to war, but recall that nuclear weapons are a completely different type of weapon. You don’t nuke someone and then take over their territory, because once you’ve nuked them you probably don’t want it. You nuke someone when you don’t care anymore, when you’re out of other options.
Now to be fair, reasonable people could disagree on this point. And insofar as Trump has empowered Putin to be worse to the people in Russia than he already was, that’s unfortunate, but when just considering whether the Trump policy of being buddies with Putin, or the assumed Clinton policy of encircling Russia is better at avoiding that which must be avoided at all costs. I think I’m going to have to go with Trump. Maybe the Chinese are right…
Moving to Word Press
Finally, I’m not sure if you noticed, since I am posting this in both places. But I have started to move everything over to a new domain: rwrichey.com. This, is as people say, my real name (more or less).
I start blogging under the handle Jeremiah, first because I fancied I was a modern day Jeremiah (maybe I am, maybe I’m not, certainly if I am then I’m not the only one or the best). Second because of the theme of the blog (which I’m mostly still keeping). And finally because I was worried something I posted would end up being controversial and inflammatory enough that it would bleed over into my business or personal life, and I could limit the chances of that happening if I blogged under a pseudonym.
That could still happen obviously, and maybe I’ll look back on this switch with bitter regret, but I’ve decided it’s a huge hassle to maintain anonymity, and that even if you do a really good job, if someone goes to enough effort, they’re going to figure it out.
The big upshot of this is that if you have a comment you should post it at rwrichey.com. And of course let me know (via email or the blogspot comments) if you run into any problems. I am definitely going to move all the posts over, hopefully very soon. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to move the comments over, we’ll have to see, but if it’s not too difficult I will.
Finally, I probably don’t say this often enough, but for all those reading this, I really appreciate it. And I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.
As I mentioned I’ll be at GenCon next week. You know how some websites ask you to buy them a cup of coffee? Well being Mormon I don’t drink coffee, but if you would be willing to by me a pentagonal dodecahedron (d12) then consider donating.