Month: December 2018

Five Stories of Enlightenment and Edification from My Misspent Youth

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Story One:

When a was very young I asked my Dad what the fastest route was to some destination. At this point I forget the destination, someplace close as I recall. He responded that it basically took the same time regardless of the route. Of course being a pedantic nerd, albeit a tiny one (some things never change) I immediately seized on this statement. “Are you saying that I could drive miles out of my way and it would still take the same amount of time?!?” I asked incredulously.

Of course that’s not what he was trying to say. He was saying that if there were several obvious ways you might use to go somewhere that they all ended up taking about the same amount of time. But, realizing who he was dealing with, I’m sure that it was clear to him that trying to explain that would just lead to more incredulity so he decided to take the opposite approach, and see if that would placate the snarky little demon he had somehow ended up with. (Though insofar as genetics explain anything he wasn’t entirely blameless.) The other extreme was to give a very precise answer (or at least one that would require a lot of precision) and explained that it depended on how fast you drove, how close you cut corners, and things like that.

This answer was more satisfying to me than the first answer, which is interesting because over the years it’s become apparent to me that it was less useful. Most routes are functionally equivalent and if you accept that, there’s a whole class of decisions you no longer need to worry about. If nothing else, this can help reduce decision fatigue, a non-trivial problem these days. Far more important, the answer also embeds the wisdom that your life is better if you live it in such a way where you don’t have to worry whether one route is two minutes faster than another. My wife would be quick to point out here that I am still a long way away from living that life. She gets particularly annoyed when I ask for updates on the Google Map ETA to see if I’ve shaved any time off. (Though that is more about me speeding than choosing one route over another, though I’m not sure that clarification makes it better.)

Regardless of how good I am at being the kind of person who doesn’t worry about one route being a couple of minutes faster than another, or whether I can shave a minute off my arrival time by going 79 rather than 77 mph, I can at least recognize the wisdom of striving for that state, and the wisdom of father’s original answer. In fact, we might go so far as to say that the two answers demonstrate the difference between useless but obvious knowledge and useful but less obvious wisdom. We might go even farther than that and say that there are numerous people who are acting in the same snarky and pedantic fashion I was oh so many years ago, rejecting wisdom in favor of precise, but ultimately valueless knowledge.

Examples of this are numerous, but most fall into the category of defining grievances with ever increasing specificity. A perfect example is the term “microaggression”. Though when it comes to encyclopedic knowledge of every bad thing the other side has done, the far-right is even or ahead of the far-left.

It reminds me of a book I just got done reading: The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, it’s a history of engineering, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. One of the things that makes it interesting is that he titles each chapter with the tolerances the historical era under discussion was capable of achieving. The first chapter is 0.1 or a tenth of an inch, and in later chapters he goes down to nanometers and in final chapters well past that. The point of this tangent is that I can imagine the same thing happening with grievances. We started with normal aggressions, we are now at microaggressions and soon we’ll be measuring nanoaggressions (if we aren’t already.)

Basically, we’re in a situation where people imagine that there’s a better route out there. They’re already mad that they’re on the route society forced them to take. But then additionally everytime it seems the car is going too slow or taking a corner too cautiously they get angry because this route, which is already not ideal, is taking even longer. And yes this is probably all true, and perhaps it’s very satisfying to point it all out, to identify all the microaggressions, all the times people ask, “Where are you from?” Or to know in excruciating detail all the bad things which have happened in the past. There’s a lot of focus on that knowledge, and very little on the wisdom that most routes end up being pretty much the same, and you’d be much better off if you just focused on enjoying the ride.

Story Two:

Unlike kids these days, I had a job when I was in high school. I worked at the local pizza place. Though, during the summer between my junior and senior year, I took the high school equivalent of a sabbatical, so I could attend the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. When I returned to work I discovered that I had missed out on some high drama. Apparently two of my co-workers Cindy and Howard had sort of had a relationship, and this sort of relationship ended badly, but not in the way you might expect.

Apparently they’d been on a couple of dates and those had gone well and then they kind of got stuck in the transition to the next level. Both of them really liked the other but they were suffering from a lack of confidence and wanted the other person to make the next move. So far so normal, but both choose the tactic of subtly avoiding the other hoping to draw them out into doing something definitive. For example if I walk right by you and say “Hi” and you say “Hi” back that proves nothing, but if I walk around the other way, so that you see me, but I don’t walk past you and then you chase me down and say “Hi” well that means you like me. Such is the insanity of high school relationships. But this isn’t the point of the story.

As I reconstructed it after the fact it seems that this tactic of subtle avoidance had not worked for either of them and had escalated to outright cruelty which both had taken at face value rather than realizing that it was basically the equivalent of having their pigtails pulled. Things had gotten so bad that the pizza place had ended up divided into warring camps, with every employee forced to pick one side or the other. Such was the condition of things when I returned from my “sabbatical” and started working again. I had been friends with both Howard and Cindy, and I missed the heat of the conflict and therefore also missed having to swear allegiance to one or the other. Meaning that when I returned I was the only person, insofar as I could tell, who was still friends with both of them, and therefore the only person who could get both sides of the story I just related. The story of two people who actually liked each other, and should have been very happy together, at least for as long as high schoolers are ever happy together, but who somehow couldn’t figure out that the other person felt the same way they did.

The moral of this story is that two people can want exactly the same thing. They could be in a situation where there exists no impediment to them achieving this thing, other than themselves. And, despite all this, communication and coordination are still sometimes tricky enough that they can fail to get it. In the end my two friends were probably too concerned with signalling “hard to get” and not enough with communicating “I like you”. I haven’t talked very much in this space about signalling theory, and I probably should, but it definitely applies here.

Does this moral extend to the current political crisis? Are the two sides just like Cindy and Howard? Deep down they both love America and want to work together, but a series of ever increasing slights has convinced them that it will never happen because as far as they can tell the other side hates America and will never agree to work together?

One imagines that if Howard and Cindy had come together late one night and confessed their true feelings for each other, heedless of the rain that poured down all around them, like in the movies, that it would have all worked out. Is there some rain-soaked confession of love we could imagine between Republicans and Democrats? Left and Right? Perhaps, there did seem to be some of that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (I guess we’ve arrived at equating terrorism with rain?) but it seems unlikely. Particularly given that politics is getting more multipolar by the day, and the associated signalling is getting more and more intense. Meaning we don’t just need two people to stand in the rain and confess their love, we need hundreds of different ideologies to all confess their love simultaneously. And if you think it’s difficult with just two…

Story Three:

When I was in seventh grade I was a pretty scrawny kid, and a pretty scrawny nerd to boot. Predictably I got bullied. There was one person in particular who kept giving me crap. We’ll call him Mark. As I recall I had first period with Mark, and he would pick on me before class started, and then on the way back from class to my locker. This went one for quite a while, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I threw a punch, and started a fight.

I wish I could say that I won that fight, but I didn’t. It’s not like I was horribly injured or anything, but I definitely got the worst of it. I forget how it ended, if some teacher broke it up, or if it just kind of fizzled out after a few swings. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do that again, and probably even thinking that it was stupid, particularly given that I’d lost, but you know what? It worked. All those people who told me that bullies want easy targets and if you fight back, even if you end up losing, they’ll find someone else to pick on? They were right as far as I could tell. He stopped picking on me, perhaps not entirely, I’m sure he still made a comment here or there, but after the fight it was much better.

What’s perhaps even more interesting is that now, decades later, Mark apparently admires me? For example, he posted his yearbook picture, but not just his picture, it included a few of the pictures around his, of which mine was one, and he said something like, “And the handsome fellow just above me is Mr. Richey.” Now I was not handsome as child, and I couldn’t let such a gross inaccuracy stand, so breaking from my normal policy of never commenting on Facebook I pointed out the inaccuracy of the statement.  He retorted by saying it didn’t matter, that I was focused on the things that were truly important. (I assume he meant academics, though what I was really focused on during that time was Dungeons and Dragons.)

I talked in a previous post about the Coddling of the American Mind, the need for suffering and the difficulty of determining how much suffering was enough. Obviously getting into a fight and losing it caused me to suffer. Though apparently he suffered as well, at least enough to stop bullying me and to later think I was awesome rather than pathetic. In my case, which I understand is just a single data point, and not even a very good one, it seems clear to me that the only possible way to resolve that dispute was through violence, because my willingness to throw a punch was the only signal (yes we’re back to talking about signalling) clear enough for him to understand.

I hear a lot of talk these days about bullying in schools, but I don’t hear much about fighting. Do kids still fight in schools? I assume they must, but one wonders if it’s bifurcated, with rich, suburban schools having almost no fighting but lots of bullying, and poor inner city schools having less bullying, but the fighting they do have being more dangerous? They do say that bullying is on the rise, is there any part of that rise that can be ascribed to less fighting? Does low level fighting of the kind I described in my story, create sort of an informal justice system that’s closer to the source of the problem and thus more immediate? When talking about coddled kids is this one of the ways in which we coddling them? Do we need to allow kids to freely fight in the same way we need to allow them to freely range?

In a larger sense there’s the issue of the signal of violence. Are there some conflicts which can only be resolved when one side signals that it’s willing to inflict more violence on the opposition than opposition is comfortable with? That’s basically what happened in the story, and certainly in the past people commonly felt that some issues could only be decided by the shedding of blood. Many people now feel that we’re past that time, that we can settle our differences without resorting to violence. Let’s hope they’re correct, but it appears to be getting less likely. I have seen no evidence that we’re getting better at settling differences, and lots of evidence that things are heading towards violence.

Story Four:

This story didn’t happen to me, but it did happen while I was young, so I’m tossing it in here anyway.

My grandmother went on an expensive trip to India and Nepal. While in Nepal she had the opportunity to take a helicopter ride and see Mount Everest. I forget exactly what the helicopter ride cost. I want to say somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. She decided that was too expensive and so she declined the offer. Upon her return my father pointed out that if you live in Utah the cost to see Everest is probably thousands of dollars, and that she had just refused to pay the last $80.

I call this the Everest Fallacy and it’s sort of the opposite of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In the one you’re almost to your goal and you abandon it after paying the bulk of the cost. In the other you’re never going to reach your goal, but you refuse to abandon it because you’ve already spent so much.

I wonder if that’s where civilization is. People talk about the enormous effort and expense required to colonize Mars or make it out of the Solar System, and I don’t wish to minimize that, in fact I’ve pointed out at some length how difficult it is, so difficult I’m doubtful we’ll do it. But it’s also important to remember, when people bemoan the cost of a space program, that we’ve already spent the first quadrillion dollars, and the initial 200,000 years, we’re now just refusing to spend the last few trillion dollars. And that’s only if we go back to the first homo sapien. If we consider what it takes to go from a dead planet to life leaving the solar system we’ve spent a lot more than that, and now we’re just refusing to spend that last little bit. And yes it might take a sacrifice, in the same way that my grandmother probably felt that $80 was a sacrifice, but let’s be clear, humanity is in Nepal already and it took a lot of effort to get there…

Story Five:

If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and you’ve served a mission then it’s guaranteed that you end up with a lot of stories from that period. I’m no exception. And I could spend ten thousand more words telling you stories from the two years I spent in the Netherlands, but most don’t have a moral, or rather they do, but that moral is: Have faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of these days I’ll devote an entire post to that, but this post has developed around a more secular theme, and, fortunately, my mission produced some of those stories as well.

I mentioned earlier that I spent two years in the Netherlands, that’s not quite true, I spent two years total on my mission but only 22 months of that was in the Netherlands. The first two months I spent in the Missionary Training Center on the BYU campus in Provo learning Dutch with a group of ten other missionaries. In addition to my group there was another group learning Dutch that was four weeks ahead of us. This story concerns one of the members of that slightly older group. When I was introduced to this particular missionary I asked him where he was from, when he said Canada, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

It was a dumb throw away joke, that kind of thing that’s so obviously untrue as to clearly be a joke and as I said, not a very good one at that. I actually thought it was cool that he was from Canada, as far as I know he was the first Canadian I had met. I didn’t interact with him much beyond that, in the four weeks of overlap we had, and I didn’t think much of him or my comment.

We both ended up serving in the Netherlands (at the time some of the missionaries who had learned Dutch ended up in Flemish speaking Belgium) but we didn’t serve in any of the same areas or even any of the same zones. That is until my last area, where I ended up replacing him. I don’t remember if I noticed any initial cold shoulder or anything like that, but after the local members of the church got to know me a little bit they started to reveal that the Canadian missionary which had preceded me had told them all that I was a jerk. (He may have used stronger language than that, he may have even said it in Dutch, I don’t recall the exact terminology.) When I asked them what evidence he had produced for this calumny, they told me the story of the “I’m sorry” comment from Missionary Training Center. When I asked if there was anything else there didn’t appear to be. He had apparently obsessed over that comment for nearly two years.

Since that time I have met many Canadians and count most of them as good friends. And fortunately I haven’t met any who were as humorless as the Canadian missionary. In fact, the Canadians I’ve told this story to (all of them) think it’s pretty funny that he was offended by the phrase “I’m sorry” given how typically Canadian that word “sorry” is.

With this story we end where we began, with what I suppose is another example of a microaggression, though years before the term first appeared, and not leveled against a group that normally gets brought up in discussions of prejudice and discrimination. And once again it would have been wiser for the Canadian missionary to not have obsessed for two years over a single comment made by a dumb kid. (Notice I’m a dumb kid in both stories, I’m sure there’s another lesson there.) But, of course, the world is trending in the exact opposite direction, with more and more people latching on to smaller and smaller things over a longer and longer time horizon. If this continues it’s not going to end well, for anyone.


Most of these stories allude to my past ignorance. If you want to contribute to the ongoing effort to fight this ignorance, please consider donating.

Note: I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, so I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Fighting Fires the Wrong Way

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If you’re anything like me you probably followed the news of last month’s California wildfires with some interest, particularly the Camp Fire. A name which now seems morbidly ironic given how deadly it ended up being. As of this writing 85 people were killed by the fire and six are still missing. That makes it the sixth deadliest wildfire in US history, and the deadliest since 1918.

I’m not sure how most people feel about that death toll. I saw a lot of posts about the fire, but not many people were reacting to the number of people who died. I get the sense that if you asked, they’d say that 85 sounds like a lot of deaths, but given that it kind of falls in the “Act of God” category, it’s far less tragic than say the Las Vegas mass shooting, even though fewer people actually died in Vegas. I’m not arguing with this, by the way, but it is interesting that there’s clearly a hierarchy attached to how tragic we consider any given death.

Most of the elements in the hierarchy are subjective to the person. It’s obviously far more tragic if someone close to you dies, or even if someone you know loses someone close to them. I think this is entirely as it should be, though there are people who would argue otherwise. Yet another subjective criteria is how the deaths play into your ideology. Gun rights activists probably find Las Vegas less tragic than people who think we should ban all guns. Though perhaps if you’re looking for ammunition (pun intended) to use in your fight over the issue it’s the exact opposite.

The California fires are no exception to seeing events through an ideological lens (is anything these days?) and there are many people who view the deaths as more or less tragic because they fit into a particular narrative. Perhaps, at this point we should broaden the discussion from “tragic” to “important”. The most frequent reason I’ve come across for attaching importance to these deaths, setting aside people actually connected to the victims, is the idea that these deaths are directly attributable to global warming.

I don’t actually want to do another post on global warming, at least not right now. But I think for a variety of reasons it’s not the primary cause of the fires, and even if it were, as I have pointed out in previous posts, it’s the hardest cause to do anything about.

On something of the other side of the issue, there are people who don’t think global warming is the problem, the problem is restrictions on logging. Included in this category is President Trump, which immediately makes the idea completely off limits to a whole host of people. I’m no fan of Trump, but I don’t immediately dismiss everything he says.  And in fact I’m inclined to believe that the right kind of harvesting might have helped. I’m no expert on logging or forestry, and at the level of exactly what sort of logging might help, things get pretty muddy.

You’ll see articles with titles like: Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat, but overlogging them will ruin our forest ecosystems. Though a closer reading of the article seems to indicate that the author is mostly referring to the danger of standing dead trees, or snag, not fallen dead trees.

You’ll see a different point of view in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine. (I mention the source this time because these days it’s always more important to quote your sources if you’re supporting Trump, however indirectly, than when you’re opposing him.) This article details the battles waged by a Forest Service ranger, who wanted to use logging to perform some selective thinning, against the environmentalists who opposed it. This ranger, who always considered herself to be an environmentalist, and did a stint in the Peace Corp, spent three years studying the situation, before eventually submitting an 81 page report, but this was when the environmentalists “pounced”. Three years later (so six in total), while her staff was in the midst of preparing what she hoped would be their final rebuttal, a fire started in the area she was hoping to thin and within a week “the whole area had burned up.”

The purpose of this is not to take sides in the logging debate, or to be exhaustive in describing all the possible contributing factors. For example I haven’t even covered the problem of people building basically in the forest, or what’s called the wildland-urban interface. This led the New York Times to declare that Trump is wrong in part because what we just saw in California weren’t technically forest fires, they were fires in the wildland-urban interface. No, putting the silliness of that aside, my point is to discuss one specific contributing factor, the one which I think has the most to do with the current problem: Decades of fire suppression and a lack of preventative burns. And more importantly to discuss how this ends up being a metaphor for everything that’s currently wrong with the world.

It is interesting that so much of the media is focused on global warming and dry conditions. (Though if you read close enough it’s a wet spring followed by a dry summer that’s really causing the problems.) Though of course this goes back to the subjective nature of prioritizing the importance of deaths. Though I haven’t bothered to look, I am sure that on some website somewhere there is a list of “Deaths Due to Global Warming” to which the 85 deaths of the Camp Fire have been added. All of this is to say that there is definitely also going to some subjectivity in my fire suppression explanation. And the subjectivity will get even greater when I then transition to using it as a metaphor. But this also doesn’t mean that it’s not an accurate description of the world.

In fact it’s telling that even the guy who wrote the article claiming that dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat is the co-editor of a book called: The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. In other words he may be anti-logging, but he’s pro-fire. In fact the phrase “Mixed-Severity” makes it sound like he’s pro-fire across the board. And, I would argue, for good reason.

It’s past time to explain what I’m talking about when I claim fires are caused by fire suppression, and by not having enough fires, though for many of you it may already be obvious. The Smithsonian article I referenced actually has a great explanation of the history of the problem.

Forests across the west are primed for catastrophic fire, in part by a government policy put in place after the “Big Blowup,” in 1910, a two-day firestorm that incinerated three million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. The fire was so ferocious that people in Boston could see the smoke. The U.S. Forest Service, then five years old, decided to put out every fire in its domain, and within three decades the agency had formulated what it called the 10 a.m. policy, directing that fires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As fire-fighting methods improved through the years, the amount of burned forest and grassland declined from about 30 million acres annually in 1900 to about 5 million in the 1970s.

But the success of fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, has turned Western forests into pyres, some experts say, with profound ecological effects. The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had as many as 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900s, in grassy parklike stands, now have 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.

Now this article was written in 2003, but it doesn’t appear that much has changed since then. We can certainly see the opposition to logging and tree thinning, but it also turns out that recreating the low-intensity fires the trees evolved with, is difficult as well. If you do a search on controlled burns in California you’ll mostly get articles wondering why they don’t happen more often. This one from a local California public radio station published earlier this year is representative: Why California’s Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used. Which explains that controlled burns are costly take a lot of effort and people don’t like the smoke.

However if you don’t do controlled burns, if you fight every fire, then you end up steadily increasing the fuel load because the deadfall never gets burned up, and eventually, even if you wanted to suppress every fire, you’d eventually end up with a fire that’s so hot and so terrible that you won’t be able to fight it.

As you might imagine the idea of a controlled burn is very antifragile, you’re paying a small, known cost (ideally) in order to reap a large unbounded benefit later on (i.e. avoiding the huge out of control fire that kills people.) Of course there’s the cost of the personnel to actually set the fire and make sure that it’s controlled, but there’s also the cost to those who will suffer worse air quality while it’s happening, and the cost of people who don’t like the way the forest looks after it’s been burned, etc. All of these are costs which people have proven unwilling to bear even if it makes things better in the long run. This introduces fragility (as we saw) and here is where we transition to fire suppression as a metaphor for modern society.

Of course, the fight over whether to blame things on global warming or insufficient logging is already a reflection of some of the ills of our society, but the ills I want to talk about run even deeper. I often talk about how technology distorts things and, as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re talking about fire we’re talking about probably the first technology ever developed. Accordingly, whatever benefits can be derived from fire, and whatever it’s harms we’ve been dealing with them for a very long time. The benefits are legion, in the last post I mentioned the alleviation of suffering, but it uses go far beyond using a fire to keep warm at night. Once you discover a great multipurpose tool like fire, you immediately search for as many ways as possible for using that tool.

I recently finished the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. And one of the things he pointed out was the way the indigenous Americans used fire, particularly on the Great Plains, where they used it to create a “prodigious game farm”. And so, similar to our last discussion, we once again have a situation where humans have been artificially controlling their environment, in this case the incidence of fire, for hundreds of years, why are things different now? And once again the answer is we’ve crossed some sort of tipping point, one that may even be more stark than the line crossed by college students in 2013.

1491 doesn’t mention if the Indians ever tried to put out fires, but beyond extinguishing an out of control fire in their actual dwellings I doubt it. This is the stark difference, the difference between setting fires and putting out fires. But why is the latter so different from the former? They’re both meddling in the “natural” cycle. And once again the answer takes us back to the concept of supernormal stimuli, though more particularly the idea that things can be bounded in one direction by reality, and thus ignored by evolution.

Yes, when you set fire after fire to clear trees and encourage grasslands, and by extension bison, then you’re messing with nature, or rather with the way things worked in the time before humans. But wherever plants grow, and whatever form they take, they had to learn to cope with fire. You’re certainly altering things if you set fires more often than they would occur just because of lightning, but in the whole sweep of evolutionary history, I’m sure that multiple fires happened in quick succession even without the intervention of humans, and those plants that couldn’t deal with this didn’t survive. So yes, the Plains Indians may have been messing with stuff, but they were doing it in a way that wasn’t outside of the bounds of what evolution had prepared plants to tolerate. What plants are unprepared for, because it doesn’t exist in anywhere in the historical record are long periods of no fires.

Thus far, this may appear less a metaphor and more a lecture, but we’re getting there. The point I want to make is that everything has adapted around certain natural processes, even humans. And when we mess with these processes, things can change in unexpected ways (and yes I would include in this a precipitous increase in the amount of atmospheric C02). This leads to the questions: What processes have humans adapted around? What’s our version of fire?

The most obvious candidate is war. Humans have more or less evolved in the presence of constant warfare, and it’s only recently that we’ve largely eliminated it. I talked about this in a previous post, but it’s worth revisiting in the light of the fire suppression metaphor. Once we decide to start drawing parallels then it’s only natural to ask what represents the deadwood accumulating on the forest floor? Are there individuals or maybe ideas who are metaphorically dead trees? Where, having a few scattered here and there is fine, even useful, but when half the forest becomes dead trees any fire becomes catastrophic? And, if war is fire, what would a controlled burn look like? Does sports fit the bill or is it closer to being equivalent to someone chopping down a tree for use in heating their home? Yes it’s a controlled burn involving the forest, but not anywhere close to the scale required to do any good.

A discussion of war as a reset button for humanity, similar to fire being a reset button for a forest puts me in mind of another past post, the post where I reviewed the book The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel. Once again there are very interesting parallels. To return briefly to the book 1491 and it’s section on fire. Mann points out that, “if ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents would be covered by climax-stage vegetation:a world of great trees, dark and silent.” Scheidel makes basically the same point but with respect to wealth inequality, the great trees are the super rich. And in the absence of violence their numbers and the associated inequality increases until all you are left with are those super rich, and the, far more numerous, small forms of life which are able to exist in their shadow, but nothing in between. And just as there are more ways than fire to interrupt ecological succession, there are more ways than war to interrupt the rise of inequality, but none of them are particularly pleasant. Or to put it in terms of my last post, they all involve suffering to a certain degree.

As you can imagine, if very large trees had a say in the matter they would prefer that there be no fires, though just like the wealthy, to whom we’re comparing them, the great trees do fine if there are small fires, it’s only the huge fires from years of pent up resentment, I mean deadwood, that threaten the truly large trees.

It may be easy to see where the metaphor lends itself easily to things like war and revolution, but it’s interesting to extend it in scope and imagine that it applies in other places as well, for example, banking.

Though, to begin with, it needs very little imagination to picture the 2007-2008 financial crisis as an out of control fire. An inferno caused by a lack of liquidity. This fire was put out by an unprecedented injection of cash into the system. Cash that mostly went to those, who by all accounts, started the fire. Incidentally the resentment this cased provided fuel for the other kind of fire we just mentioned. I think thus far most people wouldn’t object to the parallels I’ve drawn, but things get a little more controversial when I start taking about what represents deadwood and water in this example.

First does the continual extinguishing of financial crises create any deadwood? Stuff which should have been beneficially burned out during the crisis but wasn’t? During the most recent of these crises the term “too big to fail” got tossed around a lot. The term implied that a given institution should have failed, but could not be allowed to. That however much failure would have represented the natural consequences for their irresponsible behavior in the years preceding the crash, the short-term damage would have been to great. Just as we have to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface I mentioned earlier, these institutions had become so intertwined with the rest of society that they could not be allowed to burn, however much they might deserve it.

Of course “deserve” is a loaded term, but just as fire represents a natural process which helps to clear and refresh forests, one of the benefits of capitalism, many would argue, is that it has its own inherent checks and balances, among the biggest of these: risk and return should go hand in hand,  When you remove the risk you end up creating strange and unpredictable after effects as you interrupt the natural flow of capitalism.

So what about water? Well if cash in a financial crisis is equivalent to water in a wildfire, then the next question is, do we have unlimited cash with which to put out our financial fires. I talked about the people who believe this is the case in a previous post, and perhaps they’re right. But if we’re accumulating deadwood, i.e. increasing our fuel load, every time we extinguish one of these fires then we had better hope the supply of water is infinite, because if it’s not, the minute we run out, we’re going to end up with a fire/revolution that is going to put all previous ones to shame.

Outside of banking I also think this metaphor has some merit as a description of politics. There are of course many political fires burning at the moment, basically everywhere you look. And people desperately want to “put them out”. I understand the impulse, but I also think that if you put it out too quickly you once again end up in a situation where you’re accumulating deadwood, and increasing the fuel load.

As an example take any of the battles in the current culture war. I have argued in the past that people rushed to “put them out” as quickly as possible, mostly by way of the Supreme Court, rather than using the more laborious method of holding a vote, or the even more laborious method of passing a constitutional amendment. Doing it this way may have seemed like a good idea, but it also certainly came with some costs. Among these costs, I would argue, is that it increased the “fuel load” of a certain class of people. Which is to say, do you get the anger and annoyance necessary for Trump to be elected if you hadn’t been so quick to put out each and every cultural “fire”? To dismiss and shove aside what might have been legitimate complaints?

If there’s a single issue Trump has been associated with, it’s immigration, and for years polls showed that only a tiny minority wanted an increase in immigration, the vast majority wanted it kept at it’s present levels or decreased. At no point since polling started has the percent of people who want it increased been greater than the percent who wanted it to decrease even today when anti-trump pro-immigrant feelings are at their highest. (As excellently documented by Slate Star Codex recently, Trump may be very bad for Trumpism.) Despite this, what we have ended up with is a de facto policy of increased immigration despite support for it being in the teens or single digits up until very recently. Now it may be stretching the metaphor to describe the way the pro-cheap-labor Republicans and the pro-civil-rights Democrats joined together in ignoring the problem as “putting out the fire too quickly” but I have definitely seen a persistent pattern of promising to do something when the election is on, and then failing to do anything once in office. In other words putting out the fire before it removed any of the accumulated deadwood.

We’re seeing it again now. If Trump promised anything he promised a wall, now whether he actually meant it is another discussion. And yet nearly two years in it hasn’t even been started. But imagine, regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, if we decided that elections have consequences and one of those was that we would see this thing out and build the wall. Does this remove some of the “fuel load” of the angriest portion of our population? Does it allow the current fire to burn in such a way that it puts itself out? Is it in fact a controlled burn, something we can manage? (Certainly a wall doesn’t result in the end of all immigration forever.)

Is it in fact a controlled fire that helps us avoid the out of control inferno that might be coming otherwise? Or as they’ll refer to it in the history books of the future when the bloody tale is finally written, the Second American Civil War.


Of course as we learn from Alfred’s advice to Batman, some men just want to watch the world burn. Despite what you might think I am not one of those men, if you’re not either, consider donating.


How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering?

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In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the first Sunday of every month is the fast and testimony meeting. What this means is that anyone can stand up from the congregation, walk up to the pulpit and say whatever they want. They are strongly encouraged to talk about their belief in Jesus Christ, but it’s basically an open mic, and people have used it as an opportunity to air grievances against the church.

This last Sunday during our fast and testimony meeting an older lady got up and expressed how grateful she was that, when she was raising her kids, they were relatively poor and consequently couldn’t give their kids everything they wanted, particularly at Christmas time. Because if they had been wealthy they probably would have, the temptation being hard to resist, but if they had, it would have been worse for the children because they wouldn’t have learned to go without.

This is not an uncommon sentiment. I think adults have been accusing kids of being spoiled since possibly the time of ancient Greece, but I encountered two unusual forms of the argument just recently. The first place I came across it was The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

“Coddling” is mostly about the current generation of college kids, which the subtitle, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”, makes clear. The generation in question is variously call iGen or Generation Z. The authors prefer iGen, after yet another book by Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. This is the generation after Millennials, which is normally defined as everyone born since the start of the millennium, but Twenge noticed a surprisingly sharp generational discontinuity beginning with people born around 1995 and who then went on to enter college around 2013. Lukianoff and Haidt also noticed a change starting in 2013, and, in fact, it served as the genesis of the book. It’s not clear if they noticed it independently of Twenge (or vice versa) but they both feel something significant changed on college campuses starting in 2013.

One change in particular was an obsession with safety, and not merely physical safety, but emotional safety as well, leading many to believe, according to Twenge, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault, but from people who disagree with you.” I don’t think this has progressed to the point of also demanding safety from the disappointment on Christmas morning we started with, though recent stories about protesting in-class presentations would seem to indicate that we may be headed in that direction.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” blames all of this on the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system. This desire for safety stems from the first of these three great untruths:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

On the contray, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, college students (and humans in general) are antifragile. Meaning that exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger. But this stress and suffering is exactly what the various campus movements are trying to eliminate.

That’s the first argument for the benefits of stress, the second comes from last week’s post. You may recall that I mentioned an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox called the “Galactic Stomach Ache” and said I would be talking about it “next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.” It should hopefully be obvious now where I’m headed, but the core of the Galactic Stomach Ache argument is the same as the argument Lukianoff and Haidt are making, that an obsession with safety and reducing harm is paradoxically causing harm. Here’s how it’s explained in, The Great Silence, the book I reviewed last week:

Having removed most of the stress due to our physical and biotic environment, we have with it removed low-level beneficial stress (known as hormesis). Already, the exponentially growing economic costs of maintaining health in the face of these degenerative disorders are huge in comparison to investments in space research and exploration, not to mention utilization of extraterrestrial resources. If such treads continue and are typical, humanity could end up in a state in which almost all material resources and all creative energy are expended on the maintenance of a comfortable lifestyle free of external stressors, leading to a plateau in the development of cognition, and its subsequent diminishing.

Similar to Lukianoff and Haidt, though on a much larger scale, we once again have an argument that at a certain level stress is beneficial, and that the push to eliminate it entirely, while having certain short term benefits, will in the end, on the balance, be harmful. “Silence” doesn’t mention antifragility, but once again that’s the domain we’re in.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a huge advocate for antifragility, and thus it doesn’t take much to convince me of both the danger of the “Untruth of Fragility” or the strength of the “Galactic Stomach Ache” explanation. There are certainly arguments to be made about whether Lukianoff and Haidt are exaggerating things or whether they’ve left some things out. And even better arguments could be made about whether “Galactic Stomach Ache” is the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, but I intend to proceed based on the assumption that both of them describe something that is actually happening, even if the eventual consequences are unclear. If that’s too much for you, then I would hope, at least, that we can proceed under the assumption that humans are antifragile and that stress is important for our development. If you’re still not on board then there’s probably not much point in reading the rest of this post and I would instead direct you to some of my previous posts, or, if you have the time you should just read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the person most responsible for the idea of antifragility.

If we’re all on the same page about the importance of antifragility then the next question I want to address is, “Why is it a problem now?” Certainly technology has allowed us to reduce suffering and stress from the moment hominids mastered fire. Why should it suddenly reach a tipping point five years ago? Lukianoff and Haidt’s answer is that it’s something of a perfect storm. It all starts with paranoid parenting. This front runs into a blizzard of increased polarization. All of that is bad enough and has been going on for awhile, but then coming in from the south, we have the lifestyle hurricane that is social media. This last item is the proverbial straw (to really mix metaphors) and the kids dealing with all three of these factors first arrived at college starting in 2013.

As I said Lukianoff and Haidt could be overstating how sharp this dividing line is, or how bad the problem is in general, and it’s not my intent to dive into the specifics of their argument. Also, this is just the “Coddling” side of things. The increase in degenerative diseases has been going on for a lot longer than five years. But it’s not hard to imagine a common process behind both of those, and an underlying push which gets us both paranoid parents and the rising costs of dealing with degenerative diseases.

This urge to diminish suffering and stress has been around forever, but it’s only recently that we’ve truly been close enough to eliminating it entirely that it began to seem realistic, if not ideal. Where, in other words, people began to expect it. In part this is due to the increasing power of technology, but we’ve also experienced a period of unprecedented peace and affluence as well. In the past when a mother may have lost at least one or two children to infant mortality, it’s hard to imagine that parenting would ever be so paranoid. And if granny had already lived to be 80, it’s equally hard to imagine that a family who was barely getting by as it was would want to spend any money, let alone thousands of dollars keeping her alive to 85. But at some point these expectations changed, and it had to be relatively recently. I think for a lot of things it happened so subtly that we didn’t notice it. What makes Lukianoff and Haidt’s tipping point remarkable is not that it happened, but that it was so stark when it did.

When speaking of the harm caused from eliminating all stress, and recent evidence thereof, everyone, including Lukianoff and Haidt bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which has already made at least one appearance in this blog. The theory is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. In all these cases we see evidence of harm caused by the elimination in low-level stress. The lack of hormesis mentioned in the Stomach Ache explanation, and the embrace of fragility mentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt.

Putting all of this together, the answer to the question of “Why now?” Is that we’re seeing the culmination of several trends which may have started decades ago, but have only recently become problems as a generation reached maturity, or as the impact reached a critical mass of people, or as the trend was finally translated into an expectation. There’s also the element of multiple trends all peaking and coming together at the same time, and probably feeding off each other. As I said we have been using technology to reduce suffering for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last couple of decades has it reached the point where it’s reasonable to expect that we can finally eliminate suffering entirely. And probably more than anything else it’s this gap between our expectations and reality which is causing most of the problems. Whether it’s college campuses or healthcare spending.

The next question is, “What should we be doing about it?” If I’m right, and the problem is essentially one of expectations, then our focus should be on changing these expectations. That’s largely the direction of Lukianoff and Haidt’s recommendations. But that may end up being a lot harder than it sounds.

One recommendation they make is for municipalities to implement “free range parenting” laws, like Utah. Obviously I’m always pleased to see a reference to my home state. And I’m in complete agreement that this is a good law, but I’m not sure it will have much of an effect. The big problem is that the law is unlikely to create more free range parents, it just offers protections for the ones who were already so inclined. For example, is there any mother out there who currently walks her kids to school, who will look at this law and decide, “Oh, I guess I should let them walk themselves to school. I was obviously being too paranoid.” I guess there might be a few, but I think the trend has already have gone too far and is too entrenched, for a new law to change the expectations of parents for how much effort they should put towards ensuring the safety of their children.

Once again, I think zeroing in on expectations is key here, and this is where being able to connect the separate instances of fragility comes in handy. Because one of the key drivers of the rise of healthcare costs has been a rise in expectations. Now this is not the only thing increasing costs, but it may be the biggest. As I already pointed out, it was not that long ago that people expected high infant mortality, and a life, that, on average, ended around 55, with anything past 70 as gravy. As technology got better expectations changed and along with them the cost of meeting those expectations. People have been worried about these rising costs since at least the time of Hillarycare, and yet of all the factors that go into rising costs, perhaps the least effort has been spent on changing expectations. Why? Probably because it’s the hardest factor to address. The small efforts which have been made have not merely been unsuccessful they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. There’s no quicker way to lose an election than to threaten to cut government spending on Medicare. You might also be familiar with “Death Panels”? Another example of a very strong negative reaction to the suggestion that reducing healthcare costs might entail reducing the amount of care someone actually expected to receive.

Some people may argue at this point that it’s not healthcare costs that are going to ultimately doom us, it’s the fact that we’re all turning into the overweight, hover-chair bound humans of Wall-E. And that the expectation we can eat whatever we want while being sedentary is easier to change than the expectation that we should be kept alive as long as possible regardless of the cost. The amount of effort we spend on changing these expectations certainly seems to indicate that we think this is a more pliable problem, but despite all that effort there’s no evidence of that trend reversing either.

Some people may dismiss all of the foregoing as the typical rantings of curmudgeonly old people against the dissipations of youth, and further argue that rising healthcare costs are a temporary problem, and certainly not representative of any long term existential crisis. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing I can say in this short post that will change your mind, and in any case, ultimately,  that’s not the point of the post. No, ultimately, my purpose is to examine what it looks like if we decide the world needs a certain amount of suffering.  And to argue that if we do decide that, it’s going to be very difficult to pull off. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

When I was young the start of the wilderness was a couple blocks from my house, and one of my favorite things to do was to set off towards the mountain. I was frequently accompanied by two of my cousins. Both were younger than me, one by a few months and one by a couple of years. We would be gone for hours on these excursions. A favorite destination was Eagle’s Cave. I don’t recall if you had to do any climbing to get there, but we did engage in climbing while we were out. At one point while we were climbing the older of the two cousins fell, and I have a distinct memory of him falling past me, and into the arms of his brother, who was also climbing but somehow didn’t get knocked off. I don’t know what to make of that memory at the remove of nearly forty years, but I talked to the cousin who fell recently and he remembered it exactly as I did. The “nearly forty years” is a hint, but guess how old I was. 15? 12? No the oldest I could have been was 8 because I moved from that house shortly after my 9th birthday.

This is basically exactly what Lukianoff and Haidt are advocating for right? What the advocates of the free range parenting movement are hoping for as well? You might argue that “suffering” is the wrong word to use for what I just described and what those groups are advocating for. And perhaps it is, perhaps “stressors”, or “challenges” is better, but if you don’t think my aunt would have suffered if my cousin had been injured in that fall or worse yet died, then you don’t know my aunt very well.  

Some will argue that letting kids wander into the wilderness is fine, but 8 (or in the case of my younger cousin, 6) is too young. Or that walking to school is one thing, climbing rock walls is quite another. And I totally see their point, but how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know when we have introduced enough suffering into the environment to avoid the harms Lukianoff and Haidt describe or the more theoretical crisis of the Galactic Stomach Ache? If someone says that 8 is too young they’re not basing it on some comprehensive longitudinal double blind study of outcomes based on childhood activities. They’re saying that they aren’t comfortable with 8 year olds wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, it doesn’t match what they expect, but targeting our expectations at our comfort level is exactly how we ended up in this spot.

In a sense, and this just came to me, otherwise I would have brought it up earlier, this whole problem is a supernormal stimuli problem. Evolution has programmed us to worry about our kids, and to extend our lifespan as long as possible, and to eat as much sugar and fat as we could get our hands on, because nature was such that even if we tried our best, kids were still going to undergo a lot of stress, and people were still mostly going to die young, and we were never going to eat too much sugar. But now technology has allowed us to remove most of the countervailing pressure and scarcity, so that now we can keep our kids too safe, or prolong our lives much longer but at great cost, in the same way that we can now eat way too much sugar. And of course while we can make some guess at how much sugar we should be consuming, it’s a lot more difficult to decide how much suffering we should be experiencing (do we end up setting a daily recommended allowance?)

To return to my example, I assume that today most parents would be appalled at the idea of an 8 year old wandering around in the mountains for hours, however much they were on board with the idea of free-range parenting, or providing kids with more challenges. And yet, it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still, at best, only half the man my father is (I don’t have time to get into his childhood stories, but if you think mine was appalling…) And he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if people like Lukianoff and Haidt are indeed correct about what’s happening, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. In fact, once you combine the scale of the problem with the difficulty of reversing people’s expectations, it starts to look completely intractable. It may be best to hope that I’m wrong, and that the world doesn’t need more suffering.

If, on the other hand I’m right, then we’re really only left with one question: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we also have the wisdom to bring it back?


There is definitely a dearth of wisdom in the world, and this blog is no exception. But I have a plan to create more wisdom, if you’d like to invest in that plan (think of me like an early-stage startup) then consider donating.


The Great Silence (Philosophy and Fermi’s Paradox)

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I just finished The Great Silence: The Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox by Milan M. Ćirković.  Which I was made aware of after corresponding with the author some months ago. At the time, I was on a quest to send my Fermi’s Paradox as Proof of the Existence of God theory to people who had written about Fermi’s Paradox, and his name ended up on the list, though I forget why. He was very gracious and in addition to sending me some papers that touched on my theory for the paradox (none particularly close) he also recommended his forthcoming book. I’m grateful for the recommendation, since, despite having a Google Alert set to notify me if anyone talks about the paradox anywhere on the internet, I don’t think I ever saw an alert for this book. Thus, without the correspondence, I might have completely missed it, which would have been a great shame because it’s fantastic.

(Edit: Actually just this week as I was writing my post, but after composing the first paragraph, I finally got an alert which mentioned Ćirković’s book.)

This post will be split into two parts. In the first half I’ll review the book, and point out things I found particularly notable or interesting about Ćirković’s approach. In the second half I’ll examine the case for including my explanation as a contender using the standards Ćirković has laid out.

Review and Commentary on The Great Silence

Before I get into a discussion of the finer points of the book, I’ll start with a brief general review. In other words I’ll address the question, “Should you read this book?”

“The Great Silence” is the best thing I have ever read about the paradox, though to be fair, that’s a pretty small field. So I’ll point out, additionally, that I thought it was good enough to deserve a spot in the bookshelf on my desk. A bookshelf set aside for the 50 or so books I expect to reference again and again for a long time to come. That praise aside, this is not a book for everyone. It’s very scholarly, and sometimes goes too far in assuming background knowledge which not everyone will posses. (Including me.) But for that narrow slice of people who agree with Ćirković (as I do) that:

[Fermi’s Paradox] is…a conundrum of profound scientific, philosophical and cultural importance. By a simple analysis of observation selection effects, the correct resolution of Fermi’s paradox is certain to tell us something about the future of humanity.

(I would change “something” to “quite a bit”.) Also…

The very richness of the multidisciplinary and multicultural resources required by individual explanatory hypotheses enables us to claim that [Fermi’s Paradox] is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science. (Emphasis original.)

If you are in this group, then “The Great Silence” is invaluable and I could not recommend it more highly.

Like Ćirković I’m going to assume a certain amount of background knowledge as we begin our discussion. If for some reason you’re only marginally familiar with Fermi’s Paradox you should go read the Wikipedia article first. And if you’re familiar with the paradox, but not familiar with my argument for why the existence of God makes a pretty good explanation, you might want to review that post as well before diving in. Those caveats aside let’s proceed.

Obviously the first thing to be done in a book like this is to define what Fermi’s Paradox is, starting with the obligatory discussion of the famous lunch where Enrico Fermi asked his question, “Where is everybody?” Once that’s out of the way, Ćirković breaks his definition up into three levels:

  1. ProtoFP: Exactly what Fermi said. The absence of extraterrestrials on Earth is incompatible with the rest of our assumptions.
  2. WeakFP: The absence of any evidence of extraterrestrials in the Solar System  is incompatible with our assumptions:
  3. StrongFP: The absence of any evidence for extraterrestrials anywhere.

It honestly never occurred to me that someone referring to Fermi’s Paradox would be using any other definition than the strong one, but apparently it happens. Accordingly I’ll include Ćirković version of it here in full and declare that whenever I discuss the paradox I’m referring to the “Strong” version.

Strong Fermi’s Paradox(a.k.a. The Great Silence, Silentium Universi): The lack of any intentional activities or manifestations or traces of extraterrestrial civilizations in our past light cone is incompatible with the multiplicity of extraterrestrial civilizations and our conventional assumptions about their capacities.

The strength of the paradox when stated this way is perhaps most apparent when we consider how easy it is would be to detect traces of humanity if the situation were reversed and we were the extraterrestrial civilization being searched for. There are already many ways for the presence of humans to be detected by someone outside our Solar System and even more ways to detect the presence of life on Earth. All of this technology consists of things we’ve already mastered, and lack only engineering to implement them on the scale required. Meaning that it should be child’s play for a civilization even a few hundreds years more advanced than where we are currently.

Given how detectable advanced civilizations should be, Ćirković makes an interesting point, receiving an alien signal from one other civilization doesn’t necessarily resolve the strong version of the paradox. One could certainly imagine picking up a signal from someone only a few hundred years ahead of us, and still be in a situation of asking, “Where is everybody else?”

The next challenge one faces when discussing explanations for Fermi’s Paradox, is how to organize those explanations. Stephen Webb, who I’ve talked about previously, collected 75 explanations in his book, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens Where Is Everybody? Webb decided to organize them into these three buckets:

  1. They are (or were) here
  2. They exist, but we have yet to see or hear from them
  3. They don’t exist

That’s not a bad system and certainly it covers all of the possibilities, but I think Ćirković’s system is both more clever and more useful. He starts by identifying four assumptions we have made about the universe, and then grouping explanations for the paradox in buckets corresponding to which assumption would have to be incorrect for that explanation to possible.

The four assumptions are:

  1. Realism: The assumption that what we see is reality. Explanations which violate this assumption include things like the Simulation Hypothesis which posits that we live in The Matrix, and the “Include Aliens” flag has been set to false.
  2. Copernicanism: Also called the Mediocrity Principle. This is the idea that there’s nothing particularly special about humans or Earth. Explanations which violate this assumption mostly fall into the “Rare Earth” category, and include things like the theory that multicellular life is exceptionally difficult.
  3. Gradualism: The assumption that things will continue much as they have. That humanity will continue to expand outward, that the galaxy wasn’t markedly more dangerous in the past than it is now, etc. The popular worry that we’re going to wipe ourselves out with nukes is one example of something which violates this assumption.
  4. Non-exclusiveness: The assumption that there is diversity among potential extraterrestrial civilizations, that they are not likely to all behave in exactly the same manner or agree to the same things. This is closely related to the last assumption, for example maybe some civilizations will blow themselves up, but for that to be the answer we have to violate this assumption by assuming all civilizations blow themselves up.

Webb’s method works well as a logic division for all possible explanations of the paradox, but I think Ćirković’s is much better if your goal is to solve it, which takes us to the next requirement of any good book about the paradox, grading the possible solutions, which Ćirković does literally.

There are quite a few D’s and F’s (18 out of 36 total), but we’re obviously interested in the A’s. No explanation gets a straight A because that would be equivalent to declaring it The Solution, but he does give out one A- for the Gaian Window explanation. A Rare-Earth hypothesis which basically states that stable biotic feedback loops are rare, which creates several narrow bottlenecks all of which we managed to pass through, but which no else has.

Rare-Earth explanations are fairly common, indeed that’s the explanation Webb favored in his book, and to be fair there’s a lot to be said for them as potential explanations, but in general they’re the least interesting of the possibilities. In recognition of this Ćirković includes a list of his subjective favorites, these are:

  • New Cosmogony (Grade: B)- I’ll discuss this in the next section.
  • Astrobiological Phase Transition (Grade: B)- Something we don’t understand makes life possible only relatively recently, and may in fact periodically reset things such that life has to start over.
  • Deadly Probes (Grade: B+, the next highest grade and the only B+ given)- There is a galactic ecosystem of self-replicating probes that destroy all intelligent life. I discussed this at some length in my Fermi’s Paradox and the Dark Forest post, and as always the question (which I think Ćirković doesn’t pay enough attention to) is, “What are they waiting for?”
  • Transcension Hypothesis (Grade: B-)- All advanced civilizations get reduced to information flows which are hard to detect, particularly if you don’t know the protocols.
  • Galactic Stomach Ache (Grade: C)- The removal of stress becomes the dominant preoccupation of civilizations, which not only absorbs all their resources, but also removes all the beneficial stress which dominated all pre-technological progress. As you can imagine I really like this explanation, so I’ll be talking about it next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.

I agree with Ćirković that these are some of the more interesting explanations, and I’m glad he lists his favorites even if subjectivity is discouraged in science because it somewhat lets me off the hook for spending so much time on my favorite explanation, which takes us into the second half of the episode.

Supernatural Explanations for the Paradox

In one of the quotes above, Ćirković asserts that the paradox is “the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science”. But one disciple he doesn’t want to bring to the table is the discipline of theology. Specifically he says early on that he’s going to hew to “methodological naturalism” in his search for explanations. This means that he is not going to “invoke supernatural agencies and capacities in searching for an explanation for observed phenomena”. This is entirely appropriate for a book of this sort, and I have no problem with this methodology. Also it’s to his credit that Ćirković unlike so many others at least acknowledges that there might be supernatural explanations which should be in the running, absent this restriction.  No the problem I have, and you knew there was one, is where do you draw the line between the supernatural and the natural?

Ćirković offers several explanations of the paradox where that line has been drawn very expansively. I’d like to look at three of his explanations, and in particular look at where he has drawn the line with each. I’ll will open each with Ćirković’s formal defining statement of the explanation:

Zoo Hypothesis: Advanced Galactic civilizations intentionally refrain from contacting newcomers for ethical reasons, reasons to do with security, or some other reasons (which would be incomprehensible to newcomers). We are located in the Galactic analogue of a zoo or a wilderness preserve—a chunk of space set aside for the low-level civilizations to evolve without interference. This no-contact policy extends to hiding traces and manifestations of their existence. We may be confident that they observe us, as we observe animals in a zoo, a lab, or a wilderness preserve, without us being aware of the fact.

This is one of the more common explanations for the paradox, frequently encountered in popular culture, for example Star Trek’s Prime Directive. According to this explanation our observation of the rest of the universe is being severely restricted. Would it be fair to say it’s unnaturally restricted? Certainly it’s unnatural to stick animals in a zoo or even a wilderness preserve. I could see an objection in jumping from unnatural to supernatural, but at the very least this explanation places limits on our ability to use methodological naturalism to get to the bottom of the paradox, because that methodology is being subverted by our “zoo-keepers”.

The New Cosmogony: Very early cosmic civilizations (…billions of years older than humanity) have advanced so much that their artefacts and their very existence are indistinguishable from ‘natural’ processes observed in the universe. Their information processing is distributed in the environment on so low a level that we perceive it as operations of the laws of physics. Their long-term plans include manipulation of these very laws in order to create new stages of cosmological evolution. Since the whole of the observable reality is, thus, partly artificial, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Many posts ago I talked about Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. Sagan was deeply interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and appears frequently in Ćirković’s book. “Contact” was his book about SETI, and as a bonus it also gave a fictional answer to the paradox. This answer was what you might expect with a few exceptions, most notably he introduces aliens that are so powerful they can embed a code in pi, such that once you calculate it out to a few billion digits, it turns into a binary code. You can perhaps see why this explanation which involves manipulating the laws of physics reminded me of the novel. But whether it appears in Sagan’s book or Ćirković’s the question we care about is whether this explanation might be supernatural. In my opinion, something which allows you to manipulate the laws of nature is by definition supernatural.

Simulation Hypothesis: Physical reality we observe is, in fact a simulation created by Programmers of an underlying, true reality and run on the advanced computers of that underlying reality. Due to a form of principle of indifference, we cannot ever hope to establish the simulated nature of our world, provided that the Programmers do not reveal their presence. As a parenthetical consequence, the simulation is set up in order to study a rather limited spatio-temporal volume, presumably centered on Earth—there are no simulated extraterrestrial intelligent beings, so there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Another explanation that gets mentioned a lot, and also appears in popular culture, particularly The Matrix. I would assume here that the explanation’s supernatural character is obvious. Not only are “Programmers” gods in all but name, they have also specifically set up an unnatural reality where the laws of physics as we understand them would lead to you expect extraterrestrials, but the Programmers have chosen to leave them out of the simulation, which is hard to label as anything other than a supernatural act. Certainly it appears difficult to apply “methodological naturalism” to the question since nature is entirely what the programmers have decided it should be.

Difficult, but perhaps not impossible, and there have been various proposals over the years for ways we might be able to tell. And I assume that this is the argument most people would summon to create a dividing line between the natural and the supernatural, the dividing line of falsifiability. Which all of these explanations share, at least in theory. In the first, if at some future point we have spread out across the galaxy without encountering any zoo-keepers then that explanation would appear to be false. In the second, the task is a little more difficult, but as Ćirković points out it doesn’t provide a very good explanation for why there are no extraterrestrials technologically between us and those aliens with the power to rewrite physical laws. And I’ve already linked to some attempts to falsify the third explanation.

At this point I am perfectly comfortable declaring that there are certainly some religious explanations which are too supernatural to deserve discussion. Anyone offering up the explanation that the entire universe is only a little over 6000 years old and thus extraterrestrials wouldn’t have time to develop, should not be taken seriously. But that is not what I’m claiming. My explanation, if rendered in the same fashion as the others in the book might run as follows:

God Exists: As expected aliens do exist, and their technology is vastly superior to ours, so much so that it appears miraculous. In order to pass this technology along they need to ensure we will use it responsibly. Existence, as we recognize it, is a test of this. This test is similar to current proposals to minimize AI Risk. And similarly a full understanding of both the test and the alien’s existence would invalidate it. Accordingly they act more subtly through things like miracles and prayer. All of which is to say, that aliens exist, they do communicate with us, Therefore, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Stated this way I would argue that it sounds similar to all of his other proposed explanations, there’s nothing that sets it apart as being especially supernatural, particularly when compared to the other explanations I just quoted. Some people may object to the fact that I entirely leave out life after death (and in the LDS case life before birth) which is both central to the majority of religions and definitely a supernatural element, but is not the same thing possible, even likely under the Simulation Hypothesis? And yet Ćirković not only includes it, but gives it a B- grade in his assessment of how seriously it should be considered.

As far as falsifiability, I would submit that it does even better here. Most of the explanations given above are only weakly falsifiable, and in fact have a resistance to falsifiability built right into the explanation. It is not any piece of evidence, but rather a lack of evidence, that makes us think Zookeepers and Programmers might exist. On the other hand I can think of at least three straightforward ways for the God Exists explanation to be falsified:

  1. Under Christian eschatology (the one I am most familiar with and the one that fits best with the God Exists explanation) we read concerning Christ’s second coming, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” That said, I think everyone would agree that if it’s going to happen it should happen in the next few hundred years. Let’s round that up to a thousand. I will happily say that if Christ doesn’t return by 3018 that Christians are wrong about everything, including any ways in which Christianity might explain Fermi’s Paradox.
  2. As I mentioned above one of the more interesting things Ćirković points out is that the mere detection of a single alien signal would not resolve the stronger versions of Fermi’s Paradox, though it would falsify some explanations. The God Exists explanation is one of those, and to falsify it we would merely need to detect one other set of intelligent aliens anywhere. Note that none of the other three examples would be falsified by this. (Though, in theory these aliens could have a religion which corresponds to the God Exists explanation of the paradox in which case their discovery would push things the other way, and make the explanation far more likely.)
  3. The God Exists explanation makes several predictions about how things should work. As one example, for it to be true, traditional religious morality would have to have some long term value, even in the face of steadily advancing technology. If 500 years from now all religious societies have been decisively out competed by secular societies, then it would follow that we’d have good reason to reject the God Exists explanation (as well as most of the other claims of religion.) As I discussed in a previous post, the societal benefits of religion are often overlooked. As a more recent example of that, I refer you to the study showing that religion is better than cognitive-based therapy (one of the most recommended forms of treatment) for treating the most depressed.

I’m tempted at this point to give my explanation a grade, but obviously I’m not even close to being objective enough. Perhaps Ćirković will check in and do it for me. I suspect it will be lower than I would like, because even though he calls for greater attention for even radical ideas, this explanation is still probably both too supernatural and too anti-Copernican for his tastes.

I’ve already covered the supernatural angle, so I’ll close by discussing whether the explanation is anti-Copernican. It is true that most religious cosmologies are anti-Copernican. People are quick to point out that this was literally true during the time of Galileo. But here LDS/Mormon cosmology is different. It’s profoundly Copernican. It doesn’t think there’s anything special about Earth, or humanity. In the LDS version of Genesis, God tells Moses that he has created “worlds without number” and that all of them are inhabited. I would be surprised if Ćirković found this to be a very satisfying answer, but it does technically resolve that objection. And as to Ćirković’s more practical concern that latent anti-Copernicanism is fatally undermining SETI efforts, I would argue that LDS cosmology is not contributing to that. All the Mormons I know are excited by the idea.

Many of the explanations involve aliens with godlike powers and motivations, and I for one think injecting a little god and religion into the process is therefore entirely appropriate.


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