Med­it­a­tions On Moloch

[Con­tent note: Vi­sions! omens! hal­lu­cin­a­tions! mir­acles! ec­stas­ies! dreams! ad­or­a­tions! il­lu­min­a­tions! re­li­gions!]


Al­lan Gins­berg’s fam­ous poem, Mo­loch:

What sphinx of ce­ment and alu­minum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and ima­gin­a­tion?

Mo­loch! Solitude! Filth! Ugli­ness! Ash­cans and un­ob­tain­able dol­lars! Chil­dren scream­ing un­der the stair­ways! Boys sob­bing in armies! Old men weep­ing in the parks!

Mo­loch! Mo­loch! Night­mare of Mo­loch! Mo­loch the love­less! Mental Mo­loch! Mo­loch the heavy judger of men!

Mo­loch the in­com­pre­hens­ible prison! Mo­loch the cross­bone soul­less jail­house and Con­gress of sor­rows! Mo­loch whose build­ings are judg­ment! Mo­loch the vast stone of war! Mo­loch the stunned gov­ern­ments!

Mo­loch whose mind is pure ma­chinery! Mo­loch whose blood is run­ning money! Mo­loch whose fin­gers are ten armies! Mo­loch whose breast is a can­ni­bal dy­namo! Mo­loch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Mo­loch whose eyes are a thou­sand blind win­dows! Mo­loch whose sky­scrapers stand in the long streets like end­less Je­hovahs! Mo­loch whose factor­ies dream and croak in the fog! Mo­loch whose smoke-stacks and an­ten­nae crown the cit­ies!

Mo­loch whose love is end­less oil and stone! Mo­loch whose soul is elec­tri­city and banks! Mo­loch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Mo­loch whose fate is a cloud of sex­less hy­dro­gen! Mo­loch whose name is the Mind!

Mo­loch in whom I sit lonely! Mo­loch in whom I dream An­gels! Crazy in Mo­loch! Cock­sucker in Mo­loch! Lack­love and man­less in Mo­loch!

Mo­loch who entered my soul early! Mo­loch in whom I am a con­scious­ness without a body! Mo­loch who frightened me out of my nat­ural ec­stasy! Mo­loch whom I aban­don! Wake up in Mo­loch! Light stream­ing out of the sky!

Mo­loch! Mo­loch! Ro­bot apart­ments! in­vis­ible sub­urbs! skel­eton treas­ur­ies! blind cap­it­als! de­monic in­dus­tries! spec­tral na­tions! in­vin­cible mad­houses! gran­ite cocks! mon­strous bombs!

They broke their backs lift­ing Mo­loch to Heaven! Pave­ments, trees, ra­dios, tons! lift­ing the city to Heaven which ex­ists and is every­where about us!

Vi­sions! omens! hal­lu­cin­a­tions! mir­acles! ec­stas­ies! gone down the Amer­ican river!

Dreams! ad­or­a­tions! il­lu­min­a­tions! re­li­gions! the whole boat­load of sens­it­ive bull­shit!

Break­throughs! over the river! flips and cru­ci­fix­ions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ an­imal screams and sui­cides! Minds! New loves! Mad gen­er­a­tion! down on the rocks of Time!

Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! wav­ing! car­ry­ing flowers! Down to the river! into the street!

What’s al­ways im­pressed me about this poem is its con­cep­tion of civil­iz­a­tion as an in­di­vidual en­tity. You can al­most see him, with his fin­gers of armies and his sky­scraper-win­dow eyes.

A lot of the com­ment­at­ors say Mo­loch rep­res­ents cap­it­al­ism. This is def­in­itely a piece of it, even a big piece. But it doesn’t quite fit. Cap­it­al­ism, whose fate is a cloud of sex­less hy­dro­gen? Cap­it­al­ism in whom I am a con­scious­ness without a body? Cap­it­al­ism, there­fore gran­ite cocks?

Mo­loch is in­tro­duced as the an­swer to a ques­tion – C. S. Lewis’ ques­tion in Hi­er­archy Of Philo­soph­erswhat does it? Earth could be fair, and all men glad and wise. In­stead we have pris­ons, smokestacks, asylums. What sphinx of ce­ment and alu­minum breaks open their skulls and eats up their ima­gin­a­tion?

And Gins­berg an­swers: Mo­loch does it.

There’s a pas­sage in the Prin­cipia Dis­cor­dia where Malaclypse com­plains to the God­dess about the evils of hu­man so­ci­ety. “Every­one is hurt­ing each other, the planet is rampant with in­justices, whole so­ci­et­ies plun­der groups of their own people, moth­ers im­prison sons, chil­dren per­ish while broth­ers war.”

The God­dess an­swers: “What is the mat­ter with that, if it’s what you want to do?”

Malaclypse: “But nobody wants it! Every­body hates it!”

God­dess: “Oh. Well, then stop.”

The im­pli­cit ques­tion is – if every­one hates the cur­rent sys­tem, who per­petu­ates it? And Gins­berg an­swers: “Mo­loch”. It’s power­ful not be­cause it’s cor­rect – nobody lit­er­ally thinks an an­cient Carthaginian de­mon causes everything – but be­cause think­ing of the sys­tem as an agent throws into re­lief the de­gree to which the sys­tem isn’t an agent.

Bostrom makes an off­han­ded ref­er­ence of the pos­sib­il­ity of a dic­tat­or­less dysto­pia, one that every single cit­izen in­clud­ing the lead­er­ship hates but which nev­er­the­less en­dures un­conquered. It’s easy enough to ima­gine such a state. Ima­gine a coun­try with two rules: first, every per­son must spend eight hours a day giv­ing them­selves strong elec­tric shocks. Se­cond, if any­one fails to fol­low a rule (in­clud­ing this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to en­force it, all cit­izens must unite to kill that per­son. Sup­pose these rules were well-enough es­tab­lished by tra­di­tion that every­one ex­pec­ted them to be en­forced.

So you shock your­self for eight hours a day, be­cause you know if you don’t every­one else will kill you, be­cause if they don’t, every­one else will kill them, and so on. Every single cit­izen hates the sys­tem, but for lack of a good co­ordin­a­tion mech­an­ism it en­dures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can op­tim­ize the sys­tem to “every­one agrees to stop do­ing this at once”, but no one within the sys­tem is able to ef­fect the trans­ition without great risk to them­selves.

And okay, this ex­ample is kind of con­trived. So let’s run through – let’s say ten – real world ex­amples of sim­ilar mul­ti­polar traps to really ham­mer in how im­port­ant this is.

1. The Pris­oner’s Di­lemma, as played by two very dumb liber­tari­ans who keep end­ing up on de­fect-de­fect. There’s a much bet­ter out­come avail­able if they could fig­ure out the co­ordin­a­tion, but co­ordin­a­tion is hard. From a god’s-eye-view, we can agree that co­oper­ate-co­oper­ate is a bet­ter out­come than de­fect-de­fect, but neither pris­oner within the sys­tem can make it hap­pen.

2. Dol­lar auc­tions. I wrote about this and even more con­vo­luted ver­sions of the same prin­ciple in Game The­ory As A Dark Art. Using some weird auc­tion rules, you can take ad­vant­age of poor co­ordin­a­tion to make someone pay $10 for a one dol­lar bill. From a god’s-eye-view, clearly people should not pay $10 for a on-er. From within the sys­tem, each in­di­vidual step taken might be ra­tional.

(Ash­cans and un­ob­tain­able dol­lars!)

3. The fish farm­ing story from my Non-Liber­tarian FAQ 2.0:

As a thought ex­per­i­ment, let’s con­sider aquacul­ture (fish farm­ing) in a lake. Ima­gine a lake with a thou­sand identical fish farms owned by a thou­sand com­pet­ing com­pan­ies. Each fish farm earns a profit of $1000/​month. For a while, all is well.

But each fish farm pro­duces waste, which fouls the wa­ter in the lake. Let’s say each fish farm pro­duces enough pol­lu­tion to lower pro­ductiv­ity in the lake by $1/​month.

A thou­sand fish farms pro­duce enough waste to lower pro­ductiv­ity by $1000/​month, mean­ing none of the fish farms are mak­ing any money. Cap­it­al­ism to the res­cue: someone in­vents a com­plex fil­ter­ing sys­tem that re­moves waste products. It costs $300/​month to op­er­ate. All fish farms vol­un­tar­ily in­stall it, the pol­lu­tion ends, and the fish farms are now mak­ing a profit of $700/​month – still a re­spect­able sum.

But one farmer (let’s call him Steve) gets tired of spend­ing the money to op­er­ate his fil­ter. Now one fish farm worth of waste is pol­lut­ing the lake, lower­ing pro­ductiv­ity by $1. Steve earns $999 profit, and every­one else earns $699 profit.

Every­one else sees Steve is much more prof­it­able than they are, be­cause he’s not spend­ing the main­ten­ance costs on his fil­ter. They dis­con­nect their fil­ters too.

Once four hun­dred people dis­con­nect their fil­ters, Steve is earn­ing $600/​month – less than he would be if he and every­one else had kept their fil­ters on! And the poor vir­tu­ous fil­ter users are only mak­ing $300. Steve goes around to every­one, say­ing “Wait! We all need to make a vol­un­tary pact to use fil­ters! Other­wise, every­one’s pro­ductiv­ity goes down.”

Every­one agrees with him, and they all sign the Fil­ter Pact, ex­cept one per­son who is sort of a jerk. Let’s call him Mike. Now every­one is back us­ing fil­ters again, ex­cept Mike. Mike earns $999/​month, and every­one else earns $699/​month. Slowly, people start think­ing they too should be get­ting big bucks like Mike, and dis­con­nect their fil­ter for $300 ex­tra profit…

A self-in­ter­ested per­son never has any in­cent­ive to use a fil­ter. A self-in­ter­ested per­son has some in­cent­ive to sign a pact to make every­one use a fil­ter, but in many cases has a stronger in­cent­ive to wait for every­one else to sign such a pact but opt out him­self. This can lead to an un­desir­able equi­lib­rium in which no one will sign such a pact.

The more I think about it, the more I feel like this is the core of my ob­jec­tion to liber­tari­an­ism, and that Non-Liber­tarian FAQ 3.0 will just be this one ex­ample copy-pas­ted two hun­dred times. From a god’s-eye-view, we can say that pol­lut­ing the lake leads to bad con­sequences. From within the sys­tem, no in­di­vidual can pre­vent the lake from be­ing pol­luted, and buy­ing a fil­ter might not be such a good idea.

4. The Malthu­s­ian trap, at least at its ex­tremely pure the­or­et­ical lim­its. Sup­pose you are one of the first rats in­tro­duced onto a pristine is­land. It is full of yummy plants and you live an idyllic life loun­ging about, eat­ing, and com­pos­ing great works of art (you’re one of those rats from The Rats of NIMH).

You live a long life, mate, and have a dozen chil­dren. All of them have a dozen chil­dren, and so on. In a couple gen­er­a­tions, the is­land has ten thou­sand rats and has reached its car­ry­ing ca­pa­city. Now there’s not enough food and space to go around, and a cer­tain per­cent of each new gen­er­a­tion dies in or­der to keep the pop­u­la­tion steady at ten thou­sand.

A cer­tain sect of rats aban­dons art in or­der to de­vote more of their time to scroun­ging for sur­vival. Each gen­er­a­tion, a bit less of this sect dies than mem­bers of the main­stream, un­til after a while, no rat com­poses any art at all, and any sect of rats who try to bring it back will go ex­tinct within a few gen­er­a­tions.

In fact, it’s not just art. Any sect at all that is leaner, meaner, and more sur­viv­al­ist than the main­stream will even­tu­ally take over. If one sect of rats al­tru­ist­ic­ally de­cides to limit its off­spring to two per couple in or­der to de­crease over­pop­u­la­tion, that sect will die out, swarmed out of ex­ist­ence by its more nu­mer­ous en­emies. If one sect of rats starts prac­ti­cing can­ni­bal­ism, and finds it gives them an ad­vant­age over their fel­lows, it will even­tu­ally take over and reach fix­a­tion.

If some rat sci­ent­ists pre­dict that de­ple­tion of the is­land’s nut stores is ac­cel­er­at­ing at a dan­ger­ous rate and they will soon be ex­hausted com­pletely, a few sects of rats might try to limit their nut con­sump­tion to a sus­tain­able level. Those rats will be out­com­peted by their more selfish cous­ins. Even­tu­ally the nuts will be ex­hausted, most of the rats will die off, and the cycle will be­gin again. Any sect of rats ad­voc­at­ing some ac­tion to stop the cycle will be out­com­peted by their cous­ins for whom ad­voc­at­ing any­thing is a waste of time that could be used to com­pete and con­sume.

For a bunch of reas­ons evol­u­tion is not quite as Malthu­s­ian as the ideal case, but it provides the pro­to­type ex­ample we can ap­ply to other things to see the un­der­ly­ing mech­an­ism. From a god’s-eye-view, it’s easy to say the rats should main­tain a com­fort­ably low pop­u­la­tion. From within the sys­tem, each in­di­vidual rat will fol­low its ge­netic im­per­at­ive and the is­land will end up in an end­less boom-bust cycle.

5. Cap­it­al­ism. Ima­gine a cap­it­al­ist in a cut­throat in­dustry. He em­ploys work­ers in a sweat­shop to sew gar­ments, which he sells at min­imal profit. Maybe he would like to pay his work­ers more, or give them nicer work­ing con­di­tions. But he can’t, be­cause that would raise the price of his products and he would be out­com­peted by his cheaper rivals and go bank­rupt. Maybe many of his rivals are nice people who would like to pay their work­ers more, but un­less they have some kind of iron­clad guar­an­tee that none of them are go­ing to de­fect by un­der­cut­ting their prices they can’t do it.

Like the rats, who gradu­ally lose all val­ues ex­cept sheer com­pet­i­tion, so com­pan­ies in an eco­nomic en­vir­on­ment of suf­fi­ciently in­tense com­pet­i­tion are forced to aban­don all val­ues ex­cept op­tim­iz­ing-for-profit or else be out­com­peted by com­pan­ies that op­tim­ized for profit bet­ter and so can sell the same ser­vice at a lower price.

(I’m not really sure how widely people ap­pre­ci­ate the value of ana­lo­giz­ing cap­it­al­ism to evol­u­tion. Fit com­pan­ies – defined as those that make the cus­tomer want to buy from them – sur­vive, ex­pand, and in­spire fu­ture ef­forts, and un­fit com­pan­ies – defined as those no one wants to buy from – go bank­rupt and die out along with their com­pany DNA. The reas­ons Nature is red and tooth and claw are the same reas­ons the mar­ket is ruth­less and ex­ploit­at­ive)

From a god’s-eye-view, we can con­trive a friendly in­dustry where every com­pany pays its work­ers a liv­ing wage. From within the sys­tem, there’s no way to en­act it.

(Mo­loch whose love is end­less oil and stone! Mo­loch whose blood is run­ning money!)

6. The Two-In­come Trap, as re­cently dis­cussed on this blog. It the­or­ized that suf­fi­ciently in­tense com­pet­i­tion for sub­urban houses in good school dis­tricts meant that people had to throw away lots of other val­ues – time at home with their chil­dren, fin­an­cial se­cur­ity – to op­tim­ize for house-buy­ing-abil­ity or else be con­signed to the ghetto.

From a god’s-eye-view, if every­one agrees not to take on a second job to help win their com­pet­i­tion for nice houses, then every­one will get ex­actly as nice a house as they did be­fore, but only have to work one job. From within the sys­tem, ab­sent a gov­ern­ment lit­er­ally will­ing to ban second jobs, every­one who doesn’t get one will be left be­hind.

(Ro­bot apart­ments! In­vis­ible sub­urbs!)

7. Agri­cul­ture. Jared Dia­mond calls it the worst mis­take in hu­man his­tory. Whether or not it was a mis­take, it wasn’t an ac­ci­dent – ag­ri­cul­tural civil­iz­a­tions simply out­com­peted no­madic ones, in­ev­it­able and ir­res­ist­ably. Clas­sic Malthu­s­ian trap. Maybe hunt­ing-gath­er­ing was more en­joy­able, higher life ex­pect­ancy, and more con­du­cive to hu­man flour­ish­ing – but in a state of suf­fi­ciently in­tense com­pet­i­tion between peoples, in which ag­ri­cul­ture with all its dis­ease and op­pres­sion and pes­ti­lence was the more com­pet­it­ive op­tion, every­one will end up ag­ri­cul­tur­al­ists or go the way of the Co­manche In­di­ans.

From a god’s-eye-view, it’s easy to see every­one should keep the more en­joy­able op­tion and stay hunter-gather­ers. From within the sys­tem, each in­di­vidual tribe only faces the choice of go­ing ag­ri­cul­tural or in­ev­it­ably dy­ing.

8. Arms races. Large coun­tries can spend any­where from 5% to 30% of their budget on de­fense. In the ab­sence of war – a con­di­tion which has mostly held for the past fifty years – all this does is sap money away from in­fra­struc­ture, health, edu­ca­tion, or eco­nomic growth. But any coun­try that fails to spend enough money on de­fense risks be­ing in­vaded by a neigh­bor­ing coun­try that did. There­fore, al­most all coun­tries try to spend some money on de­fense.

From a god’s-eye-view, the best solu­tion is world peace and no coun­try hav­ing an army at all. From within the sys­tem, no coun­try can uni­lat­er­ally en­force that, so their best op­tion is to keep on throw­ing their money into mis­siles that lie in silos un­used.

(Mo­loch the vast stone of war! Mo­loch whose fin­gers are ten armies!)

9. Can­cer. The hu­man body is sup­posed to be made up of cells liv­ing har­mo­ni­ously and pool­ing their re­sources for the greater good of the or­gan­ism. If a cell de­fects from this equi­lib­rium by in­vest­ing its re­sources into copy­ing it­self, it and its des­cend­ants will flour­ish, even­tu­ally out­com­pet­ing all the other cells and tak­ing over the body – at which point it dies. Or the situ­ation may re­peat, with cer­tain can­cer cells de­fect­ing against the rest of the tu­mor, thus slow­ing down its growth and caus­ing the tu­mor to stag­nate.

From a god’s-eye-view, the best solu­tion is all cells co­oper­at­ing so that they don’t all die. From within the sys­tem, can­cer­ous cells will pro­lif­er­ate and out­com­pete the other – so that only the ex­ist­ence of the im­mune sys­tem keeps the nat­ural in­cent­ive to turn can­cer­ous in check.

10. The “race to the bot­tom” de­scribes a polit­ical situ­ation where some jur­is­dic­tions lure busi­nesses by prom­ising lower taxes and fewer reg­u­la­tions. The end res­ult is that either every­one op­tim­izes for com­pet­it­ive­ness – by hav­ing min­imal tax rates and reg­u­la­tions – or they lose all of their busi­ness, rev­enue, and jobs to people who did (at which point they are pushed out and re­placed by a gov­ern­ment who will be more com­pli­ant).

But even though the last one has stolen the name, all these scen­arios are in fact a race to the bot­tom. Once one agent learns how to be­come more com­pet­it­ive by sac­ri­fi­cing a com­mon value, all its com­pet­it­ors must also sac­ri­fice that value or be out­com­peted and re­placed by the less scru­pu­lous. There­fore, the sys­tem is likely to end up with every­one once again equally com­pet­it­ive, but the sac­ri­ficed value is gone forever. From a god’s-eye-view, the com­pet­it­ors know they will all be worse off if they de­fect, but from within the sys­tem, given in­suf­fi­cient co­ordin­a­tion it’s im­possible to avoid.

Be­fore we go on, there’s a slightly dif­fer­ent form of multi-agent trap worth in­vest­ig­at­ing. In this one, the com­pet­i­tion is kept at bay by some out­side force – usu­ally so­cial stigma. As a res­ult, there’s not ac­tu­ally a race to the bot­tom – the sys­tem can con­tinue func­tion­ing at a re­l­at­ively high level – but it’s im­possible to op­tim­ize and re­sources are con­sist­ently thrown away for no reason. Lest you get ex­hausted be­fore we even be­gin, I’ll limit my­self to four ex­amples here.

11. Edu­ca­tion. In my es­say on re­ac­tion­ary philo­sophy, I talk about my frus­tra­tion with edu­ca­tion re­form:

People ask why we can’t re­form the edu­ca­tion sys­tem. But right now stu­dents’ in­cent­ive is to go to the most pres­ti­gi­ous col­lege they can get into so em­ploy­ers will hire them – whether or not they learn any­thing. Em­ploy­ers’ in­cent­ive is to get stu­dents from the most pres­ti­gi­ous col­lege they can so that they can de­fend their de­cision to their boss if it goes wrong – whether or not the col­lege provides value ad­ded. And col­leges’ in­cent­ive is to do whatever it takes to get more prestige, as meas­ured in US News and World Re­port rank­ings – whether or not it helps stu­dents. Does this lead to huge waste and poor edu­ca­tion? Yes. Could the Edu­ca­tion God no­tice this and make some Edu­ca­tion Decrees that lead to a vastly more ef­fi­cient sys­tem? Eas­ily! But since there’s no Edu­ca­tion God every­body is just go­ing to fol­low their own in­cent­ives, which are only partly cor­rel­ated with edu­ca­tion or ef­fi­ciency.

From a god’s eye view, it’s easy to say things like “Stu­dents should only go to col­lege if they think they will get some­thing out of it, and em­ploy­ers should hire ap­plic­ants based on their com­pet­ence and not on what col­lege they went to”. From within the sys­tem, every­one’s already fol­low­ing their own in­cent­ives cor­rectly, so un­less the in­cent­ives change the sys­tem won’t either.

12. Science. Same es­say:

The mod­ern re­search com­munity knows they aren’t pro­du­cing the best sci­ence they could be. There’s lots of pub­lic­a­tion bias, stat­ist­ics are done in a con­fus­ing and mis­lead­ing way out of sheer in­er­tia, and rep­lic­a­tions of­ten hap­pen very late or not at all. And some­times someone will say some­thing like “I can’t be­lieve people are too dumb to fix Science. All we would have to do is re­quire early re­gis­tra­tion of stud­ies to avoid pub­lic­a­tion bias, turn this new and power­ful stat­ist­ical tech­nique into the new stand­ard, and ac­cord higher status to sci­ent­ists who do rep­lic­a­tion ex­per­i­ments. It would be really simple and it would vastly in­crease sci­entific pro­gress. I must just be smarter than all ex­ist­ing sci­ent­ists, since I’m able to think of this and they aren’t.”

And yeah. That would work for the Science God. He could just make a Science Decree that every­one has to use the right stat­ist­ics, and make an­other Science Decree that every­one must ac­cord rep­lic­a­tions higher status.

But things that work from a god’s-eye view don’t work from within the sys­tem. No in­di­vidual sci­ent­ist has an in­cent­ive to uni­lat­er­ally switch to the new stat­ist­ical tech­nique for her own re­search, since it would make her re­search less likely to pro­duce earth-shat­ter­ing res­ults and since it would just con­fuse all the other sci­ent­ists. They just have an in­cent­ive to want every­body else to do it, at which point they would fol­low along. And no in­di­vidual journal has an in­cent­ive to uni­lat­er­ally switch to early re­gis­tra­tion and pub­lish­ing neg­at­ive res­ults, since it would just mean their res­ults are less in­ter­est­ing than that other journal who only pub­lishes ground-break­ing dis­cov­er­ies. From within the sys­tem, every­one is fol­low­ing their own in­cent­ives and will con­tinue to do so.

13. Govern­ment cor­rup­tion. I don’t know of any­one who really thinks, in a prin­cipled way, that cor­por­ate wel­fare is a good idea. But the gov­ern­ment still man­ages to spend some­where around (de­pend­ing on how you cal­cu­late it) $100 bil­lion dol­lars a year on it – which for ex­ample is three times the amount they spend on health care for the needy. Every­one fa­mil­iar with the prob­lem has come up with the same easy solu­tion: stop giv­ing so much cor­por­ate wel­fare. Why doesn’t it hap­pen?

Govern­ment are com­pet­ing against one an­other to get elec­ted or pro­moted. And sup­pose part of op­tim­iz­ing for elect­ab­il­ity is op­tim­iz­ing cam­paign dona­tions from cor­por­a­tions – or maybe it isn’t, but of­fi­cials think it is. Of­fi­cials who try to mess with cor­por­ate wel­fare may lose the sup­port of cor­por­a­tions and be out­com­peted by of­fi­cials who prom­ise to keep it in­tact.

So al­though from a god’s-eye-view every­one knows that elim­in­at­ing cor­por­ate wel­fare is the best solu­tion, each in­di­vidual of­fi­cial’s per­sonal in­cent­ives push her to main­tain it.

14. Con­gress. Only 9% of Amer­ic­ans like it, sug­gest­ing a lower ap­proval rat­ing than cock­roaches, head lice, or traffic jams. However, 62% of people who know who their own Con­gres­sional rep­res­ent­at­ive is ap­prove of them. In the­ory, it should be really hard to have a demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted body that main­tains a 9% ap­proval rat­ing for more than one elec­tion cycle. In prac­tice, every rep­res­ent­at­ive’s in­cent­ive is to ap­peal to his or her con­stitu­ency while throw­ing the rest of the coun­try un­der the bus – some­thing at which they ap­par­ently suc­ceed.

From a god’s-eye-view, every Con­gressper­son ought to think only of the good of the na­tion. From within the sys­tem, you do what gets you elec­ted.


A ba­sic prin­ciple unites all of the mul­ti­polar traps above. In some com­pet­i­tion op­tim­iz­ing for X, the op­por­tun­ity arises to throw some other value un­der the bus for im­proved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Even­tu­ally, every­one’s re­l­at­ive status is about the same as be­fore, but every­one’s ab­so­lute status is worse than be­fore. The pro­cess con­tin­ues un­til all other val­ues that can be traded off have been – in other words, un­til hu­man in­genu­ity can­not pos­sibly fig­ure out a way to make things any worse.

In a suf­fi­ciently in­tense com­pet­i­tion (1-10), every­one who doesn’t throw all their val­ues un­der the bus dies out – think of the poor rats who wouldn’t stop mak­ing art. This is the in­fam­ous Malthu­s­ian trap, where every­one is re­duced to “sub­sist­ence”.

In an in­suf­fi­ciently in­tense com­pet­i­tion (11-14), all we see is a per­verse fail­ure to op­tim­ize – con­sider the journ­als which can’t switch to more re­li­able sci­ence, or the le­gis­lat­ors who can’t get their act to­gether and elim­in­ate cor­por­ate wel­fare. It may not re­duce people to sub­sist­ence, but there is a weird sense in which it takes away their free will.

Every two-bit au­thor and philo­sopher has to write their own uto­pia. Most of them are le­git­im­ately pretty nice. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that two uto­pias that are po­lar op­pos­ites both sound bet­ter than our own world.

It’s kind of em­bar­rass­ing that ran­dom nobod­ies can think up states of af­fairs bet­ter than the one we ac­tu­ally live in. And in fact most of them can’t. A lot of uto­pias sweep the hard prob­lems un­der the rug, or would fall apart in ten minutes if ac­tu­ally im­ple­men­ted.

But let me sug­gest a couple of “uto­pias” that don’t have this prob­lem.

– The uto­pia where in­stead of the gov­ern­ment pay­ing lots of cor­por­ate wel­fare, the gov­ern­ment doesn’t pay lots of cor­por­ate wel­fare.

– The uto­pia where every coun­try’s mil­it­ary is 50% smal­ler than it is today, and the sav­ings go into in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing.

– The uto­pia where all hos­pit­als use the same elec­tronic med­ical re­cord sys­tem, or at least med­ical re­cord sys­tems that can talk to each other, so that doc­tors can look up what the doc­tor you saw last week in a dif­fer­ent hos­pital de­cided in­stead of run­ning all the same tests over again for $5000.

I don’t think there are too many people who op­pose any of these uto­pias. If they’re not hap­pen­ing, it’s not be­cause people don’t sup­port them. It cer­tainly isn’t be­cause nobody’s thought of them, since I just thought of them right now and I don’t ex­pect my “dis­cov­ery” to be hailed as par­tic­u­larly novel or change the world.

Any hu­man with above room tem­per­at­ure IQ can design a uto­pia. The reason our cur­rent sys­tem isn’t a uto­pia is that it wasn’t de­signed by hu­mans. Just as you can look at an arid ter­rain and de­term­ine what shape a river will one day take by as­sum­ing wa­ter will obey grav­ity, so you can look at a civil­iz­a­tion and de­term­ine what shape its in­sti­tu­tions will one day take by as­sum­ing people will obey in­cent­ives.

But that means that just as the shapes of rivers are not de­signed for beauty or nav­ig­a­tion, but rather an ar­ti­fact of ran­domly de­term­ined ter­rain, so in­sti­tu­tions will not be de­signed for prosper­ity or justice, but rather an ar­ti­fact of ran­domly de­term­ined ini­tial con­di­tions.

Just as people can level ter­rain and build canals, so people can al­ter the in­cent­ive land­scape in or­der to build bet­ter in­sti­tu­tions. But they can only do so when they are in­centiv­ized to do so, which is not al­ways. As a res­ult, some pretty wild trib­u­tar­ies and rap­ids form in some very strange places.

I will now jump from bor­ing game the­ory stuff to what might be the closest thing to a mys­tical ex­per­i­ence I’ve ever had.

Like all good mys­tical ex­per­i­ences, it happened in Ve­gas. I was stand­ing on top of one of their many tall build­ings, look­ing down at the city be­low, all lit up in the dark. If you’ve never been to Ve­gas, it is really im­press­ive. Sky­scrapers and lights in every vari­ety strange and beau­ti­ful all clustered to­gether. And I had two thoughts, crys­tal clear:

It is glor­i­ous that we can cre­ate some­thing like this.

It is shame­ful that we did.

Like, by what stand­ard is build­ing gi­gantic forty-story-high in­door rep­licas of Venice, Paris, Rome, Egypt, and Cam­elot side-by-side, filled with al­bino ti­gers, in the middle of the most in­hos­pit­able desert in North Amer­ica, a re­motely sane use of our civil­iz­a­tion’s lim­ited re­sources?

And it oc­curred to me that maybe there is no philo­sophy on Earth that would en­dorse the ex­ist­ence of Las Ve­gas. Even Ob­ject­iv­ism, which is usu­ally my go-to philo­sophy for jus­ti­fy­ing the ex­cesses of cap­it­al­ism, at least grounds it in the be­lief that cap­it­al­ism im­proves people’s lives. Henry Ford was vir­tu­ous be­cause he al­lowed lots of oth­er­wise car-less people to ob­tain cars and so made them bet­ter off. What does Ve­gas do? Prom­ise a bunch of shmucks free money and not give it to them.

Las Ve­gas doesn’t ex­ist be­cause of some de­cision to he­don­ic­ally op­tim­ize civil­iz­a­tion, it ex­ists be­cause of a quirk in dopam­in­er­gic re­ward cir­cuits, plus the mi­cro­struc­ture of an un­even reg­u­lat­ory en­vir­on­ment, plus Schelling points. A ra­tional cent­ral plan­ner with a god’s-eye-view, con­tem­plat­ing these facts, might have thought “Hm, dopam­in­er­gic re­ward cir­cuits have a quirk where cer­tain tasks with slightly neg­at­ive risk-be­ne­fit ra­tios get an emo­tional valence as­so­ci­ated with slightly pos­it­ive risk-be­ne­fit ra­tios, let’s see if we can edu­cate people to be­ware of that.” People within the sys­tem, fol­low­ing the in­cent­ives cre­ated by these facts, think: “Let’s build a forty-story-high in­door rep­lica of an­cient Rome full of al­bino ti­gers in the middle of the desert, and so be­come slightly richer than people who didn’t!”

Just as the course of a river is lat­ent in a ter­rain even be­fore the first rain falls on it – so the ex­ist­ence of Caesar’s Palace was lat­ent in neuro­bi­o­logy, eco­nom­ics, and reg­u­lat­ory re­gimes even be­fore it ex­is­ted. The en­tre­pren­eur who built it was just filling in the ghostly lines with real con­crete.

So we have all this amaz­ing tech­no­lo­gical and cog­nit­ive en­ergy, the bril­liance of the hu­man spe­cies, wasted on re­cit­ing the lines writ­ten by poorly evolved cel­lu­lar re­cept­ors and blind eco­nom­ics, like gods be­ing ordered around by a moron.

Some people have mys­tical ex­per­i­ences and see God. There in Las Ve­gas, I saw Mo­loch.

(Mo­loch, whose mind is pure ma­chinery! Mo­loch, whose blood is run­ning money!

Mo­loch whose soul is elec­tri­city and banks! Mo­loch, whose sky­scrapers stand in the long streets like end­less Je­hovahs!

Mo­loch! Mo­loch! Ro­bot apart­ments! In­vis­ible sub­urbs! Ske­l­eton treas­ur­ies! Blind cap­it­als! De­monic in­dus­tries! Spec­tral na­tions!)<i>

…gran­ite cocks!<cen­ter>


The Apo­crypha Dis­cor­dia says:

Time flows like a river. Which is to say, down­hill. We can tell this be­cause everything is go­ing down­hill rap­idly. It would seem prudent to be some­where else when we reach the sea.

Let’s take this ran­dom gag 100% lit­er­ally and see where it leads us.

We just ana­lo­gized the flow of in­cent­ives to the flow of a river. The down­hill tra­ject­ory is ap­pro­pri­ate: the traps hap­pen when you find an op­por­tun­ity to trade off a use­ful value for greater com­pet­it­ive­ness. Once every­one has it, the greater com­pet­it­ive­ness brings you no joy – but the value is lost forever. There­fore, each step of the Poor Coordin­a­tion Polka makes your life worse.

But not only have we not yet reached the sea, but we also seem to move up­hill sur­pris­ingly of­ten. Why do things not de­gen­er­ate more and more un­til we are back at sub­sist­ence level? I can think of three bad reas­ons – ex­cess re­sources, phys­ical lim­it­a­tions, and util­ity max­im­iz­a­tion – plus one good reason – co­ordin­a­tion.

1. Ex­cess re­sources. The ocean depths are a hor­rible place with little light, few re­sources, and vari­ous hor­rible or­gan­isms ded­ic­ated to eat­ing or para­sit­iz­ing one an­other. But every so of­ten, a whale car­cass falls to the bot­tom of the sea. More food than the or­gan­isms that find it could ever pos­sibly want. There’s a brief period of mi­ra­cu­lous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first en­counter the whale feed like kings. Even­tu­ally more an­im­als dis­cover the car­cass, the faster-breed­ing an­im­als in the car­cass mul­tiply, the whale is gradu­ally con­sumed, and every­one sighs and goes back to liv­ing in a Malthu­s­ian death-trap.

(Slate Star Co­dex: Your source for macabre whale meta­phors since June 2014)

It’s as if a group of those rats who had aban­doned art and turned to can­ni­bal­ism sud­denly was blown away to a new empty is­land with a much higher car­ry­ing ca­pa­city, where they would once again have the breath­ing room to live in peace and cre­ate artistic mas­ter­pieces.

This is an age of whale­fall, an age of ex­cess car­ry­ing ca­pa­city, an age when we sud­denly find ourselves with a thou­sand-mile head start on Malthus. As Han­son puts it, this is the dream time.

As long as re­sources aren’t scarce enough to lock us in a war of all against all, we can do silly non-op­timal things – like art and mu­sic and philo­sophy and love – and not be out­com­peted by mer­ci­less killing ma­chines most of the time.

2. Phys­ical lim­it­a­tions. Ima­gine a profit-max­im­iz­ing slave­mas­ter who de­cided to cut costs by not feed­ing his slaves or let­ting them sleep. He would soon find that his slaves’ pro­ductiv­ity dropped off drastic­ally, and that no amount of whip­ping them could re­store it. Even­tu­ally after test­ing nu­mer­ous strategies, he might find his slaves got the most work done when they were well-fed and well-res­ted and had at least a little bit of time to re­lax. Not be­cause the slaves were vol­un­tar­ily with­hold­ing their labor – we as­sume the fear of pun­ish­ment is enough to make them work as hard as they can – but be­cause the body has cer­tain phys­ical lim­it­a­tions that limit how mean you can get away with be­ing. Thus, the “race to the bot­tom” stops some­where short of the ac­tual eth­ical bot­tom, when the phys­ical lim­its are run into.

John Moes, a his­tor­ian of slavery, goes fur­ther and writes about how the slavery we are most fa­mil­iar with – that of the ante­bel­lum South – is a his­tor­ical ab­er­ra­tion and prob­ably eco­nom­ic­ally in­ef­fi­cient. In most past forms of slavery – es­pe­cially those of the an­cient world – it was com­mon for slaves to be paid wages, treated well, and of­ten given their free­dom.

He ar­gues that this was the res­ult of ra­tional eco­nomic cal­cu­la­tion. You can in­centiv­ize slaves through the car­rot or the stick, and the stick isn’t very good. You can’t watch slaves all the time, and it’s really hard to tell whether a slave is slack­ing off or not (or even whether, given a little more whip­ping, he might be able to work even harder). If you want your slaves to do any­thing more com­plic­ated than pick cot­ton, you run into some ser­i­ous mon­it­or­ing prob­lems – how do you profit from an en­slaved philo­sopher? Whip him really hard un­til he elu­cid­ates a the­ory of The Good that you can sell books about?

The an­cient solu­tion to the prob­lem – per­haps an early in­spir­a­tion to Fn­argl – was to tell the slave to go do whatever he wanted and found most prof­it­able, then split the profits with him. So­me­times the slave would work a job at your work­shop and you would pay him wages based on how well he did. Other times the slave would go off and make his way in the world and send you some of what he earned. Still other times, you would set a price for the slave’s free­dom, and the slave would go and work and even­tu­ally come up with the mone and free him­self.

Moes goes even fur­ther and says that these sys­tems were so prof­it­able that there were con­stant smoul­der­ing at­tempts to try this sort of thing in the Amer­ican South. The reason they stuck with the whips-and-chains method owed less to eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions and more to ra­cist gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials crack­ing down on luc­rat­ive but not-ex­actly-white-su­prem­acy-pro­mot­ing at­tempts to free slaves and have them go into busi­ness.

So in this case, a race to the bot­tom where com­pet­ing plant­a­tions be­come crueler and crueler to their slaves in or­der to max­im­ize com­pet­it­ive­ness is hal­ted by the phys­ical lim­it­a­tion of cruelty not help­ing after a cer­tain point.

Or to give an­other ex­ample, one of the reas­ons we’re not cur­rently in a Malthu­s­ian pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion right now is that wo­men can only have one baby per nine months. If those weird re­li­gious sects that de­mand their mem­bers have as many ba­bies as pos­sible could copy-paste them­selves, we would be in really bad shape. As it is they can only do a small amount of dam­age per gen­er­a­tion.

3. Util­ity max­im­iz­a­tion. We’ve been think­ing in terms of pre­serving val­ues versus win­ning com­pet­i­tions, and ex­pect­ing op­tim­iz­ing for the lat­ter to des­troy the former.

But many of the most im­port­ant com­pet­i­tions /​ op­tim­iz­a­tion pro­cesses in mod­ern civil­iz­a­tion are op­tim­iz­ing for hu­man val­ues. You win at cap­it­al­ism partly by sat­is­fy­ing cus­tom­ers’ val­ues. You win at demo­cracy partly by sat­is­fy­ing voters’ val­ues.

Sup­pose there’s a cof­fee plant­a­tion some­where in Ethiopia that em­ploys Ethiopi­ans to grow cof­fee beans that get sold to the Un­ited States. Maybe it’s locked in a life-and-death struggle with other cof­fee plant­a­tions and want to throw as many val­ues un­der the bus as it can to pick up a slight ad­vant­age.

But it can’t sac­ri­fice qual­ity of cof­fee pro­duced too much, or else the Amer­ic­ans won’t buy it. And it can’t sac­ri­fice wages or work­ing con­di­tions too much, or else the Ethiopi­ans won’t work there. And in fact, part of its com­pet­i­tion-op­tim­iz­a­tion pro­cess is find­ing the best ways to at­tract work­ers and cus­tom­ers that it can, as long as it doesn’t cost them too much money. So this is very prom­ising.

But it’s im­port­ant to re­mem­ber ex­actly how fra­gile this be­ne­fi­cial equi­lib­rium is.

Sup­pose the cof­fee plant­a­tions dis­cover a toxic pesti­cide that will in­crease their yield but make their cus­tom­ers sick. But their cus­tom­ers don’t know about the pesti­cide, and the gov­ern­ment hasn’t caught up to reg­u­lat­ing it yet. Now there’s a tiny un­coup­ling between “selling to Amer­ic­ans” and “sat­is­fy­ing Amer­ic­ans’ val­ues”, and so of course Amer­ic­ans’ val­ues get thrown un­der the bus.

Or sup­pose that there’s a baby boom in Ethiopia and sud­denly there are five work­ers com­pet­ing for each job. Now the com­pany can af­ford to lower wages and im­ple­ment cruel work­ing con­di­tions down to whatever the phys­ical lim­its are. As soon as there’s an un­coup­ling between “get­ting Ethiopi­ans to work here” and “sat­is­fy­ing Ethiopian val­ues”, it doesn’t look too good for Ethiopian val­ues either.

Or sup­pose someone in­vents a ro­bot that can pick cof­fee bet­ter and cheaper than a hu­man. The com­pany fires all its laborers and throws them onto the street to die. As soon as the util­ity of the Ethiopi­ans is no longer ne­ces­sary for profit, all pres­sure to main­tain it dis­ap­pears.

Or sup­pose that there is some im­port­ant value that is neither a value of the em­ploy­ees or the cus­tom­ers. Maybe the cof­fee plant­a­tions are on the hab­itat of a rare trop­ical bird that en­vir­on­ment­al­ist groups want to pro­tect. Maybe they’re on the an­ces­tral burial ground of a tribe dif­fer­ent from the one the plant­a­tion is em­ploy­ing, and they want it re­spec­ted in some way. Maybe cof­fee grow­ing con­trib­utes to global warm­ing some­how. As long as it’s not a value that will pre­vent the av­er­age Amer­ican from buy­ing from them or the av­er­age Ethiopian from work­ing for them, un­der the bus it goes.

I know that “cap­it­al­ists some­times do bad things” isn’t ex­actly an ori­ginal talk­ing point. But I do want to stress how it’s not equi­val­ent to “cap­it­al­ists are greedy”. I mean, some­times they are greedy. But other times they’re just in a suf­fi­ciently in­tense com­pet­i­tion where any­one who doesn’t do it will be out­com­peted and re­placed by people who do. Busi­ness prac­tices are set by Mo­loch, no one else has any choice in the mat­ter.

(from my very little know­ledge of Marx, he un­der­stands this very very well and people who sum­mar­ize him as “cap­it­al­ists are greedy” are do­ing him a dis­ser­vice)

And as well un­der­stood as the cap­it­al­ist ex­ample is, I think it is less well ap­pre­ci­ated that demo­cracy has the same prob­lems. Yes, in the­ory it’s op­tim­iz­ing for voter hap­pi­ness which cor­rel­ates with good poli­cy­mak­ing. But as soon as there’s the slight­est dis­con­nect between good poli­cy­mak­ing and elect­ab­il­ity, good poli­cy­mak­ing has to get thrown un­der the bus.

For ex­ample, ever-in­creas­ing prison terms are un­fair to in­mates and un­fair to the so­ci­ety that has to pay for them. Polit­ic­ans are un­will­ing to do any­thing about them be­cause they don’t want to look “soft on crime”, and if a single in­mate whom they helped re­lease ever does any­thing bad (and stat­ist­ic­ally one of them will have to) it will be all over the air­waves as “Con­vict re­leased by Con­gress­man’s policies kills fam­ily of five, how can the Con­gress­man even sleep at night let alone claim he de­serves reelec­tion?”. So even if de­creas­ing prison pop­u­la­tions would be good policy – and it is – it will be very dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment.

(Mo­loch the in­com­pre­hens­ible prison! Mo­loch the cross­bone soul­less jail­house and Con­gress of sor­rows! Mo­loch whose build­ings are judg­ment! Mo­loch the stunned gov­ern­ments!)

Turn­ing “sat­is­fy­ing cus­tom­ers” and “sat­is­fy­ing cit­izens” into the out­puts of op­tim­iz­a­tion pro­cesses was one of civil­iz­a­tion’s greatest ad­vances and the reason why cap­it­al­ist demo­cra­cies have so out­per­formed other sys­tems. But if we have bound Mo­loch as our ser­vant, the bonds are not very strong, and we some­times find that the tasks he has done for us move to his ad­vant­age rather than ours.

4. Coordin­a­tion.

The op­pos­ite of a trap is a garden.

Th­ings are easy to solve from a god’s-eye-view, so if every­one comes to­gether into a su­per­or­gan­ism, that su­per­or­gan­ism can solve prob­lems with ease and fin­esse. An in­tense com­pet­i­tion between agents has turned into a garden, with a single gardener dic­tat­ing where everything should go and re­mov­ing ele­ments that do not con­form to the pat­tern.

As I poin­ted out in the Non-Liber­tarian FAQ, gov­ern­ment can eas­ily solve the pol­lu­tion prob­lem with fish farms. The best known solu­tion to the Pris­on­ers’ Di­lemma is for the mob boss (play­ing the role of a gov­ernor) to threaten to shoot any pris­oner who de­fects. The solu­tion to com­pan­ies pol­lut­ing and harm­ing work­ers is gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions against such. Govern­ments solve arm races within a coun­try by main­tain­ing a mono­poly on the use of force, and it’s easy to see that if a truly ef­fect­ive world gov­ern­ment ever arose, in­ter­na­tional mil­it­ary buildups would end pretty quickly.

The two act­ive in­gredi­ents of gov­ern­ment are laws plus vi­ol­ence – or more ab­stractly agree­ments plus en­force­ment mech­an­ism. Many other things be­sides gov­ern­ments share these two act­ive in­gredi­ents and so are able to act as co­ordin­a­tion mech­an­isms to avoid traps.

For ex­ample, since stu­dents are com­pet­ing against each other (dir­ectly if classes are graded on a curve, but al­ways in­dir­ectly for col­lege ad­mis­sions, jobs, et cet­era) there is in­tense pres­sure for in­di­vidual stu­dents to cheat. The teacher and school play the role of a gov­ern­ment by hav­ing rules (for ex­ample, against cheat­ing) and the abil­ity to pun­ish stu­dents who break them.

But the emer­gent so­cial struc­ture of the stu­dents them­selves is also a sort of gov­ern­ment. If stu­dents shun and dis­trust cheat­ers, then there are rules (don’t cheat) and an en­force­ment mech­an­ism (or else we will shun you).

So­cial codes, gen­tle­mens’ agree­ments, in­dus­trial guilds, crim­inal or­gan­iz­a­tions, tra­di­tions, friend­ships, schools, cor­por­a­tions, and re­li­gions are all co­ordin­at­ing in­sti­tu­tions that keep us out of traps by chan­ging our in­cent­ives.

But these in­sti­tu­tions not only in­centiv­ize oth­ers, but are in­centiv­ized them­selves. These are large or­gan­iz­a­tions made of lots of people who are com­pet­ing for jobs, status, prestige, et cet­era – there’s no reason they should be im­mune to the same mul­ti­polar traps as every­one else, and in­deed they aren’t. Govern­ments can in the­ory keep cor­por­a­tions, cit­izens, et cet­era out of cer­tain traps, but as we saw above there are many traps that gov­ern­ments them­selves can fall into.

The Un­ited States tries to solve the prob­lem by hav­ing mul­tiple levels of gov­ern­ment, un­break­able con­stuti­tional laws, checks and bal­ances between dif­fer­ent branches, and a couple of other hacks.

Saudi Ar­a­bia uses a dif­fer­ent tac­tic. They just put one guy in charge of everything.

This is the much-ma­ligned – I think un­fairly – ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of mon­archy. A mon­arch is an un­in­centiv­ized in­centiv­izer. He ac­tu­ally has the god’s-eye-view and is out­side of and above every sys­tem. He has per­man­ently won all com­pet­i­tions and is not com­pet­ing for any­thing, and there­fore he is per­fectly free of Mo­loch and of the in­cent­ives that would oth­er­wise chan­nel his in­cent­ives into pre­de­ter­mined paths. Aside from a few very the­or­et­ical pro­pos­als like my Shin­ing Garden, mon­archy is the only sys­tem that does this.

But then in­stead of fol­low­ing a ran­dom in­cent­ive struc­ture, we’re fol­low­ing the whim of one guy. Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino is a crazy waste of re­sources, but the ac­tual Gaius Julius Caesar Augus­tus Ger­man­i­cus wasn’t ex­actly the per­fect be­ne­vol­ent ra­tional cent­ral plan­ner either.

The liber­tarian-au­thor­it­arian axis on the Polit­ical Com­pass is a tradeoff between dis­co­ordin­a­tion and tyranny. You can have everything per­fectly co­ordin­ated by someone with a god’s-eye-view – but then you risk Stalin. And you can be totally free of all cent­ral au­thor­ity – but then you’re stuck in every stu­pid mul­ti­polar trap Mo­loch can de­vise.

The liber­tari­ans make a con­vin­cing ar­gu­ment for the one side, and the mon­arch­ists for the other, but I ex­pect that like most tradeoffs we just have to hold our noses and ad­mit it’s a really hard prob­lem.


Let’s go back to that Apo­crypha Dis­cor­dia quote:

Time flows like a river. Which is to say, down­hill. We can tell this be­cause everything is go­ing down­hill rap­idly. It would seem prudent to be some­where else when we reach the sea.

What would it mean, in this situ­ation, to reach the sea?

Mul­ti­polar traps – races to the bot­tom – threaten to des­troy all hu­man val­ues. They are cur­rently re­strained by phys­ical lim­it­a­tions, ex­cess re­sources, util­ity max­im­iz­a­tion, and co­ordin­a­tion.

The di­men­sion along which this meta­phor­ical river flows must be time, and the most im­port­ant change in hu­man civil­iz­a­tion over time is the change in tech­no­logy. So the rel­ev­ant ques­tion is how tech­no­lo­gical changes will af­fect our tend­ency to fall into mul­ti­polar traps.

I de­scribed traps as when:

…in some com­pet­i­tion op­tim­iz­ing for X, the op­por­tun­ity arises to throw some other value un­der the bus for im­proved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Even­tu­ally, every­one’s re­l­at­ive status is about the same as be­fore, but every­one’s ab­so­lute status is worse than be­fore. The pro­cess con­tin­ues un­til all other val­ues that can be traded off have been – in other words, un­til hu­man in­genu­ity can­not pos­sibly fig­ure out a way to make things any worse.

That “the op­por­tun­ity arises” phrase is look­ing pretty sin­is­ter. Tech­no­logy is all about cre­at­ing new op­por­tun­it­ies.

Develop a new ro­bot, and sud­denly cof­fee plant­a­tions have “the op­por­tun­ity” to auto­mate their har­vest and fire all the Ethiopian work­ers. Develop nuc­lear weapons, and sud­denly coun­tries are stuck in an arms race to have enough of them. Pol­lut­ing the at­mo­sphere to build products quicker wasn’t a prob­lem be­fore they in­ven­ted the steam en­gine.

The limit of mul­ti­polar traps as tech­no­logy ap­proaches in­fin­ity is “very bad”.

Mul­ti­polar traps are cur­rently re­strained by phys­ical lim­it­a­tions, ex­cess re­sources, util­ity max­im­iz­a­tion, and co­ordin­a­tion.

Phys­ical lim­it­a­tions are most ob­vi­ously conquered by in­creas­ing tech­no­logy. The slave­mas­ter’s old conun­drum – that slaves need to eat and sleep – suc­cumbs to Soylent and mod­afinil. The prob­lem of slaves run­ning away suc­cumbs to GPS. The prob­lem of slaves be­ing too stressed to do good work suc­cumbs to Valium. None of these things are very good for the slaves.

(or just in­vent a ro­bot that doesn’t need food or sleep at all. What hap­pens to the slaves after that is bet­ter left un­said)

The other ex­ample of phys­ical lim­its was one baby per nine months, and this was un­der­stat­ing the case – it’s really “one baby per nine months plus will­ing­ness to sup­port and take care of a ba­sic­ally help­less and ex­tremely de­mand­ing hu­man be­ing for eight­een years”. This puts a damper on the en­thu­si­asm of even the most zeal­ous re­li­gious sect’s “go forth and mul­tiply” dictum.

But as Bostrom puts it in Su­per­in­tel­li­gence:

There are reas­ons, if we take a longer view and as­sume a state of un­chan­ging tech­no­logy and con­tin­ued prosper­ity, to ex­pect a re­turn to the his­tor­ic­ally and eco­lo­gic­ally nor­mal con­di­tion of a world pop­u­la­tion that butts up against the lim­its of what our niche can sup­port. If this seems coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive in light of the neg­at­ive re­la­tion­ship between wealth and fer­til­ity that we are cur­rently ob­serving on the global scale, we must re­mind ourselves that this mod­ern age is a brief slice of his­tory and very much an ab­er­ra­tion. Hu­man be­ha­vior has not yet ad­ap­ted to con­tem­por­ary con­di­tions. Not only do we fail to take ad­vant­age of ob­vi­ous ways to in­crease our in­clus­ive fit­ness (such as by be­com­ing sperm or egg donors) but we act­ively sab­ot­age our fer­til­ity by us­ing birth con­trol. In the en­vir­on­ment of evol­u­tion­ary ad­ap­ted­ness, a healthy sex drive may have been enough to make an in­di­vidual act in ways that max­im­ized her re­pro­duct­ive po­ten­tial; in the mod­ern en­vir­on­ment, how­ever, there would be a huge se­lect­ive ad­vant­age to hav­ing a more dir­ect de­sire for be­ing the bio­lo­gical par­ent to the largest pos­sible num­ber of chilren. Such a de­sire is cur­rently be­ing se­lec­ted for, as are other traits that in­crease our propensity to re­pro­duce. Cul­tural ad­apt­a­tion, how­ever, might steal a march on bio­lo­gical evol­u­tion. Some com­munit­ies, such as those of the Hut­ter­ites or the ad­her­ents of the Quiver­full evan­gel­ical move­ment, have na­t­al­ist cul­tures that en­cour­age large fam­il­ies, and they are con­sequently un­der­go­ing rapid ex­pan­sion…This longer-term out­look could be tele­scoped into a more im­min­ent pro­spect by the in­tel­li­gence ex­plo­sion. Since soft­ware is copy­able, a pop­u­la­tion of emu­la­tions or AIs could double rap­idly – over the course of minutes rather than dec­ades or cen­tur­ies – soon ex­haust­ing all avail­able hard­ware

As al­ways when deal­ing with high-level transhuman­ists, “all avail­able hard­ware” should be taken to in­clude “the atoms that used to be part of your body”.

The idea of bio­lo­gical or cul­tural evol­u­tion caus­ing a mass pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion is a philo­soph­ical toy at best. The idea of tech­no­logy mak­ing it pos­sible is both plaus­ible and ter­ri­fy­ing. Now we see that “phys­ical lim­its” segues very nat­ur­ally into “ex­cess re­sources” – the abil­ity to cre­ate new agents very quickly means that un­less every­one can co­ordin­ate to ban do­ing this, the people who do will out­com­pete the people who don’t un­til they have reached car­ry­ing ca­pa­city and every­one is stuck at sub­sist­ence level.

Ex­cess re­sources, which un­til now have been a gift of tech­no­lo­gical pro­gress, there­fore switch and be­come a cas­u­alty of it at a suf­fi­ciently high tech level.

Util­ity max­im­iz­a­tion, al­ways on shaky ground, also faces new threats. In the face of con­tinu­ing de­bate about this point, I con­tinue to think it ob­vi­ous that ro­bots will push hu­mans out of work or at least drive down wages (which, in the ex­ist­ence of a min­imum wage, pushes hu­mans out of work).

Once a ro­bot can do everything an IQ 80 hu­man can do, only bet­ter and cheaper, there will be no reason to em­ploy IQ 80 hu­mans. Once a ro­bot can do everything an IQ 120 hu­man can do, only bet­ter and cheaper, there will be no reason to em­ploy IQ 120 hu­mans. Once a ro­bot can do everything an IQ 180 hu­man can do, only bet­ter and cheaper, there will be no reason to em­ploy hu­mans at all, in the un­likely scen­ario that there are any left by that point.

In the earlier stages of the pro­cess, cap­it­al­ism be­comes more and more un­coupled from its pre­vi­ous job as an op­tim­izer for hu­man val­ues. Now most hu­mans are totally locked out of the group whose val­ues cap­it­al­ism op­tim­izes for. They have no value to con­trib­ute as work­ers – and since in the ab­sence of a spec­tac­u­lar so­cial safety net it’s un­clear how they would have much money – they have no value as cus­tom­ers either. Cap­it­al­ism has passed them by. As the seg­ment of hu­mans who can be out­com­peted by ro­bots in­creases, cap­it­al­ism passes by more and more people un­til even­tu­ally it locks out the hu­man race en­tirely, once again in the van­ish­ingly un­likely scen­ario that we are still around.

(there are some scen­arios in which a few cap­it­al­ists who own the ro­bots may be­ne­fit here, but in either case the vast ma­jor­ity are out of luck)

Demo­cracy is less ob­vi­ously vul­ner­able, but it might be worth go­ing back to Bostrom’s para­graph about the Quiver­full move­ment. These are some really re­li­gious Chris­ti­ans who think that God wants them to have as many kids as pos­sible, and who can end up with fam­il­ies of ten or more. Their art­icles ex­plictly cal­cu­late that if they start at two per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, but have on av­er­age eight chil­dren per gen­er­a­tion when every­one else on av­er­age only has two, within three gen­er­a­tions they’ll make up half the pop­u­la­tion.

It’s a clever strategy, but I can think of one thing that will save us: judging by how many ex-Quiver­full blogs I found when search­ing for those stat­ist­ics, their re­ten­tion rates even within a single gen­er­a­tion are pretty grim. Their art­icle ad­mits that 80% of very re­li­gious chil­dren leave the church as adults (al­though of course they ex­pect their own move­ment to do bet­ter). And this is not a sym­met­rical pro­cess – 80% of chil­dren who grow up in athe­ist fam­il­ies aren’t be­com­ing Quiver­full.

It looks a lot like even though they are out­breed­ing us, we are outm­eme-ing them, and that gives us a de­cis­ive ad­vant­age.

But we should also be kind of scared of this pro­cess. Memes op­tim­ize for mak­ing people want to ac­cept them and pass them on – so like cap­it­al­ism and demo­cracy, they’re op­tim­iz­ing for a proxy of mak­ing us happy, but that proxy can eas­ily get un­coupled from the ori­ginal goal.

Chain let­ters, urban le­gends, pro­pa­ganda, and viral mar­ket­ing are all ex­amples of memes that don’t sat­isfy our ex­pli­cit val­ues (true and use­ful) but are suf­fi­ciently memet­ic­ally vir­u­lent that they spread any­way.

I hope it’s not too con­tro­ver­sial here to say the same thing is true of re­li­gion. Re­li­gions, at their heart, are the most ba­sic form of memetic rep­lic­ator – “Be­lieve this state­ment and re­peat it to every­one you hear or else you will be etern­ally tor­tured”.

The cre­ation­ism “de­bate” and global warm­ing “de­bate” and a host of sim­ilar “de­bates” in today’s so­ci­ety sug­gest that memes that can propag­ate in­de­pend­ent of their truth value has a pretty strong in­flu­ence on the polit­ical pro­cess. Maybe these memes propag­ate be­cause they ap­peal to people’s pre­ju­dices, maybe be­cause they’re simple, maybe be­cause they ef­fect­ively mark an in-group and an out-group, or maybe for all sorts of dif­fer­ent reas­ons.

The point is – ima­gine a coun­try full of bioweapon labs, where people toil day and night to in­vent new in­fec­tious agents. The ex­ist­ence of these labs, and their right to throw whatever they de­velop in the wa­ter sup­ply is pro­tec­ted by law. And the coun­try is also linked by the world’s most per­fect mass transit sys­tem that every single per­son uses every day, so that any new patho­gen can spread to the en­tire coun­try in­stant­an­eously. You’d ex­pect things to start go­ing bad for that city pretty quickly.

Well, we have about a zil­lion think tanks re­search­ing new and bet­ter forms of pro­pa­ganda. And we have con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tec­ted free­dom of speech. And we have the In­ter­net. So we’re kind of screwed.

(Mo­loch whose name is the Mind!)

There are a few people work­ing on rais­ing the san­ity wa­ter­line, but not as many people as are work­ing on new and ex­cit­ing ways of con­fus­ing and con­vert­ing people, cata­loging and ex­ploit­ing every single bias and heur­istic and dirty rhet­or­ical trick

So as tech­no­logy (which I take to in­clude know­ledge of psy­cho­logy, so­ci­ology, pub­lic re­la­tions, etc) tends to in­fin­ity, the power of truthi­ness re­l­at­ive to truth in­creases, and things don’t look great for real grass­roots demo­cracy. The worst-case scen­ario is that the rul­ing party learns to pro­duce in­fin­ite cha­risma on de­mand. If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, re­mem­ber what Hitler was able to do with an fam­ously high level of cha­risma that was still less-than-in­fin­ite.

(al­tern­ate phras­ing for Chom­sky­ites: tech­no­logy in­creases the ef­fi­ciency of man­u­fac­tur­ing con­sent in the same way it in­creases the ef­fi­ciency of man­u­fac­tur­ing everything else)

Coordin­a­tion is what’s left. And tech­no­logy has the po­ten­tial to ser­i­ously im­prove co­ordin­a­tion ef­forts. People can use the In­ter­net to get in touch with one an­other, launch polit­ical move­ments, and frac­ture off into sub­com­munit­ies.

But co­ordin­a­tion only works when you have 51% or more of the force on the side of the people do­ing the co­ordin­at­ing, and when you haven’t come up with some bril­liant trick to make co­ordin­a­tion im­possible.

The second one first. In the links post be­fore last, I wrote:

The latest de­vel­op­ment in the brave new post-Bit­coin world is crypto-equity. At this point I’ve gone from want­ing to praise these in­vent­ors as bold liber­tarian her­oes to want­ing to drag them in front of a black­board and mak­ing them write a hun­dred times “I WILL NOT CALL UP THAT WHICH I CANNOT PUT DOWN”

A couple people asked me what I meant, and I didn’t have the back­ground then to ex­plain. Well, this post is the back­ground. People are us­ing the con­tin­gent stu­pid­ity of our cur­rent gov­ern­ment to re­place lots of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion with mech­an­isms that can­not be co­ordin­ated even in prin­ciple. I totally un­der­stand why all these things are good right now when most of what our gov­ern­ment does is stu­pid and un­ne­ces­sary. But there is go­ing to come a time when – after one too many bioweapon or na­n­otech or nuc­lear in­cid­ents – we, as a civil­iz­a­tion, are go­ing to wish we hadn’t es­tab­lished un­trace­able and un­stop­pable ways of selling products.

And if we ever get real live su­per­in­tel­li­gence, pretty much by defin­i­tion it is go­ing to have >51% of the power and all at­tempts at “co­ordin­a­tion” with it will be use­less.

So I agree with Robin Han­son: This is the dream time. This is a rare con­flu­ence of cir­cum­stances where the we are un­usu­ally safe from mul­ti­polar traps, and as such weird things like art and sci­ence and philo­sophy and love can flour­ish.

As tech­no­lo­gical ad­vance in­creases, the rare con­flu­ence will come to an end. New op­por­tun­it­ies to throw val­ues un­der the bus for in­creased com­pet­it­ive­ness will arise. New ways of copy­ing agents to in­crease the pop­u­la­tion will soak up our ex­cess re­sources and re­sur­rect Malthus’ un­quiet spirit. Cap­it­al­ism and demo­cracy, pre­vi­ously our pro­tect­ors, will fig­ure out ways to route around their in­con­veni­ent de­pend­ence on hu­man val­ues. And our co­ordin­a­tion power will not be nearly up to the task, as­sum­ing somth­ing much more power­ful than all of us com­bined doesn’t show up and crush our com­bined ef­forts with a wave of its paw.

Ab­sent an ex­traordin­ary ef­fort to di­vert it, the river reaches the sea in one of two places.

It can end in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s night­mare of a su­per­in­tel­li­gence op­tim­iz­ing for some ran­dom thing (clas­sic­ally pa­per clips) be­cause we weren’t smart enough to chan­nel its op­tim­iz­a­tion ef­forts the right way. This is the ul­ti­mate trap, the trap that catches the uni­verse. Everything ex­cept the one thing be­ing max­im­ized is des­troyed ut­terly in pur­suit of the single goal, in­clud­ing all the silly hu­man val­ues.

Or it can end in Robin Han­son’s night­mare (he doesn’t call it a night­mare, but I think he’s wrong) of a com­pet­i­tion between emu­lated hu­mans that can copy them­selves and edit their own source code as de­sired. Their total self-con­trol can wipe out even the de­sire for hu­man val­ues in their all-con­sum­ing con­test. What hap­pens to art, philo­sophy, sci­ence, and love in such a world? Zack Davis puts it with char­ac­ter­istic genius:

I am a con­tract-draft­ing em,
The loy­alest of law­yers!
I draw up terms for deals ’twixt firms
To ser­vice my em­ploy­ers!

But in between these lines I write
Of the ac­counts re­ceiv­able,
I’m stuck by an un­canny fright;
The world seems un­be­liev­able!

How did it all come to be,
That there should be such ems as me?
Whence these deals and whence these firms
And whence the whole eco­nomy?

I am a ma­na­gerial em;
I mon­itor your thoughts.
Your ques­tions must have an­swers,
But you’ll com­pre­hend them not.
We do not give you server space
To ask such things; it’s not a perk,
So cease these idle ques­tion­ings,
And please get back to work.

Of course, that’s right, there is no junc­tion
At which I ought de­part my func­tion,
But per­haps if what I asked, I knew,
I’d do a bet­ter job for you?

To ask of such for­bid­den sci­ence
Is gravest sign of non­com­pli­ance.
In­trus­ive thoughts may some­times barge in,
But to in­dulge them hurts the profit mar­gin.
I do not know our ori­gins,
So that info I can not get you,
But ask­ing for as much is sin,
And just for that, I must re­set you.


Noth­ing per­sonal.

I am a con­tract-draft­ing em,
The loy­alest of law­yers!
I draw up terms for deals ’twixt firms
To ser­vice my em­ploy­ers!

When ob­sol­es­cence shall this gen­er­a­tion waste,
The mar­ket shall re­main, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a God to man, to whom it say­est:
“Money is time, time money – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

But even after we have thrown away sci­ence, art, love, and philo­sophy, there’s still one thing left to lose, one fi­nal sac­ri­fice Mo­loch might de­mand of us. Bostrom again:

It is con­ceiv­able that op­timal ef­fi­ciency would be at­tained by group­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies in ag­greg­ates that roughly match the cog­nit­ive ar­chi­tec­ture of a hu­man mind…But in the ab­sence of any com­pel­ling reason for be­ing con­fid­ent that this so, we must coun­ten­ance the pos­sib­il­ity that hu­man-like cog­nit­ive ar­chi­tec­tures are op­timal only within the con­straints of hu­man neur­o­logy (or not at all). When it be­comes pos­sible to build ar­chi­tec­tures that could not be im­ple­men­ted well on bio­lo­gical neural net­works, new design space opens up; and the global op­tima in this ex­ten­ded space need not re­semble fa­mil­iar types of men­tal­ity. Hu­man-like cog­nit­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions would then lack a niche in a com­pet­it­ive post-trans­ition eco­nomy or eco­sys­tem.

We could thus ima­gine, as an ex­treme case, a tech­no­lo­gic­ally highly ad­vanced so­ci­ety, con­tain­ing many com­plex struc­tures, some of them far more in­tric­ate and in­tel­li­gent than any­thing that ex­ists on the planet today – a so­ci­ety which nev­er­the­less lacks any type of be­ing that is con­scious or whose wel­fare has moral sig­ni­fic­ance. In a sense, this would be an un­in­hab­ited so­ci­ety. It would be a so­ci­ety of eco­nomic mir­acles and tech­no­lo­gical awe­some­ness, with nobody there to be­ne­fit. A Dis­ney­land with no chil­dren.

The last value we have to sac­ri­fice is be­ing any­thing at all, hav­ing the lights on in­side. With suf­fi­cient tech­no­logy we will be “able” to give up even the fi­nal spark.

(Mo­loch whose eyes are a thou­sand blind win­dows!)

Everything the hu­man race has worked for – all of our tech­no­logy, all of our civil­iz­a­tion, all the hopes we in­ves­ted in our fu­ture – might be ac­ci­dent­ally handed over to some kind of un­fathom­able blind idiot alien god that dis­cards all of them, and con­scious­ness it­self, in or­der to par­ti­cip­ate in some weird fun­da­mental-level mass-en­ergy eco­nomy that leads to it dis­as­sembling Earth and everything on it for its com­pon­ent atoms.

(Mo­loch whose fate is a cloud of sex­less hy­dro­gen!)

Bostrom real­izes that some people fet­ish­ize in­tel­li­gence, that they are root­ing for that blind alien god as some sort of higher form of life that ought to crush us for its own “higher good” the way we crush ants. He ar­gues (Su­per­in­tel­li­gence, p. 219):

The sac­ri­fice looks even less ap­peal­ing when we re­flect that the su­per­in­tel­li­gence could real­ize a nearly-as-great good (in frac­tional terms) while sac­ri­fi­cing much less of our own po­ten­tial well-be­ing. Sup­pose that we agreed to al­low al­most the en­tire ac­cess­ible uni­verse to be con­ver­ted into he­donium – everything ex­cept a small pre­serve, say the Milky Way, which would be set aside to ac­com­mod­ate our own needs. Then there would still be a hun­dred bil­lion galax­ies ded­ic­ated to the max­im­iz­a­tion of [the su­per­in­tel­li­gence’s own val­ues]. But we would have one galaxy within which to cre­ate won­der­ful civil­iz­a­tions that could last for bil­lions of years and in which hu­mans and non­hu­man an­im­als could sur­vive and thrive, and have the op­por­tun­ity to de­velop into be­atific posthu­man spir­its.

Re­mem­ber: Mo­loch can’t agree even to this 99.99999% vic­tory. Rats ra­cing to pop­u­late an is­land don’t leave a little aside as a pre­serve where the few rats who live there can live happy lives pro­du­cing art­work. Can­cer cells don’t agree to leave the lungs alone be­cause they real­ize it’s im­port­ant for the body to get oxy­gen. Com­pet­i­tion and op­tim­iz­a­tion are blind idi­otic pro­cesses and they fully in­tend to deny us even one lousy galaxy.

They broke their backs lift­ing Mo­loch to Heaven! Pave­ments, trees, ra­dios, tons! lift­ing the city to Heaven which ex­ists and is every­where about us!

We will break our back lift­ing Mo­loch to Heaven, but un­less some­thing changes it will be his vic­tory and not ours.


“Gnon” is Nick Land’s short­hand for “Nature And Nature’s God”, ex­cept the A is changed to an O and the whole thing is re­versed, be­cause Nick Land re­act to com­pre­hens­ib­il­ity the same way as vam­pires to sun­light.

Land ar­gues that hu­mans should be more Gnon-con­form­ist (pun Gnon-in­ten­tional). He says we do all these stu­pid things like di­vert use­ful re­sources to feed those who could never sur­vive on their own, or sup­port­ing the poor in ways that en­cour­age dys­genic re­pro­duc­tion, or al­low­ing cul­tural de­gen­er­a­tion to un­der­mine the state. This means our so­ci­ety is deny­ing nat­ural law, ba­sic­ally listen­ing to Nature say things like “this cause has this ef­fect” and put­ting our fin­gers in our ears and say­ing “NO IT DOESN’T”. Civil­iz­a­tions that do this too much tend to de­cline and fall, which is Gnon’s fair and dis­pas­sion­ately-ap­plied pun­ish­ment for vi­ol­at­ing His laws.

He iden­ti­fies Gnon with Kip­ling’s Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings.

These are of course the pro­verbs from Kip­ling’s eponym­ous poem – max­ims like “If you don’t work, you die” and “The wages of sin is Death”. If you have some­how not yet read it, I pre­dict you will find it de­light­ful re­gard­less of what you think of its polit­ics.

I no­tice that it takes only a slight ir­reg­u­lar­ity in the ab­bre­vi­ation of “head­ings” – far less ir­reg­u­lar­ity than it takes to turn “Nature and Nature’s God” into “Gnon” – for the proper ac­ronym of “Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings” to be “GotCHa”.

I find this ap­pro­pri­ate.

“If you don’t work, you die.” Gotcha! If you do work, you also die! Every­one dies, un­pre­dict­ably, at a time not of their own choos­ing, and all the vir­tue in the world does not save you.

“The wages of sin is Death.” Gotcha! The wages of everything is Death! This is a Com­mun­ist uni­verse, the amount you work makes no dif­fer­ence to your even­tual re­ward. From each ac­cord­ing to his abil­ity, to each Death.

“Stick to the Devil you know.” Gotcha! The Devil you know is Satan! And if he gets his hand on your soul you either die the true death, or get etern­ally tor­tured forever, or some­how both at once.

Since we’re start­ing to get into Love­craf­t­ian mon­sters, let me bring up one of Love­craft’s less known short stor­ies, The Other Gods.

It’s only a couple of pages, but if you ab­so­lutely re­fuse to read it – the gods of Earth are re­l­at­ively young as far as deit­ies go. A very strong priest or ma­gi­cian can oc­ca­sion­ally out­smart and over­power them – so Bar­zai the Wise de­cides to climb their sac­red moun­tain and join in their fest­ivals, whether they want him to or not.

But the bey­ond the seem­ingly tract­able gods of Earth lie the Outer Gods, the ter­rible om­ni­po­tent be­ings of in­carn­ate cos­mic chaos. As soon as Bar­zai joins in the fest­ival, the Outer Gods show up and pull him scream­ing into the abyss.

As stor­ies go, it lacks things like plot or char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion or set­ting or point. But for some reason it stuck with me.

And identi­fy­ing the Gods Of The Copy­book Head­ings with Nature seems to me the same mag­nitude of mis­take as identi­fy­ing the gods of Earth with the Outer Gods. And likely to end about the same way: Gotcha!

You break your back lift­ing Mo­loch to Heaven, and then Mo­loch turns on you and gobbles you up.

More Love­craft: the In­ter­net pop­ular­iz­a­tion of the Cthulhu Cult claims that if you help free Cthulhu from his wa­tery grave, he will re­ward you by eat­ing you first, thus spar­ing you the hor­ror of see­ing every­one else eaten. This is a mis­rep­res­ent­a­tion of the ori­ginal text. In the ori­ginal, his cult­ists re­ceive no re­ward for free­ing him from his wa­tery prison, not even the re­ward of be­ing killed in a slightly less pain­ful man­ner.

On the mar­gin, com­pli­ance with the Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings, Gnon, Cthulhu, whatever, may buy you slightly more time than the next guy. But then again, it might not. And in the long run, we’re all dead and our civil­iz­a­tion has been des­troyed by un­speak­able alien mon­sters.

At some point, some­body has to say “You know, maybe free­ing Cthulhu from his wa­tery prison is a bad idea. Maybe we should not do that.”

That per­son will not be Nick Land. He is totally one hun­dred per­cent in fa­vor of free­ing Cthulhu from his wa­tery prison and ex­tremely an­noyed that it is not hap­pen­ing fast enough. I have such mixed feel­ings about Nick Land. On the grail quest for the True Fu­tur­o­logy, he has gone 99.9% of the path and then missed the very last turn, the one marked ORTHOGONALITY THESIS.

But the thing about grail quests is – if you make a wrong turn two blocks away from your house, you end up at the corner store feel­ing mildly em­bar­rassed. If you do al­most everything right and then miss the very last turn, you end up be­ing eaten by the le­gendary Black Beast of Aaargh whose ichor­ous stom­ach acid erodes your very soul into gib­ber­ing frag­ments.

As far as I can tell from read­ing his blog, Nick Land is the guy in that ter­ri­fy­ing bor­der re­gion where he is smart enough to fig­ure out sev­eral im­port­ant ar­cane prin­ciples about sum­mon­ing de­mon gods, but not quite smart enough to fig­ure out the most im­port­ant such prin­ciple, which is NEVER DO THAT.


Warg Frank­lin ana­lyzes the same situ­ation and does a little bet­ter. He names “the Four Horse­men of Gnon” – cap­it­al­ism, war, evol­u­tion, and memet­ics – the same pro­cesses I talked about above.

From Cap­tur­ing Gnon:

Each com­pon­ent of Gnon de­tailed above had and has a strong hand in cre­at­ing us, our ideas, our wealth, and our dom­in­ance, and thus has been good in that re­spect, but we must re­mem­ber that [he] can and will turn on us when cir­cum­stances change. Evolu­tion be­comes dys­genic, fea­tures of the memetic land­scape pro­mote ever cra­zier in­san­ity, pro­ductiv­ity turns to fam­ine when we can no longer com­pete to af­ford our own ex­ist­ence, and or­der turns to chaos and blood­shed when we neg­lect mar­tial strength or are over­powered from out­side. These pro­cesses are not good or evil over­all; they are neut­ral, in the hor­ror­ist Love­craf­t­ian sense of the word […]

In­stead of the de­struct­ive free reign of evol­u­tion and the sexual mar­ket, we would be bet­ter off with de­lib­er­ate and con­ser­vat­ive pat­ri­archy and eu­gen­ics driven by the judge­ment of man within the con­straints set by Gnon. In­stead of a “mar­ket­place of ideas” that more re­sembles a fes­ter­ing petri-dish breed­ing su­per­bugs, a ra­tional theo­cracy. In­stead of un­hinged techno-com­mer­cial ex­ploit­a­tion or na­ive neg­lect of eco­nom­ics, a care­ful bot­tling of the pro­duct­ive eco­nomic dy­namic and plan­ning for a con­trolled techno-sin­gu­lar­ity. In­stead of polit­ics and chaos, a strong hier­arch­ical or­der with mar­tial sov­er­eignty. These things are not to be con­strued as com­plete pro­pos­als; we don’t really know how to ac­com­plish any of this. They are bet­ter un­der­stood as goals to be worked to­wards. This post con­cerns it­self with the “what” and “why”, rather than the “how”.

This seems to me the strongest ar­gu­ment for au­thor­it­ari­an­ism. Mul­ti­polar traps are likely to des­troy us, so we should shift the tyranny-mul­ti­polar­ity tradeoff to­wards a ra­tion­ally-planned garden, which re­quires cent­ral­ized mon­arch­ical au­thor­ity and strongly-bind­ing tra­di­tions.

But a brief di­gres­sion into so­cial evol­u­tion. So­ci­et­ies, like an­im­als, evolve. The ones that sur­vive spawn memetic des­cend­ants – for ex­ample, the suc­cess of Britan al­lowed it to spin off Canada, Aus­tralia, the US, et cet­era. Thus, we ex­pect so­ci­et­ies that ex­ist to be some­what op­tim­ized for sta­bil­ity and prosper­ity. I think this is one of the strongest con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ments. Just as a ran­dom change to a let­ter in the hu­man gen­ome will prob­ably be de­le­ter­i­ous rather than be­ne­fi­cial since hu­mans are a com­plic­ated fine-tuned sys­tem whose gen­ome has been pre-op­tim­ized for sur­vival – so most changes to our cul­tural DNA will dis­rupt some in­sti­tu­tion that evolved to help An­glo-Amer­ican (or whatever) so­ci­ety out­com­pete its real and hy­po­thet­ical rivals.

The lib­eral coun­ter­ar­gu­ment to that is that evol­u­tion is a blind idiot alien god that op­tim­izes for stu­pid things and has no con­cern with hu­man value. Thus, the fact that some spe­cies of wasps para­lyze cater­pil­lars, lay their eggs in­side of it, and have its young de­vour the still-liv­ing para­lyzed cater­pil­lar from the in­side doesn’t set off evol­u­tion’s moral sensor, be­cause evol­u­tion doesn’t have a moral sensor be­cause evol­u­tion doesn’t care.

Sup­pose that in fact pat­ri­archy is ad­apt­ive to so­ci­et­ies be­cause it al­lows wo­men to spend all their time bear­ing chil­dren who can then en­gage in pro­duct­ive eco­nomic activ­ity and fight wars. The so­cial evol­u­tion­ary pro­cesses that cause so­ci­et­ies to ad­opt pat­ri­archy still have ex­actly as little con­cern for its moral ef­fects on wo­men as the bio­lo­gical evol­u­tion­ary pro­cesses that cause wasps to lay their eggs in cater­pil­lars.

Evolu­tion doesn’t care. But we do care. There’s a tradeoff between Gnon-com­pli­ance – say­ing “Okay, the strongest pos­sible so­ci­ety is a pat­ri­archal one, we should im­ple­ment pat­ri­archy” and our hu­man val­ues – like wo­men who want to do some­thing other than bear chil­dren.

Too far to one side of the tradeoff, and we have un­stable im­pov­er­ished so­ci­et­ies that die out for go­ing against nat­ural law. Too far to the other side, and we have lean mean fight­ing ma­chines that are mur­der­ous and miser­able. Think your local an­arch­ist com­mune versus Sparta.

Frank­lin ac­know­ledges the hu­man factor:

And then there’s us. Man has his own te­los, when he is al­lowed the se­cur­ity to act and the clar­ity to reason out the con­sequences of his ac­tions. When un­afflic­ted by co­ordin­a­tion prob­lems and un­threatened by su­per­ior forces, able to act as a gardener rather than just an­other sub­ject of the law of the jungle, he tends to build and guide a won­der­ful world for him­self. He tends to fa­vor good things and avoid bad, to cre­ate se­cure civil­iz­a­tions with pol­ished side­walks, beau­ti­ful art, happy fam­il­ies, and glor­i­ous ad­ven­tures. I will take it as a given that this te­los is identical with “good” and “should”.

Thus we have our wild­card and the big ques­tion of fu­tur­ism. Will the fu­ture be ruled by the usual four horse­men of Gnon for a fu­ture of mean­ing­less gleam­ing techno-pro­gress burn­ing the cos­mos or a fu­ture of dys­genic, in­sane, hungry, and bloody dark ages; or will the te­los of man pre­vail for a fu­ture of mean­ing­ful art, sci­ence, spir­itu­al­ity, and great­ness?

Frank­lin con­tin­ues:

The pro­ject of civil­iz­a­tion [is] for man to gradu­ate from the meta­phor­ical sav­age, sub­ject to the law of the jungle, to the civ­il­ized gardener who, while the­or­et­ic­ally still sub­ject to the law of the jungle, is so dom­in­ant as to limit the use­ful­ness of that model.

This need not be done glob­ally; we may only be able to carve out a small walled garden for ourselves, but make no mis­take, even if only loc­ally, the pro­ject of civil­iz­a­tion is to cap­ture Gnon.

I maybe agree with Warg here more than I have ever agreed with any­one else about any­thing. He says some­thing really im­port­ant and he says it beau­ti­fully and there are so many words of praise I want to say for this post and for the thought pro­cesses be­hind it.

But what I am ac­tu­ally go­ing to say is…

Gotcha! You die any­way!

Sup­pose you make your walled garden. You keep out all of the dan­ger­ous memes, you sub­or­din­ate cap­it­al­ism to hu­man in­terests, you ban stu­pid bioweapons re­search, you def­in­itely don’t re­search na­n­o­tech­no­logy or strong AI.

Every­one out­side doesn’t do those things. And so the only ques­tion is whether you’ll be des­troyed by for­eign dis­eases, for­eign memes, for­eign armies, for­eign eco­nomic com­pet­i­tion, or for­eign ex­ist­en­tial cata­strophes.

As for­eign­ers com­pete with you – and there’s no wall high enough to block all com­pet­i­tion – you have a couple of choices. You can get out­com­peted and des­troyed. You can join in the race to the bot­tom. Or you can in­vest more and more civil­iz­a­tional re­sources into build­ing your wall – whatever that is in a non-meta­phor­ical way – and pro­tect­ing your­self.

I can ima­gine ways that a “ra­tional theo­cracy” and “con­ser­vat­ive pat­ri­archy” might not be ter­rible to live un­der, given ex­actly the right con­di­tions. But you don’t get to choose ex­actly the right con­di­tions. You get to choose the ex­tremely con­strained set of con­di­tions that “cap­ture Gnon”. As out­side civil­iz­a­tions com­pete against you, your con­di­tions will be­come more and more con­strained.

Warg talks about try­ing to avoid “a fu­ture of mean­ing­less gleam­ing techno-pro­gress burn­ing the cos­mos”. Do you really think your walled garden will be able to ride this out?

Hint: is it part of the cos­mos?

Yeah, you’re kind of screwed.

I want to cri­tique Warg. But I want to cri­tique him in the ex­act op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion as the last cri­tique he re­ceived. In fact, the last cri­tique he re­ceived is so bad that I want to dis­cuss it at length so we can get the cor­rect cri­tique en­tirely by tak­ing its ex­act mir­ror im­age.

So here is Hur­lock’s On Cap­tur­ing Gnon And Naive Ra­tion­al­ism.

Hur­lock spouts only the most craven Gnon-con­form­ity. A few ex­cerpts:

In a re­cent piece [Warg Frank­lin] says that we should try to “cap­ture Gnon”, and some­how es­tab­lish con­trol over his forces, so that we can use them to our own ad­vant­age. Cap­tur­ing or cre­at­ing God is in­deed a clas­sic transhuman­ist fet­ish, which is simply an­other form of the old­est hu­man am­bi­tion ever, to rule the uni­verse.

Such na­ive ra­tion­al­ism how­ever, is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. The be­lief that it is hu­man Reason and de­lib­er­ate hu­man design which cre­ates and main­tains civil­iz­a­tions was prob­ably the biggest mis­take of En­light­en­ment philo­sophy…

It is the the­or­ies of Spon­tan­eous Order which stand in dir­ect op­pos­i­tion to the na­ive ra­tion­al­ist view of hu­man­ity and civil­iz­a­tion. The con­sensus opin­ion re­gard­ing hu­man so­ci­ety and civil­iz­a­tion, of all rep­res­ent­at­ives of this tra­di­tion is very pre­cisely sum­mar­ized by Adam Fer­guson’s con­clu­sion that “na­tions stumble upon [so­cial] es­tab­lish­ments, which are in­deed the res­ult of hu­man ac­tion, but not the ex­e­cu­tion of any hu­man design”. Con­trary to the na­ive ra­tion­al­ist view of civil­iz­a­tion as some­thing that can be and is a sub­ject to ex­pli­cit hu­man design, the rep­res­ent­at­ives of the tra­di­tion of Spon­tan­eous Order main­tain the view that hu­man civil­iz­a­tion and so­cial in­sti­tu­tions are the res­ult of a com­plex evol­u­tion­ary pro­cess which is driven by hu­man in­ter­ac­tion but not ex­pli­cit hu­man plan­ning.

Gnon and his im­per­sonal forces are not en­emies to be fought, and even less so are they forces that we can hope to com­pletely “con­trol”. Indeed the only way to es­tab­lish some de­gree of con­trol over those forces is to sub­mit to them. Re­fus­ing to do so will not de­ter these forces in any way. It will only make our life more pain­ful and un­bear­able, pos­sibly lead­ing to our ex­tinc­tion. Sur­vival re­quires that we ac­cept and sub­mit to them. Man in the end has al­ways been and al­ways will be little more than a pup­pet of the forces of the uni­verse. To be free of them is im­possible.

Man can be free only by sub­mit­ting to the forces of Gnon.

I ac­cuse Hur­lock of be­ing stuck be­hind the veil. When the veil is lif­ted, Gnon-aka-the-GotCHa-aka-the-Gods-of-Earth turn out to be Mo­loch-aka-the-Outer-Gods. Sub­mit­ting to them doesn’t make you “free”, there’s no spon­tan­eous or­der, any gifts they have given you are an un­likely and con­tin­gent out­put of a blind idiot pro­cess whose next it­er­a­tion will just as hap­pily des­troy you.

Sub­mit to Gnon? Gotcha! As the Antarans put it, “you may not sur­render, you can not win, your only op­tion is to die.”


So let me con­fess guilt to one of Hur­lock’s ac­cus­a­tions: I am a transhuman­ist and I really do want to rule the uni­verse.

Not per­son­ally – I mean, I wouldn’t ob­ject if someone per­son­ally offered me the job, but I don’t ex­pect any­one will. I would like hu­mans, or some­thing that re­spects hu­mans, or at least gets along with hu­mans – to have the job.

But the cur­rent rulers of the uni­verse – call them what you want, Mo­loch, Gnon, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, sci­ence, love, philo­sophy, con­scious­ness it­self, the en­tire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think de­feat­ing them and tak­ing their place is a pretty high pri­or­ity.

The op­pos­ite of a trap is a garden. The only way to avoid hav­ing all hu­man val­ues gradu­ally ground down by op­tim­iz­a­tion-com­pet­i­tion is to in­stall a Gardener over the en­tire uni­verse who op­tim­izes for hu­man val­ues.

And the whole point of Bostrom’s Su­per­in­tel­li­gence is that this is within our reach. Once hu­mans can design ma­chines that are smarter than we are, by defin­i­tion they’ll be able to design ma­chines which are smarter than they are, which can design ma­chines smarter than they are, and so on in a feed­back loop so tiny that it will smash up against the phys­ical lim­it­a­tions for in­tel­li­gence in a com­par­at­ively light­ning-short amount of time. If mul­tiple com­pet­ing en­tit­ies were likely to do that at once, we would be su­per-doomed. But the sheer speed of the cycle makes it pos­sible that we will end up with one en­tity light-years ahead of the rest of civil­iz­a­tion, so much so that it can sup­press any com­pet­i­tion – in­clud­ing com­pet­i­tion for its title of most power­ful en­tity – per­man­ently. In the very near fu­ture, we are go­ing to lift some­thing to Heaven. It might be Mo­loch. But it might be some­thing on our side. If it’s on our side, it can kill Mo­loch dead.

And if that en­tity shares hu­man val­ues, it can al­low hu­man val­ues to flour­ish un­con­strained by nat­ural law.

I real­ize that sounds like hubris – it cer­tainly did to Hur­lock – but I think it’s the op­pos­ite of hubris, or at least a hubris-min­im­iz­ing po­s­i­tion.

To ex­pect God to care about you or your per­sonal val­ues or the val­ues of your civil­iz­a­tion, that’s hubris.

To ex­pect God to bar­gain with you, to al­low you to sur­vive and prosper as long as you sub­mit to Him, that’s hubris.

To ex­pect to wall off a garden where God can’t get to you and hurt you, that’s hubris.

To ex­pect to be able to re­move God from the pic­ture en­tirely…well, at least it’s an ac­tion­able strategy.

I am a transhuman­ist be­cause I do not have enough hubris not to try to kill God.


The Uni­verse is a dark and fore­bod­ing place, sus­pen­ded between alien deit­ies. Cthulhu, Gnon, Mo­loch, call them what you will.

Some­where in this dark­ness is an­other god. He has also had many names. In the Kushiel books, his name was Elua. He is the god of flowers and free love and all soft and fra­gile things. Of art and sci­ence and philo­sophy and love. Of nice­ness, com­munity, and civil­iz­a­tion. He is a god of hu­mans.

The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even con­trol any hell-mon­sters or com­mand his wor­ship­pers to be­come killing ma­chines. What a weak­ling! This is go­ing to be so easy!”

But some­how Elua is still here. No one knows ex­actly how. And the gods who op­pose Him tend to find Them­selves meet­ing with a sur­pris­ing num­ber of un­for­tu­nate ac­ci­dents.

There are many gods, but this one is ours.

Ber­trand Rus­sell said: “One should re­spect pub­lic opin­ion in­so­far as is ne­ces­sary to avoid star­va­tion and keep out of prison, but any­thing that goes bey­ond this is vol­un­tary sub­mis­sion to an un­ne­ces­sary tyranny.”

So be it with Gnon. Our job is to pla­cate him in­so­far as is ne­ces­sary to avoid star­va­tion and in­va­sion. And that only for a short time, un­til we come into our full power.

“It is only a child­ish thing, that the hu­man spe­cies has not yet out­grown. And someday, we’ll get over it.”

Other gods get pla­cated un­til we’re strong enough to take them on. Elua gets wor­shipped.

I think this is an ex­cel­lent battle cry<cen­ter>

And at some point, mat­ters will come to a head.

The ques­tion every­one has after read­ing Gins­berg is: what is Mo­loch?

My an­swer is: Mo­loch is ex­actly what the his­tory books say he is. He is the god of child sac­ri­fice, the fiery fur­nace into which you can toss your ba­bies in ex­change for vic­tory in war.

He al­ways and every­where of­fers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I can grant you power.

As long as the of­fer’s open, it will be ir­res­ist­ible. So we need to close the of­fer. Only an­other god can kill Mo­loch. We have one on our side, but he needs our help. We should give it to him.

Gins­berg’s poem fam­ously be­gins “I saw the best minds of my gen­er­a­tion des­troyed by mad­ness”. I am luck­ier than Gins­berg. I got to see the best minds of my gen­er­a­tion identify a prob­lem and get to work.

(Vi­sions! omens! hal­lu­cin­a­tions! mir­acles! ec­stas­ies! gone down the Amer­ican river!

Dreams! ad­or­a­tions! il­lu­min­a­tions! re­li­gions! the whole boat­load of sens­it­ive bull­shit!

Break­throughs! over the river! flips and cru­ci­fix­ions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ an­imal screams and sui­cides! Minds! New loves! Mad gen­er­a­tion! down on the rocks of Time!

Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! wav­ing! car­ry­ing flowers! Down to the river! into the street!<i>)