Sunday, July 31, 2022

Peter and the Basilisk

Samuel Colman, The Edge of Doom (1836–38)

  Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind's tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

  —T.S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" (1943)

The United States' Evangelical Christians are a cohort in decline, and only the kookiest of them habitually scrutinize Israeli politics for signals of the Rapture. The vulgar fashionability of Nostradamus peaked in the 1990s, and at this point we're all fairly certain the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar did not, in fact, apprise us of the Earth's expiration date and/or the dawn of The New Age. 

And yet, prophecy has not been discredited and is far from dead. Chiliasm and apocalypticism are a pair of bats too stubbornly lodged in the belfry of Western consciousness to be shooed out by a sequence of ideological paradigm shifts. We can't seem to let go of the idea that history must arrive at a culmination and we can know in advance what it is. All that's changed are the methods of augury and our relation to whatever sort of future we suppose is preordained.

We probably wouldn't be mistaken in guessing at the obvious and calling this tendency a vestige of Christian belief that survived the centuries-long epoch of religiosity. After all, the pagan cultures situated west of the Caucasus generally shared an overarching idea of time extrapolated from the cyclical character of the seasons, the phases of the moon, childbirth and aging, and so on. The Abrahamic religions, on the other hand, are all certain of a final climax and a forever afterparty. In this view, history has a known beginning, an additive middle, and a prescribed end.¹ Such an overarching and deeply ingrained habit of thought is a hard one for a culture to break.

The first Christians retained the Jewish conception of the end of days: war and tribulation, the breaking of the world, the coming of the messiah, the punishment of the guilty, and the creation of a new heaven and a new Earth where vicious animals lose their fangs, disease and famine are eradicated, and all nations become willing tributaries of Israel under the messiah's rule. Once the hope of a dominated and persecuted minority who would inherit the Earth through patience and persistence, the prophecies of a New Jerusalem and an imminent end of days had to be reconsidered after the conversion of Constantine and the realignment of the church vis-à-vis the Roman Empire. By the fourth century CE, Augustine of Hippo encouraged readings of the Book of Revelation not as a forecast of political events inaugurating a future age, but as an allegory for spiritual struggle. The empire had no use for doomsayers with a morbid interest in the end of Roman dominion.

Christendom's prevailing intellectual mood during the late medieval period (roughly a thousand years later) was one of pessimism: war and plague fueled belief in a dying world, an implacably angry deity, and the worthlessness and depravity of humanity. Against this background, Martin Luther and his followers revived the practice of reading John's Apocalypse as a coded atlas of history, with the new assertion that some of its prophecies had already come to pass. Satan had been bound for a thousand years, and now he's out. The antichrist is the papacy. Everyone's a miserable sinner and the worst is yet to come. Rivers of ink were spilled in argumentation about which historical events had corresponded or would correspond to which of Saint John's symbols, as different interpretations placed humanity at different increments of the process towards the breaking and remaking of the world.

While the churchmen preached of rot and sin and hell, Galileo peered at the rings of Saturn and the Jovian moons through his little telescope. Brahe drew up his star charts. Newton and Leibniz crunched their numbers. Descartes, Locke, and Bacon, et al. published their treatises. The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment germinated a counter-narrative against premillenarian pessimism—one whose first proponents were apt to bristle at the idea that they were undermining Church doctrine. By the eighteenth century, influential churchmen were caught up in a current of optimism stirred by scientific, philosophical, and technological advances. Some espoused theories of upwards progress against the conception of continuous post-Edenic degeneration, a renewal effectuated by a Providence operating through "secondary" material agents.

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

By the nineteenth century, one could, without risking his life and liberty, apply Ockham's razor to the phenomenon of social and technological progress. God, Providence, and any other supernatural agents were increasingly detached from the mechanism of history, leaving a secular faith in unilinear evolution effectuated by the operations of natural law.

Enter Karl Marx, a former Young Hegelian swept up in the pan-European revolutionary fervor that would reach its anticlimax in 1848. His ideas about the material operations of history evolved throughout his life, as did the terminology with which he referred to its active agents—but the outcome of the process was never in doubt: "Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour [will] at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument...The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated."

Marx was right more often than he was wrong. He clarified the functional relations in the capitalist system of organization with Newtonian lucidity. Most of his observations still hold: look at that rate of profit falling! But there were obviously events which his arithmetic failed to anticipate: the rise of the service sector and its position vis-à-vis the realization of surplus value, the increase of real wages in the late nineteenth century, and so on. All of this can be accounted for within a Marxian framework—but it does call into question the granularity of the framework's predictive power.

Moreover, we can't deny that Marx sometimes reasoned backward in order to justify a locked-in conclusion. He meticulously identified the inner workings of a history destined to culminate with the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the instatement of global communism: "the fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

Marx's eponymous followers (like the Christians, Marxian sectarians in the West believe that their clique alone carries the torch lighted by their common founder) irritably assert that they deal in science, not millenarian mummery—"Marxism is a scientific system, a scientific outlook and scientific practice, and for this reason alone cannot be stupidly 'compared' to the prophets of Judaea to the mediaeval Taborites, etc., with their corresponding eschatologies," Nikolai Bukharin wrote in 1933—but the leap from a socioeconomic anatomy of nineteenth-century capitalism to the eventuality of a global communist utopia is one of faith, not science.

In his Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdjik finds fault with Marxian dialectics for its tendency to sneak out of its rationalist fortifications and enter into ontology. World processes, he says, can be analogized to a rational dispute, enacted through material social processes rather than dialogue between partisans. The closeness with which reason conforms to reality depends not only on the accuracy with which the thinker identifies the active agents, their relations, and operations in the world-process, but also on the extraneousness of every other variable (or their safe containment within the specified operands), and on the determinate behavior of the whole operation as a massive but close-ended algorithm. Creating a model with complete fidelity to fact surpasses anyone's means, and the Marxian error is to forget about or ignore that.² 

Sloterdijk finds a deviousness stealing into Marxist discourse through through a rationalistic sleight of hand in the dialectic argument. Plato imagined that in a debate between two men, each speaking in good faith on behalf of an position incompatible with the other, each of them gives ground to the other until they reach a consensus that approaches absolute truth nearer than either of the original premises. Hegel recast the Platonic interlocutors as events in the world; Marx converted Hegel's idealist dialectics into material processes, taking the "world spirit" out of the game.

In the Socratic dialogues, Sloterdjik observes, the proposition usually arrived at is the one closest to the one advocated by Plato's sock puppet Socrates. So too is it with most medieval and early modern composers of dialogues—Galileo, for example. Curiously, the same thing happens in Marxism: the functions of capitalism are understood to progressively undermine their necessary conditions in precisely such a way as to ensure its replacement by precisely the sort of society that nineteenth-century socialists wished to see.

Sloterdjik wonders: is dialectical reasoning the objective science of history, as orthodox Marxists advertise, or is it merely polemic in disguise—the victor's synopsis of affairs, composed in advance?

Recounting Louis Althusser's crisis of faith in communism, Sloterdjik posits that the "epistemological break" the French philosopher claimed to have discovered in Marx had its fault line in The German Ideology:

There begins a tendency in Marx's thinking to chain the process of historical development, in the belief of being able not only to recognize the development but also to direct it. Marx's theory sets its hope on domination by conceiving of the subject of the theory as a function of its development. Through self-reification in believes it can achieve a full mastery of history. By making itself into an instrument of a purported future, it believes it can make the future into its own tool.

If we accept Sloterdjik's reasoning, this represents an evolution in Western chiliasm. It arrogates to Man an executive role in the coming millennium, and gives license to the revolution to behave like a time traveler in a comic book, taking pains to make sure the past comports with the future he knows—even if entails jump-starting history, accepting as sacrifices "the millions who lost their lives without knowing exactly what they had to do with this revolution" (Sloterdjik again).

Martin Luther and the pessimistic churchmen of the Reformation searched for codes in the inerrant Bible and interrogated history and current events in search of a future that had been composed over a millennium ago. Perhaps they could flaunt the founder of their religion by guessing the day and the hour when the estate of the world would be overthrown, but they didn't presume to goad the deity into throwing the switch. Sloterdijk reproves Marx and his followers (justly or unjustly) for not only purporting to develop a totalizing theory of history in which they name themselves as the final victors, but for the doublethink informing their bid to "be the prophet and the fulfiller one," as Ahab raved in Moby-Dick. ("That's more than ye, ye great gods, ever were.")

Paul Klee, The Future Man (1933)

Marx's social and economic theories remain invaluable and prescient, but his prophecies (and that's what they are) have not aged altogether well. As liberals and anarcho-capitalist types gleefully point out, capitalism has been supposedly teetering on the brink for longer than a century and a half. More left-learning economists are voicing suspicions that capitalism has reached a different inflection point than Marx predicted, and is presently acting as the substrate for an emergent order of techno-feudalism. I'm more inclined to wonder if the fatal contradictions we should have been watching all along are those between the metabolic processes of global capitalism and civilization's dependence on healthy soil, potable water, and a stable climate.

Unless we're considering the intellectual influence of Marx-influenced theoreticians bunched under the umbrella of "postmodernism," Marxism proper has run out of steam in the West. The true believers within the Anglosphere's anemic economic left are still wondering how many more seals must be opened before capitalism is cast into the lake of fire. Mainstream conservativism is, as ever, looking backwards rather than forward. So too are many of the cultural progressives among the liberals (though it's impolitic to tell them so). On the other hand, the QAnon crowd exhibits a bizarre form of crypto-Christo chiliasm, piggybacking on the Evangelical preoccupation with the End Times and transmogrifying the obscure imagery and cosmic drama of the Book of Revelation into a narrative of national redemption—if not under Trump, then definitely under God.

It would seem that secular theories of the millennium as the natural, ineluctable end result of material process are dead in the United States—unless we look to the intellectuals of Silicon Valley. Ironically, the strongest contemporary current of materialist chiliasm is driven mainly by libertarian futurists who either repudiate or ignore Marx.

The Silicon Valley utopians maintain that the one-way arrow of progress ends with the Singularity. There will come a time, they say, sooner than later, when humanity and its technology are corporeally merged, followed by the disintegration of humanity into the machine. There's talk of immortality, bodyswapping and brainboosting, and AI-guided nanobots assembling the necessities for life on the molecular level. Evangelists like Ray Kurzweil speak of the Singularity with as much enthusiasm and assuredness as Paul writing about the imminence of Christ's return and the Kingdom of God—and claim the data makes their predictions indisputable.

If we were reluctant to ascribe to Marx and the communist revolutionaries the cynicism of which they stand accused by Sloterdjik, we find an unambiguous case in the Silicon Valley futurist: somebody who talks about the historical inevitability of the Singularity from the left side of his mouth, while orchestrating its construction from the right—speaking in the voice of capital, which always gets an audience and is seldom disobeyed. Kurzweil reminds me of the Well-Manicured Man from The X-Files: "We predict the future, and the best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason
Produces Monsters
(ca. 1799)

Twelve years ago, the world witnessed the millenarian ouroboros biting its own tail is in a corner of the tech utopian milieu.

In 2010, a poster on community blog for Less Wrong—the platform of Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (nee the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence)—produced what was intended to be a benign solution to a problem of game theory. I almost feel I'm getting ahead of myself, though: the crowd of techno-utopian rationalists clustered around Less Wrong were/are a peculiar bunch—to put it mildly. They're certainly more intelligent than the QAnon cult, but their ideology is no less a rabbit hole and probably even more opaque to the browsing outsider.

In Yudkowsky's own words, Less Wrong is "an introduction to issues of cognitive biases and rationality relevant for careful thinking about optimal philanthropy and many of the problems that must be solved in advance of the creation of provably human-friendly powerful artificial intelligence." To this end, the community, shepherded by Yudkowsky, strove to formulate a rational model of the world that maximizes the correspondence of intellectual construct to reality, and developed a highly idiosyncratic communal patois of game theory, probability, ethics, and temporal continuity.

This is to say that effortposts like Roko's musings on the "The Altruist's Burden," and his introductory disclaimer that knowledge of the "AI Deterrence Problem" and "Many Worlds" theory are required to understand his solution, were (are?) not uncommon in the Less Wrong coterie.

The premise: since Yudkowsky's Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence is bar none the most important human endeavor (since it strives to prevent the emergence of an all-powerful and wholly malignant AI like System Shock's SHODAN), the altruist’s problem is to determine the maximum amount of money he can donate to the institute without bringing hardship upon his family.

After several paragraphs of expatiation, Roko concluded that trying to win the lottery satisfied the conditions of the problem (and ended the post with a brief encomium to Elon Musk). But in the process of giving his answer, he suggested that perhaps the all-powerful but non-genocidal AI whose birth the Singularity Institute made certain would, in its infinite ethical wisdom, punish those who understood the urgency of ensuring its friendliness and yet didn't donate as much money as they reasonably could. How would the AI manage this if the negligent penny-pinchers had already passed on? By digitally reconstituting and torturing them forever, à la the malevolent supercomputer A.M. in "I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream."

This side note of Roko's sent shockwaves through the community. Yudlkowsky's intervention—furiously lambasting Roko's post, explicitly forbidding further discussion, and deleting all comments making mention of it—was a textbook example of the Streisand Effect. The Basilisk became more real. People lost sleep. The story's reach far exceeded the orbits of the fart-sniffing futurist set. To most outsiders, or at least the ones who weren't dazzled by the esoteric scientism enveloping the whole affair, it seemed absurd, and they were right to think so.

The Basilisk got its moniker from the implication that anyone who read Roko's post was imperiled. As members of the Less Wrong community, they already understood the necessity of supporting the Singularity Institute's role in preventing an AI apocalypse, and were now aware that the "friendly" AI in the future was incentivizing them with a warning. They'd looked the Basilisk in the eye. It knew that they knew that it knew.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Marxists specified a material process and its ultimate destination, and held that the arrival at the latter by way of the former could be accelerated through praxis. This twenty-first-century cult of logic wonks and tech utopians went a step further. They likewise envisioned a millennium whose coming was made irrefutable by reasoned deduction from individually irreproachable premises—but theirs not only already existed in a real future, it purposefully extended an arm into the present to pull the car toward itself.

If the sleep of reason breeds monsters, the amphetamine-fueled insomnia of reason evidently manufactures a basilisk. And whether it's grounded in religious dogma or scientific rationalism, any ideology that would make the present the hostage of an indubitable future is a vector for idiocy and unhappiness, and a handy tool for the ambitious sociopath.

Francisco Goya, Folly of Fear (ca. 1816)

Well, then: what about the climate crisis?

Ecopessimists, the apocalyptists contraposed to the tech utopian chiliasts, have ample cause to expect something like the End of Days to arrive in the next century or so because of what we're seeing right now. Carbon dioxide emissions are far from peaking, the average global temperature is rising, the oceans are filling up with plastic waste and hydrogen ions, the droughts are worsening, the aquifers are emptying, the arctic permafrost is melting, and so on. And the climate scientist, as opposed to the economist or tech prognosticator, has the benefit of a stable framework.

But we're in no position to predict how any individual life will play out in the context of a full-throttle ecological catastrophe—whenever it arrives, whatever its severity and duration, however society looks after things eventually stabilize (which they must, unless Homo sapiens simply goes extinct). The living could envy the dead. Maybe we'll rediscover community and meaning in life through shared struggle. Perhaps we're fifty years away from the beginning of another dark age. Maybe some ambitious geoengineering scheme buys us the breathing room we need to convert to a hydrogen-based grid and start mining lithium from Mars (or some other extraterrestrial source).

My money's on "dark age," but I could be wrong. We don't know. We just don't know.

Striving to decarbonize, preserve biodiversity, reduce waste, avert a Malthusian catastrophe, etc. is all just good policy, informed by conditions we're observing in the here and now. Our understanding of the mechanisms of climate change is much more straightforward than of the effectuators of grand-scale social and technological shifts, and our languid response is still wholly out of proportion to the terrifying facts confronting us.

What I'm saying, though, is that despair is the impoverishment of possibility.

A question that's been bothering me: if someone conscientiously chooses not to have a child for fear of bringing a human being into the world to suffer a lifetime of privation and fear when the collapse begins, is their decision predicated on a sober evaluation of the available facts, or have they been spooked by an apparition of things to come, a dishonest ghost claiming to be the future, the only future?

I don't have an answer.

1. Certainly Christianization isn't the sole and necessary requisite for the bending of time's circle into a line. Non-Christian literate cultures ruled by dynasties possessed historical records and megalithic monuments attesting to progress—evidence that circumstances irreversibly change on a grand scale. But Christianity inculcated in all of its subjects—not just the clerics and rulers—the idea of a continuous approach toward a definite endpoint.

2. A recent example: some of the class-first American left helped themselves to a slice of humble pie after the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision. They genuinely believed that the GOP's campaign against abortion could only be a cynical, hollow crusade waged for purposes of fundraising and increasing voter turnout. There was obviously more to be gained by permitting the dog to keep chasing the car in perpetuity; the idea that the Republicans would let him catch it didn't compute. The leftoids' calculus didn't admit of the possibility that all the talk of overturning Roe was spoken in earnest, that elected officials intended to go through with a scheme leading to the sacrifice of reliable political cudgel—because the cudgel wasn't the point. I am myself something of a "vulgar Marxist," but I feel it's a mistake to believe that the primacy of economic factors as determinants of social phenomena rules out the efficacy of other variables.


  1. I’ve never understood why some think that AI would be so humorless, so petty, and most of all so concerned with us. Then again, I’m also not sure why everyone points to the # of thinks/second graph and claim that this is the one that actually exponentiates forever, instead of just the first half of an S-curve.

    I don’t mean that to say we can’t get into new and exciting kinds of trouble with more computers. The past few years prove we’re inventing new troubles with just the ones we’ve got. In science fiction tradition, we were concerned about computers that could be right so much faster and ineffably than we could, but then we invented similar consequences with having computers be wrong so much faster and often than we can.

    That’s the only part I feel qualified enough to discuss. Otherwise, I agree that for a while, things will get worse. But regressing from some of the peaks we’re at now can only be a good thing.

  2. Funny thing about Christianity is that of the original 7 churches, only 1 believed in a definite endpoint of heaven or hell for one's eternal soul. That was, of course, the church in Rome. The others held a mishmash of beliefs more reminiscent of what we would today call eastern philosophy and pagan myths. It was only some 300 years later with the advent of Constantine and his subsequent conversion that the end point belief eventually claimed top spot.

    So while its often perceived that a Christian philosophy has been imposed onto the western world, it's actually the opposite; it's the Roman ethos that's been imposed onto Christianity.