The darkest enlightenment

An interesting discussion in the comments led to some follow up blog posts that are worth your time.

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23 Responses to The darkest enlightenment

  1. Scharlach says:

    Goulding’s post is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. However, to put it in Aristotelian terms, I think he’s confusing ethos and pathos with logos. His reductio only works if Handle’s post was beginning a conversation about real policy and action. I took the conversation to be about ‘first things,’ the impulses behind DE philosophy more generally, which are pre-rational and always ameliorated—or channeled away from their possibly absurd applications—in more practical, rational discourses.

    • There is often this clash of interpretations and approaches between Bayesian Rationalists (fans of Eliezer Yudkowsky) and everyone else. Essentially, the rationalist style is to treat everything as logos, including such a claim as “optimisation for intelligence”, whereas others might sustain an argument using purely high-level concepts and heuristics, and attempt to adjust these not by reduction to the bedrock, but intuitive manipulation near the top of the ladder of abstraction.

      I doubt that one approach is superior to the other in all circumstances. i wonder where the balance should lie? However, other rationalists would interpret that post as a totally straightforward hypothesis about the prospects for Friendly AI, shorn of allusions or appeals to the imagination. This goes to show that there are all sorts of large inferential distances between people.

      I would to see some further turns of Darker than thou, because if the cynicism heuristic works, unpalatable hypotheses that rarely see light ought to be a reservoir of useful insight.

      • Scharlach says:

        It’s probably important, then, for interlocutors to clarify, on occasion, what kind of heuristics they’re deploying. And I absolutely agree that the Rationalists (every discourse as logos) and the more Poetic-minded among us each bring a generative approach; as you imply, the trick is to figure out which is generative where, and when.

      • to clarify

        True perhaps, but then again:

        Le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire

  2. Alrenous says:

    I must respectfully disagree that the basic religion needs to be inherently mythical. Rather, it just needs to solve the problem of arcane knowledge in the original sense.

    It must thoroughly reject property egalitarianism. Demonstrably, there is knowledge above your station, and it is the duty and honour of your betters to keep it from you. However, someone has to be at the wheel, and they really ought to know where they’re going and what they need to do to get there.

    Explicitly founding a society on lies will make lies high status. Even, perhaps especially, if the lies are supposed to be secret. I observe this to be the core of the leftist disease.

    Rather than lies, myth, and propaganda. just come right out and say “You can’t handle the truth.” Oh, but we have a range of attractive simplifications for you to choose from.

    Keeping arcane knowledge secret is hard. The internet makes it harder. Trying for inherent security by obscurity is a bit foolish. Therefore, there needs to be a backup strategy for leaks. For one, if the knowledge is truly better kept secret, those who find and use it will screw up and make messes of themselves, and thus can be held up as examples.

    Secondly, some of us seek knowledge relentlessly. (I tried to stop once, to see if I could. I can’t.) For us, the test for determining who is worthy must be objective, not political. Luckily, there are multiple possible ways to do this. Otherwise, the system will make enemies of those most qualified to maintain it.

    • Scharlach says:

      For us, the test for determining who is worthy must be objective, not political. Luckily, there are multiple possible ways to do this. Otherwise, the system will make enemies of those most qualified to maintain it.

      Pure meritocracy, or as close to it as you can get; however meritocrats rarely have a sense of noblesse oblige. You need a way to combine the qualifications of a meritocracy with a sense of loyalty to the stability of the system, which was the defining trait of older gentries and aristocracies.

      It must thoroughly reject property egalitarianism. Demonstrably, there is knowledge above your station, and it is the duty and honour of your betters to keep it from you.

      More than rejecting property egalitarianism, I think you would need the un- or underqualified to still feel as though they had a stake in the success of the system as a whole, even if they perform lowly work. In some ways, America operated on this principle once upon a time (at least, I think it did): even the guys sweeping the floor felt a sense of purpose and pride because they were helping to create an empire.

      • asdf says:

        “however meritocrats rarely have a sense of noblesse oblige”

        Amen

        “You need a way to combine the qualifications of a meritocracy with a sense of loyalty to the stability of the system”

        You need some level of “blue blood” privilege. Not so much that geniuses are banging their head against the wall, but enough the blue bloods don’t feel like they need to sacrifice everything to stay blue blood.

        You also need to make sure almost everyone gets access to the big two (safety and family). If you need to be in the top X% of men to get & keep a wife and buy a house in a safe neighborhood then people will do whatever it takes to be in the X%.

        “I think you would need the un- or underqualified to still feel as though they had a stake in the success of the system as a whole”

        Yes. Maybe the landing on the moon was a waste, but at least every knucklehead paying taxes felt like he owned a tiny part of that accomplishment.

      • Vladimir says:

        Pure meritocracy, or as close to it as you can get; however meritocrats rarely have a sense of noblesse oblige. You need a way to combine the qualifications of a meritocracy with a sense of loyalty to the stability of the system, which was the defining trait of older gentries and aristocracies.

        A much bigger and uglier problem follows from the insight that in every society there are going to be elite rent-extractors — and if these rent-extracting positions are open to a free meritocratic competition, you get a diabolical system that breeds super-capable rent-seekers.

        The main problem here is not that these rent-seekers will grab a vast loot — they sure will, but a wealthy society can bear this easily — but that their rent-seeking efforts will corrupt and pervert just about every social institution that opens paths towards rent-extracting positions based on ostensibly fair and objective criteria for advancement. Much of the corruption of modern government, science, and other institutions that is so often discussed on these blogs is due to this mechanism — in particular, that very deepest and most malignant kind of corruption that thrives in modern Western societies, and whose manifestations would never even be recognized as anything problematic by someone whose notion of “corruption” is a simple bribe, kickback, or favoritism.

        The scary question is whether successful societies that strike a happy middle between frozen and stagnant social orders on one hand, and a self-destructive scramble for rent-seeking on the other, can be more than a brief and transient phenomenon that soon moves to one or the other extreme.

      • asdf says:

        Vladimir,

        Put another way you want to funnel your meritocrats into sectors where merit actually increases wealth, and strike a deal with the rent extractors in rent heavy sectors to keep the rent seeking to a reasonable scale in exchange for secure rents. Like when we regulated banking and subsidized science and all that.

      • Alrenous says:

        I didn’t mean to imply simple meritocracy. I was thinking of tenure, but with lower wages and no particular status/respect except that earned among other academics, as they wouldn’t be allowed to talk about their finding except to other academics. Among other possibilities.

        My pie-in-the-sky ideal for meritocracy is that status should directly confer control of resources of the group in question, and status should be conferred by increasing the total pool of resources. Is it hard to measure? Unstable? I don’t know, it’s an ideal.

      • Alrenous says:

        Other possibilities:

        -Physics is basically out of the public eye, because they don’t understand it. Those who can’t handle the truth are generally incurious, it’s not like you have to beat them off with a stick. Mildly discourage attempts at popularization.

        -Anti-rhetoric. Say the arcane truths straight up, in the most unconvincing, repellent way possible. Deliberately make it unfashionable.

    • Orthodox says:

      This problem is easily solved by Christianity, particularly the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There is no problem to solve.

  3. […] Enlightenment: here, here, here, and here. Oh and here. At least. Oh and now here again to complete the ironically ironical […]

  4. Vladimir says:

    asdf,

    Like when we regulated banking and subsidized science and all that.

    Actually, subsidizing science has led to some of the worst contemporary excesses of meritocracy captured by rent-seekers. There are of course exceptions, in that some fields still maintain the old-fashioned ethos of intellectual aristocracy and thus remain basically sound, but in many others, the situation is downright horrible.

    In the less bad of these latter cases, we have useless nonsense produced professionally by people who maintain a skillful pretense of doing useful intellectual work. In the worse cases, however, we have nonsense that serves rent-seeking ends promoted to the status of official scientific truth, which then becomes a matter of ideological consensus that is impossible to challenge because it is presented as a matter of “science.”

    All in all, I think that public subsidizing of science with a bureaucratic system is a horrible idea. In most cases, it will not incentivize doing real science, but only rent-seeking efforts to subvert the bureaucratic criteria for what constitutes science worthy of the subsidy.

    • Alrenous says:

      There’s no need to make science in general secret, is there? Therefore, there’s no need to fund science in general. My proposal is to fund particular researchers, not their research. Unless Mr. King wants a particular thing researched in the arcane fields, I suppose.
      The point is to keep arcane research out of the public eye – if the researchers get lazy and stop researching, then it has served its purpose.

    • Scharlach says:

      The main problem here is not that these rent-seekers will grab a vast loot — they sure will, but a wealthy society can bear this easily — but that their rent-seeking efforts will corrupt and pervert just about every social institution that opens paths towards rent-extracting positions based on ostensibly fair and objective criteria for advancement.

      It almost sounds like you’re saying rampant rent seeking is a feature rather than a bug of total meritocracy. Perhaps. My ideal vision is that meritocracy selects for individuals who are more likely to create new wealth and be productive, which would mean any rent-seeking that occurs is a bug, not a feature, a bug whose symptoms could be neutralized (if not entirely eradicated) with fine-grained policy in each sector. But maybe I have an unrealistic vision of meritocracy.

      Rent-seeking in science: You write, “All in all, I think that public subsidizing of science with a bureaucratic system is a horrible idea.” But it seems to me that the problem is public subsidization of science that doesn’t produce tangible products or create wealth, or science that is too easily politicized (e.g., climate science). This is a problem of meritocratic scientists taking advantage of a bad grant system, which is unfortunate, but we’re all human. The key is to fix the grant system, not abandon meritocracy as an ideal.

      • Scharlach,

        Many problems of rent-seeking in science concerns precisely those fields that do produce tangible products and potentially create wealth, such as economics, human biology and political science.

        As for politicisation, before climate alarmism no-one thought that climate science was political. Any field worth funding is susceptible to politicisation, just because it touches on issues that aren’t trivial.

        Structural problems, such as democratic feedback loops of opinion and power, are best tackled at the root. The bad grants of which you speak want to and will reassert themselves within any taxpayer-funded system, just as it would be difficult to design an evolutionarily fit, altruistic bacterium or ethical carnivore. The ideal Moldbuggian solution to this is “separation of information and state”.

      • Regarding meritocracy, we have probably all read or at least seen Starship Troopers. In that book, the ability to vote is conditional upon serious military service.

        To generalise this principle, desirable forms of meritocracy involve easily verifiable and costly means of proving one’s worth, and in a sense that is demonstrable to a wide section of society—since those warm bodies remain an ultimate reservoir of coercive force.

        In the current system, how is average Joe to know whether Paul Krugman is a phoney? Did he prove his intellectual integrity, or his sleaziness? Still less do we know how Bernanke rose to prominence.

        A relatively defensible Schelling fence would be to demand (in a tangible, constitutional sense) that this type of person do something primitive, obviously costly and demonstrably difficult before he acquires political power, such as serving on the front line in a war zone.

        Another, more fundamental structural control on “meritocratic” sleaze is the principle of Exit and ex ante legal competition. This holds that a high degree of political and legal diversity, naturally including experiments with varying degrees of meritocracy, ought to be defended. In this case, if I don’t like the local meritocrats or their courts then I’m free to seek out a less meritocratic micro-polity and legal system.

        Thirdly, this raises the ubiquitous problem of who watches the watchmen. Any mechanism that prevents coherent social groups from being judges in their own case is likely to dispel some of these rent-seeking problems. We have a “Cathedral” that discourages the formation of rival groups in society. If there were more diverse groups, it would be structurally desirable to (somehow) encourage situations in which one judges the objective merits of the other. Above, e.g., we would rely on the fact that the army remains a somewhat distinct, non-Cathedral entity, that is unlikely to debase the conditions of military service.

    • asdf says:

      Yes, I know all the effects on science lately. However, it seems part of a general corruption rather then the amount of subsidy. NIH funding is down. The mother of all indirect science/engineering subsidies, the military, is down as a % of GDP. Yet corruption in science and military procurement is way up. So its obviously not the amount of the subsidy that matters.

  5. Scharlach says:

    @ James Goulding

    As for politicisation, before climate alarmism no-one thought that climate science was political. Any field worth funding is susceptible to politicisation, just because it touches on issues that aren’t trivial.

    Yes, you’re right about that. I’ll concede the point. However . . .

    Structural problems, such as democratic feedback loops of opinion and power, are best tackled at the root. The bad grants of which you speak want to and will reassert themselves within any taxpayer-funded system, just as it would be difficult to design an evolutionarily fit, altruistic bacterium or ethical carnivore. The ideal Moldbuggian solution to this is “separation of information and state”.

    You’re probably more well-read in the history of science and technology than I am, but from what I do know, almost every breakthrough in the past century was funded at least partially with government money. I don’t think we should classify all government expenditure on science as rent-seeking, even though it does open the door to rent-seeking behavior, as does any state expenditure. “Separation of information and state,” yes, but does that necessarily mean the separation of information and state-patronage? Perhaps.

    What about a competition model? Each year, the government (county, state, federal, whatever) earmarks X amount for the best achievements in various fields. The money is delivered after the goods or the knowledge has been produced. Consolation money could even be dispersed to people who have gotten far in their research but not far enough.

  6. You’re probably more well-read in the history of science and technology than I am

    I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m glad I give that impression, though!

    from what I do know, almost every breakthrough in the past century was funded at least partially with government money.

    There was a minor kerfuffle in the media recently, about whether the Internet was created by government or private enterprise. The wisest heads seemed to agree that well, government certainly had a big role, and the quality of the people involved was the most influential factor.

    However, governments in the past century became so overbearing, in regard to their control over important social forces and information, that the counterfactual surgery required to imagine the quality of 20th century science without state funding is difficult to perform.

    Another issue to consider is that the distinction between rulers and ruled is not and ought not to be absolute, so the extent of “government” involvement in science should probably be filtered into various grades.

    What about a competition model? Each year, the government (county, state, federal, whatever) earmarks X amount for the best achievements in various fields.

    The existing system is supposed to reward “the best”, i.e. those who have obtained advanced degrees, diplomas and tenure. The problem is that distributed, spontaneous order, and some measure of intentional Machiavellism, prevent these good intentions from being realised within existing, naive structures.

    Moldbug has a good piece on the subject of academic corruption here. Evidently, the incentives of basically decent researchers are habitually perverted by the existing system, which rewards the likes of “Climate Stalin”.

  7. Scharlach says:

    @James Goulding

    A relatively defensible Schelling fence would be to demand (in a tangible, constitutional sense) that this type of person do something primitive, obviously costly and demonstrably difficult before he acquires political power, such as serving on the front line in a war zone.

    I think you’re correct that for any type of office equipped with pure political power, serious military service should once again become requisite for its holder. However, the “merit” in meritocracy is context-sensitive, and the verification procedures for defining merit should change according to context. I’m not sure that military service alone is necessarily a proper merit-granting mechanism for, e.g., setting monetary policy or running a lab. There would need to be military service +. Isn’t this what Israel tries to accomplish through its universal draft? Anyway, a discussion of meritocracy in an academic or scientific context should not precisely mirror a discussion of meritocracy in a presidential campaign.

    Another, more fundamental structural control on “meritocratic” sleaze is the principle of Exit and ex ante legal competition. This holds that a high degree of political and legal diversity, naturally including experiments with varying degrees of meritocracy, ought to be defended. In this case, if I don’t like the local meritocrats or their courts then I’m free to seek out a less meritocratic micro-polity and legal system.

    Exit mechanisms—competing polities—really solve nearly every problem we address, don’t they?

    • Scharlach says:

      Anyway, a discussion of meritocracy in an academic or scientific context should not precisely mirror a discussion of meritocracy in a presidential campaign.

      Scratch presidential campaign. Re-insert non-democratic language: “. . . a discussion of meritocracy in the context of high political office.”

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