Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Great Filter as Great Filter

NOTE: This post is just epistemic play. I’m writing this mainly to figure out the shape and scope of this argument, not to rigorously propose it as a serious solution to the Fermi Paradox. I don’t, personally, even think the Great Filter is a good solution to Fermi’s Paradox, as there’s a whole host of better reasons why we haven’t run into our universal neighbors yet.

The most interesting question in modern cosmology whether or not extraterrestrial life exists. Because whether it exists or not, both possibilities are incredible. On the one hand, space is unfathomably vast and, given that we know intelligent life arises with probability greater than 0 on suitably habitable planets, the universe should be teaming with life. On the other hand, despite serious efforts to locate extraterrestrial life, we’ve found no evidence that there’s anyone else out there. Nor do we have any evidence that they’ve popped ’round for a visit.

This is known as the Fermi Paradox. Named after the physicist Enrico Fermi who stated it simply as “Where is everybody?”

There are a few different resolutions to the Fermi Paradox, one of which is known as the Great Filter Hypothesis. This is the theory that, in the development of intelligent civilization, there tends to be one or more events or processes that tend to prevent intelligent species from becoming communicative, space-faring, and/or simply advanced enough to be detected from outside their local space. A number of candidates have been identified for the Great Filter, including the development of nuclear weapons, overpopulation, resource depletion, short time horizons, religion, atheism, post-scarcity, virtual reality, disease, invasion whatever species first actually developed space-faring technology and became intergalactic murder gods jumping from planet to planet pillaging other species, etc. etc.

Let’s add one more to the long list of “bullshit over-rationalized hypotheses for the Great Filter”. What if understanding of the Great Filter is itself the Great Filter? Or, more prosaically, what if an obsession with impending doom tends to grip cultures, pushing them away from the path of technological progress? Longtime readers of this blog will be familiar with my Things Are Better Than You Think series, and know that I definitely see this trend going on in modern Western society. But what if it’s not just us? What if there comes a certain point in the development of civilization when the panicky, risk-averse memes that tend to benefit earlier, more fragile cultures cause advanced civilizations to descend into paranoid paralysis, always looking over the next horizon for the apocalypse?

They notice that they use some resources that aren’t readily replenished and so give in to peak resource panics and place crushing burdens on anyone using those resources. Or they notice that their impact on the environment is deleterious and so they de-industrialize instead of taking the time and energy to make their technologies sustainable. Or they even just notice that there’s a lot of things out there that can destroy a species or a sapient individual and become resigned to their fate and don’t try and stop it. A species-wide memento mori could function just like it does for individuals: as either a call to action or as an excuse to slack off, since we’re all going to die someday anyway.

We see this trend today in Western cultures. The debate over global warming, for instance, has gotten mired down around two poles: N.) It’s real and we’re all fucked. S.) It’s a conspiracy and everything is fine.

But it is real, and we’re probably not fucked. That’s the excluded middle, and it seems to be (to me, at least) the most likely projection based on the evidence. What if in advanced civilizations, the N pole of the apocalypse argument tends to win out, leading to heavy restrictions on growth and progress and an en-mass return to simple, squalid agrarianism?

Or, to use an example that’s no longer as highly charged, what if the first two super-states to create nuclear weapons tend to lock into a stable M.A.D regime of brutally logical brinkmanship. They spend all of their resources developing better measures and countermeasures, until a cold war becomes a static, cold civilization that does nothing but huddle under the threat of nuclear annihilation. All resources that aren’t spent avoiding the apocalypse are spent fearing it.

Of course, as with all candidates for the Great Filter, this one is automatically suspect since it glorifies our species problems by making them universal. Cosmology, like history, is seductive in its false familiarity. Modern America is not early-decline Rome, and Western Civilization is not every intelligent civilization everywhere. But insofar as our experiences universalize, I think there’s a non-zero chance that the fear of an apocalypse could be just as much of a Great Filter as the actual apocalypse itself.

Eliezer Yudkowsky on Sophistry and the Contagion of Lies

What sounds like an arbitrary truth to one mind—one that could easily be replaced by a plausible lie—might be nailed down by a dozen linkages to the eyes of greater knowledge. To a creationist, the idea that life was shaped by “intelligent design” instead of “natural selection” might sound like a sports team to cheer for. To a biologist, plausibly arguing that an organism was intelligently designed would require lying about almost every facet of the organism. To plausibly argue that “humans” were intelligently designed, you’d have to lie about the design of the human retina, the architecture of the human brain, the proteins bound together by weak van der Waals forces instead of strong covalent bonds…

Or you could just lie about evolutionary theory, which is the path taken by most creationists. Instead of lying about the connected nodes in the network, they lie about the general laws governing the links.

And then to cover that up, they lie about the rules of science—like what it means to call something a “theory”, or what it means for a scientist to say that they are not absolutely certain.

So they pass from lying about specific facts, to lying about general laws, to lying about the rules of reasoning. To lie about whether humans evolved, you must lie about evolution; and then you have to lie about the rules of science that constrain our understanding of evolution.


I don’t put much truck with Rationalists in the traditional philosophical sense, and there is quite a bit of that variety of wankery on Less Wrong. But there are also some damned fine writers and thinkers there, too. And it’s always good to be reminded that ideas have consequences, even (perhaps especially) bad ones.

Tsukuru Tazaki, Stoic

“In this dream, though, he burned with desire for a woman. It wasn’t clear who she was. She was just there. And she had a special ability to separate her body and her heart. I will give you one of them, she told Tsukuru. My body or my heart. But you can’t have both. You need to choose one or the other, right now. I’ll give the other part to someone else, she said. But Tsukuru wanted all of her. He wasn’t about to hand over one half to another man. He couldn’t stand that. If that’s how it is, he wanted to tell her, I don’t need either one. But he couldn’t say it. He was stymied, unable to go forward, unable to go back.

He woke up, his body quaking. It took a while before he understood that it had been a dream. He tore off his sweat-soaked pajamas and dried himself with a towel, but no matter how hard he wiped the sweat away, he couldn’t rid himself of that slimy feeling. And he came to a realization. Or maybe felt it intuitively. So this was jealousy. The body or the heart of the woman he loved, or maybe even both, were being wrested from him by someone else.

Jealousy– at least as far as he understood it from his dream– was the most hopeless prsion in the world. Jealousy was not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily, locked the door, and threw away the key. And no another soul in the world knew he was locked inside. Of course if he wanted to escape, he could do so. The prison was, after all, his own heart. But he couldn’t make that decision. His heart was as hard as a stone wall. This was the very essence of jealousy.” – Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I just started reading the new Murakami. It’s good so far. It’s every bit as psychological as his other books but, so far, lighter on the surrealism. I’m always impressed with the detail with which Murakami fleshes out the interior world of his characters. Only a few chapters in, and I’m starting to build an intuitive, almost empathetic understanding of the main character. This, despite the Tsukuru’s own pointed reluctance to try to understand himself or the interior world of those around him.

My one (minor) quibble is that Murakami still refuses to use 5 words where 25 will serve just as well. Sometimes his florid prose is in good service to theme or character, but just as often it seems to just pad out an otherwise compact, well-plotted scene.

I was struck, when reading the above scene, to the following:

“What, then, is the punishment of those who do not accept [their circumstances]? To be just as they are. Is one peevish because he is alone? Let him be in solitude! Is he peevish with his parents? Let him be an evil son and grieve! Is he peevish with his children? Let him be a bad father! ‘Throw him into prison.’ What sort of prison? Where he now is. For he is there against his will and where a man is against his will, that for him is a prison. Just as Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly.” – Epictetus, I.12.22ff.

Now it would be entirely unfair to compare Murakami to Master Epictetus, but it’s interesting to see the same Stoic idea echoed by so different an author, in such similar terms, but inflated five-fold in the interests of couching it as a character’s own profundity.

“The world has infinite ways to wrong us.”

“Why does it seem that my fears are forever ill-directed, that what pessimism lies in my nature leads to no true prophecy? How is it that I am always prepared for the very misfortunes I am spared? Know that the reaching tendrils of the analytical mind, even as they wrap themselves round a million problematical abstractions, leave a universe of calamity untouched. The world has infinite ways to wrong us. … Do not ask me, then, what catastrophe will reduce this sorry Earth to dust. I will be the one staring at the skies speaking of asteroidal collision as below my feet the world splits open to swallow us whole.” – Kerry Howley, Thrown

Your Brain is Lying to You, Part 6: Pareidolia Edition

Minerva Blesses the Gadflies

Whatever your politics, that is some top notch artistic affliction.

Your Brain is Lying to You, Part 4

Your Brain is Lying to You

In Memoriam, William F. Ryan, S. J.

I attended a memorial service today for perhaps the most important teacher I’ve ever had. Fr. Ryan was not only phenomenal scholar and instructor, but one of the kindest, funniest men I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.

He taught me many important lessons, but one that has stuck with me most keenly has been his warning against the existential vacuum of purposeless life. Man must have meaning in life. We must, each of us, have something towards which we orient ourselves, and for which we strive. I know that for Fr. Ryan, the education, development, and flourishing of his students was one such goal. And for that, I am immensely grateful, and deeply humbled. His dedication to education (along with his charm, wit, and incisive intellect) were incredible to behold.

I say with absolute certainty that the world will never see his kind again, and that we are all poorer for his passing.

But we’re all richer for his having been on Earth.


The Sliding Scale of Strategy vs. Tactics

“Napoleon made the point when discussing the outcome of actions between his own cavalry and the Mameluke horsemen of Asia Minor. These horsemen were so good that two of them would defeat three of his cavalrymen in a minor skirmish. But in a major battle, 1,000 of his cavalry would defeat 1,500 Mamelukes. On the small scale, horsemanship was the predominant factor, but on the large scale victory would be won by the controlled and disciplined application of force. Wellington made much the same point regarding actions between his cavalry and their French opponents.

On both scales of operation skilled horsemanship and cooperative action were ingredient factors, but the balance of importance between them changed with scale. Similarly, in intelligence personal skill may be the paramount factor on the small scale, but the ability to coordinate the skills of many individuals may be predominant in large-scale operations.” – RV Jones

As quoted by the mighty Grugq.

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Magic Blue Smoke

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1.) Carry out your own dead.
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