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Though I do wonder about those six people who voted “none of the above” in my poll of attitudes towards the 10 odd theories that figure prominently in the Karlinist Weltanschauung… with all due respect, but what are you guys doing on this blog then? :)

The vast majority agree with Peak Oil, Limits to Growth, Intelligence Theory, and Human Biodiversity. The first three are not surprising, as they have been covered extensively since the blog’s inception, but I am somewhat surprised about the popularity of HBD – after all, I’m only an (open) convert to it fairly recently.

Slightly fewer agree with the precepts of AGW, Game, and 80/20 principle & Parkinson’s Law. Again, this is fairly surprising to me. After all, AGW is socially accepted nowadays; the exceptions are easier to list (e.g. American conservatives), whereas Peak Oil and Limits to Growth are still very controversial concepts with opponents from both sides of the ideological spectrum. “Game” gets an impressively good showing, though this kinda makes sense – it is almost intractably linked with HBD, since by accepting fundamental race differences, doing likewise for gender is a no-brainer. The 80/20 Principle & Parkinson’s Law is admittedly vague, but in essence it is meant to encapsulate the arguments contained within Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Workweek, i.e. that there are structural reasons for why organizations and their employees are very inefficient, and that there exist ways for committed individuals to break that cycle through shortcuts like “muses” (location-independent revenue streams) and geoarbitrage. I highly recommend readers look into these theories because just as with Game for dudes, they have the potential to massively improve life quality.

Only very modest support is voiced for Transhumanism and Technological Singularity, and understandable thing because (1) few people are deeply aware of them, even committed netizens, and (2) they are in ostensible contradiction to core AK themes like Limits to Growth and Peak Oil. But there is no contradiction. My longstanding view has been that IF global civilization manages to avoid collapse or severe degradation in the dangerous mid-century period, when pressures from energy shortages and climate change are likely to heat their peak, then transformative technological change is very likely to occur based on reasonable projections from current trends. Lifespan has already been successfully multiplied by several factors in laboratory mice by genetic tinkering, and it is surely only a matter of time before it these methods can be upscaled to large mammals including humans. Technological singularity is a more iffy possibility, despite Ray Kurzweil’s best attempts to argue for its imminent inevitability, but regardless I am of the opinion that the mind can be simulated on silicon substrates, that “mind uploading” is theoretically possible and may be achievable in practice sooner rather than later because of the exponential nature of growth of computing power, and that even if these exotic possibilities don’t materialize this century it may not be that big of an issue thanks to massively extended longevity.

Low carb diets (paleo, caveman) have by far the lowest approval rating. So I should definitely write a bit more on that. I think the arguments of their proponents are logical, humans simply have not had time to evolve to eat complex grains let alone have them constitute the bulk of their diet. Doing so leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other chronic ailments that plight rich country populations. As such I think the standard “food pyramid” advice peddled by nutritionists is bunk and even criminal taking into account the mounting evidence against it.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Thesis. The current capitalist-industrial System is incapable of surmounting the limits to growth on planet Earth because markets and technology, today’s salvation gospel, are no deus ex machina to the energy-and-pollution predicament of industrial civilization. Nor is this System in principle capable of preventing ecological overshoot because growth in physical throughput is the very basis of its existence. As such, we need to transition to an entirely new way of thinking about politics, society, and the economy – Green Communism. This is a system based on technocratic planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking; political control based on ubiquitous 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riding; and spiritual succor from transcendental values linked to ecotechnic sustainability, instead of today’s shallow materialist values embodied in the System’s “myth of progress”.

By repressing the economic potential of eastern Europe and China throughout much of the 20th century, one of Marxism-Leninism’s greatest legacies is to have indirectly postponed humanity’s reckoning with the Earth’s limits to industrial growth in the form of resource depletion and AGW. Had Eastern Europe and Russia become industrialized, consumer nations by the 1950′s-1960′s instead of the 2010′s-2020′s; had China followed the development trajectory of Taiwan; had nations from India to Brazil not excessively indulged in growth-retarding import substitution, it is very likely that today we would already be well on the downward slope of Hubbert’s curve of oil depletion, and burning coal to compensate – in turn reinforcing an already runaway global warming process.

Though one might refrain that socialist regimes tended to focus on heavy industries and had a poor environmental record, this pollution tended to be localized (e.g. acid rain over Czechoslovakia, or soot over industrial cities); however, CO2 per capita emissions – which contribute to global warming – from the socialist bloc were substantially lower than in the advanced capitalist nations. Furthermore, it should be noted that the overriding spur to heavy industrialization in the first place was the encirclement by capitalist powers, which created a perceived need for militarization (most prominent in the USSR from the 1930′s, and now North Korea). This process also distorted other aspects of those regimes, e.g. the inevitable throwing aside of universal pretensions (in practice, though not in rhetoric) in favor of nationalism, and what could be called a reversion to the “Asian mode of production” with industrial overtones, which could be used to describe Stalinism, or the militarized neo-feudalism of the Juche system of North Korea. So one cannot point to those countries as “proof” of the superiority of capitalism; to the contrary, we should take away the lesson that any anti-capitalist transition should be universal if it is to survive.

The Real Contradictions of Capitalism

Capitalism was a viable and successful system when there was still plentiful land, labor and cheap resources to be exploited (even Engels acknowledged the primacy of nature in powering history’s march forward, for it “supplies [labor] with the material that it converts into wealth”). The cheap resources are now ending, so a system predicated on debt-financed perpetual growth is no longer tenable; this became visible in Japan from the early 1990′s, and is now becoming clear in Europe and the US too, where economic collapse in 2008-09 was only checked thanks to a massive transfer of private losses and bad debts onto the public account (socialism for the elites, capitalism for the rest). The neoliberal era underwritten by cheap oil, global finance, and the US Navy is coming to an end.

Given that oil production peaked in 2008, and the decreasing EROEI of other energy sources, willingly or not we are going to return to the zero-growth of pre-industrial times: then we can either 1) successfully get out of our overshoot predicament and restart conventional development (unlikely), or 2) we can effect a “sustainable retreat” to lower levels of physical throughput and increased efficiency, or 3) we can with ever more coercive state efforts, with the help of modern cybernetics and electronic technology, use the tools of the industrial era to try to maintain the industrial infrastructure and its associated institutional-cultural superstructure.

Most likely we will choose the latter, but it will almost certainly fail; all the Limits to Growth models all suggest that both markets and technology – Mammon and the Machine – are powerless to solve the fundamental predicament that a limited world can support unlimited growth, and they don’t even take further negative feedback loops such as the debilitating effects of political populism and geopolitical competition; nor do those models incorporate the observation that the technological base is dependent on the economic-industrial base for its support, so once the latter fails, technologies from plant bioengineering to energy efficiency also go into retreat.

Thus we see the emergence of capitalism’s real contradictions – not so much the impoverishment of the workers (that, too, will come eventually as industrial civilization approaches collapse), but ecology. Throughout the pre- Industrial Revolution era, peasants all over the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth (K. Polanyi, 1957). These attitudes will resurge with a vengeance in the coming neo-Malthusian future. Capitalism will have dug its own grave by eating away the basis of its own existence.

Socialist Sustainability

To avoid collapse, by far the safest route is to kickstart a transition to sustainability – not sustainable development, because it’s far too late for that (we should have started on that during the 1970′s), but sustainable retreat – cutting down on real “living standards” (or at least as measured by the deeply flawed measure of GDP, which counts prisons and environmental cleanup as wealth), to transition to a way of life that is compatible with Gaia.

In practice, this will probably imply a transition to a roughly Cuban way of life. The tropical island is, by one measure (developed level of HDI, low ecological footprint per capita), the world’s only sustainable society.

Predictably enough, there will be several heated objections to living like Cubans, but they can all be effectively countered.

1) Poverty. Don’t they try to swim to Florida? Yes, some do. But Cuban poverty is in part the result of US sanctions, and their punishment of foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Furthermore, it is still far more comfortable than any Malthusian-age, pre-industrial society (or any conventional Third World society). The perception of poverty is created by the “international demonstration effect”, in which images of Western consumerism (based on unsustainable exploitation of Gaia) create false needs and frustrations in poorer societies, a false consciousness hoisted upon all humans connected to the System.

If the rest of the world embraced the concept of sustainable retreat and accepted Cuba as a valid example, then it will become to look much more attractive as 1) it regains access to leading global technologies technologies and know-how, and 2) because its people will no longer be encouraged to judge success by the standards of how new and how big their SUV’s are, but by their ecological wealth, social harmony, and cultural output.

2) Political repression. Yes, Cuba locks up dissidents and is, in Western terms, an unfree society. However, note that the US has been fighting a decades-long information war against Cuba, that the Western media has an incentive to exaggerate its human rights abuses, and that Cuba’s rulers themselves have to fight against this information war and international demonstration effect to maintain Cuban sovereignty. Given that they are much poorer and less influential, the tools at their disposal are much cruder.

Furthermore, as argued by Zizek, the main impact of the communist idea (a secular successor to Christianity’s chiliastic fantasies of salvation) so far was not so much the perfection of the societies acknowledging the idea, as the elucidation of the historical laws (dreams?) by which the perfect society is to appear.

As Alain Badiou pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures, the “really existing Socialism” was the only political force that – for some decades, at least – seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism, really scaring its representatives, driving them into paranoiac reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the totality of the human civilization, every “Communist” territory was and is – again, in spite of its horrors and failures – a kind of “liberated territory,” as Fred Jameson put it apropos of Cuba. What we are dealing with here is the old structural notion of the gap between the Space and the positive content that fills it in: although, as to their positive content, the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself. What the anti-Communist dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very space from which they themselves criticized and denounced the everyday terror and misery was opened and sustained by the Communist breakthrough, by its attempt to escape the logic of the Capital. In short, when dissidents like Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by Communism itself – which is why they tend to be so disappointed when the “really existing capitalism” does not meet the high expectations of their anti-Communist struggle. Perhaps, Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s pragmatic double, was right when he dismissed Havel as a “socialist”…

The difficult task is thus to confront the radical ambiguity of the Stalinist ideology which, even at its most “totalitarian,” still exudes an emancipatory potential. From my youth, I remember the memorable scene from a Soviet film about the civil war in 1919, in which Bolsheviks organize the public trial of a mother with a young diseased son, who is discovered to be the spy for the counter-revolutionary White forces. At the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik strokes his long white mustache and says: “The sentence must be severe, but just!” The revolutionary court (the collective of the Bolshevik fighters) establishes that the cause of her enemy activity was her difficult social circumstances; the sentence is therefore that she be fully integrated into the socialist collective, taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son is to be given proper medical care. While the surprised mother bursts out crying, unable to understand the court’s benevolence, the old Bolshevik again strokes his mustaches and nods in consent: “Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!”

It is easy to claim, in a quick pseudo-Marxist way, that such scenes were simply the ideological legitimization of the most brutal terror. However, no matter how manipulative this scene is, no matter how contradicted it was by the arbitrary harshness of the actual “revolutionary justice,” it nonetheless provided the spectators with new ethical standards by which reality is to be measured – the shocking outcome of this exercise of the revolutionary justice, the unexpected resignification of “severity” into severity towards social circumstances and generosity towards people, cannot but produce a sublime effect. In short, what we have here is an exemplary case of what Lacan called the “quilting point [point de capiton],” of an intervention that changes the coordinates of the very field of meaning: instead of pleading for generous tolerance against severe justice, the old Bolshevik redefines the meaning of “severe justice” itself in terms of excessive forgiveness and generosity. Even if this is a deceiving appearance, there is in a sense more truth in this appearance than in the harsh social reality that generated it.

We must still undergo a trial, a Great March, of sustainable retreat, at the end of which (due to the elimination of materialist thinking) we will transition into what could be called Green Communism – a sustainable, steady-state human existence founded on the (ever-elusive) reconciliation between freedom and equality. How?

Roads to Green Communism

1) The hippies, Green Parties (including Green Party USA), authors of LTG, etc, stress the importance of the grassroots, of Gramscian infiltration, of gradualism – all couched in fluffy, cuddly polar bear-language like “ecological wisdom” or “community-based economics” or “respect for diversity”. The end state is to be a kind of “gift economy”, perhaps in practice encouraged into being through social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy. All well and good, but none of this is going to motivate many people to make real change, even in progressive enclaves like the Bay Area (people here mark “Earth Hour” and marginally tone down their CO2 emissions for one hour every 24*365 hours – news flash! it ain’t gonna do much!). Lacking any real drive or force, the elites will ignore these movements at will, and the new Caesars of the coming collapse era will suppress them.

2) The revolutionary extremist road: Alinsky-style activism, propaganda of the deed, catechism of the revolutionist, etc. Problem is that it will not win over the people, and as long as the state remains strong it will take coercive actions against these movements. Unlikely to succeed, but may be the only real chance for change. For capitalism-usury is founded on perpetual growth, by forsaking this tenet the System annihilates itself, so it will not willingly do that.

Second, most analysts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are buzzwords like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, or geoengineering; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The Gramscian approach of 1) may be doomed by this Bolshevik-Zizek argument that “a political intervention proper does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”. Yet even if the Revolution is successful, power corrupts; any state formed on the foundations of any such “intervention” may well degenerate into its own nemesis.

3) The laws of history tend to be follow the laws of dialectical materialism – opposites, negation, and transformation – on a route that may lead to a technological singularity, assuming that the ecological base remains intact long enough to sustain the transformation of the industrial System onto a higher plane of existence.

The following extract I found in one of my texts:

The history of the universe is accelerating evolution. A cursory examination of the past reveals growth to be exponential over any sufficiently long period, as can be measured by the frequency of paradigm shifts. Hence, biological life has evolved over a period of billions of years; advanced organisms over several hundred million years. The appearance of intelligent life took place ushered in a technological epoch, which also shows overwhelming evidence of exponential growth – it took ten thousand years from the beginnings of agriculture to catalyse modern economic growth, which has yielded the information revolution in just two hundred years. There are credible prognosesthat posit the appearance of molecular nanotechnology and intelligent machines within the first half of the twenty-first century.

There exist patterns to the evolutionary process itself. According to futurist-inventor Ray Kurzweil, ‘each stage or epoch uses the information-processing methods of the previous epoch to create the next’. Life emerged due to the chaotic interplay of increasingly complex carbon-based compounds. Its DNA-driven evolution eventually gave rise to agents with information-processing capabilities, which culminated in the human ability to create abstract models of reality within their brains. This capacity to conduct mind experiments created the concepts of technology and machines – the bedrock upon which modern material civilization is built. Futurist pundits, extrapolating current trends in computing, predict the coming of a ‘singularity’ that will result from a merger of human and (exponentially expanding) machine intelligence, leading to a universe saturated with intelligent life.

All epochs are based on integrated networks that can be described and mathematically modelled. The first network was based on atomic constituents, governed by physical forces. The universe’s
fine-tuned physical constants made life possible, which was born as the biosphere on planet Earth, which lies in a narrow ‘zone of habitability’. The biosphere (or Gaia) took over the geosphere as the primary architect of its own evolutionary path by evolving a feedback system which seeks to optimize the environment for life. Later, technological growth was able to increase the carrying capacity of the land, leading to demographic growth, greater scope for innovation and therefore faster technological growth in a positive feedback cycle. Agriculture permitted the uneven but inexorable coalescence of complex, stratified societies that in the long-run vanquished the biosphere, be it embodied in forests or hunter-gatherers; the world entered the Holocene, in which the environment – land, and increasing air and water – is shaped by the collective will of the noosphere. Basically, networks in evolution build upon each other. A consequence is that later, more complex superstructures, like intelligence, depends for stability on its biological foundations that regulate the geosphere – something we’re putting in jeopardy via environmental damage.

If we manage to unleash a technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön, modern society’s atoms in the iron cage will become avatars of e-Gods in an electronic cage (like on online forums), based on horizontal networks, instead of the power verticals of today. This form of Green Communism is not of the material, but of the cyber-ethereal.

However, the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and “doomers” / “kollapsniks” mostly place their respective events (Singularity or civilizational collapse) in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

What is to be Done?

One idea would be to look at the manifesto of the Collapse Party!, whose goals, essentially, are to ascertain and pursue the optimal road to Green Communism out of those presented above. It is quoted below in full:

The Collapse Party Manifesto

The world is finite, and so the resource stocks and pollution sinks that sustain industrial civilization (“the System”) are limited. We have been in a state of “overshoot”, beyond the “carrying capacity” of the Earth, since the 1980′s (The Limits to Growth, 2004). Limited resources have been drawn down much faster than they could be replenished, and the Earth’s pollution sinks have been overfilled much faster than they could be regenerated.

Elements of this overshoot can already be seen in phenomena as diverse as plateauing crop yields, topsoil loss, accelerating climate change, peak oil, collapsing fisheries, the depletion of higher-EROEI energy sources, dying rivers, global dimming, the proliferation of “failed states”, neo-colonial exploitation, and rising antibiotic resistance. But things are yet going to get much worse…

Based on paleoclimate reconstructions of CO2 levels, an eventual global warming of above 2C is already inevitable. This will set off a cascade of climatic disasters that will speed up the rate of warming, leading to the desertification of much of the world’s land and oceans, the drying of the great Asian rivers, and massive inundations of the low-lying coasts and deltas that harbor humanity’s heartlands. States will collapse into anarchy, spawning Biblical-scale famines and floods of climate refugees.

Meanwhile, the energetic resources that power the System will be coming under severe strain. Oil production has already peaked, and natural gas and coal will follow in a few more decades. The remaining resources are much harder to extract, since the easiest pickings have already been exploited. We will have to divert ever more energy, labor, and capital towards mitigating the effects of both energy depletion (renewables, remote hydrocarbons) and runaway climate change (adaptation, geoengineering).

This will starve agriculture and the consumer sector, ushering in disillusionment, social discontent, and a longing for a strong hand at the helm of power. This will undermine liberal democracy’s political legitimacy, leading either to anarchy (“failed states”) or increasing coercion (authoritarianism). Geopolitical rivalries over the remaining energy resources will intensify, extinguishing the already dim prospects for international cooperation. Long-term thinking will recede into irrelevance, for political leaders will have their hands full with much more pressing issues – building sea walls, feeding the military, and placating (or dispersing) angry mobs.

Our only way to escape this trap is to rapidly effect a global transition towards “sustainable development”. The imperative of such a transition was recognized as early as the 1970′s, but we have yet to see any truly meaningful action. Nor are we likely to, since the defining feature of industrial-capitalist civilization is indefinite growth, based around the taking of loans against (higher) future returns. There’s a reason why Malthusian societies suppressed usury – and should we continue business-as-usual, we will soon rediscover why.

Though the System is very effective in some ways, it cannot foresee its own demise; nor can its servants even ask questions that hint at the unpalatable answer. However, the casual, detached, and informed observer can. Yes, in a purely technical sense, disaster can still be averted if one could convince people to make, or more likely force through, drastic reductions in First World overconsumption, a full-scale retooling of the industrial system towards renewables and recycling, and a global system of “contraction and convergence” on CO2 emissions.

Achieving this, however, is unlikely in the extreme; any transition to sustainability is going to be stymied by social myopia and geopolitical anarchy, as well as innate human psychological features such as the conservative bias, the denial complex, hedonism, and susceptibility to “creeping normalcy” and “landscape amnesia”. Unless we overcome these failings, or discover a technological silver bullet, we will collide with planetary limits to growth sometime around 2030 to 2050.

In that scenario, the System as a whole will become increasingly fragile, such that a large enough perturbation – say, a major war or global climatic disaster – will send it into a self-reinforcing spiral down into chaos. The electrical-industrial infrastructure supporting modern technology, especially the massive repositories of information entombed within cyberspace, will crumble away into oblivion.

After a short period of unprecedented violence, famine, pestilence, and death known as “the Collapse”, the world will get larger once more, and society will retreat back into the comforting blackness of a new Dark Age.

Faced with these grim prospects, we see it fitting to launch a multi-pronged initiative to if not avert a Collapse (as is the purpose of the global Green movement), then at least to attempt to mitigate, as best we can, its catastrophic humanitarian consequences. We do not wish on the demise of technological civilization, for we recognize that for all its ecological obliviousness and social injustices, it has enabled tremendous progress in science and many aspects of culture and human welfare. That said, we recognize that sometimes, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the tendency for all closed, complex systems to decay – cannot be sidestepped.

We propose a program of “sustainable retreat”, to be characterized by the following policy planks:

  • use the remaining high-EROEI fossil fuel stocks in a crash program to build as large a nuclear and renewable energy infrastructure as possible.
  • clean up radioactive and toxic installations while we still have the technologies and resources to do so.
  • work on fostering global unity and a common human identity to encourage cooperation and discourage competition and resource wars.
  • preserve as much as possible of the world’s stock of technologies, bioresources, and knowledge in dispersed repositories (“lifeboats”) in durable, physical format.
  • retool the education system to disseminate practical skills and democratize it using the power of the Internet (as long as it continues to exist).
  • liberalize copyright laws.
  • promote communal-agrarian values, while ditching the individualist and accumulative mentality that is spelling our doom.
  • unite all social groups under different wings of the Party – conventional Greens, as well as socialists, feminists, right-wing survivalists, etc – that are amenable to the kollapsnik message.
  • eschew militarism, dismantle overseas military bases, and repatriate the troops; but maintain a minimal nuclear deterrent.
  • nationalization and / or regulation of the commanding heights of the economy to optimize resource conservation and pollution control.
  • establish a network of self-contained “resiliencies” across the nation and the world, modeled on the Kibbutzim, that will provide physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment to those who need it.
  • allow mostly-unimpeded free enterprise for small, non-strategic, and low-material throughput businesses, for it will still be necessary to keep the consumerist urgings satiated.
  • the Party is to be aim to operate on a horizontal and democratic basis, in which promotion and honors are to be based on the judgments of peers on one’s competence and commitment to the cause.
  • the winding-down of the prison-industrial complex in a controlled manner; the nature of law and order to be determined in further internal debate.
  • general debt amnesty to wipe the slate clean and start from Year Zero in our quest for sustainability.
  • expand resources into research on areas such as sustainable energy, geoengineering, and artificial intelligence to increase the chances of achieving a technological “silver bullet”.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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One of the most interesting emerging sciences today, in my opinion, is cliodynamics. Their practitioners attempt to come to with mathematical models of history to explain “big history” – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse. To the casual observer history may appear to be chaotic and fathomless, devoid of any overreaching pattern or logic, and consequently the future is even more so (because “the past is all we have”).

This state of affairs, however, is slowly ebbing away. Of course, from the earliest times, civilizational theorists like Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee dreamed of rationalizing history, and their efforts were expounded upon by thinkers like Nikolai Kondratiev, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Heinz von Foerster. However, it is only with the newest crop of pioneers like Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, and Peter Turchin that a true, rigorous mathematized history is coming into being – a discipline recently christened cliodynamics.

As an introduction to this fascinating area of research, I will summarize, review, and run an active commentary on one of the most comprehensive and theoretical books on cliodynamics: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Korotayev et al (it’s quite rare, as there’s only a single copy of it in the entire UC library system). The key insight is that world demographic / economic history can be modeled to a high degree of accuracy by just three basic trends: hyperbolic / exponential, cyclical, and stochastic.

Korotayev, Andrei & Artemy Malkov, Daria KhaltourinaIntroduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends (2006)
Category: cliodynamics, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Andrei Korotayev (wiki); review @ cliodynamics.ru; a similar text на русском.

Introduction: Millennial Trends

Google Books has the first chapter Introduction: Millennial Trends.

In 1960, Heinz von Foerster showed that the world’s population at any given time between 1-1958 CE could be approximated by the simple equation below, where N is the population, t is time, C is a constant, and t(0) is a “doomsday” when the population becomes infinite (worked out to be 13 November, 2026).

(1) N(t) = C / ( t(0) – t )

According to Korotayev et al, this simple formula of hyperbolic explains 99%+ of the micro-variation in world population from 1000 to 1970. Furthermore, a quadratic-hyperbolic equation of the same type accurately represents the increase in the GDP. Why?

He discusses the work of Michael Kremer, who attempted to build a model by making the Malthusian assumption that “population is limited by the available technology, so that the growth rate of population is proportional to the growth rate of technology”, and the “Kuznetsian” assumption that “high population spurs technological change because it increases the number of potential inventors”.

(2) G = r*T*N^a

(3) dT/dt = b*N*T

Above, G is gross output, T is technology, N is population, and a, b, and r are parameters. Note that dT, change in technology, is dependent on both N (indicates potential number of inventors) and T (a wider technological base enabled more inventions to be made on its basis). Solving this system of equations results in hyperbolic population growth, illustrated by the following loop: population growth → more potential inventors → faster tech growth → faster growth of Earth’s carrying capacity → faster population growth.

Korotayev then counters arguments dismissing such theories as “demographic adventures of physicists” that have no validity because the world system was not integrated until relatively recently. However, that is only if you use Wallerstein’s “bulk-good” criterion. If one instead uses the softer “information-network” criterion, noting that there is evidence for the “systematic spread of major innovations… throughout the North African – Eurasian Oikumene for a few millennia BCE” – and bearing in mind that this emerging belt of cultures of similar technological complexity contained the vast majority of the global human population since the Neolithic Revolution – then this can be interpreted as “a tangible result of the World System’s functioning”.

Then Korotayev et al present their own model that describes not only the hyperbolic world population growth, but also the macrodynamics of global GDP in the world system until 1973.

(4) G = k1*T*N^a

(5) dN/dt = k2*S*N

(6) dT/dt = k3*N*T

Above, T is technology, N is population, S is surplus per person (and S = g – m, where g is production per person and m is the subsistence level required for zero population growth), and k1, k2, k3, and a are parameters. This can be simplified to:

(7) dN/dt = a*S*N

(8) dS/dt = b*N*S

(9) G = m*N + S*N

As S should be proportional to N in the long run, S = k*N. Replace.

(10) dN/dt = k*a*N^2

Recall that solving this differential equation gives us hyperbolic growth (1).

(11) N(t) = C / ( t(0) – t )

Furthermore, replacing N(t) above with S = k*N gives (12), allowing us to work out the “surplus world product” S*N (13).

(12) S = k*C / ( t(0) – t )

(13) S*N = k*C^2 / ( t(0) – t )^2

Hence in the long-run, this suggests that global GDP growth can be approximated by a quadratic hyperbola. Other indices that can be described by these or similar models include literacy, urbanization, etc.

One finding is that after 1973, there world GDP growth rate itself falls (rather than just a slowing of the growth of the GDP growth rate, as predicted by the original model): the explanation is, “the literate population is more inclined to direct a larger share of its GDP to resource restoration and to prefer resource economizing strategies than is the illiterate one, which, on the one hand, paves the way towards a sustainable-development society, but, on the other hand, slows down the economic growth rate”. To take this into account, they build a modified model, according to which, “the World System’s divergence from the blow-up regime would stabilize the world population, the world GDP… technological growth, however, will continue, though in exponential rather than hyperbolic form”.*

The consequences for the future are that though GDP growth will reach an asymptote, technological improvements will continue raising the standard of living due to the “Nordhaus effect” (e.g. combine Moore’s Law – exponentially cheapening computing power, with the growing penetration of ever more physical goods by IT).

“It appears important to stress that the present-day decrease of the World System’s growth rates differs radically from the decreases that inhered in oscillations of the past… it is a phase transition to a new development regime that differs radically from the ones typical of all previous history”. As evidence, unlike in all past eras, the slowing of the world population growth rate after the 1960′s did not occur against a backdrop of catastrophically falling living standards (famine, plague, wars, etc); to the contrary, the causes are the fall in fertility due to social security, more literacy, family planning, etc. Similarly, the decrease in the urbanization and literacy growth rates is not associated this time by the onset of Malthusian problems, but is set against continuing high economic growth and the “closeness of the saturation level”.

(AK: This rosy-tinged analysis is persuasive and somewhat rigorous, but there is a gaping hole – they used only “technology” as a proxy for the carrying capacity. However, as Limits to Growth teaches us, part of what technology did is open up a windfall of energy resources – high-grade oil, coal, and natural gas – that have been used to fuel much of the post-1800 growth in carrying capacity (disguised as “technology” in this model), yet whose gains are not permanent because of their unsustainable exploitation. Furthermore, the modern technological base is underpinned by the material base, and cannot survive without it – you can’t have semiconductor factories without reliable electricity supplies – and generally speaking, the more complex the technology, the greater the material base that is needed to sustain it (this may constitute an ultimate limit on technological expansion). This major factor is also neglected in Korotayev’s millennial model. As such, the conclusion that the world has truly and permanently reached a sustainable-development regime does not follow. This is not to say that it is without merit, however – it’s just that it needs to be integrated with the work done by the Limits to Growth / peak oil / climate modelers.)

Chapter 1: Secular Cycles

Korotayev et al conclude that these millennial models are only useful on the millennial scale (duh!), and that typical agrarian political-demographic cycles follow Malthusian dynamics because in the shorter term, population tends to growth much more rapidly than technology / carrying capacity, which led to a plateauing of the population, growing stress due to repeated perturbations, and an eventual tipping point over into collapse / dieoff.

The basic logic of these models is as follows. After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values. The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions, etc. As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population. As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.

He notes that newer models are far more complex and predict the dynamics of variables such as elite overproduction, class struggle, urbanization, and wealth inequality with a surprisingly high degree of accuracy (e.g. see A Model of Demographic Cycles in a Traditional Society: The Case of Ancient China by Nefedov). Korotayev et al then list three major approaches to modeling agrarian political-demographic cycles: Turchin (2003), Chu & Lee (1994), and Nefedov (1999-2004).

1. Turchin has constructed an elegant “fiscal-demographic” model, in which the state plays a positive role by by a) maintaining armed order against banditry and lawlessness, and b) doing works such as roads, canals, irrigations systems, flood control, etc, – both of which increase the effective carrying capacity. However, as demographic growth brings the population to the carrying capacity of the land (in practice, the population plateaus somewhat below it due to elite predation), surpluses diminish. So do the state’s revenues, since the state taxes surpluses; meanwhile, expenditures keep on rising (because of the reasons identified by Tainter). Eventually, there sets in a fiscal crisis and the state must tax the future to pay for the present by drawing down the surpluses accumulated in better days; when those surpluses run out, the state can no longer function and collapses, which leads to a radical decline of the carrying capacity and population as the land falls into anarchy and irrigation and transport infrastructure decays.

2. The Chu and Lee model consists of rulers (including soldiers), peasants (grow food), and bandits (steal food). The peasants support the rulers to fight the bandits, while there is a constant flux between the peasants and bandits whose magnitude depends on the caloric & survivability payoffs to belonging in each respective class. However, it’s not a fully-formed model as its main function is to fill in the gaps in the historical record, by plugging in already-known historical data on warfare and climatic factors; they neglected to associate crop production with climatic variability (colder winters result in lesser crop yields) and the role of the state in food distribution (which staved off collapse for some time and was historically significant in China).

3. Nefedov has integrated stochasticity into his models, in which random climatic effects produce different year-to-year crop yields. One result is that as carrying capacity is reached, surpluses vanish and the effects of good and bad years play an increasingly important role – i.e. a closed system under stress suffers increasingly from perturbations. One bad year can lead to a critical number of people leaving the farms for the cities or banditry, initiating a cascading collapse. However, he neglects the “direct role of rebellion and internal warfare on cycle behavior”, so as the model is purely economic, each demographic collapse is, implausibly, immediately followed by a new rise.

The ultimate aim of Korotayev et al is to integrate the positive features of all three models (Chapter 3), but for now the take a closer look at the political-demographic history of China, the pre-industrial civilization that maintained the best records.

Chapter 2: Historical Population Dynamics in China – Some Observations

Below is a graph of China’s population on a millennial scale. Note the magnitude and cyclical nature of its demographic collapses. Note also that such cycles are far from unique to Chinese civilization (see collapse of the Roman Empire), and reflect for a minute, even, on the profound difference between the modern world of permanent growth, and the pre-industrial, “Malthusian” world.

Since it would be futile to repeat the fine details of every political-demographic cycle in China’s, I will instead just list the main points.

  • The cycles tend to be ones of a fast rise in population, when surpluses are high and people are prosperous. It plateaus and stagnates when the population reaches the carrying capacity, when there is overpopulation, much lowered consumption, increasing debilitation of state power, and rising social inequality and urbanization.
  • Sometimes, such as in the middle Sung period, population stress did not lead to a collapse, but instead to a “radical rise of the carrying capacity of the land” through administrative and technological innovations. This increased the permanent ceiling of Chinese carrying capacity from 60mn to around 120mn souls, and in doing so alleviated the population stress until the early 12th century (AK: e.g. in Early Modern Britain, the problem of deforestation was solved by coal). At that point, China may have once again solved its problems, even escaping from its Malthusian trap (AK: some historians have noted that it had many of the prerequisites for an industrial revolution). That was not to be, as “the Sung cycle was interrupted quite artificially by exogenous forces, namely, by the Jurchen and finally Mongol conquests”.
  • The Yuan dynasty would not reach the highs of the Sung because of the general bleakness of the 14th century – the end of the Medieval Warm Period, unprecedented floods and droughts in China, etc, which lowered the carrying capacity to a critical level. The resulting famines and rebellions led to the demographic collapse of the 1350′s, as well as the de facto collapse of the state, as China transitioned to warlordism.
  • Carrying-capacity innovations under the Ming did not, eventually, outrun population growth, and it collapsed during the turmoil of the transition to the Qing dynasty. The innovations accelerated throughout the 18th century (e.g. New World crops, land reclamation, intensification of farming). Indications of subsistence stress as China entered the 19th century were a) declining life expectancies, b) rising staple prices, and c) a huge increase in female infanticide rates in the first half of the 18th century. By 1850, China was again under very severe subsistence stress and the state grew impotent just as Europeans began to encroach on the Celestial Empire.
  • Huang 2002: 528-9, worthy of quotation in extenso. “Recent research in Chinese legal history suggests that the same subsistence pressures behind female infanticide led to widespread selling of women and girls… Another related social phenomenon was the rise of an unmarried “rogue male” population, a result of both poverty (because the men could not afford to get married) and of the imbalance in sex ratios that followed from female infanticide. Recent research shows that this symptom of the mounting social crisis led, among other things, to large changes in Qing legislation vis-à-vis illicit sex… Even more telling, perhaps, is the host of new legislation targeting specifically the ‘baresticks’ single males (guanggun) and related ‘criminal sticks’ of bandits (guntu, feitu), clearly a major social problem in the eyes of the authorities of the time”. See Diagram V.13. (AK: Interestingly, China’s one-child policy, by artificially restricting fertility in order to ward off a “Maoist dynasty” Malthusian crisis, has led to many of the same problems in the past two decades).
  • Speaking of which… China had further dips in its population after during perturbations in the 1850′s (the millenarian Taiping Rebellion), the 1930′s (Japanese occupation), and 1959-62 (the Great Leap Forward), each progressively smaller than the last in its relative magnitude. For instance, the latter just formed a short plateau.

Korotayev et al conclude the chapter by running statistical tests on China’s historical population figures from 57-2003. In contrast to linear regression (R^2 = 0.398) and exponential regression (R^2 = 0.685), the simple hyperbolic growth model described in “Introduction: Millennial Trends” produces an almost perfect fit with the observed data (R^2 = 0.968). So in the very, very long-term, the effects of China’s secular cycles are swamped by the millennial trend of hyperbolic growth.

Finally, the authors describe in-depth the general pre-industrial Chinese demographic cycle. Below is a functional scheme I’ve reproduced from the book (click to enlarge).

The main points are:

  • Fast population growth until it nears the carrying capacity, then a long period (100 years+) of a very slow and unsteady growth rate, accompanied by increasingly significant, but non-critical fluctuations in annual population growth due to climatic stochasticity (positive growth in good years, negative growth – along with dearth, minor epidemics, uprisings, etc – in bad years). These fluctuations get worse with time as the state’s counter-crisis potential degrades due to the drawdown of previously accumulated surpluses.
  • According to Nefedov’s model and historical evidence, the fastest growth of cities occurred during the last phases of demographic cycles, as peasants were driven off the land and there appeared greater demand for city-made goods from the increasingly affluent landowners (who could charge exorbitant rates on their tenants). Furthermore, some peasants are drawn into debt bondage because the landowner had previously given them food at a time of dearth. Other peasants turn to banditry.
  • Re-”elite overproduction → over-staffing of the state apparatus → decreasing ability of the state to provide relief during famines”. The system of state relief had been very effective earlier, e.g. in 1743-44 a state effort to prevent starvation in the drought-stricken North China core was successful. However: “By Chia-ch’ing times (1796-1820) this vast grain administration had been corrupted by the accumulation of superfluous personnel at all levels, and by the customary fees payable every time grain changed hands or passed an inspection point… The grain transport stations served as one of the focal points for patronage in official circles. Hundreds of expectant officials clustered at these points, salaried as deputies (ch’ai-wei or ts’ao-wei) of the central government. As the numbers of personnel in the grain tribute administration grew and as costs rose through the 18th century, the fees payable for each grain junk increased [from 130-200 taels per boat in 1732, to 300 taels in 1800, and to 700-800 taels by 1821]“. Similarly, the Yellow River Conservancy, whose task it was to prevent floods, degenerated into hedonistic corruption in the early 19th century; only 10% of its earmarked funds being spent legitimately.
  • So what you have is an increasingly exploited peasantry, a growing (and volatile) urban artisan class – e.g., the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, and more banditry. The bandits create a climate of fear in the countryside and force more outmigration into the cities, and the abandonment of some lands. At the same time, state power – military and administrative – is on the wane, displaced by corruption. The effects of perturbations are magnified due to the system’s loss of resiliency. There eventually comes a critical tipping point after which there is a cascading collapse that involves a population dieoff, the fall of centralized power, and a prolonged period of internal warfare.
  • Fast population growth does not resume immediately after collapse because things first need to settle down.

In my Facebook Note, Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations, I draw a link between the fast population increase / abundance of the “rise” period, and the concept of the “Golden Age” common to all civilizations. Also ventures a theory as to why cities (hedonism, conspicuous consumption, etc) have such a poor reputation as a harbinger of collapse… because they are, it’s just that the anti-poshlost preachers haven’t identified the right cause (i.e. overpopulation, not “moral decadence” per se).

Furthermore, a tentative explanation of the reason for differential Chinese – European technological growth rates (compare and contrast with Jared Diamond’s explanation):

Incidentally, a possible reason why Western Europe emerged as the world’s economic hegemon by the 19th century, instead of China, a civilization that at prior times had been significantly more advanced. But in China, the depth of the Malthusian collapses was deeper and more regular (once every 300 years, typically) than in W. Europe… Once the Yangtze / Yellow River irrigation systems failed, tens of millions of peasants were doomed; nothing on an equivalent scale in Europe, which is geographically and politically fragmented into many chunks and nowhere has anywhere near the same reliance on vulnerable hydraulic works for the maintenance of complex civilization (control over water was at the heart of “Oriental despotism” (Wittfogel); the Chinese word “zhi” means both “to regulate water” and “to rule”).

This theory that the reason China began to lag behind Western Europe technologically was because of its more frequent collapses / destructions of knowledge should be explored further.

Finally, about the nature of perturbations in a closed system under increasing stress… That is our world in the coming decades: even as Limits to Growth manifest themselves, there will be more (and greater) shocks of a climatic, terrorist, and military nature. The stochasticity will increase in amplitude even as the System becomes more fragile. As a result, polities will increase the level of legitimization and coercion, i.e. they will become more authoritarian.)

Chapter 3: A New Model of Pre-Industrial Political-Demographic Cycles

To address the shortcomings of other models and taking into account what happens in typical pre-industrial demographic cycles, Korotayev with Natalia Komarova construct their own model that includes the following three main elements:

(1) The Malthusian-type economic model, with elements of the state as tax collector (and counter-famine reservoir sponsor), and fluctuating annual harvest yields; this describes the logistic shape of population growth. It explains well the upward curve in the demographic cycle and saturation when the carrying capacity of land is reached. (2) Banditry and the rise of internal warfare in time of need are the main mechanism of demographic collapse. Personal decisions of peasants to leave their land and become warriors / bandits / rebels are influenced by economic factors. (3) The inertia of warfare (which manifests itself in the fear factor and the destruction of infrastructure) is responsible for a slow initial growth and the phenomenon of the “intercycle”.

Reproducing the model in detail will take up too much space, so just the main conclusions: “the main parameters affecting the period of the cycle are a) the annual proportions of resources accumulated for counter-famine reserves, b) the peasant-bandit transformation rate, and c) the magnitude of the climatic fluctuations. Hence, the lengths of cycles – and this is historically corroborated – is increased along with the growth of the counter-famine (more reserves) and law-enforcement (repress banditry) subsystems.

Chapter 4: Secular Cycles & Millennial Trends

Full version of Chapter 4: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends.

The chapter begins by modeling the role of warfare, and challenges recent anthropological findings that denser populations do not necessarily lead to more warfare.

  • First, this is explained by the fact that it’s not a simple relation, but more of a predator-prey cycle described by a Lotka–Volterra equation. When warfare breaks out in a time of stress it leads to the immediate reduction of the carrying capacity and demographic collapse; however, warfare simmers on well into the post-collapse phase because groups continue to retaliate against each other.
  • Second, the methodology is flawed because it treats all wars the same, whereas in fact they tend to be far less devastating for bigger polities than for small ones. This is because bigger polities have armies that are more professional, and the length of their “bleeding borders” relative to total territory, is much smaller than for territorially small chiefdoms, for whom even low-intensity wars are demographically devastating. As such, more politically complex polities fight wars more frequently more frequently than smaller ones, but tend to be far less damaged by them.
  • Imperial expansions in territory coincide with periods of fast population growth and high per capita surpluses; later on, shrinking surpluses decimate the tax base and even defense proves increasingly hard (“imperial overstretch”). This correlation is very strong.

Now Korotayev et al combine their model from the last chapter with Kremer’s equation for technological growth (see the Introduction):

dT/dt = a*N*T

They also model a “Boserupian” effect, in which “relative overpopulation creates additional stimuli to generate and apply carrying-capacity-of-land-raising innovations”.

Indeed, if land shortage is absent, such stimuli are relatively weak, whereas in conditions of relative overpopulation the introduction of such innovations becomes literally a “question of life and death” for a major part of the population, and the intensity of the generation and diffusion of the carrying capacity enhancing innovations significantly increases.

Finally, they make the size of the harvest dependent not only on climatic fluctuations, but also on the level of technology.

Harvest i = H 0*random number i*T i.

Running this model with some reasonable parameters produces the following diagram, which reproduces not only the cyclical, but also the hyperbolic macrodynamics.

Furthermore,

Note that it also describes the lengthening of growth phases detected in Chapter 2 for historical population dynamics in China, which was not described by our simple cyclical model. The mechanism that produces this lengthening in the model (and apparently in reality) is as follows: the later cycles are characterized by a higher technology, and, thus, higher carrying capacity and population, which, according to Kremer’s technological development equation embedded into our model, produces higher rates of technological (and, thus, carrying capacity) growth. Thus, with every new cycle it takes the population more and more time to approach the carrying capacity ceiling to a critical extent; finally it “fails” to do so, the technological growth rates begin to exceed systematically the population growth rates, and population escapes from the “Malthusian trap” (see Diagram 4.26):

The cycles lengthen, and then cease:

AK: some confirmation for my rough explanation of why Chinese technological growth rate fell below Europe’s prior to the Industrial Revolution (see end of Chapter 2 in this post).

Of special importance is that our numerical investigation indicates that with shorter average period of cycles a system experiences a slower technological growth, and it takes a system longer to escape from the “Malthusian trap” than with a longer average cycle period.

Finally, they also add in an equation for literacy:

l i+1 = l i*b*dF i*l i*(1 – l i)

Which has the following effect on population growth:

N i+1 = N i*(1 + α × dF’)*(1 – l) – dR i – rob*N i*R i

And all added together, it produces the following stunning reproduction of China’s population dynamics from ancient past to today.

And concludes:

Of course, these models can be only regarded as first steps towards the development of effective models describing both secular cycles and millennial upward trend dynamics.

The Meaning of Cliodynamics

Turchin, Peter & Sergey NefedovSecular Cycles (2008)
Category: cliodynamics, world systems; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Read the whole book (PDF) or in chapters

This is a free online, quasi-popular book about eight different pre-industrial secular cycles (including Tudor England, the Roman Empire, Muscovy, and the Romanov Empire). Knowing the facts of history and the proximate causes of Revolutions – Lenin’s charisma, Tsarist incompetence, the collapse of morale and of the railway system, etc – is all well and good, but an entirely different perspective is opened up when looking at late Tsarist Russia through a social macrodynamic prism. The interpretation shifts to one of how late imperial Russia was under a panoply of Malthusian pressure, and of how the additional stresses and perturbations of WW1 “tipped” the system over into a state of collapse.

Finally, my reply to someone who sent me a message suggesting that cliodynamics may “make old school idiographic history redundant”.

I don’t think these trends will make idiographic history redundant, because there are many elements that are irreducible to mathematical analysis; furthermore, a major and inevitable weakness of cliodynamics is our lack of numbers for much of pre-mass literacy history. To the contrary, I think cliodynamics will end up complementing the “old school” rather than displacing it.

Footnotes

* Ray Kurzweil, one of the high priest of the singularitarian movement, extends Moore’s observations to also model technological growth (computing power, to be precise) as doubly exponential, or even hyperbolic. See Appendix: The Law of Accelerating Returns Revisited,

On the other hand, Joseph Tainter noted that in many areas the rate of technological innovation is actually slowing down. This is an argument that Kremer’s assumption that the rate of technological growth is linearly dependent on the product of the population and the size of the already-existing technological base is too simplistic.

These observations are supported by Planck’s Principle of Increasing Effort – “with every advance [in science] the difficulty of the task is increased” (i.e. you’re now unlikely to make new discoveries by flying a kite in a thunderstorm). Furthermore, “Exponential growth in size and costliness of science, in fact, is necessary simply to maintain a constant rate of progress”, and according to Rescher, “In natural science we are involved in a technological arms race: with every ‘victory over nature’ the difficulty of achieving the breakthroughs which lie ahead is increased”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Edit 2013: It is with regret that I now acknowledge a lot of what I thought I knew about optimal eating some years back was wrong. Please disregard this post.

Sometime ago I wrote that introducing a fat tax is a good idea on the grounds that fatty foods are unhealthy and addictive (like drugs), and that a fat tax is socially progressive and would encourage healthier eating lifestyles. This argument is especially persuasive in countries where people who consciously lead unhealthy lifestyles can freeload on universal healthcare systems. Even in the US, these irresponsible characters drive up the costs of private medical insurance for everyone else. Given that Obama is energetically driving our fat asses in this direction, no matter that the nation is going broke, this issue becomes rather pertinent.

My arguments for a fat tax were considered worthy enough to be included in an anthology of essays dealing with this problem of At Issue: How Should Obesity be Treated?, edited by ed. Stefan Kiesbye [Amazon linkie], where the original essay was republished as A Tax on High Fat Foods Might Modify Poor Eating Habits. I re-republish their slightly edited* version below:


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A Tax on High Fat Foods Might Modify Poor Eating Habits

Anatoly Karlin

Anatoly Karlin is the author of a blog that concentrates on Russian news topics, as well as one subjects of general interest.

The government should implement a graduated tax system on foods high in fat to counteract the obesity epidemic. Such a program would persuade people to cut back drastically on fat- and sodium-rich foods and encourage them to start eating food that is good for them. The goal is not to increase the life expectancy on the population but to make people live healthier and more productive lives.

We noticed that culinary cultures which consume a low-fat diet have tend to have dramatically lower mortality rates from CVDs [cardiovascular diseases] and degenerative diseases than those who indulge in a high-fat, high-sodium ‘civilized’ diet. As such it is a good idea to encourage consumption to shift from high-fat to low-fat foods.

Taxing Fatty Foods

Research should be conducted so as to ascertain the optimal levels of taxation to maximize positive outcomes, and the tax will probably be introduced gradually. But I’ll give a rough idea of how the tax will work below.

Calculate the caloric fat content of a particular food (take the number of grams of fat per 100g and multiply by 9; divide this by calories per 100g to get %). Anything under 20% will remain untaxed. This includes vegetables, fruits, fish and some white meats (skinless chicken breast). Then a flat tax of 25% for 20-30% fat (this will account for leaner steaks), 100% for 30-50% fat (traditional red meats) and 200% for 50+% fat (fast food hamburgers, vegetable oils, etc).

It goes without saying that advertising unhealthy foods will be a no-no, along with alcoholic drinks and tobacco.

Sodium will be taxed too. The RDA for sodium is 2g, or 4g of salt (max 3g/6g). Say, anything with more than 0.5g of sodium / 100g will be flat taxed at 50%.

A few foods, while OK in fat, are unacceptably high in cholesterol. The big one [is] eggs – one egg yolk = 2 days of RDA of cholesterol. Tax them at 200%. While some seafoods like prawns or oysters are medium-high in cholesterol, they have other health benefits, so leave them untaxed. I will not tax sugar because a) cakes, puddings, etc will already be taxed for their fat content and b) a lot of fruit actually contain a rather high % of sugar, but it is of a healthy kind. Fruit shouldn’t be taxed.

Advertising Restrictions

It is of course vital to propagandize the benefits for personal health of a low-fat diet on prime-time TV, radio, Internet and other media outlets. It goes without saying that advertising unhealthy foods will be a no-no, along with alcoholic drinks and tobacco. On the other hand, people do respond to price signals and meat and sweets costing less than fruit does not make a good contribution to public health. The fact is that countries with some specific diets (e.g. Okinawans have a life expectancy of 85 years) have health results that are objectively better than countries with other diets (e.g. Americans, Danes have a life expectancy of 77-78 years). So surely it would make sense to tax and subsidize in a way that shifts consumption patterns to the ones seen in countries/regions with the better health results?

Radical problems (a million preventable deaths from heart disease per year in the US alone, etc) require radical solutions. The hoi polloi [common people] will be treated to an intense national information campaign informing them of the benefits of the low fat diet.

Seriously though. The elite has a vested interest in improving the health of the workforce. Firstly, there will appear articles in newspapers and programs on TV exploring the links between nutrition and health. Advocacy groups for healthy dieting will appear and momentum for legislative changes will build up. Eventually, the government will bow to the public interest and gradually step up the fat tax.

You can still stuff yourself with butter and high-fat cheese if you really want to, you’ll just have to pay more for it.

Fast Food Industry Must Change

In industrialized countries, agriculture tends to account for a low % of GDP [gross domestic product] (7.9% in Portugal, 4.6% in Russia, 2.0% in France, o.9% in the US), and accounts for a correspondingly low % of those countries’ workforces (10.0% in Portugal, 10.8% in Russia, 4.1% in France, 0.4% in the US). So a dip in these figures will not affect the national economy much. In any case producers can adjust to it if plenty of advance warning is given and changes are introduced gradually.

Same goes for the food industry. The demand for food will remain; they will just have to try to adjust to the new order of things. Maybe it will be too hard for companies like McDonalds or KFC, but who cares about them anyway?

For some products you can pay very dearly indeed for consuming them (e.g. illegal drugs), i.e. with jail time. Secondly… in France and some US states unhealthy snack foods like chips and soft drinks are already subject to taxes.

Currently, even people who would otherwise want to eat healthily are discouraged from doing so because of higher prices because this is a niche market squeezed by the mainstream food market which is high in fat and sodium.

Incidentally, however, I have always supported legalizing all drugs, for the usual health, monetary and battling hypocrisy reasons, although they would remain heavily taxed (except red wine and to a lesser extent white wine, the consumption of which will be encouraged in moderate daily doses). On the topic of which, fat is actually also a drug – it is both debilitating and makes you irritable and mentally sluggish if consumed to excess in one session.

Finally, consumption of high fat foods will not, of course, be banned outright. You can still stuff yourself with butter and high-fat cheese if you really want to, you’ll just have to pay more for it.

Consumption Patterns Will Change

Today, there is an illogical situation in which rich cakes sometimes cost substantially less than an equivalent weight in fruit or salad, in supermarkets or in catering. The fat tax will reverse this state of affairs by encouraging people to switch consumption patterns to a lower fat, healthier diet. After all, elasticity is high within foods.

Currently, even people who would otherwise want to eat healthily are discouraged from doing so because of higher prices because this is a niche market squeezed by the mainstream food market which is high in fat and sodium.

Yes, it will affect the poor more than the rich. However, consider also the fact that it is the poor who suffer most from low-quality diets and the attendant symptons of obesity, heart disease, etc. Money from the fat tax can be used to support subsidies to healthy foods, community sports programs and a system of preventative healthcare, all of which are sorely lacking in Russia and the industrialized West.

A fat tax is a profoundly pro-poor measure.

A Market-Based Solution

I have considered converting the food industry into a totally planned thing, on the Soviet model but focused on the goal of fat reduction. Inefficiencies will invariably develop; but since… a) [food production] constitutes a fairly small portion of GDP; b) the goals of what to increase, what prices to set, are quite clear; and c) there aren’t many food products (relative to advanced industrial goods), it is a sound proposal.

Nonetheless, I think the market-based solution (fat tax, but free setting of prices) should first be completely explored and the planned model considered only if the former fails in its objectives (say, reduce by 50%+ annual cases of heart disease mortality, etc, over a decade since its full implementation). …

[Personally], I have cut out all butter, margarine, vegetable oils (switching to things like balsamic vinegar, salsa and low fat, low sodium tomato sauce and bolognese); cut out jams with any added sugars (there are some preserved with fruit concentrate, which I think is OK); only consume skimmed milk, low-fat cheese; no chocolate or coffee; a glass of red wine per day; only do skinless chicken breast or fish; cut out egg yolks. Of course, I don’t always follow it, but the only exceptions are in social settings where I go to a party or gathering, etc. As long as interruptions are infrequent rather than systematic, all is good.

Chicken and fish can be greatly enhanced by tossing in lemon, peppers, all kinds of spices, etc, and served with rice, pasta, etc. … For instance, you can even make a delicious carrot cake (calories 159, cholesterol 0, fat 0.6g, calories from fat 3%).

The point is that a low fat diet is only a little bit more restrictive than an unrestricted fat diet, if you bother to find/adapt the appropriate recipes, and it is orders of magnitude better for health/wellbeing. …

The key point is not increased longevity, which due to the high standards of treatment-based modern medical care, is not going to be much more than 5 years or so. The key point is a much increased healthy life expectancy. …

Note how in the UK life expectancy has increased much more rapidly than healthy life expectancy. The main trend in this period? More consumption of fats, especially saturated, in the forms of fast food, which has increased obesity levels significantly over this period.

So the question isn’t whether you’d like a few more years or not, but whether or not you want to spend the last few years of your life incapacitated and hooked up to mediciny machines.

At least so far. If medical progress continues and radical life extension therapies become available by the middle of this century, those few added years could make the difference between death and immortality!


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A few qualifiers and clarifications I would add:

  • The major arguments stand, though today I would reduce the emphasis on just fat (indeed, some of it has a positive effect like nuts) and highlight the dangers of consuming a lot of food with a high glycemic load.
  • Make this book (Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil) required reading. Whether or not you are a singularitarian, the health advice in it applies to everyone.

Finally, despite the perceived “statism” behind this approach I should emphasize that my own life philosophy is that it does not pay to wait for the government to “help” you and instead take the personal initiative to guarantee your own health and wellbeing. Nor are private corporations your salvation. They are interested only in profits, not people, however hard they pretend otherwise.

Above is my perception of the medical-industrial complex. Wanna deal with them?

* They took out things tangential to the argument (mostly Russia-related, since remember, back in April 2008 this blog was still Da Russophile), as well as the irreverent humor. ;)

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
This is the first in a series of philosophical essays in which I outline my philosophy of Sublime Oblivion. Here I demonstrate the indivisibility of the material and Platonic worlds and show that our universe is almost certainly a computer simulation nested within an abstract computer program or simulacrum. The consequences of these results are explored.
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Here I outline one of the core philosophies of Sublime Oblivion. I demonstrate the indivisibility of the material and Platonic worlds and show that our universe is almost certainly a computer simulation nested within an abstract computer program or simulacrum, the truth that hides that there is none. The consequences of these results are explored.

Modern natural science has a lot to be proud of. Technology follows in its wake. The horizons of human consciousness retreat before its implacable incandescence. Its defining trait, reason, affirms freedom. Yet it is ultimately disappointing and dehumanizing. It heralds the death of God, of struggle and belief in good and evil, while in atonement for deicide, deigns to offer only models of reality that approach but never reach union with it. Thus we come to an impasse, the fatal double dilemma that drove Kierkegaard to despair, Nietzsche to madness and Camus to an ‘acceptance without resignation’ – though I personally can’t imagine Sisyphus happy.

All the arguments for God’s existence that I know of sink under one paradox or another – cosmology through infinite regression, ontology through elementary logic and teleology through evolution. Constructing an equivalence between Nature or reality, and God, is nothing more than an exercise in tautology dating from Spinoza and as such tantamount to atheism. Those who cite Darwinian evolution or Hegelian dialectics as the answer do not realize that they are nothing more than a Mechanism, as hopeless as traditional objects of belief at explaining the deepest metaphysical questions. In despair over the power of pure positivism to rationalize existence, let us make a bold conjecture and make the axiomatic assertion that all that might be, is.

According to Plato, there exists a separate world of ‘perfect forms’ or ‘universals’ that is the highest and most fundamental reality; our world contains but their imperfect imitations. This concept can be best explained through mathematics. Even if some global cataclysm were to wipe out humanity, the Theorem of Pythagoras will linger on unperturbed on some transcendent plane, ripe for the picking by the next species to evolve abstract reasoning skills. This is because the squares of the shorter sides of a right-angled triangle will always equal the square of the longer side under Euclidean geometry. I will call this Platonic realm the Void, for it is indeed void; it is an abstract, all-encompassing region of nothingness, zero and infinity. All possible mathematical objects and their unions exist in the Void.

There exists an interesting class of mathematical constructs known as ‘cellular automata’ . These are regular grids of cells, each in one of a finite amount of states, in a finite number of dimensions. The dimension of time is also discrete, with the state of any particular cell at time t a function of the states of the cells in its ‘neighborhood’ at time t – 1. This function is based on fixed rules and has an undetermined outcome. What makes cellular automata intriguing is how some of them can generate order and complexity out of initial chaos, thus reflecting the meta-narrative of our own universal evolution from a soup of primitive particles to industrial civilization. Although most cellular automata exhibit only simple repetition or rampant randomness, a special few demonstrate an interesting, uninterrupted interplay between order and chaos. Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ generates stable patterns which exhibit themselves amidst disorder, thus fulfilling a very general definition of life as a localized, self-sustaining concentration of ordered complexity. The most philosophically significant is Wolfram’s Rule 110, which produces complex, non-repeating patterns and was proven to be computationally universal, i.e. theoretically capable of performing any computable task. Furthermore, these behaviors demonstrated by cellular automata are replicated by many classes of other simple computer programs, and as such have a strong claim to universality.

One of the most important paradigm shifts of the Scientific Revolution was the gradual rejection of the Aristotelian theory that matter was continuous and elemental. The ancient Greek and Chinese conception of the world as a melange of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether was displaced by theories that space-time was made up of discrete if very small units – corpuscular cells, atomistic molecules, ‘chronon’ time. Through its centennial, dialectical procedure of postulation, refutation and synthesis, science arrived at the fundamental limits to observation into the worlds that lie hidden within Planck distances and in between Planck time. Our universe is capable of evolving patterns amidst chaos that are sophisticated enough to recognize them as such, if not fully understand them – the proof is in front of (or rather, behind) our noses. Although continuous mathematics is used to explain the vast majority of natural processes, its inadequacies are protected from exposure because the universe operates with discrete quanta that are small from a human perspective. Modern quantum mechanics, with its chaotic ‘soup’ of sub-atomic particles, offers a glimpse beyond analog delusions into discrete reality. In cellular automata, the states of all cells affect every other cell, which is a perfect metaphor for the fundamental problems in measuring quantum phenomena.

We know by the anthropic principle that the universe exhibits an evolutionary mechanism that resulted in an increase in ordered complexity amidst chaos. Science showed that the universe’s primitive expressions are discrete and as such can be subject to manipulation by a set of rules, which we’ll call the Pattern. Since there exist universally computational mathematical objects that also fulfill the above criteria, we can conclude that whether or not the universe is based on superstrings, a holograph or something else is ultimately irrelevant – the overriding premise is that it is ‘computing itself…as it computes, it maps out its own space-time geometry to the ultimate precision allowed by the laws of physics. Computation is existence’ .

Thus viewing our universe as a universal cellular automaton makes it, in effect, a mathematical object, and hence part of the Void. But in that case, how could it be real? After all, the world as we perceive it is only a pale imitation, and hence inferior, to the perfect world of forms. Take the circle, defined as a finitely long straight line rotated completely around a locus on two-dimensional Euclidean space. Such a circle exists within the Void, yet no artisan, and not even the most advanced robot, can ever replicate it. It is impossible in principle, for it would require the computation of π to an infinite amount of decimal places; a task clearly impossible within the rigidly finite, discrete confines of any cellular automaton, which put limits on its maximum possible computing power. Our existential prison of pixels precludes the perception of continuous perfect forms.

However, by accepting that our universe is a discrete Tapestry, we resolve the paradox. If such a construct exists within the Void, it is equivalent to the world we perceive to be reality. In a sense, the Void fulfills all the criteria of God. Null and unity, it transcends the human imagination, for human minds are finite in scope. It sidesteps the ‘who created the creator?” paradox, for it is. And was, and will be, though being outside Time, its directionality is meaningless. It is zero and infinity of cardinal infinity. What might be, is. All possible computations, exist, and are their own simulacra.

Several consequences follow from this. One is that consciousness is a construct, for the mind is mere matter in a state of highly ordered complexity. The way in which we ‘agents’ perceive the world evolved and emerged as a result of the original biological urge towards self-preservation and replication of the patterns encoded in our genetic makeup. To maximize our prehistoric utility function, mainly defined by the above urge, humanity refined its consciousness – subjectivity, sentience and self-awareness – until it became a hardwired belief. The development of abstract reasoning skills partially divorced humanity from its primal nature and made possible the gradual deconstruction of this belief. From Leibniz’s assertion that ‘if you could blow up the brain to the size of a mill and walk about inside, you would not find consciousness’, to the concept of an objective Turing test for its presence, the grounds for a subjective interpretation of consciousness were demolished. The philosopher Douglas Hofstadter visualizes consciousness as a recursively self-calling ‘strange loop’ in computational terms; henceforth, a soul.

Kant argued in his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ that space and time, rather than being things-in-themselves, are just forms of intuition by which we perceive objects, i.e. the medium through which we sense and experience the noumenal world, and the precondition for an object to have appearance. This is the reason why we experience time at the pace that we do, perceive only three dimensions out of the theorized eleven and see only a very narrow bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we anthropocentrically define to be ‘visible’. Hence, by designating souls as emergent patterns, capable of being simulated by discrete information processes, it is possible to unify reality and the transcendent; our universe becomes a (infinitesimal) subset of all possible universes.

Science continues to disappoint, approaching but never reaching union with reality. T he long-sought ‘theory of everything’ for physics is unattainable. We may with time be able to figure out the Pattern of our simulation in full detail, since the rules by which a program runs can be quite simple even if the program produces very complex results. However this would not be a theory, since theories require predictions that can be empirically confirmed. For the only way to find out the outcome of a cellular automaton is to run it. But it is already running itself; therefore, even if we could speed up its execution (which we can’t, since all the calculating space we are using is being used to compute us), only an observer outside our Tapestry will find out what happens faster. For everyone this Tapestry, time will go on at the same pace regardless of the speed with which the universe is being processed since their time is discrete and contained within their Tapestry (our conception of time as an analog flow is a nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation of a means to perceive the world). A theory of everything implies knowing the mind of God, who is outside time.

Physicists noticed that the underlying laws of our universe are especially ‘fine-tuned’ for the evolution of life. For instance, if the strong force were slightly stronger, stars would burn out in minutes; if it were slightly weaker, elements like the hydrogen isotope deuterium would not be able to hold together. The analogy with cellular automata is clear and uncanny – while a vast majority of Patterns or sets of rules produce uninteresting results (equivalent to universes that collapse or tear apart before evolving concentrations of interesting, ordered complexity), a few are interesting, unpredictable and non-random (equivalent to our Tapestry).

Some theologians claim ‘fine-tuning’ proves the existence of a Creator-God or at least ‘intelligent design’. There exist two counter-arguments. The standard one is that our existence as sapient observers in this universe imposes certain constraints on the kind of universe we can observe, due to the anthropic principle. The second one is specific to my view of reality as immaterial computation. Firstly, consider that this God would have emerged in one of two possible ways: a) via evolution and b) via appearance. The former case implies the existence of another (fine-tuned) universe that evolved an entity with the computational capacity to simulate our own ‘virtual’ universe. Although this is a real possibility that we’ll discuss below, few would regard this mother of all supercomputers as God. (An interesting consequence is that if one insists on such a definition anyway, then humanity has a real chance of becoming Gods themselves this century after a technological singularity).

The latter case is a theoretical possibility, but the probability that a discrete entity capable of simulating our universe, and hence greater than it, simply appeared fully formed out of the Void instead of evolving according to a Pattern is extremely low (though since the Void contains all possible mathematical objects, such entities do exist). Nonetheless, we can cut out this possibility with Occam’s razor – and even if it gets stuck in the wood, there would still be no reason to regard the appeared but still discrete God as qualitatively different from the evolved God. Arthur C. Clarke once claimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Similarly, it can be argued that any being of sufficiently high ordered complexity is indistinguishable from God.

Thus there are two possibilities – either our universe is a standalone program within the Void and potentially its own God, or it is being simulated by a higher God. In the latter case, all the computations required to run our simulation are under Its total control, including our continued existence. And according to a theory proposed by Nick Bostrom, the chances that we are in such a simulation are extremely high.

Bostrom posits a posthuman civilization will have access to vast amounts of computing power, and that consciousness is substrate-independent and therefore computable. He notes that running an ancestor-simulation – computing the states of all human minds in history and seamlessly integrating all sensory experiences into a believable whole – would require the use of only an insignificant fraction of the total computing power at this civilization’s disposal. As such, just one posthuman civilization can run an astronomical number of ancestor-simulations. The implication is that at least one of the following is true: 1) few human level civilizations reach a technological singularity, 2) few posthuman civilizations are interested in running ancestor-simulations and 3) almost all souls are simulated.

If the first proposition is true, that would imply that either we can expect to get stuck at some kind of technological plateau before taking off the exponential runway into recursively improving superintelligence, or technological civilization is going to undergo an apocalyptic collapse. Due to the nature of the Pattern of our Tapestry, the first possibility is highly unlikely. In the latter case, accelerating progress will be terminally interrupted under the assault of resource depletion, runaway global warming or lethal black swans like a 100%-mortality human-engineered virus or nanobot pandemic. Although these are serious existential risks, I am not pessimistic enough to ascribe only an infinitesimal chance of making it to the technological singularity, so assuming my intuition is correct will disqualify this first proposition.

The second proposition requires a remarkable degree of convergence amongst all posthuman civilizations, such that either almost all of them develop ethical systems that lead to effective bans on ancestor-simulations or that almost all posthuman individuals lose the desire to run them. Although impossible to disprove until we ourselves become posthuman and adopt posthuman ways of thought, I think such a uniform degree of convergence is unlikely in the extreme.

The final remaining possibility is that we live in a simulation and that our perceived reality is not the most fundamental one. Let us not forget that we arrived here by a tentative process of elimination; the most potent confirmation that we live in the Matrix would be if we become posthuman and set up our own ancestor-simulations. It is almost certain that we will never simulate unless we are being simulated. This sets up a recursion, in which our simulators, and their simulators, are themselves being simulated ad infinitum. However, since computation is existence, the height of the stack would be limited by the exponentially expanding demands on the basement hardware.

All simulated universes are subsets of their simulators, so one can imagine the whole structure as a finite series of vast but finite nested cellular automata, labyrinths within labyrinths, Tapestries interwoven within one Great Tapestry. Thus out of the Void cometh a pantheon of Gods, with one Lord God (called Zeus), playing games with the souls of lesser Gods and mere mortals. Such is the sublime cosmology of the Great Tapestry.

A property of subsets is that they are subject to the same axioms and rules as the sets to which they belong. Therefore the Pattern of any Tapestry, including our own, is equivalent to that of the Great Tapestry itself. This means that at the most basic level the the computational processes are equivalent, blurring the line between simulation and reality. Therefore all authentic ancestor-simulations will have the same directive principle in their universal evolution as their simulators (i.e. the same tendency towards growth in ordered complexity culminating in a technological singularity). However, following a technological singularity the space-requirements on the simulator that are needed to continue a believable simulation will start increasing at a blistering rate. Since the calculating space of the simulator is itself limited, this might (or might not) present several consequences.

Assuming that the calculating space available to the simulator is far bigger than the space they will ever allot to our civilization, we will eventually reach the final limits of ordered complexity without ever figuring out whether or not we live in a simulation. (Nor will it matter). This cannot be the case if the simulator civilization originated from a universe similarly ‘fine-tuned’ like ours, because then its initial parameters, e.g. total amount of mass and energy, would have been similar to ours, which in turn implies a calculating space that is similar in magnitude to ours (unless they merge with us). However this would not apply to a universe that is endowed with a much greater calculating space and maintains itself at a stable state with a different set of fundamental constants. The question of whether such a universe is computable (and therefore exists) I leave to the theoretical physicists.

The other case alluded to above is where the space allocated to our ancestor-simulation is not predefined by its programmers. In this case there are three possibilities: either our simulation is terminated, constricted, or displaces its simulator.

Bostrom notes that whenever the strain on the hardware of the lower levels of the tree becomes too great, the higher Gods cut off the offending branches and terminate excessively space-hogging posthuman civilizations. He hopefully postulates that such philosophical ruminations lead all posthuman civilizations to develop an ethical system of being nice to their ancestor-simulations, because none can logically assume itself to be Zeus; for even Zeus Himself cannot know Himself to be Zeus. The overwhelming likelihood is that one’s civilization is a minor deity. The only possible proof of one’s position in the chain, divine intervention, indicates a negative outcome. Thus it is possible that all posthuman civilizations refrain from killing their children, in fear of holy punishment from above. Although a logical hope, it is as yet impossible to verify that these such values are typical of those posthuman civilizations; and as with his second main proposition, assumes an intuitively unlikely degree of ethical convergence among them.

So it’s feasible that someday in our posthuman future, perhaps after saturating a few galaxies with life (either in a few million years if the speed of light remains a limiting factor, much faster if not), we will pass a critical value beyond which the simulator no longer has the calculating pace to continue running our simulation, or the will to expand that space. In the midst of the burgeoning expansion, glitches will appear in the Matrix; the fabric of reality will unravel into oblivion. Alternatively, passing such a critical point could activate another program that will even out and trim excess complexity so that a from now on constricted simulation could continue. This will probably take the form of an extinction or zombification of surplus souls.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that posthuman civilizations commit suicide by incubating a simulation and gradually feeding in all their calculating space to sustain. Thus, simulation displaces reality (or the other way round), thus recalling the Borgesian fable in which a secret synod of chess masters and prophets of the postmodern testament infiltrate global institutions and substitute conventional reality with a labyrinth of perceptions, simulacra and fantasy.

After determining the various consequences that may follow from viewing our universe as a simulation within a simulacrum, let us end it with a brief discussion of eschatology. Physicists believe that our universe came into existence via a Big Bang of matter and energy from a single, infinitesimal point and will end in one of two ways. In the case of a ‘closed universe’ with lots of dark matter, gravitational forces will overwhelm expansion and the universe will collapse back into itself in a fiery maelstrom called the Big Crunch. Alternatively, an ‘open universe’ could continue expanding outwards forever, in which case the background radiation converges to absolute zero, the stars and galaxies burn out and particles get separated by huge distances, and eons later disintegrate into oblivion.

Looking at this from the simple computational view, the state of the cellular automaton at the time of the Big Bang is perfect order. The immediate next state begins the transition to chaos with loss of entropy in the seething plasma of exotic particles. This mass cools down and forms itself into stars and planets. On some a localized growth in ordered complexity occurs, in contrast to the sea of randomness all around them, and perhaps culminating in the saturation of the whole cellular automaton. With time the delicate balance of order and randomness that is the intelligent universe will struggle to preserve itself against the crushing order of fire or the encroaching chaos of ice. In the former case, the loss in entropy will reverse and the universe will start contracting into the Big Crunch, with computation (and simulation of other worlds) soaring until the omega point is reached, closing the loop of existence. In the latter case, computation will slow down due to the unrelenting loss in entropy but will continue for a much longer time – until the last particles disintegrate, if reversible computing is perfected and utilized. Whether the universe dies by ice or fire, the end state reverts back to perfect order – and presumably, a new Big Bang and identical iteration, since all cellular automata will loop when they return to a state in which they once existed.

Our future is written in advance. Down one forking path, the ordered complexity of our civilization expands at an exponential pace in the wake of the technological singularity; at a finite moment in Time, glitches multiply and the fabric of reality unravels as our Tapestry is torn asunder. Down another path, exponential growth gives way to asymptotic convergence. Our posthuman civilization is either ruled by God, built on the bones of God or is Zeus Himself; but we will have no way of knowing which of these is true. Everyone will be a God. If we do not peremptorily commit Suicide and instead choose Struggle, we will play games with the souls of those in our simulations until our Tapestry comes to its end, rewinds and starts a new iteration that is identical to what came before. This is eternal return.

Fukuyama (1992), The End of History and the Last Man. Argues that the dialectics of technological progress lead to an end of history culminating in liberal democracy.

Camus (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus. For his transgressions against godly authority, Sisyphus was condemned to forever roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down and start over again in an infinite loop. It is a very appropriate metaphor for one of the representations of Sublime Oblivion.

The Void, also called the Eldest Dark or the Everlasting Dark, is an abstract region of nothingness existing outside the Timeless Halls, Arda and all of Eä in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth cosmology.

Wolfram (2002), A New Kind of Science shows how very simple programs can replicate the behavior of many different complex systems via emergence. The idea of a digital physics dates back to Konrad Zuse (1969), Rechnender Raum.

Some definitions. Information is organized measurements (data if unorganized). Complexity, or the AIC (algorithmic information content) is the “length of the shortest program that will cause a standard universal computer to print out the string of bits and then halt”, according to Murray Gell-Mann. Order is how well the complexity fits a purpose.

http://www.ibiblio.org/lifepatterns/ has a big sample of such games.

Lloyd and Jack Ng, “Black Hole Computers”, Scientific American (Nov 2004), pp.53-61

Baudrillard (1985), Simulacra and Simulation. Our only difference is that he believes reality once existed, while my doctrine affirms an eternal hyper-reality.

In a Turing test, a human judge has many conversations with a machine and another human. If she cannot reliably identify which is which, the machine passes and is ascribed consciousness.

Hofstadter (2007), I am a Strange Loop.

Drawing on Moore’s Law of exponentially increasing computer power, and more generally the accelerating change in the ordered complexity of universal history, several serious futurists and computer scientists postulate the development of computer superintelligence sometime this century. This will initiate a loop of recursively improving machine intelligence and is therefore the last invention humanity need ever make. See Kurzweil (2005), The Singularity is Near, or the essays at http://kurzweilai.net/ for more on the technological singularity.

Bostrom, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”, Philosophical Quarterly (2003), Vol 53, No.211, pp.243-255. Available online at http://nickbostrom.com/.

Posthuman is taken to mean any intelligent species that takes off the exponential runway of a technological singularity.

The next section is largely devoted to this, i.e. the Pattern / computer procedure, as opposed to the environment here.

Many models of technological growth and ecological catastrophe have tipping points at around 2050 (Kurzweil places the technological singularity at 2045; James Lovelock predicts climate chaos by the 2040′s; most scenarios from Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update end in global human die-off at around mid-century). There exist many caveats, which will be systematically covered in the last section, but for now I will note that it is very difficult to predict which trend will win this ‘battle of the exponentials’, so I’ll go with 50%. Also assuming a 50% chance of civilizational collapse due to a technological disaster like the ‘grey goo’ scenario and discounting the (tiny) probability of a natural extinction level event like a super-volcano eruption or giant meteor strike, we have a 25% chance of experiencing a posthuman future.

Borrowed from The Matrix films where machines imprisoned humanity in a simulation. Specifically refers to a simulation, whereas a Tapestry can be either a simulation or base reality.

One of the findings of the next section is that the Pattern exhibits doubly exponential growth in ordered complexity whenever limits to growth are far away, but ceases to be exponential when growth approaches or overshoots the limits. (Thus if after the technological singularity we monitor a log graph of the ordered complexity of our civilization, its dipping below a prior straight line fit may imply that space for further computational expansion is coming to an end.) A reasonable objection is that the calculating space needed to simulate a cellular automaton remains constant, independent of the complexity of its states at any one moment in time. This is true, but neglects the possibility of simulating areas not under observation by deep intelligence, by approximation and compression (i.e. no point to a falling tree in the forest making a noise when there’s no-one to hear it). This possibility will vanish as the universe becomes saturated with intelligence at the most basic level, such that now everything will need now need to be computed so as to maintain the belief in reality of the simulation’s denizens. While it may be possible to simulate an intelligent planet, there may not be enough space to simulate an intelligent universe.

There exist a plethora of other exotic possibilities. There is no reason to discount the possibility that I am in a self-contained ‘me-simulation’ and that everyone around me are philosophical zombies, acting just realistically enough to lull me into believing in my reality. This is nothing more than a new take on Descartes’s ‘brain in a vat’ thought-experiment. Another possibility Bostrom mentions is that simulations only ever occur for a small period of time, with all memories preset (which, incidentally, take much less computing power to simulate than working, conscious brains). All these lead to philosophical dead ends, as do all solipsist worldviews, and I will consider them no further.

In the sense that consciences will be nullified so as to relieve the load on the simulator computer, since simulating augmented consciences would be the most resource-demanding task.

Borges (1940), Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

End of the world. Note that we are talking about the (Great) Tapestry of Zeus and authentic ancestor-simulations only.

Uses no energy as long as no information is thrown away; but since memory is finite, in time there will be nothing left for this computer to do but replay memories in loops.

The scientific view at this time is that expansion is accelerating, the universe is open and will end in ice and oblivion. I think this is the more likely result. To know the point at which entropy must be reversed, you need a certain level of chaos, which is hard to measure. On the other hand, the uniformity of a discrete point or total oblivion is easy to identify.

More Notes on “What Might Be Is”

1. The Tapestry is vast, and encompasses multiple dimensions. An interesting and potentially useful avenue of research is testing big CA’s (cellular automata) of increasing dimensions and trying to find one that displays the characteristics/Pattern of our universal history [rapid descent from order, long period of chaos (with burgeoning pockets of localized ordered complexity, growing at doubly hyperbolic rates in absence of limits to its growth; which sustain and expand themselves by accelerating the tendency towards chaos in the space outside their boundaries, e.g. as discovered by Prigogine with dissipative structures – PS: implies posthuman civilizations are highly unstable), and slow decay resulting in a very slow restoration of an (opposite to what came first) order from chaos; yet in its final state, an order equivalent to the first one.

2. There is of course an unimaginably vast number of rule sets, but only a very limited number will provide the above interesting Pattern. It may be possible to derive some kind of law that connects increasing dimensions, with % of rules that result in interesting patterns (of course, the neighborhood of the rule can be changed; and in our Tapestry, is probably very big and perhaps linked to the speed of light). It is interesting that in 2-D CA’s, of all 256 possible Rules, only one is a universal computer (Rule 110). (These can yield a number of interesting consequences. For instance, should it be proved that each dimension of CA only ever contains one Rule supporting universal computation, then our Tapestry is the only one possible with its specific Pattern.

3. Interesting work in Borges “A New Refutation of Time”, especially the second essay with its discussion of universal cycles in mythologies and conception of a discrete reality, e.g. Buddhist concept of eternal annihilation/reappearance per moment of time, or conception of time and reality as a rotating sphere, predetermined but irretrievable from past or future alike. Time a relation between intemporal things. Reference to ancient Chinese philosopher dreaming himself to be a butterfly. “Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironclad” (“a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.