Friday, March 31, 2006

Think Globally, Act Unilaterally

While trawling through old emails the other day I came across this from an email to Androoo in mid 2003:

I thought of another interesting facet of the problem of infinities in the moral calculus: the main argument for unilateral disarmament pre-1990 is now an equally good argument for unilateral world conquest.

Numerous commentators on the cold war have written that the game theory that usually applies to relations between countries should be thrown out when the risk of human extinction has to be factored in; while human extinction may have a low probability, but is of infinite badness, so all other goods should logically be sacrificed to avoid it. Thus, violations of international law, violations of human rights, and considerations of national interest should all be ignored in favour of unilateral disarmament...

Now, if there is no current threat of human extinction, but one might arise in the future, all other goods should logically be sacrificed to avoid it. Thus, violations of international law, violations of human rights, and considerations of national interest should all be ignored in favour of unilateral world conquest...

Of course these are both simplistic arguments, but I reckon they map onto each other perfectly! The only difference is the artifactual distinction between "doing bad things so that good things will happen" and "letting bad things happen so that good things will happen" which disappears if you can eradicate solipsism completely and really believe sum homo...

I wonder how much the Venn diagram of the adherents of these two opinions overlaps? (probably <0.0001 %)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What I learned about the Maya

The Maya considered themselves to be living in the fifth incarnation of the universe, and that it would be destroyed by earthquakes at a date their sages wisely put in their far future, on 23rd December 2012. I will keep my eyes open. I also learned that the Maya, who I always thought of as ‘kindler and gentler’ than the Aztecs, were also in to the whole human sacrifice thing in a big way. Having fewer captives and slaves, they mainly sacrificed orphans and bastards, much like our modern society. I suppose I should feel more reconciled to abortion if our modern facilities were dedicated to the Jaguar God of the Underworld...
I will write something about Serenity soon, and also West Papua, but in the meantime Here is a long quote from ‘Brave New Worlds: Genetics and the Human Experience’ by Bryan Appleyard.
...Ethical committees are constantly deliberating over the morality of the latest biological initiatives. This is a strange spectacle, for, although the word ‘ethics’ is repeatedly used, its meaning is far from clear when used by public figures. Do they mean a single moral system that could be applied to us all? Or do they mean a specific system that is intended for use within one area of expertise or policy? The distinction is important, because a local ethical system does not demand a general statement, only an expression of its utility within a particular discipline. A general ethical system, in contrast, implies a moral basis that is common to us all. ... And society, in liberal democratic terms, is not one system but many. Indeed, the whole point of a liberal democracy is that it has no ethical positions beyond the minimum needed to sustain itself. ...
Much of the time, of course, we pretend otherwise; we pretend we are more unified than we actually are. Political rhetoric needs at least the illusion of strong moral visions. But when politicians are faced with the strong moral feelings of various special-interest groups ... they find these illusions exposed. The vague moral vision of the political speech collapses when confronted with such a dilemma. To adopt either ethical stance would alienate too many people. And, of course, the passionate advocates of both positions find the resulting neutrality of the state almost as repellent as the ideas of their opponents.
As a result, when politicians ask for ethical advice on some specific issue, it is not at all clear what they mean, what they want, or what they intend to do with this advice. The history of ethical thought is long and complex, but it has produced no system to which everybody in a secular, democratic state is likely to subscribe. There are only opposing forces, as in the abortion debate. The process of counselling politicians tends, therefore, to follow the same pattern: A technological advance- say, human cloning- is considered. Those against and for are heard. A committee in some way takes the temperature of public feeling on the issue, perhaps by reading newspapers or taking a poll, and then produces a report. The report will be a compromise between various levels of unease- from extreme revulsion to mild concern- and the demands of business and technology. It will, in other words, be a simple balancing of forces. Ethics, in any recongisable sense of the word, does not come into it.’

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hi Ho!

I recently prodded Marco for not posting anything much for a while, and now I find myself in the same position. I am not entirely sure, but I may have already said everything I wanted to say.

I am sure 'Et tu' means 'And you', but I can't be bothered looking it up just now.

I read Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs and Steel,' on the suggestion of winstoninabox (the other one wasn't in the library) and didn't find much in it to disagree with. It all seemed very reasonable. You all ought to read it too, so there isn't much point in me trying to condense it to a few paragraphs. As far as it giving guidance to the cultures that are most likely to be successful, it strongly suggests that ones with a range of different power centres, where no single bureaucracy has the power to stifle innovation, are the way to go.

I am following the West Papuan situation with interest. This is one of those rare occasions where what Australia does will make a significant difference to the world.
It seems to me that the Australia/Indonesia relationship is nuch like the US/China relationship writ small and involves pretty much the same essential quandaries.

Every day I thank God that Latham is not Prime Minister. I am disappointed that politicians are lying weasels, but lying about your position on the foundation of our foreign policy is an order of magnitude more significant than lying about whether you will introduce a GST or whether you are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to Saddam Hussein. Rotten weasels. It would be nice if there was a working opposition party in Australia. It would be nicer if it had some principles. It would be even nicer if it had principles that were vaguely sensible. I finally got to see 'Serenity' the other day and was rather disappointed. Politically it was sound, though, and confirmed me in my earlier opinion that there is a 'Buffy Conservatism' which is different from, and nicer, than 'South Park Conservatism'. I should like to see a political movement based on the work of Joss Whedon. Perhaps I should see if there is something on 'Serenity' in 'Film Forensics' that I could comment on? I shall wander off and check...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Now that's a dagger

Suetonius, in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, says that Julius Caesar's last words to Marcus Brutus were not, 'You too, Brutus?' but 'You too, my child?' and that they were spoken in Greek, not Latin...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Is this a dagger which I see before me? No, it's Truffaut the Wonder Dog!

I was thinking a good quote would be 'all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that evil men find artifacts of ultimate power' and wanted to check the original form, and found this nifty link . Nifty, eh?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

So foul and fair a day I have not seen

Building the world’s tallest building is a sign of confidence and optimism. Throughout the 20th century, the United States kept building the biggest skyscrapers in the world. Stalin planned one that would have been the biggest, on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, but he never got around to building it. In the last decade, the push to build the world’s tallest building shifted to the happening east coast of Asia: Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Shanghai. I saw the site for the next one after Shanghai in June last year. It’s in Dubai. They are building big stuff because they have big dreams. They are confident about their future in a globalised economy. They are not going to shut themselves off in some islamic autarchy.


That was the vote in the United States senate to stop a company owned by the government of Dubai from operating ports in the United States. That means that 98% of the United States Senate are more clueless than Dubya about how to engage with moderate Muslims. This is either really really scary, if you think that Dubya is a principled and intelligent statesman, or almost unbelievably terrifyingly apocalyptically scary, if you still think he is a knuckle-dragging redneck.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A very Catholic post

I neglected, in my discussion of the book ‘Why the War was Wrong’, one of the most powerful arguments against the invasion of Iraq, because it was not mentioned in the book. This is the argument from authority. The Pope said it was a bad idea. This ought to give people like me, who cavil at being labelled ‘ex-catholic’, some pause.

Ought I to submit to the Pope’s judgment, on the basis of St. Ignatius Loyola’s dictum ‘I must believe that the white I see is black’? Is it valid to mount any counterargument while avoiding the label ‘ex-catholic’? The only way I can see is to separate, not church and state, but the spiritual and temporal powers. There is some feeble justification for this in the words of Christ, ‘render unto God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s’. The Pope is supreme in matters of faith and morals, but not in politics: it is his responsibility to explain the rules governing the use of power, not to interpret the rules himself for each possible case.

There is certainly plenty of room to exercise judgment in the application of the rules, because here is basically all St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about war in the Summa Theologica: ‘In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. ... Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. ... Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.’

Whose role is it to exercise temporal power? The heretics of the north gave over this power to the individual rulers of their dinky little countries- the King of Sweden, or of England, or in Prussia. Traditionally, however, the temporal power for the defense and unity of Christendom was invested in the Emperor. Either the Holy Roman Emperor in the West, or the plain old Roman Emperor in the East. Dante, in De Monarchia, makes a number of arguments for the proposition that the heathen Roman Empire was divinely instituted as the paramount temporal power on the planet. He argues that the Holy Roman Emperor as succesor to the Roman Emperors, does not derive his power from the Pope, but independently direct from God. Thus, while he must use their power for Christian aims, his relationship with the Pope is as younger brother to older brother, rather than servant to master. This is not of course de fide- Dante’s book was on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1881- but it is a legitimate tradition of Catholic thought expressed by a very saintly chap.

Dante’s arguments for the divine sanction of the Roman Empire are admittedly feeble to modern ears. He extolls the nobility of the Romans who built the Empire, credulously recounts various pro-Roman miracles occuring in the Roman annals as signs of God’s favour, and comes perilously close to a ‘might makes right’ arugment. Here is his very panglossian ‘whatever is, is right’ interpretation of history: ‘For since the resolving of a universal dispute is of greater concern to God that the resolving of a limited dispute, and in some limited disputes we seek to know divine judgment through champions... there is no doubt that the victory among those competing in the race for world domination was won in accordance with God’s judgment. The Roman people won the race to rule the world against all competition. This will be clear if, when we consider the competitors, we also consider the prize or finishing post. The prize or finishing-post was to rule over all mortals: this is what we mean by ‘empire’. But none achieved this except the Roman people.’

But of course, they didn’t really. The Chinese Emperors, among many others, would dispute the suggestion that the Roman people ruled over all mortals. Nobody really won the race for world domination until 1991...

Monday, March 06, 2006

I really wanted to post something about Dante's De Monarchia

But I will argue with Marco instead...

Think of any technology that has been usefully applied - It has only happened where the entity paying for this technology is expecting a return.

Yes, but this expected return has not always been financial.

Great ideas in themselves are almost completely useless without funding and an expectation that the idea is in the long run unsustainable if it cannot get a financial return.

Firstly, this expectation is a characteristic of our current society, not of human societies generally. Secondly, there is no idea so stupid that someone cannot be persuaded that they can expect a financial return from it. The supermarkets and cyberemporia are awash with such things.

What use is technology to extend people's post retirement life.

None whatsoever. Technology to extend people’s pre-retirement life, on the other hand, is dead useful. ‘Retirement’ is a dying concept and our grandchildren will be amazed that such a thing ever happened.

People will save up to extend it for as long as they can afford, but the simple truth is, eventually they will run out of money.

The complex truth is, if they invest it wisely and keep their needs simple (I am sure a brain in a tank can be kept happy for dollars a day, especially when economies of scale are factored in), there is no reason for them ever to run out of money.

Technology also necessarily builds on previous technologies given the social, economic and legal structures of the time. An understanding of the links between economy, society, laws and technology will give us a glimpse of what is feasible within our lifetimes and what isn't.

Firstly, I am not particularly concerned with what is feasible in my lifetime. I don’t think very many problems are ever solved in such a short period of time. Secondly, on the basis of the success of historical attempts to predict what is ‘feasible within our lifetimes’, this glimpse would be of less value than a small grey piece of triangular plastic marked with the letter ‘W’.

Also, some of what drives technology is pure luck. One cannot count on discoveries and insights to go in any particular direction.

One certainly can count on discoveries and insights to go in a particular direction, if that is the direction one chooses to look in. One cannot determine the rate of progress, but one can certainly decide where one wants to go, and go there. For example, the Manhattan Project. The biological engineering things I have in mind are based one vaguely plausible existing science and it is expected that some successes could be had by working in that direction.

Portable and high energy density power sources like nuclear, have a capacity both to improve our society and to risk it going backwards with calamity. Any disaster that causes world wide chaos can make some or most of recent technological advances useless.

Yes, which is why one world is not enough.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A pish tosh to Nihilism

It strikes me that winstoninabox's analysis of Japanese birthrates is almost blindingly self-evident.

Maybe economics is all important, and culture only has a feeble indirect influence. What does the worldwide correlation between birthrates and female workforce participation look like, O Economist-reading Marco? And are the outliers chiefly countries that have gross income inequality and/or completely socialised everything, enabling affordable child care?

This is not to argue that we should keep women out of the workforce, anymore than the [abortion = less crime] equation is an argument that we should permit abortion, or the [carbon dioxide emissions = global warming] equation is an argument that we should reduce carbon dioxide emissions; it is just something we need to keep in mind and manage.

Ultimately I am sure there will be a simple technological fix, as with most problems. Either a drastic extension of the useful human lifetime or the popularisation of a degenderised human phenotype should be sufficient.