Incoming links
from About
  • One result of this is that pages are in varying points on the spectrum between finished coherent essay and rough notes to myself. I've thought about trying to have some kind of visual difference between these, to help manage reader expectations, but for now you are on your own.
from For Memorial Day
  • While I took some jabs in Meditations on Meditations on Moloch, I'm with SSC all the way in decrying the truly horrible multipolar traps humans manage to create for themselves, war being the most obvious and most brutal.
from Rationalism
  • Now, this is quite true in that Rationalists constitute a subculture and have established a network of group houses, have a lot of promiscuous sex (aka "polyamory"), and are into psychedelics. On the other hand in Meditations on Meditations on Moloch I find that they've inverted some key hippie attitudes, for better or worse. They embrace what the hippies rejected and want to build a world on different principles.
from conflict theory
  • Conflict vs Mistake is a one of those SlateStarCodex pieces that, regardless of whatever problems I have with it, has become foundational to my own discourse as well as that of the Rationalist community. (His Meditations on Moloch is another and there are probably others). It inspired me to write a couple of long blog posts. Scott's a powerful and subtle thinker, and it was an interesting exercise trying to figure out just where he goes wrong; where I find myself pulling in a different direction.

Meditations on Meditations on Moloch

15 Feb 2021 03:48 - 08 Jan 2022 10:04

    • Note:
      • I'm writing this in the wake of the blowup between SlateStarCodex and NYT that is rocking the internet; and I'm doing it to remind myself that even if SSC has dubious politics and his arguments can be bad in sneaky ways, he's an excellent writer who has a way of bringing the most abstruse of concepts to life; and so I'm going to engage with him on that level if possible. And it turns out that this essay revolves around questions of agency.
    • One of SlateStarCodex's most famous posts is his take on Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Meditations on Moloch. At least, it takes off from Ginsberg's portrait of industrial civilization being animated by Moloch, a brutal god who demands sacrifice. SlateStarCodex's take on Moloch is interesting; he identifies it not with an actual deity or with some personified attributes of the human mind, but with certain natural characteristics of the overall dynamics of life, unfortunate competitive dynamics that lead to bad results for everyone, such as the ruthlessness required by evolution and Malthusian economics. Moloch is not an agent, it's just the brutal way things are.
    • The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.
    • To him, Moloch is not really an agent, it's just unfortunate local maxima or something like that. A multipolar trap that people can't get out of because they can only think and act locally. So we can think of better ways of being:
    • – The utopia where instead of the government paying lots of corporate welfare, the government doesn’t pay lots of corporate welfare. – The utopia where every country’s military is 50% smaller than it is today, and the savings go into infrastructure spending.
    • But we can't achieve them because of something; that something he identifies as Moloch:
    • ...I don’t think there are too many people who oppose any of these utopias. If they’re not happening, it’s not because people don’t support them. It certainly isn’t because nobody’s thought of them, since I just thought of them right now and I don’t expect my “discovery” to be hailed as particularly novel or change the world.
    • Note how this oddly elides the agency of all the people and organizations who do benefit from these suboptimal arrangements and thus do engage in active opposition to utopia: the corporations and the military in this case. Of course there is opposition, what are you even talking about? You think Moloch doesn't command whole armies?
    • This is very parallel to an earlier criticism I made on his conflict theory, a weird inability to see agency in the enemy, this assumption that conflict isn't just bad, it doesn't really exist. I can't make much sense out of this, except maybe he means that if only people were better or smarter, then they wouldn't pursue their base and selfish goals, and everyone would agree on what those goals should be.
    • As it is, everyone recognizes that they are in a competition trap, but they can't get out because they can't coordinate. Nobody really wants to be selfish or violent, they are just forced to by the system they inhabit.
    • A part of me wants to agree with this, but it's a part of me that I've long discarded as naive and utopian. It's of a piece with the sort of hippie dream that if everybody just woke up (via LSD or otherwise) they would operate on the basis of their true loving nature rather than the on the brutal and narrow values of industrial capitalism. In this sense Rationalists are like hippies, they have a certain hopefulness that an old cynic like myself both disdains and envies.
    • A lot of the commentators say Moloch represents capitalism. This is definitely a piece of it, even a big piece. But it doesn’t quite fit. Capitalism, whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen? Capitalism in whom I am a consciousness without a body? Capitalism, therefore granite cocks?
    • This also seems like a willful failure to see what Ginsberg is talking about, and it's not like it's very subtle either. The poet hammers us over the head with what he sees as the brutal inhuman nature of a mindset of which banks, hydrogen bombs, sexlessness and disembodiment are particular manifestations. Moloch names and connects all of those things, that is the fucking point.
    • Moloch is not a literal god, but he's not some set of disinterested mathematical equations either. Moloch is part of human nature, part of Ginsberg's own constitution that he is horrified by. Again, this is not subtle, its stated in about an explicit manner as you can get in poetry:
      • Moloch whose name is the Mind! Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!
    • Perhaps it's not that Scott doesn't get the clear meaning of the poem out of some failure of literary interpretation; he's a pretty sharp guy after all. Let's be charitable and just say he's trying to come up with his own variation on what Ginsberg is talking about. Ginsberg, being a poet, is concerned with dramatizing and agent-ifying the dark forces that are his subject. Scott, being a rationalist and a mistake-theorist, just wants to understand and fix the machinery, without assigning blame to people, and so reduces the anthropomorphic terror of Moloch to a set of less-than-optimal outcomes of the universe's mechanical laws.
    • Still, Ginsberg might have some doubts that Rationalism is the solution to Moloch whose name is the Mind, rather than a manifestation of the problem.
    • Moloch and Capitalism

      • I know that “capitalists sometimes do bad things” isn’t exactly an original talking point. But I do want to stress how it’s not equivalent to “capitalists are greedy”. I mean, sometimes they are greedy. But other times they’re just in a sufficiently intense competition where anyone who doesn’t do it will be outcompeted and replaced by people who do. Business practices are set by Moloch, no one else has any choice in the matter (from my very little knowledge of Marx, he understands this very very well and people who summarize him as “capitalists are greedy” are doing him a disservice).
      • I'm impressed that he's aware and acknowledges that Marx takes a systemic view of capitalism, and the problem is not so much the greed of individual capitalists, but the social conditions that impel them towards acquisitiveness and competition.
      • But Marx was also a major conflict theorist. Marx didn't think capitalism that just happened due to some unfortunate dynamics, and could be defeated by being smarter; he thought it was the way it was because it reflected the material interests of a specific group of people (the bourgeoise) and could only be fixed by another group of people finding their agency and overthrowing it.
    • Moloch and Gnon

      • The Lovecraftian Cosmic Perspective is the horrifying realization that the interests of a natural, emergent Gnon overall do not coincide with those of man, and that man is vastly outgunned. The correct response to this knowledge is a sanity-cracking fear, followed by a frantic and blasphemous search for a way to defy or capture Gnon. A useful model of Gnon thus becomes a prime research objective.
      • Gnon, the reversed acronym of Nature or Nature’s God, is the quasi-anthropomorphic reification of the natural law and teleology of our universe, whether supernatural or emergent. Gnon tends (“tends” being the important operative word in teleology) overall to favor forms most able to optimize for their own continued existence and spread, and of course to favor the universal tendency to entropy. Or rather, these things tend to happen for the usual reasons, and we name that tendency “Gnon”. The study of Gnon is to the highest level of abstraction (teleology) as the study of physics is to the lowest level of abstraction (mechanistic physical law).
      • (see naturalist agency. But where Landian Accelerationism is basically about the inevitablity of Gnon and preaches surrender to it (that's how it eventually merged with neoreaction); Scott still believes we can somehow escape
      • But the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.
      • You start to see where this is going. An enemy has been identified (the blind brutal idiot forces of Moloch) and a call for battle issued, with the opposition centered around a shiny, enlightened form of rationality that incorporates human values.
      • In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it’s on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.
    • Where do we go from here?

      • Only another god can kill Moloch. We have one on our side, but he needs our help. We should give it to him.
      • The opposite of a trap is a garden. The only way to avoid having all human values gradually ground down by optimization-competition is to install a Gardener over the entire universe who optimizes for human values.
      • To defeat Moloch, we need an agentified force of our own, the "Gardner" or "Elua" who will rule over the entire universe and optimize for what we like. This sounds somewhere between ominous and naive-impractical. I suppose it stems from the eschatological image of superintelligence – the only thing that will save us from a bad one is a good one.
      • So Scott has poised a conflict between an evil pseudo-god, Moloch, who is not really agent-like because agents can't be bad, and an alternative god which we should be "raising to heaven", which I think means a superintelligence that somehow has its values aligned with ours. There is an epic battle underway to see which of these achieves dominance, leading to a hell even worse than what we have now and some kind of utility-heaven.
      • I feel like after understanding this I finally get the religious basis of the Rationalism cult, which was a bit mysterious before. There's going to to be a final showdown between the forces of good and evil, and if we are to be saved we better get busy on the side of good:
      • Ginsberg’s poem famously begins “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”. I am luckier than Ginsberg. I got to see the best minds of my generation identify a problem and get to work.
      • I really wish I had Allen Ginsberg handy to respond to this, but absent that, let me speak for him and his generation: they were not just sitting around quietly going mad, they were also "getting to work" against Moloch in their own way, although both Moloch and resistance were conceptualized differently. Ginsberg dedicated much of his life to this in on form or another (see The Trial of the Chicago 7), and I wonder if that passage is a reference to another well-known Ginsberg line:
        • America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel
      • So while Scott and Ginsberg seem to share a few concerns (a horror at the destructive waste of the real world and a desire to overthrow it), Scott seems to have inverted the import of the poem, which is that it is Reason and the Mind that have created a hell on earth and the solution is to go back to the body and back to nature. In his retelling, it is nature that has fucked us over and reason is the only thing that can save us from nature.