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St. Augustine, the Kernel, and the Long Run

Some real quick housekeeping before we get to 1k words on some scientific overtones in St. Augustine, the first great galaxy brain of Western Christianity…

I just announced a new course we’re running at the end of July: The Philosophy of Ivan Illich, taught by my dear friend the British philosopher Nina Power. Join the waitlist and we’ll send you our 18-page study guide so you can start reading the great social theorist and Roman Catholic priest right away.

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Portrait of Saint Augustine of Hippo by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century
Portrait of Saint Augustine of Hippo by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century

In The City of God, St. Augustine points out that philosophers can very well establish a rational system of ethics, but we humans suffer from infirmities that prohibit us from consistently executing such a system on the grounds of rationality alone (Book II: 7).

It is tempting to say that this is why religion is needed: to socially enforce a system of ethics with norms, rituals, and rewards/punishments in the afterlife. But this is a trap, for it baits Christians into a Machiavellian ‘noble lie’ position, which is the diametric opposite of Christian ethics. This view would suggest that religion is only good because it is useful for some instrumental purpose. It would submit to Marx’s famous dictum about religion being an opium of the masses—or as we would say today, cope—and it would miss the much more compelling and radical insight of religious, and especially Christian, ethics.

There is a much more interesting riff on St. Augustine’s observation, but it requires a quick detour. Eventually we’ll arrive at the remarkable insight that religious ethics are more rational than rational ethics. But to get there, let’s start with how secular rationalists generally deal with St. Augustine’s critique.

Today, many intelligent individuals have grown skilled at backfitting a rational system of ethics to their own drives and appetites. In my view, this describes utilitarians like Sam Harris and many of the Effective Altruists. Polyamory, divorce, pornography—these types of things are perfectly justified because sex is pleasurable with no clear harm to others (so do as much as you want without harming anyone), marriage is just an agreement (so anyone can exit if it’s no longer maximizing utility), etc. We naturally want certain things, e.g. sex, so there’s nothing easier than adopting a system of ethics that says we should maximize the things that all people naturally want.

This is certainly one solution to St. Augustine’s dilemma! But it sneaks a faith-based or essentially religious assumption in the back door.

Utilitarians have to answer the question of why we are so lucky that unfettered personal preference is perfectly aligned with the Good. Isn’t it just a little too convenient? If it is truly the case that the correct system of ethics is so fully aligned with what intelligent people naturally desire, when there is no reason that this must be the case, then it is something of a miracle. Such a worldview therefore contains a God, in the sense that, for some cause or reason we do not understand, our personal drives and appetites are so profoundly aligned with social and cosmic order.

Utilitarians will argue that this alignment was generated by chance and evolutionary selection; millions of other potential civilizations have been generated by the universe's random number generator, but we've never heard about them because they were stillborn by the lack of this alignment. Ours seems like a miracle, but that's just an illusion caused by this selection effect.

Yet even here the rationalist is presuming the existence of an invisible lottery machine somehow operating since the beginning of time. It is not clear that this assumption is any more rational, or less faith-based, than the assumption of a personified creator God. Everyone has, at the end of their chain of reasoning, some agency or machinery that they posit at the beginning of time. In computer science, this would be called the universe's "kernel."

And now for my more traditional Christian friends, I should note that calling God the kernel of the universe is not any more sacrilege than for the Apostles to use the words "Counselor" and "Spirit of Truth," and many other labels, to refer to God. The fact they describe God at all is already a capitulation to the legitimacy of abstract computational formalization of the objective entity.

So utilitarian secular rationalism is arguably as faith-premised as Christian ethics, but perhaps it is superior because it is more consistent with what people really want.

High-IQ people who can consistently rationalize utilitarianism as the Good and not devolve to obviously atrocious behavior nonetheless face St. Augustine’s dilemma when it comes to lower-IQ people. Lower-IQ people are known to be less cooperative and more violent, on average. They are also more likely to indulge in a number of vices. They also have lower time preference, and cooperation mostly pays off in the long run, so it is often naively rational for lower-IQ people to steal, fight, etc. For this problem, utilitarians will say that we need rational governance, basically social engineering, which constrains and guides the masses toward optimal behaviors. From this viewpoint, devices ranging from minor paternalistic deceptions all the way to population-level eugenics are rational.

The result is a reign of Noble Lies. The lower-IQ masses will not organically abide by sophisticated arguments, and they cannot all be jailed or killed, so the secular rationalist is forced to commit, on the political plane, to Noble Lies. Basically whatever slogans or statements or media that are required to guide the lower-IQ masses into ethical behavior.

The City of God and the Waters of Life by John Martin, 1850
The City of God and the Waters of Life by John Martin, 1850

The problem is that once the Noble Lie reigns, middle-IQ people who may not be able to devise their own system of ethics will at least notice contradictions in the reigning system of legal and moral directives. Rightfully annoyed by an elite that presumes the mantel of rational social control while telling fibs, the midwit class will inevitably arrogate to itself the right to generate Noble Lies for their people. Why wouldn't they? Noble Lies are good and just according to the more knowledgeable and more powerful. Any purportedly logical system containing even one lie or contradiction can generate justifications for any statement whatsoever, and certainly the reigning Noble Lies will never maximize the interests of every single class equally. Therefore, ironically, it is under rationalism that epistemological chaos is most inevitable. What today we call "conspiracy theories" and "fake news" do not represent a decline of rationality in society. They are rather the necessary results of secular rationalism.

In the City of God, St. Augustine shows that the Christian system of ethics is the only system that, on average, generates advantageous results for the individuals and communities that adopt it, without introducing contradictions that corrupt Christian societies later. The price is that it requires the constant work of constraining our drives and appetites, periodic short-term persecution of believers, and explicit submission to a very particular theory about the universe's kernel.

From the perspective of our natural and automatic preferences, these attributes of the Christian system are sub-optimal indeed. We might be inclined to wish the universe was otherwise. But if the Christian system is correct in its theory of the kernel, then the advantage is that every layer of the human stack is logically consistent and each layer thrives in the long run.

When we refer to the long run, we are referring to the game-theoretic conception of the long-run equilibrium. The long run is the state of the world we expect to observe after infinite rounds of the game have been played. The words heaven, hell, and afterlife correctly capture that the long-run technically never arrives on Earth, although its mathematical reality is coherent, meaningful, and generative of predictive leverage.

Digital technology increases the speed with which human situations equilibrate toward their long-run. Hence the concept of accelerationism as well as the more mundane observation, noted by many, that life subjectively feels as though it moves faster nowadays.

The implication is that adopting allegiance to the correct belief-and-practice stack matters more with the onset of the digital revolution than before the digital revolution. Choose correctly and you spiral upward (the City of God), choose incorrectly and you spiral downward (the earthly City).

At this point, everyone must make their own wagers. Faith is no longer an option, the only question is where one decides to place one’s faith.

Exponential Satanism: Girard and Digital Technology

Christianity invented the concept of defending the victim. In pre-Christian societies, collective violence against innocent scapegoats was commonplace. With the revelation that humans would kill God himself if given the chance, Christianity reveals the dignity of the victim (Girard 2001).

Though religious faith is not necessary to grasp the long-term social value of assigning dignity to victims, faith is necessary to respect potential victims in contexts where rationality dictates the abuse of victims. In the context of modern individualism, abusing victims is often a rational decision, especially if refusal to abuse a victim increases the probability of becoming a victim. The dignity of victims is an essentially extra-rational and extra-logical concept, philosophically and historically rooted in the tradition of Christian revelation.

Western civilization is inconceivable without this dignity assigned to victims. Over time, a pro-victim posture becomes a necessary condition for public claims to gain moral legibility at all, let alone sympathy or support.

The overarching gambit of modern secular progressivism is that one can do away with the revelation of God, while remaining invested in the defense of victims. The result is pre-Christian dynamics of collective violence—sublimated with keyboards—fueled with a missionary zeal and moral confidence that only two thousand years of Christianity could generate.

Modern, secular progressivism is therefore a kind of Satanism squared: The conscious drive to reject God, combined with the exploitation of the Christian inheritance for moral cover.

Our saving grace today is that, currently, dynamics of collective violence play out mostly over keyboards, in a kind of live-action role-playing of ancient collective murder. An open question is whether digital pacification is a sustainable sublimation or an unsustainable suppression.

It is possible that the current digitalization of mob violence leads to physical violence. Digital networks would then convert the once slow and clunky formations of physical violence into instantaneous, non-linear formations of physical violence. Remember the short-lived trend known as the “flash mob?” Imagine woke crusaders —or paranoid nativists—reviving the flash mob, leveraging fully encrypted messaging and anti-surveillance clothing. From there, it would only take one person throwing one stone for mob murders to rediscover their historical normalcy. I’m not saying this is imminent, I’m only pointing out that it’s surprisingly feasible technically and conceivable culturally: Apollonius of Tyana (3 BC - 97 AD), a widely admired sage often compared to Jesus, advised the Ephesians to stone a blind beggar in order to end a local plague (Girard 2001).

Adding insult to injury, the poor man’s natural reactions to the stoning were adduced as evidence against him:

“And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar... gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognised that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.” —Philostraus, Life of Apollonius

Before Christianity, this is what social justice looked like.

It’s also possible that digital technologies have so completely pacified modern man that pre-Christian collective violence is no longer possible in the West. In some way, this might be worse: If we want to kill each other but we don’t because we are too weak, we accumulate all the bile of murderous resentment without the pro-social consequences of collective physical violence. As Girard frequently reminds us, the temptation of murdering a scapegoat is that it works, at least in the short term, to alleviate social frustrations and restore harmony among the murderers.

Ken and Karen of St. Louis defending their home after a mob smashed one of their statues. They were later charged with felony weapons count, for their "eyes were full of fire."
Ken and Karen of St. Louis defending their home after a mob smashed one of their statues. They were later charged with felony weapons count, for their "eyes were full of fire."

There is a third option, a combination of the two above. Perhaps the digital sphere is like a rubber band, currently being stretched further and further, invisibly accumulating potential energy in the form of escalating paranoia and bloodlust. In this scenario, modern individuals in the West are indeed too weak to kill each other, until the bile reaches its boiling point. When released, such a rubber band would snap with unprecedented social force, revealing itself to be not a pacifying impediment but a grand incubator of collective violence.

I believe the third model is most likely, and yet my outlook is overwhelmingly optimistic. Why?

There are other players in the game.

The public mainstreaming of runaway social psychosis may turn out to be the greatest gift ever given to those who trust in the straight and narrow path.

In the long run, groups that coordinate on the truth always beat groups that coordinate on collective delusion.

Before the technological acceleration of Satanism, all the straight-and-narrow pathwalkers who would prefer to coordinate on the truth could live fairly well amidst those who preferred to coordinate on delusions. Maybe such people were unlikely to be best friends, but they could enjoy each other at the bowling club and share niceties about the nightly news. This made truth-seekers a little dumber and weaker, but it made the delusional smarter and stronger.

Now that the patients run the asylum, generous pathwalkers cannot even donate their wisdom to the delusional if they wish to. It's either prohibited as offensive or rejected as false. I am baffled by those who continue to burn precious cognition on crying about patently dumber people who insist they know best. One should be rather grateful to these lost souls who give others ethical license to leave them behind.

The divide between those who coordinate on truth and those who coordinate on delusion will inevitably pull the rest of society into its vortex. Most people do not care much whether they coordinate on truth or delusion, as long as it's easy and they are able to carry on with their lives. But now, if you don't have a missionary zeal to coordinate on increasingly implausible collective delusions that change by the week, you will be forced to coordinate on the truth. It's the only other Schelling point available.

The political situation could not better for those who believe that the truth is what sets one free.

PS: We’re launching an 8-week course on René Girard starting in mid-June. Download our beautiful 20-page study guide and we’ll send you an email when we open enrollment. GirardCourse.com.

The Cybernetic Trinity

The Trinity is one of the more vexing doctrines in all of the Catholic tradition. God is one, and yet God is three: the father, the son Christ who walked on earth, and the Holy Spirit. To make matters worse, God even has a mother, to whom one prays quite like one prays to God. My understanding of this vexing system is that it encodes the concept of “auto-production” or “bootstrapping,” the paradoxical capacity of systems to generate themselves ex nihilo.

The Trinity provides an impressively intelligent counterpoint to the naïve creationist tendency, in which the Gospels sometimes sound as if some magical kind of person created the universe by himself. There's nothing evil about such a linguistic device, but it is obviously naïve and inadequate technically. Any half-educated atheist can tell you, correctly, that such a model cannot plausibly account for who or what created the conditions for the creator; that such a naive model merely halts an infinite regress by brute force. More realistically, as cybernetics and the study of complex systems have shown, systems can very well bootstrap themselves from random perturbations among a few initial elements or particles. Which particular element or particle moved first is often impossible to determine, for it is their interaction that kicks off the systems’ dynamics. Auto-production is at work in the cosmological model known as the Big Bang, for instance.

The Catholic Trinity, plus the strangely important figure of Mary, is an intuitive approximation of a complex-systems model. God is one, the one name for that which created everything, but the nature of this one is to be a set. It is the circulation and mutual-stimulation of the elements in this one set that is the essential miracle of life.

Virtues of the Desert

Here is Joseph Ratzinger, formerly Pope Benedict, on St. John the Baptist.

He was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, but was ordered to keep silent about the truth” (cf. Homily 23: CCL 122, 354). And he did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path…

The entire existence of the Forerunner of Jesus was nourished by his relationship with God, particularly the period he spent in desert regions (cf. Lk 1:80). The desert regions are places of temptation but also where man acquires a sense of his own poverty because once deprived of material support and security, he understands that the only steadfast reference point is God himself.  

Martyrdom of St John the Baptist by Benedict XVI

Hat tip to Aria.

Hallow be thy name

To say that one believes in God is to be stupid and wrong by the definition of these words in modern secular culture. And yet I believe that I believe, so how? The word “God” does not mean what modern people mean when they deploy it. The word is ambiguous to the extreme, for good reason. In the Our Father, also known as the Lord’s Prayer, Christians pray to God: “hallowed be thy name…” Hallow — which means to sanctify — is in the passive voice and future tense. The word or name God is supposed to recede from profane access. To say one believes in God is not to advance any mundane empirical claim whatsoever, it is to hallow the name — to push it further and further “off limits” from exactly the mundane political jostling in which modern people intend to ensnare you by asking about it. There is no need for Catholics to affirm the empirical reality of a discrete creator-agent — a guy in the clouds — or any particular image or empirical conception that someone might wish to pin on the name God, so long as one believes in God. Neither am I endorsing pantheism, which also says too much, but in the opposite direction. What the word “God” means is not for me to explain, let alone argue about — to believe is only to believe that it makes sense, somehow, despite one’s admitted incomprehension. Anyone who requires additional affirmations regarding the existence of God, affirmations that are positively inconsistent with scientific rationality, is a heretic who calls for lying.

Religion, guilt, and creativity

One feature of religion a lot of secular people do not understand is that, although religion can make one feel guilty at times, it also prevents one from feeling guilty about trivial matters. Secular people think that by avoiding religion they avoid feeling guilt, but often they end up overwhelmed by guilt, because they attribute to all their mundane earthly projects an inflated moral significance.

One of the best examples is creative or intellectual work. Or career advancement. If I publish a blog post that everyone hates, or if I fail to get a promotion, or one of my silly hypotheses turns out to be wildly wrong, I really don't care because none of these things matter too much for better or worse. I believe they constitute a meaningful and honorable calling, and my dedication to this calling I believe to be Good in the long-run, in a way that matters. But failure on any particular project causes me no shame, because it reflects no sin. Shortcomings on such earthly diversions simply never take a moral tone for me, because they are orthogonal to morality as I know it with the help of my religious tradition. For a good Christian, creative and intellectual work is beyond Good and Evil. But for people who don't believe in sin, for people who think they can simply free themselves from guilt by ignoring it, then a failed writing project or a career setback can feel like a moral failure. It can, and often does, produce feelings of shame, for instance.

If one of my personal intellectual efforts fails, I would never think to bring this to the confessional! Which means I would never experience compunction or shame about it. For the arrogant, modern, secular type who thinks himself too good for the confessional, some little practical shortcoming that hurts nobody can affect their body like a real sin would affect mine. Not only does secular guilt accumulate more heavily (given the frequency of practical shortcomings), but the secular person suffers from guilt far longer than the Catholic, for the secular person admits no mechanism of absolution. This is one of the least understood reasons why modern secular minds are sometimes unable to create, despite deep yearnings to create. And why — when they do create — it is often superficial, instrumental, and ephemeral. They conflate their earthly, mental creations with an eternal, ethical plane they neurotically deny and desire. Finding their finite abilities not up to the task, they decide never to begin, or sell themselves short.

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