The End of the Enlightenment or the End of Acceleration

Update/Abstract: The Enlightenment belief in the supremacy of individual reason is a memetic pathogen causing infertility in populations infected by it. Child bearing is a public good but a private cost. Game theory tells us that individual reason actually prevents acquisition of public goods (avoid tragedy of the commons, solve prisoner’s dilemma, etc). Acquisition of public goods requires either social norms that require irrational behavior (typically motivated by fear of god(s)) or central government (typically motivated by fear of humans). Enlightenment thinkers typically favors the later. However both economists and computer scientists recognize the former is more efficient (less overhead for economists, more emergent/more software for computer scientists. However the facts are now in. Enlightenment culture is failing to reproduce biologically (most obviously in Europe and less obviously but still visibly among Enlightened Americans). The Enlightenment’s phenomenal memetic success is unsustainable. Evolution favors populations that breed. Unless the heirs to the Enlightenment can find other ways to acquire public goods, the survivors of the Enlightenment and the heirs to all its technology will be religious communities that can accept and integrate new technologies while still retaining their integrity. Over the short term innovation may slow compared to the Enlightenment. However it may be the only way forward.

Growth of the human population appears to have started to decline is expected to go negative shortly. By and large the populations most affected by this trend are those that are creating and adopting new technology most quickly. Since technology/innovation is *fundamentally* about the more efficient/non-zero-sum use of existing resources (see prior few posts), we must ask what is the cause of negative human population growth. Given that we have no obvious ecosystem competitor* and individual human lifespans are actually increasing we have only two choices here:

1. Advances in information technology described by Kurzweil and Moore entirely epiphenomenal and we are actually facing a decline in our ability to innovate to alleviate real resource constraints

2. Accelerating change is associated with some pathogen that causes human infertility or is itself the pathogen.

Enough evidence was presented at the conference to reject #1 (see my last few posts).

The leaves us with #2 and forces us to inquire whether all of us technology folks are a problem. Since there is also no evidence of declining fertility rates among couples that choose to reproduce, we are looking at some form of memetic pathogen as the cause of infertility. Less formally, something is causing/allowing rich educated intelligent women to choose to produce less than two children each over the course of their lifetimes. I believe that “something” is the Enlightenment notion that human reason can be used to solve all problems. Enlightenment thought encourages individuals to think for themselves rather than default to traditional/religious values. Enlightenment thought encourages women to abandon their traditional gender roles to advance their own goals and implicitly elevates goals of the mind over goals of the body — the production of ideas for use by enlightened thinkers. It encourages woman towards memetic rather than sexual reproduction and it encourages men to choose women based on their thinking/conversational ability rather than their reproductive ability.

Enlightenment thinking certainly stirred the pot and motivated its adherents to explore a much larger volume of idea space much faster than any prior ideology. However, from an economic game theoretic non-zero sum perspective and from a John Smart Accelerationist perspective the enlightenment premise that individual reason is the solution to all problems is flat-out wrong.

Economists refer to it as the problem of externalities and of procuring public goods. They also refer to it as the Tragedy of the Commons. Game theorists refer to it as he Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is the fact that there are many contexts in which if everyone behaves rationally they all do worse than if they had all behaved irrationally. Farmers overgraze the shared grassland. Because there is “no honor among theives,” prisoners will confess rather than risk being the one left out in the cold.

Accelerationists should recognize that uncoordinated individual behavior is a sign of insufficient computational complexity/energy-density. Improvements require a sacrifice of individual freedom/rational-self-interest to participate in in larger meta-organisms. The history of accelerating change is actually one of progressive aggregation of smaller units for the benefits of the order of larger units. Quanta to particles, particles to atoms, atoms to molecules, molecules to cells, cells to multicellular organisms, organisms to packs/herds/tribes, tribes to agricultural communities, and all the way up to nation states today. The change is simply one of maximizing the value of each innovation at larger and larger scales. Strong accelerationsists believe we are accelerating towards cosmic scales. Perhaps we are, but, in the interim, we have to solve the public goods/individidualism problem.

So what does this economics and accelerationist stuff have to do with fertility and reproduction? If you read my last post on the value of population. You will notice that the value of an additional member of the population is likely to be distributed accross the population as a whole. The problem is that the the cost of producing and training this member falls much more heavily on its mother. In economics language, having children has positive externalities that cannot be captured by their producers resulting in a shortage as compared to their theoretic optimum. What is worse is that each decision not to have children increases the relative costs for the women that do. Having children is, therefore, also a public good.

Enlightenment folks typically either try to deny the existence of these sorts of problems (some actually advocate negative population growth!) or, when they can no longer do so, look to various forms of government to coerce people into acquiring public goods. In the case of fertility policy, this coercize force takes the form of higher taxes and sudsidies for child production. The alert reader will recognize that coercize government as an admission of the failure of the pure reason premise of the enlightenment. The economics oriented reader will note the massive inefficiencies associated with government coercion and monopoly rents. The accelerationist reader will note that coercize force is a hardware solution to what should be a software problem (programming coordination behavior). The humanist will just be alarmed at the prospect of population implosion in the near future.

In other words, we should recognize that the era of the Enlightenment is coming to an end. It will be succeeded by cultures that fundamentally recognize individual Embodiment in locations and populations. Embodiment ideologies recognize explicitly individual participate in communities at varying levels and have institutional structures to program coordination behavior into members rather than coerce them. This programming means that idea processing happens at the community level rather than the individual level. It means following community norms even when it appears individually irrational (not defecting in prisoner’s dilemma and not overgrazing public goods). It means programming women to have children even when it is against their apparent individual rational self-interest. It means building cultural immune systems to alien memes that could disrupt this programming and it is already happening. The most succesful historical practioners of embodiment ideology have been the members of various religions. Modern Orthodox Jews manage to reproduce themselves while participating actively in Enlightenment culture. Modern Islam has managed to reproduce itself in opposition to Enlightenment culture. If you read radical Islamist literature, Jihadi leaders have an explcit agenda of overtaking the heirs to the enlightenment simply by outbreeding them and then outvoting them.

As heirs to the dying enlightenment culture, we may need to decide which is more valuable, the next generation of chips or the next generation of people. Is it more important to program people or computers?


3 Responses to The End of the Enlightenment or the End of Acceleration

  1. Ramez Naam says:

    Interesting thoughts. It’s nice to see someone taking the contrarian view that each additional child has net positive value (at least in developed countries)! And I agree with you – the value is distributed across society whereas the cost weighs most heavily upon the mother.

    At the same time, this isn’t exactly a crisis yet. Even in Europe, where the native population of several countries is now shrinking, the economic costs haven’t been felt. In part this is because the trend is new, and in part it’s because immigration from less developed countries is making up for lower birth rates, at least in terms of new entrants into the work force and so on.

    I think the bigger challenge for the next few years is not a declining population per se, it’s the demographic transition that faces many developed countries. Either a developed nation with a low birth rate has to accept that it’s population will become increasingly slanted towards older people over time, OR it has to be open to a large wave of immigration from poor countries which would necessarily alter the culture of the developed nation. Europe is struggling with this now.

    In the longer run, if negative population growth really threatens the economies of developed nations, I think you’ll see them enact policies to make bearing children more attractive to parents and particularly women – larger tax incentives, more assistance for school, 2 year mandated maternity leaves, cheaper child care, that sort of thing.

  2. andrea b says:

    You’re writing as if uninhibited population growth is the primitive given, upon which enlightenment or Enlightenment exerts artificial constraints. But absent any “infection” by Enlightenment discourse, populations boom and contract all the same. People tend to have more babies when they’re feeling optimistic; or when their wealth or their families’ wealth is directly dependent on the size and strength of their household; or when they feel it’s safe and good to do so; or, conversely, when they’re feeling totally desperate. You see massive population growth booms after natural disasters, plagues, wars, famines — things that make people think apocalyptically about their community’s survival; but you also see massive population growth booms in times of accelerated economic growth, times when people think it’s an auspicious time to raise a family. And you see all of this without reference to the pervasiveness of “Enlightenment” thought in society.

    Were it the case that there’s correlation between the “Enlightened” quality of a society and its population growth rate, you’d expect to see the United States (which was born of late Enlightenment ideology) in decline and a nice primitivist population boom in a place like Belarus or Ukraine, where the Enlightenment never got much of a toehold. But instead you see quite the reverse.

    All this tastes like orientalism to me, Alex. Grandiloquizing about the different destinies of East and West.

  3. Rodrigo Vanegas says:

    I wonder if you’ve read David Sloan Wilson’s _Dawin’s Cathedral_. He explores the memetic fecundity of religion in a way that would seem to back you up.

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