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Posted by Scott Alexander

Thanks to everyone who made interesting comments on yesterday’s post about Dark Ages.

Several people challenged the matching of the economic/population decline to the “fall of Rome”. For example, from David Friedman:

On the graph you are citing, 36 million is the population in 200 A.D. The fall of the Western Empire is commonly dated to about 450 A.D. By 400 A.D., on the same graph, population is down to 31 million–say 30 million by 450.

So a more accurate statement would be “The late Roman Empire caused a population decrease of about six million. Population continued to fall for another hundred and fifty years before it started back up. It passed its Roman high in about 1000 A.D. and continued growing for the next three hundred years.”

My rule of thumb for very poor societies is that the growth rate of population is a proxy for the average standard of living. That growth rate, the slope of the line on Figure 1.2 of the Atlas of World Population History, starts up in about 450 A.D. and continues increasing until about 1300.

From ksvanhorn:

The graph of lead production doesn’t really jive with the idea that the Dark Ages were a result of Rome falling — production had declined sharply centuries before the fall of Rome. It suggests that maybe we should count the Dark Ages as beginning considerably *before* the fall of Rome.

Dissonant Cognizance:

I was thinking throughout reading the post that you could put the start date of the Dark Ages around the Crisis of the Third Century, where Rome probably would have ceased to exist right then had Aurelian not managed to contain the damage. That let things stay superficially stable while the Western Empire cannibalized its outlying provinces for a couple more centuries.

And ctj09 agrees:

I’d actually move up the first date [for the start of the Dark Ages] to around the time of the Crisis of the Third Century, a period where the Roman Empire very nearly collapsed and never really recovered from. Especially because the Manorialism and the explicit Dominate-style hierarchy that typified the early Middle Ages was first really developed during this period. Not to mention just after the Crisis, the Emperor Diocletian laid the ground work for a lot of what would become institutions and norms in the early Middle Ages.

Other people thought the end date of the Dark Ages could also be earlier. Many brought up the Carolingian Renaissance. For example, Krill12:

1000AD is ridiculously late…I have no problem with pointing out that from about 450AD to 600AD there was very little going on. That is probably a real dark age. It’s also nothing like what people mean when they say “The Dark Ages.” The people who use that term might have forgotten the Carolingian Renaissance happened before 1000AD.

From RIP_Finnegan:

In my opinion the Carolingian Renaissance is pretty much proof positive that people even at the time saw part of their task as recovering old glories. I don’t have a source book to hand, but that’s the impression I got from Einhard and the RFA. There are those who argue the Carolingian Renaissance was mostly hot air, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a reliable middle ground between that and what they teach French schoolkids. Also, even if the Pirenne Thesis is no longer good money, it’s clear that there was economic continuity from Rome later than once thought. I would say that the popular conception of the Dark Ages probably owes more to the period after Charlemagne, when the Papacy was in disarray, Europe was fragmented, Vikings were on the loose, and the polities we know from the Middle Ages were just finding their feet.

However, that’s not the whole story, of course. The Carolingians saw themselves as superior to Rome in one very clear way – they were Christian! In the Cathedral in Aachen, among all the re-used Roman architecture, there is a plain throne made of materials from the Holy Land. I think perhaps this ties into the James Burnham theory of Whig history – that no matter how bad things get in reality for us, we’ll construct a worldview that makes civilizational defeat a victory for Truth and Justice.

Lillian disagrees:

The Carolingian Renaissance kind of fizzled out with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire after the death of Luis the Pious though. High culture and learning did not take for good until the Renaissance of the 12th century. Hell the Holy Roman Empire was really founded by the Ottonian Dynasty, who were crowned Emperors over a century after the Carolingian realm started collapsing under its own weight. Certainly the Carolingian Renaissance laid the groundwork for what came later, but in all it was a false dawn.

So “300 – 800 AD” might be as good a five hundred year interval to call “the Dark Ages” as 500 – 1000. I think this is true of a lot of historical periods – depending on what artists or scientists you think are most important “the Scientific Revolution” or “the Renaissance” can have pretty fluid boundaries – but it’s worth noticing the fuzziness.

I had briefly noted that scrolls might be shorter than codices, but felt okay dismissing this because they would have to be something like two orders of magnitude shorter for it to make much difference. Well…here’sCaf1815:

On the number of books at the library of Alexandria vs. at the university of Paris: the fact that scrolls vs. codices is apples vs. oranges is duly noted, but let me impress on you just how vast the difference is (full disclosure, this is my field of study, so the following may turn into a bit of a rant). At Alexandria, you’re counting scrolls; the length of a typical scroll translates to about 20-30 printed pages in a modern book. This is why works by ancient writers are divided into several “books”, each of which would take up one scroll: the City of God is 22 scrolls, the Republic of Plato is 10 scrolls, etc. At the University of Paris in 1300, they had codices, and these were huge; for example, I’m in the final stages of publishing a work by a 4th century writer; the book, my editor tells me, will be 550 pages long (admittedly counting an introduction, critical apparatus, etc.). But in its 13th century codex form, this work takes up folios 396 to 407 of a huge doorstop comprising 487 folios total; the whole codex, as was the norm at the time, features dozens of works by various authors in the same broad category. So if the library of Alexandria only had 40,000 scrolls (okay, that’s a pretty low estimate), it would have had less text than the Sorbonne in 1300 by an order of magnitude.

If this is at all right, then mea culpa.

A lot of people don’t like the idea of Dark Ages because they underestimate the continuity between the classical and medieval world; John of Salisbury argues that they overestimate it:

I sympathise with those who have brought up Ireland and Scandinavia. My concern is that ‘dark ages’ talk implies too much continuity: there is the grand narrative of Western Civi, in which ‘we’ (those of European descent, white people) flourished in antiquity, flailed in the dark, and then triumphed in modernity. My gripe is that there isn’t a ‘we’ that is the subject of this story: the ancient world was a Mediterranean world, and it is only in the middle ages we see a civilisation that looks like modern Europe. The Mediterranean peoples (olive oil people, as Taleb calls them) who went on to share in later European civilisation go from light to dark, but the northern Europeans, the butter people, are only stepping into the light. Take Britain, which has a dramatic, well-defined dark age that is also a lot shorter than the ordinarily cited 500 year span. The period between the Roman departure and the Saxon conversion is pretty much pitch black by all the relevant measures. After conversion, butter people who call the island home (even if they were rather recent arrivals) enter history on their own terms, as something more than a mere foil to Roman grandeur. Sure, the Saxons look undistinguished compared to the Athens of Pericles, but that’s hardly a fair comparison. They do pretty well considering that they had been tribal illiterates just a few generations earlier. For much of the conventional dark ages, the Saxons enjoy what is, by their standards and those of their northern European neighbours, an age of light.

Similar concerns from georgioz:

At one point Scott says that “by mid Dark Ages, there was no city in Christian Western Europe larger than about 50,000 people.”

What geographic area are we looking at here? It has to be western Europe but not Spain since Scott correctly declares Spain as part of Al-Andalus and therefore not subject to the western christian definition. So it leaves us with northern Italy – not Sicily or southern Italy as those were basically muslim Abbasid and/or Byzantine respectively until Norman conquest of Sicily in 11th century.

So what does that leave us with? Basically Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Northern Italy. We cannot speak about Germany or Scandinavia as it was beyond Limes Romanus – the northern Roman border. And one can arguably say that nonitallian parts of what we have here actually flourished during 500-1000 compared to the tribal past. I am not sure if one can say that what is basically Frankish empire plus Britannia felt some sort of Dark Ages. To the contrary. So it basically all boils down to decline of the city of Rome itself. City of Rome and northern Italy went through a very rough period. But given that the empire they ruled disintegrated it is to be expected. Other cities like Constantinople or Baghdad or Cordoba flourished instead.

This is why I think historians want to have broader view. If one actually takes the area of whole Roman empire at its regional peak under Trajan then one can definitely see scientific and cultural progress in that area during 500-1000. That would be fair comparison with classical Roman times. Not only do we have now actual states in northern and western Europe such as Frankish empire or slavic protostates. But the rest of former Roman Empire did quite well under Byzantine rule and rule of Abbasid / Córdoba caliphs.

offwo2000 makes a fascinating claim about the year 1000 I’d never heard before:

It’s funny because Christianity actually caused the recovery about AD 1000. People were genuinely convinced that the world would end in AD 1000 and so the papacy started the “Peace of God” movements where rulers would stop fighting in the hope that they would be rewarded in heaven after the apocalypse. This became the catalyst for the papacy taking more control of international affairs, which enabled Western Europe to stop fighting between itself so much, focus on rebuilding the economy (there’s a surge in water-mill building, for example, since peace meant that they would actually gain their return before being destroyed) and allow uniting against common enemies.

(I’m not sure how seriously to take this since the wikipedia article on the Peace of God movement doesn’t really mention the “year 1000” thing, which I found the most interesting part).

On the philosophical implications of saying the Dark Ages “were real”, John Nerst:

Consider what it means to say that these things do/don’t exist or are/aren’t real:

global warming, a solution to global warming, race, infinitely many prime numbers, the patriarchy, Kurdistan, devil worshippers, free will, schizophrenia, Esperanto, Black English, white privilege, the Friendzone, meritocracy, fate, luck, sin, seasons, personality types, learning styles, genders other than male and female, the color purple, the word ‘cromulent’, the word ‘irregardless’, the War on Christmas, property rights, fiat money, a chance of rain, a meaning of life, the meaning of life, God

And on the political implications, the anonymouse:

The lesson here is not whether the Dark Ages were X% grimdark vs. Y% grimdark. (Although, I would suggest that the Byzantine world was still rolling 4d6-drop-lowest while western Europe had regressed to 3d6 in order.)

The lesson is that civilization is fragile. It’s easy to sit in Periclean Athens (or 1891 Paris, or 2017 Seattle) and think “wow, the march of progress is inexorable!” But it isn’t. Civilization is something to be lovingly nurtured and ferociously guarded; the wolves at the door haven’t gone away just because your lamp burns too bright for you to see out into the dark.

(fortaleza84 adds “Debate about the Dark Ages, to an extent, is a proxy for anxiety over the present-day West.”)

Finally, I talked a bit about the Dark Ages bringing up two axes of “civilizational moral goodness” vs. “civilizational impressiveness”. Cernos quotes Will Durant on a different way of judging the “impressiveness” of the Dark Ages:

The Dark Ages are not a period upon which the scholar can look with superior scorn. He no longer denounces their ignorance and superstitions, their political disintegration, their economic and cultural poverty; he marvels, rather, that Europe ever recovered from the successive blows of Goths, Huns, Vandals, Moslems, Magyras, and Norse, and preserved through the turmoil and tragedy so much of ancient letters and techniques. He can feel only admiration for Charlemagnes, Alfreds, Olafs and Ottos who forced an order upon this chaos; for the Benedicts, Gregorys, Bonifaces, Columbas, Alcuins, Brunos, who so patiently resurrected morals and letters out of the wilderness of their times; for prelates and artisans that could raise cathedrals, and the nameless poets that could sing, between one war of terror and the next. State and Church had to begin again at the bottom, as Romulus and Numa had done a thousand years before and the courage required to build cities out of jungles, and citizens out of savages, was greater than that which would raise Chartres, Amiens, and Reims or cool Dante’s vengeful fever into measured verse.

Were There Dark Ages?

Oct. 16th, 2017 04:08 am
[syndicated profile] slatestarcodex_feed

Posted by Scott Alexander

[Warning: non-historian arguing about history, which is always dangerous and sometimes awful. I will say in my defense that I’m drawing off the work of plenty of good historians like Bryan Ward-Perkins and Angus Maddison whom I interpret as agreeing with me. And that the people I am disagreeing with are not historians themselves, but other non-historians trying to interpret historians’ work in a popular way that I interpret as wrong. And that as far as I know no historian believes non-historians should never be allowed to talk about history if they try to be careful and cite their sources. Read at your own risk anyway.]

Cracked offers Five Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About The Dark Ages; number one is “The Dark Ages Were A Real Thing”:

The Dark Ages were never a thing. The entire concept is complete and utter horseshit cobbled together by a deluded writer. The term “Dark Ages” was first used in the 14th century by Petrarch, an Italian poet with a penchant for Roman nostalgia. Petrarch used it to describe, well, every single thing that had happened since the fall of Rome. He didn’t rain dark judgment over hundreds of years of human achievement because of historical evidence of any kind, by the way; his entire argument was based on the general feeling that life sucked absolute weasel scrotum ever since Rome went belly-up.

Likewise There Were No European Dark Ages, The Myth Of The Dark Ages, The Myth Of The “Dark Ages”, Medieval Europe: The Myth Of The Dark Ages, Busting The “Dark Ages” Myth, and of course smug Tumblr posts.

This isn’t coming out of nowhere. Many people’s idea of medieval times is exaggerated. Not every scientist was burned at the stake, not everyone thought the world was flat and surrounded by space dragons, and the High Middle Ages were notable for impressive levels of material progress which in some cases outpaced the Classical World and which set the stage for the upcoming Renaissance (the continuity thesis). Granted.

But I worry that as usual, this corrective to an overblown narrative of darkness has itself been overblown. People are now talking about how you’re a gullible rube if you still believe in a so-called “Dark Age”, and how all the real intellectuals know that this was a time of flourishing civilization every bit as good as the Romans or the Renaissance.

Bulls**t. The period from about 500 to about 1000 in Christian Western Europe was marked by profound economic and intellectual decline and stagnation relative to the periods that came before and after it. This is incompatible with the “no such thing as the Dark Ages” claim except by a bunch of tortured logic, isolated demands for rigor, and historical ignorance.

To go through the arguments one by one:

1. The “Dark Ages” were only dark in Europe. And not even all of Europe – not in the Eastern Roman Empire, not in al-Andalus…

I wonder if these people interrupt anyone who talks about the Warring States period with “actually, there were only warring states in China. Many other areas during this period had no warring states at all! Guess you fell victim to the Myth Of The Warring States Period.”

What about the Bronze Age? There wasn’t any bronze in Australia. The Hellenistic period? Huge swathes of the Earth’s land area remained un-Hellenized. The Time of Troubles? Actually, outside of Russia there were no more troubles than usual. The Era of Good Feelings? Maybe there were a bunch of bad feelings not in the US.

Every other historical age name is instantly understood by everyone to refer to both a time and a place. The only time anyone ever gives anybody else grief over this is when they talk about the Dark Ages. This is an isolated demand for rigor. And if this is really your true objection, let’s just agree to call it the Western European Dark Ages, as long as we can also agree it existed and was bad.

2. What about all the great stuff in the Dark Ages? Thomas Aquinas! Gothic cathedrals! Dante! Troubadours! The Song of Roland! Roger Bacon! Musical notation! Surely no period that produced all that can be called ‘dark’!

All of those are from after the period 500 – 1000 AD.

Suppose someone tells you that the middle of America contains the Great Plains, a very flat region. But you know that actually there are lots of tall mountains, like the Rockies. Have you debunked the so-called Great Plains narrative and proven that its believers are credulous morons? Or have you just missed that there’s a natural and well-delineated area suitable to be called “Great Plains” that doesn’t include your supposed counterexamples?

The period after 1000 AD did indeed have lots of great accomplishments. That’s because Europe at that time had 500 years to recover from the civilizational collapse that demolished its economic and intellectual capacity – a collapse whose immediate aftermath we call “the Dark Ages”. I agree there are some concepts of the Dark Ages that mistakenly include some of the time after the recovery, and that Petrarch’s original version commits this error. But I think that there’s also a five hundred year period – more than long enough to count as a real historical age – that absolutely fits the bill.

3. The term “Dark Ages” was invented by Petrarch – who wasn’t even a real historian – based only on his personal opinion.

The term “World War I” was invented by Ernst Haeckel, who was not a historian, based on his personal opinion that it seemed to be a war, and involve the whole world, and be the first one to do so.

The term “Cold War” was invented by George Orwell, who was not a historian, based only on his personal opinion that it seemed conflict-y but without much actual fighting.

Very few of the historical terms we use were invented by professional historians, and they are all necessarily based on that person’s opinion that it correctly describes the thing being described. I await people admitting that there was no Cold War, because who is George Orwell to think he can just name an era based on what he feels it was like?

This is another isolated demand for rigor. Historical periods get their names from random individuals reflecting on them; the names catch on if people agree that they fit.

4. The term “Dark Ages” was originally just supposed to mean that there aren’t many sources describing it, not that the era was bad

Nope, wrong. Some people have used it this way, but this is neither how the term’s original inventors intended it, nor how a majority of modern people (historian or otherwise) think of it.

As mentioned above, the idea of a Dark Age was first developed by the late medieval/early Renaissance thinker Petrarch. As per Wikipedia:

The idea of a Dark Age originated with the Tuscan scholar Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of the past, he said: “Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom”. Christian writers, including Petrarch himself, had long used traditional metaphors of ‘light versus darkness’ to describe ‘good versus evil’. Petrarch was the first to give the metaphor secular meaning by reversing its application. He now saw Classical Antiquity, so long considered a ‘dark’ age for its lack of Christianity, in the ‘light’ of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch’s own time, allegedly lacking such cultural achievements, was seen as the age of darkness. […]

Petrarch wrote that history had two periods: the classic period of Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness in which he saw himself living. In around 1343, in the conclusion of his epic Africa, he wrote: “My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”

Petrarch can’t just be referring to an absence of good historical sources – he’s talking about his own era!

Part of the evidence for the “absence of sources” claim is that the first use of the exact term “Dark Age” may come from by the 16th-century writer Caesar Baronius, who had a more specific time in mind, 888 – 1046. He wrote:

The new age (saeculum) which was beginning, for its harshness and barrenness of good could well be called iron, for its baseness and abounding evil leaden, and moreover for its lack of writers dark.

But Baronius was writing well after Petrarch, his “Dark Age” was very different from the one we know today (only used to refer to a 150-year period in the Church), and in the same sentence that he mentioned dark = few writers, he also calls it “harsh”, “barren of good”, “base”, and full of “abounding evil”. This is not exactly a resounding victory for people claiming that the Dark Age had nothing wrong with it except slightly fewer records.

5a. It’s historical malpractice to call something “The Dark Ages”. The job of historians is to record, not to judge.

So I assume you also raise a fuss whenever someone talks about Alexander the Great? The Golden Age of Athens? The Five Good Emperors? The Enlightenment? Ivan the Terrible? The Belle Époque? I S O L A T E D . D E M A N D . F O R . R I G O R.

I agree there’s some level on which all of these are a sort of boundary-crossing in the ethics of historiography. And I agree that maybe very responsible historians want to avoid this and come up with more neutral names for very official work – I’ve seen some people talk about “Alexander III of Macedon”. Well, okay. The “Periclean Age Of Athens”. Fine. The “Time There Were Five Whole Emperors In A Row, None Of Whom Were Sadistic, Perverted, Or Insane, Which As Responsible Historians We Cannot Officially Call “Good”, But Which By The Standards Of Ancient Rome Is Seriously Super Impressive”. Whatever.

But if you only challenge the term “Dark Ages”, I feel like you’re doing the opposite of this suspension-of-judgment. If you say “The Dark Ages weren’t really dark!” you’re putting yourself in a position to judge historical eras, saying that maybe some of them were dark and others weren’t, but this particular one wasn’t. In this case you’re not responsibly abdicating historical judgment. You’re making a historical judgment, and getting it wrong.

5b. The Dark Ages were only “dark” if you like big centralized states with powerful economies. There were lots of ways they might have been good. For example, ancient Rome had slavery, and most Dark Age societies didn’t. That seems pretty light-side to me!

And Alexander the Great was only “great” if you like killing a lot of people and conquering their lands.

Look, a lot of history sucked, and moral judgments are hard. Jared Diamond thinks hunter-gatherers were freer and happier than anyone since. Maybe the real Golden Age of Athens was in 40,000 BC, when Neanderthals on the rocky plain that would one day become Athens hunted mammoths in carefree abandon, loving life and being at one with nature and the changing seasons. Maybe the title “Alexander the Great” should really go to Alexander IV of Macedon, who was killed at age 14 and so never conquered, murdered, or oppressed anyone – truly an outstanding achievement matched by approximately zero other kings of the era.

In order to avoid this kind of speculation, I think of history as being along at least two axes: goodness and impressiveness. Alexander may or may not have been a good person, but he was certainly an impressive one. Periclean Athens might not have been the most virtuous city, but it was certainly one with lasting accomplishments. Since it is so hard to judge the goodness or badness of historical figures, most of our claims of greatness are claims about impressiveness. And compared to the periods before or after, Dark Ages Europe was unimpressive.

I’m probably an overly literal person, but whenever I think about dark ages, I think of the modern (and anachronistic for the period in question) association between light, population density, and economic activity:

The Dark Ages in Europe were a time when things would have been more towards the North Korean end of that picture. In fact, you probably could have taken a similar picture at the time, with an east/west instead of north/south axis. From The Muslims of Andalusia:

[In medieval times], Europe was darkened at sunset, Al-Andalus shone with public lamps; Europe was dirty, Al-Andalus built a thousand baths; Europe lay in mud, Al-Andalus’ streets were paved.

I get that this is just a pun I’m taking too seriously. If you don’t like the term Dark Ages, I am happy to use the term “Unimpressive Ages”, “Disappointing Ages”, or “Pathetic Ages”. My point is that there is some axis, not the same as morality but involving economic and intellectual activity, in which the period 500 – 1000 AD was uniquely sucky.

6. Okay, forget disputes about the meanings of words or how to do history. On the object level, using normal meanings of the word “bad”, the Dark Ages were not that bad.


It’s hard to prove this is wrong, because there weren’t great statistics back then to compare Classical, Dark Age, and High Medieval societies on. As far as I know only two groups have dared try to estimate Western European GDP for these eras. Again from Wikipedia:

Both groups find that GDP declined from 1 AD (classical era) to 1000 AD (late Dark Age / medieval era). 1 was not the height of Rome, and 1000 was well into recovery from the Dark Ages, so we expect the difference between the Roman peak and the Dark Age nadir to be even more profound than this. But even these attenuated numbers tell the story of an entire millennium when human economic progress across an entire continent went backwards.

Although these numbers are inherently sketchy, the few real pieces of evidence we have seem to back them up. Arctic ice cores preserve a record of how much lead pollution was in the air, probably linked to human lead-mining activities. This allows us a pretty good look at how much lead-mining various European civilizations were doing:

And granted, the Romans were a little more obsessed with lead than could possibly have been healthy. But these data are supported by reconstructions of silver mining, copper mining, and iron mining. All of these are easily quantifiable activities that reinforce Maddison, Lo Cascio, and Malanima’s picture of economic decline between the fall of Rome and 1000.

We see a similar decline in population. The Atlas of World Population History thinks that continental Europe had a population of 36 million people at its peak in 200 AD, falling to 26 million at a nadir in 600 AD, and gradually recovering back to 36 million or so around 1000 AD. Various other estimates for the population of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe broadly support this picture (though remember that the Roman Empire didn’t occupy the same space as medieval Europe and so comparisons have to be more complicated than just comparing two sets of numbers). If this is true, the Classical to Dark Age transition caused a population decrease of about 10 million, or 30% of the population (though some of this happened in Late Antiquity). These are the sorts of numbers usually only associated with the worst plagues and genocides.

Classical Rome had a population of between 500,000 and a million. Even classical Athens had a population of over 100,000. By mid Dark Ages, there was no city in Christian Western Europe larger than about 50,000 people. The infrastructure for maintaining large urban populations had fallen apart.

And true, a lot of this is sparse and reconstructed. My usual go-to for economic history questions, Tumblr user xhxhxhx, was able to get me a bunch of excellent graphs comparing classical Rome to the High Middle Ages, classical Rome to the Golden Age of Islam, High Middle Ages to the Golden Age of Islam, etc. When I complained that none of them compared anything to the Dark Ages which was the whole point of my question, he answered that the data were worse quality, because “civilization collapsed, so fewer people were tracking wages and prices”.

So yes, I agree that there’s only a limited amount of data proving that the Dark Ages sucked. That’s because civilization collapsed, so people weren’t keeping great records. I don’t think this is a strong argument against the Dark Ages being bad.

7. But aside from the economy, there was still lots of great culture and intellectual advancements

If I ask Google for a list of the hundred greatest philosophers of all time, it brings up http://www.listal.com/list/100-greatest-philosophers. It doesn’t seem especially professional or official, but it’s a decent-looking list and because it’s the top Google result I can prove I wasn’t biased by selecting it.

Here’s a graph of number of European philosophers on the list per 500 year period:

The giant pit from 500 to 1000 where there was not a single European philosopher worthy of inclusion on the list corresponds to the traditional concept of a Dark Age without very impressive intellectual output.

Harold Bloom has a list of great books in ‘the Western Canon’. Once again separating them into 500 year intervals and graphing:

Again, we see a giant pit from 500 to 1000 AD (though this time it is not completely empty – Beowulf is the sole qualifying work).

Here’s a map (admittedly a later reproduction, since the originals are lost) by the greatest classical geographer Ptolemy:

And here’s an 8th-century map by Beatus of Liebana:

I’m not cheating here by taking the worst-quality Dark Age map (that would be one of these). If you can find a better Christian Western European map from 500 – 1000, tell me and I’ll replace this one with it. But as far as I can tell, this really was state-of-the-art.

The decreased quality of intellectual output seems to have been matched by a decline in quantity. I can’t find any great sources quantifying the number of books written in the classical world, but there are a few semi-reliable numbers about library size. The Ulpian Library of Emperor Trajan seemed to have tens of thousands of scrolls, and it was only one of as many as 28 libraries in Rome. Estimates of the number of volumes in the Library of Alexandria range from 40,000 to 400,000. Archaeologists studying the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a private residence in a medium sized town, have found a private library of almost 2,000 scrolls.

Medieval libraries seem to be much smaller. From Oxford Bibliographies:

It follows from this that the wealth and fame of any institution that required books would inevitably affect the size of its library, and, given the fact that books were always expensive, medieval libraries were, from a modern point of view, not large. The largest Anglo-Saxon libraries may have contained about two hundred books. In 1331 the collection at Christ Church, Canterbury, numbered 1,850, which may well have been the biggest collection in England and Wales. In 1289 the library of the university of Paris contained 1,017 volumes which, by 1338, had increased to 1,722—an increase of about 70 percent.

This might not be entirely fair – Roman scrolls were smaller than medieval books, so a work that took up one medieval book might have occupied several Roman scrolls, inflating the size of Roman libraries. But there still seems to be a pretty big gap between the tens to hundreds of thousands of volumes in classical libraries and the few hundred to few thousand in libraries all the way up until the High Middle Ages.

[EDIT: This might not be true – see here]

In a lot of cases, the people of the Dark Ages (and the High Middle Ages afterwards) themselves acknowledged this. The Roman author Vitruvius was the gold standard for architecture up to the Renaissance, and Brunelleschi became famous for creating a dome that surpassed the Roman domes made 1300 years earlier. Roman doctors like Galen and Celsus were semi-worshipped by medieval doctors; when the 16th century (!) doctor Theophrastus von Hohenheim became known as “Paracelsus” (meaning “equal to or better than Celsus”), it was taken as an outrageous boast of ability despite his having the benefit of 1500 extra years of medical science.

8. The Dark Ages weren’t all bad. There were still a few important accomplishments. Therefore, they cannot truly be called “dark”.

The night includes several bright things, such as the moon, the stars, and streetlights. But it’s still fair to call the night “dark”. You don’t have to prove that 100% of something fits a description at 100% of times to use the description.

One of the links from the top of the post says:

If the “dark ages” were so unproductive and backwards, how does one explain the proliferation of inventions and developments during this time period. A simple listing of inventions, discoveries and developments demonstrates the the Middle Ages were anything but dark.

…then goes on to give various inventions, the only ones of which from 500 AD – 1000 AD are “collar and harness for horses and oxen”, “iron horseshoes”, and “the swivel axle”.

Look. I am sure that horseshoes were a revolutionary advance in equine footwear. But the ancient Greeks gave us geometry, history, cartography, the screw, the water wheel, gears, cranes, lighthouses, and fricking analog computers. If you want to stake your claim to be more than a miserable failure as a historical age, you are going to have to do better than horseshoes.

(also, maybe the Romans invented iron horseshoes first anyway?)

9. I still think the term “Dark Ages” could possibly lead to misconceptions.


I like this debate because it’s so pointless, but also reveals some of the basic structure of these kinds of arguments. Like most language questions, we act like we’re debating facts, when in fact we’re debating fuzzy category boundaries that are underdetermined by facts. See previous work on is Pluto a planet?, is obesity a disease?, are transgender people their chosen gender?, etc.

There’s no strict criteria for what makes something a Dark Age or whether the term should be used at all. We’re left to wonder whether using it conveys more useful information than it does misinformation.

There are many interpretations of “The Dark Ages happened” that might be wrong, like:

1. There was darkness everywhere, not just in Europe
2. There was darkness in Europe all the way until the Renaissance, and the High Middle Ages sucked
3. Every single person in this era was an illiterate superstitious peasant covered in filth, and not one good thing ever happened
4. Greco-Roman civilization was better in every way than the period that followed it, including morally

On the other hand, there are many interpretations of “the Dark Ages didn’t happen” that might also be wrong, like:

1. The fall of Rome was not associated with a decline in wealth and population.
2. The fall of Rome was not associated with a loss of capacity for things like urban living or large-scale infrastructure
3. The intellectual output of the period was exactly as high in quality and quantity as the intellectual outputs of other periods
4. Civilization always proceeds in a nice Whig History straight upward line with no risk of catastrophic collapses

Surely people can get caught in different bravery debates here. If they live in a bubble where everyone falls prey to the first set of misconceptions, it can be tempting to try to rectify that by saying the Dark Ages never happened. If they (like me) live in a bubble where everyone seems to fall prey to the second, it’s tempting to…well, write a post like this one.

And then there are political implications that will work for the benefit of one group or another. If there was a Dark Age:

1. …maybe it casts Catholicism or Christianity in a bad light, since this was also the age when they rose to be a major power
2. …maybe it points to a broader conflict between science and religion, since this was a very religious age in ways
3. …maybe it suggests that civilization is more fragile than we think, and since it collapsed once it can collapse again
4. …maybe it makes Greece and Rome look extra good, since they were again of the curve in terms of civilizational greatness

Pictured: one way to politicize this discussion; not recommended

And finally, there are signaling aspects. Since everybody hears a vague Monty-Python-And-The-Holy-Grail-esque conception of the Dark Ages (“He must be a king…he doesn’t have shit all over him”), but only people who take a history class in college hear about the Continuity Thesis, loudly proclaiming that there was never a Dark Age is one way to signal education and intellectualism (I dare you to tell me that isn’t what’s going on in this Tumblr post). On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who rails against “postmodernism” and “cultural relativity” and wants a reputation for “calling a spade a spade”, it might be gratifying to get to say that actually, that one historical era that seems kind of sucky (but fancy college professors keep insisting otherwise) does, in fact, suck.

I think I know why this question bothers me so much, and it’s because I hate when faux-intellectuals give stupid black-and-white narratives that are the tiniest sliver more sophisticated than the stupid black-and-white narratives that the general population believes, then demand to be celebrated for their genius and have everyone who disagrees with them shunned as gullible science-denying fools.

(I know a lot of people accuse me and this blog of doing exactly this, and I’m sorry. All I can say is that I’m at the odd-numbered levels of some signaling game you’re at the even-numbered levels of, and it sucks for all of us.)

For other people, maybe it’s something different. Maybe a Chinese historian doesn’t like the term “Dark Ages” because she sees too many people think Europe-specific terms apply to the whole world, and for her the tiny number of people who do this are so annoying that it overwhelms any possible advantage the idea might have. Maybe a Muslim likes it because it helps contrast the poverty of Christendom with the glory of al-Andalus, and shake the myth that Europe has always been on top. I don’t know.

10. So you’re saying both positions are true and everyone is equally right?

No. Although I sympathize with the feelings behind both positions, I say the Dark Ages happened. I think the best evidence we have suggests the fall of Rome (and the period just before) was associated with several centuries of economic and demographic decline, only reaching back to their classical level around 1000 AD. I think it was also associated with a broader intellectual and infrastructure decline, which in some specific ways and some specific fields didn’t reach back up to its Roman level until the Renaissance. I think that common sense – the sense you get when you treat the question of the Dark Age the same as any other question, and try to avoid isolated demands for rigor – says that qualifies for the phrase “Dark Age”.

[see also: Highlights From The Comments On Dark Ages]

SSC Meetup: Bay Area 10/14

Oct. 13th, 2017 03:23 am
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Posted by Scott Alexander

WHEN: 3 PM on Saturday, October 14

HOW: We haven’t done well with cafes or other more traditional meetup spaces in the past, so we’ll probably just meet outside and sit on the grass. Bring blankets / refreshments iff you want them.

WHERE: Berkeley campus, meet at the open space beside the intersection of West and Free Speech. Please disregard any kabbalistic implications of the meetup cross-streets.

WHO: Special guest Scott Aaronson from Shtetl-Optimized. Also me, Katja Grace, possibly David Friedman, hopefully other people.

WHY: Because Professor Aaronson will be giving a lecture on Black Holes, Firewalls, And The Limits Of Quantum Computers (to which you’re all invited) at Berkeley later in the week and kindly agreed to hang out with us while he was in town.

See you there!

SSC Journal Club: Serotonin Receptors

Oct. 10th, 2017 07:11 am
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Posted by Scott Alexander

Pop science likes to dub dopamine “the reward chemical” and serotonin “the happiness chemical”. God only knows what norepinephrine is, but I’m sure it’s cutesy.

In real life, all of this is much more complicated. Dopamine might be “the surprisal in a hierarchical predictive model chemical”, but even that can’t be more than a gross oversimplification. As for serotonin, people have studied it for seventy years and the best they can come up with is “uh, something to do with stress”.

Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors by Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt tries to cut through the mystery. Both authors are suitably important to attempt such an undertaking. Carhart-Harris is a neuropsychopharmacologist and one of the top psychedelic researchers in the world. Nutt was previously the British drug czar but missed the memo saying drug czars were actually supposed to be against drugs; after using his position to tell everyone drugs were pretty great, he was summarily fired. Now he’s another neuropsychopharmacology professor, though with cool side projects like inventing magical side-effect-free alcohol. These are good people.

And they have a good theory. One stumbling block in past attempts to understand serotonin was the brain’s dozen or so different types serotonin receptors, all of which seem to do kind of different things. Carhart-Harris and Nutt (subsequently: CH&N) focus on two of these which show up again and again in psychiatry: 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A. Past studies had always shown these two receptors having kind of opposite effects, which confused things pretty thoroughly: why would you want a chemical that does two opposite things?

5-HT1A is the most common serotonin receptor in the brain. When SSRI antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft and Celexa increase serotonin, this is the receptor most of that serotonin goes to. Some other antidepressants and antianxiety medications like BuSpar, Viibryd and Trintellix just stimulate this receptor directly. So it looks like this receptor does something like “reduce depression and anxiety”. But this falls afoul of a version of Algernon’s Law: there shouldn’t be any switch in the brain which is 100% good or 100% bad. Why have a receptor for treating depression and anxiety, rather than just always keep the receptor at maximum so you’re never depressed or anxious?

5-HT2A is another pretty common receptor. Most new antipsychotics like Seroquel and Abilify block this receptor. And most psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms stimulate it really hard. Since psychedelics make you kind of crazy, and antipsychotics make you stop being crazy, 5-HT2A must have something to do with psychosis. Of course, this is another Algernon’s Law violation: why is there a receptor just to make you psychotic?

1A and 2A seem to “fight” each other. The more you activate 1A, the quieter 2A becomes – this is why people on SSRIs get less effect from psychedelics. And all the drugs that block 2A are also decent antidepressants – this is why people recommend Seroquel for depression even though it’s an antipsychotic – and this seems to work because blocking 2A increases 1A.

On the other hand, there also seems to be some deeper unity. 1A makes you less depressed. 2A – well, we keep hearing all these studies, some of them from Dr. Carhart-Harris himself, showing that magic mushrooms treat depression really well. Not just as a once daily medication, but in the sense that one trip on mushrooms can make you long-term – maybe permanently – less depressed. This is pretty weird. Blocking 2A makes you less depressed? But stimulating 2A also makes you less depressed, in a different and more permanent way? What’s going on?

CH&N argue: both 1A and 2A promote coping with stress. 1A promotes “passive coping”. 2A promotes “active coping”.

Passive coping is basically being stoic, having a stiff upper lip, and waiting it out. Imagine you’re at some kind of terrible job and your boss is bullying you all the time and you can’t stand it and you get depressed and anxious. Your psychiatrist gives you an SSRI (or BuSpar, or Viibryd, or some other 1A stimulator) and now, you can stand it. Your boss is still just as mean. Your life is still just as bad. But you sort of shrug, think “what can I do?” and get back to work. This isn’t the most inspiring story, but it’s better than alternatives like “being a wreck” or “snapping and attacking your boss”. Did I mention that 1A is known to decrease impulsivity and aggression? Makes sense.

Active coping is…uh…sort of unclear from the paper. It sounds like it should mean working to solve the problem – quitting your job, finding a way to stand up for yourself. Heck, even snapping and attacking your boss would tie in with the psychosis angle. This is…not exactly where CH&N go, as far as I can tell. Active coping is like…an LSD trip? It’s some kind of grabbing the brain and shaking it, in the hopes that maybe when it settles it will be in a state that’s better able to deal with whatever’s going on. This sort of makes sense, insofar as big steps like quitting your job might require a lot of mental shake-up to consider. It seems to have something to do with a process of increased plasticity, becoming bolder to avoid getting trapped at local minima, and increasing the information-theoretic entropy of brain states. This definitely sounds like the sort of thing that can cause psychosis, and maybe it sounds like the sort of thing that might help?

MDMA, a strong 2A agonist, is currently in Phase III trials as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It looks really promising. Under CH&N’s theory, this makes a lot of sense. If you have trauma, your thoughts get stuck in some pattern which is useful for dealing with or avoiding the traumatic situation – for example, an abused child learns to be suspicious and afraid of everybody. People do therapy for years trying to cast off these thought patterns; they know they’re no longer adaptive, but they just can’t get rid of them. On MDMA – and especially in MDMA-assisted therapy – people find it easy; the usual metaphor is calcified thought patterns suddenly become fluid and re-writable. Is this the sort of “increased plasticity” that CH&N describe?

This theory gives an explanation of how 1A and 2A can have such a complex – and sometimes antagonistic – relationship. When a person undergoes adversity, their brain releases serotonin, which starts by hitting the 1A receptors. They bear it stoically and hopefully soldier through. But if the adversity gets really bad and the serotonin release passes some threshold, it starts hitting the 2A receptors instead. Now their brain realizes things are pretty bad, it’s got to try high-variance strategies, and so it increases its randomness in the hope of stumbling across a way-out-there solution to the problem.

(not super-clear what problem John Lilly thought he was solving by accusing space aliens of orchestrating a massive conspiracy to manipuate the world’s coincidences, but it’s a pretty safe bet the 2A receptor was involved somehow.)

I find the whole thing pretty plausible. But as written, it doesn’t entirely answer the Algernon’s Law questions. Why doesn’t everyone just have 1A and 2A functions set to max all the time? What’s the tradeoff?

There are some obvious possibilities. Too much 2A stimulation makes you psychotic. This puts the efficacy of atypical antipsychotics like Seroquel in a new light: they’re saying something like “keep your thoughts very careful and low-risk, this isn’t a good time to be deviating from normal patterns”. And so maybe someone who otherwise would have believed the space aliens were putting a transmitter in his teeth will decide not to think that. Is there a shade of Bayesian brain theory here? Is the phrase we’re looking for “strength of priors”? I don’t know.

Likewise obvious: if 1A promotes stoic coping, then too much of it prevents you from actively making your life better. One can imagine how this would be more relevant in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness than today. Back then stressors could have been some specific person whose skull you could bash in with a rock. Nowadays they tend to be things like corporations, national governments, and groups of people with terrible politics on Twitter; attempted skull-bashing, as satisfying as it might feel, is highly disrecommended.

I don’t know if these stories are true. They don’t really explain why 1A and 2A function seem inversely related. Is this just a wiring issue? Or is there some fundamental reason why ability to passively cope can’t coexist with creative outside-the-box problem-solving? Maybe the coping involves some sort of mental resolution not to let all the stress change the brain at all, and the problem-solving involves the brain becoming superplastic and really easily influenced by external events. But it’s not really clear why either of those things should be necessary.

Also, we should remember that although CH&N’s theory explains a lot, we’re reading the case they’re presenting, and there’s a lot they leave out. Some might complain that calling 2A the “active coping receptor” is as reductionistic as the whole “dopamine is the reward chemical” thing – 2A is also involved in obesity, sexual dysfunction, some forms of insomnia, possibly chronic fatigue syndrome, platelet clumping, et cetera. All of these psychedelics do opposite things acutely and chronically – something CH&N acknowledge – so you have to be really careful with time course in order to figure out whether your acid trip is treating depression due to acutely increased 2A stimulation or chronically decreased number of 2A receptors. Both Carhart-Harris and Nutt have spent big parts of their careers advocating more use of psychedelics, so them coming up with a theory of why psychedelics are really good is both reasonable and suspicious.

Still, this is as good a theory of serotonin function as anything else I’ve seen, and it will be exciting to see if it suggests any avenues for experimental research to confirm or refute it.

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Posted by Scott Alexander

From Boston Review: Know Thy Futurist. It’s an attempt to classify and analyze various types of futurism, in much the same way that a Jack Chick tract could be described as “an attempt to classify and analyze various types of religion”.

I have more disagreements with it than can fit in a blog post, but let’s stick with the top five.

First, it purports to explain what we should think about the future, but never makes a real argument for it. It starts by suggesting there are two important axes on which futurists can differ: optimism vs. pessimism, and belief in a singularity. So you can end up with utopian singularitarians, dystopian singularitarians, utopian incrementalists, and dystopian incrementalists. We know the first three groups are wrong, because many of their members are “young or middle-age white men” who “have never been oppressed”. On the other hand, the last group contains “majority women, gay men, and people of color”. Therefore, the last group is right, there will be no singularity, and the future will be bad.

You’re going to protest that there has to be something more than that. Read the article. There really isn’t. The author ignores the future almost completely, in favor of having very strong opinions on which futurist movements include the right or wrong sorts of people. AI risk researchers are “majority men, although more women than in the previous group”; techno-utopians are “more women still…but in the end that does not denote progress”. All singularitarians were “sex-starved teenagers” and they all “wax eloquent about meritocracy over expensive wine” in a “super-rich bubble”. The lovingly detailed descriptions everyone’s social class, racial breakdown, gender ratio, what politics the author imagines they have, and what sexual insecurities she thinks produced their opinions. contrasts markedly with a total lack of concern for any of their beliefs or opinions about the future, their justifications for their beliefs, or whether those justifications are true or false. Literally the only future-related thing we know about the article’s third quadrant is that they may be involved in Bitcoin or something.

The author never even begins to give any argument about why the future will be good or bad, or why a singularity might or might not happen. I’m not sure she even realizes this is an option, or the sort of thing some people might think relevant.

Second, the article’s section on singularitarianism never mentions anything about the Singularity and doesn’t really seem to understand what the Singularity is. Its example of Singularity technologies are “augmenting intelligence through robotics”, “better quality of life through medical breakthroughs”, “cryogenics” (I assume it’s confusing this with cryonics), “medical strategies for living forever”, and “possibly even the blood of young people.”

None of these (except maybe the first) relate to the Singularity, which is defined as a point at which the rate of technological advance reaches near-infinity and it’s impossible to predict what happens afterwards. The article seems to use “singularitarianism” to mean “cool near-future technologies”, which is kind of the opposite of its real meaning. This is a fatal error for an article proposing a system classifying all futurists as “singularitarian” vs. “nonsingularitarian”.

It makes sense only in the context of the author having no interest in futurist movements at all, and indeed she later more-or-less admits that by ‘singularitarian optimists’ she means ‘rich white people she doesn’t like’. When discussing Elon Musk, whom some might call a pessimist based on his belief that the Singularity will destroy the world and doom humanity, she says that “being an enormously rich and powerful entrepreneur, he probably belongs in the first [Singularity optimist] group”.

Third, the article wants to classify some technologies as inextricably associated with privilege, but it has a pretty weird conception of which ones they are. It gives five examples of technologies that it’s possible to worry about without being a privileged white man, and every one of them is a different form of algorithmic bias. Really? That’s the only future technology it’s okay to care about? So much so that of five slots for potentially worrying technology, you filled all five with the same one?

Likewise, when the author discusses bad “singularity” technologies that only white men could want, she includes “better quality of life through medical breakthroughs”. I’m sure this just slipped in by accident. I’m sure (pretty sure?) if we pointed her to someone with chronic pain who hasn’t been able to leave the house in years and asked whether it might be good to have technology that could help this person, she would say yes. But it’s a really interesting slip-up to make. I’ve written hundreds of articles during my lifetime and I don’t think I’ve ever mistakenly said that only privileged white men could care about not being sick.

Again, this would make sense if the author doesn’t really believe in futurology except as a way of sending the right class signals. Helping sick people improve their quality of life? Do gross male nerds from the outgroup support that or oppose that? Okay, sold. I’m sure if her mental editor had caught it, she’d have realized that she was supposed to support that kind of thing, but it would be a post-processing addition to her thought stream rather than a natural component of it.

Fourth, the article presupposes a bitter conflict between the four quadrants, whereas actually people tend to be a lot more on the same side than she expects.

Her pessimists are concerned about algorithmic bias making banks less likely to extend credit to poor people. But her optimists just care about flashy new things like cryptocurrency. Okay. But one possible application for cryptocurrency is peer-to-peer microfinance via smart contracts – ie one of the most promising solutions to bias in big financial institutions. You don’t have to agree this is a good solution. But cryptocurrency enthusiasts are working on it, and it seems weird to deny this matters or that the whole reason behind developing some of these flashy new technologies is to solve recognized societal problems.

And her singularitarians are strategizing how to deal with far-future advanced AI algorithms, while her nonsingularitarians are strategizing how to deal with near-future primitive AI algorithms. These seem like…not entirely the opposite of each other? Imagine you were writing an article on the different kind of climatologists studying global warming. There’s the kind who indulge in crazy sci-fi scenarios where entire cities flood and the Earth becomes uninhabitable. And then there’s the kind dealing with important real-world problems like increased frequency of hurricanes and creeping desertification. Is this a reasonable distinction? Which kind should you be?

(Boston Review readers: “How should I know? You didn’t tell me what ethnicity they are!”)

Most people concerned about climate change are concerned about both those things. Maybe there’s a little room for disagreement on the best way to balance long-term versus short-term goals – should we build seawalls to protect our cities today, or start a program of power plan retrofitting which will pay off in twenty years? But to try to turn these two positions into arch-enemies would be ridiculous and destructive. The scientists involved may have different research interests and skillsets, but not necessarily different opinions. Obviously we should have some people working on near-term problems and other people laying the groundwork to work on long-term problems.

In real life, this is what futurists are doing too. The Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI was organized by people whose main interest was far-future Singularity scenarios, but it included some of the top experts on algorithmic bias, gave the subject a lot of airtime, and ended up with all participants signing onto a set of principles urging more work both on near-term AI problems like algorithmic bias and long-term AI problems like the development of superintelligence. Jed McCaleb, founder of Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, donated $500,000 of his profits to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, which deals with long-term concerns about the Singularity. In the real world, everyone from all four “quadrants” of futurist are either allies, or the same people.

Again, I feel like this is the kind of error you could only make if you totally missed that futurism was a real subject, and you just wanted to make it into a morality play for your particular political opinions.

Fifth, another quote from the article:

In the end my taxonomy (as amusing as I find it) doesn’t really matter to the average person. For the average person there is no difference between the singularity as imagined by futurists in Q1 or Q2 and a world in which they are already consistently and secretly shunted to the “loser” side of each automated decision.

I already posited that the author doesn’t understand “Singularity”, but this is something beyond that. This is horrifying. There will be no difference for the average person between a (positive or negative) post-singularity world and the world now? What?

Listen up, average person. If there’s a negative singularity you will notice. Because you will be very, very dead. So will all the rest of us, rich and poor, old and young, black and white.

And if there’s a positive singularity, you will also notice. I would promise you infinite wealth, but that sort of thing kind of loses its meaning in a post-scarcity society. I would promise you immortality, but who knows if we’ll even have individual consciousnesses at that point? I would promise you bread and roses, but they would be made of hyperintelligent super-wheat and fractal eleven-dimensional time blossoms.

I don’t care if you think this vision is stupid. We’re not arguing about whether this vision is stupid. We’re arguing about whether, if this vision were 100% true, it would make a difference in the life of the average person. The Boston Review is saying it wouldn’t. I’m sitting here with my mouth gaping open so hard I’m worried about permanent jaw damage.

A Singularity that doesn’t make a difference in the life of the average person isn’t a Singularity worth the bits it’s programmed on. And the triumphs of science have always been triumphs for common people, whether it was the Green Revolution saving hundreds of millions of lives in the Third World, or the advent of antiparasitic drugs that are wiping malaria from Africa. When Ray Kurzweil says that the future is exponential, he’s not just talking about the number of transistors per square inch, he’s talking about this (and note the green line representing “percent of people not living in extreme poverty”):

The Singularity is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed across various scales of x-axis

This is what everyone in whatever school or quadrant of futurism you care to name is thinking about. This is the only true thing. Drones, Bitcoin, Uber, superintelligence, whatever, these are part of it, but they’re not the goal in itself. We are going to fight our hardest to end poverty, disease, death, and suffering, and we’re going to do it in spite of petty Boston Review articles telling us we should stop doing it so we can focus on hating each other for stupid reasons.

So here’s my division of futurists into two groups: shining examples, and terrible warnings. And the patron saint of the latter category is Samuel Madden.

Madden was an Anglican clergyman in 18th-century Ireland, and maybe the first futurist. In 1733, he published Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, a novel about people in 1999 sending letters back through time to tell their 18th-century predecessors what the future would hold.

How did the prognosticators of 1733 imagine the future? Was it utopian? Decadent? Miserable? Beautiful? Incomprehensible?

Actually, it was none of those things. It was exactly like 1733 in every way, and the future people were just writing back to remind everyone how much Catholics sucked.

I am serious about this. Book-World-1999 had no technological advances over 1733. The political situation was more or less the same, although the Wikipedia review mentions that “Tatars” had taken Constantinople at some point. The important thing, the thing that they invented time travel to tell the past, was that Catholics were still bad. Really, really bad. The people of 1733 really needed to know just how amazingly bad Catholics were and would continue to be.

The problem here isn’t just that Catholics aren’t really that bad. I feel like even if Catholics were exactly as bad as Samuel Madden thought, there would still be an unforgivable pettiness here. If we could show Samuel Madden the real future of his world, I hope he would be awed and horrified beyond words. The hope and heartbreak of the French Revolution, the lightning-fast transformations of industrialization, the slow march of atheism through previously Christian Europe, the otherworldly horror of the atom bomb, the glory of the moon landing, and then a 1999 poised on the edge between a Fukuyaman end of history and collapse into environmental disaster and dystopia – nobody could write a book as grand as this, but surely one could win eternal renown just by making the feeblest attempt. And instead, we get “EVERYTHING THE SAME; ALSO, HATE CATHOLICS”. The only emotion I can muster is a sort of profound disgust.

And I can’t help but feel the same disgust when I read “Know Thy Futurist”. I don’t know whether the future will be better or worse than the past, but I feel pretty sure it will be grander. Either we will perish in nuclear apocalypse or manage to avert nuclear apocalypse; either one will be history’s greatest story. Either we will discover intelligent alien life or find ourselves alone in the universe; either way would be terrifying. Either we will suppress AI research with a ferocity that puts the Inquisition to shame, or we will turn into gods creating life in our own image; either way the future will be not quite human. And faced with all of the immensity and danger of the coming age, the best the Boston Review can pull off is “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT SOME OF THE PEOPLE SPECULATING ABOUT THIS MIGHT BE IN YOUR (((OUTGROUP)))?”

There’s a Deeply Wise Saying that all science/prediction/philosophy/theology/whatever will inevitably reflect the parochial conditions of the writer’s own time. Maybe so. But I feel like it doesn’t have to be quite as parochial as Samuel Madden. If the people of 1733 had thought about things really hard, tried to transcend the feuds of their local time and place, might they have predicted the Industrial Revolution? Might they have been able to accelerate it, delay it, send it along a different track that ameliorated some of the displacement and poverty it caused in reality? I don’t know. But it would have been a pretty amazing attempt. What would it look like to try to do something like that today? Is “Know Thy Futurist” making it more or less likely that will happen?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably dumb for me to be so angry about this one article. I guess what bothers me is that it’s not just one article. Probably a majority of the stuff I see written evaluating the future, or technology, or Silicon Valley these days seems to take basically this perspective. I was really mad at Maciej Ceglowski a few months ago because his anti-singularity screed was about half this kind of thing, but by this point 50%-real-argument is looking pretty good. More and more people are dropping the 50%-real-argument veneer and just admitting that stereotypes and ad hominems are the way they want to conduct everything. Do we really need to turn our hopes and dreams about the world to come into yet another domain where white people accuse other white people of whiteness and are accused of whiteness in turn until everyone hates each other and anything good and real gets buried in an endless heap of bullshit and 140-character brutal owns?

I wish ignoring this kind of thing was an option, but this is how our culture relates to things now. It seems important to mention that, to have it out in the open, so that people who turn out their noses at responding to this kind of thing don’t wake up one morning and find themselves boxed in. And if you’ve got to call out crappy non-reasoning sometime, then meh, this article seems as good an example as any.

If we get very lucky, there will actually be a future. Some of the people in it will probably read the stuff we write. They’ll judge us. I assume most of that judgment will involve laughing hysterically. But we can at least aim for laughter that’s good-natured instead of scornful. Sub specie aeternatis, how much of what we do today is going to look to them the way Samuel Madden does to us?

OT86: Utopen Thread

Oct. 9th, 2017 03:49 am
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Posted by Scott Alexander

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. There’s a public beta of Less Wrong 2.0 up at lesserwrong.com. See also the overview of what’s going on and why one might want such a thing.

2. Probably there will be an SSC meetup in Berkeley on October 14. I’ll post more details later, but if it’s important to have a little advance warning, now you have it.

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A universe of unmapped grief and love
And new master light is beyond
The pleiades and plow and southern stars.

O soaring
Icarus of outworld, burn bright
The traceries of known skymarks,
Slide the highway planets behind
Your clear waxed wings.

Go conquer the everywhere left
Beyond your sad confinement
In a predicted bonehouse,
Witch thrown riddle of flesh
And water.

O soar until nothing
remains but great glittering holes
In the black godspun shirt over your head.

- John Fairfax