Saturday, May 5, 2007 17 Comments

Two kinds of repeaters

A little while ago I noted that beliefs about the paranormal world can't directly motivate actions in the physical world. The proximate motivation of any physical action must be some belief about the real world, because (pace Mises) any action implies some attempt to change the world's state to one the actor considers preferable. So real-world principles which depend on the paranormal, such as "separation of church and state," are suboptimal by definition. Any real-world problems they could prevent could be also caused by a nonparanormal belief system, against which such a rule is no defense.

For example, if two movements A and B propagate the same beliefs about the real world, but A includes a paranormal plane whereas B does not, "separation of church and state" will protect us against A but not B. This is what in my line of work we call a "security hole."

The general approach when you find a security hole is to (a) fix it, and (b) figure out what-all has crawled through the hole. This is going to require more than one blog post, but we might as well start on (a).

The only way (that I know of) to repair such a mental lacuna is to rebuild the language we use to think about the problem. As long as we have to change linguistic gears to compare paranormal and nonparanormal belief systems, we will have a vulnerability, because this irrelevant categorization constantly tempts us to craft overspecified tests which a mutating attacker can evade.

(For example, a rule that tells us to "keep Mithra out of the schools" is overspecified, unless you think Mithra in specific is the great danger to impressionable young minds. If we keep Mithra out of the schools but we say nothing about Baal, Baal will outcompete Mithra and our children will grow up as Baalist bots. Of course, if Baal is real and all the bad news we read in the paper is caused by our failure to sacrifice to him, this is ideal.)

So I suggested the terms "kernel" and "repeater," defining a kernel as a set of factual and ethical assertions about the real world, and a repeater as an institution that propagates such assertions. A religion is a kernel and a church is a repeater. But not all kernels are religions, nor repeaters churches.

Let's extend the "kernel" concept slightly, to also include metaphysical assertions. A metaphysical assertion is any statement that makes no factual or ethical claim (Hume's "is" or "ought") about the real world. This includes beliefs about paranormal entities, such as gods, but it also includes hermetic philosophical concepts such as those in Neoplatonism, Buddhism, Hegelism, etc, etc.

By definition, metaphysics does not directly affect reality. But since metaphysical assertions are often sources of conflict, and since they can motivate beliefs about the real world, it can be useful to track them - as long as we remember that they are pathologically neutral, and eliminating metaphysics, while it may be desirable, cannot by itself eliminate factual errors or ethical disagreements.

Your kernel is the set of assertions you agree with. In theory, since no one can physically stop you from thinking for yourself, everyone could have a different kernel. But in practice, people are social animals, they get most of their assertions from others, and their kernels cluster.

Therefore, we can speak of "prototype" kernels, implying patterns of agreement across social groups. Methodism, for example, is a "prototype" under this definition. Not all Methodists agree on all assertions factual, ethical, or metaphysical, but there is clearly a general pattern of consensus.

These patterns correspond to the networks by which assertions are transmitted between individuals. Let's call a assertion in transmission a "packet." If you "accept" the packet, it means you agree with the assertion. If you "reject" it, you don't.

(There's another word that means "transmitted belief." I've made up my mind about this word: I don't like it. Mainly because it makes me sound like a dork. The mere auditory tone of the word, its mouth-feel, is awful, and its various declensions (such as "memeplex") are even worse. But "meme" also implies a sort of scientistic pretense that I find unwholesome, an attempt to intimidate the reader through the bogus authority of jargon. I prefer to borrow words from the computer business specifically because I think of programming as a trade, not a science.)

So a "repeater" is an institution which sends packets. A "church," in the Christian sense of the word, is a repeater because the point of going to church is that the minister, or other religious official, tells you what he or she is thinking - with the implication that you should share these thoughts. If you are a churchgoer and you find yourself frequently rejecting the church's packets, you're likely to switch churches.

We can call the people who generally accept the packets produced by some repeater its "clients." There is obviously a trust relationship from client to repeater. If you feel the need to evaluate every packet you receive from scratch, you have no need for a repeater.

Another example of a repeater is Wikipedia. I certainly don't trust Wikipedia absolutely, any more than I think most churchgoers trust their ministers absolutely. However, I do assign more credibility to articles produced by the Wikipedia editing process than to, say, some random blog.

Finally, to finish off this terminology-fest, we need to wade into the deep end of the swamp and come up with some way of defining "good" or "bad" assertions, and hence packets - so that we can actually turn our firewall back on.

Metaphysical assertions, again, are neither bad nor good, as they do not reflect on the real world. This leaves us with only factual and ethical assertions. Let's say that an assertion is good unless it's bad. This leaves us with the problem of defining bad facts and bad ethics. The word "bad" is a little coarse for my taste, so let's say "toxic" instead.

A toxic factual assertion is a misperception of reality. For example, I think Holocaust revisionism is a toxic assertion, because the Holocaust strikes me as pretty well-documented. But I prefer to avoid the word "lie," because I don't and can't know the motives of those who repeat this (or any other) packet.

A toxic ethical assertion is an internal inconsistency. For example, in the American South from the 1830s to the 1860s, the idea developed that enslaving Africans was compatible with Christianity. This assertion would have struck even the grandparents of those who held it as toxic, because human equality has always been a central concern of Christianity. At the time of the Revolution those who accepted slavery generally thought of it as an inescapable evil. (Slavery is mentioned in the Bible, but the system of slavery in the classical world was very different from that practiced in the South, nor were Southerners unaware of this.) If Southerners had rejected Christianity in favor of some more Nietzschean ethical kernel, as at least some National Socialists did, they could have avoided inconsistency. Their ethics would not have been compatible with mine, or probably with yours, but they would not be "toxic" by this definition.

Toxic packets (which carry toxic assertions) are really not that hard to detect. Epistemology and ethics are not rocket science. Given that we live in the 21st century and we generally seem pretty good about getting our rockets into orbit, the persistence of toxic assertions is hard to explain.

But persist they do. The clients of Daily Kos and Free Republic - to name a couple of the Internet's more egregious repeaters - can't possibly both be right. Their ethics could differ without toxicity, but my guess is that if you polled readers of each for a statement of general ethical principles, what you would get on both sides would be pretty familiar, and probably more or less compatible with the broad tradition of Christianity. Certainly, either or both of the prototype kernels these sites offer must contain ethical inconsistencies and/or misperceptions of reality.

So toxic packets are flying all around us. Why?

This one is already getting long. But there's one way to classify repeaters that may provide one clue. We can divide repeaters into "disinterested" and "concerned" classes.

A disinterested repeater has no organizational motivation to repeat anything but what its clients want to hear. It has the same relationship to them as any business to its customers. If its clients want the truth, it will try to give them the truth. If they prefer nonsense and illusion, that's what they'll get. The success of a disinterested repeater depends only on the popularity of the prototype kernel it delivers its clients, not on the actual content.

A concerned repeater has some reason to care what its clients think. It has ulterior motives. The success of a concerned repeater will depend on the nature of the assertions it makes. There is some external force, not related to the preferences of its clients, that rewards the repeater for propagating certain assertions and/or deters it from propagating others.

Which is better? And why? Hm...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"meta-physics" (beyond nature) do affect our real world. The principle of non-contradiction is a "law of thought," which has no "physical" or "empirical" basis. Thus, the principle is expounded in Aristotle's Metaphysics (not a word he used, but one assigned to this work).

"meta-physics" is not synonymous with "para-normal." In classical philosophy, meta-physics is concerned with freedom of will, time, space, and ontology. Being, "essences," "substance," "love," epistemological claims, etc. Not para-normal matters at all, unless you believe your own linguistic abuses.

"New Age" metaphysics is a different species of "beyond nature" than classical metaphysics Your "kernels" and "repeaters" should get its language straight before spreading mistaken memes.

May 6, 2007 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


To me the axioms of mathematics, which includes logic (such as non-contradiction), are very much part of the natural world. Aristotle's interpreters aside, I suspect most educated people these days don't think of math as a branch of metaphysics.

I didn't say metaphysics was identical with the paranormal. I defined the paranormal as one case of the metaphysical. I am down with Stove's argument that metaphysical thought is essentially unclassifiable.

May 6, 2007 at 2:19 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Obviously any organization will have to be based on some sort of norms (if only because for an organization to exist it must have some sort of purpose) and factual beliefs (since these will be necessary in order to have any idea as to how to go about achieving said purpose). These will necessarily come from some sort of "repeaters".
All "separation of church and state" means, all it possibly can mean, is that government may not declare any particular institution to embody the official religion. Suggestions that government officials should disregard their norms and beliefs if their origin is religious in nature are nothing but incoherent nonsense.
So what are you suggesting?

May 6, 2007 at 7:01 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I don't like the distinction that you imply between the "paranormal world" and the "real world". Beliefs about the paranormal world, like all mental events, occur in real brains which are part of the real world. The paranormal world is part of the real world -- the part which happens inside of our heads.

We live by many rules which refer to things inside of our heads. Why are you so troubled by the rules which refer specifically to the paranormal world?

May 7, 2007 at 2:33 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Paranormal beliefs are as real as any other beliefs. My point is that, in order for these beliefs to motivate actions, they have to first motivate beliefs about reality. In other words, they may be the ultimate cause of action, but they cannot be the proximate cause.

Suppose Baal tells you to throw virgins into the volcano. Obviously, since I am not a Baalist, but a humanist (of sorts), I take strong exception to this proposal.

But the problem, at least from my perspective, is that you believe virgins need to be thrown into the volcano. This is a belief about the real world. Without this belief - let's say you heard Baal, but you didn't agree with him - I have no reason to worry about your actions. And if you have some other, non-paranormal reason for wanting to toss the virgins, it is just as bad as if you got the idea from Baal.

Thus, Baal has been factored out of the equation. This is my point: worry about the virgins, not Baal.

May 7, 2007 at 7:00 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Indeed. My point is that, without having an official (paranormalist) church, one can have an official (non-paranormalist) repeater which causes exactly the same real-world problems. Out of the frying pan and into the skillet, so to speak.

So talking about "separation of church and state" is like talking about "separation of Catholicism and state." A formula that is almost guaranteed to land you in a Protestant theocracy - as, in fact, this exact formula did in the past.

In fact, specifically - I promise to actually cut to the chase in an actual post, hopefully pretty soon - I think we do live in a Protestant theocracy. But it's a nontheistic, Unitarian one, and its priests are called "teachers," "professors," and "journalists." Regardless, you will have a very tough time distinguishing between what these people call "ethics," what others call "Unitarian Universalism," and what their enemies call "political correctness."

May 7, 2007 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger Steve said...


May 8, 2007 at 1:11 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

( ^ oops. I prematurely posted that last comment.)

Please let me try to understand. You claim that the belief

(1) "virgins must be thrown into the volcano"

is not functionally different from the belief

(2) "virgins must be thrown into the volcano because Baal told me so"

because the Baal does not exist in "reality", so what's the point of referring to Baal?

But I note that Baal does exist in the mind(=brain) of the person who believes in Baal. And the additional information about that person's mental state ("because Baal told me so") is useful information. The more information we have, the better policies we can execute, right?

I anticipate one objection: mental states tend to be inscrutable, whereas overt physical actions (throwing virgins into volcanoes) can be easily observed. But this is the difference data which is readily available and data which is expensive to obtain. It has nothing to do with whether some beliefs correspond to the "real world" better than others. All beliefs -- no matter how silly -- are physical events in the "real world".

May 8, 2007 at 1:31 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Baal definitely does exist as a thought, and thoughts exist in the real world even if we're not quite at the point where we can see them on the MRI.

The fact that a person is thinking of Baal is definitely useful and real. It is just not as useful as it seems, I think.

The obvious impulse is to get rid of the ultimate cause. No more Baal, no virgins in the volcano.

But the problem with this is that Baal is like a mutable antigen on the surface of HIV. It turns out that if someone believes Baal wants virgins in the volcano, and thus by definition believes virgins should be tossed in the volcano, he is very susceptible to being converted away from Baal and into some other reason for believing that the volcano needs virgins.

In other words, paranormal and other metaphysical beliefs, because they are so intangible, fluctuate easily and evade immune responses. Again to be more specific, I'd say most nontheists today have a system of ethics that's clearly a mutation of Protestant Christianity. And this mutation succeeded, in my opinion, precisely because it evaded the idea of "secularism." It is much harder to reveal people as religious fanatics when they don't believe in God, but they may act in just as fanatical a way.

May 9, 2007 at 8:36 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

The suggestion that slavery is inconsistent with Christianity, or that the egalitarianism of Christianity extends beyond the equality of souls before the judgment of God, is most assuredly unbiblical. See, for example, Ephesians vi:5-9, in which the proper relationship between slave and master is laid out.

N.B. - The Authorized (vulgo dicitur "King James") Version uses the term "servant" where the Vulgate uses "servus," which is properly translated "slave." Slavery, either as the Romans knew it or as it was known in the old South, was unknown to the translators of the A.V. as Jacobean Britain had no slavery. The institution of villeinage never existed in Scotland and had died out in England by 1611

If anything was internally inconsistent with biblical Christianity it was the "Christian" abolitionist movement championed by New England Unitarians and taken to its logical conclusion by revolutionaries like John Brown. This was an antecedent to the "progressive" or "social gospel" Christianity of the twentieth century, in the same way that evangelical Prohibitionism was. One can imagine nothing less true to the Bible than Carrir O. Nation, who would have taken her hatchet to the punch-bowl at Cana's wedding feast.

May 14, 2007 at 7:17 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I missed this last comment!

Briefly, slavery is in the Bible but racism is not. Slavery in the US did not start as a racist institution, but it certainly ended that way.

June 24, 2007 at 10:13 AM  
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