Belmont Club

The Kirk Wager

Photo by: Tschiponnique Skupin/Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

At a time when political polarization has turned every crime into a potential Harpers Ferry one might hope for some bearded elder or statesman to step forth with calming words.  There is none; and what could he say if there was nothing sacred in common to which he could appeal?  What we have are an abundance of reality show stars, late-night comedians, low-IQ politicians and assorted publicity-seeking freaks.

Just as nothing is more vital than air, though we rarely notice it, the same holds true for the unspoken assumptions of civic life.  Glenn Reynolds noted that even Trump’s enemies are protected by the relative immutability of the Constitution; the closest thing to sacred that America still has. “The left should be glad that Gorsuch is an originalist and not a conservative activist.”

What if right-leaning jurists listened to their critics on the left, and adopted a “living Constitution” approach instead of relying on what the Framers understood the text to mean? … who can bend the meaning of the text to make it evolve to conform to conservative political principles and ends? However much you disagree with it, wouldn’t you rather a conservative justice consider himself constrained by the text of the Constitution like, say, the Emoluments Clause?”

A culture’s taboos are intended to protect everyone. The sacred plays the important role of stipulating the highest value. Jordan Peterson observed everyone wants to be treated like they have inalienable rights from God even if they denied such a thing was possible in the first place. Camus understood that a foundation stone was necessary for any hierarchy of imperatives to stand.  “Where there is no hope,” Camus wrote, “it is incumbent on us to invent it”. Voltaire before him when he famously wrote:

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

The sacred has for most of human history functioned as a kind of necessary hypothesis and a very important one. Jaron Lanier in his book Who Owns the Future argues that many technologists functionally operate under a weaker form of Pascal’s famous proposition he calls “Kirk’s Wager”: the assumption that humanity itself is worth the candle.

An important feature of Star Trek, and all optimistic, heroic science fiction, is that a recognizable human remains at the center of the adventure. At the center of the high-tech circular bridge of the Starship Enterprise is … a Kirk or a Picard, a person… Optimism plays as special role when the beholder is a technologist. …. We’ve made a secular version of Pascal’s Wager. …

I’m bringing up Pascal’s Wager not because of anything to do with God, but because I think the logic behind it is similar to the thought games going on in the minds of technologists. The common logic behind Pascal and Kirk’s wagers is not perfect. The cost of belief isn’t really known in advance. There are those who think we’ve paid too high a price for belief in God, for instance. … How do you choose?

For better or worse, however, we technologists have made Kirk’s Wager. We believe that all this work will make the future better than the past. The negative side effects, we are convinced will not be so bad as to make the whole project a mistake. …

The core of my dispute with many of my fellow technologists is that they’ve switched to a different wager. They still want to build the starship, but with Kirk evicted from the captain’s chair at the center of the bridge.

Kirk will be ditched to make room for artificial general intelligence on the bridge.  With Skynet at the helm the Enterprise will go not only “where no man has gone before” but where man will never go. Alternatively woke civilization, disgusted with itself,  might opt never to launch the Enterprise at all. Many Western intellectuals, especially ideological Greens, are antipathetic to the spread of the human cancer through the cosmos.

The astrophysicist Ian Whittaker wrote that the SpaceX rocket … burned a massive amount of fuel. … If SpaceX meets its target of launching a rocket every two weeks, then the company will be releasing roughly 4,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year …

More pressing, Whittaker argues, is the problem of space debris. Just as the oceans are becoming cesspools of plastic and other garbage, outer space is becoming riddled with space debris. There are now around 150 million objects floating in space because of human-launched expeditions and experiments.

What if humanity is no longer sacred to itself and too few can be persuaded to make the Kirk Wager?  Then we should observe what we actually see.  The epidemic of suicide and the collapsing demography of the West.  America’s “suicide rate keeps rising, but nobody plans on doing anything about it,” says Foreign Policy, calling it a national security issue. “Imagine if more than 40,000 people a year died from terrorist attacks in this country?” But 40,000 American suicides a year is peanuts compared to what Europe is doing to itself.   Joel Kotkin in Forbes reels off the demographic numbers:

The most important EU country, Germany, has endured demographic decline for over a generation. Germany’s population is forecast to drop 7.7% by 2050 … we can expect Germany to shrink as well as get very old … Bulgaria’s population expected to shrink 27% by 2050 and Romania’s 22%. … Things are not that much better in Western Europe, where fertility rates are also below replacement rates, but not quite so low. Long-term, the only option for Europe may be to allow more immigration, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, although this may be impossible due to growing political resistance to immigration.

Unless changed it will proceed inexorably.  As Thomas Andrews was reported to have told Captain Smith “the pumps will buy you time, but minutes only. From this moment on, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder. It is a mathematical certainty.”

What a civilization holds sacred, far from being a question of concern only to religious nuts, is perhaps the single most important thing a civilization has to decide.  On the answer depends the legitimacy of constitutions, how we treat each other and how we treat ourselves. Camus was on target when he wrote “there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”.  In what name will our hypothetical bearded elder adjure us to love each other?  The epidemic of suicide among young people in the West isn’t the result of mental illness.  It’s the consequence of accepting that nothing really matters.

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Books:

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).

Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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