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The Kirk Wager

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.