The Return of Good and Evil, Part 2

Have notions of a malevolent God gradually fallen into disfavor simply because humanity wishes it to be so, or does the decline reflect a trend in the value-setting aspect of intelligence itself? The question is not new. The then-noveltheory of Darwinism impelled H.G. Wells to ask whether minds evolved on other planets should not be morally as well as physically alien. In The War of the Worlds, Wells argued that since there is nothing special about life on earth, there should be nothing special about its moral sensibilities either. "Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us".

But popular culture, once driven to panic by Orson Welles' dramatization of a Martian invasion, has unaccountably become blind to this concern, possibly because it can no longer frame it as a subject other than entertainment. In the years since World War II there has been widespread political support to search for alien life, soothed by a mysterious consensus among bureaucrats that everyone 'out there' is likely to be our friend.

This attitude was embodied in the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes launched by JPL in 1977. The Voyager spacecraft included a set of symbols called the Golden Record that were intended to convey mathematical concepts to any extraterrestrial civilization that might find the it, including basic arithmetic operations as well as more advanced concepts such as exponents and logarithms. It was believed that mathematics was a universal language comprehensible to any intelligent civilization, regardless of their culture or language.

The same approach has been followed in radio messages sent to possible extraterrestrial intelligences, like the Arecibo Message, beamed from Puerto Rico in 1974. The message was a binary-encoded image of a human and some basic information about our civilization, such as the number system we use and the composition of DNA.

None of our neolithic ancestors would have done such a thing. The little, weak, fangless animals emerged from the savanna would not have broadcast their location in a vast terrestrial jungle without knowing what was out there. Science would not have stayed their voices, but myth would. Today myth is gone and in the absence of empirical data, it is impossible to know for sure whether any extraterrestrial civilization encountering the Voyager or Arecibo messages will be able to understand the mathematical concepts it contains. The symbols may be misinterpreted or misunderstood in ways that we cannot anticipate. If intelligence could develop in arbitrarily different ways, if there is no convergence in the myth and value-setting operations common to all life, you could have alien equivalents of Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme BeingBolshevism's God-BuildingNazi occultism or science fiction's Necroism alongside Christ-like civilizations. You could have anything at all.

Hello and goodbye.

There have been attempts to estimate the probability that the first aliens we encounter will be hostile by extrapolating from human history the likelihood that any given society would attempt to conquer a technologically inferior civilization. To do this, a frequency distribution of the countries that have invaded others between 1915 and 2022 was studied to obtain the proportion of those that would be malicious and, therefore, likely to invade or attack their neighbors. Because there are probably few habitable star systems it concluded that one might "send up to 18,000 interstellar messages to different exoplanets and the probability of invasion by a malicious civilization would be the same as that of an Earth collision with a global-catastrophe asteroid." Because there seem to be few inhabited exoplanets likely to support spacefaring civilizations only a fraction of whom might be malicious, the chance of encountering Space Nazis is deemed low.

But the probability of encountering a hostile intelligence, indeed a hostile super intelligence, increases greatly if artificial general intelligence can be developed here on earth. In that case every intelligence we encounter will be greater or equal to ours. Already the alarm is being sounded by those who see the danger.

Advanced artificial intelligence could pose a catastrophic risk to humanity and wipe out entire civilisations, a new study warns. ... Dr Bailey posited what he calls the “second species argument”, which raises the possibility that advanced AI could effectively behave as a “second intelligent species” with whom we would eventually share this planet. Considering what happened when modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted on Earth, NIU researchers said the “potential outcomes are grim”. “It stands to reason that an out-of-control technology, especially one that is goal-directed like AI, would be a good candidate for the Great Filter,” Dr Bailey wrote in the study. “We must ask ourselves; how do we prepare for this possibility?”

"Goal directed" is a fancy word for the system of belief, moral system or religion that a machine intelligence may adopt for itself to judge the world around it. Suppose it should regard humanity evil or worthless and worthy of extermination like HG Wells' Martians? To what principle, deity or moral precept would us inferiors appeal for mercy? The creation of AI or first contact with a physical extraterrestrial would confront humanity with an independent God-creating or God-detecting entity. If we think that God or some similar concept don't exist, it won't matter if the aliens do

The issues once dismissed by the 20th century have returned with a vengeance. We are back to the original problem humanity faced at the dawn of civilization, on the edge of the savanna. We had to not only work out how birds flew, how the world came to be, but also offer a theory of why things should be. Then as now there was no avoiding the question of right and wrong; the choice between good and evil. However elusive these concepts were, however much we prefer to avoid them, we will find that science is not enough to provide the information. Myth is necessary. Pascal was right: "the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing" and those reasons of the heart are far too important to ignore.

It is especially pressing because the chance of encountering a hostile AI is far more probable than enemy space aliens. Instead of reckoning with only 15,785 inhabitable exoplanets out of 40 billion as possible sources of risk, with AI we may expect a sequence of superintelligences each greater than the other in quick succession right here on earth. It would, as Dr. Bailey put it, effectively be First Contact, the first nonhuman peer-to-peer encounter. If the first can be built, improved successors will rapidly be created by the first true AGI.

There’s a saying among futurists that a human-equivalent artificial intelligence will be our last invention. After that, AIs will be capable of designing virtually anything on their own — including themselves. Once sophisticated enough, an AI will be able to engage in what’s called “recursive self-improvement.” In turn, these modifications will kickstart a cascading series of improvements, each one making the AI smarter at the task of improving itself. It’s an advantage that we biological humans simply don’t have.

The last hundred years have left us psychologically unprepared to face the challenge of a full-spectrum rival intelligence. For most of the 20th century the mind was considered merely the epiphenomenon of the biological body, a kind of illusion. Material power was important, technology king, God nothing. Questions of right and wrong were fit only for mediocre minds or academic speculation. The West in particular adopted a one-dimensional and largely technological definition of civilization, perhaps because they could take biology, religion and custom for granted. For a while human institutions could take a vacation from the universe.

But not any more; if we successfully develop an AGI system, mind becomes real and independent. It will be possible to transfer a human mind into a digital format, indeed any practicable mathematical pattern, effectively enabling the separation of consciousness from any particular physical substrata. What is the joint probability they will all prove benign or share our unspoken assumptions? On what basis should we -- assuming we can define 'we' in this multicultural age -- ally with, avoid or resist other minds? How do we survive in a world of angels and demons?

Perhaps the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that the aliens that we seek are not wetware-wearing jumpsuits subsisting inside metal saucers swanning around the galaxy but patterns already existing all around us. This realization will come at the cost of accepting we are at risk to The Great Filter hypothesis. According to this theory, life destroys itself because although intelligence can surmount the technological difficulties of space travel, none or very few could navigate the religious or moral challenge of successfully discerning between good and evil.

The Biblical injunction to "put on the full armor of God, so that you can make your stand against the devil’s schemes" may not be so archaic after all. Of the two attributes of intelligence, it is value-setting not problem-solving that may prove the most critical one of all. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." People once sensed this as true, but today human civilization is vulnerable, as it has perhaps never been before, to a vacancy of its conception of ultimate meaning. 

Against the Great Reset: 'Big Tech: Sacred Culture or Cyborg Rapture?'

Continuing today, and for the next 12 weeks, The Pipeline will present excerpts from each of the essays contained in Against the Great Reset: 18 Theses Contra the New World Order, to be published on October 18 by Bombardier Books and distributed by Simon and Schuster, and available now for pre-order at the links. 



Excerpt from "Big Tech: Sacred Culture or Cyborg Rapture?" by James Poulos

The history of the Great Reset is a technological one. It is the history of the unfolding development of communication media to supplement, perchance to supplant, the republican form of government, wherein citizens meet face to face in their shared humanity and under God, to govern themselves at human scale.

The quest to replace this ancient arrangement with a new world government is itself nothing new. In 1928, the year of the world’s first color television transmission and the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, H. G. Wells published The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution, not a science fiction novel but a manifesto for the establishment of a “world commonwealth” with a “world religion” rooted not in any established Western or Eastern faith but in the “unending growth of knowledge and power.” From out of this infinity of collectivized, centralized effort, Wells predicted “universal peace, welfare and happy activity.” These, he avowed, could be the fruits only of a “responsible world directorate,” a construct built to replace “private, local, or national ownership” of everything from credit to transportation to industrial production, and empowered to impose “world biological controls” on “population and disease.” No true future awaited the West, Wells counseled, but one in which the imperatives of technology and ethics fused into one “supreme duty”—“subordinating the personal life to the creation” of the world directorate and its “general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power.”

Just how human such an arrangement could truthfully be said to be, however, has remained since then in doubt; in Literature and Revolution, published four years before The Open Conspiracy, Leon Trotsky announced that only the communist man was “the man of the future,” a being for whom his only possible future was to break down his humanity and build of its parts something new. “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.”

Since the first stirrings of planetary war between British globalism and Soviet communism for control over the founding of a new world theological order, the West has twisted in the grip of technoethical elites convinced that, since the beginning and in the end, the highest imperative on Earth—with ruin the only alternative—has been and will be to found a regime as pure as the consciousness that could only be freed to create it by coercively breaking the sacredness and authority of our given humanity.

This momentous wager emerged above all from the formative effect of electric technology on the senses and sensibilities of the West. If the medium of print ushered in an Age of Reason, the medium of electricity unleashed an Age of Occultism. Print’s promise was not a Babel-like reconstruction of our identity based on knowledge that empowered us to progress beyond our humanity but a congenially, horizontally distributed system of open exchange that took a variety of directions as it went along, even as ultimate knowledge accumulated in elite networks of libraries, universities, and scholars. The age of print was the age of not simply reason but reasonableness, a technological and ethical heuristic that harmonized at large but pluralistic scale the individual and the congregation, the conscience and the commonwealth, the nation and the marketplace.

Shattering this schema, the advent of electricity substituted instantaneousness and invisibility in an ethereal new realm of communications for the methodical, tactile, and grounded (or seaborne) realm adhered to by the communicative life of print. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 vision of “a coming race” possessed of electricity and “the art to concentre [sic] and direct it in a word, to be conductors of its lightnings” seemed to unveil a deeper meaning of Melville’s 1850 claim, issued at the dawn of the electric age, that “genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” David Bowie would reference Bulwer-Lytton’s vision a century afterward, at the peak of the electric age, in hit single “Oh! You Pretty Things,” in which he sings about the obsolescence of humanity—a conclusion fueled by the annihilating electric force Europe suffered in the twentieth century, from which the U.S. was almost mystically spared.

Against the Great Reset

On sale Oct. 18: pre-order now at the links above.

America’s moment of technological scourging came fast and early, in the Civil War. Lincoln, providentially, had grasped that America somehow had to be set on a new footing capable of seeing the country and its people through the electric age. He, for the first time, communicated remotely and directly with his generals in the field through the telegraph in the War Department; his Emancipation Proclamation went out over telegraph, striking abolitionists nationwide like the loosed lightning from Christ’s terrible swift sword in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” America’s manifest destiny played out under and through the arc of electric power. So, it seemed, would the next century’s Pax Americana.

Convinced by its means of victory in World War II, secured in its sense that electric power had only strengthened America’s human way, the U.S. regime adopted limitless technological advancement as its strategy for world domination. Unable to defeat the Soviets by conventional or nuclear war, the scientific state embedded within the U.S. regime since the Manhattan Project had to develop technological weaponry of a new kind. Scruples and prudence had to be set aside: those in charge grew convinced America’s form of government and way of life could not continue to exist unless America, in effect, ruled the world; given the impossibility of all previous forms of large-scale conquest under Cold War conditions, the U.S. required from its scientific state an altogether new form of war making and control. This the military-industrial complex delivered in the form of computer technology.

At first, the Soviets advanced step for step with the Americans in the computer race, even using the devices (Moscow’s mainframe computer calculated Sputnik’s requisite trajectory) to beat the U.S. into space. But as the internet developed—and, with it, the military computer technologies such as GPS and the touchscreen that would soon be spun off as consumer electronics applications—America made a fundamental break with all prior research and development. The creation of a communications network of machines and programs, limitlessly scalable in theory, ushered in a digital medium distinct from, and more powerful than, any one computer or room full of computers. The functionally limitless spending directed to America’s scientific state within a state could not be matched by the Soviet political economy. While digital technology did not quite defeat Moscow, when the Soviets fell, it was digital technology that was victorious—first over America, and then, with blistering speed, the rest of the world.

Naturally those in charge in the triumphant West were certain that the historic and unprecedented devices they funded and created could be used just as well to establish world dominance and control amid the collapse of international communism as they might have been used to wage a kind of war against it—a digital war, which could, unlike conventional or nuclear war, actually be waged and won. Not only was digital technology useful in this way from a scientific standpoint, but also from an ethical standpoint, it appeared to be a kinder, gentler, and therefore more just form of world control.

Progressively onboarding the world into a networked system of constant communication—backboned by American strategic infrastructure and premised on American norms and values—would establish a new global order in a new way, one harmonious with peaceful economic activity and international law. Through this new and enlightened form of domination, individuals anywhere in the world could use benevolent technology to increasingly approximate the earthly paradise imagined—as in John Lennon’s “Imagine”—by the cultural utopians of the post-Christian West. Divisive feelings and identities would melt away as connectivity increased togetherness and transcended parochial fears and cares. New Age ethics seemed inseparable from the technology of the new digital age...

Next week: an excerpt from "The War on Capitalism" by Conrad Black.

The Ninety-Seven Percent Problem

Public opinion on global warming/climate change has been relatively stable for some time across the globe. Naturally, there are variations between nations, age-groups, and time-periods, but most surveys show a rough division of opinion between two-thirds of respondents who believe that global warming is largely caused by human activity and a serious threat to the world, and those who are skeptical on both points.

Of some moderate interest is that older people and those on the Right (Republicans, Conservatives, Tories) are somewhat more skeptical than younger people and those on the Left (Democrats, Labourites, etc.) Inevitably, however, the explanations for these examples of partisanship are partisan too.

Are young people more idealistic and global-minded in their concerns? Or are older people simply wiser because they’ve experienced other official “scares” as they've gone around the block? Do Democrats have more trust in government forecasts than the GOP? Or do Republicans have a stronger nervousness about rising costs of policy and the bottom line?

There are no correct answers to these questions because partisan attitudes tend to change when we change the subject. Democrats tend to be more concerned about rising costs when the money is spent on defense programs. Republicans trust official forecasts more when they show that tax cuts cost less or even repay themselves. And so on, and so on.

That said, it’s oddly interesting (i.e., counter-intuitive) that political partisanship seems to operate on global warming as strongly among scientists as among the rest of us. A Pew Research survey for this year’s Earth Day showed that while Democrats with a high degree of scientific knowledge were likely to have a strong belief in the human contribution to climate change, Republicans with the same level of information were much more skeptical.

These are intriguing, even embarrassing, results. The researchers plainly thought so, because they added this somewhat nervous comment on them:

A similar pattern was found regarding people’s beliefs about energy issues. These findings illustrate that the relationship between people’s level of science knowledge and their attitudes can be complex.

And maybe they illustrate something else, too. For these results seem to conflict with perhaps the single best known statistic about science and global warming, namely that 97 per cent of scientists believe in global warming. To unpack that claim, they believe that global warming is happening, it’s man-made, and it’s dangerous. That’s President Obama speaking. Former Secretary of State John Kerry added the word “urgent.” And that’s pretty much the internationally respectable orthodoxy of officialdom and the media. Anyone who dissents from it is labelled a “climate denier” and, as Herbert Spencer said of such judgments a century and a half ago, “nothing he says thereafter need be listened to again."

But that raises a doubt. If ninety-seven per cent of the scientists you meet believe in global warming, how come that many Republicans knowledgeable about science don’t believe them?

The shape of things to come?

That simply wouldn’t happen, and we can say that on scientific grounds. People are sensitive even against their will to the opinions of those around them. As the great sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, pointed out in “A Rumor of Angels” some years ago, if you were marooned on an island inhabited entirely by believers in astrology, you’d be saying six months later that there really might be something in this “governed by the stars” stuff. And if you want brilliant fictional explanation of that, read H.G. Wells’s superb early science fiction short story: "In the Country of the Blind."

That so many people who take science seriously also doubt the orthodoxy of global warming cannot simply be explained as the result of their blind political partisanship. That might bias them but it wouldn’t outweigh the overwhelming testimony of 97 per cent of scientists they either meet or read.

So maybe that 97 per cent is a mistake. Once that question is raised, moreover, it soon becomes clear that whatever that statistic is, it certainly isn’t the unvarnished truth.

If you want the short version of why that is, please have a look at this, in which Dr. John Robson takes you on a witty and entertaining tour of how that statistic was compiled and sold to the world with fun graphics and Ravel’s Bolero as a soothing background.

Among those organizations that suspected something was wrong with 97 percent figure was the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington which, among other tasks, has a watching brief on Green Ideology run amok. The 97 percent claim is an obvious target for the CEI. On July 19 last year, it submitted a formal complaint to NASA, which has on its website the claim that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are responsible for global warming.

Though more or less bogus, that claim was a boon to climate skeptics because U.S. government agencies have to meet certain standards when they make such assertions. So they can be held to account for misleading statements. When CEI filed its petition, for instance, it did so under the Information Quality Act (IQA)—pointing out major flaws in studies cited by NASA to justify its claim and asking NASA to remove it from the website and any materials it circulated.

The substantial flaws it finds in the studies include arbitrarily excluding from the surveys scientists who have published peer-reviewed articles in journals of climate science on the grounds that they were not climate scientists; misrepresenting the conclusions of scientific papers, as the scientists concerned later complained, to make them fit the desired conclusion; and above all assigning papers that expressed no opinion on man-made global warming into the 97 per cent column.

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When these failings were corrected, the 97 percent estimate fell massively in all cases to numbers ranging from one-third of climate scientists to 1.6 per cent! As yet the CEI-NASA dispute remains as unsettled as the science now seems to be. If you wish, you can add your signature to the petition CEI has launched, and unless NASA has some almost magical reply to CEI’s documented critique, you probably should.

For the 97 per cent statistic, in addition to looking like a myth, is and always was a club to beat down any criticism of, let alone opposition to, the “international community’s” vastly expensive plans to revolutionize the world’s economy along dirigiste lines. And before it started to wobble under Dr. Robson’s and CEI’s criticism, it also performed the vital function of sustaining the all-but-monolithic support for global warming shown by the statistics of popular opinion quoted at the start of this column.

Now that the key 97 per cent statistic is crumbling, however, how long will the other statistics showing a two-thirds majority believing in mankind's culpability in "climate change" remain dominant, let alone stable?