Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Blogyear 2019 in Review

The blog is obviously close to death, but somehow refusing to die. Two posts this year, barely.

I՚m doing just as much thinking, and presumably have about the same level of somewhat-blogworthy ideas as I always did. But the shape of the media landscape has changed. It՚s weird because I never really thought of this blog as part of a trend or movement, but I started it when blogs got started and it died when blogging as a medium died. As someone who generally feels out of step with everything, it՚s kind of strangely pleasurable to find myself part of a wave, even if I only noticed it after the crash.

The Minsky book came out with an introduction I wrote (I got the gig on the strength of this earlier blog post), which gave me some momentary kvelling opportunities. Then shortly thereafter his name got ensnared with the Epstein/MIT sex scandals. Eeesh. (I mostly resisted commenting on this sad situation, but here՚s my thoughts).

That was a blow, and it wasn't the worst of last year, not by a long shot. It՚s been a rough one.

I՚ll close it out with some thoughts from some of the weirder neighborhoods of Twitter:

Weird Tales from the Seventies

Erik Davis՚ recent book High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies is an engaging work of cultural history, focusing on the lives and works of three important countercultural intellectuals: the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, the writer Robert Anton Wilson, and SF writer and later visionary Philip K Dick. These three psychonauts all inhabited California in the seventies, a moment when the druggy revolutionary energy of the sixties was in the process of mutating into a wild variety of spiritual practices and strange belief systems.

Davis draws a common thread through these pioneers and their stories. Aside from their obvious similarities (they shared a time and place, they were all writers, they all experimented with drugs and esoteric practices, they were all somewhat fringe figures who went on to have impacts on the mainstream culture) – they also all underwent strange experiences where fiction and reality start to bleed into each other, resulting in feelings of confusion, deep ontological crises, ambiguous spiritual revelations, and new writings that attempted to describe and understand their weird experiences. Their works began as fiction but looped back to intertwine with their real lives in unexpected and uncharacterizable ways.

This looping quality is a key aspect of the common thread that Davis identifies as high weirdness – defined variously as a textual genre, a subcultural mode; a realization of that mode at a particular time and place; a style of ironic self-reference; and a particular kind of personal quasi-religious experience. If it՚s a bit hard to pin down, that is another of its inherent qualities – it resists precise definition. But to me the most interesting aspect of it is how it starts to be a theory of how the relationship between text and reality breaks down at the extremes. As Davis puts it, they “pushed hard on the boundaries of reality – and got pushed around in return.”

Given the theme of strange loops and the structural strategy of viewing this deep and far-reaching idea through the lens of three different thinkers, it՚s hard not to think of High Weirdness as Gödel Escher Bach for acidheads. And while it isn՚t that obvious from its official presentation as a work of cultural criticism, it also shares Hofstadter՚s high ambition of capturing important but elusive glimpses of something fundamental to the structure of reality.

But where Hofstadter՚s metacircular loops tend to be orderly quasi-mathematical formal patterns, the loops of High Weirdness are subtler, stranger, and harder to pin down. They are viral and agent-like; they are darker, more personal, more like narratives than beautiful patterns. They begin as texts and but then leap off the page to enfold their authors. They take on aspects of a Landian hyperstition, a myth that has independent agency and can somehow act to call itself into being. They pose a challenge to mainstream metaphysics in a way that Hofstadter՚s more purely cognitive loops do not.

If High Weirdness is a viral construct that has a tendency to infect authors and readers, and can transmit itself by way of texts, then High Weirdness itself is a carrier. Davis is quite explicit about this, at one point comparing his text to bubble gum on the shoe, something sticky that just won՚t go away and is passed on from one carrier to the next (of course making this review another potential carrier of the infection – sorry about that! But you can blame the weirdly irresistible agency of the idea).

In other words, the book is not just a breezy biography of some colorful cultural figures, but also a quite serious attempt to absorb, synthesize, and reflect on their actual ideas and works and their broader meaning for the culture and for the nature of existence. It՚s based on genuine academic work (originally a dissertation in comparative religion) but does not patronize its somewhat disreputable subjects. It enters into their world of “garage philosophy” and their quests and connects it to more institutionalized forms of discourse. (Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, Graham Harman and Timothy Morton are prominent touchstones). It is a highbrow view of the lowbrow, and quite self-aware of the contradictions that generates.

Davis՚s philosophical framework for encompassing the experiences he writes about he calls “weird naturalism”: basically the position that weird things (UFOs, spirit visions, machine elves, etc) are real but not supernatural. They are not spirits from another plane of existence, but irreducible features of the one reality that we actually inhabit. Certainly the experiences they engender are real enough. One might consider them, especially given the generative role drugs play in producing them, as tricks of the nervous systems – real like an optical illusion is a real phenomenon of vision. But it՚s key to Davis՚s story that they are somehow realer than that, that they aren՚t mere hallucinations, but instead glimpses of unseen aspects of reality:
The… most substantial sense of the word is ontological. In this view, weirdness is a mode of reality, of the way things are…Weirdness here is not simply an artifact of our bent minds but a feature of the art and manner of existence itself…More than a genre, more than a psychological mode, the weird inheres in the loopy, twisty, tricksy way whereby things come to be. (p 9)
That all sounds very abstract, but one of the strengths of High Weirdness is connecting up these metaphysical speculations with the concrete details of the lives of the particular individuals involved, and with the specific cultural context they lived in. I can՚t say much about the Terence McKenna parts since I just don՚t know his work that well, but I՚ve been a big RAW and PKD fan for decades and even so there was a lot of new detail and insight into the lives and works of these author/visionaries, as well as the connections between them. I can՚t readily summarize these sections, which are dense with personal history.

RAW Illumination

But I can՚t resist saying a little bit about Robert Anton Wilson, who had an outsized influence on my own thinking. He՚s best known as co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, an underground classic that explored drugs, anarchism, cults and conspiracy theories at time when these topics were very much underground, rather than the stuff of pop culture cliche like they are today. While I was a big fan when I found these books, which would be late 70s at MIT, it՚s a little hard to read Wilson today, in part because this stuff has permeated the mainstream so thoroughly. Also, certain standards have shifted and both the sex and the epistemology, which seemed rather daring back then, are kind of dated. But that really means that he was in the vanguard of an important cultural shift.

Wilson՚s philosophy might best be encapsulated as epistemological anarchism – rather than cleaving to a single belief system, an enlightened mind had to treat belief lightly, recognizing that there are many possible conflicting belief systems that all offer something of possible value, and having a single vision is the death of thought “If one can only see things, according to one՚s own belief systems, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind”. Or in the words of the Discordian writer Malaclypse the Younger “convictions cause convicts”. Wilson himself was interested in occultism, drugs, fringe politics like anarchism and libertarianism, and fringe scientists like Timothy Leary and John Lilly. One of his minor causes was rehabilitating Wilhelm Reich and describing his “persecution” at the hands of the government for his orgone boxes.

When Wilson was writing, the idea that freakish alternative world views should be taken seriously was quite radical; today it՚s part of the cultural background assumptions. In the 60s and 70s, it might have seemed like a great idea to break free of the master narratives of mainstream culture and go seek your own truths. In the world of Trump and Fox News – well, like in so many revolutions, the outcome was not quite as liberatory as was hoped for. [I՚ve been warned all my life that I՚ll become conservative with age. It hasn՚t happened in politics for obvious reasons, but maybe I՚m becoming an epistemological conservative in my old age, looking back with a bit of embarrassment at the radical posturings of my youth.]

Davis dives into Wilson՚s career and writings, but the thematic focus is on a period in his life where he believed he was receiving transmissions from a higher intelligence from Sirius, an experience he detailed in the book Cosmic Trigger. He found himself in what he termed Chapel Perilous – a state of psychic confusion, where the synchronicities pile up and overwhelm rationality and skepticism:
Wilson awoke from a dream and scribbled down the following phrase: Sirius is important. This dream prompt, inserted like a virus into Wilson՚s already wacky weltanschauung, triggered a series of coincidences, paranormal experiences, and interlocking references that drew Wilson into what Lovecraft called “a structure of indefinite possibility and promise.” (p 246). … This “discursive network” produced for Wilson a wide variety of edifying teachings, prophecy, and gibberish.
Wilson was fully convinced that contact with an alien Higher Intelligence had begun…Wilson often slipped into what cognitive psychologists would describe as delusions of reference, confirmation bias, and off-the-hook agency detection…[he] considered the possibility of madness, but rejected the idea…
As Wilson said later, you either come out of Chapel Perilous as a stone paranoid or an epistemological agnostic. Wilson was fortunate to find the later path, due in large part to his inherent humanism and good humor. After his experience, he was able to write about it with an attitude of bemused detachment, and no firm commitment to its ontological status.
For Wilson had in many ways scripted his own extraordinary experience. Cosmic Trigger describes what happens when the sort of mischievous mindfucks that Wilson had unleashed in Illuminatus! come home to roost…unlike the many naive example of such self-scripting, Wilson was perfectly aware of the elements of “fictionality” that were shaping the “four-dimensional coincidence-hologram” his life had become. The irony was that this critical awareness did not dissolve the entities who seemed to be pulling the strings. (p 253)

Weirding the Wider World

The final section of High Weirdness attempts to trace the consequences of these writers and their experiences up to the present age, in no small part due to their influence on the technology culture of Silicon Valley and the general rise of “network culture”, which means not only the Internet but various New Age beliefs (Marilyn Ferguson՚s famous Aquarian Conspiracy apparently heralded the rise of networks as an organizing principle) and the rhizomatic epistemology of Deleuze and Guattari. This part I had a bit of trouble with. If the world is indeed shifting to a more networked and less hierarchical organization, it՚s not clear to me what the visions of three spiritual seekers had to do with it. The drivers are largely technological, and if these writers sensed the changes and incorporated them into their work they were not that unique in doing so.

There՚s also some discussion of the unavoidable fact that these concerns which used to be fringe are now rapidly becoming mainstream. Psychedelics are the stuff of bestseller self-help books, conspiracy theories are the stuff of mainstream movies. The weirdness of the world seems to have caught up or lapped the visionary experiences of the 1970s, making their struggles seem a big quaint. But High Weirdness is quite openly a work of cultural history, trying to draw a picture of the state of things in the recent past, so that is expected.

More ominously, the mindfuck media hacking techniques pioneered by the early Discordians are now industrial-strength tools of political warfare and intelligence operations, to the point where they have damaged the fundamental trustworthiness of long-standing political institutions – and not for the liberatory purposes that drove them originally.

The lesson may be that epistemic revolutions run into the same problem that plagues political revolutions: destroy the existing institutions of power, and the wrong people will rush in to fill the ensuing vacuums. The consensus reality that Wilson and others challenged seems like it might have been worth saving, after all. But this book is about a time when we were all more innocent. If some of their explorations seem foolish and embarrassing in retrospect, well, it՚s hard to imagine a more nuanced, sympathetic, and relevant attempt to retrace their steps and link it to the broader struggle to understand and improve the world.

Related posts: musings towards weird naturalismmy visit to a PKD festival. And maybe relevant if a bit a field from High Weirdness: my conflicted relationship with psychedelic culture.

Monday, September 02, 2019

On Koch and Monsters

[ this blog is pretty much comatose, but every so often my pet mission of anti-anti-politics comes up and I can't resist. ]

Some people are horrified and disgusted that people are celebrating the death of David Koch. It՚s distasteful – wasn՚t he a fellow human being, with a family and people who cared about him? And isn՚t reveling in the death of a political opponent rather extreme? Should one really wish death on people just because they hold different political views?

I think this betrays a fairly shallow view of politics. The people who say this think it՚s just some unimportant shouting game, or just a sort of intellectual disagreement. This is wrong. Politics is a cousin of war, war breeds enemies, and fuck if I don՚t want to see my enemies dead. They are, after all, trying to kill me.

This is obviously true of the Nazis, fascists, ethno-nationalists and all their enablers. These are obviously people who don՚t merely have a “difference of opinion”, they are devotees of ideologies that would murder me and my family in a heartbeat. This is not a hypothetical; their predecessors did in fact murder a huge swath of my ancestors, not that long ago.

David Koch was not a Nazi*, but he put his enormous wealth in the service of climate denial, which if you multiply everything out is probably going to do a lot more damage to humanity than the Nazis ever dreamed of. He supported a vast number of odious causes, but that one in particular seems like a direct threat to my own life and to everybody else՚s.

This is the stakes of politics in our era, and perhaps every era. Life and death. Existential struggle. It՚s not a debating society, it՚s not an intellectual game, it՚s not a club or identity, although it includes all of those as aspects.

And let՚s be clear – Koch is despised not merely for his “views”, but because he put his wealth and power into the service of promulgating those views, which conveniently were designed to help him maintain that wealth and power. He wasn՚t an intellectual; he bought the services of intellectuals by the truckload.

Sometimes I wish I were more of a doctrinaire Marxist or Foucauldian or something like that, because in cases like this the links between class interest and ideology are so painfully clear and they at least have the language to talk about it. A Marxist would have no qualms about pissing on Koch's grave, but also would not be so prone to think of him as evil -- he's simply pursuing his narrow class interests, which just happen to be opposed to mine.

Politics can be very ugly and stupid. But it's also an inescapable fact of life, and when things get hot you have to figure out what side you are on. Koch had no qualms about promoting his side, and I don՚t have qualms about being opposed to him. He did enormous damage and now he՚s gone, leaving only his family, his institutions, his hangers-on, and untold quantities of money to continue his project of making the world a worse place.

On the other hand: I՚m currently in a situation where  a recently dead person who I respected a lot is under attack by an enraged public mob. Fairly or unfairly, I can՚t say – I have very mixed feelings, the facts are still being hashed out, and I haven՚t yet been able to write about it directly. But it gives me a bit of empathy for the other side, for the people in David Koch՚s life who didn՚t see him as a monster but as a whole person. The cases aren՚t very parallel for dozens of different reasons, but in both cases you can see the machinery by which societies, or factions within society, deal with defining, judging, and punishing purportedly monstrous behavior.

There՚s something primal about this process; it seems both a necessary part of social cognition (that is, it is part of how a society constructs itself; how it establishes its rules for normalcy and deviancy) and also kind of ugly, scary, and anti-intellectual. And it doesn՚t even do a good job of suppressing monstrosity, which seems to get stronger the more it is rejected, repressed, and projected outwards.

*while he wasn՚t a Nazi, part of his fortune came from his father working for Nazi Germany and he՚s got other Nazi-adjacent items in his history, so there՚s that.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Blogyear 2018 in review

A new record low number of posts, yet this blog isn՚t quite dead.

The past year obviously sucked politically but also sucked for me on a personal level. Details don՚t belong here, but in the good news department I started a new job in October which is infinitely better than the last one. I՚m once again hacking Lisp for science which seems to be my professional destiny, one I can live with.

I had a few postings about politics in the abstract, mostly drafting off of SlateStarCodex. I still think this is an important and interesting topic but I haven՚t found a good way to talk about it. I think this is what “attracted” me to NRx writers (to their writings, not to their beliefs) – they are raising fundamental questions about the processes of group formation, social cohesion, conflict and violence. They have the right questions but the wrong answers. SSC also raises deep questions, and comes up with answers that are not as obviously wrong but still, IMO, wrong and dangerous. But the times are too fraught; trying to pick arguments in blog comment threads, which always seemed kind of dumb, is more of waste of time now than ever.

This year I rediscovered Italo Calvino and read a bunch of his books, which I highly recommend. Good places to start: If on a Winter՚s Night a Traveler (fiction and metafiction), or Six Memos for the Next Millenium (personal esthetics and philosophy).

And just yesterday the Twitter group mind seems to have founded the new field of patarationalism which I find describes what I՚ve been doing for decades, more or less.

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Conflict

I՚ve recently composed a number of aborted posts relating to “conflict theory”, arguing for the importance of the political, or speculating on the nature of political conflict, etc. None of them made it past a few paragraphs, because we aren՚t in a time for high-minded meta-level thinking. Shit is getting real. So I՚m pointing to a couple of writers who are making that point.

First, by Jacob Bacharach, a Jewish writer who lives in Pittsburgh, which states as plainly as possible “They are coming to kill us

Second, by Paul Campos, a law professor and blogger at Lawyers Guns & Money:

I don՚t know what else to add, except to exhort people like myself, who are prone to abstraction and meta-level thinking, that the time for chin-scratching about the relationship of speech and action or whether or not Nazis should get punched is long past. The guns and violence are coming out, and whether or not you are interested in politics, it is interested in you. Please vote against fascism tomorrow, it's the best thing we can do now to avoid having to fight it with stronger means in the future.

Monday, April 16, 2018

You know who else was a conflict theorist?

In my last post I declared that in the meta-conflict between conflict-theory and mistake-theory, I found myself on the side of the former. I had plenty of justification, but I also tried to acknowledge the best arguments of the mistake-theorists (steelmanning their position, in the rationalist lexicon). I tried to credit not only their arguments, but their motivations. They seem well-intentioned, striving towards peacefulness, whereas the motives of the conflict-oriented seem inherently less pure.

But ultimately I think SSC is making a confusion between meta- and object-levels. Conflict itself is rightly regarded as something generally kind of bad, something that most well-intentioned people try to avoid. But conflict-theory doesn՚t necessarily inherit that moral valence. It is not about promoting conflict, it is merely acknowledging the omnipresent and necessary reality of conflict, and trying to come up with better ways to understand it and deal with it.

That being said – if I am being honest about my own motivations, the different levels are not so clearly separable. I am, after all, seeking out conflict, not merely theorizing about it. I՚m starting to wonder if it is, in fact, obnoxious. Spoiling for a fight is OK only if you are among fighters; if you try to pick a fight among those who would rather not, it՚s just being a jerk.

But maybe conflict theory is even worse than obnoxious. For instance, it appears to be a foundational component of the worst, most dangerous political ideas known to mankind. From the introduction to Timothy Snyder՚s Black Earth, a recent new history of the Holocaust:
Human races, Hitler was convinced, were like species…Races should behave like species, like mating with like and seeking to kill unlike. This for Hitler was a law, the law of racial struggle, as certain as the law of gravity. The struggle could never end, and it had no certain outcome. A race could triumph and flourish and could also be starved and extinguished. 
In Hitler’s world, the law of the jungle was the only law. People were to suppress any inclination to be merciful and be as rapacious as they could. Hitler thus broke with the traditions of political thought that presented human beings as distinct from nature in their capacity to imagine and create new forms of association. Beginning from that assumption, political thinkers tried to describe not only the possible but the most just forms of society. For Hitler, however, nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth, and the whole history of attempting to think otherwise was an illusion. Carl Schmitt, a leading Nazi legal theorist, explained that politics arose not from history or concepts but from our sense of enmity. Our racial enemies were chosen by nature, and our task was to struggle and kill and die.
Snyder presents a rather shockingly coherent portrait of Hitler՚s world view, making him seem quite different from the inexplicable charismatic madman we are used to. Hitler՚s views made a certain internal sense. This shouldn՚t be that surprising, in that any ideology has to have enough internal logic so that people can understand and adopt it.

And what is most disturbing about it is that it is not, as a theory, obviously wrong. It՚s not hard to imagine its appeal, especially if you aren՚t aware of the historical consequences. Conflict and racial enmity are pretty powerful forces, after all. Hitler theorized them up to 11, and created an ideology in which they were able to override the seemingly weaker values, such as humanity, universality, generosity, caring.

Snyder continues:
[Hitler՚s opponents] were constrained, whether they realized it or not, by attachments to custom and institution; mental habits that grew from social experience that hindered them from reaching the most radical of conclusions. They were ethically committed to goods such as economic growth or social justice, and found it appealing or convenient to imagine that natural competition would deliver these goods. Hitler entitled his book Mein Kampf — My Struggle . From those two words through two long volumes and two decades of political life, he was endlessly narcissistic, pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic where others were not. The ceaseless strife of races was not an element of life, but its essence. …. Struggle was life, not a means to some other end. It was not justified by the prosperity (capitalism) or justice (socialism) that it supposedly brought. …. Struggle was not a metaphor or an analogy, but a tangible and total truth. The weak were to be dominated by the strong, since “the world is not there for the cowardly peoples.” And that was all that there was to be known and believed.
If this is what conflict theory is in the extreme, maybe we should be wary of it even in all forms. But I don՚t think all forms of conflict theory are equivalent.

For one thing: Hitler՚s notion of conflict was reductively brutal. His conflict was based on competition for the most basic things (reproduction, land, food) and necessarily fought through the most violent means, that is, war and mass murder.

I am against that sort of thing. The conflicts I՚m seeking are intellectual or political or moral in nature, things Hitler didn՚t really care about. And while my politics aren՚t terribly consistent these days, they are grounded in opposition to war, specifically opposition to the Vietnam War which is where I got my start. That was a conflict, but it was a conflict between a war machine that was killing both foreigners and Americans, and a generation of peaceniks who wanted to stop that.

For another: I don՚t think that races are necessarily the groups who are in conflict, or the most important dimension of conflict. This can be the case, of course, but groups can form around many other shared properties. The racist aspect of Nazism was obviously pretty fundamental to what it was doing, and reinforces its brutality.

In fact, didn՚t we have a war between the Hitler conflict theorists and his bitter enemies (the USSR and western powers) who were also most assuredly conflict theorists themselves? And to state the obvious: the good guys didn՚t win WWII by reasoning with Hitler, they won by pounding the shit out of him. Mistake theorists like Chamberlain didn՚t come out looking very good.

It՚s almost as if “conflict theorist” isn՚t a real thing or useful idea. It՚s an artificial category that includes everybody from Gandhi to Hitler in the same very large bucket – the bucket of people who believe conflict and struggle are fundamental.

While mistake theory includes, I don՚t know, a handful of seasteaders, technocrats, and rationalists? If 99.9% of the world is conflict theorists then I don՚t feel so bad about being in the same bucket as Hitler. On the other hand, maybe all believers in utilitarianism can be classed as mistake theorists, and there are a lot of those.

I am not sure what I am getting at with this post. Introducing Hitler into a discussion rarely helps clarify things. But it՚s the struggle against the really bad ideas he personified and that outlive him that gets me going. This blog doesn՚t exactly kill fascists, but it certainly is obsessed with them and figuring out how to fight them. If I՚m going to be in a conflict, I need enemies, and this stuff certainly fits the role.

The SSC crowd are not fascists, not in the slightest! But they also don՚t seem to see creeping fascism as very significant. They are much more concerned about the excesses of campus SJWs than, say, the rise of white supremacist groups. They are more concerned with overreaching charges of racism than the underlying racism. And they think political conflict is merely regrettable, not an absolutely basic and inevitable part of social life, something which everybody is involved with whether they like it or not. And to the extent that their ideas are wrong and distract from the actual struggle at hand, I՚m against them as well.

But have no special standing to preach political responsibility to anyone. I՚m not some exemplar of engagement and don՚t want to be; and I՚m certainly not a recruiter for the Resistance. I'm arguing here, not to convert or accuse anybody, but because SSC has found a new approach to some very basic issues that I care a lot about, and I can't resist engaging with them. And as a conflict guy, engagement tends to look like a fight. It's a different sort of fight, since as far as values go, I think we're basically on the same side.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Conflict Theory

[Warning: This very long post was inspired by a SlateStarCodex post, but from there goes rambling all over the place. I take more potshots at Scott Alexander than he deserves. For that I apologize, but I can only say that I find his writing extremely thought provoking, and I feel a need to provoke back.

I had to divide this into sections to make it even moderately navigable.] 

Blind spot

I՚ve been making various criticisms of Scott Alexander, mostly attacking his antipolitical stand,  accusing him and people of his general ilk of not only disliking the conflict inherent in politics, but of denying its importance and occasionally even its very existence:
Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind… Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them…It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. …
This quote seems to reveal an epic blindness – a dread of conflict so complete it has repressed the very possibility of disagreement. But like the good rationalist that he is, the author is both aware of his own biased tendencies, and pledged to fight against them.

The meta-conflict

His newer post, Conflict vs Mistake, seems like an effort to notice and correct for this epistemological blindness, to figure out a way to encompass conflict, to acknowledge its reality and power, and to theorize about its relationship to knowledge.

To this end, he sketches out a dichotomy between two separate forms of political theory, two opposing mindsets, two different kinds of people who prefer different kinds of explanations for social problems:
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects. 

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
To reword it a bit: Mistake theorists treat politics as a technical problem and view political disagreements as being basically the same sort of thing as engineers disagreeing about a problem – that is, there may be better or worse solutions, but ultimately there is some objective notion of better and worse that everyone can agree to if they are smart enough.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, treat politics as a struggle rather than an optimization problem. Individuals form coalitions to advance their own interests and these coalitions compete for resources, control. and dominance. Political conflicts are not about who is right and wrong, but about who has power and who doesn՚t. There՚s no possibility of a stable best solution because different factions have different goals, and no solution can satisfy all of them simultaneously.

First thing to note – does anybody really believe that politics and conflict don՚t enter into engineering or medical decisions? Certainly nobody with any actual experience in an organization.

Nevertheless it is true that engineering and medicine are grounded in a reality that is independent of human opinion or interest, a physical world that at minimum puts tight constraints around what is possible, what works and what doesn՚t. There is an objective ground truth, no matter how we slice it up or what values we want to impose on it. As a result, disagreements can at least in theory be settled by disinterested calculations.

Mistake theorists view social problems as being like that, or possibly they are people who want problems to be like that. Or perhaps feel that they should be like that. Or maybe they are afraid (not without reason) that if we don՚t approach social problems in a way that is a joint search for a best solution, then there is not even a possibility of peace. The world ends up being a hellscape of perpetual war, or maybe one side annihilates the other. This is such a horrifying and depressing prospect that they feel a visceral moral obligation to move towards a more mistake-theoretic worldview.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, have evidence on their side. Whether or not conflict is bad, it is certainly a basic fixture of human reality, and inescapable if one is to do any remotely serious thinking about politics.

Taking a side against taking sides

Nevertheless, while the SSC post as a whole earnestly strives to present both sides on an equal footing, it doesn՚t take much subtextural analysis to get the impression that the author himself is solidly a mistake theorist who thinks the conflict theorists are basically jerks (sometimes far worse), and maybe not all that bright. Perhaps as a consequence, he can՚t quite imagine what it would be like to be a conflict theorist, and his portrayals of the conflict theory stance always sounds kind of weak.
For example, here he compares the two sides take on the specific issue of democracy:
When mistake theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it gives too much power to the average person – who isn’t very smart, and who tends to do things like vote against carbon taxes because they don’t believe in global warming. They fantasize about a technocracy in which informed experts can pursue policy insulated from the vagaries of the electorate. 

When conflict theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it doesn’t give enough power to the average person – special interests can buy elections, or convince representatives to betray campaign promises in exchange for cash. They fantasize about a Revolution in which their side rises up, destroys the power of the other side, and wins once and for all.
Unpacking this, there are at least two serious distortions here. For one thing, it equates “conflict theorist” with leftism or a pro-democracy stance, which oddly ignores the entire neoreactionary movement, which is very much a conflict theory with an anti-democratic stance ( SSC has written extensively about neoreaction in the past, so this is a kind of weird omission).

For the other thing, it also equates conflict theory with both millenarianist utopianism and manicheanism – a belief system of dreamers for whom politics is a utopian fantasy (“once and for all”) rather than an actual daily struggle. While I՚m sure there are people like that, it ignores 95% of the ordinarily politically active people, who are conflict theorists simply because it՚s a very ordinary aspect of life and a defining feature of political life.

So the attempt to describe conflict theory doesn՚t seem very convincing, even given the explicitly cartoonish aspect of what he՚s trying to do. You can really feel that an effort is being made to be generous to a foreign and distasteful worldview, and that the effort is not really that successful.

Wishing away conflict

He՚s perfectly aware that conflict is a real feature of political life, of course – you՚d have to be kind of idiotic to think otherwise. But, he also seems to think it can be magicked away somehow. Here՚s a quote from a follow-up post:
Politics is about having conflict. Mistake-theorists would love to become post-political, in the sense of circumventing all conflicts. Conflicts actually happening as conflicts is a failure, deadweight loss. This wouldn’t mean that nobody has different interests. It would mean that those different interests play out in some formalized way that doesn’t look conflict-y.
These ideas don’t deny the existence of conflict – they just represent a desire to avoid it rather than win it.
So mistake theorists do acknowledge conflicting interests, they just want those conflicts to be settled in “some formalized way that doesn՚t look conflict-y”. I am not sure what this means. We actually do have really existing formalized ways of dealing with conflict, such as the judicial system, but that is plenty “conflict-y”. To be sure, it՚s a better, less damaging kind of conflict than (eg) blood vendetta, but still fundamentally conflictual in its nature.

The idea of a non-conflict-y way of settling conflict doesn՚t actually make any conceptual sense, if you think about it for ten seconds. War, lawsuits, arguments, and coin tosses are all ways of settling conflict. Some are more civilized than others, but all are equally conflict-y, because a way of settling conflict sort of has to be.

What would a non-conflicty-y method even look like? The examples he gives are various libertarian utopian schemes where people who disagree simply sort and separate themselves geographically, so you end up with a bunch of different polities each coalesced around shared values. In other words it is a way of avoiding (as opposed to settling) a conflict, so I guess that is actually kind of non-confict-y (whether it realistic or desirable is another question).

Now, if the above quote was rephrased to say “different interests play out in some formalized way that is nonviolent or less violent”, then it would make far more sense. Lawsuits and war are both conflicts but one is far more violent and damaging than the other, and it would be good to try to get people to use the less harmful and costly methods. But I don՚t think Scott is making an argument for nonviolence, at least in the usual sense, given that the leading practitioners of nonviolence (Gandhi, King) were most assuredly not avoiding conflict, but actively engaging in it with nonviolent methods.

God must like conflict or he wouldn՚t have made so much of it

There are plenty of good reasons to have a distaste for political conflict. It can be kind of brain-numbing, it encourages sloganeering rather than deep thinking, and in our present environment relies on a rather toxic process of demonizing opponents (and a correspondingly moral self-regard which might be even more corrosive). It seems to be part of a world grounded on brute force which is anathema to the higher values of civilized society, including morality and justice. Certainly the world would be a better place if we could stop fighting and solve our collective problems through the application of reason. Of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (war, famine, disease, death), war is the only one that seems like it could be easily prevented by simply not doing it.

So yeah you can hate conflict for many different reasons – for the pain it causes, for the waste, for the ugliness of enmity when compared to the beauty of harmony, for its stupidity, for its privileging of strength over intelligence.

But, despite all that, conflict is not all bad, and in fact something to be sought out (I am seeking it right now, and don՚t really feel all that ashamed about it). Conflict is interesting, peace is boring. We love heroes, and you don՚t get them without battles for them to fight. If we feel we have been treated badly, we not only feel the right to fight for justice, we are almost compelled to do so.

So yeah I guess I am on the other side of the meta-conflict between conflict and mistake. It՚s not even that I like conflict so much, I just see it as an essential feature of reality, and for me, understanding the world requires integrating conflict at a fundamental level.

The metaphysics is probably for another post, but briefly: you can՚t understand the world without understanding purpose and teleology, and you can՚t have purpose and teleology without conflict. That՚s obviously how biology works; and despite our quite stunning cognitive abilities, we haven՚t leveraged ourselves that far from biology yet.

Why I fight

The cultural and political wars are very real, and I feel compelled to take part in them, even though they often get stupid and ugly, as war does.

Digging into the nature of that compulsion might be another future post, for now let՚s just say that those of us who have had political mass-murder directed at their families and communities are a little impatient with the why-can՚t-we-all-get-along stance. This isn՚t theoretical, there is something out there (well, it used to be out there, now it has in here, quite at home and public within the US) that actually wants to kill me. That gets my attention. There are no mistake theorists in foxholes.

Why is any of this interesting?

Scott seems to have reconceptualized a very fundamental and basic (and not all that new) philosophical issue – the relationship between knowledge and power. At one level, we are both roughly on the same side. We are knowledge people, or we wouldn՚t be reading and writing amateur philosophy; we՚d be out gaining power and making money – doing politics, not arguing meta-politics. And we are both trying to grapple with the reality of how to live as knowledge people in a world ruled by power.

But beyond that similarity, there is a big difference: Scott and the rationalism he exemplifies thinks that pure, disinterested knowledge can and should supplant power. I don՚t think that is possible and I don՚t even think it is particularly desirable – or to put it another way, I can՚t imagine a realistic world that works that way.

And I also have to admit that amateur nerds like Scott and myself are late to this party. The nature of relationship between power and knowledge has been the subject of investigation by serious thinkers, like Nietzsche, Foucault, Latour. Pretty much the whole field of critical theory is about just this. But that kind of stuff does not penetrate very far into the rationalist community, almost by definition. I՚ve been trying for a few decades now to absorb it myself, with only limited success.

But I persist because understanding this particular dichotomy seems absolutely critical, not only for politics but for the development of computational technology (my day job). Computation is also a theory of how knowledge and power are related. Computer programs are symbolic structures that also have the ability to act on the world. AI in its various forms is founded on the idea that computers and human minds are alike, and the core of the similarity is that both computations and minds have this weird dual nature of being both symbol manipulators and embodied causal systems. And in both cases, the relationship between representation and action is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Politics may be seen as how this process works at a social level. Politics too involves beliefs (in values, in particular leaders, in justice) and collective action. In politics, it's very clear that representations don't stand alone but are only as strong as the energy they can enlist in their cause.

I'm grateful to Scott for bringing this question up in a new form, at a good level of abstraction, even if I don't much care for his specific takes.