"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
The Two Great Evils and the Hammer of Infinite Power
Exclusive to STR
September 13, 2006
There are two great and ancient evils in this world, and the beginnings of a Power that will either amplify or help diminish them.
The first of these evils is widespread emotional damage (neurosis) – the underlying human cause of violence, addictions, racism, child abuse, intentional cruelty, inner misery, and inappropriate and damaging behavior of all types. Neurosis is also a major factor, directly and indirectly, in physical problems such as cancer and heart disease. The foundations of neurosis lie almost entirely in childhood, infancy, and even in the womb: 'sensitive dependence on early conditions' is a powerful human reality. (The link is to an article by Dr. Vincent J. Felitti on the large Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, with eye-opening data, charts, and relevant insight on this topic; highly recommended. PDF).
The second evil is systematic initiated coercion, which means, for the most part, the State. When Lord Acton pointed out that 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,' he was talking about government, which is to say: about the widespread use of initiated coercion to run societies. All types of coercive government, including monarchy, democracy, socialism, communism, oligarchy, military dictatorship, etc., initiate coercion against individuals and justify this aggression with what can fairly be described as lies and fairy tales ('the divine right of kings,' 'majority rule,' 'will of the people,' 'dictatorship of the proletariat,' and so on). Coercive governments can appear to work well for a time, but eventually the corruption and erosion of wealth inherent to such arrangements overwhelm even the benefits to favored groups, no matter how well-run or well-intentioned a government may be.
The Hammer of Infinite Power is, of course, 21st century technology, which will grow powerful and subtle enough in the next few decades that 'infinite' will seem a reasonable description. Hammers can be used to create or to destroy, and how this hammer is used may determine whether humanity lives or dies. The coming of the Hammer is the reason scientists like Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, and Bill Joy are so worried about our future.
The Two Great Evils are connected, and feed upon each other.
The Hammer is indifferent to health or sickness, love or hate, freedom or tyranny; it merely exists, to be used as people decide.* How people decide to use technology (or anything else) depends largely upon how emotionally healthy people and societies are; health leads to healthy choices, sickness leads to unhealthy choices.
Unhealthy choices include war, death camps, and prison gulags; they include nuclear, biological, and (coming soon) nano weapons. Unhealthy choices also include the use of coercion to fund or implement otherwise positive goals and programs; the coercion (even if only for funding) causes harm, no matter what the intent. Emotional damage makes it more difficult to see such things clearly, because neurosis is, in a very real sense, the misperception of reality.
The second of the Great Evils (coercive government) helps to perpetuate and hugely empower the first. That is, government coercion – 'violence in a latent state', as Herbert Spencer put it – creates emotional damage in millions of victims and empowers emotional damage to create more harm by putting armies as well as coercively-funded judicial, police, and bureaucratic powers in the hands of people who are, almost by definition, power-hungry and otherwise emotionally damaged.
Systematic initiated coercion does nothing positive in return for all the harm it causes, because whatever needs doing can be done – better and more efficiently – by civilized, non-coercive means. Consider, for example, the starvation and famine so common in overly-controlled economies versus any American supermarket, or the corruption, expense, and danger of government regulation (such as the American USDA and FDA) versus the transparency and efficiency of market regulation (Underwriters Labs, for instance).
The wide swaths of emotional damage caused by government action (and not only from the obvious examples, like death camps or war) help perpetuate neurosis as the default condition of mankind. But speaking of death camps and war: how much emotional damage among the survivors resulted from more than a quarter-billion government murders in the Twentieth Century? That number is in addition to the deaths from war. All of those deaths are also in addition to the maimings and rapes and torture and years of unjust imprisonment (and so many other horrifying crimes) that governments and their agents inflicted upon innocents in the same period.
In short, the power wielded by government creates and exacerbates emotional damage (neurosis) in millions of people. In turn, this widespread neurosis ensures that government power is often put directly to evil use, and is sought after by the most ambitious and cruel among us. Governments are often run by outright psychopaths – Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mao, and Saddam Hussein are only a few of the better-known examples from recent history; see any newspaper for more – and soon, these institutions of coercion will wield powers that are unimaginable today. For that matter, much of this power will be available to small groups and – as one scientist put it – 'individual weirdos with the mindset of people who now design computer viruses.'
There is no doubt that the Hammer of Infinite Power is coming; the leading edge is already here. It smote Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If the power to vaporize a city with a single bomb is not sufficiently god-like for you, just wait. As Ray Kurzweil and many others have pointed out, knowledge and the power it brings are advancing not linearly, but at an exponential rate. Fasten your seatbelt.
That leaves us with this: a world filled with emotionally damaged humans under the thumb of despots and coercive systems, on its way to near-infinite levels of technological power.
Many observers agree that we cannot expect a halt or even a slowing of the march to the Singularity (the term popularized by Kurzweil, Vinge, and others for, in particular, the coming of superhuman machine intelligence), so the question becomes: can we survive it? Can we refrain from destroying ourselves after grasping the Hammer of Infinite Power?
We will have a far better chance to survive if we can diminish the Two Great Evils beforehand.
Now or Never
We can no longer defer creating a more free and compassionate world. If we hope to survive, we must reduce government power and improve the lives of pregnant mothers, infants, and children. The reason is simple: a free and healthy world is the only world compatible with a human future.
The good news is that such a world is also exactly what we were born for.
The scent and sound and feel of this world, and the powerful need for it, slumbers within us, an eternal presence at the core of our being. As every newborn knows the need for its mother – not intellectually, but more deeply than intellect can reach – each of us also knows, and needs, the world I can only call Paradise.
Love, freedom, and connection with others are what we expect, what we crave, what we are born for. We spend our lives hiding from our own disappointment at their lack.
It is time to address that disappointment, by actually making the human world as we need it to be. Such dramatic change sounds impossible, but of course the world changes anyway. In any case, what purpose does the freedom movement have otherwise?
This may be less audacious than it sounds. Technology has already helped (as well as hindered) the creation of a more human and humane world; the dramatic reduction in death by infectious disease is an example of how the Hammer – or even its faint, incoming shadow – can dramatically improve the world. Other examples are all around us; the internet, to name only one, has helped people connect with one another, created dramatic market efficiencies, and both decentralized and expanded access to information, even as oppressive governments have worked to dim its power.
The guiding light for healthy choices in use of technology – and for healthy behavior generally – is emotional health, the more widespread the better. The social fabric that best enables healthy human choices is freedom infused with love and compassion; that is, a society that rigorously guards against the initiation of coercion (by government or otherwise) and which gives every new life the best possible chance to be treated with respect, love, and compassion.
Without enough love in society (without enough emotional health, in other words), no social or political structure can prevent evil from blossoming. When large numbers of people in a society are without a sense of connection to others, outright horrors become all too likely.
Love is necessary for another reason: the market requires and functions via love and respect. A healthy, honest market involves people dealing with each other on a voluntary basis, without coercion or substitutes for coercion such as fraud. Participants must respect each other as human beings for this to work; nothing, including laws, can long prevent criminal misbehavior among a group that lacks a widespread sense of empathy, compassion, and respect. Without love, it all falls apart.
Where does the love come from?
Once again: from the earliest time of life. People get a sense of compassion and connection to others during infancy and childhood, or not at all. This is why religions have largely failed: telling adults to 'Love thy neighbor' can have only limited effectiveness.**
The freedom movement has failed for precisely the same reason: the movement has not fully grasped that love and freedom require each other, and that love requires proper and compassionate treatment of the young. Without both love and freedom at high levels in a society, neither quality survives for long.
For thousands of years, mankind has lived – often in great and needless misery – with what I have called the Two Great Evils: widespread emotional damage and initiated coercion.
I do not believe we will live with those evils much longer, because life itself (and certainly anything one might term 'civilized life') may be impossible when near-ubiquitous tyranny and emotional damage are empowered by extremely advanced technology. We are well into the early stages of such a disaster, and the pace will quicken dramatically from here.
Love and freedom are neither strangers nor at odds with each other. Love and freedom are the yin and yang that, together, will be our only salvation – if we understand this in time and act accordingly.
* Machine intelligence will eventually be making most of the decisions about how 'our' technological power is used. A healthier world would at least have a chance to program the forerunners of these machines in a manner more in tune with human survival. That may not be enough, but it's no argument against working for a more free and healthy world now, while we still can.
** I believe that Jesus' teachings about children and about love would have been enough to make Christianity far more successful in these terms, had Jesus' followers only applied those teachings more consistently, especially in their treatment of the young. Consider Matthew 18:1 – 18:3 and Mark 10:13 – 10:15 about children, for example, and John 13:34 – 13:35 about the central importance of love.