How Transhumanism Can Transcend Socialism, Libertarianism, and All Other Conventional Ideologies – Gennady Stolyarov II Presents at the VSIM:18 Conference

How Transhumanism Can Transcend Socialism, Libertarianism, and All Other Conventional Ideologies – Gennady Stolyarov II Presents at the VSIM:18 Conference

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Gennady Stolyarov II


Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, discusses the key strengths and weaknesses of libertarianism, socialism, conservatism, and left-liberalism, the common failings of these and all other conventional ideologies, and why transhumanism offers a principled, integrated, dynamic approach for a new era of history, which can overcome all of these failings.

This presentation was delivered virtually by Mr. Stolyarov on September 13, 2018, to the Vanguard Scientific Instruments in Management 2018 (VSIM:18) conference in Ravda, Bulgaria. Afterward, a discussion ensured, in which Professor Angel Marchev, Sr., the conference organizer and the U.S. Transhumanist Party’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, offered his views on the dangers of socialism and the promise of transhumanism, followed by a brief question-and-answer period.

Visit the website of the U.S. Transhumanist Party here.

Download and view the slides of Mr. Stolyarov’s presentation (with hyperlinks) here.

Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free, no matter where you reside. Fill out our Membership Application Form here.

Become a Foreign Ambassador for the U.S. Transhumanist Party. Apply here.

The Rational Argumentator’s Sixteenth Anniversary Manifesto

The Rational Argumentator’s Sixteenth Anniversary Manifesto

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
September 2, 2018
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On August 31, 2018, The Rational Argumentator completed its sixteenth year of publication. TRA is older than Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit; it has outlasted Yahoo! Geocities, Associated Content, Helium, and most smaller online publications in philosophy, politics, and current events. Furthermore, the age of TRA now exceeds half of my lifetime to date. During this time, while the Internet and the external world shifted dramatically many times over, The Rational Argumentator strived to remain a bulwark of consistency – accepting growth in terms of improvement of infrastructure and accumulation of content, but not the tumultuous sweeping away of the old to ostensibly make room for the new. We do not look favorably upon tumultuous upheaval; the future may look radically different from the past and present, but ideally should be built in continuity with both, and with preservation of any beneficial aspects that can possibly be preserved.

The Rational Argumentator has experienced unprecedented visitation during its sixteenth year, receiving 1,501,473 total page views as compared to 1,087,149 total page views during its fifteenth year and 1,430,226 during its twelfth year, which had the highest visitation totals until now. Cumulative lifetime TRA visitation has reached 12,481,258 views. Even as TRA’s publication rate has slowed to 61 features during its sixteenth year – due to various time commitments, such as the work of the United States Transhumanist Party (which published 147 features on its website during the same timeframe) – the content of this magazine has drawn increasing interest. Readers, viewers, and listeners are gravitating toward both old and new features, as TRA generally aims to publish works of timeless relevance. The vaster our archive of content, the greater variety of works and perspectives it spans, the more issues it engages with and reflects upon – the more robust and diverse our audience becomes; the more insulated we become against the vicissitudes of the times and the fickle fluctuations of public sentiment and social-media fads.

None of the above is intended to deny or minimize the challenges faced by those seeking to articulate rational, nuanced, and sophisticated ideas on the contemporary Internet. Highly concerning changes to the consumption and availability of information have occurred over the course of this decade, including the following trends.

  • While social media have been beneficial in terms of rendering personal communication at a distance more viable, the fragmentation of social media and the movement away from the broader “open Internet” have seemingly accelerated. Instead of directly navigating and returning to websites of interest, most people now access content almost exclusively through social-media feeds. Even popular and appealing content may often become constrained within the walls of a particular social network or sub-group thereof, simply due to the “black-box” algorithms of that social network, which influence without explanation who sees what and when, and which may not be reflective of what those individuals would have preferred to see. The constantly changing nature of these algorithms renders it difficult for content creators to maintain steady connections with their audiences. If one adds to the mix the increasing and highly troubling tendency of social networks to actively police the content their members see, we may be returning to a situation where most people find their content inexplicably curated by “gatekeepers” who, in the name of objectivity and often with unconscious biases in play, often end up advancing ulterior agendas not in the users’ interests.
  • While the democratization of access to knowledge and information on the Internet has undoubtedly had numerous beneficial effects, we are also all faced with the problem of “information overload” and the need to prioritize essential bits information within an immense sea which we observe daily, hourly, and by the minute. The major drawback of this situation – in which everyone sees everything in a single feed, often curated by the aforementioned inexplicable algorithms – is the difficulty of even locating information that is more than a day old, as it typically becomes buried far down within the social-media feed. Potential counters exist to this tendency – namely, through the existence of old-fashioned, static websites which publish content that does not adjust and that is fixed to a particular URL, which could be bookmarked and visited time and again. But what proportion of the population has learned this technique of bookmarking and revisitation of older content – instead of simply focusing on the social-media feed of the moment? It is imperative to resist the short-termist tendencies that the design of contemporary social media seems to encourage, as indulging these tendencies has had deleterious impacts on attention spans in an entire epoch of human culture.
  • Undeniably, much interesting and creative content has proliferated on the Internet, with opportunities for both deliberate and serendipitous learning, discovery, and intellectual enrichment. Unfortunately, the emergence of such content has coincided with deleterious shifts in cultural norms away from the expectation of concerted, sequential focus (the only way that human minds can actually achieve at a high level) and toward incessant multi-tasking and the expectation of instantaneous response to any external stimulus, human or automated. The practice of dedicating a block of time to read an article, watch a video, or listen to an audio recording – once a commonplace behavior – has come to be a luxury for those who can wrest segments of time and space away from the whirlwind of external stimuli and impositions within which humans (irrespective of material resources or social position) are increasingly expected to spin. It is fine to engage with others and venture into digital common spaces occasionally or even frequently, but in order for such interactions to be productive, one has to have meaningful content to offer; the creation of such content necessarily requires time away from the commons and a reclamation of the concept of private, solitary focus to read, contemplate, apply, and create.
  • In an environment where the immediate, recent, and short-term-oriented content tends to attract the most attention, this amplifies the impulsive, range-of-the-moment, reactive emotional tendencies of individuals, rather than the thoughtful, long-term-oriented, constructive, rational tendencies. Accordingly, political and cultural discourse become reduced to bitter one-liners that exacerbate polarization, intentional misunderstanding of others, and toxicity of rhetoric. The social networks where this has been most salient have been those that limit the number of characters per post and prioritize quantity of posts over quality and the instantaneity of a response over its thoughtfulness. The infrastructures whose design presupposes that everyone’s expressions are of equal value have produced a reduction of discourse to the lowest common denominator, which is, indeed, quite low. Even major news outlets, where some quality selection is still practiced by the editors, have found that user comments often degenerate into a toxic morass. This is not intended to deny the value of user comments and interaction, in a properly civil and constructive context; nor is it intended to advocate any manner of censorship. Rather, this observation emphatically underscores the need for a return to long-form, static articles and longer written exchanges more generally as the desirable prevailing form of intellectual discourse. (More technologically intensive parallels to this long-form discourse would include long-form audio podcasts or video discussion panels where there is a single stream of conversation or narrative instead of a flurry of competing distractions.) Yes, this form of discourse takes more time and skill. Yes, this means that people have to form complex, coherent thoughts and express them in coherent, grammatically correct sentences. Yes, this means that fewer people will have the ability or inclination participate in that form of discourse. And yes, that may well be the point – because less of the toxicity will make its way completely through the structures which define long-form discourse – and because anyone who can competently learn the norms of long-form discourse, as they have existed throughout the centuries, will remain welcome to take part. Those who are not able or willing to participate can still benefit by spectating and, in the process, learning and developing their own skills.

The Internet was intended, by its early adopters and adherents of open Internet culture – including myself – to catalyze a new Age of Enlightenment through the free availability of information that would break down old prejudices and enable massively expanded awareness of reality and possibilities for improvement. Such a possibility remains, but humans thus far have fallen massively short of realizing it – because the will must be present to utilize constructively the abundance of available resources. Cultivating this will is no easy task; The Rational Argumentator has been pursuing it for sixteen years and will continue to do so. The effects are often subtle, indirect, long-term – more akin to the gradual drift of continents than the upward ascent of a rocket. And yet progress in technology, science, and medicine continues to occur. New art continues to be created; new treatises continue to be written. Some people do learn, and some people’s thinking does improve. There is no alternative except to continue to act in pursuit of a brighter future, and in the hope that others will pursue it as well – that, cumulatively, our efforts will be sufficient to avert the direst crises, make life incrementally safer, healthier, longer, and more comfortable, and, as a civilization, persist beyond the recent troubled times. The Rational Argumentator is a bulwark against the chaos – hopefully one among many – and hopefully many are at work constructing more bulwarks. Within the bulwarks, great creations may have room to develop and flourish – waiting for the right time, once the chaos subsides or is pacified by Reason, to emerge and beautify the world. In the meantime, enjoy all that can be found within our small bulwark, and visit it frequently to help it expand.

Gennady Stolyarov II,
Editor-in-Chief, The Rational Argumentator

This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.

Victory Against the Formican Hordes – Poem by G. Stolyarov II

Victory Against the Formican Hordes – Poem by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II


Deep in the crevices where there is scantly light,
Formican hordes amassed, antitheses of right:
The tyrant queen, attendant sycophantic knaves,
Vast quantities of servants – or compliant slaves –
Not even one savant among them to protest
Antagonistic ploys to rouse their dormant nest.
In wanton disregard of property and tact alike
At my abode they militantly sought to strike,
Past every antechamber to the kitchen went,
Detected every speck pursuant to its scent,
In swarms outrageous antics perpetrated,
Blatantly coveted the food refrigerated!

Defiantly I stood against them, justice-bound,
In Reason my advantage could be found.
Against the vast, infestant foe I called to fight
Abundant bait abetted by the Mighty Mite.
Combatant infantry, by gel intoxicated,
Conveyed the poison, as anticipated,
To queen and to the infant larvae of their brood,
With rampant appetites devouring fatal food.
Through errant treachery these looters had invaded,
Thusly, through treachery, their remnant faded.
And yet not one foe would its evil ways recant,
Therefore, no mercy asked – no mercy could I grant.
Mark Antony himself, transplanted from the grave,
Would have scant means these miscreants to save.
Only oblivion did the doomed assailants find.
Rejoice triumphantly, victorious mankind!
As at Lepanto and Antietam, so now here
The valiant defense of right did persevere,
And while Constantinople’s walls once failed,
My adamantine bastion has prevailed!

Observant reader, heed the moral of this tale:
Gargantuan numbers may incessantly assail
What we hold dear with brute, malignant force,
But if ascendant Reason charts a constant course,
No giant, teeming mass man’s fortunes can derail.

“Shattered” – Art by Laura Katrin Weston, a.k.a. Katrin Brunier

“Shattered” – Art by Laura Katrin Weston, a.k.a. Katrin Brunier

Laura Katrin Weston


Commentary by Gennady Stolyarov II: “Shattered” is a print by Dr. Laura Katrin Weston, a.k.a. Katrin Brunier, the original exemplar which I received in November 2017 due to my donation to the successful MouseAge crowdfunding campaign by Lifespan.io. Along with the three other artworks that I acquired from Dr. Weston – “Teeming”, “Graceful”, and “Squeak” – this print is featured as part of my Longevity Wall.

This work depicts how the forces of ruin can lead once-ornate and beautiful things to become eroded and deteriorated. This process, unfortunately, afflicts human organisms and minds as well, causing much of value to be lost or at least faded with time. Even with age, there remain in everything and everyone traces of the former splendor that can yet potentially be reclaimed – if humanity reconsiders its priorities and decisively commits to the war on ruin, including the quest to overcome aging and death.

Artist’s Description: “Time ravages even the greatest of minds, shattering them into a chaotic cloud of misfired potential. Once simple tasks become impossible, we become unable to live without aid, to live for ourselves any longer.

“I don’t know about you… But I don’t want that future. We have the power to change that. All we need is more support.”

You can find more work by Dr. Laura Katrin Weston at the Katrin Brunier Gallery, an Ethical Investment-Grade Art Gallery for the Neo-Renaissance Era (see its Instagram page). Proceeds from art sales at the Katrin Brunier Gallery will go to support causes such as medical research and conservation.

Why California Cities Are Becoming Unlivable – Article by Andrew Berryhill

Why California Cities Are Becoming Unlivable – Article by Andrew Berryhill

Andrew Berryhill
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California has the highest poverty rate in the U.S. and is rated dead last in quality of life.

In July, the mayor of San Francisco frankly stated that poverty in the city is so bad, that “there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen.” And it’s not just her – the local NBC investigative unit found a “dangerous mix of drug needles, garbage, and feces throughout downtown San Francisco.”

While such conditions are thankfully not widespread, California still has the highest rate of poverty of any state when factoring in living costs and is rated dead last for quality of life. It’s no wonder that from 2007 to 2016, California lost a million residents on net to domestic migration.

This plight may appear counterintuitive since California’s economy is booming. If the state were an independent country, its economy would rank as the 5th largest in the world. However, a high GDP does not necessarily entail socioeconomic wellbeing.

So, what’s the main problem ailing California and creating such a high cost of living?

Housing Costs

How bad are housing costs? The median price of a home in California is over $600,000 (compared with $300,000 nationally) and a recent study found that:

“Across California, more than 4 in 10 households had unaffordable housing costs, exceeding 30 percent of household income, in 2015. More than 1 in 5 households statewide faced severe housing cost burdens, spending more than half of their income toward housing expenses.”

Housing costs are so high that in San Francisco and San Mateo counties the government considers a household of four making $105,350 as “low income”.

And it’s not just low and middle-income families that are suffering – even many “elite” technology workers can barely make ends meet. Lucrative six-figure salaries don’t go far when you live in the most expensive housing markets in America while also paying some of the highest taxes.

You can save money by living in the suburbs, but multi-hour commutes in soul-crushing traffic may await. Is such an arrangement worth it? Many have said “no” and moved to other states. While their new jobs elsewhere might pay less, other benefits more than make up for it.

But why is the housing situation in California so terrible?

It’s easy to simply say “supply and demand” – so many people have moved to cities that housing construction can’t keep up, causing real estate prices and rents to skyrocket.

However, this invites an important question: why can’t residential developers build fast enough?

Regulations

Regulations play an especially large role in the San Francisco Bay Area, which shockingly includes 15 of the 30 cities with the highest rents in the country. One article explains these struggles well:

For new housing developments in San Francisco, there’s a preliminary review, which takes six months.

Then there are also chances for your neighbors to appeal your permit on either an entitlement or environmental basis. The city also requires extensive public notice of proposed projects even if they already meet neighborhood plans, which have taken several years of deliberation to produce. Neighbors can appeal your project for something as insignificant as the shade of paint. . .

If those fail, neighborhood groups can also file a CEQA or environmental lawsuit under California state law, challenging the environment impact of the project. . .

Then if that fails, opponents can put a development directly on a citywide ballot with enough signatures. . . That’s what happened with the controversial 8 Washington luxury condo project last November even though it had already gone through eight years of deliberation.

These barriers add unpredictable costs and years of delays for every developer, which are ultimately passed onto buyers and renters. It also means that developers have problems attracting capital financing in weaker economic years because of the political uncertainty around getting a project passed.”

Why aren’t politicians working to fix this? Self-preservation. Here’s the unfortunate reality:

“The reason the San Francisco city government won’t fix things that seem obvious . . . is because it fears a backlash from the hundreds of neighborhood associations that blanket the city and can reliably turn people out to the polls.”

Community Sentiment

This cultural opposition to development is not a modern phenomenon:

“San Francisco’s orientation towards growth control has 50 years of history behind it and more than 80 percent of the city’s housing stock is either owner-occupied or rent controlled. The city’s height limits, its rent control and its formidable permitting process are all products of tenant, environmental and preservationist movements that have arisen and fallen over decades.”

Development proposals have been shot down for reasons ranging from burrowing owl protection to complaints that the size of new residential buildings will block sunshine and thereby “devalue human life”.

The power of this “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) movement has been considerable, but counter-movements are growing. When one homeowner recently complained in a Berkeley city council meeting that a proposed residential building would block sunshine for her zucchini garden, one young woman angrily responded: “You’re talking about zucchinis? Really? Because I’m struggling to pay rent.” Young workers facing unaffordable rents are increasingly fed up with petty opposition to more affordable housing.

However, Californian cities still seem more preoccupied with banning strawscocktail swordsscootersdelivery robots, and workplace cafeterias.Even when politicians try to help, they frequently ignore the root causes of the issue. For example, California Representative Kamala Harris recently proposed a bill called the “Rent Relief Act” that would provide a tax credit for people spending over 30 percent of their income on rent.

Harris’ proposal only addresses symptoms of an underlying disease and would almost certainly be counterproductive. It doesn’t encourage more housing construction, which is the only real solution.

Until sweeping housing reform to enable residential development is passed at the state and local levels, Californians will keep fleeing to Texas, Nevada, and Arizona. I don’t blame them.

Andrew Berryhill is an Alcuin Fellow at Intellectual Takeout and a rising senior at Hillsdale College majoring in economics. Andrew has interned on Capitol Hill and was a research fellow for Hillsdale’s economics department. In his spare time, he enjoys practicing the violin and playing golf.

This post (“Why California Cities Are Becoming Unlivable“) was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Andrew Berryhill.

Review of Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Review of Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II


How to Create a Mind (2012) by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil sets forth a case for engineering minds that are able to emulate the complexity of human thought (and exceed it) without the need to reverse-engineer every detail of the human brain or of the plethora of content with which the brain operates. Kurzweil persuasively describes the human conscious mind as based on hierarchies of pattern-recognition algorithms which, even when based on relatively simple rules and heuristics, combine to give rise to the extremely sophisticated emergent properties of conscious awareness and reasoning about the world. How to Create a Mind takes readers through an integrated tour of key historical advances in computer science, physics, mathematics, and neuroscience – among other disciplines – and describes the incremental evolution of computers and artificial-intelligence algorithms toward increasing capabilities – leading toward the not-too-distant future (the late 2020s, according to Kurzweil) during which computers would be able to emulate human minds.

Kurzweil’s fundamental claim is that there is nothing which a biological mind is able to do, of which an artificial mind would be incapable in principle, and that those who posit that the extreme complexity of biological minds is insurmountable are missing the metaphorical forest for the trees. Analogously, although a fractal or a procedurally generated world may be extraordinarily intricate and complex in their details, they can arise on the basis of carrying out simple and conceptually fathomable rules. If appropriate rules are used to construct a system that takes in information about the world and processes and analyzes it in ways conceptually analogous to a human mind, Kurzweil holds that the rest is a matter of having adequate computational and other information-technology resources to carry out the implementation. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to the workings of the human mind, the functions of the various parts of the brain, and the hierarchical pattern recognition in which they engage. Kurzweil also discusses existing “narrow” artificial-intelligence systems, such as IBM’s Watson, language-translation programs, and the mobile-phone “assistants” that have been released in recent years by companies such as Apple and Google. Kurzweil observes that, thus far, the most effective AIs have been developed using a combination of approaches, having some aspects of prescribed rule-following alongside the ability to engage in open-ended “learning” and extrapolation upon the information which they encounter. Kurzweil draws parallels to the more creative or even “transcendent” human abilities – such as those of musical prodigies – and observes that the manner in which those abilities are made possible is not too dissimilar in principle.

With regard to some of Kurzweil’s characterizations, however, I question whether they are universally applicable to all human minds – particularly where he mentions certain limitations – or whether they only pertain to some observed subset of human minds. For instance, Kurzweil describes the ostensible impossibility of reciting the English alphabet backwards without error (absent explicit study of the reverse order), because of the sequential nature in which memories are formed. Yet, upon reading the passage in question, I was able to recite the alphabet backwards without error upon my first attempt. It is true that this occurred more slowly than the forward recitation, but I am aware of why I was able to do it; I perceive larger conceptual structures or bodies of knowledge as mental “objects” of a sort – and these objects possess “landscapes” on which it is possible to move in various directions; the memory is not “hard-coded” in a particular sequence. One particular order of movement does not preclude others, even if those others are less familiar – but the key to successfully reciting the alphabet backwards is to hold it in one’s awareness as a single mental object and move along its “landscape” in the desired direction. (I once memorized how to pronounce ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ as a single continuous word; any other order is slower, but it is quite doable as long as one fully knows the contents of the “object” and keeps it in focus.) This is also possible to do with other bodies of knowledge that one encounters frequently – such as dates of historical events: one visualizes them along the mental object of a timeline, visualizes the entire object, and then moves along it or drops in at various points using whatever sequences are necessary to draw comparisons or identify parallels (e.g., which events happened contemporaneously, or which events influenced which others). I do not know what fraction of the human population carries out these techniques – as the ability to recall facts and dates has always seemed rather straightforward to me, even as it challenged many others. Yet there is no reason why the approaches for more flexible operation with common elements of our awareness cannot be taught to large numbers of people, as these techniques are a matter of how the mind chooses to process, model, and ultimately recombine the data which it encounters. The more general point in relation to Kurzweil’s characterization of human minds is that there may be a greater diversity of human conceptual frameworks and approaches toward cognition than Kurzweil has described. Can an artificially intelligent system be devised to encompass this diversity? This is certainly possible, since the architecture of AI systems would be more flexible than the biological structures of the human brain. Yet it would be necessary for true artificial general intelligences to be able not only to learn using particular predetermined methods, but also to teach themselves new techniques for learning and conceptualization altogether – just as humans are capable of today.

The latter portion of the book is more explicitly philosophical and devoted to thought experiments regarding the nature of the mind, consciousness, identity, free will, and the kinds of transformations that may or may not preserve identity. Many of these discussions are fascinating and erudite – and Kurzweil often transcends fashionable dogmas by bringing in perspectives such as the compatibilist case for free will and the idea that the experiments performed by Benjamin Libet (that showed the existence of certain signals in the brain prior to the conscious decision to perform an activity) do not rule out free will or human agency. It is possible to conceive of such signals as “preparatory work” within the brain to present a decision that could then be accepted or rejected by the conscious mind. Kurzweil draws an analogy to government officials preparing a course of action for the president to either approve or disapprove. “Since the ‘brain’ represented by this analogy involves the unconscious processes of the neocortex (that is, the officials under the president) as well as the conscious processes (the president), we would see neural activity as well as actual actions taking place prior to the official decision’s being made” (p. 231). Kurzweil’s thoughtfulness is an important antidote to commonplace glib assertions that “Experiment X proved that Y [some regularly experienced attribute of humans] is an illusion” – assertions which frequently tend toward cynicism and nihilism if widely adopted and extrapolated upon. It is far more productive to deploy both science and philosophy toward seeking to understand more directly apparent phenomena of human awareness, sensation, and decision-making – instead of rejecting the existence of such phenomena contrary to the evidence of direct experience. Especially if the task is to engineer a mind that has at least the faculties of the human brain, then Kurzweil is wise not to dismiss aspects such as consciousness, free will, and the more elevated emotions, which have been known to philosophers and ordinary people for millennia, and which only predominantly in the 20th century has it become fashionable to disparage in some circles. Kurzweil’s only vulnerability in this area is that he often resorts to statements that he accepts the existence of these aspects “on faith” (although it does not appear to be a particularly religious faith; it is, rather, more analogous to “leaps of faith” in the sense that Albert Einstein referred to them). Kurzweil does not need to do this, as he himself outlines sufficient logical arguments to be able to rationally conclude that attributes such as awareness, free will, and agency upon the world – which have been recognized across predominant historical and colloquial understandings, irrespective of particular religious or philosophical flavors – indeed actually exist and should not be neglected when modeling the human mind or developing artificial minds.

One of the thought experiments presented by Kurzweil is vital to consider, because the process by which an individual’s mind and body might become “upgraded” through future technologies would determine whether that individual is actually preserved – in terms of the aspects of that individual that enable one to conclude that that particular person, and not merely a copy, is still alive and conscious:

Consider this thought experiment: You are in the future with technologies more advanced than today’s. While you are sleeping, some group scans your brain and picks up every salient detail. Perhaps they do this with blood-cell-sized scanning machines traveling in the capillaries of your brain or with some other suitable noninvasive technology, but they have all of the information about your brain at a particular point in time. They also pick up and record any bodily details that might reflect on your state of mind, such as the endocrine system. They instantiate this “mind file” in a morphological body that looks and moves like you and has the requisite subtlety and suppleness to pass for you. In the morning you are informed about this transfer and you watch (perhaps without being noticed) your mind clone, whom we’ll call You 2. You 2 is talking about his or he life as if s/he were you, and relating how s/he discovered that very morning that s/he had been given a much more durable new version 2.0 body. […] The first question to consider is: Is You 2 conscious? Well, s/he certainly seems to be. S/he passes the test I articulated earlier, in that s/he has the subtle cues of becoming a feeling, conscious person. If you are conscious, then so too is You 2.

So if you were to, uh, disappear, no one would notice. You 2 would go around claiming to be you. All of your friends and loved ones would be content with the situation and perhaps pleased that you now have a more durable body and mental substrate than you used to have. Perhaps your more philosophically minded friends would express concerns, but for the most party, everybody would be happy, including you, or at least the person who is convincingly claiming to be you.

So we don’t need your old body and brain anymore, right? Okay if we dispose of it?

You’re probably not going to go along with this. I indicated that the scan was noninvasive, so you are still around and still conscious. Moreover your sense of identity is still with you, not with You 2, even though You 2 thinks s/he is a continuation of you. You 2 might not even be aware that you exist or ever existed. In fact you would not be aware of the existence of You 2 either, if we hadn’t told you about it.

Our conclusion? You 2 is conscious but is a different person than you – You 2 has a different identity. S/he is extremely similar, much more so than a mere genetic clone, because s/he also shares all of your neocortical patterns and connections. Or should I say s/he shared those patterns at the moment s/he was created. At that point, the two of you started to go your own ways, neocortically speaking. You are still around. You are not having the same experiences as You 2. Bottom line: You 2 is not you.  (How to Create a Mind, pp. 243-244)

This thought experiment is essentially the same one as I independently posited in my 2010 essay “How Can Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self”:

Consider what would happen if a scientist discovered a way to reconstruct, atom by atom, an identical copy of my body, with all of its physical structures and their interrelationships exactly replicating my present condition. If, thereafter, I continued to exist alongside this new individual – call him GSII-2 – it would be clear that he and I would not be the same person. While he would have memories of my past as I experienced it, if he chose to recall those memories, I would not be experiencing his recollection. Moreover, going forward, he would be able to think different thoughts and undertake different actions than the ones I might choose to pursue. I would not be able to directly experience whatever he choose to experience (or experiences involuntarily). He would not have my ‘I-ness’ – which would remain mine only.

Thus, Kurzweil and I agree, at least preliminarily, that an identically constructed copy of oneself does not somehow obtain the identity of the original. Kurzweil and I also agree that a sufficiently gradual replacement of an individual’s cells and perhaps other larger functional units of the organism, including a replacement with non-biological components that are integrated into the body’s processes, would not destroy an individual’s identity (assuming it can be done without collateral damage to other components of the body). Then, however, Kurzweil posits the scenario where one, over time, transforms into an entity that is materially identical to the “You 2” as posited above. He writes:

But we come back to the dilemma I introduced earlier. You, after a period of gradual replacement, are equivalent to You 2 in the scan-and-instantiate scenario, but we decided that You 2 in that scenario does not have the same identity as you. So where does that leave us? (How to Create a Mind, p. 247)

Kurzweil and I are still in agreement that “You 2” in the gradual-replacement scenario could legitimately be a continuation of “You” – but our views diverge when Kurzweil states, “My resolution of the dilemma is this: It is not true that You 2 is not you – it is you. It is just that there are now two of you. That’s not so bad – if you think you are a good thing, then two of you is even better” (p. 247). I disagree. If I (via a continuation of my present vantage point) cannot have the direct, immediate experiences and sensations of GSII-2, then GSII-2 is not me, but rather an individual with a high degree of similarity to me, but with a separate vantage point and separate physical processes, including consciousness. I might not mind the existence of GSII-2 per se, but I would mind if that existence were posited as a sufficient reason to be comfortable with my present instantiation ceasing to exist.  Although Kurzweil correctly reasons through many of the initial hypotheses and intermediate steps leading from them, he ultimately arrives at a “pattern” view of identity, with which I differ. I hold, rather, a “process” view of identity, where a person’s “I-ness” remains the same if “the continuity of bodily processes is preserved even as their physical components are constantly circulating into and out of the body. The mind is essentially a process made possible by the interactions of the brain and the remainder of nervous system with the rest of the body. One’s ‘I-ness’, being a product of the mind, is therefore reliant on the physical continuity of bodily processes, though not necessarily an unbroken continuity of higher consciousness.” (“How Can Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self”) If only a pattern of one’s mind were preserved and re-instantiated, the result may be potentially indistinguishable from the original person to an external observer, but the original individual would not directly experience the re-instantiation. It is not the content of one’s experiences or personality that is definitive of “I-ness” – but rather the more basic fact that one experiences anything as oneself and not from the vantage point of another individual; this requires the same bodily processes that give rise to the conscious mind to operate without complete interruption. (The extent of permissible partial interruption is difficult to determine precisely and open to debate; general anesthesia is not sufficient to disrupt I-ness, but what about cryonics or shorter-term “suspended animation?). For this reason, the pursuit of biological life extension of one’s present organism remains crucial; one cannot rely merely on one’s “mindfile” being re-instantiated in a hypothetical future after one’s demise. The future of medical care and life extension may certainly involve non-biological enhancements and upgrades, but in the context of augmenting an existing organism, not disposing of that organism.

How to Create a Mind is highly informative for artificial-intelligence researchers and laypersons alike, and it merits revisiting a reference for useful ideas regarding how (at least some) minds operate. It facilitates thoughtful consideration of both the practical methods and more fundamental philosophical implications of the quest to improve the flexibility and autonomy with which our technologies interact with the external world and augment our capabilities. At the same time, as Kurzweil acknowledges, those technologies often lead us to “outsource” many of our own functions to them – as is the case, for instance, with vast amounts of human memories and creations residing on smartphones and in the “cloud”. If the timeframes of arrival of human-like AI capabilities match those described by Kurzweil in his characterization of the “law of accelerating returns”, then questions regarding what constitutes a mind sufficiently like our own – and how we will treat those minds – will become ever more salient in the proximate future. It is important, however, for interest in advancing this field to become more widespread, and for political, cultural, and attitudinal barriers to its advancement to be lifted – for, unlike Kurzweil, I do not consider the advances of technology to be inevitable or unstoppable. We humans maintain the responsibility of persuading enough other humans that the pursuit of these advances is worthwhile and will greatly improve the length and quality of our lives, while enhancing our capabilities and attainable outcomes. Every movement along an exponential growth curve is due to a deliberate push upward by the efforts of the minds of the creators of progress and using the machines they have built.

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here

5 of the Worst Economic Predictions in History – Article by Luis Pablo de la Horra

5 of the Worst Economic Predictions in History – Article by Luis Pablo de la Horra

Luis Pablo de la Horra
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Uncertainty makes human beings uncomfortable. Not knowing what’s going to happen in the future creates a sense of unrest in many people. That’s why we sometimes draw on predictions made by leading experts in their respective fields to make decisions in our daily lives. Unfortunately, history has shown that experts aren’t often much better than the average person when it comes to forecasting the future. And economists aren’t an exception. Here are five economic predictions that never came true.

1. Irving Fisher Predicting a Stock-Market Boom—Right Before the Crash of 1929

Irving Fisher was one of the great economists of the first half of twentieth century. His contributions to economic science are varied: the relationship between inflation and interest rates, the use of price indexes or the restatement of the quantity theory of money are some of them. Yet he is sometimes remembered by an unfortunate statement he made in the days prior to the Crash of 1929. Fisher said that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau (…) I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher within a few months.” A few days later, the stock market crashed with devastating consequences.  After all, even geniuses aren’t exempt from making mistakes.

2. Paul Ehrlich on the Looming ‘Population Bomb’

In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich published a book where he argued that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the following decades as a result of overpopulation. He went as far as far as to say that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over (…) nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Of course, Ehrlich’s predictions never came true. Since the publication of the book, the death rate has moved from 12.44 permille in 1968 to 7.65 permille in 2016, and undernourishment has declined dramatically even though the population has doubled since 1950. Seldom in history has someone been so wrong about the future of humankind.

3. The 1990s Great Depression that Never Happened

Economist Ravi Batra reached the number one on The New York Time Best Seller List in 1987 thanks to his book The Great Depression of 1990. From the title, one can easily infer what was the main thesis of the book, namely: An economic crisis is imminent, and it will be a tough one. Fortunately, his prediction failed to come true. In fact, the 1990s was a period of relative stability and strong economic growth, with the US stock market growing at an 18 percent annualized rate. Not so bad for an economic depression, right?

4. Alan Greenspan on Interest Rates

In September 2007, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan released a memoir called The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New WorldIn the book, he claimed that the economy was heading towards two-digit interest rates due to expected inflationary pressures. According to Greenspan, the Fed would be compelled to drastically raise its target interest rate to fulfill the 2-percent inflation mandate. One year later, the Fed Funds rate was at historical lows, reaching the zero-lower bound shortly after.

5. Peter Schiff and the End of the World

Financial commentator Peter Schiff became famous in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis for having foreseen the housing crash back in 2006 (even a broken clock is right twice a day). Since then, he has been predicting economic catastrophes every other day, with very limited success. There are many examples of failed predictions from which to draw upon. For instance, in a 2010 video (see below), Schiff foretold that Quantitative Easing (the unconventional monetary policy undertaken by the Fed between 2008 and 2014) would result in hyperinflation and the eventual destruction of the Dollar. Unfortunately for Schiff, the average inflation rate per year since the onset of QE has been 1.68%, slightly below the 2% target of the Fed.

 

Luis Pablo is a PhD Candidate in Economics at the University of Valladolid. He has been published by several media outlets, including The American Conservative, CapX and the Foundation for Economic Education, among others.

This article was originally published on Intellectual Takeout.

Waltz #12 in E-flat Major, Op. 88 (2018) – Musical Composition by G. Stolyarov II

Waltz #12 in E-flat Major, Op. 88 (2018) – Musical Composition by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II


A waltz for two pianos and a string orchestra, conveying an even-tempered cheerfulness – in a largely 19th-century style but including a bit of melodic experimentation.

Download the MP3 file of this composition at http://rationalargumentator.com/music_stolyarov/Stolyarov_Waltz_12.mp3.

This composition and video may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License.

Remember to LIKE, FAVORITE, and SHARE this video in order to spread rational high culture to others.

See the index of Mr. Stolyarov’s compositions, all available for free download, here.

The fractal artwork is Mr. Stolyarov’s Abstract Orderism Fractal 69, available for free download here.

Ideas for Technological Solutions to Destructive Climate Change – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Ideas for Technological Solutions to Destructive Climate Change – Article by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II



Destructive climate change is no longer a hypothesis or mere possibility; rather, the empirical evidence for it has become apparent in the form of increasingly frequent extremes of temperature and natural disasters – particularly the ongoing global heat wave and major wildfires occurring in diverse parts of the world. In each individual incident, it is difficult to pinpoint “climate change” as a singular cause, but climate change can be said to exacerbate the frequency and severity of the catastrophes that arise. Residing in Northern Nevada for the past decade has provided me ample empirical evidence of the realities of deleterious climate change. Whereas there were no smoke inundations from California wildfires during the first four summers of my time in Northern Nevada, the next six consecutive summers (2013-2018) were all marked by widespread, persistent inflows of smoke from major wildfires hundreds of kilometers away, so as to render the air quality here unhealthy for long periods of time. From a purely probabilistic standpoint, the probability of this prolonged sequence of recent but consistently recurring smoke inundations would be minuscule in the absence of some significant climate change. Even in the presence of some continued debate over the nature and causes of climate change, the probabilities favor some action to mitigate the evident adverse effects and to rely on the best-available scientific understanding to do so, even with the allowance that the scientific understanding will evolve and hopefully become more refined over time – as good science does. Thus, it is most prudent to accept that there is deleterious climate change and that at least a significant contribution to it comes from emissions of certain gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere as a result of particular human activities, the foremost of which is the use of fossil fuels. This is not an indictment of human beings, nor even of fossil fuels per se, but rather an indication that the deleterious side effects of particular activities should be prevented or alleviated through further human activity and ingenuity.

Yet one of the major causes of historical reluctance among laypersons, especially in the United States, to accept the findings of the majority of climate scientists has been the misguided conflation by certain activists (almost always on the political Left) of the justifiable need to prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change with specific policy recommendations that are profoundly counterproductive to that purpose and would only increase the everyday suffering of ordinary people without genuinely alleviating deleterious climate change. The policy recommendations of this sort have historically fallen into two categories: (i) Neo-Malthusian, “back to nature” proposals to restrict the use of advanced technologies and return to more primitive modes of living; and (ii) elaborate economic manipulations, such as the creation of artificial markets in “carbon credits”, or the imposition of a carbon tax or a related form of “Pigovian tax” – ostensibly to associate the “negative externalities” of greenhouse-gas emissions with a tangible cost. The Neo-Malthusian “solutions” would, in part deliberately, cause extreme detriments to most people’s quality of life (for those who remain alive), while simultaneously resulting in the use of older, far more environmentally destructive techniques of energy generation, such as massive deforestation or the combustion of animal byproducts. The Neo-Pigovian economic manipulations ignore how human motives and incentives actually work and are far too indirect and contingent on a variety of assumptions that are virtually never likely to hold in practice. At the same time, the artificially complex structures that these economic manipulations inevitably create would pose obstructions to the direct deployment of more straightforward solutions by entangling such potential solutions in an inextricable web of compliance interdependencies.

The solutions to destructive climate change are ultimately technological and infrastructural.  No single device or tactic – and certainly no tax or prohibition – can comprehensively combat a problem of this magnitude and variety of impacts. However, a suite of technologically oriented approaches – pushing forward the deployment and quality of the arsenal of tools available to humankind – could indeed arrest and perhaps reverse the course of deleterious climate change by directly reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases and/or directly alleviating the consequences of increased climate variability.

Because both human circumstances and current as well as potential technologies are extremely diverse, no list of potential solutions to deleterious climate change can ever be exhaustive. Here I attempt the beginnings of such a list, but I invite others to contribute additional technologically oriented solutions as well. There are only two constraints on the kinds of solutions that can feasibly and ethically combat deleterious climate change – but those constraints are of immense importance:

Constraint 1. The solutions may not result in a net detriment to any individual human’s length or material quality of life.

Constraint 2. The solutions may not involve the prohibition of technologies or the restraint of further technological progress.

Constraint 1 implies that any solution to deleterious climate change will need to be a Pareto-efficient move, in that at least one person should benefit, while no person should suffer a detriment (or at least a detriment that has not been satisfactorily compensated for in that person’s judgment). Constraint 2 implies a techno-optimistic and technoprogressive perspective on combating deleterious climate change: we can do it without restrictions or prohibitions, but rather through innovations that will benefit all humans. Some technologies, particularly those associated with the extraction and use of fossil fuels, may gradually be consigned to obsolescence and irrelevance with this approach, but this will be due to their voluntary abandonment once superior, more advanced technological alternatives become widespread and economical to deploy. The more freedom to innovate and active acceleration of technological progress exist, the sooner that stage of fossil-fuel obsolescence could be reached. In the meantime, some damaging events are unfortunately unavoidable (as are many natural catastrophes more generally in our still insufficiently advanced era), but a variety of approaches can be deployed to at least prevent or reduce some damage that would otherwise arise.

If humanity solves the problems of deleterious climate change, it can only be with the mindset that solutions are indeed achievable, and they are achievable without compromising our progress or standards of living. We must be neither defeatists nor reactionaries, but rather should proactively accelerate the development of emerging technologies to meet this challenge by actualizing the tremendous creative potential our minds have to offer.

What follows is the initial list of potential solutions. Long may it grow.

Direct Technological Innovation

  • Continued development of economical solar and wind power that could compete with fossil fuels on the basis of cost alone.
  • Continued development of electric vehicles and increases in their range, as well as deployment of charging stations throughout all inhabited areas to enable recharging to become as easy as a refueling a gasoline-powered vehicle.
  • Development of in vitro (lab-grown) meat that is biologically identical to currently available meat but does not require actual animals to die. Eventually this could lead the commercial raising of cattle – which contribute significantly to methane emissions – to decline substantially.
  • Development of vertical farming to increase the amount of arable land indoors – rendering more food production largely unaffected by climate change.
  • Autonomous vehicles offered as services by transportation network companies – reducing the need for direct car ownership in urban areas.
  • Development and spread of pest-resistant, drought-resistant genetically modified crops that require less intensive cultivation techniques and less application of spray pesticides, and which can also flourish in less hospitable climates.
  • Construction of hyperloop transit networks among major cities, allowing rapid transit without the pollution generated by most automobile and air travel. Hyperloop networks would also allow for more rapid evacuation from a disaster area.
  • Construction of next-generation, meltdown-proof nuclear-power reactors, including those that utilize the thorium fuel cycle. It is already possible today for most of a country’s electricity to be provided through nuclear power, if only the fear of nuclear energy could be overcome. However, the best way to overcome the fear of nuclear energy is to deploy new technologies that eliminate the risk of meltdown. In addition to this, technologies should be developed to reprocess nuclear waste and to safely re-purpose dismantled nuclear weapons for civilian energy use.
  • Construction of smart infrastructure systems and devices that enable each building to use available energy with the maximum possible benefit and minimum possible waste, while also providing opportunities for the building to generate its own renewable energy whenever possible.
  • In the longer term, development of technologies to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and export it via spaceships to the Moon and Mars, where it could be released as part of efforts to generate a greenhouse effect and begin terraforming these worlds.

Disaster Response

  • Fire cameras located at prominent vantage points in any area of high fire risk – perhaps linked to automatic alerts to nearby fire departments and sprinkler systems built into the landscape, which might be auto-activated if a sufficiently large fire is detected in the vicinity.
  • Major increases in recruitment of firefighters, with generous pay and strategic construction of outposts in wilderness areas. Broad, paved roads need to lead to the outposts, allowing for heavy equipment to reach the site of a wildfire easily.
  • Development of firefighting robots to accompany human firefighters. The robots would need to be constructed from fire-resistive materials and have means of transporting themselves over rugged terrain (e.g., tank treads).
  • Design and deployment of automated firefighting drones – large autonomous aircraft that could carry substantial amounts of water and/or fire-retardant sprays.

Disaster Prevention

  • Recruitment of large brush-clearing brigades to travel through heavily forested areas – particularly remote and seldom-accessed ones – and clear dead vegetation as well as other wildfire fuels. This work does not require significant training or expertise and so could offer an easy job opportunity for currently unemployed or underemployed individuals. In the event of shortages of human labor, brush-clearing robots could be designed and deployed. The robots could also have the built-in capability to reprocess dead vegetation into commercially usable goods – such as mulch or wood pellets. Think of encountering your friendly maintenance robot when hiking or running on a trail!
  • Proactive creation of fire breaks in wilderness areas – not “controlled burns” (which are, in practice, difficult to control) but rather controlled cuts of smaller, flammable brush to reduce the probability of fire spreading. Larger trees of historic significance should be spared, but with defensible space created around them.
  • Deployment of surveillance drones in forested areas, to detect behaviors such as vandalism or improper precautions around manmade fires – which are often the causes of large wildfires.
  • Construction of large levees throughout coastal regions – protecting lowland areas from flooding and achieving in the United States what has been achieved in the Netherlands over centuries on a smaller scale. Instead of building a wall at the land border, build many walls along the coasts!
  • Construction of vast desalination facilities along ocean coasts. These facilities would take in ocean water, thereby counteracting the effects of rising water levels, then purify the water and transmit it via a massive pipe network throughout the country, including to drought-prone regions. This would mitigating multiple problems, reducing the excess of water in the oceans while replenishing the deficit of water in inland areas.
  • Creation of countrywide irrigation and water-pipeline networks to spread available water and prevent drought wherever it might arise.

Economic Policies

  • Redesign of home insurance policies and disaster-mitigation/recovery grants to allow homeowners who lost their homes to natural disasters to rebuild in different, safer areas.
  • Development of workplace policies to encourage telecommuting and teleconferencing, including through immersive virtual-reality technologies that allow for plausible simulacra of in-person interaction. The majority of business interactions can be performed virtually, eliminating the need for much business-related commuting and travel.
  • Elimination of local and regional monopoly powers of utility companies in order to allow alternative-energy utilities, such as companies specializing in the installation of solar panels, to compete and offer their services to homeowners independently of traditional utilities.
  • Establishment of consumer agencies (public or private) that review products for durability and encourage the construction of devices that lack “planned obsolescence” but rather can be used for decades with largely similar effect.
  • Establishment of easily accessible community repair shops where old devices and household goods can be taken to be repaired or re-purposed instead of being discarded.
  • Abolition of inflexible zoning regulations and overly prescriptive building codes; replacement with a more flexible system that allows a wide variety of innovative construction techniques, including disaster-resistant and sustainable construction methods, tiny homes, homes created from re-purposed materials, and mixed-use residential/commercial developments (which also reduce the need for vehicular commuting).
  • Abolition of sales taxes on energy-efficient consumer goods.
  • Repeal or non-enactment of any mileage-based taxes for electric or hybrid vehicles, thereby resulting in such vehicles becoming incrementally less expensive to operate.
  • Lifting of all bans and restrictions on genetically modified plants and animals – which are a crucial component in adaptation to climate change and in reducing the carbon footprint of agricultural activities.

Harm Mitigation

  • Increases in planned urban vegetation through parks, rooftop gardens, trees planted alongside streets, pedestrian / bicyclist “greenways” lined with vegetation. The additional vegetation can absorb carbon dioxide, reducing the concentrations in the atmosphere.
  • Construction of additional pedestrian / bicyclist “greenways”, which could help reduce the need for vehicular commutes.
  • Construction of always-operational disaster shelters with abundant stockpiles of aid supplies, in order to prevent the delays in deployment of resources that occur during a disaster. When there is no disaster, the shelters could perform other valuable tasks that generally are not conducive to market solutions, such as litter cleanup in public spaces or even offering inexpensive meeting space to various individuals and organizations. (This could also contribute to the disaster shelters largely becoming self-funding in calm times.)
  • Provision of population-wide free courses on disaster preparation and mitigation. The courses could have significant online components as well as in-person components administered by first-aid and disaster-relief organizations.

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here

Review of M. Zachary Johnson’s “Emotion in Life and Music” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Review of M. Zachary Johnson’s “Emotion in Life and Music” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II

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Everyone intuits an emotional substance to music, yet few can explain its nature and origins. According to some, it is merely subjective; a piece evokes feelings that are personal to the listener but have no basis in the actual structure, melody, and harmonies of the composition itself.  According to others, emotion in music can only be explained if anchored to a particular story or the historical context of the composer’s life and motivations. Still others disdain talk of musical emotion altogether and prefer a pure formalism, sometimes seeking to explain why music that feels jarring, discordant, or no way in particular can still be great because of some convention-flouting thing it does. M. Zachary Johnson, a teacher and historian of music and himself an accomplished composer, differs from all of those commonplace views and, in Emotion in Life and Music: A New Science, sets forth a framework by which the mathematics inherent in musical relationships and the feelings to which music gives rise are not only reconciled but shown to be inextricably linked, providing “connection of the emotion with the exact mathematical ratios which measure pitch distance and explain our qualitative affective experience” (p. 163).

Johnson’s concept of the psychological signature of a piece based on three measurable dimensions of intensity, speed, and affect provides a rubric for discerning which basic emotions a musical passage will elicit in the listener. As Johnson points out, these are generalized emotions such as pride or anguish, not anchored to a particular context (e.g., the feeling of accomplishment at having run a marathon or the feeling of having been betrayed) – although other media, such as the storyline of an opera, and even the listener’s personal experiences can provide such a context, which is indeed why different listeners may have different subjective associations with a piece of a particular, objective psychological signature. Even though musical tastes do vary widely among individuals, Johnson convincingly articulates that these tastes are still in reference to something in particular and that an individual’s response to the objective psychological signature of a piece tells more about the listener than about the piece itself. This is a welcome, refreshing contrast to the often militantly intolerant subjectivism of those who proclaim that there are no distinctions of quality or even nature to music or even art in general – that it is all up to the arbitrary preferences of the composer and/or listener, and that anyone who dares challenge this dogma deserves condemnation in the most strident terms. Perhaps contemporary Western culture, or at least the occasional oasis of rationality within it, is beginning to turn away from such absurdity, and Johnson contributes theoretical support to the view most articulately (in our era) espoused by Alma Deutscher that music should be beautiful.

Why is it desirable for dissonance to be resolved? Johnson explains that “Feelings such as pleasure, joy, serenity, inner harmony and balance – these are settled, complete states of mind. They are self-sufficient rewards, forms of satisfaction and contentment. They are ends in themselves. Feelings such as pain, suffering, fear, anger, restlessness, emotional distress and chaos – these are unsettled, incomplete, resolution-demanding states of mind. They motivate us to take some form of productive or corrective action. In respect to psychology, these are a propulsion to satisfy a need, to resolve a clash, to soothe oneself and heal, to strengthen, to gain adaptive flexibility, to stabilize the psyche and bring order to it” (p. 65). Wholesome, constructive music does not merely exist for its own sake but can greatly assist individuals in this task of achieving emotional integrity and strength. This includes music which expresses the darker or incomplete emotions, as long as this expression offers the listener an effective laboratory of the mind to work through such emotions without the risks and harms that would give rise to them in one’s personal life. Johnson notes that “Music rewards you for successful cognitive action, not for successful existential action. And when it gives you darker emotions, the function is not to indicate loss and failure, but to provide a means of sensually enjoying and studying and contemplating the states of consciousness, independently of the issue of actual material loss or gain – which is a form of self-knowledge, an affirmation of the value of one’s own faculties, and therefore itself a spiritual gain” (p. 110). However, there is a difference between a healthy, structured, rational exploration of the darker emotions with the intent of achieving resolution and completeness and the self-destructive embrace of those emotions, which certain types of “music” attempt to inculcate.

I consider myself to be within the same broad Apollonian musical and esthetic tradition as Johnson – as contrasted with the Dionysian revelry in the shocking, debased, and unrestrained. Yet perhaps my most significant difference with Johnson is the scope of what I would encompass within the Apollonian milieu and the latitude which I would allow to certain composers whom Johnson portrays rather harshly. Yes, Richard Wagner had his long, moody, meandering passages – but when his music becomes focused, determined, and structured, it is truly majestic. Yes, Dmitri Shostakovich was often despondent, but he could also write a fugue without any dissonance – and, besides, who would not be despondent when responding to the atrocities of the Stalin regime, but needing to do so in a veiled, indirect manner to create plausible deniability? (Shostakovich, too, had his heroic moments, as in the ending to his Seventh Symphony, which is about as optimistic as one can reasonably be in the midst of the devastation of World War II.) Nor would I agree with Johnson’s portrayal of the Second Movement of Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat as conveying a message of hopelessness or futility; I would rather characterize it as expressing mild, reflective melancholy. As for Arnold Schoenberg – well, Schoenberg deserves all of the criticism that Johnson has in store for him; he had no excuses for the misguided rebellion against tonality.

Yet, more generally, it is perhaps a misdirection of effort to focus on criticism of singular figures in musical or intellectual history. The massive departure of “high” music from tonality in the early 20th century certainly could not have been solely Schoenberg’s doing – nor could the intellectual seeds for this trend have been planted a century and a half in advance by Immanuel Kant (whom Johnson characterizes, following many similar assertions by Ayn Rand, as the mastermind of the end of the Enlightenment and the decline of the West). Kant had his errors, to be sure (though Rand always somehow overlooked the redeeming aspects of his immense humanism and political classical liberalism, especially in the context of his time), and Schoenberg’s music is simply not pleasant to the ear – but one could have a civilized and interesting conversation with either Kant or Schoenberg over a cup of coffee. No – the rebellion against the Enlightenment was more the doing of the rabble who cheered when the guillotine fell during the Reign of Terror. The widespread descent of music into atonality could not have occurred were it not for the slaughter of World War I, a crime of millions against millions – and against themselves. Johnson’s criticism of rock music (perhaps itself a bit harsh – but I offer my evaluation as one who has only heard the music separately from its typical “scene”) is better leveled at the ordinary revelers at Woodstock and Altamont – not the music itself (which is rather harmonious and innocuous compared to what commonly passes for popular “music” today). The tendency toward dissipation and destruction is not orchestrated by a handful of avatars of particular movements – but, rather, it lurks within the masses of people because of regrettable cognitive biases and irrational emotional urges that are the unfortunate inheritance of humankind’s deeply flawed evolutionary origins. In certain eras these destructive inclinations are subdued due to general prosperity and the proper incentives within social, political, and technological systems – whereas in other eras, arguably including our own (though not always or everywhere), they are encouraged by widespread norms of (mis)conduct, cultural portrayals, and everyday attitudes to become acted out by masses of people to great personal and societal toll. This is, in many regards, an ancient and recurring problem, sometimes taking on bizarre manifestations such as the pathological dance epidemic of 1518.

Accordingly, it is more important to advocate the Apollonian mindset in general in opposition to the Dionysian proclivities in general than to seek to single out particular instances of the latter. As long as humans continue to contend with our flawed evolutionary inheritance – which may not and should not always be our lot – and as long as some humans also retain aspects of nobility of character and aspiration for a better life, there will always be some exemplars of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian to point to. A more salient question, though, is, “Which of these paradigms is proportionally predominant?” Furthermore, how can the proportions among cultural creations be shifted in favor of the Apollonian?  The more immediate problem we contend with is that there are vast quantities of people who would understand nothing in Johnson’s book and would have no knowledge of anything he praises or criticizes; they would be equally ignorant of Mozart and Beethoven, Aristotle and Kant, Schoenberg and Shostakovich, Brahms and Ayn Rand, and yet they would hate everything about any mention of them (in whatever light) – or about my review of Johnson’s book, or about a review from a critic with views diametrically opposite mine. The problem of anti-intellectualism in contemporary Western societies (particularly the United States) runs that deep, and it is evident that Johnson is gravely concerned about this predicament.

But perhaps good music can offer us a path toward a brighter future. If anti-intellectualism is the predominant cultural malaise of our time, then the inoculation against it may be found in Johnson’s articulation of the purpose of the best music as expressing the love of intelligence: “The essence of our humanity, the linchpin integrating reason and emotion, the special theme of the good life, the hallmark of virtue, the root of justice, the core of idealism and aspiration and heroism, the fundamental guardian of political freedom, and the root of all human love, is the love of man’s intelligence. […] The essence of music is precisely the love of human intelligence. Music, as nature’s reward for cognitive fitness, is the greatest medium in existence for expressing that theme” (pp. 179-180). Could exposure to great music – simple exposure, without even the theoretical explication which is accessible only at a much higher level of erudition – instill a love of intelligence in sufficiently larger numbers of people so as to turn the cultural tide? This is at least worth including as a tactic in the great, ongoing endeavor of civilizing the human mind and ensuring that the nobility of sentiment can grow to keep pace with material and technological advances.

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here