See A Wider View

Ross Douthat in the NYT:

From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. .. Well, maybe. But describing the division this way .. gives the elite side of the debate .. too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan.

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. .. The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe. They have their own distinctive worldview .. common educational experience, .. shared values and assumptions .. outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. .. From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” .. is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home. ..

It is still possible to disappear into someone else’s culture, to leave the global-citizen bubble behind. But in my experience the people who do are exceptional or eccentric or natural outsiders to begin with .. It’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe. .. They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project.

You have values, and your culture has values. They are similar, and this isn’t a coincidence. Causation here mostly goes from culture to individual. And even if you did pick your culture, you have to admit that the young you who did was’t especially wise or well-informed. And you were unaware of many options. So you have to wonder if you’ve too easily accepted your culture’s values.

Of course your culture anticipates these doubts, and is ready with detailed stories on why your culture has the best values. Actually most stories you hear have that as a subtext. But you should wonder how well you can trust all this material.

Now, you might realize that for personal success and comfort, you have little to gain, and much to lose, by questioning your culture’s values. Your associates mostly share your culture, and are comforted more by your loyalty displays than your intellectual cleverness. Hey, everyone agrees cultures aren’t equal; someone has to be best. So why not give yours the benefit of the doubt? Isn’t that reasonable?

But if showing cleverness is really important to you, or if perhaps you really actually care about getting values right, then you should wonder what else you can do to check your culture’s value stories. And the obvious option is to immerse yourself in the lives and viewpoints of other cultures. Not just via the stories or trips your culture has set up to tell you of its superiority. But in ways that give those other cultures, and their members, a real chance. Not just slight variations on your culture, but big variations as well. Try to see a wider landscape of views, and then try to see the universe from many widely dispersed points on that landscape.

Yes if you are a big-city elite, try to see the world from Brexit or Trump fan views. But there are actually much bigger view differences out there. Try a islamic fundamentalist, or a Chinese nationalist. But even if you grow to be able to see the world as do most people in the world today, there still remain even bigger differences out there. Your distant ancestors were quite human, and yet they saw the universe very differently. Yes, they were wrong on some facts, but that hardly invalidates most of their views. Learn some ancient history, to see their views.

And if you already know some ancient history, perhaps the most alien culture you have yet to encounter is that of your human-like descendants. But we can’t possibly know anything about that yet, you say? I beg to differ. I introduce my new book with this meet-a-strange-culture rationale:

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best (Herodotus 440bc)

The future is not the realization of our hopes and dreams, a warning to mend our ways, an adventure to inspire us, nor a romance to touch our hearts. The future is just another place in space-time. Its residents, like us, find their world mundane and morally ambiguous. (Hanson 2008a)

You, dear reader, are special. Most humans were born before 1700. And of those born after, you are probably richer and better educated than most. Thus you and most everyone you know is special, elite members of the industrial era.

Like most of your kind, you probably feel superior to your ancestors. Oh, you don’t blame them for learning what they were taught. But you’d shudder to hear of many of your distant farmer ancestors’ habits and attitudes on sanitation, sex, marriage, gender, religion, slavery, war, bosses, inequality, nature, conformity, and family obligations. And you’d also shudder to hear of many habits and attitudes of your even more ancient forager ancestors. Yes, you admit that lacking your wealth your ancestors couldn’t copy some of your habits. Even so, you tend to think that humanity has learned that your ways are better. That is, you believe in social and moral progress.

The problem is, the future will probably hold new kinds of people. Your descendants’ habits and attitudes are likely to differ from yours by as much as yours differ from your ancestors. If you understood just how different your ancestors were, you’d realize that you should expect your descendants to seem quite strange. Historical fiction misleads you, showing your ancestors as more modern than they were. Science fiction similarly misleads you about your descendants.

New habits and attitudes result less than you think from moral progress, and more from people adapting to new situations. So many of your descendants’ strange habits and attitudes are likely to violate your concepts of moral progress; what they do may often seem wrong. Also, you likely won’t be able to easily categorize many future ways as either good or evil; they will instead just seem weird. After all, your world hardly fits the morality tales your distant ancestors told; to them you’d just seem weird. Complex realities frustrate simple summaries, and don’t fit simple morality tales.

This book presents a concrete and plausible yet troubling view of a future full of strange behaviors and attitudes. You may have seen concrete troubling future scenarios before in science fiction. But few of those scenarios are in fact plausible; their details usually make little sense to those with expert understanding. They were designed for entertainment, not realism.

Perhaps you were told that fictional scenarios are the best we can do. If so, I aim to show that you were told wrong. My method is simple. I will start with a particular very disruptive technology often foreseen in futurism and science fiction: brain emulations, in which brains are recorded, copied, and used to make artificial “robot” minds. I will then use standard theories from many physical, human, and social sciences to describe in detail what a world with that future technology would look like.

I may be wrong about some consequences of brain emulations, and I may misapply some science. Even so, the view I offer will still show just how troublingly strange the future can be.

So let us begin.

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  • free_agent

    You write, “So you have to wonder if you’ve too easily accepted your culture’s values.”

    In what way can that be true? Your culture’s values are the roadmap that tells what you will need to do to survive and prosper in your culture. In what way can my survival and reproduction be improved by rejecting the values of my culture?

    • RobinHanson

      You may care about something other than prospering in your culture.

      • Sam Dangremond

        Yes, but when you put the rebuttal question that way… why *should* I?

        If I care about myself and my progeny prospering, then “stick to our culture” sounds pretty good.

      • x05ED2F

        The thing is, even if you act on the rational that you are, what would stop someone else who also grew up in this “our” culture you refer to and subvert and exploit it for a new or other culture (or superposition of such other cultures/values/systems) for the same rational of “I care about myself and my progeny prospering”? 😛

      • Sam Dangremond

        altruistic punishers.

      • x05ED2F

        Because in terms of probabilities, such “altruistic publishers” of which i assume are human, will win 100% and that there is a 0% of such non “altruistic punishers” system forming and being more optimal than what came before? 😛

      • free_agent

        You write, “You may care about something other than prospering in your culture.”

        That’s true, of course. I, for instance, have a perverse urge to see the world in an unvarnished way, stripped of the comforting bullshit that people wrap their perceptions in. But, of course, such urges are strongly selected against, and so they are uncommon.

        You previously wrote, “if showing cleverness is really important to you…”. That’s a nice idea, and it’s especially nice if your role is one where you will be rewarded if you can show cleverness…

  • Glossy

    Cultures construct superiority myths for a reason – they help them survive.
    Everyone loves a winner, no one wants to be on a losing team. An inflated sense of the degree of victoriousness and virtue of one’s people helps rally the troops.
    In the past the peoples and cultures that tended to exaggerate their superiority less must have survived less.
    If you want to know the truth, you should question these superiority stories. But it’s maladaptive to want to know some truths.
    Questioning whether or not one’s own people and culture is the best in the world is like questioning whether or not there is a God. Atheism is extremely maladaptive. It’s an evolutionary dead end because atheists don’t breed. It disappeared in Greco-Roman antiquity for the same reason that it will disappear in the next few generations: it has trouble perpetuating itself.
    Similarly, cultures and peoples that aren’t proud of themselves have trouble perpetuating themselves. Some truths are deadly and some lies help you live another day.

    • Stephen Diamond

      What keeps atheists from reproducing?

      • Glossy

        A traditional culture is, by definition, an old and stable one. It’s worked for a long time. Its members don’t need to know how and why it works. Ants don’t know how their complex societies work either. Cultural attitudes that work are passed on unthinkingly through imitation of one’s elders and rote memorization of written moral codes. Cultural attitudes that don’t work are eliminated naturally by failure and death.

        Sometimes people break with traditional cultures by trying to reason about the basics of human existence by themselves. Such people quickly discover that many of the stories that underpin traditional cultures are false. This is where atheism comes from.

        However, up till now all attempts to create functional, durable, self-perpetuating societies through reason have failed. The inability of atheists to achieve replacement-rate birth rates is just one sign of that failure. There are others.

        It seems that our reasoning abilities are not up to the task. Also, we probably don’t have enough information. Traditional societies are very complex systems that evolved not through reason, but in a natural-selection type way over many millenia.

        There are many other naturally-evolved entities that we can’t reproduce through reason. The human brain, obviously. Actually we can’t reproduce some things that seem much simpler than the brain. For example, all fake leather looks worse than real leather. Wigs look worse than real hair.

        In short, the atheists’ failure to perpetuate ourselves is a sign of a larger problem, namely the inability of humans to create a functioning, self-perpetuating society through reason alone.

      • Matthew Light

        People can’t even motivate themselves to get out of bed with reason alone.

        People whose emotional brain centers stop working just sit there and do nothing, even though the rational parts of their brain are working fine.

      • Ron Watson

        “The inability of atheists to achieve replacement-rate birth rates is just one sign of that failure.”

        Nice framing. You make it sound like atheists agreed that this is what we should achieve, and then failed to realize their goal. Of course, there is no such agreement. Atheism is nothing but a subset of realism, given the evidence against divine entities. Nothing more, nothing less.

        I have no problem being outbred by theists, or unfriendly AI, or trillions of miserable em slaves. I’ll bequeath them my high-entropy garbage on the way out.

      • Glossy

        And getting back on topic, I think that cultural chauvinism works the same way. The cultures that don’t love themselves die.

        Their stated reasons for loving themselves are mostly false. Nationalisms, religions, democracism are all based on mountains of lies. But there doesn’t seem to be any working substitute for such lies. Most claims to transcend these lies are also lies. And even honest attempts to transcend them, which are rare, probably aren’t good enough to work as well as naturally-evolved lies.

      • Stephen Diamond

        And getting back on topic, I think that cultural chauvinism works the same way. The cultures that don’t love themselves die.

        The cultures that have loved themselves the least – western culture – has thrived and expanded, while the world of the self-loving clans is imploding and exploding.

      • Matthew Light

        You’re failing to understand the difference between memetic and genetic success.

      • Stephen Diamond

        No, you have confounded them! You have maintain that the low reproduction rates of atheists will result in the world becoming religious again.

        Islamic fundamentalist reaction is a Skinnerian extinction burst for religion.

      • Matthew Light

        >You have maintain that the low reproduction rates of atheists will result in the world becoming religious again.

        I haven’t said that yet. But it is in fact extremely likely.

        >Islamic fundamentalist reaction is a Skinnerian extinction burst for religion.

        I highly doubt that Islamic fundamentalism is the future of anything. Fortunately there are other options besides atheist non-reproduction and fundamentalist violence.

      • Glossy

        That’s not true. During Europe’s colonial expansion European cultures loved themselves. After they stopped being proud of themselves in the 20th century they lost their overseas empires. They’re now being replaced by other cultures (Islam most prominent among them) in their own homelands.

        In short, Western cultures expanded when they loved themselves and shrank after they started hating themselves.

      • Stephen Diamond

        They didn’t love themselves as much as the clannish cultures they opposed. Outbreeding produces universalism.

      • Peter David Jones

        We need the mythos about the superiority of our culture to motivate people to absorb it, although it s ultimately a lie. So we also need to throw away the ladder once we have climbed it.

      • Matthew Light

        I don’t know, but TFR of atheists is about 1/2 that of the religious in western cultures. We could come up with many reasons why, but that doesn’t change the finding.

      • Stephen Diamond

        The finding provides no causal guidance.

    • Peter David Jones

      The surviving religions tend to emphasise fecundity, but there is evidence of defunct ones that emphasised chastity, such as the shakers. By si!okay reasoning, it would not be impossible to have a quiverfull version of atheism.

  • too abstract for me

    What is it with the sudden deluge of elite commentators poo-poohing other elites right after Brexit? Afraid of the unwashed masses?

    As someone who spent the first 23 years of my life in the USSR and had the pleasure of repeatedly visiting China for cumulative ~4 months (I experienced it in the way that Dothat fellow suggests) I will take Western culture any day of the week. No cultural plasticity or adaptation to the environment would help. Almost certain I’m missing the point of the article, still.

    • RobinHanson

      There have been more than three cultures in human history.

      • too abstract for me

        I don’t find your main claim that our descendants will be weird and alien the least bit controversial though. What does it matter if I (or any other presently living person) would find them unacceptable?

      • Ron Watson

        It matters for some decisions, e.g. how much longer-term collapse or extinction risk we should accept for nearer-term gains. I’ve grown pessimistic enough that I would accept almost certain extinction of intelligent life in 2100 for 5% higher living standards now until 2050. If I thought the future was really great, I would think differently.

      • arch1

        Ron, what if you had to choose between the richer half of the world’s people experiencing this 5% bump, vs the poorer half?

      • Ron Watson

        The richer half would be better, since the poorer half would just breed until malthusian misery is restored.

    • free_agent

      Elite commentators, to a degree, are rewarded for seeing and publicizing things that might be important in the future but the current habits and prejudices of their customers (elites who actually run things) might prevent those customers from seeing for themselves. Brexit shows that the anti-cosmopolitan movement can have substantial political power, and so is something that has to be dealt with if you are, e.g., the CEO of a mid-sized British business.

      So now people who run things have to start figuring out how to cope with that — What are the motivations of the Brexiters? How many of them are there? Which of the things that they complain about are they the most concerned about? Etc. People who run things must get into the right mood to negotiate with Brexiters a deal that will preserve what’s important to people who run things (e.g., unfettered access to the EU market). So it helps people who run things to become aware that a lot of the policies favored by the elites — and often, pushed forward as moral necessities — have been hard on the Brexiters. The job of the commentators is to construct the correct mindset, one in which the concerns of the Brexiters are legitimate political needs.

      I’m fairly sure that if Leave got only 40% of the vote, nothing would have changed.

      I suspect that the latter alternative is going to happen in the US. Trump supporters seem to be much like Brexiters in their concerns, but the fraction of them in the population is considerably lower — despite that Trump was the only electrifying candidate in the Republican primaries, Trump won only a minority of the aggregate vote in the Republican primaries. Combined with Trump’s deficiencies as a candidate, he’s likely to lose badly, which will signal to the elites (and non-Trump-supporting non-elites) that no accommodation needs to be made to Trump supporters’ concerns.

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    Honestly, for me, the changes on perspective on slavery and war, between the culture(s) in the present I’m familiar with, and the cultures in the past, are the ones which I predict would leave me most aghast if I forced myself to think about them more. I think I’d be willing to be flexible, or compromise, on most of them, except those two. Well, at least for some cultures. Honestly, there are some ancient cultures who would probably think our versions of slavery and war in 2016 C.E., compared to theirs, are inhuman to an insane degree. I wouldn’t necessarily blame them for thinking that way, either.

    The one thing that doesn’t just worry me, though, but would scare me, is cultures with norms surrounding sanitation which are very different. Surely Western civilization may be too hypochondriac; most people could get away with washing their hands less, and perhaps showering once or twice a week. However, a culture which didn’t use soap, which eschewed it and thought it unnecessary, would to me be unconscionable to live in.

  • Ben

    note: you’ve misspelled the author’s last name. It’s Douthat.

    • RobinHanson

      Thanks. I know I cut and pasted it; grumble autocorrect.

  • Quite Likely

    I would say that while some of the differences between modern and ancestral cultures are due to morally neutral changes in circumstances or cultural drift, the ones that I care about more tend to be associated with increases in societal wealth and knowledge. These have been increasing steadily for at least the last few centuries, and seem to correspond quite well with the ‘moral progress’ made in that time. If something like the Age of EM happens to seriously reduce per capita wealth it’s certainly plausible that trend towards moral progress could go in the opposite direction, but it seems reasonable enough for people’s default assumption to be that the trends that have been ongoing since the at least industrial revolution will continue for a while longer.

  • QVS

    I experienced genuine multiculturalism in Toronto in the 1990s, and though it had its problems it was a pretty decent arrangement overall.
    In the decades since I’ve watched Toronto’s multiculturalism steadily get ploughed under by the “multiculturalism” of the globalists.

    The latter is really just bog-standard American WASP ethnocentrism–the belief that “inside every Vietnamese there’s an American trying to shoot his way out”. Calling that stance multiculturalism is basically an exercise in “rebranding”, albeit one that is quite breathtaking in its audacity.
    So WASPs who let outsider customs influence their behaviour get accused of “cultural appropriation” instead of “not acting white”, works originating in other cultures get denounced as “stereotyping” instead of being denounced as “foreign”, etc.
    “Destroy the villiage in order to save it”, IOW, played out in the cultural sphere.