The Greatest Intellectual Error of Modernity - Argument Fleshed Out

For some time, I have been boldly asserting my sense that the greatest intellectual error of modernity is the widespread and fervent faith that the same tremendous scientific knowledge and success humanity has marshaled to manipulate the material world may now be employed to manipulate individuals and societies - indeed to create a global utopia! It is an article of faith that this is an inevitable scientific certainty. Just ask the Davoisie.

I have not felt qualified to flesh out this argument as to conflation of STEM and humanities knowledge. However, In his usual persuasive, historical and reasoned manner, Roger Kimball has done it - better than any effort I might have made. If you are still feeling some residual satiety (in the broad psychic sense, not entirely in the dimension of elemental nutrition) from your brief, privileged and otherwise un-called-for Thanksgiving respite from America 2022 and may not be feeling quite so angry, oppressed and/or guilty (are there any other “scientific” human emotions?), and if your serum Prozac level is in therapeutic range, I invite you to read this essay, “Highways to Utopia” It is well worth the 15 minutes to acquire this clear overview of intellectual incoherence and extreme danger.

Were Kimball a painter, I would credit him with painting a Breugel - like or Bosch - like canvas showing the tension between progressive road signs to heaven and the inevitable results of ending up on their “right side of history” as so artfully and presciently depicted by these artists of old. I also assert this is the left side of history, as progressives can’t even tell left from right.


Thank you for the link to Kimball’s article, CW. It is very clear from the dates of the authors he cites that Western society has been concerned about swirling down the toilet for quite a long time. This time, is it for real?

Kimbal describes three elements which are of concern: (1) the decline in behavioral standards; (2) the growth of unelected intrusive bureaucracies; (3) the potential misuses of advances in science & technology. What he does not do is make much of a case that those three undoubtedly-genuine worries are related. For example, the city bureaucracy in a place like San Francisco could have decided to enforce civilized behavior instead of promoting defecation in the streets and discarded needles in children’s playgrounds.

While Our Betters clearly hold the rest of us in contempt and would love to re-establish feudalism (complete with jus prima noctis if they could), it is hard to see how they benefit from the decline in public morality and global explosion of Fauci-labs in the Ukraine and beyond. It seems like Kimball is describing the symptoms rather than identifying the disease. Just one peon’s view, of course.


I suspect all these things - the inability to establish any limiting principles to apply to thoughts or actions - devolve to a population unable to govern itself either as individuals or as a polity. They become a lumpen dependency, whose lot is ever at the pleasure of the state apparatus. In other words, the ‘new and improved’ workers’ paradise, with insect-meal bread and virtual porn circuses.


We have to accept that we human beings are (mostly) herd animals. Some speculate that it was only our ancestors willingness to cooperate with others (i.e., “run with the herd”) that enabled them to survive in a world in which they were weaker and more vulnerable than their many potential predators.

The question which always crosses the mind when seeing the motions of a flock of birds or school of fish (our fellow herd animals) is … What drives the direction the herd takes? We talk about “peer pressure” among humans, especially the young, but who sets the direction of peer pressure? Today we see rampant insane herd behavior over things like Alleged Anthropogenic Global Warming. In previous generations there were instead massive religious revivals. It seems that the herd behavior can be positive or negative. What drives it?


Good question about herd direction. Well, I find myself often thinking that human “influencers” are for the birds. Maybe that’s a clue?


Let me admit to one of my many failed expectations. Years ago, I had predicted that the Far Left takeover of the educational system, with its resulting efforts to indoctrinate the young, would backfire spectacularly over time. The evidence of our eyes shows I was wrong.

Back in the days of the Woodstock Generation, the young were suspicious of & resistant to “The Man”. They rejected the Establishment’s views about proper behavior and proper thought. Thus it seemed obvious that the Far Lefties had scored an own goal through their successful take-over of education.
Lefties had made themselves into the Establishment against which the next generation of the young would rebel. In my prognostication, it seemed likely that young people would rebel against the indoctrination by smoking, going to church, and joining the military.

But I was completely wrong. Wonder why? It is tough to predict which direction the herd is going to swing, just as it seems impossible to predict the movements of a murmuration of starlings.


If one begins analysis with the progressive era of the early 20th century, though, the direction of the herd is clear: a ratcheted movement to the left, which has accelerated of late. The most recent election offers little hope that the teeth on the ratchet gear will slip or the pawl will break. The fact that around half the voting (or voted for??) population has drunk the Koolaid is beyond disheartening. They did not act to even slow the accelerating lurch left.

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This is why it’s wise to be dubious about grand theories of history, Marxist and otherwise, that prescribe a teleological evolution and speak of a “direction of history”. In reality, many things just happen and it’s impossible to figure out why, no less predict the future.

As Stephen Wolfram observes, even simple systems with very simple rules exhibit complex behaviour which cannot be predicted—you just have to let them run to see what happens.

For example, Fourmilab Flocking Birds uses only 5 rules as prescribed by Craig Reynolds’ “Boids” model, with no central control, yet exhibits complex behaviour that never repeats.

And academics think they can predict the evolution of societies of hundreds of millions of intelligent, autonomous agents….


It is interesting that the 5 simple rules often result in the flock of birds splitting into two groups – Catholics & Protestants? Sunni & Shia? Constitutionalists and Mainstream?


I hope against hope this is correct and in the big picture and maybe it is - over, say hundreds of thousands of years (if we last that long). In the relatively short (geologic) period of which we are aware, the picture is mixed, I think. Great material progress, some saltatory civilizational progress, surely. As I posted recently, though, I fear elite hubris which results from conflation of great scientific/technical breakthroughs with supposed “advances” in psychological/sociological “science”, employed in various utopian schemes of governance.


That’s largely dependent on how many birds are active and the size of the arena you give them to fly within. In the video, I kept them within a “cage” about 10×10×5 metres so you could clearly see the birds on the scale of a YouTube video. If I had let them range over the entire 256×256 metre region and launched several times more birds, they would have formed more coherent groups, while continuing to interact when coming close to one another.


A useful starting-point in understanding modernity is AIXI because it operationalizes mechanistic general intelligence without regard to values or material substrate. This it does by unifying:

  1. The “is” of passive, observational intelligence (algorithmic information theory with unspecified UTM upon which to execute algorithms) and
  2. The “ought” of active, experimental intelligence via decisions (sequential decision theory with unspecified utility function to place an expected value on any course of action) or, as I prefer to call “decisions”, the leaps of faith entailed by any action in the world.

While there is a “truth” of sorts, to the “ought”, it is of a different order than the “truth” of “is”. I mean, the fact that Joe values chocolate over vanilla is a truth of a different order than the fact of Joe’s presence in Baskin-Robbins.

A lot of the tension in modernity may be parsed in this manner: as arising from not just the valorization of individual moral agency manifest in the religious conflicts of the early modern era, but from even earlier in the evolutionary psychology of different human groups (some more adapted to individual independence) and, indeed, back to the origin of the individual organism: An organism that cannot, in some sense, be divided lest it die – as opposed to the dividual organism such as mitotic cellular life that preceded sex.

So, yeah there is some depth to this problem that few have plumbed even remotely adequately. One such attempt is “The Social Conquest of Earth” by E. O. Wilson – which I highly recommend – as it brought Wilson in the final chapter to confront his own reductio ad absurdum arising from his attack on religiosity. In the closing pages he confessed to his own religious dogmas – his own “leaps of faith” – but in so doing, he merely confessed that he lacked the intellectual integrity to go all the way to the end of his line of inquiry which, up to that point, had been most promising. Too bad, because one of the things he confessed was his hostility toward expanding life into space because he was certain – despite evidence to the contrary – that humans could overcome their tendency toward eusociality and its “Conquest of Earth” without abandoning their tendency toward eusociality – or something… You go figure…

My own resolution is what I’ve described here before regarding what I see as a divergence of humanity into a far more radical “individualism” that can remain on Earth because it does not possess the eusocial characteristics of war on nature – and a far more radical “technological civilization” (ref O’Neill) that, because it takes the form of space habitats, comes to resemble the pre-sexual state of life in the biosphere except in free space.

Different people have different values and, to first order, the value differentiation is individual vs group integrity.

But we “ought” to at least try to agree on what “is” the case. Which is why I advocate so strongly for Algorithmic Information Criterion for model selection, ie: a generalization of the Hutter Prize as the primary vector for pursuit of what “is” the case.


CCCP failed; EU failIng—while humanity gravitates towards the only remaining Capitalist State (oversimplification I know)

But THIS time it’s different (THE real Big Lie.)

The college whiteboard is NOT reality. Comfort is NOT Liberty. (And MEN must lead the way).

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Evolution is not about maximizing rewards (as AIXI is defined), it’s about avoiding extinction. And yes, multiplying while mutating does help with avoiding extinction, but it can also lead to extinction when the vital resources become drained.

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Perhaps I misunderstand the proper way of reframing mechanistic* generally intelligent evolutionary agents (need an acronym here, so MGIEA it is) in terms of decision theory, but the MGIEA’s utility function – which AIXI leaves unspecified – has to operationally (aka algorithmically) define the value of “evolution”. So, if one can, somehow, define what one means by “evolution” in those terms, one can encompass “evolution” in AIXI. In the case of an intelligent agent, such as MGIEA, the “watchmaker” is only blind to the extent that the optimal model of reality available to the MGIEA is unavailable due to one or more of the conditions:

  • The universe isn’t computed by an algorithm.
  • Limited observations of the universe.
  • Resource constraints on lossless compression of observations (ability to approximate the Algorithmic Information of the MGIEA’s in-hand observational data).
  • Resource constraints on the ability to execute on the Algorithmic Information so as to generate the Algorithmic Probability distribution of consequences of present decisions.

I realize I’m not addressing the perhaps deeper philosophical issue of the distinction between the MGIEA maximizing the risk adjusted present value of future replicas (expectation) of the MGIEA, and the MGIEA minimizing the risk of extinction, which you may be intending to raise.

*The word “mechanistic” here is meant to convey a one-way flow of information from past to future – so teleology is verboten in this “universe of discourse” although I fully recognize that Reality with a big R may not be so constrained – which gets into another, much bigger, domain of discourse – one in which “final causation” is central. This gets into some notions of “consciousness” that may constrain AIXI’s utility function so as to direct the MGIEA toward some goal and lead to some notions of “intelligent design” consistent with a more general form of evolution.


". . . the greatest intellectual error of modernity is the widespread and fervent faith that the same tremendous scientific knowledge and success humanity has marshaled to manipulate the material world may now be employed to manipulate individuals and societies - indeed to create a global utopia! It is an article of faith . . . "

You are kind and generous to them, to call the fault error and a leap of faith. Not I, nope! I call it a vice and a besetting sin of too many of our elites: intellectual vanity.


It would be a lot easier to have conversations with people about all kinds of things involving sociology if they understood the distinction between group selection and the evolution of eusociality. This is one of the things that E. O. Wilson screwed up on in a manner that, although serious, wasn’t as egregious as that of the critics of his paper “The Evolution of Eusociality”. I describe the distinction in this 2013 answer to a question at stackexchange. All E. O. Wilson did was try to import “group selection” into his advancement in the theory of the evolution of eusociality. He should have stuck with the “extended phenotype” terminology in advancing that new theory, and left “group selection” alone. I suspect he was overcompensating for his early error in attributing the evolution of eusociality to group selection in his book “Sociobiology” that pretty much made his name in the field. If he’d done that, it might not have triggered Dawkins to hysterics – although I suspect by the time of the new theory Dawkins’s brain was already a goner.