Berman and Thiel on the Limits of Globalization: Week 2

This post covers Week 2. You can read Week 1 notes here.

Russell Berman and Peter Thiel are hosting a Stanford class on “Sovereignity and the Limits of Globalization and Technology”. Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First is hosting a reading group where we discuss the syllabus. These are my notes.

Special thanks to everyone in the group for their thoughts and comments.

The organizing question this week was:

Would anybody ever have believed in in a single destiny for the whole world without first having believed in a single deity? Philosopher Karl Lowith’s Meaning in History gives an answer while it reviews all the ways the West has understood history’s meaning from the Bible to Kant and Marx.

To answer, we studied Meaning in History, a whirlwind tour of mainly Christian influenced explanations for how “the end of history” would look like. We also read the Tower of Babel and Babylon the Great, two excerpts from the Bible.

Why look for the End of History?

Establishing a definite end point for history is one way to figure out where society should move next. Marx catalogued the struggles of the working class and drew a pattern towards eventual elimination of class inequality. 20th Century Socialists readily incorporated his ideas to establish multiple communist states.

If we let ourselves assume humanity is progressing linearly towards some great outcome, identifying the pattern in the past could tell us exactly which policies to strengthen.

The Christian view

Karl Lovith argues essentially that most popular beliefs in linear progress can be attributed back to Christian universalism. Every human sins, but their right relationship to God will eventually be restored.

In the book's conclusion, he argues this is the case because the core of Christianity is under-determined, not because it contains a universal truth. He reveals that the further we go back in time, the less evidence there is that Christian ideas should be used to predict an end of history.

There is no pattern

The counter-argument introduced by Lovith is the idea that humans are natural pattern matchers, but history is merely a random walk. Whether it's uncertain due to the unknowable actions of God or sheer chance, the outcome would be the same.

Or is there?

Before abandoning the idea of a single path for humanity, I felt there is much more that falls well beyond the scope of Christianity. Three examples follow.

1) Complexity vs. Entropy

Big History teaches us that life proceeds as a series of Goldilocks moments where a new kind of complexity emerges. Christianity is built around the Goldilocks moment of creation of life, but today we know of many more. The Big Bang, the first stars, the first planets, the Industrial revolution among others.

The idea of increasing complexity in some small place in the Universe has to face the inevitable law of entropy, which predicts a rather different outcome - the eventual heat death of universe, a moment where no energy is transferred and nothing interesting can happen.

2) Liberty vs. Collaborative efficiency

Asimov predicts another struggle in the Foundation series. In the final books, the hero is presented with a dilemma - to choose between two futures for the universe: one where every living being is united in a single, connected, efficient organism or a future of ultimate individual liberty, exemplified by a planet where every single person occupies an equal plot of land, lives in isolation, mates by itself and produces genderless offspring.

This, of course, is a human view of the end of history. In Asimov's universe the robots have been destroyed since the “I, Robot” series (the Robot series precedes Foundation in the same universe). Ironically, Asimov's answer to this dilemma circles back to AI.

3) Mastering science

In the Three Body Problem, a book I reviewed last year, and the movie Interstellar, another end of history is presented. It's about developing an ever deeper understanding of science and reaching/transcending the limits of every known physical law and dimension.

What if we cannot agree?

If all that must increase is our understanding of universe and ability to develop technological innovations, what room is there for global governance? The Christian faith was instrumental in developing universal values in Europe, but what can we use to shape global consensus right now?

A minimal argument for some level of global governance does exist. Managing existential risk seems like a good starting point. Whether from the advances of AI, or from the increased leverage of individuals in manufacturing dangerous weapons of mass destruction.

Path-dependency

To circle back, Lovith does answer Berman and Thiel's question - we would not have gotten here without religious morals, but it's unclear how that should affect our thinking going forward. Can we move on from viral ideas like religion to a set of shared principles? If so, these principles cannot be Western. Liberalism, technology, progress, these are all Western-influenced ideas and cannot be our defaults; the right principles would exist at a higher level.

As a Mathematician, I'd prefer to look for the answer in game theory over the Bible.