The Fermi Paradox, Meaning Crisis and Shelf Life of Public Intellectuals

Newsletter #2

When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system

Ilya Prigogene, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry

I understand this as developing the idea that a system far from equilibrium doesn’t need much of a push to get it moving. So you can achieve this by co-ordinating a small group of people; or perhaps a few small groups of people.

The Shelf Life of Public Intellectuals

Thomas Friedman's career began as a beat reporter in a war-zone. He spent his time on Lebanese streets talking to real people in the thick of civil war. He was thrown into the deep and forced to swim. The experiences and insights he gained doing so led directly to many of the ideas that would make him famous a decade later.

In what deeps does Friedman now swim?

We all know the answer to this question. Friedman jets from boardroom to newsroom to state welcoming hall. He is a traveler of the gilded paths, a man who experiences the world through taxi windows and guided tours. The Friedman of the 20th century rushed to the scene of war massacres; the Friedman of the 21st hurries to conference panels. What hope does a man living this way have of learning something new about the world?

The Scholar’s Stage

The Scholar’s Stage tries to understand why public thinkers tend not to age well using the example of Thomas Friedman. When people are younger, they are more likely to “pay their dues” through activities like spending time in archives or engaging in direct work, but as they start to become more famous they start to spend more time running things, spouting their opinion and hanging with the rich and famous. In other words, they tend to engage in activities more focused on exploiting their knowledge rather than further developing it.

Over a number of years, they lay out the consquences of applying their initial insights in a variety of situations, but eventually the spring starts to run dry and their work begins to become repetitive. Of course, by this stage, they are likely to feel that they have already paid their dues and so they are unlikely to want to revert back to the kinds of activities that got them to where they are now. After all, writing for the New York Times is so much more pleasant than ducking bullets in a war zone.

And worse, your spring is likely to begin to run dry just around the time that cognitive decline starts to kick in. I would add that audience lock-in is probably another factor - even if your audience decline’s from its peak, you probably still have a large audience looking for more of the same. So the incentives go against continuing to reinvent yourself. And even if you tried, you’d probably never be as red hot as you were, which was never just about skill and intellect, but also about the magic of in the right place at the right time.

Thinking about myself, I’ve been fortunate in that post-rationalists and the like woke me up from my dogmatic slumber (to quote Kant). I could easily imagine an alternative timeline where this didn’t happen or happened much later, especially if the Less Wrong community was less interested in engaging in learning from those with other perspectives.

Link: Public Intellectuals have Short Shelf-Lives - But Why?

The Meaning Crisis

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife,—who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it?


I found myself reflecting on this frame and how I felt their was truth in both it AND the meaning crisis frame:

I agree that disconnection and societal atomisation has played a significant role in creating the current meaning crisis. I agree that for many people deeper connection with the people close to them would be enough for them to live a happy life.

At the same time, different people have different “needs”. Many people have a sense that there has to be something greater than this, that there has to be some higher purpose to make all our suffering and striving worthwhile. And we don’t just face the Death of God, but an overwhelming cynicism towards the government, the media and big business.

So times are tough for people who have this “God-shaped” or greater-purpose hole to fill. It also wouldn’t surprise me if men had a greater need for this than women, but I really don’t want to get into the whole nature vs. nurture debate here. I’m just trying to suggest that there’s a real problem that needs to be grappled with. And maybe the answer is that the hole can never be completely filled, that we have to learn to live with it and focus on human connection which is the closest we can get. But at the same time, I’m reserving judgement at least until I’ve finished John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

Further Reading: Meaningness - David Chapman

The Fermi Paradox

As I listened, I went through the classic stages of reaction to a new Hansonian proposal: first, bemusement over the sheer weirdness of what I was being asked to entertain, as well as Robin’s failure to acknowledge that weirdness in any way whatsoever; then, confusion about the unstated steps in his radically-condensed logic; next, the raising by me of numerous objections (each of which, it turned out, Robin had already thought through at length); finally, the feeling that I must have seen it this way all along, because isn’t it kind of obvious?

Scott Aaronson

Robin Hanson has proposed a new explanation of the Fermi paradox. First he argues that civilisations that remain small or wipe themselves out will be hard to detect, so we are likely to only detect those interested in serious expansion. Then he suggests that civilisations driven to expansd will quickly max out technology and begin spreading out in a sphere at nearly the speed of light. This sphree would transform everything it encounters in a way that we can’t know in advance. When their sphere reaches us, it might destroy us, build a bubble around us or even incorporate us into their civilisation.

Anyway, if we were to see the early stages of such a sphere, since it’d be expanding at near the speed of light it’d be just about to engulf us. So according to Hanson, we should expect not to detect alien life for the majority of the time when we undergo an existence anything like our current existence; and if we do detect alien activity, we should this mode of existence to be about to end

Link: Once We Can See Them It’s Too Late - Scott Aaronson
Further Reading: Vox article on Dissolving the Fermi Paradox

Links Of The Week

Covid One Year Ago - Twitter account for news from a year ago. 3rd Februrary - The first British person known to have caught and recovered from coronavirus chalks up his good health to "hot whisky and honey. 24th January 2020, LA Times: "Should you panic about the coronavirus from China? Experts say no. If this were a Hollywood movie, now would be time to panic. In real life, however, all that most Americans need to do is wash their hands"

Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company - Drug prices in the US are massively inflated, in large part because insurance companies want to be able to advertise significant discounts. Drug companies don’t want to reduce prices, so they simply add a large mark up. Mark is planning to Markdown generics by only adding a 15% margin to wholesale. Albendazole will be $20/tablet instead of $225 and they are hoping to expand to over 100 drugs by the end of the year.

Generating SQL with GPT3 - SQL is a language for querying databases. GPT3 has shown an amazing ability to translate natural language queries into actual SQL queries, despite the fact that it is a fully general text completion engine and not focused on SQL at all. Even though it has a lot of limitations, I think the sceptics will be proven wrong with the next upgrade of GPT or when an algorithm optimised for SQL is released.