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Where does nihilism come from?
Nihilism is not a choice or intellectual commitment, but a feeling that simply arrives.
All societies, in his view, rely on implicit value judgments. If the foundations of these are lost, he predicts terrible consequences: widespread apathy or violent, fanatical attempts to reclaim a sense of purpose, or perhaps both. We talk about values a lot, and we know they do something, but we have little idea how. Compounding this is uncertainty over their loss. Nihilism is not a choice or intellectual commitment, but a thing that comes upon you. As Nietzsche put it in 1885: 'Nihilism stands at the door. Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?'
Part of the answer comes from understanding how values connect to knowledge and action. In Seeing Like a State (1998), the political scientist James C Scott classifies knowledge in two ways: epistemic knowledge, which can be quantified, theorised and transmitted in abstract, and metis (from the classical Greek), which concerns knowledge gained from practical experience, such as personal relationships, traditions, habits and psychological states. Metis governs local experience: farming the family's land, for example, rather than agronomic study. We all recognise it; it's why we hire for experience. For instance, Jane and Martha have identical diplomas, but if Jane's first shift was on Tuesday and Martha's was in 1970, then Martha will have certain tricks and habits to expedite her work. Still, it's not easy to quantify just what that is: Martha has metis, and metis can't easily be reproduced. If it were trainable, it would have been in Jane's training.
Scott's genius is to compare metis to local traditions. Over a long enough time, habits and behaviours are selected for and passed down, just as evolution selects helpful traits. A successful group will institutionalise an irreducibly complex set of cultural tools that relate to its environment. Since these are metis, and not epistemic, they won't always be obvious or quantifiable. Scott recounts dozens of examples of customs that might appear backwards, confused, unscientific – yet when they're banned or discouraged, productivity collapses. He calls this the problem of 'legibility'.
Epistemic theories rely on isolated, abstracted environments capable of taxonomy, but these are far removed from the dynamic, interconnected systems of nature and human culture. Metis, by contrast, develops within complex, 'illegible' environments, and thus works with them. But that also means its application is limited to a specific act, rather than a broader theory. Outsiders want to know why something works, but locals will explain it in a language unintelligible to them.
These practices and traditions are, of course, more than work experience. They're used to efficiently solve political problems. In The Righteous Mind (2012), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes Balinese rice farmers who needed to coordinate irrigation along a river. Since they were politically divided into small familial units – called subaks – they needed to rely on means older than governance to ensure cooperation:
The ingenious religious solution to this problem of social engineering was to place a small temple at every fork in the irrigation system. The god in each such temple united all the subaks that were downstream from it into a community that worshipped that god, thereby helping the subaks to resolve their disputes more amicably. This arrangement minimised the cheating and deception that would otherwise flourish in a zero-sum division of water. The system made it possible for thousands of farmers, spread over hundreds of square kilometres, to cooperate without the need for central government, inspectors and courts.
This still occurs. A 2017 paper by the economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra of the University of California, Berkeley mentions gri-gri, a magical powder that witchdoctors manufacture. In 2012, following a period of widespread banditry and state insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gri-gri came to a village elder in a dream. Applying this powder made the user bulletproof, and it worked so well that neighbouring communities swiftly adopted it. The reason was simple: groups fight better than individuals, and more people will dare to fight if they believe they are bulletproof. Hence, a village using gri-gri was more likely to survive.
Gri-gri and water temples are kinds of metis, but they require belief in larger structures: respectively, magic and gods. However these structures first developed, it's critical that they rest on more than mere faith or tradition. Shared values provide conviction for greater actions, but those values are certified by the success of those actions. Gri-gri's success is an empirical testament to magic, and its utility inclines one towards trusting more activities by witchdoctors. Nunn and Sanchez de la Sierra point out that
many of [the spells] appear to provide individuals with a greater sense of security and confidence, which could serve to … reduce their anxiety and thus improve their performance. For example, most of the spells provide protection, whether it be from drought, disease, attacks on the village or even to harm potential thieves – and thieves also believe in their efficacy, which acts as a deterrent.
In other words: these practices and institutions serve several different roles, all bound up in one another. This intermingling exacerbates the problem of legibility.
When we discuss changing values, we often think top-down: a new and persuasive ideology that took hold for intellectual reasons. What Scott and the adoption of gri-gri suggest is the opposite: the motive force of values requires a degree of certainty that is dependent on action. It was gri-gri's empirical demonstration that allowed it spread it to neighbouring villages, not its poetry. The inverse to this is also important: we can improve on a specific task, but other roles need time to sediment and evolve. Trade the temples for a government, and you have zero-sum bickering. Explain the game theory behind gri-gri, and no one will fight with it. The utility of a cultural institution first allows adoption, but its maintenance allows metis ample time to tinker and perfect.
If we've lost faith in certain values, then I doubt this was because of academic debates. The 20th century profoundly changed labour, technology and social organisation in the Western world. It's hard to imagine that this didn't change metis, or render older forms of metis irrelevant. While the values of metis might still be desired – or even identified with – they lack the same certainty they once had. Nothing can prove them and thus justify the higher claims. 'Faith without works is dead,' as the Bible said, but faith without metis is unbelievable.
A top-down view of value implies that we can simply create new reasons for living, that the ideology itself is its own proof. But if values come bottom-up, then man's quest for meaning cannot be separated from his labour. They are the same.
- Can Nihilists have morality? - Big Think ›
- 10 schools of philosophy and why you should know them - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.