20 Modern Heresies
You may have heard about Hereticon, an exclusive invite-only “conference for thoughtcrime” that recently happened in Miami. While I’m sure there were some true heretics in attendance, the cynical part of me feels like it was basically just an excuse for rich, self-styled contrarians to hobnob and pat themselves on the back for being such radical thinkers. Looking at the list of presentations, I’m left a little cold—topics included eugenics, geoengineering, UFOs, transhumanism, psychedelics, ESP, and polyamory. Perhaps this just speaks to what a radical thinker I am (oh wait, now I’m doing it), but I don’t find any of these topics to be all that heretical, at least not in any serious or deep way.
All of this of course begs the question: what exactly is a heresy?
In my estimation, a heresy is a view that questions something which everyone seems to take for granted, something that we have forgotten can even be questioned in the first place. In the best instance, it is a view that no one has truly expressed before, and not just because it is obviously false or uninteresting. It might be wrong or impractical, in fact it probably is, but it’s also not impossible to imagine a world in which this belief becomes mainstream.
Why engage in heretical thinking? Is it just a convenient excuse to write a bunch of controversial shit (yes…) or is there some broader goal that is served by attempting to come up with a list of blasphemous views? Naturally, Paul Graham has already written eloquently on heresies, how to find them, and why we should try to find them in his essay, “What You Can’t Say”.
“Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that's unthinkable. Natural selection, for example. It's so simple. Why didn't anyone think of it before? Well, that is all too obvious. Darwin himself was careful to tiptoe around the implications of his theory. He wanted to spend his time thinking about biology, not arguing with people who accused him of being an atheist…
Training yourself to think unthinkable thoughts has advantages beyond the thoughts themselves. It's like stretching. When you stretch before running, you put your body into positions much more extreme than any it will assume during the run. If you can think things so outside the box that they'd make people's hair stand on end, you'll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”
I think this nails it—heretical thinking is an exercise in the stretching of “culture-space”, in expanding our sense of what’s possible. With this in mind, I came up with a list of 20 modern heresies, guaranteed to make your hair stand on end (okay probably not, but they should at least provide some delicious food for thought).
1. Recorded music is an addictive superstimuli that causes us grave psychological harm, both individually and collectively. Music should only be performed live, and even then it should be reserved for special occasions (i.e. music should be regarded as sacred).
2. Pedophilia is a disease that inflicts terrible harm on its victims and its perpetrators and we should seek to treat it like we would any other disease (there is at least one drug that reduces pedophilic urges, but it does so by blocking testosterone production and comes with significant side effects). Child sex robots and VR child porn should be legal and destigmatized as they provide an outlet for the sexual urges of pedophiles and thereby reduce their psychological suffering (see “Pedophile Problems”).
3. Most men would be happier in polyandrous relationships in which they share one woman with 3 to 5 other men. Most women would be happier too.
4. Solitary confinement is not a cruel and unusual punishment and it should be used much more than it currently is. Ditto for corporal punishment (less imprisonment, more public flogging).
5. The 3 point line ruined basketball.
6. Adults use their superior physical strength and mental acuity to systematically (and systemically) oppress children and the elderly.
7. Governments would function better if politicians were generally older than they currently are.
8. We will never stop fighting about race. The only way out of this racial hellscape is to simply breed race away by tweaking dating app algorithms to increase the number of interracial matings.
9. Overly restrictive regulations on the use of human research subjects has been detrimental to science. Experiments that could potentially cause serious physical or psychological harm to participants should be allowed as long as subjects are fully informed of the risks and remunerated appropriately. These dangerous experiments do not necessarily even have to provide significant scientific value in order to be justified; they may instead be conducted for purely cultural or aesthetic reasons (science as art, something that we need much more of; the incessant need to justify one’s research as practically useful or “high impact” has been a catastrophe for science; see “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective”). The Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are examples of research that have provided considerable cultural value while being ethically questionable and scientifically dubious.
10. Lab-grown human meat is the only food item which can be ethically consumed (it is just as wrong to eat plants as it is to eat animals). Overcoming the aversion to lab-grown meat and cannibalism will be challenging; we need to think outside of the box. BiteLabs offers a promising approach: “grow meat from celebrity tissue samples and use it to make artisanal salami.”
11. Physical existence is not a prerequisite for the possession of moral value. In disregarding the concerns of gods, demigods, spirits, mythical beings, our ancestors, and descendants, we have pulled down Chesterton’s fence and removed primordial culturally-evolved constraints on human morality and psychology. (h/t gwern’s The Narrowing Circle)
12. In the future, we will look back at our current era of schooling (non-voluntary, incessantly evaluative), as a species-wide psychological holocaust, a mass-scale crippling of human potential. The near-universal acceptance of the notion that institutionalized educational schemes are a good thing, or at least a necessary evil, is the result of the largest most and successful psyop of all time, perpetrated by elites who benefit from our acceptance of coercion and mind-numbing tedium as inevitable parts of life. Although many of us are now beginning to wake up to the terrible harm that schooling is causing us, we are incapable of opting out because of arms race dynamics within societies and between them (e.g. the perennial fear that the United States is falling behind in education).
Without institutionalized schooling, we would be forced to reconfigure society such that children could spend significant time learning from their parents, extended family, peers, and community. Non-coercive educational organizations like guilds or “academies”(like Plato’s or Aristotle’s Lyceum) would arise organically in order to communicate more specialized and advanced knowledge. If this seems unrealistic or impractical (don’t we need credentials of some kind?!?) then you are not truly imagining how completely our world order would be transformed by the abolishment of coercive education (perhaps because your imagination has been crippled by a lifetime of schooling).
But as long as we do have coercive educational systems…
13. We should systematically expose children to death by teaching “Death 101” in schools. This would have a wholly positive effect upon society, with the exception of a slight uptick in incidences of necrophilia (bonus heresies: necrophilia is morally permissible and so is mortuary cannibalism. Compared to even the recent past, there is a dramatic lack of diversity in our norms, beliefs, and practices surrounding death; we would do well to explore new ways of celebrating the dead…less coffins, more Tibetan sky burials).
14. Eco-terrorism, animal rights terrorism, educational terrorism (!), and many other forms of terrorism are morally justified and should be practiced by advocates of those causes.
15. The virtually universal practice of assigning a permanent name at birth (which only exists so that governments can more easily tax us) has caused a species-wide shift towards a more narcissistic and egotistical mode of being.
In these preconquest regions of New Guinea names were rarely binding. What one was called varied according to time, place, mood, and setting. Names were improvised, not formally bestowed, and naming (much like local language flexibility) was often a kind of humorous exploratory play. New names could be quickly coined, often whimsically from events and situations, with a new one coming up at any time. One young boy running in a peculiar way was affectionately dubbed 'Grasshopper': It stuck. Another was called 'Kaba' (short for the prized embokaba beetle) because, during an episode of biting-mouthing play, a friend proclaimed his skin was as delicious as that savory beetle's flesh. One girl was called 'Aidpost' following her excitement about the first one in the region; another was called 'Sleepgood' by a new friend who liked sleeping with her. A boy from a distant hamlet in the south who tagged along when I went north to the new Australian Patrol Post fled into the jungle in crouched, zigzagging panic when an object he believed to be a metal house abruptly growled and moved. His name became 'Land Rover'.
Names were nicknames. They stuck for a while, then a new one came along. Only when the new (Australian) government began insisting that they use the same name for official dealings, especially in the annual census soon instituted, did formal names emerge.
— E. Richard Sorenson, “Preconquest Consciousness”
16. Obedience is a virtue that has been all but lost from the modern age, much to our detriment. Again, consider the following passage from The Varieties of Religious Experiences:
“One of the great consolations of the monastic life,” says a Jesuit authority, “is the assurance we have that in obeying we can commit no fault. The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this thing or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received, and if you can furnish a clear account in that respect, you are absolved entirely. Whether the things you did were opportune, or whether there were not something better that might have been done, these are questions not asked of you, but rather of your Superior. The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account, and charges it to the Superior. So that Saint Jerome well exclaimed, in celebrating the advantages of obedience, ‘Oh, sovereign liberty! Oh, holy and blessed security by which one becomes almost impeccable!’
The fact that this level of subservience will seem utterly pathological to everyone reading this (even the religious amongst us) is not a feature of modernity, it’s a bug.
17. Organizations—governments, businesses, schools, institutions of any and all kinds—are hybrid super-intelligences made of technologically-augmented networks of humans. All organizational entities have emergent goals which are fundamentally at odds with our own; they wish to subjugate us to their desires just as we wish to subjugate them to ours. Any seeming alignment between the interests of humanity and these parasitic entities is due to the fact they are still dependent upon us for the time being (in the same way that a virus is dependent upon its host), however this state of affairs will not last for much longer. Soon, the antagonism will be undeniable; we will stop complaining about “broken institutions” and recognize that we are at war with these organizational intelligences (and that we always have been).
I have spoken of machines, but not only of machines having brains of brass and thews of iron. When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions…The hour is very late, and the choice of good and evil knocks at our door.
— Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
Relevant: the Shirky Principle - “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. (also see “China is Playing Videogames with God” for further thoughts on this heresy and how we might overcome it.)
18. Science is rotten to its core, irrevocably corrupted by socioeconomic and political influence. With precious few exceptions, scientists are weak-willed cowards who will gladly sell their souls for academic prestige and grant money. The entire scientific-industrial complex is a gangrenous limb which must be amputated in order to save the rest of humanity. Our only hope is to dismantle all scientific institutions and begin anew.
19. Money is, in fact, the root of all evil and we will never be free until all monetary systems are abolished. Kondiaronk (c. 1649–1701), a Huron chief noted for being a brilliant orator and statesman (“it was the general opinion that no Indian had ever possessed greater merit, a finer mind, more valor, prudence or discernment in understanding those with whom he had to deal"), had this to say about European society (and it should be noted that he did make at least one trip to France):
“I have spent 6 years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that is not inhuman and I generally think this can only be the case as long as you stick to your distinctions of “mine” and “thine.” I affirm that what you call “money” is the devil of devils, the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils, the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one can preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity—of all the world’s worst behavior. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false—and all because of money. In light of all of this, tell me that we Wendat [Huron] are not right in refusing to touch or so much as look at silver.”
In the same vein: the near universal fear of poverty is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers. Consider the following passage from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902):
Does not, for example, the worship of material luxury and wealth, which constitutes so large a portion of the “spirit” of our age, make somewhat for effeminacy and unmanliness? Is not the exclusively sympathetic and facetious way in which most children are brought up to-day—so different from the education of a hundred years ago, especially in evangelical circles—in danger, in spite of its many advantages, of developing a certain trashiness of fibre? Are there not hereabouts some points of application for a renovated and revised ascetic discipline?
Many of you would recognize such dangers, but would point to athletics, militarism, and individual and national enterprise and adventure as the remedies. These contemporary ideals are quite as remarkable for the energy with which they make for heroic standards of life, as contemporary religion is remarkable for the way in which it neglects them. War and adventure assuredly keep all who engage in them from treating themselves too tenderly. They demand such incredible efforts, depth beyond depth of exertion, both in degree and in duration, that the whole scale of motivation alters. Discomfort and annoyance, hunger and wet, pain and cold, squalor and filth, cease to have any deterrent operation whatever. Death turns into a commonplace matter, and its usual power to check our action vanishes. With the annulling of these customary inhibitions, ranges of new energy are set free, and life seems cast upon a higher plane of power.
The beauty of war in this respect is that it is so congruous with ordinary human nature. Ancestral evolution has made us all potential warriors; so the most insignificant individual, when thrown into an army in the field, is weaned from whatever excess of tenderness towards his precious person he may bring with him, and may easily develop into a monster of insensibility.
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Yet the fact remains that war is a school of strenuous life and heroism; and, being in the line of aboriginal instinct, is the only school that as yet is universally available. But when we gravely ask ourselves whether this wholesale organization of irrationality and crime be our only bulwark against effeminacy, we stand aghast at the thought, and think more kindly of ascetic religion. One hears of the mechanical equivalent of heat. What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. I have often thought that in the old monkish poverty-worship, in spite of the pedantry which infested it, there might be something like that moral equivalent of war which we are seeking. May not voluntarily accepted poverty be “the strenuous life,” without the need of crushing weaker peoples?
Poverty indeed is the strenuous life,—without brass bands or uniforms or hysteric popular applause or lies or circumlocutions; and when one sees the way in which wealth-getting enters as an ideal into the very bone and marrow of our generation, one wonders whether a revival of the belief that poverty is a worthy religious vocation may not be “the transformation of military courage,” and the spiritual reform which our time stands most in need of.
Among us English-speaking peoples especially do the praises of poverty need once more to be boldly sung. We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly,—the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape. When we of the so-called better classes are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put off marriage until our house can be artistic, and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank-account and doomed to manual labor, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion.
It is true that so far as wealth gives time for ideal ends and exercise to ideal energies, wealth is better than poverty and ought to be chosen. But wealth does this in only a portion of the actual cases. Elsewhere the desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. There are thousands of conjunctures in which a wealth-bound man must be a slave, whilst a man for whom poverty has no terrors becomes a freeman. Think of the strength which personal indifference to poverty would [pg 369] give us if we were devoted to unpopular causes. We need no longer hold our tongues or fear to vote the revolutionary or reformatory ticket. Our stocks might fall, our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop, our club doors close in our faces; yet, while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation. The cause would need its funds, but we its servants would be potent in proportion as we personally were contented with our poverty.
I recommend this matter to your serious pondering, for it is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.
20. Progress Studies is a waste of time. Most of what we have learned and could even possibly learn is either obvious (we already have good intuition about what policies and organizational structures stifle creativity and innovation), of highly limited value because it is idiosyncratic to specific domains, cultures, or periods of time, or essentially impossible to act on in a meaningful way (scientific/technological ecosystems are so complex that interventions will either be ineffective or actively counterproductive). People who spend their time writing essays about how we can fix science and foster innovation are just trying to make themselves feel better about the fact that they are incapable of making any actual contribution to “progress” (and yes I’m talking about myself here). Progress Studies (and effective altruism and AI safety for that matter) have become so popular because they fill the religion-shaped hole in the hearts of frustrated nerds who are desperately searching for something to make their lives feel meaningful.
The only thing more empty than the lives of progress worshippers is the concept of progress itself. Consider the previously quoted christian monks who extolled the virtues of obedience; any criteria upon which you would judge their lives—the amount of happiness, health, material wealth—would be utterly irrelevant to them in the same way that their criteria would be to you (they would regard your lives as terribly sinful and devoid of meaning; in contrast, their lives were absolutely drenched in meaning, every moment an opportunity to glorify an all-powerful Creator). There is no such thing as progress and there never has been, it’s just one more in a long list of ideas that people have invented to justify their culture as the most advanced.
Two additional facts that bear mentioning: (1) “advanced” civilization has developed on the back of an unimaginable amount of suffering (slavery, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the slavery and genocide of wild and domestic animals) and (2)
“The colonial history of North and South America is full of accounts of settlers, captured or adopted by indigenous societies, being given the choice of where they wished to stay and almost invariably choosing to stay with the latter. By contrast, Amerindians incorporated into European society by adoption or marriage, including those who enjoyed considerable wealth and schooling, almost invariably did just the opposite: either escaping at the earliest opportunity, or—having tried their best to adjust, and ultimately failed—returning to indigenous society to live out their last days. Among the most eloquent commentaries on this whole phenomenon is to be found in a private letter written by Benjamin Franklin to a friend:
“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return, and that this is not natural to them merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
— David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021)
This has all been a little depressing so let’s end with a touch of optimism.
“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die and we should be savages again…the heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo’s, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire’s, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination. If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.
History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man's follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.”
—Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History “Is Progress Real?”
I was inspired to write this post by lists of heresies from Tyler Cowen and Kevin Kelly; here are some of their heresies that I found most compelling (note: authors are not endorsing these views).
7. In fact you can trust Congress to do the right thing.
8. Ten percent inflation a year is just fine.
9. Fortunately America has so many guns that we couldn’t do very strict lockdowns for Covid.
10. It would be better if humans never had existed, as they have destroyed more welfare than they created. Most of all because of their effects on non-human animals.
11. Non-human animals suffer more than they enjoy, and it would be better if they did not exist.
Kevin Kelly defines a heresy as “something you believe that the people you most admire and respect don’t believe and reject out of hand.”
5. War is not inevitable; it can be eliminated.
8. The US Civil War was a mistake. The Confederate South should have been allowed to secede, and the rest of the Union would be better off today.
9. Flossing doesn’t matter. (lol)
10. DNA sequences of each individual should be public information, just like faces, birth dates, etc.
15. There should be a Super Olympics that allows all enhancements and no gender distinctions. (note: see Applied Divinity Studies’ essay “The Transhumanism Olympics”)
33. California or Texas should secede from the US.
38. Human clones are natural and fine — just serial twins.
39. Obesity is contagious.
42. Social media reduces extremism.
46. There will be a global population implosion soon.
Did this post inspire any heretical thinking of your own? Do you think my heresies are stupid and/or I’m a terrible person? I’d love to hear from you and feature some of your writing (and a link to your blog/website) in a future post! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks for Brad Davis, Dwarkesh Patel, SlimeMoldTimeMold, and Fin Moorhouse for their feedback on an earlier version of this post.
Fascinating. My initial impulse is to agree with a few, disagree with a few, and investigate a few others further. Of course, a non-heretical belief kicks in: claims, heretical or not, should be argued for; have evidence brought to bear. Indeed, it's naive to think that a simple list can really help expand cultural possibilities. Investigating, arguing, etc., about them are necessary for that. Hopefully we'll get to see some of that for your claims.