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Philosopher and author John Gray talks about his latest book, Seven Types of Atheism, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Gray argues that progress is an illusion and that most atheisms inherit, unknowingly, a religious belief in progress that is not...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Michael Poulos
Aug 21 2023 at 9:50am

Dear Mr. Roberts,

Thanks for another great episode.

BTW – “The Three Gifts” is online at the link below.

all best wishes,

Michael Poulos

Aug 21 2023 at 3:32pm

Interesting episode and worth listening to.

In the beginning of the episode Russ quotes “’Man is a pattern-seeking, storytelling animal.” Made me think of the opener of Didions White album “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I think towards the end of the episode it seems like Mead is possibly over his skis in trying to apply the “A-Bomb” theory to modern societies and I think Russ seems to hint maybe the puzzle pieces don’t fit as well as Mead wishes they would.

How did you all hear that exchange?

Dr Golabki
Aug 22 2023 at 4:12pm

I also found the idea of “the A-Bomb” confusing. I think what Mead’s saying is that Abrahamic ideas, most notably the idea of one true universal whole, are at the core of almost all modern thought, from classical liberalism to communism, as well as science. There’s maybe an interesting connection there, but it’s such a broad and tenuous claim that it’s hard to know what to do with it.

Mike C
Aug 23 2023 at 8:39am

Although not stated, I think the A-bomb link he’s making to the Abrahamic religions is that all three faiths believe in the coming of a messianic end-of-times. End-of-times is also the tie-in to the Adams Curve, to AI singularity, and to generally the breakdown of societal norms and structures.

I find Mead’s points to simply be the millenarianism mentioned by Mark Andreessen in his discussion with Russ on 7/10/2023 about doomsday predictions.

Ben Service
Aug 21 2023 at 8:30pm

I always get worried when people start invoking hyperbolics and exponentials in any theory as they don’t exist in reality, kind of like infinity or the infinitesimal.  Don’t get me wrong they are useful mathematical concepts but they have their limits.

Take GDP, human population, human energy consumption or anything like that eventually you end up with a single human controlling the entire energy output of a galaxy.  It is interesting to think about if/when things will tail off into probably some S-curve, we are already seeing it with human population and may eventually start to see it in GDP and energy consumption per person.  It will be interesting to see what happens then, I assume smart people already have theories.

The rest of the discussion was interesting too I hadn’t considered the monotheistic impact on people, I must admit I struggled to keep up but will probably have another listen to try to absorb more of it .

Aug 23 2023 at 7:36am

Good to see a response which is not just slavish repeating “isn’t technology wonderful.”

Shalom Freedman
Aug 22 2023 at 5:08am

The first central idea of this conversation as I understand it is that humanity or many of its leading thinkers believes we are at the point of an ‘apocalyptic singularity’ of a unique unprecedented transformation of the character of humanity itself. Its disappearance its hybridization with AI, its attaining cosmic transforming intellectual capabilities are just a few of the possibilities being speculated on and considered. This idea especially since the coming to public awareness and participation in GPT seems to me a largely true one. There is a general feeling that something is about to radically change everything, but no one knows for certain what that is.

Another interesting idea is that Religion has not disappeared but instead entered the heart of the political debate and so become responsible in part for the uncompromising and polarized character of that debate. The absolute inability of the sides to seek understanding of the other is a feature of what we are seeing today in both the democratic and non-democratic worlds.

Mead’s generosity to atheists and supposition that they too seek some kind of transcendence does not really apply to the reductionists who want to say all comes out of quantum fluctuations. This kind of atheist would like to say all comes out of random nothingness without saying where the random nothingness comes from.

A third major idea and the second part of the conversation has to do with Mead’s giving major importance to the Abraham accords for humanity as a whole. This idea I am skeptical about just as I am skeptical about his counting of the world’s monotheists and making them the majority of humanity. After all, how many Christians in the Christian world in the world’s powerful places, think of the United States, are not believing Christians anymore? And as to the Abraham accords themselves, they now are part of a whole new set of alliances and connections made in the Middle East, including the reconciliation at least on the surface of Iran and Saudi Arabia which do not exactly bode well for a new golden age emerging for humanity.

In any case a most interesting conversation with important ideas worth thinking and re-thinking about.




Steve Sedio
Aug 22 2023 at 12:10pm

IMHO people like conspiracy theories because it means some group has enough power to control things.  With the right people in power, we can fix everything.

That is more comforting than no one can control things.

Economics shows us we really can’t control an outcome, at least, as much as we would like.


Aug 23 2023 at 2:41pm

It would be nice if Russ Roberts could talk to an actual degreed electrical engineer who has a full time job working on computer design.   Instead, Roberts is consistently talking to salesmen and accepts the AI hype without skepticism.

In this episode, he is talking about AI with an old historian, who is talking about a long dead historian.  Really, the aether is the internet?  Is that what Henry Adams meant?

Instead, HP per capita has peaked, and continues to diminish, as nuke power is replaced by green energy, and population that contributes no power climbs.  The Adams curve is bending down now.

Somebody please sit Russ Roberts down and give him his first lesson in computer programming.  He naively talks like someone who has never seen his screen fill with error messages because of an extra comma in his code.

Once understanding what a blunt tool computers are, he would get a little realism on the future of tech.

Aren’t we tired of hearing these “gee whiz, computers!” episodes.  Econ is becoming a side issue.  We can get better computer stuff elsewhere.  Roberts had a unique voice on economics, but now that voice is muffled by credulous repetition of promotional buzzwords.


Mike C
Aug 29 2023 at 7:50am

HappySmurf, I’m a degreed electrical engineer (my focus is controls systems), and I think we benefit from Russ discussing AI with non-engineers.

I doubt we will all wake up some day and find that an AI has taken over the world.   Instead, I think AI’s will gradually be brought into the loops of control systems for larger systems.  The point of greatest risk in a control system which depends on both an automated “pilot” and a human “co-pilot” is at the hand-off point between them.  Poor hand-offs can have catastrophic results, as seen in the crash of Air France flight 447, and the death of the pedestrian/cyclist in Arizona after being struck by an autonomously driven car.  Wherever a controller can drive a system into a state where the input data arriving at the automated pilot is no longer valid and/or the human co-pilot is overwhelmed by the complexity or speed of the situation, then catastrophic risk is high.

These examples were with relatively small numbers of people effected (one to a few hundred).   Consider other applications which could affect many more people (thousands to millions), such as physical systems (eg, power generation/distribution), economic systems (eg, currency controls), and information systems (eg, news distribution).

We need non-engineers like Russ and his guests, along with their domain expertise, to help us better understand the dynamics of these larger systems and what could happen with AI-in-the-loop of the system controls.

Doug Iliff
Aug 23 2023 at 8:07pm

Lurking in the vapor of this conversation about Singularities, and a number episodes in the past about the peril and promise of Artificial Intelligence, is the issue of Who or What is controlling civilization as the Adams Curve approaches vertical.  This is an issue which C. S. Lewis presciently tackled during World War 2 in The Abolition of Man— published between Brave New World and 1984.  Pardon the ellipses, but here is the core of his concern:

“‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science. ‘Man has Nature whacked,’ said someone to a friend of mine not long ago. In their context the words had a certain tragic beauty, for the speaker was dying of tuberculosis. ‘No matter’ he said, ‘I know I’m one of the casualties.  Of course there are casualties on the winning as well as on the losing side. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is winning.’ …

“What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by.  Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda….

“From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument….

“I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be.  No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research.  But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people.  And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones….

“The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions.  In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction.  Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors….

“Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger.  In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car….

”For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

Whether this indisputable power is used for good or ill in the era of cell signals, Crispr gene therapy, and AI depends on the character of the people who wield it.  Lewis’s concern was that what he termed the Tao, or what we would call the Perennial Philosophy, or perhaps even the Abrahamic Covenant— that is, the moral postulates to which many cultures down through the ages have adhered— are threatened by the postmodern assault on Truth.

As he puts it so gracefully, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Going forward into our brave new world, the question will be how many of us will be geldings. 

Sep 1 2023 at 5:43pm

Organized religion is one arm of government.  That is the sustaining factor not the sometimes bizarre religious stories.  A test would be to try separation of church and state.  Maybe one or two countries at a time.  Specifically no tax deduction.  Or everyone gets the same tax deduction.

Conspiracy is the default.  Anything secret is a conspiracy and there are a lot of secrets.  Extreme conspiracies are there to make the standard conspiracies look benign.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: August 1, 2023.]

Russ Roberts: Today is August 1st, 2023 and my guest is Walter Russell Mead. He is the Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute and the James Clark Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College. He's also the Global View columnist at the Wall Street Journal and he co-hosts the weekly Tablet news podcast, What Really Matters.

Walter, welcome to EconTalk.

Walter Russell Mead: Great. Thanks for having me.


Russ Roberts: Our conversation for today is going to be based around some essays you've written: in particular, one entitled "Our Singular Century," and the second is called "The A Bomb" where[?] the A stands for Abraham. They're both extremely interesting and I'm sure we'll bring in some other things as well.

I want to start with "Our Singular Century." Let's start with the Adams Curve. It comes from Henry Adams who died in 1918. What is that?

Walter Russell Mead: Well, Adams was somebody who grew up in Massachusetts before the Civil War. His grandfather was John Quincy Adams. And he remembered walking to school with John Quincy Adams in the morning. There were no trains anywhere where they lived. And he dies in the middle of World War I, when there'd been massive transformations in history. And so, like a lot of intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century, Adams was fascinated by change. And, in particular, he was fascinated because he felt he saw an acceleration of change: that changes were continuing in his time to move faster and faster and having greater and greater effect.

So, as he tried to get some kind of objective understanding of what was happening, he thought, 'Well, what's a way to measure progress or change?' And he said, 'Well, how about the muscle power which the human race is able to command?' And, obviously, before the industrial revolution or before modern times, it's basically muscle power, wind power. And so, the most convenient measurement, one that we don't use as much anymore, was horsepower. How much pull could a horse do in an hour or whatever? And so, he developed an estimate of the amount of horsepower that human civilization could command.

And then, as he goes through the 19th century--and you had the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution, trains, ultimately the electric dynamo, and electricity--what you get is a hyperbolic curve, a curve that starts out with a very low slope of change. But, as the 19th century progresses, you are moving closer to infinity.

And, what Adams then does in the 19-teens is he says, 'Well, suppose this continues. Let's project it forward.' And, if you do that into the 21st century, he gets where the slope of the curve is almost is approaching an absolute straight perpendicular line going up.

And that, interestingly enough, is one way of describing what people in Silicon Valley like to call the singularity. That is, where change is moving so fast that everything that happened in the past--and this is how Adams describes it--becomes essentially irrelevant. Human beings are in an entirely different world.

So, you can imagine different forms the singularity could take. You could, to look on the dark side: Nuclear war would be an example of the rate of change reaching infinity, at least for a moment. And then, human civilization--maybe the human species--disappears.

The development of AI. Now Adams, as he was, again--remember this is happening more than 100 years ago--Adams sort of said, 'You're going to go from the electric age,'--which was the age he saw himself in--to what he called the Electronic Age, as I recall. Where electricity is not just powering movement, but is becoming kind of the substance of what people do. Which is an interesting way of describing computers.

And then he talks about ultimately at this singularity point, you reach the Ethereal Age, from the word 'ether.' And, that's not entirely inapt description of artificial intelligence.

So, in the essay I just found it fascinating. Here's a guy, a historian who is best known for his works on the Jefferson and Madison Administrations looking forward and seeing a picture that's not that dissimilar from what people would see today.


Russ Roberts: And, I think his forecast was it would be around 2025 when this happened, which is pretty soon and feels like we're close to it.

Of course, that's often an illusion. I've lived through enough of the next big thing to realize that sometimes the next big thing is smaller than its proponents claim for it. But, it does feel, I think in our time, and it's probably felt this way for a while, that the people in the past couldn't imagine appreciate experience what we're living through without bewilderment. The smartphone being an obvious example. The smartphone is not a very old technology now, still quite young. If you lived here before it and you walked into this world, our world, you would be extraordinarily overwhelmed by it in a way that--it would be hard to understand what was happening.

And certainly, what it has done to our daily lives is something of a singularity in the sense that there's an event horizon as you describe it. There's something that was before and there's something that after and they don't really communicate with each other. What it's done to our social interaction, what it's done to our intellectual lives, what it's done as a source of entertainment. The digital internet phone age is extraordinarily different.

Walter Russell Mead: Yeah. Sometimes I find myself thinking about Marshall McLuhan back in the 1960s when he was first trying to wrap his mind around this. And, he was talking about how the Electronic Revolution--the Industrial Revolution and those technologies were an extension of human beings' muscle power, but that the Electronic Revolution was an extension of the central nervous system.

And, that's a profoundly more important, and, I would say disturbing change. But, again, it feels to me like this from the 1960s is not a bad description of what the Internet and smartphones and so on have done.

We all now can directly perceive things that are hundreds and thousands of miles away. And also, I do a lot of work in international politics, and it strikes me that these days, the boundary between domestic space and international space runs inside your personal computer. So that foreign governments can interact directly with your child while your child is upstairs doing their homework on their computer. It's an extraordinary--there's this ungoverned internet space that's now present for everybody on earth.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sometimes it feels like there's a hand coming up through the screen, throttling you. I made the mistake of looking at a video about eight minutes before we were scheduled to begin this, watched about 15 seconds, started to get very angry, and just decided wisely to put it down. But, there is a feeling that we're being played with in a certain dimension. I think you wrote--maybe you're quoting someone--that, 'We don't surf the Internet so much as it surfs us,' and it definitely, it sometimes feels that way.


Russ Roberts: You write that there are different kinds of these singularities, positive and negative. The term is often associated with Ray Kurzweil--we've talked about a little bit here in previous episodes--where humanness would merge with machine intelligence. And, of course, transform us in very fundamental ways that it feels like we're getting a taste of it now.

But, that's one singularity. There's the idea that we could live forever. There's an idea that the future, there won't be any work: everybody will be on Universal Basic Income and a handful of people will be running giant farms of robots or AIs. There's the chance for global peace and prosperity, although that one seems to be a little bit further away than it has been. And then, there are darker ones: climate apocalypse, nuclear holocaust, as you mention. And then you write, quote,

Many of the world's greatest thinkers, wealthiest entrepreneurs, most committed activists and most senior political leaders see either enabling a positive singularity or staving off a negative one as the central task of their lives.

And, I think that's a great insight. And it's really unprecedented; and certainly there were statesmen that tried to avoid war in the past, say, or advance their country's interest through some application of diplomacy or technology. But, there is something intellectually apocalyptic about the times we're living in, at least it feels that way.

Walter Russell Mead: Yeah. I really do agree with that. And, people often talk about the Enlightenment as leading to secularization--that the world of religion becomes less important. We don't need to use the God hypothesis to explain why there's thunder and lightning when Ben Franklin has a kite he can fly. And so, the idea was that these existential religious concerns would gradually fade and human life would be more--less disturbed. We smile now maybe, but--

Russ Roberts: More rational would be, I think, an argument they would use. And, you could argue it starts with Nietzsche, right? God is dead and that was going to change everything.

Walter Russell Mead: Right. Actually, I think Nietzsche was 100 years late to that party. Voltaire was saying the same thing. That was really--the French and the American Enlightenments were along those lines.

But, I think what we found is something rather different. Rather than secularizing religion, we've infused politics with religious concerns. The end of the world--which is the traditional religious description of a singularity--when human history as we've known it comes to an end, again traditionally had been seen as requiring an act of God outside historical forces.

People would look at the Mount of Olives and see something very strange as Jesus descended or whatever your particular religious scenario would be. But, it would be a miracle. It wouldn't be the outworking of ordinary political forces.

But, what we have today is this very different sense that, depending on who wins the next election, just to take one example, maybe we'll start as what was it, Al Gore said, 'The ocean'--or Barack Obama, maybe--'The oceans will start to recede. The planet will start to cool and we'll be saved.' Or if the other side wins, the planet is going to cook and we'll all be dead.

But when you have those kinds of stakes in politics, people start dealing with politics the way they used to deal with religion, and political competitions become wars of religion.

We aren't arguing about whether the sales tax should increase by half of a percent with some people saying, 'Well, that would really help improve the public schools and that would be a good thing.' And, other people saying, 'Yeah, but it might slow down economic growth, so in the long run it wouldn't be so great.' And, we argue about it and we have an election and both sides can live with the result.

But, if it's about saving the planet, their politics becomes a very different thing. And, so, this is why I say we live in the shadow or we live in the neighborhood of the singularity, and it's changing everything.


Russ Roberts: So, you have a great quote. I'm going to read the quote, and then I want to come back to this point about religion because I think it's quite insightful and quite different than the way it's usually discussed. You say:

We live in a singular century. Faced, apparently, with the possibility that the next century could witness either the extinction of humanity or the establishment of a global utopia, both our hopes and our fears tend to be larger than life. Political opponents are not just people with whom we disagree. They are people whose misguided views could destroy the planet. Do ordinary standards of political competition still apply when your opponents' policies will destroy human civilization? Should they be allowed free speech? Should they be able to organize politically even if their electoral victories would destroy life on Earth?

And, you know, I used to claim that--this comes from the work of Harold Hotelling in economics and others, in Anthony Downs and others in Political Science--that the median voter is sort of the center of things. Things move from the extremes toward the middle; and two candidates try to get to the middle as quickly as possible after a nominating convention in the U.S. system. And ultimately, they're really not that different: they're very similar. They talk about themselves differently but they're very similar. And, policy doesn't change that much, any election to another election. A little bit here and there. And that used to be my view of American politics.

And that view is wrong. That view is grossly wrong.

Now, when it was like that, each side would say, 'This is the most important election of our lifetime.' And it wasn't true. But, now it might be true.

And that's what you're talking about: the stakes seem immensely higher. I'm here in Israel, there's a debate about whether democracy is deeply endangered here or it needs to be saved in a certain way. Depending on whether you're on the Left or the Right you see it differently. The stakes just have risen immensely. And as you point out, when you feel that way, your political opponents--and this also goes back to something Sebastian Junger said on the program--they're treasonous, your opponents. They're not just people you disagree with. You certainly can't compromise with them. And they're treasonous. There are grounds, historically, for execution death.

So, it's not a very healthy time for democracy, I think, for that reason. Comment on that.

Walter Russell Mead: Well, I think, you know, we can look around the world and see that democracy is under stress in country after country, and extremes are making themselves heard.

You know, but, I would say that there's not just a problem for democracy, because non-democratic states are also living in a condition where it looks as if survival is the stakes. So, you hear people in Putin's Russia saying, 'If we lose this war, it's the end of the Russia we've known: the end of anything meaningful that we think of, the end of our civilization.' So, it's--and, I think in China you can find similar concerns. Because, this is not one political movement or one political form of political organization facing a crisis. It's humanity facing an existential crisis.


Russ Roberts: Now, I want to digress quickly about this point about religion. Occasionally in the past in the program I've talked about something rather being like a religion or a religion. And, by that I meant--and people use it this way all the time--a dogmatic embrace of a certain set of beliefs that are pretty immune to empirical disagreement.

I'm a religious person; I have no problem with that. It's just that some people pretend otherwise--that their views are consistent with the facts and the other facts, 'They're all consistent with my views.' It's the way many people feel about their religion, and that that extends beyond traditional religions to certain political beliefs.

But, you have a deeper insight. And you call--when you say religion plays a central role, you have a different way of thinking about religion. Explain that.

Walter Russell Mead: Well, I--at one level, I think that religion is something that it's our contact with the numinous--with things that seem the sources of meaning and inspiration.

And I think in that sense, a lot of atheists are religious, in that, say, you're an atheist and you're devoted to the cause of justice. You see justice as a transcendent reality that is worth, perhaps, giving up your life for. That gives meaning and structure to your life and is something that ethically demands that you pursue it. So, in that sense, the difference between an atheist who--let's call them an 'ethical atheist,' and a theist--is that the ethical atheist doesn't believe in a personal God. But, has an object of devotion that is equally compelling and equally transcendent.

And, I would argue that--I wouldn't argue it so much as I've observed that this hunger for the transcendence seems to be something--you know, I won't say 100% of people feel it because we got people all along different kinds of spectrums and different sensibilities and everything else. But, your average person has that hunger for transcendence and feels that life isn't right if it's not lived in some way in the light of these deepest intuitions and emotions that people have.

Russ Roberts: And, it comes back to one of my favorite lines, David Foster Wallace's line from his commencement address at Kenyon College. He says, 'Everyone worships.' And, again, by that he doesn't mean that everybody has their own personal religion. He means that we all seek to find something to devote ourselves to--is a nice way to put it, as you've just done. And, he argues, and I think you're arguing, that it's hardwired in some sense inside us, a need for that, a desire for that, a yearning for it. And, of course, how we think about those things that we worship are different than the things we don't worship, so they're kind of important.


Russ Roberts: You then go on to talk about why, in these somewhat chaotic times, conspiracy theories are so appealing: it helps us make sense--we have too much information, too much data to look at and so we need a way to organize it. And, the other things that ran through my mind as I was reading your essays is the line from Ed Leamer, the UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] econometrician we've had on the program. He says, 'Man is a pattern-seeking, storytelling animal.' And he's really onto something there.

And, you write very much in that vein. You say that we need narratives to organize our thinking about things. And, I've argued that--and I think you agree--that America's narrative is splintering. So, talk about that and what that signifies for both our politics and how you cope with it, this chaos of complex data.

Walter Russell Mead: Right. Well, I do think that modern life for a lot of people--contemporary life--puts them in a tough position. Because, on the one hand, we are so deluged with so much information from so many sources about everything from what the Kardashians are up to, to what Putin is up to, to what ChatGPT [Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer] is up to, what the economy is doing, what's happening with the environment. So, this vast torrent of information pouring in on us. Much of it so frankly frightening or at least of hypnotically great import that we desperately want to have patterns, find patterns, organize this into a coherent narrative and structure.

Again, the problem is: In this world, fewer and fewer people have access to what people used to call a liberal education, whose purpose is to help people ground themselves in the story of a given civilization or family of civilizations. So that people are cut off. People without much history are trying to read what is happening to history in our time.

And so, that--I think that sets up a really deep sort of emotional need: We have to understand because it's important; and if we don't get this, somebody's going to come along and whack us. The planet will burn, or the Russians will come--you name it--whatever it will be.

And so, people are desperately reaching out to grab some explanation that fits enough of the facts that you can feel you've got a hold of it. And the problem is: this is difficult. You have to learn a lot, and think a lot, and do really difficult mental things like holding opposite ideas in your head at the same time and trying to understand how they relate without immediately getting sucked into one or the other of them. And it, generally speaking for people, is something that if you don't inherit one from your parents and culture as a young person, it's something that you actually maybe achieve in maturity over a longer period.

But, you know what? It doesn't help you much at 35 to say, 'Don't worry: by the time you're 70, it'll make more sense.' So, conspiracy theories are the cheap theories that people use to simplify and make sense out of a complex reality.

Russ Roberts: But, as you point out, they're not the only way that we do it that's not so helpful. We have ideologies; we have other theories for how we organize our thinking.

And you describe them very nicely. You say:

What [these]... have in common is a kind of ChatGPT approach to the contemporary world. That is, they present themselves as an intellectual machine that will pop out an answer for every question they are asked. A universal answer machine is a handy thing to have, and one can understand why so many people derive so much comfort and satisfaction from having them.

End of quote.

Now, I have to confess, I've spent a good chunk of my life trying different ones on--different ideologies. I've been a hardcore free marketer--free market economist--and I think there's still many things in that viewpoint I find compelling but I don't use it like I used to. It's not the thing that organizes my thinking the way I think it did when I was younger.

And I'm a religious person. But, like you, as you write one of the essays, I don't use my religion to understand global events. As a rabbi once said to me: I don't try to figure out what's in God's briefcase. So, that was his explanation for why the Holocaust occurred. Yeah: It's beyond me. It has a strong personal resonance for me. I aspire to be a better person through that mechanism, but I don't use it as a way to organize my thinking about international politics, say.


Russ Roberts: So, you suggest three narratives that help you organize your thinking. Three. One would be better; then I guess seven would be next, or 10. But, three is one of the good numbers and I can wrap my head around it.

So, let's turn to those three ways, that, they're: technological progress; the rise and spread of the Abrahamic religions--which is a shocking claim, which we'll get to--and the third is the rise of global capitalism. Why those three? What do they help us with?

Walter Russell Mead: Well, I think between them, they cover the principle features that I, as a early 21st century American am dealing with all the time. And, if I look at a particular phenomenon and I use these narratives as ways of interrogating that phenomenon, I come out with a view that's helpful. At least, I perceive it as helpful. So, these are my narratives and I'm sticking to my story. What can I say?

Russ Roberts: I like them because I think most of us have one. It might be a political ideology, it might be a religious viewpoint. In the current world we're in, I tend to lean on the rise of social media. Right? If you say, 'What's gone wrong with the world in the last 10 years, 20 years?' you say, 'Well, social media has increased polarization.' And I have a good story to tell. But it's a bit narrow, so I like yours as a bit broader. So, tell us about technological progress and why that helps you.

Walter Russell Mead: Well, in a sense, this is what Henry Adams was talking about with the Adams Curve, is that human technological progress--it goes back as far as we can find any artifacts connected with human beings and our ancestors. People are chipping flints, they are--develop--making throwing sticks so that they can throw spears. Etc., etc., etc.

And, what we see is that over time--quite slowly at first, but slowly accelerating over time and then quickly accelerating--we see people just getting better and better at this.

And I actually associate that with two elements. One is what you can call the hardware of human civilization where people are just going from flint chipping to figuring out how to use bronze to how to use iron, whatever.

But then, there's also a social dimension to that as people develop a stock of ideas of thinking about the world, develop social networks and relationships.

So, you have the Neolithic Revolution when people first develop settled agriculture and begin to get cities. Well, obviously that's not just the story of planting seeds and waiting for them to grow. A lot of people had to figure out a lot of other things in order to build Nineveh.

And so, we can think of these two processes as associated and moving steadily through history. And we can see our own moment in history. It seems to me on the one hand, we see continuity: that, this is the result of what people have been up to for a very long time, now approaching a certain climax.

But, at the same time, we can see the Adams Curve, and we can talk. So, we can say: You know what? And, human society in general, it's sort of easier to find a new way of chipping a flint than it is to create new kinship networks. Say, this new flint really allows you to hunt more animals, so support a larger population. It's actually harder dealing with all of those cousins and in-laws than just learning to chip the flint.

And so, in the same way, what we're seeing now is that as our technological progress is accelerating, we're being forced to try to move the social side of this progress faster; and it's harder. And, a lot of the stress and strain that we're experiencing is due to this relationship, which again has been around for a very long time.


Russ Roberts: It's a fantastic insight. For a long time, I've been saying things like, 'Well, the smartphone is disruptive socially to us, but eventually norms will emerge as they always have to deal with it.' And, I'm still waiting. There aren't many norms except: Use it whenever you want. Right? And I'm waiting for the--there will be a little box at your front door and when guests come over, they'll put their cell phones in there, because they'll want to have human contact.

And, they do want human contact, by the way. They just can't put the phone down. They can't--there's no 'they,'--we, can't seem to put the phone down.

Now, I haven't totally despaired of that. But, one of the themes in your essays is that we can't stop it. We might socially restrict it, constrain it in various ways through the cultural mechanism that I'm alluding to, but we're not going to put down the chipper. We're going to keep chipping the flint.

And, I think there are two groups of people here. There's those who say progress--technological progress--the human desire to mold the world is inexorable and there's nothing you can do about it except try to steer the stream a little bit, maybe enforce the sidewalls and so on, or regulate it in certain ways. But you can't stop it.

There's this other group that says, 'Of course you can. You can stop it. Just regulate it, or ban it.' And we see this with AI right now: a group of people who said, 'Let's just take a six-month moratorium, a hiatus. Let's just stop.'

You seem correct in that it didn't seem to have--like, people's names got in the paper who signed that letter but I don't see a lot of stopping.

So, defend this idea that we really can't stop it. We can maybe alter it a little bit or try to come to grips with it, but there is an inexorability about that vertical line that's coming.

Walter Russell Mead: Well, I mean, just ask yourself: Suppose we in the United States decide, 'Okay, no more AI. No more development of all this social media and stuff. We've just had enough.' Well, I'm not sure that China is going to agree with that. And, what will likely happen is that China will continue to ride the curve, develop new technologies and reach a point of military and economic advantage, perhaps, that we then have to either adapt--adopt their technology. It would be like the Japanese in the 19th century. They'd frozen time for a couple of hundred years in Japan. And then, Commodore Perry pops up in Tokyo Bay with these cannons that you can't resist. And, you realize, 'Okay, we got to either figure out how to do what they're doing or we're going to be roadkill on the highway of history.'


Russ Roberts: But, I sense you are making a stronger claim than this is a problem of free riding and global governance. I don't think global governance is a good idea. I don't think there are a few things that are worse, but a lot of people disagree with that. Their goal is a one-world, national--not international--global governance that would--that way we could fix global warming, there'd be no more wars, that way we could stop ChatGPT from destroying humanity.

What I took you to say--and this appeals to me, I have to confess, so it's a bit of a bias perhaps--is that the human urge to transform our world around us is very difficult to stop. And, even a totalitarian international order--which would be difficult to sustain over the landscape, although technology could make it easier, tragically--but that that would not be enough. That, people would continue to tinker and imagine and dream and build stuff--

Walter Russell Mead: 'To truck, to barter and to trade.'

Russ Roberts: Hardware and software. What? Say it again?

Walter Russell Mead: 'To truck, to barter and to trade,' to quote Adam Smith on that.

It's what people do. What did your intelligence--where does our intelligence come from? It's about, sort of, planning, and how do I get the fish out of the river here? They look really delicious, but I can't reach them. Okay, what do I do? Wow, it's really cold this winter, what do I do?

And so, I think our nature is toward creation, is toward manifesting ourselves in nature, in the physical world, in the same way that we are sort of irreducibly social animals. We want to be with other people. We want to communicate. Maybe we want to play games of dominance and win, or maybe there's something else that we want to do in there.

But, we're not--humans are not going to go live in celibate monastic cells as a species, and we're not going to stop interacting with nature in ways that advance some purpose or desire that we have.


Russ Roberts: So, part of what you're talking about in this theme of technology and the insight of Henry Adams that this progress is not just improving, but increasing at an increasing rate, is what we would normally call progress. And, when I was younger, I was a beat-the-drum-for-progress economist who said, 'Look, everything's getting better. There's some ups and downs, yeah, Great Depression, but the long-term trend of human experience is positive.' And, certainly, that's the theme of much of Steven Pinker's work and those people who feel the same way--that, there's so many wonderful things that have come out of these innovations.

And you particularly refer to the Industrial Revolution. Short-term challenges; long-term, so many good things: longer lifespan, playing tennis on a better knee until you're a lot older, seeing your great-grandchildren. Much less starvation, huge increases in standard of living that are literally impossible to measure--they're 30- or 50-fold over the last century. And, the number of people who've climbed out of poverty in the world is in the billions. It's an extraordinary human achievement.

But, what I love about your discussion of it is: it's kind of a mixed bag. I'm going to read your quote here and then you can expand on it. It's a beautiful, eloquent quote [from "You Are Not Destined to Live in Quiet Times"--Econlib Editor]. It says:

The Industrial Revolution was both soaring triumph and searing tragedy, glorious cultural and scientific achievement and unspeakable cruelty and crime. Far from being unique to that epoch, the mix of great good and great evil is what we see wherever we look in the long annals of our kind. The rise of the Roman Empire, the allied victory in World War II, the decolonization of Africa, and the history of the United States of America all combine these features of extraordinary accomplishment and shocking horror.

End of quote, for a sec, pause. Here's my favorite part. Quote:

That is how we human beings roll. Our story of progress is not a made-for-children television special. History is rated X, not G, crammed to the bursting point with violence, injustice, foul language, nudity, and smoking. We've sailed on bloody seas to get to where we are, and the outlook is for more of the same. Trigger warnings should be posted in every delivery room. The world is not a safe space, and the arc of history is nobody's poodle.

I think that's very insightful. You want to add anything?

Walter Russell Mead: That's about as clear as I can be.

I guess I would say that this idea of human beings as having a kind of transcendent glory to them and yet also being, you know, inescapably wedded and bonded to absolute horror and evil is something that in the Western Judeo-Christian--and for that matter, Islamic, Abrahamic religious tradition--is, you know, at least the Christian label for that is original sin. That, beginning with the Garden of Eden, with the origins of the human race, we're made in the image of God. And, so, we have in us these incredible powers of beauty, of moral imagination. We can see the good. We can all see, and appreciate, and at times at least partially achieve the good. But we don't do it all the time.

We're--what was it? Mae West once said, 'I was born Snow White, but I drifted.'

And, we tend to drift. So, and I think that's an important thing. I mean, a lot of our political arguments in the United States these days are between, sort of, one side that wants to imagine this immaculate America, you know, that presents these ideals of liberty and so on to the world. But then, on the other side, people want to look at slavery, extermination of Indian nations, all of these kinds of things. And so: Prince of Peace or Chief of Sinners, which are you?

But, in this--actually in combining high ideals and extraordinary accomplishment with heart-stopping violence and evil--the United States of America simply reveals itself as one among many similar human societies.

There is no society on earth where you don't find aspirations for something that if you really understand it are kind of transcendently beautiful. But on the other hand, where you don't also find heart-stopping cruelty.

So, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that the line of between good and evil doesn't run between nations or causes. It runs within each human heart.

And I guess, what I'm trying to do in these essays is: In this time of singularity of human society haunted by what's before us, I'm trying to find the truths in some of these ancient narratives that can maybe be strong enough and coherent enough to anchor us and ground us in these times, because I think we need strong medicine for the times that we live in.


Russ Roberts: Well, just to end this section, and then I want to try to summarize for people who might be a little bit lost--I'll do my best. But, I took you to be saying: we think about this Technological Revolution that goes back to the dawn of humanity, and its seemingly increasing pace--that, it's a mixed bag. That it has dark and light parts to it. And, whether you like it or not, and whether you cherry-pick the dark or the light parts, it's a hugely important piece of understanding what's happening in the world around us. Is that a fair summary?

Walter Russell Mead: Yeh. I'm old enough to remember when the Internet was fresh and young; and people thought, 'Oh my gosh, it's going to be so wonderful. It's going to perfect democracy. It's going to end ignorance. It's going to just be a fabulous thing.'

And, within a very few years, it starts looking just like the rest of the world: source of scams, source of misinformation, people are using it to commit crimes.

But yet, yes, also just about every book ever written is now available. People with very few financial resources can access the storehouse of human culture in ways that could never have been done before. Etc., etc., etc. It is increasing the pace at which scientists are able to see what other scientists are doing and therefore get to better ideas, better drugs, etc. It's all of this.

They're both true.

Russ Roberts: But, the point I would add--and this is the pessimist that I've become in my older age; 'pessimist,' I don't know if that's the right word--but the anti-Steven Pinker, there are a few, but one of them is John Gray. And, he's going to come up in a few minutes in the next part of our conversation. But John Gray, the way I understand what he's saying, is that--I'm talking about the British philosopher--John Gray says, he says it most eloquently I think in his book, Straw Dogs, which we talked about on this program which is a difficult book, but quite short, quite difficult, and quite provocative. Which is: You know, a lot of things are better, but--meaning standard of living, life expectancy and they're not unimportant--but, the fundamental human challenge of feeling at home in the world and avoiding cruelty and maybe perfecting the human heart hasn't changed much. We haven't made a lot of progress on those things. And I think--he would argue those who say otherwise are just cherry-picking the pleasant side of the story. Do you want to comment on that?

Walter Russell Mead: I tend to agree. I think human nature has not changed very much, if at all. And, as someone who spends a lot of time reading history and then who also spends a lot of time traveling around the world encountering other cultures and civilizations, I have to say that in my own personal experience, I really don't see a lot of evidence of the moral improvement of the human race. In some ways, we're probably better in the United States at fighting against racial prejudice and things like that. Not perfect by any means, but better, say, than when I was a child in segregated South Carolina before the Civil Rights Act. Absolutely.

But, I think probably in many ways the way we treat each other in sexual relationships and so on is worse. There's more exploitation, internet porn, all of these kinds of things.

So, what's the balance? I tend to think certain virtues and vices go in and out of fashion over history, but the moral balance as a whole rarely goes out. You have good generations or happy societies--doesn't tend to last.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I've guessed [?you'd?] disagree with us, but I happen to be sympathetic to your view. As an obscure reference I'll mention, it's a short story of I.L. Peretz called "The Three Gifts." Hard to find; I don't know if it's on the Internet. It actually addressed this question in a very provocative way. Very short.


Russ Roberts: So, let me summarize where we are, because we're going to do shift gears here and I want listeners to remember the framework we're trying to build here. So, again, this is my understanding of what you've written in the conversation so far, so you can amend it when it's your turn.

But, the world is a really complicated place right now. We are dealing with an ever-increasing pace of change--technological change, political change, educational change, social change, interpersonal change. We all feel a little bit unmoored and we're looking for ways to anchor our experience of what we're living through. And we need a narrative or a theory or a way to organize our thinking. And, the first thing you've talked about--that you use--is to be aware that one of the things driving a lot of what we're seeing is technological change: progress of humans that have been doing it for a long time.

Now, the second trend or phenomenon that you use here, which I have to say shocked me, is, you call it in your essay, the essay is called "The A Bomb." And, after the A, "It's not atomic but Abrahamic." And, you argue--and this is what we're going to turn to now--that the Abrahamic religions, if you want to understand where we are now in the world and our place in it, you have to have some understanding of the importance of the Abrahamic religions. My first thought was: This is a silly claim. Christianity and Judaism seem to be dying in a certain sense; belief in God seems to be dying.

We talked earlier about the death of God, but there's still people doing religious activity of various kinds. But organized institutional religion in America is--among the young--is at an all-time low. Islam on the rise, very important over the last 25 years. But, you've called it the Abrahamic bomb, the A Bomb. Why?

Walter Russell Mead: Okay. Well, I'd say first of all, just in terms of demographics and all, your claim was very kind of Occidentalist, or in the sense that: okay, religion in Europe and even North America, organized religion may be on the wane. That's not what is happening in Africa. It's not what's happening in most of Asia. It's not what happening in Latin America. The majority of the human race is more deeply engaged in Abrahamic religion than ever before. And, if you add up Christians, Muslims, and even sprinkle in the 14 million Jews, the sort of formal adherence of one of the three Abrahamic religions are now, in the 21st century--for the first time--a majority of the inhabitants of the world.

And, Abrahamic religion changes the way people think. This would be too much of a sidebar for this conversation, but I spent the last week with Hindu nationalists in India, talking--and we kept coming back to differences between Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions and how that changes the way people look at the world. It's a fascinating set of conversations.

Russ Roberts: Well, as a Jew, I really appreciate your sprinkling in the 14 million Jews with the 2.2 million, what was it? What were the numbers for the other?

Walter Russell Mead: 2.2 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims, and 14 million Jews. Yes.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, we're not even a rounding error. But we do punch above our weight. If you poll people and ask people how many Jews there are in the world, it's very depressing. Or not: I don't know--you can take it different ways, I guess. But, most people don't know that there are only 14 million Jews. If you read the New York Times, you'd think it's at least half the planet.

So: Okay, fine, lot of Abraham. Abraham, of course, is the--and one reason you got to throw in the Jews is because Abraham is the founder of Judaism, so you got to at least start there in some sense. We can claim credit for the other two if we want. But, Abraham is a herder in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, and he either has a vision of God, has an awareness of God, or makes it up--we don't know. But, he founds--inevitably, not right away--the Jewish religion, which naturally leads to the Christian religion. And, the Muslims believe that Abraham is also their father, just as Jews believe that Abraham is our father, first practitioner of that kind of monotheism. So, okay, that's nice. Who cares?

Walter Russell Mead: Right. Yeah. Well, I think--let's talk about the Abrahamic idea, which is, it's actually kind of a daring hypothesis. It is that behind all the variety that we see and all the confusing phenomena that we see, there is one cause. There is an infinitely powerful Divine Being who alone and without help from anybody or anything else created everything that exists. And, while that--people may say, 'So, what?' Well, if you're a scientist or you're a proto-scientist, let's say--polytheism might say, 'Well, this is happening because the moon god wants this, and the river goddess wants that.' And, there's no necessary kind of unity to natural phenomena. There are no universal natural laws.

Most of the Abrahamic idea that this Divine Creator, all powerful, created human beings in God's image so that the rational powers of your mind actually correspond to the structure of the physical universe in some way. If you sit around thinking about math problems in your head, this actually can be--you can come up with an equation that will describe how quasars behave, 14 billion parsecs, or whatever it is, away.

So, this idea, it intensifies and accelerates both the technological and the social progress. This is how this narrative kind of fits into the first: It's an accelerant.

It also gives a kind of different view of politics and history. Because, one thing that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have in common is this kind of Abrahamic schema of history, that: you have a prehistory where human beings exist. We all sort of look back to a garden; and human beings are in full communion with God and full harmony with nature. And that's the way back [?wayback?].

Then something happens, and it triggers what Christians would call the Fall of Man. And, now we're out of harmony with God; we're out of harmony with nature; we're out of harmony with each other. We're just a mess. And, the bloodshed, the cruelty, the oppression begins.

But, in all three of these religious schema, God doesn't abandon humanity into its own just deserts, but sends prophets, legislators. He enters history--God enters history--to pull us back up. And then, at the end of history, in God's good time, humanity will return to perfect harmony with each other, perfect harmony with the natural world, and perfect harmony with God, but at sort of a higher level. We often speak of--and you can see this in the religions--moving from a garden to a city.

And so, that's a vision of history that has shaped the way people all around the world in the Abrahamic space think of it.

But also--and I think this is really critical to understand the A Bomb--this is adopted by secular ideologies as well.

So, if we think of the liberal civil religion of the United States--Liberal Enlightenment idea--it is again that you have these same three stages. And you have primitive humanity all living happily--you know, Rousseauian Paradise or whatever--then, you know, struggles of civilization all but mankind is rising slowly. And, in the end, we'll have a Fukuyaman end of history, we'll have a Kantian end of history. We'll achieve a kind of a utopia of some kind, following liberal principles of politics, political economy, all of these things.


Russ Roberts: Égalité, Fraternité--what's the other one, I can't remember the other one--Liberté. Right? You have personal freedom but you still have respect for each person as an individual--which comes, of course, from the Biblical idea that we're created in God's image, as you said. The idea that we are advancing. And this utopian ideal which is: it won't be a Messiah in the atheist view, either a return appearance or a new one depending whether you're Christian or Jewish. But, it might be technology, it might be a political structure that saves humanity from itself. Or, there's some redemptive future that we yearn for and can hasten--which is an extremely Jewish idea.

And, I would just add--we were talking earlier about the progress thing--the idea that in the Book of Genesis, human beings--God creates the world and then rests, and then encourages us to imitate God and have a Sabbath where we refrain from creative work. But, on the non-Sabbath days, our job is to transform the world, is very much with us. Maybe you could argue causation runs in the other direction, for sure. But certainly, our culture is deeply--these ideas are deeply embedded in Western culture. You accused me of Occidentalism, so I'm going to give you a chance to defend yourself. Go ahead.

Walter Russell Mead: Not just Western culture. Marxism is also a form of Abrahamism. You know, Marx was actually pretty explicit--both Marx and Engels--that there was primitive Communism, which is the atheistic version of the Garden of Eden. Then you have the fall into class society, with the Neolithic Revolution. And then you have this dialectical process, very much--there's no God involved. But, the history is moving through technological progress up to the classless society, utopia of Communism, in the future. And, you also have the ethical imperative that you're supposed to get in there and get your hands dirty, advancing this process.

So, it's--and, again, if you think about that: Well, China has got--Chinese Communist Party is pretty robust in its Marxism these days. And it talks about--it sees itself--as trying to affect an Abrahamic transformation of China.

And so, you take Marxism liberal democracy and add those onto the Abrahamic religions, you really do have forces that are more powerful than any single opponents or alternative in the world. We live in an Abrahamic world. So--

Russ Roberts: And, this is really--I mentioned him earlier--John Gray's point in his book, The Seven Kinds of Atheism--phenomenal book--where he argues that most of the religions of people who are atheist [?], whether it's Marxism or other things that bring meaning to people's lives--are essentially Abrahamic. He doesn't call it that, but they essentially emerge out of Christianity and Judaism. And that, we are--if you're not a religious person in the traditional sense, it's the dead hand of religion that is manipulating human beings to this day--in his vision of that.

I'm going to read a little quote here from where you talk about liberalism--meaning enlightenment, liberalism, and Marxism. You say:

Liberalism and Marxism deserve a place in the quarrelsome, divided family of Abraham. They resemble the religions descended from Abraham in their claims of universal and exclusive truth, in their unshakeable belief in their right to dictate morals and politics to the world, and in their confidence that at the end of the day their visions will triumph over their rivals'.

And, for me, that paragraph was my Aha moment, with this complex set of ideas you're sharing in these essays. Because, it's basically saying that most--a lot of people would say, 'Yeah, religion--that's about fighting. That's about trying to impose your religious well on somebody else.'

And, people who are anti-religion will cherry-pick that and say, 'That's what religion is.'

Now, it's more than that. It's transformed us in so many different ways, both culturally and personally, that I think are for the good--like many things, a mixed bag.

But, you're making an argument here, for me, that a lot of the intensity of the political world we're living in today has an end-of-days flavor to it that is very much akin to religious warfare. And, where the stakes are very high. Where it's not just, 'You don't agree with me, I agree with you, but let's live and let live.' But, rather the future of humanity is at stake: We're not going to get to that promised land. We're not going to get to that messianic redemptive era.

And, I think that's profoundly insightful. And scary. So, I would like you to talk a little bit more about that if you'd like, and then I want to close with you telling us why you're still somewhat optimistic--as I take you to be. And, we didn't talk about capitalism, but we talk about that a lot on this program. So, you could throw that in if you want. That's your third theme that you'd like to weave together with the other two of technological progress and the Abrahamic religions.

Walter Russell Mead: Well, look, I do think that one of the things that sets off the Abrahamic spirit from others is this idea of it matters what the true religion is. And, people have, at times, as we know, done terrible things in order to advance their idea of the right religion. But, they feel it has tremendous impacts for the wellbeing of human beings.

And so, in a non-Abrahamic world--you know, the priests of Jupiter in Rome didn't worry that the priests in Egypt didn't worship Jupiter. And, they didn't even worry that the priests of Jupiter on the other side of Rome used slightly different ceremonies or had a few different ideas about Jupiter. Fine. Big deal. It was not an issue.

So, the Romans would fight you over money; they would fight you over power and security. Might fight you to take you as slaves or something like that. But they were not fighting you to change the ideas in your head. And they persecuted Christians, but that was a different kind of a thing and they saw it as a political issue rather than a religious issue.

But, in an Abrahamic world, you fight over ideas all the time. And when you're not fighting, you quarrel. So, one of the things that happens as this Abrahamic Revolution has expanded and covered more cultures, included more peoples around the world, is that human history is becoming more an arena of ideological and religious combat than before.

And, now in this time of sort of where we're in the neighborhood of the singularity--whatever that may mean--that accelerates and intensifies the ideological struggles that different forms of Abrahamic faith and politics manifest.

So, I do think that these things help--and they help me wrap my head around the kind of turmoil that we're seeing in so many different parts of the world, inside so many different societies.


Russ Roberts: As an economist--or social scientist--looking at the world, one of the things that troubles me about your explanation is, again, while there's been a spread of Abrahamic faith in the non-West, a lot of what we're talking about is about the West. If we think about the United States, the Trump phenomenon--let's call it the rise of populism--I will say till my dying day, until I believe otherwise, that people misunderstand that what's going on. They think that someone like Trump, or here in Israel--Netanyahu and judicial reform--are causing divisiveness in the country. It's the opposite.

The divisiveness in the country is illuminating. It's being illuminated by these folks. These folks are reactions. Their actions--Brexit being another example--these are reactions to the underlying divisions. They're not the cause of the divisions.

So we have a rise of populism in the United States. We have a nationalism of a certain kind and a rebellion against nationalism. So, that divisiveness--we see that in England with the Brexit. Again, Brexit didn't cause the problem: the problem was there all along. Brexit illuminated it, showed that there really are two Englands, that, one that wants to be part of the rest of the world in a cosmopolitan way and travel on a passport easily. And, the other is interested in England and thinks that that should be put front and center.

The problem we have with this organizing narrative that you have is that in economics, if something gets more intense, that causes the thing it affects to get more intense. I don't really see the Abrahamic religions--it's a very useful way to understand the world in general, but it doesn't seem to be a very useful way to understand the last 30 years. Because I don't feel like the Abrahamic religions have gotten suddenly more powerful in, say, the West, where a lot of this divisiveness is occurring and you and I are trying to understand it and to organize our thinking about it. So, how does that work?

Walter Russell Mead: Because, listen: you forget that liberalism and Marxism, in my typology, are Abrahamic religions or belong in family of Abraham. And, it's cosmopolitan liberalism that has, in the face of the singularity, become incredibly energized, transformational, making greater demands, insisting on its righteousness and its power; and that is causing these reactions.

So, it's the sense that the formation of a global cosmopolitan society represents the triumph of enlightened liberalism, end of history, whatever we want to call it. All right? So, in fact, yes, the feeling that the singularity is closer doesn't necessarily cause people to convert to an Abrahamic religion. But, people who have Abrahamic mindsets become activated. And, now it's more important to spread cosmopolitan global governance than ever because climate change, because AI, because, because, because, whatever.

And so, you have this totalizing--the whole world must run in this way, or we're all going to die; and if it does run in this way, we'll all be fine, it's going to be terrific.

So, absolutely the very motor that you're talking about of the cosmopolitan insistence that then leads to these populist reactions and so on, is in itself a manifestation of the intensification of an Abrahamic worldview in the presence of the singularity.

Russ Roberts: So, your argument for why this didn't happen in 1926 or 1953--this level of intensity--is because it's coupled with global capitalism and the technological change that seems to be increasing ever faster. Is that a fair way to summarize it?

Walter Russell Mead: Well, right. Again, that we now live in a time when--in 1926, you're a liberal; you say, 'Well, we got to keep advancing. John Dewey has got some great ideas; let's keep spreading them.' But, the utopian liberal future--which maybe you thought was here in 1918, 1919--has receded, but you're still trying to implement, right? But, if you're in 2018 or 2015, 2023, what you see is the specter of universal destruction if the right path isn't followed, is now so close and immediate. Again, whether it's a global warming thing or it is democracy versus autocracy, different people will categorize the crisis in different ways.

But, the crisis is so acute, and the way to avoid it requires the fuller instantiation of the liberal worldview in politics and culture and in institutions, that you were just much more driven in that direction.


Russ Roberts: You want to give me any social media credit on that, that that's exacerbated the intensity as people have been able to--the death of expertise and ease with which people can feed their own flavor of utopianism or doomsday-ism?

Walter Russell Mead: Well, what I would say there is that, yes, social media has a role. But, again, it's not, I think, a principle driver. It's an accelerant and an irritant. But, what's happening again, with the continuing acceleration of the pace of change, the expertise is actually less reliable. That is, the way the world economy works now, the way financial markets work now, I think economists don't understand them. Even economists have lost some of that dogmatic sense of certainty. We're both old enough to remember when economists just believed that: Boy, it's a science and we have it. A few little problems remain but basically, we've got it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, the Great Moderation, we called it. We've figured out how to steer the ship, turn of the wheel there, rudder there, and keep it sailing and we're never going to have any more problems. That was true until it wasn't. Yeah.

Walter Russell Mead: Well, you see, from 1950 on, there is this sense, not just in economics but generally speaking, that we either had figured out all the answers or were very close. And, so, we knew how to avoid the class conflicts that had been so disruptive before World War II. We knew how to build an international system that would last. The experts had answers to the problems. Medicine was just much more scientific. Etc., etc.

What happens, I think as we come into the Information Revolution and the changes are accelerating and becoming deeper, the experts actually don't know what's happening as well as they don't understand the world. The textbooks don't have the answers to the problems that you face anymore. And, yet the experts are sort of still committed to the idea that the technocratic expertise is more important than ever.

You really saw this in the COVID epidemic--pandemic--where, you know, it's a new disease by definition; nobody really knows what it is, how to treat it, whatever. But, you saw this--technocratic expertise in just about every country felt compelled to stand up there and say, 'Okay, this is the objective reality. Anybody who dissents from the consensus that I'm expressing is an enemy to the public health, and we must shut them down on social media,' whatever, whatever, whatever.

And yet, obviously, as we learned more, the scientific consensus of yesterday isn't the scientific consensus of today. It turns out that not touching your face isn't the most important thing to deal with in the pandemic. It's--

Russ Roberts: It's washing your cans when you come back from the grocery. That's what it turns out to be the crucial--no, that was a mistake, too.

Walter Russell Mead: Right. I remember when we had to wash everything that we brought into the house.

So, with a new phenomenon that the technocracy doesn't understand, it's not necessarily going to be right. And, with social media making it obvious to everybody that the emperor has no clothes. Right?

We have this thing where, again, the technocracy, the more it's questioned, the more it circles the wagons and says, 'We know it because we just listen to all these quacks out there.' And, truthfully, most of the quacks were even more wrong than the technocrats or just as wrong as the technocrats.

But sometimes among a thousand quacks, there are two with a good idea--by chance, perhaps.

But, in any case, the technocracy tries to frame this as the Enlightened Truth Seekers and the thing that can save us from the gathering storm. While, out there, you have people seeing, 'You guys are not as good at this as you think you are. And, I refuse to allow myself to be ruled by you.'

So, I think, to me, this all kind of fits together: that the liberal cosmopolitan technocracy, which more or less kind of ran things from the 1950s into the 1990s, and on thereafter. But look at the things they've been wrong about. Free trade was going to make China democratic and Americans rich, was going to--you know, NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] was going to solidify democracy and Mexico--do you remember that?--and solve the problems on our borders. Russia was moving toward democracy. We just had this sort of long set of things pronounced with tremendous authority and confidence by Those Who Know. And they were just wrong. Reality was a bit--there were a few more wrinkles in reality than they either knew or were willing to acknowledge, or whatever.

And so, now there is an enormous gap of skepticism. Conspiracy theories are one of the things that fill it. And, the other thing is guys like Donald Trump who basically say, 'The emperor has no clothes, and I'm the only one brave enough to tell you this truth.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It does sell. Part of the appeal, for sure.


Russ Roberts: I actually want to make one last observation and let you react to it. Thinking about the long arc of history, if I had to pick a lesson to be learned from the 20th century, I'd start I think with the dangers of utopian thinking, which led to the greatest tragedy of human existence--the Holocaust and the Gulag, World War II. 100 million dead, maybe more, across--the hubris of thinking that there's an ideology that can bring us to the light. And, maybe that's Abrahamic, but is it we don't study enough history? Or is it that we just have this incredible either hardwired or cultural desire to redeem the world that leads to a faith in certain--and self-righteousness--that you think the 20th century would have purged? You start with the war to end all wars, talk about expertise. That didn't turn out so well, World War I. World War II is worse; the Holocaust and the Gulag to me are much worse. We don't seem to have learned anything from those, that century[?]. That fascinates me.

Walter Russell Mead: Yeah. Well, one of the things you do learn from the study of history is that people don't learn very much from the study of history.

You know, I think I would say that what happens in these things is that people lose that notion of original sin--of the flaw that you yourself are flawed. At the moment when you are fullest of conviction--most sure that what you are doing is what will save mankind--you know, it's actually at that moment that you may be at your worst. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about this a lot in the 1950s and early 1960s because he had shared that kind of--the liberal progressive optimism of World War I in the 1920s and kind of veered into Socialism a bit. And then had to begin to come to terms with how these high ideals, in some cases, had directly contributed to the worst catastrophes that humans had faced to that time. And, I think his reflections are still a very useful starting point today.

But, the one thing that I'd say that liberalism--which is the tradition in general within which I operate as an American, that's kind of in our bones to a certain degree--

Russ Roberts: Enlightenment. Enlightenment liberalism--a belief in rationality, the progress from science, the treating individuals with respect, and so on. Yeah, go ahead--

Walter Russell Mead: And then, in America, the civil religion is that America is bringing about the liberal singularity has a special role in the unfolding of an Enlightenment Liberal end of history. And, that's the sort of ticket of admission into American politics and a lot of other things, most of the time.

And, I think there is a lot of truth in that, but it also has to--you have to make room for this other thing. Imperfection is never separable from any human institution, political movement, or effort. And, here I tend to think that, for all of the downsides that you often find in organized religions, at least in the great Western religious traditions, there is an awareness: there's a history now in particular of reflection on their own limits and fallibility, and moral fallibility, if not intellectual fallibility.

And, you won't find Catholics saying, the Medieval Papacy was this fantastic thing. You might find a few, but most say, 'That Inquisition maybe was not our finest hour.' You'll find--I think you find--a lot of Jews who look back over Jewish history and say, 'Maybe we should have been a little nicer to X and Y,' or 'Was it really the smartest thing for the Jews to be fighting with each other over small points of doctrine as the Romans approached the city? Was that really our best move?' And, a lot of Protestants, again--there's a lot of racism in the American Protestant tradition--'Maybe we should reflect on that.'

So, I think that the organized religious traditions offer us a vocabulary to talk about how very, very high ideals and aspirations can also exist with tragic human flaws. And maybe give us a bit of a deeper understanding of how do we then live responsibly as flawed people in a world which is not in a great place.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Walter Russell Mead. Walter, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Walter Russell Mead: Thank you.

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