David Deutsch (DD) did an interview on The Christian Transhumanist Podcast.
What is DD’s audience and what is he trying to say to them?
Typical people will understand very little of what DD says. Way too advanced and based on already understanding FoR/BoI. But for me the interview is pretty basic. It’s not really designed to add on to DD’s books with new info nor to help people learn the books. So who is it for?
I think it’s for impressing people who don’t understand it, not for rational learning. I think that’s a typical kind of guest on interviews of this type. Most of what DD is saying happens to be true, but that won’t stop people from treating it just like the next impressive-sounding set of comments (which are false and which people find entertaining).
Is DD super popular? No. Why not? Well, are DD’s interview comments very good for impressing people who don’t understand? They’re OK at that but not great. DD doesn’t focus on offering memorable sound bytes people can quote to impress their friends. Nor does he focus on making what he says repeatable for lots of audience members without much fear of contradiction. DD says some stuff that your friends would argue with instead of be impressed by. DD also has a handicap compared to other interview guests, like he discusses in BoI about static memes: making his comments true gets in the way of socially optimizing them. E.g. if you can say false things, it’s easier to say stuff that sounds deep/impressive and also which fits with common sense well enough for lots of listeners to think they kinda partly understand it immediately – DD by contrast said lots of true stuff that will make it clearer to listeners that they don’t understand it.
Undermining BoI’s Meaning
The interview as a whole has a tone like: DD is smart and has some sophisticated ideas which could be valuable to some intellectuals.
The interview does not have the following messages coming across:
- The world is burning and the fate of the world depends on DD’s ideas getting attention. They aren’t getting this attention and this is an urgent the-sky-is-falling problem.
- DD’s philosophy would make a massive, practical difference in the lives of lay people. People desperately need to learn it, not leave it to the experts.
- DD is being largely ignored by “intellectuals”, “academics”, and “experts” and there’s a huge problem to solve there. The audience is not safe in thinking smart people are already doing whatever ought to be done about DD’s smart ideas.
- DD’s philosophy implies people are treating their children immorally and destroying their children’s minds, that most scientists are wasting their careers, that the standard approach to global warming will kill us all, and a lot more.
DD is undermining the implications of his own philosophy by acting as if they don’t exist. A reasonable person hearing the interview would think I’m being ridiculous when I make these claims. Why? Because if that’s what DD’s message was, why didn’t he say it? He chose to talk about other things that matter way less. And he didn’t even protest the lack of attention he’s getting. As a contrasting example, Aubrey de Grey does protest the lack of funding he gets for SENS and does make public claims that he needs lots of money ASAP and it’s a very important life-or-death issue.
Putting On An Act
What’s the structure of the interview? A guy who doesn’t understand much about DD’s work asks DD questions which aren’t chosen very well but which are intended to help bridge the gap between DD and the audience. The host tries to guide DD to say things the audience will care about. DD could do that better without the host existing. DD knows better than the host what to bring up.
The interview also has a dialog/discussion format, but it’s fake because DD is just saying his own stuff and the host isn’t meaningfully contributing ideas.
What determines how the host treats DD? The social expectations of the host role and his deference to DD as someone much smarter than himself. (Whether the host is actually impressed by DD or not, he has to act the part, or else why did he even bring DD on the show?)
It’s somewhat similar to the situation DD would be in teaching a university class. The social situation prevents him from being challenged and organizes the interactions so that he’s deferred to.
And what does DD do? Give the other people roughly what they expect. DD doesn’t rock the boat. He doesn’t have real power. He’s just playing the role of the important person who gets to speak important truths and be listened to, but then actually he's being careful to say innocuous things. So DD is helping with a cultural ritual which pretends that some smart people get the opportunity to say important things, and DD participates in that but pulls his punches. So people can listen to dozens of such interviews and think they are open-minded, truth is being vigorously pursued, etc, and actually, all the while, every interview guest is dishonest (either like DD they try to avoid rocking the boat, or more commonly they’re actually faking being smart and knowledgeable at all).
It’s kinda like our society chooses one smart person per day and says “ok, today you can speak truth to power, we’re listening with open minds and trying to be objective and rational” and then, every day, each smart person says “our society is wonderful” even though they don’t believe it. And so plenty of people eventually hear hundreds or even thousands of times that everything is fine and wonderful and there’s nothing to worry about or fix. And DD participated in that disgraceful ritual and helped lie to the public and keep them complacent.
DD believes, correctly or not, that if he didn’t play along then he wouldn’t be invited back. And he tells himself he’s at least sharing some good ideas and also building up the popularity, reputation and status to enable him to share even more ideas in the future. And he doesn’t reread The Fountainhead and think about Gail Wynand or other ideas from Ayn Rand like this (The Virtue of Selfishness, ch. 7):
The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite. One cannot offer a literary masterpiece, “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash. If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals—which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight—will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.