Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How Magic was "Real"

I recently saw a question that caught my attention which was basically: 'Why did so many people once believe in magic?' The short answer is that magic used to be “real.”

To understand how, you only need to know two things:
  1. In the past, most magic was about healing and curing illnesses.
  1. The placebo effect is incredibly powerful, and it becomes more powerful the bigger the placebo.
Many people don’t realize what a significant role the placebo effect can play when it comes to health. The placebo effect is so strong that drug companies try to make trials as impersonal as possible because the power of the placebo effect can make it difficult to notice the additional benefit the drug’s active ingredient is providing.

We also know the bigger the placebo, the bigger the effect, literally. Studies have shown that more expensive placebos produce better outcomes than cheap ones. Bigger pills taken more often produce larger improvements than smaller pills, fake injections can be more powerful than pills, and fake surgeries can be even more powerful. In general, the more dramatic the intervention and the more people believe in the “cure,” the better the outcomes are.

If the placebo effect allows mere faith in a doctor combined with taking one small pill to noticeably improve a person’s illness, imagine what an elaborate healing ceremony that involves dancing, spells, communing with ancestral spirits, and calling on the power of the gods themselves could achieve.

Magic was “real” because people thought it was real. Based on what we know about the placebo effect, many people who went to shamans for healing ceremonies probably got noticeably better as a result. It wasn’t simply that they would have gotten better anyway. They got better because they believed they should get better thanks to magic.

Throughout most of history, people who received “magical” treatments probably did better than those who received no treatment, thanks to the placebo effect. In fact, given how counterproductive some older medical treatments (bloodletting, mercury treatments, surgery without clean hands, etc…) were up until just a century ago, there were probably many instances where the people who saw practitioners of magic did better than people who visited doctors. With evidence like that, why wouldn’t you believe in magic?

The remarkable power of the placebo has probably been the biggest hindrance to mankind’s medical developments. It’s possible to imagine another intelligent species, which doesn’t suffer from this peculiar effect, making medical advances much faster and earlier. Imagine where medicine would be if magic hadn’t “worked” fairly well for so many centuries.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Will The Future Belong to Gods or Merely Wizards?

If technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic, then a being of incredible power and intelligence would be indistinguishable from a god.

When it comes to determining what the future will be like, there is one question that trumps all others: Will our descendants be gods or merely wizards? Mainly, the question boils down to whether it is possible to extremely intelligent and mentally stable.

Some believe we will eventually build digitally enhanced minds, build genetically engineered super intelligent people, upload human conscience, and/or create artificial intelligence. That might not necessarily be possible due to constraints on intelligence we don’t yet understand.

Human intelligence may be on a slow, upward path that technology could help along. It might actually have plateaued at an equilibrium tens of thousands of years ago, because while being smart has advantages being too smart leads to its own issues.

For example, a study found doing well in school was linked to an almost four-fold increase in bipolar disorder. Similarly, having a higher IQ is associated with increased rates of drug use. In addition, people in “creative professions” are more likely to be treated for mental illness.

These problems could simply be caused by social factors, like intelligent people feeling isolated from others, or they could be weird flukes in the biochemistry of the human mind. In either case, there would be no limit to what technology could do on this front. But if these problems are inherent byproducts of intelligence itself, that would have huge future implications.

Extreme intelligence in any being might inherently lead to a suicidal level of crippling boredom or cause them to reach the decision that the only logical way to spend every moment is in a hedonistic stupor. As intelligence exponentially grows, these issues could grow exponentially as well, making truly advanced AI useless, dangerous, or impossible.

If there is no limit on intelligence, we will eventually build things smarter than we are, and they in turn will be able to build systems smarter still, and the upward cycle will continue until something literally awesome is created. Something beyond our comprehension. Our descendants/creations will be so smart, knowledgeable, and powerful to us that they seem like gods -- creatures potentially capable of reshaping the solar system, the galaxy, and even the fabric reality itself.

But if increasing intelligence inherently leads to crippling mental instability, this cycle would hit a brick wall. We could still build AI, but it may never become smarter than people. We may end up uploading human conscience into a machine, but even with new digital bodies, IQ would remain about the same.

Even in the latter future, science would still continue to advance at an impressive pace. Our descendents’ technology would seem as amazing to us as our cell phones would to a medieval serf. The technology they would wield would be magical, but these beings would still be something we could understand on a personal level because their intelligence would be roughly on par with our own. They would be truly impressive wizards but no gods.


I've always loved futurology, technology, science fiction and policy, so I decided to take this opportunity to launch this personal project to indulge these obsessions.

I'm the author of After Legalization: understanding the future of marijuana policy and was until recently the senior policy analyst at Firedoglake. As a result of FDL running into financial difficulties I'm now looking for a new professional opportunities, but being a compulsive writer with an inflated sense that people care what I have to say, I can't just stop blogging. So I'm going to use this moment of freedom to write about the incredibly nerdy things I love but didn't get a chance to cover in detail before.

My intention is that if you want to know what new scientific developments mean, what they could mean for the entire trajectory of human evolution, or just how they will change the petty fights in your local city council meetings, this will be the site for you.