Community Spotlight: The Portico

~tirwyd-sarmes

One of the most striking things about Urbit is the ideological diversity between communities. The Community Spotlight blog series will focus on various Urbit communities via interviews with founding members.

For the first week of the Community Spotlight series, I (~tirwyd-sarmes) will be speaking with Josh Reagan (~taglux-nidsep). Josh is the founder of The Portico, an Urbit community of Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The Portico is a very active group with conversations taking place over multiple channels. There are channels for posting Orthodox iconography, discussing the broader Christian culture war, and just talking about Orthodoxy in general. Of particular interest is Josh’s “Euthyphro” blog series which investigates the relationship between logic and the Orthodox faith. This is a topic that Josh is well qualified to talk about: he has a PhD in Philosophy from Rice University. His dissertation on the epistemology of logic and truth-preservation was titled "Knowing Your Limits: Logic for Limited Beings”. Josh is also the co-author of a forthcoming textbook on formal logic.

To read Josh’s blog is to be inducted into two esoteric traditions: theory of logic and Orthodox theology. With titles like “St. Gregory the Theologian and the Liar Paradox” and “The Existence of Abstract Objects”, Josh does not pull punches.

Accordingly, our conversation focused on the idiosyncratic and niche community that The Portico is home to. There, you won’t find cussing or much talk about “life partners”, but you will find cutting critiques of liberalism and the best way to raise Orthodox children.

As other users have pointed out, Urbit is pre-Eternal September. In fact, there’s some hope that the very nature of Urbit, how it tries to protect the sovereignty of niche communities via decentralization, might foil the Eternal September phenomenon. If Josh’s community persists, it will be a testament to both Josh and the decentralized Urbit network. As of now The Portico is a refreshing, perhaps jarring (as Josh might say), reminder of what the internet looked like back in the early days—a place for those who are different.

I encourage you to take a look. Find The Portico at ~topnup-firber/the-portico.

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Do you see any connection between Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and your community on Urbit? Dreher sees a need for American Christians to create self-sustaining communities outside of the mainstream to protect the Christian religion and culture.

It’s tough to say with certainty—I’ve never read The Benedict Option.

A few years ago, while he was writing the book, I was a regular reader of Dreher’s blog. From his descriptions there, I was never clear about what exactly he was proposing. Much of his “clarification” came by way of metaphor: don’t “run for the hills”, but stop “shoring up the American imperium”. I didn’t read his book because I didn’t have much confidence that he would be especially precise or insightful.

There is an interesting review I’d recommend, however, of his later book, Live Not By Lies. I believe it accurately characterizes the scale of the threat Christians will soon face in this country.

My upbringing was conservative Christian and self-consciously counter-cultural. I've inherited that understanding of what it means to be a Christian in an increasingly secular world. It comes naturally to me, so I find it obvious that Christians should form self-sustaining communities. But the details matter. What do such communities look like? How do we secure the freedom to pursue such communities? How do we sustain them, when myriad external forces seek to undermine them? How do we solve the long-term problem of the declining cultural importance of Christianity (which surely erodes the plausibility of our religion to many, even to some of those with sympathies toward it)?

I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions.

One kind of answer is that we should redouble our efforts to support and maintain a religiously and morally neutral liberal political order, which leaves room for subcultures to live and self-regulate as they wish. I disagree. Those who support a kind of “neutral” liberalism view it as an attempt to go “meta” and rise above various parochial metaphysical, moral, and religious disputes. I view this as a cop-out, a refusal to grapple with the most important questions.

Does the liberal have metaphysically-rooted moral reasons for going “meta”? If so, then he’s just another sectarian and he should be honest about it. The only difference is that his team has had the whip hand for the last several generations. On the other hand, if the liberal claims no underlying metaphysical justification then his project can succeed only to the extent that he can arrange and adjudicate unprincipled (and therefore ad hoc) agreements between otherwise hostile moral communities. But how stable can such an arrangement really be?

Orthodox Christians have theologically rich, metaphysical foundations for their social and moral teachings. With these we can form healthy, thriving, and growing communities. We can do so even under actively hostile political orders. If the early Church could make it under the Romans, so can we today. But it’s going to be difficult and sound judgment is necessary. Unfortunately, we lack strong leadership and that leaves us vulnerable. If we stay uncoordinated we dissipate our energies needlessly. If we latch onto the wrong leaders we can be led astray.

The challenges are immense. There is no technological solution. Even so, I’m an Urbit early-adopter for a reason. Over the years I’ve come into contact with a number of Orthodox and Ortho-curious Urbit followers. Why not try to bring them together in an Urbit group?

As far as I know, no one in the group is clergy. We’re all just a bunch of laymen with no authority to do much of anything. But I’d like to think we can still contribute in some way. I have an academic background in analytic philosophy so my inclination is to emphasize theory, but we have room for a bit of everything. Someone in the group wrote a script to take the texts of various Church Fathers and convert them to audio using AWS Polly. Those turned out pretty well!

At times I entertain ambitions to do a bit more, but for now perhaps it’s better to keep expectations in check. If nothing else, we can read and discuss the Scriptures and Church Fathers together, and try to understand better how to apply and live out their teachings. As we continue to grow the community and develop a consistent internal dynamic perhaps opportunities will arise that aren’t yet on the horizon. One thing I can say is that I’m committed to keeping the group active and growing.

I’d like to talk about your blog on The Portico. It combines two of your main interests: logic and theology. In broad strokes, do you think theology and logic are compatible? What is the relevance of this intersection to both of these disciplines?

I feel obligated to answer this question in two ways.

(1) If by “logic” you mean “first-order predicate calculus”, then I think there’s no special conflict between logic and theology. There are certain puzzles about their relationship, but similar puzzles exist between logic and other disciplines. Theology isn't especially endangered.

For example, in the 1930s, Alfred Tarski proved his famous Undefinability Theorem. Crudely put, it says that a plausible truth predicate cannot consistently be contained in any formal system with axioms strong enough to model arithmetic. Superficially it seems like our options are (a) get rid of the concept of truth, (b) get rid of arithmetic, or (c) throw away parts of logic until all inconsistency disappears.

None of these options is appealing. Tarski came up with a solution that mostly satisfies many logicians: reduce the concept of truth to “truth in a language” and forbid any language from containing its own truth predicate. If you want to talk about truth in a language L-1, you have to do it from a “metalanguage”, L-2.

Is Tarski’s definition of truth in a language the definitive solution for preserving truth, math, and logic? Perhaps not many philosophers think so, and there’s a massive literature in which logicians have attempted to improve on or extend his results.

Sometimes people seem to think formal logic is an infallible gift from heaven that must always be right. Kant said in the Critique of Pure Reason that formal logic is essentially a completed field. In fact, the logic of his day was an early-modern Cartesian variation of a medieval scholastic synthesis of ancient Stoic and Aristotelian logics. Roughly 100 years after Kant’s first critique was published, C. S. Peirce and Gottlob Frege independently discovered first-order mathematical logic as we know it today, inaugurating the greatest advance of logic since Aristotle. Kant was wrong.

Mathematical logic is a convenient, generally reliable, man-made tool that, when used carelessly in certain untamed domains, can lead one astray. Probably most people reading this are familiar with such puzzles as the Liar paradox. When one understands that logic is not a completed science, and perhaps never will be, there is less reason to worry about whether it can be used to nuke entire disciplines, like theology.

For more on this topic, see the blog post in my Urbit group: “St. Gregory the Theologian and the Liar Paradox”.

(2) There is perhaps a deeper challenge than the one I’ve just sketched. The Stoics used the term “logic” to encompass what we might today call “epistemology”. If the word “logic” is meant in some such broad and normative sense, then we may restate the challenge as one about rationality and theology. Is it irrational to pursue theology in our modern age?

As an undergraduate under the influence of Kierkegaard, I was attracted to a romantic, vaguely irrationalist notion of faith. Dawkins-mania was at its peak and I was disgusted by the pop-rationality (or was it empiricism?) of his annoying followers. Their view seemed to be that rationality just means “following the evidence”. The raw evidence is foundational, and theories are built atop by generalizing from the evidence. The ghost of logical positivism is with us even now.

I was dimly aware that Quine and others had made it difficult to sustain epistemic foundationalism. However, being unable to supply a more clear and cogent notion of rationality, I became skeptical of the idea altogether. But I went too far.

Instead, the proper response is to develop a superior account of rationality. Readers can probably guess where I went looking!

The word “logic” comes from the Greek “λόγος”. This is also the word used to describe Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” This connection is not merely etymological.

For many ancients, the term “λόγος” meant something like “divine principle”. You might think of it as akin to a law of nature, but with stronger theological connotations. Christians appropriated this term and made it rather more exalted: the Logos is begotten of the Father, and yet somehow one with Him.

We are told that all things come into being through the Logos (John 1:3), giving Him an intimate relationship to the whole of creation. He gives structure and order to all created things, and in His divinity He understands them as so structured and ordered. He is also sinless, perfectly holy, and good. In Christ we have a perfect unity of the knowledge of all truth and righteousness.

Man was created in the image of God, which means that we bear a likeness to Christ. And we are commanded to realize that likeness with ever greater fidelity (Romans 8:29). The Church calls the pursuit of this likeness “theosis”.

Thus we have the explanation of all normativity, according to Orthodox Christianity. In moral matters we must take on the holiness of Christ. In epistemic matters we aspire to the wisdom and knowledge of Christ, which includes an understanding of the whole created order. Socially we (the community of believers, i.e. the Church) are called to be in ever greater communion with God, cooperating with His work just as the Son cooperates with the Father.

Sadly we are conceived in sin and ignorant; hence the need for redemption by Christ.

Accordingly, my understanding of what it means to be rational is just to be Christ-like. The only perfect exemplar of reason, so construed, is Christ Himself. Any deviation from Him is irrational. What could be more logical than to be conformed to the Logos? But we cannot attain rationality without redemption. Hence we cannot become rational without first being saved from sin.

Doubtlessly many will find all of this too much to take, just too implausible. What about the development of mathematics, or the advances of the sciences? These are canonically ennobling, intellectual achievements. Jesus wasn’t a mathematician or a scientist! Nowhere in the Scriptures is He recorded as having applied Bayes’ theorem.

Undoubtedly my construal of rationality de-emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge by labeling it as merely one of several normative ends. To seek knowledge without seeking holiness is to be understood as dangerously unbalanced. To try to attain holiness and knowledge without communion with God is arrogant.

On the other hand, we need not exaggerate matters. St. Paul affirms the need for specialization of labor within the Church (1 Cor. 12). There is room for some to specialize in intellectual endeavors, so long as they act in a cooperative setting in which the other virtues are pursued as well. (Nor should anyone neglect the development of such virtues in himself.) Mathematicians and physicists are more than welcome in the Church.

According to this (all too briefly put) theory of rationality, there can be no conflict between ‘logic’ and theology. Theology is compatible with rationality because the account of rationality in question derives from a theological tradition. Naturally I’ve only given a sketch; much more could be said. But even if some readers are put off by the theory presented here, I hope it’s at least clear that there are conflicting notions of rationality. Anyone who wants to be rational confronts the task of figuring out which theory of rationality is correct.

In terms of community moderation, The Portico follows norms that are quite different than other online communities, often times quite drastically. For instance, living with women that you are not married to, is not something that should be talked about lightly. Can you talk about the importance of norms and how they relate to a healthy community?

Orthodox Christians are not commanded to “get along” with the rest of the world (John 15:18-25). We’re different, and our norms of interaction should likewise differ from those of outsiders. There is no one, monolithic “Orthodox culture”, but there are standards governing which local expressions of culture are legitimate and which are sinful. We should live in a way that enables and promotes holiness and discourages sin.

We have rules that may seem unusual from the outside. I don’t permit profanity, lewd jokes, or irreverent comments about God. In your question you mention a living arrangement that is prevalent in the world. Another rule I have is that we shouldn’t talk causally about sinful practices or lifestyles as if they are unremarkable parts of ordinary life. If Orthodox Christianity is true then such things aren’t minor peccadilloes. They’re spiritually destructive. The marriage-bond sanctifies activities that would otherwise be sinful.

If someone wants to analyze what is destructive about men and women living together before marriage, we’re open to that. But if you want to be affirmed in your sin, we’re not the place for you. Anyone of any religious creed is welcome to show up—but as a guest in an Orthodox Christian community. Hosts should be courteous to guests, but my first priority is not to make you feel good about your choices. We’re here to encourage each other, learn, and grow spiritually as Orthodox Christians. Naturally that means a little gate-keeping may sometimes be necessary if someone ever comes along who doesn’t share those goals. Being different is difficult and takes work.

In a way the cultural contrast is meant to be jarring. It can force you to confront moral and cultural presuppositions that you didn’t even know you had. When you become aware of the wider choices of culture available to you, you become free to look with a critical eye on the culture you’ve hitherto taken for granted. I think anyone could see how that might be liberating, even before considering the particulars of the cultures in question. Of course, as an Orthodox Christian, I think we have a good case to make about the particulars of our subculture.

I’ve never had to kick or ban anyone from the group. The group is relatively small (~180 people at the moment) so that probably helps. The vast majority of conversations are relaxed and friendly. Occasionally there are intense debates about one issue or another but I enjoy it, as long as it doesn’t become bitter or the primary mode of discourse. But everything ought to be done in a spirit of truth-seeking, not of one-upmanship.

The fact that The Portico can exist side-by-side with atheist communities on Urbit is pretty striking. On Urbit, a user is able to create niche communities and governance structures and yet still participate in a larger network. In other words, Urbit is trying to thread the needle between sameness and difference through federation at multiple levels. It seems to me that modern culture has become homogeneous due to an inability to maintain, or distinguish between, different communities. People who have nothing in common are forced to engage as if they were roommates, while those who are similar have trouble creating their own home. In other words, what is the role of community formation in the modern world and how does it connect to your critique of liberalism? Does Urbit have anything to say about this?

As I said in an earlier response, I see the liberal project as more or less an attempt to sidestep (not solve) difficult metaphysical and religious disputes between various distinct moral communities. Liberals have tried several methods of governance to achieve their ends. We can divide such attempts into two broad categories: centralized and decentralized.

Social media companies in the US confront similar governance challenges, so we can analyze them in similar terms.

A social network like Facebook takes a centralized approach. Zuckerberg spoke early and often of his desire to connect people and “bring the world closer together”. There was a sense that if people from various communities could get to know each other a little better, we would see how much we have in common and make progress toward some kind of universal cosmopolitan consensus.

But that didn’t happen. With centralized social media you’re practically guaranteed to interact with people whose moral and metaphysical commitments are sharply at odds with your own. As a result, you face a persistent, nagging risk of conflict. Without warning, a friendly disagreement can explode into an all-out flame war. Most choose one of two basic approaches for dealing with this threat:

(1) You live a compartmentalized life. You keep your moral and metaphysical commitments to yourself and cultivate a culturally homogenized persona for your social media activities. No one disagrees with you because there’s nothing to disagree with.

(2) You can enlist to fight in the culture war and display your regimental colors with pride. And because you take your smartphone everywhere you’re always on the front line.

These aren’t the only options, of course. With some combination of charisma, patience, and grace you can be relatively open about your beliefs without getting into too much trouble. But even if you have the talent to pull it off, it takes time and energy. Many of us aren’t willing to go to all that trouble. Social media is supposed to serve us, not the other way around.

Urbit is decentralized which, in my opinion, means that it isn’t really a network in the way that Facebook is. I see Urbit as more of a network platform. The users create the networks, or migrate them in from elsewhere. We’re all using Landscape and running our VMs on Nock, so obviously there can be interaction between different communities. But anyone who doesn’t want that cross-community interaction doesn’t have to have it.

I’ve followed Urbit’s progress since 2016, so I’m plugged into groups with other Urbit people I’ve come to know over the years. Other than that, however, I don’t know much about who’s out there. It’s not like The Portico is in one neighborhood and the atheists are in the next neighborhood over. There’s a real sense in which we’re not even on the same network—different Urbit communities share a common protocol, but a protocol isn’t a network.

Some people may want to see a little of everything. If atheists want to join our group they’re welcome to do so! We’ll be friendly. I don’t seek out their groups, though.

One virtue of decentralized social media is that it offers a totally different set of trade-offs with respect to how you share and act on your beliefs. What if you could talk earnestly about philosophy and religion without having to worry about alienating many of your friends and family? I guess that’s somewhat possible on Facebook—do they still have “groups”?—but Urbit was designed for it.

Having said all that, I don’t think decentralization is a panacea. Even if Urbit takes off, it will likely face problems that are difficult to anticipate now. My hope is simply that Urbit’s trade-offs are healthier than the ones we’ve had before.

If you’d like to follow our progress, we send monthly updates via email:

You can also follow us on Twitter or GitHub.

Or talk to us on Urbit: ~bitbet-bolbel/urbit-community