To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2017

Are you a transhumanist? I am not. I reject transhumanism for the same reason I reject religion – both unrealistically crave immortality. The faithful feel their soul will leave their body upon death and move into another dimension. Transhumanists believe technology will someday copy their soul to a machine or clone body. Science has never found any evidence for souls. I’m confident our conscious self-awareness can’t be separated from our bodies. In fact, I believe our body is essential in creating our consciousness.

That said, I find transhumanism to be a fascinating philosophical topic. Transhumanism is a very popular theme in 21st-century science fiction, and a goal embraced by many in our high-tech culture. Religion is the old way people hope to escape death. Transhumanism is the new way of fulfilling that old hope. I think both reject the reality of our finite lives. Transhumanism is just another belief system that lets its believers avoid who we really are.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellTo Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell is a book about the future of humans I just finished. O’Connell, a journalist from Dublin traveled the world exploring transhumanistic endeavors by men and women whose goals feel more like science fiction than science. O’Connell is a skeptic of transhumanism, and so am I. However, wherever O’Connell went, he found brilliant, often eccentric people working hard on exciting projects. I thought it would be fun to find links to each of those endeavors and people he describes in the book.

I envy journalists who get to see in person the exciting events and people they write about. That’s why I love a good documentary. Seeing is believing, and O’Connell got to meet many far-out prophets of transhumanism. O’Connell’s book is well worth reading because he applies contextual history and philosophy to a growing belief system emerging our of technological culture. The men and women O’Connell interviews are the John the Baptists of Transhumanism.

Anyone who is interested in the future should enjoy this book, but especially science fiction readers and writers. I’m going to go chapter-by-chapter providing links to what O’Connell writes about. I envy him for being about to wander the globe to check out cutting-edge research.

System Crash

This first chapter deals with death and transhumanism. Transhumanists are people who seek everlasting life with the help of technology and not waiting on any promises from theoretical entities.

An Encounter

A Visitation

This was my least favorite chapter, about people who freeze themselves in hopes future medicine might give them life again, or transfer the contents of their brain to a new body or machine. We might eventually invent some kind of suspended animation, but I flat out disbelieve we can copy our conscious minds to another body.

Once Out of Nature

A Short Note on the Singularity

Talkin’ AI Existential Risk Blues

A Short Note on the First Robots

Mere Machines

Science and Invention 1924 May interior art

Biology and Its Discontents

Faith

Please Solve Death

The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life

JWH

The Soul v. Evolved Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 19, 2017

I keep trying to understand the core cause of our polarized political conflict that’s pushing us to destroy our current civilization. We have the knowledge and technology needed to solve our problems but we don’t apply them. We choose to viciously fight among ourselves instead. Self-interest is winning over group survival. Decade after decade I keep wondering why. I keep refining my theories, and the current one says this conflict originates in a divide between theology and philosophy.

Most people don’t think in terms of theology or philosophy, so how could cognitive tools be the cause of so much hatred? People act on beliefs without being aware of their beliefs or the origins of their actions. My current theory explores if we’re divided by a fundamental sense of self: either assuming we have an immortal soul or an evolving consciousness.

Because science cannot explain why we’re conscious animals the origins of consciousness remain open to interpretation from theology and philosophy. Of course, even when science can overwhelmingly explain such mechanisms as evolution, many people refuse to accept science because of their innate theology, even when they can’t explain that theology in words or logic. But where does theology come from? Why do some people process reality with a theological perspective and other people with a philosophical or scientific perspective?

Humans are not rational creatures. We are rationalizing animals. Our thoughts are not logical, but seek to reinforce our desires. The perfect lab animal for studying this irrationality of humanness is Donald Trump. From my perspective, humans are the product of billions of years of evolution and we’re currently at a paradigm shift of consciousness, where half of us perceive reality in the old paradigm and half in the new.

The old paradigm assumes God created us, giving us immortal souls with time in this existence being temporary because there’s a greater existence after death. The new paradigm is reality is constantly evolving. I use the word “reality” to mean everything. We used to say, “the universe” to mean everything, but it now appears our universe is part of a multiverse, and even that might not be everything. So, I call everything by the term “reality.” It includes all space, time, dimensions, and everything we’ve yet to discover or imagine.

Humans are bubbles of conscious self-awareness popping into this reality that eventual burst. I believe our consciousness minds evolved out of brain evolution, which evolved out of biology, and biology evolved out chemistry, and chemistry evolved out of physics, and physics evolved out of cosmology. Other people believe a superior being called God using the magical power of the Word created us.

It comes down to the soul v. evolved consciousness. Humans whose thoughts arise out of a belief foundation of the soul perceive reality differently from humans whose thoughts arise out of the belief we’re a product of evolution. I don’t think it’s a matter of conscious choice either. I’m guessing our unconscious minds work based on how each paradigm has wired our brains. Obviously, only one paradigm explains our true existence, but individuals live their lives perceiving reality from one or the other paradigm. That perceptual different makes all the cultural, social and political differences.

The people who act like they have souls want to shape reality based on their beliefs, and the people who act like they are evolved consciousnesses want to shape reality according to their beliefs. This causes our political/social/cultural divide. People with souls don’t care what happens to this planet, people with evolving consciousness think this planet is vital.

Sparrows and Prayers

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 14, 2017

Even as an atheist I’ve always loved the sentiment that God knows every sparrow that falls from a tree. It’s a comforting feeling to know that we’re watched by someone who loves us. A 2008 poll showed 60% of Americans believe in a personal God. But according to one estimate, there are ten times as many stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on Earth. The next time you’re at the beach, contemplate the sand and imagine that each grain contains as many humans as Earth, and then imagine what it would be like to hear all their prayers, and then remember you’d need to listen to all the beings on all the other grains of sand too. Can any mind no matter how vast discern so many voices?

There are over 7 billion humans on this planet and between 200-400 billion birds. How can God know every sparrow that falls from the sky or listens to every prayer we make? Now imagine multiplying 407 billion times every planet in the universe. Now multiply that times every universe in the multiverse.

sparrows and prayers

The only person that hears our prayers are ourselves, and maybe a few people who love us if we tell them. The idea that there’s a loving being that listens to all our wants, desires, and fears is a story primitive people told themselves. How can we believe it when we know so much more? Our reality is even larger than what we can see with the Hubble telescope. There’s no reason not to assume it’s infinite.

We need to individually listen to our own prayers and answer them ourselves. We need to collectively listen to each other’s prayers and work together to answer them as species. Humans need to note each sparrow that falls from the trees and care for them.

We should all want universal health care, we all get sick. Why should the rich get their prayers answered, and not the poor? Why should the rich be the sparrows that get noticed?

JWH

I Was Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 8, 2017

Yesterday I wrote, “Are Republicans the Party of Darwin?” accusing conservatives of applying their understanding of Darwin’s observations on nature to justify the laws they were creating. Their laws always seem to back the strong against the weak. But I had a revelation in the middle of the night.

Everyone acts on their instincts, and those instincts are Darwinian by nature. Duh! Darwin’s theory is the most widely accepted explanation for our behavior. I was crediting Republicans for consciously using Darwin’s ideas in the formulation of their political philosophy, and this is where I’m wrong. It wasn’t a conscious decision. My essay was based on the irony that conservatives profess to be Christians but enact laws that reflect Darwin’s theory rather than Jesus’ teachings.

heaven and earth

My point being there’s no compassion in nature or Darwin’s observations about how nature works, and there’s no compassion in the laws Republicans want to support. You’d think people who follow a personal philosophy based on compassion would enact compassionate laws. This conflict of action and belief troubles me and I keep trying to figure out what causes it.

My revelation last night is everyone acts Darwinianly, despite what they profess philosophically. I am an atheist, but I give Christianity credit for inventing many compassionate philosophical concepts. I attribute those ideas to Jesus like we attribute other philosophical ideas to Plato or Aristotle, but I’m not sure they came from the man we historical think of as Jesus. Many of the ideas were developed by his followers and attributed to him in the first few centuries after his death.

Organized compassion for the weak is a relatively new idea in history. Limited forms of compassion have been around in evolutionary terms for a very long time, even in plants and lower animals, but to develop a religion, philosophy, or political system to protect the weak wholesale is relatively new.

I just think it’s ironic that the political party that claims to be the most Christian reflects it least in their laws, and the party that folks general assume is least Christian reflects compassion the most in their laws.

Our political divide really comes down to how much we want to support the common welfare over the freedom of the individual. The more socialistic we are, the more we want everyone to contribute to improving society, the less socialistic we are, the more we want to give the maximum freedom to individuals and ignore the suffering of the masses. Such socialism counters Darwin’s observations on animal behavior.

Thus Christianity is inherently anti-Darwinian. For twenty centuries it seemed like Christianity was catching on, especially in the Western world. But that’s probably an illusion. What really caught on was a belief in life after death via easy salvation. The idea of heaven on Earth hasn’t.

In other words, conservatives are Darwinian on Earth, but Christian in their hopes about an afterlife. Which might explain why liberals are more socialistic. Many of them doubt the afterlife, and thus they’d want to create heaven on Earth. The conservatives are more pragmatically Darwinian, they want all they can get while living, and then assume things will magically go great after they die despite what they do while living. Liberals evidently feel this is all there is so we better make the best of it.

This is a huge problem for liberals. To get more people to vote for social welfare might require convincing people to think less about an afterlife. In other words, the concept of heaven has corrupted people’s attitude towards Earth. This might also explain climate change deniers. They might unconsciously realize to think more about Earth means to think less about an afterlife.

JWH

 

 

Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View

cage-talosian

The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction

Pike-holding-Phaser

The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.

JWH

Faith and The Sparrow

I watched the new HBO documentary Questioning Darwin twice yesterday.  This film precisely defines the conflict between the people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and their objection to Darwin and evolution.  Even though I’m an atheist I’ve always believed that fundamentalists had a better intuitive understanding of evolution than the average church goer.  They know evolution is an alternative explanation for reality that absolutely contradicts their faith.  Most modern people are wishy-washy in their religious and scientific beliefs and try to hold both at the same time, believing they can keep God and embrace modern knowledge.  However, if you really understand evolution or you really understand faith in God, you know the two cannot coexist.  That’s what this documentary is about.

HBO-Darwin

People who understand science will see this documentary and wonder why the faithful cling so passionately to their ancient beliefs.  But the faithful who see this film will wonder at how the disciples of Darwin can’t see the obviousness of God.  The wishy-washy middle will wonder why we can’t have both.  It doesn’t work that way.  Often my friends ask me why I can’t just be an agnostic – why be an extremist. 

At one point in Questioning Darwin a preacher states it takes just as much faith to believe in science.  And he is right.  Both evolution and theology are systems to explain reality.  Backers of evolution firmly believe evolution is true.  Science is a process that evaluates evidences and selects the best explanations that describe the various workings of reality.  The science minded feel the evidence is overwhelming in support of evolution.  The fundamentalists insist God create reality and us.  The wishy-washy will say God created science and evolution.  But that’s a cop out.  Atheists and fundamentalists know there are two opposing explanations and you have to pick one. 

To the scientific minded, who dislike the word faith, I think they don’t understand the term as used by the faithful.  They think it means wish fulfillment.  They think when a religious person says they have faith in God they are saying they are choosing to “believe” God exists.  To the faithful, faith means they “know” God exists.  They have completely accepted God as the answer to explaining all the questions of reality.  By that definition of faith, atheists who back science have faith in science, and they “know” evolution is the explanation of how life arose on Earth.  But we’ll leave the word faith to the religious, and keep the word scientific for the science minded.

Folks in the middle will explain we can’t know anything for certain.  That’s true.  We can’t.  However, fundamentalists and atheists know there are currently only two choices, two theories, on the table, and they are exact opposites, and we feel it’s important to man up and pick one.  That’s what this documentary shows – the two conflicting options.

Even Darwin clung to God.  And many educated religious leaders want to understand and incorporate scientific knowledge into their metaphysical philosophy.  The vast majority of Christians are in the middle.  They aren’t Biblicists.  The Bible Christians, with their creationism and  Creation Museum insist the world is only six thousand years old, and use pseudo-sciences like intelligent design to attack real science to validate their beliefs.  It’s hard to say how many Americans believe this – one Gallop poll said 46% of Americans, but that’s probably not true.  The Raw Story analyzed that poll and concluded maybe 31 million Americans, or one tenth of the country.

Also, the numbers for people supporting evolution varies too, with atheists being the strongest at 87%, Buddhists (81%), Hindu (80%) and so on down to evangelical protestants at 23%, Mormons (22%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 8%.  Wikipedia using Pew Forum claims 48% of the U.S. population supports evolution.  Between the 46% Gallop figure and the 48% Pew figure, we can see how the country is polarized, and this topic matters.

The two choices are this.  The first theory is a supreme being is the starting point of everything, one of perfect knowledge, power and order, and reality descends from his being.  From perfect order towards chaos.  The second theory believes reality emerges out of nothingness, with no knowledge, no order, and no power, and is evolving toward something, becoming ever more complex and orderly.  From chaos to order.

Polarized Politics

One significant aspect of Questioning Darwin is to explain our polarize society.  If religious beliefs were merely personal it wouldn’t matter if some people believed in God and others in science, but the faithful want to change society so it follows their beliefs, and science automatically changes society through technological spinoffs.  I believe the rigidity of Republican party comes from the rigidity that believing in The Bible is the absolute word of God.  I also believe that anti-science philosophy is reflected in conservatives getting involved in the politics of education.  I used to believe that the small government movement merely reflected cheapness for not paying taxes, but more and more it appears to be because fundamentalist citizens hate spending their money on liberal ideas.

The documentary didn’t go into politics, but all the evidence was there to read.  Bible based believers want to redesign society so it matches their philosophy.  They feel both persecuted and empowered.  The documentary said that Bible based Christianity was the fastest growing religion in the world.  I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then expect an ever growing conflict between science and faith.

Accepting Science

My heart goes out to the faithful, to those people who embrace God.  When I watch this documentary I see all the reasons why they prefer God over science.  And I’m sure when they see this documentary their hearts will go out to all the non-believers.  But here’s the thing, the faithful believe us atheists live without many comforts they think they get from God, and I don’t think that’s true.  They cannot comprehend how we can live without God, and fear us.  They believe we embrace chaos.  We don’t.  We seek all the things belief in God gives the faithful.   We just find meaning and comfort by other paths.

We have a different approach to dealing with every sparrow that falls from a tree.  We can’t replace God and religion exactly, but we have many analogs.

Father Figure

One thing that comes through strongly in Questioning Darwin is the strong desire of religious people for a father figure.  People want a strong protector that is just and wise.  One that will always listen and always help, and most importantly, always care.  In Darwin’s reality, we all have to become our own father figures.  We want to grow up and leave home and stand on our own.  The faithful love the quote, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  They believe when times are tough everyone will beg for God’s help.  That isn’t true.  True atheists understand and accept the randomness of the universe.  If there’s a shell with our name on it, then our time is up.  It’s not personal.  We don’t want to die, but death comes to us all, and usually it’s an apparently random fate.  Science and knowledge gives us understanding to how things happens.  It’s not completely random.  Sometimes its from the will or fault of another person, and we do find that evil and unjust.  We don’t expect a father figure to rescue us, and especially not one that will avenge us.

Darwin explains how we got here, but he said nothing about what it means to be a self-aware being finding itself in an unconscious reality.  Humans with scientific knowledge will be able to conquer the random chaotic indifferent universe.  There is no God that senses every sparrow that falls from a tree, but humans are now aware of sparrows and maybe it’s our responsibility to take care of all of them.

Order and Morality

Related to the father figure wish, is the desire for justice.  The faithful hate the idea that the universe is random and capricious.  The faithful want God to be the arbiter of right and wrong, and the punisher of evil doers.  The want the universe to have a referee who knows the rules that everyone must follow.  The faithful hate not having clear rules to live by.

The scientific have laws and ethics.  We do not believe the universe has morality built into it, but we do believe that intelligent beings can create their own morality.  We call that ethics.  We also believe that intelligent beings can invent their own rules to live by.  We can them laws.

We have also created the idea of human rights, and more recently, animal rights.  Even though we are Godless, we embrace ethics and morality completely.  Right and wrong is just as important to our philosophy as it is to literal Bible believers.

Yes, the universe is chaotic, seemingly ruled by random events, we see the emergence of order in everything.  If someone dies horribly from cancer we don’t see it as punishment.  We don’t blame God, or wonder if the person deserved to die a miserable death.  We study the environmental and genetic causes of cancer to understand how it happened.  Even though randomness is a major factor in everything that happens, we still find cause and effect.  It’s not a meaningless universe to us.  If a sparrow falls from a tree, we study why.

Immortality

Believers in God have one overwhelming wish they expect God to grant – everlasting life.  Science accepts death comes to us all but we work to extend life as much as possible.  Personally, living forever scares me.  It sounds like a cruel torture.  But us unbelievers do want a longer life, and we expect science to study reality and discover how to make people live longer.

Not only do we want longer lives, we want to make sure our species does not become extinct, and we want to protect all other species.

Heaven

As a nonbeliever who occasionally studies The Bible. it seems to me that two most important books are the first, Genesis, and the last, Revelation.  To believers, the first explains how we got here and the last explains where we’re going.  The Book of Revelation has the most extensive description of heaven in all of The Bible.  And if it’s the literal truth, I don’t think I want to go to heaven, especially not for all of eternity.

Those of us believe in science want to build paradise on Earth.  We want to conquer disease, live a long time, create a humane and just world, with lots of creative activities to pursue.  We want to live long enough, and then die peacefully.  We accept death, but don’t embrace it.  Not only do we want to create heaven on Earth for humans, but we want to recreate Eden for the animals.

Prayer

From watching the documentary I got the feeling that prayer was among the most cherish aspects of religion.  That being able to talk to God is the number one need.  I think we all feel lonely in this old reality.  When I saw the scenes of the happy people at the mega-church I envied them their community togetherness.  Praying together is a way of sharing hopes and fighting fears.

We unbelievers have a substitute for prayer.  Instead of asking God to change reality for us, we believe we should change reality ourselves.  We don’t plead to God to heal the sick, but spend money on medical research.  We vote for Obamacare.  We don’t pray to God to stop evil wrong doers, we pay for police and the judicial systems.  We don’t pray for world peace but build armies.  We don’t pray for rain, but build irrigation systems.  We don’t beg God to send us a husband or wife, but join Match.com.  We don’t ask for riches, but go to college or invent Candy Crush.

Also, I am constantly thankful.  I am grateful for being alive, for having a lucky life, for family and friends.  I spend a lot of time studying nature and science to appreciate the wonders of reality.  I constantly think good thoughts about other people, animals and all life on Earth, and even out into the universe.  That kind of positive thinking is our prayers.

Sin

Religious people are frightened and horrified by all the evil things that happen on Earth.  We nonbelievers are just as scared and repulsed by those events too.  In the documentary it shows a wing at the Creation Museum that depicts these horrors.  Many of the pastors and their followers interviewed talked about sin, and the origin of sin.  All pointed to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.  Some of the people interviewed even believed that dinosaurs existed in the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve and all the animals were vegetarians before sin came to us.  Believing there was no violence or suffering before sin.

The scientific minded don’t like violence either.  I’m a vegetarian.  I don’t want animals or people to suffer.  I’m a liberal and want the government to help needy people so they won’t suffer.  I give money to causes to end suffering.

Science, law, technology and ethics are all efforts to create order, to end suffering and to create justice.  We want to educate people so they won’t do evil.  So they won’t hurt other people, or protect the weak.

In a way I agree with the fundamentalists, and believe that it is humans that brought sin into this world.  I actually think the metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a beautiful concept.  I think the writers of The Book of Genesis knew there was a time when we were like animals, and were innocent of good and bad, and that language and understanding let us know the difference between what should be and shouldn’t.  Those writers wished we still lived in the Garden of Eden, innocent and without sin.  Boy, they would have loved Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   Us disciples of Darwin see it differently.  Yes, there is sin in the world, but through knowledge we’ll learn to live ethical and good lives.  Violence is the rule of reality from The Big Bang to The Enlightenment.  It’s only been in the last few centuries have we learned that violence is wrong, and that human rights and animals rights is the way to end it.  We don’t believe Eden existed – yet.

Humans are an emergent phenomenon, sort of like the singularity we imagine for intelligent machines.  Humans woke up and saw reality and have been trying to figure it out ever since.  We reached a critical mass of brain cells that allowed us to be self-aware – aware of who we are and the reality we lived in.  We didn’t fall from grace, but emerged from the chaos of nature.  We became a new type of entity in reality – one that recognized it’s place in reality.  Reality is pretty scary.  Our job isn’t to die and go to heaven, but to conquer reality.

We left Eden not because we were exiled, but because we could no longer be unaware animals.  We wear clothes not because of shame, but because we don’t want to be animals.  We left Eden because we wanted freedom to become everything we can imagine.  Sure, we’ve fucked up the planet, but we’re still evolving.  Hopefully, we can make things right and get our shit together before we destroy everything.

Nature is not sinful, it’s just red tooth and claw.  Only humans can be sinful and evil.  We do that when we act like animals and destroy rather than create.  We achieve grace and transcend nature when we live up to our full potential and become good by our own definition of goodness.  The ten commandments were not from God, but our own creation to bring goodness into the world.

Sin defined by God is servitude and slavery.  Sin defined by humanity is escaping from nature.

The desire to return to Garden of Eden innocence is the desire to go back to sleep, to become unconscious to the nature of reality.

To the faithful, sin is not obeying God, but to the scientific, sin is not living up to our knowledge.

The evil of the red tooth and claw of nature is the hatred of chaos.  Science seeks to understand reality so that we might bring order to chaos.  Most of the evils of mankind are from when we act like animals, which reflects the programming of nature.  Currently the Earth suffers because humanity collectively acts like a cancerous growth on the planet, killing endless species and destroying the ecosystem.  It comes from being unconscious to the knowledge science has shown us.  The most evil of sin is being aware and doing evil.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

The most disturbing of all the points they illustrate in the documentary is when they show a young girl in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down because she was in a car accident.  Her cousin said his wife prayed and prayed but wondered why it didn’t help.  The cousin wondered why an all powerful and all knowing God could let this happen.  They speculated that God had a purpose and claimed they had faith in whatever that purpose might be.

Here’s where I find atheism far more comforting than religion.  We can all be victims of random evil.  Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, nor did we do anything to deserve punishment.  And when someone is at fault, it’s explainable, like a drunk driver, or mad gunman.   Isn’t it better to have something bad happen to you and not think God has it in for you?  Especially if you love God so much?

Being Saved

Towards the end of the documentary they interview at ex-prostitute crack user and a former heroin addict who both claim God saved them.  Religion has saved a lot of people.  Religion can bring order and stability to people.  But millions of nonbelievers have saved themselves too.  As an atheist when I meet people like these two saved people I don’t want to argue with them, or try to take away their faith.  They were lost and now they are found.  I can accept that.  But God isn’t my explanation for why they are better.

Both of these people were addicted to drugs.  Now they are addicted to a belief in God.  They switched from a negative addiction to a positive addiction.  They found a community of people to belong, and they’ve turned their life around.

Personally, I think they got a virus that changed them.  Memes are viruses of the mind.  God and religion are powerful generators of memes.  Memes replicate and spread like mental viruses.  They are like DNA in that they replicate.  Religious memes are very successful because they make people feel good.  Really good.  As good as crack or heroin.

My parents were alcoholics.  My father died of drinking when I was 18.  My mother eventually gave it up.  She was religious, but I think she gave up drinking and smoking from her own willpower.  I did a lot of drugs when I was young, but I gave them up.  I saved myself.  But I think some people need other people to save themselves.  They think it’s God, but it’s really a community of caring people.

Churches

If they had churches for atheists I think we’d have a lot more atheists.  I think a lot of people believe in God because they like going to church and being part of a community.  I’m pretty sure millions of people profess the doctrine of their church because that’s what they are told, and it’s easy to accept rather than study science books.  But what they really want is friends and community.  That professing belief in Jesus is just learning the secret password to join the club.

True believers of Darwin have their club houses too, they are called universities and research institutes.  But the average citizen who backs science usually don’t have scientific clubs to join.  Amateur astronomy is big on clubs, but we usually don’t see hangouts for physic and chemistry fans.  Birders and some other naturalists do have a lot of amateur associations.

I wonder if there would be more professed atheists in America if we had churches devoted to believers in science.  Imagine going to service on Sunday to hear lectures on cosmology and mathematics, mixed with singing and study groups for evolution and quantum mechanics.  With Sunday night dinners and Wednesday night social gatherings with kid’s activities, such as robot building contests.

Charles Darwin and Evolution

The thing believers hated most about Darwin and evolution is takes away the concept that humans are special, that we are special in God’s eyes.  Many of the preachers talked about humans being created in the image of God, and that we weren’t animals, as if being an animal was undignified, or lowly.  I thought it was strange that they’d prefer to be a servant of God to being the top dog of the animal world.  I find a kind of affinity with the line from Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

Until we meet an intelligent alien from the stars, we are the kings of the universe.  We are now responsible for what happens on this world.  We can choose to be great, or act like animals.  We can create our own immortality, our own paradise, or own morality, our own health and happiness.  We are the father and mother to what will be.  This might be hubris, but only if imaginary gods are real, and there’s never been a shred of evidence to believe they are, only wishes.

JWH – 2/12/14

How To Become an Atheist?

Many of my atheist friends like to argue with religious people.  I don’t.  As long as people don’t try to make their religious beliefs into laws, and turn this country into a theocracy, I don’t care what they believe.  However, I find it very intriguing how some atheists believe they can enlighten the faithful with science, as if new and better explanations of reality will supplant myth driven memes.  I’m not sure it works that way.  Think of a meme as virus of thoughts and knowledge.  Concepts – memes – have a powerful life of their own.  They infect our brains in ways beyond logical understanding.

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My theory is you have to go further into religion to find your way out.  Religious beliefs are deep-seated memes acquired in our formative years.  These memes are ancient and deeply routed in our culture.  It requires some serious soul searching to deprogram oneself.  I suppose some people might argue with an atheist or read Richard Dawkins and abruptly change their mind, but I’m not sure it’s a significant number.  Personally, I think most people are indifferent or only mildly accepting of religious beliefs.  They aren’t philosophical, and life after death isn’t that important to them one way or another.  It’s the true believer we’re really talking about. But true believers are hard wired to accept what they are taught as a child and won’t give up their ingrained beliefs easily.  Religion promises two things that science can’t, purpose and immortality.  True believers would rather have a purpose driven life with the promise of heaven, than the truth and death.

Converting true believers to evidence based thinking is probably a near impossible task.  I’m not actually interested in working at it, but as a philosophical problem of how to reprogram the mind, it’s a fascinating puzzle.  My hypothesis for my atheist friends is to suggest a different approach.  Instead of teaching science, teach religion.  Here’s what I would suggest that might work better.  Advise your God obsessed friends to:

Read the Bible

As a teen one of the most powerful deprogramming tools I discovered for myself was reading The Bible.  Start at the beginning and read it like a book.  Later in life I started listening to audiobook editions, and they are very powerful tools for revealing the book’s secrets.  The Bible is a very weird book.  It’s obvious written by many people, and for many reasons.  While reading it, constantly ask:  Who wrote this part?  Who did they write it for?  Why?  What did they hope to achieve?  Don’t just whiz past all the words and stories.  Think about their purpose.  Remember they were written 2,000-3,000 years ago, and they were first told as oral stories, not written, to people who were not literate, who had no concept of science, philosophy, history, medicine, mathematics, etc.  The Old Testament is fascinating because it’s obviously more of a book about social management than a textbook for spiritual education.  It’s about a history of people becoming a nation, about rulers inspiring a sense of history and social cohesion, and a means to justify the ownership of a piece of land.

The New Testament is totally different.  It’s a history of how Christianity started, but told from side of the winners.  Christianity had a myriad of forms in the first century.  Just reading The New Testament without historical supplements, it’s easy to spot that Paul is imposing his will on how people will conceive of Christianity.  Through his attacks on other proto-Christians we see there was many differences of opinions.

Study the Bible as History

Start with studying how The Bible has been translated into English many times over the last four hundred years.  That’s very fascinating.  Then study different approaches to modern translations – literal versus lyrical approaches.  Bart Ehrman was a fundamentalist believer until he went to divinity school to study The Bible in its original languages.  Ehrman is not an atheist, but his scholarly studies of how The Bible was put together has changed his beliefs.  I highly recommend reading his books.  Ehrman is also a specialists on early Christian sects and the battle for orthodoxy.  Be sure and study Gnosticism.  Elaine Pagels is a good writer for this.

Study the Gospels in a horizontal fashion.  They often retell stories about the same events but with different facts.  Learn how to put the various stories in chronological order to see when various belief memes arose.  Many cherished Christian beliefs were added long after Jesus died, and deal with concepts he never spoke about.  Read The Five Gospels created at The Jesus Seminar.

There are literally millions of books on religion, try to find the ones that use a scholarly historical approach, rather than speculation and interpretation books.

After studying The Bible itself, start studying history and anthropology of Biblical times.  Learn to overlay stories in The Bible with real history.  Study the cultures that existed concurrent to Israel and see how they saw events The Bible.

Study Other Religions

Going ecumenical is a great way to undermine your own parochial beliefs.  Start attending a variety of Christian churches and compare their specific doctrines.  Attend and study Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious services and holy books.  Start reading about everyone’s saviors and saints.  Study the origins of religions before monotheism.  Gods and religions existed for thousands and thousands of years before anything in The Bible was even thought about.   Karen Armstrong is a writer I like that explores the origins of religion.  Study Joseph Campbell, for myths and mythology.  I learned Buddhism from Alan Watts and Hinduism from Ram Dass, but I’m sure there are more comprehensive scholars have emerged since way back then.

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much is involved with getting people to change their minds about cherish beliefs and desires.  I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, who believes in many science fiction memes that I acquired early in childhood and have clung to my entire life.  Science undermines my beliefs too, and I hate to give them up.

However, it’s my theory that more knowledge about our cherished beliefs will change them faster than learning about other ways of thinking, or just being told they are wrong.  Over the decades I’ve actually studied faster-than-light travel, robotics, interplanetary travel, interstellar travel, colonizing the Moon and Mars, and many other science fictional memes, and it has been learning the limits of these concepts that has changed my mind.  Sure, it meant learning more science, but it took time for me to live with my cherished beliefs to understand how they wouldn’t work.

JWH – 1/22/14