What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?

Science fiction is about speculation and the topic it has speculated on most is space travel. What if science fiction is wrong? What if it turns out that humans aren’t suited for living in space or colonizing other worlds? What if homo sapiens need to live on Earth? How will such knowledge affect your philosophy?

Decades ago I realized that science fiction was my substitute for religion. I didn’t believe in God, heaven, or an afterlife, but I did believe in humanity spreading across the galaxy. I don’t know why that brought meaning to my life, but it did. I grew up reading and watching science fiction during the Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo year of the 1960s. As I covered in my last essay at Worlds Without End, “A Distance Too Far,” new research is showing the biological limitations of humans living in space. Space scientists hope to overcome those limitations but what if they can’t? What if humanity is condemned to living on Earth until we go extinct? What if we have to watch robots and AI machines live out our Star Trek dreams?

I assume most science fiction fans will react the same way the faithful react when they encounter an atheist. It’s really hard to give up a core value which gives our minds meaning. I have no idea how adaptable humans are to space but I’m wondering what it will mean if we can’t. If you’re a hardcore science fiction fan could you give up your faith in the final frontier?

What happens to us when we no longer believe in getting to heaven or other planets? Will we find meaning living vicariously through the eyes of our robots who leave Earth and become immortal among the stars? What kind of science fiction will be written in fifty years if we have tried to colonize Mars and failed? If we discover galactic radiation fries our brains and it requires 1-G to reproduce normally – will we give up on human space travel?

Or think about this. What if we do colonize Mars and adapt but discover everyone hates living there? There are thousands of people who would volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars. Have you ever wondered why? What motivates people to want to live on a barren rock, that’s bathed in solar and galactic radiation, that’s colder than anyplace on Earth, and its atmosphere is unbreathable? Is it a powerful fantasy implanted in childhood like theology? Is it a deep drive to spread our genes to new worlds? Or is it a psychological desire to escape an unhappy life here?

What if we discover that many of the hopes of science fiction won’t come true for us? Think a moment about our other science fiction dreams. What if we can only push our bodies so far before longevity research peters out and we realize immortality is impossible? What if we can’t download our minds into machines or clones? What happens when we discover that being homo sapiens comes with limits that can’t be surpassed? I’m sure we’re far from discovering those limits but what if someday we know those limits with certainty?

Science fiction has always given us hope for unlimited potential. Yet, reality suggests we’ll eventually bang into the glass walls of our aquarium. I wonder what science fiction will speculate on then.

JWH

The Memory Gym—Exercising Our Words

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 26, 2017

I don’t believe I have Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia – yet, but I am having memory problems, ones that are common to getting old. All my friends are having this problem. We especially have trouble recalling names, titles or proper nouns. Quite often we say things like, “Oh, you know, what’s her name, you know, who was in what’s that film, the one about, you know, that thing …” Everything is on the tip of our tongue. Often the word or name we’re looking for will pop up in our head hours later, which implies an access problem and not a storage issue. It’s like having a junk drawer with all kinds of stuff, and we know a 1/4 teaspoon measurer is in there somewhere, but we can’t find it. We can usually find the 1 tablespoon measurer because we use it more often.

Is that the key – using our words more often?

Brain-Fitness

I had an idea in the shower. What if I made a list of all the subjects I want to retrain mastery of as I get old, and then for each topic make a list of key words and names that associate with that idea, and then study those lists regularly, would that help? Or does it matter? I have to consider I might be forgetting these words because they aren’t worth remembering. On the other hand, maybe I’m becoming forgetful because I’m not exercising those words enough. What if language is like muscles and could be exercised? We go to gyms to keep our bodies in shape, why not have a gym for pumping words?

Yesterday’s experience of “What Was Her Name?” left me feeling slightly despondent. I have two natures, ones I call Western and Eastern, for their philosophies. My Buddha natures allows me to graciously accept the fate of getting old. It’s natural and inevitable. On the other hand, my Puritanical heritage tells me I should fight till the bitter end – to conquer nature, to stomp it in the ground. If I had been on the Titanic the western side would make a raft out of deck chairs. My Eastern side would sit in a deck chair cherishing the experience.

What’s fascinating about this morning idea of a memory gym is realizing there are cognitive areas I want to maintain and those that I would abandon. That I’d be willing to commit triage on my memories. I’m also fascinating by which topics I’d pick to study. Would I study jazz or politics? Science fiction or science? History or current events?

When they attacked what’s his name for not knowing any world leaders I thought, “Well, shit, I can’t think of any either.” Actually, as time passed I thought of a few. Should I waste time learning the names of Trump’s cabinet? Or would those memory cells be better used memorizing the best jazz albums of the 1950s?

I had a friend who told me before he died, and it was probably suicide, that he had gotten down to loving  only two things in life – Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I thought that very sad, because I loved countless things at the time. I thought his depression had limited his interests, but now I wonder if it was memory. I can’t remember all those things I loved when I had that last phone call with John.

Growing up we chase after many interests, but as we get older, it gets harder to keep up with all our passions. Our brains get stuffed, and then they start to leak. Do we need to consciously make an effort to retain what we love most?

I’m learning there’s a relationship between words and what we love. Without words to define our memories, everything fades into the background chaos of reality. I have had two experiences of losing my ability to use words. Once in the sixties when I took too much acid, and once when I had a mini-stroke. In each case, as my ability to use words returned I realized their power. I can’t tell you what that feels like, but I can give you something to contemplate. Think of you, your dog and a ball. Both of you see the ball, but what does words give you?

For a Zen master, collie dog, baby, and old person without words, a ball is just a ball. Now think about a football player and fan, and how words let them make so much more of a ball. Right now I love listening to jazz and knowing its history. When my words are gone I’ll still love listening, but I’ll miss the history. What is “A Love Supreme” without the words of the title or the words John Coltrane? Without words it will only exist when playing, like a tree falling in the forest. With words it can exist as part of my personality.

A Love Supreme

JWH

Lessons I Learned from the 2016 Election

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 13, 2016

To say Tuesday, November 8th, was a shocker for most people is an understatement. Since everything is grist for my mill, I’m going to write about what I’ve learned from this disturbing experience. Like the pundits and pollsters, I had no idea how badly my fellow citizens wanted Donald Trump for president. I live in an isolated bubble of liberal friends, and we all thought Trump was a poor choice. In fact, we thought Trump was an overwhelmingly obvious poor choice. We were wrong.

Are_We_Smart_Enough_webLesson 1: Electing a president is not an intellectual decision. I’m currently reading Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. The chapter on chimpanzee politics is rather enlightening. Electing a U.S. president has many parallels to selecting an alpha male. I think our society is not against electing a female for the alpha male position, but we might not be ready to give up alpha male traits in our leaders. The point of de Waal’s book is animals are smart in all kinds of ways we don’t recognize, and sometimes those smarts are superior to ours for the same talent. He makes a case that our intellectual intelligence can be self-deceptive. Humans are animals, and we function on many levels, using many kinds of intelligences. To analyze the election results totally by measures of left brain logic is a huge mistake.

Lesson 2: Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” meant different things to different people. For people who are financially secure, America is already great. Sure our country has many problems needing fixing, but let’s not rock the boat. For people out of work, or working at low-paying jobs with no hope of ever succeeding, then Trump’s slogan takes on a whole new meaning. But do we know how many people are really out of work? How bad is the economy to the heartland? I see vastly different figures for the number of working age people not working. Here’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Employment release just before the election. Things don’t look bad at all, especially compared to 2008 and 2012. But if you’re a conservative, you read reports like, “Right Now There Are 102.6 Million Working Age Americans That Do Not Have a Job.” That’s unbelievable to people with math skills, but completely believable if you only see the bad sides of the economy. Looking at Wikipedia’s population demographics, I figure there’s roughly 185 Americans aged 20-64. (Add 34.4 million if you want to stretch working ages from 15-69) Looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I see 149 million Americans have jobs. That’s a 36 million difference. Not as scary as the 102 million the conservatives claim, but nowhere close to the 5% to the official unemployment numbers. But if 20% of the working-age Americans are out of work, then that’s a big factor for the election. Yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Can Trump Save Their Jobs? They’re Counting on It” is probably a better indication of how many voters felt. They are looking for an alpha male to align themselves with in hopes of gaining help. It’s a shame the election wasn’t between Sanders and Trump, when both candidates would have targeted the same issue. It would have been interesting to see which solution Americans preferred for solving “It’s the economy, stupid” angle.

Lesson 3: Does ethics matter? Both candidates were generally considered less than ethical by the general population. There were plenty of mud-slinging on both sides. Supporters of each candidate seem willing to ignore personal defects of any kind in their candidate, but not in the candidate they didn’t favor. I think the vast majority of voters went with either liberal or conservative values and ignored personal values. In other words, most members of either party would vote for a yellow dog. The country seems to be divided into thirds: liberals, conservatives, and independents. The independents swung the election.

Dark MoneyLesson 4: The future looks very different to liberals and conservatives, but both fear a bleak future. Liberals fear the climate apocalypse, while conservatives fear the secular apocalypse. Science and demographics show both trends are happening. Conservatives were determined to protect the Supreme Court from liberals. They want a Christian theocracy and the legal foundation for conservative economics. Read Dark Money by Jane Mayer. My guess is it’s less about Roe v. Wade, and more about taxes and regulation. Trump was feared as a disruptor by the plutocracy, but because of the Republicans winning Congress, they are more than happy to embrace him now. There are very few large piles of money for the 1% to siphon off anymore, and owning the Supreme Court helps to get access to that wealth.

Lesson 5: We’re not logical. Voters don’t cast their votes based on logic. Who we like is often decided by our unconscious minds. Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman. Even when we’re thinking we’re making an informed choice, it’s probably just a delusion of our conscious mind. Also, there are too many variables in the equations of politics for anyone to actually solve the problem logically, mathematically, philosophically, or ethically.

Thinking Fast and SlowLesson 6: I am immensely disappointed that my liberal ideas aren’t shared by the majority. Even though Hilary Clinton won the overall popular vote, that doesn’t mean the country is half liberal. My guess is roughly a third of the country is actively liberal philosophically. That means we want social programs to protect the poorest, extra taxes for the wealthiest, we seek diversity and equality, to protect the environment, fight mass extinction, to balance wealth inequality, and work to develop a sustainable economy and environment. We find it horrifying that greed and xenophobia win out over these values. Yet, the lesson of 2016 is a vast majority of Americans want to protect a way of life that has vanished, and they are unconcerned about the human impact on Earth. This is illogical to us, but that’s because we don’t understand the theological implications of conservative values. So the biggest lesson for me is I’m out of touch with the needs and desires of most voters. I felt climate change should have been the #1 issue of the election, and it was completely ignored. I feel that many of my fellow citizens are anti-science, and science is my religion.

The Black SwanLesson 7: I have no reason to expect more people to side with me in the future. On the other hand, I can’t expect to predict the future in any way. Even though I’ve read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and intellectually know it’s impossible to predict the future, we all keep hoping we can shape it. Tuesday, a whole flock of black swans landed. That should have been enough to teach all of us that we can’t predict the future. It won’t. We will all continue to campaign for our own models of reality. Conservatives refuse to see climate change, but then I guess I refuse to see conservatives.

JWH

Overcoming Inertia in Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In retirement you can do whatever want – if you’ve have the drive. Otherwise you do what you feel. That distinction might be meaningless to many. (I imagine old hippies replying, “If you’re following your feelings, you’re doing what you want.”) The difference defines ambition.

All too often I feel like kicking back in my recliner to daydream about writing while listening to favorite songs on Spotify, rather than actually writing at the keyboard. Just now I was lazing in my La-Z-Boy when this essay occurred to me. I told myself this morning my number one priority was to finish the essay I’ve been working on weeks for Book Riot, and then finish an idea I have for Worlds Without End. (I do have growing guilt over not working on them, but writing this is what I’m feeling.) The trouble is both Book Riot and Worlds Without End each have an essay in the can waiting to be opened, so the pressure to write another isn’t that driving. (BTW, I’m not blaming my laziness of them.)

countdown to ecstasy

In the middle-third of my life, I hated being trapped in the nine-to-five world of work. Before that, in the first third, I hated being imprisoned in the K-12 school system. But I’ve got to admit without that outside pressure I never would have learned much, or put in my 35-years of work. (At least I’m honest about my laziness.)

If this sounds like I’m wishing for someone to crack the whip over me, I’m not. Na, I’m just whining about my own lack of drive. I didn’t have it then, and I don’t have it now. I’ve always admired people who live like guided missiles, always on target. And that’s the confusing thing about retirement. It feels like I’ve reached the target. The social security years can feel like being in the queue for nonexistence. How we fight that is important. It defines the game in the last third of life.

Don’t assume I’m depressed. I’m never bored. I go to bed every night near midnight, regretting the day is over, and wishing I had more time. Every day I do get a few things done I want, but mostly I overindulge my whims. And that’s quite satisfying too, in a heroin kind of analogy. My problem is I have too many things I both want to do, and feel like doing. My lament is I spend too much time with Ben & Jerry’s, and not enough with broccoli. (Not literally, just another analogy.)

Being the puritanical atheist I am, I’m hung-up on doing productive work in my existential random existence.

Most people think retirement is all about not working – not me. I might have a minor guilt trip about being unproductive, but I’m not about to get a job, paid or unpaid. I won free-time millions in the retirement lottery, and just need to figure out how to wisely spend them. This means creating my own definition work. Right now, I gauge productivity in essays. Any day I finish an essay, feels like a productive day. Even if I write a navel-gazing one like this.

If I actually write a hard-to-conceive, hard-to-implement essay, that takes great effort and research, I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain. That’s when I believe I’ve won out over inertia. It’s how I redefine rolling my rock.

JWH

77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 20, 2016

This is my 1,000th blog post and I’ve learned a lot from blogging.

My first post was “Access time in a fifty-five year old brain” published 12/26/2006. Here’s the first paragraph:

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

Well, I’m still struggling to organize my thoughts, but I’m quite confident Auxiliary Memory has been an huge help as an external memory device. Blogging is also a form of mental exercise that keeps my declining mind in shape. After nine years, or 3,314 days, and over a million words, I have forgotten most of what I’ve written, but it’s still there for me to retrieve. I’m often surprised to reread what I write. Blogging has turned out to be an incredibly useful tool, and I wonder why more people don’t blog.

To celebrate these nine hundred and ninety-nine essays, I thought I’d note some of what I’ve learned.

  1. Blogging is like piano practice for writing.
  2. Essay writing is a concrete way to organize thoughts.
  3. Original thoughts are thin and vague, and it takes a lot of work to make them coherent.
  4. Often coherency doesn’t show up until days of writing and rewriting. 
  5. We don’t realize how unclear our thoughts are until we try to put thoughts into sentences.
  6. Thinking improves with editing.
  7. The quality of my writing is directly related to the number of times I reread and edited an essay before I hit the publish button.
  8. There is no relation between getting hits and what I’m interested in writing about.
  9. I can’t predict what people will want to read. The old essay that gets the most current hits is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” If you search Google for “Dreaming about dinosaurs” my piece is 2nd in their listing. Evidently 30-50 people a day research this topic. I never would have predicted that.
  10. If my goal is to get hits, then I should review products. Product reviews are my consistent hit getters, but I quit writing them. 
  11. Science fiction is the subject that has garnered my most readers, and my favorite topic to write about.
  12. Don’t expect your friends and family to read your blogs.
  13. Only a few of my friends have subscribed to my blog and will occasionally mention reading an essay, or post a reply.
  14. I’ve learn to write what I feel like writing and not to worry if it will be read. I’m currently getting 250-350 hits a day, mostly due to Google searches, but also because of a handful of regular readers. I have 1,500 subscribers. But I can’t assume that a hit means a read. Just because a person clicks on a Google search return doesn’t mean I’m providing them with information they want to know. And many of my subscribers are other bloggers hoping I’ll read their blog. (Which I do try to do.)
  15. It’s extremely hard to write a 1,000 words that someone else will want to read.
  16. Few people want to think about a specific topic the same time that I do.
  17. There are very few people that have the same mixture of interests as I do.
  18. Blogging is a way to embed your personality into words.
  19. Blogging is a way to find out how many of your friends, family, and strangers think your interests are interesting.
  20. Blogging is a way to express yourself without boring your friends.
  21. If you want to find out how interesting you are to your friends, blog your thoughts. You might be surprised.
  22. There is a direct relationship between how much time my friends are willing to listen to me talk and whether or not they will read what I’ve written. My most chatty friends, the ones that never let me get a word in, never read my blog. I don’t say this as a hurt ego, but to show that blogging will reveal which of your friends are actually interested in what’s going inside of your head. Don’t blog if you don’t want to know.
  23. Blogging will reveal what your true interests are to yourself, and how fanatical you are about them.
  24. Blogging is a good way to meet people like yourself online.
  25. Blogging is a good way to learn if you have common interests or obscure fascinations.
  26. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is faulty.
  27. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is political incorrect.
  28. Blogging is a way to learn things about yourself that you don’t see – because readers do.
  29. Blogging is a way to test the limits of your memory.
  30. If you blog about a past event and try to document it with photos, outside reference material, interviews with people at the event, you’ll learn that memories are piss-poor at best.
  31. A well written blog about an event written within 24 hours will provide a better memory than your brain.
  32. If you get an idea for a blog post start writing it as soon as possible because the idea will disappear quickly.
  33. Blogging is mostly memory, opinions and reporting.
  34. Reporting is when you document events outside of yourself.
  35. Being a good reporter is hard.
  36. Opinions are a dime a million, essentially worthless unless you can back them up with evidence.
  37. The more evidence the better. 
  38. My personal memories are only interesting to people if I can frame them in a universal theme. And even then, few people will read them. One of my favorite memory-lane pieces, “Super Men and Mighty Mice” has gotten the least amount of hits. It was about being kids and pretending to fly, and begins like this:

    During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, occasionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

  39. It’s hard to write Jean Shepherd type nostalgia and get hits. Shepherd is famous for A Christmas Story. Nostalgia just doesn’t index well on Google.
  40. Nostalgia does appeal to readers who have similar past experiences. It’s lucky when you find those people, or they find you. 
  41. Blogging teaches elements of journalism. If you want hits, you have to write what other people want to read. That means focusing on current popular topics, and writing short pieces that don’t exceed the common attention span. I decided long ago to write what I’m interested in and at lengths longer than most people want to read. So it goes. 
  42. I’ve learned that I naturally think in 500-1500 word essays.
  43. 500-1500 words is far longer than what most people want to read.
  44. Titles are very important.
  45. Delete all the words that people will skim over.
  46. I’m a verbose writer and don’t delete enough.
  47. Over the years I’ve often written about topics I’ve already written about but have forgotten that did.
  48. I have common themes I repeat but I hope are refined with each new approach. 
  49. Regular blogging helps with my writing and thinking skills.
  50. Regular blogging helps with my verbal skills. This was a real revelation.
  51. Regular blogging keeps my vocabulary active. If I don’t blog for a week or two I start forgetting words, and forget how to pronounce them. That old saying, “Use it or lose it” is true.
  52. Blogging has been a great social outlet since I retired.
  53. I can express myself better in a blog than I can talking.
  54. Blogging helps me listen to other people.
  55. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so I could read their thoughts.
  56. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so they would make their thoughts more coherent.
  57. Blogging is somewhat like being in a hive mind.
  58. I wished I had started blogging when I learned to read and write.
  59. I wished I had learned to read and write at age 4, when I started being self-aware.
  60. I wished my parents, grandparents, and ancestors had blogged so I could read about their inner lives.
  61. I wish the Library of Congress would archive blogs.
  62. I wish politicians, famous people and people doing interesting jobs would blog. Sound bites on television makes people seem shallow, tweets make them seem snarky, and Facebook makes them seem silly.
  63. Everyone approaches blogging differently. Some people use it like a diary, making short notes about their day. Others post photographs of all the places they visit. Some people repost other people’s blogs that they like. Some people write excessively about tiny topics, or say essentially nothing about big topics. There’s no one way to blog.
  64. Folks want to read about your dreams about as much as they want to see your vacation photos.
  65. Sometimes you have to guess what you remember. In recent years many writers have gotten into trouble for writing nonfiction that turned out to be fiction. Memory is closer to fiction than nonfiction. That’s just how it is.
  66. Wikipedia is my absolute best memory bank.
  67. Google makes a great spelling tool and dictionary.
  68. Sometimes I have to play Six Degrees of Separation to remember a person. IMDb is great tool for that.
  69. I’ve learn to fact-check my memory.
  70. I always try to send friends my blog when I mention them, but most people don’t care.
  71. I generally get photos from Google and use them without credit. I shouldn’t do that. I do try to get generic photos, or things in public domain.
  72. Sometimes people use my posts and photos without credit. Sometimes I think it’s flattery, other times I think fraud.
  73. Blogging is good for my mental health.
  74. Blogging gives me a sense of purpose after I retired.
  75. Blogging is a way to examine my life – remember an unexamined life is not worth living.
  76. Blogging is a way to be philosophical.
  77. Blogging is a way to push myself to do more.

Pug10

JWH

String Theories in Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 8, 2016

String theory must be in trouble if Sheldon Cooper, a fictional character from the popular TV series, The Big Bang Theory, decides to give up working on the theory after twenty years of dedicated effort. String theory is an elegant mathematical theory that seeks to explain how the Standard Model unites with the  quantum theory of gravity. In recent years string theory has come under attack because its not falsifiable, implying it’s not scientific. This is quite controversial. But don’t worry, string theorists are far from packing it in, see the new book Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon.

Why String Theory by Joseph Conlon

I think these science wars defining the scope of science are a good analogy for what’s going on in science fiction. Many, if not most, science fiction fans want to believe the future holds unlimited possibilities, and science and technology will eventually create everything we can imagine. For some deep psychological reason, most science fiction readers do not want to believe our species has limitations. They hate the idea that faster-than-light travel might not be possible. And are horrified at the suggestion that colonizing the galaxy might be an unrealistic pipedream. Let’s face it, true believers of science fiction want Star Wars or Star Trek to become humanity’s future. They passionately cling to Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” In other words, they want to believe nothing is impossible.

What if science does discover we have limitations? What if we reach the limits of what we can observe or infer by all our extended senses of technology? What if we can’t build machines that can test string theory? Or find clues to prove the existence of the multiverse? As long as we know we can’t go further, we can assume that we can, and science fiction has hope. But what if science conclusively finds the boundaries of our existence? Should science fiction stay within those boundaries? Aren’t stories outside those boundaries called fantasy? I believe Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora explores these very questions.

Aurora KSM

Shouldn’t science fiction be about the possibilities of science? Aren’t we really wanting to believe the inverse of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – that magic is just technology we don’t understand? Isn’t that how God created Earth in The Book of Genesis? I’m afraid most fans of science, even beyond the science fiction fans, are hoping that science will magically make anything we want happen.

Science Wars by Steven L. Goldman

Few people understand the limitations of science. I highly recommend one of The Great Courses from the Teaching Company called, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It by Professor Steven L. Goldman. (Just one credit at Audible.com.) Goldman starts with Plato and Aristotle and takes us through the centuries showing how scientific thought emerged in natural philosophy and then science. Science is far more complicated than the Scientific Method. Science cannot state absolute facts in the philosophical sense of explaining the Truth of Reality. Current scientific theories are our best statistical explanations for what we experience. Theories are always supplanted by newer theories. Newtonian physics was excellent at explaining reality in the 17th century, but Einstein explains reality better in the 20th century. Is Newton wrong for not seeing what Einstein did? Will Einstein be wrong when someone comes up with a better theory?

One of our limitations is we never get to know. We only get to know the best explanations we have at the moment, and most people’s working knowledge is based on theories hundreds of years out of date. Any fundamentalist Christian is working with a 2,000 year old model of reality. If you don’t know the new theories, the old ones feel perfectly good. And aren’t most science fiction readers hoping for the future based on theories long out of date?

Basically string theory was getting too far ahead of science. String theory is like the concept of galactic civilizations in science fiction, it just sounds so good, that we insist it must be true.

But here’s the kicker. If we don’t want to live in fantasyland, we have to stick with the current best theories that are falsifiable. Religion and most of philosophy aren’t, and look where they’ve taken us.

I lean towards believing science will eventually show us our limits. One limitation that’s under examination by science philosophers is whether or not we can examine reality without our subjective bias. That understanding is limited to our perceptions and how our brain works, and that will always color what we discover. I wonder, when we invent machines that think, if they will discover aspects of reality that we can’t see because of this limitation? And if they do, can they report it to us. Right now whatever we see with the telescope comes through the limits of our perceptions. What if we invent a telescope that can see for itself. Can we ask it: Are you seeing the same reality we do? Can you see things we don’t?

It might turn out that humans will never discern strings, but our machines will. Can science determine that? Or is even that only possible within the realm of science fiction? If you pay attention to reality, we live with endless limitations now. There is no reason to believe that our species has no limitations. There’s no reason to believe science is unlimited. I think it helps us to know what is falsifiable by science, and even expect science fiction to work with those limitations. Isn’t that what distinguishes it from fantasy?

JWH

Searching For Hope Thanksgiving 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yesterday was my 64th birthday. I had planned to publish “100 Signs of Hope for the Future” in reaction to my 63rd birthday post, “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” That essay, the most popular one I wrote this year, still gets 20-50 hits a day. This year I felt challenged to discover twice as many signs of hope for my 64th birthday. I’ve been working for weeks, but alas I have failed. Not because I couldn’t find that many signs of hope, but because the essay just got too big to finish on time. I’ve decided to break it into several essays.

Thanksgiving 2015 

I’ve switched to searching for hope because pursuing pessimism is pointless. Even if we know we’re going to lose, we have to bet to win. Signs of despair are everywhere, so it’s too easy to find roads to apocalypses. The real existential challenge is to find  routes out of our maze of problems. Deciding what we want is the first step on the journey. I want an Earth friendly society, where everyone is equal, who follow universally accepted standards of ethics, with lifestyles that are sustainable over millions of years, that leads to opportunity for all Homo sapiens while still fairly sharing this planet with the rest of our fellow species.

When we are young we have great hope for the future, but as we age, little by little, that hope fades. I grew up with a tremendous sense of wonder for this amazing reality around us, but as I’ve grown old, I’ve become increasing pessimistic about the future of our species. Most people on this planet hide from reality in childish beliefs about God and Heaven, but as an atheist, I have to live with the scientific assessment of our existence. The future looks bleak. But I want to fight the natural tendency of becoming cynical while growing wrinkles. I desperately want to the human race to get its shit together and make the most out of this astonishing piece of ontological luck.

Finding hope for the future is a Mt. Everest size challenge. News reporting makes us all want to stick our heads in the sand. How can we overcome our sense of powerlessness? Why does being spectators on the sidelines of history feel so soul destroying? When will weathervanes stop pointing to countless hurricanes bearing down on us from all the directions of the compass? I actually believe there are ways to solve our collective problems. The trouble is we are our own worst enemies.

It would have been much easier to find a 1,000 signs of despair than 100 signs of hope. We all cope by ignoring what we don’t want to see, and rationalize things will magically get better. It’s impossible for one person to even comprehend the holographic information behind one half-hour news program. Having access to the internet overwhelms our minds with infinite data. We can’t even tell the facts from misinformation. We all maintain an ever shifting illusion about the future. The easier path is to ignore what might be, and focus on our personal needs and wants. I see hope in just defining our problems, which is what I want to do in future essays.

The other night I found an especially important sign of hope in a very strange place, the documentary Pandora’s Promise. This film is about environmentalists who were once passionately against nuclear power that have changed their minds. The hope I find, is not in the promise of cleaner energy, but in the fact that fervent true believers can admit they were wrong. To survive all the ill winds that blow our way, will require open minds with a strong willingness to study new information. We’re currently being bombarded by politicians who regurgitate the same brainwashed propaganda of their parties. This gives us little reason for hope. We need more Sauls who become Pauls, transformed by the light of reality. And before all you conservative Christians gloat with glee over my metaphor, let me tell you that you’ve still got your own Road to Damascus to travel.

For all of us to find hope for the future will require each of us to transform ourselves. Last year I was pessimistic because I doubted we could change. Recently I decided to bet on hope than spend my waning years becoming bitter about the human race, like the aging Mark Twain. What I need, and I think every else needs too, are signs of hope. I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction, so thinking about the future comes easy to me. If this essay seems more worried over despair that’s because it illustrates two significant points. One, finding hope is Sisyphean task. Two, recognizing that we have a problem is the beginning of transcendence.

Our problem as ordinary citizens, is we feel powerless at controlling our own fates. We think leaders should enact policies that will change the way we live. That passivity is dangerous. It is our individual decisions to change ourselves that is the solution. The key issue is sustainability. The ways we live our lives are not sustainable. For me to find 100 true signs of hope will require finding signs we are all choosing sustainable ways live.

People seldom change without being forced to change. Few people will unilaterally sacrifice what they have to help others, or even help themselves. It’s one thing to have a lot, and share some extra. It’s a whole other thing to give up what you have. This past year I’ve chosen to go on a plant-based diet for health reasons. I’m constantly tormented by what I can’t have. It’s not easy doing without. I know so many people who have far more serious health issues, yet they say they won’t change how they live to save themselves. They pray for magical solutions. Such false hope will destroy us.

I agree we won’t change without technological help. We’re more likely to survive if clever engineers invent technology that bypass our human failings. But technology can’t be our only salvation. Anyone who has been on a diet knows how hard it is to change the momentum of habits. Anyone who has succeeded at losing weight and transforming their health, knows how empowering new habits can be. No civilization of the past has survived a major disruption, so we have a perfect record of losing. On the other hand, our species has been mutating and transforming at a hyper-rate since The Enlightenment. Scientific knowledge has transformed our cognitive abilities dramatically, and with technology we’ve transformed human society, the face of the Earth, and the biosphere. So far this knowledge has allowed us to become a cancer upon the planet.

The reason why I wrote that pessimistic essay last year was because I felt people are incapable of change, but a year of reflection tells me the human race constantly changes. Recent research shows the brain is very plastic, capable of rewiring, even late in life. Another good sign of hope. However, humans tend to change because of powerful outside forces rather than by personal choice. We evolve through survival. And now it’s time to evolve like we never evolved before. Is it possible to intentionally guide our evolution? Can we choose to do what’s hard instead of what’s easy? Will the seven deadly sins always rule our habits?

There seems to be little reason to expect a political solution. A U.S. president from either party will never be bold enough to defy political self interest. In fact, their self interest thrives on our weaknesses. Does that mean we should just give up and wait for the apocalypse? I’d like to believe when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we’re all tough enough.

Everything is interrelated. Solving any of our major problems requires solving our other major problems. Finding hope also involves recognizing the problem—we cannot solve problems we refuse to see. We cannot solve our problems without becoming different people from who we are now. Learning what we need to do will require reeducation, and that means a lot of reading and watching of documentaries. We need to learn how reality works. We need to stop pursing mindless forms of escapism. We’ve spent thousands of years praying to God, and we know that doesn’t work. Waiting for a Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, isn’t practical either.

To stop acting like lemmings rushing to the cliffs of oblivion requires thinking for ourselves.

Essay #982 – Table of Contents