Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. 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.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

Jesus and Christ

by James Wallace Harris

For decades I’ve wondered how Christianity could be so closely associated with Republicans. It seems that Democrats are more concerned with feeding the poor, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, all issues generally linked with the teachings of Jesus. But recently, I had a revelation – not from God, because I’m an atheist, but just an ordinary light bulb going off in the head kind.

Republicans worship Christ and not Jesus. Of course, most people are going to claim that Jesus and Christ are the same, but I don’t. And maybe at an unconscious level neither do Democrats and Republicans. I consider Jesus a man, a human being, a member of the Homo sapiens, whereas believers in Christ believe Jesus was and is a God. Because I’m an atheist, I don’t see Christ, but I do see Jesus. Jesus was a man who had philosophical ideas about a compassionate society. I see Jesus like Socrates, and Paul was his Plato. Unfortunately, Paul was tainted by a lot of magical thinking – to put it kindly – so it’s hard to know how much magical thinking Jesus the man also believed.

I’m going to make a lot of generalizations in this essay that have no scientific basis, but I do think they have some rough validity. It’s like going outside at night and seeing a mercury-vapor streetlamp and a yellow incandescent houselight and noticing that each attracts different kinds of bugs. Developing a theory that bugs are attracted to different wavelengths of light isn’t farfetched, but it isn’t scientific proof either. I’m saying that Christians, who should have a consistent moral philosophy, are attracted to both the Democratic and Republican parties, which seems to me to have opposing moral philosophies. Is it so strange to ask why? Here are my guesses.

Republicans see Christ. They like father figures. They like authority and power. They also like patriarchy. Jesus was meek, kind of wimpy, a hippie preaching peace, love, and happiness with socialistic leanings, who hung out with the poor, the losers, the powerless. After he died, his image was made over, giving him superpowers, eventually elevating him to equality with God. I never understood the Trinity business but that’s what it appears to rationalize. But the PR experts of the early church needed their guy to compete with other so-called gods of their day, and they gave Jesus more and more superpowers. That whole died for your sins and immortal life in heaven was just brilliant marketing. No wonder it became the dominant religion.

It makes sense to me that Republicans consider their party the party of Christians. Then what are the Democrats? I guess I’ll call them Jesuits. I know that the label has been trademarked by the Society of Jesus, but it works well for my purpose. If you look at history, I feel I can trace liberal philosophy and humanism back to Jesus, but not to Christ. Christ the God is just a repackaged Jehovah. Conservative philosophy goes way back, well before Jesus. See, that’s another insight I had. The Old Testament is all about nation-building. It’s us vs. them. The Old Testament is dominated by following the rules, about might makes right, the end justifies the means. It’s a very Republican kind of book. The New Testament is all about love and forgiveness, the Golden Rule, power-to-the-people, all about embracing diversity. Paul worked to bring globalization to the teachings of Jesus.

Christ is really a transformation of Jesus the man into the Old Testament God. The early Christians, the ones that became the orthodox Christians competed with the traditional Hebrew religion, and they owned the copyright on God because they had invented the monotheistic God. At first, the Christians just claimed their guy was the son of God, but eventually, they had to make him equal to God, otherwise. how could their movement succeed?

I believe Jesus was a man, a philosopher, and died. Because I’m a liberal I’m somewhat of a Jesuit, even though I’m also an atheist. I believe his philosophy continued on, but not him. Christ is an idea created by the early followers of Jesus. I believe Jesus would have been shocked by all these miracles and superpowers given to him. But it’s hard to know. Paul really created Jesus for us, and like I said, Paul had a lot of magical thinking ideas.

All we have of Jesus is the red letter text in the New Testament. Many Biblical scholars have expressed doubt that all the sayings of Jesus were really spoken by him. We have to assume Jesus was illiterate. He didn’t write his philosophy down like Plato, he was like Socrates and went around speaking to people. His friends and followers appeared to have remembered his sayings and passed them down by word of mouth in the early years after he died. Eventually, they were collected by followers who could write. And those collections of sayings were used by the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written decades later in another language to compose the gospels. Time filters and alters all memory. Each gospel was written years apart and show a changing, evolving, Christ. Jesus is most human in Matthew and most God-like in John.

Paul’s writing is the oldest we have about Jesus, and he wrote his epistles a couple decades after Jesus’ death. You can see the earliest ideas about Christ forming in Paul’s writings, but far from all. They were added with each gospel. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, Christ has amazing god-like powers. But it wasn’t until a couple centuries later, by several generations of church theologians did Christ become completely God. During those hundreds of years, the early church, the church we now call the Catholic Church, had theological wars with other sects or branches of Christianity and Jesuits.

To me, Christianity became Judaism 2.0 because it carefully incorporated the Old Testament into its philosophy. But that was common back then when one religion supplanted another. Christianity became orthodox. It became a conservative philosophy. It decided the hierarchy. It decided the role of men and women. It was patriarchal. God was the father, the church was next in power, and ordinary people were the children. The family was very important because it was designed to mirror the structure of the church, with the husband being the God/father of the family. Christ is a God who is easy to understand because he looked like us, but he also had all the powers of the supreme creator in the Book of Genesis. Any man wanting ruling power on Earth had to align their quest with the orthodox Christian church.

If you think about this, it all makes sense why Republicans hang on so tightly to Christianity. But it also explains Democrats. Their political platform follows the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the commandment to love each other. It also explains why there has always been a polarized split between liberals and conservatives. Some people naturally are Jesuits, while others are Christians. If you look at the Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels you can see that other followers of Jesus tried to form opposing religions to orthodox Christianity. At one level that same conflict is still going on between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats are still trying to divide the fishes and loaves. Democrats believe everyone should have a healer. Democrats believe everyone should have shelter, and strangers should be welcomed. Democrats believe we should help each other. Republicans believe its God’s duty to decide what to do with the poor, the sick, and the homeless. If God sends a hurricane to Puerto Rico then why should we pay to rebuild it?

The followers of the human Jesus, the philosopher, see building the Kingdom of Heaven is our job, not God’s, and we’re to build it here on Earth. Jesuits feel we are responsible for Earth, not God. That’s why Republicans hate the idea that climate change is caused by human activity. By their way of thinking, the power of weather belongs to God. If they admit that climate change is our fault, it means it’s within our power. It destroys their sense of hierarchy. It undermines the conservative philosophy. It lets the Jesuits win a battle, and they can’t let that happen.

Christianity has a subservient role for women, one that’s part of the hierarchical structure. Making women equal to men devalues the hierarchy. Many of the apocryphal gospels had Jesus giving power to women followers. The power structure is very important to Republicans. If Jesus was just another philosopher, he has no power. If he has no power, he has no authority. Democracy came later, and I think Jesus would have been a big believer in true democracy. Republicans don’t want a true democracy. They want a power structure, and they want to be part of the power structure. They don’t want equality because if everyone was equal no one would have power. If God is on your side you have the power. If a philosopher is on your side, all you got is a wordy guy.

Before democracy, the practical thing for the average citizen to do was to align themselves with the most powerful person around. Conservatives still have that urge. With democracy people are the power and leaders should only be the administrators of our power. That goes against the natural Darwinian reality of the strong taking control. In our world, the rich are the strongest. Now that’s quite amusing because Republicans are generally against Darwin. They want to believe power is top-down from God, whereas Darwin claims it’s a bottom-up thing from nothing.

That might explain another reason why the orthodox made Jesus the man into God. They don’t like bottom-up power paths. That would mean any mere mortal human could start a revolution and disrupt the harmony of the hierarchy.

I know all of this is a bunch of weird ideas, but I do think it’s an interesting way to explain our political polarization. I don’t think it changes anything. I’m not sure we can change. I think some people are naturally drawn towards conservative philosophy and others towards liberal ideas. Genetics might explain it, but it would involve too many different genes and other variables. It’s sort of like gender identity. Some folks identify as male and others as female and some people with all kinds of combinations in between. It’s a spectrum. I assume some people are liberal, others are conservative, and lots of people with different variations. There is a certain percentage of the population that are Yellow Dog Democrats, and another percentage that always votes the straight Republican ticket. While there a bunch of people who swing back and forth. I doubt logical persuasion changes the way they think politically. I’m not sure we have free will when it comes to our political and religious choices any more than people have with their gender identity.

All I’m suggesting is the word Christian isn’t exact enough. Of course, Christians split into a zillion different sects. For my purposes, I’m going to label them Jesuits and Christians, for followers of Jesus and followers of Christ. I know most of my readers will think I’m pursuing painful hairsplitting. But for me, it’s helped me understand Republicans who embrace Trump and claim he’s the best President ever for helping Christians. Using the above perspectives let me understand how they could think that, and I now believe them. But maybe they will understand why I believe Trump is the worst president ever for Jesuits.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]

What If Human Memory Worked Like A Computer’s Hard Drive?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Human memory is rather unreliable. What is seen and heard is never recalled perfectly. Over time what we do recall degrades. And quite often we can’t remember at all. What would our lives be like if our brains worked like computer hard drives?

Imagine that the input from our five senses could be recorded to files that are perfect digital transcriptions so when we play them back we’d see, hear, feel, taste, and touch exactly what we originally sensed?

Human brains and computers both seem to have two kinds of memory. In people, we call in short and long term memory. With computers, it’s working memory and storage.

My friend Linda recently attended her 50th high school reunion and met with about a dozen of her first-grade classmates. Most of them had few memories of that first year of school in September 1957. Imagine being able to load up a day from back then into working memory and then attend the reunion. Each 68-year-old fellow student could be compared to their 6-year-old version in great detail. What kind of emotional impact would that have produced compared to the emotions our hazy fragments of memory create now?

Both brains and hard drives have space limitations. If our brains were like hard drive, we’d have to be constantly erasing memory files to make room for new memory recordings. Let’s assume a hard drive equipment brain had room to record 100 days of memory.

If you lived a hundred years you could save one whole day from each year or about four minutes from every day for each year. What would you save? Of course, you’d sacrifice boring days to add their four minutes to more exciting days. So 100 days of memory sounds like both a lot and a little.

Can you think about what kind of memories you’d preserve? Most people would save the memory files of their weddings and the births of their children for sure, but what else would they keep? If you fell in love three times, would you keep memories of each time? If you had sex with a dozen different people, would you keep memories of all twelve? At what point would you need two hours for an exciting vacation and would be willing to erase the memory of an old friend you hadn’t seen in years? Or the last great vacation?

Somehow our brain does this automatically with its own limitations. We don’t have a whole day each year to preserve, but fleeting moments. Nor do we get to choose what to save or toss.

I got to thinking about this topic when writing a story about robots. They will have hard drive memories, and they will have to consciously decide what to save or delete. I realized they would even have limitations too. If they had 4K video cameras for eyes and ears, that’s dozens of megabytes of memory a second to record. Could we ever invent an SSD drive that could record a century of experience? What if robots needed one SSD worth of memory each day and could swap them out? Would they want to save 36,500 SDD drives to preserve a century of existence? I don’t think so.

Evidently, memory is not a normal aspect of reality in the same way intelligent self-awareness is rare. Reality likes to bop along constantly mutating but not remembering all its permutations. When Hindu philosophers teach us to Be Here Now, it’s both a rejection of remembering the past and anticipating the future.

Human intelligence needs memory. I believe sentience needs memory. Compassion needs memory. Think of people who have lost the ability to store memories. They live in the present but they’ve lost their identity. Losing either short or long term memory shatters our sense of self. The more I think about it, the more I realize the importance of memory to who we are.

What if technology could graph hard drive connections to our bodies and we could store our memories digitally? Or, what if geneticists could give us genes to create biological memories that are almost as perfect? What new kinds of consciousness would having better memories produce? There are people now with near perfect memories, but they seem different. What have they lost and gained?

Time and time again science fiction creates new visions of Humans 2.0. Most of the time science fiction pictures our replacements with ESP powers. Comic books imagine mutants with super-powers. I’ve been wondering just what better memories would produce. I think a better memory system would be more advantageous than ESP or super-powers.

JWH

 

If I Was A Robot Would I Still Love to Read?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 8, 2019

One of the trendy themes of science fiction is the idea of mind uploading. Many people believe it will one day be possible to record the contents of our brain and put our self into a computer, artificial reality, robot, clone, or artificial being. Supposedly, that solves the pesky problem of dying and gives humans a shot at immortality. The odds of this working is about the same as dying and going to heaven, but it’s still a fun science fictional concept to contemplate.

I can think of many pluses to being a robot, especially now that I’m 67 and my body is wearing out into wimpiness. It would be wonderful to not worry about eating. Eating used to be a pleasure, now it’s a fickle roulette wheel of not know if I’m going to win or lose with each meal. And not having to pee or shit would be a top-selling advantage point to being a silicon being. And what a blessed relief it would be to never be tormented by horniness again.

Life would be simple, just make sure I always had electricity to charge up and spare parts for the components that break down. No worries about coronaries, cancers, viruses, fungus, bacteria, or degenerative diseases. Or flatulence.

I’d also expect to have superlative sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, along with a host of new senses. And I assume those senior moments would be gone forever.

But would I still love to do the things I love to do now – read books, watch television, and listen to music? What would reading be like if I was a robot? If I sucked down a book as fast as I can copy a file on my computer, I doubt reading would be much fun. For reading to be enchanting, I’d have to contemplate the words slowly. How would a robot perceive fiction? Are we even sure how humans experience the process of taking words from a book and putting them into our head?

Let’s say it takes me one minute to read a page of fiction. Somehow my mind is building a story while my eyes track the words. A novel would take hours to unfold. A robot could read a digital book in less than a second. Even for a robot brain is that enough time to enjoy the story?

Will robots have a sense of time different from ours? Dennis E. Taylor wrote a trilogy about the Bobiverse where Bob’s mind is downloaded into a computer. Taylor deals with the problem of robots perceiving time in it. He had some interesting ideas, but not conclusive ones.

In the WWW Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer theorizes that consciousness needs a single focus for sentience. No multitasking self-awareness. I think that makes sense. If this is true, robot minds should have a sense of now. They say hummingbirds move so fast that humans appear like statues to them. Would humans appear like the slowest of sloths to robots? Does slow perception of reality allow us to turn fiction into virtual reality in our heads?

Could robots watch movies and listen to music in real time? Or would images of reality shown at 24fps feel like a series of photos spaced out over eons of robot time? Would the beat of a Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let it Go” create a sense of music in a robot’s circuitry or just a series of periodic thuds?

It’s my guess that who we are, our personality, our sentient sense of reality, our soul, comes from our entire body, and not just data in our head. Just remember all the recent articles about how bacteria in our gut affects our state of being. Just remember how positive you feel about life when you have a hangover and are about to throw up.

I’ll never get to be a reading robot. That’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be great to read a thousand books a day? Maybe I could have finally read everything.

JWH

Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

Photoshopping Our Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 3, 2018.

Recently I read “Problematic Classics: Four Questions to Ask When Beloved Books Haven’t Aged Well” by Matt Mikalatos over at Tor.com. Mikalatos asks what to do when reading a book that expresses hateful views by the author or characters. Basically, he asks: Should I ever recommend such a work? Can I read it privately? Should I read something like it without the hate? or Should I write something like it without the hate? He goes on to mention problems with T. H. White, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and H. P. Lovecraft.

censorship

I too have that problem. I can no longer read Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and other classic southern writers because of the n-word. But that also stops me from listening to Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Ester Dean. And I’m not sure I should be censoring those artists. But my liberal upbringing makes me cringe at any utterance of the n-word despite the context.

Mikaloatos wonders if it’s kosher to read old works with hate in them if he can’t recommend them to others. Should a few offensive passages spoil what is otherwise a masterpiece of creativity? There are some nasty parts in The Bible, should we reject it too? Is there anything in this world without flaws?

But this begs the question: Should we read only what’s pleasant and nice? The past is full of nasty hateful people. Then again, so is the present. When I read a book from the 19th century I want it to teach me about what people were like in the past. I don’t want a cleaned up version. It’s enlightening if we understand the past in all its dimensions.

It bothered me when I learned that The Hardy Boys books have been rewritten several times to clean up and modernize the originals. Maybe with some books, we should just forget them, because we don’t want to pass on problems of the past to young readers. But do we want to completely protect the young from the things we don’t want them to become?

It’s troubling to me that Mikalatos’ suggests that we substitute clean modern works that emulate older problem works. This seems Orwellian to me, like how the communists used to retouch photographs to remove dissidents from history. I think there is something dangerous about white-washing history. But that assumes literature is part of history and not a yummy snack that can be reformulated with a healthier recipe. I’d rather read Pride and Prejudice than a modern historical novel that uses the same setting. And is it fair to Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to reject them for an imitator, or to imitate them? That reminds me of Remake by Connie Willis, where one of her characters has the job of removing smoking and drinking from classic movies like Casablanca.

My wife and I watched a Doris Day/Rock Hudson film the other night, Lover Come Back, and we said to each other that this once very squeaky clean film would now be seen as horribly sexist. There would be no way to just photoshop over a few problems, it would have to be tossed out completely if everything from the past had to be politically correct.

There’s a trend by the latest generation to reject the past if it makes them uncomfortable. Life is complicated, hard, vicious, confusing, overwhelming, and it’s both insanely good and evil. I can understand readers wanting books with nicer realities to escape into, but how often should we be escaping reality? Is the only purpose of books to entertain?

First, are we judging the author for their views or their characters views? H. P. Lovecraft was racist and anti-semitic. Mikalatos asks if we can throw away the Lovecraft stories that reveal his hate and keep the ones that don’t, or do we throw away all of his work because they come from a hateful person? I never liked Lovecraft’s stories, but he was very influential on many writers and several of them worked on a shared mythos that’s quite creative. Lovecraft’s work is essential to understanding the history of the horror genre. If I met young readers who loved horror novels I would tell them about Lovecraft, but I’d also warn them of his personal failings.

A lot of people make fun of trigger warnings, but I see nothing wrong with them. I believe stories from the past should come with scholarly introductions that put the story and the author into a historical and literary context without spoilers. And in some cases, I think some stories would require an afterward with further explanations that do have spoilers.

Older folks often make fun of younger folks for not knowing history. If history was the only subjects kids studied in their K-12 years, they’d still be ignorant of most of it. But I do believe younger people today want to reject history more than we did when we were young. They want to photoshop history to make it nicer. They believe if they can ignore the nastiness of reality their world will feel better. And that is true. I don’t watch the local news and I’m much happier living where I do because of it. However, I think if we’re going to wear rose-colored glasses, we can’t tint out all the ugliness.

Sure, we all have to find ways to cope, and if avoiding certain novels, movies, and television shows help, then so be it. I once heard a joke about a man who pistoled-whipped himself every morning so he wouldn’t be afraid of getting mugged. A certain amount of pain can toughen us up, but only so much.

The real lesson to learn is to read about hate without becoming hateful. I was reading Thomas Merton recently and was moved by his faith in goodness. Merton had been a Trappist monk before he died, believed goodness came from God. I don’t. But then I’m an atheist. I do believe in goodness. I believe we can all be better people. That requires knowing what is good, and what is bad. You can’t be good by ignoring the bad because becoming good means overcoming the bad. Our evolution as a species involves constantly mutating into who we want to be by jettisoning what we don’t. Just hiding from evil only means sticking our heads in cotton candy.

Yesterday I went to see BlacKkKlansman. I didn’t want to go because I knew it would be full of nastiness. But I’m glad I went. It was a work of art that everyone should see, but I can also understand some people not being able to handle it. When I left the theater I had a Christian revelation (even though I’m not a Christian). Forgiveness is learning to comprehend what we want to destroy. Or run away from, or ignore. Maybe that’s where I’m going when I say we shouldn’t photoshop our literary history. Or the start. But forgiveness is hard.

JWH