Science Fiction and Human Evolution

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 13, 2018

Are homo sapiens not quite intelligent enough to survive? Did you know the poor Neanderthal made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years without discovering innovation? Homo sapiens have always assumed we had endless potential because we constantly create better technology. Is that true, or just hubris?

Most dreams of science fiction will remain fantasies. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have faster-than-light spaceships, or any kind of interstellar travel, time travel, matter transporters, brain downloading, living in virtual worlds, or become immortal. There are limits to our hopes.

But what about dreams that could still come true?

Our current reality reveals we’re a species that have so overpopulated the planet that we’re about to destroy our shared ecosystem with all other species, that we’re now bringing about the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re dismantling the first global civilization. We’ve amassed a pile of problems we can’t solve. Is there any hope we can smarten up before it’s too late? I doubt it, but let’s explore the possibilities of change.

Science fiction has often assumed humans becoming a new species, but usually, it’s rather far-fetched, involving new people with psychic powers or comic book mutations and superpowers. A great deal of current science and science fiction explores the idea of post-humanism or transhumanism, but I think that’s mostly hopeful fantasy too. If we were realistic, how would a new species emerge and what traits would define it? Is there enough time to transform ourselves before the clock runs out? Prophets, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have suggested many methods that humans might evolve.

  • Spiritual discipline. Yogis, fakirs, mystics, priests, and self-improvement gurus have taught us for thousands of years that we already possess the potential to be superior beings.
  • Medical technology. We’ve already expanded our lifespan and improved our bodies. Could we deploy the same research to expand the brain?
  • Eugenics. Is it possible to intentionally breed humans like farm animals to improve the species? It’s a vile idea that’s been thoroughly rejected but people still think about it.
  • Genetic engineering. We’re getting closer to manipulating our own genes. If CRISPR can edit out genetic diseases could it delete genes for dumbassness and add some for wisdom?
  • Accelerating evolution. What if we could use technology to physically change our brains? Such devices pop up in the news all the time. Will they always be sold by snake oil salesmen?
  • Cyborg technology. Can we enhance who we are by bolting on machines to our bodies and minds? What if we could embed smartphone technology directly into our skulls? I guess that’s one kind of evolved telepathy.
  • Uplift. Science fiction has often imagined humanity being improved with the help of superior aliens. I doubt aliens will visit us anytime soon but what if we build AI machines that bootstrap this process?

We know our species, homo sapiens evolved out of older species, but will a new kind of people ever evolve out of us? Modern humans have been around 300,000 years and maybe 500,000 years by some estimates. The “average” lifetime of a species of mammals is around 1 million years, although some species have been around for millions of years. We split from the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas about 6 or 7 million years ago, and 400,000 – 500,000 years ago Neanderthals and homo sapiens took forking paths. Modern humans and Neanderthal coexisted for over 200,000 years.

Here’s an illustration I borrowed from Wikipedia:

Human family tree

Imagine if the top of this chart extended into the future, would we see new offshoots from homo sapiens coexisting with us and eventually leaving us behind? Generally, species are defined as a group of individuals that reproduce. But is a new species one where individuals can’t interbreed with the old one? In recent years we’ve learned that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Could we have already produced a new species that won’t reveal it’s obviousness for thousands of years?

We don’t have the time to evolve better humans naturally, although our collapse could provide the evolutionary breeding ground for a new species. We have to consider that homo sapiens might be the end of the line. Maybe intelligence isn’t a trait that’s sustainable. Maybe our descendants will be less smart and less destructive? Why do we assume more intelligence is what’s needed? Can you imagine the Earth evolving countless species for billions of years and never reinventing self-aware conscious intelligence?

I tend to believe our replacements will be machines with artificial intelligence. But let’s explore the possibility a new species will descend from us biologically. Right off the bat, I want to exclude any speculation about psychic abilities or superpowers. Evolution isn’t magic. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the singular traits of the new people is a complete disbelief in magic. Embracing make-believe has held humans back like some powerful drug addiction. I define magic as any hope to alter reality by any means unexplainable by science. All theology evolved out of magical beliefs. Humans have always worked to reshape reality, either with tools or prayers. The next species needs to give up on wishing to make it so.

Let’s assume the new people reject magic, mysticism, religion, theology, metaphysics, and make-believe. Of course, if you’re a believer in magic then my suggestion is going to outrage you. But this is my essay, so go along with me for a while. I’m going to assume that new people will be completely in touch with reality. Scientific thinking will be their cognitive foundation. They will only be concerned with what they can perceive with their senses, scientific instruments, and confirm with statistical scientific analysis. I will assume their use of language will evolve out of this too. Their success will be a society that’s ecologically sustainable and embraces everything we learn from reality.

Let’s assume the new people will be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek and the next species of humans will be sort of like Vulcans, except they won’t be able to do mind melds or any of that other silly mumbo-jumbo. They will be very logical beings, clear thinkers, with precise language. They won’t have psychic powers but they could have technological augmentations like the Borg. Let’s assume they have an extra neocortical layer that allows them greater pattern recognition than we have. They will have better memories and better cognitive strengths. They could look the same as us or maybe have slightly larger heads, or have brains that are neurally denser.

How Will the New People Emerge?

Science fiction has already explored many possibilities? This is the prime virtue of science fiction, to speculate about possibilities. Some of what I’ve read include:

  • 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Just decades after Darwin’s famous books, Wells imagines the human race splitting into two new species, the Eloi, and Morlocks.
  • 1911 – The Hampdenshire Wonder by J. D. Beresford. The story of a child prodigy that nature produced randomly.
  • 1930 – Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A medical serum is developed that gives people superhuman powers. Probably the inspiration for Superman.
  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. A story that describes 18 species of humans over the next two billion years.
  • 1931 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Eugenics creates superior beings and society.
  • 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. A scientist invents a cosmic-ray-machine that stimulates 50 million years of evolution every 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 1940 – Slan by A. E. van Vogt. A story about a race of scientifically evolved humans that must hide or be killed by jealous normal humans.
  • 1948-53 – Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. Radiation causes some children to have superior minds.
  • 1952-53 – More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sixth strange people with various psychic skills form a gestalt being.
  • 1953 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come to Earth to uplift us to our next stage of existence.
  • 1955 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Mutations are showing up in plants, animals, and humans, and they are rejected by humanity, but the hope is on the side of the new.
  • 1959 – The Fourth “R” by George O. Smith.  In this story, teaching machines are invented that accelerates education in the brain.
  • 1959-66 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A medical procedure is developed that accelerates intelligence.
  • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. A human child is raised by Martians proves that humans already have the capacity to be more powerful beings. This is the culmination of a decade of psi-stories in science fiction.
  • 1963 – “The Sixth Finger” is an episode of The Outer Limits. A scientist invents a machine that accelerates human evolution.
  • 1993 – Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Humans are genetically engineered not to need sleep thus giving them 30% more time to be productive. The new humans out-compete humans who need sleep.
  • 1997 – Gattaca. Genetic engineering creates a new generation of humans that out-compete the older generation.
  • 1999 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. A retrovirus alters human reproduction causing a new species to emerge.
  • 2012 – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Humanity alters both itself and the solar system.

Science fiction has seldom dealt with subtle ways in which new people might evolve. The best example I can think of is a 1953 fix-up novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, which is long out-of-print. Shiras was an early woman science fiction writer, and she imagined normal looking children with greater intelligence created by radiation exposure. Her special children did not have wild talents like all the silly comic books. However, some writers have suggested her book might have influenced the Marvel comics and their explosion of mutants with superpowers in the mid-1950s.

But let’s not think in terms of unrealistic 1950s science fiction. We’re getting close to real genetic engineering. In the 1990s Nancy Kress imagined in the Beggars in Spain series a future where genetic engineering creates a race of humans that don’t need sleep. This one advantage gives the sleepless a tremendous edge over sleepers. Or the film Gattaca where society allows parents to select the genes of their children creating a division in society between enhanced humans and normals.

If you think about it, we’ve already altered our species several times in the last 17,000 years. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture did a huge uplift to our kind. Writing did another. Then the printing press accelerated our progress tremendously again. Universal public education made a huge change to our species. The American Constitution altered our species too. Computers and networking are giving us another makeover. What’s interesting, if you pay attention to it, is society changes, but not us. Humans are basically the same throughout the times, just reprogrammed by outside forces. We’re very adaptable. In fact, we’re too adaptable, because we’ve taken over all the environmental niches on this planet, pushing out other species.

I believe society is programming us more and more, overriding our genetic code. Feminism is a great example. Our genes want to treat females as possessions. Society is convincing us they are individuals. How we shape society will determine how people will behave. This gives us a chance to evolve ourselves, and not have to wait on biology.

Religion and then politics has tried to codify behavior for thousands of years, but both systems have always failed to be universally successful. Science fiction writers have often explored utopian and dystopian societies that worked to impose a new way of living on our species. The lesson from these stories is utopias universally fail. But is that really true? Could we create a society that brings out the best in people?

As individuals, we are naturally greedy, self-serving, resentful, and xenophobic. I’m not sure genetic engineering can do away with those faults. The current return to conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else” Ayn Randian. How can we be sure the next stage human won’t follow those traits?

As a species, we have to worry about fractional groups running the whole show. Theocracy and plutocracy allow a minority to dominate the majority. What we need is a system that benefits all, including the other species. Right now, we can’t choose to evolve our physical bodies, but we can choose a society that shapes our minds.

I believe we need to apply the highest aspirations of religion, philosophy, politics, and science in creating a technological society that brings out our best traits. This Pollyannish hope is being crushed by our worst traits making all our political decisions right now. Donald Trump and politicians like him represent the election of leaders based on our worse qualities and fears. We’re reverting to wanting strong tribal leaders rather than globally enlightened ones. I can’t help but believe that’s happening because homo sapiens just aren’t up to the challenge. However, I want to be proven wrong.

Most species don’t adapt to change, they just die out. We were just about to create a global society. Then with recent political changes sprouting the globe, it feels like we’re de-evolving. Hopefully, if the past is a predictor, we’ll swing back to progressing.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.

JWH

 

How Quickly Do Ideas Spread?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 2, 2017

In 2009 group of environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen proposed the idea of planetary boundaries. They defined nine indicators to monitor Earth’s environmental stability. In 2009 we had not crossed any of the nine boundaries, but by 2017 we had crossed four. Everyone knows about boundary number one – climate change – but do you know the other eight? I may have heard of planetary boundaries before in the popular science books I read, but it feels like I just discovered this concept when I read Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman. So, it took me eight years to encounter this concept since it was first created. That’s not too bad. How long will it take this idea to spread to everyone? Have you heard of planetary boundaries?

book-big-world-small-planet (1)Johan Rockström came out with a textbook, Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries in 2012, but I rarely buy textbooks (the Kindle edition is $45!), but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find them readable because of my knowledge level. Rockström did come out with a popular science level book, Big World, Small Planet in 2015, which I do wish I had discovered. How often do we buy new books with new ideas when they first come out? (I ordered it today, even though I’m two years late.)

The first laser was built in 1960. I read about it in Popular Science sometime in the mid-60s. I got to see one in 1967 at a science museum in Miami. In the 1980s I finally got to own one when I bought my first CD player. So it took about a quarter century to spread laser technology to the masses.

On the other hand, it took algebra thousands of years to finally get to me in 1963. In fact, most of what I know is pretty damn old. I finally learn about calculus in the early 1970s, when its concepts were only as old as Newton and Leibnitz. I guess astronomy is the science I’m most up-to-date with, and I’m sure I’m years behind and only know its discoveries in the most rudimentary of ways.

The concept of climate change has taken decades to spread through society and it’s often rejected. How long will it take other planetary boundaries to become universally known and affect political action? Even with the speed of the internet we just don’t seem to learn new ideas quickly enough. Most people are stuck on religious ideas proposed thousands of years ago which have been completely invalidated by later knowledge.

And, we forget so much knowledge! My awareness of mathematical concepts has de-evolved to a time before the classical Greeks. To make matters worse, Republicans seem hellbent on rejecting science. Even if knowledge flows freely and fast around the internet there are barriers to absorbing it.

The concept of planetary boundaries is essential to our survival. And I bet there are way more the nine boundaries – that’s just the number scientists are working with now. (Of course, there might already be a new number and I won’t acquire it for a few more years.)

I’m looking for the best popular science books on the nine boundaries. Read about them at Wikipedia but here’s the table they use to define them. (Hope it’s okay to copy.) If you’ve read good popular science books on each that you’d highly recommend, let me know. I consider This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein to be the best book for boundary #1, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for boundary #2. But I’m having trouble finding bestsellers that focus on boundaries 3-9.

9-planetary-boundaries

JWH

The Church of Reality

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017

PKD“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

 

We need to declutter the world of bullshit memes. It’s time to apply Marie Kondo’s techniques for getting rid of unnecessary things to unnecessary beliefs. We all live in a fantasyland of lies, myths, untruths, and endless other forms of bogus thoughts. There is too much truthiness in the world and not enough truth.

Yesterday I started writing an essay about all the bullshit beliefs that pollute our minds. As I began tallying those crazy concepts I realized I’d need to write a whole book to cover the topic. This morning I discovered that book has already been written, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Anderson. Here is a portion of chapter 1, “Now Entering Fantasyland,” but I highly recommend following the link to Amazon and reading the whole chapter.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of people’s beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think, but from reams of research, drilling down and cross-checking and distilling data from the last twenty years, a rough, useful census of American belief, credulity, and delusion does emerge.
By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.
Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.
A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.
A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

What we need is a movement to zap unreality whenever we encounter it. We need a Church of Reality where the ten commandments work to clear the collective consciousness of delusion. Of course, that’s Zen Buddhism, which has never caught on big. Too bad we can’t all walk around with bamboo sticks and give each other a politic whack if we hear something attacking reality.

If John Kelly had a keisaku, swatting Donald Trump every time he said something foolish, I wonder if the President could be conditioned into seeing reality more clearly? Would it help any or all of us if we got a little sting when we said something unreal? Maybe Apple and Google could develop apps for our phones that listen to us like Alexa and honks rudely when hearing silly remarks. Think of it as an AI friend like Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek who would be cool and logical.

Anderson, in Fantasyland, goes into the history of how we’ve become such a looney nation. It used to be crackpots were loners seldom seen, but the internet has turned them into preachers gathering huge flocks of crazy followers. To compound the problem our country is creating an anti-authority establishment. Politicians and businessmen have learned that two-thirds of the population will believe anything they tell them so they greedily take whatever they want by lying. Currently, they are pulling off the biggest con in history with their tax-cuts using tired old lies that have been disproven for decades, yet they continue to succeed.

There is one external reality in which we all reside, unfortunately, the human mind creates its own subjective reality that each mind prefers to believe. Science is the only cognitive tool that tells us statistically which aspects of the external reality are probably real. Any Church of Reality we create needs to teach people how to tell shit from Shinola. I don’t know if that’s possible, but it’s lessons need to come from an external source. I can picture us each having a robot that follows us around and routinely says in the voice of Jeeves, “I’m sorry sir, what you just said is incorrect” or maybe in the voice of Marvin the Robot, “Damn human, you certainly are full of crapola today!”

JWH

 

 

Is There Any Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook that her world was rocked when she attended a lecture by Rev. Dr. William Barber who is leading a moral movement to repair the breaches in our society. I assume Laurie found hope in the idea we can save ourselves by creating a new moral order. Even though I’m an atheist, I’m all for this. The trouble is our society is too fractured. Is it even possible to put it back together again? I’ve recently wondered if there is any kind of movement that everyone could embrace and find agreement? I figured it would have to be as powerful as Christianity was in its first four centuries — and yet work with non-Christians and non-believers.

How can we find common ground? Everyone talks about America being politically polarized into conservatives and liberals, but I believe there are far more divisions than that cracking up our society. If every group identity is going to demand society conform to their narrow vision we are doomed. How can we find common ground when so many different viewpoints want to dominate making the rules? Instead of seeking cooperative compromises they all fight to impose their view while demeaning everyone else’s.

In small, homogenous societies, social coherence is found with shared morality. We live in a vast, heterogeneous society with countless ethical/moral visions which makes having shared values almost impossible. In the past, we all tried to agree on some social conventions such as etiquette, acceptable public behaviors, and abiding the laws. Such efforts are almost universally ignored now.

Our greatest obstacle to finding social consensus is defining reality. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” is how the apostle Paul began the divide between religion and science by attacking what he called the “empty logic of the philosophers.” Several hundred years later, St. Augustine continued with “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

The-Closing-of-the-Western-Mind-by-Charles-Freeman

I got these quotes from The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. They explain perfectly how and why modern believers deny science. The faithful intuitively understand faith is threatened by science. It’s why Christianity embraced Plato and not Aristotle when they discovered the Greeks. It’s why conservatives have a never-ending guerrilla war with education working to undermine K-12 and higher education. They deny the results of science by denying science.

Is it even possible to find a common morality sharable by the sacred and the secular? We can’t even agree murder is evil. How can Christians embrace stand-your-ground laws, gun carrying permits, and AR-15s in light of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s strange that godless liberals support diversity, a concept that St. Paul brought to Christianity when many modern Christians reject it today. Not only is our secular society fractured into countless pieces, but so is Christianity. If believers in a single divine authority can’t agree how can secular society?

The old saying claims money is the root of all evil. I think it’s truer than ever. Money promotes self-interest, and self-interest promotes justifying the acquisition of money by any means. Our plutocratic society has escalated lying to the supreme tool of the greedy. Wealthy people and corporations have learned that lying pays big dividends. A great book that makes that point is The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway.

There is a war on science, knowledge, expertise, and intellectualism. The greedy have aligned themselves with the faithful to attack science, and they are winning the war. We can never achieve a universal morality if half the population believes the end justifies the means, thus rationalizing lying. The age of fake news and endless assaults on journalism will never stop before society collapses. I sometimes wonder if the goals of the radical right are to destroy society so they can start over fresh.

There is no hope for any moral movements if we all can’t agree to stop lying. We all need to accept that science is the only tool we have for verifying reality. Science was invented to work across cultures and weed out subjective bias. It is an extremely effective tool for explaining the objective reality we all live in. We must accept that any subjective religion, philosophy, or opinion can’t be a basis for defining what is true. Religion has two choices. It can embrace science or reject it. Religion will strengthen itself if it accepts science, even if science denies it’s metaphysical assumptions. The real value of religion is creating shared values and stable communities — heaven on Earth rather than silly promises in exchange of silly declarations of beliefs.

The greedy are currently using religion to attack science to protect their wealth. The greedy have aligned with the faithful who are also attacking science to defend ancient memes created by primitive folks thousands of years ago. There is a logical synergy to their union but if it succeeds it will destroy our current civilization. Thus, greed is corrupting modern Christianity. I find it hard to accept the faithful who claim the moral high ground when Mammon is their ally.

I don’t know how they can assert America is a Christian nation when our society isn’t even close to resembling the sayings printed in red in their bibles. I believe Jesus tried to teach social action that has more in common with the Democratic party than the Republican. To me, the only valid analysis of Christian philosophy comes from what Jesus said. Everything else said in his name or about him is corrupt. Read The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar to understand what I mean, or the books of Bart D. Ehrman.

I believe our only hope is to get the faithful and faithless to agree on common secular morality. This is what the Founding Fathers intended when they created freedom of religion. Because religious beliefs are infinite in variety they need to stay out of politics and remain personal. We need laws and common morals that protect everyone equally. We need to ignore the politics of special interest groups that want special treatment for the few.

We need to agree that science is the only arbiter of explaining reality, promote universal quality education, develop a set of ethics that all agree on which protects both people, animals, the plant world, the environment, that develops a sustainable society. What we need is worldwide Constitution and Bill of Rights for everyone in the 21st century. We need to protect the poor and helpless, but allow the ambitious to succeed without collectively destroying the planet.

The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

I’ve read two articles this week that suggests this won’t happen. Both are about the war on science and knowledge. The first is Bill Moyers dialog with Joan Scott at Salon, “In the Trump age, an embolden attack on intellectuals.” And this older article at The Federalist by Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise” which later became the book, The Death of Expertise.

Hope involves believing people can change. Since we haven’t for two hundred thousand years, why expect the human race to get its shit together at the last moment to avoid an apocalypse of our own making? We could save ourselves if we weren’t so greedy. Unfortunately, we live in a civilization where greed is the foundation.

JWH

 

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