Republic of Insects


There is a scene in Plato’s socratic dialogue, Phaedo, in which Socrates and a handful of his followers are discussing reincarnation. Phaedo, by way of explanation, is a moving dialogue which discusses the topic of immortality. Part of what makes it so moving is that it occurs on the eve of Socrates’ execution by the Athenian democracy for practicing a form of philosophy that many Athenians felt was a threat to their very existence: questioning its gods, its morality, its way of life.

In the scene discussing reincarnation, Socrates is trying to argue that where the soul of an individual finds itself in the next life is directly tied to its virtue, or lack of virtue, practiced in its’ prior life. Classic karma: human beings who practice virtue, but not philosophy, during their lives will have the happiest of lives to follow of all but the philosophers. He defines the happiest life this way:

Socrates: “I suppose the happiest people, and those that reach the best destination, are the ones who have cultivated the goodness of an ordinary citizen, so-called ‘temperance’ and ‘justice’, which is acquired by habit and practice without the aid of philosophy and reason”.

Cebes: “How are they the happiest?”

Socrates: “Because they will probably pass into some kind of social and disciplined creature like bees, wasps, and ants; or even back into the human race again, becoming decent citizens.” (141) [emphasis added].

The fact that Socrates thinks the better part of humanity, again excluding the philosophers, who he thinks will get off the wheel of birth-death-rebirth permanently, will find themselves in the bodies of bees, wasps, or ants and not what we would more likely consider a more noble animal- say lions, or wolves, or some such thing, probably strikes most of us as odd. Maybe Socrates is having a little fun at Cebes expense, we might ask?  After all, why in the world would any good person, even if they weren’t a philosopher, want to live the life of an ant?

One person who might understand what Socrates (or Plato speaking for Socrates) was getting at, who might even want to, if only for a brief period of time, actually live the life of an ant (who in fact did, imaginatively, in a section of his novel, Anthill) is the famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, who has made the study of ants and other social insects his life passion.  But Wilson is not merely “the king of the ants” .

Wilson is a public intellectual of the first order bringing the findings of the biological sciences to a general readership since the late 1960s. A scientist with a deep respect for the arts, he has tried to bridge the gap between science and the humanities (Consilience), and science and religion (The Creation).

He has also not been without controversy, being the founder of the field of sociobiology that attempts to explain human behavior from the standpoint of genetics and evolution (Sociobiology & On Human Nature).  The effort to explain human behavior in terms of biology, which Wilson helped start back in the 1970s, quite rightly, engendered a period of spirited opposition given the horrors that had emerged from the Nazi embrace of biological and evolutionary theories regarding the nature and future of humanity only a generation before. In our own day, these debates appear to be largely forgotten, and sociobiology has proven able to hold its own against less biologically inclined schools of social thought. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, however, might have the unintended result of reigniting these controversies, and leads one to doubt if the dangers implicit in socio-biological thinking are not as potent as ever.

At 83, Wilson’s, Social Conquest, may be his last major work. Its ambition certainly makes it seem that way, for in his book, he not only offers a major (and controversial) revision of the theory of evolution, he sets out to explain humanity itself- its culture, religion, art, and good and evil duality- all within the context of his new evolutionary theory.

What he did not intend was to give us insight into the meaning of Utopia, especially the earliest and most powerful Utopia ever conceived- Plato’s Republic. With Utopia being one of the subjects with which this blog is mostly concerned, I will ultimately focus on that, but let me begin by explaining what Wilson was definitely trying to say with his Social Conquest.

This, with some simplifications, is the way Wilson tells his story: Socio-biologists have, since the beginning, attempted to explain animal, and much more so, human behavior, in reference to evolution. They were able to make great strides, but one problem kept popping up, the problem of “goodness”, or better, they had no ironclad way to explain why goodness, or to use the fancier phrase- altruism- was so prevalent in the natural world. To state the matter crudely:  If everything in nature was supposed to be about passing on genes, then why, do people help others when there is no clear reproductive benefit in doing so? Why do firemen rush into burning buildings to save children who are not their own?

Many socio-biologists thought they had the solution when they came up with an idea called “kin-selection”. The idea is that people help others because they share identical genes, or that such aid somehow contributes to passing on their genes. The firefighter seems to risk his own reproductive future, but is actually trying to save it because the children in the burning building are really his nieces and nephews. If they are not, in fact, his nieces and nephews perhaps he is “confused”: his idea that he should save them a kind of hold over from the period in history when human societies were so small that any children he knew would have likely been close relatives.

The problem for socio-biologists is that, although the theory seemed to hold up pretty well for almost all animal behavior, (cute pictures of mother dogs raising tiger cubs aside) there were a lot more anomalies to the theory of kin-selection than just the case of brave firefighters when it came to human beings. To give just a short list of examples: how does one explain any war above the tribal level,  or celibate classes such as priests, or homosexuality? Shouldn’t there be pretty strong evolutionary pressure for individuals to distinguish between who is a relative and who is not, and only sacrifice their own reproductive future for the former? Socio-biologists kept tying themselves in knots trying to explain why human beings just didn’t seem to act like the theory of kin-selection said they should act. Wilson, thinks he has figured out how to untie these knots, and he has done it, no surprises, by looking at bugs.

Things is, in addition to human beings, who socio-biologists had a devil of a time fitting into their model of kin-selection, there is a very small group of insects who similarly resisted explanation under that same model. These insects who resisted explanation under the theory of kin-selection are the so-called eusocial insects. In terms of insect species they are a mere handful among millions and are largely composed of the: ants, termites, bees, and wasps (which, with the exception of termites, are exactly the “social and disciplined” insects Plato seems to hold as analogous to humans in his Phaedo.) Though only a small number in terms of species, their biomass is rivaled only by us human beings.

What makes eusocial insects so unique is not only that these insects live in colonies, but that the vast majority of their colonies’ populations foregoes any sort of reproduction at all. Instead, individuals devote themselves to the survival and “prosperity” of the colony as a whole: something that not only throws those the kin-selection crowd for a loop, but appears impossible under the theory of evolution as currently understood.

Wilson thinks he has found the solution to this conundrum, and in the process to have uncovered the root of human nature as well. His solution is something called group-selection. The long and short of it is that eusocial groups are under evolutionary pressure to develop altruism internally and competition externally. Species that have obtained a high level of internal altruism are poised for a remarkable level of complexity, and scale. (If you doubt it just take a look at the Leaf Cutter Ant). More of their collection of genes survive, and therefore, while any particular “individual” is likely to take a reproductive hit by belonging to such a group, in the aggregate more genes survive.  Eusociality is, therefore, an extremely effective evolutionary strategy. The reason it is so rare is that it takes a very peculiar evolutionary path to reach it because it flies against the grain of the standard evolutionary imperative for the individual to reproduce at all costs. Wilson claims that we humans too are one of those rare species that exhibit this quality of eusociality.

In his Social Conquest, Wilson lays two parallel journeys followed through what he describes as an “evolutionary maze” to reach the improbable state of eusociality by both the social insects and ourselves. I will not go into the details, but needless to say, Wilson sees the same forces of group selection he identifies in the eusocial insects to be going on in us. Human groups do better against other human groups if their members are less selfish towards one another and willing to sacrifice even to the point of surrendering the opportunity to reproduce- for instance someone willing to risk their life, before having children, in war.

But, if Wilson proposes that we are restrained, even to the point of sainthood to those of our “tribe”,  he holds it is a moral free-for-all outside because we are evolutionarily wired to be aggressive against outsiders, for here our evolutionary, individualistic imperatives take precedence. Wilson sees these contrary pulls as the origin of the angel/demon duality that appears a defining feature of the human condition.

Wilson writes in The Social Conquest :

The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. …

Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic towards one another (but not towards members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature. (241)

Here I think we can see some of Wilson’s Baptist upbringing shinning through. I have multiple objections to this reading of human morality, not the least of which is that most sins are committed against people we know. Bad husbands beat their wives, not the women in a neighboring village etc. Nor, is there mention at all in Wilson’s book that his theory is opposed by the majority of socio-biologists and is thus scientifically controversial.  But I will set these moral and scientific objections aside for I think Wilson has provided us with a very important window into the idea of Utopia, so let me continue with that.

There is no mention of Plato in The Social Conquest, nor does the word Utopia occur even once, though, both, certainly should. Plato, as I will try to show anticipates Wilson’s Eusocial theory by 2,500 or so years, and in turn has placed the conflict between “group and individual selection” at the heart of the Utopian tradition from its very inception.

To provoke flashbacks of your Philosophy 101 course in college; Plato’s Republic lays out the structure of what Plato believed to be the perfect state. Now, in what follows, I do not want to suggest that the Republic is merely some piece of ancient entomology projected onto human society- I am well aware that the Republic is much, much more than that. I am merely pointing out that Plato wants to resolve something like the eusociality/individual Selection conflict that Wilson draws our attention to. More than that, Plato wants to solve it once and for all and make the new society unchangeable, like a bug frozen in amber.  To identify and solve this problem Plato had many models available, and as the Phaedo quote above makes clear, one of these models Plato had on hand was an entomological one, and he even used it directly in the Republic as I will show in a minute.

The Republic imagines a three tiered society composed of philosopher-rulers, the Guardians, the military, Auxiliaries, and under them a much larger producer class which will contain artisans, farmers and the like. While it is unclear what exact arrangement obtains for the producing class, Plato achieves almost perfect eusociality for his Guardians/Auxiliaries (who because Guardians emerge from the Auxiliaries the two can be treated as one in most respects).

Individual selection, that is the tendency for individuals to chose in favor of the reproduction of themselves and their own genes, is completely stripped from the Guardians/Auxiliary class through the control of breeding- that is, the mates of  Guardians/Auxiliaries are chosen based on social rules and regulations for breeding the healthiest offspring- not based on the individual’s choice of or ability to win a mate. The genetic origin of children are hidden from the Guardians/Auxiliaries, so that they will not show particular favor to their own offspring, and private property among the Guardians/Auxiliaries is eliminated, again, so this class is discouraged from following individualistic ends.

This extremely cohesive eusocial class of Guardians/Auxiliaries sits on top of a much larger producer class, much like the queen sits atop an insect colony. It is clear that the survival/propagation of the Guardians is the main purpose of Plato’s social arrangement,
just as the insect queen is protected and provided for by warrior and worker insects.

Plato severely limits the size of ideal state, which leads one to wonder what will happen if the producer class grows too large as long as we assume that their breeding too is not regulated by the Guardians? The idea of the danger of “drones” is found throughout the Republic- indeed Plato characterizes the disintegration of the non-ideal state as a growth in the population of human drones. (Drones are insect members of a hive that contribute nothing to the hives’ overall well- being, indeed can attack and destroy the hive from which they get their sustenance.)  We can get an idea for what Plato’s Guardians/Auxiliaries will do with human drones who get too numerous, fail to produce, or engage in criminal behavior/rebellion in his advice to the statesman:

…. and the State-physician, or legislator, must get rid of them, just as the bee-master keeps the drones out of the hive (Republic, 507).

In my reading of it when the producers get too numerous, or when some producers refuse to work or rebel they will be expelled from the Republic, and one can expect that if for some reason they can’t be expelled they would likely face an even worse fate.

The eusociality which Plato discovered, perhaps in part by looking at the social organization of insects, has been a hallmark of many Utopias ever since. But one is left to wonder whether Plato, and now Wilson, have really articulated something true about the human societies or merely found an example, in the world of insects, of the kinds of perfectly hierarchical and harmonious societies they wish human beings lived in, and in the process imagined us as more like insects than is actually the case.

One should never forget that democracy effectively murdered Plato’s friend and mentor, and thus became the target of revenge for an unparalleled genius able to articulate compelling visions of its opposite. Wilson, for all his genteel reasonableness in a world of fanatical hotheads appears to be no fan of democracy. Writing to second the views of the mathematical theorist Herbert A. Simon, Wilson states in The Social Conquest:

…hierarchies work better than unorganized assemblages and that they are easier for their rulers to understand and manage.  Put another way, you cannot expect success if assembly-line workers vote at executive conferences or enlisted men plan military campaigns” (99)

Such a statement might not amount to any kind of anti-democratic claim against Wilson, after all, even the most participatory form of democracy ever known, Plato’s Athens, thought experts should direct certain areas of human life, though they judged areas where true expertise existed, and thus should be deferred to, to be quite limited. But, given that the word “democracy” appears not even once in The Social Conquest, given that Wilson only mentions ancient Athens in the context of their brutal massacre of the Milesians, we might reasonably start to have our doubts.

Accusations that Wilson was misapplying what he had learned from his thoughtful gaze into the alien world of insects onto the much more complex society of human beings, and by such  simplifications was implicitly providing a naturalistic justification for the most insidious, if not necessarily most brutal, forms of hierarchical control and oppression, are nothing new and have been around since the 1970s.

Sadly, what may very well be Wilson’s last great work has done nothing to dispel such suspicions.

* Explanation for the picture above: According to Greek Mythology the Myrmidons (or “ant-people”, also “ants-nest”. ), according to one legend, were a people created when Zeus took the form of an ant and seduced the Princess Phthia. The Myrmidons were a fierce warrior-people, and their name later came to mean “a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity – unquestioning followers.”

The illustration above is a science-fiction style rendering of a Myrmidon by the artist Russell M. Hossain.


Pagels’ Revelation 2, On Violence and Utopia

To return to the questions in the prior post:  Who was this John of Patmos, as he identifies himself, author of Revelation, and why did he write this strange book? As all reputable Biblical scholarship makes clear, he was not the disciple of Jesus named John, and/or the author one of the four key texts in the New Testament, the Gospel of John.

John of Patmos was Jewish believer in the message of Christ, that is, not quite yet a Christian (more on that in a bit).  Given the time in which he was living, and the beliefs he had adopted, his idea that the end of the world was at hand was no mere fantasy of the delusional, but reflected real, and current events. He seems to have written, first and foremost, for the reasons he said he had- to warn “all who could hear” about what he believed was the coming end of the world.

He was writing around 90 AD, and may very well have been a refugee from the incredibly violent Roman siege, starvation, and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus had predicted the destruction of the famed Jewish temple in that holiest of cities- “that not one stone would remain”, and in essence it had happened. (Pagels believes this prophecy reported in the Gospels to be legit, and not, as some think a later embellishment R10).

The war in the homeland of the Jews, then called Judea, had broken out four years earlier as a rebellion of intensely religious Jews, known as the Zealots, who sought to throw out the Romans and establish a kingdom of the godly on earth. It was perhaps the world’s first truly civilizational religious war:  in part sparked by what many Jews considered to be Roman sacrilege of Jewish religious norms, whose rebels aimed at creating a religiously based political community to be ruled by their hoped for coming messiah. It was a revolt that was ultimately crushed by the Romans who in doing so took direct aim at the Jewish religion: desecrating its holy sites and burning its most sacred temple to the ground.

John may have seen this destruction himself, and even if he did not, he certainly had met the scores of refugees from the Roman war on the holy land. He would have heard, first hand, the stories of the destruction and sacrilege, the rape of Jewish women, the tale of the Jews under siege at the fortress of Masada who chose mass suicide rather than the murder or enslavement by the Roman army that surrounded them.  But this religious war would have only been part of John’s understanding of Rome’s violence against “God’s people”, he would also be confronted by the specter of Rome’s own cult of power, and its corresponding religious persecution.

In modern times, at least in Western countries, we tend to try to preserve a line, sharp or blurred ,depending on our particular national culture, between politics and religion. Political figures or movements that cross this line are usually criticized for using religion for political ends. In the Roman world, on the other hand, it was not merely that religion was co-opted by political forces- it was that religion possessed no real independent existence apart from the state.

As Pagel’s points out, the Imperial Cult of Rome, in which conquered peoples accepted and worshiped both Roman gods and the emperor, were a means by which conquered peoples showed their loyalty to the conqueror. To not give worship to Rome rulers and its gods constituted an act of political defiance. Any wonder then that Jews, and later Christians, aroused the suspicion of Rome, which sometimes resulted in the empire’s extremely cruel persecutions of these dissident groups even outside the religious wars between Romans and Jews. Such persecutions could include everything from crucifiction to being tortured and eaten alive by wild animals for public entertainment.

If the political world offered John plenty of endtime material, the natural world delivered as well. The massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. had not only turned people quite literally to stone, it had opened a vast crater that seemingly opened into the burning mouth of hell, and caused molten lava to rein from the heavens.

But if it is clear that we should not look at Revelation as a book that aimed its’ prophecy at some far-off human future, but instead was a dystopian perspective on the Roman Empire in  the present of its author, how should we make sense of John’s seeming obsession with the Jews, which is another underlying theme in the book? That is, how are we to understand that Revelation is told from the perspective of the Jewish fight for liberation and justice against the Romans when it author, John, seemingly has such horrible things to say about the Jews as well.

It was once typical to read John’s ravings about the Jews as an early example of Christian anti- semitism. A pathology, which as we all know, was to play such a disastrous role in later Western history. That’s how I always read Revelation, but Pagel offers an alternative explanation, one that seemed to make apparently nonsensical ravings such as ones against “those that say they are Jews and are not” scattered throughout Revelation actually make sense.

Pagel sees John as on the losing side of an argument about what Christianity was to become. Was it to present itself the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, concentrate on the conversion of fellow Jews, and retain Jewish law for converts such as dietary laws and the practice of circumcision? Or was it to open itself fully to non-Jews- the Gentiles- concentrate on their conversion rather than the conversion of fellow Jews, and largely abandon Jewish law for religious practices that would be more attractive to non-Jews?

Pagel sees John of Patmos as taking the position that Christianity should remain as close as possible to the Judaism it claimed to fulfill, whereas the apostle Paul, whose side ultimately won this debate, wanted, in a sense, to walk away from traditional Judaism and spread a new faith among the Gentiles.

So John in his Revelation is aiming at two primary targets: the Roman Empire, and those in his new religious movement centered on the figure of Jesus Christ (the Paul faction) who wanted to redefine the faith to embrace the Gentiles and abandon almost all of traditional Judaism.John’s seemingly anti-semitic statements can now be seen not as attacking the Jews but those early Christians who were abandoning much of Judaism and setting their sights on converting the pagans.

With this in mind we can start to answer the question of what all his crazy symbolism might mean. The Beast in all likelihood is the Roman Empire, with the “Whore of Babylon” being the great city of Rome itself, both after all,  sit upon seven hills. The Beast’s “seven heads” are likely the last seven emperors of Rome up until the madman emperor,  Nero.

The infamous Nero, who had murdered his own mother and was rumored to have deliberately set afire the city of Rome, could easily play the part of the last head (emperor) of the seven headed Beast (Rome). Nero had died of a self-inflicted wound to the head- just like the wound suffered by John’s Beast, but was rumoured to be still alive and plotting his return. A rumor John may have known and believed.

The so-called “mark of the beast” which people need to be able to “buy or sell” is probably a cryptic reference to Roman coins which often had images of the Roman emperor, Roman gods, or both, and which many observant Jews of the time faced a moral dilemma in using. (Though Jesus with his “Render what is Caesar’s unto Caesar and what is God’s unto God”, apparently, did not.)

The “false prophet” figure of the antichrist, though John doesn’t call him that, is likely a reference to one of the figures on the Paul side of the where-do-we-go-from-here? debate among early Christians. He might also be the author of a lost alternative end-of-time narrative to John’s own. Pagels shows us just how common these narratives were at the time, an obvious reflection of the enormous pressures society was undergoing at that time.

The figure of Jezebel is also likely one of these figures of early Christianity, and Pagels here too brings prominent Christian preachers who were women lost to time, or erased from official history back into view. Talk of  Jezebel’s “fornication” by John Pagels sees not so much as a puritanical slur as a reference of this prophetesses’ tendency to aim her preaching at “unclean” pagans.

This still leaves us with plenty of questions in terms of John’s symbolism, but a more practical question is how John’s Revelation came to be in the Bible at all if it was indeed a rival to the ultimately winning (Paul) side of the debate among early Christians regarding the future of the faith?

In fact, Pagels points out that including Revelation in the officially sanctioned books that make up the New Testament was highly contested and controversial. At the end of the day, Revelation had a number of opposing strengths that would lead to its eventual inclusion in the Bible.

For one, it offered hope, and ultimate justice and in doing so became popular with Christians who were even more brutally persecuted by the Romans during the 2nd century than they had been when John penned Revelation. The Romans considered the Christians “atheist” in that they didn’t believe in the gods, and though neither would admit it, Christianity and atheism have been the flip-side of one another ever since.

What was worse for the Romans is that this atheism was rapidly spreading and in sections of the population: slaves, women, the poor where such beliefs might foment revolution. The fact that many Christians would not disavow their beliefs, would suffer horrible tortures and death rather than pay homage to the emperor and the Roman gods, or would refuse to curse the name of this agitator- Jesus- whom the Romans had proved to be a charlatan when they crucified him over a century before, made Christians appear like dangerous fanatics in the eyes of Roman magistrates, a cancer on the Empire that needed to be stopped before it became impossible to do so.

Under conditions like this, for Christians, John’s Revelation didn’t read like prophecy- it read like the news. But then everything changed.

In 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. By the end of his reign Christianity would be the official religion of the empire that had tried to destroy it. Christian churches, not pagan temples, would be paid for with the taxes of Rome. Pagans, rather than Christians would find themselves under state persecution.  A betting man would have wagered that The Book of Revelation which had preached against the Roman Empire had had its day. Yet here, another strength of Revelation makes its appearance- that is the ambiguity of its symbolism. John never says “I am talking about the Roman Empire”, “the Whore of Babylon is Rome” etc. You can project onto Revelation any enemy you wish, which also means you can deny that its characters represent some particular power or person as well.

The person almost singularly responsible for getting the Book of Revelation included in the Bible was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.  Athanasius was an impassioned proponent of a hierarchical and universal (catholic) church. His election to the position of Bishop in Alexandria in the early 300s was contested and the issue ultimately decided in his favor by Constantine with whom he had close connections. Many in the Egyptian church fought this decision and Athanasius fought a 40yr struggle to bring them to heel.

In this fight Athanasius found in Revelation a potent weapon. John’s warnings against “false prophets” would be used in Athanasius’ hands to mean any group of “heretics” that did not submit to the will of the Church which was now firmly aligned with the Roman Empire. This Athanasius was a major figure among the group of Church and Imperial officials that would create the Nicene Creed, the declaration of belief that Catholics recite at the beginning of religious services to this day. He was also a key player in the decision of what books were to make up the official Christian Bible, and he would argue for, and win the inclusion of Revelation.

This still leaves us with the last question, namely, what does The Book of Revelation mean for us? Here I will step away from Pagel and speak for myself. What it certainly is not is some sort of actual prophecy to be applied to our own time. Yet, given the ambiguity symbolism in the story, and its proven ability to be projected upon just about any political or religious environment, Revelation is likely to be used, or rather misused, in this way until human beings stop imagining the end of the world. A scenario that will probably only come about when there are no longer human beings around to worry about such things. That is, the end of Revelation, or some variant of it, will only come about once the world, at least for us human beings, really has ended.

As I have pointed out in the past, other myths that explained the world in terms of a battle of good against evil, that would end with the victory of the good and represent the end of history predate The Book of Revelation, but it is primarily this book that still holds us in its spell.

John’s strange images of violence, destruction, and evil incarnate take us into the world of our worst fears, but his story ends with the birth of a new world, and the end not merely of this particular experience of suffering in this specific time, but the end of all suffering, and, at least for the just, for all of time to come. In his vision not just human beings stop hurting and killing one another, but animals stop doing so to one another as well. The bloodshed of John’s end-times is a type of catharsis that purges, once and for all, the elemental relationship between violence and the living world. Revelation, as Pagels points out, is a vision of both our worst fears and most fervent hopes.

It is probably this idea of ending violence through violence that has proven to be the most deadly legacy of Revelation. You can see it in the revolutionary reigns of terror in both the French and Russian Revolutions where killing was justified on the basis that violence was being made a thing of the past- a new state to be reached, it was claimed, once the current violence was over. You find this same dangerous nonsense in “wars to end all wars” or “the war on terrorism”, which given that terrorism is a tactic amounts to “the war on war”.  The idea that violence waged against violence will be one that the side of “good violence” is destined to win is a dangerous illusion that has resulted in the most dangerous of gambles with the very survival of humanity.

Violence is good for only two things that I can think of: self-defense, and to stop other violence as it is occurring or right before it is about to occur. Violence can not end violence, and it effect is often exactly the opposite, it can only stop the violence of another group in its tracks. Violence is, thus, a purely negative force, and despite what you might have learned in your political science classes it is never the basis of anything. Even the cruelest of states use violence not as a basis of their power but as a means of making sure no one but those willing to collaborate with them is actually able to organize. As the Romans knew well there is no basis for empire without a sea of willing collaborators.

But if we can step back from this dangerous illusion in Revelation that violence can end violence we can see what I believe to be the true and lasting value of that bizarre book.  In a way that would have never occurred to the Romans who held violence to be an elemental, inescapable, and even praiseworthy feature of the world [these Romans who,  after all, built their famous Coliseum as a house-of-horrors to entertain vast crowds with animals killing animals, animals killing humans, and humans killing humans] that there was something wrong with this state of affairs, that a more perfect world would be one in which violence, even the natural violence of animals, never occurred.

But John, in his confrontation with the Roman Empire could see this, and was thus able to take a moral and imaginative leap into a world that was not, into a utopia, where violence was gone from the world. This is the same type of leap that was taken from a very different perspective by the Indian religion of Jainism that till this day practices nonviolence against all living things. Both Revelation and Jainism accuse the violent character of the natural and human worlds of being immoral on account of such violence, and imagine in its place something new.

A world purged of violence is without doubt utopian in the sense that it will never be realized, but the fact that so many of us have come to believe that violence is fundamentally wrong, that we have purged or tried to purge it from all the places where Roman civilization found it to be natural: from the family, from the economy, from criminal justice, from even our relationship with animals can give us hope that the arc of history moving away from violence, an arc that John of Patmos helped identify, is more than just the delusion of a madman but a destination we, with effort, can continuously move towards, if never reach.

Pagles’ Revelation 1

 

Readers of this blog who take note of how much I talk about the Book of Revelation might be forgiven for thinking I had perhaps lost my grip on reality, that soon I might be found wandering the street with a sign around my neck informing the world that “the end is near!” or might be on the verge of joining the church of Harold Camping with the hope that next time he will get his dates right.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, I perhaps find the Book of Revelation as fascinating as those who believe it to be an outline of the human future composed by the mind of God. For me, Revelation is the first, and without doubt the most powerful dystopia ever written. The vagueness of its symbolism is its strength. For what other narrative is so flexible that its penultimate villain- the Anti-Christ- can be grafted onto historical figures as diverse as the Roman Emperor Nero, Pope Boniface VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte,  Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.

We should not forget either that the Revelation narrative was sometimes used by the “good guys” of history such as Bartolome de Las Casas who fought for the rights of Native Americans against his Spanish countrymen, or could be found in the hearts and minds of the Union armies during the Civil War who sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,

He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Revelation has proven the most powerful dystopian narrative in history whose value is as varied as the humanity that is its subject inspiring saints, poets, madmen and murderers. Thus, I awaited with some anticipation to get my hands on the religious scholar Elaine Pagels’ recently released Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Pagels is a brilliant historian of religion who writes in a style accessible to the lay reader, and in her work she sets out to tell us the origins of this strangest of books.

For those who have never read the Book of Revelation, or have read it and don’t quite remember what exactly it says,  below are the basics. Please bear with it, for later on, with the help of Pagel we will snap the whole thing into place.

The author of Revelation , John of Patmos, announces at the beginning of his book in a tone that clearly implies the imminent occurrence of what he is about to unveil:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things therein: for the time is at hand. [emphasis added]

In powerful words John speaks in the voice of God and indicates that the story he will tell is the end of a drama that began with the creation:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, what was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

John then reports how he was given his prophecy, which come to him in visions that he was told by God to convey by letters along with “warnings” to the seven churches of Asia.

In his letter to the church of Ephesus John warns against “them which say they are apostles and are not”.  To the church of Smyrna he warns against “those who say they are Jews and are not”. The church of Pergamos he warns against worshipers of the pagan god Baal. Thyatira he warns against “that woman Jezebel who calleth herself a prophet”. Sardis he cautions to keep on the right path. To Philadelphia John again makes this strange warning against those “which say they are Jews and are not” but are instead of “the synagogue of Satan”. [Quick note: this has often been interpreted as deranged anti-semitism on the part of John, and that is how I have always read it, but Pagel is going to offer a whole new explanation for this nonsense, so again, stay turned].  Lastly, John warns the Laodiceans about their “lukewarm” faith.

Now the story gets interesting. John sees four heavenly beasts with the faces of a lion, calf, man, and an eagle each with six wings and “full of eyes within”  surrounding a throne on a “sea of glass”  praising God. Around the throne also are seated 24 “elders” clothed in dazzling white and also singing praises to God.

On his throne, God holds a book in right hand locked shut with “seven seals”, only a slain lamb, the symbol of Christ, is able to open the book. This is the book on which the end of our world is written. The breaking of the first seal brings forth a white horse representing conquest, the second a red horse-violence-, a black horse-famine-, and a white horse-death. The breaking of the fifth seal reveals those who have died in the name of their faith who cry for the justice and revenge of God upon their tormentors.
The sixth seal triggers an enormous earthquake, the sun goes black, the moon becomes as red as blood, and stars fall from the sky.

For the great day of his wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand?

Angels descend from heaven to mark God’s chosen with a seal that will offer them protection from the horrors to come 144,000 are so marked. The story gets even harder to follow. At the breaking of the seventh seal  angel’s blow trumpets and all hell breaks-loose, so to speak, the angles pour out vials causing all kinds of horrors and monsters to descend upon the earth where a gaping abyss has opened up.

John now shatters all human conventions of past, present, and future. He sees a woman in heaven bathed in sunlight crying in labor giving birth to a child. (Mary, giving birth to Jesus which had happened a little less than a century before John wrote)  Satan, emerging from the abyss, makes chase to kill the child and battles Michael and the Angels of heaven (something that “took place” before the creation of mankind). To his side Satan calls the two figures we all remember from Revelation, the Beast, and another figure who has become known as the Antichrist.

The Beast has “seven heads and ten horns” and is obviously some sort of political power for he is said to have power “over all kindreds and tongues  and nations”. The Beast has been “wounded by a sword but did live”. The second figure, the Antichrist, makes his appearance. He is a sort of miracle worker who convinces the masses to worship the first Beast. The Antichrist decrees that everyone:

….. receive a mark in their right hand or in their forehead:
and that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

John then let’s us know that if we are wise enough we can actually figure out who this beast is:

for it is the number of a man: and his number is six-hundred threescore and six.

John then sees seven more angels pour yet more cups of horrors on the peoples of the earth. One of these angels takes John to see a woman sitting on a scarlet colored beast- again with seven heads. Upon her head is written:

MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

And we are informed that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth”.

John tells us how Babylon will be destroyed and how the merchants that have grown rich from her and those that have felt her pleasures “cinnamon, and, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil… and the souls of men” [emphasis added] will lament her fall.

God, on a white horse, and his armies descend from heaven and destroy the Beast, and end up chaining Satan in a bottomless pit for a thousand years. After this period Satan is released who will again deceive the nations of the earth including “Gog and Magog” at the four corners of the earth.  A last great battle for the meaning of the world ensues. The forces of good win. The great generations of the dead of humanity rise from under water and earth: their physical bodies reconstituted. The wicked of the world receive God’s justice, condemned  to a lake of fire.

After this last epic battle between the forces of good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and last judgement, John’s prophecy turns from a horrifying dystopian vision to poetic image of utopia, a reality that promises moral closure, a final end in which the world has made sense: the evil punished, the good rewarded, and all that haunts us has passed away. The world as we have known it with its deceit, desire, pain, and suffering is at last gone replaced with something entirely new and beautiful:

And God will wipe away all the tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.

The holy city of Jerusalem, the seat of this new world, is composed of dazzling jewels on a sea of glass.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon… for the Lord God giveth them light and they shall reign forever and ever.

That then, is the Book of Revelation, we are left with questions: Who was this John of Patmos? Why did he write this strange book that has haunted us since? What does its crazy symbolism: this Beast, and Antichrist, and Jezebel, and Babylon and all the rest mean? And lastly, the most important questions, what does it say to us? What does it mean, for us?

We will need Pagels’ help to answer these questions, and I will pick it up there next time.

Turing and the Chinese Room 2

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

Thus began Alan Turing’s 1950 essay Computing Machinery and Intelligence without doubt the most import single piece written on the subject of what became known as “artificial intelligence”.

Straight away Turing insists that we won’t be able to answer this question by merely reflecting upon it. If we went about it this way we’d get all caught up in arguments over what exactly “thinking” means. Instead he proposes a test.

Turing imagines an imitation game composed of 3 players: (A) a man, (B) a woman, and (C) an interrogator with the role of the latter being to ask questions of the 2 players and determine which one is a man. Turing then transforms this game by exchanging the man with a machine, and replacing the woman with the man. The interrogator is then asked to figure out which is the real man:

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

The machine in question Turing now narrowly defines as a digital computer, which consists of 3 parts (i) Store, that is the memory, (ii) Executive Unit, that is the part of the machine that performs the operations, (iii) The Control, the part of the machine that makes sure the Executive Unit performs operations based upon instructions that make up part of the Store. Digital computers are also “discrete state” machines, that is they are characterized by clear on-off states.

This is all a little technical so maybe a non-computer example will help. We can perhaps best understand digital technology by comparing it to its old rival analog. Think about a selection of music stored on your iPod versus, say, your collection of vintage ‘70s
8 tracks.  Your iPod has music stored in a discrete state- represented by 1s and 0s. It has an Executive Unit that allows you to translate these 1s and 0s into sound, and a Control that keeps the whole thing running smoothly and allows you, for example, to jump between tracks. Your 8 tracks, on the other hand, store music as “impressions” on a magnetic tape, not as discrete state representations, the “head”, in contact with the tape  reverses this process and transforms the impressions back into sound, you move between the tracks by causing the head to actually physically move.

Perhaps Turing’s choice of digital over analog computers can be said to amount to a bet about how the future of computer technology would play out. By compressing information into 1s and 0s – as representation- you could achieve seemingly limitless Storage/Control capacity. Imagine if all the songs on your iPod needed to be stored on 8 tracks! If you wanted to build an intelligent machine using analog you might as well just duplicate the very biological/analog intelligence you were trying to mimic. Digital technology represented, for Turing, a viable alternative path to intelligence other than the biological one we had always known.

Back to his article. He rephrases the initial question:

Let us fix our attention on one particular digital computer C. Is it true that by modifying this computer to have an adequate storage, suitably increasing its speed of action, and providing it with an appropriate programme, C can be made to play satisfactorily the part of A in the imitation game, the part of B being taken by a man?

If we were able to answer this question in the affirmative, Turing insisted, then such a machine could be said to possess human level intelligence.

Turing then runs through and dismisses what he considers the most likely objections to the idea of whether or not a machine that could think could be built:

The Theological Objection- computers wouldn’t have a soul. Turing’ reply: Wouldn’t God grant a soul to any other being that possessed human level intelligence? What was the difference between bringing such an intelligent vessel for a soul into the world by procreation and by construction?

Heads in the Sand Objection- The idea that computers could be as smart as human is too horrible to be true.  Turing’s reply: Ideas aren’t true or false based on our wishing them so.

The Mathematical Objection- Machines can’t understand logically consistent sentences such as “this sentence is false”.  Turing’s reply: Okay, but, at the end of the day humans probably can’t either.

The Argument from Consciousness- Turing quotes a professor Lister: “”Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain-that is, not only write it but know that it had written it.” Turing’s reply:  If this is to be the case, why don’t we apply the same prejudice to people. How do I really know that another human being thinks except through his actions and words?

The Argument from Disability- Whatever a machine does it will never be able to do X.  Turing’s reply: These arguments are essentially making unprovable claims based on induction- that I’ve never seen a machine do X therefore no machine will ever do X.
Many of them are also alternative arguments from consciousness:

The claim that a machine cannot be the subject of its own thought can of course only be answered if it can be shown that the machine has some thought with some subject matter. Nevertheless, “the subject matter of a machine’s operations” does seem to mean something, at least to the people who deal with it. If, for instance, the machine was trying to find a solution of the equation x2 – 40x – 11 = 0 one would be tempted to describe this equation as part of the machine’s subject matter at that moment. In this sort of sense a machine undoubtedly can be its own subject matter.

Lady Lovelace’s Objection- Lady Lovelace, friend of Charles Babbage whose plans for his Analytical Engine in the early 1800s were probably the first fully conceived modern computer, and Lovelace perhaps the author of the first computer program had this to say:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform”

 Turing’s response: this is yet another argument from consciousness. The computers he works with surprise him all the time with results he did not expect.

Argument from the Continuity of the Nervous System: The nervous system is fundamentally different from a discrete state machine therefore the output of the two will always be fundamentally different. Turing’s response: The human brain is analogous to a  “differential analyzer” (our old analog computer discussed above), and solutions of the two types of computers are indistinguishable. Hence a digital computer is able to do at least some things the analog computer of the human brain does.

Argument from the Informality of Behavior: Human beings, unlike machines, are free to break rules and are thus unpredictable in a way machines are not. Turing’s response: We cannot really make the claim that we are not determined just because we are able to violate human conventions. The output of computers can be as unpredictable as human behavior and this emerges despite the fact that they are clearly designed to follow laws i.e. are programmed.

Argument from ESP: Given a situation in which the man playing against the machine possesses some yet understood telepathic power he could always influence the interrogator against the machine and in his favor. Turing’s response: This would mean the game was rigged until we found out how to build a computer that could somehow balance out clairvoyance. For now, put the interrogator in a “telepathy proof room”.

So that, in a nutshell, is the argument behind the Turing test. By far, the most well known challenge to this test was made by the philosopher, John Searle, (relation to the author has been lost in the mist of time). Searle has so influenced the debate around the Turing test that it might be said that much of the philosophy of mind that has dealt with the question of artificial intelligence has been a series of arguments about why Searle is wrong.

Like Turing, Searle in his 1980 essay, Minds Brains and Programs, will introduce us to a thought experiment:

Suppose that I’m locked in a room and given a large batch of Chinese writing. Suppose furthermore (as is indeed the case) that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken, and that I’m not even confident that I could recognize Chinese writing as Chinese writing distinct from, say, Japanese writing or meaningless squiggles. To me, Chinese writing is just so many meaningless squiggles.

Now suppose further that after this first batch of Chinese writing I am given a second batch of Chinese script together with a set of rules for correlating the second batch with the first batch. The rules are in English, and I understand these rules as well as any other native speaker of English. They enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols, and all that ‘formal’ means here is that I can identify the symbols entirely by their shapes. Now suppose also that I am given a third batch of Chinese symbols together with some instructions, again in English, that enable me to correlate elements of this third batch with the first two batches, and these rules instruct me how to give back certain Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response to certain sorts of shapes given me in the third batch.

With some additions, this is the essence of Searle’s thought experiment, and what he wants us to ask: does the person in this room moving around a bunch of symbols according to a set of predefined rules actually understand Chinese? And our common sense answer is- “of course not!”

Searle’s argument is actually even more clever than it seems because it could having been taken right from one of Turing’s own computer projects. Turing had written a computer program that could have allowed a computer to play chess. I say could have allowed because there wasn’t actually a computer at the time sophisticated enough to run his program. What Turing did then was to use the program as a set of rules he used to play a human being in chess. He found that by following the rules he was unable to beat his friend in chess. He was, however, able to beat his friend’s wife! (No sexism intended).

Now had Turing given these rules to someone who knew nothing about chess at all they would have been able to play a reasonable game. That is, they would have played a reasonable game without having any knowledge or understanding of what it was they were actually doing.

Searle’s goal is to bring into doubt what he calls “strong AI” the idea that the formal manipulation of symbols- syntax- can give rise to the true understanding of meaning- semantics. He identifies part of our problem in our tendency to anthropomorphize our machines:

The reason we make these attributions is quite interesting, and it has to do with the fact that in artifacts we extend our own intentionality; our tools are extensions of our purposes, and so we find it natural to make metaphorical attributions of intentionality to them; but I take it no philosophical ice is cut by such examples. The sense in which an automatic door “understands instructions” from its photoelectric cell is not at all the sense in which I understand English.

Even with this cleverness, Searle’s argument has been shown to have all sorts of inconsistencies. Among the best refutations I’ve read is one of the early ones- Margaret A. Boden’s 1987 essay Escaping the Chinese Room.  In gross simplification Boden’s argument is this: Look, normal human consciousness is made up of a patchwork of “stupid” subsystems that don’t understand or possess what Searle claims is the foundation stone of true thinking- intentionality- “subjective states that relate me to the rest of the world”- in anything like his sense at all. In fact, most of what the mind does is made up of these “stupid” processes. Boden wants to remind us that we really have no idea how these seemingly dumb processes somehow add up to what we experience as human level intelligence.

Still, what Searle has done has made us aware of the huge difference between formal symbol manipulation and what we would call thinking.  He made us aware of the algorithms (a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations) that would become a simultaneous curse and backdrop of our own day. A day when our world has become mediated by algorithms in its economics, its warfare, in our choice of movies and books and music, in our memory and cognition (Google)  in love (dating sites) and now it seems in its art (see the excellent presentation by Kevin Slavin How Algorithms Shape Our World). Algorithms that Searle ultimately understood to be lifeless.

In the words of the philosopher Andrew Gibson on Iamus’ Hello World!:

I don’t really care that this piece of art is by a machine, but the process behind it is what is problematic. Algorithmization is arguably part of this ultra-modern abstractionism, abstracting even the artist.

The question I think that should be asked here is how exactly Iamus, the algorithm that composed, Hello World! worked? The composition Hello World! was created using a very particular form of algorithm known as a genetic algorithm, or, in other words Iamus is a genetic algorithm. In very over-simplified terms a genetic algorithm works like evolution. There is (a) a “population” of randomly created individuals (in Iamus’ case it would be sounds from a collection of instruments). Those individuals are the selected against (b) an environment for the condition of best fit (I do not know in Iamus’ case if this best fit was the judgement of classically trained humans, some selection of previous human created compositions, or something else), the individual that survive (are chosen to best meet the environment) are then combined to form new individuals (compositions in Iamus’ case) (c) an element of random features is introduced to individuals along the way to see if they help individuals better meet the fit. The survivor that best meets the fit is your end result.

Searle would obviously claim that Iamus was just another species of symbol manipulation and therefore did not really represent something new under the sun, and in a broad sense I fully agree. Nevertheless, I am not so sure this is the end of the story because to follow Searle’s understanding of artificial intelligence seems to close as many doors as it opens in essence locking Turing’s machine, forever, into his Chinese room. Searle writes:

I will argue that in the literal sense the programmed computer understands what the car and the adding machine understand, namely, exactly nothing. The computer understanding is not just (like my understanding of German) partial or incomplete; it is zero.

For me, the line he draws between intelligent behavior or properties emerging from machines and those emerging from biological life is far too sharp and based on rather philosophically slippery concepts such as understanding, intentionality, causal dependence.

Whatever else intentionality is, it is a biological phenomenon, and it is as likely to be as causally dependent on the specific biochemistry of its origins as lactation, photosynthesis, or any other biological phenomena.

Taking Turing’s test and Searle’s Chinese Room together leaves us, I think, lost in a sort of intellectual trap. On the one side we having Turing arguing that human thinking and digital computation are essentially equivalent. All experience points to the fact that this is false. On the other side we have Searle arguing that digital computation and the types of thinking done by biological creatures are essentially nothing alike. An assertion that is not obviously true. The problem here is that we lose what are really the two most fundamental questions and that is how are computation and thought alike, and how are they different?

Instead what we have is something like Iamus “introduced” to the world, along with its creation as if it were a type of person, by the Turing faction when in fact it has almost none of these qualities that we consider to be constitutive of personhood.  A type of showmanship that put me in mind of the wanderings of the Mechanical Turk.  The 18th century mechanical illusion that for a time fooled  the courts of Europe into thinking a machine could defeat human beings at chess. (There was, of course, a short person inside.)

To this, the Searle faction responds with horror and utter disbelief aiming to disprove that such a “soulless” thing as a computer could ever, in the words of Turing’s Lister: “write a sonnet or compose a concerto”, that was not a product of nothing other than” the chance fall of symbols”.  The problem with this is that our modern day Mechanical Turks are no longer mere illusions- there is no longer a person hiding inside- and our machines really do defeat grand masters in chess, and win trivia games, and write news articles, and now compose classical music. Who knows where this will stop, if it indeed if it will stop, and how many what have long been considered the most  human defining activities qualities will be successfully replicated, and even surpassed, by such machines.

We need to break through this dichotomy and start asking ourselves some very serious questions. For only by doing so are we likely to arrive at an understanding both of where we are as a technology dependent species and where what we are doing is taking us. Only then will we have the means to make intentional choices about where we want to go.

I will leave off here with something shared with me by Andrew Gibson. It is a piece by his friend Amanda Feery composed in memory of Turing’s centenary entitled “Turing’s Epitath”.

And I will leave you with questions:

How is this similar to Iamus’ Hello World!?  And how is it different?

Turing and the Chinese Room 1

Two-Thousand-and-twelve marks the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. Turing, of course, was a British mathematical genius who was preeminent among the “code -breakers”, those who during the Second World War helped to break the Nazi Enigma codes and were thus instrumental in helping the Allies win the war. Turing was one of the pioneers of modern computers. He was the first to imagine the idea of what became known as a Universal Turing Machine, (the title of the drawing above) the idea that any computer was in effect equal to any other and could, therefore, given sufficient time, solve any problem whose solution was computable.

In the last years of his life Turing worked on applying mathematical concepts to biology. Presaging the work of, Benoît Mandelbro, he was particularly struck by how the repetition of simple patterns could give rise to complex forms. Turing was in effect using  computation as a metaphor to understand nature, something that can be seen today in the work of people such as Steven Wolfram in his New Kind of Science, and in fields such as chaos and complexity theory. It also lies at the root of the synthetic biology being pioneered, as we speak, by Craig Venter.

Turning is best remembered, however, for a thought experiment he proposed in a 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, that became known as the “Turing test”, a test that has remained the pole star for the field of artificial intelligence up until our own day, along with the tragic circumstances the surrounded the last years of his life.

In my next post, I will provide a more in-depth explanation of the Turing test. For now, it is sufficient to know that the test proposes to identify whether a computer possesses human level intelligence by seeing if a computer can fool a person into thinking the computer is human. If the computer can do so, then it can be said, under Turing’s definition, to possess human level intelligence.

Turing was a man who was comfortable with his own uniqueness,  and that uniqueness included the fact that he was homosexual at a time when homosexuality was considered both a disease and a crime. In 1952, Turning, one of the greatest minds ever produced by Britain, a hero of World War Two, and a member of the Order of the British Empire was convicted in a much publicized trial for having engaged in homosexual relationship. It was the same law under which Oscar Wilde had been prosecuted almost sixty years before.

Throughout his trial, Turing maintained that he had done nothing wrong in having such a relationship, but upon conviction faced a series of nothing- but- bad options, the least bad of which he decided was hormone “therapy” as a means of controlling his “deviant” urges, a therapy he chose to voluntarily undergo given the alternatives which included imprisonment.

The idea of hormone therapy represented a very functionalist view of the mind. Hormones had been discovered to regulate human sexual behavior, so the idea was that if you could successfully manipulate hormone levels you could produce the desired behavior. Perhaps part of the reason Turing chose this treatment is that it had something of the input-output qualities of the computers that he had made the core of his life-work. In any case, the therapy ended after the period of a year- the time period he was sentenced to undergo the treatment. Being shot through with estrogen did not have the effect of mentally and emotionally castrating Turing, but it did have nasty side effects such as making him grow breasts and “feminizing” his behavior.

Turing’s death, all evidence appears to indicate, came at his own hand,  ingesting an apple laced with poison in seeming imitation of the movie Snow White. Why did Turing commit suicide, if in fact he did so? It was not, it seems, an effect of his hormone therapy, which had ended quite some time before. He did not appear especially despondent to his family or friends in the period immediately before his death.

One plausible explanation is that, given the rising tensions of the Cold War, and the obvious value Turing had as an espionage target, Turing realized that on account of his very public outing, he had lost his private life. Who could be trusted now except his very oldest and deepest friends? What intimacy could he have when everyone he met might be a Soviet spy meant to seduce what they considered a vulnerable target, or an agent of the British or American states sent there to entrap him?  From here on out his private life was likely to be closely scrutinized: by the press, by the academy, by Western and Soviet security agencies. He had to wonder if he would face new trials, new tortuous “treatments”, to make him “normal” perhaps even imprisonment.

What a loss of honor for a man who had done so much to help the British win the war the reason, perhaps, that Turing’s death occurred on  or very near the ten year anniversary of the D-Day landing he had helped to make possible. What outlets could there be for a man of his genius when all of the “big science” was taking place under the umbrella of the machinery of war, where so much of science was regarded as state secrets and guarded like locked treasures and any deviation from the norm was considered a vulnerability that needed to be expunged? Perhaps his brilliant mind had shielded him from the reality of what had happened and his new situation after his trial, but only for so long, and that once he realized what his life had become the facts became too much to bear.

We will likely never truly know.

The centenary of Turing’s birth has been rightly celebrated with a bewildering array of tributes, and remembrances. Perhaps, the most interesting of these tributes, so far, has been the unveiling of a symphony composed entirely by a computer, and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on July, 2, 2012..  This was a piece (really a series of several pieces) “composed” by a computer algorithm- Iamus, and entitled:  “Hello World!”

Please take a listen to this piece by clicking on the link below, and share with me your thoughts. Your ideas will help guide my own thoughts on this perplexing event, but my suspicion right now is that “Hello World!” represents something quite different than what either its sympathizers or distractors suggest, and gives us a window into the meaning and significance of the artificial intelligences we are bringing into what was once our world alone.

Hello World!”   

The Janus Face of Metropolis

Last week my post consisted of a Voice Thread presentation on the 1927 science-fiction silent-film by Fritz Lang, Metropolis. My thanks to John  for participating, and to everyone who gave me positive comments and feedback. One of the drawbacks of Voice Thread is that you have to sign up to participate, and though relatively painless, I can understand why someone wouldn’t sign up for yet another web application- I know I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, or if it didn’t obviously add something helpful to my life.  Feedback was good enough, however, that I think I will try such presentations again, where they fit with the subject, but for this week I am back to my usual fare.

You can get the background for the post that follows below from that presentation. Click on the image above to access.  Be forewarned you’ll have live through my nasally voice and might want to have a cup of coffee at the ready. There are reasons I don’t work in Hollywood.

In any case, what struck me about the film Metropolis was how the film could be so forward looking and so backward at the same time. As I mentioned in the presentation Lang supposedly got his inspiration for the film from a few years before ‘27 when he first set eyes on the skyline of New York.  Now that the modernism of urban landscapes has moved elsewhere, the cityscape of the film put me as much in mind of hypermodern Shanghai,  Abu Dhabi, or Tokyo than my near and familiar New York.

Lang’s idea of air-travel was just a little off, after all, we don’t really have biplanes anymore, except for hobbyist, let alone biplanes as a means of traveling between skyscrapers, but for a certain strata of the elite you do have helicopters, which do just about the same. If memory serves me, in cities where the automobile traffic is horrendous, such as Mexico city, helicopter travel is the preferred way for elites to get from place to place, and avoid all the “undesirable” neighborhoods. I guess they haven’t caught on to Lang’s idea of hiding the poor underground.

Lang also has a pretty good grasp of just how dominant the automobile is going to be as a form of transportation. At this time the German autobahn was just an idea floating in some German engineers’ heads, and the ever present freeways of Metropolis were merely a dream, a prediction which Lang got roughly right, even if our expressways don’t, as his do, stretch into the heavens between the skyscrapers.

Yet if Lang, and let’s not forget his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who co-wrote the film, get these technological details right, they get the social,  historic, and economic forces propelling the world toward the uncertain and dangerous future both foresaw horribly wrong.

Think about the year the film was released- 1927.  What’s going on in 1927? This is ten years after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had died three years earlier and been replaced by Joseph Stalin who would prove to be one of the most murderous rulers in human history. Five years before Metropolis had been released Mussolini had brought fascism to the world with his new form of dictatorship in Italy. In 1923, inspired by Mussolini’s “March on Rome” a little known nationalist maniac in Lang’s own Germany  attempted to duplicate Mussolini’s revolution with something that became known as “The Beer Hall Putsch”. The revolution would fail, and the maniac would be thrown in prison, but Adolf Hitler would be back. Within two years of Metropolis’ release the entire capitalist-industrial world Lang’s Metropolis portrays had collapsed, although, I suppose, he can not be blamed for having not seen that.

Lang’s answer to this is “Christian Brotherhood”. He is saying to the elites in effect: “the workers are your brothers in Christ, do not mistreat them”. Lang can perhaps be forgiven for not having read his Nietzsche who declared God to be dead and for there to thus be great storms on the horizon. Or, for having not read or understood the Christian message of Dostoevsky who predicted that the godlessness of European society made inevitable savage inhumanity the likes of which had never been seen. Still, Lang and his wife can be blamed for not reading the newspapers, not seeing how the concept of Christian charity was a thin and already broken reed on which to place the solutions to the enormous pressures society was undergoing.

Indeed, the Catholic Church, whose imagery we find throughout Metropolis would fall into the same moral vortex that swept up every other element of European society, and would fail to mount any real defence to save the Jews of Europe who found themselves in the center of the storm.

Metropolis demonstrates the enormous flexibility of the story of the Book of Revelation which can be used as a way to give meaning to almost any dystopian predicament and in a bewildering diversity of historical circumstances. The problem with being overly reliant on this or any other myth or sets of myths, such as that of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of Golem, which Lang also taps into to give meaning to events, is that as often as not they blind you to the actual historical situation you are facing.

The world of the 1920s-30s was facing enormous challenges: the dysfunction of industrial-capitalism, the utter incompetence of parliamentary democracy, the spread of nihilism throughout Western society, both on account of the savagery of the First World War, and the moral vacuum opened up as the traditional religious worldview gave to a scientific and secular one. And, of course, there was the specter of a workers’ revolution inspired by the example or machinations of the Soviet Union. Fascism was one “answer” to this, and Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou herself became a Nazi, a decision that caused the two to split. Fascism offered social protection to the workers in exchange for the disavowal of revolution, indeed in exchange for rabid nationalism and anti-communism.

After the Second World War, the democracies, especially in Europe, but to a lesser extent even in the United States, found that they could short-circuit communism and its by offering this same social protection to its workers. But, instead of those protections coming attached to a militaristic, expansionist regime in the form of fascism theses protections, again I am speaking primarily about Europe, were attached to the softer nationalism of the democratic nation-state. Elites took care of the poor as fellow members of the nation, and as a historical result of the contest between fascism and communism for the loyalty of the people.

But now we face a dilemma. The worker protections and social welfare programs that were created in the middle of the 20th century were inspired by the fear of elites  communism- that is fear of revolution. In Europe this system is premised on the nation-state. Europe is now a supranational entity, but it is difficult to imagine how its version of social democracy can survive unless Europeans treat one another like a common people- that is rich individuals provide some support for poorer countries and individuals.

In the US the much thinner system of social support has proven much easier to erode, and the social gospel has been supplanted by the “prosperity gospel”.

All signs point to the fact that the old system is giving way, but there appears to be nothing in the offing at the ready to take its place. We are back, in a sense, in the world Metropolis has shown us and faced with the question Lang failed to answer.  What bond is there between elites and non-elites, between the rich and the poor, that will limit exploitation and make society liveable, or in Lang’s lame phrase, what unites the head and the hands in a world without heart?


Metropolis, please share your voice

This week I wanted to try something new. I deeply appreciate all of you who take the time to read this blog and especially those who share their own thoughts in the comments. One of the down sides of blogging, or any other writing for that matter,  is that you never get to listen to your readers. It would be wonderful to actually hear your voices.

With that in mind, this week I created a presentation on the 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis. I did this using a program called Voice Thread. What is cool about Voice Thread is that not only does it allow you to create presentations that can include the presenter’s own audio comments; you can also open the presentation up to others so they can make audio comments as well.

So, if you’d like check out my presentation at:

https://voicethread.com/#q.b3223281.i0.k0

Hope to hear from you. And this time I mean it literally.

Rick Searle