Life is already eternal, sort of…

What often strikes me when I put the claims of some traditionally religious people regarding “eternal life” and the stated goals of the much more recent, I suppose you could label it with the oxymoronic phrase “materialist spirituality”, next to one another is just how much of the language and fundamental assumptions regarding human immortality these very different philosophies share.

Both the traditionally religious, especially those who fall under the somewhat simplistic label of “fundamentalist” and followers of materialist spirituality, whose worldview supposedly emerges out of science, share the essential goal of the survival of the individual. The ultimate objective for, say, a Bible thumping preacher from Tennessee and a technology ensconced singularitarian from San-Francisco are the same- the escape from the seeming inevitability of death and the survival of themselves into boundless eternity. Where they differ is on how to get there.

Just like Christianity or any other religion has its sects, those who embrace the goal of individual immortality under the umbrella of materialist spirituality have their sects as well. There are “mind-uploaders” who hope to transform themselves into eternal software, and some transhumanists who wish to so revolutionize human biology, perhaps with the addition of characteristics of advanced machines, so that death itself can be put off indefinitely. There are biologically centered immortalist- such as Aubrey de Gray, who hope to find the biological triggers that result in death and permanently turn them off, and others.

The reason both some (but by no means all) traditional religions and materialist spirituality share these almost identical goals stems, I think, from the fact that they come at the world from exactly the same frame of reference- that of the individual. But one might wonder what conclusions we would draw about the meaning and fate of life and sentience in the universe were we to adopt a different frame in which our own interests were not so clearly front and center. Is there a way to look at the relationship between life, especially sentient life, and time that makes the Universe seem meaningful even in light of our own personal death, or are those of us who trust the truth of science and are at the same time skeptical of materialist spirituality condemned to the conclusion drawn by the physicist Steven Weinberg that “The More the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” ?

These questions were hitting me when I came across a book that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of immortality: Dimitar Sasselov’s The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.  I will get into the nitty gritty of the book elsewhere, but here for me was the overall point of the work, for me a very optimistic point indeed- that the Universe is very young, and life itself only a little bit younger, and that life has a very, very long time before senescence in front of it.

We tend, I think, to be overwhelmed by the shortness of our individual lives when put in the context of the deep time scales science has revealed to us. And what is my life here, indeed, but a flicker in the context of billions of years? But if we step back from our personal lives for a moment and grasp the chain of living things upon which our being here has entailed at least some of this vertigo of time can perhaps be avoided.

I myself, and you, are here as the result of a chain of life that stretches backwards almost to the very beginning of the Universe. The same root found in the beginning of life on earth 4 billion years ago can be found in our DNA today. We are the bearers of a cosmically ancient inheritance that is comparable to the age of the Universe itself. Sasselov states it in the very plain language that: “ if the Universe were a 55 year old, Life would be a 16 year old” (p. 138)

If our roots stretching back into the beginning of time is important, for me the most optimistic message of  Sasselov’s book is that the future of life, and not just life that originated on earth, stretches out even farther. Sasselov comes up with a good possible answer to Fermi’s Paradox- the fact that in conditions seemingly so ripe for life to have emerged the Universe is so damned silent. Sasselov’s theory is that the emergence of life is tied to the evolution of stars. The early Universe lacked the heavy elements that seem necessary for life, which need to be produced by long lived stars, so overtime these elements become more numerous and the types of stars that come to predominate are ones that, unlike earlier stars, readily produce a rich sea of these elements. The Universe is silent because we are likely to have been one of the very first intelligent civilizations to emerge at the beginning of this move towards the production of heavy elements- a just dawning golden age for life in the cosmos that will last at least 100 billion years into the future.

Moving away from Sasselov, the physicist, and very public atheist, Lawrence Krauss, in a friendly debate with fellow physicist Freeman Dyson seems to suggest that no complex, conscious entity in an expanding universe can be immortal given the current laws of physics. The physics are quite gnarly, but the in essence Krauss’ argument boils down to the fact that having an infinite number of “thoughts” is impossible in a Universe such as our own where the amount of energy is finite.

As is Krauss’ style, he tends to see the prospects of the impossibility for obtaining eternity, and the ultimate destiny of the Universe in a structureless heat-death in a spirit of humor charged doom.  I do not, however, find this a reason to fret even jokingly, for think of the richness of lives- the number of sentient creatures, civilizations, worlds that according to Sasselov likely lie in front of us- the unfathomable depth of all that experience! There is a lot of living left to do, but this living it isn’t just in the future for there is a depth of lived time in the present to which most of us are probably unaware. Let me explain.

Around the same time I was reading The Life of Super-Earths I came across this wonderful graph from, of all places, The Economist.

The Ages of Man

The blurb in which this graph was embedded brought attention to the potential years of wisdom available to human beings on account of both the extension of the human lifespan and the rise in population and called on us to make use of it. It pointed out that with the milestone of 7 billion people in 2011 the aggregate age of everyone alive rose to 220 billion years. By the end of the 21st century:

The world’s population will have stabilized at just over 10 billion and those people will have accumulated 430 billion years of human experience between them.

The philosophical implications of this were not explored by the Economist, but think about it for a second. The number of subjective years lived today by the only fully sentient creature we know of- ourselves- is already more than ten times the chronological age of the physical universe! By the end of the century those subjective years will have grown to be around 30 times larger than the age of the Universe.  In this sense life is not only older, but much older than the cosmos in which it swims and collectively might already be said to possess time on the scale of what any individual would consider eternity.

I think this reframing of the issue of eternity opens up deep questions that need to be addressed by those looking at immortality from a more individualistic bent. For example, perhaps the most outspoken proponent of “ending death” in a biological sense is Aubrey de Grey. In a talk at TEDMED de Grey admits the obvious- that extending the lifespan of those already alive in a world of finite resources would inevitably result in people having less children. Strangely, he seems to think that this indefinite lifespan is something we are morally obligated to make possible for the current generation and the one in the immediate future. His position seems to ignore the generations after whose potential lives might shrink to be near zero as people defray having children in order to live indefinitely. De Grey’s position seems to become even more suspect when we place it in the context of subjective time mentioned above.

Unless there is some flaw in my logic, it seems that in a Universe where life can not exist infinitely, which is what Krauss’ work shows, or in a world of finite resources if an individual (or a society) chooses to forgo having children in the name of indefinite lifespan for individuals the amount of subjective time available in the Universe as a consequence goes down. To use an extreme example: imagine a Universe with only one sentient being that lived for a very very long time- though not infinitely. Such a Universe would have experienced much less subjective experience than a large number of sentient beings that lived a briefer but rich amount of time where life as a whole lasted for an equal duration. The same would hold for a Universe in which one civilization monopolized sentience when contrasted with a Universe with a rich plurality of civilizations. Less diversity, less full existence.

This is not an argument for maximizing the number of children. For the decision to have a child represents a deeply personal choice and commitment and brings other moral factors into play not the least is the one of the quality of life for individuals and the impact of human lives on diversity elsewhere in the biosphere meaning the question of sustainability.

Yet, there would appear to be a threshold where increasing the lifespan of individuals at the cost of forgoing new lives is cosmically impoverishing. Thus, before the human immortality project can be embraced without deep moral reservations, some notion of how this project relates to the prospects for potential life in the future (extending even beyond humanity to its consequences for the life of the earth’s biosphere) need to be addressed. Collective “immortality” appears to have the moral high ground on types of immortality that are focused on individuals alone.

The stunning thing is that many of the world’s traditional religions already appear to have an intuitive sense of this collective immortality. The way to immortality for the ancient Greeks was fame in the service to one’s polis, for many of the other religions the path to immortality lies in the abandonment of the ego and the adoption of selflessness and service to others. Traditional humanists often thought of themselves as links in a great chain of poets, writers, musicians, philosophers or scientists.

For what it is worth, proponents of today’s materialist spirituality in their focus on the individual seem to have broken themselves off from this great chain of life and thought. The wonders of science may or may not someday bring us escape from individual death, but all we can reasonably do for now are things we have always done: raise our children, write a poem, discover a truth, compose a song, help a fellow human being, or preserve a political community or wilderness. In these ways we add the short time of our existence to a future of life that stretches out long in front of us in a Universe filled with a plethora of species and civilizations we can scant imagine. A world where, for all practical purposes, life and thought are indeed already, eternal.

Progress Ancient and Modern: The Oresteia

The Furies and Orestes

It is a modern conceit that ours is a morally progressed age when compared to the world of the ancients. At least that is the impression one gets from reading books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, or Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Both Pinker and Wright, each in their own very different ways, give us insight into the brutality that was such a common, indeed daily, part of the lives of our premodern forebears- although they might quibble as to when our moral ascent away from this brutality and primitiveness began- with Pinker thinking it gained traction in the Enlightenment, and Wright pushing it further back to the appearance of the world religions.

There is also a tendency to see ourselves as more theologically or philosophically sophisticated than the ancients. How, for example, could the Greeks actually believe in those anthropomorphic gods who were thought to “live” on Mount Olympus and seemed to fill the Greeks with the twin illnesses of near continuous anxiety and misplaced hope.

I only wish that Pinker or Wright, or those who understand prayer to the gods as a version of “please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, you’re so big, you’re so big” (@24 min) as the science fiction writer David Brin did in a recent talk,  had read and wrestled with the Greek playwright Aeschylus. For what we find in Aeschylus are tales that push human consciousness in the direction of the confrontation between values which inspire social reflection and change. The end result being something we should very much call moral progress. We also find the whole concept of the “gods” at its deepest with divinities used to personify and bring into conflict the often opposing values and existential conditions that are found in human life. This is perhaps nowhere better on display than in Aeschylus’ tragedy- The Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides that deals with the issues of love and hatred justice and revenge order and chaos. There would have been a fourth part to the Oresteia, a satyr play, but it is lost. The three surviving plays tell the story of the cursed and at the same time blest (because through them comes the expansion of the human moral imagination) family of the King of Argos -Agamemnon.

Upon returning home from victory in the Trojan War Agamemnon faces a coup plotted by his wife Clytemnestra in an adulterous alliance with his cousin Aegisthus. Both Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ actions are driven by the most primitive manifestation of the human desire for justice- primal revenge. Clytemnestra seeks revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter as “payment” to the gods for safe passage to Troy. Aegisthus is vengeful for other reasons; indeed, he is a human being created for the purpose of revenge itself, sired in incest, with his destiny to kill Agamemnon’s father Atreus for the cannibalistic murder of  his brothers.

It might seem strange to state this way, but the desire for revenge is perhaps the first rung on the long ladder of the human moral imagination (though it is not a step solely limited to humans for you can find it in other social animals as well). The idea of revenge, especially revenge for the harm inflicted on those close to us, demands that we take the rule violated or person harmed to be almost as important as ourselves for revenge comes with mortal risks to those that seek it.

In the Agamemnon revenge or “blood justice” has its due and the king of Argos is murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. But the characters here are, like those in Homer, mere puppets on a string their whole soul and character propelled to preserving the moral order of the cosmos which demands, in the Greek view, that murder, whether accidental or purposeful needs to be repaid with murder. A life exchanged for a life balances the moral scale that bounds mortal existence.

This is the kind of moral order that can be seen, I think, in the Biblical Book of Revelation or the Christian idea of Hell where, in the former, God avenges the evil of the unjust who have heretofore ruled the world, and in the latter, where every earthly sin has its corresponding punishment after death. And though the concept of blood justice might have become more sophisticated for a while under Christians, with the accidental homicide the Greeks thought had moral meaning no longer being placed on the scale of justice and the interior self- the idea of intention- bearing the moral significance of an act, Calvinists would abandon this sophistication with their idea of predestination, which, arguably, brought moral understanding back to the primitive type found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, a level the ancient Greek Aeschylus in the remaining plays of  The Oresteia would transcend, a meaning hinted at in these lines from the opening of the Agamemnon:

Zeus has led us on to know,

    The Helmsman lays it down as law

    That we must suffer, suffer into truth.

    We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

    the pain of pain remembered comes again,

    and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

    From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench

    there comes a violent love. (Lines 177-184)

The second play of The Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, tells the story of Orestes’, the only surviving son of Agamemnon, revenge against his mother and uncle for the murder of his father. The play begins with Orestes visit to Agamemnon’s grave where he secretly spies a group of women shrouded in black bearing libations- offerings to be poured in prayer. The women have come to the grave to find comfort for Clytemnestra who has been haunted by a dream of being strangled by a snake that suckles milk from her breasts. Accompanying the old women is Electra, the sister of Orestes who prays for justice in the name of her father. When Electra spots a lock of what she thinks might be her brother’s hair she cries these lines, which anyone who has ever escaped the grip of despair will understand in their heart:

We call on the gods and the gods well know the storms that torment us, sailors whirled to nothing. But if we are to live and reach a haven, one small seed could grow a mighty tree.  (Lines 201-204 )

When Orestes is reunited with Electra he is urged on by her and sanctioned by the god Apollo to seek justice against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Here the trilogy begins to gain new psychological and moral depth for intersecting in the mind of Orestes are two opposing systems of value- his natural maternal love and loyalty and his paternal bond to the memory of his deceased father. It is Apollo and his “new gods” that represent a new value perhaps best understood as a move beyond the moral ties born of blood to those born from the human capacity to make and keep promises. The crime Apollo seeks justice for is Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon to whom she was bound in marriage.

It is not so much in the act of murdering Clytemnestra that Orestes becomes fully conscious of these competing value systems, his mother after unsuccessfully pleading for her son’s mercy cries out:

“I must be spilling live tears on a tomb of stone”. (Lines 926 p. 219)

Rather, it is in the aftermath that Orestes recognizes the gravity of the decision he has made:

“ What bow could hit the crest of so much pain?” (Lines 1035 p. 224)  

It is in the last surviving play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, that Aeschylus brings all these elements together, and in the process brings the human moral imagination yet another step higher beyond the bounds of either blood ties or social contact.
In Eumenides Orestes is pursued by the Furies (pictured above). The Furies are deities dating back before Zeus overthrew the earth gods- the Titans. They have been given the task by a force more powerful than even the gods- Fate- to seek justice for murder and the breaking of sacred law. Contrasted with the concept of the Furies, the traditional dichotomy between good and evil found in modern religion seems almost simplistic. The Furies are certainly a force of darkness and yet their purpose is to restore the moral order through revenge against those who murder.

Over the victim’s burning head this chant this frenzy striking frenzy lightning crazing the mind this hymn of Fury  chaining the senses, ripping cross the lyre,withering lives of men! (Lines 328-333 )

Unable to find refuge from the Furies in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Orestes, under the advice of Apollo and with the guidance of Hermes flees to Athens where he seeks refuge in the temple of Athena. The Furies delayed by being lulled to sleep by Apollo are eventually aroused by the ghost of Clytemnestra and renew their hunt. Animal like, they follow the scent of Clytemnestra’s blood on Orestes until they find him at the feet of the statue of Athena. When the goddess Athena appears she does something that had not been seen in the entire Oresteia up until now- rather than becoming partisan she shows both sides respect. She takes Orestes at his word that he may have been guilty of violating the letter but not spirit of the cosmic law for which the Furies seek his torment, but she also shows respect to the antiquity of the Furies and their rightful powers. She does not, as Apollo does, see the Furies as monstrous and unnatural- enemies of order- but as forces with a rightful place in the cosmos. Because of this respect the Furies ask Athena to judge Orestes’ case, and here Athena does something amazing. She asks a jury of mortal men to help her decide the matter.   

Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to judge.  (Lines 484-485)

Acknowledging that both Orestes and the Furies seem to have a strong case and that judgement in favor of either will have deep implications Athena muses:

So it stands a crisis either way.

 Embrace the one? expel the other? It defeats me.

 But since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges

of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal  here

for all time to come. (Lines 495-499)

Something quite startling has happened here for Athena ( Aeschylus) has managed to make the rules of the gods subject to the reasoned judgement of mortal men. I am unaware of any such a leap anywhere else in religious history. Ultimately, their cases argued the jury tied with Athena breaking it in favor of  Orestes. The Furies feel the whole moral order has come crashing down and swear revenge against Athens for upending the eternal laws of justice.

All’s lost, our ancient powers torn away by their cunning,

ruthless hands, the gods so hard to wrestle down

obliterate us all (Lines 885-887)

Athena again tries to appease the ancient gods of the Furies with respect.

But if you have reverence for Persuasion,

the majesty of Persuasion,

the spell of my voice would appease your fury- (Lines 893-895 )

Athena offers the Furies a home in Athens. Their role to be the violent force behind the justice decided upon by the reasoned decisions of mortal men or the power behind their violent struggles with others. The Furies acceptance of this new and bounded role for their powers ends the trilogy.

The Oresteia thus represents something incredible as a piece of  literature, political philosophy, or religious reflection and I think we should consider it an example of all three. Not only as a great piece of literature does it give us insight into the human experience of injustice and the corresponding desire for revenge, it is also a tale of social evolution showing us how the violence natural to human societies which arises from this need for justice is contained with the establishment of political communities. But this isn’t just any political community- it is not Hobbes’ Leviathan terrorizing men into a state of peace. It is a community built around the active participation of citizens to decide upon and bound matters of justice. As a piece of religious reflection the Oresteia is revolutionary in that it subjects the gods to the reasoned judgement of  mortals even as it urges us to show respect to the wisdom and authority of ancient traditions.

To heed its lessons; now that’s what I would call progress!

The Dangers of Religious Rhetoric to the Trans-humanist Project


When I saw that  the scientist and science-fiction novelist, David Brin, had given a talk at a recent Singularity Summit with the intriguing title “So you want to make gods?  Now why would that bother anybody? my hopes for the current intellectual debate between science and religion and between rival versions of our human future were instantly raised. Here was a noted singularitarian, I thought, who might raise questions about how the framing of the philosophy surrounding the Singularity was not only alienating to persons of more traditional religious sentiments, but threatened to give rise to a 21st century version of the culture wars that would make current debates over teaching evolution in schools or the much more charged disputes over abortion look quaint, and that could ultimately derail us from many of the technological achievements that lie seemingly just over the horizon which promise to vastly improve and even transform the human condition.

Upon listening to Brin’s lecture those hopes were dashed.

Brin’s lecture is a seemingly lite talk to a friendly audience punctuated by jokes some of them lame, and therefore charming, but his topic is serious indeed. He defines the real purpose of his audience to be “would be god-makers” “indeed some of you want to become gods” and admonishes them to avoid the fate of their predecessors such as Giordano Bruno of being burned at the stake.

The suggestion Brin makes for  how singularitarians are to avoid the fate of Bruno, a way to prevent the conflict between religion and science seem, at first, like humanistic and common sense advice: Rather than outright rejection and even ridicule of the religious, singularitarians are admonished to actually understand the religious views of their would be opponents and especially the cultural keystone of their religious texts.

Yet the purpose of such understanding soon becomes clear.  Knowledge of the Bible, in the eyes of Brin, should give singularitarians the ability to reframe their objectives in Christian terms. Brin lays out some examples to explain his meaning. His suggestion that the mythological Adam’s first act of naming things defines the purpose of humankind as a co-creator with God is an interesting and probably largely non-controversial one. It’s when he steps into the larger Biblical narrative that things get tricky.

Brin finds the seeming justification for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to be particularly potent for singularitarians:

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. Genesis 3:22 King James Bible

Brin thinks this passage can be used as a Biblical justification for the singularitarian aim of personal immortality and god-like powers. The debate he thinks is not over “can we?”, but merely a matter of “when should we?” attain these ultimate ends.

The other Biblical passage Brin thinks singularitarians can use to their advantage in their debate with Christians is found in the story of the Tower of Babel.  

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.  Genesis 11:6 King James Bible

As in the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Brin thinks the story of the Tower of Babel can be used to illustrate that human beings, according to Christianity’s  own scriptures, have innately god-like powers. What the debate between singularitarians and Christians is, therefore, largely a matter of when and how human beings reach their full God-given potential.

Much of Brin’s lecture is animated by an awareness of the current conflict between science and religion. He constructs a wider historical context to explain this current tension.  For him, new ideas and technologies have the effect of destabilizing hierarchy, and have always given rise in the past to a counter-revolution supported and egged on by counter-revolutionary oligarchs. The United States is experiencing another one of these oligarchic putsches as evidenced in books such as The Republican War on Science. Brin thinks that Fermi’s Paradox or the “silence” of the universe, the seeming lack of intelligent civilizations other than our own might be a consequence of the fact that counter-revolutionaries or “grouches” tend to win their struggle with the forces of progress. His hope is that our time has come and that this is the moment where those allied under the banner of progress might win.

The questions which gnawed at me after listening to Brin’s speech was whether or not his prescriptions really offered a path to diminishing the conflict between religion and science or were they merely a means to its further exacerbation?
The problem, I think, is that however brilliant a physicists and novelists Brin might be he is a rather poor religious scholar and even worse as a historian, political scientist or sociologist.

Part of the problem here stems from the fact that Brin appears less interested in opening up a dialogue between the singularitarians and other religious communities than he is at training them in his terms verbal “judo” so as to be able to neutralize and proselytize to their most vociferous theological opponents- fundamentalist Christians. The whole thing put me in mind of how the early Jesuits were taught to argue their non-Catholic opponents into the ground.  Be that as it may, the Christianity that Brin deals with is of a literalist sort in which stories such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden or the Tower of Babel are to be taken as the actual word of God. But this literalism is primarily a feature of some versions of Protestantism not Christianity as a whole.

The idea that the book of Genesis is literally true is not the teaching of the Catholic, Anglican, or large parts of the Orthodox Church the three of which make up the bulk of Christians world-wide. Quoting scripture back at these groups won’t get a singularitarian  anywhere. Rather, they would likely find themselves in the discussion they should be having, a heated philosophical discussion over humankind’s role and place in the universe and where the very idea of “becoming a god” is ridiculous in the sense that God is understood in non-corporal, indefinable way, indeed as something that is sometimes more akin to our notion of “nothing” than it is to anything else we can speak of.  The story Karen Armstrong tells in her 2009, The Case for God.

The result of framing the singularitarian argument on literalist terms may result in the alienation of what should be considered more pro-science Christian groups who are much less interested in aligning the views and goals of science with those found directly in the Bible than in finding a way to navigate through our technologically evolving society in a way that keeps the essence of their particular culture of religious practice and the beliefs found in their ethical perspective developed over millenia intact.

If Brin goes astray in terms of his understanding of religion he misses even more essential elements when viewed through the eyes on an historian. He seems to think that doctrinal disputes over the meaning of religious text are less dangerous than disputes between different and non-communicating systems of belief, but that’s not what history shows. Protestants and Catholics murdered one another for centuries even when the basic outlines of their interpretations of the Bible were essentially the same. Today, it seems not a month goes by without some report of Sunni-Muslim on Shia-Muslim violence or vice versa. Once the initial shock for Christian fundamentalist of singularitarians quoting the Bible wears off, fundamentalists seem likely to be incensed that they are stealing “their” book, for a quite alien purpose.

It’s not just that Brin’s historical understanding of inter/intra-religious conflict is a little off, it’s that he perpetuates the myth of eternal conflict between science and religion in the supposed name of putting an end to it. The myth of the conflict between science and religion that includes the sad tale of the visionary Giordano Bruno whose fate Brin wants his listeners to avoid, dates no later than the late 19th century created by staunch secularists such as Robert Ingersoll and John William Draper. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, pp. 251-252)

Yes, it is true that the kinds of naturalistic explanations that constitute modern science emerged first within the context of the democratic city-states of ancient Greece, but if one takes the case of the biggest most important martyr for the freedom of thought in history, Socrates, as of any importance one sees that science and democracy are not partners that are of necessity glued to the hip. The relationship between science, democracy, and oligarchy in the early modern period is also complex and ambiguous.

Take the case of perhaps the most famous case of religions assault on religion- Galileo. The moons which Galileo discovered orbiting around Jupiter are known today as the Galilean moons. As was pointed out by Michael Nielsen, (@27 min) what is less widely known is that Galileo initially named them the medicean moons after his very oligarchic patrons in the Medici family.

Battles over science in the early modern period are better seen as conflicts between oligarchic groups rather than a conflict where science stood in the support of democratizing forces that oligarchs sought to contain. Science indeed benefited from this competition and some, such as Paul A. David, argue that the scientific revolution would have been unlikely without the kinds of elaborate forms of patronage by the wealthy of scientific experiments and more importantly- mass publication.

The “new science” that emerged in the early modern period did not necessarily give rise to liberation narratives either. Newton’s cosmology was used in England to justify the rule of the “higher” over the “lower” orders, just as the court of France’s Sun-king had its nobles placed in well defined “orbits” “circling” around their sovereign. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God,  p. 216)

Brin’s history and his read of current and near future political and social development seems to be almost Marxist in the sense that the pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement will inevitably lead to further democratization. Such a “faith” I believe to be dangerous. If science and technology prove to be democratizing forces it will be because we have chosen to make them so, but a backlash is indeed possible. Such a “counter-revolution” can most likely be averted not by technologists taking on yet more religious language and concepts and proselytizing to the non-converted. Rather, we can escape this fate by putting some distance between the religious rhetoric of singularitarians and those who believe in the liberating and humanist potential of emerging technologies. For if transhumanists frame their goals to be the extension of the healthy human lifespan to the longest length possible and the increase of available intelligence, both human and artificial, so as to navigate and solve the problems of our complex societies almost everyone would assent. Whereas if transhumanists continue to be dragged into fights with the religious over goals such as “immortality”, “becoming gods” or “building gods”(an idea that makes as much sense as saying you were going to build the Tao or design Goodness)  we might find ourselves in the 21st century version of a religious war.

To see forward, look back!

Thomas Cole the Course of Empire

“The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”  

Winston Churchill

The above quote is taken from Ian Morris’ recent and fascinating Why the West Rules- For Now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  Indeed, the whole point of Morris’ book can be seen in Churchill’s quip. Morris, a trained archaeologist and historian, aims to find a pattern in the broad arc of human history beginning with the birth of civilization, take us into the present age, and project current trends outward into the next century and perhaps beyond.

This is, needless to say, a pretty ballsy thing to do, at least if one wants to remain safe in the cocoon of respectable academia where scholars can spend a decade glued like a car door on Magneto to a subsection of one obscure historical text, or stuck for seven years, as Morris himself was, to the excavation of one ancient room.  Writing a meta-narrative like Morris’ is somewhat less ballsy if one intends to enter that rare breed of academic/journalist that has managed to reach the publishing industry’s version of celebrity status. Perhaps the fastest way to reach the top of today’s non-fiction bestseller list is to write a book with the words “America” or the “West” with the verb “decline” attached or- perhaps the flip-side- the words “China” and “Rise”. And who could blame the public for lapping this stuff up, hell, with “Euro-crises”, and “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” all over the news when everything in the rest of the world, and China especially, seems a go-go-go?    

Morris, however, is not some poor soul lost forever to the seriousness of academia and possessed by the spirit of Oswald Spengler, nor is he some dry professor presenting yet another version of those angels- on- the- head- of- a- pin arguments that force closed the eyelids of popular readers. Rather, he has managed the seemingly impossible task of presenting serious scholarship in a way that succeeds in keeping readers not only engaged but entertained. His book is full of creative leaps in which he uses the instruments and insights from one field of human intellectual and artistic endeavor to help understand history in new ways. Above all, Morris takes seriously what are in fact very important questions- problems which modern historians burned by the hubris and prejudice of their 19th and early 20th century predecessors tend to ignore, questions which nonetheless, should be important to all of us as human beings- where did we come from? and where are we going?

The way that Morris frames these questions of origins and destiny is to see them through the prism of the “rise of the West”. Is this Euro-centric? Perhaps, but the facts remain that it was from an obscure corner of Eurasia that the first civilization arose that managed to tie the globe together into one unit, that it was from there that a brand new form of civilization emerged a scientific-industrial-technological civilization that would force all the world to adapt to it or face decline and domination. Why this happened, and where this process unleashed by the West might be leading is not a matter of increasing Westerner’s self-esteem in a period where the two cores of Western civilization- Europe and the United States- seem to be racing one another down the slope of decadence and decline, but are questions that should concern everyone regardless of the accidents of geography.

Morris is trained as an archaeologist specializing in the classical age in the West. One might, therefore, expect him to fall into the category of those 19th century historians who thought there was something very special about the West culturally, or some, with tragic effects argued racially, about the West that made its dominance over the rest of the world’s cultures inevitable. Usually these “long-term lock-in” theories start from something about the ancient Greeks and how they escaped the hold of superstition by the application of reason to both nature and society.

Morris grapples with these explanations from culture only to dismiss them. There are just far too many periods in history where civilizations other than the West hold first place in the realms of science and technology. Think, for example, of what are considered the penultimate technologies that launched the modern age: long range sailing ships, the compass, the printing press and gunpowder. All of these were invented in China.

Something historians attempting to compare civilizations or talking about their rise or decline is by what basis do you say one civilization is more “advanced” than another? How can you tell if a civilization is rising or declining?

It is in coming up with a new way to answer these questions that Morris makes the first of his many leaps found in Why the West Rules, For Now. Morris turns to a model from contemporary development studies- the UN Human Development Index (HDI) which is a combined statistic that compares development between countries on measures such as life-expectancy, education and income as a template for creating his own measure that will allow him to compare levels of development historically between countries and across an historical period that begins with the appearance of civilization in the “Hilly Flanks” of the modern Middle East with the Neolithic Revolution around 12,000 years ago.

Morris comes up with four key measures that allow him to compare development between civilizations and across time: energy capture (how much energy is taken for work), organizational capacity (measured by the size of urban centers), information technology (measured by literacy rates) and military capacity (measured by the size of armies).  Morris is well aware that he should not give a value judgment to scores on his scale, and he also fully admits that what he has invented is a rather rough instrument. His is a starting point for a larger discussion- not the final destination.

Applying his measure to history since the dawn of civilization here is what he finds:The West, meaning not just Europe, but the western half of Eurasia and North Africa beginning in Mesopotamia was indeed ahead in developmental terms from Eastern civilization, whose core he place in China, for much of its history. Only in the late middle ages from around 900 AD- 1700 AD was the East ahead of the West. Yet, in a version of the theory put forward by Jared Diamond in his landmark Germs Guns and Steel, Morris argues that the fact that the West was for so long more advanced than the East according to his measure is to be explained not in terms of culture but as a consequence of geography.

Intensive agriculture along with permanent human settlements emerged around 12,000 years ago in a region known as the “Hilly Flanks” an area on the edge of the area around the Tigris and Euphrates. Why here? It just so happens that this area has an overwhelming number of that very small group of naturally occurring plants and animals that are suitable for domestication. Agriculture in the Hilly Flanks spread to the nearby Tigris and Euphrates valley in which, under harsh conditions of a new Ice Age it gave rise to what we would recognize as both cities and states which had grown up as solutions to the problem of how to provide food under conditions of intense scarcity.

The West had a further geographic advantage over the East after the center of its civilization moved into the Mediterranean whose sea provided a transmission belt for food, products, people and ideas. Even after China built its Grand Canal it would have nothing to compete with the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire took the West to the very height of social development in terms of Morris’ scale-the number of trees felled for fuel, of cities at a massive scale, soldiers armed for war, or literate persons would not return to those found in the Roman Empire in its height- for Western countries that is- until the 1700s. Rome had hit what Morris calls a “hard-ceiling” and was eventually felled by his “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: climate change, famine, state failure, and disease”.

After 900, China with its Song Dynasty finally caught up to and surpassed the West reaching Roman levels of social development according to Morris’ measure. How exactly it was able to do this isn’t exactly clear, but certainly part of it had to do with the incorporation of rice producing regions in China’s south- perhaps facilitated by climate change. China’s relative isolation would have offered it some protection against epidemic diseases and it had come up with an effective “barbarian policy” that at the very least allowed China to avoid the fate of a city such as Baghdad that around 1200 was absolutely destroyed by a Mongolian horde.

In any case, with the discovery of the Americas in the 1400s the West would begin its crawl back to the levels of social development found in the Roman Empire this time by creating a new version of the Mediterranean world in the Atlantic Civilization and its Columbian Exchange. But by the 1700s when Thomas Malthus realized that all civilizations in the past had collapsed once their population overran their ability to produce food, it seemed like the hard-ceiling was about to be hit again, only this time, as Kenneth Pomeranz pointed out in his The Great Divergence the West would find in the industrial revolution a way not just to poke above the hard-ceiling, but to shatter it.

Here’s what it looks like as a graph:

Ian Morris Great Divergence Graph   

The last 200 or so odd years have essentially been the story of the West taking advantage of this new form of industrial civilization it created to dominate the rest of the globe until non-Western societies adopted and replicated it. Now that countries such as China and India have embraced modernization the fate of the rule of the West is written on the wall. Within a century, the great divergence will have run its course, and perhaps that’s the big story under today’s headlines. But Morris doesn’t think so.

Instead, what he sees is another hard-ceiling out ahead which unless we break through it may result in the end of civilization, what he, borrowing from Isaac Asimov calls Nightfall. If one takes one of Morris measures, say urbanization, and plays out the trend line, what one gets is cities on the order of 140 million people! He sees no way of measuring up to these trend lines unless the hopes of the singularians for radical technological change within the next half century prove correct. The four horsemen of
climate change, famine, state failure, and disease are already out of their stable and only a breakthrough of greater magnitude than the industrial revolution would prove capable of pushing them back in.

If we fail to achieve a breakthrough our particular civilization’s collapse- accompanied by nuclear weapons- will likely, according to Morris, be the last. For him, like the title of this blog the future is one of either utopia or dystopia.


Van Gough Starry Night

When I was fourteen, or thereabouts, one of the very first novels I read was the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. Foundation is for anyone so presumptuous, as I was and still am, to have an interest in “big history”- the rise and fall of civilizations, the place of civilization within the history earth and the universe, the wonder at where we will be millenia hence, a spellbinding tale.

The Foundation Trilogy tells the story of the social mathematician, Hari Seldon, who invents the field of psychohistory which allows him to be able to predict the fall of the Galactic Empire in which he lives. The fall of the galaxy spanning empire will lead to a dark age that will last 35,000 years. Seldon comes up with a plan to shorten this period of darkness to only a millennium by establishing foundations that will preserve and foster learning at opposite ends of the galaxy.

My understanding of the origins of the  Foundation Trilogy was that it was one of the greatest examples ever of a writer breaking free from the vice -grip of writer’s block. In 1942 Asimov was at a complete loss as to what he should write. Scanning his bookshelf he saw a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and started to read, and soon had the plot of all plots, an idea that would see him through not just the Foundation Trilogy,  but a series of works- fourteen in all.

I found it strange, then, when I picked up a book that represented our 21st century version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall , a book by Ian Morris entitled Why the West Rules- For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future,
that Morris made reference not to Foundation,  but to a short story by Asimov that was written prior, which I had never heard of called Nightfall.  *

Next time I want to do a full review of Morris’  fascinating book. For those so inclined, please do not be put off by the title. Morris is something much different from Eurocentrists who usually write books with such titles, and if he has the courage to write a meta-history in an age when respectable scholars are supposed to be more humble in the face of their ignorance and deliberately narrow in their purported expertise, his is a self-conscious meta-narrative that fully acknowledges the limits of our knowledge and of its author.  Morris is also prone to creative leaps, and he borrows and redefines for his purposes two concepts of the human future. The first is one often talked about on this blog, The Singularity, and the second an idea from Asimov- the idea of social collapse found in Asimov’s  aforementioned,  Nightfall.

Like Foundation, Nightfall is also a tale of a civilization’s end, but it is not the gradual corrosion and decay found in Gibbon or Asimov’s other stories but of swift and total collapse. (The reason, no doubt, Morris chose it as his version of a negative future Again, more on that next time).

Nightfall, too, has a story around its origins. Asimov was discussing a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson with the editor of Astounding Stories, John W. Campbell, that:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

Campbell thought instead that people would very likely go mad.

Nightfall takes place on the imaginary world of Lagash. The planet is located in a star systems with six suns to the effect that it is always daytime on Lagash. The plot centers around a group of scientists at Saro University who discover that their civilization is headed towards a collapse that has been cyclically repeated (every 2049 years) many many times.

The most unbelievable  element of Nightfall isn’t this cyclical collapse, which looks a lot like the “Maya Apocalypse” that a host of poor souls got sucked up into just last month, but the collaboration between scientists from different fields within the university, indeed, bordering on what E.O. Wilson has called “consilience”. You have a psychologist studying the psychological effects of darkness on Lagashians, an archeologist who has found evidence of repeated civilizational collapse, an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash, and a physicist, and one of the main characters, Aton, who puts the whole thing together, and realizes that all of this fits with an invisible (because of the light) body orbiting Lagash that causes an eclipse and a brief night every two millennia that results in the destruction of civilization.

The other main character, Theremon, is a journalist who has written on a religious group, “The Cult” who have a distinct set of beliefs about the end of days handed down in their “Book of Revelation” (ugh). The belief entails the destruction of the world by a darkness in which flames in the sky rain down fire upon the earth and the souls of the living flow out into the heavens. The presentation of Theremon as a hardscrapple reporter, rather than, say, a scholar of religion, is the only thing that dates Nightfall as a story written in the early 20th century. One has no idea that as Asimov is writing civilization around him was in fact in a state of collapse as world war raged.

Why does nightfall bring the collapse of civilization on Lagash? For one, people become psychologically unhinged by darkness. Lagashians,  evolved for eternal day, feel they are being suffocated when darkness falls. Without darkness, they have had no need to invent artificial light. When darkness falls, it is not fire from the heavens that destroys their own civilization, but the fact that they inadvertently  burn their cities to the ground, lighting everything they can find on fire to escape the night.

In some ways, I think, Asimov was playing with all sorts of ideas about technology, science, and religion with Nightfall. After all, it was the taming of fire that stands as the legendary gift of Prometheus, the technology that gave rise to human civilization destroys the civilization of Lagash. The faculty of Saro, like we humans, undergo their own version of a Copernican Revolution. Just as our relative position in the space blinded us for so long to the heliocentric nature of the solar system, and just as our inability to see with the naked eye past Jupiter, let alone out past the Milky Way, blinded us to the scale of the cosmos, Lagashians are blinded by their own position of being surrounded by six suns that hide the night sky. The astronomer, Beenay, speculates in Nightfall that perhaps what the “Cultist” saw with the fall of darkness were other suns more distant than the six that surround Lagash as many as “a dozen or two, maybe”.  Theremon responds:

Two dozen suns in a universe eight light years across. Wow! That would shrink our world into insignificance.


Asimov is also playing with the tendency of all of us, even scientists, to get imaginatively stuck in the world which they know. Beenay can imagine a world like our own with only one sun, but he thinks life on such a strange world would be impossible, because the sun would only shine on such a planet for half of the day, and constant sunlight, as the Lagashians know, is necessary for life.

Whereas Asimov localizes the myopia that comes from seeing the universe from a particular point in space and time the physicist, Lawrence Krauss, in a recent talk for the Singularity University, places such myopia from our place within the overall history of the universe. Before 1910, with Edwin Hubble and his telescopes, people thought they lived in a static universe with only one galaxy- our own. Today we know we live in an expanding universe with many billions of galaxies. Krauss points out that in the far future of a universe such as our own which is expanding, and in which local regions of galaxies are converging, future astronomers will not be able to see past their own galaxy even as we now do into the past of the universe including telltale signs of the beginning of the universe such as the cosmic background radiation. What they will see, the only thing they will be able to see, is the galaxy in which they live surrounded by seemingly infinite darkness- exactly the kind of universe astronomers thought we lived in in 1910.

Asimov’s, Nightfall, and Krauss’s future universe should not, however, encourage the hubris that we are uniquely placed to know the truth about the universe. Rather, it cautions us that we may be missing something very important by the myopia inherent in seeing the universe from a very particular point in space and time.

If all that weren’t enough, Asimov’s, Nightfall,  is playing with the conflict between science and religion. The work of the scientist at Saro threatens to undercut the sacred meaning of nightfall for the Cultists. Indeed, the Cultist appear to hold beliefs that are part “Maya apocalypse” part pre-Copernican Christian cosmology regarding the abode of God and the angels being in the “heavenly spheres”. Whereas the scientists at Saro have set up a kind of mass fall out shelter in which a number of Lagashians can survive nightfall, and intend to photograph what happens as a sort of message in a bottle for the next civilization on Lagash to witness the darkness, the Cultists try to sabotage the recording of night and to destroy the observatory in which the scientists at Saro have retreated. Their own religious convictions being more important than the survival of civilization and scientific truth.

Ian Morris thought the 70 year old short-story Nightfall had something very important to say to us of the early 21st century, and I very much agree. Why exactly Morris, who is, after all, a historian and archaeologist interested in very long cycles of history would see this strange story of immediate collapse as a warning we should heed will be my subject of my next post…

*In 1990, the story was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg.