Digital Afterlife: 2045

Alphonse Mucha Moon

Excerpt from Richard Weber’s History of Religion and Inequality in the 21st Century (2056)

Of all the bewildering diversity of new of consumer choices on offer before the middle of the century that would have stunned people from only a generation earlier, none was perhaps as shocking as the many ways there now were to be dead.

As in all things of the 21st century what death looked like was dependent on the wealth question. Certainly, there were many human beings, and when looking at the question globally, the overwhelming majority, who were treated in death the same way their ancestors had been treated. Buried in the cold ground, or, more likely given high property values that made cemetery space ever more precious, their corpses burned to ashes, spread over some spot sacred to the individual’s spirituality or sentiment.

A revival of death relics that had begun in the early 21st century continued for those unwilling out of religious belief, or more likely, simply unable to afford any of the more sophisticated forms of death on offer. It was increasingly the case that the poor were tattooed using the ashes of their lost loved one, or that they carried some momento in the form of their DNA in the vague hope that family fortunes would change and their loved one might be resurrected in the same way mammoths now once again roamed the windswept earth.

Some were drawn by poverty and the consciousness brought on by the increasing period of environmental crisis to simply have their dead bodies “given back” to nature and seemed to embrace with morbid delight the idea that human beings should end up “food for worms”.

It was for those above a certain station where death took on whole new meanings. There were of course, stupendous gains in longevity, though human beings still continued to die, and  increasingly popular cryonics held out hope that death would prove nothing but a long and cold nap. Yet it was digital and brain scanning/emulating technologies that opened up whole other avenues allowing those who had died or were waiting to be thawed to continue to interact with the world.

On the low end of the scale there were now all kinds of interactive cemetery monuments that allowed loved ones or just the curious to view “life scenes” of the deceased. Everything from the most trivial to the sublime had been video recorded in the 21st century which provided unending material, sometimes in 3D, for such displays.

At a level up from this “ghost memoirs” became increasingly popular especially as costs plummeted due to outsourcing and then scripting AI. Beginning in the 2020’s the business of writing biographies of the dead ,which were found to be most popular when written in the first person, was initially seen as a way for struggling writers to make ends meet. Early on it was a form of craftsmanship where authors would pour over records of the deceased individual in text, video, and audio recordings, aiming to come as close as possible to the voice of the deceased and would interview family and friends about the life of the lost in the hopes of being able to fully capture their essence.

The moment such craft was seen to be lucrative it was outsourced. English speakers in India and elsewhere soon poured over the life records of the deceased and created ghost memoirs en mass, and though it did lead to some quite amusing cultural misinterpretations, it also made the cost of having such memoirs published sharply decline further increasing their popularity.

The perfection of scripting AI made the cost of producing ghost memoirs plummet even more. A company out of Pittsburgh called “Mementos” created by students at Carnegie Mellon boasted in their advertisements that “We write your life story in less time than your conception”. That same company was one of many others that had brought 3D scanning of artifacts from museums to everyone and created exact digital images of a person’s every treasured trinket and trophy.

Only the very poor failed to have their own published memoir which recounted their life’s triumphs and tribulations or failed to have their most treasured items scanned.  Many, however, esqued the public display of death found in either interactive monuments or the antiquated idea of memoirs as death increasingly became a thing of shame and class identity. They preferred private home- shrines many of which resembled early 21st century fast food kiosks whereby one could chose a precise recorded event or conversation from the deceased in light of current need. There were selections with names like “Motivation”, and “Persistence” that might pull up relevant items, some of which used editing algorithms that allowed them to create appropriate mashups, or even whole new interactions that the dead themselves had never had.

Somewhat above this level due to the cost for the required AI were so-called “ghost-rooms”. In all prior centuries some who suffered the death of a loved one would attempt to freeze time by, for instance, leaving unchanged a room in which the deceased had spent the majority of their time. Now the dead could actually “live” in such rooms, whether as a 3D hologram (hence the name ghost rooms) or in the form of an android that resembled the deceased. The most “life-like” forms of these AI’s were based on the maps of detailed “brainstorms” of the deceased. A technique perfected earlier in the century by the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis.

One of the most common dilemmas, and one that was encountered in some form even in the early years of the 21st century, was the fact that the digital presence of a deceased person often continued to exist and act long after a person was gone. This became especially problematic once AIs acting as stand-ins for individuals became widely used.

Most famously there was the case of Uruk Wu. A real estate tycoon, Wu was cryogenically frozen after suffering a form of lung cancer that would not respond to treatment. Estranged from his party-going son Enkidu, Mr Wu had placed the management all of his very substantial estate under a finance algorithm (FA). Enkidu Wu initially sued the deceased Uruk for control of family finances- a case he famously and definitively lost- setting the stage for increased rights for deceased in the form of AIs.

Soon after this case, however, it was discovered that the FA being used by the Uruk estate was engaged in wide-spread tax evasion practices. After extensive software forensics it was found that such evasion was a deliberate feature of the Uruk FA and not a mere flaw. After absorbing fines, and with the unraveling of its investments and partners, the Uruk estate found itself effectively broke. In an atmosphere of great acrimony TuatGenics the cryonic establishment that interred Urduk unplugged him and let him die as he was unable to sustain forward funding for his upkeep and future revival.

There was a great and still unresolved debate in the 2030’s over whether FAs acting in the markets on behalf of the dead were stabilizing or destabilizing the financial system. FAs became an increasingly popular option for the cryogenically frozen or even more commonly the elderly suffering slow onset dementia, especially given the decline in the number of people having children to care for them in old age, or inherit their fortunes after death. The dead it was thought would prove to be conservative investment group, but anecdotally at least they came to be seen as a population willing to undertake an almost obscene level of financial risk due to the fact that revival was a generation off or more.

One weakness of the FAs was that they were faced with pouring their resources into upgrade fees rather than investment as the presently living designed software meant to deliberately exploit the weaknesses of earlier generation FAs. Some argued that this was a form of “elder abuse” whereas others took the position that to prohibit such practices would constitute fossilizing markets in an earlier and less efficient era.

Other phenomenon that came to prominence by the 2030’s were so-called “replicant” and “faustian” legal disputes. One of the first groups to have accurate digital representations in the 21st century were living celebrities. Near death or at the height of their fame, celebrities often contracted out their digital replicants. There was always need of those having ownership rights of the replicants to avoid media saturation, but finding the right balance between generating present and securing future revenue proved challenging.

Copyright proved difficult to enforce. Once the code of a potentially revenue generating digital replicant had been made there was a great deal of incentive to obtain a copy of that replicant and sell it to all sorts of B-level media outlets. There were widespread complaints by the Screen Actors Guild that replicants were taking away work from real actors, but the complaint was increasingly seen as antique- most actors with the exception of crowd drawing celebrities were digital simulations rather than “real” people anyway.

Faustian contacts were legal obligations by second or third tier celebrities or first tier actors and performers whose had begun to see their fame decline that allowed the contractor to sell a digital representation to third parties. Celebrities who had entered such contracts inevitably found “themselves” staring in pornographic films, or just as common, in political ads for causes they would never support.

Both the replicant and faustian issues gave an added dimension to the legal difficulties first identified in the Uruk Wu case. Who was legally responsible for the behavior of digital replicants? That question became especially apparent in the case of the serial killer Gregory Freeman. Freeman was eventually held liable for the deaths of up to 4,000 biological, living humans. Murders he “himself” had not committed, but that were done by his digital replicant. This was done largely by infiltrating a software error in the Sony-Geisinger remote medical monitoring system (RMMS) that controlled everything from patients pacemakers to brain implants and prosthetics to medication delivery systems and prescriptions. Freeman was found posthumously guilty of having caused the deaths (he committed suicide) but not before the replicant he had created had killed hundreds of persons even after the man’s death.

It became increasingly common for families to create multiple digital replicants of a particular individual, so now a lost mother or father could live with all of their grown and dispersed children simultaneously. This became the source of unending court disputes over which replicant was actually the “real” person and which therefore held valid claim to property.

Many began to create digital replicants well before the point of death to farm them out out for remunerative work. Much of work by this point had been transformed into information processing tasks, a great deal of which was performed by human-AI teams, and even in traditional fields where true AI had failed to make inroads- such as indoor plumbing- much of the work was performed by remote controlled droids. Thus, there was an incentive for people to create digital replicants that would be tasked with income generating work. Individuals would have themselves copied, or more commonly just a skill-based part of themselves copied and have it used for work. Leasing was much more common than outright ownership and not merely because of complaints of a new form of “indentured servitude” but because whatever skill set was sold was likely to be replaced as its particulars became obsolete or pure AI that had been designed on it improved. In the churn of needed skills to obsolescence many dedicated a share of their digital replicants to retraining itself.

Servitude was one area where the impoverished dead were able to outcompete their richer brethren. A common practice was for the poor to be paid upfront for the use of their brain matter upon death. Parts of once living human brains were commonly used by companies for “capucha” tasks yet to be mastered by AI.

There were strenuous objections to this “atomization” of the dead, especially for those digital replicants that did not have any family to “house” them, and who, lacking the freedom to roam freely in the digital universe were in effect trapped in a sort of quantum no-man’s-land. Some religious groups, most importantly the Mormons, responded to this by place digital replicants of the dead in historical simulations that recreated the world in which the deceased had lived and were earnestly pursuing a project in which replicants of those who had died before the onset of the digital age were created.

In addition, there were numerous rights arguments against the creation of such simulated histories using replicants. The first being that forcing digital replicants to live in a world where children died in mass numbers, starvation, war and plague were common forms of death, and which lacked modern miracles such as anesthesia, when such world could easily be created with more humane features, was not “redemptive” but amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and even torture.

Indeed, one of the biggest, and overblown, fears of this time was that one’s digital replicant might end up in a sadistically crafted simulated form of hell. Whatever its irrationality, this became a popular form of blackmail with videos of “captive” digital replicants or proxies used to frighten a person into surrendering some enormous sum.

The other argument against placing digital replicants in historical simulations, either without their knowledge, their ability to leave, or more often both, was something akin to imprisoning a person in a form of Colonial Williamsburg or The Renaissance Faire. “Spectral abolitionists” argued that the embodiment of a lost person should be free to roam and interact with the world as they chose whether as software or androids, and that they should be unshackled from the chains of memory. There were even the JBDBM (the John Brown’s Digital Body Movement) and the DigitalGnostics, hacktivists group that went around revealing the reality of simulated worlds to their inhabitants and sought to free them to enter the larger world heretofore invisible to them.

A popular form of cultural terrorism at this time were so-called “Erasers” entities with names such as “GrimReaper” or “Scathe” whose project consisted in tracking down digital replicants and deleting them. Some characterized these groups as a manifestation of a deathists philosophy, or even claimed that they were secretly funded by traditional religious groups whose traditional “business models” were being disrupted by the new digital forms of death. Such suspicions were supported by the fact that the Erasers usually were based in religious countries where the rights of replicants were often non-existent and fears regarding new “electric jinns” rampant.

Also prominent in this period were secular prophets who projected that a continuing of the trends of digital replicants, both of the living, and the at least temporarily dead, along with their representing AI’s, would lead to a situation where non-living humans would soon outnumber the living. There were apocalyptic tales akin to the zombie craze earlier in the century that within 50 years the dead would rise up against the living and perhaps join together with AIs destroy the world. But that, of course, was all Ningbowood.

 

An imaginary book excerpt inspired by Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects.

Knowledge and Power, Or Dark Thoughts In Winter

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For people in cold climes, winter, with its short days and hibernation inducing frigidity,  is a season to let one’s pessimistic imagination roam. It may be overly deterministic, but I often wonder whether those who live in climates that do not vary with the seasons, so that they live where it is almost always warm and sunny, or always cold and grim, experience less often over the course of a year the full spectrum of human sentiments and end up being either too utopian for reality to justify, or too dystopian for those lucky enough to be here and have a world to complain about in the first place.

The novel I wrote about last time, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a winter book because it is such a supremely pessimistic one. It presents a world that reaches a stage of technological maturity only to destroy itself again, and again.

What we would consider progress occurs only in terms of Mankind’s technological not its moral capacity. The novel ends with yet another nuclear holocaust only this time the monks who hope to preserve knowledge set out not for the deserts of earth, but the newly discovered planets around nearby stars -the seeds of a new civilization, but in all likelihood not the beginning of an eternal spring.

It’s a cliche to say that among the biggest problems facing us is that our moral or ethical progress has not kept pace with our technological and scientific progress, but labeling something a cliche doesn’t of necessity mean it isn’t true. Miller, the author of  A Canticle for Leibowitz was tapping into a deep historical anxiety that this disjunction between our technological and moral capacity constituted the ultimate danger for us, and defined the problem in a certain, and I believe ultimately very useful way.

Yet, despite Miller’s and others’ anxiety we are still here, so the fear that the chasm between our technological and moral capacity will destroy us remains just that, an anxiety based on a projected future. It is a fear with a long backstory.

All cultures might have hubris myths or warnings about unbridled curiosity, remember Pandora and her jar, or Icarus and his melted wings, but Christianity had turned this warning against pride into the keystone for a whole religious cosmology. That is, in the Christian narrative, especially in the writings of Augustine, death, and with it the need for salvation, comes into the world out of the twin sins of Eve’s pride and curiosity.

It was an ancient anxiety, embedded right in the heart of Christianity, and which burst into consciousness with renewed vigor, during the emergence of modern science, an event that occurred at the same time as Christian revival and balkanization. A kind of contradiction that many thinkers during the early days of the scientific revolution from Isaac Newton, to Francis Bacon, to John Milton to Thomas More found themselves faced with; namely, if the original sin of our first parents was a sin of curiosity, how could a deeply religious age justify its rekindled quest for knowledge?

It is probably hard for most of us to get our minds around just how religious many of the figures during the scientific revolution were given our own mythology regarding the intractable war between science and religion, and the categories into which secular persons, who tend to rely on science, and religious persons, who far too often exhibit an anti-scientific bias, now often fall. Yet, a scientific giant like Newton was in great measure a Christian fundamentalist by today’s standards. One of the most influential publicists for the “new science” was Francis Bacon who saw as the task of science bringing back the state of knowledge found in the “prelapsarian” world, that is, the world before the fall of Adam and Eve.

As I have written about previously, Bacon was one of the first to confront the contradiction between the urge for new (in his view actually old) knowledge and the traditional Christian narrative regarding forbidden knowledge and the sin of pride. His answer was that the millennium was at hand and therefore a moral revival of humanity was taking place that would parallel and buffer the revival of knowledge. Knowledge was to be used for “the improvement of man’s estate”, and his new science was understood as the ultimate tool of Christian charity. In Bacon’s view, such science would only prove ruinous were it used for the sinful purposes of the lust for individual and group aggrandizement and power.

Others were not so optimistic.

Thomas More, for instance, who is credited with creating the modern genre of utopia wasn’t sketching out a blueprint for a perfect world as he was critiquing his own native England, while at the same time suggesting that no perfect world was possible due to Man’s sinfulness, or what his dear friend, Erasmus called “folly”.

Yet, the person who best captured the religious tensions and anxieties present when a largely Christian Europe embarked on its scientific revolution was the blind poet, John Milton. We don’t normally associate Milton with the scientific revolution, but we should. Milton, not only visited the imprisoned Galileo, he made the astronomer and his ideas into recurring themes, presented in a positive light, in his Paradise Lost. Milton also wrote a stunning defense on the freedom of thought, the Areopagitica, which would have made Galileo a free man.

Paradise Lost is, yes, a story in the old Christian vein of warnings against hubris and unbridled curiosity, but it is also a story about power. Namely, how the conclusion that we are “self-begot”, most likely led not to a state of utopian-anarchic godlessness, but the false belief that we ourselves could take the place of God, that is, the discovery of knowledge was tainted not when we, like Adam in Milton’s work, sought answers to our questions regarding the nature of the world, but the minute this knowledge was used as a tool of power against and rule over others.

From the time of Milton to the World Wars of the 20th century the balance between a science that had “improved man’s estate” and that which had served as the tool of power leaned largely in the direction of the former, though Romantics like Percy and Mary Shelley gave us warnings.

The idea that science and technology were tools for the improvement of the conditions of living for the mass of mankind rather than instruments in the pursuit of the perennial human vices of greed and ambition was not the case, of course, if one lived in a non-scientifically empowered non-Western civilization and were at the ends of the barrels of Western gun boats, a fact that we in the West need should not forget now that the scientific revolution and its technology for good and ill is now global. In the West itself, however, this other, darker side, of science and technology was largely occulted even in the face of the human devastation of 19th century wars.

The Second World War, and especially, the development of nuclear weapons brought this existential problem back fully into consciousness, and A Canticle for Leibowitz is a near pitch-perfect representative of this thinking, almost the exact opposite of another near contemporary Catholic thinker, Teilhard de Chardin’s view of technology as the means to godhead in his Phenomenon of Man.

There are multiple voices of conscience in A Canticle for Leibowitz all of which convey a similar underlying message, that knowledge usurped by power constitutes the gravest of dangers.  There is the ageless, wandering Jew on the search for a messiah that never manifests himself and therefore remains in a fallen world in which he lives a life of eternal exile. There is the Poet who in his farcical way condemns the alliance between the holders of knowledge, both the Memorabilia, and the new and secular collegium, and the new centers of military power.

And then there are the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz itself. Here is a dialogue between the abbot Dom Paulo and the lead scholar of the new collegium, Thon Taddeo, on the later’s closeness with the rising satrap,  Hannegan. It is a dialogue which captures the essential message behind A Canticle for Leibowitz. 

Thon Taddeo:

Let’s be frank with each other, Father. I can’t fight the prince that makes my work possible- no matter what I think of his policies or his politics. I appear to support him, superficially, or at least to overlook him- for the sake of the collegium. If he extends his lands, the collegium may incidentally profit. If the collegium prospers, mankind will profit from our work.

What can I do about it? Hannegan is prince, not I.

Dom Paulo:

But you promise to begin restoring Man’s control over nature. But who will govern the use of that power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check.  Such decisions can still be made. But if you and your group don’t make them now, others will soon make them for you. (206)

And, of course, the wrong decisions are made and power and knowledge are aligned a choice which unfolds in the book’s final section as another abbot, Dom Zerchi reflects on a world on the eve of another nuclear holocaust:

Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again, and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork helpless to stop its swing? (245)

The problem, to state it simply, is that we are not creatures that are wholly, innately good, a fact which did not constitute a danger to human civilization or even earthly life until the 20th century. Our quenchless curiosity has driven a progressive expansion of the scale of our powers which has reached the stage where it has the dangers of intersecting with our flaws, and not just our capacity to engage in evil actions, but our foolishness and our greed, to harms billions of persons, or even destroy life on earth.  This is the tragic view of the potential dangers of our newly acquired knowledge.

The Christian genealogy of this tragic view provides the theological cosmology behind A Canticle for Leibowitz, yet we shouldn’t be confused into thinking Christianity is the only place where such sober pessimism can be found.

Take Hinduism: Once, when asked what he thought of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gandhi responded that Gibbon was excellent at compiling “vast masses of facts”, but that the truth he revealed by doing so was nothing compared to the ancient Hindu classic the Mahabharata. According to Pankaj Mishra, Gandhi’s held that:

 The truth lay in the Mahabharata‘s portrait of the elemental human forces of greed and hatred: how they disguise themselves as self-righteousness and lead to a destructive war in which there are no victors, only survivors inheriting an immense wasteland.

Buddhism contains similar lessons about how the root of human suffering was to be found in our consciousness (or illusion) of our own separateness when combined with our desire.

Religions, because they in part contain Mankind’s longest reflections on human nature tend to capture this tragic condition of ultimately destructive competition between sentient beings with differing desires and wills, a condition which we may find are not only possessed by our fellow animals, but may be part of our legacy to any sentient machines that are our creations as well. Original sin indeed!

Yet recently, religion has been joined by secular psychology that is reviving Freudian pessimism though on a much more empirically sound basis. Contemporary psychology, the most well known of which is the work of Daniel Kahneman, has revealed the extent to which human beings are riddled with cognitive and moral faults which stand in the way of rational assessment and moral decisions- truths about which the world religions have long been aware.

The question becomes, then, what, if anything, can we do about this? Yet, right out of the gate we might stumble on the assumption behind the claim that our technological knowledge has advanced while our moral nature has remained intractably the same. That assumption is claim that the Enlightenment project of reforming human nature has failed.

For the moment I am only interested in two diametrically opposed responses to this perceived failure. The first wants to return to the pre-Enlightenment past, to a world built around the assumptions of Mankind’s sinfulness and free of the optimistic assumptions regarding democracy, equality and pluralism while the second thinks we should use the tools of the type of progress that clearly is working- our scientific and technological progress- to reach in and change human nature so that it better conforms to where we would like Mankind to be in the moral sense.

A thinker like, Glenn W. Olsen, the author of The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-first Century, is a very erudite and sophisticated version, not exactly of fundamentalism, but a recent reactionary move against modernity. His conclusion is the the Enlightenment project of reforming Mankind into rational and moral creatures has largely failed, so it might be best to revive at least some of the features of the pre-Enlightenment social-religious order that were built on less optimistic assumptions regarding Mankind’s animal nature, but more optimistic ones about our ultimate spiritual transcendence of those conditions which occur largely in the world to come.

Like the much less erudite fellow travelers of Olsen that go by the nom de guerre of neo-reactionaries, Olsen thinks this need to revive pre-Enlightenment forms of orientation to the world will require abandoning our faith in democracy, equality, and pluralism.  

A totally opposite view, though equally pessimistic in its assumptions regarding human nature, is that of those who propose using the tools of modern science, especially modern neuroscience and neuropharmacology, to cure human beings of their cognitive and moral flaws. Firmly in this camp is someone like the bio-ethicist, Julian Savulescu who argues that using these tools might be our only clear escape route from a future filled with terrorism and war.

Both of these perspectives have been countered by Steven Pinker in his monumental The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s is the example par excellence for the argument that the Enlightenment wasn’t a failure at all- but actually worked. People today are much less violent and more tolerant than at any time in the past. Rather than seeing our world as one that has suffered moral decay at worst, and the failure of progressive assumptions regarding human nature at best, Pinker presents a world where we are in every sense morally more advanced than our ancestors who had no compunction in torturing people on The Wheel or enslaving millions of individuals. So much for the nostalgia of neo-reactionaries.

And Pinker’s argument seems to undermine the logic behind the push for moral enhancement as well, for if current “technologies” such as universal education are working, in that violence has been in almost precipitous decline, why the need to push something far more radical and intrusive?

Here I’ll add my own two-cents, for I can indeed see an argument for cognitive and moral enhancement as a humane alternative to our barbaric policy of mass incarceration where many of the people we currently lock up and conceal in order to hide from ourselves our own particular variety of barbarism are there because of deficits of cognition and self-control. Unlike Savulescu, however, I do not see this as an answer to our concerns with security whether in the form of state-vs-state war or a catastrophic version of terrorism. Were we so powerfully that we could universally implement such moral enhancements and ensure that they were not used instead to tie individuals even closer together in groups that stood  in rivalry against other groups then we would not have these security concerns in the first place.

Our problem is not that the Enlightenment has failed but that it has succeeded in creating educated publics who now live in an economic and political system from which they feel increasingly alienated. These are problems of structure and power that do not easily lend themselves to any sort of technological fix, but ones that require political solutions and change. Yet, even if we could solve these problems other more deeply rooted and existential dangers might remain.

The real danger to us, as it has always been, is less a matter of individual against individual than tribe against tribe, nation against nation, group against group. Reason does not solve the problem here, because reason is baked into the very nature of our conflict, as each group, whether corporation, religious sect, or country pursues its own rational good whose consequence is often to the detriment of other groups.

The danger becomes even more acute when we realize that as artificial intelligence increases in capability many of our decisions will be handed over to machines, who, with all rationality, and no sense of a moral universe that demands something different,  continue the war of all against all that has been our lot since the rebellion of “Lucifer’s angels in heaven”.

Caves, Creationism and the Divine Wonder of Deep Time

The Mutiliation of Uranus by Saturn

Last week was my oldest daughter’s 5th birthday in my mind the next “big” birthday after the always special year one. I decided on a geology themed day one of whose components were her, me and my younger daughter who’s 3 taking a trip to a local limestone cave that holds walk through tours.

Given that we were visiting the cave on a weekday we had the privilege of getting a private tour: just me, the girls and our very friendly and helpful tour guide. I was really hoping the girls would get to see some bats, which I figured would be hibernating by now. Sadly, the bats were gone. In some places upwards of 90% of them had been killed by an epidemic with the understated name of “White Nose Syndrome” a biological catastrophe I hadn’t even been aware of and a crisis both for bats and farmers who depend on them for insect control and pollination.

For a local show-cave this was pretty amazing- lots of intricate stalactites and stalagmites, thin rock in the form of billowing ribbons a “living” growth moving so slowly it appears to be frozen in time. I found myself constantly wondering how long it took for these formations to take shape. “We tell people thousands of years” our guide told us. “We have no idea how old the earth is”. I thought to myself that I was almost certain that we had a pretty good idea of the age of the earth – 4.5 billion, but did not press- too interested in the caves features and exploring with the girls. I later realized I should have, it would have likely made our guide feel more at ease.

Towards the end of our tour we spotted a sea shell embedded in the low ceiling above us, and I picked up the girls one at a time so they could inspect it with their magnifying glass. I felt the kind of vertigo you feel when you come up against deep time. Here was the echo of a living thing from eons ago viewed by the living far far in its future.

Later I found myself thinking about our distance in time from the sea shell and the cave that surrounded it. How much time separated us and the shell? How old was the cave? How long had the things we had seen taken to form? Like any person who doesn’t know much about something does I went to our modern version of Delphi’s Oracle- Google.

When I Googled the very simple question: “how old are limestone caves?” a very curious thing happened. The very first link that popped up wasn’t Wikipedia or a geology site but The Institute for Creation Research.  That wasn’t the only link to creationist websites. Many, perhaps the majority, of articles written on the age of caves were by creationists, the ones that I read in seemingly scientific language, difficult for a non-scientist/non-geologist to parse. Creationists seem to be as interested in the age of caves as speleologist, and I couldn’t help but wonder, why?

Unless one goes looking or tries to remain conscious of it, there are very few places where human beings confront deep time- that is time far behind (or in front) of thousands of years by which we reckon human historical time.  The night sky is one of these places, though we have so turned the whole world into a sprawling Las Vegas that few of us can even see into the depths of night any more. Another place is natural history museums where prehistoric animals are preserved and put on display. Creationists have attempted to tackle the latter by designing their very own museums such as The Creation Museum replete with an alternative history of the universe where, among other things, dinosaurs once lived side-by-side with human beings like in The Flintstones.

Another place where a family such as my own might confront deep time is in canyons and caves. The Grand Canyon has a wonderful tour called The Trail of Time that gives some idea of the scale of geological time where tourists start at the top of the canyon in present time and move step by step and epoch by epoch to the point where the force of the Colorado River has revealed a surface 2 billion years old.

Caves are merely canyons under the ground and in both their structure and their slow growing features- stalactites and the like- give us a glimpse into the depths of geologic time. Creationists feel compelled to steel believers in a 5,000 year old earth against the kinds of doubts and questions that would be raised after a family walks through a cave. Hence all of the ink spilt arguing over how long it takes a stalagmite to grow five feet tall and look like a melting Santa Claus. What a shame.

It was no doubt the potential prickliness of his tourists that led our poor guide to present the age of the earth or the passage of time within the cave as open questions he could not address. After all, he didn’t know me from Adam and one slip of the word “million” from his mouth might have resulted in what should have been an exciting outing turning into a theological debate. As he said he was not, after all, a geologist and had merely found himself working in the cave after his father had passed away.

As regular readers of my posts well known, I am far from being an anti-religious person. Religion to me is one of the more wondrous inventions and discoveries we human beings have come up with, but religion, understood in this creationist sense seems to me a very real diminishment not merely of the human intellect but of the idea of the divine itself.

I do not mean to diminish the lives of people who believe in such pseudo-science. One of the most hardworking and courageous persons I can think of was a man blinded by a mine in Vietnam. Once we were discussing what he would most like to see were his sight restored and he said without hesitation “The Creation Museum!”. I think this man’s religious faith was a well spring for his motivation and courage, and this, I believe is what religions are for- to provide strength for us to deal with the trials and tribulations of human life. Yet, I cannot help but think that the effort to black- hole- like suck in and crush our ideas of creation so that it fits within the scope of our personal lives isn’t just an assault on scientific truth but a suffocation of our idea of the divine itself.

The Genesis story certainly offers believers and non-believers alike deep reflection on what it means to be a moral creature, but much of this opportunity for reflection is lost when the story is turned into a science text book. Not only that, both creation and creator become smaller. How limited is the God of creationists whose work they constrict from billions into mere thousand of years and whose overwhelming complexity and wonder they reduce to a mere 788,280 human words!  With bitter irony creationists diminish the depth of the work God has supposedly made so that man can exalt himself to the center of the universe and become the primary character of the story of creation. In trying to diminish the scale and depth of the universe in space and time they are committing the sin of Milton’s Satan- that is pride.

The more we learn of the universe the deeper it becomes. Perhaps the most amazing projects in NASA’s history were two very recent one- Kepler and Hubble. Their effects on our understanding of our place in the universe are far more profound than the moon landings or anything else the agency has done.

Hubble’s first Deep Field image was taken over ten consecutive days in December of 1995. What it discovered in the words of Lance Wallace over at The Atlantic:

What researchers found when they focused the Hubble over those 10 days on that tiny speck of darkness, Mather said, shook their worlds. When the images were compiled, they showed not just thousands of stars, but thousands of galaxies. If a tiny speck of darkness in the night sky held that many galaxies, stars and—as scientists were beginning to realize—associated planets … the number of galaxies, stars, and planets the universe contained had to be breathtakingly larger than they’d previously imagined.

The sheer increased scale of the universe has led scientist to believe that it is near impossible that we are “alone” in the cosmos. The Kepler Mission has filled in the details with recent studies suggesting that there may be billions of earth like planets in the universe.   If we combine these two discoveries with the understanding of planet hunter Dimitar Sasselov, who thinks that not only are we at the very beginning of the prime period for life in the universe because it has taken this long for stars to produce the heavy elements that are life’s prerequisites, but that we also have a very long time perhaps as much as 100 billion years for this golden age of life to play out, we get an idea of just how prolific creation is and will be beside which a God who creates only one living planet and one intelligent species seems tragically sterile.

To return underground, caves were our first cathedrals- witness Lascaux. It is even possible that our idea of the Underworld as the land of the dead grew out of the bronze age temple complex of Alepotrypa inspiring the Greek idea of Hades that served as the seed through which the similar ideas of Sheol held by the Jews and revved up by Christians to the pinnacle of horror shows with the idea of Hell.

I like to think that this early understanding of the Underworld as the land of the dead and the use of caves as temples reflects an intuitive understanding of deep time. Walking into a cave is indeed, in a sense, entering the realm of the dead because it is like walking into the earth’s past. What is seen there is the movement of time across vast scales. The shell my daughter’s peered at with their magnifying glass, for instance, was the exoskeleton of a creature that lived perhaps some 400 million years ago in the Silurian Period when what is now Pennsylvania was located at the equator and the limestone that was the product of decay the shells inhabitant’s relatives began to form.

Recognition of this deep time diminishes nothing of the human scale and spiritual meaning of this moment taken to stop and stare at something exquisite peeking at us from the ceiling- quite the opposite. Though I might be guilty of overwinding,  it was a second or two 400 million years or perhaps one might say 13 billion years in the making- who couldn’t help thanking God for that?

Science, a religious or utopian project?

New Atlantis Island

It is interesting at least to wonder what the scientific revolution would have looked like had it occurred somewhere other than in the West. What latent goals and assumptions might the systematic and empirical study of nature have had if it had arisen somewhere in what were at the time more technologically and scientifically advanced civilizations: in the lands of Islam, in Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist China, in the Hindu lands of southern India?

We will never know, for what we think of as modern science emerged only once and in the context of a Christian civilization, although also one shaped by classical mythology, though more on that another time. Modern science’s latent goals and assumptions, for good an ill, are likely, then, to have been refracted through Christian religious ideas, ideas which are in many ways, I believe, again for good and ill, still with us.

Modern science emerged in a period of increasing rather than declining religious enthusiasm and its earliest proponents such as Descartes, Newton and Francis Bacon were religious and Christian men. The spread of religious literacy to the masses that grew out of the Reformation provided a wealth of ideas around which the project of understanding nature empirically,which was the essence of the new science, could be conceptualized.

One passage of the book of Genesis would prove especially important in the way the scientific project would be understood and granted theological justification.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26

As Carolyn Merchant has written:

The problem of domination becomes the problem of the Scientific Revolution. Does humanity remain the victim of nature, fatalistically accepting the hand that nature deals in the form of failed harvests and deaths from unknown diseases, droughts, and fires? Or can humanity, by understanding those causes through science and manipulating them through technology, gain the upper hand? As William Leiss pointed out in The Domination of Nature, “the consequence of this view is to set the relationship of man and the world inescapably in the context of domination: man must either meekly submit to these natural laws (physical and economic) or attempt to master them.”

And yet, surely it matters what exactly this idea of dominion actually means, and it is our confusion over what this strange status of being a “lord” over nature is actually for and what its limits are that I believe are at the root of many of our contemporary debates about the proper relationship of science and technology to society and the natural world.

One of the key figures in the shift from pre-scientific to scientific thinking and its move to control nature was Francis Bacon. His utopia, The New Atlantis, reads today like a description of a research university. The members of the scientific institution which governs the island- Solomon’s House- focus their energies on observation and experimentation. They set up weather stations, work on understanding the properties of metals, research remedies on improving human health and longevity. They send out missions that are essentially involved in scientific and technological espionage seeking to bring back to their island of Bensalem useful knowledge discovered by other peoples all the while trying to keep their own knowledge and even their very existence hidden.

Bacon’s works, and not just The New Atlantis are surrounded by Christian themes and motifs. The inhabitants of Bensalem are given special revelation of the Christian gospels, their governing institution traces its roots to the Old Testament’s King Solomon. Many scholars such as the political theorist Howard B. White in his Peace Among the Willows have argued that this religious talk was all a clever ruse by Bacon, and that what he was really after was a reconceptualized idea of power that would strengthen the nascent modern state.

Yet White’s is not the only view. Stephen A. McKnight in his The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon’s Thought makes a compelling case that we should take Bacon’s religious rhetoric seriously. Indeed, if McKnight is correct the idea of dominion found in Bacon leans science much more in the direction of being a humanist and compassionate utopian project than being a road to human power.

As was the case with many of his fellow travelers in the early days of the scientific revolution, McKnight argues that Bacon was deeply influenced by religious ideas and their tumult swirling around him. He too spring boarded off of Genesis 1:26 to come up with new ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature and the development of knowledge over time.

More precisely, Bacon had the idea that in the “prelapsarian” state before Adam and Eve’s Fall human beings understood the work handiwork of God- nature- perfectly and without effort. Just as Protestants had revived millennial expectations that at last human beings were bringing into being the true nature of the Christian message,and therefore the possibility even in a postlapsarian world of living a Christian life,  Bacon believed that his “new science” would restore in some measure the dominion over nature promised to Adam and the knowledge of the natural world that the first parents possessed in their prelapsarian state.

Yet what was such dominion actually for, and why would God, in Bacon’s eyes allow such a restoration of human powers? There is a one word answer to this question- charity.

Here is McKnight:

It is well known that Bacon repeatedly links the knowledge of nature with the ability to bring relief to man’s estate. Most often this linking is associated with knowledge as power. What is often overlooked is Bacon’s emphasis on charity as the motive for using the knowledge of nature for the benefit of humankind. It is wrong, therefore, to link Bacon to a Faustian exercise of egomaniacal power. The understanding of nature enables humanity to enjoy the blessings that God provides.” (43)

If you don’t believe him, here is McKnight quoting Bacon himself speaking of the three types of reasons for which the dominion over nature that came from unveiling its secrets might be exercised:

The first is of those who desire to extend their own power in their own native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men. This certainly has more dignity if not less covetousness.  But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt a more wholesome thing and more noble than the other two.  (97)

In other words, science is a project that can be directed by individuals against other individuals, by human groups (and we should include corporations) over and against other groups or is a project that is aimed at the benefit of humankind as a whole,which is how Bacon understood charity as in the improvement of “man’s estate.” We’ve essentially been faced with these three choices ever since.

McKnight is at pains to show that even the restoration of humanity’s prelapsarian control of nature did not mean, for Bacon, that human beings had assumed “God-like” powers. Man was an imitator not a creator. Bacon would have considered our confusion of our own powers with the powers of God a form of idolatry- turning our ideas and capabilities into idols to be worshiped. It was this question of the idolatry latent in the new science that would be the launch point of another great thinker of this period- John Milton.

I have written on Milton’s Paradise Lost before, so I will quote myself.

[Paradise Lost] is the tale of Lucifer and his angelic allies’ rebellion against God, the Son of God, and the angels that remain loyal to their Creator. Lucifer’s rebellion is sparked by his claim that angels are “self-begot”, and therefore owe no worship to God and his Son. The rebels are single-handedly casts out of Heaven by the Son of God, and into the depths of Hell, where they become monstrous, shift-shaping demons. Under the encouragement of the demon, Mammon, (literally “money”), they build Hell’s capital of glittering gold, Pandemonium. This city is supposed to replicate the glorious visages of Heaven, but, though more splendid than any earthly city, remains but Heaven’s pale shadow.

Satan plots his revenge against God, and finds his opportunity in the weak link of God’s new creation- Adam and Eve. After a courageous and epic journey through the depths of Hell, Satan makes his way to the earthly Garden of Eden, where in the form of a serpent, he convinces Eve that the Tree of  Knowledge of Good and Evil God had commanded her and Adam not to eat of on pain of death, is instead the means to upgrade to a god herself.

Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods. (PL 286)

Eve takes the bait, and Adam the ever dutiful husband follows her lead. Rather than leading to godhood, eating from the Tree of Knowledge results in the couple’s expulsion from the Garden and the beginning of the sad fate of human beings until the arrival, promised to Adam by the archangel, Michael, of the Messiah.

If Bacon was trying to recover a prelapsarian knowledge of nature with his new science, Milton might be thought of as trying to unveil this prelapsarian world itself through his enormous powers of intuition, imagination and poetry. Yet, in Milton we also find a kind of moral critique that warns us not to confuse our new found material powers with the ability to self-generate, to actually be gods which is the driving force behind his version of Satan’s rebellion, and the Fall itself.

And this is what people today who talk of us “becoming gods” or “omnipotenders” or any such thing are engaged in- a category error thinkers and poets such as Bacon and Milton warned us against. Or, in secular terms they have taken but one piece of religious mythology, inverted it, and have confused themselves into thinking it is real. God in Christian mythology can be the architect, designer and controller of nature because he is thought to be somehow “outside” or “above” nature like a player of Simcity.

I often wonder whether the type of science we have would have emerged absent this Christian originating confusion that we are somehow “outside” of nature, or if science could have emerged at all without such confusion? There are no real answers to those questions. What we do know is that we are actually inside of nature and therefore incapable of exercising god-like sovereignty over it because affecting one thing means changing another which then affects us and so on and so on ad infinitum. There is no return to a prelapsarian state as either fully empowered human beings or as gods because no such state ever existed- it was a myth which allowed us to launch and exercise a new form of still very limited control over our surroundings. And still, we can not forget that such limited control is real and its results are astounding, but the powers themselves are morally neutral. The question is what should we use them for?

As Bacon pointed out, such control over nature can be used for a host of different ends. On the more disturbing side science and technology have increased our ability to exercise power over other individuals, and groups to lord over rival groups (including our fellow animals) though the most horrific and truly apocalyptic of these powers are those of states aimed against states, at least to date.

Even so it is undeniably the case that, at the same time, absolutely nothing has improved “man’s estate” more than science and technology. Because of the revolution Bacon helped spark we live better and longer and there are more of us than ever before. This science used for the benefit of others should be understood in broadest terms as Bacon’s charity. Freed from its Christian derived prejudice that only the well-being of human beings count because they are considered the only creature made in the “image of God” such charity is easily extendable outward to the animal world or perhaps someday sentient machines.

Though its exact boundaries and priorities are likely to be forever contentious, charity, unlike the similarly Christian derived desire to become “godlike”, is sensible and translates across a wide range of human value systems both secular and religious. Buddhists understand it, as do Muslims. As mentioned the urge to charity can be found at the heart of the secular left. And yet science is not often understood in this Baconian sense of charity ,or perhaps worse the best path to charity is too little seen in science.  Imagine, for instance, a world where a good portion of the Muslim obligation to charity, the zakat, estimated to be fifteen times global humanitarian aid went to science and technology to improve the lot of people in the poorer parts of the Islamic world.

In our diverse modern world Baconian charity is perhaps the only almost universally acceptable utopian project possible and our best road to survive as a species. Bacon’s question of whether or not we use science and technology primarily as our greatest tools for improving “man’s estate” as in charity, or instead use the as a means of power and control that serves our individual ambitions and group rivalries will inevitably decide whether or not newfound form of knowledge that we call science was ultimately a blessing- or a curse.

Boston, Islam and the Real Scientific Solution

Arab Astronomers

The tragic bombing on April 15 by the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlane and Dzhohkar collided and amplified contemporary debates- deep and ongoing disputes on subjects as diverse as the role of religion and especially Islam in inspiring political violence, and the role and use of surveillance technology to keep the public safe. It is important that we get a grip on these issues and find a way forward that reflects the reality of the situation rather than misplaced fear and hope for the danger is that the lessons we take to be the meaning of the Boston bombing will be precisely opposite to those we should on more clear headed reflection actually draw. A path that might lead us, as it has in the recent past, to make egregious mistakes that both fail to properly understand and therefore address the challenges at issue while putting our freedom at risk in the name of security. What follows then is an attempt at clear headedness.

The Boston bombing admittedly inspired by a violent version of political Islam seemed almost to fall like clockwork into a recent liberal pushback against perceived Islamophobia by the group of thinkers known as the New Atheists. In late March of this year, less than a month before the bombing, Nathan Lean at Salon published his essay Dawkins, Hitchens Harris: New Atheists Flirt With Islamophobia   which documented a series of inflammatory statements about Islam by the New Atheists including the recent statement of Richard Dawkins that “Islam was the greatest source of evil in the world today” or an older quote by Sam Harris that: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thorough going cult of death.” For someone, such as myself who does indeed find many of the statements about Islam made by the New Atheists to be, if not overtly racists, then at least so devoid of religious literacy and above all historical and political self-reflection that they seem about as accurate as pre-modern traveler’s tales about the kingdom of the cyclops, or the lands at the antipodes of the earth where people have feet atop their heads, the bombings could not have come at a worse cultural juncture.

If liberals such as Lean had hoped to dissuade the New Atheists from making derogatory comments about Muslims at the very least before they made an effort to actually understand the beliefs of the people they were talking about, so that Dawkins when asked after admitting he had never read the Koran responded in his ever so culturally sensitive way: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism ” the fact that the murders in Boston ended up being two Muslim brothers from Chechnya would appear to give the New Atheists all the evidence they need.  The argument for a more tolerant discourse has lost all traction.

It wasn’t only this aspect of the “God debate” with which the Boston bombing intersected. There is also the on going argument for and against the deployment of widespread surveillance technology especially CCTV. The fact that the killers were caught on tape there for all the world to see seems to give weight to those arguing that whatever the concerns of civil libertarians the widespread use of CCTV is something that would far outweigh its costs. A mere three days after the bombing Slate ran an article by Farhad Manjoo We Need More Cameras and We Need Them Now.  The title kinda says it all but here’s a quote:

Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations. Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice. They’re cheap, less intrusive than many physical security systems, and—as will hopefully be the case with the Boston bombing—they can be extremely effective at solving crimes.

Manjoo does not think the use of ubiquitous surveillance would be limited to deterring crime or terrorism or solving such acts once they occur, but that they might eventually give us a version of precrime that seems like something right out of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report:

The next step in surveillance technology involves artificial intelligence. Several companies are working on software that monitors security-camera images in an effort to spot criminal activity before it happens.

London is the queen of such surveillance technology, but in the US it is New York that has most strongly devoted itself to this technological path of preventing terrorism spending upwards of 40 million dollars to develop its Domain Awareness System in partnership with Microsoft. New York has done this despite the concerns of those whom Mayor Bloomberg calls “special interests”, that is those who are concerned that ubiquitous surveillance represents a grave threat to our right to privacy.

Combining the recent disputes surrounding the New Atheists treatment of Islam and the apparent success of surveillance technology in solving the Boston bombing along with the hope that technology could prevent such events from occurring in the future might give one a particular reading of contemporary events that might go something as follows. The early 21st century is an age of renewed religious fanaticism centered on the rejection of modernity in general and the findings of science in particular. With Islam being only the most representative of the desire to overturn modern society through the use of violence. The best defense of modern societies in such circumstances is to turn to the very features that have made their societies modern in the first place, that is science and technology. Science and technology not only promise us a form of deterrence against acts of violence by religiously inspired fanatics they should allow us to prevent such acts from occurring at all if, that is, they are applied with full force.

This might be one set of lessons to draw from the Boston bombings, but would it be the right one? Let’s take the issue of surveillance technology first. The objection to surveillance technology notably CCTV was brilliantly laid out by the science-fiction writer and commentator Cory Doctorow in an article for The Guardian back in 2011.

Something like CCTV works on the assumption that people are acting rationally and therefore can be deterred. No one could argue that Tamerlane and his brother were acting rationally. Their goal seemed to be to kill as many people as possible before they were caught, but they certainly knew they would be caught. The deterrence factor of CCTV and related technologies comes into play even less when suicide bombers are concerned. According to Doctorow we seem to be hoping that we can use surveillance technology as a stand in for the social contact that should bind all of us together.

But the idea that we can all be made to behave if only we are watched closely enough all the time is bunkum. We behave ourselves because of our social contract, the collection of written and unwritten rules that bind us together by instilling us with internal surveillance in the form of conscience and aspiration. CCTVs everywhere are an invitation to walk away from the contract and our duty to one another, to become the lawlessness the CCTV is meant to prevent.

This is precisely the lesson we can draw from the foiled train bombing plot in Canada that occurred at almost at the same moment bombs were going off in Boston. While the American city was reeling, Canada was making arrests of Muslim terrorists who were plotting to bomb trains headed for the US. An act that would have been far more deadly than the Boston attacks. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police was tipped off to this planned attack by members of the Muslim community in Canada a fact that highlights the difference in the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities in Canada and the US. As reported in the Chicago Tribune:

Christian Leuprecht, an expert in terrorism at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said the tip-off reflected extensive efforts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to improve ties with Muslims.

‘One of the key things, and what makes us very different from the United States, is that the RCMP has always very explicitly separated building relationships with local communities from the intelligence gathering side of the house,’ he told Reuters.

 A world covered in surveillance technology based on artificial intelligence that can “read the minds” of would be terrorists is one solution to the threat of terrorism, but the seemingly low tech approach of the RCMP is something far different and at least for the moment far more effective. In fact, when we look under the hood of what the Canadians are doing we find something much more high tech than any application of AI based sensors on the horizon.

We tend to confuse advanced technology with bells and whistles and therefore miss the fact that a solution that we don’t need to plug in or program can be just as if not more complex than anything we are currently capable of building. The religious figures who turned the Canadian plotters into the authorities were far more advanced than any “camera” we can currently construct. They were able to gauge the threat of the plotters through the use of networks of trust and communication using the most advanced machine at our disposal- the human brain. They were also able to largely avoid what will likely be the bane of first generation of the AI based surveillance technologies hoped for by Manjoo- that is false alarms. Human based threat assessment is far more targeted than the types of ubiquitous surveillance offered by our silicon friends. We only need to pay attention to those who appear threatening rather than watch everybody and separate out potential bad actors through brute force calculation.

The after effects of the Boston bombings is likely to make companies that sell surveillance technologies very rich as American cities pour billions into covering themselves with a net of “smart” cameras in the name of safety. The high profile role of such cameras in apprehending the suspects will likely result in an erosion of the kinds of civil libertarian viewpoints held by those such as Doctorow. Yet, in an age of limited resources, are these the kinds of investments cities should be making?

The Boston bombing capped off a series of massacres in Colorado and Newtown all of which might have been prevented by a greater investment in mental health services. It may seem counter intuitive to suggest that many of those drawn to terrorist activities are suffering from mental health conditions but that is what some recent research suggests.

We need better ways to identify and help persons who have fallen into some very dark places, and whereas the atomistic nature of much of American social life might not give us inroads to provide these services for many, the very connectedness of immigrant Muslim communities should allow mental health issues to be more quickly identified and addressed.  A good example of a seemingly anti-modern community that has embraced mental health services are my neighbors the Amish where problems are perhaps more quickly identified and dealt with than in my own modern community where social ties are much more diffuse. The problem of underinvestment in mental health combined with an over reliance on security technologies isn’t one confined to the US alone. Around the same time Russia was touting its superior intelligence gathering capabilities when it came to potential Chechiyan terrorist including the Tsarnaev family, an ill cared for mental health facility in Moscow burned to the ground killing 38 of its trapped residents.

Lastly, there is the issue of the New Atheists’ accusations against Islam- that it is particularly anti-modern, anti-scientific and violent. As we should well know, any belief system can be used to inspire violence especially when that violence is presented in terms of self-defense.  Yet, Islam today does seem to be a greater vector of violence than other anti-modern creeds. We need to understand why this is the case.

People who would claim that there is something anti-scientific about Islam would do well to acquaint themselves with a little history. There is a sense that the scientific revolution in the West would have been impossible without the contribution of Islamic civilization a case made brilliantly in not at least two recent books Jonathan Lyons’ House  of Wisdom  and John Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp.  

It isn’t merely that Islamic civilization preserved the science of the ancient Greeks during the European dark ages, but that it built upon their discoveries and managed to synthesize technology and knowledge from previously disconnected civilizations from China (paper) to India (the number zero). While Western Europeans still thought diseases were caused by demons, Muslims were inventing what was the most effective medical science until the modern age. They gave us brand new forms of knowledge such as algebra, taught us how to count using our current system of arabic numerals, and the mapped the night sky giving us the names of our stars. They showed us how to create accurate maps, taught us how to tell time and measure distance, and gave us the most advanced form that most amazing of instruments, a pre-modern form of pocket computer- the astrolabe. Seeing is believing and those who doubt just how incredible the astrolabe was should checkout Tom Wujec’s great presentation on the astrolabe at TED.

Compared to the Christian West which was often busy with brutalities such as genocidal campaigns against religious dissidents, inquisitions, or the persecution, forced conversion, or expulsion of Muslims and Jews, the Islamic world was generally extremely tolerant of religious minorities to the extent that both Christian and Jewish communities thrived there.

Part of the reason Islamic civilization, which was so ahead of the West in terms of science and technology in the 1300s ,would fall so far behind was a question of geography. It wasn’t merely that the West was able to rip from the more advanced Muslims the navigational technology that would lead to the windfall of discovering the New World, it was that the way science and technology eventually developed through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries demanded strong states which Islamic civilizations on account of geography and a tradition of weak states- in Muslim societies it was a diffuse network of religious jurists rather than a centralized Church in league with the state that controlled religion and a highly internationalized network of traders rather than a tight corporate-state alliance that dominated the economy. Modernity in its pre-21st century manifestation required strong states to put down communication and    transportation networks and to initiate and support high impact policies such as economic standardization and universal education.

Yet, technology appears to have changed this reliance on the state and brought back into play the kinds of diffuse international networks which Islamic societies continue to be extremely good at. As opposed to earlier state-centric infrastructure cell phone networks can be put up almost overnight. The global nature of trade puts a premium on international connections which the communications revolution has put at the hands of everybody. The rapid decline in the cost of creating media and the bewildering ease with which this media can be distributed globally has overturned the prior centralized and highly localized nature in which communication used to operate.

Islam’s diffuse geography and deeply ingrained assumptions regarding power left it vulnerable to both its own pitifully weak states and incursions from outside powers who had followed a more centralized developmental path.  Many of these conflicts are now playing themselves out and the legacies of Western incursions unraveling so that largely Muslim states that were created out of thin air by imperialist powers such as Iraq and Syria- are imploding. Sadly, states where a largely secular elite was able to suppress traditional publics with the help of Western aid – most ominously Egypt- are slipping towards fundamentalism. We have helped create an equation where religious fundamentalism is confused with freedom.

Given the nature of modern international communications and ease of travel we are now in a situation where an alienated Muslim such as Tamerlane is not only plugged into a worldwide anti-modern discourse, he is able to “shop around” for conflicts in which to insert himself. His unhinged mother had apparently suggested he go to Palestine in search of jihad he reportedly traveled to far away Dagestan to make contact with like minded lost souls.

Our only hope here is that these conflicts in the Muslim world will play themselves out as quickly and as peacefully as possible, and that Islam, which is in many ways poised to thrive in the new condition of globalization will remember its own globalists traditions. Not just their tradition as international traders- think of how successful diaspora peoples such as the Chinese and the Jewish people have been- but their tradition of philosophic and scientific brilliance as well. The internet allows easy access to jihadi discourses by troubled Muslims, but it also increasingly offers things such as Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCS that might, in the same way Islamic civilization did for the West, bring the lessons of modernity and science deep into the Islamic world even into areas such as Afghanistan that now suffer under the isolating curse of geography.

International communication, over the long term, might be a way to bring Enlightenment norms regarding rational debate and toleration not so much to the Muslim world as back to it. Characteristics which it in some ways passed to the West in the first place, providing a forerunner of what a global civilization tolerant of differences and committed to combining the best from all the world’s cultures might look like.

Visions of Immortality and the Death of the Eternal City

Vangough Flowers in a blue  vase

It was a time when the greatest power the world had yet known suffered an attack on its primary city which seemed to signal the coming of an age of unstoppable decline.The once seemingly unopposable power no longer possessed control over its borders,it was threatened by upheaval in North Africa,  unable to bring to heel the stubborn Iranians, or stem its relative decline. It was suffering under the impact of climate change, its politics infected with systemic corruption, its economy buckling under the weight of prolonged crisis.

Blame was sought. Conservatives claimed the problem lie with the abandonment of traditional religion, the rise of groups they termed “atheists” especially those who preached the possibility of personal immortality. One of these “atheists” came to the defense of the immortalist movement arguing not so much that the new beliefs were not responsible for the great tribulations in the political world, but that such tribulations themselves were irrelevant. What counted was the prospect of individual immortality and  the cosmic view- the perspective that held only that which moved humanity along to its ultimate destiny in the universe was of true importance. In the end it would be his movement that survived after the greatest of empires collapsed into the dust of scattered ruins….

Readers may be suspicious that I am engaged in a sleight of hand with such an introduction, and I indeed am; however much the description above resembles the United States of the early 21st century, I am in fact describing the Roman Empire of the 400s C.E. The immortalists here are not contemporary transhumanists or singularitarians but early Christians whom many pagans considered not just dangerously innovative, but also, because they did not believe in the pagan gods, were actually labeled atheists- which is where we get the term. The person who came to the defense of the immortalists and who laid out the argument that it was this personal immortality and the cosmic view of history that went with it that counted rather than the human drama of politics history and culture was not Ray Kurzweil or any other figure of the singularitarian or transhumanist movements,  but Augustine who did so in his work The City of God.

Now, a book with such a title not to mention one written in the 400s might not seem like it would be relevant to any secular 21st century person contemplating our changing relationship with death and time, but let me try to show you why such a conclusion would be false. When Augustine wrote The City of God he was essentially arguing for a new version of immortality. For however much we might tend to think the dream of immortality was invented to assuage human fears of personal death the ancient pagans (and the Jews for that matter) had a pretty dark version of it. Or, as Achilles said to Odysseus:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

For the pagans, the only good form of immortality was that brought by fame here on earth. Indeed, in later pagan versions of paradise which more resembled the Christian notion “heaven” was reserved for the big-wigs. The only way to this divinity was to do something godlike on earth in the service of one’s city or the empire. Augustine signaled a change in all that.

Christianity not only upended the pagan idea of immortality granting it to everybody- slaves no less than kings, but, according to Augustine,  rendered the whole public world the pagans had found so important  irrelevant. What counted was the fact of our immortality and the big picture- the fate that God had in store for the universe, the narrative that got us to this end. The greatest of empires could rise and fall what they will, but they were nothing next to the eternity of our soul our God and his creation. Rome had been called the eternal city- but it was more mortal than the soul of its most powerless and insignificant citizen.

Of course, from a secular perspective the immortality that Augustine promised was all in his head. If anything, it served as the foundation not for immortal human beings nor for a narrative of meaning that stretched from the beginning to the the end of time- but for a very long lived institution- the Catholic Church- that has managed to survive for two millennia, much longer indeed than all the empires and states that have come and gone in this period, and who knows, if it gets its act together may even survive for another thousand years.

All of this might seem far removed from contemporary concerns until one realizes the extent to which we ourselves are and will be confronting a revolutionary change in our relationship to both death and time akin to and of a more real and lasting impact than the one Augustine wrestled with. No matter what way one cuts it our relationship to death has changed and is likely to continue to change. The reason for this is that we are now living so long, and suspect we might be able to live much longer. A person in the United States in 1913 could be expected to live just shy of the ripe old age of 53. The same person in 2013 is expected to live within a hair’s breath of 79. In this as in other departments the US has a ways to go. The people of Monaco, the country with the highest life expectancy, live on average a decade longer.

How high can such longevity go? We have no idea. Some, most famously Aubrey de Gray, think there is no theoretical limit to how long a human being can live if we get the science right. We are likely some ways from this, but given the fact that such physical immortality, or something close to it, does not seem to violate any known laws of nature, then if there is not something blocking its appearance, say complexity, or more ominously, expense, we are likely to see something like the defeat of death if not in this century then in some further future that is not some inconceivable distance from us.

This might be a good time,then, to start asking questions about our relationship to death and time, and how both relate to the societies in which we live. Even if immortality remains forever outside our grasp by exploring the topic we might learn something important about death time and ourselves in the process. It was exactly these sorts of issues that Augustine was out to explore.

What Augustine argued in The City of God was that societies, in light of eternal life had nothing like the meaning we were accustomed to giving them. What counted was that one lead a Christian life (although as a believer in predestination Augustine really thought that God would make you do this if he wanted to). The kinds of things that counted in being a good pagan were from Augustine’s standpoint of eternity little but vanity. A wealthy pagan might devote money to his city, pay for a public festival, finance the construction of a theater or forum. Any pagan above the level of a slave would likely spend a good deal of time debating the decisions of his city, take concern in its present state and future prospects. As young men it would be the height of honor for a pagan to risk his life for his city. The pagan would do all these things in the hope that they might be remembered. In this memory and in the lives of his descendants lie the possibility of a  good version of immortality as opposed to the wallowing in the darkness of Hades after death. Augustine countered with a question that was just as much a charge: What is all this harking after being remembered compared to the actual immortality offered by Christ?

There are lengths in the period of longevity far in advance of what human beings now possess where the kinds of tensions between the social and pagan idea of immortality and the individual Christian idea of eternal life that Augustine explored do not yet come into full force. I think Vernor Vinge is onto something (@36 min) when he suggests that extending the human lifespan into the range of multiple centuries would be extremely beneficial for both the individual and society. Longevity on the order of 500 years would likely anchor human beings more firmly in time. In terms of the past such a lifespan would give us a degree of wisdom we sorely lack, allowing us to avoid almost inevitably repeating the mistakes of a prior age once those with personal experience of such mistakes or tragedies are no longer around to offer warnings or even who we could ask- as was the case with our recent financial crisis once most of those who had lived through the Great Depression as adults had passed.

500 years of life would also likely orient us more strongly towards the future. We could not only engage in very long term projects of all sorts that are impossible today given our currently limited number of years, we would actually be invested in making sure our societies weren’t making egregious mistakes- such as changing the climate- whose full effects wouldn’t be felt until centuries in the future. These longer-term horizons, at least when compared to what we have now, would cease being abstractions because it would no longer be our great grandchildren that lived there but us.

The kinds of short-termism that now so distort the politics of the United States might be less likely in a world where longevity was on the order of several centuries. Say what one might about the Founding Fathers, but they certainly took the long-term future of the United States into account and more importantly established the types of lasting institutions that would make that future a good one. Adams and Jefferson created our oldest and perhaps most venerable cultural institution- The Library of Congress. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Later American political figures, such as Lincoln, not only did the difficult work of keeping the young nation intact, but developed brillant institutions such as Land-Grant Colleges to allow learning and technological know-how to penetrate the countryside. In addition to all this, the United States invented the idea of national parks, the hope being to preserve for centuries or even millennia the natural legacy of North America.

Where did we get this long term perspective and where did it go? Perhaps it was the afterglow of the Enlightenment’s resurrection of pagan civic virtues. We certainly seem no longer capable of taking such a long view- the light has gone out. Politicians today seem unable to craft policy that will deal with issues beyond the next election cycle let alone respond to issues or foster public investments that will play out or come to fruition in the days of their grandchildren. Individuals seem to have lost some of the ability to think beyond their personal life span, so perhaps, just perhaps, the solution is to increase the lifespan of individuals themselves.

Thinking about time, especially long stretches of time, and how it runs into the annihilation of death, seems to inevitably lead to reflections about human society and the relationship of the young with the old. Freud might have been right when he reduced the human condition to sex and death for something in the desire to leave a future legacy inspired by death does seem to resemble sex- or rather procreation- allowing us to pass along imperfect “copies” of ourselves even if, when it comes to culture, these copies are very much removed from us indeed.

This bridging of the past and the future might even be the ultimate description of what societies and institutions are for. That is, both emerge from our confrontation with time and are attempts to win this conflict by passing information, or better, knowledge, from the past into the future in a similar way to how this is accomplished biologically in the passing on of genes through procreation. The common conception that innovation most likely emerges from youth, if it is true, might be as much a reflection of the fact that the young have quite simply not been here long enough to receive this full transmission and are on that account the most common imperfect “copies” of the ideas of their elders. Again, like sex, the transmission of information from the old to the new generation allows novel combinations and even mutations which if viable are themselves passed along.

It’s at least an interesting question to ask what might happen to societies and institutions that act as our answer to the problem of death if human beings lived for what amounted to forever? The conclusion Augustine ultimately reached is once you eliminate death you eliminate the importance of the social and political worlds. Granting the individual eternity means everything that now grips our attention become little but fleeting Mayflies in the wind. We might actually experience a foretaste of this, some say we are right now, even before extreme periods of longevity are achieved if predictions of an ever accelerating change in our future bear fruit. Combined with vastly increased longevity accelerating change means the individual becomes the only point in history that actually stands still. Whole technological regimes, cultures, even civilizations rise and fall under the impact of technological change while only the individual- in terms of a continuous perspective since birth or construction- remains. This would entail a reversal of all of human history to this point where it has been the institutions that survive for long periods of time while the individuals within them come and go. We therefore can’t be sure what many of the things we take as mere background to our lives today- our country, culture, idea of history, in such circumstances even look like.

What might this new relationship between death and technological and social change  do to the art and the humanities, or “post-humanities”?  The most hopeful prediction regarding this I have heard is again Vinge, though I can not find the clip. Vinge discussed the possibility of extended projects that are largely impossible given today’s average longevity. Artists and writers probably have an intuitive sense for what he means, but here are some examples- though they are mine not his. In a world of vastly increased longevity a painter could do a flower study of every flower on earth or portraits of an entire people. A historian could write a detailed history of a particular city from the palaeolithic through the present in pain staking detail, a novelist could really create a whole alternative imagined world filled with made up versions of memoirs, religious texts, philosophical works and the like. Projects such as these are impossible given our limited time here and on account of the fact that there are many more things to care about in life besides these creations.

Therefore, vastly increased longevity might mean that our greatest period of cultural creation- the world’s greatest paintings, novels, historical works and much else besides will be found in the human future rather than its past. Increased longevity would also hopefully open up scientific and technological projects that were centuries rather than decades in the making such as the recovery of lost species and ecosystems or the move beyond the earth. One is left wondering, however, the extent to which such long term focus will be preserved in light of an accelerating speed of change.

A strange thing is happening in that while the productive lifespan of an individual artist is increasing- so much for The Who’s “hope I die before I get old”-  the amount of time it takes an artist to create any particular work is, through technological advancement, likely decreasing. This should lead to more artistic productivity, but one is left to ponder what any work of art would mean if the dreams of accelerating technological change come true at precisely the same time that human longevity is vastly increased? Here is what I mean: when one tries to imagine a world where human beings live for lengths of time that are orders of magnitude longer than those today and where technological change proves to be in a persistently accelerating state what you get is a world that is so completely transformed within the course of a generation that it bears as much resemblance to the generation before it as we do to the ancient Greeks. What does art mean in such a context where the world it addresses no longer exists not long after it has been made?

This same condition of fleetingness applies to every other aspect of life as well from the societies we live in down to the relationships with those we love.  It was Augustine’s genius to realize that if one looks at life from the perspective of individual eternity it is not the case that everything else becomes immortal as well, but that the mortality of everything we are not becomes highlighted.

This need not spell the end of all those things we currently take as the vastly important long lasting background of our mortal lives, but it will likely change their character. To use a personal story, cultural and political creations and commitments in the future might still be meaningful in the sense that my Nana’s flower garden is meaningful. My Nana just turned 91 and still manages to plant and care for her flowers that bloom in spring only to disappear until brought back by her gentle and wise hands at the season’s return. Perhaps the longer we live the more the world around us will get its meaning not through its durability but as a fleeting beauty brought forth because we cared enough to stop for a moment to orchestrate and hold still, if even for merely a brief instant, time’s relentless flow.

 

Finding Our Way in the Great God Debate, part 2

Last time, I tried to tackle the raging debate between religious persons and a group of thinkers that at least aspire to speak for science who go under the name of the New Atheists. I tried to show how much of the New Atheist’s critique of religion was based on a narrow definition of what “God” is, that is, a kind of uber-engineer who designed the cosmos we inhabit and set up its laws. Despite my many critiques of the New Atheists, much of which has to do with both their often inflammatory language, and just as often their dismissal and corresponding illiteracy regarding religion, I do think they highlight a very real philosophical and religious problem (at least in the West), namely, that the widely held religious concept of the world has almost completely severed any relationship with science, which offers the truest picture of what the world actually is that we have yet to discover.

In what follows I want to take a look at the opportunities for new kinds of religious thinking this gap between religion and science offers, but most especially for new avenues of secular thought that might manage, unlike the current crop of New Atheists to hold fast to science while not discarding the important types of thinking and approaches to the human condition that have been hard won by religious traditions since the earliest days of humanity.

The understanding of God as a celestial engineer, the conception of God held by figures of the early scientific revolution such as Newton, was, in some ways, doomed from the start predicated not only on a version of God that was so distant from the lives of your average person that it would likely become irrelevant, but predicated as well on the failure of science to explain the natural world from its own methods alone. If science is successful at explaining the world then a “God of the gaps” faces the likely fate that science at some point eventually explains away any conceivable gap in which the need for such a God might be called for.  It is precisely the claim that physics has or is on the verge of closing the gap in scientific knowledge of what Pope Pius XII thought was God’s domain- the Universe before the Big Bang- that is the argument of another atheist who has entered the “God debate”, Lawrence Krauss with his A Universe From Nothing.

In his book Krauss offers a compelling picture of the state of current cosmology, one which I find fascinating and even wonderous. Krauss shows how the Universe may have appeared from quantum fluctuations out of what was quite literally nothing. He reveals how physicists are moving away from the idea of one Universe whose laws seem ideally tuned to give rise to life to a version of a multiverse. A vision in which an untold number of universes other than our own exist in an extended plane or right next to one another on a so call “brane” which will forever remain beyond our reach, and that might all have a unique physical laws and even mathematics.

Krauss shows us not only the past but the even deeper time of the future where our own particular Universe is flat and expanding so rapidly that it will, on the order of a few hundred billion years, be re-organized into islands of galaxies surrounded by the blackness of empty space, and how in the long-long frame of time, trillions of years,  our Universe will become a dead place inhospitable for life- a sea of the same nothing from whence it came.

A Universe from Nothing is a great primer on the current state of physics, but it also has a secondary purpose as an atheist track- with the afterword written by none other than Dawkins himself. Dawkins, I think quite presumptuously, thinks Krauss will have an effect akin to Darwin banishing God from the questions regarding the beginning of the Universe and its order in the same way Darwin had managed to banish God from questions regarding the origin of life and its complexity.

Many people, myself included, have often found the case made by the New Atheists in many ways to be as counter-productive for the future of science as the kind of theologization and politicization of science found in those trying to have Intelligent Design (ID) taught in schools, or deny the weight of scientific evidence in regards to a public issue with a clear consensus of researchers for what amounts to a political position e.g. climate change. This is because their rhetoric forces people to choose between religion and science, a choice that in such a deeply religious country such as the United States would likely be to the detriment of science.  And yet, perhaps in the long-run the New Atheists will have had a positive effect not merely on public discourse, but ironically on religion itself.

New Atheists have encouraged a great “coming out” of both fellow atheists and agnostics in a way that has enabled people in a religious society like the United States to openly express their lack of belief and skepticism in a way that was perhaps never possible before. They have brought into sharp relief the incongruity of scientific truth and religious belief as it is currently held and thus pushed scholars such as Karen Armstrong to look for a conception of God that isn’t, like the modern conception, treated as an increasingly irrelevant hypothesis of held over from a pre-Darwinian view of the world.


Three of the most interesting voices to have emerged from the God Debate each follow seemingly very different tracks that when added together might point the way to the other side. The first is the religious scholar Stephen Prothero. Armstrong’s Case for God helped inspire Prothero, to write his God is Not One (2010.) He was not so much responding to the religious/atheist debate as he was cautioning us against the perennialism at the root of much contemporary thought regarding religion. If the New Atheists went overboard with their claim that religion was either all superstitious nonsense ,or evil, and most likely both, the perennialists, with whom he lumps Armstrong, went far too much to the other side arguing in their need to press for diversity and respect the equally false notion that all religions preached in essence the same thing.


Prothero comes up with a neat formula for what a religion is. “Each religion articulates”:

 

  • a problem;
  • a solution to this  problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
  • an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution. (p. 14)

For Prothero, what religions share is, as the perennialists claim, the fundamentals of human ethics, but also a view that the human condition is problematic. But the devil, so to speak, is in the details, for the world’s great religions have come up with very different identifications of what exactly this problematic feature is ,and hence very different, and in more ways than we might be willing to admit, incompatible solutions   to the problems they identify.

God is Not One is a great introduction to the world’s major religions, a knowledge I think is sorely lacking especially among those who seem to have the most knee-jerk reactions to any mention of religious ideas. For me, one of the most frustrating things about the New Atheists, especially, is their stunning degree of religious illiteracy. Not only do they paint all of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with the same broad brush of religious literalism and fundamentalism, and have no grasp of religious history within the West, they also appear completely disinterested in trying to understand non-Western religious traditions an understanding that might give them better insight into the actual nature of the human religious instinct which is less about pre-scientific explanations for natural events than it is about an ethical orientation towards the world. Perhaps no religion as much as Confucianism can teach us something in this regard.  In the words of Prothero:

Unlike Christianity which drives a wedge between the sacred and the secular- the eternal “City of God” and the temporal “City of Man”- Confucianism glories in creatively confusing the two. There is a transcendent dimension in Confucianism. Confucians just locate it in the world rather than above or beyond it.

For all these reasons, Confucianism can be considered as religious humanism. Confucians share with secular humanists a single minded focus on this world of rag and bone.  They, too, are far more interested in how to live than in plumbing the depths of Ultimate Reality. But whereas secular humanists insist on emptying the rest of the world of the sacred, Confucians insists on infusing the world with sacred import- of seeing Heaven in humanity, on investing human beings with incalculable value, on hallowing the everyday. In Confucianism, the secular is sacred. (GN1 108)

Religions, then, are in large part philosophical orientations towards the world. They define the world, or better the inadequacies of the world, in a certain way and prescribe a set of actions in light of those inadequacies. In this way they might be thought of as embodied moral philosophies, and it is my second thinker, the philosopher Alain de Botton who in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion tries to show just how much even the most secular among us can learn from religion.

What the secular, according to Botton, can learn from religions has little to do with matters of belief which in the light of modern science he too finds untenable. Yet, the secular can learn quite a lot from religion in terms institutions and practices. Religion often fosters a deep sense of community founded around a common view of the world. The religious often see education as less about the imparting of knowledge but the formation of character. Because religion in part arose in response to the human need to live peacefully together in society it tends to track people away from violence and retribution and toward kindness and reconciliation. Much of religion offers us tenderness in times of tragedy, and holds out the promise of moral improvement. It provides the basis for some of our longest lived institutions, embeds art and architecture in a philosophy of life.


Often a religion grants its followers a sense of cosmic perspective that might otherwise be missing from human life, and reminds us of our own smallness in light of all that is, encourages an attitude of humility in the face of the depths of all we do not yet and perhaps never will know. It provides human beings with a sense of the transcendent something emotionally and intellectually beyond our reach which stretches the human heart and mind to the very edge of what it can be and understand.

So if religion, then, is at root a way for people to ethically orient themselves to others and the world even the most avowed atheist who otherwise believes that life can have meaning can learn something from it.  Though one must hope that monstrous absurdities such as the French Revolution’s Cult of the Supreme Being, or the “miraculously” never decomposing body of V.I. Lenin are never repeated.

One problem however remains before we all rush out to the local Church, Temple, or Mosque, or start our own version of the Church of Scientology. It is that religion is untrue, or better, while much of the natural ethics found at the bottom of most religions is something to which we secularists can assent because it was forged for the problems of human living together, and we still live in together in societies, the idea of the natural world and the divinities that supposedly inhabit and guide it are patently false from a scientific point of view. There are two possible solutions I can imagine to this dilemma, both of which play off of the ideas of my third figure, the neuroscientist
and fiction author, David Eagleman.

Like others, what frustrates Eagleman about the current God debate is the absurd position of certainty and narrowness of perspective taken by both the religious and the anti-religious. Fundamentalist Christians insist that a book written before we knew what the Universe was or how life develops or what the brain does somehow tells us all we really need to know, indeed thinks they possess all the questions we should ask. The New Atheists are no better when it comes to such a stance of false certainty and seem to base many of their argument on the belief that we are on the verge of knowing all we can know, and that the Universe(s) is already figured out except for a few loose ends.

In my own example, I think you can see this in Krauss who not only thinks we have now almost fully figured out the origins of the Universe and its fate. He also thinks he has in his hand its meaning, which is that it doesn’t have one, and to drive this home avoids looking at the hundreds of billions of years between now and the Universe’s predicted end.

Take this almost adolescent quote from Dawkins’ afterword to A Universe From Nothing:

Finally, and inevitably, the universe will further flatten into a nothing that mirrors its beginning” what will be left of our current Universe will be “Nothing at all. Not even atoms. Nothing. “ Dawkins then adds with his characteristic flourish“If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.  (UFN 188).

And here’s Krauss himself:

The structures we can see, like stars and galaxies, were all created in quantum fluctuations from nothing. And the average total Newtonian gravitational energy of each object in our universe is equal to nothing. Enjoy the thought while you can, if this is true, we live in the worst of all possible universes one can live in, at least as far as the future of life is concerned. (UFN 105)

 

Or perhaps more prosaically the late Hitchens:

 

For those of us who find it remarkable that we live in a universe of Something, just wait. Nothingness is headed on a collision course right towards us! (UFN 119)

 

Really? Even if the view of the fate of the Universe is exactly like Krauss thinks it will be, and that’s a Big- Big-  If, what needs to be emphasized here, a point that neither Krauss or Dawkins seem prone to highlight is that this death of the Universe is trillions of years in the future and that there will be plenty of time for living, according to Dimitar Sasselov, hundreds of billions of years, for life to evolve throughout the Universe, and thus for an unimaginable diversity of experiences to be had. Our Universe, at least at the stage we have entered and for many billions of years longer than life on earth has existed, is actually a wonderful place for creatures such as ourselves.  If one adds to that the idea that there may not just be one Universe, but many many universes, with at least some perhaps having the right conditions for life developing and lasting for hundreds of billions of years as well, you get a picture of diversity and profusion that puts even the Hindu Upanishads to shame. That’s not a bleak picture. It one of the most exhilarating pictures I can think of, and perhaps in some sense even a religious one.


And the fact of the matter is we have no idea. We have no idea if the theory put forward by Krauss regarding the future of the Universe is ultimately the right one, we have no idea if life plays a large, small, or no role in the ultimate fate of the Universe, we have no idea if there is any other life in the Universe that resembles ourselves in terms of intelligence, or what scale- planet, galaxy, even larger- a civilization such as our own can achieve if it survives for a sufficiently long time, or how common such civilizations might become in the Universe as the time frame in which the conditions for life to appear and civilizations to appear and develop grows over the next hundred billion years or so. See the glass empty, half empty, or potentially overflowing it’s all just guesswork, even if Krauss’ physics make it an extremely sophisticated and interesting guesswork. To think otherwise is to assume the kind of block-headed certainty Krauss reserves for religious fanatics.  

David Eagleman wants to avoid the false certainty found in many of the religious and the New Atheists by adopting what he calls Possibilism. The major idea behind Possibilism is the same one, although Eagleman himself doesn’t make this connection, that is found in Armstrong’s pre-modern religious thinkers, especially among the so-called mystics, that is the conviction that we are in a position of profound ignorance.

Science has taken us very very far in terms of our knowledge of the world and will no doubt take us much much farther, but we are still probably at a point where we know an unbelievable amount less than will eventually become known, and perhaps there are limits to our ability to know in front of us beyond which will never be able to pass. We just don’t know. In a similar way to how the mystics tried to lead a path to the very limits of human thought beyond which we can not pass, Possibilism encourages us to step to the very edge of our scientific knowledge and imagine what lies beyond our grasp.

I can imagine at least two potential futures for Possibilism either one of which I find very encouraging.  If traditional religion is to regain its attraction for the educated it will probably have to develop and adopt a speculative theology that looks a lot like Eagleman’s Possibilism.  

A speculative theology would no longer seek to find support for its religious convictions in selective discoveries of science, but would  place its core ideas in dialogue with whatever version of the world science comes up with. This need not mean that any religion need abandon its core ethical beliefs or practices both of which were created for human beings at moral scale that reflects the level at which an individual life is lived. The Golden Rule needs no reference to the Universe as a whole nor do the rituals surrounding the life cycle of the individual- birth, marriage, and death at which religion so excels.


What a speculative theology would entail is that religious thinkers would be free to attempt to understand their own tradition in light of modern science and historical studies without any attempt to use either science or history to buttress its own convictions.

Speculative theology would ask how its concepts can continue to be understood in light of the world presented by modern science and would aim at being a dynamic, creative, and continuously changing theology which would better reflect the dynamic nature of modern knowledge, just as theology in the past was tied to a view of knowledge that was static and seemingly eternal. It might more easily be able to tackle contemporary social concerns such as global warming, inequality and technological change by holding the exact same assumptions as to the nature of the physical world as science while being committed to interpreting the findings in light of their own ethical traditions and perspectives.

Something like this speculative philosophy already existed during the Islamic Golden Age a period lasting from the 700s through the 1200s in which Islamic scientists such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) managed to combine the insights of ancient Greek, Indian, and even Chinese thinking to create whole new field of inquiry and ways of knowing. Tools from algebra to trigonometry to empiricism that would later be built upon by Europeans to launch the scientific revolution. The very existence of this golden age of learning in the Muslim world exposes Sam Harris’ anti-Islamic comment for what it is- ignorant bigotry.

Still, a contemporary speculative theology would have more expansive and self-aware than anything found among religious thinkers before.  It would need to be an open system of knowledge cognizant of its own limitations and would examine and take into itself ideas from other religious traditions, even dead ones such as paganism, that added depth and dimensions to its core ethical stance. It would be a vehicle through which religious persons could enter into dialogue and debate with persons from other perspectives both religious and non-religious who are equally concerned with the human future, humanists and transhumanists, singularitarians, and progressives along with those who with some justification have deep anxieties regarding the future, traditional conservatives, bio-conservatives,  neo-luddites, and persons from every other spiritual tradition in the world.  It would mean an end to that dangerous anxiety held by a great number of the world’s religions that it alone needs to be the only truth in order to thrive.   

Yet, however beneficial such a speculative theology would be I find its development out of any current religion highly unlikely.  If traditional religions do not adopt something like this stance towards knowledge I find it increasingly likely that persons alienated from them as a consequence of the way their beliefs are contradicted by science will invent something similar for themselves. This is because despite the fact that the Universe in the way it is presented by the New Atheists is devoid of meaning this human need for meaning, to discuss it, and argue it, and try to live it, is unlikely to ever stop among human beings. The very quest seems written into our very core. Hopefully, such dialogues will avoid dogma and be self-critical and self-conscious in a way religion or secular ideologies never were before. I see such discussions more akin to works of art than religious-treatises, though I hope they provide the bases for community and ethics in the same way religion has in the past as well.

And we already have nascent forms of such communities- the environmentalist cause is one such community as is the transhumanist movement. So, is something like The Long Now Foundation which seeks to bring attention to the issues of the long term human future and has even adopted the religious practice of pilgrimage to its 10,000 year clock- a journey that is meant to inspire deeper time horizons for our present obsessed culture.

Even should such communities and movements become the primary way a certain cohort of scientifically inclined persons seek to express the human need for meaning, there is every reason for those so inclined to seek out and foster relationships with the more traditionally religious ,who are, and will likely always, comprise the vast majority human beings. Contrary to the predictions of New Atheists such as Daniel Dennett the world is becoming more not less religious, and Christianity is not a dying faith but changing location moving from its locus in Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and even Asia. Islam even more so than Christianity is likely to be a potent force in world affairs for some time to come, not to mention Hinduism with India destined to become the world’s most populous country by mid-century. We will need all of their cooperation to address pressing global problems from climate change, to biodiversity, to global pandemics, and inequality. And we should not think them persons who profess such faiths ignorant for holding fast to beliefs that largely bypass the world brought to us by science. Next to science religion is among the most amazing things to emerge from humanity and those who seek meaning from it are entitled to our respect as fellow human beings struggling to figure out not the what? but the why? of human life.

Whether inside or outside of traditional religion the development of scientifically grounded meaning discourses and communities, and the projects that would hopefully grow from them, would signal that wrestling with the “big questions” again offered a path to human transcendence. A path that was at long last no longer in conflict with the amazing Universe that has been shown to us by modern science. Finding such ways of living would mean that we truly have found our way through the great God debate.