Religion and Violence

One moring at the gates of the Louvre

Sometimes, I get the uneasy feeling that the New Atheists might be right after all. Perhaps there is something latently violent in the religious imagination, some feature, or tendency, encouraged by religion that the world would better be without.

I kind of got that feeling after Paris and Mali, I felt it a little bit more after the attack on the Planned Parenthood office attack in Colorado, but it really hits me when I reflect on the recent brutal killings in San Bernardino where both the intimate cruelty of the act- the persons killed were one of the killer’s co-workers whom he was supposedly friends with and knew well- and the fact that the other murderer was this man’s wife, and the mother of their young child. Nothing I know about human nature allows me to make sense of how far this couple was able to step outside our evolutionarily forged instincts against harming those whom we are intimate with, and where maternal bounds prove stronger than ties of any other kind. Maybe the physicist Steven Weinberg was right when he said:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

This seems to be the main point the New Atheists want to get across, as Steven Pinker did recently in a public discussion with Robert Wright on that topic, among others. Much more suffering, Pinker argued, has been caused by people acting in the name of religion than by those acting in the pursuit of self-interest in the form of raw power or wealth. For those who would counter with a list of the horrors committed by the secular totalitarian regimes in the 20th century Pinker would argue that such movements amounted to little more than religion in drag with God replaced by “History” or “Race”.

In light of recent events such an argument has the heavy feel of Truth in one’s hands, but upon reflection what seems solid begins to fall apart at the joints. To state the obvious, it simply cannot be the case that any religion is the primary cause of violence  because any society in which violence ran as deep as religious sentiment would very quickly destroy itself. Whatever Donald Trump might think, there are anywhere from 5- 12 million Muslims in the United States- were any significant portion of them driven to violence by their faith the country would truly be on fire. It’s a fact that is just as true when it comes to Christians opposed to abortion on moral grounds.

Religion has certainly been the source of many human conflicts and the origin of much suffering inflicted in the name of dogmatism, but has it really, as Pinker claims, inflicted more suffering throughout the whole of human history than all the other non-religiously based wars? Has the suffering inflicted by religious fanaticism been greater than that of oppression based on naked self-interest? Has religion not played an important role in both the charity to offset, or the direct challenge (as in the abolition of slavery) to such oppression? In any case, how in the world is one supposed to disaggregate those who were motivated to commit atrocities by their religious beliefs from those who used religion as a cover for self-interest or the blatant desire to destroy as no doubt a number of princes did during the Reformation.

It seems a gross over simplification to single out religion as a unique source of human violence. Nevertheless, I think we miss something important if we fail to see religious thinking and aspirations as indeed a deep aspect of the way the human capacity for violence has manifested itself in recent decades. This religious connection in large part grows out of the claims of the world’s major religions to be the unique possessor of spiritual truth and sole path to human salvation.

The potential for violence latent in such monopolistic truth claims is made even more dangerous by the world’s very democratization and the communications revolution of the past few decades. For in such an atmosphere religious institutions and elites are no longer able to control the beliefs and actions of their believers. It is a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the European Reformation and Wars of Religion, but is now global in scope- our luck so far is that so very few of us have fallen under the spell of such a conflict and instead are under the enchantment of the consumerist paradise in which we live where life and its needs drown out everything else.

It’s not so much any particular religion’s claim that it is the possessor of the truth which is the origin of any tendencies towards violence as it is the belief of its adherents that they have the right to enforce conformity with their beliefs through violence if necessary. Still, with the exception of where, as is the case with ISIL, such a demand for conformity comes to rule or where deep sectarian divisions intersect with political conflicts within a society, much of this new violence appears to be waged almost as a form of communication, an attempt to break through the cacophony and materialism of pluralistic societies and be heard.

On this score, violence is just as likely to be racially (as it was in the case with Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, and Dylann Roof,  or even environmentally motivated e.g. Ted Kaczynski aka the “Unabomber”) as it is to emerge from religiously based commitments. One need not take the worldview behind such violence seriously, but one should certainly take it as a barometer of deeper social fissures and political failures that go unaddressed at our peril. The same types of systemic failures that have led many on the left, with more legitimate claims to justice, into the age of protests.

The more insular and unresponsive our political and economic elites appear and the more ideological conflicts in our societies become, the more likely it is that those who believe themselves to be permanently disenfranchised will turn to political conspiracies to explain events, and the more likely a small but very dangerous minority of these disaffected will turn to violence as a form of political action. Should that become the case, elites are likely to retreat even further into their gated communities and rely on technology as a means of social control absent democratic legitimacy, commitment to the common good, and the quest for international solidarity. Such a world would represent a dark, mechanized analog to the promise of universalism and concern for the other at the heart of all the world’s great religions: a noosphere absent a world soul.


The Revenge of the Pagans: Ovid as prophet of the posthuman

Study of a woman with ram horns, Jean-Léon Gérôme

I would argue that as far as imagining the future is concerned many of us, in the West at least, have had our vision blurred from what amounts to a 2,000 year philosophical hangover called Christianity. But no one ever seems to care about this point. The most common response I’ve gotten from a certain sect of singularitarians and transhumanists upon pointing out that both their goals and predictions seem to have been ripped from a man on the street’s version of Christianity has been- who cares?

“Sure”, they’ll argue, “God’s” appearance in the form of a form of artificial superintelligence that promises to grant us personal immortality or destroy us all might sound a lot like Christ in the Book of Revelation, and certainly, the goal of personal immortality might resemble the “good news” of Christianity, but what we’re talking about is the real deal. Not some mumbo-jumbo about a spiritual world and the soul, but the natural consequence of our scientific and technological mastery over nature.”

Initial assumptions, however, should always be unpacked. Using science and technology to pursue a world fleshed out by the religious imagination provides no guarantee that such a destination is actually reachable via those routes. In fact using religiously derived prophecy to divine the future in such a way might give us a very distorted notion of where we are headed or even the destination we should attempt to reach.

This gap between hope and reality is likely to be pregnant with all sorts of sparks and potent frictions. At the moment my bet for where these frictions will become apparent centers on the monotheistic bent of technological predictions especially in the singularitarian eschatology. That, and what freedom from death would really do to our notions of the self should we ever obtain some materialistic version of Christian immortality.

On monotheism: whether one takes a largely rosy or pessimistic position on the potential arrival of superintelligence, such superintelligence is most often conceived in the singular. In this view, it seems there can be only one superintelligence just like in Judaism, Islam and Christianity there can be only one God. (Please don’t make me talk about the Trinity.) How exactly the first superintelligence manages to abort all its near rivals before they too obtain something like a similar state is unclear to me, but the time between the appearance of the first superintelligence and whatever stable order follows certainly seems the most dangerous, if superintelligence proves to be something like the movie The Highlander and “there can be only one”.

Here we could be left with the dead stability of the desert with only one intellect left standing “god” again alone and by itself. Then again, perhaps the whole idea of a lone intellect, a Boltzmann Brain, floating there in space and not embedded within a world of other intellects is simply unintelligible. Perhaps, intelligence can only ever exists as Wittgenstein would have said in a social world meaning a world where intelligence is plural.

What seems more likely to emerge as the ultimate outcome for any Cambrian explosion of artificial intelligence isn’t some metallic version of God,  but the kind of “balance of power” you find in ecology or international relations whereby there are multiple competitors none of whom proves capable or willing of overpowering or destroying its peers or even the vast majority its lessers, thus allowing a kind of blooming of diversity as players occupy and conform to niches. That’s not the totalizing God of monotheism whose distortions were tragically on display recently in Paris, it’s more like the gods found in the classical paganism that preceded Christianity.

James Hughes has discussed the challenges to our Christian derived notion of selfhood material immortality (should it ever arrive) might bring either in the form of indefinite biological lifespan or the much further off notion of uploading as moving us closer to the notion of immortality found in Buddhism. We can find something similar if we place ourselves in the religious world Christianity replaced and might understand the future as a sort of la revanche des païens.

The figure who best gives us insight into this pagan horizon is Ovid, a Roman poet who lived in the half century before Christ burst onto the scene and replaced that worldview with radically new ones. He was located on one of those hinges of history in which one period begin to slides into a very different future. The poet’s world was one in which what we call the “pagan” gods (Ovid would not have recognized the term-the whole idea of something called paganism was invented by Christianity) were losing their grip on the human imagination, and were being replaced by both philosophy (Stoicism, Neo-platonism) and mystery cults that saw the gods in either more abstract/ rational/ethical or mystical ecstatic ways.

The very fact that the pagan gods were disappearing over the imaginative horizon meant that Ovid was free to exercise his creativity and playfulness in retelling their tales which is what he does in his most famous work, the epic The Metamorphosis.

The central, overriding theme of The Metamorphosis is just what the title implies- transformative change. To get a grasp of Ovid’s proto-posthumanism it’s perhaps best to start near the very end of his epic work in Book 15, and with the figure of Pythagoras.The Metamorphosis begins with the story of the world’s creation and ends with the mysterious man from Samos whom Ovid displays admonishing us to abandon our consumption of meat and adopt a life of vegetarianism.

O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.

Greatly distinct from the notion that the soul was only a possession of human beings, and all the evil this would cause, Ovid illustrates the belief that there is no clear line that separates the human from the animal and that for us such a lack of a boundary has clear moral implications.

What would have been more striking here, though, for Ovid’s pagan audience was that after having told in a new key the story of the Greco-Roman gods Ovid was undermining the major ceremony by which these gods were worship which was in the form of animal sacrifices where the gods were thought to feed off of the smoke. We may picture something exotic and outside of our experience, but perhaps it was more like my uncle Tom’s pig roasts.      

In any case, the rationale behind Ovid’s pythagorean injunction that we refrain from eating meat was based on the belief in the oneness of animal life and especially the fact that the soul was thought to move between different types of animals from one life to the next. We might find such beliefs in such metempsychosis silly, but it is very close to the de-privileging of the psychological status of mankind found in posthumanism.

It its own way it’s also much closer to the actual truth of the matter animals are thrown into the world just like we are as is clear from a passage in her book Deep Play by the poet science writer Diane Ackerman that I’ve used before:

The moment a newborn opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

And while the calf may never grasp and abstract the strangeness of being thrown in such a way and abstract it into German as Geworfenheit in the way Heidegger did, or will never compose a great rock song about it, the experience of surprise and Being is there all the same.    

The recognition of what me might call such spiritual equality between human beings and animals for those who take a particularly Christian derived take on sigulartainism and transhumanism would appear to pose the same sorts of dilemma Christian parents face when asked to justify the absence of something like “doggie heaven” for their the beloved, deceased pets of their children.

I am not sure exactly how Frank Tipler and his Omega Point cosmology, which posits that a material superintelligence in the Universe’s future will resurrect the dead in the same way promised by Christianity deals with all the deceased animals of the past besides human beings, but even if he and fellow travelers admit that some animals might be resurrected, once one starts talking about any cutoff point you’ve got to wonder whether the human species at this stage would really be on the right side of it.

Yet the main spiritual orientation we might find helpful to draw from Ovid for the future isn’t so much this challenging of singulartarian assumptions as it has to do with a world in which the boundaries between the self and other are no longer as sharp as they once appeared, and where even the idea of a permanent self no longer makes sense.

Ovid gives us the beautiful Caenis of Thessaly who wished to be, and was, transformed into a man after her brutal rape by the god Neptune. He gives us another rape story that of the male Hermaphroditus by the female nymph Salmacis. Upon the prayer of Salmacis that the two never be departed they were transformed so that:

Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

In Ovid humans become animals or even plants as part of the unfolding of their spiritual fate. The daughters of Minyas become bats, Arachne is transformed into a spider, Narcissus is changed into a flower. We might never experience such transformations in actuality, but as our understanding of the brain, not just in humans but in all other animals, improves along with our ability to create increasingly believable virtual worlds not just through projection, but by directly interfering with the brain, rest assured we will imaginatively. Such understanding and technology should give us greater access into the experience not merely of fellow human beings but our fellow animals as well.

Virtual reality could allow us the closest thing possible to a first hand experience of humanitarian crises, analog and augmented live action role playing games allow us to personally experience what it’s like to be the other- of another class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, not to mention inhabit the worlds of creatures that have never existed. We will eventually reach a place where all new sexual and emotional experiences open up for us in ways that will likely challenge any notion of a stable self across time.

We will likely expand these experiences in ways that allow us to enter into the minds of animals as well, so that Thomas Nagel’s famous question “What is it like to be a bat?” becomes in a sense answerable. Our treatment of animals might gain a great deal of moral depth were we to actually experience what it is like to live and die in the slaughter house, or to be hunted for our tusks.

Assuming our survival, given enough time it seems almost inevitable that we will someday be able to directly share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Given the sheer scale of deep time it seems highly inconceivable that should we ever obtain something like material immortality what we think of as our individuality could be preserved across the vast stretches of time in front of us, unless, that is, yet another Christian assumption- that of a timeless end of history- is adopted as well.

If we are forced to turn to religious concepts in order to peer over this historical horizon I think it better to turn to ideas regarding transformation, change, and even magic. If we are lucky, we are not entering the era of history’s climax at an Omega Point, but an age of metamorphosis.


The strange prescience of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Dune Cover

As William Gibson always reminds us the real role of science-fiction isn’t so much to predict the future as to astound us with the future’s possible weirdness. It almost never happens that science-fiction writers get core or essential features of this future weirdness right, and when they do, according to Gibson, it’s almost entirely by accident. Nevertheless, someone writing about the future can sometimes, and even deliberately, play the role of Old Testament prophet, seeing some danger to which the rest of us are oblivious and guess at traps and dangers into which we later fall. (Though let’s not forget about the predictions of opportunity.)

Frank Herbert’s Dune certainly wasn’t intended to predict the future, but he was certainly trying to give us a warning. Unlike others who would spend the 1960’s and 1970’s warning us of dangers that we ended up avoiding almost by sheer luck- such as nuclear war- Herbert focused his warnings on very ancient dangers, the greed of mercantile corporations, the conflicts of feudalism, and the danger that arises from a too tight coupling between politics and religion. This Herbert imagined at a time well before capitalism’s comeback, when the state and its authority seemed ascendant, and secularism seemed inseparable from modernity to the extent it that it appeared we had left religion in history’s dry dust.

To these ancient dangers Herbert added a new one – ecological fragility- a relatively newly discovered danger to humanity at the time Dune was published (1965). In a very strange way these things added together capture, I think, something essential about our 21st century world.

The world the novel depicts is a future some 21,000 years, which if we were taking the date seriously means that it is almost certain that everything Herbert “predicted” would be wrong. The usefulness in placing his novel so far ahead in the future, I think, lies in the fact that he could essentially ignore all the major stories of his day, like the Cold War, or the threat of nuclear destruction, Vietnam, or even social movements such as those fighting for civil rights.

By depicting such a far removed future Herbert had no obligation to establishing continuity with our own time. The only pressing assumption or question that a reader would face when considering the plausibility of this future world was “where are the computers and robots?” for surely human civilization in the future will have robots!  Dune’s answer is that they had been destroyed in something known as the Butlerian Jihad. This is brilliant because it liberated Herbert from the fool’s errand of having to make technological predictions about the future, and allowed him to build a far future with recognizable human beings still in it.

Herbert essentially ransacks the past for artifacts, including ideas and social systems and uses it to build a world that will allow him to flesh out his warnings including new question of ecological fragility mentioned above .

Most of the novel takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis a planet that would be without importance for anyone but the Fremen who inhabit it were it not for the fact that it is also the only source of “the spice” (melange) a sort of psychotropic drug and elixir that is the most valuable commodity in the universe not only because once ingested its absence will lead to death, but because it is the source of the prescience humans need in a world without even the most rudimentary form of artificial intelligence as a consequence of the Butlerian Jihad, about which the novel contains only whispers.

Given our current concerns about the rise of artificial intelligence, when reading Dune now, the Butlerian Jihad jumps out at you. Could this be where it ends, not with superintelligence but with a version of Samuel Butler’s revolt against the machines depicted in his novel Erewhon,  only this revolt on religious and humanists grounds?

Yet rather than present a world that returned to a pre-technological state because it denied itself the use of even “thinking” machines at the level of a calculator, those roles become filled by human/biological computers the “mentats”. Who like our computers today are used to see into a future we believe to be determined.

It is the navigational computation of the mentats that allow space travel and thus exchange between the planets. The spice trade is controlled by two monopolistic corporate entities The Spacing Guild and the CHOAM that effectively control all trade in the interstellar empire.

It is in reference to our looming fears about artificial intelligence and trepidation at growing inequality where the kind of mercantilism and feudalism depicted in Dune  make the novel feel prescient even if accidentally so. There is an Empire in Dune, much as there is a global empire today in the form of the United States, but, just as in our case, it is a very weak empire riddled by divisions between corporate entities that control trade and rival families that compete to take center stage.

Then there is the predominance of religion. Many have been very surprised by la revanche de Dieu in the late 20th and early 21st century- the predominance of religious questions and conflicts at a time when many had predicted God’s death. Dune reminds us of our current time because it is seeping with religion. Religious terms – most tellingly jihad- are used throughout the novel. Characters understand themselves and are understood by others in religious terms. Paul (Muad’Dib), the protagonist of the novel, is understood in messianic terms. He is a figure prophesized to save the desert Fremen people of Arrakis and convert their world to a paradise.

Yet, however much he was interested in and sympathetic to world religions, Herbert was also trying to warn us against their potential for violence and abuse. Though he tries to escape it, Paul feels fated to conquer the universe in a global jihad. This despite the fact that he knows the messianic myth is a mere role he is playing created by others- the Bene Gesserit mentat order- to which he and his mother belong. In Dune religious longings are manipulated in plots and counter-plots over the control over resources, a phenomenon with which we are all too familiar.

It not just that in Dune we find much of the same, sometimes alien, religious language we’ve heard on the news since the start of the “Long War”, even the effectiveness of the Fremen insurgents of the deserts against crack imperial troops the Sardaukar feels too damned familiar. Though perhaps what Herbert had done was gave us a glimpse of what would be the future of the Middle East by looking at its past including figures such as Lawrence of Arabia off of whom the character of Paul Atreides appears to be based.

All this and we haven’t even gotten to the one danger that Herbert identifies in Dune that was relatively new, that is ecological  fragility.  As is well known Dune, was inspired by Herbert’s experience of the Oregon Dunes and the US Department of Agriculture’s attempt to control the spread of its sands created by millions of years of coastal erosion by using natural methods such as the planting of grasses.

Here I think Herbert found what he thought was the correct model for our relationship with nature. We would neither be able to rule over nature like gods, but nor would we surrender our efforts to control her destructiveness or to make deserts bloom. Instead of pummeling her with mechanical power (a form of exploitation that will eventually kill a living planet) , we should use the softer and more intelligent methods of nature herself to steer her in a slow dance where we would not always be in the lead.

The interstellar civilization in Dune is addicted to the spice in the same way we are addicted to our fossil fuels and that addiction has turned the world of Arrakis into a desert- for the worms that produce the spice also make the world dry  in the same way the carbon we are emitting is turning much of the North American continent into a desert.

As I was reading Dune the story of California’s historic drought was all over the news- especially the pictures. Our own Arrakis. As Kynes the ecologist imagines his dead father saying (how many other novels have an ecologist as a main character?):

“The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” (272)

If Herbert was in a sense prescient about the themes of the first decades of the 21st century it was largely by accident, and his novel provides a metaphysical theory as to why true prescience will prove ultimately impossible even for the most powerful superintelligence should we chose to build (or biologically engineer) them.

Paul experiences the height of his ability to peer into the future this way:

The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed- at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.

… the most minute action- the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand- moved a gigantic lever across the known universe. He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the patterns.

The vision made him want to freeze into immobility, but this, too was action with its consequences. (296)

In other words, if reality is truly deterministic it remains unpredictable because the smallest action(or inaction) can have the consequence of opening up another set of possible possibilities – a whole new multiverse that will have its own future. Either that, or perhaps all Paul ever sees are just imagined possibilities and we remain undetermined and free.


Edward O. Wilson’s Dull Paradise

Garden of Eden

In all sincerity I have to admit that there is much I admire about the biologist Edward O. Wilson. I can only pray that not only should I live into my 80’s, but still possess the intellectual stamina to write what are at least thought provoking books when I get there. I also wish I still have the balls to write a book with the title of Wilson’s latest- The Meaning of Human Existence, for publishing with an appellation like that would mean I wasn’t afraid I would disappoint my readers, and Wilson did indeed leave me wondering if the whole thing was worth the effort.

Nevertheless,  I think Wilson opened up an important alternative future that is seldom discussed here- namely what if we aimed not at a supposedly brighter, so-called post-human future but to keep things the same? Well, there would be some changes, no extremes of human poverty, along with the restoration of much of the natural environment to its pre-industrial revolution health. Still, we ourselves would aim to stay largely the same human beings who emerged some 100,000 years ago- flaws and all.

Wilson calls this admittedly conservative vision paradise, and I’ve seen his eyes light up like a child contemplating Christmas when using the word in interviews. Another point that might be of interest to this audience is who he largely blames for keeping us from entering this Shangri-la; archaic religions and their “creation stories.”

I have to admit that I find the idea of trying to preserve humanity as it is a valid alternative future. After all, “evolve or die” isn’t really the way nature works. Typically the “goal” of evolution is to find a “design” that works and then stick with it for as long as possible. Since we now dominate the entire planet and our numbers out-rival by a long way any other large animal it seems hard to assert that we need a major, and likely risky, upgrade. Here’s Wilson making the case:

While I am at it, I hereby cast a vote for existential conservatism, the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust. We are doing very well in terms of science and technology. Let’s agree to keep that up, and move both along even faster. But let’s also promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future. (60)

It’s an idea that rings true to my inner Edmund Burke, and sounds simple, doesn’t it? And on reflection it would be, if human beings were bison, blue whales, or gray wolves. Indeed, I think Wilson has drawn this idea of human preservation from his lifetime of very laudable work on biodiversity. Yet had he reflected upon why efforts at preservation fail when they do he would have realized that the problem isn’t the wildlife itself, but the human beings who don’t share the same value system going in the opposite direction. That is, humans, though we are certainly animals, aren’t wildlife, in the sense that we take destiny into our own hands, even if doing so is sometimes for the worse. Wilson seems to think that it’s quite a short step from asserting it as a goal to gaining universal assent to the “preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust”, the problem is there is no widespread agreement over what human nature even is, and then, even if you had such agreement, how in the world do you go about enforcing it for the minority who refuse to adhere to it? How far should we be willing to go to prevent persons from willingly crossing some line that defines what a human being is? And where exactly is that line in the first place? Wilson thinks we’re near the end of the argument when we only just took our seat at the debate.

Strange thing is the very people who would likely naturally lean towards the kind of biological conservatism that Wilson hopes “we” will ultimately choose are the sorts of traditionally religious persons he thinks are at the root of most of our conflicts. Here again is Wilson:

Religious warriors are not an anomaly. It is a mistake to classify believers of a particular religious and dogmatic religion-like ideologies into two groups, moderates versus extremists. The true cause of hatred and religious violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things. (154)

For Wilson, a religious groups “defines itself foremost by its creation story, the supernatural narrative that explains how human beings came into existence.” (151)  The trouble with this is that it’s not even superficially true. Three of the world’s religions that have been busy killing one another over the last millennium – Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the same creation story. Wilson knows a hell of a lot more about ants and evolution then he does about religion or even world history. And while religion is certainly the root of some of our tribalism, which I agree is the deep and perennial human problem, it’s far from the only source, and very few of our tribal conflicts have anything to do with the fight between human beings over our origins in the deep past. How about class conflict? Or racial conflict? Or nationalist conflicts when the two sides profess the not only the exact same religion but the exact same sect- such as the current fight between the two Christian Orthodox nations of Russia and Ukraine? If China and Japan someday go to war it will not be a horrifying replay of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

For a book called The Meaning of Human Existence Wilson’s ideas have very little explanatory power when it comes to anything other than our biological origins, and some quite questionable ideas regarding the origins of our capacity for violence. That is, the book lacks depth, and because of this I found it, well… dull.

Nowhere was I more hopeful that Wilson would have something interesting and different to say than when it came to the question of extraterrestrial life. Here we have one of the world’s greatest living biologists, a man who had spent a lifetime studying ants as an alternative route to the kinds of eusociality possessed only by humans, the naked mole rat, and a handful of insects. Here was a scientists who was clearly passionate about preserving the amazing diversity of life on our small planet.

Yet Wilson’s E.T.s are land dwellers, relatively large, biologically audiovisual, “their head is distinct, big, and located up front” (115) they have moderate teeth and jaws, they have a high social intelligence, and “a small number of free locomotory appendages, levered for maximum strength with stiff internal or external skeletons composed of hinged segments (as by human elbows and knees), and with at least one pair of which are terminated by digits with pulpy tips used for sensitive touch and grasping. “ (116)

In other words they are little green men.

What I had hoped was the Wilson would have used his deep knowledge of biology to imagine alternative paths to technological civilization. Couldn’t he have imagined a hive-like species that evolves in tandem with its own technological advancement? Or maybe some larger form of insect like animal which doesn’t just have an instinctive repertoire of things that it builds, but constantly improves upon its own designs, and explores the space of possible technologies? Or aquatic species that develop something like civilization through the use of sea-herding and ocean farming? How about species that communicate not audio-visually but through electrical impulses the way our computers do?

After all, nature on earth is pretty weird. There’s not just us, but termites that build air conditioned skyscrapers (at least from their view), whales which have culturally specific songs, and strange little things that eat and excrete electrons. One might guess that life elsewhere will be even weirder. Perhaps my problem with The Meaning of Human Existence is that it just wasn’t weird enough not just to capture the worlds of tomorrow and elsewhere- but the one we’re living in right now.


Summa Technologiae, or why the trouble with science is religion

Soviet Space Art 2

Before I read Lee Billings’ piece in the fall issue of Nautilus, I had no idea that in addition to being one of the world’s greatest science-fiction writers, Stanislaw Lem had written what became a forgotten book, a tome that was intended to be the overarching text of the technological age his 1966 Summa Technologiae.

I won’t go into detail on Billings’ thought provoking piece, suffice it to say that he leads us to question whether we have lost something of Lem’s depth with our current batch of Silicon Valley singularitarians who have largely repackaged ideas first fleshed out by the Polish novelist. Billings also leads us to wonder whether our focus on the either fantastic or terrifying aspects of the future are causing us to forget the human suffering that is here, right now, at our feet. I encourage you to check the piece out for yourself. In addition to Billings there’s also an excellent review of the Summa Technologiae by Giulio Prisco, here.

Rather than look at either Billings’ or Prisco’s piece , I will try to lay out some of the ideas found in Lem’s 1966 Summa Technologiae a book at once dense almost to the point of incomprehensibility, yet full of insights we should pay attention to as the world Lem imagines unfolds before our eyes, or at least seems to be doing so for some of us.

The first thing that stuck me when reading the Summa Technologiae was that it wasn’t our version of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica from which Lem got his tract’s name. In the 13th century Summa Theologica you find the voice of a speaker supremely confident in both the rationality of the world and the confidence that he understands it. Aquinas, of course, didn’t really possess such a comprehensive understanding, but it is perhaps odd that the more we have learned the more confused we have become, and Lem’s Summa Technologiae reflects some of this modern confusion.

Unlike Aquinas, Lem is in a sense blind to our destination, and what he is trying to do is to probe into the blackness of the future to sense the contours of the ultimate fate of our scientific and our technological civilization. Lem seeks to identify the roadblocks we likely will encounter if we are to continue our technological advancement- roadblocks that are important to identify because we have yet to find any evidence in the form of extraterrestrial civilizations that they can be actually be overcome.

The fundamental aspect of technological advancement is that it has become both its own reward and a trap. We have become absolutely dependent on scientific and technological progress as long as population growth continues- for if technological advancement stumbles and population continues to increase living standards would precipitously fall.

The problem Lem sees is that science is growing faster than the population, and in order to keep up with it we would eventually have to turn all human beings into scientists, and then some. Science advances by exploring the whole of the possibility space – we can’t predict which of its explorations will produce something useful in advance, or which avenues will prove fruitful in terms of our understanding.  It’s as if the territory has become so large we at some point will no longer have enough people to explore all of it, and thus will have to narrow the number of regions we look at. This narrowing puts us at risk of not finding the keys to El Dorado, so to speak, because we will not have asked and answered the right questions. We are approaching what Lem calls “the information peak.”

The absolutist nature of the scientific endeavor itself, our need to explore all avenues or risk losing something essential, for Lem, will inevitably lead to our attempt to create artificial intelligence. We will pursue AI to act as what he calls an “intelligence amplifier” though Lem is thinking of AI in a whole new way where computational processes mimic those done in nature, like the physics “calculations” of a tennis genius like Roger Federer, or my 4 year old learning how to throw a football.

Lem through the power of his imagination alone seemed to anticipate both some of the problems we would encounter when trying to build AI, and the ways we would likely try to escape them. For all their seeming intelligence our machines lack the behavioral complexity of even lower animals, let alone human intelligence, and one of the main roads away from these limitations is getting silicon intelligence to be more like that of carbon based creatures – not even so much as “brain like” as “biological like”.

Way back in the 1960’s, Lem thought we would need to learn from biological systems if we wanted to really get to something like artificial intelligence- think, for example, of how much more bang you get for your buck when you contrast DNA and a computer program. A computer program get you some interesting or useful behavior or process done by machine, DNA, well… it get you programmers.

The somewhat uncomfortable fact about designing machine intelligence around biological like processes is that they might end up a lot like how the human brain works- a process largely invisible to its possessor. How did I catch that ball? Damned if I know, or damned if I know if one is asking what was the internal process that led me to catch the ball.

Just going about our way in the world we make “calculations” that would make the world’s fastest supercomputers green with envy, were they actually sophisticated enough to experience envy. We do all the incredible things we do without having any solid idea, either scientific or internal, about how it is we are doing them. Lem thinks “real” AI will be like that. It will be able to out think us because it will be a species of natural intelligence like our own, and just like our own thinking, we will soon become hard pressed to explain how exactly it arrived at some conclusion or decision. Truly intelligent AI will end up being a “black box”.

Our increasingly complex societies might need such AI’s to serve the role of what Lem calls “Homostats”- machines that run the complex interactions of society. The dilemma appears the minute we surrender the responsibility to make our decisions to a homostat. For then the possibility opens that we will not be able to know how a homostat arrived at its decision, or what a homostat is actually trying to accomplish when it informs us that we should do something, or even, what goal lies behind its actions.

It’s quite a fascinating view, that science might be epistemologically insatiable in this way, and that, at some point it will grow beyond the limits of human intelligence, either our sheer numbers, or our mental capacity, and that the only way out of this which still includes technological progress will be to develop “naturalistic” AI: that very soon our societies will be so complicated that they will require the use of such AIs to manage them.

I am not sure if the view is right, but to my eyes at least it’s got much more meat on its bones than current singularitarian arguments about “exponential trends” that take little account of the fact, as Lem does, that at least one outcome is that the scientific wave we’ve been riding for five or so centuries will run into a wall we will find impossible to crest.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing ideas in Lem’s Summa Technologiae are those imaginative leaps that he throws at the reader almost as an aside, with little reference to his overall theory of technological development. Take his metaphor of the mathematician as a sort of crazy  of “tailor”.

He makes clothes but does not know for whom. He does not think about it. Some of his clothes are spherical without any opening for legs or feet…

The tailor is only concerned with one thing: he wants them to be consistent.

He takes his clothes to a massive warehouse. If we could enter it, we would discover clothes that could fit an octopus, others fit trees, butterflies, or people.

The great majority of his clothes would not find any application. (171-172)

This is Lem’s clever way of explaining the so-called “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” a view that is the opposite of current day platonists such as Max Tegmark who holds all mathematical structures to be real even if we are unable to find actual examples of them in our universe.

Lem thinks math is more like a ladder. It allows you to climb high enough to see a house, or even a mountain, but shouldn’t be confused with the house or the mountain itself. Indeed, most of the time, as his tailor example is meant to show, the ladder mathematics builds isn’t good for climbing at all. This is why Lem thinks we will need to learn “nature’s language” rather than go on using our invented language of mathematics if we want to continue to progress.

For all its originality and freshness, the Summa Technologiae is not without its problems. Once we start imagining that we can play the role of creator it seems we are unable to escape the same moral failings the religious would have once held against God. Here is Lem imagining a far future when we could create a simulated universe inhabited by virtual people who think they are real.

Imagine that our Designer now wants to turn his world into a habitat for intelligent beings. What would present the greatest difficulty here? Preventing them from dying right away? No, this condition is taken for granted. His main difficulty lies in ensuring that the creatures for whom the Universe will serve as a habitat do not find out about its “artificiality”. One is right to be concerned that the very suspicion that there may be something else beyond “everything” would immediately encourage them to seek exit from this “everything” considering themselves prisoners of the latter, they would storm their surroundings, looking for a way out- out of pure curiosity- if nothing else.

…We must not therefore cover up or barricade the exit. We must make its existence impossible to guess. ( 291 -292)

If Lem is ultimately proven correct, and we arrive at this destination where we create virtual universes with sentient inhabitants whom we keep blind to their true nature, then science will have ended where it began- with the demon imagined by Descartes.

The scientific revolution commenced when it was realized that we could neither trust our own sense nor our traditions to tell us the truth about the world – the most famous example of which was the discovery that the earth, contrary to all perception and history, traveled around the sun and not the other way round. The first generation of scientists who emerged in a world in which God had “hidden his face” couldn’t help but understand this new view of nature as the creator’s elaborate puzzle that we would have to painfully reconstruct, piece by piece, hidden as it was beneath the illusion of our own “fallen” senses and the false post-edenic world we had built around them.

Yet a curious new fear arises with this: What if the creator had designed the world so that it could never be understood? Descartes, at the very beginning of science, reconceptualized the creator as an omnipotent demon.

I will suppose then not that Deity who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth but that some malignant demon who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful has employed all his artifice to deceive me I will suppose that the sky the air the earth colours figures sounds and all external things are nothing better than the illusions of dreams by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity.

Descartes’ escape from this dreaded absence of intelligibility was his famous “cogito ergo sum”, the certainty a reasoning being has in its own existence. The entire world could be an illusion, but the fact of one’s own consciousness was nothing that not even an all powerful demon would be able to take away.

What Lem’s resurrection of the demon imagined by Descartes tells us is just how deeply religious thinking still lies at the heart of science. The idea has become secularized, and part of our mythology of science-fiction, but its still there, indeed, its the only scientifically fashionable form of creationism around. As proof, not even the most secular among us unlikely bat an eye at experiments to test whether the universe is an “infinite hologram”. And if such experiments show fruit they will either point to a designer that allowed us to know our reality or didn’t care to “bar the exits”, but the crazy thing, if one takes Lem and Descartes seriously, is that their creator/demon is ultimately as ineffable and unrouteable as the old ideas of God from which it descended. For any failure to prove the hypothesis that we are living in a “simulation” can be brushed aside on the basis that whatever has brought about this simulation doesn’t really want us to know. It’s only a short step from there to unraveling the whole truth concept at the heart of science. Like any garden variety creationists we end up seeing the proof’s of science as part of God’s (or whatever we’re now calling God) infinitely clever ruse.

The idea that there might be an unseeable creator behind it all is just one of the religious myths buried deeply in science, a myth that traces its origins less from the day-to-day mundane experiments and theory building of actual scientists than from a certain type of scientific philosophy or science-fiction that has constructed a cosmology around what science is for and what science means. It is the mythology the singularitarians and others who followed Lem remain trapped in often to the detriment of both technology and science. What is a shame is that these are myths that Lem, even with his expansive powers of imagination, did not dream widely enough to see beyond.

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


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”.