Finding Our Way Through The Great God Debate

“The way that can be spoken of. Is not the constant way; The name that can be named. Is not the constant name.”

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

Over the last decade a heated debate broke onto the American scene. The intellectual conflict between the religious and those who came to be called “the New Atheists” did indeed, I think, bring something new into American society that had not existed before- the open conflict between what, at least at the top tier of researchers, is a largely secular scientific establishment, or better those who presumed to speak for them, and the traditionally religious. What emerged on the publishing scene and bestseller lists were not the kinds of “soft-core” atheism espoused by previous science popularizers such as the late and much beloved Carl Sagan, but harsh, in your face atheist suchs as the Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and another late figure, Christopher Hitchens.

On the one hand there was nothing “new” about the New Atheists. Science in the popular imagination had for sometime been used as a bridge away from religion. I need only look at myself. What really undermined my belief in the Catholicism in which I was raised were books like Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, and Cosmos, or to a lesser extent Stephen Hawkings A Brief History of Time, even a theologically sounding book like Paul Davies God and the New Physics did nothing to shore up my belief in a personal God and the philosophically difficult or troubling ideas such as “virgin birth”, “incarnation”, “transubstantiation” or “papal infallibility” under which I was raised.

What I think makes the New Atheists of the 2000s truly new is that many science popularizers have lost the kind of cool indifference, or even openness to reaching out and explaining science in terms of religious concepts that was found in someone like Carl Sagan. Indeed, their confrontationalist stance is part of their shtick and a sure way to sell books in the same way titles like the Tao of Physics sold like hotcakes in the archaic Age of Disco.

For example, compare the soft, even if New Agey style of Sagan  to the kind of anti-religious screeds given by one of the New Atheist “four horsemen”, Richard Dawkins, in which he asks fellow atheists to “mock” and “ridicule” people’s religious  beliefs. Sagan sees religion as existing along a continuum with science, an attempt to answer life’s great questions. Science may be right, but religion stems from the same deep human instinct to ask questions and understand, whereas Dawkins seems to see only a dangerously pernicious stupidity.

It impossible to tease out who fired the first shot in the new conflict between atheists and the religious, but shots were fired. In 2004, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith hit the bookstores, a book I can still remember paging through at a Barnes N’ Noble when there were such things and thinking how shocking it was in tone. That was followed by Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion along with his documentary about religion with the less than live-and-let-live  title- The Root of All Evil? -followed by Hitchens’ book  God is Not Great, among others.

What had happened between the easy going atheism of the late Carl Sagan and the militant atheism of Harris’ The End of Faith was the tragedy of 9/11 which acted as an accelerant on a trend that had been emerging at the very least since Dawkins’ Virus of the Mind published way back in 1993. People who once made the argument that religion was evil or that signaled out any specific religion as barbaric would have before 9/11 been labeled as intolerant or racists.  Instead, in 2005 they were published in the liberal Huffington Post. Here is Harris:

It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”; we are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.

One of the most humanistic figures in recent memory, and whose loss is thus even more to our detriment than the loss of either the poetic Sagan or the gadfly Hitchens tried early on to prevent this conflict from ever breaking out. Stephen Jay Gould as far back as 1997 tried to minimize the friction between science and religion with his idea of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NOMA). If you read one link I have ever posted please read this humane and conciliatory essay.  The argument Gold makes in his essay is that there is no natural conflict between science and religion. Both religion and science possess their own separate domains: science deals with what is- the nature of the natural world, whereas religion deals with the question of meaning.

Science does not deal with moral questions because the study of nature is unable to yield meaning or morality on a human scale:

As a moral position (and therefore not as a deduction from my knowledge of nature’s factuality), I prefer the “cold bath” theory that nature can be truly “cruel” and “indifferent”—in the utterly inappropriate terms of our ethical discourse—because nature was not constructed as our eventual abode, didn’t know we were coming (we are, after all, interlopers of the latest geological microsecond), and doesn’t give a damn about us (speaking metaphorically). I regard such a position as liberating, not depressing, because we then become free to conduct moral discourse—and nothing could be more important—in our own terms, spared from the delusion that we might read moral truth passively from nature’s factuality.

Gould later turned his NOMA essay into a book- The Rocks of Ages in which he made an extensive argument that the current debate between science and religion is really a false one that emerges largely from great deal of misunderstanding on both sides.

The real crux of any dispute between science and religion, Gould thinks, are issues of what constitutes the intellectual domain of each endeavor. Science answers questions regarding the nature of the world, but should not attempt to provide answers for questions of meaning or ethics. Whereas religion if properly oriented should concern itself with exactly these human level meaning and ethical concerns. The debate between science and religion was not only unnecessary, but the total victory of one domain over the other would, for Gould, result in a diminishment of depth and complexity that emerges as a product of our humanity.

The New Atheists did not heed Gould’s prescient and humanistic advice. Indeed, he was already in conflict with some who would become its most vociferous figures- namely Dawkins and E.O. Wilson- even before the religion vs. science debate broke fully onto the scene. This was a consequence of Gould pushing back against what he saw as a dangerous trend towards reductionism of those applying genetics and evolutionary principles to human nature. The debate between Gould and Dawkins even itself inspired a book, the 2001, Dawkins vs. Gould published a year before Gould’s death from cancer.

Yet, for how much I respect Gould, and am attracted to his idea of NOMA, I do not find his argument to be without deep flaws. One of inadequacies of Gould’s Rocks of Ages is that it makes the case the that the conflict between science and religion is merely a matter of dispute the majority of us, the scientifically inclined along with the traditionally religious, against marginal groups such as creationists, and their equally fanatical atheists antagonists. The problem, however, may be deeper than Gould lets on.

Rocks of Ages begins with the story of the Catholic Church’s teaching on evolution as an example of NOMA in action.  That story begins with Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, which declared that the theory of evolution, if  it was eventually proven definitively true by science, would not be in direct contradiction to Church teaching.  This was followed up (almost 50 years later, at the Church’s usual geriatric speed) by Pope John Paul II’s 1996 declaration that the theory of evolution was now firmly established  as a scientific fact, and that Church theology would have to adjust to this truth. Thus, in Gould’s eyes, the Church had respected NOMA by eventually deferring to science on the question of evolution whatever challenges evolution might pose to traditional Catholic theology.

Yet, the same Pope Pius XII who grudgingly accepted that evolution might be true, one year later used the scientific discovery of the Big Bang to argue, not for a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis which hadn’t been held by the Church since Augustine, but for evidence of the more ephemeral concept of a creator that was the underlying “truth” pointed to in Genesis:

Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, it [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator.

Hence, creation took place in time.

Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!

Pius XII was certainly violating the spirit if not the letter on NOMA here. Preserving the requisite scientific skepticism in regard to evolution until all the facts were in, largely because it posed challenges to Catholic theology, while jumping almost immediately on a scientific discovery that seemed to lend support for some of the core ideas of the Church- a creator God and creation ex nihilo.

This seeming inclination of the religious to ask for science to keep its hands off when it comes to challenging it claims, while embracing science the minute it seems to offer proof of some religious conviction, is precisely the argument Richard Dawkins makes against NOMA, I think rightly, in his The God Delusion, and for how much I otherwise disagree with Dawkins and detest his abusive and condescending style, I think he is right in his claim that NOMA only comes into play for many of the religious when science is being used to challenge their beliefs, and not when science seems to lend plausibility to its stories and metaphysics. Dawkins and his many of his fellow atheists, however, think this is a cultural problem, namely that the culture is being distorted by the “virus” of religion. I disagree. Instead, what we have is a serious theological problem on our hands, and some good questions to ask might be: what exactly is this problem? Was this always the case? And in light of this where might the solution lie?

In 2009, Karen Armstrong, the ex-nun, popular religious scholar, and what is less know one time vocal atheist, threw her hat into the ring in defense of religion. The Case for God which was Armstrong’s rejoinder to the New Atheists is a remarkable book .
At least one explanation of theological problems we have is that a book like the Bible, when taken literally, is clearly absurd in light of modern science. We know that the earth was not created in 6 days, that there was no primordial pair of first parents, that the world was not destroyed by flood, and we have no proof of miracles understood now as the suspension of the laws of nature through which God acts in the world.  

The critique against religion by the New Atheists assumes a literal understanding either of scripture or the divine figures behind its stories. Armstrong’s The Case for God sets out to show that this literalism is a modern invention. Whatever the case with the laity, among Christian religious scholars before the modern era, the Bible was never read as a statement of scientific or historical fact. This, no doubt, is part of the reason its many contradictions and omissions where one story of an event is directly at odds with a different version of the exact same.

The way in which medieval Christian scholars were taught to read the Bible gives us an indication of what this meant. They were taught to read first for the literal meaning and once they understood move to the next level to discover the moral meaning of a text. Only once they had grasped this moral meaning would they attempt to grapple with the true, spiritual meaning of a text. Exegesis thus resembles the movement of the spirit away from the earth and the body above into the transcendent.

The Christian tradition in its pre-modern form, for Armstrong then, was not attempting to provide a proto-scientific version of the world that our own science has shown to be primitive and false, and the divine order which it pointed to was not one of some big bearded guy in clouds, but understood as the source and background of  a mysterious cosmic order which the human mind was incapable of fully understanding.

The New Atheists often conflate religion with bad and primitive science we should have long outgrown: “Why was that man’s barn destroyed by a lightning bolt?” “ As punishment from God. “How can we save our crops from drought?” “Perform a rain dance for the spirits?” It must therefore be incredibly frustrating to the New Atheists for people to cling to such an outdated science. But, according to Armstrong religion has never primarily been about offering up explanations for the natural world.

Armstrong thinks the best way to understand religion is as akin to art or music or poetry and not as proto-science. Religion is about practice not about belief and its truths are only accessible for those engaged in such practices. One learns what being a Christian by imitating Jesus: forgiving those who hurt you, caring for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, viewing suffering as redemptive or “carrying your cross”. Similar statements can be made for the world’s other religions as well though the kinds of actions one will pursue will be very different. This is, as Stephen Prothero points out in his God is not One, because the world’s diverse faith have defined the problem of the human condition quite differently and therefore have come up with quite distinct solutions. (More on that in part two.)

How then did we become so confused regarding what religion is really about? Armstrong traces how Biblical literalism arose in tandem with the scientific revolution and when you think about it this makes a lot of sense. Descartes, who helped usher in modern mathematics wrote a “proof” for God. The giant of them all, Newton, was a Biblical literalists and thought his theory of gravity proved the existence of the Christian God. Whereas the older theology had adopted a spirit of humility regarding human knowledge, the new science that emerged in the 16th century was bold in its claims that a new way had been discovered which would lead to a full understanding of the world- including the God who it was assumed had created it. It shouldn’t be surprising that Christians, perhaps especially the new Protestants, who sought to return to the true meaning of the faith through a complete knowledge of scripture, would think that God and the Bible could be proved in the same way the new scientific truths were being proved.

God thus became a “fact” like other facts and Westerners began the road to doubt and religious schizophrenia as the world science revealed showed no trace of the Christian God -or any other God(s) – amid the cold, indifferent and self-organizing natural order science revealed. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker if God was a hypothetical builder of clocks there is no need for the hypothesis now that we know how a clock can build itself.

Armstrong,thus, provides us with a good grasp of why Gould’s NOMA might have trouble gaining traction. Our understanding of God or the divine has become horribly mixed up with the history of science itself, with the idea that God would be “proven”
an assumption that helped launch the scientific revolution. Instead, what science has done in relation to this early modern idea of God as celestial mechanic and architect of the natural world, is push this idea of God into an ever shrinking “gap” of knowledge where science (for the moment) lacked a reasonable natural explanation of events. The gap into which the modern concept of God got itself jammed after Darwin’s theory of natural selection proved sufficient to explain the complexity of life eventually became the time before the Big Bang. A hole Pope Pius XII eagerly jumped into given that it seemed to match up so closely with Church theology. Combining his 1950-51 encyclicals he seemed to be saying “We’ll give you the origin of life, but we’ll gladly take the creation of the Universe”!

This was never a good strategy.

Next time I’ll try to show how this religious crisis actually might provide an opportunity for new ways of approaching age old religious questions and open up new avenues of  pursuing transcendence- a possibility that might prove particularly relevant for the community that goes under the label, transhumanist.

God in the Age of Alien Earths


Four hundred and thirteen years ago to the day, on February, 17 1600, the mystic philosopher, and some would  argue,scientist, Giordano Bruno, was handed over by the Catholic Church to the civil authorities in Rome and burned to death in the Campo de’ Fiori. Burning at the stake was a punishment that aimed at the annihilation of the person. The scattering of a body’s ashes, like Bruno’s ashes were scattered into the Tiber river, was not as many now look on similar rituals, a way of connecting a person forever into the fabric of a place they find for whatever reason sacred, but a way to cast a person out from the human world from which they came. It was the way “soulless” creatures such as animals were treated in death.

The “crimes” for which Bruno was executed revolved around his holding heretical beliefs, that is ideas which were directly in contradiction to the teachings of the Church.The idea common today that Bruno was not so much a condemned religious heretic as the first martyr in the conflict between science and religion gained traction only in the late 19th century, and is if not false, is doubtless overly simplistic.  Only one of the charges against Bruno dealt with a scientific rather than a religious question, or at the very least what should have been considered a scientific hypothesis alone. Bruno was charged with believing the existence of, in the words of the Inquisition, “the plurality of worlds”.

What was meant by the plurality of worlds? Primarily it meant Bruno had argued for the belief in more earths than our own, that there were many worlds with life and sentient creatures not merely similar but perhaps, given his belief in infinities, identical or only slightly different from the those on our own earth. What we see when we witness Bruno trying to apply the new Copernican astronomy along with his own ideas regarding infinity to Christian theology is a Christian narrative stretched to the breaking point. Bruno wrote:

I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.  *

What drew Bruno to the attention of Inquisitors was, I think, less the fact that he contradicted scriptures than the fact that he drew theological implications from the new view of the Universe provided by Copernicus and in light of his own ideas regarding infinity. This matter of the drawing of theological implications by someone outside of the Church hierarchy was a matter for which the Church had become particularly defensive and aggressive during Bruno’s time given this was the very power that had slipped from its fingers with Martin Luther and lay at the root of much of its then raging conflict with Protestants.

Yet, this drawing of specifically Christian theological implications was something Bruno had to do give the fact that any discussion regarding the question of cosmological meaning by someone living in a Christian society had to be done within Christian terms.  What I mean by the phrase cosmological meaning is what might be called the “big questions”. They include questions that were answered almost solely by religion until the modern era, but are now the prerogative of science, questions such as “what is the nature of the world?” “what is its origin?” “what is its ultimate fate?” ,but also questions that really can’t be answered by science even today, questions such as “what is the role of humanity in the future of the Universe?”, or “what is our place in the cosmic scheme of things?”. At the time Bruno was writing there existed no real philosophical or other discourse which might address these sorts of questions, questions that had been reopened by the new science that wasn’t tightly woven with Christian theology.

The fact that Bruno was more likely a theological rather than a scientific martyr can be seen in the experience of the thinker who spurred much of his brilliant imagination. No one had really cared when Copernicus, 60 years before Bruno, had shown that a heliocentric model of the solar system was the best way to predict the orbits of the planets. Church authorities did care when Galileo in 1610 with his book The Starry Messenger was not only able to show that the Copernican Theory was no mere piece of mathematical fancy-footwork that had little to do with reality, but was an observable fact, and that, as was Bruno had argued, objects in the heavens in some sense were worlds like earth- the moon had mountains, and Jupiter itself was orbited a series of moons, but this too might have been for different reasons than at first seem.

Yet, Galileo probably got himself in hot water with the Church as much for his pugnaciousness as for his science. He did, after all, name the dim-witted character who argues for a geocentric model in his book, Simplistico, a character with whom it doesn’t take much imagination to see the Pope himself. In the end, Galileo fared far better than Bruno, not being burned, but merely confined to the limits of his home.

That the Church didn’t much care about philosophical arguments for life on other worlds so long as no theological implications were drawn, and that its brutal reaction to Bruno was driven in part by its then raging conflict with “heresies” throughout Europe during Bruno’s time seems to be the conclusion one should draw from the reaction, or better lack of reaction, to Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, published in 1686 after the religious wars had died down. The reaction to Fontenelle’s work, to which science-fiction writers ever since owe their lineage, was that no one batted an eye .  No Catholic or Protestant theologian took note of the work. Despite its popularity, no one ever attempted to ban it or burn it as had happened with the works of both Bruno and Galileo not to mention the fact that Fontenelle was never accused of heresy, tortured, put on trial or imprisoned in his home or anywhere else.

Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds is a dialogue between a philosopher (presumably Fontenelle himself)  and a marquess, a noblewoman of refinement and leisure as such person existed before the French monarchy went to rot, that takes place while the pair take a series of walks in her garden under the beauty of the night sky.   

The first chapter in Conversations has the philosopher establish, despite all appearances, the reality of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system whereas the rest is a superb piece of early science fiction in which the philosopher
discusses what life might be like on earth’s moon and her sister planets.

The resolution of telescopes wasn’t all that great in Fontenelle’s day, though it was a heck of alot better than looking at things through the naked eye. It was thus easy to confuse smooth areas on the moon lacking mountains or craters for large bodies of water, which is why we have things like The Sea of Tranquility, features that were themselves mapped and named by the Jesuit scholars Giovanni Battista Riccioli, and Francesco Maria Grimaldi.

What makes Fontenelle’s Conversations, despite its sometimes jarring Eurocentrism, and the droll background of a caricature of  philosopher engaged in a flirtatious dance with a caricature of a noblewoman, is not that he projects the kind of life found on earth outward, but that he argues that we may be blinded to its possibility beyond earth by sticking too close to our own experience, and should therefore try to reason our way from the type of planet we are talking about to the kinds of life that might be found upon it.

Fontenelle’s philosopher in Conversations states that  “the moon is an earth too and a habitable world” (p. 30). He speculates that our belief that it is lifeless no doubt resembles ancient belief that there could be no life at the antipodes of the earth- its poles. Our position is somewhat akin to that of American Indians that had no idea that whole civilizations existed over the oceans, and that someday we will be able to communicate with beings from the moon, whether initiated by us or them.

The revolution in the way we looked into space thanks the telescope, or the way we looked at the geography of the earth on account of Columbus and those that followed him, weren’t the only revolutions that upended the view of the world of early modern Europe. There was also the new world brought to us by the invention of the microscope, and it is here that Fontenelle thinks we can see a glimpse of just how deep the profusion of living forms in the Universe, especially ones that defy our expectations run:

A mulberry leaf is a little world inhabited by multitudes of these invisible worms which to them is a country of vast extent. What mountains what abysses are there in it? (pp. 71-72)

Fontenelle with two centuries to go before evolution would become known, assumes that life will have to be suited for the environment in which it exists. In leaps we with our knowledge likely find ridiculous, but which are close in spirit to the truth of the matter the philosopher speculates on what life might be like in environments very different from the earth: The arid moon bathed in long stretches of light and darkness, the hothouses of Mercury and Venus the frigid enormity of Jupiter and Saturn. (For whatever reason he has no interest in Mars.)

The philosopher is overawed by the diversity of a Universe filled with life, and acknowledges the stars are suns like our own. Around many of these stars will circle planets, although a diversity of types of solar systems will be found. The marquess recoils from the scale of all this life and its ungraspable diversity. Such a richness makes her own life seem far too small. Yet, the philosopher thinks this should not impact our appreciation for the specialness of what is in front of us, an ability which has been implanted in us by nature.

“They cannot spoil fine eyes or a pretty mouth their value is still the same in spite of all the worlds that can possibly exist.” (p. 105)

As to life in the solar system we, three and some centuries after Fontenelle, of course, know better. Our exploration of the moons and planets that along with us circle our sun might be written as a tragic tale of the failure to find any life in our neighborhood other than our own. Fontenelle’s marquess had anticipated a reason for this- the Goldilocks Zone, the fact that the earth appears to orbit the sun at just the right distance from the sun. Like the famous porridge, neither too hot nor too cold.

I am sure said the Marchioness we have one great convenience in the situation of our world it is not so hot as Mercury and Venus nor so cold as Jupiter or Saturn and our country is so temperately placed that we have no excess either of heat or cold I have heard of a philosopher who gave thanks to nature that he was born a man and not a beast a Greek and not a Barbarian and for my part I render thanks that I am seated in the mildest planet of the universe and in one of the most temperate regions of that planet. (p. 99)

Yet, our own day might give new life to the dream of Fontenelle’s philosopher. This at least is the story one finds in another remarkable and much more recent book-  Dimitar Sasselov’ The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.  Sasselov book lays out how astronomers have in the last decade identified a huge number of extra-solar planets, and through amazing instruments, especially NASA’s aptly named Kepler Probe , are seeking out such bodies in the Goldilocks Zone around near earth planets.

Many of the extrasolar  planets so far discovered turnout to be something quite different from our earth, especially in terms of scale. They are much bigger than our own “big” blue marble, only a little smaller than Uranus- hence the term “super-earth”.  Sasselov’ tries to show how life on such planets might be even more ideally suited for life than the earth itself which is almost as small as dead planets such as Mars that are not large enough to hold complex atmospheres and engender internal processes such as plate tectonics,and is nowhere near the limit of big living planets that might be water worlds of pure ocean, a limit that is closer to the size of Uranus.  Planets much larger such as Saturn or Jupiter are not good places for life to take hold with too much atmospheric complexity and gravity for fragile life forms. We are Goldilocks here too, but we have baby bear’s bowl.

Life requires the kinds of complex elements that make up our own planet, and it is supposed, any super-earths. It is only recently,  Sasselov argues, that the generation of stars in the Universe has aged enough to produce these necessary elements. Hence the silence of the Universe today likely reflects the fact that we are one of the first to the party. But it will be a long celebration, with more than 10 times the age of the Universe- 150 billion years- of excellent conditions for life to take hold in front of it. Fontenelle would leap for joy at the diversity!

The Kepler Probe is helping us find planets located in the Goldilocks Zone using the same method Galileo used for identifying Jupiter’s moons. It is locating transits- moments when an object passes, in this case, in front of a parent star. It will take other techniques and instruments to gauge whether life is present on such planets when identified, but Sasselov is pretty confident that we are on the verge of finding life outside the solar system. Thus, in his view, we are about to complete the revolution started by Copernicus.

In one of those strange coincidences of intellectual history, Sasselov, is proposing the use of updated ideas and tools to understand life beyond the solar system that can be found in Fontenelle’s Conversations. Sasselov thinks we should be able to use the new synthetic biology, the heir to the philosopher’s microbiology, to create in the lab life forms that might have evolved in any of the distinct worlds we find, which, as Fontenelle claimed in a much more simplified form will be different from life on earth because they have evolved (not his word) to match the conditions found there. Sasselov thinks synthetic biology will allow us to reset the clock back to the very beginning of life and run experiments in how these life forms might have evolved given conditions that are different, in terms of composition, temperature, pressure etc. from those on earth.

Should life be discovered on another planet in our near future, what might the impact be on traditional religion, especially in light of the current conflict between it and science? Or, to phrase the question differently, how might Bruno fare in a world where his alien earths had actually been found?

I, of course, have no way to know. My sincere hope, however, is that such a completion of the Copernican Revolution will have the effect of ending (or at least substantially decreasing) rather than exacerbating the conflict between the two domains. Right now, a good deal of the conflict between science and religion appears to be driven by the desire of religious authorities to use the language of science to make cosmological claims that support their own theological worldview, and the overreaction of the so-called New Atheists to these claims. On the one hand you have the misnomer of “creation science” that seeks to lend the air of scientific support for what are in reality religious convictions. On the other, you have the seemingly open minded view of an institution such as the Catholic Church that looks for a God that somehow resembles the God of their tradition in the “gaps” of knowledge science cannot currently explain. Seeing, for instance, in the Big Bang evidence for a creator God who brought the world into being ex nihilo- out of nothing.  This seemingly modern view inspired an entire book by the vocally atheist physicist, Lawrence Krauss, who in his A Universe From Nothing aims to show that the Universe of contemporary physics leaves no room at all for a creator God in the Christian sense.

I have complained about the militant intolerance of the New Atheist elsewhere, but agree with at least this about their critique: No religion should use the findings of science to back their theological claims, which in the end amount to a claim to exclusive say over the universal human questions of cosmological meaning. For example, followers of theistic religions: Judaism, Islam or Christianity should avoid using scientific phenomena such as the Big Bang to argue for the existence of the creator that underlies their theology because it theologically excludes the many faiths and philosophies that contain no concept of such a creator. Likewise, even if the finding of modern science appear to fit better with the concepts of a particular religion, say Buddhism, this does not mean that Buddhists can turn around and say that the moral, ethical and existential bearings of a theistic religion such as Christianity are somehow false. This is because the cosmological claims of any religion are merely secondary features rather than primary ones. Religions are above all ethical and philosophical orientations towards life on a human scale. If one finds concepts such as charity or sin the best way to establish one’s bearings towards other human beings and the human condition more generally, then the truth of this can be found only in the living out of the concepts not in the scientific reality of cosmological claims which were only secondary to the development of the faith in the first place.

As for these big questions, the ones that transcend our individual lives or even the life of our species, these questions of meaning  ideally should involve a discussion all of us, secular and religious, scientist and non-scientist, can share. In terms of its “why?” and “where?” questions that explore the issue of human purpose. These types of questions are not really resolvable in the sense that that they will never really be answered in the same way scientific questions are answered or religious beliefs and practices constitute a particular set of answers to the question of how a human being should live.

My hope is that the discovery of life elsewhere in the Milky Way, rather than result in continued conflict between religion and science (in which many of the religious play a role similar to “climate deniers” and view such an amazing scientific discovery as a cabal against their deeply held beliefs)  will encourage the religious to back off from using cosmological justifications for their faith. Instead, perhaps they will realize that the world which the modern science has revealed is far more complex and surprising than anything any sacred books contain and that their most fruitful path lie not in trying to square these two worlds and find “proofs” for their faith, but to ensure their faith provides meaning and purpose for the human beings who live within them.

In turn, I hope the New Atheists, no longer vulnerable to the belief that religion is somehow invading its intellectual turf, will stop demonizing and ridiculing religious persons whose goal has always been, even if it has so often failed, or if other non-religious paths to the same exist higher purpose exist, to be better human beings. It would be a world in which Bruno was never again burned at the stake be he scientist- or saint.

*This Bruno quote is reportedly from the Fifth Dialogue of his Cause Principle and Unity, but I have not been able while searching the text to find it. Any help would be appreciated.

Big Brother, Big Data and The Forked Path Revisited

This week witnessed yet another examples of the distortions caused by the 9/11 Wars on the ideals that underlie the American system of government and the ballooning of the powers and reach of the national security state.  In a 16 page Justice Department memo obtained by the NBC News reporter, Michael Isikoff, legal justifications were outlined for the extra-judicial killings of American citizens deemed to pose a “significant threat” to the United States. The problem here is who gets to define what such a threat is. The absence of any independent judicial process outside of the executive branch that can determine whether the rights of an American citizen can be stripped, including the condition of being considered innocent before being proved guilty amounts to an enormous increase in executive power that will likely survive the Obama Administration. This is not really news in that we already knew that extra-judicial killings (in the case of one known suspect, Anwar al-Awlaki, at least) had already taken place. What was not known was just how sweeping, permanent, and without clear legal boundaries these claims of an executive right to kill American citizens absent the proof of guilt actually were. Now we know.

This would be disturbing information if it stood alone by itself, but it does not stand alone. What we have seen since the the attacks on 9/11 is the spread of similar disturbing trends which have only been accelerated by technological changes such as the growth of Big-Data and robotics. Given the news, I thought it might be a good idea to reblog a post I had written back in September where I tried to detail these developments. What follows is a largely unedited version of that original post.


The technological ecosystem in which political power operates tends to mark out the possibility space for what kinds of political arrangements, good and bad, exist within that space. Orwell’s Oceania and its sister tyrannies were imagined in what was the age of big, centralized media. Here the Party had under its control not only the older printing press, having the ability to craft and doctor, at will, anything created using print from newspapers, to government documents, to novels. It also controlled the newer mediums of radio and film, and, as Orwell imagined, would twist those technologies around backwards to serve as spying machines aimed at everyone.

The questions, to my knowledge, Orwell never asked was what was the Party to do with all that data? How was it to store, sift through, make sense of, or locate locate actual threats within it the  yottabytes of information that would be gathered by recording almost every conversation, filming or viewing almost every movement, of its citizens lives? In other words, the Party would have ran into the problem of Big Data. Many of Orwellian developments since 9/11 have come in the form of the state trying to ride the wave of the Big Data tsunami unleashed with the rise of the internet, an attempt create it’s own form of electronic panopticon.

In their book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Dana Priest, and ,William Arkin, of the Washington Post present a frightening picture of the surveillance and covert state that has mushroomed in the United States since 9/11. A vast network of endeavors which has grown to dwarf, in terms of cummulative numbers of programs and operations, similar efforts, during the unarguably much more dangerous Cold War. (TS 12)

Theirs’ is not so much a vision of an America of dark security services controlled behind the scenes by a sinister figure like J. Edgar Hoover, as it is one of complexity gone wild. Priest and Arkin paint a picture of Top Secret America as a vast data sucking machine, vacuuming up every morsel of information with the intention of correctly “connecting the dots”, (150) in the hopes of preventing another tragedy like 9/11.

So much money was poured into intelligence gathering after 9/11, in so many different organizations, that no one, not the President, nor the Director of the CIA, nor any other official has a full grasp of what is going on. The security state, like the rest of the American government, has become reliant on private contractors who rake in stupendous profits. The same corruption that can be found elsewhere in Washington is found here. Employees of the government and the private sector spin round and round in a revolving door between the Washington connections brought by participation in political establishment followed by big-time money in the ballooning world of private security and intelligence. Priest quotes one American intelligence official  who had the balls to describe the insectous relationship between government and private security firms as “a self-licking ice cream cone”. (TS 198)

The flood of money that inundated the intelligence field in after  9/11 has created what Priest and Arkin call an “alternative geography” companies doing covert work for the government that exist in huge complexes, some of which are large enough to contain their very own “cities”- shopping centers, athletic facilities, and the like. To these are added mammoth government run complexes some known and others unknown.

Our modern day Winston Smiths, who work for such public and private intelligence services, are tasked not with the mind numbing work of doctoring history, but with the equally superfluous job of repackaging the very same information that had been produced by another individual in another organization public or private each with little hope that they would know that the other was working on the same damned thing. All of this would be a mere tragic waste of public money that could be better invested in other things, but it goes beyond that by threatening the very freedoms that these efforts are meant to protect.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the government’s Orwellian version of a Google FaceBook mashup is the gargantuan supercomputer data center in Bluffdale Nevada built and run by the premier spy agency in the age of the internet- the National Security Administration or NSA. As described by James Bamford for Wired Magazine:

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.

It had been thought that domestic spying by the NSA, under a super-secret program with the Carl Saganesque name, Stellar Wind, had ended during the G.W. Bush administration, but if the whistleblower, William Binney, interviewed in this chilling piece by Laura Poitras of the New York Times, is to be believed, the certainly unconstitutional program remains very much in existence.

The bizarre thing about this program is just how wasteful it is. After all, don’t private companies, such as FaceBook and Google not already possess the very same kinds of data trails that would be provided by such obviously unconstitutional efforts like those at Bluffdale? Why doesn’t the US government just subpoena internet and telecommunications companies who already track almost everything we do for commercial purposes? The US government, of course, has already tried to turn the internet into a tool of intelligence gathering, most notably, with the stalled Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Intelligence Act, or CISPA , and perhaps it is building Bluffdale in anticipation that such legislation will fail, that however it is changed might not be to its liking, or because it doesn’t want to be bothered with the need to obtain warrants or with constitutional niceties such as our protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

If such behemoth surveillance instruments fulfill the role of the telescreens and hidden microphones in Orwell’s 1984, then the role the only group in the novel whose name actually reflects what it is- The Spies – children who watch their parents for unorthodox behavior and turn them in, is taken today by the American public itself. In post 9/11 America it is, local law enforcement, neighbors, and passersby who are asked to “report suspicious activity”. People who actually do report suspicious activity have their observations and photographs recorded in an ominous sounding data base that Orwell himself might have named called The Guardian. (TS 144)

As Priest writes:

Guardian stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. Most are not even suspected of one. What they have done is appear, to a town sheriff, a traffic cop, or even a neighbor to be acting suspiciously”. (TS 145)

Such information is reported to, and initially investigated by, the personnel in another sort of data collector- the “fusion centers” which had been created in every state after 9/11.These fusion centers are often located in rural states whose employees have literally nothing to do. They tend to be staffed by persons without intelligence backgrounds, and who instead hailed from law enforcement, because those with even the bare minimum of foreign intelligence experience were sucked up by the behemoth intelligence organizations, both private and public, that have spread like mould around Washington D.C.

Into this vacuum of largely non-existent threats came “consultants” such as Montijo Walid Shoebat, who lectured fusion center staff on the fantastical plot of Muslims to establish Sharia Law in the United States. (TS 271-272). A story as wild as the concocted boogeymen of Goldstein and the Brotherhood in Orwell’s dystopia.

It isn’t only Mosques, or Islamic groups that find themselves spied upon by overeager local law enforcement and sometimes highly unprofessional private intelligence firms. Completely non-violent, political groups, such as ones in my native Pennsylvania, have become the target of “investigations”. In 2009 the private intelligence firm the Institute for Terrorism Research and Response compiled reports for state officials on a wide range of peaceful political groups that included: “The Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots Coalition, the Libertarian Movement, anti-war protesters, animal-rights groups, and an environmentalist dressed up as Santa Claus and handing out coal-filled stockings” (TS 146). A list that is just about politically broad enough to piss everybody off.

Like the fusion centers, or as part of them, data rich crime centers such as the Memphis Real Time Crime Center are popping up all over the United States. Local police officers now suck up streams of data about the environments in which they operate and are able to pull that data together to identify suspects- now by scanning licence plates, but soon enough, as in Arizona, where the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office was creating up to 9,000 biometric, digital profiles a month (TS 131) by scanning human faces from a distance.

Sometimes crime centers used the information gathered for massive sweeps arresting over a thousand people at a clip. The result was an overloaded justice and prison system that couldn’t handle the caseload (TS 144), and no doubt, as was the case in territories occupied by the US military, an even more alienated and angry local population.

From one perspective Big Data would seem to make torture more not less likely as all information that can be gathered from suspects, whatever their station, becomes important in a way it wasn’t before, a piece in a gigantic, electronic puzzle. Yet, technological developments outside of Big Data, appear to point in the direction away from torture as a way of gathering information.

“Controlled torture”, the phrase burns in my mouth, has always been the consequence of the unbridgeable space between human minds. Torture attempts to break through the wall of privacy we possess as individuals through physical and mental coercion. Big Data, whether of the commercial or security variety, hates privacy because it gums up the capacity to gather more and more information for Big Data to become what so it desires- Even Bigger Data. The dilemma for the state, or in the case of the Inquisition, the organization, is that once the green light has been given to human sadism it is almost impossible to control it. Torture, or the knowledge of torture inflicted on loved ones, breeds more and more enemies.

Torture’s ham fisted and outwardly brutal methods today are going hopelessly out of fashion. They are the equivalent of rifling through someone’s trash or breaking into their house to obtain useful information about them. Much better to have them tell you what you need to know because they “like” you.

In that vein, Priest describes some of the new interrogation technologies being developed by the government and private security technology firms. One such technology is an “interrogation booth” that contain avatars with characteristics (such as an older Hispanic woman) that have been psychologically studied to produce more accurate answers from those questioned. There are ideas to replace the booth with a tiny projector mounted on a soldier’s or policeman’s helmet to produce the needed avatar at a moments notice. There was also a “lie detecting beam” that could tell- from a distance- whether someone was lying by measuring miniscule changes on a person’s skin. (TS 169) But if security services demand transparency from those it seeks to control they offer up no such transparency themselves. This is the case not only in the notoriously secretive nature of the security state, but also in the way the US government itself explains and seeks support for its policies in the outside world.

Orwell, was deeply interested in the abuse of language, and I think here too, the actions of the American government would give him much to chew on. Ever since the disaster of the war in Iraq, American officials have been obsessed with the idea of “soft-power”. The fallacy that resistance to American policy was a matter of “bad messaging” rather than the policy itself. Sadly, this messaging was often something far from truthful and often fell under what the government termed” Influence operations” which, according to Priest:

Influence operations, as the name suggests, are aimed at secretly influencing or manipulating the opinions of foreign audiences, either on an actual battlefield- such as during a feint in a tactical battle- or within civilian populations, such as undermining support for an existing government or terrorist group (TS 59)

Another great technological development over the past decade has been the revolution in robotics, which like Big Data is brought to us by the ever expanding information processing powers of computers, the product of Moore’s Law.

Since 9/11 multiple forms of robots have been perfected, developed, and deployed by the military, intelligence services and private contractors only the most discussed and controversial of which have been flying drones. It is with these and other tools of covert warfare, such as drones, and in his quite sweeping understanding and application of executive power that President Obama has been even more Orwellian than his predecessor.

Obama may have ended the torture of prisoners captured by American soldiers and intelligence officials, and he certainly showed courage and foresight in his assassination of Osama Bin Laden, a fact by which the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The problem is that he has allowed, indeed propelled, the expansion of the instruments of American foreign policy that are largely hidden from the purview and control of the democratic public. In addition to the surveillance issues above, he has put forward a sweeping and quite dangerous interpretation of executive power in the forms of indefinite detention without trial found in the NDAAengaged in the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, and asserted the prerogative, questionable under both the constitution and international law, to launch attacks, both covert and overt, on countries with which the United States is not officially at war.

In the words of Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic writing on the unprecedented expansion of executive power under the Obama administration and comparing these very real and troubling developments to the paranoid delusions of right-wing nuts, who seem more concerned with the fantastical conspiracy theories such as the Social Security Administration buying hollow-point bullets:

… the fact that the executive branch is literally spying on American citizens, putting them on secret kill lists, and invoking the state secrets privilege to hide their actions doesn’t even merit a mention.  (by the right-wing).

Perhaps surprisingly, the technologies created in the last generation seem tailor made for the new types of covert war the US is now choosing to fight. This can perhaps best be seen in the ongoing covert war against Iran which has used not only drones but brand new forms of weapons such the Stuxnet Worm.

The questions posed to us by the militarized versions of Big Data, new media, Robotics, and spyware/computer viruses are the same as those these phenomena pose in the civilian world: Big Data; does it actually provide us with a useful map of reality, or instead drown us in mostly useless information? In analog to the question of profitability in the economic sphere: does Big Data actually make us safer? New Media, how is the truth to survive in a world where seemingly any organization or person can create their own version of reality. Doesn’t the lack of transparency by corporations or the government give rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories in such an atmosphere, and isn’t it ultimately futile, and liable to backfire, for corporations and governments to try to shape all these newly enabled voices to its liking through spin and propaganda? Robotics; in analog to the question of what it portends to the world of work, what is it doing to the world of war? Is Robotics making us safer or giving us a false sense of security and control? Is it engendering an over-readiness to take risks because we have abstracted away the very human consequences of our actions- at least in terms of the risks to our own soldiers. In terms of spyware and computer viruses: how open should our systems remain given their vulnerabilities to those who would use this openness for ill ends?

At the very least, in terms of Big.Data, we should have grave doubts. The kind of FaceBook from hell the government has created didn’t seem all that capable of actually pulling information together into a coherent much less accurate picture. Much like their less technologically enabled counterparts who missed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and fall of the Soviet Union, the new internet enabled security services missed the world shaking event of the Arab Spring.

The problem with all of these technologies, I think, is that they are methods for treating the symptoms of a diseased society, rather than the disease itself. But first let me take a detour through Orwell vision of the future of capitalist, liberal democracy seen from his vantage point in the 1940s.

Orwell, and this is especially clear in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, believed the world was poised between two stark alternatives: the Socialist one, which he defined in terms of social justice, political liberty, equal rights, and global solidarity, and a Fascist or Bolshevist one, characterized by the increasingly brutal actions of the state in the name of caste, both domestically and internationally.

He wrote:

Because the time has come when one can predict the future in terms of an “either–or”. Either we turn this war into a revolutionary war (I do not say that our policy will be EXACTLY what I have indicated above–merely that it will be along those general lines) or we lose it, and much more besides. Quite soon it will be possible to say definitely that our feet are set upon one path or the other. But at any rate it is certain that with our present social structure we cannot win. Our real forces, physical, moral or intellectual, cannot be mobilised.

It is almost impossible for those of us in the West who have been raised to believe that capitalist liberal democracy is the end of the line in terms of political evolution to remember that within the lifetimes of people still with us (such as my grandmother who tends her garden now in the same way she did in the 1940’s) this whole system seemed to have been swept up into the dustbin of history and that the future lie elsewhere.

What the brilliance of Orwell missed, the penetrating insight of Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World caught: that a sufficiently prosperous society would lull it’s citizens to sleep, and in doing so rob them both of the desire for revolutionary change and their very freedom.

As I have argued elsewhere, Huxley’s prescience may depend on the kind of economic growth and general prosperity that was the norm after the Second World War. What worries me is that if the pessimists are proven correct, if we are in for an era of resource scarcity, and population pressures, stagnant economies, and chronic unemployment that Huxley’s dystopia will give way to a more brutal Orwellian one.

This is why we need to push back against the Orwellian features that have crept upon us since 9/11. The fact is we are almost unaware that we building the architecture for something truly dystopian and should pause to think before it is too late.

To return to the question of whether the new technologies help or hurt here: It is almost undeniable that all of the technological wonders that have emerged since 9/11 are good at treating the symptoms of social breakdown, both abroad and at home. They allow us to kill or capture persons who would harm largely innocent Americans, or catch violent or predatory criminals in our own country, state, and neighborhood. Where they fail is in getting to the actual root of the disease itself.

American would much better serve  its foreign policy interest were it to better align itself with the public opinion of the outside world insofar as we were able to maintain our long term interests and continue to guarantee the safety of our allies. Much better than the kind of “information operation” supported by the US government to portray a corrupt, and now deposed, autocrat like Yemen’s  Abdullah Saleh as “an anti-corruption activist”, would be actual assistance by the US and other advanced countries in…. I duknow… fighting corruption. Much better Western support for education and health in the Islamic world that the kinds of interference in the internal political development of post-revolutionary Islamic societies driven by geopolitical interest and practiced by the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This same logic applies inside the United States as well. It is time to radically roll back the Orwellian advances that have occurred since 9/11. The dangers of the war on terrorism were always that they would become like Orwell’s “continuous warfare”, and would perpetually exist in spite, rather than because of the level of threat. We are in danger of investing so much in our security architecture, bloated to a scale that dwarfs enemies, which we have blown up in our own imaginations into monstrous shadows, that we are failing to invest in the parts of our society that will actually keep us safe and prosperous over the long-term.

In Orwell’s Oceania, the poor, the “proles” were largely ignored by the surveillance state. There is a danger here that with the movement of what were once advanced technologies into the hands of local law enforcement: drones, robots, biometric scanners, super-fast data crunching computers, geo-location technologies- that domestically we will move even further in the direction of treating the symptoms of social decay, rather than dealing with the underlying conditions that propel it.

The fact of the matter is that the very equality, “the early paradise”, a product of democratic socialism and technology, Orwell thought was at our fingertips has retreated farther and farther from us. The reasons for this are multiple; To name just a few: financial   concentration automation, the end of “low hanging fruit” and their consequent high growth rates brought by industrialization,the crisis of complexity and the problem of ever more marginal returns. This retreat, if it lasts, would likely tip the balance from Huxley’s stupification by consumption to Orwell’s more brutal dystopia initiated by terrified elites attempting to keep a lid on things.

In a state of fear and panic we have blanketed the world with a sphere of surveillance, propaganda and covert violence at which Big Brother himself would be proud. This is shameful, and threatens not only to undermine our very real freedom, but to usher in a horribly dystopian world with some resemblance to the one outlined in Orwell’s dark imaginings. We must return to the other path.