The Flash Crash of Reality

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

                                                                                                 H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu  

“All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.”

John von Neumann

For at least as long as there has been a form of written language to record such a thing, human beings have lusted after divination. The classical Greeks had their trippy Oracle at Delphi, while the Romans scanned entrails for hidden patterns, or more beautifully, sought out the shape of the future in the murmurations of birds. All ancient cultures, it seems, looked for the signs of fate in the movement of the heavens. The ancient Chinese script may have even originated in a praxis of prophecy, a search for meaning in the branching patterns of “oracle bones” and tortoise shells, signaling that perhaps written language itself originated not with accountants but with prophets seeking to overcome the temporal confines of the second law, in whose measure we are forever condemned.

The promise of computation was that this power of divination was at our fingertips at last. Computers would allow us to outrun time, and thus in seeing the future we’d finally be able to change it or deftly avoid its blows- the goal of all seers in the first place.

Indeed, the binary language underlying computation sprung from the fecund imagination of Gottfried Leibniz who got the idea after he encountered the most famous form of Chinese divination, the I-Ching. The desire to create computing machines emerged with the Newtonian worldview and instantiated its premise; namely, that the world could be fully described in terms of equations whose outcome was preordained. What computers promised was the ability to calculate these equations, offering us a power born of asymmetric information- a kind of leverage via time travel.

Perhaps we should have known that time would not be so easily subdued. Outlining exactly how our recent efforts to know and therefore control the future have failed is the point of James Bridle’s wonderful book  New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future.

With the kind of clarity demanded of an effective manifesto, Bridle neatly breaks his book up into ten “C’s”: Chasm, Computation, Climate, Calculation, Complexity, Cognition, Complicity, Conspiracy, Concurrency, and Cloud.

Chasm defines what Bridle believes to be our problem. Our language is no longer up to the task of navigating the world which the complex systems upon which we are dependent have wrought. This failure of language, which amounts to a failure of thought, Bridle traces to the origins of computation itself.

Computation

To vastly oversimplify his argument, the problem with computation is that the detailed models it provides too often tempt us into confusing our map with the territory. Sometimes this leads us to mistrust our own judgement and defer to the “intelligence” of machines- a situation that in the most tragic of circumstances has resulted in what those in the National Parks Service call “death by GPS”. While in other cases our confusion of the model with reality results in the surrender of power to the minority of individuals capable of creating and the corporations which own and run such models.

Computation was invented under the aforementioned premise born with the success of calculus, that everything, including  history itself, could be contained in an equation. It was also seen as a solution to the growing complexity of society. Echoing Stanislaw Lem, one of the founders of modern computers, Vannevar Bush with his “memex” foresaw something like the internet in the 1940s. The mechanization of knowledge the only possible lifeboat in the deluge of information modernity had brought.

Climate

One of the first projected purposes of computers would be not just to predict, but to actually control the weather. And while we’ve certainly gotten better at the former, the best we’ve gotten from the later is Kurt Vonnegut’s humorous takedown of the premise in his novel Cat’s Cradle, which was actually based on his chemist brother’s work on weather control for General Electric. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the very fossil fuel based civilization upon which our computational infrastructure depends is not only making the weather less “controllable” and predictable, but is undermining the climatic stability of the Holocene, which facilitated the rise of a species capable of imagining and building something as sophisticated as computers in the first place.

Our new dark age is not just a product of our misplaced faith in computation, but in the growing unpredictability of the world itself. A reality whose existential importance is most apparent in the case of climate change. Our rapidly morphing climate threatens the very communications infrastructure that allows us to see and respond to its challenges. Essential servers and power sources will likely be drowned under the rising seas, cooling dependent processors taxed by increasing temperatures. Most disturbingly, rising CO2  levels are likely to make human beings dumber. As Bridle writes:

“At 1,000 ppm, human cognitive ability drops by 21 per cent.33 At higher atmospheric concentrations, CO2 stops us from thinking clearly. Outdoor CO2 already reaches 500 ppm”

An unstable climate undermines the bedrock, predictable natural cycles from which civilization itself emerged, that is, those of agriculture.  In a way our very success at controlling nature, by making it predictable is destabilizing the regularity of nature that made its predictability possible in the first place.

It is here that computation reveals its double edged nature, for while computation is the essential tool we need to see and respond to the “hyperobject” that is climate change, it is also one of the sources of this growing natural instability itself. Much of the energy of modern computation directly traceable to fossil fuels, a fact the demon coal lobby has eagerly pointed out.

Calculation

What the explosion of computation has allowed, of course, is an exponential expansion of the power and range of calculation. While one can quibble over whether or not the driving force behind the fact that everything is now software, that is Moore’s Law, has finally proved Ray Kurzweil and his ilk wrong and bent towards the asymptote, the fact is that nothing else in our era has followed the semiconductor’s exponential curve. Indeed, as Bridle shows, precisely the opposite.

For all their astounding benefits, machine learning and big data have not, as Chris Anderson predicted, resulted in the “End of Theory”. Science still needs theory, experiment, and dare I say, humans to make progress, and what is clear is that many areas outside ICT itself progress has not merely slowed but stalled.

Over the past sixty years, rather than experience Moore’s Law type increases, the pharmaceutical industry has suffered the opposite. The so-called Eroom’s Law where: “The number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on research and development has halved every nine years since 1950.”

Part of this stems from the fact that the low hanging fruit of discovery, not just in pharmaceuticals but elsewhere, have already been picked, along with the fact that the problems we’re dealing with are becoming exponentially harder to solve. Yet some portion of the slowdown in research progress is surely a consequence of technology itself, or at least the ways in which computers are being relied upon and deployed. Ease of sharing when combined with status hunting inevitably leads to widespread gaming. Scientists are little different from the rest of us, seeking ways to top Google’s Page Rank, Youtube recommendations, Instagram and Twitter feeds, or the sorting algorithms of Amazon, though for scientists the summit of recognition consists of prestigious journals where publication can make or break a career.

Data being easy to come by, while experimentation and theory remain difficult, has meant that “proof” is often conflated with what turn out to be spurious p-values, or “p-hacking”. The age of big data has also been the age of science’s “replication crisis”, where seemingly ever more findings disappear upon scrutiny.

What all this calculation has resulted in is an almost suffocating level of complexity, which is the source of much of our in-egalitarian turn. Connectivity and transparency were supposed to level the playing field, instead, in areas such as financial markets where the sheer amount of information to be processed has ended up barring new entrants, calculation has provided the ultimate asymmetric advantage to those with the highest capacity to identify and respond within nanoseconds to changing market conditions.

Asymmetries of information lie behind both our largest corporate successes and the rising inequality that they have brought in their wake. Companies such as WalMart and Amazon are in essences logistics operations built on the unique ability of these entities to see and respond first or most vigorously to consumer needs. As Bridle points out this rule of logistics has resulted in a bizarre scrambling of politics, the irony that:

“The complaint of the Right against communism – that we’d all have to buy our goods from a single state supplier – has been supplanted by the necessity of buying everything from Amazon.”

Yet unlike the corporate giants of old such as General Motors, our 21st century behemoths don’t actually employ all that many people, and in their lust after automation, seem determined to employ even less. The workplace, and the larger society, these companies are building seem even more designed around the logic of machines than factories in the heyday of heavy industry. The ‘chaotic storage’ deployed in Amazon’s warehouses is like something dreamed up by Kafka, but that’s because it emerges out of the alien “mind” of an algorithm, a real world analog to Google’s Deep Dream.

The world in this way becomes less and less sensible, except to the tiny number of human engineers who, for the moment, retain control over its systems. This is a problem that is only going to get worse with the spread of the Internet of Things. An extension of computation not out of necessity, but because capitalism in its current form seems hell bent on turning all products into services so as to procure a permanent revenue stream. It’s not a good idea. As Bridle puts it:

“We are inserting opaque and poorly understood computation at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – respiration, food, sleep, and homeostasis – at the precise point, that is, where we are most vulnerable.”

What we should know by now, if anything, is that the more connected things are, the more hackable they become, and the more susceptible to rapid and often unexplainable crashes. Turning reality into a type of computer simulations comes with the danger the world at large might experience the kind of “flash crash” now limited to the stock market. Bridle wonders if we’ve already experienced just such a flash crash of reality:

“Or perhaps the flash crash in reality looks exactly like everything we are experiencing right now: rising economic inequality, the breakdown of the nation-state and the militarisation of borders, totalising global surveillance and the curtailment of individual freedoms, the triumph of transnational corporations and neurocognitive capitalism, the rise of far-right groups and nativist ideologies, and the utter degradation of the natural environment. None of these are the direct result of novel technologies, but all of them are the product of a general inability to perceive the wider, networked effects of individual and corporate actions accelerated by opaque, technologically augmented complexity.”

Cognition

It’s perhaps somewhat startling that even as we place ourselves in greater and greater dependence on artificial intelligence we’re still not really certain how or even if machines can think. Of course, we’re far from understanding how human beings exhibit intelligence, but we’ve never been confronted with this issue of inscrutability when it comes to our machines. Indeed, almost the whole point of machines is to replace the “herding cats” element of the organic world with the deterministic reliability of classical physics. Machines are supposed to be precise, predictable, legible, and above all, under the complete control of the human beings who use them.

The question of legibility today hasn’t gone far beyond the traditional debate between the two schools of AI that have rivaled each other since the field’s birth. There are those who believe intelligence is merely the product of connections between different parts of the brain and those who think intelligence has more to do with the mind’s capacity to manipulate symbols. In our era of deep learning the Connectionists hold sway, but it’s not clear if we are getting any closer to machines actually understanding anything, a lack of comprehension that can result in the new comedy genre of silly or disturbing mistakes made by computers, but that also presents us with real world dangers as we place more and more of our decision making upon machines that have no idea what any of the data they are processing actually means even as these programs discover dangerous hacks such as deception that are as old as life itself.

Complicity

Of course, no techno-social system can exist unless it serves the interest of at least some group in a position of power. Bridle draws an analogy between the society in ancient Egypt and our own. There, the power of the priests was premised on their ability to predict the rise and fall of the Nile. To the public this predictive power was shrouded in the language of the religious castes’ ability to commune with the gods, all the while the priests were secretly using the much more prosaic technology of nilometers hidden underground.

Who are the priests of the current moment? Bridle makes a good case that it’s the “three letter agencies”, the NSA, MI5 and their ilk that are the priests of our age. It’s in the interest of these agencies, born in the militarized atmosphere of the Cold War and the War on Terrorism that the logic of radical transparency continues to unfold- where the goal is to see all and to know all.

Who knows how vulnerable these agencies have made our communications architecture in trying to see through it? Who can say, Bridle wonders, if the strongest encryption tools available haven’t already been made useless by some genius mathematician working for the security state? And here is the cruel irony of it all, that the agencies whose quest is to see into everything are completely opaque to the publics they supposedly server. There really is a “deep state” though given our bizzaro-land media landscape our grappling with it quickly gives way conspiracy theories and lunatic cults like Q-Anon.

Conspiracy

The hunt for conspiracy stems from the understandable need of the human mind to simplify. It is the search for clear agency where all we can see are blurred lines. Ironically, believers in conspiracy hold more expansive ideas of power and freedom than those who explain the world in terms of “social forces” or other necessary abstractions. For a conspiracists the world is indeed controllable it’s just a matter that those doing the controlling happen to be terrifying.  None of this makes conspiracy anything but an unhinged way of dealing with reality, just a likely one whenever a large number of individuals feel the world is spinning out of control.

The internet ends up being a double boon for conspiracists politics because it both fragments the shared notion that of reality that existed in the age of print and mass media while allowing individuals who fall under some particular conspiracy’s spell to find one another and validate their own worldview. Yet it’s not just a matter of fragmented media and the rise of filter bubbles that plague us but a kind of shattering of our sense of reality itself.

Concurrency

It is certainly a terrible thing that our current communications and media landscape has fractured into digital tribes with the gap of language and assumptions between us seemingly unbridgeable, and emotion-driven political frictions resulting in what some have called “a cold civil war.” It’s perhaps even more terrifying that this same landscape has spontaneously given way to a kind of disturbed collective unconscious that is amplified, and sometimes created, by AI into what amounts to the lucid dreams of a madman that millions of people, many of them children, experience at once.

Youtube isn’t so much a television channel as it is a portal to the twilight zone, where one can move from videos of strangers compulsively wrapping and unwrapping products to cartoons of Peppa the Pig murdering her parents. Like its sister “tubes” in the porn industry, Youtube has seemingly found a way to jack straight into the human lizard brain. As is the case with slot machines, the system has been designed with addiction in mind, only the trick here is to hook into whatever tangle of weirdness or depravity exists in the individual human soul- and pull.

The even crazier thing about these sites is that the majority of viewers, and perhaps soon creators, are humans but bots. As Bridle writes:

“It’s not just trolls, or just automation; it’s not just human actors playing out an algorithmic logic, or algorithms mindlessly responding to recommendation engines. It’s a vast and almost completely hidden matrix of interactions between desires and rewards, technologies and audiences, tropes and masks.”

Cloud

Bridle thinks one thing is certain, we will never again return to the feeling of being completely in control, and the very illusion that we can be, if we only had the right technical tweak, or the right political leader, is perhaps the greatest danger of our new dark age.

In a sense we’re stuck with complexity and it’s this complex human/machine artifice which has emerged without anyone having deliberately built it that is the source of all the ills he has detailed.

The historian George Dyson recently composed a very similar diagnosis. In his essay Childhood’s End Dyson argued that we are leaving the age of digital and going back to the era of analog. He didn’t mean that we’d shortly be cancelling our subscriptions to Spotify and rediscovering the beauty of LP’s (though plenty of us are doing that), but something much deeper. Rather than, being a model of the world’s knowledge, in some sense, now Google was the world’s knowledge. Rather than represent the world’s social graph, now FaceBook was the world’s social graph.

The problem with analogue systems when compared to digital is that they are hard to precisely control, and thus are full of surprises, some of which are far from good. Our quest to assert control over nature and society hasn’t worked out as planned. According to Dyson:

“Nature’s answer to those who sought to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build machines whose nature is beyond programmable control.”

Bridle’s answer to our situation is to urge us to think, precisely the kind of meditation on the present he has provided with his book. It’s not as wanting a solution as one might suppose, and for me had clear echoes with the perspective put forward by Roy Scranton in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene where he wrote:

“We must practice suspending stress-semantic chains of social exhaustion through critical thought, contemplation, philosophical debate, and posing impertinent questions…

We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.”

I’m down with that. Yet the problem I had with Scranton is ultimately the same one I had with Bridle. Where is the politics? Where is human agency? For it is one thing to say that we live in a complex world roamed by “hyperobjects” we at best partly control, but it quite another to discount our capacity for continuous intervention, especially our ability to “act in concert”, that is politically, to steer the world towards desirable ends.

Perhaps what the arrival of a new dark age means is that we’re regaining a sense of humility. Starting about two centuries ago human beings got it into their heads that they had finally gotten nature under their thumb. What we are learning in the 21st century was not only was this view incorrect, but that the human made world itself seems to have a mind of its own. What this means is that we’re likely barred forever from the promised land, condemned to a state of adaptation and response to nature’s cruelty and human injustice, which will only end with our personal death or the extinction of the species, and yet still contains all the joy and wonder of what it means to be a human being cast into a living world.

 

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Citizenship as Fob Key

One of the key conceptual difficulties faced by those grappling with the resurgence of nationalism today is to hold fast to the recognition that this return of the nation state occurs in an already globalized world. In other words, this isn’t our grandparents’ nationalism we are confronting but something quite new, and forgetting that fact leads to all kinds of intellectual mistakes, most notably imagining that the ghosts of the likes of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini have risen from the grave like Halloween ghouls.

The question we should be asking is what does nationalism in an era of globalization actually look like? And perhaps to answer this question it’s better to zoom in rather than zoom out- to focus on the individual rather than the geopolitical. The question then becomes- what does it mean to live in a globalized world where the state and membership in the group it represents, rather than “withering away” is becoming not merely more important, but something no individual can effectively function without?

A good bit of this outline can be found in Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s excellent book Cosmopolites: the coming of the global citizen. Yet, despite the title, what Abrahamian depicts there is less some emergent citizen of the world, than a new global regime where citizenship has been transformed from a sense of belonging and moral commitment into a means of access to rights, benefits, protections, and perhaps above all the freedom of movement that come with the correct passport- all of which are provided by the state. In other words citizenship has become a commodity of great value, which, like everything else nowadays can be bought, sold, and most disturbingly, repossessed.

Cosmopolites is especially focused on the plight of the Bidoons a stateless people found throughout the Gulf most notably in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Given the extensive benefits that come with being a citizen of those states, the governments of such countries have been loathe to extend equal status to their Bidoon populations, even when individuals can trace their roots in the area into the deep past.

Ironically, statelessness itself gives rise to protections, namely governments are unable to expel stateless people unless some other country is willing to take them in. It was under these conditions that a sophisticated racket arose which involved the purchasing in bulk of citizenship for the Bidoon on a far off island nation near Madagascar, which doubtless none of the Bidoon residents in the UAE or Kuwait had ever heard of- Comoros.

It’s the kind of brilliant scheme that would make a great plot for a Coen Brothers film. Strip unrecognized populations of any claims they could make as de facto citizens by using your oil money to buy them such status in an impoverished country with little else to sell. A failing state to which they could be deported should they become either economically superfluous or an actual political and social nuisance.

The story of the Bidoon is one where the recipient didn’t so much buy citizenship as were forced to accept the “gift” of what was not merely a useless passport but one that put them at risk of being kicked out of the only country they had ever known along with all they had built within it. Yet the experience of the Bidoon is only one version of the booming market that comprises the passport trade. As Abrahamian documents it, passports can be bought from countries located on all corners of the globe and at wildly variable rates (though no of which are easily accessible to the middle class let alone the world’s poor). Dominica sells its passports for a “paltry” $200,000 dollars, while a high end Austria passport will set you back millions of Euros.

Why do the global rich shell out for such papers? Abrahamian sums it up nicely this way:

People with “good” passports don’t think about them much. But people with “bad” passports think about them a great deal  To the wealthy, this is particularly insulting: A bad passport is like a phantom limb that won’t stop tingling no matter how much money, power, or success they’ve accumulated- a constant reminder that the playing field is never truly level, and that the life for your average Canadian billionaire will be easier than that for a billionaire from Botswana or Peru. (73)

In today’s world, a Swiss passport is among the most valuable possessions on earth giving its holder the right to travel in nearly 90 percent of the world’s countries, live in one of its most prosperous and stable states, not to mention the fringe benefit of living close to one’s cash, with Switzerland being one of the top 3 tax havens on the planet.

Notice that I’ve said nothing yet about citizenship beyond the instrumental. It’s all about where one can live, travel or store wealth. Surely, we associate citizenship with something beyond that: not merely the right, but the obligation, to take political responsibility for the decisions of the community one belongs to through acts such as voting, protest, or holding political office. Citizenship entails some commitment on the part of the individual to the past, present and future of the community in which she lives. It is the seat of rights, but also gives rise to obligations, sacrifices in the name of the greater good, which may even demand that an individual risk her life in the name of its defense.

We might be confused into thinking that citizenship in this latter sense as a bundle of rights and obligations that tie an individual to a particular community has always existed. We would be mistaken. Citizenship as a way of relating to the world is, in its modern incarnation, is no older than the French Revolution. Other than that, it’s existed here and there in fleeting moments of freedom- most famously in the city states of the ancient Greeks- only to be supplanted by notions of empire or religious kinship.

Yet we’d be wrong if we thought that such non-citizenship based political and social orders lacked any notion of what we’d recognize as “rights”. It’s just that those rights, conferred on subjects, did not entail actual control of or responsibility for the fate of society itself on the part of the common individual. At least in the case of religiously based social orders, belonging was tightly connected to the obligation of the rich to care for the poor. Think medieval Europe with its numerous public charities and hospitals, a classless bonding of which we still have echoes at Christmas time and which is alive and well in modern day Islam.

Abrahamian herself seems to share some affinity with the kinds of post-citizenship that emerged in the ancient world after the decline of the Greek city-states thanks to the Cynic Diogenes and later the Stoics. In the face of universal empire these pre-Christian thinkers imagined a type of citizenship freed from the notion of place- kosmopolites- “citizens of the universe.” What our circumstance calls for is a similar conceptual leap- for citizenship defined as rights to be decoupled from the nation-state to cover the entire world. Part of me wishes she was right, but it’s hard for me to see any signs that we’re moving towards a such a borderless world rather than moving to a place where the whole purpose of the state has become to act as a sort of monstrous gated community and fortress. Citizenship has become something like the mother of all fob keys, a means of entry, exit, identification and ownership.

A a fob key citizenship is pretty weird, above all because its possession, more often than not, is a product of pure dumb luck. Those, like myself, lucky enough to be born in a country whose inhabitants are gifted with globally valuable keys have been granted them as a mere matter of where they were born. Yet it’s not something I could sell, and it would even be hard for me to separate myself from it were I to try.

It’s certainly a theory with a lot of holes, but perhaps a good deal of current nativist insecurity over immigration can be seen as a fear of fob key inflation. They want to keep the benefits of being an American all to themselves, a kind of selfishness that blinds them to evil. I’m thinking of obscene proposals coming out of the Trump administration such as taking Green Cards away from people who have accessed public benefits, denying foreign soldiers who have risked their lives in US wars the visas they were promised for doing so, and above all, refusing those fleeing violence abroad the right of refuge they are entitled to under international law. We’ve done even worse than that: we’ve locked their children in cages.

Still, citizenship and its passports are just the meta-fob key for a society that’s come to resemble the opening scene of the 1960’s comedy “Get Smart” where its locked steel door after locked steel door all the way down. After the citizen-fob, you find the universal privatization of geography: high security areas, corporate spaces, gated communities, segregated housing, restricted zoning, and ever more importantly algorithmic sorting.

The amazing thing is just how quickly the whole panoply of instruments we use to identify ourselves in relation to some social organizations (passport/nationality, driver’s ID/state resident, bank card/account holder etc) are being moved to the body itself.

Bio-metrics is a booming business whose whole point is to strictly limit access to some space or good. The end result of which is that a world that was supposed to be becoming “flat” and global is instead taking on a kind of customized typology based on a hierarchy of access to the whole. And worse, the same technological revolution that enables global travel and communication is being put into the service of any ever more surveilled and managed space.

You don’t need to turn to William Gibson to see just how dystopian a future we could be moving toward. China has turned a whole region- Xinjiang- into a giant panopticon where its Muslim, Uyghur population is under a state of constant surveillance and oppression made possible by cell phones, CCTV cameras and AI.

We’re probably less likely to reach a similar destination by a move to dictatorship (fingers crossed) than by worshiping at the altars of safety and convenience. People are already inserting microchips under their skin so they can get through security checks quicker,  Amazon GO already allows customers to pay using their “face”. Even shackles have gone digital.

Probably the smallest identifying trait a person has is their DNA. It’s also more specific to an individual than any other bio-metric. You or your algorithm might confuse my face with someone else’s, but, given the right tools, you’re unlikely to confuse my genes- even if I had a twin.

The big threat from genetics in this context is that it becomes a fob key that doesn’t just limit the movement of individuals, but itself is turned into a sort of unscalable wall. Those with the “right” genes considered part of “us” and therefore eligible for our loyalty, protection or beneficence. At first glance this sounds like a revival of ethnic-nationalism, or even more darkly, the kinds of mania about people of the same “blood” we saw with the Nazis. Yet I think the kind of tech-enable social sorting would more likely give rise to something else- not as evil, but just as dismal.

What DNA screening allows you to do is construct the ultimate dynastic society- tribes constructed out of codons. It’s a perfect fit for the unequal society we now live in where for most of us everything’s a wall and nothings a door. If that’s where were headed, I’ll side with Diogenes and stay in my tub.

In defense of the administrative state

brazil-poster-2

Artwork by Hernán Iacovino @ http://www.hiacovino.com.ar/

A few weeks back Steve Bannon, Trump’s Rasputin-like chief strategists, while in a panel discussion at CPAC laid out the agenda for the new administration. According to Bannon that agenda consisted of three parts re- establishing national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and what he called “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” It was the latter which Bannon’s comments suggested was behind Trump’s otherwise Bizzaro cabinet appointments where, for instance, a raging opponent of environmental protections- Scott Pruitt, could be named head of the EPA, and promoter of the privatization of education, or Betty Davos, could be put in charge of the Department of Education. You only put the fox in charge of watching the hen house if you want the hens dead.

Back in 2016 Newt Gingrich had gleefully predicted something like this, arguing that the first term of the Trump administration would be years of vicious conflict between the new administration and the federal bureaucracy.  The first month of the administration appear to be proving correct as Trump’s rage over leaks shows an administration unprecedentedly at war with its own intelligence agencies.

A person brought from say the 1930’s into 2017 might find it unfathomable to see the political right which at that time worshiped the power of the state to today be so obsessed with the state’s deconstruction. It would seem as if fascist confused themselves with anarchist, one of the groups the police state of fascism set out to crush.

This move by the right from being the party representing the power of the state to being its most vociferous opponent has been a long time in coming, and one can see it developing by looking at the history of the best film on the dystopian aspects of bureaucracy ever made, Terry Gilliam’s dark comedy Brazil. When Gilliam directed Brazil he was tapping into a long tradition in the left of rebellion against the soulless machine of government, 19th century anarchists yes, but especially the individualistic left of the 1960’s who protested wearing mock computer punch cards mocking the bureaucratic society in which they were trapped that read “do not fold spindle or mutilate.”

Brazil depicts a world suffocating in tubes, the plumbing of a bizarre, ubiquitous air-conditioning system but also pneumatic cords of surveillance and control run by incompetent bureaucrats whose only job seems to be to prevent the independent action of everyone locked in the system’s iron cage. (Strangely we ourselves live precisely in such a world, though ours tubes are ones we cannot see.) It’s a word so drowning in paperwork that people can be intimidated by pointing out that they need to fill out a form.

In the film a typing error caused by a fly leads to the accidental arrest, and death under interrogation of Archibald Buttle instead of a renegade air-conditioning repair man Archibald Tuttle- played by Robert De Niro.  The core of the story is a romance between Jill Layton who is struggling against the labyrinthine bureaucracy to gain restitution for the widowed Mrs Buttle and Sam Lowry a low level bureaucrat sent to rectify the error that led to Buttle’s death. After Sam destroys government records in order to prevent Jill’s arrest, he himself is arrested by the Ministry of Information. He is about to be tortured into confession by a man who is his friend when it appears Sam is rescued by Tuttle and the resistance who blow up the Ministry of Defense and allow him to reunite with Jill. It is only an appearance, for in reality he has been tortured to the point of insanity.

Gilliam had set out to make a film critical of bureaucracy in the tradition of the romantic strain of the left. Yet the movie’s most notorious fan turned out to be Timothy McVeigh who was known at the gun-shows he frequented as Tuttle or Buttle and like the film’s characters of the resistance who blew up the Ministry of Information set off a truck full of explosives that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. An act which killed 168 people including children. The unstable characters perfected by De Niro seem to have an uncanny ability to inspire unstable people in real life.

Of course, hatred of government bureaucracy and the attempt to unwind it was a large component of the neo-liberal agenda. Ronald Reagan with his gift for memorable quips expressed the sentiment best when he said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Yet even if the anti-government hysteria of the far-right has been used as a tool by neo-liberals to try to mantle regulatory protections and redistributive taxation which threaten their interests, the far-right remains different.

Driven by the conspiracy theories that center around the fear of a world government, the far-right sees not only the instruments of hard-power which the progressive right correctly rails against as well, but any facility of state power as uniquely aimed at crushing the “real” citizenry and their way of life.

The far-right’s perspective is, for all its ugliness, not completely irrational. From the very beginning of its settlement wealthy elites had considered the interior of the American continent a dumping ground for what they considered the refuse of Europe- the origins of the phrase “white trash”. The American west was settled as an imperial project by a federal government newly empowered after the Civil War and continues to this day to have land ownership patterns that reflect that fact and which might make an easterner flinch-  84 percent of the land in Nevada– the site of the recent Bundy Standoff is owned by the federal government, 61 percent of Idaho– where the deadly Ruby Ridge confrontation of the early 90’s occurred is likewise owned by the federal government.

The costs of desegregation was largely born by lower class whites rather than their richer compatriots, as was the cost in blood (if not treasure) of the poor and lower middle class of all races who died in the failed wars- Vietnam, Afghanistan and The Second Gulf War,  initiated and supported by elites until their costs became unbearable and their stupidity impossible to deny. As many left- wing writers willingly admit, the boogie man of the far-right- globalism- is not a mere fantasy. Globalism began the process of eroding the the livelihood of the working class, which automation now promises to kill.

Still, if the nightmare of the libertarian far-right is the all powerful state that crushes all opposition with an iron heel, what they now have in the form of the Trump is an administration that makes these fears far more likely. Impregnable borders can be used just as much to lock people in than to keep people out. Extensive government powers to hunt down “Islamic terrorist”, criminals, or illegal immigrants can just as easily be turned on any political enemy. An even larger military and engorged police forces are but more of precisely the kind of “standing army” the Founders warned threatened the survival of the Republic.

In addition to all of this, the right lives under the delusion that by deconstructing the state they will be restoring freedom rather than, what actually will happen, which is that public bureaucracies will be replaced by private ones, for bureaucracy, rather than being a consequence of government interference, is simply the way modern organizations in complex societies are run.

The deconstruction of state bureaucracies would leave us in a bifurcated world of private entities where the rich will be able to shop in a competitive marketplace for services while the poor and middle class are locked into labyrinthine organizations now impossible to influence through democratic means, and whose primary purpose will be the extraction of rents. Exchanging public bureaucracies for private ones will have meant giving up the public control that comes from politics for the rule of money only the very few have.

Yet it’s not the right alone that lives in the fantasy that we can live in a world where the administrative state is no more, many on the left share a similar dream. The key for the left is to find a way to restore freedom, which the bureaucratic tubes of the state certainly strangle, with the needs of complex societies for precisely such entities in order to function at all.

The Kingdom of Glass Walls: A Fable

The-Emperors-new-clothes

There once was a king of extraordinary vanity who liked to spend his time riding throughout the great city he ruled on his gilded coach allowing all who saw him to marvel at his attire which was woven of gold thread and bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires.

The vain king especially liked parading himself in the neighborhoods of the poor reasoning that their sight of him would be the closest thing to heaven such filthy people would have before they died and met God’s glorious angels. It was during one of these “tours” that a woman threw a bucket of shit out of her window which landed squarely on the king’s head.

Who knows if it was by accident as the poor peasant girl claimed that she was merely emptying onto the streets the overflow of her commode when the bucket slipped from her hands and fell onto the king? In any case the king awoke from unconsciousness after the blow a changed man with his vanity transformed.

The changed king adopted the unusual style of doing away with all prerogatives of royal privacy and ordered the bricks of his castle walls be replaced with the most transparent glass. Anyone could now literally see all the doings of the royal household as if the court were now fish in a bowl to the great annoyance of the queen.

The king soon went so far as to abandon his former golden attire for no clothes at all. The queen at this point wanted to have the royal doctors declare the king mad on account of him having been hit by a bucket on the head, but there were powerful courtiers in the court who decided that the king was to remain on his throne.

After having a dream that his city-kingdom had been invaded by an enemy that feared the naked king was planning a surprise attack he had the defensive walls of the city leveled, so that no one could might think he meant them ill. Having experienced how liberating it felt to be open to all the world through his glass or torn down walls and nakedness the king wished that all his subjects could experience what he had.

He thus offered to pay out of his own treasury the cost of any of his subjects replacement of their walls of wood, brick or straw with walls of glass. Many of his subjects took the king up on the offer, for who would not want their cold house with walls of straw or dilapidated wood to be replaced with walls of clean, shiny glass?

But then a bug was placed in the king’s ear from a powerful anonymous courtier : “He with nothing to hide has nothing to fear” and with that the suspicion entered the king’s mind that the only people who would have kept their opaque walls must be hiding something.

Criminals and bandits soon found ways game this system largely by using disguises and fake scenes painted on their glass walls while those with enough money found that with the proper “donation” they could keep their brick houses if they just put in a few more windows. However most law abiding persons now completely surrounded by glass had left themselves open to all sorts of peeping toms, shisters, and burglars. And with the walls of the city taken down some said they could see the torch lights of an army on the nearby hills at night.   

Citizens began to complain that perhaps replacing the walls of their homes with glass and tearing down the walls of the city was not a good idea. Just then the king announced to everyone’s’ surprise that he had fallen in love with a pig and wished to divorce the queen and marry his newly beloved scrofa domesticus.

At this the queen and even more importantly the powerful courtiers had had enough. The king was arrested and placed in a dungeon, although, not to be accused of cruelty, he was allowed to keep his pig with him. New walls much thicker than before replaced the castle’s walls of glass and the walls around the city were rebuilt.  

A decree went out from the court declaring that no citizen was allowed to replace the glass walls of their homes. The queen claimed that such total transparency among the subjects was necessary to catch criminals and even more so spies from neighboring kingdoms who meant to do the city harm, and after many years the people forgot that things had ever been different or that they had once been ruled by a transparent king.         

Why the World Cup in Brazil Is Our Future: In More Ways Than One

The bold gamble of the Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis to have a paralysied person using an exoskeleton controlled by the brain kick a soccer ball during the World Cup opening ceremony  has paid off.  Yet, for how important the research of The Walk Again Project is to those suffering paralysis, the less than 2 second display of the technology did very little to live up to the pre-game media hype.

The technology of saving people suffering paralysis using brain-machine interfaces is still in its infancy, though I hold out hope for Nicolelis and others’ work in these areas for those suffering from paralysis or the elderly unable to enjoy the wonders of movement, the future we can see when looking at Brazil today is a much different one than the one hinted at by the miracle of the paralyzed being able to walk.

I first got hint of this through a photograph.  Seeing the elite Brazilian riot police in their full body armor reminded me of nothing so much as StormTroopers from Star Wars. Should full exoskeletons remain prohibitively expensive, it might be soldiers and police who are wearing them to leverage their power against urban protesters.  And if the experience of Brazil in the runup to the World Cup, especially in 2013, but also now, is any indication, protests there will be.

The protests in Brazil reflect a widespread malaise with the present and future of the country. There is endemic concern about youth underemployment and underemployment, crime and inadequate and grossly underfunded public services. What should be a great honor, hosting what is arguably the premier sporting event on the planet, about which the country is fanatic, and in which it is predicted to do amazingly well, has a public where instead, according to a recent Pew Survey:

 About six-in-ten (61%) think hosting the event is a bad thing for Brazil because it takes money away from schools, health care and other public services — a common theme in the protests that have swept the country since June 2013.

The Brazilian government has reasons to be nervous, it is now widely acknowledged, as David Kilcullen points out in his excellent book Out of the Mountains that rabid soccer fans themselves, known as Ultras, were instrumental in the downfall of government in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. This is not to suggest that Brazil in on the verge of revolution, the country is not, after all, a brittle autocracy like countries that experienced what proved to be the horribly misnamed “Arab Spring” rather, to suggest just how potent a punch can be packed by testosterone charged young men with nothing to lose.

This situation, where you have an intensively dissatisfied urban population, from which mass protests, enabled by ubiquitous mobile technology, protests which governments have extreme difficulty containing, are not, of course, the province of Brazil alone, but have become one of the defining features of the early 21st century.

One of the problems seems to be that even as technological capacities stream forward the low-tech foundational capabilities of societies are crumbling, developments which may be related. Brazilians are simultaneously empowered by mobile technology and disempowered through the decline of necessary services such as public transportation.

We can see the implications here even for something like Nicolelis’ miracle on a Brazilian soccer field today. Who will pay for such exoskeletons for those both paralyzed and poor? But there is another issue, perhaps as worrisome. Our very failure to support low -tech  foundations may eventually render many of our high-tech breakthroughs moot.

Take the low-tech foundational technology of antibiotics:  as Mary Mckenna pointed out in a chilling article back in 2013 the failure of pharmaceutical companies to invest in low-tech and therefore unprofitable antibiotics, combined with their systemic overuse in both humans and animals, threatens to push us into a frightening post antibiotic age.  Many of our medical procedures for dealing with life threatening conditions utilize the temporary suppression of the immune system, something that in itself would be life threatening without our ability to utilize antibiotics. In a world without antibiotics chemotherapy would kill you, severe burns would almost guarantee death, intensive care would be extremely difficult.

Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics.

One answer to this might be nanotechnology, not in the sense of microscopic robots  touted by thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, but in the form of nanoparticle sprays that kill pathogens and act as protective coatings that help stem the transmission of killer bacteria and viruses. Research into pathogen destroying nanoparticles is still in its early stages, so we have no idea where it will go. The risk remains, however, that our failure to invest in and properly use technologies we’ve had for a century might make a technological miracle like Nicolelis’ exoskeletons impossible, at least, in the case of paraplegics, where surgery might be involved. It would also threatens to erase much of the last century’s gains in longevity. In a world without effective antibiotics my recently infected gum might have killed me. The message from Brazil is that a wondrous future may await, but only if we remember and sustain the achievements and miracles of the past.

 

What’s Wrong With the New Atheism?

Dawkins and Dennett at Oxford

The New Atheism is a movement that has emerged in the last two-decades that seeks to challenge the hold of religion on the consciousness of human beings and the impact of religion on political, intellectual and social life.

In addition to being a philosophical movement, The New Atheism is a social phenomenon, a decline of the hold of traditional religion and a seeming growth in irreligiosity, especially in the United States, a place that had been an outlier of religious life among other advanced societies that have long since secularized.

New Atheists take a stance of critical honesty openly professing their unbelief where previously they might have been unwilling to publicly admit their views regarding religion. New Atheists often take an openly confrontational stance towards religion pushing back not only at the social conformity behind much of religious belief, but at what they see as threats to the scientific basis of the truth found in movements such as creationism.

The intellectuals at the heart of the New Atheism are often firebrands directly challenging what they see as the absurdities of religious belief.  The late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins being the most famous examples of such polemicists.

In my view, there are plenty of things to like about the New Atheism. The movement has fostered the ability of people to speak openly about their personal beliefs or lack of them, and spoken in the defense of the principle of the separation of church and state. Especially in the realm of science education, the New Atheists promote a common understanding of reality- that evolution is a scientific truth and not some secular humanist conspiracy, that the universe really is billions of years old rather than, as the Bible suggests, hundreds of thousands. This truthful view of the world which science has given us is the basis of our modern society, its technological prowess and the vastly better standard of living it has engendered compared to any civilization that came before. Productive conversations cannot be had unless the world shown to us by science is taken to be closest version of the truth we have yet come up with- the assumptions we need to share are we not to become unmoored from reality itself.

Yet with all that said, The New Atheism has some problems. These problems are clearly on display  in a talk last spring by two of the giants of The New Atheism, the sociobiologist, Richard Dawkins, and the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, at Oxford University.

Richard Dawkins is perhaps most famous for his ideas regarding cultural evolution, namely his concept of a “meme”.  A meme is another name for an idea, style, or behavior, that in Dawkins’ telling is analogous to a gene in biology in that it is self-replicating and subject to selective pressures.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher of science who is an advocate of the patient victory of reason over religion. He is both a prolific writer with works such as Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and secular- humanist activist- the brains behind a project for former and current religious clergy to securely and openly discuss their atheism with one another, The Clergy Project.

The conversation between Dawkins and Dennett at Oxford begins reasonably enough, with Dennett stating how scientifically pregnant he finds Dawkins’ idea of the meme as a vector for cultural evolution. The example Dennett gives as an example of the meme concept is an interesting one. Think of the question who was the designer of the canoe?

You might think the designer(s) are the people who have built canoes, but Dennett thinks it would be better to see them as just one part of a selective process. The real environment that the canoe is selected for is its ability to stay afloat and been steered in water. These canoe “memes” are bound to be the same all over the world- and minus artistic additions they are.

Yet, when the discussion turns to religion neither Dennett nor Dawkins, for reasons they do not explain, think the idea of memes will do. Instead, religion is described using another biological metaphor that of a parasite or virus which uses its host for its own ends. Dennett has a common sense explanation for why people are vulnerable to this parasite. It is a way for someone, such as the parent of a child lost to death, to deal with the tragedy of life. This is the first cognitive “immunological” vulnerability that religious viruses exploit.

T
he second vulnerability that the religious virus exploits is ignorance. People don’t know their own religious beliefs, don’t know that other religions hold to equally absurd and seemingly arbitrary beliefs, don’t understand how the world really works- which science tells us.

Dennett sympathizes with persons who succumb to religious explanations as a consequence of personal tragedy. He is much more interested in the hold of religion that is born of ignorance. The problem for religion, in the eyes of Dennett (and he is more than pleased that religion has this problem), is that this veil of ignorance is falling away, and therefore the necessary operating environment for religion disappearing. Knowledge and science are a form of inoculation:  people are now literate and can understand the absurdity of their own religious beliefs, they now know about other religions, and they know about science. With the growth of knowledge will come- polio- like- the slow eradication of religion.

The idea that religion should be seen as a sort of cognitive virus is one Dawkins laid out way back in 1993 in his essay Viruses of the Mind. There, Dawkins presented the case that religion was akin to computer viruses seizing the cognitive architecture of their host to further its own ends above all its own propagation.  If I can take the testimony of fellow blogger Jonny Scaramanga of Leaving Fundamentalism, this essay has had the important impact of helping individuals free themselves from what is sometimes the iron-grip of religious faith.

The problem, of course, is that religion isn’t a virus or a parasite. We are dealing here merely with an analogy, so the question becomes exactly how scientifically, philosophically or historically robust is this religion as virus analogy?

In terms of science, an objection to be raised is that considering religion as a virus does a great deal of damage to Dawkins’ original theory of cultural evolution through “memes”.  Why is religion characterized as virus like when no other sets of cultural memes are understood in such a value-laden way? A meme is a meme whether I “like” it or not.  If the meme theory of cultural evolution really does hold some validity, and I for one am not convinced, it does not seem to follow definitively that memes can be clearly separated into “good” memes and “bad” memes, or, if one does except such a categorization one better have some pretty solid criteria for segregating memes into positive and negative groups.

The two criteria Dawkins sets up for segregating “good” memes from “bad” memes are, that bad virus like memes suppresses a person’s Darwinian reproductive drives to serve its own ends, and hold the individual in the spell of an imagined reality.

Yet, there are a host of other factors that suppress the individual’s biological imperative to reproduce.  If bad memes are those that negatively impact one’s ability to reproduce, then any law, or code of conduct, or requirement that leads to such a consequence would have to fall under the umbrella of being a bad meme.  We might argue over whether a particular example truly constitutes a reduction of an individual’s ability to reproduce, as examples:  paying taxes for someone else’s children to attend schooling, serving in the military to protect the rights of non-relatives, but such suppression of an individual’s reproductive needs are well nigh universal, as Sigmund Freud long ago pointed out. Taken together we even have a word for such suppression we call it civilization.

What about Dawkins’ claim that religion is bad virus-like meme in that it induces in the individual a false sense of reality.  Again I see no clear way of distinguishing memes of with this feature from nearly all other “normal” memes.   The fact of the matter is we are surrounded by such socially created and sustained fictions. I call the one I am living in the United States of America. Indeed, if I wanted a species unique definition of humanity it might our ability to collectively believe and sustain things that aren’t actually there, which would disappear the moment the group that believes in them stopped doing so.

If the idea that religion is a virus is suspect when looked at more closely, it is nevertheless a meme itself. That is what we have now, for many atheists at least, is the Dawkins created meme that “religion is a virus”. What is the effect of this meme? For some, the idea that religion is a virus may, as mentioned, allows them to free themselves from the hold of their own native traditions. A good thing if they so wish, but how does the religion is a virus meme orient its believers to those who, foolishly in their view, continue to cling to religion?

Perhaps the most troubling thing here is that Dawkins appears to be reformulating one of the most sinister and destructive ideas of religion that of possession and using it against the religious themselves. For Dawkins, there are no good reasons why a religious person believes what she does- she is in the grip of a demon.

The meme “religion is a virus” also would appear to blind its adherents to the mixed legacy of religion. By looking at religion as merely a negative form of meme- a virus or parasite- Dawkins and Dennett, and no doubt many of their followers, tend to completely overlook the fact that religion might play some socially productive role that could be of benefit to the individual well beyond the question of dealing with personal tragedy that Dennett raised.  The examples I can come up with are legion- say the Muslim requirement of charity, which gives the individual a guaranteed safety net should he fall on hard times, or the use of religious belief to break free from addiction as in AA, which seems to help the individual to override destructive compulsions that originate from their own biology.

Even if we stuck strictly to the religion as virus analogy of Dawkins  we would quickly see that biological viruses themselves are not wholly bad or good.  While it is true that viruses have killed countless number of human beings it is also true that they comprise 8% of the human genome, and without the proteins some of them produce, such as the virus that makes syncytin- used to make the placenta that protects the fetus- none of us would be here.

The very fact that religion is universal across human societies, and that it has existed for so long, would seem to give a strong indication to the fact that religion is playing some net positive evolutionary role. We can probably see something of this role in the first reason Dennett provided for the attraction of religion- that it allowed persons to deal with extreme personal tragedy. Religion can provide the individual with the capacity for psychological resilience in the face of such events.

No recognition is made by either Dawkins nor Dennett of the how religion, for all its factionalism and the wars that have emerged from it, has been a potent force, perhaps the most potent force behind the expansion of human beings sphere of empathy- the argument Robert Wright makes in his The Evolution of God. Early Judaism united Cana’s twelve tribes, Pauline Christianity spread the gospels to Jews and gentiles alike, Islam united warring Arab tribes and created a religiously tolerant multi-ethnic empire.

So if the idea that religion is a bad virus-like form of meme seems somewhat arbitrary, and if it is the case that even if we stick to the analogy we end up with what is a mixed, and perhaps even net positive role for religion, what about the conditions for these religious memes transmission that Dennett lays out- the “immunological” vulnerability of ignorance?

Dennett appears to have what might characterized as an 18th century atheist’s view of religion. Religion is a form of superstition that will gradually be overcome by forces of reason and enlightenment. Religion is an exploitative activity built on the asymmetries in knowledge between the clerisy and the common believers with two primary components: the lay believers do not know what their supposed faith actually teaches and cling to it out of mere custom, or intellectual laziness. Secondly, the lay believers do not know what other religions actually believe and if they did would find these beliefs both absurd and yet so similar to their own faith that it would call their own beliefs into doubt.

How does the idea of the ignorance of the lay religious as a source for the power of the clerisy hold up? As history, not so well. Take the biggest and bloodiest religious conflict ever- the European Wars of Religion. Before the Reformation and the emergence of Protestant denominations the great mass of the people were not doctrinally literate.   They practiced the Christian faith, knew and revered the major characters of its stories, celebrated its feast days, respected its clergy. At the same time even were they able to get their hands on a very rare, and very expensive, copy of the scriptures they couldn’t read them, being overwhelmingly illiterate. Even their most common religious experience, that of the mass, was said in a language- Latin- all but a very educated minority understood. But with the appearance of the printing press all of that changed. There was a huge push among both Catholics and their new Protestant rivals to make sure the masses knew the “true” doctrines of the faith. The common catechism makes its appearance here alongside all sorts of other tools for communicating, educating, and binding the people to a specific doctrine.

Religious minorities that previously were ignored, if not understood, such as Jews or persons who held onto some remnant of the pre-Christian past- witches- became the target of those possessed by the new religious consciousness and the knowledge of the rivals to one’s own faith that came along with this new supercharged identity.

The spread of education, at least at first, seems to increase rather than diminishes commitment to some particular religious identity on behalf of the educated. Much more worrisome, the ability to articulate and spread some particular version of religious truth appears to increase, at least in the short-term, the commitment to dogmatic versions of the faith and to increase friction and outright conflict between different groups of believers.

And perhaps that explains the rise of both fundamentalism and the more militant strands of atheism being circulated today. After all, both fundamentalism and the New Atheism rode atop our own version of Guttenberg’s printing press- the internet. Each seems to create echo chambers in which their sharp views are exchanged between believers, and each seem to address the other in a debate few of us are paying attention to. With religious fundamentalist raving about a secular humanist take over and the New Atheists rallying in defense of the separation of church and state and openly ridiculing the views of their opponents. For both sides much of the conflict is understood in terms of a “war” between science and religion, and the “rise of secular humanism”.

At least in terms of Dennett’s explanation of the conflict between science and religion in his conversation with Dawkins, I think, once again, the quite narrow historical and geographic viewpoint Dennett uses when describing the relationship between these two forms of knowledge ends up in a distorted picture rather than an accurate representation of the current state and probable future of religion.

Dennett takes the very modern and Western conflict between science and religion to be historically and culturally universal forgetting that, except for a very brief period in ancient Greece, and the modern world, knowledge regarding nature was embedded in religious ideas. One simply couldn’t be a serious thinker without speaking in terms of religion.  This isn’t the only place where Dennett’s Eurocentrism comes into play. If religion is in decline it does not seem like the Islamic world has heard, or the myriad of other places, such as China or the former Soviet Union that are experiencing religious revivals.

Finally, on the matter of Dennett’s claim that another source of the religious virus’ power is that people are ignorant of other religions, and that if they knew about the absurdities of other faiths they would draw the conclusion that their own religious traditions are equally absurd:  It is simply false, as Dennett does, to see in the decline of religion the victory of scientifically based materialism. Rather, what we are witnessing, in the West at least, can better be described as the decline of institutionalized religion and the growth of “spirituality”.  At least some of this spirituality can be seen as the mixing and matching of different world religions as individuals become more aware of the diversity of religious traditions. Individuals who learn about other religions seem much less likely to draw the conclusion that all religions are equally ridiculous than to find, sometimes spurious, similarities between religions and to draw things from other religions into their own spiritual practice.

Fundamentalism with its creation museums and Loch Ness Monsters is an easy target for the New Atheism, but the much broader target of spirituality is a more slippery foe. The most notable proponent of the non-literalist view of religion is Karen Armstrong whose views Dawkins attacks as “bizarre” and “nonsense”.  Armstrong in her book, The Case for God, had come to the defense of religion against the onslaught on the more militant proponents of the New Atheism, of which Dawkins is the prime example. Armstrong’s point is that fundamentalist and new atheists are in fact not all that different, they are indeed but two sides of the same limited viewpoint that emerged with modernity that views God as a fact- a definable thing- provable or disprovable. Religious thinkers long ago confronted the issue of the divine’s overwhelming scope and decided that the best thing to do in the face of such enormity was to remain humbly silent.


Before the age of text that began with Guttenberg’s printing press, some of whose features were discussed earlier, the predominant religious view, in the eyes of Armstrong, was non-literalists, took a position of silence born of humility toward understanding the nature of God, saw religion less as a belief in the modern sense but as a form of spiritual practice, more akin to something like dance, music, or painting than the logos of philosophy and science, and as a consequence often viewed the scriptures in terms of metaphor and analogy rather than as scientific or historical truth.

What Armstrong thinks is needed today is a return to something like Socratic dialogue which she sees as the mutual exchange of views to obtain a more comprehensive view of reality that is nevertheless conscious and profoundly humble in the face of a fundamental ignorance all of us share.

For both Dawkins and Dennett religion has no future. But, it seems to me, we are not likely to get away from religion or spirituality as the primary way in which we find meaning in the world for the foreseeable future. In non-Western cultures the hold of spiritual practices such as the Muslim religious pilgrimage, the Haj or the Shia Muslim pilgrimages to the holy sites in Iraq that have been opened up as a consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, or the Hindu bathing in the Ganges seem unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

The question is what happens to religion in the West where the gap between the scientific understanding of the world and the “truths” of religion is experienced as a kind of cognitive dissonance that seems to demand resolution?  Rather than disappearing science itself seems to be taking on features of religion. Much of the broad public interest in sciences such as physics likely stems from the fact that they appear “religious” that is they seems to address religious themes of origins and ultimate destiny and the popularizers of science are often precisely those able to couch science in religious terms. With something like the Transhumanism and the Singularity Movement we actually see science and technology turning themselves into a religion with the goal of human immortality and god-like powers. We have no idea how this fusion of religion and science will play out, but it does seem to offer not only the possibility a brand new form of religious sensibility and practice, but also a threat to the religious heritage and practices not just the West, but all of humankind.

Thankfully, Dennett ends his conversation with Dawkins on what I thought was a hopeful note. Not all questions can be answered by science and for those that cannot politics in the form of reasoned discourse is our best answer. This is the reasonable Dennett (for Dawkins I see no hope).  I only wish Dennett had applied this desire for reasoned discourse to the very religious and philosophical questions- questions regarding meaning and purpose- or lack of both- he falsely claims science can answer.

For my part, I hope that the New Atheism eventually moves away from the mocking condescension, the historical and cultural ignorance and Eurocentrism of figures like Dennett and especially Dawkins. That it, instead, leads to more open discussion between all of us about the rationality or irrationality of our beliefs, the nature of our world and our future within it. That believers, non-believers, and those in between can someday sit at the same table and discuss openly and without apprehension of judgement the question: “what does it all mean?”