Yuval Harari Drinks the Kool Aid

Like everything else in life, a book’s publication can have good or bad timing. Good timing happens when a newly published book seems just a little bit ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist, when it seems to have anticipated events or realizations almost no else seemed to be grappling with on the day of its publication, but have now burst upon the public with a sudden irresistible force.

In this authors, to the extent they are still read, or even just talked about, play the role formerly occupied by prophets or Oracles. Such authorial prophecy is  a role rapidly disappearing, to be replaced, many predict, by artificial intelligence and big data. It probably won’t matter much. Neither are very good at predicting the future anyway.

A prophetic book badly timed doesn’t mean it’s analysis is wrong, but perhaps just premature. Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is either one or the other. It’s either badly timed and right because it’s premature, or badly timed and wrong because its analysis is deeply flawed.

For those who haven’t read the book, or as a reminder for those who have Harari’s essentially point in Homo Deus is that “Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, wealth and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.” (21) Harari believes this even if while he seems to doubt the wisdom of such goals, and even in light of the fact that he admits this same humanity is facing ecological catastrophe and a crisis of ever mounting inequality between, if not within, societies.

The fact that Harari could draw this conclusion regarding what humanity should do next stems from the fact that he sees liberal humanism as the only real game left in town. He sees the revanche de deus in the Middle East and elsewhere as little but a sideshow, the real future of religion is now being forged in Silicon Valley.

Liberal humanism he defines as a twofold belief which on the one side suggests human sovereignty over nature, and on the other, that the only truth, other than the hard truths of science which such humanism believes in, is the truth that emerges from within the individual herself.

It is this reliance upon the emotions welling up from the self which Harari believes will ultimately be undone by the application of the discovery of science, which Harari holds is that, at rock bottom, the individual is nothing but “algorithms”. Once artificial algorithms are perfected they will be able to know the individual better than that individual knows herself. Liberal humanism will then give way to what Harari calls “Dataism”.

Harari’s timing proved to be horribly wrong because almost the moment proclaimed the victory of Liberal humanism all of its supposedly dead rivals, on both the right (especially) and the left (which included a renewed prospect of nuclear war) seemed to spring zombie-like from the grave as if to show that word of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. Of course, all of these rivals (to mix my undead metaphors) were merely mummified versions of early 20th century collective insanities, which meant they were also forms of humanism. Whether one chose to call them illiberal humanisms or variants of in-humanism being a matter of taste, all continued to have the human as their starting point.

Yet at the same time nature herself seemed determined to put paid to the idea that any supposed transcendence of humanity over nature had occurred in the first place. The sheer insignificance of human societies in the face of storms where an “average hurricane’s wind energy equals about half of the world’s electricity production in a year. The energy it releases as it forms clouds is 200 times the world’s annual electricity use,” and “The heat energy of a fully formed hurricane is “equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes,”  has recently been made all too clear. The idea that we’ve achieved the god-like status of reigning supreme over nature isn’t only a fantasy, it’s proving to be an increasingly dangerous one.

That said, Harari remains a compassionate thinker. He’s no Steven Pinker brushing under the rug past and present human and animal suffering so he can make make his case that things have never been better.  Also, unlike Pinker and his fellow travelers convinced of the notion of liberal progress, Harari maintains his sense of the tragic. Sure, 21st century peoples will achieve the world humanists have dreamed of since the Renaissance, but such a victory, he predicts, will prove pyritic. Such individuals freed from the fear of scarcity, emotional pain, and perhaps even death itself, will soon afterward find themselves reduced to puppets with artificial intelligence pulling the strings.

Harari has drank the Silicon Valley Kool Aid. His cup may be half empty when compared to that of other prophets of big data whose juice is pouring over the styrofoam edge, but it’s the same drink just the same.

Here’s Harrai manifesting all of his charm as a writer on this coming Dataism in all its artificial saccharine glory:

“Many of us would be happy to transfer much of our decision making processes into the hands of such a system, or at least consult with it whenever we make important choices. Google will advise us which movie to see, where to go on holiday, what to study in college, which job offer to accept, and even whom to date and marry. ‘Listen Google’, I will say ‘both John and Paul are courting me. I like both of them, but in different ways, and it’s so hard for me to make up my mind. Given everything you know, what do you advise me to do?’

And Google will answer: ‘Well, I’ve known you since the day you were born. I have read all your emails, recorded all your phone calls, and know your favorite films, your DNA and the entire biometric history of your heart. I have exact data about each date you went on, and, if you want, I can show you second-by-second graphs of your heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels whenever you went on a date with John or Paul. If necessary, I can even provide you with an accurate mathematical ranking of every sexual encounter you had with either of them. And naturally, I know them as well as I know you. Based on all this information, on my superb algorithms, and on decade’s worth of statistics about millions of relationships- I advise you to go with John, with an 87 percent probability that you will be more satisfied with him in the long run.” (342)

Though at times in Homo Deus Harari seems  distressed by his own predictions, in the quote above he might as well be writing an advertisement for Google. Here he merely echoes the hype for the company expressed by Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Eric Schmidt. It was Schmidt who gave us such descriptions of what Google’s ultimate aims were as:

We don’t need you to  type at all because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.

And that the limits on how far into the lives of its customers the company would peer, would be “to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”. In the pre-Snowden Silicon Valley salad days Schmidt had also dryly observed:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

It’s not that Harari is wrong in suggesting that entities such as Google won’t continue to use technology to get right under their customer’s skin, it’s that he takes their claims to know us better than we know ourselves, or at least be on the road to such knowledge, as something other than extremely clever PR.

My doubts about Google et al’s potential to achieve the omnipotence of Laplace’s Demon  doesn’t stem from any romantic commitment to human emotions but from the science of emotion itself. As the cognitive neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has been vocally trying to inform a public suffused with antiquated notions about how the brain actually  works: physiologists have never been able to discover a direct correlation between a bodily state and a perceived emotion. A reported emotion, like anger, will not just manifest itself in a physiologically distinct way in two different individuals, at different times anger can physiologically manifest itself differently in the same individual.

Barrett also draws our attention to the fact that there is little evidence that particular areas of the brain are responsible for a specific emotion, implying, to my lights, that much of current FMRI scanning based on blood flows and the like may face the same fate as phrenology.

Thus the kinds of passive “biometric monitoring” Harari depicts seems unlikely to lead to an AI that can see into a person’s soul in the way he assumes, which doesn’t mean algorithmic-centric corporations won’t do their damnedest to make us think they can do just that. And many individuals probably will flatten and distort aspects of life that do not lend themselves to quantification in a quixotic quest for certainty, flattening their pocketbooks at the same time.

True believers in the “quantified self” will likely be fooled into obsessive self measurement by the success of such methods in sports along with the increasing application to them of such neo-Taylorist methods in the workplace. Yet, while perfecting one’s long-short technique, or improving at some routine task, are easily reducible to metrics, most of life, and almost all of the interesting parts about living, are not. A person who believed in his AI’s “87 percent probability” would likely think they are dealing with science when in reality they are confronting a 21st century version of the Oracle at Delphi, sadly minus the hallucinogens.

Even were we able to reach deep inside the brain to determine the wishes and needs of our “true selves”, we’d still be left with these conundrums. The decisions of an invasive AI that could override our emotions would either leave us feeling that we had surrendered our free will to become mere puppets, or would be indistinguishable from the biologically evolved emotional self we were trying to usurp. For the fact of the matter is the emotions we so often confuse with the self are nothing but the unending wave of internal contentment and desire that oscillates since the day we are born. As a good Buddhist Harari should know this. Personhood consists not in this ebb and flow, but emerges as a consequence of our commitments and life projects, and they remain real commitments and legitimate projects only to the extent we are free to break or abandon them.

Harari’s central assumption in Homo Deus, that humanity is on the verge of obtaining God like certainty and control, is, of course, a social property much more so than civilization’s longed for gift to individuals. The same kind of sovereignty he predicts individuals will gain over the contingencies of existence and their biology he believes they will collectively exercise over nature itself. Yet even collectively and at the global scale such control is an illusion.

The truth implied in the idea of the Anthropocene is not that humanity now lords over nature, but that we have reached such a scale that we have ourselves become part of nature’s force. Everything we do at scale, whatever its intention, results in unforeseen consequences we are then forced to react to and so on and so on in cycle that is now clearly inescapable. Our eternal incapacity to be self-sustaining is the surest sign that we are not God. As individuals we are inextricably entangled within societies with both entangled by nature herself. This is not a position from which either omniscience or omnipotence are in the offing.

Harari may have made his claims as a warning, giving himself the role of ironic prophet preaching not from a Levantine hillside but a California TED stage. Yet he is likely warning us about the wrong things. As we increasingly struggle with the problems generated by our entanglement, as we buckle as nature reacts, sometimes violently, to the scale of our assaults and torque, as we confront a world in which individuals and cultures are wound ever more tightly, and uncomfortably, together we might become tempted to look for saviors. One might then read Homo Deus and falsely conclude the entities of Dataism should fill such a role, not because of their benevolence, but on account of their purported knowledge and power.



God’s a Hedge fund Manager, and I’m a Lab Rat


Of all the books and essays of Steve Fuller I have read his latest The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism is by far the most articulate and morally anchored. From me that’s saying a lot given how critical I have been on more than one occasion regarding what I’ve understood as some troubling undercurrents justifying political violence and advocating a kind of amoral reading of history found in his work.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found The Proactionary Imperative which Fuller co-authored with Veronica Lipińska not only filled with intellectual gems, but informed by a more nuanced ethics than I had seen in Fuller’s prior writing or speeches.

In The Proactionary Imperative Fuller and Lipińska aim to re-calibrate the ideological division between left/right that has existed since the French Revolution’s unfortunate seating arrangement. The authors set out to redefine this division that they see as antiquated with a new split between the adherents of the precautionary principle and those who embrace a version of what Max More was the first to call the proactionary principle. The former urges caution towards technological and especially biological interventions in nature whereas the latter adopts the position that the road to progress is paved with calculated risks.

Fuller and Lipińska locate those who espouse some version of the precautionary  principle as tracing their modern origins back to Darwin himself and his humbling of the human status and overall pessimism that we could ever transcend our lowly nature as animals. They lump philosophers such as Peter Singer (whom I think David Roden more accurately characterizes as a Critical Posthumanist) within this precautionary sect whom they argue are united by their desire for the rebalancing of the moral scale away from humans and towards our fellow animals. Opposed to this, Fuller and Lipińska argue that we should cling to the pre-Darwinian notion that humans on a metaphysical and ontological level are superior and distinct from other animals on account of the fact that we are the only animal that seeks to transcend its’ own nature and become “gods”.

Fuller himself is a Christian (this was news to me) of a very peculiar sort- a variant of the faith whose origins the authors fascinatingly trace to changes in our understanding of God first articulated in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Duns Scotus.

Before Scotus the consensus among Christian theologians was to stress the supernatural characteristic of God, that is, God was unlike anything we had experienced in the material world and therefore any of our mental categories were incapable of describing him. To use examples from my own memory an extreme Scotian position would be the materialism of Thomas Hobbes who held God to possess an actual body, whereas the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and our ideas and God, or indeed the world itself, is a theme explored with unparalleled brilliance in Milton’s Paradise Lost and brought to its’ philosophical climax in the work of Kant.

Fuller and Lipińska think that Scotus’ narrowing of the gap between human and godly characteristics was a seminal turning point in modernity. Indeed, a whole new type of theology known as Radical Orthodoxy and associated with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has hinged its’ critique of modernity around this Scotian turn, and Fuller takes the other side of this Christian split adopting the perspective that because God is of this world we can become him.

Problems with using religious language as a justification for transhumanism or science I’ve discussed ad nauseum such as here, here and here, so I won’t bore you with them again. Instead, to Fuller and Lipińska’s political prescriptions.

The authors want us to embrace our “God-like” nature and throw ourselves into the project of transcending our animal biology. What they seem to think is holding us back from seizing the full technological opportunities in front of us is not merely our fossilized political divisions whose re-calibration they wish to spur, but the fact that the proactionary principle has been understood up until this point on primarily libertarian terms.

Transhumanism if understood as merely the morphological freedom of individuals over their own bodies for Fuller and Lipińska fails to promote either rapid modernization or the kinds of popular mobilization that can be found during most other eras of transformative change. We need other models. Unfortunately, they are also from the 19th century for the authors argue for a reassessment of the progressive and liberal aspects of late 19th and early 20th century eugenics as a template for a new politics, and it’s right about there that I knew I was in for a let down.

Fuller and Lipińska conceptualize a new variant of eugenic politics they call “hegentics”. From what I can gather it’s meant to be a left- of- center alternative to both the libertarian view of transhumanism as mere morphological freedom and the kinds of abuses and corporate capture of genetic information seen in novels like Michael Crichton’s Next or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. This alternative sees genetic inheritance being reconceptualized as the collective property of groups who can then benefit from their genes being studied or shared.

The authors also want to encourage individual genetic and medical experimentation and encourage/celebrate individual “sacrifice” in the cause of transhumanist innovation in something akin to the way we celebrate the sacrifice of individual soldiers in war.

As in the past, I think Fuller fails to grapple with the immoral aspects and legacy of medical experimentation and eugenics even outside of the hellish world concocted by the Nazis. He seems to assume that the lack of constraints on human medical experiments will lead to more rapid medical innovation in the same way fans of Dick Cheney think torture will lead to actionable intelligence, that is, without assuming that this is a case that needs to be proved. If it were indeed true that weak rules on human experimentation lead to more rapid medical innovation then the Soviet Union or China should have been among the most medically advanced nations on earth. There’s a very real danger that should we succeed in building the type of society Fuller and Lipińska envision we’ll have exchanged our role as citizens only to have become a very sophisticated form of lab rat.

Another issue is that the authors seem informed by a version of genetic determinism that bears little resemblance to scientific reality. As Ramez Naam, no opponent of human enhancement indeed, has pointed out even in cases where genes are responsible for a large percentage of a trait such as IQ or personality, literally thousands of genes seem to be responsible for those traits none of which has been found to be so predominant that intervention is easy or without the risk of causing other unwanted conditions, so that, for example, enhancing the genes for intelligence seems to increase the risk for schizophrenia.

Naam points out that it’s unlikely parents will take such genetic risks with children except to protect against debilitating diseases- a case where genetic changes appear much easier in any case. Fuller and Lipińska never really discuss parental rights or more importantly protections for children, which is odd because eugenics has historically been aimed at reproduction. Perhaps they were thinking of the kinds of gene therapies for adults promised by new techniques like Crispr, but even there the kinds of limitations imposed by complexity identified by Naam continue to apply.

Nor do Fuller and Lipińska really address how bio-electronic prosthetics and enhancements fit into their idea of hegenetics. Here the idea of biology as individual or ethnic property would seem to break down as does the idea of state subsidized experimentation and enhancement unless we were to create a system of periodic and free “upgrades” for all. It’s a nice dream, but then again I can’t even get the state to pay to fix a broken tooth. Welcome to godhood.

The Danger of Using Science as a God Killing Machine

Gravitational Waves

Big news this year for those interested in big questions, or potentially big news, as long as the findings hold up. Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics may have come as close as we have ever ever to seeing the beginning of time in our universe.  They may have breached our former boundary in peering backwards into the depth of time, beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light echo of the Big Bang- taking us within an intimate distance of the very breath of creation.

Up until now we have not been able to peer any closer to the birth of our universe than 300,000 or so years distance from the Big Bang. One of the more amazing things about our universe, to me at least, is that given its scale and the finite speed of light,  looking outward also means looking backward in time. If you want to travel into the past stand underneath a starry sky on a clear night and look up.  We rely on light and radiation for this kind of time travel, but get too close to beginning of the universe and the scene becomes blindingly opaque. Scientists need a whole new way of seeing to look back further, and they may just have proven that one of these new ways of seeing actually works.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists hope they have seen isn’t light or radiation, but the lensing effect of  gravitational waves predicted by the controversial Inflationary Model of the Big Bang, which claims that the Big Bang was followed by a quick burst in which the universe expanded incredibly fast. One prediction of the Inflationary Model is that this rapid expansion would have created ripples in spacetime- gravitational waves, the waves whose indirect effect scientist hope they have observed.

If they’re right, in one fell swoop, they may have given an evidential boost to a major theory on how our universe was born, and given us a way of peering deeper than we ever have into the strobiloid of time, a fertile territory, we should hope, for testing, revising and creating theories about the origin of our cosmos, its nature, and ultimate destiny. Even more tentatively, the discovery might also allow physicists to move closer to understanding how to unify gravity with quantum mechanics the holy grail of physics since the early 20th century.

Science writer George Johnson may, therefore, have been a little premature when he recently asked:

As the effort to understand the world has advanced, the low-hanging fruits (like Newton’s apple) have been plucked. Scientists are reaching higher and deeper into the tree. But with finite arms in an infinite universe, are there limits — physical and mental — to how far they can go?

The answer is almost definitely yes, but, it seems, not today, although our very discovery may ironically take us closer to Johnson’s limits. The reason being that, one of the many hopes for gravitational lensing is that it might allow us to discover experimental evidence for theories that we live in a multiverse- ours just one of perhaps an infinite number of universes. Yet, with no way to actually access these universes, we might find ourselves, in some sense,  stuck in the root-cap of our “local” spacetime and the tree of knowledge rather than grasping towards the canopy. But for now, let’s hope, the scientists at Harvard/Smithsonian have helped us jump up to an even deeper branch.
For human beings in general, but for Americans and American scientists in particular, this potential discovery should have resulted in almost universal celebration and pride. If the discovery holds, we are very near to being able to “see” the very beginning of our universe. American science had taken it on the chin when Europeans using their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were able to discover the Higgs Boson a fundamental particle that had been dubbed in the popular imagination with the most inaccurate name in the history of science as “the God particle”. Americans would very likely have gotten there first had their own and even more massive particle collider the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) not been canceled back in the 1990’s under a regime of shortsighted public investments and fiscal misallocation that continues to this day.

Harvard and even more so the Smithsonian are venerable American institutions. Indeed, the Smithsonian is in many ways a uniquely American hybrid not only in terms of its mix of public and private support but in its general devotion to the preservation, expansion and popularization of all human knowledge, a place where science and the humanities exist side- by- side and in partnership and which serves as an institution of collective memory for all Americans.

As is so often the case, any recognition of the potential for the discovery by the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics being something that should be shared across the plurality of society was blown almost immediately, for right out of the gate, it became yet another weapon in the current atheists vs religious iteration of the culture war. It was the brilliant physicist and grating atheists Lawrence Krauss who took this route in his summary of the discovery for the New Yorker. I didn’t have any problem with his physics- the man is a great physicist and science writer, but he of course took the opportunity to get in a dig at the religious.

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

What should have been a profound discovery for all of us, and a source of conversations between the wonderstruck is treated here instead as another notch on the New Atheists’ belt, another opportunity to get into the same stupid fight, with not so much the same ignorant people, as caricatures of those people. Sometimes I swear a lot of this rhetoric, on both sides of the theists and atheist debate, is just an advertising ploy to sell more books, TV shows, and speaking events.  

For God’s sake, the Catholic Church has held the Big Bang to be consistent with Church doctrine since 1951. Pat Robertson openly professes belief in evolution and the Big Bang. Scientists should be booking spots on EWTN and the 700 Club to present this amazing discovery for the real enemy of science isn’t religion it’s ignorance. It’s not some theist Christian, Muslim or Jew who holds God ultimately responsible, somehow, for the Big Bang, but the members of the public, religious or not, who think the Big Bang is just a funny name for an even funnier TV show.

Science will always possess a gap in its knowledge into which those so inclined will attempt to stuff their version of a creator. If George Johnson is right we may reach a place where that gap, rather than moving with scientific theories that every generation probe ever deeper into the mysteries of nature may stabilize as we come up against the limits of our knowledge. God, for those who need a creating intelligence, will live there.

There is no doubt something forced and artificial in this “God of the gaps”, but theologians of the theistic religions have found it a game they need to play clinging as they do to the need for God to be a kind of demiurge and ultimate architect of all existence. Other versions of God where “he” is not such an engineer in the sky, God as perhaps love, or relationship, or process, or metaphor, or the ineffable would better fit with the version of  reality given us by science, and thus, be more truthful, but the game of the gaps is one theologians may ultimately win in any case.

Religions and the persons who belong to them will either reconcile their faith with the findings of science or they will not, and though I wish they would reconcile, so that religions would hold within them our comprehensive wisdom and acquired knowledge as they have done in the past, their doing so is not necessary for religions to survive or even for their believers to be “rational.”

For the majority of religious people, for the non-theologians, it simply does not matter if the Big Bang was inflationary or not, or even if there was a Big Bang at all. What matters is that they are able to deal with loss and grief, can orient themselves morally to others, that they are surrounded by a mutually supportive community that acts in the world in the same way, that is, that they can negotiate our human world.

Krauss, Dawkins et al often take the position that they are administering hard truths and that people who cling to something else need to be snapped out of their child-like illusions. Hard truths, however, are a relative thing. Some people can actually draw comfort from the “meaninglessness” of their life, which science seems to show them. As fiction author Jennifer Percy wrote of her astronomy loving father:

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Percy felt something to be missing in her father’s outlook, which was as much as a shield against the adversity of human life as any religion, but one that she felt only did so by being blind to the actual world around him. Percy found this missing human element in literature which drew her away from a science career and towards the craft of fiction.

The choice of fiction rather than religion or spirituality may seem odd at first blush, but it makes perfect sense to me. Both are ways of compressing reality by telling stories which allow us to make sense of our experience, something that despite our idiosyncrasies,  is always part of the universal human experience. Religion, philosophy, art, music, literature, and sometimes science itself, are all means of grappling with the questions, dilemmas and challenges life throws at us.

In his book Wired for CultureMark Pagel points out how the benefits of religion and art to our survival must be much greater than they are in Dawkins’ terms “a virus of the mind” that uses us for its purposes and to our detriment. Had religion been predominantly harmful or even indifferent to human welfare it’s very hard to explain why it is so universal across human societies. We have had religion and art around for so long because they work.

Unlike the religious, Percy’s beloved fiction is largely free from the critique of New Atheists who demand that science be the sole method of obtaining truth. This is because fiction, by its very nature, makes no truth claims on the physical world, nor does it ask us to do anything much in response to it. Religion comes in for criticism by the New Atheists wherever it seems or appears to make truth claims on material existence, including its influence on our actions, but religion does other things as well which are best seen by looking at two forms of fiction that most resemble religion’s purposeful storytelling, that is, fairy tales and myths.

My girls love fairy tales and I love reading them to them. What surprised me when I re-encountered these stories as a parent was just how powerful they were, while at the same time being so simple. I hadn’t really had a way of understanding this until I picked up Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales As long as one can get through  Bettelheim’ dated Freudian psychology his book shows why fairy tales hit us like they do, why their simplification of life is important, and why, as adults we need to outgrow their black and white thinking.

Fairy tales establish the foundation for our moral psychology. They teach us the difference between good and evil, between aiming to be a good person and aiming to do others harm. They teach us to see our own often chaotic emotional lives as a normal expression of the human condition, and also, and somewhat falsely, teach us to never surrender our hope.

Myths are a whole different animal from fairy tales. They are the stories of once living religions that have become detached and now float freely from the practices and rituals that once made them, in a sense, real. The stories alone, however, remain deep with meaning and much of this meaning, especially when it comes to the Greek myths, has to do with the tragic nature of human existence. What you learn from myths is that even the best of intentions can result in something we would not have chosen- think Pandora who freed the ills of the world from the trap of their jar out of compassion- or that sometimes even the good can be unjustly punished- as in Prometheus the fire bringer chained to his rock.

Religion is yet something different from either fairy tales or myths. The “truth” of a religion is not to be found or sought in its cosmology but in its reflection on the human condition and the way it asks us to orient ourselves to the world and guides our actions in it. The truth of a faith becomes real through its practice- a Christian washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ makes the truth of Christianity in some sense real and a part of our world, just as Jews who ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, make the covenant real.

Some atheists, the philosopher Alain Botton most notably have taken notice that the atheists accusation against religion- that it’s a fairy tale adults are suckered into believing in- is a conversation so exhausted it is no longer interesting. In his book Religion for Atheists he tries to show what atheists and secular persons can learn from religion, things like a sense of community and compassion, religion’s realistic, and therefore pessimistic, view of human nature, religions’ command of architectural space and holistic approach to education, which is especially focused on improving the moral character of the young.

Yet Botton’s suggestion of how secular groups and persons might mimic the practices of religion such as his “stations of life” rather than “stations of the cross” fell flat with me.There is something in the enchantment of religion which resembles the enchantment of fairy tales that fails rather than succeeds by running too close to reality- though it can not go too far from reality either. There is a genius in organic things which emerge from collective effort, unplanned, and over long stretches of time that can not be recreated deliberately without resulting in a cartoonish and disneyfied, version of reality or conversely something so true to life and uncompressed we can not view it without instinctively turning away in horror or falling into boredom.

I personally do not have the constitution to practice any religion and look instead for meaning to literature, poetry, and philosophy, though I look at religion as a rich source of all three.  I also sometimes look to science, and do indeed, like Jennifer Percy’s father, find some strange comfort in my own insignificance in light of the vastness of it all.

The dangers of me, or Krauss, or Dawkins or anyone else trying to turn this taste for insignificance into the only truth, the one shown to us by science is that we turn what is really a universal human endeavor, the quest to know our origins, into a means of stopping rather than starting a conversation we should all be parties to, and threaten the broad social support needed to fund and see through our quest to understand our world and how it came to be. For, the majority of people (outside of Europe) continue to turn to religion to give their lives meaning, which might mean that if we persist in treating science as a God killing machine, or better, a meaning killing machine, we run the risk of those who need such forms of meaning in order to live turning around and killing science.

Finding Our Way in the Great God Debate, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s Krauss himself:

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


Or perhaps more prosaically the late Hitchens:


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Physicists Fetish

This week I’ve been enjoying listening to the latest Massey Lectures, a series of talks by the physicists, Neil Turok. For at least a certain segment of this blogs readers,these lectures are worth checking out. You can do so by clicking on the picture above. In his talks,Turok provides an overview of the history of humankind’s quest to understand the universe in which it lives from the ancient Greeks to our own day.

He also provides a vision of what he calls “our quantum future”. Turok states in his lecture and its accompanying book “We are analog beings,living in a digital world,facing a quantum future.” I was intrigued by what this phrase meant and was lucky enough to find an pre-lecture interview of Turok by the ever excellent Paul Kennedy of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful program- Ideas.

Turok’s point is that human beings have an analog form of intelligence whereas the current generation of computers that surround us are digital. (A distinction I touched on briefly in my post Turning and the Chinese Room 2 .) Turok sees digital computers and how they process information as essentially “stupid”. Our analog intelligence is built on a much more simple “digital” DNA, and what we’ve done in moving to the digital world is in some sense an evolutionary step backward.

Quantum computers, however, which Turok finds inevitable, will be an evolutionary advance of a whole different order, a new,and yet more natural form of intelligence. I am not quite sure how to imagine this, but my intuition is to imagine an intelligence that could write every possible book,compose every possible piece of music, solve any solvable problem in mathematics.

Turok seems to think that this new kind of intelligence will lack purpose and intentionality which will be the role of our analog minds that will exists within this sphere of quantum intelligence with us playing a role that is somewhat analogous to the role our genes play to our much more complex brains. Our genes provide us with imperatives “eat, mate, acquire, rule” and our brains are tasked with the particular job of figuring out how to do this. We will give quantum intelligence its intentionality, direction, purpose, the “what” it is to do, but the new form of intelligence will provide us with the how.

All fascinating stuff!

And yet, as I was watching Kennedy’s interview with Turok I found myself getting a little annoyed. A former student of the brilliant Marshall Mcluhan,Kennedy kept trying to have a conversation about how specialization had made it impossible for people of different knowledge domains to talk to one another, that the university had become a “multiversity” with people cordoned off into strict domains. Turok didn’t really seem to want to engage in this line of conversation and muttered something about an intellectual diversity of perspectives being good, but physics had to be “in the lead”, which sparked an association for me of how philosophy used to be called the “handmaiden” of theology. And that’s when I started to wonder if we were all, myself included, under the spell of what was little more than a new secular priesthood.

Why do we turn to physicists for meaning? Why are the religious views of an eminent scientist considered major news? Why do we think physicist are somehow able to divine the human future? Perhaps its because physics has taken over fundamental questions that used to be the domain of religion and philosophy: “how did the universe begin? how will it end?” Perhaps we are contaminated by a kind of intellectual radioactivity from that generation of scientist during the Second World War that, with the bomb, gave us the capability of destroying ourselves. Perhaps we are so overawed by the technology and rise in the standard of living science has given us that we think the intelligence behind this must be able to answer the existential questions of the human condition, must have access to some sort of divine wisdom.

I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that even the most brilliant of physicists have had a horrible track record when they stepped outside their domains. Isaac Newton’s intelligence was a gift to humanity, but he was nevertheless a horrible human being. His view of the future was based on his obsession with counting down the days to armageddon by applying numerology to the Bible. Einstein thought global catastrophe was imminent unless a world government was established immediately after World War II. The only surviving genius from the generation of scientist that gave us the bomb is Freeman Dyson who thinks global warming is nothing much to worry about.

Few of the most renowned scientists have been great in other domains of human thought and expression great philosophers, religious thinkers, poets, writers,composers or painters. Perhaps the only ones that fit the bill are Davinci and Goethe. The former a great anatomist, engineer and artist, the latter both a great scientist and a great writer. Human thought and expression is multifold and no domain should have a monopoly on meaning or purpose.

Physics here isn’t in the lead so much as it provides the background for the world we live in: “what is it?” “ how did it come to be?” “how will it end?” “what is possible within it?” Given the vast differences in timescales between human life and civilization and the “life-cycle” of the universe itself, the question of our future and role within the universe is not one that physicists are anymore qualified to answer than the rest of us.

Far too often, and Turok is as guilty here as any, physicists use the same deterministic language to describe the future of civilization as they do for the universe itself. Yet there is no real way of knowing this. Perhaps intelligent civilizations follow different paths and end up at as many different destinations as are possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics and biological evolution. This to me seems a more interesting prospect than every world following the same damned deterministic course to the Omega Point or Quantum intelligence or whathaveyou.

In any case, this speculation about the human future is a parlor game that all of us are free to play, but presenting a personal preference for a particular outcome for civilization as physics isn’t science- it’s setting oneself up as a modern day arbiter between us and the gods physicists have shown us are not there.

What Humanity Wants

Kevin Kelly has written a superb book on technology, and our relationship with it.

What Technology Wants is sharply written in a clear easily approachable language that is the legacy of Kelly’s variegated life story of hippie turned tech guru turned born-again Christian. Kelly is perhaps the only person alive who could have Ray Kurzweil, James Wendell Berry, and Pat Robertson over for dinner and not have the evening end in a fistfight. In other words, Kelly transcends our contemporary limitations, and this shines forth in the smooth reasoning of his book, which appears to convince the reader by allowing whatever positions he has come to the work with to remain compatible with what is in fact Kelly’s assumption shattering argument.

Kelly tells an evolutionary story of technology, the emergence over time of the world of human technical, scientific, and cultural invention. What he calls the Technium. He believes that technology is, as it were, baked into the cake of the universe. There is a revolution against the innate trend of matter towards disorder or entropy. Exotropy, is the development of order out of the energy of chaos. Hydrogen atoms form more complex atoms which in turn form molecules, from this molecular stew emerges life, which evolves along complex paths to give birth to language and technology, which take evolution to yet another level of complexity.

Kelly disagrees with biologist, such as the late Stephen Gould, who argue, that evolution has no inherent direction. He sees evolution as constantly searching a limited possibility space for “tricks” that work. Thus, evolution independently evolved sight numerous times, as it did flight, because they are tricks that work in the environment life finds itself in. Exo-biologists are likely to find life similar to earth elsewhere in a universe where the same laws of physics hold sway.

Kelly extends this evolutionary argument to technology. Technologies represent good tricks and are likely to be discovered independently and repeatedly if lost. Technology represents good tricks in the possibility space that “want” to be discovered independent of their human creators. Kelly’s Technium, has a limited (for the moment) mind of its own separate from humanity thank can be observed in this independence.

The question, of course, is this, on balance a good thing? Kelly thinks yes. The more technology there is, the more capable human beings are of expressing their unique talents- think Jimmy Page without the electric guitar. Nevertheless, Kelly acknowledges our need to keep technology from overwhelming our capacities. His example for how we might do this is, strangely enough, the Amish who are the polar opposite of a Luddite madman like the Uni-Bomber. The Amish have found a way to pace the adoption of technology rather than abandon it whole cloth. As a person who has lived in Amish-country for a number of years, his observation of them as ingenious technological hackers is spot-on, but, given that the majority of us are unlikely to become Amish anytime soon, what is our own escape from being overwhelmed by technology?

For Kelly the answer is individualistic. Each of us needs to choose what technologies fit our needs and what we can ignore. I use a computer but avoid TV, etc. The problem with this individualistic idea of how to free ourselves from the seeming tyranny of technology is that it not really analogous at all for how the Amish deal with the challenges of technology. For them the essential question is “what will this do to the community?”.  Kelly gives us no way of answering this question as a collective- he has no sense of technology as a political question.

The word politics barely appears in Kelly’s book, and there only to make the point that despite what overarching economic system we had chosen in the 20th century- communism or capitalism- our current technological world was inevitable. It just would have occurred earlier or later had we chosen a different system. Kelly’s individualism seems like common sense when dealing with the flood of gadgets that enter our lives every year, but is it really a guide for technologies that promise or threaten the very nature of what it means to be human- AI and genetic engineering- to name just two.

Society, it would seem, has the very real moral obligation to take some degree of control over technology and science as a deterministic process, a foretaste of which we may have seen in the recent efforts to control the release of potentially dangerous biological information related to the study of the Avian flu.

Something I would love to see is the test of some kind of democratic forum when it comes to the ability to creating ethical guidelines for technology. Right now academic panels are largely responsible for such pronouncements. What if we created a “citizens panel” that was structured so as it would require knowledge and not just “gut level” opinions on the part of citizens when it comes to new technologies. How would such a forum stack up to the pronouncements of “experts”. Such participatory forums might give average, concerned citizens a say in the biggest existential questions of our time.

Kelly does not think we are capable of controlling the evolution of technology. This is less an issue of proof than one of faith. For in the end, he sees technology as part of the unfolding of God itself, the playing of an infinite game. It is such faith, despite Kelly’s tone of reasonableness, that should give us pause for it denies us the very freedom which God, (if such a thing exists) or nature has granted us in reference to our creations.

God vs the Big Brain: A Christmas Story

It’s Christmas time again. Along with the excitement of getting and decorating the tree, and anticipating the girls opening their presents, there is a kind of longing for a long-lost faith. Of all the aspects of Christianity that are hardest to let go of, Christmas is by far the hardest. It’s not just the secular aspects of the holiday, but the fact that during Christmas one confronts the beautiful meaning of the story of Christ. I know that Easter is supposed to be the penultimate Christian holiday, and therefore should be the holiday most pregnant with significance, but I am not all that interested in immortality. I am, however, interested in the meaning of life, the wonder of love and the relationship of a silent and distant God (if there is one) to humanity.

The beauty of the Christmas story is that God, the most perfect being imaginable, becomes a mere human being. He makes his appearance in a stable usually reserved for farm animals. This human being then spends his time, not with the big-wigs of human society, but with the rabble and the outcasts. In fact, his non-conformist ways eventually get him killed. The very torture and indignity of his murder forever flips the table of oppressed and oppressor. It is the oppressed who now share in the dignity of God.

What could be more beautiful than that?

What the Christmas story did was to re-imagine the 1st century nationalist sky God of the Jewish people, and the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers as, well, a person. A person who not only related to the high and mighty but focused his attention on you and me.

Today many are again re-imagining God as a process. This is something that must be implicit in the scientific world-view for it occurred to me years before I had ever heard of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, back when I was a young teenager and had first encountered science and begun to let go of my faith. For many process theologians, God is a form of intelligence that creates itself through evolution. Life, humanity, technology are evolutionary stages in the unfolding of God.  The problem I see with this is that it’s almost impossible under this theology to think of God in a supernatural way. God is a simply the biggest brain or the sum of all brains.

The Christmas story is unlikely to survive the victory of this idea of God. As we continue to create ever more intelligent forms of artificial intelligence, as we become capable of genetically engineering new forms of intelligent life, should we ever discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the idea of a unique, appearance of God in history becomes frankly untenable.

A unique thinker who is both a Christian and a technologist would disagree. Kevin Kelly had his modern “Road to Damascus” moment in  which he hit upon a “technological metaphor” for God came in 1986 while  watching Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality enter the world he had created.

I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future—worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options—it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.

The problem for the Incarnation this technological metaphor poses is that it’s unclear why God should have done this only once. Kelly sees God as wanting as many forms of intelligence as possible, so the universe should be teeming with other technological civilizations. He could say with the mystic Giordano Bruno:

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, and 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.

On the Cause, Principle, and Unity’, 5th dialogue

But of course, the same rationale applies on earth. Why should God have appeared only once in human history to Western civilization? After all, the origin of the word avatar is from Hinduism meaning a human incarnation of a God. If God really does need as many versions of intelligence as possible to express his infinite creativity, perhaps we should look at Christmas as a sort of universal birthday- all of our birthday’s in a sense a form of the Nativity. This might be a good way of looking at things, but Kelly and his fellow God as big brain theologians, by postulating that human being are the precursors to much higher forms of intelligence- indeed that the world itself- in Kelly’s term the Technium- is an emergent form of super-intelligence- inadvertently push human beings down the scale of being. Claiming God incarnates himself in such lower order beings as us when there are likely and will be advanced forms of intelligence of which we cannot even imagine is a little like the idea that God would incarnate himself in an ant to get an idea of what an ant’s life is like, and perhaps he does. However, what is clear is that by re-imagining God as a form of corporal intelligence, only vastly, vastly higher than our own, seems to inevitably lead to a sort of pantheism. The uniqueness of the Incarnation is lost and with it the spiritual meaning of Christmas.

All of which does not mean that I won’t love seeing my daughters open up their presents and help me bake Christmas bread once the day comes.