Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“Without God everything is permitted”

April 20, 2018

My wife and I have been reading, aloud to each other, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel. A key motif is whether “without God everything is permitted.” That’s become a major talking point against atheism; the notion that atheists have no reason to be moral. Indeed, the idea’s societal reverberations may well be traceable back to Karamazov.

It was written when atheism was beginning to be important. Nietzsche soon declared, “God is dead.” Dostoevsky was himself deeply religious, yet in Karamazov he does not cavalierly dismiss the opposing point of view. Rather, he wrestles with the moral implications.

I have previously discussed morality without God. If we need him for morality, we’d be in trouble, because of course he’s a fiction. But in truth, whatever moral codes religions prescribe, they are merely a reflection of our pre-existing moral intuitions, rooted in evolution. Our ancestors lived in groups wherein cooperation, morality, and even altruism aided survival. People with tendencies toward those virtues lived to pass along their genes. These norms became further embedded through culture; religions are cultural inventions and again merely incorporate the moral ideas already a part of a given culture.

Further, each of us figures out, using common sense and our rational minds, how to live. Most of us do what’s right because it feels right. Our empathy for others dissuades us from actions harming them. And we realize it’s better to live in a society where people treat each other decently than in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” None of this requires a God.

In Karamazov, Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil. And in it, the Devil makes this remarkable speech — imagining what he thinks Ivan himself would say:

“Once every member of the human race discards the idea of God (and I believe that such an era will come, like some new geological age), the old world-view will collapse by itself without recourse to cannibalism . . . . Men will unite in their efforts to get everything out of life that it can offer them, but only for joy and happiness in this world. Man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride and the man-god will come into being. Extending his conquest over nature beyond all bounds through his will and his science, man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal, and will accept his death with calm and dignity, like a god. He will understand, out of sheer pride, that there is no point in protesting that life lasts only a fleeting moment, and he will love his brother man without expecting any reward for it. Love will satisfy only a moment in life, but the very awareness of its momentary nature will concentrate its flames, which before were diffused and made pale by the anticipation of eternal life beyond the grave . . . And so on and so forth. Very sweet!”

The Devil is being sardonic, as the final words show. He’s mocking Ivan. And yet this speech — put in the Devil’s mouth by the very religious author — actually expresses pretty well my own humanist ethos.

In the next passage the Devil invokes twice the “everything is permitted” trope — the new “man-god” can “jump without scruple over every barrier of the old moral code devised for the man-slave.”

Yet scruples are integral to our essential human nature. Our morality, which is self-built, does not enslave us, but liberates us, to live good lives, despite lacking ennoblement conferred by a god.


Christ is risen

April 1, 2018

Stephen Hawking

March 28, 2018

Stephen Hawking had a horrible illness, given only a few years to live.

He lived them, and then fifty more. He had ALS (motor neuron disease) which destroys muscle control. There is no cure or treatment.

You know that sci-fi trope of the disembodied brain in a vat? That was Stephen Hawking, more or less, because his body was so ruined he might as well have had none. All he had was his brain. But what a brain.

So despite losing virtually everything else, against all odds his brain kept him going for over half a century. To me, this is the Stephen Hawking story. I’m unable to appreciate fully his scientific achievement. But I’m awed by its being achieved in the face of adversity that also defies my comprehension. Stephen Hawking represents the godlikeness of the human mind.

Another awesome thing about humanity is the ability to adapt. That’s why our species thrives from the Gobi Desert to the Arctic tundra. And as individuals we often make truly heroic adaptations to what life throws at us. Viktor Frankl wrote (in Man’s Search for Meaning) about accommodating oneself psychologically to surviving in a concentration camp. Stephen Hawking too adapted to horrible circumstances. Perhaps he did not curse the fates for that, instead thanking them for vouchsafing his mind. Which, undaunted, he employed to get on with his life and his calling.

That included authoring the least read best-selling book ever, A Brief History of Time. I actually did read it, and was on board till the last chapter, which kind of baffled me.

A character conspicuous by his absence in that book was God. We have trouble wrapping our heads around how the cosmos can have come into existence without him. Of course, that merely begs the question of where he came from. But Hawking’s scientific work (as partly embodied in his book), while not dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in explaining the existence of existence, did carry us closer to that ultimate understanding. He didn’t conclusively disprove God — but did make that superstition harder to sustain. (And why would God create ALS?)

Hawking was a scientist, but not a “hands-on” scientist, because he soon lost use of his hands, could not even write. Communicating became increasingly difficult. Only thanks to advanced computer technology was he able to produce that familiar mechanized voice — in the end, only by twitching a muscle on his cheek. This too a triumph of mind over matter.

And so it was literally only within the confines of his brain that he worked, probing at the profoundest mysteries of the Universe by pure thought alone. (That was true of Einstein as well.) Of course, lots of other people do likewise and produce moonshine. Hawking (like Einstein) produced deep wisdom, expanding our understanding of the reality we inhabit. An existence upon which his own frail purchase was so tenuous.

An existence that’s poorer without him.

America Trumped (my “Trolley” article)

March 21, 2018

The wonderful New York State Writers Institute (founded by William Kennedy; headed by Paul Grondahl) has published a very interesting online magazine, The Trolley. (Click here.) I was asked to contribute an article, a follow-up to my blog review of their October symposium on post-truth politics.* The magazine’s inaugural issue focuses mainly on the same general topic.

Since the last election, I’ve been grappling with the really dramatic lurch our civic life has taken into uncharted territory. It has a lot of aspects, and I’ve written a lot trying to unravel them. For this Trolley article, I aimed to draw all these strands together into one big picture, titled America Trumped.

I consider myself a student of history. And we are at an historical hinge point, with huge implications for the future of this country and, indeed, the world. I am not one of those fatalists who believes human beings are at the mercy of forces beyond our control; it’s why I continue to call myself a rational optimist. It is by using our rationality that we can master our situation. That’s how we’ve progressed so enormously since the Stone Age. And in order to master our situation, we must first understand what it is. Such understanding is a key quest in my own life; after half a century at it, I feel I’ve made progress. That’s what I’m trying to share on this blog, and in my Trolley article.

* Find it here; scroll down past a few later posts.

Pillow talk

March 5, 2018

While lingering in bed together, my wife asked, “Are you almost ready to get up?”

“Define almost,” I said. “Does it have a time element?”

“Time is an illusion,” she replied.

“In that case, ‘almost ready to get up’ would have no meaning. Indeed, one could not get up at all.”

“No; it still implies that, at some point, the getting up will occur.”

“But you’re forgetting Zeno’s paradox,” I said. “When going from Point A to Point B, you first must travel half the distance. Then, of the remaining half, you must first traverse half of that. And of that quarter, half again, and so forth. So you can never get there. It’s asymptotic.”

“Not true. You don’t have to move in increasingly smaller steps, you can take full steps. And what if you can reach the destination in a single step?”

“But even a single step is not instantaneous. You still must cover half the step first; and then another half of the remaining part — a quarter, then an eighth, a sixteenth, et cetera.”

“However,” she said, “in reality you can take a full step in one go.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in reality,” I said. “You say it’s an illusion.”

“But within the illusion, one can go from A to B.”

I let my wife have the last word, and got up.

The book that changed America: Darwin, Slavery, and God

February 27, 2018


The Book That Changed America is the title of one by Randall Fuller. It’s about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, looking at its impact particularly in Concord, Massachusetts.

That wasn’t just Anytown, U.S.A. Concord was the center of America’s intellectual ferment. The protagonists in Fuller’s book include Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray — all living in or near Concord and interacting with each other and with Darwin’s bombshell book.


It hit Concord almost simultaneously with another bombshell in late 1859: John Brown’s attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his subsequent execution. Brown was not, as often portrayed, a madman. He considered slavery a great sin that could be undone only through war, which he aimed to start. He was just about a year early.

America was already, of course, hotly divided over slavery, and Harper’s Ferry raised the temperature further. So did Darwin’s book.

How so? The only possible excuse for slavery was the idea of blacks’ racial inferiority. Thus their constant denigration as a degenerate, brutish species. And slavery apologists, being besotted with religion, had to believe God intentionally made blacks separately and enslavement-worthy. Efforts to prove their inferiority litters Nineteenth century science. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.)

(Even most abolitionists thought blacks inferior. But they opposed slavery nonetheless because it was cruel and unjust. This applies to every pogrom, genocide, or other ethnically based abuse or exploitation. Even if its victims were lesser, degraded creatures — it’s never true, but even if it were — their mistreatment would still be cruel and unjust. The creatures proven inferior and degraded are the perpetrators.)

Anyhow, the races’ biological separateness continued to be a matter of intense science-oriented debate.* That’s where Darwin came in.

His book prudently refrained from specifically addressing human origins. (Darwin bit that bullet later in The Descent of Man.) Origin discussed living things in general, and all its numerous examples and case studies concerned non-human life. Many at the time imagined humans were something apart from all that. Yet many others were not so deluded, and they realized that if Darwin’s varied finches and so forth were all close cousins, branches of the same tree, obviously then so were whites and blacks. (We now know that blacks came first, and whites descended from them.)

Thus did Origin explode the moral underpinnings of slavery. And Darwin was not just another polemicist with an axe to grind. Not only was his a science book, it was powerfully supported and argued, hence a devastating blow.

Yet still it was disputed. Inevitably, for a book that gored cherished oxen. And slavery was not the only ox. The other was God himself.

Gods have always been the answer for natural and cosmic mysteries people couldn’t otherwise penetrate. That territory used to be huge. But science has progressively answered those mysteries, inexorably shrinking godly territory.

To naive eyes, the world might look designed, the only possible way to explain life’s diversity and complexity. Literature is filled with rhapsodizing on this theme. Though would any intelligent designer have so filled creation with pain and suffering? Calling this a mystery is no answer.

Thoreau had studied nature intensively, and likewise studied Darwin’s book. He got it, completely; it explained so much of what he’d actually observed. Fuller casts Thoreau as holding that the world is indeed filled with magic and mystery — just not the kind religion postulates.

But Darwin greatly demystified life. His theory was a revelation, a revolution. He called it “natural selection” and “descent with modification;” for short, evolution. His book explained it thoroughly and cogently; there’s hardly a word in it that doesn’t still hold up. A stupendous achievement of human intellect.

And once Darwin unveiled it, the idea of evolution was actually obvious. (I recall Richard Milner’s song, wherein other scientists of the time moan, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”) As Thoreau found, evolution instantly made sense of everything observable about the natural world, everything previously so puzzling. The great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it thusly: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Yet, to this day, half of Americans reject it. Fuller’s book recaps the opposition to evolution as it played out at its advent, with famed scientist Louis Agassiz in the attack’s vanguard. Its essence remains unchanged. Evolution shrinks God almost to irrelevance. And not just in biology. If life is attributable to natural, not supernatural causes, couldn’t the same be true of the entire cosmos? To Agassiz, all this was something literally unthinkable.** As it is for his modern counterparts.

Likewise that we “come from monkeys” (or even lesser creatures). Some believe that degrades us. But “there is grandeur in this view of life,” connecting us to every other living thing. And our animal antecedents make us all the more remarkable. It’s sublime that a Darwin, descended from apes, could have the insight to see it. All we’ve achieved we’ve done ourselves, with no help from any god.

A reader of Fuller’s book must be struck by how one key mistake — belief in a god — traps you in a carnival house of mirrors, distorting everything about life and the world. Escape it and all becomes clear. This is the main reason why Agassiz and other scientists of the time failed to see what Darwin saw. Religion blinded them. And even when shown the light, they hold tight to their blindfolds. They torture facts, evidence, and logic, struggling to hammer the square peg of their belief into the round hole of reality.

I find it far better to just accept reality.

* Some even argued for different species on the basis (by analogy to mules) that mixed-race people tend to be sterile — simply untrue. Furthermore, the vast genre of argument that race mixing somehow “pollutes” and degrades the quality of the white race likewise contradicts manifest biological fact: mixing different gene pools improves strength and quality. It’s called hybrid vigor.

** Scientist Asa Gray entered the fray on Darwin’s side, but even he was unmoored by God’s banishment, coming up with the fallback idea that evolution is God’s method for managing life’s pageant. And even Darwin himself seemed queasy about a purely mechanistic view of creation.

Being and nothingness: How the brain creates mind and self

February 14, 2018

Phineas Gage was a big name in brain science. Not a scientist — but a railroad construction foreman. Until in 1848 an accidental explosion rammed a three-foot iron rod through his cheek and out the top of his head.

Gage actually recovered, with little outward impairment. But his character and personality were transformed. Previously admirable, he became an irresponsible jerk. A part of his brain governing temperament was destroyed.

This famous case opens Antonio Damasio’s landmark 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Though not the latest word in neuroscience, I felt it was worth reading, in my eternal quest to understand the most important thing in the world — my self. What, in that sentence, “I” and “felt” really mean.

I’ve written about this before; here are links: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7).

Of course, like everyone, I know perfectly well what being me feels like. But why does it feel that way? Why does anything feel like anything? By what mechanism?

Obviously, it has to do with the workings of the brain. I say “obviously,” but some might disagree. In fact, that was “Descartes’ error” of the book title — the famous philosopher posited the mind being something apart from anything physical. Like the idea of a soul. But these are nonsensical concepts. Not only is there no evidence for them, there’s no possible coherent explanation for how they could be true. There’s no plausible alternative to our minds being rooted in the workings of our brains.

Yet it’s difficult to come up with a coherent explanation for that too (so far, anyway). Brains have been analogized to computers, but computers aren’t conscious (so far, anyway). It’s been suggested that the difference is complexity — the brain’s trillions of synapses vastly dwarf what’s in any computer. Still, this seems more like a label than an explanation.

Some common-sense ideas don’t work. Like there’s somebody in charge in there, a captain at your helm. That’s certainly an illusion — the mind is bottom-up, not top-down. That is, whatever you think you are thinking, it’s not the work of some central command, but a product of a lot of undirected neuronal signaling, actually distributed among various brain modules, that somehow comes together. Similarly, we imagine seeing as a “Cartesian theater” (named for the same Descartes), i.e., as if a signal coming in from the eyes gets projected onto a screen in the brain, viewed by a little person (“homunculus”) in there. But does the homunculus have a Cartesian theater — and a smaller homunculus — in its brain? And so forth? The idea falls apart.

Further, not only is the mind not somehow separate from the brain, it’s not even separate from the whole rest of the body. Another point Damasio makes clear. “Keeping body and soul together” is a paradoxically apt expression here, because the brain evolved, after all, as a device to keep the body going, for its ultimate purpose (to the genes) of reproducing. So the body is the brain’s primary focus, and monitoring and regulating the body, and responding to its cues, is most of what the brain is doing at any given moment. (Thus the sci-fi notion of a disembodied brain in a vat, having normal consciousness, is probably absurd.)

To understand how the mind works, the concept of representation seems crucial. (No mentation without representation!) Start with the idea of reality. There is a reality that obtains within your body; also a reality outside it, that you interact with. But how does the mind perceive these realities? Through senses, yes; but they can’t give the brain direct contact with reality. The reality outside — it’s raining, say — cannot itself get inside your head. It can’t be raining in there. It’s even true of your inner bodily reality. If your stomach hurts, you can’t have a stomachache in your brain. But what your brain can do is construct a representation of a stomachache, or rain shower. Like an artist creates a representation of a still life on his canvas.

Of course the brain doesn’t use paints; it only has neurons and their signaling. Somehow the brain takes the incoming sensory information — you see it raining — and translates it into a representation constructed with neuronal signaling. A mental picture of the raining. And notice this can’t merely be like snapping a photo. The representation has to be sustained — continually refreshed, over some length of time.

This is starting to be complicated. But more: how do “you” (without a homunculus) “see” the representation? Why, of course, by means of a further representation: of yourself perceiving and responding to the first one.

But even this is not the end of it. It’s actually three balls the brain must keep in the air simultaneously: the representation of the reality (the rain); second, the representation of the self reacting to it; and, finally, a third order representation, of your self in the act of coordinating the prior two representations, creating a bridge between them. Only now do “you” decide you need an umbrella.

This at least is Damasio’s theory, insofar as I could understand it. Frankly that third part is the hard one. I’m a little queasy that we might have here another endless homuncular recursion: the representation of the self perceiving the representation of the self perceiving . . . . Yet we know the buck must stop somewhere, because we do have selves that somehow know when it’s raining, and know they know it, and grab umbrellas. And one can see that the first two representation levels don’t quite get us there. So there must be the third.

Pain too is a representation. When the body signals the brain that something’s amiss, it could register the fact without suffering. The suffering is an emotion, triggered by the brain creating a representation of “you” experiencing that feeling. That’s why it hurts. Of course, we evolved this way to make us respond to bodily problems. Rare individuals who can’t feel pain damage themselves — very non-adaptive. And Damasio tells of one patient with an extremely painful condition. After an operation snipping out a bit of brain, he was thoroughly cheerful. Asked about the pain, he said, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now.” His brain was no longer representing pain as suffering.

Meantime, while the mind is doing all that representation stuff — continually, as new signals keep arriving — keeping “you” in touch with what’s going on — there’s yet another ball it must keep aloft: who “you” are. Part of it again is the bodily aspect. But you’re not an empty vessel. Damasio likens the representation of your self to the kind of file J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI might have kept on you. Though it’s not all in one file, or file cabinet, but distributed among many different brain modules. It includes data like what you do, where you live, other people important to your life, knowledge of your entire past, and your ideas looking ahead to your future. Everything that makes you you. And it’s not just filed away; all of it the mind must constantly refresh and update. To keep in being the “you” in its representations of “you” interacting with realities like rain or pain.

Of course all the foregoing is merely schematic. We know how painters paint pictures, but how, exactly, neuronal signaling does it remains a very hard problem. But yet again we know it must. There’s no alternative.

And for humans at least, we do know at least part of the answer. We know how to paint word pictures. And they entail a lot of metaphors — another form of representation. In fact, thinking this way is so second-nature that most of us have struggled to imagine what thinking without words could be like. Of course, other animals do it, and have consciousness, without language. But undoubtedly having it is a tremendous enhancer for the three-stage model via representation that I’ve described. I think it gives humans a much deeper, higher-level self-awareness than other animals enjoy. (Damasio, somewhat enigmatically, says this: “Language may not be the source of the self, but it certainly is the source of the ‘I.'”)

What Damasio’s book is really famous for is his take on reason and emotion. Phineas Gage’s iron rod opened not only a hole in his head but a window on the subject. Damasio also discusses the similar case of “Elliot,” a normal, smart, successful man until a lesion destroyed a bit of his brain. He was still perfectly rational. But like Gage’s, his life fell apart, because he could not behave as reason dictated. The explanation turned out to be a loss of emotional capacity. Emotions give us the reasons to utilize our reason! Elliot no longer cared about anything; not even his life falling apart. The lesson is that emotion and reason are not, as many people imagine, separate or even at odds with one another. They are bound together. Moreover, emotion on its own terms isn’t unreasonable. There are always reasons for the emotions we feel (or if not, that’s insanity).

A final point. While Damasio’s book helped a bit, I still can’t say I have a good handle on what accounts for this phenomenon I experience as being me. It still feels like a will-o’-the-wisp that slithers away whenever I try to grasp it. And as difficult as it is to grasp being in existence, it is likewise difficult to grasp the idea of nonexistence.

Chris Gibson thinks we can put America right

February 11, 2018

He calls himself an optimist. He believes we’re on the wrong track, but can fix it.

After a 29 year military career, Chris Gibson won a New York congressional seat in 2010 as a Republican; then “term limited” himself in 2016, and became a college professor. Too bad, because the GOP sure needs such good guys.

Now he’s authored a book, Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream. Sounds like every politician’s book. Nevertheless, my wife* and I went to a January 24 luncheon, hosted by the Times-Union newspaper, where its editor Rex Smith interviewed Gibson. I read the book.

Gibson feels the Republican party has strayed from its true conservative principles. (Some of his points echoed my own commentary in that morning’s paper.) He starts with the nation’s founding precepts, discussed with rare erudition and depth. For him the key idea is pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t mean hedonism, but invokes the ancient Greeks’ concept of eudaimonia, a life well lived; and psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, culminating with self-actualization. America was founded on the premise that government’s job is to promote such human flourishing. Really a revolutionary idea at the time.

Here Gibson distinguishes between America’s two chief ideological currents. Traditional conservatism saw government as a facilitator and referee, to enable people to thrive in their own individual ways (exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and his restraints on corporate power). Liberals and progressives, in contrast, want a more activist government, seeking to achieve outcomes, regulating everything in sight.

But obviously that dividing line has become very muddled. Gibson harshly criticizes modern Republican hostility toward equal rights for sexual nonconformists, as violating true conservative principles. And the religious teachings so many Republicans profess to follow. Gibson’s watchword here is “love,” which seems absent from today’s Republicanism.

He worries about the nation’s fiscal future — a subject I’ve harped on for years. In brief, government cannot keep spending way more than it collects in taxes. We borrow the difference, and can borrow a lot, yet the limits will be sorely tested in years ahead as deficits continue growing; while interest costs eat us alive. The recent tax legislation, even if boosting growth, will add to debt. Fiscal responsibility is another bygone traditional Republican conservative principle. The whole nation now ignores the debt issue — sleepwalking over a cliff.

A further problem Gibson sees is legislative abdication in favor of executive and bureaucratic fiat. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations are each denounced by their opponents as abusing power in imposing policies undemocratically. Gibson says this undermines legitimacy and divides the country; whereas issues being instead resolved through legislative give-and-take stitches the country together.

Gibson is pretty good on diagnosis; less so on remedies. It’s the usual wish list: campaign finance, gerrymandering and lobbying reform; term limits; motherhood; and apple-pie. And a balanced budget amendment — oh, please. As if the nation could, like Ulysses, chain itself to the mast to resist the siren song of spending. (The latest congressional budget (busting) deal shows the two parties can happily work together to waive such limits and raid the Treasury.)

Gibson also feels the Republican party is redeemable, and can be hauled back to its traditional principles — which he even imagines can unite the country. More fantasy. My old GOP is now the White People’s Party; a zombie that’s undergone demonic possession. There’s no exorcist in sight. (Gibson never even mentions race or immigration.)

And Gibson stresses that citizens must insist that their elected officials act responsibly. When 38% back Trump no matter what, and American political life has become a partisan tribal bash-fest. How do we cure this? Nobody has a good answer.

It’s often lamented that only half of Americans vote; even less in non-presidential elections. Republicans cynically work to make voting harder (mainly for Democrats). That truly stinks. But will more people voting cure our political ills? Non-voters tend to be the least informed and engaged citizens. Their participation will not elevate our politics.

Gibson also decries moral decay — too much materialism; not enough communitarianism and religious faith; with reinvigorating the institution of marriage being vital for raising the kind of good citizens he envisions. He wants to reverse our sociological history. (And strengthen untrue beliefs.)

Further, he sees a need for real leadership (his emphasis) that can rally the nation to do what’s needed. Yet elsewhere he says a strong man is not the answer. “The man on horseback” myth I’ve written about. Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” and Gibson thinks Americans are wrongly attracted to such authoritarianism because we’ve lost confidence in our ability to tackle problems democratically.

But the book’s conclusion says that “historically the American people follow leaders who inspire the best in us and who treat people with dignity and respect. Americans believe in founding principles and our own exceptional way of life and ultimately will not give that up for authoritarian approaches.”

I would have said exactly the same thing myself . . . until “grab them by the pussy.” Too many Americans no longer seem to understand, let alone honor, the nation’s founding principles, ideals, and values, that Gibson is so eloquent about. Without a populace being invested in those ideas, they cannot endure.

Am I too cynically harsh? As I said at the start, the GOP desperately needs people like Gibson. If the party had more of them, I would not have left it.

* When I asked her about coming, her “yes” actually surprised me; but she’s a remarkable person full of surprises.


God and the Super Bowl

February 8, 2018

My local paper’s “Voices of Faith” column, on Super Bowl weekend, was authored by Richard John Mouw, “professor of faith and public life” at a California seminary. He discussed a past Sports Illustrated cover story: “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” His essay appears to be on the level, not satirical. (At least not intentionally.)

Mouw noted several theologian colleagues doubting God has anything to do with deciding football games. But that Reggie White, a Green Bay Packers player and Pentecostal preacher, disagreed. White questioned what basis scholars have for thinking God doesn’t take sides. Didn’t he intervene in David’s fight with Goliath?* And what about “Jesus’ victory over death?” White reportedly avowed that God “doesn’t think much of losers.”

Mouw takes a middle position: “God cares much about how the game is played . . . the physical prowess that is on display in a well-played game.” He also says God similarly enjoys a well-written poem, or Bach concerto. And when “a player makes a spectacular catch, I imagine the Lord saying to himself, ‘Nicely done! This is one of the reasons why I created the human race!'”** However, Mouw doesn’t think God is a fan of any particular team.

He is all wrong. In this year’s Super Bowl, God was rooting for the Eagles, for the obvious reason that Brady and the Patriots are cheaters. (But he denies helping the Eagles.) Also, God does not like poetry, nor Bach’s music. He prefers instead a good short story; in music his tastes run to heavy metal.

He also enjoys a good laugh. And he certainly got one from Mouw’s essay, and people who imagine not only knowing an invisible deity exists, but more, his mind. They can’t quite manage to square their concept of God with all the evil, suffering, and injustice in the world. That’s chalked up as mystery. But they do know God’s tastes in literature and music, and the specific ways in which he enjoys football games.

In fact, he prefers soccer. Those heretics believing differently will burn in Hell forever.

* Actually, no. Nothing in the Bible fable suggests David didn’t win through his own skill.

** Is it also one of the reasons why he afflicts players with concussions?

Upgrading to Humanity 2.0

February 4, 2018

Tech guru Ray Kurzweil called it “The Singularity” – when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence – and starts operating on its own. Then everything changes. Some, like Stephen Hawking, fear those super-intelligent machines could enslave or even dispense with us.

But in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement, I foresaw a different trajectory – not conflict between people and machines, or human versus artificial intelligence, but rather convergence, as we increasingly replace our biological systems with technologically better ones. The end result may resemble those cyborg superbeings that some fear will supplant us. Yet they will be us. The new version, Humanity 2.0.

I call this debiologizing, not roboticizing. We may be made mostly if not wholly of artificial parts, but won’t be “robots,” which connotes acting mechanically. Humanity 2.0 will be no less conscious, thinking, and feeling than the current version. Indeed, the whole point is to upgrade the species. Two-point-zero will think and feel more deeply than we can. Or, perhaps, can even imagine.

This transformation’s early stages fall under the rubric of “enhancement,” referring, generally, to improving individual capabilities, via pharmacology, hardware, or genetic tinkering. This gives some people the heebie-jeebies. But every technological advancement always evokes dystopian fears. The first railroads were denounced as inhuman and dangerously messing with the natural order of things. A more pertinent example was organ transplants, seen as crossing a line, somehow profoundly wrong. Likewise in-vitro fertilization. The old “playing god” thing.

The fact is that we have always messed with the natural order, in countless ways, to improve our lives. It’s the very essence of humanity. And the “enhancement” concept is not new. It began with Erg, the first human who made a crutch so he could walk. (No doubt Glorg scolded, “if God meant you to walk . . . .”) Today people have prosthetics controlled by brain signaling.

A lot of it is to counter aging. Euphemisms like “golden years” can’t hide the reality of decline, always physical, and usually (to some degree) mental. We’ve already extended life far longer than nature intended, and make people healthier longer too. If all that’s good, why not strive to delay decrepitude further still – or reverse it?

And why not other interventions to improve human functionality? If we can enable the disabled, why not super-able others? If we use medicines like Ritalin to improve mental function for people with problems, why not extend the concept to improving everyone’s abilities? Through all the mentioned means – pharmacology, hardware, genetics – we can make people stronger, healthier, and smarter.

Yet some viscerally oppose all this, as a corruption of our (god-given?) human nature. Paradoxically, some of the same people are cynical pessimists about that human nature, vilifying it as a fount of evil. Is it nevertheless sacred, that we shouldn’t tamper with it? Steven Pinker argued persuasively, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, that humanity has in fact progressed, gotten better, and better behaved, mainly because in many ways we’ve gotten smarter. If we can make people smarter still, through all those kinds of technological enhancements, won’t that likely make us better yet, kissing off the ugliest parts of our (god-given) nature?

The idea of people being able to choose enhancements for themselves also irks misanthropes who see in it everything they dislike about their fellow humans. It’s the ultimate in sinful consumerism. An illegitimate “shortcut” to self-improvement without the hard work that it should rightly entail, thus cheapening and trivializing achievement. Life, these critics seem to say, should be hard. By this logic, we should give up washing machines, microwaves, airplanes, all those “shortcuts” we’ve invented to make life easier. And go back to living in caves.

A perhaps more serious version of their argument is that enhancement, taken sufficiently far, would strip human life of much of what gives it meaning. Much as we’ve progressed, with washing machines and microwaves, etc., and with health and longevity, still a great deal of what invests life with meaning and purpose is the struggle against the limitations and frailties and challenges we continue to face. Remove those and would we become a race of lotus-eaters, with an empty existence?

But consider that early peoples faced challenges of a wholly different order from ours. Getting food was critical, so they sacralized the hunt, and the animals hunted, which loomed large in their systems of meaning. Now we just saunter to the grocery, and that ancient source of meaning is gone. Does that make us shallower? Hardly. Instead it liberates us to focus upon other things. Maybe higher things.

The fundamental mistake of enhancement’s critics is to imagine life for a Human 2.0 by reference to life for a Human 1.0, when they will be as different as we are from our stone age ancestors. Or more so. Our future descendants, relieved of so many concerns that preoccupy us (and not detoured by supernatural beliefs), will find life richer than we can dream.

Of course there will be profound impacts – economic, environmental, cultural, social. Not only will 2.0 be very different, their world itself will be transformed by that difference. But with greater smarts and wisdom they should be able to deal with the challenges.

Our species is only a couple hundred thousand years old; civilization, ten thousand. Billions of years lie ahead. Thus we are humanity’s infancy. Adulthood will be really something.