Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A nasty and brutish fetish

A recent entry in Futurity (an internet news (?) magazine) is titled "For Early Humans, Life was no Picnic 1.8 Million Years Ago." The article is about some researchers who had mapped the landscape of the Olduvai Gorge during the time a couple of our ancestral human relatives inhabited the region. The short lived (30-40 year life expectancy) and short statured (4.5 to 5.5 feet tall) creatures had extremely hard lives, we are told.

And how do we know this? How do we know their lives were extremely difficult? How do we know life was not, in fact, an actual perpetual picnic for these folks?

Because, despite the fact that food and water were plentiful and shade and shelter were abundant, they had to compete with so many other carnivores for meat.

That’s it.

Life was hard for Paranthropus and Homo habilis because they couldn’t simply grab some McDonalds or pick up a roast for Sunday dinner at the local grocery store.

It’s amazing anyone was able to survive long enough to reproduce. Their populations must have been microscopic and constantly teetering on the verge of extinction. It’s astounding that evolution had anything to work with at all!


It is vitally important that we understand that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and contemporaries) were (and are) full of unimaginable hardship and suffering. Hobbes’ view of life outside the warm and protective embrace of civilization has been enshrined—literally, as an idol might be placed in a shrine and regularly showered with offerings and ritual expressions of worship.

It is vitally important that we know this right down to the very fibers of our modern civilized being because it is absolutely not true.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Go team human!

A species is an organizational device, the result of a particular taxonomic structuring of the world. Species does not refer to a concrete entity. The human species can’t have needs, for example. Individual people have needs—and although each person shares many needs in common with every other person, no singular needy entity mysteriously emerges from the expression of these mutual needs. To say that the human species has needs—as a species—is to speak nonsense. Species is a concept, a construct, an abstraction.

Don’t get me wrong—it is an extremely useful abstraction. But just like its close cousin, humanity, it is a tool of thought and a linguistic convenience, not a thing in the world. It is important not to lose sight of this fact because there are concrete real-world repercussions to treating abstractions as if they were actual entities (“Corporations are people my friend”).

In addition, there appears to be a strong tendency for us to attach more importance to the abstraction, the idea, than to the concrete entities the abstraction subsumes—in the same way that the team becomes more important than the individual players.

The movie, Interstellar provides an interesting case study of this tendency.

The human part of the plot of Interstellar is simultaneously banal and unbelievable, but the broader story it sits upon is neither banal nor unbelievable: a future in which the Earth is rapidly becoming a dustbowl and humans are doomed. All government money and resources in this future world are being directed at food production. GMO corn is the last major food crop to survive, and there is every indication that it will be dying out in short order as well—GMO or not. All is not lost for the humans, however, because NASA has been secretly diverting billions of dollars to a massive space colonization project.

The NASA project has a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is a city-sized space station that can accommodate an untold number of people—untold, but obviously far fewer than the Earth’s remaining population. The problem with Plan A is a lacuna in theoretical physics, specifically a missing piece of an equation involving gravity that would allow the space station to get off the planet. But not to worry, because Plan B is already in full swing. Plan B involves launching small groups of astronauts through a mysterious wormhole placed next to Saturn by some unknowable five-dimensional alien beings simply referred to as "they." The wormhole leads to a distant and unnamed galaxy, and allows access to a star system with a number of potentially habitable planets. Oh, and the important part, the astronauts sent through the wormhole are packing specially selected frozen gametes so that if they do find a good place to land they can eventually reestablish the human species, and also ensure a wide range of genetic diversity so that evolution has something to work with as the species accommodates the idiosyncrasies of its new planetary home.

Interstellar suffers from a cadre of logical kinks, impossible coincidences, and hard-to-suspend-disbelief plot vehicles that are typical of the science fiction movie genre—the most egregious of which is that the mysterious five-dimensional beings turn out to be a distant future iteration of the human species. So, powerful five-dimensional beings go back in time to set up a wormhole close to their planet of origin so that they might survive to evolve into five-dimensional beings that can travel back in time to set up a wormhole next to their planet of origin….

But set aside the recursive circularity of the wormhole’s origin for a moment. There is another issue being dealt with here that strikes to the heart of the matter, the real issue; the only issue: the future survival of the human race. The most important thing is that the human species survives. This is more important than any of the lives of any of the people involved. We must continue—although it is clear that this "we" is not all inclusive. Even stronger, the only "we" that really matters is some abstract "us" in the future that does not include a single soul alive today. This unanalyzed assumption sits like a monolithic 2001 Space Odyssey obelisk on the brain of the movie’s writers and viewers alike: it is imperative that the human species has a future; humans must survive.

Why?

Why does it matter whether the distant future is inhabited by our progeny? It makes no difference to anyone alive at this moment if every human on the planet disappears two hundred years from now. Our lives will be as rich and full and complete (or not) regardless of the future of the species (or lack thereof).

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A brief anti-transhumanist rant

If human life is essentially a technology, then the problems associated with human existence are essentially technological problems, and as such, they have technological solutions. All social problems, for instance, can be solved by developing and applying the right kinds of social technologies—and most problems in modern society are political, requiring only minor adjustments to the present bureaucratic structuring of power. From a more personal standpoint, if human bodies are biological technologies that have been rendered inefficient by dumb evolutionary processes that are blind to the obvious advantages of rational intentional design, then it should be possible to compensate by intentionally augmenting the human body and extending the capacities of the human mind. So along with artificial hips and mechanical heart valves, we have an ever expanding inventory of chemical fixes and bookstore shelves filled with self-help books providing blueprints for organizing your life and techniques designed to get your life "back on track." Human nature—like all other aspects of the natural world—can be retooled and upgraded.

This thought-form reaches its logical extreme in a bizarre utopian movement called transhumanism, which has apparently been gaining widespread popularity among technophiles, science fiction fans, and other techno-groupies. According to transhumanists, industrial civilization is leading us toward a "posthuman" future, a world in which humanity will have been eclipsed and replaced by its own technological offspring. The "trans" part of transhumanism is meant to highlight that we are, at this point and in the immediate future, moving through a transitional period en route to a posthuman state of technological perfection, a period in which more and more of our organs and cognitive capacities will be replaced or enhanced with technologically superior alternatives. At some point in the future, all that is human—like everything else on the planet and every other planet within our grasp, I suppose—will have been refashioned, and we will have made ourselves into an entirely new kind of artificial life form and thus achieve technological immortality. For transhumanists, this is our manifest destiny as a species.

Transhumanism is ridiculous on its face (whether that face is made of flesh or a synthetic bioplastic). Its core assumptions emerge from a failure to distinguish metaphor from reality—especially with respect to biological evolution—and reflect a post-industrial, technology-centered projection of enlightenment-era notions of human progress. But from a psychological standpoint, there is more to transhumanism than mere metaphoric confusion. It is a childish attempt to disguise and deny uncomfortable truths of post-modern life. It provides a kind of fairytale gloss over the dehumanizing and oppressive nature of global civilization.

Transhumanism is ridiculous; nevertheless it may harbor a kernel of validity, especially with respect to the "transition" part. Global industrial civilization—like all civilizations of the past—is unsustainable and simply cannot continue. As fossil resources become stretched to the vanishing point, as potable water and palatable food become more and more rarified commodities, as poverty spreads and expands among the masses while wealth and power become increasingly concentrated in a shrinking elite, we may indeed be transitioning into a posthuman future, albeit one in which humans—artificial and otherwise—are entirely absent.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Vengeful gods lead to global conquest?

Headline from the Washington Post (February 12, 2016): “Fear of a vengeful God may explain humanity’s global expansion”

Several thing here. First, and most trivially, god was spelled with a capital ‘G’ in the headline and throughout the article. I suspect that this was done so as not to offend sensitive monotheists. But more insidious are the dual implications that “humanity” refers to a singular kind of substance and that having this substance spread itself across the globe was a good thing.

Taken at face value the headline is tautology, obvious to anyone with an eighth grade public school understanding of world history. From the conquistadores to the Puritans, 16th century European colonial expansion into the new world is a tale of the exploits (literally) of vengeful god believers—with smallpox-packing missionaries thrust against indigenous resistance like psychological battering rams.

The story following the headline is about a psychology experiment finding that people whose religious beliefs include a vengeful, all-knowing god are less likely to cheat when playing a game in which their cheating could not be discovered. Basically, participants in the study played several rounds of a game in which they rolled a two-colored die in their head and put coins into cups depending on the imagined outcome. After a participant imagined rolling a die in their head, the experimenter told them what the randomly chosen color for that round was. If the color they imagined rolling “matched” the color the experimenter told them, they “won” that round and could put a coin in their own cup. If it mismatched, they lost and had to put a coin in the cup of an imagined distant person from their own religious community. Cheating was measured by the extent to which the coins were unequally distributed (in the person’s favor) after the game. Participants who believe in an omniscient god who would punish you for lying were less likely to put more coins into their own cup.

The researchers went from these results to the conclusion that this—the belief in an all-seeing and punishing god—explains the broad-based cooperation among strangers that is prerequisite for large-scale cultural expansion.

All-seeing sky-god = global conquest? Perhaps pushing the data just a bit.

Perhaps more problematic is the thought form that sees humanity as an entity capable of entering into cause and effect relationships. It wasn’t some abstract humanity that expanded itself around the globe. It was individual persons locked into potent and irresistible hierarchical power relations—relations imposed and enforced through lethal violence.

And while it is true that religion turns out to be an extremely useful tool for legitimizing these power relations, belief in an all-seeing deity with anger management problems hardly explains the African slave trade or the genocide of Indigenous Americans.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to kill a zombie

Vampires, werewolves, mummies, and zombies, the classic horror movie villains, have something eerily in common. They all involve a tradeoff in which some version of immortality is obtained at the expense of one or more critical elements of their human essence. The "undead" vampire is reduced to photophobic hunter, his cold and emotionless immortality requiring continual renewal with the blood of fresh victims. The werewolf, entirely immune to all weapons not made of pure silver, is forced under the spell of the waxing moon to periodically abandon his humanity entirely and become a bloodthirsty beast. The mummy rises stiffly from his eternal resting place to serve sentence on those who flagrantly violate the curse that was cast to guard his dusty peace. Zombies continue as mindless and soulless corpses, hungrily pursuing the living in an insatiable quest for brains. The thing that makes each of these creatures scary isn’t so much that they go around killing innocent people—hell, cheap toasters do that—it’s that they are almost, but not quite, human. They have a quasi-humanity in which some critical component, some vital human element, has been removed. And in their almost-but-not-quite-humanity, they are exactly like us in a way that is truly terrifying.

The zombie case is particularly informative. Here we have the merest form of the human, the decaying dead body animated by some inhuman force. What is curious here is that in most zombie movies, the locus of this animating force is not entirely clear. Is it an internal hunger for brains that drives the walking dead? If so, then the zombie is not entirely dead to the world of desire. Or, is it an externally existing power, a spirit of evil (or the machinations of a brain-eating virus) that drives the not-creatures through a web of magnetic attraction? Notice that the specific locus of the controlling impetus usually makes no difference in terms of how to actually stop the zombie. In almost every case, you "kill" the zombie by smashing or severing its head.

There may be a cryptic lesson here for those who wish to escape the brain-eating beast called civilization and return to an authentic human realm of meaning and purpose.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A tale of two frogs

There is a well-known parable about frogs in boiling water: if you throw a frog into boiling water it jumps out immediately, but, according to the tale, if you put a frog in cold water and then heat the water slowly, you will have frog soup long before the frog figures it out. The slow ascendance of civilization over the course of millennia has put us in the position of the second frog. By the time it is possible to recognize what is happening, it is far too late. In addition, civilization erases all memory of anything outside itself; we are frogs in hot water who have forgotten what life was like before we were thrown into the kettle. For those born within civilization’s penumbra, civilization appears as the primordial clay out of which life is formed, it is the benevolent source of all personal meaning. All overt traces of what came before, the rich authentic human life-ways that have been destroyed in the civilizing process, have been lost to conscious memory and reside only as wispy shades of latent genetic potential and a pervasive sense of unease.

Historically, the dissolution of human authenticity occurred in two interpenetrating and overlapping waves. The first came with the slow transition to agriculture, a merging of social technology with lifestyles based on cultivated grain. The second came with the pestilent outbreak of cities, malignant concentrations of social power entirely dependent on resources obtainable only through ever-expanding growth and conquest. But history is just a story of the past; it cannot be the cause of future change. Securing the future requires access to the minds of children, and so history is made to repeat itself on a micro scale, as civilization tames and colonizes the emerging psychology of each developing child. By the time the water feels hot, all that is wild and human in us has already been blanched into a pale and helpless facsimile.

Language itself is in some sense the enemy here. Our ability to think symbolically and our penchant for carving the world into abstractions obscure the reality of our situation beneath an overabundance of easy rationalization. The truth of our circumstances should be obvious, but the truth is masked behind unanalyzable assumptions. Even if we suspect that we are sitting in boiling water, it is unlikely that we will correctly identify the source of the heat. And our capacity to rationalize—coached and trained and elevated to a fine art through formal education—makes the potential for misidentification extremely high.

There is another far more obscure frog story that might be applied as allegory to our failure to recognize what should be obvious. It is a story about a scientist who trained a frog to jump in response to a shouted command, cut off the frog’s legs one at a time, and upon discovering that the distance the frog jumped became progressively shorter with each additional leg removed, concluded that cutting off a frog’s legs makes it deaf.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Ego-tech

Personal identity has always been a social function. As individuals, we are nothing more and nothing less than the totality of our group affiliations.

Biologically, we carry the genetic residue of our ancestry, linking us to groups of beings long dead.

Psychologically, in the present tense, we are bound to those in close physical proximity by shared circumstance and the inertia of habit.

Societally, we are deeply embedded in a shared soup of culture and subculture, communally connected to various others through traditional norms, through roles (voluntarily embraced and otherwise) and role expectations, and through implicit or explicit allegiances (voluntarily adopted or otherwise) to abstract entities, for example nations, states, ethnicities, religions, political denominations, and corporate masters.

Civilization involves an intentional structuring of the affiliations that make up our personal identities so that our identities are made compatible with goals that have little or nothing to do with actual needs of human beings. And in the present digital version of industrial civilization, mass technology has become both the means and the ends of the identity structuring process.

Technology, once simply the means by which a clever species adapted to the challenges and opportunities of local environments, has become the environment itself; technology has become both the thing to which our adaptation is directed and the thing providing the means of adaptation.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The other side of the wall

Polar bears are not really white. Their skin is actually closer to black. And their fur has no pigment at all; its white appearance is due to light refraction. Polar bear hide has evolved to function as a solar collector: the individual hair fibers are clear and hollow, and act like fiber optic tubes that trap sunlight and channel warmth to the bear’s heat-absorbing skin. When polar bears are forced to live in zoos south of their arctic habitats, algae begins to grow in their hollow hair, and their pelt takes on a decidedly non-aesthetic yellowish brown color. During peak visitor season, zookeepers have been known to spray the bears with bleach because nobody wants to see a less-than-white polar bear.

I have compared our civilized situation to that of confined animals on display in a strange sort of zoo where we act as both captive and keeper. Like the discolored captive polar bear, we are forced to accommodate an unnatural habitat and are disfigured by the mismatch. And like the bear, our keepers—that is, you and I—resort to superficial methods for concealing the resulting ugliness. But the ugliness is just a symptom, of course. The real problem, for us and for the bear, is captivity.

But the zoo metaphor makes for a too rough analogy. For one thing, our enclosures are not limited to concrete walls and iron bars. Our enclosures are not mere physical structures designed to confine us to a circumscribed physical place. Instead they penetrate the very tissue of our thoughts and provide the psychological structure that frames our experience. Our enclosures appear absolute; there is no outside. Also, because we are ultimately our own keepers, our self-confinement needs continuous, moment by moment renewal. This is accomplished through a steady diet of anxiety and fear. Fear serves as an ever-present reminder to keep to our assigned place in the bureaucratic order, and anxiety becomes our mantra of impotence.

Both the fear and the anxiety are of our own design—we hold the keys to our cage. All we have to do is open the door and walk through. But first we have to find the door. And before we can do that we have to know that a door is possible, we have to recognize that there is a world outside after all.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Stepping through

There is a place not far from here, much closer than you might imagine, where there are no strangers, where the birds and the trees and the mountain and the wind are known by the names they call themselves—names spoken in a language without words, in a dialect older than the sun.

There is a place nearby where each day is accepted without question as a gift of infinite value from a giver of infinite benevolence, a precious vessel to be filled to the point of overflowing with laughter and story and song and dance and breath and life, where thirst comes on strong with throbbing in the temples and cool water is always close at hand.

There is a place where children play from sunup to sundown and yet have few toys, where school is in session all year long, but the humiliations of a classroom are unknown, where all living things are wise and patient teachers, where each day’s lesson reveals a new and marvelous world.

There is a place just outside the fence where there are no fences or walls or enclosures of any kind, where the land freely caresses the horizon in the spaces between the hills and the sky bends down to carry your feet lightly along the path to the river where a lover waits with hopeful eyes.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Opening prayer

The meeting begins with a medieval ritual incantation meant to secure the attention of a bronze-age sky-dwelling war god, and then proceeds as if the agenda can be taken seriously from that point on. But it is taken seriously—and that’s the thing that really amazes me. I’ve been teaching at a Catholic college for almost two decades, so one would think I would be used to it by now. But it still catches me on occasion: the degree of psychological compartmentalization required to accommodate the absurdity of Christianity in an overhyped digital age that proclaims god is dead more loudly with each new technical innovation.