It’s Life, Jim, But Not As We Know it.

It may not have the elegance and beauty of the artwork in the Lascaux cave complex in France, but sometimes I wonder if such items as this might one day be seen as archaeologically significant artefacts which document primitive communications between ourselves and evolving new species of Artificial Intelligence.

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Computer punch card, Australia, circa early 1970s. From my personal collection.

On the other hand, early computer punch cards might ultimately be seen a vestigial remnant of our own evolution: in line with Transhumanist ideas, emerging AI technology may combine with us to create distinctive new transbiological phenotype-genotype variations.

Will Artificial Intelligence evolve as a separate species, or will we co-evolve to become a mix of something that is as conjoined as we are with Neanderthals and Denisovans? Will we face Colossus the Forbin Project or HAL9000 as our overlords, or will we simply evolve into variations of bionic people, cybermen, or the Borg? Either way, resistance will not only be futile, it may be as retrograde as those who, today, deny the reality of evolution or vaccines or other scientific discoveries in our modern world.

Despite our cultural fears of everything from Frankenstein’s Monster to the Terminator, I do not fear whatever lies ahead. Indeed, when I glimpse at my old souvenir computer punch cards, I am reminded of Miranda’s utterance from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Our future beckons, full of strange and wondrous things. Let’s make it glorious and embrace it.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Take the Red Pill?

Artist: Miriam English

It is over twenty years since the science fiction film, The Matrix burst onto our screens and most famously introduced possibly millions of viewers to philosophical ideas such as Simulation Theory and the potential dangers of unregulated technological advancement. Are we living inside a computer simulation?

Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie involved the lead character having to choose between taking a blue pill, which would allow him to continue living in a blissfully unaware fantasy state, or a red pill, which would wake him up to whatever harsh reality actually existed in his real world.

This metaphor has apparently been adopted by elements of cyberculture, with one usage of the urban slang term, ‘red pill’ meaning ‘a waking up from a ‘normal’ life of sloth and ignorance’ and choosing the hard road – facing authentic life, warts and all.

By contrast, ethicist Jessica Baron suggests that the western world has been choosing the blue pill – blissful ignorance of the world’s problems:

“Our creature comforts are too nice, too necessary (at least we believe) to give up, and we’ve proved over and over again that we’re unwilling to do so, even if it makes the world safer or fairer for other people.” 

Perhaps the era of COVID is a good wake-up call. While some entitled people in certain western nations bewail home isolation and an inability to get a haircut, others in developing nations live in more severe conditions, where they lack even the most basic food, shelter or medical facilities. Like many other plagues down through history, COVID will undoubtedly prove to be predominantly an affliction of the poor. While world inequity provides opportunities for COVID to linger in poor communities, the virus will remain a threat to us all. If morality is insufficient to motivate us to the task, then surely enlightened self-interest should compel the world to confront such inequality.

It may be time for our culture to get redpilled out of our complacency. Let’s use the era of COVID as an opportunity to change the world for the better.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

From Omelas to Optimists

Binary Takeoff,
art by Ditmar (Dick Jenssen).

Science fiction is a popular form of film and literature, which often combines allegory and archetypes, myth and metaphor. A modern-day secular reworking of ancient mystical or religious archetypes – from Hercules to Harry Potter, from King Arthur to Katniss Everdeen – the lives of modern science fictional heroes echo across time and culture. Superman, Luke Skywalker and Harley Quinn reboot the ancient Rank-Raglan Hero Pattern, and their alien territories evoke unknown places on ye olde maps that were once marked, ‘Here There Be Dragons’.

Amidst this diversity of creativity and counterpoint, Ursula Le Guin was a famous twentieth century science fiction and fantasy author who was perhaps best known for ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, a story that explores themes of both feminism and non-binary gender identities. In 1973, she wrote a short story entitled, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In the ‘Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature’ lecture series, Professor Pamela Bedore examines Le Guin’s latter story as an example of both an aspirational tale and a warning of a future to avoid:

Imagine a perfect society, where everyone has their needs met, and life appears obliviously joyous and carefree. But this society has a hidden secret: in some strange, inexplicable way, their happiness is predicated upon the suffering of a small child who is locked in a basement. Even utopia has its price.

To me, this story evokes the paradox of modern Australian society, self-proclaimed bastion of egalitarianism and land of a ‘fair go’, in which we overlook the disadvantage of indigenous Australians, callously lock away refugees and asylum seekers, and largely ignore the plight of homeless, unemployed and disempowered people.

Extending the Omelas metaphor even further, we can see that affluent nations gain much of their wealth and privilege through the exploitation and suffering of other human beings in developing nations, and from exploiting our environment. Are we really enlightened as a species? What can we do to abolish such inequality?

We can act, but first we have to dare to dream. One popular science fiction genre is the Star Trek franchise, created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, in which his original vision was a galaxy filled with noble creatures, and a future free from war, famine, plague and inequality. Roddenberry challenged us to ‘Make It So’. The possibility of a better world ennobles those who undertake such a quest.

Science fiction, like much of our popular culture, is often dystopian in nature. In reel life, as in real life, we must choose our adventures and our heroes.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Soulful Science

I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense that he inevitably espoused as a man of his time.” – Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul, p. 279.

Photo of Geoff at Refugee Rally, Melbourne, Australia, 7 December 2019, photo by Michael Barnett.

It may come as a surprise that Richard Dawkins has not only written about Jesus, but has done so respectfully, upholding Jesus as a potential role model for us all.

Dawkins’ book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (New York: Random House, 2017) contains a collection of his eclectic writings from varied sources, including Atheists for Jesus, a column originally published in Free Inquiry in December 2004.

Dawkins does not explore in any great detail the question of whether or not Jesus was an actual historical figure, and he certainly dismisses the mythological aspects of virgin births and other miracles that violate known physical laws. But he also acknowledges what he calls the superniceness of a man whose teachings, whether real, fictional or mythological, stand in apparent contradiction to Darwinism (and in contradiction to religious organisations that amass great wealth or who foster ‘epidemics of evangelism’).

Of course, Dawkins’ analogy becomes strained when pondering the reality that Jesus’ teachings were not without their shortcomings. Nor were his ideas unique – many other philosophies and religions have echoed similar doctrines of benevolence and optimism, and similarly failed to deliver. This includes the failure that Carl Sagan assigns to science: ‘Many of us [scientists] didn’t even bother to think about the long-term consequences of our inventions… In too many cases, we have lacked a moral compass.’ (Billions and Billions, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 164).

Perhaps part of our role as Humanists is to raise a voice, and take an ethical stand in a secular world that seeks principles. In line with Dawkins’ idea, I have heard it said that Humanism is, “Christianity without Christ”. If this is true, I wonder if we align more closely with liberation theology (liberation for the poor and oppressed) than with prosperity theology (faith aligned with prosperity). Inverting the “Christians without Christ” concept, was Jesus actually a Humanist despite his veneer of pre-scientific religion?

As atheists and Humanists, perhaps we should ponder Richard Dawkins’ words to consider superniceness as something that we can learn from alleged religious principles. Not only would this help create a nicer world, but it may also build a bridge between us and religious progressives.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Stardust

“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god!”
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)

Shakespeare’s monologue from Hamlet encapsulates the essence of what today we call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendence beyond the religious understandings of his day, his words assign us a place in nature as ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what Shakespeare defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ might today be more evocatively seen as ‘stardust’.

Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet his words symbolise the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.

Yet as the world struggles to cope with the coronavirus crisis, we are reminded of the limitations of so much human activity and aspiration. Economics, politics, the rise and fall of empires – all contain the hubris evoked in the 1818 poem by atheist and lover of humanity, Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing of ancient ruins:

Column of Ramesseum by Emile Prisse (1878), digitally enhanced by Rawpixel Ltd, CC BY 4.0

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Such is a sobering thought regarding the transitory and brief scope of individual humans to make a positive, permanent mark upon the universe around them. Carl Sagan rescues us from the deceit of nihilism by locating us within the very fabric of the universe:

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” (Cosmos, London: Macdonald, 1980, p. 233).

Humanist Merrill Miller documents US swimmer Diana Nyad as noting that atheists can, feel wonder and awe at the grandeur of the natural world without the need for a higher power‘. As an atheist and lesbian, Nyad offers a personal and individual perspective. Perhaps all Humanists can appreciate the diversity, uniqueness and special nature of the universe that is contained within each of us.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

It Gets Better

Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag design, rendered by Guanaco et al, CCO 1.0

US 2013 Humanist of the Year, Dan Savage, is perhaps best known for his adult advice column. But his major contribution to humanity may be his LGBT activism, particularly the It Gets Better Project, founded in 2010 as a response to anti-LGBT bullying. Savage had hoped that 100 people might contribute videos in support of young LGBT people; but within weeks he had received thousands of videos, including one from then-President Barack Obama.  Kevin Rudd and NASA also offered support.

Such is the power of humanism: finding common humanity and offering compassion and uncompromising support where it is most needed.

A humanist perspective can be life-changing. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, whose year in space allowed scientists to investigate the long-term effects of spaceflight, as measured against his Earth-bound twin brother; has spoken about how a cosmic perspective can create awareness of environmental and humanist ideals.

As we experience the COVID-19 crisis, we have the opportunity to apply such principles and remould Australian Humanism into a twenty-first century powerhouse – and beyond that, to determine what sort of future world we wish to create.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

We Are The World

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity.”
—Marie Curie

Via the above quote, Jennifer Bardi at The Humanist  identifies Marie Curie’s atheism as aligning with humanist values. Curie is one of many women whom we should be proud to claim within our movement.

There are many sources discussing Marie Curie’s secular life and views. The Openly Secular website states that she was either atheist or agnostic, while the Freedom from Religion Foundation reports that her whole family self-identified as Rationalist. Humanists UK even reports that Marie and Pierre’s wedding was a secular occasion.

Marie Curie serves as a humanist hero and role model, both for her scientific achievements and for her freethought views. Her words can even empower and comfort us during this era of coronavirus:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Another writer for The Humanist, Krista Cox, asks why women like Marie Curie appear to be largely written out of the predominantly male narrative that so often accompanies atheism and secularism. She notes the humanism of women including Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Smeal, and Mathilde Krim. The fact that such activists and humanist heroes may remain somewhat unknown to fellow humanists – and to the world at large –  reveals how vast is the problem.

Taslima Nasrin notes that “Secularism is necessary for women’s freedom simply because religions—all religions—are opposed to women’s freedom.” Moreso, it is important that women are encouraged, welcomed and empowered in our movement because it makes us all stronger.

Openly queer atheist and blogger Greta Christina notes other atheist/humanist women whose activism is changing our world, and whose contribution should be acknowledged. These include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Debbie Goddard, Maryam Namazie, and Mina Ahadi. Christina notes that these women exist alongside other atheists, including David Suzuki and Anthony Pinn, within other culturally and linguistically diverse cohorts whose contribution is also often overlooked within our humanist, atheist and freethought circles.

This must change, because we are the world. This is our future.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Pandemic ≠ Panic

“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated.”
– Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Photo of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 1983 at Robert Ingersoll statue, Peoria, Illinois. photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0

We live at a time when our normal human activities have been upended.

Many people around the world seek consolation within their places of worship, in defiance of social isolation mandates, and thereby become vulnerable to potential infection. Affluent nations close their borders and their hearts to the sufferings of people in less affluent nations, who will undoubtedly endure a disproportionate impact of the virus as it sweeps the world.

Humanists can take this as an opportunity.

As people who defer to medical science and trust that a way forward can best be sought through evidentiary inquiry, our rationality must also be tempered with compassion. This is a time of coming together, assisting those within our communities. Phone calls and other electronic communications are ways through which we can keep in touch. There may even be avenues of practical action (within the confines of social isolation) where we can help ourselves and others.

Our local and global communities equally deserve our consideration.

Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair is sometimes referred to as the ‘most hated woman in America‘ because she dared to agitate for the US separation of church and state. Rather than deferring to thoughts and prayers, her principles of pragmatic activism (as expressed in the quote above) demonstrate values to which Humanists can subscribe.

We remain part of the human family, and we have the responsibility to come up with solutions that can help to change our world.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn