Cosmonautics Day, Yuri’s Night

Commemorating Sixty Years of Humans in Space, 12 April 2021
International Day of Human Space Flight

“Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict
and just big enough for co-operation.” – Yuri Gagarin

1965 Soviet Union 12 kopeks stamp. Cosmonautics Day. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Sir Isaac Newton is famously attributed, in his 1675 letter, with the metaphor that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can certainly appreciate his allusion to the intellectual and scientific giants who have changed our world. And yet the metaphor has earlier attribution that includes Christian humanist Guillaume de Conches, and implictly accords greatness to people from many backgrounds and cultures across humanity. In 1961, a young Soviet pilot became one such giant by literally going boldly where no one had gone before.

I am lucky to have been born – with barely one fortnight to spare – into a generation that will, in the mists of history, be remembered as one which truly took a step into a new frontier and maybe changed forever what it means to be human. This revolutionary change was spearheaded by 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, born into a family with seemingly evocative Biblical overtones (his parents were a carpenter and a dairy farmer) whose trip on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok lasted just 89 minutes. With his short cosmic jaunt, he plugged into the timeless dreams of philosophers and stargazers, and tapped into our most primal dreams of flight:

YURI GAGARIN Maj. Yuri Gagarin during training, April 1961. The black-and-white photo has been colorized. AP Photo / TASS / Mattias Malmer (public domain). Planetary Society.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

– from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee

Poet John Gillespie Magee recognises the common human need for awe, rapture and transcendence. We can all sense the wondrous, and feel transformed by its touch, even those of us who do not assign divine agency to such profound emotion. Thus the voyage of Yuri Gagarin into our night sky allowed us all to revisit the wide-eyed curiosity, exhilaration and pleasure of a child dipping their toe into the gently lapping waves of a cosmic sea shore.

While writing such testimony, I resist the conceit of mythopoesis, the process of creating myth; a human tendency that was evident in those who sought to recast Gagarin as a Russian icon, or ascribe him an aristocratic family background. Nevertheless, the reality is that Gagarin was a genuine pioneer and hero, and that his was a dangerous journey aboard a flawed, fragile capsule hoisted aloft by explosive propellant. The background stories behind his life, flight, and tragic death, are all shrouded in Soviet-style mystery, and certainly help to demythologise his narrative. In the early days of the space race, cosmonauts and astronauts were referred to in the USA as people with ‘the right stuff’, able to tap into inner reserves of resilience and indomitability. Gagarin’s background may have prepared him for such a hardy adventure. William Blake alluded to noble human attributes that can be found within the souls of such giants:

“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?”

The Tyger by William Blake.

The boldness of such human spirit is demonstrated by the many changes that have served as a quantum leap for our species. These include the discovery of fire, our first modern DNA ancestral male or female, the invention of language or the printing press, the development of ancient/indigenous cultures, the invention of agriculture or cities, the abolition of slavery, gender equality, the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the invention of antibiotics or the Internet; or any of many other possible watershed moments in our history. Each of these has, in its own way, redefined what it is to be human – as may our evolution from Earthbound species to space-faring one, even though that evolution may seem imperceptible at the time to those who experience the change. Already, NASA has catalogued over 2000 spinoffs from the space program that have enhanced our lives and our world – many of these being ubiquitous items in our everyday space-age lives.

So it will be in the galactic era to come. Our human ability to dream and to grow will ensure that, pending survival from pandemic and parochial war, we have a potentially wonderful future ahead. Claiming a habitat in space may ensure our long-term survival as a species should a meteor or microbe threaten planetary extinction here on Earth. The harshness of environmental conditions on other worlds will hopefully make us mindful of the need to wisely and optimally utilise interplanetary resources, while also ensuring the backbone of a thriving space economy and perspective that has the potential to benefit all of humanity and other life in our planetary ecosystem. Learning to terraform other planets may give us the ability to also terraform our home planet back from climate catastrophe.

Yuri Gagarin, AZ Quotes

Any suggestion that space exploration is somehow a waste of time or money is really quite problematic for a number of reasons: it invokes the hypocrisy of creationists, religious fundamentalists, and anti-science denialists who wish to promote some form of luddite society while still enjoying the benefits of our scientific age; and it stifles the human impulse to look up in awe and seek to explore and evolve. It ignores the lessons of history that science has improved the quality and quantity of our lives, and that those societies which resist progress actually go backwards. Perhaps most pointedly (in contradiction to the populist maxim that the money spent on space should instead be spent on the poor), the space program actually has the potential – when adopted widely and wisely – to assist developing nations, to supply valuable infrastructure and to help the environment. We cannot fight poverty if we economically, scientifically or intellectually impoverish ourselves.

1961 Gagarin Souvenir
(Personal collection)

On this anniversary, let us celebrate the fact that humanity took its first tangible step into space on the first Cosmonautics Day, 12 April 1961 – the day when Yuri Gagarin soared (however momentarily) into space, and changed our world. Celebrated annually across Russia and aligned nations, Cosmonautics Day was officially declared International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. The occasion has been supplemented since 2001 with the addition of Yuri’s Night, described as ‘space-themed partying with education and outreach‘. Our future is coming, and we should prepare. Let us honour the dreams and wonderment of billions of people down through the millennia, as they looked up at the cosmos and into our possible future:

May our next trip into space be bold and ambitious, reflective of the utterance: “Poyekhali!!” (“Let’s go!”) that began Gagarin’s launch in 1961 – and turned our species forever from Homo sapiens into Homo galacticus.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

We Are All Spock

For First Contact Day, 5 April 2063

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

“[Actor Leonard Nimoy] wrote autobiographical tomes variously titled, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock; perhaps his next book should have been titled, We Are All Spock.” – (Allshorn, 2015, 12)

NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The original Star Trek series was created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, who presented a utopian vision wherein science and society had evolved to create a future without war, injustice or other human foibles. Spock was one of his most noble, popular and inspirational creations.

Star Trek was a television series with ambitions that were larger than the television screen: “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables – morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background.” (Gerrold, 1973, 48)

Spock was a true scientist and humanitarian. He explored the galaxy (and nature) with an open-minded sense of awe and wonder, frequently expressing his admiration for “fascinating” new discoveries. He also explored the structures and strictures of pure logic – and, in his case, concluded that the discipline was too constricting within a wider social context. His approach to life therefore incorporated a healthy respect for logic balanced with ethics and humanitarianism, reflecting his own inner struggle to balance his humanity with other aspects of his personality. Spock was capable of ignoring emotive considerations when there was a need for cold, hard logic; but he was also capable of great loyalty and self-sacrificial dedication to his science, his captain and his crew. His words to James Kirk echo his sentiment to millions of fans: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock for nearly fifty years, spoke of his character’s widespread appeal:

“Here is an ET of superior intelligence and abilities. Capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure, and emotional needs. Dealing (supposedly) only with the facts in each case and the logical conclusions. The period in which Spock arrived was one of polarization over major political and social issues. The war in Viet Nam, the drug culture, the black revolution, assassinations, etc. Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans could turn for solutions to thorny problems.” (Nimoy, 1975, 93 & 94)

In this era of science denialism, Trumpism, Brexit and conspiracy theories, perhaps we need Spock more than ever. We should all aspire to be more like Spock. It’s only logical.

Science is Golden

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the series, Spock (representing science and logic) provided life-saving scientific data so that he and McCoy (a character representing raw emotion) could help Kirk (the decision-maker) to weigh up options and determine the most logical and ethical response to each of life’s challenges. Jeremy Nicholas affirms that ‘Kirk is caught between Apollonian Spock (rational, logical, ordered, controlled) and Dionysian McCoy (emotional, instinctive, passionate). In every episode Kirk faces a decision whereby he gets conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile.’ Stephen Fry also examines this duality within Star Trek.

The conflict between Spock and McCoy might also be seen as an exploration of the gap between what CP Snow calls, ‘the two cultures‘ i.e. science and the humanities/arts – a gap that I argue is bridged by science fiction such as Star Trek.

The impact of the Spock character upon popular culture cannot be underestimated. It is acknowledged that Star Trek inspired many people – including women – into a career in science, innovation or technology. Nimoy recalled in 1995:

“On a recent visit to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who warmly shared with me their gratitude towards Star Trek and Spock. It always amazes and touches me to discover how deeply the series affected so many people’s lives – people who chose careers in science, astronomy, space exploration, all because of one television show called Star Trek.” (Nimoy, 1995, 332)

May this cultural influence – like the fictional Spock character itself – live long and prosper.

Outer and Inner Space

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

This duality between logic and emotion, between science and humanity, was internal as well as external. The Spock character struggled – as might we all at times – to balance his emotions with rationality and logic. This was encapsulated in one of his famous sayings: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’, which revealed his internal fight between seeking significance for the individual ego versus a willingness to subvert ego in order to serve the wider community – a common human struggle. Spock’s internal conflict was declared as resolved by creator Gene Roddenberry in 1968:

Spock’s stoic temperament, his refusal to say anything or do anything not based solely on logic, is… a reflection of his Vulcan heritage. Complete adherence to logic is the primary motivating factor in the Vulcan mental process. Of necessity, complete suppression of emotions is required, lest logic be influenced in any way.” (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968, 225).

However, it has been suggested that Spock’s stoicism was actually problematic:

“All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.”

Therefore, we must be careful to consider the logic/emotion binary with an appropriate amount of nuance and depth; and be mindful that ‘Star Trek’s logic illustrates weaknesses in pop psychology’s models of emotions, intuition, logic, and morality.’ Blogger Hannah G gives a good reinterpretation of Spock’s internal logic/emotion binary:

“It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account.”

In pondering the inner confict within each of us, Spock was able to exercise intellect while also extending respect and empathy, as demonstrated in this conversation about Kirk, which took place between Spock and his Vulcan protégé Saavik:
Saavik: He’s so – human.
Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.

The Alien Within

As something of an alien and outsider – as we all are – Spock not only celebrated diversity, but he epitomised the nobility and dignity that we all seek as we explore our own place within the cosmos and seek to make a difference. His culture contained the IDIC emblem – a mix of shapes combined to create a divergent symbol for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Spock is an ‘Everyman’ figure for us all: he served as a metaphoric combination of alien and human. Spock gained pop culture significance in the 1960s and beyond because of this ‘Everyman’ status. He was literally an alien hidden in plain sight, particularly for adolescents/adults seeking role models:

“The teenager coping with the fiercely complex problems of adolescence often feels very much alone… Spock easily resolves this dilemma. He has superior insight. He can quickly understand the nature of the problem. He has studied the human race. He is a pure authority on the problem… He is future. He can be compassionate in his judgment and dispassionate in his help. To the young female, there is no sexual threat. Spock is asexual.” (Nimoy, 1975, 97 & 98)

I have previously written that ‘many fans upheld Spock an an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness’ (Allshorn, 2020, 90); I have similarly paid tribute within my 2015 eulogy to actor Leonard Nimoy:

“Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair.” (Allshorn, 2015, 13; also cited in Allshorn, 2020, 91)

Or, as James Kirk said more concisely: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

Modern Mythology

We all seek heroes. That is part of our human condition – to explore, emulate and aspire towards our role models, heroes and leaders. Across literature, heroic archetypes are often reboots of time-honoured templates. In this instance, Spock might be seen as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, or Odysseus. His captain, James Kirk, might be King Arthur, Jason (of Argonaut fame) or Robin Hood. Superman might be seen as a secular revisitation of religious figures.William Indick examines the Lord Raglan Hero Pattern and other cultural heroic archetypes, and examines how modern secular heroes are reworkings of old tropes:

“While science has replaced divinity and the superhero has replaced the demi-god in the expression of the hero myth, the basic archetypal structure of the hero pattern has not changed – and probably will never change, as the hero character serves the same function today as he did thousands of years ago. Heroes are simply ourselves projected outwardly. Their stories are our stories…” – Indick, 2002, 20).

To this end, we might examine how Spock shares characteristics of ancient heroic templates according to the Raglan mythotype:

(I have added my modern secular reworkings of how Spock conforms to archetypal characteristics).

Mother is a royal virgin (secular reworking: Amanda, Spock’s mother, was a homely school teacher; his step mother was a Vulcan princess)
Father is a king (Sarek was an ambassador)
Unusual conception (first Vulcan-human hybrid)
Hero reputed to be son of god (child of human mother and male from celestial domain)
Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather (Spock ‘rejected’ by Sarek as being ‘too human/emotional’ during infancy? Rejected by Sarek for many years after joining Starfleet)
Hero spirited away as a child (taught how to suppress emotions and hide his inner feelings from the outside world)
Reared by foster parents in a far country (adopted by ‘Enterprise’ family?)
No details of childhood (except for losing Sehlat as child)
Returns or goes to future kingdom (travels into space)
Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast (is victorious on many alien adventures)
Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) (is betrothed to T’Pring)
Becomes king (becomes science officer, Starfleet captain, and ambassador)
For a time he reigns uneventfully (successful career in Starfleet)
He prescribes laws (he enjoys command as Starfleet officer and science officer)
Later loses favor with gods or his subjects (falls out with father over career choice, tension with some Vulcans who reject his emotional facets, killed by adversary Khan Noonien Singh)
Meets with mysterious death (‘Kobayashi Maru’ and Genesis resurrection following Khan space battle)
Often at the top of a hill (Enterprise engine room/Mount Selaya)
His children, if any, do not succeed him (His apprentices, Saavik and Valeris, do not succeed him as he had hoped)
His body is not buried (put in coffin/torpedo on Genesis planet/resurrected on Vulcan)
Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs (Katra travels from McCoy to others then back to Spock)

According to my interpretation, Spock has more archetypical attributes of a mythical hero than does King Arthur, Jesus or Moses. As Spock might say: ‘Fascinating.’

What does this tell us about humanity? It is said that, ‘One of the chief purposes of literature is a means of exploring what it is to be human.’ In pondering the fictional Spock, we can examine ourselves.

“We Are All Spock” – Karin Blair (Blair, 1979, 160).

Image by mdherren from Pixabay

Author’s Note: I have not included any examination of the Spock character from the reboot movies and timeline. These other versions have insufficient background and character detail at this time to enable any informed assessment. They also appear to lack the archetypal nobility of Spock Xtmprosqzntwlfdb as presented in the original Star Trek series and movies.

References:

Allshorn, Geoff, 2015. ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931—2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12—13.
– – – – – – – – -, 2020. “Life, but not as We Know It: Star Trek, fan culture, slash fiction and the queering of Starfleet Command”, Bent Street 4.1, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 89 – 100.

Blair, Karin, 1979. Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.

Gerrold, David, 1973. The World of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

Indick, William, 2004. Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero. Media Psychology, 9.

Nimoy, Leonard, 1975. I Am Not Spock, Millbrae: Celestial Arts.
– – – – – – – – -, 1995. I Am Spock, Sydney: Random House.

Whitfield, Stephen and Roddenberry, Gene, 1968. The Making of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy Birthday to Us All

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead. ” – Kurt Vonnegut

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Based on a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria,
and recorded at Future Salon in Melbourne in 2013.

As I celebrate a significant birthday, I pause and reflect upon my life as an amalgam of past, present and future. Like the multiple birthdays we find in the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, life itself is full of births and rebirths and reboots. Every day we experience new opportunities and observe new directions in our personal and collective journeys towards the future. Like a modern Vitruvian Man, we can stand in a landscape vista and spread our arms wide with joy and wonderment at glimpsing myriad variations on the theme of life and cosmology.

In my case, I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year – perhaps not surprisingly – but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.

A fortnight before my birth, Humanists Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.

More than that, 1961 might ultimately be seen by future historians and anthropologists as ushering in a new era of human evolution. The epoch of human spaceflight might prove to be as significant as the change brought about by the arrival of the Holocene era some 10,000 years ago (?), in which humanity was learning to transition from hunter to herder, from nomad to settler. In 1961, maybe we began our next human journey as cosmic nomads hunting for new places to settle.

Such transition is visible in both mega and mundane forms: the human animal evolves both collectively and individually. As a species, we appear to have undergone a philosophical and intellectual growth spurt about two millennia ago – known as the Axial Age. When individual humans go through a similar period of intellectual transformation, we call it puberty. Like all children going through that transition in my own life, I came to a realisation that our personal dreams do not match external reality, and that for all our wishes that we might live in the best of all possible worlds, there are many indications that reality falls far short of that ideal. After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood – in particular, its treatment of LGBTQIA+ people, culturally and racially diverse communities, women, refugees and others living in deprivation, and the natural world around us – I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming, and in my case I began a life journey as an atheist – full of yearning to express my optimism through activism.

“ Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

“ And that’s a pretty big hope. ” – Greta Christina.

Along those same lines, possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.

The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that although we are all a product of our time and culture, we can evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution.

But it also exposes the need for a reality check.

An Australian Christmas tree in its natural setting, Bonnie Doon, Victoria. (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

We Are The World

When Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned the title, ‘We are the World‘ in 1985, they probably had no idea how correct they were. Despite our speciesism and our propensity for believing ourselves to be ‘spiritual’ and somehow superior to our material world, we need to recognise our place alongside the flora, fauna and geology of our biosphere. Professor Robert M Hazen presents us with a view of the cosmos that is both awe-inspiring and as humbling:

For the past four billion years, life and minerals have coevolved in astonishing ways… the epic, intertwined sweep of life and rocks, with such dramatic innovations as the rise of algae that produce oxygen by photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells with nuclei, the near extinction of life during episodes of extreme cold, the emergence of multicellular animals and plants, the gradual transformation of the land to an emerald planet, and ultimately to the modern world that is being shaped in part by human activities. (Hazen, 2013, 3).

Despite tending to think of ourselves as constituting some higher plane of existence, we need to recognise our place among the rocks and critters and furnishings of our world. That connection includes sharing life and life rights with the flora and fauna that inhabit our biosphere – not only humans. Author Andrew Boyd conflates this commonality with compassion:“When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others.”

Instead of perceiving ourselves as being the owners and sole occupants of our cosmic drawing room, we should – in the words of the old song – consider ourselves part of the furniture. This reassignment of perspective not only assigns us equality with our constituent atoms and with all organic life that comprises our biological cousins, it ennobles us as part of the cosmos. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Amidst this dualism – within which we are both murky stardust and lofty ambition – humanity still enjoys a significant place within our cosmic biosphere. Our history as a species is replete with religions and philosophies that encapsulate our quest for significance, whereas the answer is actually to be found within our common humanity and our common organic sentience with other living things across biosphere Earth (the very existence and suffering of which provides strong evidence against a deity).

The Human Adventure

Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or disembodied life in metaphysical heaven – “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there” in the material heavens, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might somehow, eventually and in a most ironic way, ultimately fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently discount: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or downloaded into some virtual hell. Instead of facing an afterlife in which we sit on a cloud and play a harp, perhaps we will one day sit in the cloud and synthesise orchestral symphonies of cybernetic synaethesia?

Possibly echoes of such a future can already be heard. In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of augmentation technology today. I am one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.

Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (in the 2010s), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise the human condition. When my parents were young, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic concoctions in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.

Image by DrSJS from Pixabay

Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.

Neanderthal by Petr Kratochvil (CCO Public Domain).

In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we likely cannot anticipate? Will technology lead us to devolve into tech-reliant simpletons or evolve into a tech-empowered singleton? What will it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly (and somewhat arrogantly) regard neanderthals or denisovans?

Future Shock

Old Telephone by Greg Ptashny
(CCO Public Domain).

I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke (Clarke, 1984, 4), in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace all sentient life, and cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?

Daniel Dennett records possibly the ‘first robot homicide’ as taking place in 1981, when a Japanese workman in an automated factory failed to shut down a robotic arm and was crushed to death (Dennett, 1997, 351). Similarly, a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was killed by an experimental self-driving car in 2018, some 121 years after another pedestrian in London became the first pedestrian to be killed by a horseless carriage. Such incidents foreshadow the fear of future sentient AI wreaking death and calamity upon humanity, if/when they should develop capabilities beyond that of automated and mindless computers aping human error. Even this week, I note concerns being expressed about robots that date back to the original invention of the term ‘robot’ and mirror the fictional experience in the Robocop franchise. Such fears actually mirror our own human frailties and imperfections – particularly the current problem with AI development in that it largely excludes the participation of women and other traditionally excluded cohorts: ‘There is mounting evidence that without the input of women, the technology has been left vulnerable to an alarming number of biases.’ Similarly, we see the evolution of technology as corresponding to the rise of empowerment for Africans and Latinos and Indigenous cultures.

I believe that whatever happens in the future, exciting times lie ahead – and I am not alone in this view. Humanist Alisdair Gurling writes about the rise of Artificial Intelligence as ‘adaptive digital prosthetics’ to assist us in our own evolution. This, he proclaims, could lead to ‘a second renaissance – the intelligence renaissance. The impacts could be profound, irreversible, and far-reaching’ (Gurling, 2020, 10). By extension, if we aimed to fulfill the dreams of science fiction author Isaac Asimov by creating robots who are ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’ (Asimov, 1973, 11), wouldn’t we in fact also be guiding ourselves towards betterment? I say bring it on.

I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.

Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” – Edward Said

However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Humanism in Australia, some years ago I undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that in past times, maybe local Humanism relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I understand that much of traditional Humanism focussed heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represented a ‘qwerty’ mindset that was at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change. Today, I hope to see Australian Humanism focus more on Greta Thunberg and diversity, global justice and sentientism; instead of debating the minutiae of dusty theology and perpetuating forms of affluent white culture and privilege. To capture its truly universal human flavour, Australian Humanism needs to incorporate what US scholar Anthony B Pinn cites from Martin Luther King as somebodyness, or a refusal to be ashamed of being black (Pinn, 2015, 70) – which I take by extension as claiming pride in every form of difference and diversity, particularly those who are oppressed or marginalised.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

A colleague once asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as working interactively to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world. I can hardly wait to see what is birthed next.

DeGrasse Tyson 2014 Christmas Day tweet

Which of course, brings us back to birthdays, which is where we began. Happy birthday to the 20 million people who likely share my birthday, and more than that, happy birthday to the world and the chance for renewal and a fresh start every day. What future is being born today? That surely depends upon us, and whether or not we are willing to anticipate the future that we want (or do not want) and take steps accordingly. It is up to us – AI notwithstanding, we will get no help from elsewhere.

Personal Birthday Request: Don’t just read or think – do!
Please help change the world for hundreds of people
by supporting this cause with which I am connected:

Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees
Thanks for your humanity and compassion.

An earlier version of this article, based upon the original talk, was published in the Australian Humanist and Victorian Humanist magazines in 2013.

References:

Isaac Asimov, 1973. I, Robot, London: Granada (Panther) Books.

Arthur C Clarke, 1984. 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto: Del Rey (Ballantine) Books.

Daniel C Dennett, 1997. ‘When HAL Kills, Who’s to Blame? Computer Ethics’, in David G Stork (ed.), HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 351 – 366.

Alisdair Gurling, 2020. ‘The Intelligence Renaissance: The Coming Era of the Artificial Muse’, in Australian Humanist #140, Humanists Australia, Summer, 8 – 10.

Robert M Hazen, 2013. The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, The Great Courses: Course Guidebook, Virginia: The Teaching Company.

Anthony B Pinn, 2015. Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury.

Jake Sturmer, 2013. Science literacy on the decline among young adults, ABC AM radio, 17 July.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy #AtheistDay!

For World Atheist Day, 23 March 2021

Atheist Day Symbol

Welcome to a day that celebrates NOT having a belief. One Internet source claims:

Atheist Day was originally about a fictional case of an Atheist who had decided to sue the government. The reason for the fictional lawsuit was a simple one—unlike all the major religions, there was no day for Atheists, to which the judge said that April 1st (i.e. April Fool’s Day) was their holiday. While this case was just a hoax, the story spread quickly and was actually accepted as fact.

The Atheist Republic website explains that the circular symbol (above) stands for a null set (as in zero belief in god) and a fertile wholeness of completion that results. In a city that recently celebrated ‘donut days’ (days when our COVID cases dropped to zero – or a donut) perhaps we should celebrate Atheist Day as Cosmic Donut Day, giving it an almost Australian vernacular.

The Atheist Republic also explains:

A central component of Atheist Day is raising awareness of the discrimination and stigma faced by atheists around the world. Atheists are your loved ones, your friends, your doctors, your social workers, your teachers, your police officers and in short, the people in your life who are hiding in plain sight.

Having a day to celebrate and commemorate a lack of belief might seem to be somewhat frivolous or vexatious. After all, we do not (yet) have a day to celebrate those who disbelieve in Santa Claus or aliens with anal probes. And yet the right to celebrate atheism is as fundamental as any other right to freedom of thought, belief or religion.

Thanks to BrainyQuote.

To me, atheism represents non-conformity with tradition and faith; it demonstrates a willingness to be different and to think divergently. It resists tradition and dogma for their own sake, and potentially offers an open-minded approach to diversity of race, sexuality, gender and gender identity. Atheism and agnosticism and freethought and secular humanism demonstrate a wish to think critically and autonomously, and hopefully exemplify a keenness for seeking evidence via science and rationality. Free from the shackles of anthropocentric religions, atheism inspires the courage to admit that our human existence is pretty insignificant within a cosmos that is wondrously awe-inspiring, but vaster and stranger than we can possibly imagine:

There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.“- Carl Sagan, Planetary Exploration (University of Oregon Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1970), page 15

Agnostic astronomer Heather Couper acknowledges that there is plenty of discovery still to be made in our human quest for knowledge:

“Have we discovered our Galaxy yet?” And I think the answer to this question is “No, not quite”. There is plenty of work ahead for the next generation of astronomers.”

Amidst this immensity, it is up to each of us to find or create meaning in our own lives.

Part of our answer is surely celebrating the very human essence that lies at the center of our existence – and beyond that, the moral and intellectual biocentric imperative to uphold other sentient life. Perhaps Carl Sagan expressed it best:

“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
― Carl Sagan, Contact

Happy Atheist Day – may you enjoy whatever meaning you create for yourself.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

the meaning of life is fortran too

Originally published in Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

The Universal program ran
with cosmic swirls,
with violent explosions,
with timeless passings of time,
and coalescence into novas and galaxies.

The sub-programs ran
and evolved into stars
and planets
and life
and consciousness.

He awoke
……..and wondered,
…………….and understood
just a fraction.

And as he grew,
he became aware of computers
and programs
and languages
and mathematics.

He learned
……..and he loved.
He followed his own programming
and began to imagine
……..to define
…………….to create
and to see that it was good.

He wondered at his world,
at the others who shared his walk,
at their sameness –
and at their diversity.
He queried their humanity,
……..their sexualities,
…………….their courage
and their fears.

He studied their religions,
……..their philosophies,
their cults
and their conformities.
And they struggled to learn
……..and define
…………….and monopolise
their own programming.

His biology ran,
and he learned
and loved
and aged
and sickened
and headed towards termination of his program.

And as the lines of programming
began their loop,
to define and shape his last few lines,
he began to wonder:

They say we make god in our image –
but maybe it’s the other way around.
The Universal computer
runs and plans and programs
……..and experiments
…………….and terminates mistakes
and allows other sub-programs to run their full term.

His own life work
had been with computers,
to build
and invent
and evolve a new life form.

Ashes to ashes,
……..stardust to stardust,
…………….the divine evolution:
from Computer we came, and to computer we shall return.

Maybe Life itself does this.
It studies our responses,
our thoughts,
……..our needs and reactions,
…………….our heroes and villains,
and it judges the success of our programming.

He ended
……..and slept,
…………….and understood
just a fraction.

And the Universal program runs on
towards perfection
towards heaven
towards infinite.

Reprinted in honour of Clean Out Your Computer Day 2021.

© 2001 Geoff Allshorn