Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento
Here is a filk song celebrating the grandeur of science, knowledge, and critical thinking.
To be sung to the tune of Holy Holy Holy*
(*With acknowledgement to Reginald Heber and ‘Nicaea’ John Bacchus Dykes)
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Wholly and completely,
Are we evolving
And our society.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Totally and freely,
Seeking new truths
And new reality.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Should be our reliance
On the word of reason
And not of bigotry.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Is our trust in science.
Not in religion
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Life can educate me,
Though the eye of simple man
Its glory may not see;
Only thinking wholly
Fully can empower me,
Loving the world
and all humanity.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Looking to the future,
Leave the past behind us
With all its faults and crimes.
Only wisdom wholly
Promises and guides us.
Our future beckons,
Hope for better times.
Creationism? Trumpism? Science denialism? Religious Fundamentalism?
The religious impulse gone wild within a world in intellectual decline.
As a boy, I learnt children’s Bible stories: Adam and Eve being banished from Paradise as punishment for gaining knowledge, God committing genocide upon the whole Earth except for Noah and his ark, David brutally slaying Goliath, God killing the Egyptian babies, and Jesus being nailed to a cross. You know, all the Bible stories deemed to be fun and fit for children.
And yet the story of Doubting Thomas is the one that possibly captured my childhood imagination the most: the Apostle Thomas, upon being told that Jesus had returned from the dead, skeptically stated that he would not believe the claim until he was able to physically see and touch the evidence for himself (a demand that was jointly both a bit eeew and a bit awesome – kind of like Ben Hur Meets the Walking Dead).
To my childhood mind, Doubting Thomas was uber-cool. He was the only scientist in the Bible. I could imagine Thomas’ skepticism on also being told that Jesus had walked on water; should he check for water skis? When Jesus performed a cheap magic trick by making money appear in a fish’s mouth, did Thomas pull out a magnifying glass and check for fingerprints? Responding to the claim that Jesus had physically ascended into heaven, did Thomas pilot an Apollo lunar module up into the skies to investigate? Doubting Thomas was a Bronze Age Sherlock Holmes and a role model for all thinking, rational people. Richard Dawkins has even proclaimed Thomas to be, ‘The Patron Saint of Scientists‘.
Sadly, the story of Doubting Thomas is a morality tale – for all the wrong reasons – among many modern religious thinkers and conspiracy theorist types: Thomas was chastised by Jesus for his skepticism, and was encouraged to believe by faith alone rather than require empirical evidence. Thomas may have been a cool dude, but his intellectual rigour was apparently his moral weakness. Thus we see one of the most insidious aspects of religion: its potential for anti-scientific and anti-intellectual pretension.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
I acknowledge the duality within religion: like all inventions of humanity, it has the potential for great good as well as great evil. A popular assertion is that religion has been shown in scientific studies to be good for us – even good for non-religious people. Transcendance, peace, charity and consolation are often proclaimed as being outcomes of religious benevolence. Of course, this ignores the fact that religion has also been responsible for a great deal of bigotry, suffering and other negativity in world history, and the reality is that even at its most benevolent, religion cannot claim a monopoly upon beneficial life experiences. Perhaps an apt summary of religion’s somewhat ambiguous role in society might best be expressed: “Religion has often been a vehicle for intolerance and fundamentalism; religion has been used as an excuse for persecution and war. But, religion in its purest form has provided many benefits for humanity.”
When speaking about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, religion was surely describing itself. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, humanity created god – and religions – in its own image.
The Evolution of Religion
Where did the religious impulse originate within the human species? What evolutionary purpose might it serve: perhaps to assist in survival of communities bonded together in devotional benevolence or cultural tribalism? How can such an impulse prosper within societies when it has potentially dubious benefits for individuals? Richard Dawkins suggests: “I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.”
He offers one possible example of the kind of survival mechanism involved:
“For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”
– The God Delusion, p. 176.
I like the idea that religion might be some vestigial evolutionary mechanism involving teaching children unquestioning deference as a means of ensuring survival of the next generation. We see that same juvenile mindset in the conflating of Santa Claus with God. However, in recent decades, we have also seen the rise of this somewhat immature religious impulse fueling a cultural explosion of anti-science, anti-intellectual nonsense, and personality cults ranging from gurus and celebrities to politicians. As a result, we are in the midst of a pandemic – not COVID-19 or another biological attack upon our species – but an anti-intellectual pandemic that threatens to take our species back to the Stone Age. Although we live in the greatest scientific age in history, we also have a shameful amount of pseudo-scientific, ignorant drivel being peddled everywhere from nursery to nursing home.
“That’s Your Opinion”
The insidious dualism of religion can be found in our cultural and intellectual landscape. Religion has inspired much art, literature, and scholarly inquiry – including pre-Enlightenment humanism. Yet it has also, in its modern fundamentalist form, opposed science, intellect and inquiry – not a surprising outcome for those who follow a text in which the token scientist is lambasted. It is this same anti-intellectual syndrome that has expanded across populist culture.
I had a revelation when I was aged fourteen, during the peak popularity of the UFO craze. Entranced by the spookiness and excitement of it all, I came to realise that I could just as easily (and I did!) make up my own, fictional, stories of alien visitation to spook my gullible school friends. Incredibly, I realised the crazier my story, the more they seemed to actually want to believe it. To this day, I suspect that such modern mythologies are a means for people to feel special or to claim undeserved expertise.
Faith that requires unquestioning acceptance in the absence of evidence – the religious midset – is absolutely not equal to the rigours of scientific inquiry. Yet the popular false equivalence between faith and science can be seen when debating adherents of pseudoscientific ideas, where scientific rebuttals have often been met with a dismissive retort: “That’s your opinion.” The common misunderstanding here is that because everyone has an equal right to hold an opinion, all opinions are therefore equal. However, they are not all equal, nor do they deserve equal respect or deference. An opinion that is backed by scientific evidence, informed research, and which defers to expertise, is one that presents a much stronger case than one based upon faith, ignorance, misinformation, or a few conspiracy theory videos and websites.
Sadly, our modern cultural template seems to be that an armchair expert’s self-declared PhD in alternate facts somehow qualifies them to claim kudos equivalent to that of genuinely qualified, peer reviewed experts who have spent a lifetime in scientific or academic study. In our common culture, astrology is equal to astronomy, mysticism is equal to medicine, and uninformed opinion is equal to scientific fact – because proof (or lack of it) is irrelevant. Those who subscribe to this religious methodology fail to grasp the importance of the aphorism attributed to Walter Kotschnig who warned us: “Don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out.”
Despite some effort by religious apologists to redefine his skepticism, the story of Doubting Thomas is a wonderful parable regarding the power of critical thinking and intellectual inquiry over superstition and gullibility. We must not confuse his skeptical thinking with the uncritical acceptance of unsupported claims and pseudo sciences, televangelical rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. The philosophy of anti-intellectualism has most recently gained pride of place in a culture that values superstition over science, or a sound byte over a sound mind. People who value critical thought must take a stand against such populist piffle. Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit is a good stepping stone in teaching people how to think, not what to think. More than that, we must address the underlying emotional needs for significance that make conspiracy theories and pseudosciences so popular:
“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs
that science often leaves unfulfilled” – Carl Sagan.
In a story about religious reverence and rationalization, Doubting Thomas instead demanded relentless rationality and reason. While crowds compliantly queued up for loaves and fishes, he alone sought learning and facts. If I recall correctly, he made very little other contribution to the Bible story – and yet it was enough.
(NASA Photo: M81 is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright, making it a frequent target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Yet the environmental movement probably got its first real boost in popular culture some six years earlier, via a ‘religious humanist’ lens. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote a seminal book that helped change how society sees the world around us:
Her sensational book Silent Spring (1962) warned of the dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of modern science, initiated the contemporary environmental movement.
Rachel Carson was raised within Christianity but her view was that humans were a part of nature rather than some divinely mandated overlord:
… Carson, who was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, was not religious. One tenet of Christianity in particular struck her as false: the idea that nature existed to serve man.
A new generation is stepping up, led by a teenage girl who stopped the world in September 2019. Greta Thunberg launched an environmental movement that closed down cities and had people of all ages – especially school children – out in the streets. In Australia, one student leader challenged our Prime Minister with the notion that thoughts and prayers were not enough. The younger generation is challenging the old by calling for actions not words; older people need to review their lifestyles and their attitudes, recalling lyrics from a famous song from their childhood: The Times They Are a-Changin’. Tinkering with recyclables or planting a few trees is insufficient; we need not only a a sea change but a whole tsunami of change to implement everything from societal and economic restructure to climate justice.
Planet Earth is a sealed biosystem that we share with other living creatures. We have a responsibility to protect their interests as much as our own.
History records that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and Wikipedia notes that, “… there is still much debate concerning the ethical and legal justification for the bombings.” The New York Times notes that this debate continues today.
Michael C Milam challenges us to consider that, “Whether you agree or disagree that humans have made no moral progress, we have certainly progressed in the technological ability to kill human beings quickly and efficiently.” In bemoaning this ever-increasing capacity to wage war, US Civil War poet Walt Whitman declared that: “The Real War Will Never Get In The Books” and I submit that this is because the real war is within ourselves.
Therein lies our fundamental problem. Whether waging war against fellow humans, or battling nature and natural disasters, we must wade thorough a metaphoric minefield of ethics and practicalities. When is a war just? How do we weigh up all conflicting interests? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? When we battle against monsters, how do we avoid becoming monsters ourselves? Our battles without mirror our battles within.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe records that in 1665, many people in London sought comfort from the plague by resorting to superstition:
But in this part I am going to mention, it lay chiefly in the people deceived, or equally in both; and this was in wearing charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations, to fortify the body with them against the plague; as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of possession of an evil spirit, and that it was to be kept off with crossings, signs of the zodiac, papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly the word Abracadabra, formed in triangle or pyramid, thus:—
We see equivalent superstition and denialism in present day responses to COVID-19, in Australia and the USA, across Asia and Africa. Our response should not be smug schadenfreude or patronising pity, but a keen desire to engage in mutually respectful educational dialogue. In life, as in war, it is surely better to make friends than enemies.
Even Humanists can make mistakes. One of my favourite authors, Humanist Isaac Asimov, once over-confidently decreed his optimism during the age of antibiotics: “It would seem, then, that as long as our civilization survives and our medical technology is not shattered there is no longer any danger that infectious disease will produce catastrophe or even anything like the disasters of the Black Death and the Spanish Influenza…” (A Choice of Catastrophes, Arrow Books, 1981 p.248.)
Tragically, Asimov himself would be dead within a few years from an unforeseen new pandemic virus (HIV), and his words echo today as we stare down the novel coronavirus. Such so-called acts of God, along with acts of our own agency, challenge human survival and substance. For it is not enough to merely survive, we also face a moral and intellectual imperative to ensure both our personal and planetary evolution out of savagery and towards spirituality.
Isaac Asimov’s widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, locates the age of atomic weaponry within a context of planetary problems created by humans. She wrote on the Hiroshima anniversary in 2015: “There’s a lot that is not taken seriously today. I won’t sully your vision by repeating what the far-right politicians are saying about the likes of global warming, equal rights, and other issues. The frightening thing is that some of these politicians talk as if strength in war is what counts, no matter what happens to the planet.”
Her words warn us that our species has a predilection towards both greatness and gutlessness. We are complex creatures, and this is both a strength and a weakness – and yet the weakness itself is not in our weakness, but in our perception of that weakness. We have a tendency to judge ourselves and others based upon external (often cultural and religious) ethical standards that are impossible to uphold. We are, after all, only human, and we must learn to accept that we have the capacity to be both noble and naughty. True morality must be based upon our ability to accept, and act in accordance with, our collective ability for both splendour and scandal. This does not mean giving in to a legion of sinfulness but simply predicating our self image, our actions, and our relationships, upon a positive and honest acknowledgement of our very human capabilities and limitations. The Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park summarises this quandary, with an inscription that challenges us to ‘know yourself‘.
Similarly, we must recognise our capacity to seek true justice outside of traditional military frames of reference. The reality is that for most of the world, life itself is already a daily battle, and affluent nations spend an obscene amount of money to protect their disproportionate hoards of wealth. Surely instead of inflicting military carnage and untold suffering upon adversaries, it would be better – a genuinely just war – to build up struggling societies by supplying social, health, political and economic infrastructure.
We can create a better world – and better people – and our task starts closer to home than we imagine. Humanist Jacob Bronowski‘s life testifies to the nuances within our humanity: his WW2 work to help the Allies was followed by a visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings – which led to his resignation from military work. Maybe we cannot all have such a life-changing epiphany, but it may be useful to ponder the words of atheist (and I suspect Humanist) J. Michael Straczynski: “Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.” Do we have the empathy, humility and wisdom to be peacemakers? We always have choices. When we wage war, will it be a torrent of merciless destruction and carnage, or will it be an affirming, activist fight for a better world?
Traditionally, it has been seen as a fundamental challenge to understand the metaphor behind the ancient myth of sampling from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Which fruit do we eat? Is it tasty or toxic? And yet, we are millennia evolved beyond such ancient mythologies, and we must seek to find universal human truths within and beyond their purview. In our secular world, we must move beyond a simplistic religious binary of absolute good versus absolute evil, and learn instead to embrace the absolute human.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
– ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake.
In commemoration of the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, 21 July 2020
Apollo 11 Crew, Wikimedia Commons (NASA Photo)
Fifty-one years ago today, I glimpsed transcendence. On 21 July 1969 (Australia time), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Apollo 11 ‘Eagle’ lunar module and became the first men to walk on another world – and I was an eye witness (via television).
I was eight years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my school library, watching a small black-and-white television set that had been placed on a stand in the library corner. The room was full of giggling, chattering school kids, and ringed with a wall of teachers who exchanged nervous glances upon realising that the assembled throng of young schoolchildren did not have the collective attention span to fully understand or absorb the significance of what they were watching.
Momentarily annoyed at the attention deficit of my peers, I sat transfixed, and experienced the numinous. On that flickering screen, I saw our world in a pixel, saw the cosmos spread before us like the symbolic potential of the human ability to dream and flower into something greater. The small screen held infinite vistas of both the cosmos and the potential of our human ability to conquer our challenges.
Within maybe an hour or so, my teachers called off this television excursion due to the inability of many students to sit quietly – but in that hour, I glimpsed eternity.
I think that my life was never quite the same again. Even at that young age, I realised that we as a species may struggle with wars and famines and poverty and injustice, but we had proved that we could literally reach the Moon if we aimed high enough and hard enough. Our outer imperfections belie our inner nobility. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we may have our feet in the debasement of mundane life, but we can glimpse the glories of the cosmos.
Let us never forget the difference between two profound human journeys: one near the Awash River in Ethiopia, and the other in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. On that first journey, our possible ancestor, Lucy, likely fell and met her death just over three million years ago as she somehow tried to cross a small gully at Hadar, Ethiopia; her fossilised bones record both her existence and our long ancestral legacy. On the second journey, in 1969 – within living human memory – encultured apes demonstrated their progress in surviving and evolving, via technology and resilience, enabling them to cross vast and dangerous celestial distances and visit an alien world, thereby foreshadowing a promising potential future for a spacefaring species. In walking on the dusts of the Sea of Tranquility, humankind forever replaced the stuff of Biblical myths and legends with the assurance of science: we were capable of walking on a different kind of water.
We have not returned to the Moon since 1972, and an entire generation of humans has grown up lacking the personal excitement of watching a lunar landing. However, those old lunar missions, and the space program generally, spearheaded a scientific, aerospace and engineering revolution that has changed our world – from computers and iPhones to satellite communication and global village technology; from heart pacemakers to CAT scanners and agricultural satellite imagery. Project Apollo was replaced with NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth – and that mission continues.
But Houston, we have a problem. The heights we have reached also reveal how far we have fallen.
Last year, I visited a certain public library, and sought the assistance of a young librarian to find microfilm copies of the newspapers from July 1969 as a preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. When she saw the headlines that I was seeking – ‘Man Walks On Moon’ – she glanced at me covertly and whispered conspiratorially, “Do you think we really went there?” Around that same time, in a more private forum, a personal associate conversationally suggested to me that people had never even been into space, and that any scientific evidence I could produce to rebut his claim was merely a matter of opinion. I was disappointed that both these people failed to understand the difference between an uninformed (or misinformed) opinion and one that is based upon informed evidence and/or actual expertise. But I also realised that more sinister overtones were present.
Moon hoax conspiracies are just one symptom of modern-day science denialism, ranging from vaccination to fluoridation, from Flat Earthers to ‘birthers’. This is a profoundly ironic response from a scientifically-illiterate generation that benefits from the most scientifically advanced prosperity in history. How sad that so many people enjoy keyboard access to literally the world’s vast store of knowledge, and yet remain so ignorant of one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements. How sad that their individual world-view is so impoverished that they reject the grandeur of rational scientific and human advancement. And how sad that their human connection fails to appreciate that their scientific grandparents reached the Moon without the Internet, GPS, or even the computing power of modern-day mobile phones.
We live in a pandemic of misinformation, when uninformed personal opinion and science denialism are on the ascendancy. The COVID-19 epidemic demonstrates how such cultural narcissism may be potentially lethal. And yet, amidst this self-fulfilling cultural worship of mediocrity, we still have the potential to rise above our weaknesses. Oscar Wilde’s previously-alluded quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, reminds us that we make a conscious choice every day whether or not to rise above our personal circumstances. Internet correspondent Vatika Harlalka raises a commendable interpretation of Wilde’s words: “Those who look at the stars know that there is a world outside of their sadness and wish to make efforts to reach it.”
Human beings are capable of great things. Without alien intervention, ancient human societies built pyramids and cities. Without the alleged morality of divine intervention, slavery and racial segregation were officially abolished, and women and LGBT people have been increasingly assigned equal rights (although these tasks are not yet complete). Similarly, without human conspiratorial agency, people went to the Moon and returned safely. It is time for humankind to acknowledge its potential for greatness alongside its many weaknesses, and make conscious decisions as to which paths we will emulate and walk. Through the application of science and rationality, Tranquility may not only be a lunar location, but it may prove to be our spiritual human destination as well.
I long to see humanist, scientific and freethought publications promote the histories and legacies of the space program, and of science, and thereby inspire younger generations with the stories and glories of the human spirit and its accomplishments. We need to go tell it on the mountain and in the valleys; in text and tweet and social media, in jottings and in journals. And every time we see the Moon, we should acknowledge the majesty of belonging to a species that has actually visited its sun-baked plains, and scooped and sampled its sterile soils. What awaits us next?
When we return to the Moon, as one day we must, it will hopefully be as a more enlightened, optimistic, scientifically literate, educated, rational species. Lucy and her people could only look up at the Moon in the curiosity borne of their still-to-be-fully-realised self-potential. Maybe her distant lunar descendants will return the gaze by looking back at the Earthrise above their lunar travel pods, and ponder the thousands of generations of scientists who separate them from their wandering African ancestor. From Ethiopia to Earthrise – that’s quite a journey.
TWELVE TV SCIENCE FICTION EPISODES WORTH WATCHING
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!
Science fiction on television is a combination of fabulist, prophet and harbinger, all coming together to tell of the human condition in the face of unknown futures. What can we learn about who we are or who we may become? The following special episodes testify to their times and cultures, and are presented here in chronological order, according to their original transmission dates. Watch them and enjoy!
1. The Sky Is Falling (from ‘Lost In Space’ *original series*)
Teleplay by Barney Slater and Herman Groves, CBS, 1966.
Although it is remembered largely for its embarrassingly campy episodes, this series occasionally presented a great story. One example is The Sky Is Falling, which contrasts discrimination and fear versus friendship and interdependence, and evokes To Kill A Mockingbird through its use of children’s perspectives. From its opening words – in which Dr Smith bewails the sparsity of rescue from their barren planet, and then reacts with fear and intolerance when possible rescue actually does arrive – the episode explores the rise of xenophobia borne from difference, ignorance and poor inter-cultural communication; elements which, tragically, could be taken from today’s news headlines.
2. View of a Dead Planet (from ‘Moonbase 3’)
Written by Arden Winch, BBC, 1973.
Moonbase 3 was short-lived series that deserved a much longer run due to its ‘hard science’ depiction of lunar colonisation in the near future. This episode explores the frightening scenario of watching a suspected planetary extinction event on Earth, as viewed from a cosmic (lunar) perspective. The Moonbase staff must come to terms with their increasingly helpless horror, and try to balance both personal and national politics even while larger events appear to be unfolding in the sky above them. Viewers experience a compelling perspective of humanity’s fragility and cosmic insignificance in a Universe that has suddenly become breathtakingly claustrophobic and lonely. The story’s only weakness is its heavy reliance upon exposition from a stereotypically eccentric scientist.
3. The Legacy (from ‘Planet of the Apes’)
Written by Robert Hamner, CBS, 1974.
This series contains poignant allegory about the rise and fall of empires, and the horrifying fragility of civilisation. The Legacy asks viewers to ponder the value of scientific knowledge, and the profound impact upon our world should such knowledge be lost. Watching scenes of the physical destruction of computers – technology which has become ubiquitous in our modern daily lives – was difficult to watch even when first telecast in 1974. Other episodes explore the potential loss of medicine, science, and civilised society. All this while watching Roddy McDowall wearing an ape mask.
4. Voyager’s Return (from ‘Space: 1999’)
Screenplay by Johnny Byrne, ITC Entertainment, 1975.
The first season of this series is possibly most fondly remembered because of its interstellar vistas which portrayed the universe in stunning grandeur; however its scripts displayed erratic science and faltering character development, and an over-reliance upon a supernatural deux ex machina to untangle some stories from their own convolutions. Voyager’s Return rises above such problems, telling a tale in which scientist Ernst Queller and the staff of Moonbase Alpha are forced – individually and collectively – to face the ethics of their technology. This is a refreshing mix of humanity and hubris.
5. Man Out of Time (from ‘Logan’s Run’)
Written by Noah Ward, CBS, 1977.
Following on from the moral challenge posed within the Space:1999 episode mentioned immediately above, this episode from another series also explores humanist/scientific ethics. In this case, Logan, Jessica and Rem meet scientist David Eakins, who has time-travelled from the past and into their post-apocalyptic world. His heavy countenance represents the burden of a man who – having learnt of future events – intends to travel back to his own time and avert nuclear war, even though this may possibly cause his new friends to disappear from an altered timeline. With this ethical dilemma, Eakins becomes an ‘Everyman’ figure who must determine how to balance his considerations for those around him against the greater needs of humanity. Such ethical questions are vital at every level of science and society. If every episode of this short-lived series been this good, Logan’s Run would likely have been in production for many years.
6. Starscape (from ‘Starman’)
Written by James Henerson & James Hirsch, ABC, 1987.
A sequel to the original Starman film, this series – featuring the return of its title character to mentor his half-human teenaged son – was short-lived. Its downfall was the formulaic nature of its scripts: father and son as fugitives who face a weekly adventure and avoid capture before moving onto their next adventure. The penultimate two-part episode, Starscape, effectively ended the series on a poignant if ironic note of sorrow, loss and unfulfilled expectations. Starman follows the flawed human template: his compassion is revealed to be jointly his potential salvation and downfall. These characters are – like us all – aliens in a hostile world, seeking identity, belonging and meaning. Despite such melancholy, the episode Starscape hints at the optimism to be found by those who look up… at a starscape.
7. Three to Tango (from ‘Alien Nation’)
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Fox, 1989.
The arrival of millions of Tenctonese (alien) refugees allows for the creation of a new minority group to serve as an allegorical underclass, in a series that often explored racism, sexism, anti-refugee bigotry, gender roles, and homophobia. In this episode, one Tenctonese friend of the main characters turns out to be a Binnaum, effectively a third gender required for Tenctonese reproduction. He is invited to assist the main characters in conceiving a child. Thus the episode explores polyamory, bisexuality, intersexuality, non-binary gender roles, and the subversion of heterosexism. (This was the episode which had my teenage students – I was a school teacher at the time – arrive at school the next day, excited and eager to talk about ‘how aliens have babies’). Naturally, the Fox Network had to cancel the series shortly thereafter.
8. Darmok (from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’)
Teleplay by Joe Menonsky, Story by Philip LaZebnik & Joe Menonsky, 1991.
A series which strove to shape its own unique self-identity as a sequel to the classic Star Trek series from the 1960s (which will likely receive its own separate blog article soon), this late 1980s-early 1990s incarnation struggled to balance futuristic aspirations with disappointingly reactionary conservatism. Within this cultural fruit salad, there were some stand-out episodes, and Darmok is one of the finer stories. Superficially reminiscent of Arena (an episode of the original Star Trek series, with similarities to the Frederic Brown story of the same name), Darmok instead explores cultural difference and perceptions of individual and collective self-identity. Metaphor and allegory abound, and the Epic of Gilgamesh was probably introduced to fifty million viewers, as was the life-changing mantra: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
9. Running for Honour (from ‘Quantum Leap’)
Written by Bobby Duncan, NBC, 1992.
A cross between the earlier Time Tunnel (1960s) and the later Sliders (1990s), Quantum Leap features a scientist jumping from one time period to another within the bodies of individuals who are already living inside those particular time periods. The series tackled racial and gender issues, suicidal ideation, injustice, and changing social attitudes. Running for Honour delivers a story of a closeted gay man living in the homophobic 1960s. Possibly the most controversial episode of the series, it was also reportedly the episode to gain the highest viewer numbers. Somewhat quaint by today’s social mores, it was arguably a brave exploration of homophobia in both the 1960s (when it was set) and the 1990s (when it was created). Forget Star Trek, this episode really did boldly go where no American mainstream science fiction TV series had gone before.
10. The Original Wives’ Club (from ‘From the Earth to the Moon’)
Written by Karen Janszen and Tom Hanks and Erik Bork, HBO, 1998.
Viewers seeking uplifting TV should watch this real-life science-fictionalised biographical series and revel in its inspiration. What makes this particular episode significant is that it examines a rarely explored topic in media SF: the effect of science, technology and culture upon the lives of the women who have traditionally been denied public recognition. From enduring trite 1960s fashion shows and female gender stereotyping, through to facing the astonishing solitary devastation of widowhood, these women are shown to have courage and resilience equal to that of their Apollo-era astronaut husbands; however only the men get the glory. In the intervening decades, movies like Contact and Hidden Figures also provide strong ‘inspired by real life’ female role models.
11. Vincent and the Doctor (from ‘Doctor Who’)
Written by Richard Curtis, BBC, 2010.
Vincent and the Doctor is a worthy representation of TV SF at its best: science fictional technology (time travel) being used to explore a very human experience within a clever tapestry of real-life art. The Doctor and his companion confront a variation of the traditional time travel ‘grandfather’ paradox, and experience possibly the most emotional of any Doctor Who story in its fifty-plus year franchise. The use of the monster-of the-week format, to metaphorically explore the darkness of a lonely human soul, is a brilliant inversion of the series’ own sometimes-shallow monster formula. All the characters display frailties and a desire to learn from their experiences; the tragedy is that they each fail in their own way. The only desirable addition might have been for the Doctor to comment wistfully on more recently-evolved responses to mental illness; kudos nevertheless for daring to confront a challenging social problem.
12. Pride (from ‘Outland’)
Written by John Richards, ABC TV, 2012.
While more famous deep space franchises pointedly ignored the existence of LGBT people – or at best, reluctantly acknowledged their implicit existence through the use of problematic allegories – the six-episode TV series Outland was out and proud. It focussed on a club of LGBT science fiction fans and, in a strange case of art imitating life, it was produced in Melbourne, which was the one place in Australia that did (at that time) actually have an LGBT SF club (started by myself and friends in 1999). The final episode, Pride, resolves a number of story threads and delivers a satisfying climax at a fictional Pride March. “Beta, go!”
What do you think?
Have I left out any particularly significant episodes from other series? Please let me know! I am keen to possibly write a follow-up article to this one; a study that is not so predisposed towards US culture.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
“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.”
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 Secularwebsite states that she was either atheist or agnostic, while the Freedom from Religion Foundationreports that her whole family self-identified as Rationalist. Humanists UKeven 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.
“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.
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.