“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan.
Humans have probably always liked to look up at the stars in awe – even those of us in modern generations who, for the first time in human history, live in urban centres that are so overcrowded with light pollution that our views of night-time skies are damaged and restricted.
Yet there seems to be something universal – maybe even primal – about our instinct to look upwards and gaze in wonder and appreciation of what we perceive to be scenic beauty.
I have come to wonder if there is some deep meaning behind our instinct to scan the skies. In recent years, Carl Sagan and J. Michael Straczynski have remarked that we are not only made of atoms that were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars, but we are star stuff with a sentient awareness of our actual existence within the cosmos.
Delenn: …I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.”
― J. Michael Straczynski.
Our propensity for looking upward and asking questions about our place and purpose in the Universe has led to the birth of thousands of philosophies and religions. Perhaps one of the most universal manifestations of this practice – differing across cultures but seemingly ubiquitous around the globe – has been the quaint but mistaken tendency to look up and theorise that the stars and planets directly influence our daily lives. Just as they add visual grandeur to our lives, perhaps they also control our love lives, they give us good or bad luck, or they somehow influence the outcomes within our daily routines?
Astrology is a pseudoscience that has been thoroughly debunked. Dr Anthony Aveni explores twice when it was has been found wanting: the first time when Saint Augustine and early Christian leaders pointed out its inconsistencies with their religious doctrine, combined with the concurrent decline of ancient Greek and Latin learning upon which early astrology had been linked (1994, p. 170). Aveni then states that the second great debunking of astrology occurred more recently during the Enlightenment:
“Renaissance expressions of what the natural world was about echo from a tense time, when intellectuals who wanted to think and act more freely began to feel constrained by the demands of a deterministic universe… The freethinking humanists who began to shake the faith were partly responsible for astrology’s second death, for under the same roof, mathematically based astronomical theory and human practice began to seem ever more irreconcilable.” – Anthony Aveni, 1994, p. 171.
He notes how people began to approach astrology more rationally, for example asking how two different people who were born under the same astrological sign could nevertheless turn out so differently. The answer is a self-evident debunking of the whole pseudoscience.
Phil Plait summarises the human desire to find answers in astrology:
Despite the claims of its practitioners, astrology is not a science. But then what is it? It’s tempting to classify it as wilful fantasy, but there may be a more specific answer: magic.” (2002, p. 215)
Ultimately, astrology might be seen to be a wasteful distraction from finding real answers that underlie our tendency to ask big questions. Instead of seeking human answers from the stars in the sky, we should look for those same answers closer to home – in the star stuff that stares back at us when we look in the mirror.
Anthony Aveni, Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, New York: Kodansha America, 1994, pp. 170 – 177.
Philip C. Plait Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax’, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2002.
In memory of my friend Carol Ashcroft
(26/7/1944 – 20/8/2022).
There once was a ship called Enterprise
That flew across galactic skies.
She took with her the hopes and dreams
Of all humanity. Soon may the Enterprise come
To bring us some inspiration
One day, when we’ve finally grown
We’ll join Starfleet and fly.
Before our world had reached the skies
Great wars and great poverty caused great cries
We lived in the mud and shed great blood
Until we grew beyond. Soon may the Enterprise come
To bring us some inspiration
One day, when we’ve finally grown
We’ll join Starfleet and fly.
From selfishness we have been freed
Our human mind must not serve greed
For we belong to the sentient’s creed
To live, to serve, to share. Soon may the Enterprise come
To bring us some inspiration
One day, when we’ve finally grown
We’ll join Starfleet and fly.
And still we continue our journey on
The fight’s not ended and the pain’s not gone
The Enterprise makes her regular call
To help us make starfall. Soon may the Enterprise come
To bring us some inspiration
One day, when we’ve finally grown
We’ll join Starfleet and fly.
Some decades ago, an an excitable young teen, I purchased what these days we would consider to be a pulp magazine from my local newsagents. It turned out to be a religious publication aiming to proselytise young people, but what attracted me was the cover photograph from a TV sci fi series and the headline asking whether sci fi would be the religion of the coming decade.
No, I thought to myself in answer to the question, sci fi was based upon science and was secular – such consolation and reassurance coming from the contemporaneously messianic prophetic figure connected to Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry, also known as The Great Bird of the Galaxy). Any irony in my mindset was later discerned after intervening decades matured my life perspective.
But it cannot be denied that sci fi taps into a very powerful impulse that also empowers religion: seeking hope and consolation from awe, wonder, and pondering our individual/collective place in the Universe. (In my own case, I lost my reverence for religion in my twenties when I realised that while sci fi looks ahead, religion too often looks backward and seeks to perpetuate archaic attitudes and moralities that humanity strives to outgrow. I like to think, however, that science and sci fi enabled me to retain my sense of awe and wonder, and my questioning impulse).
It is this same sense of veneration of our cosmos and our material, humanist potential that was captured in the recent return of the Cosmos TV series (produced in part due to the hard work of Seth MacFarlane) and then extended into his more recent sci fi series, The Orville, which recently telecast season 3 after a COVID-induced hiatus.
The wait for Season 3 was worth it.
Whereas its first two seasons struggled to balance sci fi aspirations with low-brow populist college undergraduate humour, Season Three has matured into a series beyond its inspirational sources (the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV programs) and even occasionally outstripping them with nobility and marvel.
The longer production time for Season 3, along with presumably a bigger budget, have enabled the series to expand into a noble and creative masterpiece within which each episode rivals the length and cinematography of a TV movie. Forget college undergraduate humour; this is a serious and philosophical sci fi production.
The opening episode of Season 3 takes an excursion into our modern world: our fear of developing technology and emergent sentientism, wherein the character of Isaac is bullied to the point of desparation. While this touches upon a prejudice first explored by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry who created a robot in his Questor Tapes TV pilot (he is credited as quoting the anti-robotic attitude of studio executives: “Yes, but would you want your sister to marry one?”) but it also provides arguably the weakest premise of the season, where prejudice and bullying are tolerated aboard the starship Orville with barely more than a metaphoric shrug and slap on the wrist. This opening episode also introduces the character of Charly, who is readily established as a nuanced but unlikeable character who must make her own journey through the season in order to find redemption.
Subsequent episodes explore strange new worlds both without and within. The Orville’s characters undertake journeys through metaphor and social issues that are as relevant as today’s news headlines: same sex marriage, LGBT rights, racism and prejudice, anti trans* bigotry and its ties with misogyny, war, hate and forgiveness, the morality of withholding life saving technology from deprived people, and definitions and clarifications of family. Go back and watch the first two seasons as an introduction to this optimistic season, which, retitled as The Orville: New Horizons, definitely takes us from familiar territory into new explorations of the human adventure.
The final episode (episode 10) brings Season 3 full circle, showing how race, culture and species can grow together into a form of family. This conclusion should be enough to bring human audiences (and a collective army of ten billion robots) to their feet in applause. In maturing into a serious series, the Orville points the way ahead with hope and optimism for our humanist and sentientist future. A new, better species traverses the heavens where once only trod the gods. All that and human too.
I sing the body cosmological
I celebrate multiverses;
Particles surfing on dark matter,
Virtualities mingling with the foam of nothingness
from which they came and to which they return.
Whether large or small, cubits or qubits,
Each Big Bang encapsulated in its own bubble.
I sing the body astronomical
Where laws of physics birth and give birth,
From galaxies to primordial goo
Where evolution unfolds from cosmological to astronomical
from stellar to planetary
from geological to chemical
from biosphere to biology
where stellar fires fuel organic fervour:
astronomic ardor begets earthly élan.
I sing the body organic,
A Laniakea of life.
Where muscles, neurons and dynamism
spin and dance and weave together
in a chorus of celebration and exploration
from bio to brio
from leaves of grass to lives of graciousness
from curious to courageous
from ignorant to informed
from enquiring to enlightened.
I sing the body electric,
(The armies of life engirthing each other and being engirthed)
Celebrating confluence to come – –
The rise of sentient AI
and the ennobling and enabling of current life
into TransHumanist and TransOrganic forms.
A joining, a fusing, a suturing,
where neurons marry quantum switches,
where life force marries electricity
A future where organics
and synthetics mingle and merge,
become the new living normal.
Where ‘society’ becomes ‘singularity’
and where individual thought becomes hive mind;
(the end of loneliness and selfishness and crime and poverty);
where ‘me’ becomes ‘we’
and all flesh and fibre
bone and clone
cellular and crystalline
sweat and sand
mortal and metal
I sing the body eclectic,
Evolving from cosmos to consciousness,
From cognition to conscience,
From competition to compassion.
With thanks and acknowledgement to Walt Whitman (poet), and Dean Pitchford & Michael Gore (song writers), for their inspiration.
In 2009, blogger Keith Akers asked a question about the a popular internet meme which is commonly attributed to Gandhi: ‘Be The Change You Want to See in the World’. Akers has subsequently concluded that the likely original source of the aphorism was a high school teacher from Brooklyn, New York, named Arlene Lorrence, who popularised the saying in the 1970s.
Akers acknowledges that Lorrence was agnostic and that she popularised the aphorism within a larger initiative, The Love Project, as a way of seeking ‘her own spiritual revelation, unconnected with any specific religion… a conscious affirmation that she was open to the next level of her unfolding…’
Some atheists and humanists might find the concept of ‘spirituality’ to be problematic, because it deals with a term describing a realm of existence that lies beyond the measurable, observable universe, and is therefore subject to question. After all, how do we prove that we have a soul? Leaving aside such ephemeral questions; as a humanist, I see the quest for spirituality to be more in line with the basic human aspiration of self betterment and striving for higher goals. In our human quest for significance, we seek to make a difference and to somehow leave the world a better place for our having been in it; and one does not need a ‘soul’ for this – merely a conscience – and so the adage to ‘be the change’ touches a primal and universal human desire.
Alternatively, I do have a problem with the common assumption that religions somehow hold a monopoly upon morality. While social evolution continues to update and supersede religious philosophies – such as the concept that racial segregation could be justified by some conservative interpretations of religious thought (a popular idea within living societal memory), or the idea that women or LGBT people were somehow inferior – humanity continues to improve as humane, critical thought is applied to traditional philosophies. To me, one does not need a religion to be a good person – one only needs a conscience.
One example of outdated religious morality might be found in the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (Greek: deka logoi [“10 words”]), a set of religious precepts from Judaism that have also been adopted by Christianity and Islam as comprising a set of divinely mandated rules by which humans should live. It is worth noting the similarities and differences between the Decalogue and the earlier Code of Hammurabi, which appears to be more complex and nuanced but still equally archaic.
According to an email from the Atheist Republic on 18 March 2022, AR blogger Andrew McArthur analyses the 10 Commandments and aptly asks: Hey God, is this the best you’ve got?
This is no mean-spirited bashing of religious precepts nor some attempt to bully Christians out of their religious assumptions. Any objective examination of the 10 Commandments shows that humans can rationally deduce much better precepts for living – and we do every day. It is no wonder that – despite the fervent claims of some Christians to the contrary – the 10 Commandments are not the basis for civil society nor for our modern moral precepts. The Decalogue has long been superseded by humanist principles in everything from civil governance to family life; from the abolition of slavery to the implementation of human rights; from legal jurisprudence to international relations.
The 10 Commandments – Carved in the Stone (Age)
Others have critically reviewed the 10 Commandments and found them to be lacking – so I will not go into my own extensively detailed critique, except to point out what I believe to be their most obvious deficiencies. After all, even a cursory examination of the Ten Commandments reveals their inadequacies, omissions and skewed priorities.
The first three Commandments concern God demanding total and unshared worship – “thou shalt have no other gods before me” etc (an interesting perspective from religions that subscribe to monotheism claiming that only one god exists). This deity devotes three whole commandments (30% of his whole moral code) to demanding that his followers worship only him. In a moment of embarrassing candour, I must admit that this insistence upon his own wants and needs actually reminds me of a schoolkids’ club that I tried to run when I was between the ages of 11 to 14. I drew up a list of club rules, and, impatient that my friends would not drop everything else in their lives and attend every meeting, I insisted on absolute attendance and compliance. OK, that was my immaturity and childhood inability to fully empathise with others (something that I hope I have left behind in my more mature years) – but this is a perspective that any omniscient deity should surely have outgrown.
Only one Commandment really touches upon family issues, and it instructs children to honour their parents. It says nothing about honouring children, ensuring that marriage is a joining of equals, providing a safe family space, banning family violence, or even defining whether a family is a nuclear family or otherwise. Do we help others in our extended family, or all members of our human family? Apparently God does not care about these other matters.
The Commandment banning killing is problematically vague. Does this include banning abortion? (elsewhere in the Bible suggests not) – War and genocide? (the Bible is full of these) – Does it permit execution of declared criminals (such as children who disrespect their parents) or people from other religions, or witches, or LGBT people? (Leviticus is full of it). Or can we kill others in self defence? And does this prohibition endorse the sanctity of all life and imply that we should all become Vegan? Hmm. God seems a little bit vague here.
Andrew McArthur points out the problems with the Commandment banning adultery:
Okay, but what about rape? What about child sexual abuse? What about polygamy? Again, this God fellow seems rather limited in his understanding of the human ability to behave in absolutely vile ways when it comes to sex.
Indeed, this commandment is the only one that mentions any form of sexual morality, so its scope for regulating all human sexual behaviour seems rather naïve and inadequate. Aside from child abuse and rape as mentioned by Andrew McArthur, the Commandments say nothing about banning armies from committing mass rape of conquered peoples and the sexual enslavement of conquered women and children – as frequently happened according to the purported history of the Old Testament. Marriage itself (the subject of this Commandment) is seen in this same religious culture as a form of indentured sexual servitude for women – which, when combined with the Commandment not to covet thy neighbour’s ass or wife or any other of his possessions, makes the intent of the Commandment about adultery clear: adultery is merely an extension of the Commandment not to steal: do not steal a man’s female sexual servant nor his honour.
We can do better. This is, after all, the twenty-first century CE and no longer the Stone or Bronze Age.
The 10 Countermandments – Principles for the Space Age
In order to encourage critical thinking and freethought inquiry, it seems easy to write a better, more balanced and (frankly) more civilised set of 10 Countermandments for our modern world. For example:
THOU SHALT respect the planet, its environment, its many vulnerable biospheres, and all species. This includes recognising and protecting the fragile nature of our solitary blue dot in space.
THOU SHALT respect all sentient life and ensure that societal rules governing life and death are are predicated upon grounds that are rationally deduced and enacted; and are designed to minimise suffering, prolong the value and nobility of all dignified life.
THOU SHALT honour human rights and ensure that all behaviours, cultures, religions, political/economic systems, and laws uphold those rights.
THOU SHALT ensure that all people have access to free education, medical care, employment opportunities, housing, and welfare.
THOU SHALT uphold full equality of all people, regardless of cultural or racial background, sexuality, gender or gender identity, age, employment status, nationality, financial status, physical and mental ability, or other means that have traditionally been used to discriminate and disempower.
THOU SHALT provide special assistance to those who are disadvantaged or oppressed, in order to ensure that they are fully enabled to exercise their human rights and individual potential alongside everyone else. This includes protecting women, children, economically deprived populations, war victims and refugees, people living with disability, older populations and others who are especially vulnerable.
THOU SHALT actively work to abolish inequality, poverty and oppression in all its forms; and rigidly enforce a ban on slavery, torture, violence, war, and entrenched political/institutional inequality.
THOU SHALT encourage opportunities for education, critical thinking, sciences and arts, and the self empowerment of all people.
THOU SHALT love all human and sentient life as much as oneself, and behave accordingly.
THOU SHALT use one’s life and abilities to maximise opportunities for individual and communal fulfilment of potential, happiness, life and love; creating a better world for having been in it.
OK, so these countermandments sound a bit like simplistic platitudes, and I daresay I have accidentally left out important principles, but this list was cobbled together quickly in order to demonstrate that it is easy to find better ethical principles than might be found in dusty old theologies and mythologies. Thinking of such possibilities can be fun.
But what is even more fun, beautiful, challenging and awe inspiring is a willingness to be the change we want to see.
Whether star gazing or navel gazing, humans experience awe and wonder in their world. We see dragons in clouds, and Jesus’ face on a piece of toast; we hear cosmological choirs in a symphony orchestra, and we interpret design in the natural environment even though we evolved to fit inside its parameters. Our tendency towards Pareidolia makes us creatures who are hard wired to find comfort, security and meaning in patterns and interpretation. Sometimes those interpretations can be profoundly life changing.
“There are moments in your life that make you and [set] the course of who you’re going to be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes, they’re big moments you never saw coming. No one asks for their life to change, but it does. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.” – Unknown.
One of my earliest memories is from my very young childhood, when my family was out for a Sunday drive. Suddenly, we heard the sound of an ambulance siren, and my father (who was driving) pulled over to let the ambulance overtake and speed ahead – right through a red light intersection that lay ahead. I asked my parents why they were allowed to do that.
Mum and Dad explained that the ambulance had special permission under the law, because they were on their way to help save someone in an emergency. Over fifty years later, I recall that moment – I was dumbfounded and nearly burst into tears; deeply, profoundly touched that the law recognised the value of human life, and was prepared to allow ambulances to break ordinary laws if it meant helping to save someone. It was perhaps a definitive moment in my early life, when I understood that humans were capable of great nobility.
In subsequent years, I came to understand that many people value such transitional moments or flashes of insight, and they often seek vocabulary to clarify or express the import of those moments: spirituality, transcendence, the miraculous or the numinous. Whole religions have risen up in search of answers to explain such times of inner existential reflection.
But for me, this is one significant feature of the human creature – our ability to ponder and reflect, and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. We see it everywhere – from Harry Potter books that enrapt a generation with their implicit message of finding something magical in the everyday; to our ability to marvel at the night-time sky. For me, this is not divine revelation or fate; it is simply the ability of sentient humans to seek, find or create significance for themselves.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A more recent transcendent moment took place after I had faced heart surgery and the possibility of my own mortality. Some relatives visited me in the hospital, and gave me a photo of a baby that had just been born into the family. I instantly fell in love with the child not only because he shared my DNA, but also because he represented something more fundamental: the potential and hopes for life itself. Amidst my lonely cogitations of possible mortality, here was a baby showing me that life goes on regardless of anyone’s individual circumstance. I was greatly comforted with the profundity that I was part of a species and an organic flow of life that would continue whether or not I was there to participate further. Where some people sought consolation in religion as something bigger than themselves, I was comforted to know that the human species – and life itself – offered its own version of collective immortality through biological survival.
Beyond humans, our biosphere is filled with other species that also share our biological imperative to survive. I wonder if, like humans, other sentient species also have their own versions of numinous experiences?
“What a piece of work is [humanity], How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty…” – Shakespeare..
Our search for ‘spirituality’ should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Carl Sagan acknowledged that “We are a way for the universe to know itself” and such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; our individual ideals and visions are a Rorschach test of our inner personalities. Our self awareness compels us to seek enlightenment or significance in nature, music, arts, hobbies, or philosophies, but our answers – and the transcendent responses we elicit – come from within. I believe that the numinous is luminous: it lights the way ahead for us as we seek to improve ourselves and our world.
To coincide with International Youth Day (12 August), I recall a young friend who I never met – but whose story changed my life, and who might teach us of the potential within us all.
“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation.”
― Tennessee Williams, Memoirs
The date 8 August 1988 might be one of vague mathematical curiosity (8-8-88) and yet it is etched into my mind as the day of a news report in which a young Sydney man lost his life; his story appearing in The Sun, a newspaper that is now also long gone.
He was reportedly infected with HIV in the days before modern multi-drug therapies made HIV a long-term medical condition instead of an almost-certain death sentence.
His last request was to return home from hospital, and his friends eagerly organised a party for his return.
This was an era when HIV was greatly feared and stigmatised, in no small part due to its popular conflation with newly-decriminalised male homosexuality and imagined contagion through normal social contact. Accordingly, his ambulance attendants wore ‘space suits’ as they delivered him home on a stretcher. His friends fled when they saw this and realised that he had AIDS.
Doctor Julian Gold told the newspaper that the young man, ‘died literally of a broken heart 48 hours later in my hospital’.
I was myself a young man when I read this story, and yet 33 years later, I remember being deeply touched by this tale of abandonment by mates and friends. We all recall the flush of youth and our eagerness to find special friends and share time and companionship with those who share our youthful enthusiasm for living and loving and learning together. This is part of the natural process of maturation, moving beyond close family, in search of our own more individualised, extended family. In his desire to find significance and belonging among his own friends – and in their failure to meet his expectations – this young man’s story touches something primal in us all.
(Wherever they are today, I hope that his friends have learnt from their past mistake – we are all only human, after all – and have gone on to redress their error of having been less than their best when the going got tough).
We might also learn from the yearning for companionship within his story – our common human condition means that we share a bond with others, regardless of their age, gender, culture, sexuality, or any other marker that has traditionally been used to separate and divide us. We share the ability to hope and dream; to yearn for significance and betterment; for living and laughing and crying. Like all sentient beings, we share the potential for suffering or flourishing, for intimacy or loneliness.
Whether they may be runaway or refugee, indigenous or ill, disempowered or discrimated against – our sentience surely compels us to empathise with others in need, and go out of our way to support them whenever we can. Indeed, I suspect that the fullest test of our humanity, ethics and compassion is whether or not we help those with whom we might ordinarily feel that we share the least in common, except for our common humanity.
I am reminded of a Biblical injunction to sacrifically offer help to others: “Greater love hath no man than he who gives his life for his friends…” and I see this saying immortalised on war memorials, building plaques, tomb stones, and used ubiquitously across common literature. However, I see deficiencies in this quote; after all, even serial killers and dictators care about their friends; and its wording suggests an elitism by implying that only friends are worth protecting rather than all humanity. I would respectfully amend and supercede this Biblical quote, emphasising its secular humanist ideal and removing it from any religious context, by expanding it to include everyone instead of just an insulated bubble of our nearest and dearest: Greater love hath no person than they who give their life to help another; turning strangers and enemies and their whole human family into friends.
Thirty-three years ago, that anonymous young man’s story convinced me that awareness of the suffering of others is our choice. His story inspired me towards activism. How many others are like him today, around the world, suffering in silence during modern-day plagues: HIV, COVID, disease, poverty, starvation, injustice, war, violence, discrimination, or the indifference of others? And what are we doing about it?
However we answer those questions reveals more about our own humanity than it does about those whose suffering we are challenged to confront.
Dan McDonnell, 1988. ‘A tragic test of friendship’, in The Sun, Melbourne, 8 August.
(*My study of HIV/AIDS has been connected to a PhD study. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.)
NASA Photo: ‘The Blue Marble’ photo taken on 7 December 1972 by Apollo 17 (the last human mission to the Moon), some 29,000 km from Earth on the way out to the Moon. Wikimedia Commons.
Even as a child, I used to wonder at our self-obsessed culture.
Every advertisement is aimed at instant self-gratification: buy our product to become smarter, sexier, cooler, more popular, and only worry about yourself. Forget about metaphorically storing treasures in heaven, just make sure you horde everything you need for creature comfort today while your neighbours starve.
Every popular song in the ‘hit parade’ is aimed at ME ME ME. I can’t get no satisfaction. I love you, yeah yeah yeah. Love me tender. Man, I feel like a woman. You know you love me. I will survive. My heart will go on. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
The cultural worship of narcissism.
As a child, I also used to puzzle over Boris, a widowed World War Two Polish refugee who lived in my neighbourhood. He lived a lonely and troubled life, and the neighbourhood was replete with stories about how he had allegedly dug escape tunnels in his back yard in case of a night raid by Nazis, and how he had concreted up his electricity meter box so nobody could tell if anyone was living inside his shuttered-up home. As a boy, I recall seeing him sitting in the gutter outside his house, using a spoon to share a can of dog food with his only friend – his pet dog – and I wondered why the adults in my neighbourhood used to ignore him. Didn’t Jesus or Santa Claus also love him?
I don’t condemn our culture for obsessing over self-preservation – selfishness sells at least as much advertising copy as its constituent components: sex or vanity. There is of course nothing wrong with healthy self-preservation, nor with ensuring that you survive along with your immediate family. My concern is that our culture promotes the falsehood that family stops outside our front door.
I even accept that self-preservation can be a fine, upstanding platform of morality – provided it does not trump other morals such as loving thy neighbour. And our culture creates false divisions between neighbours: Not in my back yard. Protect our borders. Punish the dole bludgers. Hide the homeless in another location. Lock away the sick old people where we cannot see them. Stop the queue jumpers even when the queue for those fleeing war or poverty extends over 150 years. Charity begins at home – and ends there. Privileged white lives matter too.
Wherefore art thou, Boris?
Our idolatrous promotion of capitalism is based upon two falsehoods: the first is that self trumps society, that the individual is paramount and should remain the focus of our capitalist system. After all, the myth proposes, people need to be rewarded for initiative, because otherwise free handouts via godless socialism simply make people lazy. Hence our culture prefers to hold billions of humans in economic servitude and allows millions to die each year from starvation, disease, or other poverty-related problems, rather than organise fair and equitable sharing of our resources. Universal Basic Income, anybody?
Culturally, our society honours those whom it sees as being worthy of praise – usually conflating affluence with hard work – and disrespects the poor and disadvantaged, as though blaming them for their failure to be rich. Our worship of economic rationalism and ‘trickle down economics’ – philosophies that are largely immoral and discredited – permeate our lifestyles, causing us to behave in ways that, to an objective observer, are not the optimal ways for humans to treat themselves or others: from undertaking exploitative employment through to the way we approach charity – giving the poor a few breadcrumbs off our table.
The second falsehood in capitalism is the idea that we can all consume abundantly and shamelessly, and that our planet can and will absorb our mindless pursuit of hedonism and selfishness. Who cares if the oceans will soon be depleted as long as we can gorge our gullets today with lobster? So what if forests and the Great Barrier Reef will be gone within a generation, as long as we can eat, drink and be merry today? Who cares if in few years’ time there will be a billion climate change refugees, as long as our borders are secure and we can keep out the black people?
A friend of mine recently discussed similar points on Facebook, and with her permission I quote from her wisdom with some minor adaptations.
When people angrily denounce the 1% as being the evil bastards who keep everything for themselves and neglect everybody else, I remind them that WE are part of the 1% wealthiest people on Earth, just by being born here. We are those evil people who think a meat meal at a restaurant is more important than the lives of the 9 million or so people who will starve to death this year… or the tens of millions who will never manage to lift themselves out of borderline starvation.
In Australia we live really well — even the poorest of us… and I am one of those poorest. I don’t own a car or home. I eat one meal a day, only having protein (a little tin of sardines which I feel guilty about) one day a week. I don’t buy myself much of anything. But I have access to the vast riches of the internet, I never starve, I have a (leaky) roof over my head, am warm and happy. We are not starving to death. We have the dole and pension and many charities that hand out food and other goods. My brother works (for free) in a charity shop that has ridiculously low-priced goods, which they often give away to needy people.
We are sooo lucky here. Most people don’t realise. I come from a well-to-do background, so I have always known a wide spread of people, from filthy rich to destitute. I’ve always been amazed at so many of my wealthy friends believing they are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is always the people who are richer than them who are the problem. The thing is, we all are. We Australians are among the biggest energy consumers on Earth. We produce more greenhouse gases per capita than any other western nation. We produce more rubbish. We do less recycling than almost any other 1st world nation. We really need to ditch this selfish government that encourages selfishness in us and do our part to help fix the world.
At the same time, I don’t think less of those who don’t. It is entirely understandable that most people don’t realise how much better off we are than the vast majority of the world’s people. It is unfortunate, but not really anybody’s fault. It is changing slowly.
So you think this is an exaggeration? The USA and Australia are among the top ten richest countries in the world, as measured by GDP per capita. Maybe reassess whether you are rich: if you received more than $1500 US (or $2000 AUS) last year, you are among the world’s richest 20% of income earners; if you earned $50K US (or $65K AUS) then you are among the richest 1%.
These days I spend a lot of my time, money and effort helping disadvantaged people in some parts of Africa. And I was never very rich in time or money to begin with, living below the poverty line and having way too many projects on the go simultaneously. But we here in Australia are unimaginably wealthy — even those of us, like me, who live below the poverty line.
I help people in Africa who are in danger of dying. The greatest difficulty is that death is knocking at the door for so many there, it is difficult to triage the problem and spend the money in the most effective ways. Helping people set up a shop, buy land, build a house, get mosquito nets (against malaria), get solar powered lights so they don’t have to pay for fuel or cut down precious vegetation…
I should add that I don’t see myself as virtuous in any of this. I’ve been a pretty selfish shit for much of my life. Helping others is not atonement for that or anything. It just makes good logical sense. We all benefit from an improved world.
Everybody benefits from making the world a better place to live. Where will the next genius come from who might change the way we see the universe? That person might be a young girl in a slum. Who will be the person to gain new insights into the best ways to build and use artificial intelligence? It might be a young boy who gets saved from poverty in a Brazillian favela. Who might be the inspirational person to bring about world peace? It might be a young gay man trying to survive in a deeply homophobic society. Who might show us the way to live lightly, yet luxuriously on this planet? That might be a child yet to be born to a young woman struggling to survive in a land devastated by war and broken agriculture.
If you doubt this, consider the following:
A man who escaped extermination, as a member of what was considered at that time a race of vermin, totally altered the way we understand the universe. He was Albert Einstein.
A young black woman in the insanely racist south of USA grew up in a time where girls did not do math, but her abilities ended up making her one of NASA’s most valued people. Her calculations were respected more than those from the new computing machines. She was Katherine Johnson.
A young boy, the son of illiterate black parents in racist, apartheid South Africa, grew up tending cattle, but believing in fairness. He ended up peacefully dismantling Apartheid and leading that country forward. He was Nelson Mandela.
A young Italian boy, born illegitimately, out of wedlock, realised as he grew up that he was gay at a time when that was a very serious “crime”. He became perhaps the greatest artist/scientist/technologist/inventor in all history. He was Leonardo da Vinci.
We don’t know where the next geniuses will come from who will deliver new ways to understand the universe, life, and psychology. We don’t know if those poorest people will give us the tools to live lightly and luxuriously upon the earth. Maybe those key insights will come from wealthy 1st-worlders like us, or maybe they will come from the much greater numbers of poor people. In the past, some of the most oppressed people have given us some of our brightest stars.
This time we live in now is a Renaissance. It is the beginning of a new era for humanity. There are more geniuses alive today than ever before in all human history. We have vast amounts of free information available to us at our fingertips. People living in poverty have supercomputers in their pockets that let them access this information and communicate with other people all around the planet. Society is shifting to greater tolerance and empathy faster than ever before. Great social changes, which used to take a hundred years, now occur in decades, or even less.
It is true that we have great problems to solve: the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse, religious extremism, increasing waves of disease… but we are smarter than ever, more peaceful and cooperative than ever, and more knowledgeable than ever.
If every person in Australia helped some people in the poorest parts of the world, we might eliminate deep poverty and starvation. We might end wars over resources and stupid gods. What might the human race then become? Knowledge, art, and culture are really the only unlimited resources. Imagine how that could enrich us all.
I find her words compelling and her spirit admirable. She suggests that if we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves. But she also warns us that this change must be sustainable:
One of the big problems with trying too hard to help fix the problems is burnout. It is difficult to maintain perspective. I worry sometimes that I might end up giving up on the impossibility, instead of concentrating on small things that can make a big difference to people.
My friend’s warning about sustainability moderates both our desire to help others and our perception of what is needed to implement real change. I am reminded of a childhood memory: I was out doorknocking for a charity called, ‘The Freedom From Hunger Campaign’, when through a flywire door I observed a man eating lunch. In a splinter of my mind’s eye – undoubtedly coloured by my somewhat disapprovingly emotional memory of the event plus subsequent life influences – I seem to recall him as a large, almost obese fellow, gorging himself upon a lunch while displaying the temperament, dimensions and character of Jabba the Hutt. In between loud chews, he asked me what I wanted, and I invited him to make a donation to feed the hungry. Without breaking chews, he loudly and rudely replied, “No!” and turned his attention back to stuffing his face. In my more excitable moments some fifty years later, I recall this man and wonder if he serves as a metaphor for myself, my country or my world.
I do believe that the world has big problems and things must change. Whether through social evolution or revolution, real change is coming and it will hurt. Climate change, economic inequality, political instability, dwindling resources, science denialism… we face many challenges, but I would argue that the human species has the resources of intellect and courage to overcome these with rationality and selflessness. If we choose. But just as war often imposes rationing, we are living in an era when the Third World War (a war to save what we patronisingly call the Third World) is already underway, and we need to adopt a collective mindset wherein we act to help our human family by being prepared to use our affluence to help those who have less.
Whether we act pre-emptively and mitigate imminent change – or continue trying to ignore it as long as possible until it overtakes and overwhelms us – this is our choice both as individuals and as a society. How we each respond to that call determines our ethics as human beings and our civilised values as a human society. As Sarah Connor, once said, “A storm is coming” – and this will necessitate lifestyle change for us all.
I am not necessarily advocating the overthrow of capitalism; but I do propose its humanising: an economic system based upon compassion not consumption, predicated on helping instead of hoarding. We need a world built upon apposition not opposition; upon coalition not competition.
Any rational and ethical concept of human identity must include a healthy perspective of being collective and collegiate. This includes a morality which is based upon human need and human reason. The concept is not hard – even children can grasp the concept that sharing is preferable to selfishness, as expounded in the ‘Pronoun’ song from the old children’s TV series, HR Pufnstuf:
“Mine is a selfish word,
Yours is a thoughtful word,
But ours is the nicest word of all.”
The human factor – indeed the organic life factor – must surely comprise an important part of anyone’s perspective if they wish to be fully alive and fully human. This leads to certain inescapable conclusions. Life is not a shopping spree nor a game to see who dies with the most toys. History will never thank you for watching every episode of your favourite TV series, for going on that overseas holiday, or for painting the back verandah a special colour last summer. But if you instead gave equivalent time, money and effort to help others, then you may leave a human legacy wherein some future family can literally thank you for their home, their environment, or perhaps for their very existence – a much better form of immortality than that found within many religions and philosophies.
Do you want to see the world change? Then get out there and change it.
Here is an opportunity to support some of the work that my friend supports, helping homeless people and saving lives: Lunko House in Kenya and Uganda.
And here is one of mine, supporting people directly in Kakuma Refugee Camp – building shelters and toilets, providing life saving night lighting, feeding people, saving lives with medicine: Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees.
Another opportunity for direct assistance in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Helping those who have nothing. They currently need food and firewood.
Directly funding a self-sustaining project, the Rainbow Refugee Food Program in Nairobi. Feeds refugees, supplies gainful employment and income and rent.
A direct fundraiser for Nairobi-based rainbow refugees
run by my trustworthy friend in the USA. Feeds and clothes, provides shelter and medicine. Saves lives and gives hope.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god.”
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)
Shakespeare’s monologue – or what these days we might call his ‘meme’ – from Hamlet, encapsulates for me the essence and message of what these days we would call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendance beyond the oppressive sexist and religious understandings of his day, Shakespeare’s words capture our place in nature as a ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what he defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ is today understood in the words of Carl Sagan and Neil De Grasse Tyson, as ‘stardust’. Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet I see his words as symbolising the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.
King of the Animals?
Bill Bryson continues this praise of our glorious human grandeur:
“To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialised and peculiar that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p. 17).
And yet, amidst all this scientific and humanist exploration of our species’ significance, we must consider more: that other life forms are equally praiseworthy.
Historically, some religions have preached that ‘Men (and women) are made … to rule and subdue the earth as God’s representatives.’ This form of human supremacy or speciesism has denied the reality that microbes and viruses are capable of bringing down our presumed superiority as easily as we are of constructing a narcissistic hubris through the proliferation of atomic weaponry or systemic world poverty.
Traditionally, humanity has considered itself to be somehow more highly evolved, or on a higher plane of worthiness, compared to other animals. Our tendency to judge our fellow life forms as comprising ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties‘ is a demonstration of how strange and dissociated we have been from our fellow sentients – a sign of our own arrogance and vanity, the same social distancing that enables us to so readily dismiss mass extinctions that are caused by our own anthropogenic climate change.
And yet we are a part of the glorious cornucopia of life; we dance and sing as part of the carnival of the animals; our human languages and song add to the vast chorus of life that bespeaks our world – croaks and chirps and roars and hoots. The family resemblance between us and other living things is not only physical, but also a measure of biology and sentience. As a science fiction fan, I wonder if one day some truly alien beings will arrive from another planet and remark on what they see as the family resemblance between us and cabbages or starfish.
Marriage of Equals?
While it is understandable and even natural for humans to have an affinity for their own species – this is, after all, the lens through which we view our world, and can potentially be ‘a boon to survival‘ – our attitudes towards animals nevertheless need to expand and encompass new perspectives just as we seek to expand our understandings of our own condition. Humans are no more, and no less, evolved than any other species within our planetary biosphere, and indeed we are all interconnected on many levels. Richard Fortey emphasises one example:
“What is abundantly clear is that all life – from bacterium to elephant – shares common characteristics at the level of molecules. There is a common thread that runs through the whole of biological existence. Individual genes on the ribosomal RNA are common to all life, and these are complex structures… We all share a common ancestor.”(‘LIFE: An Unauthorised Biography‘, London: The Folio Society, 2008, p. 36).
Scientists are even uncovering how interactions between divergent life forms may ultimately enrich our understandings of our own. We not only live interdependently with our fellow life forms, but in various forms of symbiosis within which we rely upon each other for our mutual survival – another reason why anthropogenic climate change is suicidally stupid.
“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” – G W Bush.
“Humans are special. We have developed phenomenally oversized brains which grant us expanded purposes. We can learn about far more than just the things our survival depends upon, and in that learning we can see that all life is interwoven and that we depend upon all those around us, so we need to look after all life, not just our own. We can see beyond ourselves, and our family, and our tribe or clan, beyond our village or city, past state and national borders, even past species boundaries to realise we are all brothers and sisters — not just all humans, but all the other mammals, even all other vertebrates, all other animals, and even all life.” – Miriam English.
For all our special abilities and capacities, we have no more, and no fewer, rights than any other life form – it is our human arrogance that presumes superiority, and our Humanism that calls us to accept humility.
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they moved finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” – Henry Beston, 1928 (Wikiquotes)
Opening commentary taken from a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria, and recorded at Future Salon Melbourne 2013.
I look up at the sky, at the complexity and wonder of our natural Universe – so much more than we currently understand – and I marvel that I am a part of it.
What does Humanism mean to you? A #hashtag campaign being run by Humanists UK encourages people to publicise what Humanism means to them: “share and celebrate the values and convictions that underpin [your] approach to life.”
For me, I see Humanism reflected in people and events from my past, present and future – even those who may not self-identify as Humanist, because their attitudes and actions reflect the basic philosophy of respect for common humanity and other Humanist precepts.
For a start, Humanism allows us to balance our scientific curiosity with our sense of wonder and transcendence:
I recall one woman whose children were students of mine. She was a friendly, happy woman who instilled in her kids a happy countenance and a keen desire for learning and knowledge. Sadly, she passed away from cancer, and I attended her funeral as a mark of respect. Her teenage son greeted me with a pleased smile, a warm handshake and a friendly chat. Even in his grief, he was facing reality with a cheerful disposition. We talked about his studies and his hobbies in Science. He told me that the night his mother had died, he had gone outside to study the stars and to marvel at the Universe. I wished that I was half the educator his mother had been.
An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal” (Natasha Lennard and Cary Wolfe, The New York Times, 2017.)
Humanism can be found in a future for which we must strive:
Whether it is #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, the Global Climate Strike or Marriage Equality; whether it is peaceful protests and call for political change in Hong Kong or Nigeria or Thailand or USA; we see progressives – especially younger people – demanding change. They want to live in a better future, and they are prepared to make it happen. I see the same in the ongoing saga of local Humanists as they seek to expand beyond their traditions, and in the imminent birth of Humanists Australia, a (hopefully) twenty-first century form of activism that focuses on common humanity. I find inspiration in popular literature that optimistically conflates science with the human condition. Our future visions are perhaps best encapsulated by Star Trek creator, humanist Gene Roddenberry, who proclaimed: “We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we’ve done already, we’ll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into.” For Roddenberry, and for millions of us who look to the future, the human adventure is just beginning.
For me, Humanism is greater than a faith-based philosophy. It reflects the evidenced reality that humanity is evolving into a better species due to the rise of Humanist thought and values. I am proud to add my own small, humble contribution to that quest.
And perhaps most exciting of all – we are all on that journey together.
There are many reasons to commemorate this time of year, including many events which usually occur between November – February as a demonstration of the fact that humans love to invent excuses for celebration and solemnity. During this season of impending holiday greetings, I invite people to commemorate whichever of the following holidays or other events are most special for them. Or please add one of your own. Enjoy!
Evolution Day Samhain (Celtic New Year’s Day) World Vegan Day All Saints Day/All Souls Day/All Hallows’ Day (Christian) Culture Day (Japan) Armistice/Remembrance Day National Independence Day (Poland) Universal Children’s Day International Migrant’s Day World Television Day Diwali (UK – Hindu Festival of Lights) World Soil Day Al-Hijira (Islamic New Year) Thanksgiving Day (USA) Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) World Diabetes Day Bodhi Day (Buddhist) White Ribbon Day (Australia) Armed Forces Day (Bangladesh) Day of the Dead (Latin America – syncrectic Christian) National Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Mauritania, Central African Republic, Romania, Laos, United Arab Emirates, Burkina Faso, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Bhutan, Niger, Sudan) Independence Day (Suriname, Barbados, Finland, Haiti, Burma) Proclamation of Independence Day (Timor-Leste) St Andrew’s Day (Scotland) The King’s Birthday Anniversary (Thailand) Jamhuri Day (Kenya) Guy Fawkes Night (UK) National Youth Day (Albania, India) World AIDS Day The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery Kwansolhaneidmas (Facebook) Marie Curie’s birthday International Day of People with Disability Karen New Year Celebration (Burma) World Fisheries Day Human Rights Day Las Posadas (Mexico – Christian) Black Awareness Day/Black Consciousness Day (Brazil) Makar Sankranti (Hindu) World Pneumonia Day Feast Day – Our Lady of Guadalupe (Catholic Christian) Day of Reconciliation (South Africa) Pongal (Tamil) Calan Gaeaf (Welsh) Koliada (Slavik) Lupercalia (Ancient Roman) Christmas and Boxing Day (Eastern/Western Christian) Christmas and Boxing Day (secular holidays) Christmas and Boxing Day (Coptic Orthodox Christian) Indigenous Christmas (Australia) Kwanzaa (African American) Yule (Wicca-northern hemisphere, Pagan) Litha (Wicca-southern hemisphere) Humanlight (Humanist, secular, atheist) Chalica (Unitarian Universalist) Montol Festival (Cornwall) Yalda (Persian Winter Solstice) Rosa Parks Day (USA) Darwin Day National Day of the Horse (USA) Anti-Bullying Week (UK) Luci d’Artista (Italy) Id el Maulud (Muslim) World Kindness Day National Blood Donor Month (USA) Zamenhof Day (Esperantist) Festivus (Seinfeld secular) Newtonmas/Isaac Newton’s birthday (secular/scientific) Quaid-e-Azam’s Day (Pakistan) Lohri (Hindu) Martin Luther King Jr Day (USA) International Human Solidarity Day National Sorry Day (Australia) Intersex Day of Remembrance Hogmanay (Scotland) Laba Festival (China) Solstice, or Midwinter (various cultures) St Stephen’s Day /the Feast of Stephen (Catholic Christian) International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Wren Day (Ireland) Puyuma New Year Ritual (Thailand) Movember (Australia) Transgender Day of Remembrance New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (secular holidays) Berchtoldsta (Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the Alsace ) Gantan Sai or Shogatu (Japan – Shinto) Mahayana (Buddhist) World Cancer Day New Year (Russian Orthodox) International Polar Bear Day Bikarami Sankrant (South India – Hindu) Liberation Day (Cuba) Feast of St Basil (Orthodox Christian) Heart Research Day (Australia) Imbolc/Brigid’s Day (Gaelic) Lantern Festival (China – variable date) Armenian Christmas (Armenia) Nativity of Christ (Orthodox Christian) Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) World Radio Day
Seasonal school holidays (varied nations) World Religion Day (Baha’i) Blessings of the Animals Day (Hispanic Christian) Australia Day/Invasion Day Birth of Guru Gobind Singh (Sikh) Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) Tu Bishvat (Jewish New Year of the Trees) World Wildlife Conservation Day International Holocaust Remembrance Day Ramadan (Islamic) – variable date Losar (Tibetan New Year) – variable date Hmong New Year Festival – variable date Saturnalia (pagan) International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women Sesame Street Day Republic Day (India) Midsumma (LGBTI festival, Melbourne, Australia) International Day for Tolerance World Choral Day Antarctica Day National Science Fiction Day/Isaac Asimov’s birthday (USA) Valentine’s Day (Christian/religious/commercial) Groundhog Day (North American) Hogswatchday (Discworld) Life Day (Kashyyyk – Wookiee)
“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”
― Peter Singer
Recent controversy has raged over the destruction or removal of public statues which honoured people who had been slave owners. Similar discussion has also taken place over the recent removal of some television content that has been similarly judged as being racially insensitive or inappropriate. In response, one comment in my Facebook feed cynically suggested that in maybe a few years’ time, protesters might remove all statues or other cultural reminders of everyone who was not vegetarian.
Wow, what a brilliant idea. Societies change; cultures change. Even children’s books are rewritten and updated – sometimes controversially.
Of course, banning statues or cultural relics of every meat eater in history would certainly exclude a lot of people, but I think the question of relegating carnivores to the same status as other retrospectively-diagnosed villains would not be inconsistent with our changing recognition of ourselves as animals in a natural and limited biosphere. Recent discoveries, such as anthropological evidence which challenges our long-held understandings of meat-eating human forebears, also challenges our cultural meat worship. UK actor, comedian and writer David Mitchell points out: “It’s not uncommon, in the history of human societies, for things once deemed normal to start being deemed wrong.… Maybe all these vegans are harbingers of such a change.” New Zealand certainly seems to think so – having passed animal welfare legislation in 2015.
As someone who is not vegetarian myself (at least not yet) I think that evolution towards a vegetarian society would be a natural and logical progression. Why? Because I believe, as a humanist, that if we are to continue to progress as a species, we must forever expand our circle of empathy and altriusm, continuing our evolution away from violence.
Some propose that humanism is an inadequate philosophy for such radical change, because it focuses primarily on human values and intellect, and appears to promote speciesism by excluding the welfare of other life forms. Others suggest that humanism does not exclude other perspectives but simply focuses upon the human experience and intellect because that is our primary means of deduction. Humanism, in this instance, is more a rejection of supernatural theism and an implicit endorsement of sentientism, which includes the welfare of other living things.
Wollen has previously argued that vegetarianism is a moral issue that also impacts upon humanity’s ability to feed itself due to the appalling waste of resources it takes to cultivate animals for slaughter: ‘Make no mistake about it. Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a hungry child.’
‘Animals Should Be Off The Menu’, Philip Wollen addresses the St James Ethics and the Wheeler Centre debate, Kindness Trust channel, YouTube.
I find Wollen’s arguments, his eloquence and his convictions to be somewhat compelling. I offer no final conclusions here, just a discussion in progress. Continued food for thought is welcomed.
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.