Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Matt on the Existential Files: Some further thoughts....



A couple of weeks ago, I had an enjoyable chat with Louie Savva and Matthew Smith on the Existential Files podcast.

According to the home page, The Existential Files follows

 "the Rick-and-Morty-esque adventures of Dr Matthew Smith and Dr Louie Savva as they explore the universe. Louie is the Rick-like misanthropic atheist and existential nihilist. Matthew, Morty-esque with his ever so slightly naive take on existence. Together, the two of them delve into parallel dimensions, ask why the universe exists, what the meaning of life is, and generally ask every question under the sun!"

...which is basically the impression I got when appearing on the podcast.

Podcasts are fun, but they can also be a little nerve-wracking. Before, during and after this one I found myself agonising over the points that I was trying to make. I'm a terrible second-guesser. As soon as the words have escaped my mouth I quite often find myself wondering things like, did I really mean that? Is that really what I feel or believe? Did what I just say really, effectively communicate my thoughts? It's, after all, so easy to be misunderstood.

In addition, I'm not one of those people who feel a high degree of certainty about any of my views, on anything. The longer that I live, the more baffled I am by pretty much everything. And as soon as I do settle on one point of view, I tend to start doubting myself. This, I suppose, is probably suspicious and even infuriating to those who profess metaphysical certainty.

As you'll hear, my views on various things differ significantly from Louie in some respects. I think our main bone of contention is over his hardline existentialist worldview.

Back in 1974, the Nobel prize winning biochemist Jacques Monod published a book entitled Chance and Necessity, where he claimed that it was possible to explain everything through a combination of the laws of physics ('necessity') and chance (life as a cosmic accident). To Monod, life is an absurd quirk, and we are alienated beings in a hostile universe:

"Man must wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, as as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings and crimes."

But this world picture seems questionable. What Monod and other writers do is over-inflate the results of evolutionary biology, physics and chemistry, mix in some very cultural biases, and use what are actually rather vague metaphors ('blind chance 'and 'necessity') to explain absolutely everything.

This has long seemed rather suspicious to me. For a start, it's important to distinguish between the very successful and enduring theory of Darwinian natural selection, and this sort of all-encompassing world picture. The facts of science are not the same as the wider world picture that attempts to fit them together. So it is quite possible to accept Darwin's account of evolution (I do, strongly) and to question the wider world picture.

Back in 2012, the philosopher Thomas Nagel rattled a lot of cages by questioning this world-picture, which he termed materialistic reductionism. He did this because of the failure to resolve the more tricky problems of consciousness in conventional, materialist terms. He also reminded us that:

"Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole." He also pointed out that "...our successors will make discoveries and develop forms of understanding of which we have not dreamt." (Mind and Cosmos, Introduction).

This point alone seems to me a very good reason to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have final answers about life, the universe and everything. See this TED discussion of questions no-one knows that answers to, and tell me whether any kind of certainty is justified:



I must admit that I find the widespread acceptance of the 'absurd' Universe a little puzzling. I suspect that many people, having rejected religion and supernatural forces, feel that they have no choice because it's 'scientific.'

However, it's long seemed a very impoverished world picture to me. This is because the primary aim of such a worldview is negative. The intention is to extinguish any traces of the supernatural -- God, or the soul -- from the Universe. But this 'weedkiller' move leaves what the philosopher Mary Midgley has termed an 'existential vacuum,' which seems to me to be a significant contributor to a widespread sense of alienation.

As I said on the podcast, we need to take alienation seriously. Victor Frankl noted that "such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them (Man's Search for Meaning)." He also suggested that "not a few cases of suicide" can be traced back to this vacuum.

For me, anyway, Monod's world picture is actually refuted by Astrobiology. Sure, we're adapted to a relatively tiny portion of the universe, a planetary surface. But modern science shows how intimately we're connected to the universe, and also dependent upon wider, cosmological processes for our very existence. Yes, our existence is temporary, yes it's fragile, and yes, suffering and evil are part of that existence. But the dark side is not the whole story.

It seems to me that a more positive take on the findings of modern science would emphasise our deep connections to the universe, and could go a long way to healing the existential vacuum. This, perhaps would be a more constructive approach than more puritanical forms of existentialism.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Guest Blog on Milford 2

Click here to go to my second Guest Blog for Milford Science Fiction Writers. This one's about keeping the joy in your writing as you develop a professional career. I hope it helps budding authors!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Cambridge Trip

May 25th/26th.
Went up to Cambridge on Thursday to see a writer friend and give her a hand campaigning for the Labour Party. On the train, I read Man of God, Chinua Achebe's Nigerian novel about the impact of British colonialism on traditional culture, told from the viewpoint of an Igbo high priest. The culture seems more alien to me that that featured in many sf stories, and the colonial British come across as obnoxious.

The fens are pretty at this time of year, very green, with plenty of cows and water birds. Ely Cathedral and environs are especially noteworthy on the Cambridge run.

At Ely, too, there was a minute's silence because of the Manchester  bombing.

When I arrived in Cambridge, the weather was still very fine and I saw lots of Labour and Lib dem banners in people's gardens. This is a refreshing change from Lincolnshire's unremitting conservatism, but Cambridge is a bit of a bubble.

When I arrived, Kari told me that Labour had suspended campaigning because of Manchester and anyway, she had a cold. We had a good long chat about politics and the science fiction scene.  This was morale boosting for both of us. I've been feeling very depressed and powerless lately, and it's just good to catch up with someone who is on the same wavelength.

Later that afternoon, Liz Williams and Trevor arrived from Glastonbury. Our simultaneous visit was pretty much a coincidence, and a pleasant surprise. I know Liz from Brighton, and we rarely see each other these days. Trevor I have got to know via the Milford writer's conferences, which Liz helps run. She normally brings Trevor and several dogs along to the conference, including the infamous postmodern artist Lilypup.

Liz competed her doctorate at Cambridge a while back, and was there for Friday night's annual dinner. Trevor, who has membership number 12 at CAMRA, just wanted to go the beer festival.

So we went to the beer festival, queued and got mildly pissed on good quality booze. This was fun and I bought a cowboy hat for professional reasons.

We also met up with some more friends of Liz, Trevor and Kari,  and I got chatting to a pair of guys, one of whom was doing a doctorate in wheat and the other who did programming for a special effects company. Cambridge is a bit like this. It's a hub for interesting (and frighteningly clever) people.

Later, we had the compulsory curry and Kari's partner also joined us.

The next day, not feeling too rough, we continued chats about life in Glastonbury, etc. Liz and Trevor are big on the pagan /occult scene there and run a witchcraft supply shop, a little like the one in Buffy.

This has resulted in the hilarious Diary of a Witchcraft Shop.  I'm currently midway through volume two which has various anecdotes about witty/psychotic/delusional employees and witty/psychotic/delusional customers, as well as stories about the town and their interesting life there.

Partly inspired by this,  I'm planning to make this blog less of a lecture and more of a diary. Although my life is generally less eventful than Liz and Trevor's sounds, it will be more fun for me and the wild Hebridean and his goat who form my readership. (I'm especially grateful to the goat!)

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Argonauts of the Air

King's Lynn
Flying, for me, is an almost shamanic experience. My occasional flights on commercial airliners have often brought home to me the tiny scale of our globe. In 2014, for example, I flew from England to Egypt, via the Mediterranean. The experience of flying over the vast patchwork of continental Europe, the Alps, the Albanian and Greek coasts, and the Greek Islands triggered a shift to a wider consciousness. I fully understand, then, why so many astronauts experience what Frank White terms an 'overview effect,' or cognitive shift in awareness that comes from seeing the whole Earth in space.

This April, I was lucky enough to be taken up in a Cessna for a more modest flight, by a friend who's just received his pilot's license. The flight was from Rutland to Norfolk, but it was enough to get the same sense of this shift in consciousness. I hope that the accompanying photographs are enough to convey some of the wonder of the experience.
The plane

Our flight path was over Spalding, Wisbech, King's Lynn and the Norfolk coast, to Wells-Next-the-Sea. Wells was once the home of my Grandparents, and very familiar to me from childhood holidays. It's a different experience from the Air.
King's Lynn


The Norfolk beaches are wide, and fringed by mudflats that have many arterial river channels carved in them, and they go on for miles.

Viewing the Holkham estate from the air was also a novel experience, very different from the beach and pinewood rambles of my childhood. Afterwards, we followed the Norfolk coast, over the wildlife reserves and past the RAF bombing range over the North Sea.
Wells channel showing the caravan park,
pinewoods and beach.

The Lifeboat station at Wells
Holkham Hall
Boats
Mud flats and meanders

It's so easy to take the technological miracles with which we are surrounded for granted. Powered flight, invented less than 120 years ago, has long ago been relegated to the unconscious background of our lives, and yet, for me, in a way, it's a more amazing achievement than the most fancy smartphone. Flying like birds was a wild fantasy for millennia, and it took centuries of serious work to make it happen.

Flight is a nice example of what philosopher Mario Costa called the 'technological sublime.' Suddenly, you're working on a larger scale, as the houses, fields, woods, streets, towns and roads below dwindle in scale and individual people become almost invisible. Because of your increased speed, the cars and trucks on the roads crawl along at a much slower pace, almost as if you're on a relativistic flight.

It's so easy, living inland in England, to forget that you're living on a tiny island in the Atlantic. I think that the wider value of flight is to remind us, subtly, of the larger background on which our little lives play out, of which we are still largely unconscious.


Monday, 24 April 2017

The Voting Dilemma

Like a lot of people, I'm feeling extremely politically fatigued, and when Teresa May called an election last Tuesday, I had a fit of horrors. I generally come out as a Left-Wing Libertarian on the political compass, and the thought of a post-EU UK under a possibly perpetual Right Wing Authoritarian government fills me with horror.

It also feels humiliating having to vote in an election when the result almost feels rigged in advance.

So, voting.

I have long had grave doubts about the extent to which elections in the UK can be considered truly 'democratic.' I’ve a lot of sympathy for Rousseau’s caustic comments in The Social Contract:

“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so in fact only during the election of members of parliament; for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains and are nothing. And thus by the use they make of their brief moments of freedom, they deserve to lose it.”

I'm also aware of political philosopher Gordon Graham's arguments that the idea that voting represents the collective 'will of the people' is wrong. 

Graham argues that mass voting dilutes the power of any individual to such a great extent that the will of the individual is never going to be represented in the result.

Elections, Graham claims, only create the illusion of popular power, for the following reason. Some things, like public lighting, will benefit ever wider numbers of people as their use spreads. Democratic power, Graham claims, is not like that.

It’s more like slicing a cake an ever increasing amount of times. The more you slice the cake, the less the recipients benefit from the results. This means that

"the distribution of political power ever more widely results in its annihilation, and the move from autocracy to aristocracy to democracy is not the extension of power that it seems." (quote from the Case Against a Democratic State).

What this implies is that a single voter, in a mass system, has no political power at all. So how to account for electoral results? Graham sees it as a sort of emergent property, but not one that has anything to do with people’s will or intentions. This is because an election result will ‘depend upon a large number of uncoordinated individual choices.’ So the claim that elections are a superior form of government because they allow people to exercise their 'will' to decide who governs them is null and void.

These arguments aside, I'm feeling quite a bit of emotional resistance to voting. This is because I feel damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I don't I'm fated to have to listen to people sneer that if I don't like my current government, then I should have voted. If I do decide to vote, then it's in the knowledge that I live in a Tory safe seat, and so it feels like a futile gesture.

At this moment, I'm probably going to take Bruce Levine's advice. Levine is aware of the dilemma involved in voting and suggests that:

“...voting for Tweedledum simply because one loathes Tweedledee harms individual self-respect, and is dispiriting and bad for democracy." (Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, energizing the defeated and Battling the Corporate Elite).

He also suggests that a free choice on whether to vote or not is okay. So if voting makes you feel empowered, you should do it, whereas if it makes you feel more disempowered than you were before, then you should avoid it.

He also reminds us that the voting versus nonvoting issue is a just narrow part of democracy, something that Right-Wing Authoritarians like May would probably prefer that most of us forget....

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Guest Blogging for UKSRN


Click here to view my guest blog on the UK SETI research Network Site. Have Zombie Aliens Conquered the Universe? We should be Told....

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight


Being a Cassandra is a risky business. Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, was a prophet who was considered insane, so although she prophesied true things, she was not believed.

Modern day prophets can run the risk of both dismissal and insanity. One of the most sobering books I've read recently is the Utopia Experiment, by an academic named Dylan Evans. The book concerns a disastrous attempt to set up a survivalist community in Scotland. Evans, a specialist in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, became convinced that civilization was highly likely to collapse soon.

As a result, he sold his house and scuppered his academic career in order to start an experiment in simple living. This was to prepare for the inevitable hardships that would come after civilization fell.

The experiment did not end well: the book opens with Evans interned in a psychiatric ward. As a result of these experiences, Evans ended up highly critical of those who believe that disaster is imminent, and strongly supportive of a high-tech civilization.

On top of all this, there have been end of the world prophets throughout history, who have invariably been wrong. However, most of those prophets were acting from personal revelation: today's tend to base their conclusions on a more empirical basis.

In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the dial of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock has been produced each year since 1947, and indicates the probability of a technologically or environmentally produced disaster.

Two and a half minutes is the closest setting to disaster since the early nineteen-eighties, when there was a significant war scare. It's also only thirty seconds away from the record two minutes, which was set in 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union exploded their first thermonuclear devices within months of one another.



Image:Wikipedia, Fastfission.

With the end of the Cold War, the dial moved significantly away from midnight; in 1991, it was at 17 minutes. However, over the next twenty years, it sauntered ever closer to twelve. This has largely been for two reasons: the beginning of a second age of nuclear confrontation, as many nations have gained a capability to strike with atom bombs, and in response to unfolding environmental disasters like global warming.

It should be obvious why the scientists decided to move the clock closer to midnight this January, but it's worth quoting from the report. The full statement can be read here.

"On the big topics that concern the board, world leaders made too little progress in the face of continuing turbulence. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways."

A number of political trouble spots make nuclear war more likely, so it's surprising that this issue isn't commanding more attention in the media. The board notes that the "climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal—but only somewhat." This is because some action has been taken, and because carbon dioxide emissions remained essentially flat in 2016. However, this is no reason for complacency:

"Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech."

Against this background, the rise of what they term 'strident nationalism' is very worrying. Donald Trump's election is especially concerning because of his commitment to nuclear weapons, and his denial of climate change. I'd include Brexit as a further manifestation.

Nationalism, as Yuval Noah Harari suggested recently, offers no solutions for global problems. In fact, it's making things a lot worse because it's promoting discord between nations. In my view, its resurgence represents a significant failure of governance. As the board noted:

"Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensifed—yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth (my emphasis)."

In other words, in becoming preoccupied with distracting and resource-hungry projects like Brexit, our leaders are showing a breathtaking, almost suicidal, level of irresponsibility. Governments and populations who act so recklessly are in effect playing Russian roulette with civilisation.

This issue, by the way, goes beyond the usual tired disputes between the 'left' and 'right.' David Brin seems broadly correct when he suggests that the current significant divide is between those who accept and those who deny the realities of our situation.  I can't put it better than the board:

"Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term."

Maybe we should be listening to Cassandra, after all.