Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The causes celebrities feel comfortable backing — and those they do not — speak volumes. And it’s not pretty

By Brittney Cooper, in Salon.com, Wednesday Jan. 14, 2015

Race and gender politics at this year’s Golden Globes took an unexpected range of twists and turns. First, hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler shamelessly mocked the many rape allegations against Bill Cosby. Given that there has been a significant strain of public resistance among some African-Americans to the racial politics of a group of white women dethroning a powerful black man through the accusation of rape, Fey and Poehler’s bit was ballsy, to be sure. But the reality is that Cosby most probably did drug and/or assault many women, white and black. And in the absence of a day in court, he, at the very least, deserves our highest ridicule. It is he, not we, who has “destroyed his legacy.”
Then many of the award winners took especial care to express their solidarity with the people of Paris, still reeling over last week’s terrorist attacks that killed 17 French citizens, including 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine. Many actors and actresses including George Clooney, Kathy Bates and Helen Mirren displayed “Je Suis Charlie” signs and pins on the Red Carpet and during the awards. Clooney even took a moment to mention the massive solidarity marches that took place all over the world on Sunday to honor the victims.

I had tuned in to the Globes among other reasons, because Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma,” a historical drama about the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was up for four awards including best song, best picture, best director and best actor in a drama. John Legend and rapper Common took home the award for their song “Glory.” Common, ever the spoken word artist, declared in his remarks, “I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but was instead given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers slain in the line of duty. … Selma has awakened my humanity. Selma is now.”

Common clearly took a lesson from the book of Kanye West when he refused to say the words that felt as if they were hanging from the tip of his tongue: “Black lives matter.” I was struck by the audacity of inclusion in Common’s remarks and reminded that this is precisely the kind of racial discourse that we don’t need. But it is the kind of racial discourse in which liberal black folks are forced to publicly engage in order that they might not seem antagonistic to white people. Even when we want to say, Black lives matter, we talk about the lives of other people of color, and about white lives, too. We include everybody, because accusations of exclusion often make white folks less willing to listen to our critiques. Of course, all lives matter. But only some lives—black lives—are consistently treated as if they don’t.

Moreover, white people are not held to the same standard of radical inclusivity. As I watched multiple white celebrities don the stage and stand in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack and other innocent bystanders, I marveled at the privilege that they had of being specific. Even though some people of color were casualties of the attacks in Paris, by and large this was an attack on white French satirists whose bread and butter was the routine disrespect of the Muslim community. Attacks on largely white victims received a huge and committed show of solidarity, while the Black Lives Matter Movement that has consumed our news cycle for the last four months was apparently not even worthy of mention.

That this happened on the same night that “Selma,” a film that has come under much fire for its refusal to tell a white savior narrative favoring LBJ, received no awards, perhaps matters, too.
It would be impolitic to say that Selma received no awards because of white liberal racism. I don’t particularly believe that. But I do wonder if America is really ready for a world in which black people are entrusted to narrate their own freedom stories and freedom dreams. Can white Americans deal with not being at the center of the black freedom narrative? Why is it the expectation that our history would favor our most ardent villains?  Can white people really stand knowing that in the broader black narrative of the civil rights movement, we are not especially enamored of white heroes?

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo are absolutely devastating. But the Je Suis Charlie movement among white American liberals is nothing short of disingenuous. It represents an attempt to displace black people from the center of a political moment that has been about state-sanctioned terror against black people. The fervor of white celebrities to speak of their white counterparts abroad while managing not to say even one word about the movements for racial justice happening here at home strikes me as being part and parcel of liberal white dishonesty on questions of race. In an award ceremony that took great care to express solidarity with victims of terror, that no reference was made to Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice is telling. That #BlackLivesMatter did not punctuate either Common or John Legend’s comments or the comments of any white presenter or awardee, when they so clearly should have, suggests that we are a country profoundly antagonistic to the reality of our own capacity for brutality and violence toward people of color.

White celebrities saw no issue with standing in solidarity with a newspaper that routinely antagonizes Islamic communities under the auspices of free speech. Freedom of speech is, of course, fundamental to creative practice, and defense of it is warranted. But failure to stand for freedom of speech, without also acknowledging the ways it has been used by Charlie Hebdo to antagonize Muslims is absolutely egregious.

I’m not saying blame the victim. I am suggesting that apparently — to riff off an old hashtag from feminist activist Mikki Kendall — #solidarityisforwhitepeople. I am suggesting that the clear political recentering of whiteness that I witnessed at the Golden Globes, amid all the funny moments and deserved tributes to good work, give lie to the liberal assertion that “all lives matter.” When Common, a black man, stands and acknowledges that all lives matter, but white people stand and only acknowledge themselves, there is no integrity to the assertion of inclusivity.

And as we look ahead this week to Oscar nominations, we cannot forget that this is the kind of political climate in which a magnificent film like “Selma” is being received. In 1965, it took the televised images of white brutality against peaceful citizens to move white people to action. Fifty years later, and white people simply refuse to acknowledge the brutalities we have all witnessed over these last months. Given this refusal of public acknowledgment, I am unsure what it will take to raise white liberal consciousness to an extent that will make a political difference. But I do expect some quid pro quo. If I defend the right of white women to call out a black man for rape, despite their own history of complicity in acts of sexual violence and state-sanctioned terror against black men, then I expect white folks to do the far more basic work of simply acknowledging that their lives aren’t the only lives that matter.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Consciousness as fame in the brain

Lecture by Daniel Dennett about the fame in the brain theory of consciousness. Video posted by YouTube user Brad Younger.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Recent and upcoming movies about conscious robots

The Machine:

This one is very, very cool.


I for one welcome our machine brothers and sisters.

Ex Machina:

The sexy Turing test.


"You're just a machine."

"'Just a machine'. That's like saying you're just an ape.''

LOVE IT. It's about time someone slapped down the tiresome mantra (and who better than a robot?) that humans have something magical and inexplicable that "mere" machines will never have.

Terminator Genisys:

Ugh. If Hollywood is going to continue milking this cash cow, I wish they would at least stop adding one-line throw backs to the classic Terminator 2. "Come with me if you want to live" was used in the last installment of the series. Still, I'm a sucker for the T-1000. You bet I'm going to watch this.


This was actually a pretty good flick, with a couple or so cool references about consciousness and human-machine integration, though it was a bit preachy with its clichés about human specialness.

Honourable mention from 2004:

I, Robot:

I can't judge if this was better or worse than Asimov's novel, but I do know that I like this movie a lot.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Some thoughts on recent events in the United States

The death this year of Eric Garner, a black man who died from being choked by a police officer, and the subsequent ruling by a state grand jury not to indict him, brings to light yet again the fact that African-Americans continue to live in a disgustingly racist society that systematically stacks almost everything against them and views their lives as cheap and expendable, certainly when compared to the lives of white people.

Fox News took the opportunity to gloat about the silver lining afforded by the death of another black man, Michael Brown, by sticking it to Obama as a ''three time loser". The deaths of African-Americans are reduced to tacky talking points by the gutter racists at Fox News. But let's step back and consider a wider view of racial inequality in America.

Of the 2.3 million people in prison in the US, about two-thirds are there are drug related ''offences''. The overwhelming majority of these prisoners are African-American. The war on drug has been a catastrophic experiment in law enforcement that has yielded no benefit whatsoever for American society at large, other than for a select few, namely the prison-industrial complex, unscrupulous politicians seeking to gain and keep office by being ''tough of crime'', the Mexican drug cartels, and gun manufacturers. Even though whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rates, blacks are arrested and imprisoned at about three times the rate as whites. On average, a black person in the US who is convicted of a crime will serve a sentence one fifth longer than a white person convicted of the same crime. In Louisiana, you're 97 percent more likely to be sentenced to death for murdering a white person than a black person.

These patterns are only the sharp end of a long spear pointed at black people. White people own over 20 times as much wealth (that is, all the assets they own, from their houses to their other property and inheritance and capital stock) on average than black people do - a greater disparity than existed in South Africa during the height of apartheid.

Many white people simply refuse to acknowledge the systemic and outrageous conditions faced by black people that have been systematically erected by white society. They refuse to consider that the legacy of slavery has any relevance to the present day, they refuse to believe that black continue to face discrimination, and therefore assume that anything and everything that befalls black people must necessarily be completely their own fault. They ignore the massive head start that white people in general have had over blacks, and act as though this head start has no part to play in explaining the vast differences in black and white living standards, prosperity, general well being and health, and likelihood of being arrested, jailed or murdered by the police. Tell a white person in the United States about white privilege, and they're likely to get pissy and defensive. This is often the case even for white people who are convinced that they themselves are no way racist. Such people retort, "But our President is black! How can you say there is racism against blacks when the leader of our country is black and when there are so many wealthy black celebrities?" Surely, that clinches it, right?

No, actually, it doesn't.

The fact that a black president could be voted into power at all - something unthinkable only 30 years ago - is obviously a sign of great progress and not something to be sniffed at. But it should also be acknowledged that this in no way negates the fact that anti-black racism continues to be deeply embedded in American society. And nor does it negate the fact that, in order to make himself electable, Obama has had to co-tow to the basic assumptions of white people, such as that it's okay to bomb brown people in the Middle East whenever it's deemed ''necessary'' by Americans. Obama knows that he needs to support and arm repressive dictatorships in the Middle East and Africa. He is a big supporter of Israel, and supplies it with a virtually unlimited stock of weaponry with which to repress and murder Palestinians, because he knows that Israel is a strategic asset. Obama pushes for neoliberal ''shock therapy'' in Third World countries, in spite of the appalling consequences of these policies for poor non-white people around the world, because he also knows that structuring the world in a manner conducive to the preeminence of the US economy is necessary to win approval at home. Obama refuses to investigate Bush and Cheney for torture and war crimes because he knows that "our country needs to look forward, not backward", a mantra adopted by every president since Ford pardoned Nixon - and a mantra brutally absent when it comes to incarcerating average Americans, especially blacks and Latinos. To be accepted at the top levels of the executive branch of the government, Obama has had to demonstrate that he is willing to be part of the culture of lawlessness and impunity that now pervades it. He has applied at best a slap on the wrist for corporate criminality, and was indeed largely dependent on the financial machine to win office. While fraud by the banking sector has resulted in economic damage worth more than 100 times that of all burglaries per year in the United States combined, bankers continue to adopt the stance of victims. Obama knows that he can't lean too heavily on these corporate criminals, because he doesn't want to foster an image of himself as a ''radical'' - a label that has stuck in any case largely because he is black. To be acceptable to white people in general, Obama has had to prove that he's willing to ''play ball'' and adopt the basic assumptions of American benevolence on the world stage, to not ''rock the boat" - in other words, to co-tow to the political and economic power structures that privilege white prosperity and well being over that of black people. So yes, white people, even quite conservative white people, are willing to accept a black president now, and this indeed represents an important measure of progress - but the flip side is that much of this change in attitude comes with severe qualifications: a black president will be accepted so long as he continues to privilege whites and their aspirations, to not make white people at all anxious of the benefits and privileges they have kept at the expense of black people, to adopt the values, talking points and clichés that guide the thinking of white people, and to adopt the national chauvinist assumptions underpinning American global power. A black president is allowed to tinker here and there to help black people, but he can't restructure American society in any way that would make whites have to confront the racism they themselves have helped perpetuate.

Indeed, if anything, Obama hasn't been a force for black empowerment, but for white deflection of black anger. Remember all those euphoric campaign ads about "Change"? Well, the Democrats have been crushed at the polls. Still not convinced that America is deeply racist against its black people? Try this on for size: even after Obama ramped up the war in Afghanistan, even after Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch, even after he has continued to arm and make excuses for Israel, even after he has dished out only the most tepid penalties for rampant corporate criminality by the Wall Street financial machine, even after he has made it clear that he won't investigate Bush and Cheney for war crimes - even after all this, the GOP and its white middle-class base have continued to characterize Obama as a ''socialist'' and ''anti-white racist''. For them, the really pressing issues aren't black people being attacked and brutalized by police, but that white people have to ''keep hearing about'' such things. The outpouring of vitriol and hatred by many whites towards Obama isn't something that can be chalked up to a disapproval of his policies. Not even Bill Clinton, who was widely despised by many conservatives, received nearly as so much flak. Simply by virtue of being black, Obama is automatically seen as a threat to white people.

As I've said, white racism doesn't come only in the form of the abominable rantings of the gutter kooks of the GOP and Fox News. These are only the more disgusting manifestations. Anti-black racism is a structural feature of American society, and it's there whether or not whites care to acknowledge it.

Of course, the Republican Party are indeed among the most reprehensible human beings on the face of the planet. This despicable gang of corporate whores, liars, religious fundamentalist bigots, homophobic bullies, racists and anti-woman thugs has repeatedly made it abundantly clear that it will not only continue to crush African-Americans and to continue with the blatantly racist ''war on drugs'', but will also happily sink the economy in order to hurt the credibility of Obama and to force the hand of the electorate. Their obstructionist, extortionist tactics seem to have worked, as Republicans have swept into Congressional seats in the latest elections. The GOP strategy is essentially to make the economy bleed in order to discredit the Democrats. They adopt this strategy because they know it works: the American electorate will fold under the assault, and the proof is in the latest pudding. The use of capital strike, economic warfare and unceasing legislative obstruction is the sort of strategy that a covert intelligence agency might adopt in trying to overthrow a foreign government. In most other countries in the world, using such tactics at home would be considered out-and-out treason, and in some cases even terrorism, but the GOP wraps itself in the mantle of patriotism and bleats at anyone who criticizes it as "anti-American", even as the party destroys American lives, jobs and security. The guarantor of all this? Racism, specifically anti-black racism.

Now, a word on white privilege. Privilege doesn't mean that blacks can't ever have what whites have, or that whites never have to struggle or deal with hardship. No one is saying that there aren't rich black people and poor white people, that white people are never beaten up by the police, or that blacks are never racist towards whites. Privilege simply mean that there are things that blacks have to worry about that whites never have to worry about. This applies whether or not a white person is rich, poor, gay, straight, a man or a woman. If you're white, there are things you never have to fret over. For example, if you're white, you don't have to fret over the possibility that the police will use your race as an excuse to beat the shit out of you or even murder you. If you're white, you don't have to worry about your resume being sidelined because you have a name like "Lakisha" or Tyrone". If you're white, you don't have to worry about the police pointing guns at you if you walk out of a large house in an upscale neighbourhood and are instantly suspected of being a thief simply because you're black.

These things are easy to miss if you're the one who doesn't have to worry about them in the first place. In fact, the less you have to worry about them, the less you're liable to even know that you have such privileges in the first place, and the more defensive you're likely to become when these privileges are so much as mentioned.

White people who aren't consciously racist often nevertheless subscribe to all the basic assumptions about white benevolence and black criminality. The system works - for white people - so they can't conceive of it not working for others. If blacks are incarcerated at rates that exceed even those of South African apartheid, this can only be because black people ''refuse to adopt personal responsibility''. This personal responsibility, apparently, doesn't extend to white society even having to acknowledge its continued failure towards and assault on black people. Even if most white people are not themselves consciously and explicitly racist, many of them nevertheless they help to perpetuate, via their ignorance and swaggering indifference ("I'm sick of hearing about black people's problems"), to perpetuate a system that produces consistently racist outcomes.

But what can be expected, really, from a society that has always been deeply rooted in white supremacist assumptions, and is now overlain with a hideously superficial consumer culture that sees everything as a commodity, where stomping on other people in order to get ahead is seen as the norm, and where everyone is out to ''get theirs"? What sort of a regard for human life can we expect such a system to engender? From slavery to Jim Crow to Reagan's war on drugs, strategies that victimize blacks and disproportionately target them for arrest, incarceration, punishment and exclusion are adopted because they follow the path of least resistance in white society. They are lapped up by white audiences when served on a ''law and order'' platform. These audiences are only too eager to be pampered by sounds bites praising their own virtues, such as ''hard work'' and ''personal responsibility'', while also denouncing black people's supposed lack of them. The latest outrage involving Eric Garner isn't an aberration or a ''failure of the system'' - it's part of the historical trajectory of a society accustomed to seeing blacks as threats that need to be neutralized, through violence and terror if necessary.

Eric Garner, who did nothing to deserve being murdered, died from a chokehold. He was the victim of a racist thug in uniform. I for one hope that these thugs will soon be given a taste of their own medicine, but much more that, I hope that black people in the United States can finally free themselves from the centuries-long chokehold that white society has refused to relinquish from them.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Best music video clip ever

Posted by timtimfed on YouTube (check out their other stuff. They have all kinds of neat special effects going). Song by Roadgeek. ''Towards the Sun''.

This video clip is gruesome and disturbing, but it's still mentally awesome. The song itself is totally ''rad'', as the kids like to say.

WARNING: don't watch this if you're averse to cats murdering people.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Oh my damn, LOOK at this video

(video by Chaîne de ebruneton on YouTube)

No offence, Earth, but I want to live in that space station.

Just think: there may be people in the future who never set foot on a planet, not even the one their species evolved on, but spend their entire lives inside a spaceship in search of a new home. Their many greats-grand children would once again gaze upon real skies.

Depending upon the speed of this ''generation ship'', they might only reach their destination centuries after embarking. Many generations would have been passed by the time they reached the alien world - but many more generations would have passed by on Earth. The closer the ship reached the speed of light, the more the effects of ''time dilation'' would kick in. At close to the speed of light, the ship could traverse the entire known universe in 50 years - ship time. But billions of years would have passed back on Earth, which would long have been reduced to a cinder by the expansion of the sun into a red giant.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

McLaren P1 vs Porsche 918

From Evo Magazine.


It seems a bit ironic to me that McLaren would care so much about the outcome of this comparison by having Evo retry the time attack using Trofeo tires, when they themselves downplayed the relevance of the P1's exact ''under 7 minutes'' Nurburgring lap time (which they still haven't released). The P1 is still an astonishing machine. But I fancy the 918 more. It just seems like the more groundbreaking technological achievement, given everything it can do (not to mention being just as fast as the P1 around this track on comparable tires) and just looks a whole lot prettier than the gaudy McLaren (though I admit that the black car looks absolutely wicked from some angles). And it sounds better, too. Still, I'd love to see a completely stripped out version of the 918 (that is, no removable roof, no luxuries of any kind, and bugger-all sound deadening).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Do people ''choose'' hell? Or does God?

Christians and Muslims often claim that people who reject their respective gods will go to hell and suffer for all eternity. They claim that this is just and that it's not actually God's ''punishment'', but rather a ''personal choice'' that non-believers make, and that these nonbelievers have no one to blame but themselves since they cannot plead ignorance (that is, they were ''warned'' and aren't ignorant of the possibility of going to hell).

This must surely rank as one of the most despicable and disgusting of religious conceits. A few moment's consideration will show why this is so.

Consider a mother who says the following after her son Sam throws a fork at the dinner table:

''We had told Sam that if he doesn't keep his corner of the dinner table neat, he would go without dessert.''

So far, so good. The parent can at least argue that they're being reasonable here, by threatening to withhold dessert if the child behaves like a brat.

But now, look at what happens when this mother uses the logic of those who subscribe to the hell doctrine:

''Sam made his choice, and so I had no option other than to allow my husband to take Sam out to the shed, where he was tortured and burnt. Sam CHOSE not to obey me, which means that what followed was his doing, not mine. My morality as a parent means that I'm actually powerless in giving Sam a different set of options. Thus, the options of dessert and torture were the only ones available. I did warn him, you know.''

If this is horrible and disgusting, then why do so many people think that it's okay if God (supposedly ''all powerful'' and ''merciful'') is constrained between granting access to heaven or allowing someone to be tortured for going against his commands? He apparently had ''no choice'' but to adopt this options list. It never seems to enter into the mind of the apologist that God could simply extinguish the soul of the person who rejected him, saving them eternal suffering, while also denying them the reward of heaven. Instead, they adopt the logic of the sadistic and mindless parents in the above example, and assume that the fault lies squarely with the person in question.

Why did God CHOOSE for these to be the options, in other words? He could have chosen otherwise. It's easy to imagine him using his great mercy to pick one of millions of far more gentle alternatives that would still be have been consistent with reward in heaven for his followers while also denying these rewards to his his naysayers. Instead, God chose to adopt an options list of the most miserable and brutal extremes. This isn't the invention of a supreme being. It's the invention of small-minded men intent on control and subjugation.

Funny, also, how different religions have the hell doctrine. Since they can't all be right, that means that most of them, at the very least, must be WRONG about the hell doctrine, and that it's undoubtedly a human-invented threat system when it comes to those religions. So the notion that hell is used by people to scare other people rather than being a God-ordained command isn't speculation, it's a necessary FACT, at least with respect to the religions which are false. Since Christianity must be wrong if Islam isn't, and vice versa, then one of these religions must, as a matter of necessity, be using hell as a human-derived threat system. But people are expected to pick out the correct religion from this swamp of competing claims based upon some uninspired, faulty and obnoxious ''holy texts'' that are spectacularly wrong on a whole swathe of issues. If you happen to be Muslim, and it's because your parents indoctrinated you into the faith, then you get to go to heaven (assuming that Islam is the correct religion), even though you put no actual effort into coming to the conclusion that Islam is the correct religion and simply went along with what your parents said. It also doesn't matter if you've never read another holy text to compare it to the Koran. Likewise for Christians and their beliefs and the Bible, assuming that Christianity is the correct religion. And so on for all other religions that have the hell doctrine. Sincerity and investigation don't seem to matter to any of the gods of these faiths; mere belief and obedience will do. Those who reject these doctrines as idiotic and insulting to human dignity and intelligence, on the other hand, may, according to the ''morality'' of these faiths, be tortured forever in a fiery pit, simply for the ''crime'' of wondering whether all these versions of superstitious backwardness might be false, given their small-minded similarities and the absurdly human-centric pettiness of the divine beings being unctuously paraded by believers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Marvin Minsky, saying it like a boss

Why it's more glorious to have evolved than to have been created.

Further thoughts on extraterrestrials

In many popular depictions of ET - whether they are shown as hostile or otherwise - there seems to be an implicit assumption that the aliens are culturally and politically homogeneous. Thus, when we speak of ET civilisations, we often assume planetary civilisations governed by a social order that is hegemonic for the entire species. But is this a good assumption that we should actually make when thinking about ET?

There are reasons for and against it. On the one hand, we might expect that any star-fairing species has necessarily achieved a degree of unity that allows it to collectively invest its material and intellectual resources in deep space travel. If ET is travelling vast distances throughout the cosmos, we may surmise that the technological challenge and the societal burden posed by this will be considerably more severe than that posed by travel merely within a solar system. Thus, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to suppose that these civilisations are operating at closer to what we would recognise as planetary hegemony (the nature of this hegemony is up for discussion. It could be political, ideological, religious, or economic, or any of combination of these. Or something we haven't yet conceived of).

On the other hand, there could be reasons for interstellar travel that suggest a non-hegemonic situation. Star travellers could be partisans in a brutal power struggle, and might be atypical of their native civilisation. Even if a civilisation started out with a social and moral hegemony and uniformity, this might not last long once it ventures out to the stars. Civilisations could fracture among multiple star systems, with different factions vying for control of the whole, and with other factions struggling to break away. Ancient hatreds could reignite, or entirely new ones crop up. Basically, there's no reason that ET should not have its own internal conflicts - conflicts that might spill out into space and shape the way that the species deals with and engages in space travel. Having the social order to avoid internal wars on a planet isn't a guarantee of this order being extrapolated across planets. So while it might be necessary that a species stops killing its own kind in wars and genocides in order to initiate interstellar travel, there's no reason that this situation must persist. Peace and good intent might be only prerequisites for getting to interstellar travel, but need not be requisite feature forever after. With an entirely new frontier opened up, presenting a whole raft of unprecedented opportunities for wealth, corruption and power, space exploration might even amplify the ugly tendencies that the planetary order had supposedly suppressed.

This could totally happen. Also: the bastards.

One of the reasons that the Fermi Paradox seems like a genuine paradox is that, given the biological imperative for colonisation, we should have seen evidence of the colonists by now. By some estimates, it would take a civilisation less than 5 million years, even using slower-than-light space travel, to comprehensively colonise the Milky Way using von Nuemann probes to terraform planets. That would seem like a long time to us (humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos that existed roughly as long ago, and it's hard to imagine a civilisation lasting this long, especially when so many human empires and nations have been so fleeting), but on a cosmological time scale, this is miniscule. Importantly, too, different species may have different perceptions of time, or have different ways of dealing with it (hibernation sleep, extreme longevity, virtual reality, or the effects of so-called ''time dilation'' may have profound implications for this).

We should remember that colonisation, even if it isn't the best strategy for all civilisations, will surely be viewed by some of them as having great potential benefit, and therefore conceivably worth pursuing (but read my previous post for a countervailing tendency that might preclude aggressive colonisation). Once started, and coupled with the drive to be the first to claim prime real estate, colonisation can have its own momentum, especially since the colonising civilisation will be wary of the possibility of a competitor who is thinking along precisely the same lines. ''Colonise like hell'', and even ''attack first'', might be good rules of thumb in this race for more celestial bodies. This could therefore have the frightening consequence that, were we to encounter ET, it would necessarily be war-like, as only such a species would have won out in this galactic competition (note that it wouldn't necessarily be the case that the species is ''biologically aggressive''. Rather, it's that once a civilisation has embarked on a program of colonisation, it is compelled by the structural pressures of the project to pursue war-like policies). In other words, any ET we encounter will be either the winners in an ancient cosmic war, or they will be the first kids on the block (and will certainly be intent on remaining the top dogs). It's therefore conceivable that the solution to the Paradox is that one species or civilisation has exterminated all other takers, but are staying their hand with respect to comparatively backward species like our own - that is, so long as we show no designs on the rest of the galaxy. We are therefore being monitored, and indeed quarantined.

There might come a time when our technological progress will begin to worry our cosmic betters (perhaps it already has, with our invention of thermonuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated computers, not to mention the beginnings of advanced space propulsion systems), who might by then be very tempted to cull yet another troublesome world perpetually engaged in its own endless conflicts. ET might well prefer that we never leave Earth's cradle, or that at most, we only colonise Mars and Titan. It's less clear, though, why such a civilisation would conceal its existence from us, as it can be imagined that intimidation would be a viable option for ensuring the species' place at the top of the galactic food chain. A possibility is that the concealment is there to ensure that we choose for ourselves the path we take, and that the overlords can see us doing so. If we choose scientific investigation, rationality and the peaceful exploration of space, the overlords may welcome us with open arms and invite us to their table as custodians of the galaxy. If we choose something less lofty, and if we retain our hateful divisions and arrogant short-sightedness, we get cut down to size. By hiding themselves from us, the aliens ensure that knowledge of their presence is not contaminating or biasing our decisions, thus allowing them to verify that whether we're worthy of a galactic role.

As alluded to earlier, while civilisations can spread, they can also crumble. For one thing, the logistics of managing a civilisation spanning an entire galaxy are probably unimaginably daunting. In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, we see a Galactic Empire implode, the victim of its own hubris and moral and scientific stagnation, eventually reducing it to a litany of squabbling and barbaric enclaves ruled by feudal lords and petty tyrants. We could well be living in the midst of a ruined alien empire. Maybe, then, the solution to the Paradox is this: there's seemingly no one out there because everyone gave up on empire and descended into technological and social decay. Where once there was a mighty ocean of light, there are now only islands of darkness, perhaps with no memory of their former greatness.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Thoughts on 'first contact' with extraterrestrials

(Note: here, I am assuming that none of the many purported sightings of alien craft and extraterrestrial beings that have been reported by countless people are accurate, though I'm open to the possibility that some of them have been. For the sake of argument, though, I'll assume that none of them have been)

Many people have thought about and imagined what first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation would be like, and indeed what ET would be like. Will they be hostile? Will they be friendly? Will they be indifferent? Will we even recognise them?

I'd like to suggest that, were we ever to encounter ET, we would be encountering not explorers, or saviours, or aggressors, but environmental refugees. Two basic assumptions underpin this. The fist is that any intelligent organisms organised into technological civilisations, wherever they are found throughout the universe, will be concerned primarily with their own survival and the continuity and security of their species. The second assumption is that there is no way to breach the light-speed limit. Whatever technological breakthroughs that are made by a civilisation, they will always be constrained by the need to travel below the speed of light. These might seem like unconnected assumptions, but in fact they lead to an interesting possibility that shapes and constrains the nature of any star-faring expedition, as well as the behaviour of said civilisation in its dealings with other lifeforms throughout the cosmos.

A planetary civilisation, if it is in danger of extinction, will try to leave first its planet and to occupy and perhaps terraform other planets in its star system. Failing this, or after this option has been expended, travel to other star systems will become necessary.

Now, assuming that there is an absolute upper limit to the speed of spacecraft, and given the enormous distances between stars, the specifications for such a ship will be brutally constrained. Firstly, given that the home planet of the aliens will be in peril, they will presumably need to transport a sizeable number of their kind on the ship or ships. This will probably mean that the ship will need to be huge in its own right, and may even need to be a 'generation ship' - that is, multiple generations of aliens will live on the ship, which would act as a sort of flying city.

This all leads on to the second point. Given that the aliens can't just hop back and forth among the stars whenever they like, but need giant, resource-hungry ships that must be in space for decades, if not centuries, coupled with the fact that the very future of the species hinges upon the safety of the ship, the aliens will therefore adopt an extremely cautious approach to this phase of their space travel, and will do everything in their power to keep the ship safe. This will include, importantly, avoiding star systems that already have planets on which life has evolved. Even if the star-faring aliens are immeasurably more advanced than their neighbours, risk-minimisation will be a core feature of their space program. They won't be advertising their presence in what, for all they know, could be a jungle. They will therefore strive to conceal their presence, give occupied star systems a wide berth, and colonise real estate that, to the best of their knowledge, hasn't been claimed. Remember: they're not sending these ships out for scientific exploration or for establishing trade relations; they're sending them out to facilitate the continuity of their species and their civilisation. One wrong move could spell the end for them. They will therefore, understandably, tend to be highly paranoid and skittish. First contact might be seen by them as a disaster, as all their best laid plans and their momentous preparations could be put at risk. Certainly, they'd be wise to avoid species like our own, which would no doubt be viewed by many more advanced civilisations as a violent and foolish lot. Humans have been locked in a perpetual arms race with each other since antiquity, and any aliens that were flying through space for decades on end would be wary that, even if their own weapons were much more devastating than our own, we might catch up in the interim. Perhaps reminded of their own follies, they would view Earth as a no-go zone.

Therefore, if we did encounter ET, it might not last very long. They might turn tail and run at the first whiff of us. Our very existence, in other words, might be the best insurance for our own safety from interplanetary aggression. But, as I alluded to, their paranoia would make it extremely difficult to spot them in the first place. Their powers of concealment could well be far ahead of their powers of destruction.

Incidentally, something like this could be the solution for the Fermi Paradox (''Where is everyone if life is supposedly so widespread in the universe?''), assuming that it is a real paradox. It also has a rather depressing outcome. The universe might be teeming with life, and it might have countless civilisations - but these civilisations would all be trying to not only conceal their presence, but actively avoiding one another. Even if first contact is established, it would be brief, resulting in one of the parties fleeing almost immediately. In other words, the universe might contain billions of civilisations, but, due to the desire of each of them to survive, no communication or culture exchange is viable.

Pretty sad, eh?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism

by Coel Hellier

Original article here.


  • Nazi racial ideology was creationist. Hitler considered that the different human races had been created separately. The Aryan race was the “master” race, created as “God’s highest handiwork”, the other races (Jewish, Black, Slav, etc) were literally “sub-human”. The races had been created by God in their current form (humans had not evolved from other animals).
  • Nazi ideology pointed to both artificial and natural selection as a mechanism preserving the health of a species by weeding out the weaker and less able. This struggle for existence countered a natural tendency for things to decay. To the Nazis this mechanism preserved species in their original (God created) form. They did not consider that natural selection operating over long periods of time caused species to evolve; they regarded the species as fixed.
  • Hitler considered that allowing interbreeding between the separately created races would destroy the Aryan race, and thus be a sin against God. He considered it a high imperative to preserve the Aryan race in its primordial excellence. In Mein Kampf he advocated that Jews should be celibate to prevent such interbreeding. Later he developed a “final solution” to this “problem”.
  • Nazi ideologues strongly opposed most Darwinian concepts; they rejected macro-evolution, they rejected the common origin of the different human races, they rejected human evolution from animals. They rejected such doctrines which they saw as depriving man of his soul. They banned Darwin’s works and called his theories an “English sickness”.
  • Hitler saw the Christian churches as having been corrupted by Jews, starting with Paul. He regarded Jesus as an Aryan, and wanted to restore what he saw as the original message of Jesus. The Nazis formed their own church, the “German Christians”, and their own theological institutes, promoting the idea of Jesus as an Aryan. Hitler despised atheism and had “stamped it out” on taking power with the disbanding of the German Freethinker’s League. 

Continue reading here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Atheism explodes in Saudi Arabia, despite state-enforced ban

From GlobalPost. Article by Carlye Murphy:

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — In this country known as the cradle of Islam, where religion gives legitimacy to the government and state-appointed clerics set rules for social behavior, a growing number of Saudis are privately declaring themselves atheists.

The evidence is anecdotal, but persistent.

“I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me,” said Fahad AlFahad, 31, a marketing consultant and human rights activist. “Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that. Not even a best friend would confess that to me.”

A Saudi journalist in Riyadh has observed the same trend.

“The idea of being irreligious and even atheist is spreading because of the contradiction between what Islamists say and what they do,” he said.

Continue reading here.

And a big shout out to any readers in Saudi Arabia. Keep chipping away at the unjust and irrational structures in your country. Cracks will eventually appear, as they always must when people become fed up with being ruled over by stupid and ignorant men.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The difference between tolerance and respect

It's often assumed by religious people that other people who do not share their beliefs are obliged to 'respect' their religion. This is a curious assumption on the part of believers. The main question to be asked is: why should this shield of respect protect religion but not politics, science or economics?

Imagine the following scenario: a libertarian, a communist, a conservative, or a fascist tells you that you're obliged to respect their ideology. If you don't, you're being 'intolerant', regardless of whether you find the ideology's tenets repulsive or morally unjustifiable. It's easy to see why you're not at all obliged to respect something that you, in your heart of hearts, view with disdain. Legally or morally, you aren't obliged to actually respect such an ideology. Few people are so arrogant as to assume that ideologies are to be afforded automatic respect just by virtue of existing.

Now imagine another scenario: a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or a Zoroastrian tells you that you're obliged to respect their religion. This scenario, while also ridiculous on logical and moral grounds, is somehow imagined to be a justified norm. Lamentably, it is a norm in most societies, because religion, unlike political or economic ideology, or scientific opinion, is presumed to deserve automatic respect. If you profess not to respect a particular religion, or religion in general, you're portrayed as an extremist and of being 'intolerant'.

But note how lack of respect for a religion is not the same thing as intolerance towards it. Religious people who would paint others as intolerant should learn the definition of the terms 'respect' and 'tolerance'. One can be tolerant of religion - that is, one can tolerate its existence, and agree to observe the rights of religious people to worship as they choose - while not actually respecting religion itself, just as one can be tolerant of different political ideologies and its adherents, while loathing the ideologies in question.

Why does religion, then, get a free pass when it comes to respect? Many of its doctrines have proved useful in facilitating the wholesale violation of the rights of non-believers; it has contributed to ruining countless lives with its distorted and misogynistic sexual recommendations and constraints; it has facilitated the rape and abuse of children at the hands of frustrated clergy who cannot find a healthy outlet for their own sexual repression; its adherents often preach ignorant and harmful propaganda about women; many of its followers have hurled bile and hatred against homosexuals, who often register as only barely human in the eyes of the most fanatical and pious observers of faith; it has inspired honest and sincere people to enrich con-men and swindlers who exploit the gullibility and good intentions of their flock as a means to accumulate more earthly pleasures and possessions; and it has stunted the scientific and rational curiosity of countless other people with stupefying and miserable creationist fiction. In other words, people working in the service of their religion have often been utterly intolerant, and indeed utterly disrespectful, of others who do not share their beliefs, and have even been intolerant of their own children acquiring a more sophisticated view of the universe and the world. Yet, it is assumed that nonbelievers are obliged to not only tolerate religion, but even to respect it. Children, for their part, are expected to be thankful for having had their imaginations and intellectual horizons stamped out in the service of invisible men living in magical cloud cities.

My question is: how is automatic respect for religion in any way a good thing?