Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nonbelieving Literati #1

I was supposed to have this posted on Saturday, September 15. I procured a new laptop on Labor Day weekend. And of course, me being me, I had to install Kubuntu Linux on it. Everything went fairly well. I got to the wireless to work and all the various bits of hardware. Then wireless stopped working. I spent a week trying to figure it out. In the end I had to take it back to the store. Yes, the wireless went out after one session. I took my refund and ordered a Toshiba Satellite P205-S6267. I spent almost a day getting a version of Kubuntu Linux set up on it. Then I found out that with the version of Kubuntu Linux due out in October, only one command is needed to setup wireless. Suffice it to say, I'm in Linux heaven: wireless works, sound works, video is lovely. Since I don't use a webcam, I'll wait on setting it up.

* * *

So, this month's reading assignment was Julian by Gore Vidal. It's a historical novel set in the time of the Roman Empire. I haven't had time to read the whole thing. I've only had time to thumb through the novel. I'm not big on fiction, historical or otherwise. I've always pretty much preferred philosophy and social science.

Thumbing through Julian, I was forcibly struck by Christianity's emphatic reliance on historical claims. It really is absolutely essential for the "faith" of the vast majority of Christians that there really lived and breathed a man who bore the name Jesus at a particular time in history.

If this belief in the historicity of Jesus were shown to be undeniably false and untruthful, what would Christianity lose? Or less awkwardly phrased what does belief in the historical elements of Christianity make possible? If, for example, the historicity of Jesus was shown to be part of a hoax perpetrated by the Romans to prop up the empire, what would Christianity lose?

I find this a really, really hard question. My inclination is to think that Jesus' historicity makes a number of things possible, or at least much, much easier. Rather than dwelling on the historicity or ahistoricity of Jesus' life and works, I suggest asking why insist on a historical savior and messiah?

Any answer that presumes an intrinsic value to truth begs the question. Why value truth? Why is truth better than error or falsehood? It's not at all clear that truth is always to be preferred to error and lies. Young children, for example, need praise for their efforts all out of proportion to the efficacy and competency of those efforts. Further, there is the expression "to tell a white lie." The point of these examples is to show that Truth does not possess absolute value and is always to be preferred to error, deception, and outright lies. Or if a more dramatic example is needed, consider the figure of Odysseus.

Of course, the Christian response to this is to interpret the necessity of deception for human life as prima facie evidence of Original Sin and of Adam's Fall from Grace. The hatred of deception can also interpreted as prima facie evidence of a systematic hatred of humanity, life, and of an unrelenting compulsion to self-condemnation.

It's a sign of how far removed I've become from my Pentacostal roots that I'm simply not interested in fairy-tales about Jesus or any other figure from the Bible. Those stories don't strike me as particularly relevant. The stories would be about as relevant as stories written by a Hindu several centuries ago about an incarnation of Vishnu.

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I've been reading The Promise of Politics by Hannah Arendt. She talks a lot about the significance of the founding of Roman to the Roman Republic and to the Roman Empire. The founding was the source of authority for the Republic. The importance of Jesus giving the keys to Peter captures something of this. The historicity of Christianity's core beliefs is the foundation of authority of the Popes and of the Roman Catholic Church. The priests, the bishops, and other officials of the church all trace their way back -- according to the Official Story-- to the original disclosure of divinity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

If that disclosure were shown to be either a mistake or a fraud, then the Roman Catholic Church has no special mission other than to perpetuate itself. And Protestants? With Protestants claims of historicity have a repressive effect: they exclude argumentation. After Kierkegaard the tendency is to treat the Incarnation and historicity of Jesus as an empirical phenomenon: it can't be proved nor disproved. Faith proves itself. Or as I would put it: the neurotic insistence on the historicity of Jesus is another rationalization for not thinking and avoiding reality.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Fermi Non-Paradox, Or Questions, Questions, Questions

This post is a holiday from religious topics. I decided to indulge one of my other interests, or rather peeves.


So, where are they? Enrico Fermi asked of the little green men. Ever since then very some very clever people have tried to explain why the night time sky isn't like busy, busy like their favorite scifi show. Think Farscape or Star Trek.

The first fact that all speculation about extraterrestial civilizations encounters is that the speed of light in a vacuum is a fixed constant. For extraterrestial speculations, closely related is the immensity of the distances between stars and galaxies coupled with the mind-boggling enormity of the multitude of galaxies and stars in the universe.

This superabundance of stars and galaxies like Spinoza's God the universe will bring into existence whatever may possibly exist. Therefore, the line of thought goes, if it is at all possible for an interstellar civilization to exist, one must exist, or have existed somewhere in the cosmos. Given the recent discoveries of extra-solar planets, it would appear that conditions favorable for life are common thoughout the observable universe.

As more becomes known, the Fermi Paradox becomes even more, well, paradoxical. Over at Sentient Developments there is a sense that all is not well with hopes for super-advanced alien civilizations. As human technology and science becomes ever more sensitive and capable of detailed investigations of stars and planets that are light years away from us, it becomes more unlikely that we are unable to find traces or at least ambiguous evidence of advanced extraterrestial civilizations. And as we know more about the rest of the universe, it appears ever more unlikely that we are alone.

Given the ever increasing sharpness of the paradox, the question presents itself? Is the search for extraterrestial civilizations wrongly conceived? There are some questions that don't seem to be posed in these discussions: assuming for sake of argument feasibility of the energy projects described Kardashev scale, what would a civilization need with the energy of a single star, let alone of a whole galaxy? This strikes me very much as example of a particular culturally- and temporally-bound way of thinking: what can be done must be done.

What would a civilization need all that energy for? It would seem to imply a crass understanding of Darwinian fitness: the most fit species is the species that is numerically greatest. Unlimited population growth would seem to be problematic at best: reproduction for reproductions sake? This is the same imperative followed by the most primitive viruses. A transcendental purpose that we ape-brains could not hope to comprehend? Excuse me, but this sounds much too similar to a common rationalization sometimes offered by Christians for the problem of evil: His ways are not our ways. In other words, here tucked away in a purported obeisance to science, rationality, reason, and intelligence qua intelligence hides a filthy wallowing in the impotence of one's own intelligence and reason: profundity is measured by the extent of one's ignorance.

It should not be forgotten that Kardashev formulated his scale in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin the Soviet Union from the 1930's up to the time of its eventual collapse favored big industry: big dams, big factories, big collective farms, big manufacturing. Considered historically, the Kardashev Scale strongly suggests a projection of narrow historical and social conceptions.

Considered this way, is the standard of Super Big Industry implied by the Kardashev Scale the only meaningful measure of technological progress?

Another element to these discussions that I find particularly annoying is the assumption that a sufficient level of intelligence will (somehow) provide an escape from biological imperatives, especially of reproduction and sexual desire. The real subtext of discussions of super-advanced and hyper-intelligent extraterrestial civilizations betrays a hope and wish for complete control of human fertility. A better characterization of how intelligence is often conceived: a tool to escape Malthusian constraints of unfettered population growth and limited resources to support that growth.

Phrased in less grandiosely, this is consumerist dream run amok. It is the faith and justification of the French Revolution: the elimination of scarcity so as to create dignity and freedom. This is the historically unjustified faith of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But as River said in Serenity, people don't like to be meddled with.

So, can technophiles be divided into 2 groups? Those who believe that the Star Trek: Next Generation techno-wow is just around the corner & those that find themselves living in the Firefly Future. The former believe *all* social problems are fundamentally fixable because *all* social problems are fundamentally problems of scarcity: a technological solution can be found so that people can have enough, and then there would no war, crime, bad childhoods, etc. The latter types find the problem with social relations to
be people don't like to be meddled with (River's line in Serenity). In other words, social problems are fundamentally unfixable: because people are the problem. Looked at this way, "Serenity" is a polemic against the belief that social problems are amenable to a technological fix. The movie shows what Roddenberry's utopian future of the Next Generation must bring.

Ultimately, in order to have that future without war, crime, poverty, etc. human beings will have to be fixed. Hence, the Miranda experiment in Serenity. The administrators who ordered the "fixing" of Miranda's population were not themselves given the treatment, nor were they ever likely to be given it -- assuming that it would work as intended.

Incidentally, in the Firefly future, people still use old tech. Just like in the real world. We all know people who are satisfied with 486's, pentium classics,VCR's, b&w tv's, etc.

Possession of sufficiently developed technology leads to the belief that all things are possible, even the reegineering of humankind. And so far, that has never ended well. And further, that experience in no way indicates that future attempts to fix human nature will end any better.

* * *

It is an unquestioned belief in many of discussions of the Fermi Paradox that evolution at least in the case of homo sapiens has produced an intelligent species. While all lip service is given to evolution, it is assumed apparently without question that once a species reaches a sufficient level of intelligence, that species is no longer subject to biological necessities and imperatives. Sometimes this is presented as creation of artificial environments or of an economy in which the resources necessary for survival have become so plentiful that competition for resources is no longer even possible.

There is also implied in the descriptions of super-advanced hyper-intelligent civilizations the faith that a sufficient level of intelligence can foresee all possible consequences of actions that that civilization might take. Super-advanced hyper-intelligent civilizations do not make mistakes and never have to say that they are sorry.

Not being an economist, I can only ask if there are economies of scale that would prevent the realization of Kardashev civilizations? Are there diminishing returns on the development of "advanced technology"?

Consider this. As personal computers have become more capable, more and more users find themselves with machines possessing computing power sufficient to their computing needs. More and more users find themselves satisfied with older models of personal computers because of a lack of a compelling reason to upgrade. Is it possible that a level of technological progress could be reached on which it is no longer economically feasible to develop further?

I will give the participants in these discussions of the Fermi Paradox one thing: they get the intimate association of intelligence with technology right. However, misunderstandings of intelligence and technology are rife in these discussions. What is technology?

* * *

Technology broadly conceived is the means to removal of obstacles to the fulfillment of desire.

The above definition of technology suggests that living organisms tend towards homeostasis. However, if desires are too readily satisfied, boredom sets in. Worse than the mischief and folly that such boredom would produce is the belief that danger and ground for fear had been eliminated. If all external and physical impediments to the realization of desire had been eradicated, if dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and suffering remained, the only possible explanation would be a flaw in the genome of the intelligent creature itself. Reegineering, "fixing," as it were, the creature itself is implied in the dream of plenty.

Intelligence evolved not to discover truth, not to implement justice, fairness, equity, and the like. Intelligence evolved to aid in the survival and reproductive success of particular species. Consequently, any attempt by an intelligent species to reegineer itself will fail. There will be bias, there will be short-sightedness. Further, the whole enterprise of self-reegineering implies an objective and unarguable ideal of what that intelligent species should be. In other words, a loss of variability within the species. And with the loss of variability comes specialization and a greater risk of extinction.

A technological society such as Western Society is self-limiting through biological/genetic and economic factors. So-called advanced technological societies are little more than pipe dreams and unwitting projections of current social and political realities filtered through a narrow lens of wishful thinking and frustrated religiosity.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

I can't believe it's been over a month...

It's been over a month since my last posting. I feel a minor obligation to explain. The lack of postings was fallout from trying to get my disturbed sleeping pattern under control. My doctor prescribed something that made restful sleep impossible for about a week. I would sleep 4 or 5 hours but not a deep tthis reaction. I stuck it out for a week. Luckily, I didn't have to drive much and wasn't in school. It was hellish week. Needless to say, I stopped blogging for the time being. Afterwards, I was just out of habit.

I've got some catching up to do. Over at Sentient Developments there's some posts on which I dearly want to comment: Meat eaters are bad people and The Fermi Paradox: Possible solutions and next steps.

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