Monthly Archives: June 2014

Science Fiction, Naturalism, and the Singularity

singularity

I love science fiction.

Though I haven’t read all that much of it recently.

The problem, I think, is that as I have grown older I have learned too much philosophy and metaphysics to really sit down and enjoy a meaty piece of speculative fiction. To be more accurate, I’ve learned too much of the wrong philosophy. Almost every really serious and thoughtful piece of science fiction I’ve read is heavily based in a naturalistic metaphysic, which is something I reject. This difference of opinion is particularly noticeable when it comes to science fiction opposed to other genres. In many ways metaphysics and philosophy is about models of reality, and different models will predict different things about the future.

For example, your average naturalistic model says that man is a kind of very, very complicated machine. Using that aspect of the model we can predict that someday we will build machines that are as sentient as ourselves. The naturalistic model also holds that the complexity of our bodies and brains is solely based in the natural process of evolution. If this is true then we can also predict that it is very likely that someday the sentient machines that we build will be superior to ourselves. This leads us to the whole concept of the “singularity,” the point at which computers will be smarter than humans and will be capable of designing even smarter computers which design even smarter computers and so on and so on for the foreseeable future. Once this singularity has been reached almost anything will be possible.

Of course it all depends on a purely naturalistic metaphysic.

If you’re like myself then you do not believe that the human mind is the product of a complicated machine. Though I do not fully understand what the mind is I understand enough to have confidence that it is not merely a machine. A machine is incapable of producing free will or reason, for example, and I have far more confidence in the existence of free will and reason than I have in the statement “the mind is what the brain does.” If we take this metaphysical position as our starting point the future looks very different. Computers may increase in processing power by wide margins but they will never be capable of reason or intelligence. Though some programs may be able to mimic human behavior they will only be able to do so by following the instructions of human programmers. Computers will never reach the lowest levels of actual intelligence; much less become our intellectual superiors. They will remain what they are: powerful processing tools. The computer on your desk is the equivalent of an army of accountants working at incredible speed, able to complete complex calculations and follow the commands of the most byzantine flowcharts imaginable, with only one major difference: an army of human accountants can think, while the computer can only obey. It is imaginable that an accountant working in a sea of other accountants could have an idea about a better way to solve the problem at hand than the instructions they’ve been given. The accountant might be completely wrong, of course, but a computer can never be wrong for the same reason that a computer can never be right. It doesn’t even have the capability to make an error without a human accidentally programming that error into it. How can a computer ever become a genius if it is not even capable of becoming stupid?

The only reason to believe that a computer could ever become intelligent is if you begin with the idea that the human mind is the result of a computer. Surely computers will produce intelligence if we can only make them complicated enough! It is a statement taken on faith, and faith alone. The computers we have now are as incapable of intelligence as a pencil and a piece of paper. It is only philosophy that makes them appear to be something more.

And that’s part of the reason why I have trouble getting into hard science fiction these days. The authors take so many things for granted that I simply don’t find plausible. It’s not like a fantasy either, where you can put your preconceptions away. J.K. Rowling does not expect us to believe that there is an actual hidden society of witches and wizards living in Britain, and thus we can enjoy Harry Potter; but the writers of many science fiction works do expect us to believe that the mind is actually a computer. No wonder I find one delightful and the other slightly insufferable.

 

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Bury the Suicide at the Crossroads: Why the Medieval Church Was More Enlightened Than They Appeared

Gravedigger

 

I recently discovered the popular podcast Freakonomics. It’s a kind of educational program in the same vein as Radiolab or This American Life where interesting stories and ideas are shared in an entertaining format. One of the first episodes I listened to was called “The Suicide Paradox” and what I heard there inspired a line of thought that spread through my mind until it was filled to the point where I knew I would have to make a post out of it.

The episode dealt, as the name suggests, with suicide, and they used a fascinating hook in order to draw the listener in. They interviewed a professor who had spent much of his life living with and studying an Amazonian tribe. Early on, when he first came to the tribe, he shared with them a story that had affected his life deeply: the story of his stepmother’s suicide. However, when he was finished, he found that the entire tribe was laughing. When he asked them why they were laughing at such a tragic story they replied that it was because she had killed herself. They found the idea of someone killing themselves as ridiculous. Who had ever heard of such a crazy thing? People kill animals and sometimes kill each other, but what kind of clown would try to kill themselves? No one in the tribe had ever committed suicide. To this day none of them have. I was, of course, very interested in discovering why this tribe was in such a favorable position. Unfortunately this opening story was merely a hook; they never came back to give a satisfying answer to that question. However what they did have to say has given me a theory.

You see the episode also featured interviews with experts in suicide, and those experts, among other things, talked about the Werther Effect. The Werther Effect is named after the character in an 18th century popular book who committed suicide after his love became engaged to another. This book supposedly started a rash of copycat suicides, with young men all over Europe offing themselves in a manner similar to the book. The Werther Effect was shown to be a real phenomenon after a series of sociological studies which showed that the suicide rate goes up after a famous suicide occurs. For example, it is estimated that Marylyn Monroe’s suicide may have led to 200 more suicides in the months to come than would normally have occurred. Because of this many media outlets have a policy of not reporting on suicides, or to do their best not to glorify the act if they do report on it.

The podcast ended by discussing Hungary, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. They interviewed an old Hungarian man who has spent most of his life fighting against suicide, setting up hotlines and doing research and trying to bring the rate of suicides down to a normal level. One thing he mentioned stuck with me: he said that in Hungary suicide is considered a brave act, something courageous even.

All of this led me to think about a subject that used to trouble me about the history of the Christianity. That subject was the treatment of suicides by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. In medieval times suicide was not just frowned upon: suicide was a crime. Medieval suicides typically could not be buried in the church graveyard, or in any other consecrated ground. Sometimes their bodies were flung ignobly into a ditch. Others were decapitated before burial, or their bodies were staked to the ground. On occasion suicides were buried under a crossroad so that they would be symbolically stepped on by all who passed by. These punishments were even harsher then than they would be if instituted today: in a medieval village, where practically everyone knows each other and where weddings and funerals are truly communal events, the lack of a proper funeral and the public shame that would bring would be powerful. Everyone in town would know about the suicide, and everyone would know that it brought shame and disgrace.

When I had first learned of these practices they struck me as very barbaric and cruel. After all the person who commits suicide is typically someone who is in deep depression or sorrow. To take a person who was so troubled and sad that they took their own life and then cast such shame and disgrace on them for doing so seemed uncompassionate, liking kicking them while they’re down.

But while reflecting on the Werther Effect, it occurred to me that the Church did everything in their power to make suicide appear as unattractive as possible. To a medieval peasant suicide was never brave, courageous, or glamorous. Though suicides occurred they were not performed for the public eye. Suicide was an act that was best kept secret. Those who committed suicide typically did what they could to make it look like an accident. There was a kind of social taboo against discussing suicide, and if a great or powerful individual committed suicide it was usually glossed over in historical accounts. It was only with men who were considered evil or disgraced that suicide was stated clearly as the probable reason for their deaths.

All of this is to say that what seemed at first to me to be cruel and unenlightened practices by the church now seems to me to be terribly enlightened. We know now that suicide is a dangerous idea, and that it can spread from community to community. Every suicide that is publicized strengthens the idea that suicide is an acceptable option for those who are desperate. Even worse are the suicides that are romanticized, where those who slay themselves are considered brave or tragic or poetic. It is a proven scientific fact that communities that romanticize suicide have far greater rates of suicide than normal, and almost every movie star or hit musician that kills themselves has the potential to inspire hundreds to follow their example. And they do not have to be famous: in countries such as Micronesia or Hungary, where suicide is epidemic, things have reached the point where almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide, and because of that suicide has become more and more accepted as a common occurrence. The Amazonian tribesman who finds suicide such a novel and unheard of ideal that it inspires laughter is capable of the same amount of depression, frustration, and despair as the man from Hungary for whom suicide has become a reality of day to day life; and we see that the Hungarian is far more likely to do the deed. Once suicide is considered normal than far more people will take their lives into their own hands and end them.

So what did the Church do in medieval times? They made it clear that suicide was an aberration and a crime against God and man alike. They gave the suicide nothing but shame and disgrace. If their actions seem cruel to us then it is only because we do not understand the danger suicide represents to the entire community. Superstitious peasants in Eastern Europe occasionally staked a corpse to his coffin in order to prevent him from rising from his grave to slay the living: the Catholic Church staked the bodies of suicides to the crossroads for the same reason. They needed to prevent this person from killing others with his action. Today we look on suicide as a very personal decision: but if a despairing person decided to kill themselves with a bomb, while sitting in a public square, we would be less sympathetic of their plight. To the church, and to the modern sociologist, every suicide is a suicide bomber, casting their shrapnel to all who hear of their death. A suicide does not simply take their own lives into their hands, but the lives of those around them. In that light the actions of the Church seem perfectly justified.

We have no solid statistics for the suicide rate during the Middle Ages, as record keeping was not always accurate and most records that were kept have not survived. However Dr. Alexander Murray of Oxford found, from his study of official records from the time, that the recorded suicide rate in Essex in the 13th century was .88 occurrences per 100,000 people (though he admits that this number assumes that all suicides were discovered and recorded and is almost certainly low in that respect). In comparison the suicide rate in the United States today is around 10 per 100,000, and in countries such as Hungary it is more than 20 per 100,000. Even if the medieval record keepers of Essex recorded only 1/5 of all suicides then they would still have less than half of the suicide rate of the US. I do not think it is controversial to claim that the Middle Ages had a lower suicide rate than the modern world. I believe we have the Church to thank for that.

You can’t always tell a book by its cover.

A Defence of Patriotism

Washington

There is a topic that I have seen inspire arguments and flamewars on the internet from time to time. Everyone who has spent time in forum or comment threads knows that some topics are sure to cause a fight. Even mentioning religion, or abortion, or politics is very likely to result in a protracted fight, though the topic I’m thinking of is not nearly so volatile: patriotism. If someone expresses their love for their country, or even pride for their state or hometown, they risk starting an internet brushfire. There are some people who consider “patriot” to be a synonym for “bigot,” and who will make a loud argument about the foolishness of having pride for any particular segment of this earth. They will point out that where we are born or raised are purely arbitrary and accidental. How then can we discriminate against other places and other peoples over an accident of birth/

Whenever I encounter someone with this attitude I typically find myself at a loss for words. No adequate response comes easily to mind because it never occurred to me that anyone would fail to understand why a man might love his home. That is strange enough in itself, but to then accuse the man of being irrational or morally deficient simply because he is proud of his home is something that seems beyond belief. Has this person never felt relief at the first sight of home after a long journey? Has he never thought that his furniture and his silverware and his pots and pans were preferable to those in other houses simply because they were his? Has he never traveled far away and been homesick?

Perhaps he has, or perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he would say that none of those things make a difference. He might say that pride and patriotism and rubbish. The world is so big, perhaps, that only a fool or a madman could claim that any part of it was superior to the rest. To that my only reply is that it is a noble sentiment to say that we should love the entire world, true; but it is foolishness to try to create love for places you do not know by destroying your love for the places you know best.

It brings to mind a quote I recently read by G. K. Chesterton. “Bloch, and the old prophets of pacifism by panic, preached that war would become too horrible for patriots to endure. It sounded to me like saying that an instrument of torture was being prepared by my dentist, that would finally cure me of loving my dog.” The context is a little different, but thinking of the quote made me realize why the flat rejection of all forms of patriotism or home-pride is ridiculous. I love the state of Washington, where I was born and raised, similarly to how I love my dog. I love my dog, but I don’t for a second believe that she is the finest and best canine specimen in the entire world. And if you asked me whether I thought Washington was superior to all other 50 states I would say that I couldn’t make such a judgment: after all, I haven’t been to even half of the states. If you asked me if the little valley I grew up in was the greatest valley in all existence I would have to confess my ignorance of all valleys. And if you asked me to choose the greatest and best of all countries in the world I would have to ask you what metric you were using to measure greatness. However none of that changes that fact that I love my country, I love Washington State, and I positively adore the valley I grew up in. Just as I love my dog, even though I am aware that finer examples of the breed exist in droves.

I am reminded of a sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell And Webb Look. The sketch featured a wedding reception where the best man gives his speech. However during the speech he does point out that the bride is most certainly not the most beautiful woman in the world, as her new husband had described, but was instead simply high-average as far as looks are concerned. As people began to boo him he started protesting that it’s the truth, and that the groom isn’t perfect either. The joke was, of course, that the best man was being totally honest and accurate, but that he was missing the point. Yes, the bride was not in fact the most beautiful woman in the world, or the smartest, or the nicest, or the hardest working: but she is still the bride. She is still loved. I love my wife, and I am proud of my wife. I am downright patriotic about my wife! If you want to say that your wife is better than mine then you’re in for a debate! To an untrained eye perhaps my wife is not as beautiful as some: but if you knew her as I do you would know that she is the most beautiful of all. In the same way, the place where I was born may seem ordinary or even ugly to an outsider, but to my own eyes there is no place I love more.

Some will respond by pointing out that our homes are completely arbitrary. It was only by chance that I was born in Washington: why should I be proud of having been born there? I agree that it was a kind of accident, in that I had no hand in it. It was also an accident of chance that led to one particular Labrador becoming my dog. Should I love her less for that? You can even argue that meeting my wife was just as much an accident: if we had gone to different schools or had different friends we never would have met. Yet I still love my wife. It may be an accident of genetics that I was born an American, but I see no reason for that to prevent me from being proud that I am one. I do not begrudge someone born and raised in China for being proud of China: there is much about China that is deserving of pride. There is much about America that is deserving of pride as well, and since I am an American I will gladly take pride in them. We must all play the cards we are dealt, after all.

Finally we must remember that love is not a zero sum game. If I love America it does not mean that I hate Canada. My love for the State of Washington does not negate any love for the city of Washington. My love for my dog does not spell hate for all other dogs. If you wish to remove a man’s patriotism then you wish to remove his love. We cannot make this world a brighter place by snuffing out candles.

Project Gutenburg: A Pretty Neat Place

Have you ever heard about Project Gutenberg? If you haven’t, prepare yourselves! Project Gutenberg is an online database that provides almost 50,000 books for free to anyone who has the gumption to go there and download some. There are no ads, no malware, and absolutely no fees. The catch? What, everything has to have a catch? A person can’t do something out of the goodness of their hearts? How cynical! I’ll have you know that the creators of Project Gutenberg made it out of their love of books and their desire to make books available to all mankind. I can assure you that there is no catch.

There is a major downside though, and that’s the fact that they only have books that have fallen into the public domain. Which means that a good chunk of their 50,000 book library is stuff nobody really wants to read. Fascinating titles such as The Pacification of BurmaThe Voyage of the Deutschland, and digital stacks of science books that are at least 70 to 100 years out of date. When I first visited Project Gutenberg I was quite unimpressed.

But the place is growing on me.

If you take the project at face value then you’re going to be disappointed. However if you treat it as a kind of slag pile of literary history in which you may find diamonds or rubies hidden among the cruft then the project becomes a bit more enticing. The links on the main page seem to favor searching by category, but I recommend searching by author. Think of your favorite author who wrote around or before the turn of the century. Chances are they have his entire bibliography.

I would personally recommend checking out the works of G.K. Chesterton. They have just about every book he’s ever written, and he was an impressive writer. I plugged his book Orthodoxy a while back but he was also famous for his fiction works. Check him out! Or, if not him, then some other late, great author. After all, it’s free! What do you have to lose?

The Scorecard: Year Two of Blogging

Last Friday was the second year anniversary of this blog. For two years I have been pumping out articles for your enjoyment! Last year I did a breakdown of my blogging habits. That year I had posted 88 times (which, given how long my posts tend to be, would probably add up to a short novel). I decided to shoot for even more this year. However lots of life events occurred here or there that may have thrown me a bit off track. Let’s take a look: how many posts did I make this year?

87.

Huh. That’s oddly close. Is the high 80’s my sweet spot as far as yearly posting goes? I guess we’ll find out next year.

As I was looking over the last year I found a few articles that I was particularly proud of writing. For those of you who have only recently started following me, here’s a good look at what I’ve been up to over the last year. I just made up the link names to catch your attention, so don’t be too surprised if you click on one and you find you’ve already read it.

Why I Think Science Fiction takes Writing More Seriously Than Literary Snobs

All about Envy

A Short Serious of Videos about the Most Awesome People on Planet Earth

Why the Guy Who Thinks Sentient AI is Two Years Away Doesn’t Understand Computers

The Fascinating History of Pencils (Honest! It’s Really Interesting Stuff!)

Why Objective Morality is a Matter of Taste

The Beginning of my Big Spiel on the Argument from Morality

I Finally Blog About Abortion, in a Small Way

 

These stand out to me, but there are 79 more to check out. Go archive crawling, I don’t mind. And here’s to another year!

 

 

 

Six Four: Don’t Let the Memory Die

synp

 

25 years ago on June 4th a massacre took place in Tiananmen Square.

The event can be difficult to understand without a background in the history of communist China. This can be a difficult subject for a westerner to tackle: the people and places are far away and unfamiliar, and the culture difference can make certain events and movements inexplicable. For anyone who is interested in learning a bit about the massive changes that China has undergone in the last hundred years, but who are either unwilling or unable to spend time doing heavy research on the subject, I would recommend visiting your local library and seeing if they have a copy of A Chinese Life, a graphic novel written and illustrated by a man who has spent his entire life in China and who was born not long after the communists rose to power.

The short and very roughly summarized background is that after Mao Zedong died China began to rapidly change. Mao’s Cultural Revolution had left the country mired in poverty and famine. Under the new chairman, Deng Xiaoping, the country moved from a strictly state owned economy to a hybrid state/free market. This has ultimately resulted in much of China’s rise as the economic power we know it to be today. However those economic changes also resulted in widespread corruption. High ranking members of the Communist Party often used their connections to profit from changing economic landscape, and bribery and nepotism became the new normal for doing business in much of China. At the same time many Chinese university graduates were having trouble starting their careers; people were often hired not because of their skill or education but because of their family connections. This, among other things, led to student protests in the late 1980s. These protests spread to the populace as a whole.  Millions of Chinese began protesting and demonstrating for political reform and an end to corruption. A large group gathered in Tiananmen Square, a public area in the capital city of Beijing.

Many Chinese were hopeful that these protests would lead to reforms. In many ways the protests were similar to the kind we’ve seen in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Ukraine in recent years. The only difference was the result. When Chinese officials were unable to disperse the crowds and end the demonstrations Deng declared martial law in Beijing. He moved over 250,000 soldiers to the capital. These soldiers were armed with battlefield equipment, including armor piercing bullets, tracer rounds, and tanks. On June 3rd and 4th, 1989, the soldiers advanced into the city. In the past when soldiers had entered the city they would be stopped by crowds of civilians who would flood the streets. On June 4th when citizens of Beijing came out to stop the soldiers they were met with live fire. Soldiers used machine guns and rifles on crowds of unarmed civilians. Thousands of citizens were killed before the soldiers finally made it to Tiananmen Square and the demonstrators surrendered. Chinese men and women of all ages were shot, beaten, or crushed under tank treads. In the days to follow the killings continued until all trace of protest had been eliminated.

As a result of this crackdown the blossoming political reform movement was crushed. What is perhaps worse is that the Chinese government has spent the last 25 years attempting to wipe all memory of the massacre from history. Today most young Chinese do not know what occurred on that day: if they know about it at all they have been taught that it was a simple protest that was broken up and resulted in a few injuries. The government of China continues to deny that any civilians were killed on that day.

Because of this it is up to the rest of the world to remember. Someday, perhaps, China will be free and the massacre of June 4th will be remembered as it should. Until that day comes it is the duty of all free people to remember this atrocity.

Please take some time to read this article, where Chinese journalist Jan Wong is interviewed about her experience as a witness of the massacre. Her words are much stronger than mine, and I highly suggest you read through that interview. If you want to learn more, see if you can find a copy of her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited .