Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 10 September 2009

Utopia or dystopia

I’ve written on this subject before (Living in the 21st Century, Sep.07; and The Problem with Democracy, Jun.08 ) but a recent conversation (with Dino at Coffee Plus) in combination with reading about ‘dystopian fiction’ as a subgenre of science-fiction, has led me to revisit it. A lengthy essay I wrote called Human Nature (back in Nov.07) may also be relevant to this topic.

I’ve been reading The Science Fiction Handbook by M. Keith Book and Anne-Marie Thomas, which is a very erudite analysis of various ‘seminal’ works of science-fiction along with their authors. In particular, their analysis of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (which I haven’t personally read) that works on the premise that humans appear genetically predisposed for self-destruction. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is another example, though Wells’ exploration is different: humans evolve into 2 species, the Morlocks and the Eloi, that symbiotically exist in an extreme master-slave relationship, or predator-prey relationship to be more exact.

But Butler’s scenario is that our hierarchical nature, in combination with our competitiveness and addiction to capitalism, will inevitably lead to overpopulation, war and nuclear destruction. I’m not so pessimistic, and perhaps Butler isn’t either – after all, it’s a cautionary tale. I’ve left out the main plot, an alien invasion by the ‘Oankali’, who incorporate their DNA into ours and create a new species, which is the major premise of the trilogy (or so I believe).

In an issue of COSMOS earlier this year, there was a feature article on the overpopulation of Earth and the consequences thereof. As I said in the introduction, I’ve raised this issue in earlier posts. The COSMOS article used an island metaphor which I thought was very apt. We are turning our planet into an island, but once we have over-resourced it we don’t have another island to go to. There are some people who believe that planetary colonialism will save us, but, if that’s the case, it means we haven’t addressed the problem, and, worse still, we aren’t seeking a solution.

There have been a number of mass-extinctions in Earth’s history, not just the dinosaurs, but at no other time has the rate of global species extinction been as high as it is now, and the cause is obvious: it is us. This is just one symptom, like climate change, that we are simply too successful (as a species) for our own good. If a species at the top of the food chain eats all the food then it ensures its own extinction. In effect, that’s what we are doing despite all of our harvesting techniques. We cannot live on this planet with only a handful of species to sustain us – it doesn’t work like that. Biodiversity means a healthy planet, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we are behaving like a disease.

In the last century, we have demonstrated, beyond dispute, that capitalism is the most successful economical model ever devised. But it, too, is too successful for its own good. In the recent economic crisis we have seen how the smallest dent in ‘growth’ is considered devastating. Unfortunately, economic growth means growth of everything, including: products, housing, infrastructure and, of course, people. You don’t have to have a PhD to see where this will eventually lead us, yet everyone appears to be in denial.

The ideal economic climate, as the recent ‘downturn’ revealed, is to maximise employment to maximise spending to maximise consumerism to maximise production to maximise employment, in an ever increasing cycle with no limit except the Earth’s capacity to sustain it. And it’s the last bit that everyone conveniently ignores.

As my friend Dino pointed out, in the ideal economy everyone should be in debt, which is what makes it so susceptible to bust-boom cycles, that we take for granted as being part of our modern environment. There is another side to this as well: I’m talking from my privileged position of being a member of a Western democratic society. We still live in a feudal society where the privileged few live at the expense of the massive poor, only the feudalism occurs on a global scale not a national one, so we don’t notice it so much. But just look at Africa and some South East Asian countries where goods and resources are provided at dirt-cheap prices for our wealthy consumption. The free-market is supposed to ‘flatten’ this inequality out, but I only see the converse: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – the gap widens.

But even in our special, privileged society so many people are not satisfied; in fact, they actually hate their jobs, yet will be demonstrably upset if their job is taken away from them. Our world, in short, is full of contradictions, yet no one seems to notice, or, if they do, they pretend they don’t exist.

I strongly believe that the 21st Century is going to be crunch time, whether we want to face it or not, but it’s hard to imagine anything is going to change until nature forces us to. The result, I fear, will be wars on a scale we’ve never before witnessed, which leads one to consider Butler’s speculative fiction.

In an early post on this blog, I wrote an essay on Evil (Oct.07), whereby I proposed a thesis that evil is a logical consequence of our evolutionary heritage to be territorial, which is not unique to the human species. Predators are territorial for the very reason I gave above: they need to control their resources, and they do so by rejecting intruders. This is true of lions, magpies, apes and humans, along with innumerable other species. So humans are xenophobic by nature, as history demonstrates, but there is a counter-culture to this. Humans are also highly empathetic, as are other species as well, which creates a natural antithesis to xenophobia and has allowed us to develop multi-culturally in many parts of the globe. But it’s the constraint on resources that can turn tolerance into intolerance more quickly than you can say refugees.

In my essay on Human Nature, I make the point that there are 3 human traits that have shaped our modern world. The first is our need for social contact, without which, we wouldn’t even have language; fundamental to our ability to think. But this also leads to the tribalism and its inherent problems that I alluded to in the previous paragraph. The second trait is the natural search for leadership in any group endeavour. Our hierarchical nature, that Butler apparently sees as a genetic fault, is actually a strength if one allows the group to choose their own leader, which is the fundamental dynamic of democracy. The third is that every individual has a tendency to achieve their best in their chosen field. This wasn’t always the case, and still isn’t in many cultures, where discrimination based on class, wealth and sex were the biggest obstacles and still are in some places.

I don’t have any easy answers to this, but I see some contradictions that may eventually resolve themselves when we are forced to face them. There is no utopia, I only see evolution, but it may well be Kuhnian rather than Darwinian. To obtain a sustainable future without losing our ability for creativity and material progress will require a change to the paradigm of infinite growth, and that means population growth must become stabilised. In many Western cultures this has already happened with the changing role of women, and this should not be reversed. Feminism, in its own way, may well save the planet, but it won’t be enough. The economic paradigm needs to change so that recycling replaces raw materials, with incentives to have long-lasting products in lieu of short-life ones that currently drive the capitalist machine. Sustainability will be forced upon us, and it’s technologically achievable, but politically difficult. Corporations have demonstrated by their activities in third world countries that they are simply amoral without regulations to enforce environmental and health compliances. A more global society is slowly changing this ethic but by how much and how soon is not easy to judge.

Economic growth needs to be decoupled from population growth but there is no sign this is achievable and no one is attempting to provide a model that may facilitate it. I feel this is the biggest dilemma that we face as a global community. Technology will slowly erode the most mind-numbing and health-debilitating occupations, so humans can do what they do best, which is to think creatively, solve problems both individually and collaboratively, and facilitate with others. And machines will do the things that they are good at: crunch astronomical numbers, do repetitive tasks at high speed and precision, and work tirelessly with no sleep and without complaint at jobs we disdain. This is the future that I try to project into my science-fiction where the word economy doesn’t even exist – but that’s a real utopia.


Addendum: The COSMOS article that I linked is actually from 2005 (Issue 3) but it's possibly even more relevant. Please read it.


Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Existential God

I was introduced to Don Cupitt on Stephen Law’s blog, about a year ago, or even earlier, when he provided a link to a radio interview with Cupitt on a BBC philosophy programme. Cupitt is a theologian, and he was being quizzed on his particularly unorthodox view of God, which, from memory, was more humanist than sacred.

More recently, I acquired his book, Above Us Only Sky, followed by a Chinese hieroglyph, which I assume means ‘sky’. Inside, the book is subtitled, The Religion of Ordinary Life, which pretty well sums up Cupitt’s entire philosophy. The book’s title is obviously a direct reference to the line in John Lennon’s song, Imagine, which also includes the line, ‘And no religion too’, and, despite being a theologian, that line could equally apply to Cupitt’s book. Right at the start of his book, he provides 27 points in, what one might call, a manifesto for living. Point 22 is headed:

“Even the Supreme Good must be left behind at once.

I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonumm, the Supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one’s whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!”

His book, as the above quote exemplifies, is even more humanist than his interview, and, in fact, I would call it existentialist, hence the title of this post. I have also called myself existentialist on more than one occasion, but then so is Viktor Frankl in my view, who is not entirely an atheist either. Existentialism is not synonymous with atheism, by the way, but most theists think it is. By existentialist, I mean that we are responsible for our own destiny, which makes God less significant in the overall scheme of things. In other words, a belief in God is less relevant when one considers that moral choices, and any other choice for that matter, are completely dependent on the individual. I take the extreme view and suggest that we are responsible for God rather than God is responsible for us, but that’s so heretical I’ll desist from pursuing it for the sake of continuity.

But Cupitt’s book was a genuine surprise, because, despite its glib title, it’s actually a very meaty book on philosophy. For a start, Cupitt puts emphasis on language as the prism, or even filter, through which we analyse and conceptualise the world. To quote his point 6:

“Life is a continuous streaming process of symbolic expression and exchange.

The motion of language logically precedes the appearing of a formed and ‘definite’ world. It is in this sense that it was once said that ‘In the beginning was the Word’.”

I don’t entirely agree with him, concerning his implication that language determines our reality, but I need to digress a bit before I can address that specifically.

A central tenet of his thesis is that our Platonic heritage of a ‘perfect’ world is an illusion that we are only just starting to shed. Life is exactly what we get and that’s all it is. His philosophy is that once we realise this ‘truth’, we can live the ‘religion of ordinary life’ as his title suggests, and his manifesto specifies. In fact, he argues that this is what we already do in a secular humanist society, but we just don’t articulate it as such. Curiously, I made a similar point in a post I wrote on this blog almost 2 years ago, titled, Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy (Oct.07). Basically, I contended that, following the global Western cultural revolution of the 1960s, we adopted an existentialist philosophy without specifying it as such, or even realising it. We effectively said that we are responsible for our actions and their consequences and God has very little to do with it. I believe Cupitt is making a similar point: we achieved a revelation that humanity’s future is in our hands, and, unless we accept that responsibility, we will fail it.

But it’s in his discussion on rejecting Plato and the illusion that we inherited from him, that he returns to the significance of language:

“You can have more-or-less anything, provided only that you understand and accept that you can have it only language-wrapped – that is, mediated by language’s secondary, symbolic and always-ambiguous quality.” (Emphasis in the original.)

In highlighting this point, I’ve skipped a lot of his text, including an entire chapter on ‘Truth’ and a discussion on Descartes, and, in particular, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant famously contends that we will never understand the ‘thing-in-itself’, which is a direct reference to Plato’s ‘Forms’.

Like many dissertations on epistemology, Cupitt glosses over the significance of mathematics, which is arguably the most stubborn relic of Plato’s philosophy, and one that effectively side-steps Cupitt’s ‘language-wrapped’ dependence that I quoted above. I’m not a physicist but physics has interested me my whole life, and I’ve long believed that, as a discipline, it provides us with the best means of interpreting the universe and revealing its mysteries. In fact, without physics, our knowledge of the universe would still be stuck in the dark ages. But Cupitt alludes to a deep scepticism when he describes it thus:

“The physicist sets out his definitions of matter, space and time, then his laws of motion, and then his formulae for making calculations. But when he has developed his system of mathematical physics – a system of ideas – how is he to prove that there is a Real World out there of which the system is true and to which it applies? …whence do all its ideas get their ‘objective reality?”

In other words, Cupitt is sceptical that a ‘system of ideas’, even one imbedded in mathematics, can provide an ‘objective reality’. But there are 2 points that Cupitt fails to address in his dissertation on ‘truth’ and ‘language’. Firstly, mathematics is not a language in the normal sense, although many people refer to it as if it is. Mathematical symbols are a language of sorts, but the concepts they represent, and, in particular, the relationships that mathematics describes are the closest we will get to ‘“God-given” truth’ to quote Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind). In other words, they have a universal quality unlike any other epistemic system that we know of, that arguably contain truths independent of the human mind. Now, I know many philosophers dispute this, but mathematical ‘truths’ (wherever they come from) are arguably the only abstract truths we can rely on, and do rely on all the time, in every technological marvel we exploit.

So mathematics provides us with ‘truths’ as well as a window into the ‘reality’ of the universe that we would never otherwise possess. It is on this point that I believe Cupitt and I epistemologically differ.

But it’s not epistemology per se that Cupitt is challenging when he explicates: ideas are ‘language-wrapped’; he has a deeper, theological motive. He points out how absurd it is to think that God provided us with scriptures using a language humans invented. Especially since God should be outside language in the same way ‘He’s’ supposedly outside the very universe in which we exist. What’s more, Cupitt challenges the very notion that our experience of ‘God’ by praying can be validated without language. I believe Cupitt makes a very good point here: if our ideas are language-wrapped then so is our idea of God.

In an earlier post (May 09) I referenced an essay by Raymond Smullyan called Is God a Taoist? In my post, I made a connection between Smullyan’s idea of God or Tao as ‘the scheme of things’ and the mathematical laws at different levels of scale that the universe appears to obey. This particular concept of an impersonal, non-language-wrapped God in combination with a Platonic mathematical realm is entirely compatible with Cupitt’s stated philosophy, though I doubt he would accept it. Cupitt provides an allegorical tale of a large group of Buddhist monks, one of whom gets up to speak about the Tao (Cupitt uses the term, ‘Supreme Good’), saying that: ‘No words can speak of it… It is beyond speech, it is even beyond all thought.’ When he sits down, another monk stands to address the same crowd: ‘Did the last speaker say anything?’

In a recent post on Storytelling (July 09), I made the point that without language we would think in the language of dreams, which is imagery and emotion. In fact, I argued that the language of dreams is the language of storytelling, only we are unaware of it. The story is ‘language-wrapped’ but the emotional content of the story is not, and neither is the imagery it conjures in our minds. Without these 2 components, the story is lifeless, just words on paper – it fails to engage the mind as story.

I’m not surprised that many cultures include dreaming as part of their religion – the American Indians are possibly the best known. Australian Aborigines use the term ‘Dream-time’ (at least, that’s its English translation) as the reference to their religion, full of mythical creatures and mythical tales. In recent posts on Larry Niven’s blog, there have been a couple of references to the comparison between religion and music that people often make. Many people have made the observation that music transcends language, and to some extent that is true. The only reason, we can say that, is because music moves us emotionally, and whilst language can describe those emotions it can’t convey them, whereas music can. So I would argue that religious experience is not language-wrapped in the same way that musical experience is not language-wrapped. Again, Cupitt would beg to differ. In fact, he would dispute the religious experience and call it illusion, and he is not alone. Most philosophers would agree with him completely.

Cupitt devotes an entire chapter to the subject, ‘Religion’, where he describes it as a ‘standard’ (as in a flag) to which people rally and identify, and, to which he rightly acknowledges, represents a view of God that is no longer tenable or of value. This is the religion that divides people and incorporates an infinite being who stands outside the world and judges us all. On this point, Cupitt and I are in agreement: it’s an entirely outdated, even dangerous, concept.

“…those who split the world between good and evil in effect split their own psyches too, and the puritans, the wowsers, the morality-campaigners, the condemners and the persecutors end up as unhappy people, Bible-bashers who are themselves without religion.”

This is the origin of the neurosis that made people of my generation revolt. Cupitt also makes reference to the 1960s when he describes the change in the zeitgeist that is effectively the theme of his book. Neurosis is like hypnotism – your brain tells you to do one thing but you do something else over which you feel you have no control. If you put your mind in a strait-jacket then it will revolt in a way that will shock you. Religion can do exactly that. To quote Cupitt again:

“In one form or another around the world, organized religion still manages to keep a large percentage of humanity locked in the most wretched mental poverty and backwardness.”

Cupitt goes on to express his individualistic philosophy that he calls ‘solar living’ (as in solo or solitary) but I would call existentialism, or a variant thereof. The fundamentals of his religious philosophy is to replace ‘God’ with ‘Life’, and rather than have a relationship between an earthly existence and an immortal one, to have a relationship between the individual’s life and the continuing stream of life that involves the rest of humanity.

My own approach is to refer to the internal and external world, which is the cornerstone of my entire world philosophy, but is effectively the same concept that Cupitt expresses here, albeit using different language. (Later in the book, Cupitt rejects the inner life concept altogether.) However, unlike Cupitt, I would contend that religion is part of one’s inner world rather than the external world. This makes religion completely subjective, and, in many respects, in conflict with organised or institutionalised religion. I’ve made this point before on previous posts, and Cupitt makes a similar point, arguably the most important in the book for me:

“The only ideas, thoughts, convictions that stay with you and give you real support are ones you have formulated yourself and tested out in your own life… In effect, the only religion that can save you is one you have made up for yourself and tested out for yourself: in short, a heresy.”

Cupitt always brings the discussion back to language, and this is the source of my personal dissent with his philosophy. He makes the apparently self-evident point: ‘…there is no meaning, no truth, no reality, and no knowledge without language.’ Which is true for us humans, cognitively, but the unstated corollary is that because none of these things can exist without language, they can’t exist without humanity either. This is the crux of his entire epistemological thesis.

Language is the most obvious bridge between our internal and external world, and almost nothing can be conveyed without language, but lots of things can be felt and experienced without the intervention of language. But Cupitt would argue that any experience is meaningless, quite literally, if it can’t be expressed in language. In other words, because it comes ‘language-wrapped’, that’s what makes it real. One needs to be careful here to distinguish epistemology from ontology, and I think the 2 are being confounded.

I think religion, as it is experienced by the individual, actually has little to do with language and more to do with emotion, just like music or even storytelling. As I described above, a story is written in words, but if it doesn’t transcend the words then it’s not a story. On the other hand, Cupitt argues, categorically, that there is nothing meaningful ‘outside language’.

Religion, and therefore God, is a psychological phenomenon, just like colour. Now, everyone thinks this is a misguided analogy, but colour does not exist out there in the external world, it only exists in your mind. What exists in the external world are light waves reflected off objects. You could probably build a robot that could delineate different wavelengths of light and associate a range of wavelengths with a label, like red for instance. But the robot wouldn’t actually see the colour red like you and I do. Some monkeys can’t see colours that we can see, because they only have bichromatic vision not trichromatic, but, if we genetically engineer them, they can. Yes, that’s a fact, not internet bullshit – it’s been done.

Anyway God is an experience that some people have that ‘feels’ like something outside themselves even though it only occurs in their minds. Many people never have this experience, so they don’t believe in God. The problem with this is that some of the people who think they have this experience believe that makes them superior to those who don’t, and likewise some of the people who don’t, believe they must be axiomatically superior to those who claim they do, because they’re obviously nuts.

Cupitt doesn’t address this, but I do because it’s what creates the whole divide that is actually so unimportant. I contend it’s like heterosexuals believing that everyone should be heterosexual, because it’s unimaginable to be anything else, and homosexuals arguing that everyone should be homosexual, even though they never do. But, in the same way that I think people who are heterosexual should behave as heterosexuals and people who are homosexual should behave as homosexuals, I believe that people who have an experience that they call God should be theists, and those who don’t should be atheists.

At the end of the day, I think God is a projection. I believe that the God someone believes in says more about them than it says about God (I’ve made this point before). That way people get the God they deserve. I call it the existential God.

I’ve now gone completely away from Cupitt’s book, but don’t be put off, it’s a very good book. And it’s very good philosophy because it provokes critical thinking. Another person would write something completely different to what I have written because they would focus on something else. This is a book to which, I admit, I have not done justice. It is worth acquiring just to read the essay he wrote for a symposium on Judaic Christian dialogue – not what people expected, I’m sure.

Cupitt ultimately argues for a universal morality that ignores identity of any kind, just like Lennon’s song. Accordingly, I’ll give Cupitt the last word(s):

“Our moral posture and practice must never be associated with a claim to be… an adherent of some particular ethnic or religious group, because all those who retreat into ‘identity’ have given up universal morality and have embraced some form of partisan fundamentalism – which means paranoia and hatred of humanity.”

“…any philosopher who is serious about religion should avoid all contact with ‘organized religion’. …Which is why, on the day this book is published, I shall finally and sadly terminate my own lifelong connection with organized religion.”