Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

*

Feb 2020: Here I’m linking posts about some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent years. Posts are less traditional reviews than they are summaries (some quite long) intermixed with my comments and reactions. Posts for some of the books in the photo aren’t done yet.

  • Sean Carroll. THE BIG PICTURE: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Read 2016. post
  • A.C. Grayling. THE GOD ARGUMENT: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013). Read 2013. post
  • Jonathan Haidt. THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Read 2015. 1st post; 2nd post; 3rd post
  • Yuval Noah Harari. SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). Read 2017, again 2018. Post
  • Yuval Noah Harari. HOMO DEUS; A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Read 2017. post
  • Elizabeth Kolbert. THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History (2014). Read 2015. post
  • Carl Sagan. THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996). Read 1996, again 2020. Post
  • Edward O. Wilson. ON HUMAN NATURE (1978). Read 1980, again 2019. post
  • Edward O. Wilson. THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE (2014). Read 2014. Post #1, #2, #3, #4, #5
Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Intro

John Allen Paulos, A MATHEMATICIAN READS THE NEWSPAPER (1995)

John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. Basic Books, 1995.

Author’s Conclusion:

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. Journalists should ask, in addition to Who, Where, What, etc., How Many? And How Likely? And no matter how detailed the explanation, sometimes things remain baffling because the *world* is baffling.

Brief Summary:

This is a book not so much requiring sophisticated math to understand, but to review many examples of items (of all kinds) in the newspaper with insights for understanding them from math but also from psychology, including the predisposition of humans to turn everything into stories. There are so many short chapters that it’s hard to identify broad themes (aside from those in the conclusion), but here I’ll cite some key points from each section.

Politics: about voting schemes, none perfect; about psychological biases (even back in 1995 people knew about the availability error, the halo effect, the anchoring effect); how newspaper stories are told; how equivocation can enable virtually any claim; beware finding significance in coincidences.

Local and Social issues: How newspapers are nodes of connectedness; why to beware use of SAT scores; how arguments about gun control and abortion can be challenged; why stock markets patterns are illusory; how selection of units or words like “many” and “uncommon” can be misleading; how lawsuits presume every problem has a definite answer; how advertising works; how humans are preoccupied with the short term at the expense of the long term.

Lifestyle and soft news: How to write celebrity profiles; how to perceive trends that don’t actually exist; how statistical factoids depend on definitions.

Science and Medicine: How in science news clarity and precision are not equally balanced; beware implausible precision, and the overemphasis of trivial risks; how reporting seldom debunks even claims about guardian angels, statues that bleed, etc.; how to easily generate a pseudoscience out of meaningless coincidences (this example also in Irreligion); how confidence intervals are often ignored; how some strategies don’t work when scaled up; how you can’t predict discoveries you haven’t made yet; beware category errors; about different reasons to study math and five misconceptions about math.

Food, Fashion, Sports: Beware precision of nutrition information; how team sports are different than individual ones; sports records are simple issues of probability; how advice columns are glib; how to spot obvious exaggerations; the superficiality of top 10 lists; how so few books are reviewed compared to the coverage of every sports game, every murder; how religious coverage avoids discussion of faith to avoid recognizing the absence of evidence for beliefs; how we read obituaries.

Detailed Description

Intro
Author recalls growing up, reading the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal. As he grew up, he grew more sophisticated about newspapers, but reads a lot of them, and contributes occasionally. This book is arranged like a newspaper, and is intended to offer a mathematical perspective to enrich our understanding….

Section 1, Politics, Economics, and the Nation
Social choices are necessary because our two most basic political ideals, liberty and equality, are incompatible. Consider the algorithm for dividing a cake: one cuts, the other chooses.

Lani “Quota Queen” Guinier.. voting

The Banzhaf power index: the number of ways a group or party can change a losing coalition into a winning one, or vice versa. Examples apply to, e.g. stockholders’ percentages, in which a small percentage might be just as powerful as a large one, because coalitions can form between groups; or a relatively large one may have no power at all. (examples). Ms Guinier suggested an alternative, a cumulative voting procedure would grant each voter a number of votes equal to the number of contested seats, which votes could be distributed any way the voter wished, separately or cumulatively. This could be an alternative to the gerrymandering that results in geographically bizarre districts.

Many different voting schemes have been proposed. Another is the approval system–one candidate, one vote. Each voter either approves or disapproves of each candidate.

In fact, no voting system is perfect; every one has undesirable consequences. The issue isn’t whether to be democratic, it’s how.

Bosnia: Vietnam or World War II?.. psychological availability
The ‘availability error’ is the psychological tendency to make a judgment based on the first thing that comes to mind. Similarly, emotional news stories, or provocative wording of poll questions, have greater impacts than neutral ones. News stories invite particular interpretations depending on their resonances with other recent stories, or the similarity to other news stories that day. Things or people are judged (the ‘halo effect’) by one salient characteristic–a Harvard pedigree, etc. Or people make different estimates depending on the ‘anchoring effect’ of an initial suggestion. Uncritical newsgathering simply bolsters conventional wisdom.

Recession forecast if steps not taken.. unpredictability; chaos
There are surprising mathematical reasons why most political and economic commentary and forecasting is fatuous nonsense. One example is the Laffer curve, which purports to represent the relationship between tax rate and government revenue, but simplistically neglects the myriad historical and contingent factors which might affect the actual relationship. Like a billiard table set up, weather is a system sensitive to small changes in initial conditions (Lorenz, 1960); thus chaos theory, and the study of nonlinear systems. The trajectory through such a system is a fractal. The lesson is to beware glib interpretations of changes of such complex systems.

Headlines and the inverted pyramid
Newspaper stories are told in inverted pyramid format, from essentials to more details. Ironically this creates a shorter attention span more than does tv, which is usually blamed for it. The coincidence of rival tv news shows running the same stories simultaneously should not be surprising…

Pakistan’s Bhutto… dice and bluffing
Sometimes a conscious randomizing of choices is not irrational, but maximizes one’s effectiveness. Example: a pitcher and batter decide between fast balls and curve balls; it’s best to decide which to do randomly. This is game theory–or negotiation theory. On the other hand, sometimes knowing a probability makes it best to adopt an unvarying policy. A dial that lands on red 70% and green 30% of the time; it is better to always guess red, not to try to guess red 70% and green 30%, because then only the ‘overlaps’ will bring a correct guess.

Who’s News…
Most news is about a very few people who are deemed ‘newsworthy’; it is an inverted pyramid structure. Similarly with coverage of foreigners. 1 American = 5 Englishmen = 500 Ecuadorans = 5000 Rwandans. Similar structure for word frequency in English.

Iraqi death toll… benchmark figures
Figures of war dead are rattled off without any perspective or comparison. Or comparing American dead to Vietnamese dead; or MIA in that war vs previous wars. Such benchmark, or ballpark, figures would be useful to insure common ground in multicultural discussions. The claims of Farrakhan; numbers of aids cases; the national debt.

Hillary most honest.. ambiguity and nonstandard models
By carefully defining terms and equivocating, you can say almost anything. “Most honest person I know.” Mathematically, there is the difficulty of definitions intended to describe one entity that turn out to be satisfied by other unexpected things, thus ‘non-standard’ geometries. Such results also play a role in humor…

Voting fraud.. political and mathematical regression
In a contested race, both sides presented mathematical arguments about machine votes vs. absentee votes. Mathematical interpretations do not bound our actions; deciding between interpretations is a nonmathematical issue.

Cult plot… newspapers, coincidences, conspiracies
There are so many unrelated news stories available that it’s no surprise that odd coincidences should jump out. True believers have no trouble finding support for their theories. The famous coincidences between Kennedy and Lincoln are well known; similar links can be found between other presidents.

Section 2, Local, Business, and Social Issues
What is local? We tend to evaluate relevance of particular news stories by their relation to us, in some aspect or another–location, social type, profession. The multiplication effect reveals the ‘connectedness’ of society–the number of links between any two people, which both theoretically and empirically has been shown to be under 10. A group breakdown by sex contacts would consist of some number of celibate single-person groups, a larger number of two-person groups; a few groups having a few members; and a huge group, perhaps 100 million, connected by their connectedness more than by being promiscuous.

Newspapers, then, are about the nodes of connectedness.

Company charged.. test disparities
Stories about women and minorities often focus on small fluctuations that are magnified at the ends of bell curves. It’s easy to show that the differences between any two groups will always be greatly accentuated at the extremes. And differences between groups (which there must be, by definition) will likely show up on standardized tests. The issue should be whether any particular test is appropriate to its use.

Thus schemes of strict proportional representation are impossible to implement. E.g. hidden relationships between race and being homosexual will yield mixes that will look good or bad from different perspectives.

SAT
The Scholastic Assessment Test, it’s now called. Among many other issues is whether SAT scores are predictive of college achievement. The reason why not is that any one college takes only a particular slice of SAT scores, then this group is spread out by academic achievement (GPA) at that college. If everyone were accepted to the top colleges, then there would be a stronger correlation between SAT score and later achievement.

Guns will soon kill more than cars…
The problem with such a comparison is that deaths due to guns are almost always intentional. The reason stricter gun controls don’t pass, despite a sizeable number of people who would support them, is that those who disagree with them feel strongly about the issue and even though a minority, are more likely than the majority to let the issue be a determining factor in deciding their vote.

Abortion… prohibition and arithmetical arguments
Sometimes radical new arguments enable people to reexamine entrenched positions. Suppose something caused women to become pregnant with 30-50 fetuses at a time, and that some could be saved, or all could be lost. Abortion opponents would presumably opt to save them all, risking a population explosion. Or: if evidence was confirmed that smokeless tobacco drastically reduced tobacco-related deaths, why not encourage smokers to switch?

DNA finger murderer; life, death and conditional probability
The ‘prosecutor’s paradox’ is about conditional probability, e.g. a fingerprint match with an innocent person has a probability of one in a million, but an innocent person matching the fingerprint has a probability of 2 out of 3, which is the relevant issue. In logic, If A then B is not the same as If B then A.

Darts Trounce the Pros: luck and the market
Random selections of stocks do about as well as the pro’s, sometimes even better. This is partly due to statistical fluctuations. Also because of the way random processes work. In a sequence of 1000 random coin flips, most of the time the number of either heads or tails will be greater; it won’t flip back and forth. Even though statistically they come out about the same. Similar things happen with stocks, which become known as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ without there being much difference between them.

There are also seeming patterns in random sequences, which compel ‘explanation’.

Despite such demonstrations, market analysts are always pronouncing explanations for every market swing.

Cellular Phones tied to Brain Cancer: multiplication, health, and business
Numerical quantities can be made to seem big or small depending on the units chosen, e.g. length vs. volume. This happens in discussing disease rates–minimize by discussing rates; maximize by discussing gross numbers, especially particular cases. Thus, an anecdote about a woman with brain cancer led to stock prices falling for companies manufacturing cellular phones. Similar hysteria applied to stories about silicone breast implants.

The media use words like ‘many’ and ‘uncommon’ which are essentially meaningless. Newspapers typically present only a single ‘credible’ figure, without indicating the range of figures depending on different classification criteria.

GM Trucks Explode on Side Collision: from pity to policy
There is an increase of 143% in the number of lawyers since 1971. We get the impression every daily activity is fraught with danger–lawsuits are everywhere, as if every problem has a definite answer, as if there is no room for uncertainty in the world. Court cases play up the victims. It is probable that the GM engineers made a rational decision in designing their trucks; but how many thousands whose lives were saved by that decision are aware of it? People tend to assign negligence when the consequences are significant, no matter what the element of chance.

The $32 billion Pepsi Challenge: advertising and numerical craftiness
Most everyone knows how advertising works; full of false inferences, omitting crucial information. Ads can even make dumb mistakes without hurting sales (it’s the impression that counts). An exception might be the Pepsi gaffe in which thousands of people had winning numbers in a lottery, and Pepsi couldn’t fulfill its jackpot promise.

Brief Fads Dominate Toy Industry: S-curves and novelty
The S-curve describes trends that rapidly increase and then level off, like bacteria growth in a petri dish. This happens because of a depletion of nutrients, say. But the curve also describes cultural patterns, like the popularity of new toys. Perhaps here what is being depleted is the sense of novelty.

Area Residents Respond to Story: repetition, repetition, repetition
Typical tv news strategy–interviewing men on the street about some breaking story; of course they all say the same thing, having been briefed the same way. (A man was unsure of a newspaper story, so bought dozens of copies of the paper to corroborate the story.)

Researchers Look to Local News for Trends: the present, the future, and ponzi schemes
Humans are preoccupied with the short term, at the expense of the long term; thus our attitudes involving aids, global warming, long-term debts, etc. They play out like ponzi schemes, in which early investors are paid off with later ones, but the even later ones lose everything. Trying to forecast such trends, by ‘adding up’ local short-term events, usually do not yield good results.

 

Section 3: Lifestyle, Spin, and Soft News
People are most interested in soft news with some pertinence to oneself. Note how often some essayists use the various ‘I’ words…

A Cyberpunk Woody Allen: how to write a profile of the fledgling celebrity
How to write it: pick someone not too well known, compare them to someone who is and gather testimonials, both of which are easy because of the interconnectedness of things…

Tsongkerclintkinbro Wins
(Written in Spring ‘92 when there were still 5 viable Democratic candidates for president.) A set of imaginary voting preferences that show that each candidate can declare himself the winner depending on which voting criteria is used.

Florida Dentist Accused to Intentionally Spreading AIDS: rumors, self-fulfilling prophecies…
Irrational fears can be understood as variations of the Dennett party game in which a dream is deduced through a series of yes no questions answered according to some arbitrary rule. The questioner deduces a dream that never occurred, one which has no author. Similarly dreams themselves may occur when the mind’s question-generating ability is intact, but is getting in effect a series of random answers by being unconscious. Whole societies can be victim of mounting fears when objective information is absent. (Guatemala peasants thought western women were stealing babies…)

Interlude: Selves, Heroes, and Dissociation

(missed a couple chapters here)

Newspaper Circulation Down: factoids on tabloids
Claims are 60,000 newspapers in the world, and 500 million readers… though of course these statistics depend on what one calls a newspaper, or how one counts readers…

Computers, Faxes, Copiers Still Rare in Russia: information and the commissars
It’s not preposterous to imagine that the failure of economies in the former Soviet Union is due to the control of information that suppressed information duplicating mechanisms…

 

Section 4: Science, Medicine, and the Environment
Usually clarity and precision are not equally balanced. Some scientists are happy with precision without a proper context; journalists often highlight the most alarming scenarios consistent with the story.

Ranking Health Risks: Experts and Laymen Differ
the Dyscalculia Syndrome
(article from Discover mg). The difficulties of ‘false positives’ and other misleading statistics. What’s critical about a random sample is its absolute size, not its percentage of the population. Similarly there’s a widespread confusion about correlation vs. causation. Often incorrect inferences are made due to lack of information (inadequate), e.g. data on condom failure rates, or disease incidence rates, which don’t take into consideration increased susceptibility due to longer lifespans. Implausibly precise statistics are often bogus — e.g. the normal body temperature is actually 98.2 (not 98.6) due to a rounding error from Celsius.

Asbestos Removal Closes NYC Schools: contaminated mountains out of mole spills
News stories of contaminations often overemphasize trivial risks; if everything is risky, nothing is. One pint of liquid dumped into the oceans becomes 6000 molecules per pint of ocean water. ! Virtually any such statistic can be manipulated into sounding alarming.

Super Collider a Waste of Money: science journalism and advocacy
Laypeople are often beset by dueling experts in the press; science journalists cannot assume the same level of audience background knowledge as can, say, a food critic. Example of Rudy Rucker story about mathematical proposals translated into musical performances for congress, “A New Golden Age”. Still, public face-offs and debates on scientific issues should be encouraged.

Harvard Psychiatrist Believes Patients Abducted by Aliens: mathematically creating one’s own pseudoscience
And science reporting should engage in gentle debunking, too. But seldom does, even when reporting on guardian angels, statues that bleed, or UFO abducting aliens. The ease of finding odd coincidences in life has already been discussed. Here’s how to create such coincidences– take four numbers about yourself and generate various combinations of them to different powers; some of them are bound to correspond to this or that physical constant. Virtually all such coincidences are not only not miraculous; they’re meaningless.

FDA Caught Between Opposing Protesters: statistical tests and confidence intervals
Other basic statistical principles to be aware of include Type I and Type II errors–making judgments based on small samples, either rejecting a true hypothesis, or accepting a false one. The FDA must balance these two risks when evaluating drugs.

Also, confidence intervals, as in “95% certain that such and such”; sort of like a margin of error. But these qualifications are often left out of reports.

Senators Eye Hawaii Health Care Plan: scaling up is so very hard to do
Strategies that work on a small scale often don’t work when scaled up…health plans, traffic patterns, size and weight. Compromises are needed, such as the prisoner’s dilemma, the tragedy of the commons. Arrow’s theorem describes ranking problems (nontransitive results).

Breakthrough Forecast by End of Decade: you can’t know more than you know
The Hay Theory of history was that the invention of hay made settlement of northern Europe possible, and thus the spread of civilization. Similar stories about other technologies can be told, and each one involves some contingency that precluded alternate technologies. Thus the qwerty keyboard; VHS over Beta; DOS. But really new paths are unpredictable. Despite the headline, you can’t predict discoveries you haven’t made yet.

Rodent Population Patterns Difficult to Fathom: ecology, chaos and the news
Stories on ecological issues frequently verge on category mistakes–ascribing human motives or agents to natural events. For instance, population trends of rodents may follow a certain formula that generates chaotic results. How much more complex are actual ecological systems! But news stories like facile analyses.

More Dismal Math Scores for US Students: x, y, and u
News stories about dismal scores–so what? There are three broad classes of reasons to study math. First is practical, for job skills, science, technology. Second is informed understanding; third is considerations of beauty, curiosity, wisdom. But politicians like innumerate people who can be easily swayed without recognizing quantitative arguments. Yet some types of mathematical subjects, puzzles and so on, are popular. Why isn’t studying math more popular?

Five misconceptions: Math is a matter of computation, not. Nor is it strictly hierarchical: algebra, then calculus, then etc etc. Storytelling is too infrequently used. The false distinction between ‘people person’ and ‘numbers person’, say. And that math is numbing of other sensibilities.

 

Section 5: Food, Book Reviews, Sports, Obituaries
761 Calories… : meaningless precision
Given how recipes are written, the precision of nutrition information is meaningless. It only takes one imprecise number to make any combination using it also imprecise.

Top Designs for the Busy Working Woman: fashion, unpredictability, and toast
To author the fashion pages make the astrology column look insightful. A toast and jam sandwich folded and stretch is analogous to reading a newspaper, which folds and stretches the mind to brings things once far apart closer together, in a complex way.

Agassi Wins Again: scoring and amplifying differences
Sports statistics suggest that often the best teams manage to lose, and the worst ones win, occasionally. In contrast, in individual sports the better player usually does win. But the rules of the game typically amplify the differences in skill between players; and who goes first often makes a big difference.

New Survey Reveals Changing Attitudes: societal gas laws
Has polling and measuring become a national pastime? The fascination with profiles counterbalances the fascination with celebrities and other individual stories. And statistical profiles are valid even when the data is erratic–example of sadistic nutritionist. The Central Limit theorem. Statistical averages apply routinely in physics–gases, for example. Or Lem’s one minute profile of sexual intercourse across the planet.

Near Perfect Game for Roger Clemens: how many runs in the long run
Sports records can be explained by the laws of probability, even amazing ‘streaks’, which occur with the same frequency as streaks of heads in coin tossing.

Bucks County and Environs: a note on maps and graphic games
Language includes knowing rules for various idiosyncratic uses and exchanges, which must be understood differently. So to graphs and pie charts and maps, which have peculiar emphases that must be understood in context.

Ask About Your Mother-in-Law’s Lladro: explanations, advice, and physics
Advice columns provide easy, glib explanations. These arise from making ‘intentional’ accounts of situations where only a physical explanation would do. It’s easy to invent numerous intentional explanations for every gesture and situation.

Garden Club Gala: incidence matricies on the society pages
Expressions such as “everybody was there” or “they’re all doing it” are annoying; they’re so clearly exaggerations. Showing incidence matrices with society stories would be revealing.

Ten Reasons We Hate Our Bosses: lists and linearity
The top 10 reasons that Top 10 lists are popular.

Stallone on Worst-Dressed List: traits and rates
Best and worst dressed lists, and the like, are the products not just of the measures of the traits involved, but also popularity or recognition.

New Biography Fills Much-Needed Gap: books and news
Books should be bigger news…50,000 are published each year, how many are reported on, especially compared to the attention lavished to every baseball game, every murder, every tv program listing. Instead, a relatively small number of books are reviewed, often with lavish amounts of attention.

Which way Mecca? Religion in the paper
Coverage is almost never about faith, but about peripheral issues (like the problems mosque builders in the US have in determining the direction to Mecca). But this is just as well. Discussion of the true issues would require explicit discussion of other beliefs, of the absence of evidence for beliefs, and so on. Better a tacit embargo that supports religious tolerance.

R. L. Vickler, 85, Aide to Truman: the length of obituaries
A nice vertical, historical contrast to the nowness of most news stories. Trends can be seen.

 

Conclusion
Always be smart. Seldom be certain.

Journalists should ask, in addition to Who, Where, What, etc., How Many? And How Likely?

And no matter how detailed the explanation, sometimes things remain baffling because the *world* is baffling.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on John Allen Paulos, A MATHEMATICIAN READS THE NEWSPAPER (1995)

Links and Comments: Socialism, Conspiracy Theories, Religion, Rationality, Liberalism, William Barr, Republicans

First, a David Brooks column from back in December: I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.

I was a socialist in college. I read magazines like The Nation and old issues of The New Masses. I dreamed of being the next Clifford Odets, a lefty playwright who was always trying to raise proletarian class consciousness. … The best version of socialism is defined by Michael Walzer’s phrase, “what touches all should be decided by all.” The great economic enterprises should be owned by all of us in common. Decisions should be based on what benefits all, not the maximization of profit.

But then,

My socialist sympathies didn’t survive long once I became a journalist. I quickly noticed that the government officials I was covering were not capable of planning the society they hoped to create. It wasn’t because they were bad or stupid. The world is just too complicated.

This is precisely why communism failed, as far as I understand; and why conspiracy theories are bunk. These vast conspiracy theories — by the FBI to assassinate JFK, by the government to stage 9/11, and so on — would require so much precision planning without anyone involved giving the game away, for years and years afterwards — that they are unbelievable. Compare how large construction projects *never* come in on time or to budget; coordination among so many planners and workers never goes to schedule or budget. And I recall a comment somewhere years ago, which unfortunately I didn’t capture, by a political operative in Washington DC, that after two weeks working in government, observed that nothing gets done efficiently in government, let alone vast conspiracies.

At the same time, Brooks observes, unbridled (unregulated) capitalism is not the simple answer.

Today, the real argument is not between capitalism and socialism. We ran that social experiment for 100 years and capitalism won. It’s between a version of democratic capitalism, found in the U.S., Canada and Denmark, and forms of authoritarian capitalism, found in China and Russia. Our job is to make it the widest and fairest version of capitalism it can possibly be.

\\\\

Slate: The Bible That Oozed Oil: A small Georgia town, a prophecy about Donald Trump, and the story of how a miracle fell apart.

Long article describing the familiar generalization of how the most gullible are the most religious. Anyone with any ounce of savvy about how the world really works would have suspected fraud from the very beginning.

\\

Contrary to William Barr and other religious moralists, increased religious faith and social prosperity do not go together.

Jerry Coyne: Religion doesn’t improve society: more evidence

In numerous measures including per capita GDP, unemployment rate, homicide rates, life expectancy, etc., the top 10 most religious countries in the world score worse than the top 10 least religious states. Data!

\\

On the other hand, from Aeon: Why Religion Is Not Going Away and Science Will Not Destroy It. Subtitled, Social scientists predicted that belief in the supernatural would drift away as modern science advanced. They were wrong.

Human nature will out, and wins by default in the absence of active education.

\\

This piece makes a distinction between being rational and being reasonable.

Vox: Is rationality overrated?. Subtitled, Sometimes, it’s better to be reasonable.

Citing Kahneman & Tversky and Sunstein & Thaler, the idea that humans are basically rational creatures (a chief assumption of traditional economics) has been undermined. A new study suggests that people are more frequently reasonable, which they define thus:

[T]here’s rationality, where you focus on maximizing the chance of getting what you want, and there’s reasonableness, where you strike a balance between what you want and social norms.

The example that occurs to me is that a rational person might understand that there’s no reason to take the metaphysical claims of religion seriously, but a reasonable person might know not to say that out loud and instead pay lip service to community standards that give them credence.

\\

From 2016, NPR: Why Are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?

Not only are the better-educated more liberal than others, they’ve been getting *increasingly* liberal over the last couple decades. Suggested causes: polarization; more women getting degree; insularity (living alongside like-minded people). Conservatives have gotten more conservative too, but not because of education.

\\

Daily Kos via AlterNet: Logic versus emotion: Understanding the mass psychology of the Christian right

My take before reading this: religious fundamentalists, believing in an authoritarian god who’s issued strict rules about all manner of behaviors (via the 10 Commandments and the strictures of Leviticus), are naturally attracted to authoritarian leaders, who tell them what to believe and what to do so they don’t have to think, and are uncomfortable with the freedoms and options available in liberal, democratic societies where people are able to reason what’s best for themselves and make decisions different than those made by the primitive desert tribes who wrote the Old Testament.

But let’s see what the article says.

Whatever one likes or dislikes about the Democrats, their appeal to voters is primarily to logic. Whereas the Republicans long ago learned to appeal to the dark side of people’s emotions, since they had no logical or progressive policies to sell. So the Republicans have become the party of hate, misogyny racism, bigotry, homophobia, war, and anti-immigrant sentiment affixed to a false and extremist Christian face. They now, and have been for some time, openly organizing people around these negative emotions and behaviors.

And

People who have fallen under the influence of an authoritarian or religious leader will hold on furiously to their dependence. They have invested their self esteem into the identity and success of these leaders, and by supporting them, they have built up their own self worth. One of the reasons right wing religious leaders can get their members to send them so much money for such ridiculous and scandalous reasons.

This is actually a rather haphazardly written article, but it makes important points.

\\

As an example of the above, a NYT Opinion piece by Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, from Dec. 29th 2019. Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell. Subtitled, And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.

In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.

And

Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.

This is why conservative Republicans are basically lawless: they presume they can cheat any way they need to in order to achieve their higher purposes. Democrats who play by the rules are wimps.

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.

There are many examples every week of fundamentalist preachers who see every perceived malady in the world as due to the gays, or abortion, or same-sex marriage. They are fixated on interpreting the world based on things they don’t like.

\\

AlterNet: Outlandish conspiracy theories didn’t start with Trump’s presidency. Republicans have been promoting ‘fringe crackpots’ for decades: political historian.

Citing a Washington Post article by Matthew Dallek.

“The intellectual life of the American right since Sen. Joe McCarthy’s rise to prominence in 1950 can be seen partially as a series of flirtations with conspiracists and a dedicated reluctance to read fringe crackpots out of its ranks,” Dallek explains.

The John Birch Society in the 1950s, promoting conspiracy theories much like those that Alex Jones promotes today. The many crazy Clinton conspiracy theories.

“Ultimately, Trump was the logical consequence of a posture followed for decades at the top echelons of the conservative movement: the batty screeds are silly, but since they help us, we won’t work zealously to purge them,” Dallek observes. “Trump’s conspiracy-based capture of the GOP has less to do with him and his perspective than with a party that sought and often won the support of people who believe those notions.”

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Humanism, Psychology, Religion | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Socialism, Conspiracy Theories, Religion, Rationality, Liberalism, William Barr, Republicans

John Allen Paulos, IRRELIGION (2008)


John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Hill and Wang, 2008.

John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics who’s become, over the past three decades, well-known as an author who applies basic mathematical reasoning to everyday topics. His first hit was Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1988), exploring how misconceptions about math, especially statistics and probability, leads to errors in public policy and personal decisions. A later book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995), extended the theme. (Understanding basic mathematical ideas like these and applying them to everyday things is part of my general concept of being “savvy.”)

The book here, slender and breezy, applies mathematical reasoning and simple logic to the various arguments for the existence of God, and finds those arguments wanting (of course). Appearing in 2008, this book can be seen in the context of the various “new atheism” books by Harris, Dawkins, et al, that appeared in the mid-2000s. There was obviously an audience for books that dismantled the presumptions of religious faith.

Brief Summary:

  • Four classical arguments for the existence of God are examined and dismissed for logical incoherence and/or statistical implausibility: arguments from first cause, from design, from the anthropic principle, from ontology.
  • Four subjective arguments, from coincidence, prophecy, subjectivity, and interventions, are dismantled on statistical grounds.
  • And four Psycho-Mathematical arguments — on redefinition, cognitive tendency, universality, and gambling — are also dismantled.
  • With asides about a personal pseudoscience, recursion, emotional need, Jesus and CS Lewis, a dream conversation with God, and the idea of “brights.”

Detailed Summary: [[ with comments in brackets ]]

Preface

This book addresses if there are logical reasons to believe in God. (Author is droll: “There are many who seem to be impressed with the argument that God exists simply because He says He does in a much extolled tome that He allegedly inspired.”) Author claims an inborn materialism—that matter and motion are the basis of all that there is. Recalls adolescent skepticism about Santa Claus, and God—what caused or preceded him?. The inherent illogic to all arguments for the existence of God are addressed here. The book will be informal and brisk, with no equations. Author always wondered about a proto-religion for atheists and agnostics that would still acknowledge the wonder of the universe: the “Yeah-ist” religion, “whose response to the intricacy, beauty, and mystery of the world is a simple affirmation and acceptance: Yeah.”

Four classical arguments—

The Argument from First Cause (and Unnecessary Intermediaries)

Argument: Everything has a cause; nothing is its own cause; there had to be a first cause; call it God.

The problem here is the first assumption—either everything has a cause, or it doesn’t. If the former, God has a cause too; if the latter, why invoke God?; maybe the universe itself has no cause. Related is the natural-law argument, that something must have caused the particular natural laws we see in the universe.

The very notion of cause has its problems. And perhaps the assumption that nothing is its own cause is the problem.

[[ the other problem with arguments like this is that, even if valid, what does the ‘god’ of this argument have to do with any particular conception of what god is? ]]

The Argument from Design (and Some Creationist Calculations)

Argument: The universe is too complex (or beautiful) to have come about by accident; it must have been created; thus God exists. (Alternatively, the universe seems to have a purpose; thus God.)

Example of William Paley and the watch on the beach.

The problem with this argument is knowing what’s ‘too’ complex to come about randomly. In any event, wouldn’t the creator be even more complex in order to have created the universe? Who created the creator’s complexity? It’s a metaphysical Ponzi scheme. Like a mnemonic more complicated than what it’s designed to remember. In contrast, we have a well-confirmed explanation for the origin of life’s complexity: evolution.

Those opposed to evolution who cite calculations of improbability of a given occurrence (like the eye) miss the point. The argument is deeply flawed; any particular development is unlikely, just as any particular arrangement of a shuffled deck of cards is unlike. Then there is Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity, applied to, say, the clotting of blood. Again, such complexity is explained by evolution; yet those who reject evolution are immune to such explanations.

Further, we can compare evolutionary matters to free-market economies—were those economies set into place, someone determining every rule in advance? Of course not; the system emerged and grew by itself. Odd that opponents of evolution usually support free-markets—they reject the idea of central planning (yet presume such central planning by the omniscient creator). So too does software like the game of Life and Wolfram’s cellular automatons show how simple rules result in great complexity; these ideas are not new. Someone who claimed the economy was the result of a detail-obsessed, all-powerful lawgiver might be thought a conspiracy theorist.

A Personally Crafted Pseudoscience

Digression. To anticipate the following arguments: Take any four numbers associated with yourself—height, weight, birth date etc—and consider various powers and products of them. (It’s straightforward to set up a computer program to generate thousands of combinations of product and factors, etc.) It’s likely that some of these combinations will be close to the speed of light and other such universal constants—especially if you juggle units. Does this imply you have a personal relationship with creation?

The Argument from the Anthropic Principle (and a Probabilistic Doomsday)

Argument: the physical constants are such that if they were slightly different, humans wouldn’t exist; humans exist; so those contants must have been fine-tuned by God.

Well, maybe other creatures would exist if the constants were different; one can’t know. There may be many universes, each with different laws and constants.

Related is the phenomenon of self-selection, applied to the Doomsday argument—example to judge why doomsday, that might happen anytime, should happen in any particular person’s lifetime.

The Ontological Argument (and Logical Abracadabra)

Examples of this go back to Plato’s Euthydemus. This concerns paradoxical, self-referential statements. e.g., If this statement is true, then God exists. Such statements can be used to prove, or disprove, anything.

Argument: The classic argument is that by definition God is the greatest and most perfect being; it’s more perfect to exist than not; therefore he exists.

The same argument could prove that a perfect island exists. Hume observed the only way words can prove anything is where a contradiction can be shown, e.g. that God is both omnipotent and omniscient. But no such disproof of God’s existence is possible.

Self-recursion, Recursion, and Creation

Digression: Recursion is a powerful concept key to computer programming. Examples are virus-like; example of Pete and repeat. Or von Neumann’s recursive definition of positive whole numbers. A lot of religious arguments are similar. If you assume a false thesis, you can prove anything.

Four Subjective Arguments—

The Argument from Coincidence (and 9/11 Oddities)

As in The Celestine Prophecy [a bestselling book]: coincidences impress some as evidence of God. The assumption is things don’t happen by accident; everything happens for a reason, etc.

Examples relate to 9/11—all sorts of numerical derivations. But of course you can do similar things with any date or set of words. Verses attributed to Nostradamus relating to 9/11 were simply made up. Photos were circulated on the internet.

People look for patterns and see them whether they’re there or not. People remember positive examples and forget counterexamples. What are the odds of some uncanny coincidence occurring? Quite high—there are so many potential events. A passage from Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama told of a fireball on Sep 11th, 2077…

[[ there’s also the point of *why* coincidences would mean anything to anyone; there’s a psychological undercurrent that no one ever seems to discuss ]]

The Argument from Prophecy (and the Bible Codes)

Of course, some prophecies from holy books come true, but not enough of them to mean anything. Oddly, the more details a holy book contains, the less likely they might *all* be true, no matter than people ‘accept’ the book as true. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t close the matter; just because a holy book claims it’s true doesn’t make it true. People who think it does sometimes resort to the argument from red face and loud mouth.

Biblical codes concern equidistant letter sequences (ELSs), the way ‘nazi’ is within ‘generalization’. The discovery of rabbi names, etc, in the Torah was taken as proof of divine inspiration. True, the calculated probability of a particular ELS is tiny; but the discoveries weren’t predicted; they could have been anything. The likelihood of *some* interesting ELS *somewhere* is pretty high.

An Anecdote on Emotional Need

Digression: Author recalls helping three Thai girls, on Xmas day in 2006, dupe online boyfriends for cash, and considers how desperate those remote boyfriends wanted to believe in their girlfriends is like the intense need people have to believe in God. Author doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t want to scoff at emotional need.

The Argument from Subjectivity (and Faith, Emptiness, and Self)

It’s hard to address the argument that people simply feel that God exists in their bones, or wherever. Similar is the argument that the idea there isn’t a God is too depressing, therefore there is. But there’s no way of verifying such subjective insight—unlike the way a blind person might verify the directions given him by a sighted person.

Similar is the argument that since all worldviews are valid, god exists. It would be arrogant for an agnostic to belittle someone’s religious beliefs, but usually it’s the believers who attacks the nonbelievers. How would an argument for theism work, to justify particular creeds? Belief in god doesn’t imply divinity of Jesus.

After all, most people are atheists about others’ gods. Atheists and agnostics just go them one better.

Even more absurd is to claim the existence of a personal god who answers prayers, intervenes with miracles, etc., which presumes an overweening sense of self-importance. [[ And yet my impression is that this is by far the most common sort of belief in God! ]]

Even the idea of self is unstable; we are constantly changing throughout our lives.

[[ The reply to this whole line of thought is to realize that millions of people around the world have passionate, subjective feelings about *other* gods ]]

The Argument from Interventions (and Miracles, Prayers, and Witnesses)

Miracles demonstrate the existence of God? Stories of ‘miracles’ seem to be getting more press lately. But claims are inconsistent; a few saved is a miracle, millions dying is a natural disaster; aren’t both divine or not? A local case (in author’s home Philadelphia) involved a Mother Drexel and two children who prayed to her and recovered. The famous Fatima case, children who experienced prophecies that were so vague they could apply to anything. The idea of miracles is counter to the weight of science—a miracle would simply mean the scientific laws were wrong. And testimony, of course, is not dependable—delusion or lying is more likely than a miracle.

Remarks on Jesus and Other Figures

The popularity of Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie (The Passion of the Christ) suggests that many believe the existence of such figures prove God’s existence. But: we often know little about news stories that happen in full view; we realize that and suspend judgment. But not with distant historical events, such as the events of that movie, recorded in the New Testament decades after the fact. Consider the political situation at the time of J’s death. Compare to the death of Socrates. Would one blame contemporary Athenians on his death? Would a film about it one dwell on the agony of him being poisoned?

CS Lewis’ arguments were uncompelling—we don’t know what Jesus said, or if his story is accurate. The flaw in The Da Vinci Code (the popular book and then film, which presume to identify a modern-day descendant of Jesus) is that any given biological line (e.g. Jesus’) would likely either die out quickly, or grow so that millions could claim to be descendants after centuries. Given parents, grandparents, etc., going back 40 generations we would each have a trillion ancestors; so obviously they were not all different people. If anyone from 3000 years ago has any descendants—it would be all of us.

Four Psycho-Mathematical Arguments

The Argument from Redefinition (and Incomprehensible Complexity)

Some attempt to redefine God as something else—nature, the laws of the universe, mathematics. This may be one reason many people say they are believers. God is Love. Or God is simply incomprehensibly complex. This is equivocation. The theory of everything may be beyond the complexity horizon. Yet nothing can be so complex that patterns aren’t apparent at various levels, enabling descriptions of order—inevitably. And in sufficiently large populations or sets, certain lower-level properties are guaranteed; examples of people at dinner parties who do know or do not know each other. Recall Stuart Kauffman’s work on self-organization. Claims these phenomena prove God are very strained.

The Argument from Cognitive Tendency (and Some Simple Programs)

Some say the fact that cognitive biases and illusions exist as proof of what they perceive, e.g. God. People have an inborn tendency to search for explanations and intentions. E.g., a thought experiment about a man’s car; or why extraordinary causes seem necessary to explain the deaths of JFK or Diana, to say nothing of the universe.

And we seek confirmation more anxiously than disconfirmation; we can be blind to contrary facts. The source of perpetuating stereotypes.

The ‘availability error’ is the inclination to view anything new in the context of what is already known—war, scandal, religion. Thus, other religions confirm the existence of God! The reason most people adopt their parents’ religion—cultural traditions. “…religious beliefs generally arise not out of a rational endeavor but rather out of cultural traditions and psychological tropes.” Children are no more Catholic because their parents are, than they are, say, Marxist because their parents are.

The last is the notion that ‘like causes like’. Complex results must have complex causes. But some computer examples (fractals) show that simple rules create complex results. Stephen Wolfram’s book A New Kind of Science, e.g. his rule 110 (page 112). Very simple rules result in patterns similar to those in biology and other sciences. Wolfman suggests simple programs might capture scientific phenomena better than equations. [[ this is a profound points, I think. ]] [[ there’s also the entirely subjective notion of what is ‘complex’ vs ‘simple’ ]]

My Dreamy Instant Message Exchange with God

Author had a dream conversation with God, who claims he evolved from the universe’s biological-social-cultural nature.

The Universality Argument (and the Relevance of Morality and Mathematics)

That the moral sense of different cultures is similar is taken as being instilled by God. Though this doesn’t explain blasphemers, criminals, homosexuals, etc. [[ if instilled by God, why aren’t they as invariant as the biological processes of staying alive? ]] Anyway, evolutionary forces explain why moral codes are similar in cultures that survive for long. (cf. Marc D. Hauser’s book—another group theory argument.) Also, if moral laws aren’t arbitrary, then their goodness is true without their being a god.

That leads to the old problem of why God would allow evil to exist; the usual answer, that we don’t understand his ways, explains nothing. And the many other obvious childlike notions in religious doctrine. The Boolean satisfiability problem is about determining if a set of statements, true or not, are consistent. Most sets of religious beliefs are inconsistent.

Scientists have long wondered about the universality of science and math. Is the fact that math works to explain the world really mysterious? Our ideas about math derive from interaction with the physical world. Counting, arranging, then abstracting. Evolution has selected those of our ancestors whose behavior and thought were consistent with the workings of the universe.

The Gambling Argument (and Emotions from Prudence to Fear)

Pascal’s wager applies to any religion, of course. And trying to assign probabilities to God’s existence is a futile task. Statements using ‘is’ are subject to linguistic confusion.

The wager isn’t much different than believing in god just because the idea of dying is dreadful. It’s similar to rallying around a leader in dangerous times. Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine: even a 1% chance of there being weapons of mass destruction justifies war.

Anyway, there’s no evidence that nonbelievers are less moral or law-abiding. In a sense, moral acts by nonbelievers are more moral than those by believers who act to gain some divine reward.

Still, these arguments fail to persuade those whose critical faculties are undermined; and the untruths underlying faith make life more bearable to some.

Atheists, Agnostics, and “Brights”

Despite all this, atheists are the least tolerated minority in the US. Maybe what’s needed is a popular story or film, ala Brokeback Mountain. Another idea is to use a new term—maybe ‘bright’ (as proposed in the 2000s). Or at least greater acceptance of the admission of being irreligious. Author isn’t fond of the word bright. Yet hopes that as more people admit to being irreligious, to give up on divine allies and tormentors in favor of being humane and reasonable, the world would be a bit closer to a heaven on earth.

Posted in Book Notes, Mathematics, Religion | Comments Off on John Allen Paulos, IRRELIGION (2008)

My Religious Upbringing, Such As It Was

My upbringing was not especially religious; my parents attended church, and took their kids to Sunday school, but more out of social habit and propriety, was my impression, rather than from any deep-seated faith. My parents both grew up in small-town Illinois, where they attended Methodist churches. When they settled in Apple Valley in 1958 or so, when I was perhaps 3 years old, we attended Church of the Valley (http://www.churchofthevalley.net/), a Presbyterian church along Highway 18; it didn’t seem to matter much that they switched from one Protestant sect to another. My single memory of that church—I was only 6 years old before we moved away from Apple Valley—was that we met Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, popular TV stars of the 1950s, now likely forgotten, who’d retired to Apple Valley and who also attended that church.

When we moved to Reseda in 1962 we attended another Presbyterian Church, called almost identically Kirk O’ the Valley (https://kirkval.org/), on Vanowen down the street from the large public library. There I attended Sunday School, where we were read children’s versions of stories out of the Bible, with pictures. My mother sang in the church choir, and did two services each Sunday morning. After the first service, and Sunday School, my father took us kids to the nearby supermarket Piggly Wiggly—long gone, but I think at Vanowen and Tampa—where we ate donuts, until the second service was over. It was during these years that I attained some rite of passage—confirmation?—and was given my very own Bible, bound in red, which I still have.

In early 1968 we moved to Glen Ellyn, Illinois. There we attended Southminster Presbyterian Church (https://www.southminsterpc.org/; north of us on South Park Blvd., halfway to the center of town). I don’t recall attending services at all, but I do recall attending youth group meetings on Sunday evenings, and I recall some of the projects we did, including visiting nursing homes to pass out magazines or, once, to put on a play. One meeting I remember distinctly is when the group leader walked us through the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” as if they held deep theological significance (never mind the ironic tone they struck in the film, which I didn’t see until years later). During the three years we lived in Glen Ellyn, we took frequent weekend trips to Cambridge, where my parents had grown up and where my grandfather, aunt, and cousins still lived, and on those Sundays we attended the Methodist church in town.

And one other youth group meeting I recall. I was thinking that throughout all these various Sunday Schools for children and youth groups for teenagers, they were never about instruction into what the church believed and why. They were about stories and dressing up on Sundays and hanging out with one’s tribe, learning its ways, to define itself distinct from other tribes; about ritual, not intellect. But I do recall an except to that general rule, at the Illinois youth group. The leader was discussing how Presbyterian beliefs were different than those of other Christian sects, the Methodists maybe. I think the example was about predestination, but it doesn’t matter. The point was that he explained what *our* beliefs were, and what the *other* beliefs were, in such tones as to make it *obvious* that we were right and the others were misguided. His intonation and body language left no doubt, and the youths listening had no choice but to agree; it was a groupthink, not a matter for discussion, certainly not one of reason or evidence.

Earlier in California and especially in Illinois I had discovered books. Not just science fiction books, but astronomy books and general science and puzzle books by various authors. (I went through a very brief phase of being fascinated by UFOs and various supernatural mysteries, through the books of Frank Edwards and others. This was cured by discovering the nonfiction of science fiction authors, ironically – I say that because of the popular impression, at least then, that science fiction authors “believe” in UFOs or whatnot, when in fact science fiction authors, being educated or at least familiar with scientific methods, are far less credulous than the average citizen. But more about this another time.)

We returned to California in the summer of 1971, in between my 10th and 11th grades in high school, just as I turned 16. After an interlude of some weeks in Apple Valley, we settled in a neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley then called Sepulveda, now called North Hills (despite the conspicuous absence of any more than half of one hill in the region), coincidentally half a block from my Uncle Bob’s house. My parents dutifully sought out the nearest Presbyterian church, Valley Presbyterian Church (https://www.valleypresbyterian.org/) on Haskell, right across the street from my high school. I may have attended once. I told my parents the next week that I’d prefer to stay home. They weren’t surprised, given my reading and the topics I found interesting. They did stage a kind of intervention, though: a pastor from the church came to the house to visit me. We sat on the sofa and he talked and invited me to pray to Jesus, or accept Jesus into my heart, or somesuch. I didn’t roll my eyes or burst out laughing; I probably just sat there uncomfortably and said nothing, and he got the hint. No doubt he checked in with my parents and the subject of my attending church never came up again.

And I’ve rarely been in any kind of church ever since, except to attend weddings.

And my siblings? As I’ll discuss elsewhere, I wasn’t especially close to my siblings, all younger than me – Sue by 4 years, Lisa by 7 years, Kevin by 9 years – simply due to age differences, especially between me and my brother. Sue was the opposite of me, in terms of temperament and intellect. For purposes of this discussion, I don’t remember anything about her church attendance. Lisa, on the other hand, took to religion in those Sepulveda years, when she was in grade school and junior high. Yet my impression and remembrance are that she found going to church charming and fun; she liked the carols and the stories; it served as her social group; it wasn’t so much about commitment to a faith. In later years she devoured the C.S. Lewis books. (I suggested Ursula K. Le Guin; she found her books dour.) And my younger brother Kevin, I have little impression at all from this era. But his life has been the major religious drama in our family. Just as I graduated from college, my parents, and Lisa and Kevin, moved to small town Tennessee (Sue and I stayed in LA). Kevin finished high school there and married his high school sweetheart from a devout Christian family, and so converted, and allowed his wife to home-school their three children, in ways I can only imagine (I’ve asked). Kevin once promised to explain to me his conversion from indifferent atheism to committed Christianity, but he never has. (Of course, I completely understand: it’s all about marrying into a religious family and community.)

Posted in Personal history, Religion | Comments Off on My Religious Upbringing, Such As It Was

Sam Harris, THE END OF FAITH (2004)

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Norton, 2004.

In the 2000s, in the aftermath of 9/11, several well-known intellectuals wrote books examining the bases and legitimacy of religion in general. Four of them—Sam Harris (the book discussed here), Daniel Dennett (BREAKING THE SPELL in Feb. 2006), Richard Dawkins (THE GOD DELUSION in Oct. 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (GOD IS NOT GREAT in May 2007)—became known as the “four horsemen” of the “new atheist” movement, though their books were all quite different from one another. Harris was not previously well-known; he was pursuing a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA when he was motivated to write his book, specifically concerned with Islam, following 9/11.

There were numerous other books on similar topics, by Carl Sagan, John Allen Paulos, A.C. Grayling, and others. But these four were the best known.

I read these books as they appeared with great interest and fascination. Their arguments were not necessarily new—philosophers and scientists had been debunking the various arguments for the existence of god (whichever god the claimant might imagine) for centuries, and the violent and intolerant history of most religions has long been well known. The authors’ sometimes calm and sometimes pointed dismantling of supernatural religious claims seemed to me merely obvious, the kind of thing smart people realize on their own, even if they know better than to assume others think the same way.

But the appearance of these books made public discussion of the pros and cons of religion respectable in a way it hadn’t been; no longer a subject to be avoided in polite conversation for fear of offending the credulous. Critics didn’t answer their arguments so much as dismiss their presumption to make them, on the grounds they were insufficiently schooled in theology, or religious history, or whatever. The response to that line was PZ Myers’ famous “courtier’s reply” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtier%27s_reply), in which insufficient knowledge of high couture is used to dismiss critics of the emperor’s new clothes.

So here’s a summary, first overall then in detail, of the first of these: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Super Brief summary:

Harris was the first of the “four horsemen,” public intellectuals who published controversial books about religion in the years following 9/11. He discusses the irrationality of faith and of rival faiths, with particular concern about the dangers of fundamentalist Muslims whose belief system would exterminate unbelievers. Also, the pernicious influence of Christians on American politics, issues of morality that can be addressed through reason, and the spiritual aspects of human existence that should be rescued from the irrationality of faith.

Brief summary:

  • Ch1, Harris explores the incompatibility of rival faiths, and of reason and faith, while hinting that nevertheless there is a “sacred dimension” to existence that must be respected. Moderation in religion is fiction when fundamentalists consider moderates as bad as unbelievers. The incompatible claims of religions deserve no respect. Religious beliefs, immune to evidence, will one day be looked back on as impossible quaint and suicidally stupid.
  • Ch2, Beliefs should correspond with the world, and be logically coherent; belief in God equates to no factual knowledge about the world, Saying it makes you feel good isn’t a reason. Faith is credulity that abandons constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor. Faith isn’t required for a doctor or engineer. Faith leads billions to believe what no sane person would believe on his own. The most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief.
  • Ch3, About the sordid history of Christianity: the Inquisition, putting heretics to death, obsessed with demonstrating how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, the imagined rituals of the Jews, the complicity with the Holocaust.
  • Ch4, about Islam, which has more than its share of bad beliefs: its support of suicide bombers, its belief that martyrs are rewarded in paradise, the Koran’s endless passages that vilify unbelievers. Claims of moral equivalency for the sins of the US ignore intentions. Dealing with Islam is like thinking how to live with Christians of the 14th century. Islam must transform itself, from within, or a world government may be needed to confine it.
  • Ch5, Politicians in the US regularly pander to the religious; some actually apply Biblical morality. Legal policies derive from the Christian idea of sin, never mind many such crimes are victimless, never mind that other activities actually are harmful. Thus drug laws, stem cell research, the option of abortion. We need better ways of answering questions about right and wrong.
  • Ch6, The issue of good vs. evil can be cast as a question about happiness and the suffering of sentient creatures. What the ancients thought is irrelevant. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Moral relativism is self-contradictory. Pragmatism offers no solution. Realism is better. Intuition can be useful, but its guesses can be tested. Reason can link morality and happiness.
  • Ch7, Author discusses ‘mysticism’ or spirituality as something to rescue from religion, which would hold “bad concepts in place of good ones for all time” in denial of “the vastitude of human ignorance” (that can be steadily overcome); thus we need the end of faith.
  • And in the epilogue, he pleads for an end to a “certain style of irrationality” the better to appreciate the true mystery of the universe and our place in it.

The book isn’t just a renunciation of the idea of faith, but the author’s attempt to save what he considers spiritual experiences from the shackles of irrational faith. Some of these themes — morality, lying, spiritualism — emerge more fully in his later books. I’m not completely in synch with his appeal to “spirituality” or his occasional leaving the door open to “psychic phenomena” (which I think have pretty much been shown not to exist), but the bulk of the book is very solid. To get a flavor of his writing, glance down the page and read the passages I’ve block-quoted.

–Detailed summary:

Ch 1, Reason in Exile

A young man boards a bus and detonates a bomb, killing himself and twenty others. When told, his parents are sad but proud; he has gone to heaven. What can we infer about such a person? Not much—except that it’s trivially easy to guess his religion.

Beliefs are mere words—until you believe them. Many of our cherished beliefs are leading us to kill one another. Most people in the world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. But there are many such books on hand, and so people align themselves along these factions. They seem to share a lack of ‘respect’ for unbelievers. Page 13:

Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept—rather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or any other criterion of tribalism. Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: “respect” for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses…

Unfortunately criticism of a person’s faith is taboo, everyone seems to agree. Thus when Muslim suicide bombers strike, his motives are assumed to be political or economic—not simply motivated by his faith. Modern technology makes the faithful ever more dangerous; it is thus imperative to send such ideas to the graveyard of bad ideas, as alchemy has gone before it.

Of course there are ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’, but the latter are as much of the problem, for they support that respect for the unjustified beliefs of others. Two myths: that religion provides good things that nothing else does; that the terrible things done in the name of religion are due to base motivations other than the faith itself. In any case, faiths routinely criticize the errors of other faiths. The so-called truce between reason and faith is another delusion. And yet—there is a sacred dimension to existence; it just requires no faith in untestable propositions to pursue.

The Myth of ‘Moderation’ in Religion

Despite the implausibility of the idea that any one religion represents the sole truth, most people say they believe various literal notions—that the bible is inerrant; that god directed creation; etc. Presumably ‘moderates’ have decided to ignore, or loosely interpret, their canonical books in order to live in the modern world. Thus they don’t kill their children for converting to another religion, as Deuteronomy instructs (p18). Moderation has been forced by advances in human thought from elsewhere—democracy, human rights, etc. Even fundamentalists require evidence for mundane claims (p19). Most people know more than anyone did 2000 years ago; we don’t equate disease with demons, etc.

But to fundamentalists, moderates are as bad as unbelievers; and moderates do not permit criticism of even fundamentalist belief. Moderates implicitly endorse belief systems passed down from people who knew nothing about the world. A well-educated 14th century Christian would be an ignoramus by today’s standards—but he’d know everything there is to know about god.

Nor does religion progress, incorporating new knowledge. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now… p22

The Shadow of the Past

Religions preach the truth of propositions for which there is no evidence. Should all knowledge disappear overnight, we would need to relearn many things, but knowing Jesus was born of a virgin wouldn’t be at all useful. How would that even be re-learned –except by reading a book? But there are many books; why not believe similar facts about Thor or Isis?

Hasn’t religion enabled communities to cohere? Yes, but it’s also responsible for wars of conquest. There are plenty of past things we hope never to return to: slavery, cannibalism, etc. (p25). Religion is a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.

The Burden of Paradise

The world is full of people killing others for the sake of their religion (list p26). India and Pakistan verge on nuclear war; are their beliefs to be ‘respected’? Islam represents a particular danger at this point in history. Why do Muslim terrorists act? They are not poor or uneducated. And the answer is that such men really believe what they say—the literal truth of the Koran. An explanation reluctantly accepted.

Muslim Extremism

They are extreme in their faith, and thus belief that western culture would lead their families away from god. They fear contamination; they’re consumed by feelings of ‘humiliation’ over seeing a godless people become masters of the world. This isn’t ordinary hate. Bin Laden is most upset by the presence of unbelievers in the Muslim holy land… And most terrorists are explicit about their desire to get to paradise.

Some argue that it isn’t faith itself that inspires such violence, that e.g. Islam is a ‘religion of peace’—but the Koran itself says this isn’t true. Muslims view cultures of partial revelation, Jews and Christians, as inferior in every respect. The Koran makes martyrdom sound like a career opportunity; to be preferred over staying at home. The appropriate response isn’t to quibble about the line in the Koran that forbids suicide… but to challenge the entire presumption that such books are the literal word of God. (How do we know they are? Because the books themselves say so!) Imagine a world in which people believed that certain films were made by God, or software..?

Death: The Fount of Illusions

We live in a world in which everything is eventually destroyed. We each contain a virus that will eventually, tomorrow or in decades, kill us. We worry about ourselves, and our loved ones. We can disappear into the world or within ourselves. We’ll all die eventually. So of course the idea that you won’t die is an attractive one—and carries one to a faith-based religion. Religious moderation leads to a world in which a person who doubts the existence of heaven and hell could never be elected president.

The World beyond Reason

There is of course a range of human experience that could be called ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’, and while these are associated with religion, they in no way endorse particular books. There’s also data “attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena…” (p41.2 –!?) The problem of dealing with religion is to reconcile such experiences with the beliefs that have grown up around them. “We cannot live by reason alone.” But spirituality can, must, be deeply rational.

Coming to Terms with Belief

Belief is more than a private concern when beliefs translate into actions. Certain beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.

We must admit that there’s no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe (45.0) Reason must transcend national and religious boundaries (there is no ‘American’ physics). Religion does not admit such discourse; no evidence is involved. We can’t tolerate diversity in religious beliefs any more than we can beliefs about hygiene.

Gathering Our Wits

Our own national discourse has a dark current of unreason. The president routinely cites God and attends prayer groups.

If we’re still here in 200 years, something will have changed, or we would already have killed ourselves. We’ve reached the age where a single person can destroy a city. Our descendants will look back upon many of our beliefs as impossibly quaint and suicidally stupid. So our task here is to identify those most dangerous beliefs, and subject them to sustained criticism. Maybe this time hasn’t arrived—but author prays, in the spirit of prayer, for day it will happen.

[[ Is Harris going to suggest, in response to the litany of dangers he identifies, what can be done about it? Is it possible to defuse religious belief? ]]

Ch2, The Nature of Belief

Believing a proposition means believing that it faithfully represents some state of the world, 51t; thus we should value evidence and demand that propositions logically cohere. 51.3:

“Freedom of belief” (in anything but the legal sense) is a myth. We will see that we are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean whatever we want when using words like “poison” or “north” or “zero.” Anyone who would lay claim to such entitlements should not be surprised when the rest of us stop listening to him.

Beliefs are principles of action; they are processes of understanding the world and made available to guide our behavior. Might some propositions be so dangerous that it would be ethical to kill people for believing them? 53.0

Beliefs require logical coherence with each other. You can’t believe opposite things or contradictory things. Humans are not actually perfectly coherent, as in examples of cognitive dissonance. Example, p55, of a hotel room in Paris overlooking the American embassy. Even a perfect brain couldn’t keep track of the logical consistency of more than about… 300 beliefs.

Beliefs are representations of the world, and they should require that they be true (not that we just wish them to be true). Thus ‘because’ = by cause. What does it mean to believe that God exists? Because why? There’s no reason equivalent to factual knowledge about the world; and saying so because it makes you feel good isn’t a reason. Thus Pascal’s wager, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith are “epistemological ponzi schemes” 63.0. Most people’s reasons, about spiritual experiences, trust in authority, etc., are typical games of justification; but if a belief represents an actual state of the world, it must be vulnerable to new evidence…

Is faith the same as belief? There are rarefied ideas about faith (Tillich) but author takes it to be the ordinary sense. 65.7: “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.”

Faith is eager to find phenomena that seem to confirm their faith; but it doesn’t stoop to reason when there are no good reasons to believe, 66m.

We don’t require faith in other spheres of life—we require the engineer or the doctor to have reason for their claims about the world. But not the priests. How does the priest or mullah know that God wrote their holy books? They don’t, not in any way that uses the word ‘know’ properly, 67.3

The men who flew the jets on 9/11 were men of perfect faith.

No doubt the faithful reading this will claim the consolations of their faith. Indeed, the faithful hold truth in highest esteem, 68.3; 68.8: “The faithful have never been indifferent to the truth; and yet, the principle of faith leaves them unequipped to distinguish truth from falsity in matters that most concern them.”

The dividend of faith is the conviction that the future will be better than the past, 69b. Despite the actual world, e.g. long quote p70 about the Black Death.

Smry so far, 71b-72. There is sanity in numbers. 72m:

And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as thought they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own.

Example: transubstantiation. You can eat Jesus Christ in the form of a cracker. “Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”

So what should we believe? We all rely on the authority of others; the more educated we become, the more our beliefs come to us second hand. Examples: a news report; a scientific conclusion; a religious claim. Which should you believe? By what justification are we to believe or disbelieve each one?

We should examine closely what is really in our holy books. “A close study of these books, and of history, demonstrates that there is no act of cruelty so appalling that it cannot be justified, or even mandated, by recourse to their pages.”

Thus the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru would baptize infants – before bashing their brains out (cf Bertrand Russell).

Yes some faithful benefit others. But the most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief. Even Stalin and Mao operated on a political religion, communism. And the Soviet Union followed Lysenko rather than the “capitalist” biology of Mendel and Darwin.

Ch 3, In the Shadow of God, p80

The terrible consequences of Christianity. The Inquisition started in 1184; people were accused of heresy, or often of casting spells to bring disease or storms (before science people thought such things were possible), and put to torture until they confesses, and often to implicate others. The Bible requires that heretics be put to death (p82), in Deuteronomy. The Dominican order was particular enthusiastic about this. Torture often ended in the ‘auto-da-fe’, the public burning.

Witches and Jews were particular targets of Christian zealotry. Jews, in a sense, collaborated in being despised through their own sectarian belief in being the ‘chosen people’.

P94. Biblical writers and scholars went to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, and therefore must be the son of God; such arguments impressed even Pascal into a conversion late in life. But some tenets of faith may have arisen out of mistranslations—‘virgin’, for example, re Mary (the word could just as well have meant a young woman).

Jews were often thought to practice bizarre rituals involving the blood of Christian babies – ‘blood libel’ – or of ‘host desecration’, bringing harm to the wafers used in the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation.

The Holocaust came about after decades of anti-semitism rooted in Germanic tribalist attitudes about the special role and purity of the Aryan race (not just Hitler et al). The Catholic church collaborated in a sense, by providing information, by helping Jews escape only if they’d be baptized, and by remaining mute on the subject even while persecuting scholars who engaged in ‘modernism’, i.e. scholarly examination of the Bible that led some to doubt its inerrancy. The Church banned Descartes, Lock, Voltaire, Paine, Kane, Darwin.

The history of Christianity is “principally a story of mankind’s misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of God.”

(Harris supplies extensive notes to the main text. For example in this section, Note 5 about how William Tyndale was punished for having translated the New Testament into English—a capital offense at the time, p82.2; about what Deuteronomy says; about John 15:6; about an 1860 book that compiled outright contradictions in the Bible.)

Ch 4, The Problem with Islam, p108

All religions have their share of insupportable beliefs, but Islam has more than its share of bad beliefs. We’re at war with the Muslim worldview—the beliefs, stated over and over in the Koran, that Muslim must destroy nonbelievers, engage in ‘jihad’. In Islam changing one’s faith or renouncing Islam is punishable by death. Polls of Muslim countries find widespread support for ‘suicide’ bombers against civilian targets, p124.

Some writers address the issue of why the Muslim world has stagnated in recent decades, or why it is Muslims so often feel ‘humiliated’, but avoid the literal content of the Muslim religion [a recurrent theme for Harris] – they really do believe their martyrs are rewarded in paradise, etc.

Long list of quotes from the Koran that vilify unbelievers, 117ff, for five full pages!. Note ‘People of the Book’ phraseology.

He notes how the description of the Koranic paradise reflects the limits of human imagination, p127-8.

What will happen when such people get long range nuclear weapons? Democracy isn’t necessarily the answer; the people in some countries just vote back in theocratic leaders. Nor is education; many terrorists have had western educations and advanced degrees.

The problem was once called a ‘clash of civilizations’—Edward Said objected to generalizing about an entire culture or religion. The problem is the faith itself.

Is Muslim ‘humiliation’ at the root of terrorism? But democracy in these countries would only enforce sharia law. Many of the terrorists had decent educations.

P136b here’s another solution to Fermi’s paradox—a toxic faith that destroys the world in favor of being transported to paradise.

It’s popular among some to claim a kind of moral equivalency – that the west brought 9/11 upon itself, that terrorism is in response to western oppression. Noam Chomsky is an example. Many of his points are well-taken (the sins of the US), p140. Anudhati Roy makes similar arguments about American arrogance, p142. But there is no equivalency. We can see the distinction but considering the ‘perfect weapon’ that could kill or disable precisely at a distance, and imagine how GW Bush would use it vs Saddam Hussein. Not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development, p143m. Consider New York of a century ago, or My Lai in 1968. There are good and bad ways for a culture to behave, p145 [[ this anticipates his later book The Moral Landscape ]] Even if the US does kill innocents or behave badly, it expresses remorse. Intentions matter.

Bottom line is the colossal waste of time and energy taken by religious practice (see p149.2). All the good things religion does can be had elsewhere.

What to do about Islam? It is like thinking how to live with Christians of the 14th century. We need a civil society, meaning a society where ideas can be criticized without risk of physical violence, p150b. Even if imposed from without. Ultimately, a world government. And Islam must transform itself, from within. And the west should develop new energy sources.

Ch5, West of Eden, p153

Compared to Islam the influence of religion in the west is rather benign. But still, politicians regularly pander, and religious leaders often hold major influence on politicians, e.g. Falwell and Reagan. And Christians ‘support’ the state of Israel (cynically) because they believe it heralds the second coming—and the destruction of the Jews! P153.8

Politicians and judges routinely apply Biblical morality, e.g. Judge Roy Moore, who insisted on erecting monuments to the 10 commandments. Other examples. Tom DeLay. Antonin Scalia, long quote 156-7, finding guidance in St. Paul and perhaps Leviticus, 158.

Legal policies derive from Christian’s attitude about sin; thus drugs, prostitution, and so on. It doesn’t matter if these are ‘victimless’; if God sees everything, there is no such thing as privacy, and laws are put in place to avoid angering God. Thus the state still prohibiting oral and anal sex. Drug laws. They’re not about health, since cigarettes and alcohol are still legal and more harmful. The draconian drug laws, and the amount spent, considering other things such money could be spent on. Prohibition just drives up the market. In fact, terrorist groups often depend on drug revenue! 164t.

We don’t celebrate other sources of irrationality (astrology, reasoning biases, 165.6), only religious faith.

Thus laws against research on human embryonic stem cell, banned in 2003. Bush cut funds to group who would mention abortion.

Rightly criticized, some try to delink such events from religious faith—Nicholas Kristof, e.g., exonerating faith p168.

We need better ways of answering questions of right and wrong.

Ch6, A Science of Good and Evil, p170

Is the difference just whatever people say it is? Recall cat burning in 16th c Paris. Ethical truths seem contingent; without a rule-making God, how do we know what’s right or wrong?

We recast the question as one about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures, p171. From that pov, much of what people think of about morality is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the ancients thought; we can seek answers in the present. We don’t derive a sense that cruelty is wrong from the Bible; we have a rudimentary sense that it is. what we know about the natural world is evidence of no creator who is not a monster; Bertrand Russell quote p173t. The God of Abraham is capricious, petulant, and cruel. The problem of God and evil, the problem of theodicy, has no solution; (long footnote about free will).

These questions should be tied to our understanding of the consciousness of other creatures. Thus Descartes, convinced that nonhuman animals were mere automata, allowed vivisection, p174. The Spanish supposed the Southern American Indians had no souls. How can we know if other animals can suffer? (long footnote 11) (Also note footnote 13, in which author steers clear of past philosophical approaches in favor of starting fresh.)

Religious dogma is of no help. Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” P176.

The idea of moral communities clarifies some matters. Religion only advances tribalism. Then how do we draw boundaries of moral concern? Not just ability to feel pain. Author has no simple solutions; examples 177-78.

Relativism is a demon; intellectuals sometimes speak as if all worldviews are on equal footing; add Kuhn, and can we ever really know everything? But this is nonsense. It implies that tolerance of all viewpoints is necessary; this itself is a moral stand. Moral relativism is self-contradictory.

Another approach is pragmatism, as discussed by Richard Rorty. This is the idea that a statement is true only to the extent that it functions in some area of discourse—not that it is ‘really’ true about the universe. Thus different views of the world might be useful at different times. This suggests one can never be right about anything; recalls Yeats, 180.7.

This is as opposed to realism, in which statements are true or false based on how reality actually is. We may not understand all truths, but they are there waiting to be discovered. But is this even possible without mediation by our language and thus interpreted? But the pragmatist’s argument against this possibility relies on realism being realistic or not; a self-contradiction (long footnote 23). So truth is not a matter of consensus; everyone might agree on something and still be wrong. And so we proceed as if facts, even about ethics, can be discovered.

P182. Intuition is generally scorned (except among mathematicians). Yet intuition underlies our use of reason itself. It’s a necessary first step. We know intuition can mislead p183b [[these are ways in which we are unable to perceive the world]] Intuitions underlie superstitions; but these can be tested. For ethics to matter, the happiness and suffering of others must matter to us. We understand that not everything evolved is good for us (erroneously called the naturalistic fallacy).

We are not limited by our genetic priorities; we are not completely selfish. We treat each other out of concern for others’ happiness (the golden rule etc 186b). These observations hold even for people who claim no concern for others. Christians do not seem to be especially concerned about honor killings, which seem invariably Islam. We can say that the men who commit such acts love their women less than men in the West do, but it’s not polite to think so. It’s not just cultural; it’s a failure of ethics.

We can use reason to link morality and happiness. Happiness can be improved by being loving and compassionate. (long footnotes 31 on ethical intelligence.) We used to think torture evil, but some are reconsidering it in this age of terrorism. And this isn’t really any different from accepting collateral damage in the deaths of civilians. If we are willing to do one, we should be willing to do the other.

Pacifism seems morally unassailable, even though difficult in practice, but it is immoral—it’s the willingness of pacifists to be killed by thugs. P199.

Author tells about incident in Prague in which he diverted a couple thugs so a woman could escape. But he did so by lying and not confronting the men directly.

Gandhi made great successes but his remedy for the Holocaust was that the Jews should commit mass suicide.

Given the threat is Islamic fundamentalism, we must be ready to resist by any means necessary.

Ch7, Experiments in Consciousness

It’s undeniable that one’s experience of the world can be radically transformed. The problem with religion is that it blends this truth with the venom of unreason. A component of happiness that isn’t about food and shelter can be called spirituality, p205. That and mysticism both have unfortunate connotations, but author will use them interchangeably.

Consciousness… It’s assumed now that the mind is a product of the brain, but in truth we don’t know what happens after death. Investigating the nature of consciousness through sustained introspection is another name for spiritual practice. It’s perfectly rational to carry out various experiments, as long as we don’t make claims about the world without empirical evidence, p210.4.

Each person is a system that is in turn an eddy in the great river of life. Even our minds are composed of things from all around us, scarcely under our own control. So what is this feeling of self? p212 It’s about appropriating the world, not just being. … Humans experience a duality of subject and object, and thus a sense of separateness. But to explore a spirituality that undermines such dualism has an obstacle in current beliefs about God.

So we turn to the wisdom of the east. No western philosophers can rival those from the east. Perhaps because of the western idea of faith. He compares a passage from Buddhist literature to anything in the Bible, p216. Meditation, to author, is about making the sense of self vanish. The obstacle is thinking.

[[ I see him jumping the shark here … I’m glazing over. ]]

P221:

Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. …. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.

Epilogue

Nice summary paragraph, page 223:

My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. …Our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance.

Is the problem hopeless? How to get billions of people to reconsider their religious beliefs? And yet we have no reason to think we can survive our religious differences indefinitely. Just give children honest answers to their questions.

Page 225:

Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.

Page 226:

There need be no scheme of rewards and punishments transcending this life to justify our moral intuitions or to render them effective in guiding our behavior in the world. The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.

And the last paragraph, page 277:

Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. … No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. … The days of our religious identifies are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this.

Posted in Book Notes, Culture, Religion | Comments Off on Sam Harris, THE END OF FAITH (2004)

Daniel Gilbert, STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS (2006)

The author is a Harvard psychologist, recently familiar for several TV commercials he’s done for Prudential, which typically depict him in a public park doing surveys of groups of people. (https://www.ispot.tv/topic/expert/k7f/daniel-gilbert). This seems to be the only book the author has done; it was published in 2006. I have the 2007 trade paperback edition.

The idea of this book is that people aren’t very good about identifying what makes them happy, or what happiness even is. The cover blurb offers several paradoxes of modern life:

  • Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?
  • Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight?
  • Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want?
  • Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim; why can’t we remember one song while listening to another; and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?

The book is about applying recent insights from psychological studies—familiar from many other books I’m summarizing here—to answer these issues about happiness. Short answers: people aren’t good at anticipating the future; and since most people think they are special, they don’t rely on other people to testify about what makes them happy. The answer to the problem is, people *should* rely on the testimony of others.

This a nice big-picture summary of human history at the end of the book to provide perspective on how this is a modern problem–it’s quoted at the end of this post.

Key points:

These are summarized at the end of Part I: Journey to Elsewhen.

  • The idea of happiness is subjective.
  • Our imagination about future happiness works so quickly we are insufficiently skeptical of its product.
  • Our imagination’s products are not particularly imaginative.
  • Imagination has trouble anticipating how we will think about future events once we get there.
  • And why illusions of foresight are not easily remedied. The simple recipe is one you will almost certainly not accept.

The simple recipe is, as mentioned: rely on the testimony of others. Trust them.

Detailed Summary:

Foreword

Author wonders what you’d do if you learned you had only 10 minutes to live, and then reflects on how bad we are at anticipating our own future needs and desires. Then recalls the Muller-Lyer lines, and the Necker cube, and how he was fascinated by optical illusions. It turns out the mistakes we make anticipating our future are also systematic, how they play in other kinds of illusions. “This is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well and human brain can imagine its own future…”

Part I: Prospection

Ch1, Journey to Elsewhen

Psychologists dread ever writing a sentence that begins “The human being is the only animal that…” because they are apt to be disproven by later discoveries. Use tools; use language. Author suggests: “that thinks about the future.” Many animals anticipate the future, but only about what happens next: nexting. Only humans develop the concept of ‘later’, at some point millions of years ago. [[ science fiction might be thought of as literature that acknowledges ‘later’ and not just the present moment; unlike traditional literature ]]

It seems the frontal lobes are involved with this feature. Recall Phineas Gage (who survived a spike rammed into his skull that destroyed some of his brain); some people do better *without* their frontal lobes—except when it comes to planning, or feeling anxiety.

So *why* do people have this ability? Ironically, it was popular in the ‘60s to take LSD and “be here now” – to live in the moment. Still, most people find imagining the future pleasurable. Americans in particular are optimistic about the future. People are xxxxxx ‘fearcast’ as means of avoiding bad events.

And we think we want to do something about the future. Why? To exercise control; having control is good for us. (Example of nursing home patients taking care of plants.) Even the illusion of control makes us happy. And: we think we know where we want to go, and want to control getting there. The problem is, this is a wrong answer, because we usually can’t perceive the future accurately – the subject of the rest of the book.

P26, summary and look forward. [[ xxxxxxxx and yes, this applies to SF, in how many visions of the future are so conservative; covered later. ]]

Part II: Subjectivity

Ch2, The View from In Here

We think conjoined twins must be unhappy—but they aren’t. Happiness has three components: emotional; moral; judgmental, 33.8.

Emotional is the most basic, and it’s entirely subjective. People want to be happy. Pope, Freud, others: 37m

Moral: some think merely being happy is unworthy of us; that we should attain a worthy happiness, Nozick, p38; simple happiness is fine for pigs. Christians turned happiness into a reward for living a moral life. But are virtue and happiness the same? 40m. Not necessarily.

Happiness as judgment is the abstract idea of being happy about something, as in being happy for someone despite personal unhappiness. But it’s difficult to compare instances of happiness; memory is fallible; later descriptions tend to override our actual memories. And we’re sometimes blind to change – e.g. the card trick, p49.

We suspect that other people have different scales of happiness; a birthday cake to conjoined twins is more important to them that to us; p51. We’re apt to think, they only think they’re happy; they don’t know better. Xxxxx Experience stretching; the difficulty in evaluating other people’s claims of happiness.

Ch3, Outside Looking In

Can people be mistaken about how they feel? Yes. We can be wrong about our emotions. Examples of people crossing the Capilano River bridge, 63.7.

There’s an issue with being *aware* of experiencing – “In fact, awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience.” 66.4 [[ yes, this is exactly the kind of awareness that my project tries to describe, in contrast to the day to day existence of most people. ]]

Sometimes we realize we’re completely unaware of something we’ve obviously done, as while being distracted. Blindsight.

Nice para summarizing the history of what we’ve thought about the world, from bearded God to Descartes: 69b, worth quoting. QQQQQxxxxx

Can we measure happiness? If not is it science? We must accept imperfection in such measurements, but realize that real-time reports are the least flawed of all possible measures.

Also count for the law of large numbers – the more measurements, the more errors will balance out. And large numbers lead to emergent properties.

Feelings are what means, 78m

Part III, Realism

Ch4, In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye

Author compares Adolph Fischer, who upon his execution said it was the happiest moment in his life, and George Eastman, founder of Kodak, who became wealthy and then committed suicide.

We usually make errors when we imagine “what it would feel like if.” Our imaginations have shortcomings. It’s analogous to Harpo, pulling large objects from beneath his cloak; we fabricate memories from summaries, rather than retaining detailed records. You can trick people into ‘remembering’ things by suggesting details that didn’t happen. So, we know that memory fills in details—and we know that this happens quickly and unconsciously. It’s like the eye’s blind spot. We fill in words in a list based on their theme, p88. And these tricks work even when we know about them.

Recall how the wizard in Oz said he was a very good man, but a bad wizard. In the 18th century philosophers realized this about the brain. Locke maintained the idea of realism, that what is perceived actually exists. Then Kant put forth idealism, 94.4, in which our perceptions blend with what we think, feel, know, want, and believe. Piaget noticed this about children—who learn that how things are and how they appear are different. [[ cf Bering ]]

And yet we don’t get over realism entirely; we outfox it 95b. We sometimes quickly correct ourselves from observation to what we ‘know’ must be so. Thus the “crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world.” 97-98. [[ but this is half of it; there is more real world we can barely intellectualize ]]

Mental images are interpretations, and we often forget this—imagining something more elaborate than is likely to happen. Example of ‘spaghetti for dinner’. (see examples p99). This is one reason reality disappoints us, and we are bad at anticipating the future.

Author goes back to recount the true stories of Fischer and Eastman—and how you can sympathize with their fates. But the point is there are ways of being things that the brain doesn’t imagine; we unthinkingly treat what we imagine as accurate representation of the facts. We’re bad wizards.

Ch5, The Hound of Silence

Now the issue of what imagination leaves out. It’s like the dog that didn’t bark, in Sherlock Holmes. We notice the hits, and not the misses, e.g. about pigeon poop. [[ this is a very familiar point. ]] Sir Francis Bacon noticed this, p109, recalling claims of miracles and wondering about the sailors who *weren’t* saved.

We have a hard time imagining many things—e.g. what life is like after death of a child. That people go on with their lives and aren’t as devastated as people imagine. How happy people are in different cities, or in California. (Kahneman uses this example too.)

A Pygmy once saw buffalo in the distance and assumed they were insects, because they looked tiny and he had no experience seeing things on a distant horizon. [[ nice analogy to some SF perceptions ]]

We imagine events differently whether close or far in time, p116. And the problem is that we’re not aware of all this.

Part IV, Presentism

Ch6, The Future Is Now

How imagination can be too conservative. Examples of visions of tomorrow, from the 1950s—all the things that are missing., p123. And examples of predictions of impossible things, e.g. flight. Mention of Clarke’s law.

We tend to backfill current attitudes onto the past, e.g. how we felt about a candidate before he actually won or lost. And we use today’s attitudes, e.g. why our appetite vanishes after a big meal – we can’t imagine being hungry again. Other hungers are also hard to forecast.

We have mental images for things in the world; our imagination previews objects and ‘prefeels’ events. Ironically this allows nonthinkers to better predict future satisfaction. And yet the brain does prioritize reality—otherwise we’d ignore a red light if we happened to be thinking about a green one. The same happens with emotion – we extrapolate from the moment. Depression is when people think about future events and can’t imagine liking them much.

Ch7, Time Bombs

It’s easy to imagine physical objects, but not abstract ideas. So how do we think about time? Like space; moving forward or looking back, etc.

This helps explain the restaurant conundrum where we anticipate trying different dishes each time we visit – or choosing something different than the other diners – even though you prefer a single dish. We think variety is the spice of life—but it is only in the short term, e.g. exchanging plates part way through. Repetition wanes pleasure; we compensate with variety and time; but with time, we don’t need variety.

Mental images are atemporal, and this leads to errors when we make judgments based on different starting points. [[ priming, another familiar idea ]]

People dislike salary cuts; they are sensitive to relative change. Thus shopping mistakes in comparing earlier prices rather than overall finances.

And shopping errors as in making comparisons at the store that we’ll never make again once we get our selection home, p159.

This is like ‘presentism,’ the tendency to judge historical figures by contemporary standards, 161-2.

[[ this is why I’ve always hate shopping, especially the obsessive shopping that compares every possible option, despite knowing that once you get the thing home you’ll never think about those options ever again. ]]

Part V, Rationalization

Ch8, Paradise Glossed

Note quote from Hamlet – thinking makes it so.

Quotes from xxxxxx JW and others suggest a method to become fulfilled and enlightened—and the method is that something terrible happens to you and you recover. People are resilient; they often say that tragedy made them a better person. Negative events do affect people, but not as much as we think.

The mind exploits ambiguity, as in figure 16 and 17 whether looking for zero or the letter O.

We disambiguate objects based on context, frequency, and recency, p171. And we often prefer one option over another. E.g. the way we define ‘talent’ depends on what we ourselves think we are good at. We tend to exploit ambiguity in the way that is positive for ourselves, 175b.

Recall Voltaire’s Pangloss – humans are not hopelessly Panglossian. We’re a mix, of reality and illusion – 1774.:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

[[ an interesting take perhaps on reality v fantasy, SF v fantasy, story v fact, etc ]]

This is a psychological immune system that’s analogous to the physical immune system. Thus when faced with adversity, it must not defend us too well (i.e. avoid “I’m perfect and everyone is against me”) but must defend us well enough (avoid “I’m a loser and I ought to be dead”). We do seek positive views of our experience, but only when they are credible.

So what’s credible? For one, we place a lot of stock in what scientists tell us. But we cook the facts. We select various techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, to reach different conclusions. Bad scientists choose techniques that lead to the conclusions they favor. An easy technique is sampling bias—we only look at evidence that supports our views. Most people are bad scientists. We ask leading questions that favor a particular response. We make selective comparisons. And we see what we want to see, as when rival fans watch the same sports game. We ask whether facts allow us to believe what we favor, vs whether they compel us to believe what we disfavor. [[ this is a citation from Gilovich ]]

Ch9, Immune to Reality

About reality and illusion. Clever Hans—the horse that seems to respond to questions – was a fraud, but even his owner was unaware; he was signaling the horse subconsciously. We invent the reasons we do things, in a way that we truly believe them. We are strangers to ourselves.

Example: getting jilted at the alter. People claim later that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Similar example: a study in which applicants were rejected by a single judge, or by a jury. Beforehand, people thought either case would hurt equally; afterwards, rejection by jury stung most – obviously, it seems, but it wasn’t obvious beforehand.

Casablanca: the last lines about regret. We regret the things we *didn’t* do more than those we did, 197t.

The psychological mind is calibrated to reject small triggers, as too expensive. Thus we rationalize big triggers, like infidelity, and worry about smaller triggers [example on back cover about dirty dishes]. Thus painful initiations seem more worthwhile than smaller ones.

We’re more apt to find a positive view of things we’re stuck with. These trigger our psychological immune system. Examples; and of how we can’t predict the circumstance that will actually make us happier, p203. We prefer more freedom, but are more content when options are limited.

We associate pain and pleasure with circumstance, and we also tend to invent explanations for those relationships, and those explanations tend to ameliorate both the good and bad. Just as explanations reduce the impact of special events. And once explained, we stop thinking about them. Movies that end mysteriously stay in the mind. Even fake explanations calm the mind, and make one feel less happy, p208.

And yet people choose certainty over uncertainty, though it makes them unhappier. [[ is there a key point here about science v artistic mystery? Unweaving the rainbow? ]]

Can we remedy the problem of fallible foresight?

Ch10, Once Bitten

First-hand and second-hand knowledge is all there is, in pooping as in anything else; how we learn. And yet in our search for happiness we keep making the same mistakes. Why can’t we learn?

We do try, but the problem is we don’t remember correctly—the brain edits memories etc. The availability heuristic makes it easier to bring some things to mind than others. Unusual events are more memorable. That’s why it seems we always end up in the slowest line at the market –those are the cases we remember. P219. And we mistakenly conclude that those cases are more likely than they really are. We remember an awful train trip and think they will all be like that; or we remember the best moment of a vacation and forget all the dull times.

Author recalls not liking Schindler’s List—because it ended badly, despite how brilliant it was most of the way through. Because memory has a tendency to value the final items in a series. Examples: the hand in cold water experiment. Thus we make some strange choices, based on how we’ll remember it, than on the experience itself. Another example: two women, one whose final years are dull.

And memory tends to reconstruct in error; e.g. how California must have voted for Dukakis—but it didn’t, it went solidly Republican for years. Thus we can remember our own emotions incorrectly. E.g. pop theories of gender roles influence our memories of emotional states. People remember how they had expected to feel, not how they actually felt, p231.

So if our memories [practice] are fallible, what about coaching?

Ch11, Reporting Live from Tomorrow

Doris Day’s song “Que Sera Sera” is not helpful advice. We *should* be able to offer advice on what to do. We ask the teacher. Virtually everything we know we learned from others. And so we communicate with others, and we should be able to learn anything that way. And yet we still make bad decisions. Either we’re getting bad advice, or we’re rejecting good advice. Answer: both.

All our communication are attempts to make others think the way we do, p236. What makes this transmission of beliefs successful? Example of gene transmission—circular logic that is inescapable. P237. “Genes tend to be transmitted when they make us do the things that transmit genes.” Even if they have bad consequences.

What affects the transmission of beliefs? Accuracy [cf Dennett Brainstorms quote in note]. But false beliefs also transmit. Because some false beliefs may have beneficial consequences, e.g. by leading to the transmission of more accurate beliefs. “False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.” 239t.

One such belief is about wealth – studies show that wealth brings happiness only to a certain point. And yet people work to make more money, even if it doesn’t increase their happiness. Adam Smith. The economic problem of keeping an economy going is not the same as the personal problem of happiness. Thus the delusion that making money increases happiness. Q 241.8. It’s not a conspiracy; it just works out that way, 242t.

This is why we believe some things that simply aren’t true. The joy of money. The joy of children. Actual happiness varies. [[ but without the delusion, how would the race survive? ]] Because the opposite belief unravels any society that holds it, e.g. the Shakers. We do these things for reasons beyond our ken, 245t.

And so, what is the solution? There is a simple method to make accurate predictions about the future—but no one wants to use it.

Perhaps we ask other people who are having the experiences that we contemplate, and ask how they feel.

Because they are not you; everyone is unique.

Responses to this: Imagination has three shortcomings. It fills in and leaves out without telling us. It tends to project the present onto the future. It fails to recognize that things will look different once they happen, e.g. that bad things will look better (via the psychological immune system).

When surrogates are used, predictions about the future are much better. So the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feelings today, 251.6

Yet people don’t do this. Because the average person doesn’t think of themselves as average, p252; they see themselves as better, and so other opinions or experiences don’t apply. People see themselves as unique, better in some things and worse in others. We know ourselves the way we can’t know others. We enjoy thinking ourselves as special. And we tend to feel everyone is more different from one another than they actually are; all people are similar in many ways. Our similarities are irrelevant, and so we emphasize our differences. We have the impression that others don’t experience the same intensity of emotion that we do, 255m.

And this is why we don’t rely on surrogates. 256.3

Afterword

We are the first species in history to be able to make decisions about where to live, what to do, whom to marry. Things changed; happiness is in our hands.

For most of recorded history, people lived where they were born, did what their parents had done, and associated with those who were doing the same. Millers milled, Smiths smithed, and little Smiths and little Millers married whom and when they were told. Social structures (such as religions and castes) and physical structures (such as mountains and oceans) were the great dictators that determined how, where, and with whom people would spend their lives, which left most folks with little to decide for themselves. But the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions changed all that, and the resulting explosion of personal liberty has created a bewildering array of options, alternatives, choices, and decisions that our ancestors never faced. For the very first time, our happiness is in our hands.

In 1738 Daniel Bernoulli claimed an answer based on probability and utility. But what we get is not what we experience. Only utility matters. Bernoulli suggested that each successive dollar provides a bit less pleasure than the one before it. People are sensitive to relative rather than absolute magnitudes. But Bernoulli was wrong in not understanding that many things besides wealth that affect one’s happiness. This book has explored many examples. That’s why it’s so difficult to predict our subjective experiences. We’re forced to rely on imagination. It’s a great talent, but it’s not perfect. At best, our intellects allow us to understand how we stumble.

\\

Thumbnail summary:

So… we can’t imagine the future with any accuracy, and thus make bad decisions about what would make us happy. A simple solution would be to use surrogates – that is, other people who are having similar experiences – but we don’t because we feel special to an extent that we can’t rely on others.

Posted in Book Notes | Comments Off on Daniel Gilbert, STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS (2006)

Hans Rosling: FACTFULNESS (2018)

This is a book that explores why most people are wrong on key facts about the world, thinking it worse than it is, e.g. concerning poverty, life expectancy, etc. In a sense it’s a modern-day counterpart to Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, which explains how violence has declined over the centuries, despite the impression of many that the world is still such a violent place. (Notes on that still to be posted.)

Hans Rosling, FACTFULNESS: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018)

Author was a medical doctor and public educator, a worldwide speaker, has done TED talks. (He died in 2017.) He notes the book is cowritten with his son and daughter-in-law.

Brief Summary:

  • In surveys around the world, (e.g. the one at https://www.gapminder.org/) most people think the world is worse than in is, along measures of life expectancy, poverty, etc. This is due to various ‘instincts’ the people have; the 10 chapters of this book explore these. Handily, each chapter ends with a 1 or 2 page summary (indicated).
  • Gap Instinct: People reflexively divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’; the split of the world into developed nations and developing ones is no longer valid. Author proposes a divide instead of four levels of income, from $2/day to over $32/day. Of the world’s 7 billion people, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 billion in those four levels. (p46)
  • Negativity. In fact, the world is getting better, overall. There will always be bad news, and these days we hear all of it. (p74)
  • Straight Line. In fact, things don’t always continue as they have before, e.g. the world population increase, for various reasons. (p100)
  • Fear: People tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion; the effectiveness of modern media makes the world seem dangerous, even though the world has ever been less violent or more safe. (p123) [[ cf. Pinker 2011 ]]
  • Size: Keep things in proportion; look at rates, not absolute numbers. (p143)
  • Generalization: Don’t suppose everyone thinks the same as you; don’t think other people are idiots for behaving differently. (p165)
  • Destiny: Don’t assume people have innate characteristics and can never change. Sweden used to be much different. Africa will catch up. (p184)
  • Single Perspective. Beware simple either/or solutions; test your favorite ideas; have a few opinions that are right, rather than many that are wrong. Look at the results. (p202)
  • Blame. People look for clearcut bad guys or heroes, or suspect those they don’t like. Understand the system before assigning blame. Examples of pharma, refugees, foreigners. (p222)
  • Urgency. Rash decisions are often bad decisions. The world is complex; it’s usually better to wait and reconsider. Floating worst-case scenarios can backfire. Five global risks to worry about: global pandemic; financial collapse; world war III; climate change; extreme poverty. (p242)
  • Finally, Factfuless in Practice. The key is education. Teach children humility and curiosity. Business need to become global. Be aware that journalists will always focus on the unusual, not the common. A fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, and leads to less stress and hopelessness.

With many appendices and notes. The book’s endpapers show color charts and photos of several key concepts: the four levels of income; the distribution of people across the world.

Rosling uses very plain language when he might, for example, explain the “availability heuristic” or discuss rates and proportions in chapter 5; he’s trying to reach a broad audience.

Detailed Summary:

Introduction

Author presents a 13-question test about the state of world, concerning life expectancy, portion of people in poverty, and so on, pp3-5, and discusses how poorly almost everyone does on the test. (The test, and much else, is at https://www.gapminder.org/ ) Most everyone knew that the climate is warming, but on average people got only 2 of the other 12 right. This is because they think the world is worse than it is; or perhaps, they reflect what they learned decades ago, and their knowledge simply needs upgrading.

We maintain an overdramatic worldview, not one that’s fact-based. This is understandable from evolution; we’re wired to be on the alert for dangers, for things that are scarce p15t. But we can overcome this tendency, learn to get the world right. “So, if you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble…. Then please read on.” 17.

Ch1, The Gap Instinct

Recalls discussing child mortality, and how students reflexively think that ‘those’ countries can never live like ‘us.’ People split the world into us and them. We still speak of the developed nations and the developing ones, as if there is an actual difference, chart p25 – this was true, in 1965! But it’s not true now, chart p26, when only 9% of the world’s population live in truly poor countries.

Author proposes a different kind of divide: four income levels, Level 1 thru Level 4, representing up to $2/day to over $32/day. Of the world’s 7 billion population, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 in those four levels. The World Bank made the change; the UN still hasn’t. This kind of binary thinking pervades journalism, and stories.

Beware: don’t compare averages; look at spreads, or change the scales. Compare extremes; beware the ‘view from up here’ when, from a tall building, distinctions among smaller ones disappear. Mass media love extraordinary events and shuns normality.

Ch2, The Negativity Instinct

Everyone thinks the world is getting worse. And it is, in parts, like Syria, or with species die-offs, or the US economy. But overall, the world is getting better. Extreme poverty has dropped to 9%, from 85% in 1800 and 50% in 1966. [[ Note -! P52, that in 1800, “One-fifth of the entire Swedish population… fled starvation to the United States…” – could this explain the Swedes in Illinois? Note Bishop Hill wasn’t founded until 1846. ]] Life expectancy was 31 in 1800 [on *average* since so many children died; adults still often lived to 50 or 70] and is 72 now. Sweden itself has changed, from 1800 to now, in health and wealth, p57.

Four pages of charts, bad things decreasing and good things increasing, p60-63.

This happens because we think old times were better than they were; we forget the bad parts. Selective reporting by the media ironically makes the world seem worse, since press freedom is greater now and every atrocity is reported; in the past many went unknown.

Author says he’s not an optimist; he’s a ‘possibilist,’ who sees progress and hopes that further progress is possible. The skewed view of the world is dangerous because it may cause people to give up hope, 69m.

How to control: remember that things can be better, yet still partly bad. Expect that there will always be bad news. And don’t censor history.

Ch3, The Straight Line Instinct

Recalls Ebola outbreak, doubling every three weeks. The misconception here is that things simply keep increasing as they’ve done, as he says the world population is ‘just’ increasing. Thus people assume world population will be much higher by 2100 than estimates make it, p81. In fact it will ease off to about 11 billion in 2100, and this is because the number of children will remain steady – an effect of women having fewer children as they rise out of extreme poverty. The average number of babies per woman has fallen from about 6 in 1800, to 2.5 today. As this rate sustains, the population will grow into higher age groups, p86.

Humanity was ‘in balance’ with nature – humans *died* in balance with nature because so many children died young. Now we’re moving to a new balance where most children survive.

But don’t some cultures, and the religious, have more children anyway? Maybe, but poverty is till the overwhelming factor.

So: some lines are straight. Others are S-shaped, and like slides, or with humps, depending on the phenomenon, p94-97. And some are ‘doubling’ lines [he means exponential] p98-99.

Ch4, The Fear Instinct

Anecdote about a patient author thought was bleeding; he wasn’t, it was a color marker from his life jacket. We tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Our attention filter is alert for dangers: physical harm, captivity, contamination.

A paradox (as mentioned above) is that the media makes the world seem as dangerous as ever, even though the world has never been less violent or more safe. Thus, deaths from natural disasters are far lower than 100 years ago. Because countries are wealthier and better able to react. We never think about the 40 million planes that land safely – only the handful that don’t. (Recalls 1944 standard form for recording crash data.)

Yes, Syria; but battle deaths have fallen over history. We are so concerned with contamination, that more people died fleeing Fukushima than were ever imperiled by the radiation itself. The relatively minor risks of DDT have made us all fearful of chemicals, and contamination in general. Thus, fear of vaccinations.

And terrorism; again, the number of actual incidents is small. (Note that Wikipedia is far from complete about incidents in the non-West.)

Ch5, The Size Instinct

Author recalls treating children in Mozambique, and applying a harsh sort of relative effort: it’s not worth setting up a drip in a child when the same time could be spent saving many other children. Trying to do the best every time was out of proportion. As in other cases, the most effective strategy is to apply low-level methods, e.g. sanitation, rather than building hospitals.

To realize this, think compare and divide. Avoid lonely numbers. Maybe 4.2 million babies died last year – but compare than to the 14m that died in 1950. Consider how in Vietnam their memorial to the war with the US is incidental. Consider that one man being killed by a bear in Sweden got more press than the women killed by their partners, once a month. Don’t treat rare diseases when common ones still prevail.

Recall where people live: mostly in Asia. The PIN code is 1 1 1 4, p136, about where most the world population lives. (Billions of people in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia respectively.) Don’t look at absolute numbers; look at rates. Don’t worry about everything ‘out there’

Ch6, The Generalization Instinct

Anecdote about being served dinner in a region near the Congo river—rats, and larva. His friend saved him from the latter by explaining that his ‘tribe’ had different customs. Don’t suppose everyone thinks the same…

Genralizations and stereotypes are necessary and useful. But businesses wrongly think the ‘developing’ world isn’t a market for their products, and are losing out. The solution is to travel, experience the world first-hand. Anecdote about a Swedish student sticking her foot in the elevator door.

Develop better categories, e.g. the four income levels. Five ways to counter this instinct, p158, among them, don’t assume other people are idiots, they may have good reasons for doing strange things. Example of half-built house in Tunisia, p161. And don’t generalize from one group to another – example of advice about not letting babies sleep on their backs.

Ch7, The Destiny Instinct

We tend to assume people have innate characteristics and can never change. This bias can be simply self-serving, as to confirm the superiority of one’s own group, e.g. Europeans against the Islamic world.

In fact, Africa can catch up, and has already made great progress doing so. For that matter, continued Western progress cannot be taken for granted; thus assumptions of 4% annual growth have been tempered. P172. How women in Iran have greatly reduced their birthrate. (Again, number of children tied to income, not religion.) And values can change. Recalls how the Swedish weren’t always so liberal about sex. Used to be patriarchal.

Tools: realize that slow change is not no change, e.g. how nature preserves have expanded. How knowledge needs updating, especially in the social sciences. Recalls speech in Africa in which he missed the point – soon *they* will be the tourists to our countries.

Ch8, The Single Perspective Instinct

Who do we trust? Beware simple single solutions, whether it’s government control or the free market, equality via distribution of resources, etc. Test your favorite ideas. Have fewer opinions that are right, rather than many that are wrong. Even experts have limitations, e.g. beyond their own fields. Activists tend to exaggerate, to promote their own causes.

There is no one solution, like the proverbial hammer where everything looks like a nail. Even numbers are not a single solution, example 192. Nor is medicine. Or ideologies; compare Cuba and US. The latter is the sickest of the rich, spending more on health care for less, because of absence of public health insurance, p199b.

Nor is democracy a single solution; it doesn’t always correlate with other positive outcomes. The answer is to look at results.

Ch9, The Blame Instinct

Example of story about pharma not investing in drugs for certain diseases. Angry? Punch the CEO? The shareholders? Who? Maybe grandma, the retirees who depend on stable pharma stock for their retirements.

People look for clear, simple reasons; a bad guy; or a hero to claim success. 206b. And we tend to blame those we don’t like. Author recalls investigating an extraordinarily low bid from a pharma firm, being suspicious, then discovering they’d hit on a scheme no one else had to make money with cheap prices.

It’s not that the media is misleading you. Journalists do no better on the test than anyone else; they have the same misconceptions. But it’s their job to portray the world as it is; they are competing for consumers’ attentions.

Another example: refugees. Why are they stuck in shabby rubber rafts? Because the airlines require visas; even though many of these refugees have plenty of money to buy plane tickets. And authorities confiscate the boats—so there’s no reason to use good boats. The situation is one of unintended consequences.

Similarly the tendency to blame foreigners – especially India and China – for climate change. But they’re not to blame, if you look at *rates*. By that measure, the rich nations like the US and Canada still produce the most CO2. Leaders like to think they are powerful, but they are less than they think; Mao; the pope (i.e. so many Catholics use contraception anyway). The actual heroes are institutions – e.g. those on the ground who enforce health practices – and technology – e.g. simple machines like washing machines to free up women’s time to read.

Understand the system, before assigning blame. P222.

Ch10, The Urgency Instinct

Story about studying a strange disease, and an impulsive decision to cancel a bus and block the road; so the locals took a boat, which overturned, drowning many. Later stories similar: the instinct is to block the roads. But these are rash decision made under time pressure, and these are usually bad decisions.

Act now! This is your last chance! This is almost never true, 227.7. It’s actually better to wait, return to the subject later, and consider it again.

The urge to action might have made sense in our evolutionary past, when the environment was mostly stable, and any perceived danger required emergency action. But the world is more complex now.

Example: author met with Al Gore, who wanted data emphasizing the worst case. Author tried to explain why this wouldn’t be effective, and declined. It’s counterproductive to raise alarms; in the long run it risks credibility. This is a problem with activists, who have a motivation to exaggerate problems, or to blame everything on climate change. Author insisted on following the data. Example: data on the Ebola outbreak showed it had already peaked, two weeks before, and so the measures already taken were working.

Author admits five global risks we should worry about: global pandemic; financial collapse; world war iii; climate change; extreme poverty. Summary: take a breath; insist on data; beware of fortune-tellers; be wary of drastic action.

Ch11, Factfulness in Practice

Another story, about taking blood samples to diagnose a disease in Zaire, in 1989, how the villagers rose up against him, and about how one brave woman, who somehow understood, spoke passionately and drove them off.

The key to factfulness is education – a list of key ideas to teach children p248 – and teaching children humility and curiosity. Acquiring these traits becomes relaxing, 249.4, “because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.”

Businesses need to learn to become global. Journalists might add context, but author acknowledges “Ultimately, it is not journalists’ role, and it is not the goal of activists or politicians, to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. They will always focus on the unusual rather than they common, and on the new or temporary rather than slowly changing patterns.” P253t

Can everyone do this? P255. Author thinks it will happen, for two reasons: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life; and it creates less stress and hopelessness, since the dramatic worldview is so negative and terrifying.

Posted in Book Notes, Changing One's Mind, Culture, Social Progress | Comments Off on Hans Rosling: FACTFULNESS (2018)

Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

This is, in effect, a sequel to SAPIENS.

Top level summary:

  • It opens with a long prologue: now that humanity has largely overcome famine, plague, and war, what next? Three possibilities: immortality, happiness, divinity. However these are predictions; this book is not a manifesto. They are the ideals of humanism, but humanism has flaws: that’s what this book is about.
  • He reviews human history from the agricultural revolution, emphasizes the idea of the algorithm, and wonders how humans are superior to animals: it’s our ability to connect, to use ‘imaged orders’ (money, law, gods, empires) to manage groups larger than 150 people. Meanings exists only within the networks of stories people tell each other. Science, meanwhile, has given rise to humanistic religions. [[ He still uses that word in a problematic sense, as noted for the first book. ]]
  • Religion is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. Modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Modern power comes from scientific progress and economic growth; free-market capitalism is virtually a religion. But it can’t go on forever: we’ll run out of resources, or risk collapsing the ecology.
  • So humanism is about being true to oneself, prioritizing personal feelings over scriptures. There is now no serious alternative to the “liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy, and a free market.” The old religions have nothing relevant to say about the world.
  • And yet—some of liberal presumptions may not be true—e.g. free will. Brain studies show the complexities of our minds; there is no one authentic self. Thus one’s ‘true’ self is an imaginary story too, like nations, gods, and money. People live their lives as if living one type of story or another.
  • The final chapters explore three possible futures, ways that liberalism might be made obsolete: humans will lose economic and military usefulness (e.g. by being replaced by robots); the system will value humans collectively, but not individually; or the system will find some individuals valuable, and they will constitute a new elite. Useless people, their lives supported by robots that rend them unemployable, take drugs and play computer games. Or income inequality might lead to gaps in physical and cognitive abilities, rendering ideas of equality and civil rights obsolete.
  • Some in Silicon Valley want to upgrade humanity—e.g. by pursuing immortality. Alternatively, data might take over the world, an expanding internet of everything, with the new value of sharing everything, uploading experiences to the internet.
  • Finally: so what should we pay attention to: In the short term, immigration, refugees. Over decades: global warming, inequality. And in the long term: examining the dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is a data process; whether intelligence is decoupling from consciousness; whether intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves. Are these valid?

General comments:

Again, note how frequently Harari rolls out concepts in groups of three. I’m still irritated of his use of the word religion to describe value systems that explicitly revoke traditional religion, e.g. secular humanism. He does so because he wants to identify those values with the analogous presumption about the world that religions make, so that he can challenge them and thus consider whether the western liberal project is doomed. There are lots of interesting ideas here, but I’m not as alarmed about the future as he seems to be. For example, does it matter if free will doesn’t exist in some fundamental sense? People still act as if they have free will. Perhaps it only matters if these intelligent algorithms he anticipates learn to manipulate us to what we think we are choosing freely is really chosen for us. But this already happens—we are guided in our tastes by culture; we are guided in our beliefs by our families and social groups.

He examines many of these same themes in this third big book, which I’ll cover next.

Detailed summary (with key points in bold and my comments [[ in brackets ]])

The book begins with a long, 70-page, prologue: “The New Human Agenda.” To some extent this recalls themes from SAPIENS, and to some extent it gives the impression that he forgot about another triad of ideas—or perhaps one cut for space—and is filling it in here. But no; reflecting on this book’s theme, instead what he’s doing is setting the stage, by explaining how several eternal trials of human existence have largely been overcome. Which leads to the book’s theme: what do we do now? But first, review those eternal trials.

  • Humanity has largely overcome the three ancient problems—famine, plague, and war. Now that these have been addressed, what do we do now? Consider history.
  • Famines—example of France in 1694. Ironically, now more people are obese than die from famine.
  • Plagues—recalls the Black Death, about which people could do nothing by pray, or assign the problem to demons. Other examples: Europeans coming to the Americas, and spreading plagues, 1520; later Hawaii, 1778. In world war I, the Spanish flu.
  • Now child mortality is down. Smallpox is gone. The recent plagues, SARS et al, even AIDS, have been relatively small by historical examples.
  • And doctors are getting better at diagnosing new diseases. When something goes wrong now, we don’t blame god or demons, we demand responsibility and arrange investigations. [[ Well, some simple-minded evangelical types still blame God—or blame whatever social matter they personally don’t like, e.g. homosexuality or abortion, for having triggered God’s wrath. This egocentric bias will never go away. ]]
  • Wars, p14. Statistics, 15t. We have overcome the ‘law of the jungle’, wherein people live their lives assuming that at any moment a neighboring country might invade them. No governments make plans with contingencies for war, anymore. There are exceptions – e.g. where the author lives (Israel).
  • True, there is a potential for cyber warfare. Yet we have also broken Chekhov’s Law [i.e. by the 19th century Russian playwright], the notion that if a gun appears [in a play], it must be used; that is, we’ve nuclear weapons for decades, and not used them.
  • Terrorism? It has worked only by provoking its enemies to overreact, 18.7, then rage like a bull in a china shop, doing the terrorists’ work for them. [[ Every time I go through airport security, I can’t help but reflect, here at least the terrorists have won. ]]
  • So—
  • What will replace these threats in the human agenda? Well, we might take steps to protect the planet from our influence.
  • What else? 21t – three things: immorality, happiness, divinity.
  • About death – religions have depended on it. They don’t make much sense if death did not exist.
  • Nowadays, death is viewed as a technical problem, with potential technical solutions. A few talk about defeating death entirely – like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel. But by 2050? That’s optimistic. A-mortals would be cautious. [[ an idea already exploited by sf ]]
  • If even human life-spans were only doubled, it would greatly change social arrangements – families; how long individuals would reign over corporations or religions. Ideas would linger. 26.
  • Note that the *natural life span* has not been extended; people in the past sometimes did live until 70 or 80. We’ve just been eliminated causes of early death. Extending the life span will be more difficult.
  • But science, and capitalism, seem to inevitably drive the search for extended life spans.
  • P30, the right to happiness. Epicurus; Jeremy Bentham; nations provided education and health care as a means of making the nation stronger (not to make people happy). By now there is the idea that nations *should* make people happy. By GDP, Singapore must now be happiest. Is this true? It’s hard work to be happy; advanced nations aren’t necessarily ‘happier’ than less fortunate ones. Quality of life has increased, but not overall happiness. [[ A recurring theme; one of the closing ideas in SAPIENS. ]]
  • Why? First, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. Second, happiness is a matter of pleasant sensations and lack of unpleasant ones. Beyond that, said John Stuart Mill, there’s no objective good and evil. And this is, in effect, current scientific orthodoxy. The problem is, pleasant sensations don’t last long; they must be constantly renewed.
  • One answer might be drugs—pharmacology. We increasingly take drugs to mediate moods and behavior; to calm soldiers. This recalls the Buddhist view of the transience of existence.
  • P43, the gods of planet earth. Upgrading into gods might happen in three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; or through non-organic beings. We can’t grasp what new minds would think to do.
  • Attaining divinity doesn’t mean becoming omnipotent—p47.5; it’s more like becoming Greek gods, with great powers but still with human foibles.
  • Recall that ancient agricultural societies, their religions weren’t metaphysical, so much as about attaining superhuman powers.
  • Is this moving too fast? It will happen bit by bit. It may take only decades. Recall the internet in 1993.
  • But if it’s scary, can we hit the brakes? No; we don’t know what the brakes are; if we put a halt to such efforts, the economy would collapse; and we can’t even separate these three goals.
  • Examples: Viagra; plastic surgery; in vitro testing. Three-person embryos. Upgrades are always first about healing, then about applying them for enhancements.
  • P56, the paradox of knowledge—four points: 1, only a few people will be engaged in these activities [[ recalls Gibson comment about how the future is already here, just not evenly distributed ]]; 2, these comments are only predictions based on history, not a manifesto; 3, they may not succeed!, and 4, these are about choices. New knowledge changes behavior; e.g. Marx’s writings were read by capitalists, who accommodated his thinking, so his revolution never came. That’s the paradox.
  • So why study history? To understand the choices we have. Example: lawns, a history of status symbols—then follow 7 pages beginning p59, with photos, about how lawns have been status symbols.
  • These goals are the ideals of humanism, which has ruled for 300 years. But there are flaws in humanism—and that’s what this book is about; these plans are likely to cause its disintegration, 66b.

[[ He may be right to the extent that, in the sense that humanism endorses continued expansion of the species, we’ll destroy the planet and thus ourselves. That’s why I’ve never been entirely happy with the idea of ‘humanism’ – what’s really needed is an *understanding* of our place on earth and in the universe, and the goal should be long-term sustainability, not continued expansion. (Which might subvert the SF fantasy of exploring and colonizing the universe.) And certainly the commandments of religions to keep reproducing and fill up the globe. ]]

Part I, Homo sapiens conquers the world

1, The Anthropocene

  • There are very few lions or wolves left; humans have impacted the world over the past 70k years, recently by mixing up all the previously separate (on various continents) ecologies.
  • Early human were likely animists, believing in a network of beings.
  • The story of the expulsion from Eden reflects the agriculture revolution, p77ff; changed the relationship between humans and animals; now animals were domesticated, subjected to humans. Today 90% of animal mass on earth is domesticated animals. And those animals live in misery; their evolutionary drives haven’t changed. Pig farms, etc.
  • We understand that organisms are algorithms, collections of needs and survival strategies….  83.7: “’Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world.”
  • Example of recipes, and machines that follow algorithms; they work in humans through sensations, and emotions, and thoughts 85.3; humans are algorithms that produce copies of themselves, 85.1.
  • Animals like baboons operate through feelings and sensations—but these are in fact algorithms, built into their instinctive thinking. 86.2. even in humans, 99% of our decisions are based on subconscious algorithms (sensations, emotions, and desires) 87.2, note 18, citations of books by Kahnemann and Ariely.
  • In the early 20th century experts denied the idea of human nature; theories were behaviorist. Harry Harlow demonstrated the instinctive mother-infant bond, among monkeys, in the ‘60s. The animal industry violates this, 90.4
  • P90, The agricultural deal: Farmers justified their behavior toward domesticated animals through… theist religions, in which a parliament of beings was reduced to humans and their relationship with a god or gods, with only humans having souls, in which the gods played intermediary, 92b. “The gods safeguarded and multiplied farm production, and in exchange humans had to share the produce with the gods. This deal served both parties, at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.”
  • 92.3, “Much of theist mythology explains the subtle details of this deal.” Gilgamesh! Example even cites how the gods smelled the savor of sacrificed animals (!!) – because the animals weren’t for safekeeping, they were for sacrifice! [[ important point to relate back to biblical reading! ]] (a good example of, why these stories and not others?) 93.8: “Non-human organisms have no intrinsic value; they exist only for our sake.” And see 94t.
  • Some religions are more animal-friendly; but all justify human exploitation of animals, and the subsequent classification of people into classes, 96b. “The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild beasts ripe for extermination and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement.”
  • P97, Five Hundred Years of Solitude. Science silenced the gods. The new paradigm was curiosity leading to greater control, another step toward paradise on earth.
  • Science gave rise to the humanistic religions. [[ He is still using the word religion in a problematic sense here. ]] But what makes humans special, that artificial intelligence wouldn’t be moreso? Is there some human spark?

Ch3, The Human Spark

  • Why are human lives superior? The tradition is that only humans have souls; it’s a central pillar of society.
  • Yet there’s no evidence of ‘souls’; in fact the idea of evolution contradicts it, which is why so many hate Darwin and evolution.
  • Why no such anger about relativity etc? [[ I’ve long though this is a key point; fundamentalists hate evolution, but are indifferent to cosmology, even though the latter just as much contradicts the Bible. Why? Because evolution offends people’s sense of being special. ]] Because evolution contradicts prior beliefs. … or is it because we are conscious and animals aren’t?
  • Yet we have no good idea about what consciousness is… what is the evolutionary advantage of subjective experience? What happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? No one knows.
  • Can we discard the idea? … no; perhaps it is real but performs no useful function. Perhaps our analogies are wrong.
  • 121, so do animals have minds? Examples of dogs, chimps, lab rats; legal acts, p123.
  • So what gives our species an edge? Tools? Intelligence? No—it’s the ability to connect, 132.7. [[ 2018—yes, this echoes ideas about how human social cooperation has been more important than merely using tools, a key theme of EO Wilson. ]]
  • Historical examples—communism, how it fell apart; example: the video of people booing Romanian leader Ceausescu, p135.
  • Communists held power for three reason, 136b: they placed loyal apparatchiks in control of everything; they prevented the creation of rival organizations; third, they relied on support from parties in other countries.
  • 138, So how is human life sacred? What makes humans able to cooperate so well? Our group size is limited, only up to about 150. And we are not ‘logical’… examples.
  • Larger groups depend on ‘imagined orders’, 143b – 144: sets of rules that exist only in our imagination yet we believe to be as real as anything – these are ‘intersubjective’, p144. Examples are money, laws, gods, empires. It can happen, e.g. that some currency is defined to suddenly be without value.
  • 146.4: Maybe hard to accept; “Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.” And following: “Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories…” Why does anything mean anything? Because it did to our parents, etc, examples. [[ aligns with idea of understanding reality via narrative – and the stipulations that all such narratives, stories, are made up ]]  [[ again – the smart ones understand that these are just stories, that we tell ourselves to provide meaning, and that they could easily be entirely different stories. ]]
  • Long historical example of how meaning at the time of the crusades changed over the centuries.
  • The idea of human rights might be just as absurd in another century. 150.6.
  • Only human understand these chimeras – intersubjective realities. That’s our advantage. This is what separate humanities from life sciences; the latter depend on complete understanding…
  • So, 152 last lines, “If you want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”

Part II: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Ch4, The Storytellers, p155

  • Animals are a dual reality – objective entities, and subjective experiences. Humans add a third reality – those intersubjective stories.
  • We had the cognitive revolution 70kya, but fictional webs remained weak. With the agricultural revolution, 12kya, the Sumerians imagined gods like modern corporations. Only with the invention of writing, and money, were these enabled. The idea of pharaoh, a living god, became a personal brand. Society’s rules became written down, i.e. became algorithms, p160m. Now we have ‘the system’, e.g. hospitals, where everything is a matter of procedure and rules. These worked so well that the Egyptians could create pyramids and an enormous lake, even without iron or the wheel…
  • P163, Living on Paper. Written texts became so important that, example of visas in Portugal, 164.5. Yet they could backfire: the Chinese effort to expand led to imaginary reports which led eventually to government actions that led to famine.
  • Writing reshaped reality, 167t. –it could describe, and then it could reshape, reality, to the extent that reality had to give way to what was written.
  • Examples: how African borders, drawn up by Europeans, ignored local circumstances. How school function to aim for high marks [grades] rather than knowledge or understanding.
  • 170b: “In theory, if some holy book misrepresented reality, its disciples would sooner or later discover this, and the text’s authority would be undermined. Abraham Lincoln said you cannot deceive everybody all the time. Well, that’s wishful thinking. In practice, the power of human cooperation networks depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.” [[ nice summation of this current quandary ]]
  • Thus the power of money; even of holy scriptures, which become self-fulfilling prophecies in the way they function in society. P172b, “Even when scriptures mislead people about the true nature of reality, they can nevertheless retain their authority for thousands of years. …”  A monotheistic view in which my good fortune or bad luck must be about my relationship with an all-powerful god. P173.4, “Such self-absorption characterizes all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. … Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.”
  • In contrast, ancient animist religions actually had a more accurate view of the world—as a playground of numerous different powers rather than a single god. Historians like Herodotus and Theucydides…
  • And yet the Bible won—because “No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation” [[ –the essence of the human tragedy? To survive we must believe in what is not real? ]]
  • 174, “Fictions enable us to cooperate better.” At least by the criteria of those fictions. Examples. Yet real entities suffer; gods don’t suffer; even nations don’t suffer, exactly. “That is exactly why we should strive to distinguish fiction from reality.” And last line p178: “Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.”

Ch5, The Odd Couple

  • Has modern science replaced the importance of stories, of myths? No; in ways science has made some myths stronger. So what is the relationship between science and religion?
  • 181, Germs and demons—there are many faulty definitions of religions; they’re not about superstition or belief in gods. Religion rather is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. 182.4; moral laws that exist and that we cannot change. Examples of boys asking questions of their fathers. Thus liberals and communists don’t like to be called religions, yet in fact they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, that humans must obey. And all societies have some version of this. All believers think theirs is the one true religion.
  • 184, If you meet the buddha—distinction between religion and a spiritual journey. Religions are about cementing a worldly order; journeys are about escaping it. If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him – i.e., if you encounter a fixed law, free yourself from it, 186. Such ideas are threats to religions, thus Martin Luther; details.
  • 188, Counterfeiting god—so what about the relationship between science and god? Sworn enemies? All scientific projects require religious insights, 189m. How to determine which projects to build?
  • Or are they separate kingdoms? Yet this ignores the factual statements made by religions. Abortion; biological facts, about when life begins. Religious stories almost always involve ethical statement, factual statements, and the conflation of the two, p191. Science has a lot to say about factual statements. Example about the Donation of Constantine, in AD 315… which later historians agree was forged, in the 8th century.
  • 193, Uganda criminalized homosexual activities, inspired by the Bible; long example.
  • 196, Holy dogma—it’s not easy to separate ethical judgements from factual statements. Philosophers like Sam Harris have argued that science can always resolve ethical dilemmas. And yet, what is happiness? We can’t measure it. And without the guidance of some religion [ in the broadest sense of course ], we can’t maintain large-scale social orders, 198.3.
  • 198, The witch hunt—history. In theory, both religion and science are interested in truth. “In fact, neither science nor religion care much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.” 199.4 Religion is interested in order; science is interested in power, over truth. [[ Really? At best this is a cynical take. ]]
  • Thus modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Next two chapters about this covenant; and the final part of the book about how this covenant is disintegrating, and what might replace it.

Ch6, The Modern Covenant, p200

  • Modernity is a deal: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” 200.7. This deal shapes our entire culture, and ourselves from the moment of birth. [[ it doesn’t seem to matter to Harari that the meaning given up is false – fictitious – and invented by humans; doesn’t reality matter? ]]
  • Modern power comes as a result of scientific progress and economic growth. There was no such ‘growth’ for much of history; productivity was steady, etc. It was for lack of funding. The miracle of credit enables economic growth. (reference to zero-sum, p204b) Example vampire bats, who loan blood to each other, but without interest, unlike bankers.
  • Modern economic growth is vital. We must produce more in order raise the standard of living, handle expanding population, and making any headway against poverty. And economic growth turns out to be the solution for everything, p207, e.g. to solve religious and political strife.
  • And so free-market capitalism has become virtually a religion, 210.1; certainly it “helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.” P201.5
  • The first commandment of capitalism is: reinvest profits. Thus a typical conservation today is about how best to invest one’s gains. P211. Even games these days are oriented around capitalism, e.g. Civilization.
  • 212, But can this go on forever? Only if we have a store of resources. We used to rely on the discovery of new lands. Now, despite talk of “new planets and even galaxies” (212.7 !? – perhaps the only allusion to space travel in this book?), we need other methods.
  • That new resource, beyond raw materials and energy, is knowledge, provided by science. People used to believe the holy scriptures contained all knowledge worth knowing, 213.4.
  • Now the danger is ecological collapse. Do we slow growth? Or expect that expanded knowledge, and more growth, will solve the problem? In some quarters people are taking measure to shut out the consequences of ecological collapse, e.g. in China, protection against the smog. Yet the poor, as always, will suffer the most. And despite understanding the danger, greenhouse gases haven’t slowed, despite international agreements.
  • 218, The Rat Race. And so we’re always under pressure to produce more. We *need* upheavals; all that is solid melts into air. And it feeds on the natural human tendency toward greed. And it’s been a huge success, 220. Yet, how did we avoid the loss of meaning? By a new religion: humanism.

Ch7, The Humanist Revolution (60 pages)

  • We’ve managed to find a new meaning. Ironically, the greatest danger these days come from those who cling to the old meaning of a grand cosmic plan, 222b: “Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans.”
  • So absent that, what keeps world order? Humanism. “The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part of that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhist and Daoism.” [[ I still take great exception to use of the loaded term ‘worship’…..]]
  • In past centuries no one trusted human thinking; we needed God for meaning, and authority. Compare 1300 to now.  [[ again, Harari sidesteps the obvious point that ideas of God and God’s meaning and authority *were invented by humans* ]]
  • Today, the humanist theme is everywhere: be true to oneself. What do you feel? People marry for love. When conflicts arise, the resolution is about feelings, not scripture. Even zealots – e.g. religious zealots upset by gay pride parades – resort to their hurt feelings, 228t.
  • And in politics: democracy, never remotely conceivable in the middle ages, when even art was attributed to superhuman inspiration—the Holy Spirit, represented by the dove.
  • Now, anything can be art, e.g. Duchamp’s urinal. [[ again, saying “feelings” makes it sound wishy-washy; one could just as well talk about trust and accountability… ]]
  • Again: the customer is always right; education is about thinking for oneself. The cosmos has changed—236m, the exterior universe became empty; the interior world became deep and rich with meaning. And so even belief in God is a *choice* about what one feels…
  • The medieval formula for knowledge was Scriptures X Logic. (multiplied; just one won’t do). With the scientific method it became Empirical Data X Mathematics.
  • Now the humanist formula is Experience X Sensitivity. Now understanding is about having a wide variety of experiences, and interest in what they mean, and being able to change one’s views 239.6. Thus author might cultivate fine teas. 240.7, “The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences.”
  • Thus we have a yin and yang, a balance between science and humanism, between power and meaning.
  • In premodern narratives, there was no change—heroes killing monsters or villains. Modern narratives are all about inner lives, how people change, from Ulysses to Survivor, Oz to Trek etc. [[ Thus the standard definition of modern literature, which science fiction subverts, as being about someone’s inner life, typically about the most important events of that life. There was no such literature until about 150 years ago. ]]
  • 243, War. Similarly, attitudes about war changed; used to be depicted as the results of fearless leaders; now about the experience of the common soldier, rather than about dying in battles ordained by God. Examples of paintings.
  • 248, Yet the humanist movement split into three schisms: ‘liberalism’, 249.7; socialist humanist; and evolutionary humanism. They all deal differently with the contradictions that arise. E.g., what to do about refugees, Angela Merkel.
  • Liberal humanism is about allowing each person to experience their own life fully, and not valuing any one over others. This can lead to nationalism, a mild sort where the shared values of an entire country must be protected from outside influence.
  • Socialist humanism focuses on others’ feelings and how one’s actions influence others. These people might consider liberalism a capitalist trap, a self-absorption, a naivety about how the system really works and how it came to be. The goal of socialist humanism is to understand the system; thus an emphasis on political parties and trade unions.
  • Evolutionary human keys off Darwin to emphasize that conflict is necessary, because only the fittest should win; the superior beings and cultures should prevail. Famous quote from the film The Third Man. This attitude is popularized by Nietzsche –what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger—and in the memories of soldiers who’ve gone to war, an experience that pales all others.
  • Author cautions that the extremes of Hitler or Stalin don’t mean these approaches have no value – they are all sections of the ‘human horizon’, 259t.
  • An extended example: consider four experiences, listening to Beethoven, to Chuck Berry, to a tribal chant, or to a wolf’s howling. Which is most valuable? The liberal might dismiss only the wolf – thus the Voyager record. The socialists look at context of each. The evolutionary humanists are eager to declare Beethoven as obviously best, there I said it., p262
  • Are these distinctions frivolous? No—these schisms have widened. At the start of the 20th century, liberalism thought history was on their side. Then they were assaulted on both the left and right. (Long brilliant sketch of 20th century history p264-269). Liberalism eked through only by virtue of nuclear bombs, the MAD stalemate. And eventually prevailed, as the 21st came around, as more and more countries became liberal democracies.
  • There is now no serious alternative to “the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market”, 269.2
  • Not the religious fundamentalists? No; they have nothing relevant to say about the world. Technology depends on a kind of ‘religion’ to give it purpose, but the ancient fundamentalist religions have nothing to say about new technologies. Hundreds of millions may go on believing, but numbers don’t count much in history – history is made by small groups of engineers and financiers who change the technological world.
  • There’s never been a shortage of “priests, mystics, and gurus who argued that they alone held the solution to all of humanity’s woes…” 272.2
  • Examples of religious reactionaries—a religious leader in Sudan, in 1881, who beheaded the local British commander and established an Islamic theocracy that lasted until 1898. A Hindu revival movement for Vedic knowledge; Pope Pius IX, who discovered the principle of papal infallibility; a Chinese scholar named Hong had visions of being Jesus’ younger brother that led to wars that killed 20 million people. While elsewhere factories and railroad and steamships filled the world.
  • P275 Now, in the early 21st century, the last train of progress is leaving the station – after which there may be no more homo sapiens. It’s about 21st century technology to create bodies, brains, and minds.
  • Traditional religions are reactive, not creative. Contraceptives, the internet, … religious leaders fret.
  • Compare the most important influential inventions or discoveries of the 20th century – there are so many to choose from – to the influential discoveries or inventions of traditional religions – of which there are virtually none? Except perhaps the industry of torture, via YouTube.
  • New ideas come from new thinkers, not ancient religious texts, 277-278: when considering new ideas. “Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St. Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”
  • Yet—liberalism may become obsolete.

Part III: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Ch8, The time Bomb in the Laboratory, p283

  • Some of Liberalism’s ‘factual statements’ don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. In particular: free will, the elephant in the lab.
  • Brain studies show that biological functions are either deterministic or random – but not free. Even though we ‘feel’ free. Studies show our minds make decisions a few hundred millisecond before we are consciously aware of them. We feel, but we don’t choose.
  • [[ tempted to wonder why author doesn’t simply acknowledge soul and free will as ‘stories’ like his others… ]]
  • Further, we can manipulate and control the mind, e.g. robo-rats, treatments for depression, and ‘transcranial stimulators’ that enable a person to play first-person shooter games without the ‘voices in the head’ causing doubts, 291.2.
  • This undermines the belief in individualism; there is no one authentic self. Our minds have two hemispheres; experiments and accidents; our minds concoct explanations for things the other side has already perceived. Kahneman: we have a narrating self. We’re subject to the ‘peak-end rule’ as in childbirth, colonoscopies.
  • We identify with our narrating self, as opposed to our experiencing self.
  • 301, A Borges story. We cling to justification; ‘our boys didn’t die in vain’ – that causes us to pursue lost causes, send even more soldiers to die in battle. Priests know this too—by making people sacrifice, it cements their commitment to the cause they are sacrificing for. [[ this is the sunken cost fallacy, though he doesn’t use the term ]] Applies to economics, etc. Our ‘self’ is just another such story, 306m—
  • “We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.”  [[ one gets used to such passages, but taken in isolation, such passages like this are quite extraordinary…
  • Thus, 307.2: “Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning; modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.”
  • And yet even people like Dawkins and Pinker cling to liberal values…

Ch9, The Great Decoupling

  • So what are the practical implications? There are three points about how 21st century development might make liberalism obsolete:
    • 1, Humans will lose economic and military usefulness;
    • 2, The system will find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals;
    • 3, The system will find some value in particular unique individuals, and they will constitute a new elite
  • Historical sketch that notes how conscription, beginning in the French revolution, came with civil rights… even women’s suffrage, since women were required to support America’s wars.
  • Yet, with modern cyber warfare, individual warriors are no longer needed. Computers are as *intelligent* as us without being conscious. Autonomous cars; etc
  • So unenhanced humans may become useless. We have algorithmic stock market trading; lawyer searching; digital teachers; even doctors; Watson. There are technical problems to be solved – but they only need to be solved once. Pharmacists.
  • 322, So what to do with this useless class? Humans over history have specialized into various specialized professions – which make them *more* easily replaced by algorithms.
  • Humans are algorithms; even things like facial recognition and chess have now been done better by machines. Baseball. Truck driving.
  • Might algorithms become legal entities? Even art, and music. Examples. Poetry.
  • So what to do with all the useless people? Estimates of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms, p330. What will they do all day? Take drugs and play computer games? Or would an advanced AI simply exterminate humanity? –note scenario 332t, in which a computer assigned to compute pi takes over the universe – is this an SF scenario?
  • So, 332, summary. Algorithms may know us better than we know ourselves.
  • 334.7, “People will no longer see themselves as autonomous beings running their lives…” [[ really? Why not? Most people today see themselves in the context of ancient religions… ]]
  • Algorithms need not be perfect, only better. Medical devices; health monitors. Angelina Jolie and her genetic test. In theory, if Google monitored all emails, it could detect flu epidemics more quickly than ever. 23andm3; Google’s life advance 342.
  • The system will know you better. Would elections become obsolete? [[ again, can’t imagine this actually happening ]]
  • Through our interaction with google and Fb, we are giving away our lives for free.
  • 346, Waze, and driving system. What if it goes from being an oracle, to a sovereign – that is, it *runs* all traffic to best efficiency?
  • Similarly, Cortana, and Siri, and Amazon recommendations, and Kindle’s statistics.
  • And yet, these devices are subject to attacks…
  • 351, Third threat: that a group of elites might emerge. We already have huge income inequality; what if real gaps of physical and cognitive abilities emerge?
  • The age of the masses may be over, and thus the idea of equality or civil rights for all.
  • What new ideologies might emerge?

Ch10, the Ocean of Consciousness

  • The new religions will emerge from labs, e.g. in Silicon Valley. Two alternatives: techno-humanism, or data religion.
  • The first uses technology to upgrade humanity to achieve the humanist goals.
  • 358, The gap between our perceptions and mental states, with all those possible – the spectrum; the “vast ocean of alien mental states”. Psychology has only closely studied sub-normatives and WEIRD (i.e. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, especially psychology students themselves. Yet many exotic mental states may be unique, as in primitive cultures. [[ really?? Never seen any suggestion why this might be so, only cf Haidt about cultural attitudes ]]
  • Thus we can’t know how Neanderthals thought, let alone bats, or other animals.
  • We’ve lost some of our earlier senses. ‘Positive psychology’ tries to explore not damaged minds but prosperous minds. Our sense of smell is no longer so important; we’re not so attentive as in the past; we dismiss insights from dreaming.
  • Yet attempts to explore these senses might *downgrade* humans…
  • 368, So do we listen to our inner voices, or control them? We can do that through chemicals – drugs that calm nerves and so on. Yet doesn’t this violate the humanist first commandment? 370t, to listen to oneself? That is, what is the authentic self? Where do we peg the nail of authentic self?
  • It’s the humanist dilemma. And so what could replace desires and experience? Information.

Ch11, The Data Religion

  • The idea of ‘dataism’ is the result of Darwin and Turing – biology and computer science. There’s no longer a chain from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. The idea that biology is about data is now scientific dogma, 373.8
  • It’s seen in the dynamic between central vs distributed data-processing, i.e. communism vs capitalism. The former failed, e.g. Lysenko, because it couldn’t deal with change as well as the latter.
  • 378, Where has all the power gone? Political systems can’t keep up with technology, e.g. the internet. Thus voters selected Brexit, etc.
  • Thus, currently, no politicians have grand visions. As if they are leaving everything for the market to decide.
  • And yet, of course, market forces cannot address global warming, or the threat of AI, 382t.
  • So what might emerge? p383, history in a nutshell, as:
    • 1, increasing number of processors;
    • 2, increasing the variety or processors;
    • 3, increasing the number of connections between processes; and
    • 4, increasing the freedom of movement along existing connection.
  • And then a sketch of history along these four methods. What is the output? The internet of all things.
  • 386. Dataism becomes a religion through its values: the flow of information should be free; everything should be linked…
  • This is the first new ‘value’ since 1789.
  • About Aaron Schwartz, who felt information should be free, and hung himself before he was convicted.
  • And so, we have communal cars, and Wikipedia, and how young people these days welcome the connectivity 391.8—“What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it, and if it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?” [[ brilliant, but – isn’t modern technology simply allowing a human tendency that has always existed? And here I am posting these notes on the web! ]]
  • And so: share! Upload! Otherwise nothing has any value, 392b, “We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.”
  • 393, Know Thyself. So this trend is not humanist nor anti-humanist. Music is mathematical patterns.
  • Hollywood pictures about how love defeats aliens; how simplistic; is that the best you can do?
  • Whatever happens, it will take decades, or centuries.
  • Feelings remain as encapsulating millions of years of evolution, 397t—“When you read the Bible you are getting advice from a few priests and rabbits who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow and algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality-control tests of natural selection.” …
  • “Yet in the twenty-first century, feelings are no longer the best algorithms in the world….”
  • And so what are our new guidelines: get a DNA sequence! Monitor your body! Put everything online! Allow Google and Fb to access all your email and posts!
  • Where do these algorithms come from? Some are designed… some emerge.
  • 399, There are critiques. We don’t know how ‘data flows’ produce consciousness; so maybe life is more than data flows. And maybe there’s more to life than decision making. A critical examination of this dogma is in order. But even if it’s wrong, it might still take over.
  • If it does—initially it would promote health, happiness, and power. Eventually though individual humans would become less and less important than the internet-of-everything. Humans may just become another ripple in the data flow.
  • All the ideas in this book are just possibilities, not prophecies. So what should we pay attention to? We need to decide what to pay attention to. In the short term, immigration, refugees. Decades: global warming, inequality.
  • Long term:
    • 1, A scientific dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is data process;
    • 2, Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness;
    • 3, Non-conscious but intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves.
  • Are these valid? What will happen if they are?
Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Human Progress, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

A note about book notes

I’ve always intended to post notes about my reading on this blog. It’s a way of making my reading not just a selfish, personal endeavor, but a way to pass along the my experiences, along with my reactions, to books I find worth reading, to anyone else who might read this blog. (Though in the background, I have in mind certain fam– well, I shouldn’t say that.)

But I read a lot more books than I get around to posting about here. I almost always take detailed notes on my reading, in part because I have a poor memory (unlike eidetic readers like Isaac Asimov, and apparently Gary Westfahl), and in part because I want to capture points, and even specific quotes, for use in my own later projects (i.e. writing my own book). Those notes are far longer than a conventional review, or blog post, and so the impediment to posting about my reading here has been taking the extra time to boil down my notes into a blog post.

I think with the Carl Sagan book I reread last month, I’ve given up on needing that extra step. Instead, I’ll just clean up the notes I’ve taken while reading (more and more, I read books while sitting at the computer and writing notes as I go), create a summary at the top, and post that. So that’s what I did with today post about Harari’s SAPIENS — the most important recent book I haven’t yet blogged about — even though my notes about it are almost 10,000 words long. (And even trying this shortened process, it took 3 hours to review and clean up my notes from 2 years ago and compile a summary at the top.)

I should say that the tipping point, perhaps, was when, in mid-December, John O’Neill of Black Gate asked to repost my EARLY ASIMOV post from my blog here. (I don’t think he reads my blog; he saw my plug for that post on Facebook.) I asked if the format was OK — a somewhat sorted set of summaries, with my comments — or if he wanted a more traditional review. No, he said, he liked my posts as they were. And so it went, and my second post for him was another virtually unchanged summary with comments and conclusions, that for Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

And I’ll continue, over the next few weeks, to capture my readings of books I’ve read in recent years that I think important, and even create a short list of those important titles in the sticky Intro post that appears on the homepage here.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on A note about book notes

Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

This is a history of the human species in the context of “Big History” – the first page sketches the history of the entire universe as a backdrop – and is a history of trends, discoveries, concepts, and ideas, not of wars and conquests and politicians. It’s been a perennial bestseller since its English-language publication in 2015, and seems to have established itself as part of the cultural zeitgeist, much as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel have. Harari has since published two further books, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which I’ll summarize here too.

The prime virtue of this book is that it covers an enormous amount of material about the growth and expansion of our species, using the widest possible perspective, and not getting bogged down by the names and dates of conventional history. Harari likes big ideas. Yet at times he’s overly reductionist in collapsing many ideas into those few big ideas.

Top-level summary:

  • Harari demarks human history by three great revolutions: the cognitive, the agricultural, and the scientific.
  • He echoes Diamond’s assessment of the agriculture revolution as a ‘fraud,’ i.e. not so much a great leap forward as the cause for many of our problems today.
  • A principle theme is the notion of ‘imagined orders’ based on shared myths to build societies larger than small tribes in which everyone knew each other. These are ‘inter-subjective’ ideas like religion, nationalism, and legal system, that depend on the beliefs of many people in the society to sustain them. (E.g. without a shared belief about money, the coins and paper would be valueless.) And that modern society is impossible without them.
  • Between the agricultural and scientific revolutions he traces the history and significant of…
    • Writing, numbers, and hierarchies;
    • Money, empire, and religion.
  • (Opinion: In his discussion of religion his penchant for reductionism becomes problematic, by equating religion with ideologies, like communism, and considering secular philosophies to be ‘humanistic religions’! Thus a lack of worship of gods is, to him, a worship of humanity.)
  • And then he relates:
  • The idea of ignorance and how science admits ignorance and thus allows discovery and progress
  • How science and empire supported each other to allow humanity to expand across the world
  • How economic growth became the trend of history; how this depends on increased productivity, and the discovery of new kinds of energy, and the necessity of consumerism
  • How this threatens the ecology of the planet; how modern life has replaced family and local community with the state and the market, with imagined communities, with the idea that we live with incessant change
  • But how this threatens the ecology of the planet, and how it hasn’t necessarily led to an increase in human happiness.
  • Finally he considers the end of the species, threatened by various kinds of engineered creatures, biological or cybernetic.
  • He concludes: we are powerful as gods, but don’t know where we’re going.

\\\

Detailed summary, with key points bolded and [[ my comments in brackets ]]

Part One, The Cognitive Revolution

1, An Animal of No Significance

  • Book begins with thumbnail recap of history—summarized in timeline, several pages earlier. In this history there are three revolutions: the cognitive revolution, 70Kya (i.e thousand years ago, my abbreviation), the agricultural, 12kya, and the scientific, 500ya.
  • There were humanlike minds 2mya, but those creatures were insignificant on the world stage. Species come in families, and humans used to belong to a family too, i.e. other humans, including the Neanderthals and others, which have become extinct. At one time thousands of years ago there were several such species existing simultaneously; there was no linear progression from one to the next. He calls our species ‘Sapiens’ to emphasize that there were other ‘human’ species.
  • Author doesn’t expect that our species will last another 1000 years, 6b [my abbrev. For page 6 bottom].
  • Our success came from our large brains, and our ability to walk upright. Human babies are born relatively prematurely, 10m, and require years of care, requiring social ties (it takes a village).
  • The earliest tools were likely used to extract marrow from bones of animals killed by other animals; humans were in the middle of the food chain. What changed was the use of fire, which enabled cooking, and reduced the amount of time needed to eat each day.
  • About 70kya we emerged from Africa, to places other human species already resided. Did we interbreed, or replace them? Most favor the second theory, though recent evidence does show that modern humans have some Neanderthal DNA; this has implications for notions of racial equality, but that’s what the evidence shows.
  • What drove those other species to extinction? Were we more resourceful, or simply more violent? Key observation about intolerance toward humans of even slightly different groups, 80.0: “Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group.”
  • What if those other species had survived? How would religion and politics have been different?
  • So why did we prevail? Perhaps language.

[[ Passing thought: is the rejection of evolution, by a large part of the modern population, in part due to distaste at being related to chimps and gorillas—which trigger the same disgust attitude that racists feel when encountering other colors of their own species…? ]]

2, The Tree of Knowledge

  • We acquired our current intelligence by 30K years ago, presumably due to random mutations. This was the Cognitive Revolution.
  • Language is supple, enables gossip, and enables the thinking of things that don’t exist—collective myths, that enabled cooperation.
  • Chimps are highly hierarchical, with an alpha male ruling, and coalitions among members of groups, which typically have 20-50 members each.
  • Our own threshold for groups is about 150 – beyond that, we cannot keep track of inter-relationships. [[ this is a commonly cited psychological limitation; e.g. you may have 500 Facebook friends but most of them you don’t know very well. ]]
  • In order to manage larger groups, humans need common myths—religious, national, and legal.
  • Example: the lion of Peugeot (the car maker), representing the legal fiction of an LLC or corporation.
  • We tell stories and need others to believe them. These aren’t lies, but sincere beliefs. [[ as I’ve long thought, ‘rights’ are simply social agreements, not anything handed down from on high or pre-existing in nature. ]]
  • These are ‘imagined realities’, 31b that come to override genetic dictates. Changing stories can lead to changed behavior. Thus the emergence of childless elites… trade between groups (Neanderthals didn’t trade), cooperative hunting… cultures… and history. It’s our mythical glue that makes all this possible.
  • He summarizes, p39.

[[ This keys with ideas about how religion is *useful*, like nationalism, and perhaps why it should not be disabused? –issue to consider: if every person could recognize all these myths for what they are—would society collapse? What would hold society together? Well, the answer might be, how do freethinkers of various types keep on living? What makes them keep on going? ]]

3, A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

  • We’ve spent almost our entire history as hunter-gatherers, and that has shaped our eating habits and much else; thus now we have obesity because we crave sweets, which used to be rare. There are also suggestions that primitive tribes were communities without monogamy, where children were imagined to have multiple fathers; a ‘commune’ theory, controversial [[ author footnotes the Sex at Dawn book I read some years ago, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, and reviewed here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Views/?p=732 ]]
  • This was how humans lived from roughly 70,000 to 12,000 years ago. They left few artefacts. We can look at modern forager societies for clues – yet these are highly variable. There is/was no single ‘way of life’.
  • Yet these societies generally consist of small bands, of only humans – except, at some point, dogs. Contact between them was rare, and only valuables were traded. Still, slow wandering or spreading of these tribes would have reached China in 10K years.
  • These were the original ‘affluent society’. The earliest settlements were fishing villages along rivers, perhaps 45K ya. Most people had intimate knowledge of the natural world, and led more interesting lives, than people today, who exist in niches of specialty. They worked less. They had high infant mortality. They had a more varied diet, and fewer infectious diseases (which came with settlements).
  • Animistic beliefs were common; these were not a religion, but rather assumptions about individual animals, rocks, etc. Not theism, 55t, which “is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small groups of ethereal entities called gods.”
  • We don’t know much about whether these people lived mostly at peace, or in war. They exist behind a ‘curtain of silence’.
  • What they *did* do was reshape the ecology of the planet.

4, The Flood

  • (Author uses term ‘flood’ to mean how Sapiens spread across the globe and killed off many other species)
  • Early sapiens lived in the Afro-Asian region, while around the world were many independent eco-systems, with different animal species. Sapiens didn’t reach Australia until 45K ya, and quickly became the deadliest species. Soon most large marsupials became extinct. Life there had survived multiple ice ages, and humans didn’t affect sea life, so human cause is virtually certain. This happened around the world; New Zealand, reached only 800 years ago (!).
  • Three reasons: those large mammals or marsupials were slow breeders; humans had fire, and could burn down forests (which is how eucalyptus, formerly rare, thrived and became dominant); and climate change at the time did contribute.
  • The Americans, 16K ya, and the very southern tip of South America by 10K bc. Many species lost, p71.
  • Again and again: Madagascar, 1500ya, Hawaii in 500, NZ in 1200. There were three waves of extinction: the first, by the foragers; the second, by the spread of farmers; the third, by industrial activity today. It may well reach sea life as well.

[[ all of this echoes the big extinctions in Kolbert’s book; in hers everything humans have done is part of her big Six. ]]

Part Two, The Agricultural Revolution

5, History’s Biggest Fraud

  • The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant [middle east]. It developed independently elsewhere, but only certain areas, because so few plant and animals species were amenable to domestication. See map p79.
  • The idea that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity—is a fantasy, p79. In fact, people weren’t more intelligent at the time, and the life of farmers was generally less satisfying than that of hunter-gatherers, and farmers worked harder; it led to population explosions and pampered elites. It was history’s biggest fraud, 79b.
  • The culprits were the plants themselves, esp wheat, rice, and potatoes. The transition was slow; there was no planned series of steps. Wild wheat etc was part of the hunter-gatherer diet. The plants domesticated the humans. To maintain the plants, humans settled into communities, with rises in violence and spread of diseases. (Note violence rates, p82—compare Pinker?)
  • The one benefit was the expansion of the human population, an evolutionary success only in that way, even if their conditions were worse.
  • The luxury trap—as throughout history, people were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions, p86.7. People worked hard, had more children, then had to keep working hard. An iron law of history is that luxuries become necessities, 87b. Thus it was never practical to abandon the settlement and go back to foraging. This is an important lesson…88.
  • P89, possibly there were cultural motivations: evidence has been found of monuments built in 9500 BC by foragers. For some religious purpose? Did building the temple require a village to support it? Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
  • Meanwhile the domestication of animals was underway, especially by breeding docile varieties of sheep etc, managing the young to keep the milk coming, slaughtering the males for food. Ironically, these few species—sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens—number in the billions in today’s world, but live miserable lives. A few other species—dogs, cats, horses—live pampered lives. But again, evolutionary ‘success’ for most came at the cost of misery, p97.

6, Building Pyramids

  • There was no turning back from the agricultural revolution. By the 1st century, there were 1 or 2 million foragers left, and 250 million farmers.
  • With that came a shift in human sensibilities: an attachment to home and neighbors. As late as AD 1400, farmers occupied just 2% of the planet’s surface—the rest was too hot, dry, cold, wet, etc. Most people felt tied down.
  • The farming life entailed concern about the future—seasons, preparing against bad years—with worry and stress.
  • Growing communities brought rulers and elites, including soldiers, priests, artists, and thinkers – “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” 101b.
  • Throughout history wars have more often been triggered by these elites, not by food shortages. The cooperation of large groups required myths to bind them. It turns out mythology was much stronger than fables about spirits and totems. Mighty empires were created when “people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links” 103.3.
  • History: a few hundred people in Jericho, 8500 BC; Anatolia, a town of some 10,000 in 7000 BC; 3100 BC the first Egyptian kingdom in the Nile valley; 2250 BC Sargon’s empire of Akkadia, with a million subjects. By 1000 BC to 500 BC, the mega-empires of the middle east, 103.8. 221BC, the Qin dynasty in China; later the Roman Empire with 100 million subjects.
  • These ‘cooperation networks’ were seldom benign, but they were ‘imagined orders’ based on shared myths.
  • Two examples. In 1776 BC, the code of Hammurabi in Babylon laid out rules for various offenses, p106-7, with examples like “If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye.” The order entailed three classes of people, superior people, commoners, and slaves, and two genders, with different values placed on each combination. Families were hierarchical; children were property of their parents.
  • In 1776 AD, the Declaration of Independence also claimed to be divinely inspired, but with much different tenants: that “all men are created equal” and so on. Both of these declarations were wrong; they reflect no objective reality; they were both imagined realities about universals that exist only in the minds of Sapiens. For example, we can replace the presumptions of the Declaration with what we know about the reality of biology and sociology, and come up with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.” P110.4
  • [[ Of course Harari is being cheeky; what the founders meant wasn’t that all men were literally equal, but they were intended to be treated equally before the law. Or as much as seemed feasible at the time, without the 14th amendment. ]]
  • The point is these imagined orders are *useful*:
  • Quote:
    • We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large members of humans can cooperate effectively.

[[ and my personal theme is that it’s possible to, privately, understand that all these schemes are not objectively true, and that an objective truth about the nature of the universe can be found, is available to be found, and understood ]]

  • At the same time, there needs to be ‘true believers’ in these orders for them to survive; Voltaire: “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.” Natural orders are fragile, prone to collapse if people stop believing. A society can not survive merely by force. Those who lead cannot all be cynics, p112.

[[ this recalls a theme among atheist writers, that perhaps it’s not wise to disabuse people of their beliefs, for the maintenance of social order; and the counter-theme that this is condescending, to think that people are not able to handle the truth. Harari suggests that the social order depends on some kind of myth – if not a shared religious one, then a shared nationalist one, or similar. This is why my project only addressed the individual’s ability to step away from the myths and apprehend reality for what it has been found to be, not any attempt to revolutionize society. ]]

  • So, how do make people believe? First, never admit that the order is imagined, 112b. Educate them from birth in this order. The humanities and social sciences are all about how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life, 113m. There are three factors that keep people from realizing that these orders exist only in their imagination:
  • 1, The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Thus, modern belief in individuality is reflected in modern house’s divisions into individual bedrooms for each child, where they can maintain privacy; this was never true in medieval times.
  • 2, The imagined order shapes our desires. Thus romantic ideals shape both our consumerism, and our desire to travel to exotic locations, a notion expressed in ancient societies by the building of pyramids, in times when travels abroad would have made no sense.
  • 3, The imagined order is inter-subjective. Not objective, like radiation; not subjective, like imaginary friends; but subjective among the larger group, p117, shared by many people. “Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.” 117.
  • To change these imagined orders is difficult, given they might require a change of consciousness of a billion people. “A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organization, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult.” And to change the imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
  • There is no escape. When we break down the walls or a prison and run towards freedom, we are merely running into the more spacious yard of a bigger prison. 118b.

[[ again, you can escape the prison through science, but likely only privately ]]

Ch7, Memory Overload

  • Rules for games allow even strangers to play. As societies grew the rules became too elaborate and complex to be remembered—laws, taxes, etc. Human brains are inadequate: their capacity is limited; they die; they are only adapted for certain kinds of information, p121, e.g. about flora and fauna, and about personal relations among the tribe.
  • And so complex societies required—numbers. Growing societies collapsed if they could not manage the information to manage them.
  • The earliest solution came from the Sumerians, in 3500bc – writing, on clay tablets. Those tablets show accounting records, about who sold what to whom.
  • These early systems of writing were ‘partial scripts’, like math and music notation – systems to record only particular kinds of information. They didn’t capture poetry. The Andeans used knots tied on cords, the quipus, p125.
  • Full scripts came by 2500 BC, in Sumeria, that became cuneiform. The issue then became, how to store and maintain huge amounts of information inscribed on clay tablets? P127. Some cultures did develop methods of storing and retrieving such records; they had catalogues; they had schools for scribes. This entailed developing ways of categorizing, of thinking about the world—free association and holistic thought gave way to compartmentalization and bureaucracy. 130.3.
  • Then came numbers. The ‘Arabic’ numerals were invented by the Hindus. Mathematical notation has become the world’s dominant language (example of equations, p131). They are needed because “With rare exceptions, human brains are simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics.” 131.5
  • Entire fields of knowledge require mathematics.
  • And the extension – the binary script of computers.

Ch8, There is No Justice in History

  • How did humans organize themselves into large mass-cooperation networks, without instincts to do so? They created imagined orders and devised scripts.
  • But these imagined orders were neither neutral nor fair. Thus Hammurabi established classes of people; even the American order created a hierarchy between whites and others, between rich and poor.
  • Ironically, every imagined hierarchy claims its order is natural and inevitable. Ordained by gods; Aristotle’s natures; white supremacist theories. Hindus cosmic forces. All of these are of human origin. Modern Americans are shocked by racial ideas—yet are OK with the hierarchy of the rich and poor, who both get what they deserve, 136m.
  • And yet—complex societies seem to *need* some imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination; there are no known societies that have no discriminations. Hierarchies serve functions; they enable people to know how to interact with others, though social cues.
  • The vicious circle, p138—all hierarchies arose through accidents of history, e.g. the Hindu caste system, from the invasion by the Indo-Aryan people 3000 years ago; thus outcasts == untouchables.
  • 140, Purity in America—Europeans imported slaves from Africa because 1, Africa was closer than, say, Asia; 2, there was already a slave trade in Africa itself; and 3, Africans were partially immune to the malaria and yellow-fever that plagued the plantations. And then religious and scientific myths were created to justify it. These myths remained even after the slaveholders gave up, in a vicious circle of cause and effect; Jim Crow laws; see diagram p143.
  • 144, He and She—every society has a hierarchy that divides men and women, and almost everywhere men prevail. Girls are thought unlucky; wives ‘belong’ to their husbands. Is this an imagined system, or why is it so widespread? Is there a biological basis? Similar concerns about homosexuality, p146, which has been perfectly fine in some societies. Rule is: biology enables, culture forbids. Whatever is possible, is by definition natural p147.2. The idea of the unnatural comes from Christian theology, with its ideas about the purpose of each limb and organ. In fact, organs have evolved to perform many functions; evolution has no purpose. Mouths, wings, sex organs.
  • 148, Sex and Gender—are different things; diagram p149. Standards of masculinity have varied; compare Louis XIV to Obama, p150-1. Gender is serious business; men must prove themselves their whole lives.
  • 152, What’s So Good About Men?—so why are men preferred? Many theories, none satisfactory. Because men are stronger? This is true only on average; and social power doesn’t depend on muscle power. Because men are more aggressive? But again, the lower classes are more often employed to fight, while the upper classes stay at home. Because of differing reproduction strategies? P157. Men are more ambitious; women more choosy. Yet other species are matriarchal, as in elephants and bonobos. Humans are a cooperative species; why then don’t more cooperative women lead the way? So we don’t know the answer to this. We do know that gender roles have changed greatly in recent decades: women can vote, hold high offices; homosexuality now taken for granted.

Part III: The Unification of Mankind

Ch9, The Arrow of History

  • A century ago it was thought different cultures were unchanging, each with its own essence. Now it’s the opposite: cultures are in constant flux. All manmade orders are packed with internal contradictions, e.g. Christianity and chivalry in medieval Europe; freedom and equality now, with the battle between Democrats (more equality) and Republicans (more freedom). This cognitive dissonance drives cultural change; it’s an asset, 165.
  • 166, the spy satellite—history does have a direction, when seen from on high: small simple cultures coalesce into bigger and more complex cultures. History is moving relentlessly towards unity, 166b. thousands of years ago there were many separate human worlds. By 1450, there were five: the whole Afro-Asia world; the Mesoamerican world; the Andean world; the Australian world; and the Oceanic world, map p169.
  • Today we all follow the same geopolitical system, the same economic system, the same legal system, the same scientific system, 168b. The foods we think of as ethnic are really imported from elsewhere, 170t. Indians adopted horses from Europeans.
  • 170 the global vision—homo sapiens evolved to distinguish between us and them. Now we are shifting to a universal order, driven by three universal orders: the monetary order; the imperial order; and the order of universal religions. These are the next three chapters.

Ch10, The Scent of Money

  • When Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, the locals didn’t understand his interest in gold, to them a useless metal. When coins became common, they were exchanged with tolerance for the varieties of opposing sides.
  • 174, how much is it?—small tribes bartered; as larger cultures allowed specialization, the barter system was impractical, e.g. p176. The largest barter experiment, the Soviet Union’s, failed miserably.
  • 177, shells and cigarettes—money was created many times in many places. Money is anything to mark an exchange, not just coins and banknotes; cowry shells were used, cigarettes are used in modern prisons. And now money resides on computer servers. It’s a way to store wealth, where some kinds of wealth cannot be moved, e.g. real estate.
  • 180, how does money work?—it works by trust, in the figments of collective imagination; money is the most universal and efficient system of mutual trust ever devised, 180.6. Early money had intrinsic value, e.g. barley. Later the shekel (mentioned in the Bible) is a standard 3 oz. weight of silver. Coins came in 640 BC, with ID marks and a stamp of authority. They didn’t have to be weighted. Roman denarius became the dinars of many cultures. Once one group believed in the value of gold, or any money, it spread automatically to other groups, based on common belief.
  • 186, two universal principles: convertibility, and trust.
  • Some things are ‘priceless’ like honor and loyalty, which is why certain things can’t be done, like selling one’s child. But money keeps working its way into everything. And it comes to be valued for itself, turning the world into a heartless marketplace. Money itself isn’t enough to explain the world….

Ch11, Imperial Visions

  • An empire like Rome could be defeated in battle, if it kept winning the war. They responded to Numantia by starving them, a story that became enshrined in myth and Spanish culture—ironically.
  • 190, what is an empire?—it rules over a significant number of distinct peoples, and it has flexible borders and an unlimited appetite, constantly acquiring new territories. Other factors, like its origin, form of government, etc., are not relevant.
  • 191, evil empires? – we now regard empires as evil. But they work, and the argument that it’s somehow immoral for one group to rule over another is problematic, because history is constant stream of empires, one take over by another, lasting for centuries. And they exploit conquered peoples by enabling artists and other elites. Today’s world is a legacy of empires, 194t.
  • 194, it’s for your own good—the first empire was the Akkadian Empire of Sargon, c2250 BC. It didn’t last long, and was subsumed by the Persian empire by 550 BC, whose attitude was that being part of an empire is for a nation’s own good. Other imperial visions, 196b, presumed legitimate authority from heaven, to rule over all for the good of all. The Quin of China.
  • 197, When they became us—empires have brought together smaller diverse cultures, entailing standardization and legitimacy, and a sense of a large family of common people, sometimes including barbarians who needed to be converted to the one true faith in a moral imperative, 198b. Examples.
  • 202, Chart of the ‘imperial cycle’—empire established; its culture adopted by subject peoples; they demand equal status in the name of those values; the empire’s founders lose their dominance; the culture continues to flourish and develop.
  • 204, Good guys and bad guys in history—it’s tempting to label the emperors as bad, but we all derive from imperial legacies. There are no pure authentic cultures. Would the Indians want to abandon the legacy of British rule—democracy, English, the railways, etc.? There is no dividing the world into good and bad.
  • 207, The new global empire—now, nationalism is losing ground; more people feel part of all humankind. Then why not a global government? The problems of the modern world cannot be solved by any one nation.

[[ ironically things have backslid a bit since he wrote this ]]

Ch12, The Law of Religion

  • Description of the holy Ka’aba in Mecca. P210:
    • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
  • So religion is “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” This entails both this superhuman order, and that this order establishes norms and values that are binding. Thus football is not a religion, and beliefs in ghosts and fairies are not a source of moral standards, and are not a religion.
  • To unite peoples, a religion must espouse a *universal* superhuman order, and it must spread this belief: both universal and missionary. Many ancient religions were local and exclusive. The universal and missionary religions appeared in the first millennium BC.
  • 211, Silencing the lambs—the earliest beliefs involved animism, the idea that every animal and rock represented some kind of spirit. [[ Author doesn’t address the psychological source of these beliefs, i.e. agency detection. ]] These were very locale-specific. The agricultural revolution made plants and animals into property, creating a problem. The answer: gods. Ancient mythology often involves a contract with these gods for mastery over plants and animals—see Genesis. Recall animal sacrifices. [[ recall Equus: a thousand ‘local gods’ ]]. This development raised the status of humans.
  • 213, The benefits of idolatry—some of these polytheistic religions nevertheless identified a single power or law. Greeks had a head god. Hindus identified Atman. The principle here was that this supreme power has no interest in human wants and desires. Whereas the lower gods with partial powers can be dealt with. Polytheistic religions rarely persecute heretics, or tried to convert subjects. The local gods of conquered people were fine.
  • Except for the Christians under Rome, who refused to pay respect to the divinity of the emperor, 215b. Thus the Romans treated them as a subversive faction, though in 300 years only a few thousand Christians were killed, compared to the millions killed by fellow Christians over the next 1500 years. Especially in wars between Catholics and Protestants, in disagreement about the nature of Christ’s love, p216, gruesome examples.
  • 217, God is one—some followers of polytheistic gods came to believe that their own particular patron was the only god, the supreme power, but moreover that he did have interest in humans and could be bargained with. “Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war.”
  • The first was that of Akhenaten, c 350 BC, whose worship of Aten was abandoned after his death.
  • Others remained marginal, like Judaism, who believed the supreme power’s interest was only in their tiny Jewish nation.
  • The breakthrough was Christianity, who believed Jesus of Nazareth was their messiah, and who leader Paul of Tarsus reasoned that this news should be spread to the entire world. “In one of history’s strangest twists, this esoteric Jewish sect took over the mighty Roman Empire.” 218t.
  • This served as the model for Islam, in the 7th century. “In an even stranger and swifter historical surprise it managed to break out of the desert of Arabia and conquer an immense empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India.” [[ this would have to be because of the appeal of such a belief to human nature… obviously not because of any actual evidence from the real world. ]]
  • Monotheists have been more fanatical and missionary than polytheists, part of their mission being to exterminate all rival religions. It worked. Monotheistic religions spread across the globe, by the end of the first millennium and by today, outside East Asia.
  • And yet, the idea of monotheism doesn’t always settle well. Thus Christians have their patron saints, each one to watch over this country or that specialty—an analog to the polytheistic gods, sometimes the same old gods in disguise, 220.
  • 220, The battle of good and evil—and there were dualistic religions, which claimed two opposing powers: good and evil, that the universe is a battlefield between two forces. This explained the famous Problem of Evil.
  • Yet it begs the problem of order: if there are two forces, who created this set-up and what are the rules? 221m. Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil; dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. One possible answer: there’s one single omnipotent God, but He’s evil.
  • An early example of dualism was founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra) by 1000 BC. Later, Gnosticism and Manichaeanism. The latter creed rivaled Christianity for dominance of the Roman Empire, but lost.
  • Yet dualism survived; belief in the Devil or Satan are now commonplace, though such claims are not to be found in the Old Testament. Humans believe in logical contradictions. Another dualistic concept led to the distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. Why, if all was created by God? Led to the belief in the dualist heaven and hell—again, though not in the OT.
  • “The average Christian believes in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.” 223m
  • 223, The law of nature—there have been other religions, that do not focus on gods, creeds which think a superhuman order is a product of natural laws; if there were gods, they too were subject to those laws. The prime example is Buddhism, whose central figure was a young prince who, around 500 BC, reflected on suffering and realized that people are never content. He meditated for six years and realized the problem was in the human mind, and the solution is to simply understand things as they are, and avoid suffering through practices of meditation, achieve a state of contentment and serenity known as nirvana. “…the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is” 226b.
  • Still, most Buddhists don’t attain nirvana and continue to worship various gods, 227.7… many Buddhas and bodhisattavas. [[ so the belief in gods has some root in human nature, the idea of deferring to authority perhaps? Parents? ]]
  • 228, The worship of man—the last 300 years has seen growing secularism, but not if you consider ‘natural-law religions’. These are liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism. These are usually called ideologies, not religions, but they all entail belief in a superhuman order. [[ Here his conflation of religion with ideology, and calling a non-religion a religion, becomes annoying. ]]
  • Thus communists believe the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, et al. It has its holy script, Das Kapital. It has its holidays.
  • Author admits this line of reasoning is dicey, p229. [[ Yup. ]]
  • These modern creeds are also syncretic: a typical American is a nationalist, a capitalist, and a liberal humanist, p230t. More on these later.
  • Humanist religions worship humanity 230m (!???); the world and all other beings exist solely for our species. [[ Nope; humanists merely deny any supernatural order superseding human values, which isn’t the same thing at all. ]]
  • There are three sects, depending on the definition of humanity.
  • There is liberal humanism, in which the quality of individual humans is paramount; its priority is human rights; it reflects monotheist beliefs about eternal individual souls.
  • Socialist humanism, that believes humanity is a collective, that equality is the priority; it also reflects monotheistic beliefs in the idea that all souls are equal before God.
  • And evolutionary humanism, which believes humankind is a species that can evolve or degenerate. The most famous representatives are the Nazis, who prioritized the Aryan race as the finest, against degradation by other races or by the infirm. Their ideas have been debunked, but similar ideas survive; thus racist laws have persisted. They emphasized what they thought was the struggle for survival, 235-6.
  • And now today ideas about projects to upgrade humans are back in vogue. Life sciences have undermined belief in eternal souls, but this recognition has not filtered down to our laws or political science, 236e.

[[ The end of this chapter is extremely problematic in that author thinks deference to human values is ‘worship’. No no no no no. It’s realism, the recognition that there are no gods to worship, that humans are able to establish their own values. At best his descriptions are analogies. Furthermore it’s increasingly recognized by ‘humanists’ of various shades (and not by folks who think that God is in charge) that it’s not true that “the world and all other beings exist solely for our species” because acting like they do will destroy the planet, and thereby humanity. ]]

[[ I note that conservatives in the US treat the constitution as a kind of holy script, and the founders as some kind of infallible gods. This is again a reflection of a certain kind of thinking; a psychological matter. ]]

[[ p236, might be worth exploring how natural selection, the ‘struggle for survival,’ isn’t about weeding out the weak; the process preserves almost everyone. The process is about responding to changes in the environment, mostly. ]]

Ch13, The Secret of Success

  • What can we saw about why the world exists as it does, rather than some other way?
  • First, the Hindsight Fallacy. Why did Rome choose Christianity, when there were so many other options? Some have come up with deterministic explanations – about geography, genetics, or economy [[ pretty sure he’s alluding to Jared Diamond here ]] – but in fact the future is always a fog; the iron rule of history is that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time, 239.2.
  • And it’s easy to imagine alternate scenarios. But history cannot be predicted; it’s chaotic. And history is a Level Two chaotic system—it reacts to predictions about it. [[ well this is why Hari Seldon kept his predictions secret! ]]
  • Then why study history? Precisely to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, 241m.
  • Second, Blind Clio. History’s choices are not made for the benefit of humanity. There’s no reason to believe that the way things turned out was for the best. The victors always believe their definition of good is the correct one.
  • But maybe cultures are ideas that spread at the *expense* of their hosts, an idea variously called memetics [[ after Richard Dawkins’ ‘memes’ ]] , or in post-modernism ‘discourses’, or game theory, e.g. arms races.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

Ch14, The Discovery of Ignorance

  • Things have changed more in the past 500 years than over any comparable time before that; since then we’ve circumnavigated the earth, landed on the moon, become aware of micro-organisms, and become able to end history, with atomic bombs.
  • This process, the scientific revolution, entailed the realization that life was not static, that new discoveries could be made that improved the human condition. The feedback loop involved resources to do research, research that provided new powers, and powers that provided new resources. P250 How did the bond between science, politics, and economics emerge?
  • 250, Ignoramus. First by the willingness to admit ignorance; then the centrality of observation and mathematics; and then using new theories to acquire new powers.
  • This is contrast to the scriptures, which were assumed to possess all-encompassing wisdom; anything they excluded (like details about how spiders built their webs) was irrelevant. Anyone who suspected that religious traditions were ignorant of important things… were treated as heretics. Modern science allows for collective ignorance on such issues. “The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.” 253.4 But doesn’t this undermine the shared myths that enable society? There are two responses. First, simple declare some theory to be true—as the Nazis and communists did. Second, declare a non-scientific truth and live with that, as liberal humanism does.
  • 254, The scientific dogma. There is no dogma; there is always the possibility of completely new knowledge. Traditional rules were told as stories. Science resorts to math, and when calculus didn’t work, statistics were developed, at first by life-insurance people, to identifies trends where uncertainties prevails in individual cases. P256, in 1744. These techniques were so useful they changed education, making math something no longer for elites.
  • 259, Knowledge is power. Yet most people find math hard, because its finding often defy common sense. [[ key point ]] 259.4 Science and technology only became aligned only by World War I, with aircraft, poison gas, etc p261. In the past, military advantages were organization; it didn’t occur to general to search for new technology.
  • 264, The ideal of progress. Yet most societies have thought the golden age was in the past; that progress was not possible. Stories taught about the dangers of human efforts; lightning; poverty. [[ p264, note how progress moves beyond the idea that human efforts are fruitless, or evil ]]
  • 266, The Gilgamesh project. The most ancient problem is that of death: Gilgamesh follows his best friend into the underworld, and emerged persuaded that death was inescapable. But now death is a technical problem, to be solved, 268.2. Examples from the past, how common injuries led to death; child mortality; how many children of Queen Eleanor died before she produced a male heir. And modern religions have lost interest in understanding death. [[ well, that’s because author’s modern ‘religions’ aren’t really religions…. P271 ]]
  • 271, The sugar daddy of science. Science is expensive, and it’s naïve to think that science is funded for any reason other than for some political, economic, or religious goal. Science can’t make such judgements itself, or decide what to do with the results.

Ch15, The Marriage of Science and Empire

  • How far is the sun from the Earth? In the 18th century it was realized this could be determined from transits of Venus, of which there would be two, in 1761 and 1769. So expeditions were sent to far places around the world, including one led by Captain Cook, who used citrus to avoid scurvy. The expedition had both a scientific and a naval mission; he ‘discovered’ Australia, and within a century, many of its natives died, and the Tasmanians were wiped out completely.
  • 278 Why Europe?—Europe was relatively a backwater; the world was dominated by Asia until 1850 or so. But then Europe discovered technology, like railroads, that quickly spread around the world. Why Europe? Modern science, and capitalism.
  • 283, The mentality of conquest—the key factor in the spread of Europe’s science was its imperial mentality. Europeans admitted ignorance; they sought out new knowledge, rather than merely spreading their own view of the world, 284.
  • 286, Empty maps—earliest world maps were full of the known world; by 1525 the Salviati world map had lots of empty space, for lands yet to be explored. The discovery of America was key, because it was aa area unknown to scripture—new knowledge was possible. The European voyages to explore and conquer were unprecedented in world history, p289b. Compare Zheng He’s expedition, which did not try to conquer or colonize.
  • 291, Invasion from outer space—The Aztecs knew of no other world; when they were invaded, it was as if from outer space. Cortes captured Montezuma. Pizzaro used the same strategy for the Inca. China and other nations weren’t interested in the new world. Only in the 20th century did non-European nation adopt a global vision.
  • 297, Rare spiders and forgotten scripts—when Britain conquered India, they studied it (unlike the Muslims before them); they deciphered the cuneiform script, and the languages; these conquerors knew their empires. They identified this as a progressive, altruistic project, thus the ‘white man’s burden’ p301. OTOH some discoveries led to racist theories that later became anathema. These days we don’t speak in terms of race; we talk in terms of cultural purity.
  • Thus science and empire building supported each other, 304.

Ch16, The Capitalist Creed

  • Modern economic history is all about growth—unlike most of history, when the size of the economy stayed the same. To grow, you needed the concept of credit, and the idea that the future would be better. Example about a baker, a banker, etc. The idea that the future would be better was new. The idea that life was a zero-sum game was the reason wealth was considered sinful (in the Bible); to be wealthy meant someone else was deprived, 308b.
  • 310, A growing pie—the scientific revolution brought the idea of progress. Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that greater profits enable businessmen to hire more assistants; thus increase in profits is what drives collective wealth. Greed is good. But it depends on the rich using profits to open new factories, rather than counting their coins like Scrooge. Medieval noblemen gave way to today’s corporate elite, in dreary suits. Economic growth became the supreme good, and became possible through science’s new discoveries every few years. If that bubble bursts, we’d be in trouble.
  • 315, Columbus searches for an investor—Asia was a powerhouse, but did not use much credit. Columbus tried several nations before resorting to Spain. Financial systems became more complex. The Dutch succeeded with credit, by repaying their loans and protecting property rights; while the Spanish fought wars. Example of two sons who invest differently. Famous Dutch joint-stock company was VOC, which drove the conquest of Indonesia, and the settlement of New Amsterdam—New York, when the Dutch lost it. France did the Mississippi Company, for the lower M valley, including New Orleans, but a stock bubble led to a huge crash, which triggered the French Revolution, p324. M/w the British settled North America, and India.
  • 325, In the name of capital—eventually governments did the bidding of companies, as in the first opium war of China, 1840, in which free trade (to sell opium to the Chinese and create millions of addicts) was defended by war. Similarly the UK funded a Greek war with Turkey.
  • 328, The cult of the free market—how much should capital and politics influence each other? Capitalists argue that politics should do nothing—reduce taxation and regulation; this is the most common creed today. Yet this belief is naïve; all markets have some political bias. The job of politics is to protect against cheats and enforce the law—if not, we get the Mississippi bubble, or the 2007 US housing bubble and recession.
  • 329, The capitalist hell—another reason markets shouldn’t have free rein is that monopolies can grow and take over freedom of the employees. Thus the slave trade, driven by markets to supply workers for sugar plantations. The slave trade wasn’t a government operation; it was a free market enterprise, p331. Free markets don’t guarantee that profits are made in a fair way. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed, 331.6.
  • Another example: Belgian Congo, exploited for its rubber, the natives exploited; 6 million died.
  • Capitalism has two answers: first, only capitalists are capable of running the modern world. Second, we need patience for the pie to grow big enough for everyone to have a slice.
  • But can the economy grow indefinitely? What will happen if we exhaust the raw materials and energy of the planet? [[ Still an important question, which is why some thinkers are exploring ideas for sustainability, how societies can thrive without growing indefinitely, like cancer. ]]

Ch17, The Wheels of Industry

  • Answer: the amount of energy and raw materials to be exploited have *increased*. [[ But they can’t increase indefinitely; the planet is finite. ]] Before the Industrial Revolution, humans were unable to convert energy except by muscle power, from plants and from the sun.
  • 336, The secret in the kitchen—one method was staring people in the face: steam. The first steam engines were invented to clear flooded coal mines – after Britain had cut down all their forests—and the coal powered those engines. By 1825 steam locomotives were invented, and people became obsessed by the idea that machines could convert one type of energy to another. Internal combustion engines converted petroleum into power. Then electricity.
  • 339, An ocean of energy—so we keep discovering new sources of energy. This solved the scarcity of raw materials; cheap methods were found to refine aluminum for example.
  • 341, Life on the conveyer belt—productivity swelled, especially in agriculture, with tractors and refrigerators. Even animals became machines, locked into pens or put down conveyer belts to be harvested. This led to the discovery of distress in animals. Now only 2% of the population is involved in agriculture. Increased production raised another problem: who would buy all that stuff?
  • 347, The age of shopping—thus consumerism, a new kind of ethic, replacing the thrift of never throwing anything away, 347. Now we are all good consumers, and products are designed with short-term lifespans. Religious holidays have become shopping days. This holds true in the food market, where ironically obesity is now more of a problem than starvation. And now it’s the rich who invest, and the poor who buy all that stuff they don’t need. Capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin.

[[ of course SF anticipated this in the 1950s, in Pohl et al. ]]

Ch18, A Permanent Revolution

  • And so the population has expanded, and there are few large animals left, part of the ecological degradation that threatens homo sapiens. It’s not that nature is being destroyed—only changed.
  • 352, Modern time—daily life has become aligned with industry. We live by timetables and clocks now. The advent of trains required nationalized time. Which happened in 1880. Everything in our daily life… 355m.
  • 356, The collapse of the family and the community– And this led to the collapse of the family and local community, to be replaced by the state and the market. Most of us no longer live with a nuclear family, an extended family, and a local intimate community. In the old days family was everything, and the community performed favors without payment; government intervention was limited. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense powers—education, police, courts. With this came the notion of being individuals, to do whatever one wants without regard to family or community—the state will take care of you, 359m. [[ This is the state that conservatives want to dismantle. Problem is there’s no going back, without vastly reducing the population. ]]
  • And women and children were recognized as individuals. The cost was weak families and communities, and diminishment of parental authority (to discipline children, etc).
  • 362, Imagined communities—and so now markets provide ‘imagined communities’ of people with common interests, including national identities, and more recently fans of pop stars, or fans of sports teams.
  • 364, Perpetuum mobile—once humans assumed the social order was stable; now it changes so quickly that every year is revolutionary, e.g. how the internet emerged only 20 some years ago, 365t. Now we live with incessant change, with a presumption that things will improve; even conservative politicians don’t strive to return to the past, but at best keep things as they are. [[ well arguably there is some reactionary movement currently. ]]
  • And the past seven decades have been remarkably peaceful…
  • 366, Peace in our time—we forget how violent the world used to be. Deaths from wars are far fewer than from car accidents, etc. [[ recalls Pinker ]]. This decline is due to the rise of the state [[ that conservatives want to dismantle ]].
  • 368, Imperial retirement—and so the empires gradually retired—the British, the French, the Soviet. They went away peacefully.
  • 370, Pax atomica—there are few international wars; countries don’t invade each other much anymore (examples 370). Humans have broken the law of the jungle, 371.5. The price of war is too high, with the threat of nuclear annihilation. And profits have declined from invading other countries. Intellectual wealth can flee. Peace is more profitable. The elites see war as evil. And there is positive feedback among these four forces. The result is most countries are no long truly independent—they are inter-dependent on each other, 374m.
  • Thus we are witnessing the formation of a global empire, which effectively enforces world peace.
  • But is this a genuine trend, or could we swing back toward war and destruction? We could go either way.

Ch19, And They Lived Happily Ever After

  • Summary. But are we happier? Such questions are rarely studied. The assumption might be that as our capabilities increase, alleviating miseries, we become happier (the progressive account). Or, is it that evolution shaped us as hunter-gatherers, and the modern world takes us far away from that environment, away from Eden? P478. Both are oversimplifications.
  • While it’s true that the last few decades have been a golden age, 379t, perhaps our timeframe is too narrow. And we are ignoring looming ecological havoc, and the harm we cause to other animals.
  • 380, Counting happiness—what makes people happy? Surveys have been done. Money does buy happiness—but only to a point. And illness reduces happiness, but only to a point. Beyond these points people readjust. Family and community help. But the most important finding is that happiness is relative—it depends on subjective expectations of objective conditions. 382b. It’s about expectations.
  • Mass media and advertising erode satisfaction (example of football star marketing underwear, p385). And this suggests that immortality would bring about rage among those who could not afford it.
  • 385, Chemical happiness—we don’t stay happy for very long; there’s no evolutionary advantage in staying happy, and the pleasure of sex quickly subsides; if it did not, males would be uninterested in anything else, 386b.
  • Different people do have different innate levels of contentment. And these can be adjusted with drugs—like Huxley’s soma. What would be wrong with that?
  • 390, The meaning of life—people often say what makes them happy is doing something meaningful, e.g. raising a child, which is hard work. Kahnmann. Thus the faithful might be very happy, and a faithful person from the middle ages might have been just as happy. 391.6: “So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they?” And yet as far as we can tell, there is not purpose or cosmic plan (that is, those beliefs are delusions). So does happiness depend on self-delusion?
  • 392, Know thyself—they idea that people know their own happiness is a liberal idea, because liberalism sanctifies individuals. Whereas religions held that objective standards to be met, that individual desires were irrelevant or sinful. Modern geneticists point out that DNA is about promoting genes, and happiness is irrelevant.
  • Buddhism has studied ideas of happiness and reached different conclusions: that the problem is suffering and wanting, and the solution is to understand these feelings and stop craving them. The ideal is serenity. Western cultures have turned these insights upside down: “Happiness Begins Within” 395b, what we feel inside. This is the opposite of Buddhism.
  • So perhaps the issue isn’t whether people are fulfilled and enjoy pleasant feelings. Perhaps the question is whether people know the truth about themselves. Do people today understand this truth better than the ancients? Most history has ignored this theme.

[[ and of course the answer is YES, at least for some people – those who study reality and try to understand it, i.e. scientists and philosophers, and likely NO for the vast majority who live their lives in the ancient human roles. And this is perhaps my ultimate PvC: it’s all about understanding reality outside the bubble of merely being human. ]]

Ch20, The End of Homo Sapiens

  • Now the in the 21st century we are beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. Scientists are engineering creatures, like a green rabbit. This may be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth, 399.4. This process could happen three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; engineering inorganic life.
  • 399, Of mice and men—People have been doing this for millennia—castrating bulls. But now we can grow an ear on a mouse. We can transfer genes from one creature to another.
  • 402, The return of the Neanderthals— we might revive extinct animals, or even Neanderthals. Or we could redesign sapiens, despite ethical concerns; the changed species might no longer be sapiens.
  • 404, Bionic life—cyborgs from animals or humans. Replacement limbs. Brain computer interfaces. (lots of sf ideas here) again, the results might no longer be human.
  • 408, Another life—computer viruses, that mutate on their own. Is this life? What if human brains were backed up to a hard drive?
  • 409, The singularity—mapping DNA. The issue of rights arises—could companies discriminate based on DNA traits? Most SF [movies] depict humans like us in the far future with fast spaceships, 411t, but the real potential is changing the species itself.
  • 411, The Frankenstein prophecy—Frankenstein created a monster; the lesson is that if we try to play god, we’ll be punished. But we are nearly able to do that now. We find comfort in that story because we like to think we are the best of all beings, that nothing can be better. But we may need to decide, what do we want to become? This will dwarf all current problems. The real question may be, what do we want to want? 414e

Afterword: The Animal that Became a God

  • 415. summary. We remain unsure of goals; nobody knows where we’re going. Yet we are powerful as gods. “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want”?

[[ The final chapter echoes Wilson, in THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, that humanity is on the verge of transforming itself. ]]

Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Human Progress, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)