Categotry Archives: Hypothetically Speaking


They Showed Us Our Past

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, Primary Sources, Tags: , ,

When we found them, we were not thinking of our history, even while we were watching theirs.

We were thinking of visitation, of proof of life, of how similar or different they were from us. We were thinking of little green men and ominous grays and the slim possibility that the similarity in their planetary structure might mean similarity in species structure as well. Maybe Star Trek would be proven right after all, that the greatest variation would be in skin color or pointiness of forehead, that something ape-like would win the evolutionary struggle on every sphere, if only to reaffirm our perceived inevitability. We were not prepared for the victory of their cephalopods or cetaceans or proboscideans, much less the co-existence of all three. We were not prepared for how long or how carefully they had been watching us.

We wanted them to show us our future, to show us possibilities. To show us solutions for problems we had not solved, to show us the way forward, to show us how to get to other planets and survive and thrive, to live long and prosper, to be fruitful and multiply among the stars. Instead, they showed us our past.

It turns out the speed of light is an absolute barrier after all. There would be no real-time two-way street, no communication that built relationships between live members of contrasting planets forty light-years across the universe. We opened with a simple hello and it was eighty years before we got hi back and by that time the first hello’s author was on her deathbed in a beepy antiseptic corner with barely the muscles left to smile. And it’s not like they were all living to four-hundred over there, that was one of the lessons that was slow to sink in, that lifespan is meant to be finite, that something else always gets you in the end, that appreciating what you’ve been given requires not always ungratefully trying to negotiate the terms. But that came later, much later, after the videos.

The realization first occurred to us when we realized that the forty-year lag-time meant they were watching our past in real time while we watched theirs. We quickly surmised that the opportunity of space travel, of interstellar communication if not physical relocation, was actually a question of time travel. Until we could summon a craft ready to traverse forty years into the unknown with no hope of return, we would have to settle for the slow and unsettling dialogue. It actually took us about a hundred and sixty years to realize we could send questions rapid-fire, that we didn’t actually have to wait for a response before sending a follow-up question, that we could bombard them with inquiries in the hopes that they would respond in turn. I wish I could say this was borne from ingenuity, but it was much more that eighty years after hi back, the second response was somewhere between “what?” and “I don’t understand.” And we just got fed up and greedily asked them to send us blueprints for their faster-than-light ships, which of course they didn’t have. But if we kept our inquiries short and declarative, they could respond in sequence and then, at least for the next generation, there would be news from beyond every day.

By the time they got around to asking whether we would like to see our past, their existence had been inculcated as both a regular part of life and a mammoth disappointment. We had spent so long imagining interstellar space travel that we’d assumed this would immediately follow contact with them, especially when it was immediately obvious that they were more advanced than we were. Which made it all the more surprising that it took them centuries to reveal the quality of their telescopes, the sophistication of their listening devices. But of course, they were smarter and more experienced. They knew it would take time to build up to the idea of viewing the reality of what they’d been watching all along. Turns out the prime directive, while not an absolute, was going in sort of the right direction. It is up to the weaker, less intelligent “civilization” to do the asking, to initiate. There’s too much potential for abuse the other way.

Before we knew about the recording device, when they threw in some idle commentary about when we sent the message or we asked them about things that were half a lifetime ago to the recipients, some of our philosophers got excited about what could be seen through this reflected lens. If we could ever, however frustrating it might be, make contact with species a hundred, two hundred, five hundred light-years away, then we could dip our oars deeper into the tide of what came before. Think of the possibilities! they declared. Imagine what we could learn. No longer would victors write the history books, for the books would write themselves, in technicolor video no less. Of course, the sad irony was that whenever contact was initiated and all that came before would be lost to history, to this process. We could only get history, only ask them to reflect our past back to us, once were dialoguing.

That, of course, proved to be untrue. It presumed that we were the more advanced tribe, that no one had been watching all along.

Their picture was incomplete, of course. They did not have ships just offshore from our atmosphere, hovering in some sort of invisible orbit. They did not have anyone anywhere close. They were locked into their fixed relative perspective, only a particular angle on our planet from the ships in their own star system. But oh, the rotation of planets! Every hour, we would show them a new face, a new vantage full of people and struggle and mistakes and triumphs. It was almost enough to make us believe that there was purpose, real intent behind the rotation of planets. That they spun to ensure that from any angle, everything could be seen.

It was not everything, of course. It was not an on-demand library of every event in history. For the first few centuries, in fact, they couldn’t even penetrate buildings. It was only the outdoor events that were recorded, only the declarations in full view of the sun that made it to the archive. It was enough, though, to get the gist. It always was. It turns out what mattered to us most was not the speeches whose memory still imperfectly trickled to our contemporary collective imagination, not the battles and names we’d grown up studying. It was the way we were, writ large, the toiling in the fields and the minor atrocities of daily living. An anonymous rape in a back alley. A botched robbery on a lonely dirt highway. The distribution of smallpox blankets at a formal trading session.

For a long time, we’d known and internalized that witnessed horror held so much more sway than mere described horror. That the thrall of the camera, much less with audio, created a truth we could not bear to deny or resist. We were wholly unprepared for the impact of this reality applied to a history before we’d invented our own means of recording.

It is vital to stress that they offered this with utmost neutrality. There were a mirror, not a documentary filmmaker. They showed us garden weddings and spontaneous beachside births as well, we were awash in humanity’s humanity as well as its inhumanity. But the overall message was somehow clearer than our own extensive efforts to self-monitor, to spread surveillance to every corner of our own little sphere. Someone is watching. Someone has always been watching. Someone far smarter sees what you are doing and so might your grandchildren’s grandchildren.

No longer was history a mere abstraction, something to be reframed and repainted. It was something living and breathing, in better quality than we could produce ourselves, even after its precarious journey across the empty echoes of space.

It made us take our present more seriously, as we pictured it re-refracted through the rebound from our newest neighbors, offered to our descendants with quiet condemnation, a condemnation made all the quieter for arriving without commentary. We could no longer use past precedent as a justification. It was future understanding we needed to appeal to.

We wanted them to send us blueprints for overcoming mortality and the speed of light. Instead, they showed us our past. And it was the only way we could finally learn how to build a brighter future. Not one of eternal life or instant travel. But one, more vitally, that future generations could be proud of. Or at least less ashamed.


It’s Not Fermi

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: ,


The other day, I was talking online to someone with whom I disagree about everything about the Fermi Paradox. “Talking online” here, as used, is a euphemism for “commenting on each other’s Facebook posts”. The Fermi Paradox wrestles with the consternating observed reality that while the universe mathematically must be simply teeming with intelligent life, we haven’t found any yet. Why is this the case?

Said person pointed me in the direction of the so-called Great Filter, which says that one of the nine steps necessary for widespread intelligent intergalactic contact must be missing. Which seems pretty bogus given that most of the things they think might be missing are things like star-systems with conventionally considered habitable planets (which are everywhere) or cellular life. This last always strikes me as a failure in imagination – just because we are cellular life, why would all life be cellular? We reproduce sexually, but not even all life we observe does that. Why would anything we observe locally be a universal in a universe so big we literally can’t even fathom it?

Regardless, the one that I might buy in the Great Filter is that the universe is unexplorably huge. This is one of two arguments that resolve the Fermi Paradox that I find pretty compelling. And as a believer in an intentionally designed universe, I do think that many (all?) planets are left in deliberate isolation so that they can’t interfere with each other, which also plays into my belief about reincarnation on different planets (never the same one twice), which could conceivably get awkward if the planets were mixing and matching. It’s worth noting that our understanding of the speed of light as an upper limit on travel has never really been breached, despite our desire to hypothesize wildly infeasible solutions to the problem. Which kind of explains how people can believe that just buying a new kind of lightbulb will solve global climate change, not, y’know, the death of capitalism and nothing short of that.

After all, if I were going to design a planet with the intent to convey that it is both part of a vast and larger whole, but that said whole was not to distract them from solving problems at home, what better way than to show them the stars but not let them get very far into them? So that their imagination could conceive that much more and greater than themselves was out there, but that running away was not the way to fix things? If you have a better way of demonstrating that, let me know.

The other solution I’m drawn to, of course, is the so-called Zoo Hypothesis, which states that we are under deliberate quarantine and observation by some individual or confederation of alien life. This actually kind of fits pretty well with the unbridgeable distances idea – we’re not meant to get out and about just yet, until we meet certain standards of decency (that old thorny issue of not beating each other about the head and torso comes to mind). It’s kind of funny that we can envision the Prime Directive as a standard for a hypothetical Star Trek, but be less inclined to think we would be subject to this law as applied by a more advanced star fleet patrolling the galaxy. Of course, they never really honor said Directive in Star Trek and we humans have real trouble imagining anything more advanced than we are being possible (a sick sort of extension of American Exceptionalism, really), so maybe we never really spend a lot of time seriously engaging with the real notion of leaving species alone until they figure things out to a certain level for themselves. It’s important to note that I don’t think this means the people raving about abductions and even crop circles are accurate – quarantine would mean actually quarantined under the auspices of a civilization sufficiently advanced to get here and put that protocol in place. The red-line I envision being somewhere about three solar-system-lengths out – surely observation technology would be sufficiently advanced by that point. Unless we’re the only intelligent species that thinks sophisticated surveillance is an important technological advancement.

But the needly one that everyone seems most drawn to as an answer to the Fermi Paradox is that we all kill ourselves before we can get very far. This was a really popular pick during the Cold War, for obvious reasons, and is resurging in trendiness as we face climate change and terrorism and the relaunch of Full House on television. And it’s one that I don’t find terribly compelling, if for no other reason than our own shortcomings in imagination again (we really think we represent the smartest species when we mostly apply technology to killing each other?). And then there’s the slightly more interesting offshoot of this, that we entertain ourselves into irrelevance – that about the time we can create compelling VR, we’d rather plug ourselves into that than either venture out of the solar system or solve our actually real problems. (Indeed, perhaps the most compelling argument against us being in a VR simulator right now is that so many of us are so unhappy.)

I have recently discovered the most compelling evidence I can for this sad and fatalistic solution to the Paradox. Apparently, some guy, working alone in a lab (literally), has been experimenting with creating artificial black holes. You know, black holes? Those things that are the most terrifying concept you ever heard of before a Clinton supporter described their vision of Donald Trump? The things that literally swallow everything that crosses their path, including light, never to relinquish it again?

It’s almost like the guy was sitting down one day and contemplating how to cause the most harm possible. Large Hadron Collider? Nah, insulates the chain-reaction too well! Genetically engineer fifty Hitlers? Not dangerous enough! Fracking? Destroys things so slowly! I know, we’ll try to recreate the thing that grows infinitely and eats everything, shrouding it in vanished darkness! What could possibly go wrong?

To be fair, it turns out that he’s only tried to create a sonic simulation of black holes, not the light-eating ones that actually patrol the universe. And it’s only a few microns in size. But given that we basically don’t understand where black holes come from or why and only know that they create unfathomable destruction and chaos, maybe we should consider self-restraint just this one single time? Our insatiable curiosity may be why we became intelligent in the first place, but even a cat knows when to say when by comparison to this. My new leading theory is that all those black holes out there were created by super-smart scientists who had no mental filter whatsoever, living in societies like ours so in love with their shiny new science that they killed philosophy off altogether. We’ll just create a small black hole, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

In the end, hubris is the real killer. It takes enormous strength to decide what we won’t do and stick to it.


Zero Sum Games and Conservativism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

Helpful advice from friendly people... or an offer to trade places?

Helpful advice from friendly people… or an offer to trade places?

I’m working on the budding theory that, if you can afford to quit your job, it may be at least a little immoral to keep it. Unless, I guess, you’re much better at it than someone else would be and it does good for society.

Whenever someone tells someone else “get a job” or says “they should get a job”, you should ask them who they want to stop working in order to make that possible. After all, it’s not like there are a bunch of unfilled job positions lying around out there with no one bothering to apply. If they are upset that someone is on welfare, they should realize that they are just asking that person to trade places with someone else. Who will, you know, be on welfare then.

Unless, of course, that person has enough money that they can get by without welfare. Meaning that they should probably quit and let someone who needs the money take over.

If you don’t believe this, then it’s pretty important to admit that either (a) the idea that one’s survival or quality of life should be tied to the happenstance of having a job is silly or (b) people are fundamentally unequal and those on the bottom rungs deserve to die for it. While many conservatives seem to believe in a dog-eat-dog approach, I don’t think that many will actually say that those who happen to have employment deserve to live more than those who don’t. And while there are safety nets, it’s these nets that conservatives so often rail against as increasing laziness. What it’s actually doing is compensating for the unequal math that ensures there are not enough jobs for everyone.

I guess this raises the fundamental question of what the purpose of a job is. If the job is to fulfill the function of that job, then great. Stop tying it to people’s survival and let the people who are best do those given jobs. If the job is to enable people to eat in exchange for their labor, then they should probably all be distributed to the people who most need to eat.

I guess if we could just directly control the number of jobs in the society, then this would be a little less of a dichotomous and contentious issue. Of course, that’s not really in the plan with all the capitalism and the treating “The Economy” like a mystical weather phenomenon. The economy doesn’t exist, of course. It’s a series of decisions about our society that we’ve ceded to chance. It’s like if we had the option to create a system of weather where none existed before. Bring hurricanes to Kansas, say, or tornadoes to the Bahamas. Just to see if it motivated people a little, or sometimes ruined everything for no particularly good reason. And then we could have a Chief Meteorologist go on TV and say “we’ve decided to raise storm door allotments for Jamaica, just in case they get more tornadoes. Also, we’re going to all start facing west and breathing heavily to deter hurricanes from coming in from that direction.”

I’m being slightly facetious. But probably not as facetious as you think.

What I guess an actual conservative might say is that everyone who can afford to quit their job should do so and start a business and then create more jobs. Except that to actually make statements like that, with all that “should” and moral implication, would probably rankle the conservative’s sense of freedom. I guess this was the point that Ayn Rand was trying to make all along, advocating for the radical freedom to burn the world down just because you’ve exploited the economy sufficiently to be able to corner all the matches and outlaw fire departments. Which I guess would be all right if ability to exploit the economy were some kind of grand test of character or strength or intelligence or worth.

Instead, it’s mostly just a roulette wheel to which we’ve ascribed enormous import. But at a certain point, we all basically agreed to stop even trying to spin it, to just let the thing turn and turn and turn on its own and hope we can sometimes predict its trajectory to angle the ball in the right spot. And meanwhile a few people get 35-to-1 payouts while everyone else is going broke.

At least when you’re standing at the actual roulette wheel, no one tells you to go get a job.

How did we get to this point? I know that fascism was really abhorrent and I know that the people calling themselves communists were mostly fascists, but is the right response really to just make people feel bad for losing a game of musical chairs where the number of chairs is designed to always diminish? Or at best stay stagnant? To have people’s guesses about what is a likely to increase or decrease in value determine every aspect of their quality of life? I mean, really, did anyone think very hard about this system at all?

There’s a way to reel it back in and at least get some control of it. We have to stop talking about the economy like it’s a thing. There are not bad economies or good economies. There are systems which make people thrive and cooperate and build what needs to be built (and avoid building what’s unnecessary). And there are systems which make people fight and cheat and steal and spend a great deal of time and energy on things that are useless. We choose these systems, we design and implement them. It’s when we believe that the systems are choosing us that we have the apex of a problem.

If the economy is bad, maybe it’s because the very notion of an economy is bad and we need to find a new system. And if it’s good, why is it designed to leave some people out, always? And what do you suggest we do with those people? Are you willing to trade places with them because you can afford to? If not, why not? Is this really a system of betterment and improvement of the society or is just about finding an excuse to behave as you might in the wild? A wild beyond our wildest actual observations, with interest rates and stock prices storming over the Sahara like a great tsunami of chaos, ready to wash away anyone and everyone in its wake.


Children of the Future

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are.  If not, they will be soon.

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are. If not, they will be soon.

They will grow up. And they will log in.

The ages will vary and often be the result of a fair amount of debate. For the more liberal parents, it may be five or six, or eight at the latest. More cautious and conservative ones will aim for sixteen, knowing that it will really fall at thirteen or maybe twelve. There’s only so far you can push these things without causing catastrophic backlash. Holding a hard-line for sixteen will work for a handful, but will force the issue at eight or nine for far more. They will head to the social media outlets and they will enter their e-mail address and devise a password and they will see the world.

What they will look for, first, will not be external. Sure, there will be a couple of friends here and there. But the closest friends will mirror those they have in real life, Mom and Dad, Mom and Mom, Dad and Dad, Mom alone, Dad alone, Grandma, what have you. And they will be looking, primarily, not for others, but for themselves. And lo, what they will find.

It is one thing to have a shoebox of baby pictures in the closet, trotted out in embarrassing fashion when close out-of-state family friends come to visit or even the new boy- or girlfriend shows up at the door for the dance. Or even a home video or seven that depict moments that can’t help but be halcyon for the shy squeaky voice they convey across the years, the distorted mirror of one’s past self coming through the lens and onto the screen. But none of this can compare to the daily grinding chronicle of life, replete with commentary and varying levels of approval, that will greet these children of the future when they log in.

There is the birth and there is the next day and there is the stark nakedness of the tub or the first night across the the threshold, the brazen publicity of it all, no matter who this was shared with at the time. This is not Aunt Marge coming over and saying how she saw you when or held you how. This is Aunt Marge and 27 other friends actively seeing you – you – in the bathtub, in damn-near-realtime, liking the experience and asking for more! This is you having lived a life that you know you remember less than others but being painfully aware of just how many strangers were intimately involved in parts of your upbringing that you will never recall beyond this cribbed rebuilt chronicle of scrolling pictures.

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. For it is not just pictures. It is the daily progress of exactly what your family was thinking at the time, during the hardest days of your earliest time on the planet. Maybe your mother doubted the decision to have you when colic claimed the ninth straight night of sleep from her addled brain. Maybe your father jestingly offered to trade you for magic beans or two months of Netflix, garnering twelve comments of sympathy and two counter-offers from his online acquaintances. Maybe grandpa posted a video comparing your movements to the family iguana’s, speculating that the latter was displaying a greater intelligence.

Sure, some of this is harmless, explicable. Or it will be moreso to you at twenty, or thirty, or when you have your own kids, the way that reaching a certain age makes you understand the people who were that age more. Temporal existence is such a fickle trick. But now, at five or six or eight or nine or even fourteen or sixteen, you will be bewildered. Did they not love me, that they could so callously discuss my existence this way? Was I that bad? Is this warm blanket of unconditional love I’ve come to expect an interpersonal ruse belied by the daily steam-blowing of a semi-public forum?

There will, in most instances, be an insatiable quality to the experience. After being locked out of this world by familial agreement or merely lack of awareness, suddenly the Complete History of You, adorned by countless opinions on same, will be available for endless perusal. Some will be waylaid, becoming obsessive, reliving a childhood remembered and not to the point of becoming an export in their previously forgotten selves. Some may be overwhelmed and give up, but continually be drawn back to this tempting world of an identity that predates self-awareness with an expansive thoroughness their present selves could not possibly hope to match. Others may become dissociative, unable to reconcile the barrage of imagery and commentary of their past being with a person who grew, unaware of this endless documentation and display.

There will be exceptions, of course. Those who anticipate this kind of shocking revelation for their offspring and try to head it off at the pass, attempting to ban the social media proliferation of images and commentary about their child, or limit it to a small, private group. And while these aspirations may be admirable and easily enforced before school matriculation, they will become wholly unwieldy and challenging once the child begins interacting outside the home. What of group photos at birthday parties, or the inevitable phone-snaps at a playdate? How exhausting it might become to trail after every digital camera and cellphone, diligently asking its user not to post it online lest images of their child become publicly available. There will be inevitable leaks, it being impossible to even see every phone at work in a public or semi-public sphere. There will be pictures, recordings that leak out. And when that child discovers that nothing of them exists when their peers are discovering same, they will hunt all the more diligently for those few leaked clues to their earliest aspects of existence.

As the child ages, the notion of an inextricable and continual identity, an ongoing narrative that predates and surrounds them, will only grow. Sure, there can be some sleight of hand with privacy settings and a few other options, but most of the content will be owned or controlled by such a disparate range of people so as to become wild, untameable. Some will try and fail to corral their online identity, from birth, when they move to a new school or matriculate to university. The past will no longer be a shadow in mere memory, but in painfully full-color and clickable expression. You can untag yourself, you can block your mother, but this does not prevent others from seeing you more clearly, vividly, and rememberedly than you want to even see yourself. Surely we see evidence of this sort of navigation already, social media having been embedded sufficiently in culture such that naked or other compromising photos have been disseminated and ruined people, or the unending imagery of a failed relationship haunts their future impossibly. But for the children of the future, this goes all the way back to the beginning.

And indeed, not just the beginning. It will be possible also for the child to watch the development of the relationship that led to their creation, the speculation on the process leading to their birth, every pain and inconvenience of the pregnancy. Not in all cases, surely, for this will be more tied to the social media presence of their parents alone and even how much scrubbing of that history said parents wish to do vis a vis their child. Though it will no doubt occur to many how exhausting it would be to selectively set privacy settings for the prior ten to twenty years for only their child, and even then moreso how odd it will be that the high school classmate they barely spoke to at the time got to see the evolution of this phase of their life, but their own child is banned from same.

A great challenge of social media for my generation has been how much we wanted our parents to see. Soon, it will also be how much we want our children to see.

But it will probably be out of our control anyway. Each generation has grown into their native technology sufficiently to outstrip the knowledge, understanding, and speed of use of their priors by leaps and bounds. Privacy settings will be hacked, blocks will be cast aside, dummy accounts will be made to look like Uncle Bobby finally got on Facebook after all, and the histories, for the curious, will be unearthed. Never before have we lived so publicly and in such a real, minute-to-minute way. And it may be of some comfort to consider that those who come after us may display a real, pressing interest in what it was like to be alive now at this minute, now at this one, now at this one. But are we really considering what it will be like to have been born into a world where that reality has already transpired and is there for the rewatching?

Like all decisions of the twenty-first century, technology and advancement must reign. Any consideration of the philosophical or social impact is just for the luddites on the sidelines. They can contemplate and soothsay all they want, but this era belongs to headlong, heedless “progress”, come what may, damn the torpedoes. The lesson of asbestos is that there are no lessons of asbestos. We just better hope some future technology saves us from our current technology.

This is me on the sidelines, squinting, holding my breath, and fiddling with a mirror. I’m not trying to stop the whole race, but occasionally there might be just enough of a glint of light to catch someone’s eye.


Elegy for AC

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Hypothetically Speaking, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Tags: , , , , ,

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

The first month I lived in New Jersey, Fish and I went to see Counting Crows play at the Borgata and then stayed up most all of the night playing poker. I wrote about it here, at the time. The month I moved away, we did the same thing. It’s just one of those things. Like the only PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on Earth outside of the southern US being in Highland Park, New Jersey when I moved there and closing the month I move to New Orleans. It’s enough to make you a solipsist, or at least to be very focused with one’s own life, something Counting Crows shows always have a way of doing, as I’ve talked about recently in the wake of a just earlier show.

There’s a theory I have sometimes, that I think about more than I’d care to, about life as Contract Bridge. It’s a version of solipsism and probably something that just missed inclusion in The Best of All Possible Worlds but might even make a decent sequel if that book were up for that sort of thing. In any event, the idea doesn’t necessitate solipsism, though it certainly implies it or a warped expanded kind of meta-solipsism. The idea is that there are a million of each of us out there, living on parallel worlds, and we’re all basically playing our own individual video games of our own lives, but it’s being scored and at the end you get compared to the other versions of yourself out there. I use this notion to both berate and reassure myself, the idea that there is a Storey Clayton abroad in some far-flung galaxy who took exactly the opportunities I had and is a renowned and well-regarded author with several books that are even now changing his society. Or hell, just a Storey Clayton who was able to not have a marriage taken from him. That would be neat. It’s not always a way of lamenting my fate, it’s at least half the time a way of trying to kick my own rear into gear and remind myself how much potential and opportunity I’ve truly had, which only occasionally slips into a reminder of how pathetically I’ve squandered it.

The circumstances of August 2009 were so vastly different than June 2014 that they don’t even seem like the same planet. But we kept making references to the earlier time, overlooking things like spending the day seeing “500 Days of Summer” earlier that weekend, how significant I found that movie at the time without being able to envision any portends of my own impending doom (reason: there weren’t any portends). We didn’t wait as long in line this time and weren’t quite as close, but the show itself was so much better for the lack of accompanying bands going crazy. The Toad opener was awesome, especially being able to get to see “Something’s Always Wrong”, Fish’s old them song, live with him. And “Windmills” again, which always kills me. The lead singer of Toad kept referencing how crazy it was that the band had broken up 16 years ago and you could feel this kind of reference to the idea that Counting Crows had been together the whole time and what could have been for him and then. You got the feeling that the decade and a half felt like a wasted blur to him. I haven’t seen their VH1 special (if applicable) and don’t know what demons, chemical or otherwise, he may have spent the last few years wrestling with, but I could really relate to the implied sentiment. Of course, one goes to Counting Crows shows to relate with what’s on stage, whether it works or not. That’s just what you do. Hearing him say “We’re hear to sing songs about sad people so you don’t have to,” made me boggle that I’d never heard Adam Duritz drop a line like that.

It would be a fitting epigraph for half my own fiction. Or maybe all of it. There’s always more novels to come.

Fish had sort of promised Madeleine and/or himself that we wouldn’t stay out quite as late this time, but we’d gotten a hotel room in anticipation of breaking that pledge and break it we did. Fish had perhaps his best night of his life on the poker table and then I went to show him Revel before they close it. For the uninformed, it’s a casino that was built to be high-end, 1% style that started building in 2008, which is every bit the disaster you’d expect it to be. By the time they opened it in 2012, it was already bleeding money from every drain. The state owns it now, functionally, and is probably shutting it down in September unless they can find someone to buy it. It’s one of the most beautiful places to gamble I’ve ever seen (I’ve been seeing a lot lately) and the poker room was perhaps my favorite, a place where I always made money and spent one really fun weekend when they’d just opened sipping luxury coffee and scooping some pretty big pots. The poker room closed a while ago, shortly after I cashed in a tournament there, but the rest of the floor is still really beautiful if you can avoid eye contact with the suicidally depressed employees. Revel convinced thousands of people with great casino jobs in NJ and Philly to quit to come to the only place anyone was supposed to be playing after 2012. But the place was bankrupt less than a year after opening and it’s almost all over. We put five bucks on three numbers of a roulette wheel, hit one of them, played a couple more rounds, and walked away with even more of the state of New Jersey’s money.

Then we ran out to the beach to watch the sun rise and take in all the things people feel on beaches when it’s way past bedtime. (Yes, CC played “A Long December,” and there’s all that baggage out there too.) The sands of time, the tides of time, the significance of half a decade spent in a state that I’ve always hated (and it’s grown on me, but only in terms of a few people and really just RUDU, to be honest… even Rutgers as a whole did next to nothing to endear me to the institution), a state that’s made me suffer more concretely than any other by a long shot. The relief and exultation I feel to be leaving the physical state of New Jersey, even despite missing RUDU and access to Philly and AC, is constantly palpable even now, a month and a half after departure. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that significance is infused in time and space, even if it’s only in how we think it makes us feel. Good God.

Since getting here to New Orleans (and playing poker a lot, which is my trial job for now… so far, so good, and yes, I’m monitoring it closely so don’t panic), a lot of people have been talking about Atlantic City like it’s in hospice care. And to be sure, casinos are drying up left and right. Not just Revel, but Alex’s favorite, Showboat, itself something New Orleans themed in New Jersey, is slated to close in September, even though it’s still turning a profit. Pennsylvania just passed NJ as second state in the country for gambling revenues and explains a lot of why AC is falling apart… the Philadelphia market and I-95 corridor now have alternatives that don’t require burning as much $3.50 a gallon gas. Honestly, I just tell people these days that the Mob couldn’t shut down competition forever and I think that explains AC’s demise as much as anything. There’s a lot of grand metaphors to be made about how much America has turned to gambling in the last decade as a balm for its problems and I should honestly be the last to complain given my new attempted livelihood and its enabling, but it does feel like the habit of a country in decline. But then we’ve always been a nation of get-rich-quick and when the bootstraps snap in our hands, I guess the craps table looks as enticing as anything else.

Before I left, a lot of people expressed concern at the proverbial crosshairs I was putting myself into by moving to New Orleans, what with the crime and especially the flooding and the hurricanes. I hastened to point out to them that in the time I lived in New Jersey, New Brunswick got hit with two hurricanes while New Orleans experienced zero. Yes, the specter of Katrina looms large over everything here, but the larger point is that you can spend your whole life running from certain things and planning for certain others. You don’t have any more control over your life than you do over how those dice land. It sure feels like you do because you threw them, but really you’re just facing a series of decisions with very limited information and the best of hopes and intentions but no real power. It should be liberating in a way, though it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing the best with the very limited control you do have. You need to savor what you’ve got. But in the end, it’s the sun and the tides and the seven billion other people who are running this show, not you.

I’ve been struggling with how to write about the past and the present now that I’m ensconced, sort of, in New Orleans. It’s complicated by the fact that the move still isn’t settled here and I don’t know how to talk about that and am not sure I really even want to, at least for now. But there were so many experiences along the way that I was too busy and overwhelmed to discuss, the move (never ever use All-in-One Moving, ever, people), the trip to Orlando and the Georgia beaches where we watched a sea turtle lay eggs and crawl back to the water, everything that’s happened in the city of the fleur-de-lis. And maybe these are best discussed in reflection. One sure as heck doesn’t know how to describe waiting eight hours in a line for an amusement park ride while that’s happening. But it feels crazy to be posting a Counting Crows setlist five weeks in arrears. Or it would if I didn’t spend every morning singing “Cover Up the Sun” to myself in anticipation of the new album now less than a month away.

I will probably never again visit an Atlantic City that looks like the one I spent a decent amount of time in during my five-year tenure in New Jersey. But that’s okay, change is the only constant. All these “New”s are attached to these cities and states to remind us of that. Someday maybe I’ll take a tour of only the olds, hit Mexico and Jersey and Brunswick and York and Orleans. All places, save Mexico I guess, trumped by their newer bigger better counterparts. Before we all hit the tables and gambled away our fortunes. You do remember that’s what happened in 2008, don’t you?

This underwater city seems like as good a place as any to hole up for now. If the apocalypse hit, everyone would help each other out. They’ve done it before. That’s enough change for me today.

God, I didn’t even really talk about the show as much as I wanted. That’s what happens when you let it sit for five weeks. It was a short but powerful set. And they even played Mr. Jones, sparing me the ability to rant about one-song-fans for another few months, though I tell you the rant is pretty sweet. I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I was expecting “Potter” somehow right after “Earthquake Driver”, which I want to put on the record would be the Crows’ biggest hit in years and years on the charts if they release it as a single. Instead, it seems like they’re releasing the 9-minute “Palisades Park” first, which seems to show that now 50-year-old Duritz likes his current touring regimen and is done with big-time fame, even if they did just sign with Capitol. The song does sound like a stream-of-consciousness hybrid of his favorite themes of the last few years. Ah well, we all just want to be understood. That’s what this particular video game/life is about.

Counting Crows
28 June 2014
The Borgata – Atlantic City, New Jersey
with Toad the Wet Sprocket

Round Here (Palisades Park alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Richard Manuel is Dead
Mr. Jones
Start Again
Earthquake Driver
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
A Long December
Cover Up the Sun

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain


Engaging Alex Zhao on the Irrationality of Atheism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: , ,

Alex Zhao, former debater from the University of Chicago, was the first to take up the mantle of refuting yesterday’s post on what I would (and did) call the irrationality of atheism. So consider this part two of what may be a series. I will not reprint the response in full, since you can read it here. But I will engage with the bulk of his argumentation and sometimes quote it.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture!  Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture! Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Zhao (as I will refer to him hereinafter, since half of APDA’s alumni are named Alex and most people online call him Zhao anyway) makes three fundamental arguments:
(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe

Let’s take them in turn.

(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
This is the argument I probably find most frustrating from Zhao. He is basically asking me to put forward an entire holistic theology in a blog post that engages with the idea that people ought not be sneering knee-jerk atheists who believe that their perspective is more rational than that of believers. I would love to do this and it is in fact one of my five to seven outstanding book projects that I am toying with working on. However, it is a book and not a blog post and would probably be the product of at least three to six months of diligent work. So I’m sorry that I cannot fully flesh out the God that I see evidence for in our universe, which we can both refer to rigidly as the Benevolently Sorrowful God (BSG, if you like) that I referenced last time.

Zhao extra-frustratingly goes on to try to pigeonhole me into some version of the Christian God because I didn’t say “Allah” and I didn’t call God unnameable, about which conceptual frustrations I have recently posted. Let me be clear: I do not believe in the Christian depiction of God or the divinity of Jesus, etc. I do not privilege those versions of God. I believe that the entire point of God is to have a personal relationship with God that most organized religions seem to tacitly or overtly interfere with. Again, my entire definition of God is a book at least, maybe a series. It’s something I think deeply and thoroughly about, but have not crystallized all of my thinking about into a readable version, yet.

So let’s give Zhao some credit with his frustration and say I should make more of an effort to define terms. I will acquiesce to a standard tri-omni God because it gives us something to talk about and is pretty approximately close to what I believe. And here Zhao’s refutation is interesting and meaningful, because he extrapolates my argument to say that a “higher power” running a simulation including us could include “Vulcans from Star Trek” or “Jedi’s from Star Trek” [sic] and so on. Fair enough. My argument may be equally good for Vulcans and for God. But here’s the thing: if our universe is created by an entity that controls everything therein, it is meaningfully synchronous with the concept we attribute to God relative to our own existence. Nothing, for example, prevents there from being a nested series of universes and Gods that control subsequent universes by (a) creating them, (b) overseeing them, and (c) possibly judging them in any number of conceivable ways. Now we can have theological arguments about where that puts us vis a vis this God concept, but an entity that creates and oversees our entire universe looks a lot more like God than it does like atheism, logically speaking.

Even Zhao himself says: “It may perhaps be reasonable to leap from these two premises to a higher power: it does not therefore follow that Storey’s god exists.”

Again, my argument here is that you should be open, logically, to the idea of God. I’m not trying to convert you to the BSG or my vision of God – that would be what my future book would be for. If you’re willing to concede that there’s a higher power that could have created the universe, then much of my work is done.

Which brings us to:

(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
This is easily dispatched. Zhao simply restates that simulation is a hypothesis, not a theory, and that as such it has not gained universal traction among scientists, is speculative, and may not be true. Sure. I agree. My argument is if/then… if you are willing to seriously entertain the simulation hypothesis, you must also then logically seriously entertain God. If you think the simulation hypothesis is baloney, then this half of the argument is not for you, as I believe I made relatively clear. I still find it weird that the simulation hypothesis is getting so much play in the popular consciousness and no one is circling it back around to God conceptually, which is why I spent a lot of time on this argument. But by all means, I’m aware that the simulation hypothesis has way less traction overall than the Big Bang Theory, which is why I made the latter half of my post too. So:

(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe
This is a critique I’m getting all over the place these days and I find it intellectually insulting, but it seems to be popular for people to throw at anyone’s belief in something that is not science, even though science starts out with a premise and then tests those results, just like any other belief pattern. It just feels like this cynical cop-out that people paste onto anyone believing differently than they do: you must want to believe so much that you find patterns that aren’t there and only take the evidence you want to take! (This recently came up in a discussion of the merit of Myers-Briggs tests on Facebook and again my experience was just labelled as something that must be confirmation bias. By this logic, reality is confirmation bias and we should all retreat to solipsism.)

But in the main of this argument, Zhao completely punts my challenge to explain how everything came from nothing in less than a fraction of a second. Instead, he just says “the Big Bang is almost certainly imperfect at this time, and thus probably is a poor basis for belief in a god,” which is a surprisingly humble statement about a Scientific Fact, which I like to see. But if it’s a poor basis for a belief in God, isn’t it also a poor basis for a belief in not-God, or science, or anything else we believe about the universe? People who ardently believe in everything contemporary science tells them do not go around much saying that we poorly understand evolution or genetics or the origins of the universe and thus let’s not worry about the conclusions reached by these beliefs. I would be a lot less defensive and upset with them if they did. Rather, the typical experience is the sneering superiority I referenced before, the underlying idea that “my beliefs are logical and yours are crazy” that inspired the original post’s tone in the first place.

But then Zhao says something interesting:

It would be as if Storey saw a wasp’s nest, realized it was intricately designed, and then demanded to know why people didn’t seriously entertain the possibility that humans made them all as homes for wasps.

But here’s the thing: wasp’s nests are made by some intelligent being! I actually think Zhao has put forward there what I would consider a pretty good argument for vegetarianism (not that a lot of people eat wasps specifically, but you get the idea), which is that wasps have a sophisticated intelligence capable of creativity. This does nothing to propound the idea that there are things which were made by nothing intelligent. It merely says one type of intelligence created something rather than another. Okay, fair enough. The fundamental premise is sound.

But that’s not even the main point – I do believe that many things about the design of the universe, most specifically that there are fundamental, discoverable, and provable laws that remain consistent throughout time and space (y’know, science) that indicate intelligence and forethought behind them. No matter. That’s not the essence of the issue here. My issue is another if/then: if you believe in the Big Bang, then it indicates God far more than not-God. There is nothing we find anywhere else in the universe or the world of science where all-matter is instantly created from no-matter. This description is very much like the description of God creating things and very much unlike any description found in the rest of science. If science’s best working description for the origin of the universe is that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, doesn’t that seem to imply a creation of some type? And if not, why/how did it happen? Zhao makes no effort to engage with the fundamental question except to say that now he may be doubting the Big Bang because we don’t have all the answers about it yet.

Zhao postscripts that he is an atheist who is open to the possibility of God, which already puts him ahead of a lot of the people I was implicitly refuting in my original post. But he doesn’t really explain anything of what evidence or indications he specifically puts forth to lean toward atheism, just that his holistic judgment is that atheism is more likely than God. Which is fine, because he chooses certain premises to focus on and then draw conclusions from those premises and form his belief set. We all do this, it’s called thinking. But this is a far more humble and nuanced atheism than most scientific atheism, which seems to assert that atheism is Rational and God is Irrational. I will be happy if most people conclude from my post that both are, fundamentally, based on chosen premises and thus not wholly Rational in the way that science/atheism tends to claim. This was my conclusion of my original post. At the end of the day, we are all making choices about what to believe based on decisions to, say, trust our senses or believe what the person next to us is saying. And that puts all beliefs on more or less a parallel footing. The only arguments that we can ever logically make from that are if/then arguments. If premise x is true, then conclusion y follows. And I would posit there is absolutely no irrefutable premise.

So my point in calling atheism irrational is saying that there are premises which most atheists would seem to accept, and the conclusion leans more toward God than atheism, so ardent atheism seems irrational. But an equally important point is that everything we believe is if/then, and your ifs are not necessarily any better than mine. Believing that you don’t have any ifs which are refutable is perhaps the biggest irrationality of all.


The Irrationality of Atheism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: , ,

Atheism is the prevailing theory of the universe among most intellectuals below a certain age in this country. Many people are ardent atheists, while others acknowledge at least a passing uncertainty, but the avowed belief in God is increasingly becoming categorized in the same general box as those who believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps that they have personally been kidnapped by aliens upwards of ten distinct times. All of this is done with the same sneering elitism and assumption of universality and correctness with which many intellectuals approach many issues in their life, be it the superiority of certain academic institutions or the idea, say, that people of all races should be treated equally or some other (actual) standard accepted fact.

Much of my source for this understanding of how people behave and think is, of course, the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) community, a place where I spent the formative bulk of my time in my own undergraduate college years and then the last five years of somewhat less formative but somehow no less meaningful or tumultuous time. This is the most unabashedly and thoroughly intellectual community in the United States that exists currently (I will take on all challengers to this mantle, but not spend time doing so in this post) and also among the most sneering… intellectuality and elitism are so intertwined in contemporary America that it makes one almost want to be stupid sometimes just to be unapologetically kind and/or human. And while there are some theists on APDA, they are often ridiculed and scorned, either directly or by association, and the running assumption is that anyone with a shred of skill or talent at debate is of course an atheist, which I ran into in my own personal experience, especially during my recent coaching stint at Rutgers where people would start discussions all the time from the premise that I’m an atheist and would look so puzzled when I corrected them with my actual belief set. One person in such a discussion actually said “But you’re smart!” as, to him, a complete rebuttal to my stated belief in God.

This state of belief and proliferation of atheism as (pun/allusion very much intended) Gospel truth among purveyors of and adherents to logic is, in my opinion, appalling. It is also largely inexcusable for people who actually want to hold a mirror of methodology and logic to their own beliefs which is, near as I can tell, the complete goal of the examined life and logical process in the first place. I would contend that it comes from the same oft-ridiculed place of knee-jerk assumption that is so maligned when it is found among believers. People hear that scientists/respected authorities don’t believe in God, so they don’t either, more or less full stop. Surely some people examine it more than this, some much more, but I don’t think people get a lot further than taking issue with some particular doctrines of specific religions, usually those they have encountered most in their personal lives. Obviously the phenomenon of “person is raised in religion, person has disillusory moment with specific doctrine/person/aspect of religion, person writes off religion wholly as concept” is so common and frequent as to be an almost universal trope of my generation. I had my own religious falling-out when I realized in Catholic mass in seventh grade (Catholic school – I was raised very loosely Episcopalian with salt and alternative theories) that the cross was a method of execution and that if Jesus had been shot, the symbol of Christianity would be a gun, and that there was Something Very Wrong Here and I had to leave the church, both physically at the moment and more metaphorically in the long-term. But to jump from that moment to atheism would be, in my perspective, like having one scientific experiment fail in a chemistry class and then believe that everything ever written or spoken in human history was a deliberate lie.

So let’s address the actual evidence that’s out there, since the idea of God is so often decried as unprovable and irrational and insane. Because science is doing its damnedest to prove and propose the possibility if not the certainty of God and basically no one is paying attention and I find it really irksome.

There are two key issues I’d like to focus on in this post, though there are numerous other proofs of God and aspects of theism that I personally see abroad in the land, so to speak. But the two most obvious and frustrating issues are those that come from the cutting edge of science itself. I’m sure a third would come from the Higgs boson if I understood better what said boson really is or is about (NB: I know that people who like science hate that it’s nicknamed the “God particle” and say it has nothing to do with God. I also suspect that this is because people who like science consider themselves more allergic to the notion of God than EpiPen-wielding children are to bees or peanuts.). Maybe someday. But the two issues that I find glaringly obvious are (1) the simulation hypothesis and (2) the Big Bang.

Nick Bostrom is famous for first seriously proposing the idea that we’re all living in a simulation in a modern scientific-academic context. Of course the idea dates back to Descartes’ brain in a vat and Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream ages before that and the fact remains that for all our invention, intellectual/philosophical thought probably hasn’t progressed during most/all of what we consider human history.

(Brief aside: my friend Michael a month or so ago was discussing a passage in the Odyssey that he loves about Odysseus wailing like one of his victims and that in this moment he seems to be learning compassion for his enemies and realizing that they bleed as he does and that this is beautiful art. I retorted, crankily, that this realization made me suicidal because in 2014 we are no closer as a society or people anywhere to that understanding and we could easily look at all time since ancient Greece as wasted wheel-spinning. Michael was understandably put off and said “okay, Homer makes you want to kill yourself”. This was before the recent re-eruption of Israel/Palestine War number 86,000 roughly reminded me of my own point. We are not making any progress as a species whatsoever.)

In any case, we now have Scientific (TM) backing for something that philosophers and intellectuals have always feared/suspected/wondered about, namely that reality is illusory and perhaps itself a self-defeating concept and that some other force is behind what we see to be true. Bostrom’s paper caused a firestorm in the scientific community and now we have news/media outlets regularly publishing the idea that there’s between a 20-50% chance this is all a simulation. Very serious scientists are now even developing new tests to see if we’re all simulated. And everyone seems to at least be taking this idea seriously until it is concretely disproven somehow.

Yet despite all this recent fervor for the idea that super human intelligence has created simulations and possibly even nested simulations that actually explain what we perceive as reality, no one seems to be making the logical leap (or tiny step, I would argue) that super-human intelligence could be capable of same. In other words, we are somehow capable of imagining and seriously logically engaging with the idea that clones of ourselves could create this reality, but that no one else could. This is, in a word, short-sighted. That’s probably the kindest word I could come up with for it.

At the point where we are willing to put lofty double-digit percentages on the chance that everything we are and see and sense is fabricated as some sort of simulation, the idea that something like God is behind that simulation seems so obvious that it almost defies the suggestion. At the very least, we should be creative enough to imagine that entities far more capable and intelligent that current humans (remember how much progress we’ve made since ancient China and/or Greece) are behind the one-way glass of our simulated existence. At the point where we’re being deliberately simulated, almost anything on the other side of that mirrored wall becomes akin to God in a way that’s meaningful and powerful, and yet there are no serious academic articles a la Bostrom putting God back in the discussion of our everyday life. Somehow we find it realistic and comforting to believe that a 4th grader in Earth-prime could be making us as a science project, but not that someone slightly smarter than a 4th-grader is conducting this as a test of moral progress? Are we really that self-obsessed?

The only viable explanation I can find for this is the same that I find endemic to almost all aspects of atheism: hubris. The atheist, as a general rule, finds it impossible to imagine an intelligence that is more developed or sophisticated than the contemporary Earth human. It places itself at the very pinnacle of the universal food chain, something that one would think at least takes some sort of hit in reference to the idea of a simulated reality when we are not yet, in 2014, capable of creating such seamlessly simulated realities ourselves. But they still put an Earth human behind that glass because it is so hard to admit that Earth humans may be riding the universe’s very short bus indeed compared to what else is out there, let alone what is behind that glass. Given the extreme vastness of the universe, it seems obvious to me that the intelligence of whatever’s behind the glass if we are a simulation is so great as to be worthy of reverence and arguably worship on face. Granted, the cynical among us must entertain the idea that the force is value-neutral or malevolent, and the divorce between intelligence and morality is all the rage these days, but I think there’s plenty of additional evidence abroad in the land for realizing that benevolence is very much a part of the universe’s agenda, in addition to an unending sadness/disappointment at what we, both collectively and individually, manage to squander in terms of opportunity/potential.

In any case, I’m not looking to convince you today that the Benevolently Sorrowful God I feel I interact with (not Uniquely or Specially, mind, but as a normal everyday human being) exists. I’m looking merely to convince you that it is wholly rational to believe in God or at least the possibility of God and that, as such, Sneering Obvious Atheism is irrational.

If you disagree with this premise still, I would ask you to explain how you can simultaneously (a) entertain the realistic possibility of the simulation hypothesis and (b) entirely disregard the possibility that God or similar is behind the proverbial curtain of said simulation.

I have long disabled comments on this webpage because, well, read Internet comments anywhere, but I will entertain and rebut any serious explanations of the above.

And you might not really take the simulation hypothesis seriously, which would be totally fine. But if you don’t, I bet you believe in the Big Bang. So the next part of this post is for you.

Before the US media had decided that Israel/Palestine War 86,000 deserved all/most of your attention, there was a lot in the US media made of the recent discovery of “proof” of the Big Bang, manifest through the sighting of gravitational waves that are consistent with the inflation model of the universe stemming from said Bang. I only vaguely understand the precise science of things like, say this, but the upshot is that the Big Bang looks all kinds of correct as an Origin Story for our universe, which is so vast as to be utterly beyond incomprehensible to human understanding.

Now one of atheists’ favorite games is to make fun of God-based Origin Stories, such as, e.g. Genesis, wherein God is so ridiculously powerful that it takes just seven days to form a world and one of those isn’t even busy! Of course, here is the prevailing scientific understanding of how long it took the entire universe (functionally infinitely larger than Earth) to form from literally nothing:

Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

If you’re scoring at home, some of the relevant time markers there are one-one-hundredth of a second and three minutes. According to this rationally proven prevailing scientific understanding of the universe, everything necessary to build our universe was inevitably underway one-one-hundredth of a second after there was literally nothing there before. And, at that time, while expanding, the universe was roughly 85% of its current size with all the matter it would need to form, well, everything.

One-one-hundredth of a second. Or, if you prefer, three minutes, when the nuclear fusion had finished and all the matter set to, I guess, cool for the next few hundred-thousand years.

Two key questions arise from this. (1) Why is it rational to believe it took three minutes or less to create everything in the universe, but irrational to believe it took six days to create the world? and (2) Why/how did the Big Bang happen?

(2) makes people crazy. I have never encountered someone who has a good reaction to that one. It is where all of science, for its claims to proof and obsession with replicability and ultimate complete understanding, gets its spade turned, hard. And so science leaves us with this unsettling idea that it is crazy to believe there is intelligence or deliberate thought behind the formation of the universe, but wholly rational and consistent with understanding to believe that nothing became something in a period of time so short that it is unimaginable to human feeling. And not just something, but the building blocks for EVERYTHING. To insert God into that creation process, that something-from-nothing hypothesis, is ruled straight out by people who have no alternative explanation and find the whole question of explaining it tiresome. This is the height of irrationality and uncuriousness. But it seems bizarre to conclude that one should devote their life to discovering minute details of this process of ultimate creation, but take zero interest in what may have caused it.

Look, I’m not defending Genesis specifically or the people who run around saying dinosaur bones are in the Earth to test our faith and fool us into following Satan. I don’t believe in Hell or the Bible’s specific Origin Story (though I think the metaphor of this quick creation dovetails impossibly nicely with current theories of actual creation, which is the whole point of this half of the post, QED) or the Garden or the ribcage or any of that. But it is so weird that God is so quickly dismissed by people whose best and tested explanation is that everything came from nothing in a hundredth of a second. Look at that graph. Look at that expansion and that timeline. It’s like watching a firework and saying that no one shot it in the air and there was no intent behind the explosion, but one second there was sky and the next second there was color and sound everywhere and who cares why. Really? Really??

Look, I’m not saying you have to believe in God. Nothing I’ve offered here proves a divine intelligence is behind these things. But I think you have to conclude that being sure there’s no God is poppycock. It is intellectual absenteeism to care about the Big Bang and then abdicate the question of how or why it happened. And everything-from-nothing-in-no-time looks more like God and Creationism than it looks like anything else at all. Every scientific method and explanation we have looks at all matter coming from nothing in zero time and rails against that, demanding some sort of source or force or deeper reason. It breaks all the rules. So the closer we get to proving that this model is an accurate depiction of how we got here, the closer we get to having to face something that looks an awful lot like God.

Again, I’m more than open to refutations. With permission, I will reprint an rebut them in the coming months if anyone’s interested in having this debate out more thoroughly. Or just summarize and rebut them if you don’t want that kind of pressure. I am genuinely curious about the mind of an atheist and how it grapples with these possibilities, realities, and understandings. I may have missed something or lots of somethings. But ultimately, I just don’t think it’s rational to look at the way the universe seems to be shaped, have started, and may possibly have started, and to be sure that there’s no God behind it. And at the point where atheism is irrational, then its sneering superiority to belief falls away and we can agree that we’re all just choosing premises we like and running with them rather than some of us thinking and others of us not.


The Limits of Surveillance

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

The videos taken of apparent/alleged/possible/probable chemical-weapons attacks in Syria got me thinking. No one, at least as of this morning (I haven’t heard updates later in the day) seemed to know what to think of them. Are they trumped up by the rebels to curry favor and sympathy with the West? Are they authentic? Are they misrepresenting their time, place, or manner in some way that’s hard to track? Are they the result of the rebels themselves using gas? There was discussion in some of the reporting that “metadata” was insufficient to really determine whether the videos were created today or not. No one quite seemed to know what to do with the information that there was apparent video of an apparent chemical attack. Because we live in an era where one cannot simply believe what one sees on the screen.

Which makes you wonder: is that the check on surveillance culture? I know I’ve said in the past that there is no check meaningfully, except to let go of the possibly antiquated concept of privacy. But this could be premature. I may be attributing a terminal victory to one side in something that’s a lot more like people curing one disease and just needing to wait a couple years for the next one to crop up and start infecting people. (Not to pass judgment on which side is “right” here – maybe you’d prefer the analogy of one disease starting to kill off huge numbers of people and just waiting a few more years for the cure.)

What if the response to surveillance is that it gets so easy to make such quality fake imagery or data that it doesn’t matter how much you survey?

Now there does seem to be a fundamental problem here, which is that if the surveillance is good enough, then it would pick up on people creating the fabrication that they would then be passing off as something real. If someone knows your every move, association, viewpoint, and whereabout, they will be able to tell when you’re filming some highly elaborate ruse, or even manufacturing it on some super-ultra-blue-ray-green-sun-high-def computer drafting software. But maybe, despite this apparent flaw, creating the simulation of virtual reality that’s compelling enough to look like the real thing is the counter-play to watching every door, window, and exit in real reality. We’ve probably all seen a heist movie, even recently, where some elaborate slide or video recording was slid in front of the monitoring security camera to make it look like things were more or less okay within than they truly were. How hard would that be to pull off on a computer with the right hacking technique?

Certainly I don’t know exactly where I come down on this, being as opposed to privacy as I am and feeling that we might all just be better people without it. Crime has been crashing all over the country and people are having trouble putting their finger on exactly what’s changed, especially in an era when the economics of the situation would otherwise state that crime ought to be surging. While New Yorkers are discussing whether it’s about “Stop and Frisk” and the NSA would certainly have you believe it’s because they’re listening to your phone calls, I think it’s about a much softer version of the Surveillance Society, namely all the private awareness that’s going on. After all, neither NYPD nor the NSA are out there actively preventing most of the crime, yet it’s falling nationwide. It seems like the advent of social media, the personal expectation that your whereabouts are constantly accounted for, the integrated use of cameras not from the NSA, but from every storefront and business and cell phone, this is creating a collective culture where people just know what’s up with everyone else and crime is much harder to pull off. It’s no wonder that so many of the high-profile criminals still trying (i.e. school shooters) aren’t even trying to get away with it. Why bother? A video will emerge and the electronic trail will lead to your doorstep regardless.

So part of me feels sad that privacy might resurge and bring all this bad action with it. At the same time, as I’ve discussed repeatedly, the end-of-privacy project really only works when it’s universal and the people are able to check the government with its own lack of privacy just as much. Otherwise, it’s transparently just tyranny. This is the difference between 1984 as written and a world where you can switch on a camera and see the operations in Miniluv as depicted. Obviously double-speak becomes a lot less effective when everyone can see right through it.

Which is probably why governments are working so hard to cover up their actions right now, crushing Bradley Manning and Glenn Greenwald in as intimidating a fashion as they can muster. They’re telling you it’s to keep you safe, but we don’t need a one-sided monopoly of information in order to do that. We just need the information out there to keep us safe. The effectiveness of a spying program on terrorists isn’t that the terrorists might not suspect you’re spying on them! (Who could possibly see that coming??!?) It’s that you, um, get the information you’ve spied from them. And I’m sorry, but if the worst impact of the recent leaks is that the terrorists can now only use carrier pigeons to communicate, that sounds fairly disruptive to me. Rather more disruptive, frankly, than hoping they pick up a tapped phone and give you, at best, a Coventry problem.

Also, you can probably steal a carrier pigeon. Just sayin’.

Leaking information doesn’t compromise safety. It is safety. But it has to be a two-way street, or a seven-billion-way street to be effective. So if governments are, in fact, going to effectively clamp down on the way that’s pointing to them and hide from all this information-soaking that’s making us all much safer, then perhaps it’s good that CGI and virtual reality could give us a way out of the one-way surveillance state. For you youngsters out there, I recommend a couple classes in computer science posthaste.

In the meantime, can we please stop arguing that we are made safer by a government that knows everything but divulges nothing? Or that people who disagree with that type of government are somehow trying to compromise or jeopardize our safety? Most people, when talking about safety, are discussing the safety to be free. The safest people in America live in solitary confinement, if you want to be technical about it. Ideally, our society would tip the scales at least a little back toward freedom on this freedom-safety continuum when claiming to “protect” the average citizen.

Two-for-one solution:  mask that protects you from both chemical weapons and government surveillance!

Two-for-one solution: mask that protects you from both chemical weapons and government surveillance of your identity!


Why We Feel Alone… Cosmically

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: ,


When I was growing up, it felt like it was trendy to believe we were alone in the universe. Around the time I was sitting in my first-grade classroom watching the Challenger spin out of control and seriously questioning my desire to be an astronaut (full story here), it was popular to say that human beings on planet Earth were the only intelligent beings in the universe. This never seemed particularly viable to me and I recall getting into a few arguments with classmates and at least one teacher on the subject. And ultimately, this perception, whether it was actually widespread or limited to the sample size of my experience, basically disappeared.

It probably has something to do with the vastness of that picture up top there. Those are galaxies pictured that we’ve discovered and each galaxy is so unimaginably large that it could contain up to one-hundred trillion stars. And there are at least 150 billion galaxies in the observable universe, which is probably a tiny little fraction of the actual universe. Suffice it to say that when we contemplate how many planets this actually means, we’re approaching a number like 80,000! a lot faster than we think. In fact, I think it was Jake in 8th or 9th grade who originally tried to convince me that no self-respecting people in science had ever felt that we could possibly be alone in the universe as intelligent beings – the universe was simply too large for the math to be conceivable that we were one in several hundred quadrillion. After I got over being angry at the people who’d argued with me about this in the past, I was mostly relieved.

As education about the size and scope of the universe has become more widespread, as exploration of the local area has increased, and as we’ve discovered water-like substances on Mars, we’ve begun to project that life is not only not limited to Earth, but it’s actually likely to be quite common. There are planets with life everywhere, though most are still out of any reasonable reach for communication or travel at our current stage of technological development. But people are still wondering why we haven’t heard from any of them, now that we’ve realized they must be teeming with intelligent life. And while a few hubristic idiots have guessed that we’re just more advanced than everyone else and they haven’t figured out radio signals yet, most people realize that the same math that makes it so likely others are out there makes it beyond obvious that just as many species are way ahead of our curve as way behind it.

And so it’s become popular to posit a possible theory (really two, or the two in a binary as a single theory) as to why we have radio silence from what should be a cacophonous universe overflowing with extraterrestrial wisdom. I don’t know where the actual original source of this theory came from – presumably Stephen Hawking or one of his ilk, but like so many pop culture references, I’m only aware of it in its endless reflection in blogs and other sources rather than from the original material. So apologies to whoever’s idea this originally was, but you should know it’s become public domain. Anyway, the concept is that all intelligent life either wipes itself out (Cuban Missile Crisis, climate change, etc.) before it can sufficiently travel to or communicate across the stars or that it develops such compelling virtual reality that the intelligent life decides to retreat into a solipsistic delusion rather than reach out to others.

Never mind that this leaves out a third viable possibility also ripped from the last fifty years of our planet’s experience, namely that intelligent societies develop capitalism or similar selfishness-maximizing orders which eventually devolve into corporate kleptocracy and consolidation that enables entire planets to become slave-states that serve a small elite or even one entity… and that entity chooses not to expand horizons to seek out the only source which could possibly interfere with its power, thus choosing to make the planet self-contained and isolated. This post isn’t about that, I promise. But I do feel that should be included in the possible reasons if we’re projecting our current myopic view of ourselves onto a universe of hundreds of quadrillions of planets.

The actual problem with this theory is that it assumes the universe is as chaotic as we perceive it to be from our position of only really discovering it in the last couple-hundred years. Which is probably not surprising given the predominance of atheism and nihilism as guiding principles of most of the scientific community. But the notion that each planet is an utterly isolated society pinging randomly into the universe without ever hitting paydirt before succumbing to its own failings is profoundly short-sighted. Yes, self-destruction is a constant threat from a variety of sources, especially as the development of technology accelerates to the point where it can command enough space to cover the vast distances between galaxies. But given that the only intelligent species we know about has managed to avoid it to this point, it seems absurd to assume no one else has gotten to this point or even beyond.

And yet, not everyone does. We have beloved iconography of science fiction telling us that there are alternative possible outcomes, portraying vast starfleets of human progeny traversing the universe in hyper-speed-capable airships. Of course, since we are a hubristic species deeply in love with our own intelligence and capability, we always put humans on those ships and imagine tiny American flags or their descendants as what’s being proliferated across the stars. Because to not imagine ourselves at the forefront of this technology would be impossible, or at least treasonous. But let’s suspend disbelief for just a second, get our noses out of that truly adorable pond, and contemplate what might be the case if someone else were way, way ahead of us?

Stephen Hawking (I know this one is attributable to him) has made the same contemplation and warned us against calling attention to ourselves in the universe, predicting that the outcome would look a lot like Europeans landing on the shores of the Americas, the opening salvo in the largest known genocide in human history. But even Stephen can’t get beyond the projection of pettiness, selfishness, and greed onto other species to reflect our own. Even forward-thinking Star Trek envisions that the only intelligences sufficiently smart to compete with our own are imperial bastards, enslaving and crushing resistance to fuel endlessly infinite expansion to no end other than self-service. And while human history before, I don’t know, yesterday is basically an unending series of might-makes-right empowerment of those willing to do the most violence, it seems really reasonable to me that there might be alternate courses for societies advanced enough to actually get off their home planets and do some real exploring.

Which brings me to my actual theory as to why we haven’t heard from any of the hundred-quadrillion intelligent species out there. They aren’t letting us. They’ve put a bubble around us to protect us from contact until we’re good and ready for it.

I realize this sounds facially absurd to many of you, because it assumes a different picture of the universe than the one we see when we look out. We see all those stars and galaxies and (in an amazing stroke of self-awareness) are overwhelmed with how much we still don’t know about them. So we assume everyone else is in the same boat, despite our understanding of how much we now understand about, say, our own planet when a scant 500 years ago we adorned maps with “Here Be Dragons” in every other corner. Look at the global picture of technology and capability two centuries ago and compare it to this very Internet and space exploration and everything else that’s currently underway. And you really don’t think someone else could have had, I don’t know, a two-millennium head-start on development and have mapped and made contact with most of the Milky Way?

We’ve even made these connections, just putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, in a mere century or so of speculative science fiction. Back to Star Trek, we have the concept of the Prime Directive and the idea that we’re not to interfere with other societies in a primitive stage of development lest we overwhelm them and change their destiny or unwittingly destroy them in some unanticipated way. And while it’s narratively fun to play with breaking those rules, we see ourselves as the people running from the mystically painted primitive volcano people without realizing that we, of course, are the volcano people. We are the primitives. We still think intelligence is doomed to destroy itself and everything around it or withdraw and resign from reality in favor of unending hedonism.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re being pulled out of windows in the middle of the night by big-eyed green-guys who are occasionally too clumsy to properly wipe our memories. I would surmise that we’re being observed from beyond a safe distance. Imagine a cosmically-scaled police interrogation room window/mirror where those inside see only a reflection (or perhaps a pattern of stars). The level at which one can monitor from that distance is in some degree of question, but it seems hard to picture having the technology to travel many light-years, but not to magnify the view several million times from such distances. If for no other reason than travel at such a speed seems to require anticipating objects that might be in the way from that kind of distance with extreme precision. Despite the depiction of warp-speed travel in science fiction, there is so much debris in space that such travel as pictured would probably just lead to impossibly destructive collisions where the speed of travel made every bit of space dust or rock into a high-powered missile that brought down the ship. So either travel is slow or there’s some way of navigating from extreme distances with high accuracy.

So let’s assume the latter. It seems totally feasible. And right now, we’re failing our test of observation. Granted, we don’t totally know what the rules are or the goals. Those would have to be pure speculation. Maybe it’s merely a scientific advancement test. We have to be able to pierce our protective bubble, to get some Hubble-like telescope beyond the distance of the perimeter so it can suddenly start hearing all the signals and report back that we’ve made contact. But my guess is that any entity that would put such a barrier up around us is concerned enough with either our welfare or their welfare that we’re actually facing a moral challenge.

I would imagine that we’re still altogether too selfish, petty, and especially violent to be allowed out of the protective crib. There are probably rules that govern this part of the universe and whatever intelligences have overcome their infantile setbacks to survive and thrive and explore. Those rules would go beyond a Prime Directive that people actually followed and incorporate the extreme responsibility involved in stepping off one planet and on to another. They would note that species are like viruses, that once allowed to spread, they may be extremely hard to contain. And as a result, they would put a heavy burden and scrutiny on our species before we were deemed sufficiently trustworthy to play well with others.

It’s possible that we’re not even close. That some voyager cruised by, saw how desperately primitive we were, threw up the shield, and agreed to check back in a few millennia. We may not be under surveillance so much as having a pin in some interstellar map that says to look our way again in our year 4500. In which case, perhaps the urgency of this test is limited, though everything we do now has an obvious affect on the future that follows, even such a far-flung one.

But I’d imagine that if we can put up a thousand security cameras in a casino, every intelligent planet discovered has constant monitoring. Intelligence seeks intelligence; even we want to make dolphins do tricks even if we seem unconcerned with trying to decipher their actual language. We train dogs and cats and monkeys and seals, however pathetically. There’s little doubt that each sprig of smartness that whatever galactic order exists finds is tracked and watched and, who knows, perhaps even saved if the equivalent of the planet-destroying volcano starts to erupt. The implications of this idea are, obviously, enormous.

Not only does this idea restore something like a God concept to those who’ve long since stopped believing, for we have a higher power (albeit of a much different nature than God) observing our movements and making some sort of evaluation, but it also means that there is some sort of meaning to our existence, even if it’s only in the context of other intelligences and not necessarily a greater transcendence of lifespan. Problematically, we don’t know exactly what their criteria are for deeming us worthy of actual interaction or contact, but given that we actually have extremely little disagreement locally on what the actually correct values are, it seems the challenge is more one of discipline and dedication to ideals than discernment of them. We have known for a few thousand years that we should stop beating each other about the head and torso with sticks. Instead, most of human history is about the perfection and development of those sticks and the study of their impact on heads and torsos. Would you let such a people into your intergalactic community of species?

I think the only real counter-argument to this theory is that it would seem too utterly harsh and cruel to make a lifeform feel this alone and abandoned when one had the power to welcome them into a more universal community. This idea seems compelling for about five seconds before you realize the pitfalls of contact for a species that’s still so intolerant that it still regularly enslaves its own members to other members of the species.

We still have racism as a massive and prevalent problem throughout our societies, with developments in the last decade or so that have normalized racism and dressed it up in more acceptable clothing in the name of fear. The representatives of the wider galaxy probably look so, yes, alien, to us that we would instantaneously fear them no matter what they did or said or how they behaved. We even have science fiction that imagines that even if they came in total peace and offered us everything, it would merely be so they could farm us like cows and fatten us up for consumption (an old classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man”). Domestically, we have more fear of humans we call aliens than we could probably ever conjure up for actual aliens. And that’s only the first step, the first handshake of contact. The first five seconds, before we got into any discussion of rules, values, or what membership in a wider community would mean.

It would be a little like inviting a pre-lingual infant to serve as a key representative in the UN. And sure, maybe the infant couldn’t do much harm voting randomly whenever it wanted to be fed and totally misunderstanding the proceedings. But it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Surely it would be better to let the infant grow up and let you know what kind of person it is before letting it have a seat at the most important of tables.

Which brings me to the larger point of the whole issue of expanding our technology, our understanding of the universe. We have been hellbent on separating questions of development and advancement of science from issues of ethics, let alone (gasp!) morals. Those who attempt to infuse such questions are lampooned as fuddy-duddies, even amidst a backdrop of most scientists believing that failure to anticipate the consequences of rash technological action is literally threatening the survival of the planet and the species (i.e. failing to consider fossil fuel usage leading to catastrophic climate change). Yet we continue to plow on unheeded, not only maintaining past destructions but blithely inventing new ones at every turn, with only “oohh” and “aahh” drowning out the small soundtrack of dissent or caution.

But what if we have it backwards? What if our moral, ethical, and philosophical development is actually the key to unlocking the scientific mysteries of the universe? Surely whatever we could discover on our own is a pale shadow of whatever intelligence has us under observation has come to know about the area. Back to our pre-lingual infant example, would we rather let said newborn grow on its own in science and technology or teach it what we know? It seems the power of education, of collective knowledge and development, is powerfully better than just letting it flounder in its own misunderstanding. And maybe again this is an argument for intervention, but if the infant is punching every other entity it sees, maybe waiting till it learns the value of not punching is a valuable prerequisite to undertaking such an endeavor.

It would seem that caring about being good, about doing good, about proving ourselves to this larger intelligence, is the most important priority of our future existence.

And if you don’t find this feasible, if you think this is all far-fetched and cling to your belief in the original binary of selfish destruction or selfish withdrawal, your conclusions should probably be the exact same. For the only way out of this conundrum, the only way to invent a galactic order and fulfill the dreams of Buck Rodgers and Ray Bradbury and Star Trek, would be to be the exception to this newly imagined rule. And the only way to do that is to prioritize moral and philosophical development over technological. Or at least to keep it apace, to maintain enough of a moral check on technological behavior that one can prioritize the real world and its existence over the constantly nipping alternatives.

In either case, the message should be clear. If you want to meet an alien, you should first be good. And convince everyone else to be good too. We are almost certainly on a very candid camera. And right now, they’re unfortunately just filming a cautionary tale.