Last Monday I received an email letting me know that my application to be a writer for Secular Nation Magazine had been accepted. This was my first “official” writing job and the start of another segue into something I am extremely passionate about. At a time when most people’s careers are at the ‘tray tables and seat backs are in the upright position in preparation for landing’ point I am getting ready to take off into a new adventure. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
I couldn’t ask for a better forum to start out at than Secular Nation Magazine. The overall focus of the magazine, as the title alludes to, is to be a voice for the secular community and I am privileged to be a small part of it. The executive editors let the writers determine the direction and content of the magazine as we move forward which allows everyone the freedom to write on precisely those subjects they are most passionate about.
Most important to me will be my audience which I tend to divide into two parts. One part is the people who are reading this and the articles to come over the next few months and years. I hope I can inspire those like minded individuals to fight for the secular values this country was founded on and push back against the rising tide of religious extremism that is looking to hijack this country and turn it into a middle eastern theocracy with them, of course, occupying the position of ‘theo’.
The other part of my audience is, by definition, far smaller than the first part though they are both of equal importance to me. It also differs from the first part in that it has yet to be born. I have made it a point that when I write I am writing to my great, great, great, grandchildren.
I have on my bookshelves books from my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents. As I grew older and my reading habits became more sophisticated the books began to paint a picture of their owners and was able to gain an insight, however limited, of the relative who owned it; who they were, what were their thoughts, what were they passionate about intellectually. Some of the books had notes scribbled in the margins and finding them I could imagine how a prospector felt when he spotted a gold nugget in his pan. I want to do one step better and allow them to see who I was, what I was passionate about and my thoughts on the issues that were important to me. The best way for me to do that is to write. Now, I have the opportunity and forum to do just that.
Artificial Intelligence is a phrase that often promotes a strong reaction in a lot of people who hear it. There are the gloom and doom prognosticators who tell us that ‘Judgement Day’, the day the intelligent machines take over and decide we are more trouble than we are worth and wipe us out is near. There are also the overly optimistic prognosticators which tell us that the day AI will take over and we will enter a golden age of humanity beyond our wildest dreams is near. Kasparov charts a course in between these two extremes using the extremely compelling example of his two matches against IBM’s Deep Blue. He won the first and lost the second which was the first time a World Chess Champion was defeated by a chess engine. Kasparov uses these matches, his preparation and the preparation the IBM team employed, to paint an interesting picture of both machine and human intelligence. The conclusion he draws is that machine and human intelligence are complimentary to each other and machine intelligence enhances human intelligence to the point where mediocre chess players using chess engines can easily defeat an International Grand Master and this has, in fact, been done. Our future, according to Kasparov, is to embrace what the machines offer us and use them to augment our human intelligence. Throughout the book Kasparov makes the point that research into AI has shown that machines are good at the types of things humans are not and vice versa. Machines can analyze millions of positions per second while humans can only go 4-5 moves in the future, for instance. On the flip side, the human mind can see what tactics are worthwhile and which are not which makes the human mind’s search far more effective. The future, according to Kasparov and backed up by real-world results in the chess world, is a synthesis of the two the end result of which is the enhancing of the human mind. If you are interested in AI, chess and the future of expert systems this is one book you’ll want to read.
“I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim—so modestly and so humbly—to possess. It is time to withdraw our ‘respect’ from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.”
― Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever.
A recent interview on Fox News featured Robert Jeffress, an evangelical adviser to Trump and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas defending President Trump concerning the recent Stormy Daniels scandal. To sum up the pastor’s position: “We don’t care what Trump has done in the past. What is important is what he can do for us now.” The “we” that the pastor refers to is the community of the faithful, the ones with the “deeply held religious beliefs”. These beliefs can be jettisoned in a moment with a theological slight of hand when it suits the interests of the faithful. These are the people who are suddenly seized with concern over the “sanctity of marriage” while having multiple spouses and divorces. These are the people who want to rewrite our laws to enforce these “deeply held religious beliefs’, beliefs that they will jettison in an instant when it suits their purposes and gains them power over others in this world, the only world that actually concerns them, the only world they really believe in. The more fanatical of their ilk will tell you God actually talks to them and gives them instructions that the rest of us must follow. To even question this claim is now perceived as insulting to them and they will demand an apology from you for having the slightest doubt that the creator of the universe talks to them and them alone and has put them in charge. How dare you question them when they demand your time, your money and, most important of all, your unquestioned obedience and acceptance of what they say? How dare you question God?
But there is a silver lining to this. We see right through them now. We see them for what they are; parasites on society, a mental cancer that seeks to destroy this nation of laws and turn it into a theocracy with they, of course, occupying the position of ‘theo’. Their ‘deeply held religious beliefs’ are the thinnest veneer over a festering infection of hate towards their fellow man that threatens all of us. Stand up to them and call them out when they stop indulging in their pet sins long enough to become suddenly obsessed with what others are doing. Question whatever authority they pretend to have and tell them you won’t be spoken to in that manner by some other mammal, which is all they are. We’ve had enough and we’ve seen enough of this divine hypocrisy. Its time to push them back to the margins of society where they belong.
“A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends.”― Christopher Hitchens
Monday mornings and I have never managed to come to any sort of rapprochement. Mondays are not the sort of day one looks forward to for obvious reasons but some are far worse than others. For me, this last Monday was one of the more terrible ones. I was greeted with the news that an old friend had finally lost his ten year battle with cancer. The news from the week prior was not good but we all expected him to make a recovery as he had many times previously. Fate, it seems, had other intentions for our friend this time.
In this day of social media news spreads quickly. Well wishes and condolences started to stream in. I found myself on the phone with mutual friends who I hadn’t spoken with in years. I’ve always thought it a shame that that the only time we call or reach out to each other these days is when someone we know passes away. It was good to hear their voices as it reminded each of us of a time when our friend was still there, laughing one more time about the adventures of our youth and the coming of age experiences we shared. As we talked and the conversations moved to what was now the all consuming event in our lives, the death of our friend, we seemed to part ways in spirit. They took great consolation believing that the spirit of my friend ‘lived on’ in heaven and would be watching over those of us who were still dwelling in the land of the living. It was if they were talking about color to a blind man.
I’m a naturalist so I don’t have a belief in the supernatural which includes a place where the departed spirits go after this life is over. All we have, in my view, is our brief time together while we are alive in this world. I take consolation in the fact that my friend left a large body of work for us to enjoy and the memories I have of the times and experiences we shared. I find it especially rewarding that I can look up at a sky full of stars and remember the many times we spent gazing through my telescope and waxing philosophical about life, the universe and everything, to quote Douglas Adams. These memories also create a sense of urgency in me to take out the telescope when I might not feel like it, to pack up the bass and head out to that Blues Jam when I would rather stay home and to sit down and write that article when all I’d rather do is surf Facebook. We all have a limited time to do the things we want to do; some of us have more than others as life so often brutally reminds us. Eventually the silence of the grave will overtake us all and our voices will be extinguished. But while we are alive our voices ring out loud and clear. Now is the time to be heard, now is the time to make music and dance. May the life of my friend and all he accomplished constantly keep this fire alive in me; I can’t think of a better way to honor his memory until that eternal silence overtakes me.
A recent Buzzfeed article by Peter Aldhous Azeen Ghorayshi Virginia Hughes
I’d encourage everyone to read the BuzzFeed article as it is not without bias against secularism. That being said there are a number of things in it that concern me. First and foremost the article states that Dr. Krauss has been banned from the campuses of two institutions, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario in response to complaints made against him. If true, this points to a pattern of behavior. The second is Dr. Krauss’s response to the current allegations against him.
From the article,
In lengthy emails to BuzzFeed News, Krauss denied all of the accusations against him, calling them “false and misleading defamatory allegations.” When asked why multiple women, over more than a decade, have separately accused him of misconduct, he said the answer was “obvious”: It’s because his provocative ideas have made him famous.
“It is common knowledge that celebrity attracts all forms of negative attention from many different angles,” Krauss said in a December email. “There is no pattern of discontent revealed here that suggests any other explanation.”
My gut response to this is that his reply smacks of deflection. After further reflection, I am convinced that is what he is doing. I am a big fan of his work. His ability to communicate complex and difficult ideas is one of the best I’ve seen. Ergo, his inept response to these allegations raises even more suspicions in my mind.
Dr. Krauss has already suffered some repercussions from these allegations according to a recent Gizmodo article. If the allegations are confirmed then it is the moral responsibility of all organizations to cut ties with Dr. Krauss for two reasons. First, the behavior itself. This sort of behavior should not be tolerated and it is up to the secular community to make a strong statement that it will not be tolerated within it’s ranks and follow those words up with equally strong actions. Second, the self-professed sine qua non of the secular movement is the pursuit of the truth. We are fond of posting memes and quotes in social media and arguing in debates that it is the quest for truth that motivates us no matter how uncomfortable that truth may turn out to be. If these allegations are proven to be the truth then Dr. Krauss’s initial denial was a flat out lie. That permanently disqualifies him to be a standard bearer in an organization or movement that professes to hold truth as the ultimate good.
“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
This month marked what should be a joyous anniversary of the Mauerfall – the fall of the Berlin Wall. For on the fifth of February the Wall had been down as long as it had been up; precisely 10,315 days had passed since the Berlin Wall came down. The Berlin Wall has always always been a part of me having lived under it’s shadow for three years and having been extremely privileged to have played a very small part in the effort which eventually brought it down. What makes this anniversary bitter-sweet is that the ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Thomas Paine that sparked our own revolution and were the ideas that inspired the spirit of the people behind that wall to demand freedom and ultimately tear down both the physical and ideological barriers that enslaved them are now despised in the very country which began because of the revolution those ideas inspired. The only revolution still standing.
I can still vividly recall that warm summer afternoon in 1979 when my flight from Frankfurt touched down at Tegel. I was in West Berlin. Walking through the terminal to get to the taxi stand I noticed that there was an electricity in the air that was as palpable as the electricity you feel when walking the streets of midtown Manhattan. In spite of being surrounded by everything foreign, the language, the items for sale in the shops I walked past, or the Polizei walking two by two, machine guns at the ready, the zeitgeist in that terminal caused me to feel like I was home in a very subtle but moving way. This feeling of being home was able to anchor me over the next three years which turned out to be the most transformative years of my life.
The Cold War was fought and won in buildings like this all over the world. Our duty station was only a stone’s throw from the Wall. You could see the Wall and the oversized watchtower as you walked through the front gate every time you went to work. It was a daily reminder of what you were fighting against. The time spent off-duty with the wonderful people of West Berlin was a constant reminder of what you were fighting for. The people of West Berlin were amazing. They taught me how much I took for granted. They taught me resilience and poise under the most difficult of circumstances. They taught me what good wine and what good beer was. Most importantly they taught me that the values we shared could survive any ideology, any foe, even an attempt to starve it to death. They were living proof of that. It was an honor to stand watch and defend them.
When the Wall came down it sent a clear message to the world that the rights of men and women to determine their own destiny, to be free to hold whatever ideas seemed good and right to them still had the power to transform nations. The power could be seen in all its glory in the streets of the city we once again simply called Berlin.
As I write this Angela Merkel has told what remains of ‘the West’ that they can no longer count on America. Indictments of Russian interference in our 2016 Presidential election have been released. We have a President who is suspected of entering into collusion with the Russians to steal the election. He currently is refusing to sign into law the strict sanctions against Russia the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed. Our love for freedom has morphed into a fetish for guns at whose altar we will gladly sacrifice our children by the dozens. We have Nazis marching in our streets and running people down with cars. We have turned hate into a virtue. But, as I write this, it appears that a nascent democracy is trying to birth itself in Iran. They are shouting down the Mullahs, burning Korans and Hijabs in the street and are willing to risk it all for the values they hold and the rights they demand. I hear the echos of the voices I heard on the streets of West Berlin in the shouts of the young people marching in the streets of Iran. It is good to see the revolution of 1776 is still alive and well in the world. It is sad to see it dying here in the land that started it all.
One question still unanswered in biology and one that is of special interest to me is what happened to our evolutionary branch that made us so different than our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree, the chimpanzees and bonobos? Putting aside supernatural explanations as well as wild speculation about aliens doing genetic experiments on our race as something to do while taking a break from construction of the pyramids, the correct explanation will be provided by science.
An excellent article on the Smithsonian’s webpage states that the difference between our DNA and our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree is about 1.5%. It is within this difference that the mutations that make us uniquely human are most likely to found. There are various conjectures at this point but the one that rings the most true to me comes from a talk given by Dr. Brian Thomas Swimme which I was fortunate to stumble across a few years ago. The narrative goes something like this:
When you compare human infants and chimpanzee infants the similarities are striking. As they develop, like most mammals, the young enter a period of play and exploration necessitating a constant eye on them by the mother and the extended family. This period of play by young mammals is observable in all other species of mammals such as dogs, cats, bears lions, and even Orcas. In most mammals this period is short lived compared to humans, even in species that have comparative lifespans to ours. Soon after this phase in most other mammals the genetic programs kick in and the adult forms emerge complete with the physique and skills necessary to be lion, or a chimp or any other adult mammal. Not so with the human. It appears that the genetic programs that are activated in our closest and most distant cousins are not activated in humans. We retain a lot of the physical and mental features we had in childhood and adolescence. How might this be explained and what are the implications for us as humans?
There is a set of genes called the Hox genes which control the rate of development in animals. The conjecture is that there was a mutation or a series of mutations in the Hox genes in humans which resulted in the slowing down of our development. While most species’ young stay in that playful and explorative phase for a brief time, humans in many ways never develop out of it. We retain that wonder and drive to explore our surroundings throughout our entire lives. In other words, compared to other mammals, members of our species never completely ‘grow up’ and the genetic programs that kick in to make a Chimpanzee a Chimpanzee never kick in for the human. As Swimme speculates, there are profound meanings for us if this is the case. We retain that wonder and, as we mature, it changes into a desire to know and understand. We retain that playfulness and our desire to play and enjoy ourselves still fills us with longing. There are also other implications to this. When the genetic programs kick in to transform a tiger cub into an adult tiger all the necessary knowledge and skills are included. No one has to teach a tiger how to be a tiger; the DNA does that. In humans, this is not so. The adult genetic programs, specifically the ones telling us ‘how to adult’ never get turned on. What does this mean? In a very real sense it means that humans don’t know what they should do. Lions and tigers and bears don’t suffer from the search for meaning and purpose, a search that seems to have afflicted humans throughout our history.
It is an interesting conjecture that, on the face of it, seems to point in the direction to where our uniqueness as a species can be found. I’m hopeful that I will still be alive when the conjecture becomes theory.