Friday, April 25, 2008

A Few Good Links - Culture, Transhumanism, Atheism

In case you missed it, and I did, Jared Diamond had a great article over at The New Yorker, Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?

Diamond looks at the relatively recent advent of the state system and the fact that tribal methods of dealing with revenge are still widespread (my comment: including Iraq, which is why democracy will never work as the country now exists).
State government is now so nearly universal around the globe that we forget how recent an innovation it is; the first states are thought to have arisen only about fifty-five hundred years ago, in the Fertile Crescent. Before there were states, Daniel’s method of resolving major disputes—either violently or by payment of compensation—was the worldwide norm. Papua New Guinea is not the only place where those traditional methods of dispute resolution still coexist uneasily with the methods of state government. For example, Daniel’s methods might seem quite familiar to members of urban gangs in America, and also to Somalis, Afghans, Kenyans, and peoples of other countries where tribal ties remain strong and state control weak. As I eventually came to realize, Daniel’s thirst for vengeance and his hostility to rival clans are really not so far from our own habits of mind as we might like to think.
And this . . .
Though we might wonder how Daniel’s society came to revel in killing, ethnographic studies of traditional human societies lying largely outside the control of state government have shown that war, murder, and demonization of neighbors have been the norm. Modern state societies rate as exceptional by the standards of human history, because we instead grow up learning a universal code of morality that is constantly hammered into us: promulgated every week in our churches and codified in our laws. But the differences between the norms of states and of Handa clan society are not actually so sharp. In times of war, even modern state societies quickly turn the enemy into a dehumanized figure of hatred, only to enjoin us to stop hating again as soon as a peace treaty is signed. Such contradictions confuse us deeply. Neither pacific ideals nor wartime hatreds, once acquired, are easily jettisoned. It’s no wonder that many soldiers who kill suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. When they come home, far from boasting about killing, as a Nipa tribesman would, they have nightmares and never talk about it at all, unless to other veterans.

Then, too, for Americans old enough to recall our hatred of Japan after Pearl Harbor, Daniel’s intense hatred of the Ombals may not seem so remote. After Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of American men volunteered to kill and did kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese, often in face-to-face combat, by brutal methods that included bayonets and flamethrowers. Soldiers who killed Japanese in particularly large numbers or with notable bravery were publicly decorated with medals, and those who died in combat were posthumously remembered as heroes. Meanwhile, even among Americans who had never seen a live Japanese soldier or the dead body of an American relative killed by the Japanese, intense hatred and fear of Japanese became widespread. Traditional New Guineans, by contrast, have from childhood onward often seen warriors going out and coming back from fighting; they have seen the bodies of relatives killed by the enemy, listened to stories of killing, heard fighting talked about as the highest ideal, and witnessed successful warriors talking proudly about their killings and being praised for them. If New Guineans end up feeling unconflicted about killing the enemy, it’s because they have had no contrary message to unlearn.

Diamond seems to be describing the tribal/egocentric stages of human development. Westerners tend to forget that other parts of the world have different ways of dealing with things than we do. What seems crucial in looking at this article is the recognition that cultures can use and manipulate modern technologies without updating their tribal worldview. The is, in part, why we soon see tribesmen in African nations carrying cell phones.

Elsewhere, Adbusters has an article up -- Our Electric Brain -- that looks at the efforts to create conscious in a computer -- with goal of modeling the human mind in all its incredible complexity.

If you’ve been fussing over a birthday gift for the sci-fi nut or armchair transhumanist in your life, consider a ticket to Lausanne, Switzerland. That’s where, in one corner of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, an IBM supercomputer is quietly making some fitful first steps toward consciousness.

Its name is Blue Brain. Its job is to simulate, at the cellular level, the interaction of neurons. Launched as a collaboration with IBM in 2005, its makers have taken it as far as simulating a basic computational unit of a two-week-old rat’s brain. This single neocortical column – around 10,000 neurons locked into 30 million synaptic handshakes – has been doing what they had hoped it would do, which is act much like a real bundle of neurons. What’s especially remarkable is that it accomplishes this feat from the bottom-up, with the complexity emerging from the behaviors of the individually modeled parts alone.

Though the brains behind Blue Brain initially played coy about it, the ultimate goal here is not some disembodied and deranged rat in a digital cage; the ultimate goal is an accurate simulation of a whole human brain, one that, if all goes according to plan, exhibits human-like consciousness. As Henry Markram, the neuroscientist who directs the Blue Brain Project, explained in the February issue of Seed magazine, “Consciousness is just a massive amount of information being exchanged by trillions of brain cells. If you can precisely model that information, then I don’t know why you wouldn’t be able to generate a conscious mind.”

Today, that goal appears very far off. With two million or so neocortical columns in the human brain, scaling up the current simulation architecture would require hundreds of billions of dollars worth of the Blue Gene/L supercomputers it runs on now. Nevertheless, Markram is optimistic that they’ll be able to simulate a human brain on one computer in 10 years or less.

Good luck with that. The author points out that it took Microsoft five years to create the mess that is Vista. Do they really think they can model the human mind in electric circuits in just ten years?

New York Magazine looks at the fastest growing faith in America -- no faith. In If God Is Dead, Who Gets His House?, Sean McManus examines the strange idea that some atheists want a church in which not to worship. Huh?
The fastest-growing faith in the country is no faith at all. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of its “Religious Landscape” survey in February and found that 16 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. The number is even greater among young people: 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now identify with no religion, up from 11 percent in a similar survey in 1986. For most of its modern history, atheism has existed as a kind of civil-rights movement. Groups like American Atheists have functioned primarily as litigants in the fight for church-state separation, not as atheist social clubs. “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people who don’t feel like they need an organization,” says Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists for the past thirteen years. “They’re so independent that if they want to get involved, they usually don’t join an organization—they start their own.”

The quartet of best-selling authors who have emerged to write the gospel of New Atheism—Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Dawkins (the Four Horsemen, as they are now known)—has succeeded in mainstreaming atheism in a nation that is still overwhelmingly religious and, in the process, catalyzed a reexamination of atheistic raison d’être. But for some atheist foot soldiers, this current groundswell is just a consciousness-raising stop on the evolutionary train, the atheist equivalent of the Stonewall riots. For these people, the Four Horsemen have only started the journey. Atheism’s great awakening is in need of a doctrine. “People perceive us as only rejecting things,” says Ken Bronstein, the president of a local group called New York City Atheists. “Everybody wants to know, ‘Okay, you’re an atheist, now what?’ ”

So some atheists are taking seriously the idea that atheism needs to stand for things, like evolution and ethics, not just against things, like God. The most successful movements in history, after all—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.—all have creeds, cathedrals, schools, hierarchies, rituals, money, clerics, and some version of a heavenly afterlife. Churches fill needs, goes the argument—they inculcate ethics, give meaning, build communities. “Science and reason are important,” says Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard University. “But science and reason won’t visit you in the hospital.”

Many atheist sects are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations, much like Ethical Culture. They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing. But this impulse is fueling a growing schism among atheists. Many of them see churches as part of the problem. They want to throw out the baby and the bathwater—or at least they don’t see the need for the bathwater once the baby is gone.

When a good idea becomes institutionalized -- think the teachings of Jesus or the insights of Buddha and the "religions" they spawned, things have no place to go but down the slippery slope of dogma.

The article also looks a bit at the problems some atheists have with The Four Horsemen and their militant stance against ALL forms of religion and faith (in all fairness, Sam Harris is more open-minded than the others, as is Dan Dennett in a lesser way). And it also looks at the disagreement among the four as what they really stand for (revealing that the four main voices all have different agendas, despite the media -- and bloggers -- wanting to lump them all together as one unit).
The Four Horsemen haven’t completely turned their back on the movement they’ve helped to ignite. In addition to working on a children’s book about evolution to be published in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, Richard Dawkins has launched his Web-based out campaign to encourage atheists to come out of the closet. In lieu of a rainbow flag, he sells T-shirts with the scarlet letter A. Sam Harris, who says playing the victim is the wrong approach, is starting something called the Reason Project, bringing entertainers into the movement to further atheism’s passage into the mainstream. Celebrity atheists like Bill Maher, Ian McKellen, and Julia Sweeney, whose one-woman show Letting Go of God, is a big hit at atheist conferences, have been vital to the renewed energy behind the movement. “Nobody is satisfied with the profusion of groups and meetings,” says Harris. “My starting yet another organization is unhelpful on that front.”

At this point, the movement can’t even agree on a name. Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, prefers the term anti-theist because he’s entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect frightening, the spiritual equivalent of living in North Korea. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he has said, is “modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual adoption of the word gay.” (In the first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens dismisses the term as conceited.) And Sam Harris, brash young scientist that he is, triggered a minor revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term atheist, disparaging those who identify with a negation. “It reverberated in atheist circles as a sacrilege,” Harris told me. “But what’s worse is adopting language that was placed on us by religious people. We don’t feel the need to brand ourselves non-astrologers or non-racists.”

Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.” Even Richard Dawkins is not one to reject certain memes based on their churchly pedigree. He calls himself a “cultural Christian,” admitting that he likes to sing Christmas carols as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit to his tolerance of religion. He can see the tactical virtues of making temporary alliances with religion—to “hold hands with religious people” when it comes to making the case for important causes like teaching evolution in the classroom. But there are definite limits. “In the larger war against supernaturalism, frankly, it doesn’t help to fraternize with the enemy,” he says.

I tend to agree that taking on the framework of religion is a bad idea. On the other hand, some form of community -- an atheist sangha -- might help atheists fell less like victims in a hyper-religious culture.

Finally, a couple of quick links:

~ Anthropology and Neuroscience Podcasts -- Very cool collection of links provided by Neuroanthropology.
~ recent books on consciousness -- A cool collections of book reviews in the area of mind, consciousness, and cognitive science from my mind on books.

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