Archive for July, 2007

July 14, 2007


Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia by John Gray is one of those books that has attracted wildly differing reviews.

Much of the book is taken up with detailed accounts of the players and actions in and around the Iraq War, not least Tony Blair – since this disaster exemplifies Gray’s thesis, that utopian politics leads to human misery and catastrophe. An anecdote that Gray used in a talk last week adds another dimension. When Karl Rove occupied a few rooms in the White House that had previously been used by Hilary Clinton, from which to run one of his election operations, he had them exorcised by a priest. In other words, even in the most self-confessedly secular state, religion re-emerges in the most unlikely places, and like Freud’s repressed desires, often with powerfully disturbing consequences.

Gray also argues that since the Enlightenment and the French Terror, violence has come to be seen as a tool of progress, as opposed to an option of last resort as Just War Theory has it. This was obviously the case in Communist Russian and Moaist China but also obtains in neo-conservative America and Britain. This is a religious belief reinvented since it is based upon apocalyptic myths, in which the last days will witness horrors before the new age is born; violence is a necessary even desirable stage through which to pass. Even atheistic humanism doesn’t escape this synthesis of two apparently innate human capacities – religion and violence: its myths of progress – that mistake the accumulation of scientific knowledge for the advancement of humankind – are purged of doubt and so cannot fundamentally doubt themselves.

this here is, of course, my favourite part:

In one of the best aimed jibes in the book, Gray argues that Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett et al – the evangelical atheists – are really members of a late Christian sect: only someone from a Protestant culture could believe that people can be changed if only they would change their beliefs about the world. It is the same dynamic as the evangelical who believes that someone becomes a new person if they rationally accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.

Preach it John Gray, preach it! As the Bard would have said: they do protest too much, methinks…

July 13, 2007

File sharing and open source software

I think our moral sense is evolving as quickly as computer and the internet is. I don’t think i’m the only one who makes sure he’s preparing his tea doing something, anything in the kitchen while the MPAA’s incredibly annoying educational ad plays in the living-room at the beginning of the DVD. No one believes the MPAA when they equate stealing a cow with ripping a DVD or downloading the Beatles.

Our moral sense has changed and adopted to the new media. We believe digital music or video files follow the same ethical rules as Free software: we’ll buy it from you if you make a real nice and convenient package (like iTunes), but it is the service, not the file for which we are paying. The latter should be freely available: because it cost’s no one anything to download it, i.e. to reproduce it.

I don’t think the foundational intuitions of our morality (don’t kill, steal or lie) have changed, but they’ve adapted to new media and now look very different.

The problem is figuring out how to reconcile our new morality with our economics. That however, should not be our, but rather the businessperson’s  problem opportunity.

Finally, a word on evolving morals: there is no right and true moral stance. There are many of them. I do not wish to decide between the MPAA and the PirateBay, though my sympathies lie with the latter – which does spell trouble for the former in the long run. There is not a new morality that must replace the old one. There are conflicting moralities that need to fight it out and see who wins. It is the evolutionary clash between competing memes that will eventually produce a better , fitter morality – though like all things human living, it’ll work but it certainly won’t be perfect. End of rambling.

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July 13, 2007

Douglas Adams on artificial gods

BoingBoing links to a podcast of a speech Douglas Adams gave in 1998. Here is an excerpt of a (somewhat poor quality) recording:

 So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!

To me it seems like Adams is saying that our old gods solved a cognitive and evolutionary problem and that we need to figure out, now that the old gods don’t do the trick any more for us scientifically-minded types, how to solve those still existing problems with new ideas. Apparently he thinks the new ideas will, unsurprisingly, resemble the old ones, only that they will be artificial this time around.

What is particularly interesting about Adams’ point of view is that it is practical – and not theoretical. Adams is not trying to figure out if it is TRUE that “God exists” or “God does not exist” (he obviously believes the latter to be more true). He is asking “How useful is the idea of God?” and his answer is surprisingly more positive than much of what we hear today. In effect, Adams, the comic, is doing biology much better than a Dawkins is, because evolution does not care in the end if something is true or not – it only cares how well it works and how to improve it. And that is precisely what Adams is suggesting. If the idea of a gigantic clockmaker doesn’t really work for us any longer, let’s fix it – not throw it away! Amen.

Link to transcript, Link to MP3