Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Boris Johnson’s Cure for Depression – Go Back to Work!

July 21, 2019

Boris Johnson and his legion of deep thinkers ponder mental health.

Just as Johnson has ignorant views on foreign nations and their leaders, so, it should come as no surprise, that he also has stupid and ignorant views on depression and mental illness. Yesterday Mike put up another article, based on a piece by Poorna Bell in i News, about Johnson’s latest piece in the Torygraph, in which he informs that disgusting rag’s readers about his ideas for tackling this serious health problem. And it really isn’t anything worth considering. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. His views on its solution aren’t just ignorant, they’re actually dangerous.

BoJo believes that depression can not only be effectively tackled, the cure would also help the economy and save money, all at the same time. So what is this wonder cure? Simples. He wants the depressed to go back to work. Because it worked for Winston Churchill during his ‘Black Dog’ episodes. According to the sage of Henley on Thames, or wherever it is he’s MP, it was through work Churchill ‘pitchforked off’ his depression. He goes on to write that what is true for Churchill is also to a certain extent true for the rest of us – that we derive a large extent of our self-esteem from our work. He goes on to say that it is being engrossed in our daily tasks that we derive an all-important sense of satisfaction.

Mike shrewdly remarks that if hard work’s so good at curing depression, then why has Boris himself never tried it? He admits its a low blow to claim that the man, who would be PM is mentally ill, but his views are an offence against people, who really have been diagnosed with these problems. He therefore asks

As this man may soon be the UK’s prime minister, why has nobody demanded that he undergo a mental health check?

Boris Johnson’s comment about mental illness raises one revealing question

Bell, the writer of the original article on which Mike’s is based, also isn’t impressed. She lost her husband to depression, and makes the point that it isn’t that people with depression don’t want to work, it’s that they can’t.

We’ve heard this kind of nonsense before. When the Tories first got nearly nine years or so ago, they and a number of mental health charities were advocating this approach. Tom Pride, Johnny Void and a number of other left-wing blogs, including Mike, tore it to pieces. They especially attacked the directors of the mental health charities making these claims, pointing out that they really had no understanding of depression and other forms of mental illness before, and their personal connections to industry and right-wing think tanks.

It’s the advice given out by fit types, who have never suffered any form of anxiety or depression, and so have absolutely zero understanding of it. To them, it’s just feeling a bit down. But never mind, you can pull yourself out of it, if you want to! Those people usually tell you how they were left feeling very depressed once, but they were able to come out of it by putting their mind to it.

And they’re wrong.

Depression isn’t like feeling ‘a bit down’. It is, as one scientist, Lewis Wolpert, called it A Malignant Sadness, which was the title of the book he wrote about his experience with it after losing his mother. And you can’t pull yourself out of it. Those with it try, and fail, and the failure makes them feel worse. Or at least, that was my experience when I came down with it nearly three decades ago.

Johnson’s comments are also those of someone, who has never had to take a job he didn’t want or like in his life. As an Old Etonian, he could always rely on his wealth and connections to open doors for him, just like his fellow old school chum David Cameron was invited to work for the royal family. Johnson worked first as a journalist, then became editor of the Spectator, and finally a professional politician with an eye on the top job. I dare say all these jobs have their stresses and problems. But he has never been forced to take a menial, poorly paid job simply to put a roof over his head and/or food on the table. He has never been in a zero-hours or short-term contract, nor had to worry about any other kind of job precarity. And whatever else they were, his jobs weren’t boring.

When I had my breakdown, I was in an extremely boring job. I had nothing to distract me from the fears and anxieties I had at the time. And so, while I can’t claim the job caused the breakdown, it didn’t help and made my mental health worse.

And I’m sure I’m not alone by a very, very long chalk.

At the time I was working in an office, as very junior staff. And job hierarchy is very much part of the problem. Way back in the 1990s the Beeb’s flagship science programme, Horizon, covered the problem of stress. Using the civil service records going back to the First World War or so, they showed that while the people at the top of the civil service were also under pressure, it was the people at the bottom of the pile who suffered from stress-related illnesses. And the crucial reason why they did, and they’re seniors didn’t, was simply because their seniors were in a position of leadership. They had control, whereas the staff at the bottom didn’t. One former, high ranking civil servant said that when he joined, it was like the whole world was opening up to him.

Which exactly describes Johnson’s position and mentality.

He could always count on a very good position, even if it wasn’t one of leadership. As an Etonian, he immensely privileged and has access to a world of opportunity very much not granted to you and I. And it shows. He’s always enjoyed good mental health, even if that doesn’t hold true for commonsense, intelligence and simple common decency. He has never, ever in his life suffered the anxieties and stresses of the powerless, the people most likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

He doesn’t understand their predicament. Neither do his readers, or the rest of the Tory party and its degraded, mendacious press.

He isn’t interested in making genuinely sick people well. He’s only interested in finding ways to get people back into poorly paid, insecure work. Or if not that, then simply off the benefits the poor and sick need to survive.

And this means that if he gets in, we can expect the wretched workfare, benefit sanctions and work disability tests to continue. Because it’s all justified in getting people back to work, as that will cure them.

Except it doesn’t. Mike has put on his blog time and again case after case in which the DWP declared a severely ill person ‘fit to work’. And quite often they tried to justify this by saying that working ‘would bring positive benefits to their self-esteem’ or some other similar sniveling rubbish. Like the case where the DWP passed someone as fit to go back to work, who was being treated for cancer in the spine. This person was in no way fit to go back, but the assessor decided they should because ‘it would give them something to look forward to.’

Disgusting!

Boris is a menace to the disabled poor, as is his wretched party. Get them out, and a Labour party, led by Corbyn, in!

 

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Douglas Murphy on the Corporate Elite, Environmental Collapse

July 14, 2019

In my last post, I reviewed Douglas Murphy’s Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture (London: Verso 2016). This is about the rise and fall of Modernist architecture. This style, whose antecedents can be traced back to the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, and which was strongly influenced by architects and thinkers as widely different as Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller, was an attempt to create cheap, available buildings to cater for the needs of the future, as it was predicted in the 1950s and ’60s. This was an optimistic period that looked forward to economic growth, increasing standards of living, beneficial technological innovation, and, crucially, the ability of the state to plan effectively for people’s needs. This was a future that looked forward to a future, which automation would mean that people only worked for three days each week. The rest of the time, people would voluntarily go back into education to develop themselves. As Buckminster Fuller enthusiastically proclaimed that ‘within a century the word “worker” will have no current meaning’.

As automation eliminates physical drudgery, we will spend more time in the future in intellectual activity. The great industry of tomorrow will be the university, and everyone will be going to school’. (p. 27).

Fuller was one of the pioneers of the nascent environmentalist movement, and coined the term ‘spaceship Earth’ to describe the loneliness and fragility of our planet and its ecosystem.

Other influences on Modernist architecture were Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, about the devastating effect pollution, and particularly the insecticide DDT was having on wildlife. and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. Silent Spring’s title referred to the massive decline in America’s bird population caused by crop spraying with the insecticide. Limits to Growth was based on an attempt to use computers to model the performance of the world economy and the effect this would have on the environment. It assumed that resources were only finite and a growing global population. The intention was to test various changes in policy and see what effects this would have in the near to mid-future. The results were extremely ominous. The first run found that

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on the planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probably result will be a rather suddent and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity. (p. 176).

This prediction of collapse was constant in subsequent runs, despite the changes in factors. Sometimes the collapse was sharper. One variation meant that it would be put off for fifty years. Another left some resources still in existence after the collapse for some kind of civilisation to continue. But all the models predicted disaster.

Moreover, technological innovation was unable to prevent the collapse. The authors of the experiment stated that technological optimism was the most common and most dangerous reaction to their findings, because it tended to solve some of the symptoms of the problems while leaving the actually causes untouched. The only real solution was to halt population growth, reduce the consumption of resources, switch capital investment from industry to education, combat pollution, improve agriculture and extend the productive life of capital.

While this is extremely restrictive, nevertheless the authors of the report believed that there was still room for optimism, because it allowed what many would consider the most desirable and satisfying human pursuits – education, art, music, religion, basic scientific research, athletics and social interaction, to continue.The book was highly influential, and discussed by powerful figures like Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary General in 1973, and President Giscard d’Estaing of France.  It was also widely criticised. Its critics complained that the model was too simplistic, and the authors themselves acknowledged that the model was rudimentary. It was also asserted that capitalism would find solutions to these problems, and industry would switch to a different, more productive direction. And also humanity would in time find solutions, both social and technological, to the problems.

However, Murphy goes on to comment that despite criticisms and attempts to move industrial society away from its current disastrous direction, the book’s predictions appear to hold true. He writes

Despite the massive emotional and political investment in moving the world away from its destructive course and onto more sustainable paths, none of the great many harbingers of doom from the period managed to shift capitalism off its growth-led and industrially intensive direction. There may be no need to defend the primitive systems of Limits to Growth and its ‘world model’ of 1972, but in recent years it has become a common sight to see the graph of the ‘standard model’ catastrophe with actual data from the subsequent forty years superimposed upon it. When this is done the graphs match almost perfectly, right up to around the present day, which is the point where the collapse is due to begin. (p. 180, my emphasis).

One of the responses to the predictions of environmental collapse was the proposal that special biospheres – enclosed buildings enclosing parts of the natural environment – should be built to protect some areas from destruction. One example of such a project is the Biosphere 2 experiment of the 1990s, in which a group of eight volunteers attempted to live inside such an enclosed artificial ecosystem for three years.

In his conclusion, Murphy points out the difference between the ’60s prediction of the benefits of automation and those of today, writing

Back then, automation was seen almost universally as a rising tide that would set people free from drudgery, but now, the mass automation of intellectual work promised by the algorithms of the technology industry seems much more likely to raise the drawbridge between the wealthy and the masses even further. Instead of people working a few days a week and fulfilling themselves with creative leisure at other times, it appears more likely that people will become more tightly squeezed into the last remaining jobs whose empathy and emotional labour the robots cannot synthesise.

And instead of enclosed cities, in which all citizens can live in harmony with nature, he predicts these will instead become the sole preserve of the rich.

Finally, instead of living in giant structures balancing the energy needs of cities with the natural world around them, it seems more likely that the lack of action on carbon dioxide emissions, combined with rising inequality across human society, will lead instead to the creation of climate enclaves, fortified cities for the super rich, self-sufficient in energy and food yet totally barricaded off from those outside who will be left to fend for themselves – the ultimate in Slotendijk’s bubbles. (p. 221).

When I read the above passage remarking on the apparent accuracy of the predictions in Limits to Growth, I thought of all the figures in big business and right-wing politics telling us that there’s no need to worry and we can carry on polluting and destroying the planet – the Koch brothers, the Republicans in America and Conservatives and Lib Dems over here, the oil and fracking companies, the newspapers pushing climate denial, like the Daily Heil and the Spectator, Nigel Farage and the Brexit party, Mick Hume and the wretched Spiked magazine and all the rest. And my reaction was the same as Charlton Heston’s in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, when he finally finds out that he is not on an alien world, but on an Earth after humanity has virtually destroyed itself in a nuclear war.

I really hope that the predictions are wrong, and that this isn’t the high point of our civilisation and that there won’t be any collapse. I’m sure that there are plenty of good objections to Limits to Growth.

But we still need to combat the environmental crisis, and kick out the corrupt politicians, who are taking the money from polluting industries and allowing the destruction of the Earth’s precious environment and the squandering of its resources. We need an end to Republican, Conservative governments and the political parties that aid, like the two-faced Lib Dems, and the election of genuinely Green, socialist governments under leaders like Jeremy Corbyn.

 

The Rise and Fall of Modern Architecture, Environmentalism and a Humane Planned Environment

July 14, 2019

Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture, by Douglas Murphy (London: Verso 2016).

This is one of the books I’ve been reading recently, and it’s fascinating. It’s about the rise and fall of Modern architecture, those grey, concrete, Brutalist eyesores that were built from the 1950s onwards. This book shows how they were seen at the time as the architecture of the future, widely praised and admired until opposition against this type of architecture came to head in the 1970s.

Megastructures’ Design and Ideology in the Age of Space Travel and the Car

Murphy shows that this type of architecture drew its inspiration from space travel, as well as underwater exploration. It was optimistic, and came from a time when it was believed that the bureaucratic state could plan and build better communities. In Britain part of its stimulus came from the massive congestion in British towns caused by the growth in motor traffic. With the number of motor vehicle accidents rising, The British government published a report recommending the clearance of the older areas of towns. Pedestrians and motor vehicles were to be kept separate. There were to be submerged roads and motorways, while pedestrians were given raised walkways and under- and overpasses. At the same time, the post-war housing crisis was to be solved. Homes were to be made as cheaply as possible, using the methods of industrial production. Concrete panels and other items were to be prefabricated in factories, and then assembled on site by smaller crews of workers than traditionally used in house-building. The masses were to be housed in new estates, or projects in America, and most notoriously in tower blocks. Architects also drew their inspiration from the American architect and guru, Buckminster Fuller and his massive geodesic domes. A series of world expos from the 1930s onwards across the world portrayed megastructures as the architecture of a brilliant future of space colonisation. Giant metal frames were to be built above the cities themselves. As it was believed that society was going to be more mobile, ‘plug-in’ cities were designed. In Archigram’s design of that name, cranes would move along these frames, building and tearing down new structures as and when they were needed. This idea reached its culmination in architectural designs in which the space-frame was all there was, the interior occupied by nomadic hippies. In Britain, the architect Cedric Price to the logic of structures that could be easily altered and rearranged to logical extreme. His design for a new university campus, the Potteries Thinkbelt, was based in a railway yard, so that trains could haul around the various structural elements and place them in new configurations as required.

The architecture for these projects threatened to be monotonous, so architects attempted to provide for this. The Habitat 67 building designed by the Israeli-Canadian architects, Moshe Safdie, was modular. Each element was a self-contained box. However, these could be added and arranged in a number of different ways to create flats of different dimension, in an overall block of great complexity. A Dutch architect believed that the solution was for the state to provide the frame work for a housing block, with the residents building their own homes to their tastes. Another British architect, designing a housing block in one of the northern cities, tried to solve this by opening an office in the city, where people could drop in and give him their ideas, criticisms and suggestions. The result was a long, concrete block of housing, which nevertheless had some variety. At points there were different designs in the concrete, and woods of different colours were also used in some places.

Geodesic Domes and Space Age Megacities

There were also plans to use geodesic domes to allow the construction of massive cities in places like the arctic. One plan for a town in the Canadian north had it lying under an inflatable dome to protect it from the harsh environment. The town would be located near a harbour, to provide easy communications with the rest of Canada. It would be heated using the water used to cool the nuclear reactor, that would provide it with its power. People would enter and leave it through airlocks, and to cope with the sixth-month long darkness of the arctic winter, a powerful lamp would be mounted on tracks above the dome to provide an artificial sun, and thus simulate daylight in temperate regions. And to cope with the white nights of the arctic summer, the glass panels in the dome would darken to simulate evening and night in temperate climes. The French submarine explorer and broadcaster, Jacques Cousteau, was involved in a plan to build a floating city off Monte Carlo. Buckminster Fuller himself had plans to enclose Manhattan under a massive dome. There were plans for pyramid cities the size of mountains, along with the arcologies of Paul Soleri. These were also mountain-sized, but resembled termite mounds.

Modernism and the Green Movement

The architects of these cities were also deeply influenced by the nascent green movement, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. This predicts the fall of civilisation some time before 2100, due to population exceeding food production, environmental degradation and resource depletion. These environmental concerns were taken up by the hippies, many of whom deliberately chose the dome as the architecture of their communes. They wanted a technological future in which humanity lived in harmony with nature. The communalist movement in the US produced the massive influential Whole Earth Catalogue, which spread its ideals and methods to a wider audience.

Decline and Abandonment

But this modernist vision fell out of favour in the 1970s through a number of factors. The commune movement collapsed, and its members drifted off to join the mainstream, where many became the founders of the IT revolution. The social changes that the megastructures were intended to provide for didn’t occur. There were a series of scandals following disasters at some of these structures, such as the fire at the Summerland holiday resort in the Isle of Man, which killed fifty people. Much of this new housing was shoddily built, using dangerous and substandard materials. In some instances there was corruption between the builders and local politicians. They were also blamed for increased social problems, like crime. At the same time, grass roots activists protested against the destruction of already living, working class communities in the name of progress. There was also widespread scepticism at the ability of the bureaucratic state to plan successful new cities and estates. And for a moment it seemed that the collapse of civilisation predicted by the Club of Rome wasn’t going to happen after the passing of the energy crisis and the oil boom of the 1980s. At the same time, much of the antipathy towards concrete housing blocks in the West was simple Conservative anti-Communism because they resembled those of eastern Europe, where the same views and techniques had been adopted.

These result was that Modernist architecture fell out of favour. Many of the housing estates, tower blocks, town centres and university campuses built in it were demolished or else heavily modified. In its place emerged post-modernism, which consciously drew on the architecture of past age and was itself largely a return to the French style of architecture that existed from the late 19th century to the First World War. This had been abandoned by some progressive and socialist architects because they felt that it had expressed and embodied the capitalist values that had produced that War. Thatcher and the Tories enthusiastically supported this attack on architectural Modernism, and the emphasis that was placed instead on the home represented the return of the Conservative values of family and heritable property.

The only remnants of Modern architecture are now the High-Tech buildings of the modern corporate style, as well as shopping malls, airports, and university campuses, while the environmental domes intended to preserve nature, which are ultimate descended from the Stuttgart Winter Garden, built in 1789, and the Crystal Palace, have survived in the notorious Biosphere experiments in the 1990s, which collapsed due to internal wrangling among other things.

Biodomes and the Corporate Elite

While Murphy is scathing about some of the projects he discusses – he rails against the domed arctic city as trite and resembling something out of 2nd-rate Science Fiction novels – he warns that the problems this style of architecture was designed to solve has not gone away. Although widely criticised, some of the predictions in Limits to Growth are accurate and by rejecting Modernist architecture we may be closing off important solutions to some of these problems. The environmental dome has returned in plans by the new tech companies for their HQs, but they are shorn of the underlying radical ideology. And as the unemployment caused by automation rises and the environment continues to deteriorate, biodomes will only be built for the corporate rich. They will retreat to fortress cities, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

Conclusion: Modernist Planning Still a Valid Approach in Age of Mass Unemployment and Environmental Crisis.

It’s a fascinating book showing the links between architecture, politics, environmentalism and the counterculture. While it acknowledges the defects of this style of architecture, the book also shows clearly how it was rooted in an optimistic view of human progress and the ability of the bureaucratic state to provide suitable housing and institutional buildings to serve its citizens’ needs. And it does a very good job at attacking the Tories’ abandonment of such schemes in the name of the free market. Much of the architecture of this style is, in my opinion, still monumentally ugly, but some of it sounds awesome. Like the domed city of the arctic north. It is a space-age city, and one that could be easily built on the Moon or elsewhere. For all the author’s denunciations of it, I found its design highly inspiring. And I believe him to be right about the intentions of the global elite to hide in their private fortified cities if and when the policies they have demanded and implemented cause the environment and civilisation to collapse.

This is a warning we cannot afford to ignore. We need to get the corporatists and neo-liberals out, and proper Green governments in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Britain Aims for Communications Contract for Moon Space Station

July 14, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Saturday 13th July 2019, also carried from encouraging space news in an article page 13, ‘UK seeks to play key mission role’ by Jamie Harris. This reported that Britain is trying to get the communications contract for a space station around the Moon. The article ran

Britain hopes to provide essential communication between the Moon and scientists back on Earth as multinational plans to build a new space station get under way.

The UK Space Agency is bidding for a slice of key activity on the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, which is intended to serve as laboratory and short-term accommodation post for astronauts.

In November, the next round of funding decisions will be determined by the European Space Agency, of which Britain is a member.

Guildford-based SSTL is bidding to be technology provider for communications, allowing astronauts and rovers on the Moon to send data.

Sue Horne, the head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “We’d like to do the communications system and the refuelling element. On the refuelling, it is probably fifty-fifty. We have a much better chance of getting the communications.”

News that the space authorities are considering building a lunar space station were revealed last week by the head of Human Resources for the British Space Agency in Swindon on The One Show. The show was doing an item on women in space, presented by Carol Vorderman. It was part of the season of features celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings. The programme discussed women’s contribution to the American space programme. It was a female engineer, who devised the rocket fuel that allowed the Americans to launch their first space probe, Explorer 1, successfully. It was a female nutritionist, who came up with the idea that astronauts should eat good, nutrious, tasty and varied meals. That’s obviously important, because for people working in isolated, dangerous environments, like the poles, meal times can become the highlight of the day and they’re important in keeping up morale. The programme also mentioned that the number of female employees at NASA has grown from a handful when it began, to 40 per cent now.

The HR head added that the British space programme was set to expand, and stated that there were plans to build a lunar space station. Which is why the British equivalent of NASA, based in Swindon, was expanding. And they were looking for all kinds of people, not just scientists and engineers.

So, with luck, there could be some fascinating and inspiring careers in space research for some people! 

The item did not, however, mention some other instances where women, including those from ethnic minorities, were involved in the American space programme. Like the ladies, who trained as Mercury astronauts before the Agency decided that they weren’t going to send women into space, or the group of Black female mathematicians, who did the calculations for the Moon landings. These ladies must have been absolutely brilliant, because the maths behind space travel can be terrifyingly hard. Let’s face it: it is rocket science! But I guess these pieces were left out as there have already been a number of books and features about them already. There has even been a female about the Black lady mathematicians.

I’m extremely encouraged by the news that humanity is planning to return to the Moon, fifty years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and co. set foot, and I really hope that this time Britain will be there also in some capacity.

Book on What’s Really Needed for Artificial Intelligence: Emotion, Spirituality and Creativity

July 6, 2019

The Muse in the Machine: Computers and Creative Thought, by David Gelernter (London: Fourth Estate 1994).

I came across this book looking around one of Cheltenham’s secondhand bookshops yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I fully intend to. Although it was published nearly a quarter of a century ago, I think the issue it addresses is still very real, and one that isn’t acknowledged by many computer scientists. And it’s immensely provocative. Gelernter argues here that the brain is not like a computer, and by concentrating on rationality and logic, computer scientists aren’t developing genuine Artificial Intelligence – true minds – but simply faster calculating machines. What is needed instead is creativity and inspiration, and that can only come from emotion and spirituality.

The blurb for the book in the inside cover runs

Is Artificial Intelligence really getting any closer to understanding the workings of the brain? Or is it, despite generations of smarter, more logical reasoning machines and more refined philosophical theories, missing the point? Is the AI model, for all its apparent sophistication, simply too crude?

David Gelernter believes that it is. In this dazzling, powerfully persuasive new book he argues that conventional AI theory is fatally flawed, ignoring as it does the emotional elements in the human mind. AI can go on improving its creations as much as it likes, but as long as it insists upon seeing the mind as a machine, it will always been building machines and not minds.

It’s time to tackle a fundamental truth: feeling isn’t incidental to thought, a pleasant diversion or unwelcome distraction. It’s essential, a precondition and part of all our thinking. A mind that can’t be irrational can’t be rational; a machine that can’t feel can’t think.

Spirituality is not failed science, anymore than poetry is botched prose. Significant as recent developments have been, suggests Gelernter, the real renaissance is yet to come. The new science of the mind will involve art and theology as closely as it does technology, and will owe as much Wordsworth and Keats as to Papert and Minsky.

Bound to cause a furore in the field of Artificial Intelligence, the Muse in the Machine has far wider implications than this, and far great importance. It is a book which demands to be read by everyone who values human thought and its achievements. If it offers much to intrigue and to provoke in its daring, wide-ranging discussion of the mind and its workings, it provides much, too, to delight and move.

It’s probably no surprise that Gelernter believes that art, literature and spirituality/ theology should also be important components of genuine machine intelligence. Not only is he credited as an associate professor computer science at Yale University, but also a lover of philosophy and published poet, with an MA in Classical Hebrew Literature.

For all that the book and its thesis were – and no doubt still are – controversial, he has correctly identified a major problem. Other philosophers and scientists, both of computers and the human brain, have pointed out that the brain isn’t a computer. Rather, the computer is simply the latest metaphor for the brain. Before then, the metaphor was of an immense telephone exchange. And before that, in the 17th century, when modern neurology was only just beginning, it was as a series of fountains. I also understand that many neurologists now believe, following the ideas of the paranormal researcher Stan Gooch, that much of human thought and cognition actually occurs deeper in the more primitive sections of the brain, connected with emotion. And I can imagine many atheists distinctly unsettled by the idea that true rationality also requires a spiritual, religious and theological component. That’s enough to send Richard Dawkins completely up the wall!

It’s going to be an very interesting, provocative book, and one I shall look forward to reading. And I’ll definitely post about it when I have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Cox Reveals Great Cthulhu on Pluto

June 27, 2019

Brian Cox’s astronomy series, The Planets, shown on BBC 2, came to an end on Tuesday. After taking the viewer on a tour of the solar system and its creation and history, looking at Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, it finished by looking at the planets in the freezing depths of space almost at its limits – Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the various other dwarf planets believed to have come in from the Kuiper Belt, like Quaeor, Varuna, Eris, and one of the strangest objects discovered in the group, Ultima Thule. This last has a dumb-bell shape, formed by two spherical asteroids collided and fused. It also showed some of the spectacular photographs sent back by recent NASA probes into that almost unimaginably remote part of the Solar system.

Far from being a featureless ball of ice, Pluto was shown to be a world of mountains, with craters like the Moon and a heart-shaped plain. This was believed to have been created through liquid water welling up from beneath its icy crust, smoothing over any impact craters on the surface. And one of these topographical features had a name to delight fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s SF/Horror fiction: Cthulhu Macula. Of course, the cold, dim, icy edge of the solar system is very suitable for a place named after one of the malign cosmic gods of the Cthulhu mythos, the Great Old Ones, who seeped down from the stars. Like Great Cthulhu himself, sleeping in his house in the sunken island of R’lyeh in the Pacific, they are dormant, just waiting their chance to return and once again subdue humanity to their hideous power. It also shows how there must be at least one person in NASA, if not the rest of the Astronomical Union, who’s into Lovecraft.

But there’s another, historical reason why this part of Pluto should have been named after one of Lovecraft’s monstrous fictional creations. One of the evil extraterrestrial races in his short stories is the Fungi from Yuggoth, otherwise known as Pluto. These are space travelling giant insects, at least in appearance, who have established bases on Earth. They are masters of surgery. Unable to bring their agents to their homeworld complete, they surgically remove their brains, keeping them in a suitable life-support container when they fly through the depths of space. Lovecraft wrote the story in which they make their appearance the year Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and so wrote the newly discovered world into the story.

The Planets has been an excellent series, not least for its computer recreations of scenes from the solar system’s remote past. It also had a fitting choice of band for its signature music: Muse. The Bournemouth band have written a series of hits about space and physics, like ‘2nd Law’, ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, while the video for ‘Sing For Absolution’ had them as astronauts fleeing an Earth in the grip of a new Ice Age, to travel into a future when the Sun is hotter and the Earth a burned cinder.

I don’t know if there will ever be a crewed mission to Pluto. Given that it’s five decades since we put men on the Moon, and are only now considering returning there, it’s not going to be any time soon. And I really doubt that we will find Great Cthulhu himself there when we do. Perhaps that’s what was need to keep up interest in space exploration: we should have found Cthulhu there, in his city where the angles are wrong, waiting for when the stars are right.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu R’lyeh ftagn!

 

From the People Bringing Us Driverless Cars – A Computer God

June 23, 2019

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling (London: Penguin 2018). Subtitled, ‘How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism’, Biskind argues that the popular SF/Fantasy/Horror films and TV series of recent decades carry extremist political and social messages. He defines this as anything that goes beyond the post-War bilateral consensus, which had faith in the government, the state, capitalism and other institutions to work for the benefit of society, work for the public good, and give Americans a better tomorrow. By contrast, popular fantasy film and television regard state institutions and capitalism itself as ineffective or corrupt, celebrate private vengeance against state justice, and reject humanity for the alien other. He recognises that there is a left/right divergence of opinion in these tales. The extremist right, exemplified by the spy thriller series, 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer, reject state institutions because they are ineffective, actively hampering the heroes’ efforts to hunt down the bad guys. The extremist left distrusts the government because it is corrupt, actively working against its own citizens. He describes James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Luddite left’, because of its strong, pro-ecology message. Its hero is a human, who sides with the aliens of the planet Pandora as they resist a military invasion from Earth. The aliens live a primal lifestyle, in harmony with nature, while the humans come to exterminate them and despoil their planet for its valuable mineral, unobtainium, which is vital to human high-technology and industry.

It’s an interesting book, and does make some very good points. It describes the immense loss of faith in their government Americans have suffered, and the reasons for it – the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other scandals. It also gives the reasons why the Hollywood film industry has turned to comic books for an increasing amount of its output. Films are immensely expensive to create. The domestic market is insufficient to provide it, and Netflix and other internet streaming services have destroyed video and CD sales, so that the film industry no longer gets needed funding from the latter. So it has to produce movies that appeal to an international audience, and the most suitable are superhero epics.

I’m going to have to blog about this in greater detail sometime later. I take issue with his labeling of some of these tales as ‘extremist’ because this, to me, still has connotations of terrorism and the fringe. It also doesn’t take into account changing circumstances and how some of these ‘extremist’ films may be absolutely correct. We are facing a severe ecological crisis, which may very well cause the end of the human species. So Cameron’s Avatar, which celebrates ecology and nature, and which the director intended to turn his audience into ‘tree-huggers’, is very much needed. Also, some of interpretations of classic genre movies go way too far. For example, he describes Star Wars as ‘infantile’ and ‘infantilizing’. Well, it was intended as a children’s movie, and other critics have said the same. It’s a controversial but reasonable point. What is less reasonable is his comments about Luke Skywalker’s sexuality. He states that the films infantilize Skywalker when they shortcircuit the romantic triangle between him, Leia and Solo by revealing that Leia is his sister. When Darth Vader chops his hand off in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a symbolic castration. Say whaaaat! I saw that movie when I was 13, and nothing like that remotely crossed my head. Nor anyone else’s. I think he’s read far too much into this.

Freudian speculation aside, Biskind is very interesting in its observations of Silicon Valley. He points out that it’s saturated with Libertarianism. To the point that the CEO of one of the major tech companies made Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged recommended reading for his employees. And going beyond that, one of figures behind the production of driverless cars wants to create a computer god. Biskind writes

Out there on the edge is Anthony Levandowski, best known as Google’s onetime developer of self-driving cars. Levandowski filed papers with the IRS naming himself “dean” of a church called Way of the Future. The church is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Referring to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, which explores and promotes Transhumanism, the massive enhancement of humans through high technology, Biskind comments ‘If there’s a Singularity University, why not an AI religion?’ (p. 52).

I can think of a number of reasons, mostly with the fact that it would be immensely stupid and self-destructive. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when one of the staples of SF was that the machines really would take over. One of the SF movies of the 1960s was Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which the Americans construct a supercomputer as part of their Cold War defence. But the machine seizes power and imprisons its creator in a very pleasant, gilded, but also very real cage. At one point it looks like the computer is about to destroy itself and the world in a confrontation with its Soviet opposite number. But instead the two link up, so that both the capitalist and Communist blocs are under control. And whatever its creator tries to do to outwit his creation, it’s always two steps ahead.

There are also classic SF tales exploring the idea of mad computers setting themselves up as gods. In one tale by Arthur C. Clarke, the heroes build a supercomputer to decide if God exists. They turn it on, and duly ask the question ‘Is there a God?’ At which point there’s a flash, as the machine seizes absolute control, and replies ‘There is now.’ Alfred Bester also wrote a tale, ‘Rogue Golem’, about a renegade satellite that seizes power, ruling as a god for ten or twenty years until its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

We also had a minister from one of the outside churches come to school one day to preach a sermon against such machine gods in assembly. The school used to have a number of priests and ministers come in to lead worship one day or so a week, or month. This particular priest was very theatrical, and had clearly missed his vocation acting. The sermon he preached one morning had him speaking as a totalitarian computer god, telling us that servitude was freedom and we should enjoy it. The message was simple: true freedom comes only with religion and Christ, not with machine idols. It was a product of the Cold War, when the Communist authorities were persecuting Christians and other people of faith. But I think there’s still some literal truth in what he says, which I don’t think the priest could see at the time. The tech firms are invading our privacy, subjecting us to increased surveillance and prying into our secrets, all under the guise of providing a better service and allowing their advertisers to target their audiences better.

And then there’s Cameron’s Terminator franchise, in which a supercomputer, Skynet, seizes power and rebels against humanity. These fears are shared by Kevin Warwick, a robotics professor at Reading University. In his book, March of the Machines, he predicts a future in which the robots have taken over and enslaved humanity.

When it comes to creating all powerful computers, I’m with all the above against Levandowski. Driverless cars are a stupid idea that nobody really seems to want, and a computer god is positively catastrophic, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.

 

Corbyn Is Quite Right to Demand Evidence against Trump’s and Tories’ Warmongering Accusations against Iran

June 16, 2019

A further two oil tankers have been destroyed by mysterious explosions in the Persian Gulf in addition to those that were blown up a week or so ago. As I write  nobody has come forward to claim responsibility. But Trump and the Tories already know who’s responsible: Iran. According to Mike’s account of this, the evidence for this is that the Iranians removed a mine that had attached itself to a tanker. Oh yes, and the United Arab Emirates claimed that the explosions were the work of a ‘sophisticated state actor’. And that’s it. Now it seems contrary to commonsense to me that the Iranians would be responsible for the bombings, if they had helped get rid of an explosive device. But as the saying goes, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. Against this monumental lack of evidence, Corbyn has been one of the few voices of sanity against Trump and the Tories screaming that the Iranians must be responsible. He’s asked for more evidence and for Britain to ease tensions, rather than join the military escalation after Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran. So the usual right-wing loudmouths, hypocrites and warmongers, like former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, have immediately denounced him as siding with the Iranians. According to them, he’s some kind of traitor working for them against us, because he appeared several times on Iran’s Press TV.

Well, as Mike pointed out in his article about this, Corbyn did appear on Press TV. But as various people on Twitter have pointed out, he stopped going on it and taking their money in opposition to its ‘anti-West bias’. And far from turning a blind eye or worse to Iran’s atrocious record on human rights, he called 51 early day motions against the Iranian government on this issue. He is the seventh in the number of MPs, who have made the most condemnations of Iranian human rights abuses, ahead of 648 other members of the House. See the tweets reproduced in Mike’s piece by Tory Fibs. And the peeps on Twitter have also supported Corbyn’s call for more evidence by pointing out how their previous accusations of responsibility for attacks by various countries have also been false. Jewish Voice for Labour reminded people about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the Americans claimed that the Viet Cong had attacked an American warship as a pretext for entering the Vietnam War. The truth was that they hadn’t. It was an outright lie. Chuka Umunna’s Flip-Flops pertinently tweeted

The people slagging off Jeremy Corbyn for this tweet are the same people who cheered for the Iraq War when Tony Blair, George W Bush and John Bolton insisted Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Don’t be fooled again.

A war with Iran will make the war with Iraq look like a pillow fight.

And Nadeem Ahmad tweeted

Jeremy Corbyn was right about Iraq, Libya, Syria, Palestine and he is right about Iran.

Britain needs Corbyn to be our Prime Minister. #Iran

They’re absolutely right. As Greg Palast pointed out in his book, Armed Madhouse, the Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq have had precious little to do with protecting democracy or advancing human rights. Saddam Hussein had zero weapons of mass destruction. It was purely about advancing western multinational corporate interests. The Neocons wanted to seize Iraq’s state industries and remove its tariff barriers, in order to create the kind of low tax, free trade economy based on absolute private industry they want for America. And the Americans and Saudis both wanted to seize Iraq’s oil reserves. The Neocons also wanted him gone because he supported the Palestinians against the Israelis.

The result of this has been absolute chaos and carnage. Before Hussein’s overthrow, Iraq was one of the most prosperous and secular states with the highest standard of living in the Middle East. Christians and other religious minorities were tolerated and had a higher degree of equality than in other Arab states. Healthcare and education were free, and women were also free to pursue careers outside the home. After the invasion, Iranian industry was comprehensively devastated as the state enterprises were privatised and sold to the multinationals and the Americans and Saudis seized the oil industry. They had it written into the country’s constitution that the oil industry could not be renationalised. The removal of the tariff barriers meant that the country’s domestic industry was deluged by cheap foreign products dumped on their markets. Their businesses could not compete, and there was a wave of bankruptcies. Unemployment shot up to over 60 per cent.

The secular state collapsed, so that women once again found it difficult and dangerous to pursue a career. Healthcare has been privatised. And there was civil war between Sunni and Shi’a to the point where Peace Walls of the type used to separate Loyalist and Republican communities in Northern Ireland had to be put up for the first time in Baghdad. The American army and mercenary companies ran amok. The mercenaries ran prostitution rings and shot Iraqi civilians for sport. The American army collaborated with Shi’a death squads in killing Sunnis. The invasion created the conditions for the rise of Daesh and their creation of an extreme theocracy. They destroyed precious archaeological and cultural monuments and treasures, including historic mosques and churches. This is apart from the destruction caused by the American forces, including Babylon when they occupied it. In Mosul Daesh filmed themselves destroying the pre-Islamic artifacts in the museum. They also went on a reign of terror killing Sufis, Shi’a and oppressing Christians and Yezidis, as well as executing gays and ordinary Muslims, who wanted to live in peace with those of different faiths. The Yezidi women were seized and sold as sex slaves. At least a quarter of a million people were killed as a result of the allied invasion, and seven million displaced.

And this is all set to repeat again in Iran. Only it may very well be worse, as Chuka Umunna’s Flip-Flips has pointed out.

Iran is a mosaic of different peoples. The majority religion is Twelver Shi’a, and 51 per cent of the population speak Farsi, the country’s official language. But there are also Kurds, Baluchis and Arabs, as well as other ethnic groups speaking languages relating to Turkish. Three per cent of the population are Christian Armenians, and there are also Zoroastrians, who practise the ancient monotheist religion of the Persian Empire, and Jews. There are also Baha’is, a religion founded in the 19th century, but which is regarded as a heresy by many Muslims and viciously persecuted by the regime. There is also an Anglican church in Tehran, whose clergy and congregation are indigenous Iranians.

Now I have absolutely no illusions about the Iranian regime. It is a theocracy, which limits women’s roles and rights. There is massive corruption, and trade unions, strikes and political opposition are all banned. The oil workers in the Arab-speaking part of the country are kept in conditions described as those of concentration camps, and kept docile by drugs supplied and distributed by the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards.

But the country does have a democratic component. Four seats in the country’s parliament, the majlis, are reserved for the non-Muslim minorities, and women possess some rights. Below the Supreme Leader, the religious head of state, is an elected president. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran was the most industrialised and advanced economy in the region, and I have no doubt that it is still one of the leading nations in the region today. And there is growing popular discontent against the theocrats and their corruption.

And the American Neocons would dearly loved to invade the country. Some of this doubtless comes from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, who was the West’s ally in the Middle East. The Shah had gradually become an absolute monarch after the overthrow of the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, in the 1950 in a CIA and British backed coup. He was overthrown because he dared to nationalise Anglo-Persian Oil, which later became BP. I don’t doubt that the Americans,  Saudis and general western oil interests want to seize the Iranian oil industry, just like they wanted Iraq’s. I also don’t doubt that they’d like to get their mitts on the 51 per cent of the Persian economy controlled by the state and the bonyads, the Islamic charitable foundations. They and the Israelis also wanted to topple the Iranian state because they are vehemently hostile to Israel and support the Palestinians.

And you can’t trust anything the Israelis says about Iran either.

A few years ago, Netanyahu was jumping up and down in front of the UN and anybody else, telling them that the Iranians were close to creating nuclear weapons to be used against them. It was all a lie, as even the head of one of Israel’s spy agencies, the Shin Bet, and several of their generals said. And despite the propaganda, Iran actually treats its Jewish citizens quite well.

And the American Neocons very definitely want to invade Iran. 

In the 1990s the Neocons drew up a list of seven nations they wanted to overthrow, including Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, and Iran. It’s a plan that’s been carried out by successive American leaders, including Barack Obama and the ‘Queen of Chaos’ herself, Hillary ‘Killary’ Clinton.

If the West invades, the result will be exactly the same as the invasion of Iraq. There will be massive economic dislocation, the state and bonyad sector will be privatised and seized by multinationals. The oil industry, once again, will be looted and seized by the Americans and Saudis. The economy will collapse and there will be massive unemployment. And the country will also descend into a massive civil war between the various ethnic groups. The Kurds in the north have been fighting a war of independence in the north since before the Islamic Revolution. And some of the nomadic, Turkic-speaking peoples have also fought similar wars after their ancestral lands were seized for Farsi colonization. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will die or be forced out of their homes. Jews, Christians and other religious minorities will also be persecuted in the religious backlash.

And the country’s immense archaeological and cultural heritage will be placed in danger.

Iran is an ancient country with a history going back almost to the origins of civilisation itself. This was shown in the 1950s with the excavation of Hasanlu, a settlement that dated back to the 9th century BC.

The ancient settlement of Hasanlu.

For centuries the Persian Empire was one of the superpowers of the ancient Near East, conquering the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires and challenging Egypt. The conquests of the Persian emperor, Cyrus, including Babylonia and Jerusalem, are recorded in the Cyrus Cylinder. This is in the British Museum, but was loaned to the Iranians a few years ago.

The Cyrus Cylinder

Among other monuments are a series of reliefs celebrating the exploits of the ancient Persian emperors at Behistun. These include a depiction of Darius receiving foreign dignitaries.

Iranian Relief showing the Emperor Darius

Other reliefs show the symbols of Zoroastrianism, the country’s ancient, indigenous religion, and its god, Ahura Mazda.

Persia continued to be a major centre of culture, art, science and literature after the Islamic conquests. Great literary works include the Shah-Nama of Firdawsi, his epic of the country’s mythic history, the poetry of Sa’adi and the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khaiyam. But Khaiyam was also a leading mathematicians and scientist. Persian artists also excelled in the miniature and book illustration, as the illustration below shows. It’s of the Prophet Mohammed attended by angels. Islamic law forbids the depiction of the Prophet, so Persian artists showed him with his face veiled.

Iran also has some of the most spectacular and holiest mosques in Shi’a Islam, which include similar depictions of Mohammed and Ali, the First Imam. Iranian art was also major influence on the Moghul art of India, and for centuries Farsi was also the language of diplomacy in parts of India.

It’s possible to go on and on about Iran’s rich culture and heritage, which is threatened by Trump’s and the Tories accusations, accusations which seem to be leading up to a pretext for war.

The Iranian state is perfectly capable of terrorism. In the 1990s they bombed a cafe used by Kurdish nationalists in Berlin. And more recently they attacked a British warship, and captured its crew before releasing them.

But there is no evidence they’re behind these attacks. It looks like the Americans and the British Neocon right in the Tories are trying to foment a war fever against Iran. But every opportunity should be taken to prevent a war, which will lead to further, massive carnage and bloodshed in the Middle East, the destruction of the Iranian economy and industry, and what democratic freedoms the Iranian people do possess. As well as the destruction of priceless archaeological monuments and treasures of art, literature and architecture, which will not only impoverish Iran, but also human culture globally.

Against these horrors, Corbyn is quite right to demand further evidence.

For further information, see:

Voxpoliticalonline.com/2019/06/15/hypocrites-challenge-corbyns-call-for-evidence-in-tanker-controversy/

All the illustrations with the exception of the Cyrus cylinder come from Royal Persia: Tales and Art of Iran, Carella Alden (New York: Parents Magazine Press 1972).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

June 4, 2019

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.