Posts Tagged ‘carl sagan’

Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins on Sexism, the Fragile Earth and Banning Guns in Space Colonies

July 13, 2017

Last week I put up a post about a clip of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, pulling faces at a rambling, incoherent speech made by Donald Trump. Trump was signing into law an act affirming America’s commitment to the space programme. His speech about it was less than inspiring however, and Aldrin, who not only went to the Moon himself, but has also been a staunch supporter of opening the High Frontier up to ordinary women and men, was very definitely less than impressed.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently was Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, written by the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins. Collins was the pilot, who flew the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, and then waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic landing, before flying back with them on the return journey to Earth. The book is Collin’s account of how he came to be astronaut. Determined to be a pilot after being allowed to hold the joystick of a passenger aircraft on which he and his family were travelling as a child, he joined the USAF and became a test pilot. He then moved on to join NASA’s space programme. He describes the rigorous training required, and his first flight into space with John Young in Gemini 10 in July 1966. He also explains how he came, reluctantly, to leave the astronaut programme for a variety of reasons, not least was the way it was stopping him from spending time with his family. And in his final chapter he, like Aldrin, looks forward to the future spread of humanity throughout the Solar system and beyond, with humans going to Mars and then Titan, a moon of Saturn, which may hold the key to the origin of life.

This isn’t an explicitly political book. Nevertheless, Collins does comment on specific issues as they affect the racial and gender composition of the astronaut programme, his perspective on the importance of the environment and why he believes guns would be banned by the inhabitants of a space colony. These are all issues which Trump, his supporters and donors in the gun manufacturers and lobbyists would strongly oppose.

In the passage where he discusses how he and the other astronauts became part of a panel, whose job was to select a fresh batch of astronauts, makes a point of explaining why only white men were selected. He then goes on to comment that although this was what was done at the time, he believes and hope that this will change, and that Blacks and women are just as capable of flying air- and spacecraft equally well. He points out that the highly technological nature of modern aircraft means that there is absolutely no biological obstacle to women piloting such high performance machines. He writes

Note that I have said “he”, because there were no women in the group, nor where there any blacks. In thinking about that, it seems to me that there were plenty of women and blacks who could get the highest marks in categories 1 and 4 [their intelligence and how badly they wanted to be astronauts], but in 1966 categories 2 and 3 [education and experience] tended to rule them out. There simply did not seem to be aeronautical engineers and experienced test pilots, who were black or women. I think, and hope, that will change in the future. Flying a modern jet aircraft does not require a great deal of strength, for one thing. Hydraulic flight controls, like power steering in a car, prefer a light touch, and women should do as good a job as men. Obviously, an airplane has now way of telling the skin colour of the person flying it. (pp. 72-3. My comments in brackets).

He describes how looking at the Earth from space made him aware how fragile it was, and of the importance of preserving the environment.

I will never forget how beautiful the earth appears from a great distance, floating silently and serenely like a blue and white marble against the pure black of space. For some reason, the tiny earth also appears very fragile, as if a giant hand could suddenly reach out and crush it. Of course, there is no one giant hand, but there are billions of smaller hands on earth, working furiously to change their home. Some of the changes being made are good, and others bad. For example, we are learning more efficient ways of catching fish, and that is good because it means more people can be fed from the oceans. If, on the other hand, these new methods result in the disappearance of species, such as whales, then that is bad. The automobile gives us great mobility, but pollutes our atmosphere. We cook cleanly and efficiently with natural gas, but we are running short of it. Newspapers and books spread knowledge, but require that trees be chopped down. It seems that nearly every advance in our civilisation has some undesirable side effects, Today’s young people are going to have to acquire the wisdom to see that future changes help our planet, not hurt it, so that it truly becomes the beautiful, clean, blue and white pea it seems to be when viewed from the moon. The earth truly is fragile, in the sense that its surface can easily shift from blue and white to black and brown. Is the riverbank a delightful spot to watch diving ducks, or is it lifeless greasy muck littered with bottles and tires? More people should be privileged to fly in space and get the chance to see the fragile earth as it appears from afar.
(p. 146).

Further on in the book, he states that future orbiting settlements would get their power from solar energy, as this would not only be abundant and free, but also clean, unlike coal. (pp. 150-1).

He also remarks on the way the Apollo missions differed from previous historic expeditions in that the explorers were unarmed, and suggests that the future inhabitants of a space colony at one of the libration points where the gravity of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and so named ‘Libra’, would similarly see no need for carrying weapons.

Apollo set a precedent for the future in another interesting way. It was probably the only major human expedition in which no weapons were carried. In similar fashion, no weapons would be permitted on Libra and Librans simply would not be able to understand why earth people continued to shoot one another. On Libra, if people felt hostile, they would be urged to put their energies into athletic contests or other competitive events, or simply to let off steam by going flying.

He then describes how the lower or zero gravity in the colony would allow people to fly aircraft power by their own muscles. (pp. 154-5).

Most of this is, or at least should be, non-controversial. Scientists have been warning us about the immense danger to our ecosystem, and the horrific decline in its natural wildlife as more and more habitats are destroyed, and an increasing number of species threatened with extinction, since the early ’70s. Among those warning of the ecological perils to the planet was the inspirational astronomer and NASA scientist, Carl Sagan. And indeed, one of the most powerful images that stimulated ecological awareness and the burgeoning Green movement was that picture of the Earth as a fragile, blue orb hanging in the blackness of space taken from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Way back in the mid-1990s the Beeb’s popular science programme, Horizon, devoted an edition, ‘Icon Earth’, to how this photo had influenced politics and culture.

The picture hasn’t just made more people aware of the urgent need to protect the environment. Some of the astronauts have spoken about how it brought home to them how artificial racial and national divisions are. They point out that there are now boundaries visible from space. Helen Sharman, the British astronaut who flew with the Russians to Mir in the 1980s, states in her book about her voyage that space helps to foster international understanding and cooperation. She observes that astronauts are the least nationalistic people.

As for guns, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that shooting in the enclosed environment of space habitat could have truly disastrous consequences through the damage it could do to the machinery and fabric of the colony itself, and their ability to preserve human life in the harsh environment of space. A bullet through the outer skin of a spacecraft could lead the escape of its air, causing those within to die of suffocation and decompression.

Trump, however, is supported by the racist and misogynist Alt Right, who would like to roll back Black Civil Rights and women’s social and political gains since the 1960s, while the Republican party as a whole is generously funded by the NRA and the gun lobby, and the Koch brothers and other industrial magnates. The Koch brothers own much of the American petrochemical industry, and so, like many of the other multimillionaire businessmen, are very strongly opposed to any kind of environmental protection. The Kochs in particular are responsible for closing down awkward parts of the American meteorology and environmental science laboratories when they dare to issue warnings about the damage industry is causing to the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. They are then replaced with other institutions, also funded by the Kochs and those like them, which then conveniently deny the reality of climate change. The Republicans and their supporters in industry have also set up fake ‘astroturf’ Green movements, like Wise Use, which seek to undermine the genuine environmental movement.

Given the way the experience of looking back at our beautiful planet from space has transformed political, social and cultural perspectives all across the world, you can understand why some astronauts just might feel they have excellent reasons for pulling faces at their president.

Stephen Hawking and Other Celebs Urge Public to Vote Labour

June 6, 2017

Mike over at Vox Political has put up a piece reporting that Ricky Gervaise, Dr Stephen Hawking and Mark Ruffalo, the actor, who played Dr. Bruce Banner, the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, have all urged the public to vote Labour on Thursday.

Gervaise issued a Tweet stating he wasn’t telling people which way to vote, but it was a fact that the only way to keep the Tories out was to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Mark Ruffalo stated that he humbly endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, as he offers people an alternative to the corporate status quo, which never ends well for people. This prompted John Prescott to Tweet ‘Hulk smash Tories’.

Indeed he would. Banner and the Hulk in the original Marvel comics were profoundly countercultural figures. The Hulk was anger incarnate, born in the radiation blast of an American nuclear test when Banner tried to save teenager Rick. And Rick was very much a ‘rebel without a cause’, a youth, who’d driven into the test zone, heedless of his own safety, because he didn’t feel society had anything for him.

While Banner was very much a square, whose girlfriend was the daughter of the commanding officer in charge of the test, the tenor of the strip was very much anti-militarist. The commanding officer hated the Hulk, and had resolved to destroy him. The Hulk, however, really only wanted to be left alone, and so one constant theme was the running battle between the Hulk and the US army. Ang Lee’s film version of the strip, which unfortunately flopped, got this part of the Hulk’s characterisation absolutely right. And in the 1970s, the anti-militarist message of the strip became stronger. In one story, for example, Banner discovered and did his best to oppose dehumanising military experiments to link soldier’s brains to battle robots, experiments that had resulted in the troopers themselves feeling robotic and mechanical.

The influence of the Vietnam War in dehumanising a generation of American young men, to turn them into ruthless monsters responsible for horrific atrocities, is shown very clearly here.

And one real-life physicist, who has also come out for the Labour party is Cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking. Hawking told the Independent and the Mirror that he was voting Labour, because another five years of the Tories would be a disaster for the NHS, the police and other public services.

His endorsement has been welcomed by people like Dr. Alex Gates. Hawking is best known for his book, A Brief History of Time, though his background is in Black Holes. Dr Hawking even has a variety of radiation named after him. Black Holes, or rather the Event Horizons around them, are gradually evaporating, and the radiation they give off is called ‘Hawking Radiation’.

And so Dr. Gates quipped that Hawking had spotted the Black Hole in the Tories’ NHS budget.

One space scientist, who I feel would definitely have supported Jeremy Corbyn over here and Bernie Sanders in his own country, is Dr. Carl Sagan. Older readers of this blog may remember Sagan from his TV blockbuster history of science, Cosmos, and his SF novel, Contact, which was turned into a film with Jodie Foster as the astronomer heroine, who travels through a wormhole to make contact with an alien civilisation.

I very definitely don’t share Sagan’s views on religion. He was a religious sceptic and a founding member of CSICOP. But he was also a man of the Left, who hated imperialism and militarism, and supported the burgeoning Green movement. In the 1980s he warned that a nuclear war would result in a devastating global ‘nuclear winter’ of the type created by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It’s since been shown that this wouldn’t actually occur. But Sagan was right to press for nuclear disarmament, and absolutely right to oppose the new Cold War Reagan and Maggie Thatcher were trying to whip up against the Russians.

He was also critical of the design of the space shuttle. This was supposed to be the vehicle that would open space up to just about everyone, provided you were fit enough to stand the three Gs of acceleration into orbit. The Challenger disaster put an end to that.

Sagan informed the public that the original design for the Shuttle had been for a smaller vehicle, which would have been purely civilian and much safer and more effective. However, the American military had stopped this, because they wanted a larger vehicle to carry their spy satellites. The result was the over-engineered machine, which exploded at least twice, and whose launches had to be cancelled because of engineering problems.

Sagan died of prostate cancer in the 1990s. He was a brilliant scientist and visionary, who speculated about life on Mars and Venus, and, like Hawking, was a staunch advocate of the colonisation of space. And he was inspiration to a generation of young people to have an interest in space and science. One of the most obvious examples of this is Dr Brian Cox, who freely acknowledges Sagan’s influence.

One feels that Sagan would have firmly resisted everything Bush, Blair, and now Trump, Cameron and May have done to destroy the environment and spread carnage around the world through their wars in the Middle East, quite apart from the Trump’s administration hatred of mainstream science.

You don’t have to use Sagan’s ‘spaceship of the imagination’ to travel light years to see the immense harm Theresa May and her party have inflicted on the NHS, the public services and our national security.

And you don’t have to be a great scientist to realise that the Tories’ attacks on education – their spending cuts, privatisation of schools, and burdening students with tens of thousands in debts – will stop the country’s young people fulfilling their academic potential, regardless of the bilge they may spout about encouraging the STEM subjects.

And I think Hawking has spoken out about the dangers of May’s cuts to science funding and research.

The only party that is ready to undo all of this is Labour.

So please, vote for Corbyn on June 8th.

British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms

January 1, 2017

Yesterday I put up a couple of articles on terraforming the various planets of the Solar system, including Mercury, Venus and Earth’s Moon, as well as Mars. There have been a couple of really interesting comments posted to them. Florence, one of the great people, who read this blog, stated that she was a microbiologist. She was very much looking forward to working on microorganisms for Mars, but unfortunately that, and much of the rest of the space programme, vanished.

As well as Carl Sagan’s suggestion in the 1960s that blue-green algae could be used to create a breathable atmosphere and Earthlike environment on Mars, a number of scientists have also suggested using microorganisms to terraform the Red Planet. Twenty years ago the American Astronautical Society published a series of papers, edited by Robert M. Zubrin, about the colonisation of Mars, From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society: Part II: Base Building, Colonization and Terraformation (San Diego: Univelt 1997). This included a paper, ‘Genetic Modification and Selection of Microorganisms for Growth on Mars’ by Julian A. Hiscox and David J. Thomas.

bis-mars-terraforming

The abstract for this paper reads

Genetic engineering has often been suggested as a mechanism for improving the survival prospects of terrestrial microorganisms when seeded on Mars. The survival characteristics that these pioneer microorganisms could be endowed with and a variety of mechanisms by which this can be achieved are discussed, together with an overview of some of the potential hurdles that must be overcome. Also, a number of biologically useful properties for these microorganisms are presented that could facilitate the initial human colonisation and ultimately the planetary engineering of Mars.

After an Introduction, in which they state that the terraformation of Mars could be a two-stage process, with the construction of an Earthlike environment by microorganisms being the first, they then proceed to the following sections:

2. Selection of Bacteria for Mars The Search for a Marsbug, which discusses the suitability of terrestrial microbes for the process, such as the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiops and the extremophiles, which occupy of extreme environments here on Earth;

3. Genetic Engineering – A simple Matter of Cut and Paste;

4. Genetic Modification and Selection;

5. Gene Expression, with subsections on

1) Survival Properties – Tolerance to Peroxides; Osmotic Adaptation; UV Resistance; Tolerance to High Intracellular Acid Concentrations; Endospore Formation;

2) General Properties, with further subsections on photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and denitrification;

6. Uses of GEMOS and Some Speculations,

and then finally the conclusion and acknowledgments.

The conclusion reads

The introduction of microorganisms on Mars will greatly facilitate colonisation, both during initial attempts and in establishment of a stable ecosystem, either in enclosed habitats or at the end of ecopoiesis or terraformation. During the initial stages of ecopoiesis climatic conditions on Mars will be limiting for most terrestrial microorganism. By using genetic modification and directed selection under simulated Martian conditions, it may be possible to greatly enhance the survival capability of microorganisms during the alteration of the Martian climate to more clement conditions. Such microorganisms could be used to facilitate any planetary engineering effort. For example, they could be used to release Co2 and N2 from putative carbonate and nitrate deposits.

The genetic alteration of microorganisms will not be so much of a problem of introducing foreign genes into the organism but more a matter of understanding and controlling the regulatory pathways for the expression of such genes. However, such understandings will provide valuable insights into genetics, not only for increasing the productivity of microorganisms on Mars but possibly for Earth.

I’ve got very strong reservations about genetic engineering and modification, but here there is a strong case if it can be used to bring life to a sterile world. Assuming, that is, that Mars does not already possess life. In a way, the article’s ironic. Over a century ago, H.G. Wells had a germ, the common cold, destroy the invading Martians in his book, The War of the Worlds. Now terrestrial scientists are discussing using such organisms as ways to creating a living environment on the Red Planet.

David A. Hardy on Terraforming the Solar System

December 31, 2016

As well as colonising the other planets in the solar system with self-contained, sealed environments to protect their future human inhabitants, it may also one day be possible to terraform them. This means transforming them from their currently hostile conditions to an Earthlike environment. At the moment, the planet considered most suitable for terraforming is Mars, because of all the planets it seems to present the least obstacles to this form of planetary engineering. I can remember reading a piece in the Sunday Express way back in the 1980s, which discussed James Lovelock’s suggestions for creating an earthlike atmosphere on the Red Planet. Lovelock is the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that Earth’s biosphere acts like a gigantic, self-regulating organism. This became a favourite of several of the New Age neo-pagan religions in the 1990s, where it was incorporated into worship of the Earth Mother. Lovelock believed that while nuclear weapons were a serious danger to all life on Earth, they could be used creatively on Mars to produce an environment that would support life. Mars has large amounts of carbon dioxide locked up at its polar regions in the form of dry ice. he believed that this could be melted using nuclear missiles. Specially targeted nuclear explosions would cover the polar regions with an insulating layer of soil. This would keep the heat in, which is currently radiated back into space, reflected by the white ice. The rise in temperature would cause the dry ice to sublimate into carbon dioxide gas. This would then start a greenhouse effect, which would see more carbon dioxide and other gases released into the Martian atmosphere. This would eventually create an environment, where the atmosphere was thick enough for humans to be able to move around without space suits. They would, however, still need oxygen masks and tanks to be able to breathe. Lovelock was extremely optimistic about how many weapons would be needed. He believed that you’d only need four, if I remember correctly.

Lovelock’s ideas are wrong, but other scientists and Science Fiction writers have also suggested ways of transforming the Red Planet into a place where life can thrive. Back in the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy of books set on a Mars that was being colonised and terraformed by humanity, beginning with Red Mars. The veteran SF writer, Arthur C. Clarke, also produced a book in which he used to a computer programme to show what Mars may look like as it’s being terraformed. Over hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years, rivers, seas and oceans develop and green spreads over its land surface as vegetation begins growing on its previously barren surface.

David A. Hardy, the space artist, who has illustrated a number of books on space, including several with the late Patrick Moore, also described the various ways in which the Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus and Mars, could be terraformed in his 1981 book, Atlas of the Solar System (Kingswood, Surrey: World’s Work). He writes

Taking the concept of manned bases on other planets still further, there is the staggering possibility of ‘planetary engineering’ or terraforming – a term coined in 1942 by science fiction writer Jack Williamson. The idea is simply to make other worlds habitable by humans. An early suggestion, in 1961, by Carl Sagan was to ‘seed’ the atmosphere of Venus with blue-green algae, converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen and at the same time reducing the pressure and temperature (by eliminating the greenhouse effect). The upper clouds would condense and rain would fall, forming oceans.

A more recent alternative, now that we know how hostile Venus really is, is to ferry in ice asteroids 15 km or so in diameter, put them into orbit around Venus and aim them, using rocket jets, at a specific spot on the surface. Each crashes at nearly 100 km/s, at such an angle that Venus’ rotation is increased until a 24-hour day is approached, while at the same time water is provided as the ice melts. Then the atmosphere is seeded with blue-green algae.

The same could even be done with the Moon: once given a breathable atmosphere by baking oxygen out of the rocks with giant parabolic mirrors, it would remain for thousands of years, even if not replenished. The time factor for the operation is remarkably short. Mercury would need to be shielded from the Sun by a ‘parasol’ of rocky particles put up by mass-driver, or by a man-made ring. Mars would need to be warmed up, perhaps by reflecting sunlight on to the poles with huge, thin metal-foil mirrors, increasing the energy-flow at the poles by 20 per cent. or we could spread dark material from its carbonaceous moons on them with a mass-driver. Rich not only in carbon but in oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, this is excellent raw material for fertiliser. One the atmosphere was thickened, the greenhouse effect and carefully chosen plant life should do the rest. (pp. 86-7).

The process of transforming these planets into habitable worlds would take quite a long time – decades, if not centuries, and at present it is the stuff of science fiction. But I hope that there will be a time when we can move out from Earth to create new homes for life and civilisation on these worlds.

Tory Anti-Feminism and The Descent of the Manosphere

August 13, 2016

Mike’s put up a number of excellent articles this week, so many that it’s quite a choice deciding which one to reblog and comment on first. But this one struck my eye, as it coincided with a series of videos I’ve been watching on YouTube recently.

Tory MP Philip Davies and the Justice For Men and Boys Party, Vs. Corbyn and the Labour Party

Mike yesterday put up a piece asking which party – Labour or the Conservatives – was the most in favour of gender equality. He raised the question because the Guardian had found footage of the Tory MP Philip Davies speaking at a meeting of the Justice for Men and Boys Party, which intends to compete against the Tories in 20 marginal Tory constituencies. In his speech, he accused feminists of only supporting equality when it suits them, and of trying to give women advantage over men. He also contrasted the campaign to put more women on company boards with a ‘deafening silence’ over men being given custody of their children after the break up of their marriages, and entering traditionally female occupations, such as midwives.

Mike contrasted his comments with those of Jeremy Corbyn, who also talked about adopting policies to increase gender-equality, ending the system that saw certain jobs as suitable only for men or women, and making the pay gap between men and women narrower. Owen Smith, to give him credit, has also talked about appointing equal numbers of men and women to the cabinet.

The Groan’s report also described how Davies appeared amongst bloggers, who described Malala Yousufzai as worse than Osama bin Laden, and published articles like ’13 Reasons Women Lie about Rape’.

See Mike’s article at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/08/12/labour-or-the-conservatives-which-of-them-best-supports-sex-equality/

Blogger Kevin Logan on the Lunacy of the Manosphere

There’s a series of very good videos against some of the denizens of the Men’s Rights movement by Kevin Logan on his YouTube channel, entitled, The Descent of the Manosphere. I haven’t linked to any here, because as far as I’m concerned, they’re all equally good. I’ve also got another reason in that some of the people he discusses have such a bitter hatred of women and such repulsive attitudes to domestic abuse and rape that they are genuinely frightening. I really am not trying to be condescending or imply that women aren’t as tough as men, but I’m also aware of the severe trauma inflicted on the women subjected to rape and domestic abuse. I can imagine that some women would be extremely upset just listening to these idiots mouth their views, and I’d rather not put anyone through that.

Logan’s an atheist, and some of the misogynists he criticises are those that have appeared in the on-line atheist community claiming that their highly reactionary opinions are based on reason and logic. This is odd, because very many of the organised atheists on the Net and elsewhere are Carl Sagan-y Humanist types, with progressive views on race, sexual equality and social justice. There was discussion by one young woman in the Skeptics’ community a year or so ago about starting an ‘Atheism Plus’ movement. The plus here represented social and political activism. Some of their hatred for organised religion derives or is aimed at some of the very reactionary American religious figures, like the Televangelists Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggert, and the right-wing political broadcast Rush Limbaugh. These guys are so right-wing I’m surprised they haven’t fallen off. I don’t support atheism, but I do support the concern for progressive politics of many of the movement’s members.

Roosh V’s Rape Advocacy

And with many of the people – there are women amongst them, God knows why! – I don’t think you have to be particularly interested in feminism to despise them, just a decent human being. Some of the people Logan has attacked include Roosh V, who’s published a series of books advising men on how to seduce women. By force, if necessary. He writes books describing his sexploits with titles like Bang Ukraine. Reggie Yeates did a programme on him for one of the BBC satellite/cable channels, and was really unimpressed. Leafing through that volume, he said it’s not a book he’d want his younger brother to read. He pointed out Roosh V has not been accused or convicted of rape, but he describes forcing himself upon women, who haven’t given their consent in his book. He also advocates encouraging women to be more careful about avoiding rape, by making it legal in certain circumstances. Yeah, he’s that repugnant.

A lot of them seem to blame rape victims for their assault, by claiming that they went out dressed too provocatively, or weren’t sufficiently careful about making sure they weren’t vulnerable. Like not getting drunk on tequilas, and then going up to a strange man’s room she’d met with him. Now I know women, who have been very careful not to get drunk, because of the fear of being assaulted. A good argument against getting drunk in public for anyone, regardless of sex, is that it will leave you vulnerable. But that does not even remotely make the rape the woman’s fault.

Sexual Resentment

Sexual resentment also features a lot in these people’s attitudes towards women. You can hear a number of them, like Davis Aurini, bitterly denouncing modern women for their perceived promiscuity, until they decide that the fun has to stop, and they have to settle down with a reliable provider. The attitude is that they are Mr Nice Guy, but all the women ignore them instead to go after bad boys. And when the fun there stops as middle age hits them, they want to find a man they can marry and exploit for his money. It’s a nasty attitude, expressed in very vulgar terms.

Racism and Nazism

It isn’t surprising that many of them also have deeply unpleasant attitudes on other issues, like race, the environment, socialism and so on. Many of them are outright racists or racial supremacists, like The Golden One, an expatriate Swede. This guy makes the claim that the Second World War was started because Hitler wanted to break away from the international banking system, and that only 300,000 Jews died in the Holocaust. This, as any fule kno, is complete twaddle. The Second World War broke out because Hitler invaded Poland. Despite his rants about the Judeo-Bolshevik international banking conspiracy – surely an oxymoron if ever there was one – Adolf had nothing against American Jewish bankers like the Rothschilds when they gave him money. And they did fund the Reich, even when it was murdering the Jewish peoples of Eastern Europe. Also the Nazis very definitely killed 6 million Jews, and 5 1/2 million gentiles, mostly Slavs, in the concentration camps. Aurini seems to hold similar views.

Libertarian Anti-Socialism

There’s also a considerable amount of Libertarian anti-Socialist ranting, by people claiming to be defending freedom. Except when low paid workers call a strike. One of the Manosphere bloggers Logan takes down does a piece complaining about a strike by employees of MacDonald’s in his local town, moving about the crowd of picketers while sneering at them.

Feminists Do Care about Men

They also have a bitter hatred of particular bloggers and celebrities, like Anita Sarkeesian, who was at the centre of the ‘Gamergate’ row over sexism in computer games. There’s also a lot of ranting against Rebecca Watson, the former actress who portrayed Hermione in the Harry Potter films. She’s now a feminist activist. There’s one Manosphere blogger – I’ve forgotten quite who – who attacks her and feminists generally for ignoring similar issues for men, such as rape, domestic violence and sexism. Logan shows in each case that this simply isn’t true. For example, it’s due to feminist pressure that the figures for rapes against men are now being recorded and released for the first time. And he shows a clip of Watson at the ‘He for She’ conference talking about doing more to help male victims of domestic violence, and confronting sexism against men. He also provides a link to an internet petition to criminalise a particular form of male rape as well, which is also not yet illegal under British law.

Logan’s a witty blogger, and his videos are very funny. They feature interruptions and asides from his cat, who speaks with a French accent, and from an otter, who speaks with the kind of western American ‘Howdy, y’all!’ accent that you used only to hear from Slim Pickens. If you look at his videos, be warned: there’s a lot of very strong language, including the ‘C’ word, which many find extremely offensive. Another blogger I recommend on this issue is Abaddon5. He’s also an atheist and former Satanist, and there’s a lot of obscenity in his language. But what he says about the MRAs is cool. But be warned: the people they talk about are really disgusting. There’s been petitions, if I recall correctly, against Roosh V and another bloke, who has similar views, by women, who were concerned that they are really dangerous. I signed them, because I think they’re right. Roosh V’s apparent attitude that women are to be used for his sexual pleasure, and his complete indifference to the matter of consent, in my opinion make him a real danger to women.

The MRAs ultimately hanker for a 19th century-style America, where a women’s place was in the home, and proles and people of colour knew their place and were properly deferential to their social superiors. And all this is important, as despite the Tories’ claim to be pro-feminist with the election of Theresa May, there is a profound anti-feminist aspect to the Conservative party. I put up a piece a few weeks ago about a couple of pamphlets I found in one of the charity bookshops in Cheltenham written against the women’s movement, and published by the right-wing thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs. One of them even had the title Liberating Modern Women… from Feminism. The Tories’ policies have hit women the worst, as most women are employed in low-paying jobs in the service sectors, such as carers, or shop assistants and so on. When Theresa May talks about equality, it seems to mean getting more jobs for middle class, well-heeled women like herself, and not those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The Doctrine of Plenitude and Space as the Abode of Man in 17th Century Theology

May 17, 2013

I’ve blogged before on the doctrine of Plenitude in 17th and 18th century theology. This was the view that God had created the various planets and stars of the cosmos as homes for extraterrestrial, intelligent beings. It was held by theologians and Christian apologists such as Christian Wolf in Germany, as well Fontanelle in France and Thomas Burnet, Charles Blount and Robert Jenkin, the subject of my last blog post. Burnet wrote in his Sacred Theory of the Earth that

‘We must not … admit or imagine, that all nature, and this great universe, was made only for the sake of man, the meanest of all intelligent creatures that we know of; nor that this little planet, when we sojourn for a few day6s, is the only habitable planet of the universe: these are thoughts so groundless and unreasonable in themselves , and also so derogatory to the infinte power, wisdom and goodness of the first cause, that as they are absurd in reason, so they deserve far better to be marked and censured for heresies in religion, than many opinions that have censured for such in former ages.’

Robert Jenkin on Possible Colonisation of Space before the Fall and after the Resurrection

Robert Jenkin believed that the various worlds of the cosmos may have been deliberately created by the Almighty to house humanity before the Fall. After this, he considered that they may have been designed to serve as further homes for humanity after the end of the time and the resurrection. Then they would serve as homes for the righteous, and places of punishment for the wicked. In the present, however, they served to keep the world in its proper place in the universe and maintain the equilibrium of the whole system through their gravitational attraction:

‘I observe, that though it should be granted, that some planets by habitable, it doth not therefore follow, that they must be actually inhabited, or that they ever have been. For they might be designed, if mankind had persisted in innocency, as places for colonies to remove men to, as the world should have increased, either in reward to those that had excelled in virtue and piety, to entertain them with the prospect of new and better worlds; and so by degrees, to advance them in proportion to their deserts, to the height of bliss and glory in heaven; or as a necessary reception for men (who would then have been immortal) after the earth had been full of inhabitants. And since the fall and mortality of mankind, they may be either for mansions of hte righteous, or places of punishment for the wicked, after the resurrection, according as it shall please God, at the end of ht eworld to new modify and transform them. And in the meantime, being placed at their respctive distances, they do by their several motions contribgute to keep the world at a poise, and the several parts of it at an equilibrium in their gravitation upon each other, by Mr. Newton’s principles’.

Religious Attitudes in Russian Biocosmism and Western Transhumanism

A similar attitude survives today in the thinking of the Russian biocosmists. This arose in the late 19th century. Its gaol was the scientific attainment of immortality and the resurrection of the dead. It also advocated the colonisation of space to provide homes for the new, resurrected humanity. The great Soviet rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was a member. Biocosmism wasn’t a specifically Christian movement. It also included elements of theosophy. Nevertheless, it can be seen as a secularisation of the theological attitude expressed by Jenkin. The Communist authorities initally tolerated Biocosmism after the 1917 Revolution before banning and persecuting it in the 1930s as a dangerous, heretical ideology. It re-appeared after the Fall of Communism, and has formed links with western Transhumanism. The similarity between the views of the Biocosmists, Transhumanists and Jenkin’s appears to bear out a remark on their identity of purpose by one of Transhumanism’s founders, the robotics engineer Mark Moravec. Moravec’s wife is a Methodist minister, and he once stated that Christians and Transhumanists wanted the same thing. They just went about it differently.

Moral Perfection and Cosmic Awe in Star Trek and Cosmos

You can also see a certain similarity with Jenkin’s views in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and the vision of human expansion in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, has said in interviews that he believed the show’s popularity lay in its optimism. It envisages a future in which humanity has overcome its social and political problems, survived the horrors of the twentieth century, and gone on to produce an ideal, tolerant society in the Federation. Star Trek is very definitely a secular show, and its attitude to religion is ambivalent. Some episodes have a positive view of it, while others consider it a negative force holding humanity and alien races back from achieving their true potential. Nevertheless it shares with Jenkin a view of the cosmos that sees it as an area for colonisation by a perfected and morally regenerate humanity.

In his TV series and book, Cosmos, the late Carl Sagan expressed a profound awe of the vastness and intricacy of the universe. A Humanist and member of the Sceptics’ group, CSICOP, now the Centre for Scientific Inquiry, Sagan also campaigned for the human colonisation of space and contact with other alien civilisations. Cosmos was a truly inspiring series, and prepared the way for later scientific blockbusters like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Sagan’s attempts to show the universe as an object of literal cosmic awe approaches the religious feeling of the numinous, the sense of awe before the presence of God or the gods. His campaign for spaceflight and extraterrestrial contact therefore partakes of the same religious nature as Jenkin’s view that the other worlds revealed by science, with the difference that Jenkin’s believed that they would only be colonised by a humanity that had attained and been transformed through God’s grace.

Despite the rationalism and secularism of mdoern SF and the movements for space exploration and colonisation, they still contain much of the religious sense of wonder and human destiny expressed by 17th and 18th century theologians like Fontanelle, Burnet, Blount and Jenkin. For them, the heavens not only proclaimed the glory of God, but also offered a future home for humanity and other intelligent beings through God’s providential grace.

Scepticism Ancient and Modern

January 8, 2008

There’s a tendency in contemporary atheism to present itself not as a dogmatic denial of religion and the supernatural, but as an attitude of simple doubt. Atheism is stated to be the lack of belief in God or gods, rather than an outright disbelief in them. The attitude therefore becomes one of philosophical Scepticism, which is perceived to be essentially rational and open-minded, as against the perceived close-mindedness of theism. This strand of atheism dates from the 17th century, when European philosophers and scholars took a renewed interested in the philosophical Scepticism of the ancient world. The arguments of Pyrrho and Carneades against the existence of the gods were taken over into the nascent free-thinking milieu of the period.

Yet despite this position of critical doubt, Scepticism, both ancient and contemporary, nevertheless is constructed on certain assumptions about the world, assumptions which paradoxically act as dogmas in constructing a Sceptical worldview, despite philosophical Scepticism’s rejection of dogmatism. Examining the nature and the underlying assumptions of Graeco-Roman and contemporary Scepticism not only gives an insight into the changing nature of Scepticism and atheism, but also the paradoxical nature of atheist doubt as a worldview in itself.

Ancient Scepticism 

Firstly, ancient Scepticism was a systematic application of doubt not just to religion, but to just about aspect of intellectual life. According to Pyrrho of Elis, one of the founders of Hellenistic scepticism, who lived from c. 280 to 80 BC, the universe was fundamentally unknowable. Nothing definite could be said about the world as it really was, and so the correct attitude towards it and its objects should be one of suspension of belief. This non-committal attitude was held to have the benefit of conferring peace of mind. 1 In some respects this position is closer to philosophical postmodernism, which states that all conceptions of reality are intellectual and cultural constructs with no objective validity, than to the scepticism of atheists and agnostics like CSICOP. Richard Dawkins, for example, is a religious sceptic, but as an avowed opponent of Postmodernism I doubt he would consider that reality is fundamentally unknowable.

Amongst the most brilliant exponents of ancient Scepticism was Carneades, who lived about 214 to 129 BC. A superb debater, he became notorious after his arrival in Rome as head of the Platonic Academy in 155 BC for his ability to argue both for and against any position. He caused a furore by first demonstrating this tactic in a piece of oratory in which he first argued for, and then against, righteousness. 2 While respecting his brilliance, the Romans didn’t like him because of this critical attitude to just about every intellectual or moral idea. I got the impression he was distrusted because he was ‘too clever by half’. Nevertheless, while the Sceptics attacked the Stoic doctrine of cataleptic phantasies, which stated that there were sense impressions that were clear and trustworthy, they did not entirely reject sense experience. 3 Carneades himself believed that there were sense impressions that were persuasive and credible, and that their persuasiveness increased when corroborated by associated impressions and perceptions. He did not believe, however, that such sense impressions could ever be certain. 4

Now clearly there’s an element of common sense in the Sceptical attitude. It’s accepted that sense experience is unreliable, and clearly a statement or impression of reality does become more persuasive with supporting impressions. And the attitude that notions of reality should be lightly held has allowed science to progress as its statements have been refined and superseded by fresh evidence. Indeed, Scepticism had an influence on the Roman empirical school of medicine through the writings of the physician and sceptical philosopher, Sextus Empiricus. 5

Difference Between Ancient and Modern Scepticism 

Yet despite the similarity between the empiricism and attacks on dogmatic statements about the nature of the gods by the ancient Sceptics and contemporary atheists, there are a number of important differences. The most significant of these is that while Pyrrho argued that the world was innately unknowable, contemporary atheism assumes that the world is intelligible and that definitive statements about the world can be made with a very high degree of confidence. Even if scientific views of the world are subject to revision, it is nevertheless assumed that they correspond to reality. Moreover, the intelligible, rational nature of the universe means that the universe does not require the existence of a Creator, and that the existence of any kind of supernatural entities is unlikely to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, however tentative the philosophy of science insists scientific explanations are, in practice the assumed close correspondence between scientific models and reality mean that many are taken to be established, dogmatic fact. For example, despite his religious scepticism, Carl Sagan always strongly insisted that evolution was fact, as against the possible view following the logic of ancient Scepticism that evolution was more persuasive than the alternatives of special creation, but not certain. Thus, contemporary religious sceptics nevertheless make dogmatic statements about the world.

Limited Nature of Modern Philosophical Scepticism

Indeed, Scepticism itself has its limitations which prevent it merging into Nihilism. For all that philosophers may strenuously debate the meaning and nature of justice, morality and individual ethical qualities, like good and evil, few would actually state that there is no such thing as justice or morality, even if the universe as a whole is simply taken to be a brute fact, neither good nor evil, as Dawkins does in his attitude towards natural evil. Yet there is a problem in that if the existence of God or the gods is dismissed because the different conceptions of them renders the idea of divinity incoherent, then it is equally possible to dismiss morality and justice as illusory because of the sharply different concepts of them in various cultures. Atheism assumes the existence of some kind of objective morality, especially as one important part of its attack on religion is based on the supposed evil or lack of morality in religion. This demonstrates another difference between contemporary Scepticism and that of the ancient world. Carneades, Pyrrho, Arcesilaus and the other ancient Sceptics argued against the existence of the gods because it was felt that the idea of them was incoherent. They did not dismiss religion as evil. Contemporary religious scepticism moves beyond this stance and does declare religion to be evil. You only have to look at the pronouncements of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and co.

Basis of Atheism in Philosophical Assumptions 

In all of this, however, there are a set of assumptions about the nature of reality, science and morality on which atheism is based. All of these assumptions are vulnerable to attack. However, the stance of some forms of contemporary atheism that atheism is really nothing more than the lack of a belief in God or the gods, and that as such the burden of proof is on the theist, acts to disguise this position. Those atheist polemicists who adopt this position effectively try to avoid exposing their own assumptions to scrutiny by denying that atheism is anything beyond this lack of belief. Yet if atheism is anything more than a simple fideistic denial of the existence of God or the gods, without any supporting reasons or arguments, then clearly there is a structure of belief – positive beliefs and truth statements about the nature of reality – behind it that have to be argued for.

The attempt by atheists to put the burden of proof on the theist is based on the presumption that atheism is somehow more rational than theism. This presumption is considered to be so axiomatic and self-evident that it is not argued for. Instead, it is stated that atheism is merely the lack of belief in God or the gods, while theism, it is suggested, is about the existence of entities for which there is no evidence or proof, that atheism is the default, commonsense position.

Yet this is another assumption. Throughout history, the vast majority of societies have believed in God or gods, and atheism as a belief system based on logic has had to be argued for. It is not for nothing that the British atheist philosopher, Robin le Poidevin, entitled one of his books, Arguing for Atheism. Given that atheism is based on logical argument and positive beliefs and truth statements about the world, it is far more than a merely negative position as expressed by the statement that it is about nothing more than the lack of belief in God or the gods, and the theist is entitled to expect the atheist to provide proof for his statements as well.

Atheists Required to Critique Beliefs in Socratic Dialogue 

This is also true if the debate is seen as a kind of ‘Socratic dialogue’. For many atheists, Socrates is a hero because of his execution by the Athenians for atheism, despite the fact that contemporary historians and classical scholars consider that his own religious views were entirely orthodox. Indeed, Socrates himself claimed to have been inspired by a daimon – a spiritual entity like the Judaeo-Christian concept of a guardian angel, that acted as an intermediary between the gods and humans. Part of Plato’s Phaedo consists of the arguments by Socrates in support of life after death and the existence of superior, transcendental world. Now atheist groups like the RRS admire Socrates for his questioning of dogma, just as the ancient Sceptics did. However, Socrates saw himself merely as a midwife helping to deliver the ideas of other people. Now clearly, as the presumption that atheism is nothing but the lack of belief in God or the gods, and so is somehow more rational, is based on a set of assumptions that are not articulated by this stance, and indeed it is the purpose of this stance to avoid having to articulate them, then, if the Socratic method is to be properly followed, there is the requirement that these assumptions should be brought out into the open and critiqued, just as Socrates brought out of his interlocutors their assumptions and critiqued them in order to get to the truth.

William James’ Criticism of Withholding Faith 

In fact the atheist position that it is better to withhold faith, and doubt the existence of God until there was sufficient evidence to accept it was criticised by the great scholar of the psychology of religion, William James. James considered it to be a tantamount to stating that risking the loss of truth was better than the chance of error. This stance he considered to be like a man indefinitely hesitating to marry a woman in case she wasn’t the angel he thought she was when he took her home. In so hesitating, he lost the good as surely as if he had disbelieved. ‘We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.’ 6 James considered this stance of withholding consent from religious belief because of the possibility of error to be no wiser than accepting it through hope, and strongly criticised it, stating

‘to preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof, and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk.’ 7

This is not to advocate religious belief against reason, merely to state that the policy of withholding faith until some criterion of ‘sufficient evidence’ is met is not necessarily any better guarantee of finding the truth than accepting religious belief because of the hope it offers.

Conclusion: Modern Atheism and Ancient Scepticism Different, and Atheists also Required to Provide Proof

Thus, despite its adoption of some of the conventions of ancient Scepticism, modern atheism and ancient Scepticism are very different worldviews. Ancient Scepticism stated that the world was fundamentally unknowable, and that statements about it could only be tentative. In this situation, the correct attitude was to cultivate an attitude of detachment. Contemporary atheism, on the other hand, is predicated on the belief that the universe is intelligible and that true statements about it may be made. It is based on a distinct set of assumptions and statements about the nature of the universe, statements that are not intuitively and self-evidently true, but which have had to be actively argued for. As such, it constitutes a distinct worldview in itself, not merely the lack of belief in God or the gods. Theists are therefore entitled to demand atheists also provide proof for their statements, while the principles of Socratic dialogue means that any attempt to disguise the assumptions on which atheism is based by shifting the burden of proof to the theist means that it is even more necessary that the assumptions of atheism should be stated and critically examined. Furthermore, the attitude that theist needs to provide sufficient evidence before belief in God can be granted is not necessarily a wise decision in itself.

Thus, atheism is indeed a worldview, whose scepticism is limited and whose assumptions deserve to be critiqued by theists. For a true Socratic dialogue to occur, the atheist needs to share provide proof for his worldview as well as the theist, and it needs to be recognised that the Sceptical policy of withholding belief pending sufficient evidence is not necessarily wiser than immediate acceptance. Atheism still makes truth statements about the world, and Scepticism is no guide to the truth, either of religion or the cosmos.

Notes

1. ‘Scepticism’ in Jennifer Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1984), p. 314.

2. ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

3. ‘Scepticism’, Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314.

4. ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56; ‘Scepticism’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314.

5. ‘Scepticism’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56; ‘Sextus Empiricus’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 326.

6. William James, ‘The Will to Believe’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 243.

7. James, ‘Will to Believe’, in Helm, ed., Faith and Reason, p. 243.