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Good Without God

A dozen years ago, at the start of an eight-hour bus ride to Guadalajara, an elderly nun took the seat next to me. We chatted in Spanish, in which I was just becoming functional. She asked where I was from and what had brought me to Mexico. Then, in the same conversational tone, she asked whether I believed in God. We had the time so, rather than give her the short “nope” (which I’ve often found bums out religious people, like I scored against their team), I gave her the straight and long reply. As well as my Spanish at that time would allow, I tried to convey the following:

I don’t believe in some intelligent being or force which I can or need talk to. I have never seen, felt or heard anything to make me interested in such an idea. I believe that the universe is a single continuous system in which everything each of us does affects everyone and everything around us, (which, I guess, is what Daoism would say, as would David Suzuki for that matter), and that being respectful and considerate of our environment, and the people in it, is the best thing we can do to help ourselves have an environment and society that is the way we want it to be (which is, I suspect, roughly the Buddhist perspective). And that is why I don’t pee in swimming pools. (Okay, I didn’t say that last bit to her, but it’s both true and relevant.)

The old sister (or Mother Superior; I really wouldn’t know the difference—to me, they’re all Popettes) listened patiently, seemed to understand what I struggled to express, and said simply—in a tone which was ostensibly for my reassurance but was really for her own, “It’s the same thing [as believing in God].” Both our dignities remained intact and neither of us gave up any epistemic or moral ground. We were equally comfortable with our separate beliefs and suspect she, like me, felt unthreatened and unperturbed.

With this in mind, let us consider one of the greatest novels ever written, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables*—which, let it be said, kicks the wits out of Anna Karenina.**

But let’s get back to God. Apparently Hugo based the story of his central character, Jean Valjean,  on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, an ex-convict turned businessman and philanthropist. In Les Misérables, life hands Jean Valjean lemons, and he makes—a break for it. Then the first hero of the story, Bishop Myriel (a character inspired by the historical Bishop de Miollis), creates new possibilities for the lives of numerous individuals by making the simple choice—or, more precisely, habit—of forgiveness. By taking a chance and trusting in the potential of human goodness, the bishop presents Valjean with an otherwise unattainable opportunity to “do the right thing”.

Good “King” Wenceslas was in fact a Duke (of Bohemia). He was regarded as a good man, so it is fitting that the carol depicts him as doing the right thing for “yonder peasant” because it was the right thing to do. You don’t have to be a saint to be a decent human being; even Samaritans, druids and atheists can follow their conscience. And this Jesus of Nazareth one hears so much about, may he rest in peace, is worth no more and no less than the example he is alleged to have set. Jesus son of so-and-so, Jesus Lord of whatever. Whether or not he ever was a man, whose last breath dispersed molecules some of which would now be in each breath you and I draw, what matters is neither his mom’s sexual history nor his genetic lineage nor his magic tricks nor his sexual proclivities, nor his suffering (as if he would have suffered more than the average crucified person. Pain is, after all, such a subjective thing. Did he have inflammatory bowel disease? That might get me reading a gospel or two). What could be useful to humanity is the idea, which that particular superstar is rumoured to have espoused, of cutting each other a bit of slack.

My apologies to god-fearing Vic, but what moves me about his novel is not God’s grace but the Bishop’s human choice to say, “C’mon, Jean, you can do better than that”, and Valjean’s choice to make good, and really commit to it from one chapter of his life to the next. That is the %^@#ing message that can change the world, and there is no need for supplication to some deity to achieve that. People can be good, and I am in favour of giving people—just about every person***—a chance, and if necessary a second chance, to show their potential, turning the other cheek at least once per offender—not so many times that your head spins, mind you; once you run out of cheeks, start swinging and biting.

I have never regretted giving someone a second chance. There are a couple of cases, which I will remember, of individuals who got three strikes and a couple of fouls in between, but even those were no cause for regret because, on average, betting on human decency has continuously proven to be a good investment. Maybe I’m lucky—that’s certainly true—and I suppose it helps that I don’t hang around with a lot of conniving guttersnipes. Perhaps you should turn your cheek but not your back.

Examples of “Good without God” are abundant. I wonder whether there are as many examples of “Good despite God”.

*Hugo’s 1,500-page saga is not easy to cram into a 150-page screenplay or into a single sitting. The original French concept album and consequent English musical do a surprisingly good job of covering a lot of ground. The new movie (the first cinematic presentation of the musical, although there have been ten previous big- and small-screen versions of Hugo’s story) goes through the story way too fast, but it is worth seeing and hearing. Appropriate to the medium, the story is sung by actors rather than acted by singers. It makes considerably more effective use of CGI than Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, enhancing rather than distracting from the story. Russell Crow made the least of a great role; he really put the “avert” in Javert. Whereas Anne Hathaway, whose performances I have often found so miserable as to bring tears to my eyes, did such justice to the role of Fantine that I did in fact cry in my popcorn. (It helped that she had no dialogue.)

What was funnier than les Thénardiers was when the soldier asks those on the barricade to identify themselves and the response is, “French revolution!” to which might have been added, “I’m French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?” [Je m'excuse. My apologies. In the 2000 French television mini-series adaptation (with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovitch as Javert, yes in French), the same question is answered "Revolution Française!" Still sounds funny to me.]

**To be fair, maybe Anna Karenina looses something in translation, but even so, Les Misérables has more to offer in a bunch of ways, and far fewer skip-able bits. It was more of a chore to get through 350,000 words of modern-English translation of Tolstoy than 513,000 words of Hugo’s nineteenth-century French. The same is true watching film adaptations of both works (although I have hope Tom Stoppard got Anna Karenina (2012) right). Incidentally, just about equal in greatness to Les Misérables, in my estimation, is Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which is 345,000 words in English translation, and I don’t remember wanting to skip any of it. Size may matter, but more important is how you use it.

***Witnessing someone abuse animals or children would tend to cloud my judgmentality.

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2013/01/22 · 16:24

Community Reads “Midnight at the Dragon Café”

To have a book selected for a “One Book” community read, where the whole city or town is encouraged to read and discuss the same book, honours a writer even more than winning a contest because, as Judy Fong Bates told me, when the community chooses, “it’s not books from a particular year or genre. It is overwhelming considering how much they have to choose from.” Unlike many books that are singled out with grand awards or other attention, I found this book and this author entirely deserving of notice. I have the One Book campaign to thank for making me notice.

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

EAM: Why is reading important?

JFB: Oh, to me that’s so obvious. I just feel that reading should be part of one’s lifeblood. Don’t you?

EAM: Certainly I do, but what would you impress upon the people who need to be reminded to read?

JFB: When I think of reading, I think of stories. Stories tell us who we are. Stories expand our horizons. They take us into places we might not ever think of going. I mean, on that more profound level, they make us look at things from new angles and they add depth to our lives, but in another way it’s also fun!

For more new angles, depth and fun, keep reading, at www.postcity.com

Q&A: Judy Fong Bates, author of this year’s One Book selection

http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/April-2011/Q-ampA-Judy-Fong-Bates-author-of-this-year-039s-One-Book-selection/

Judy Fong Bates

Judy Fong Bates (from the author's website)

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Locavore Doesn’t Mean “Eat Locals”

Locavore is a new book (if you read as slowly as I do) by Toronto food writer Sarah Elton ( CBC Radio’s Here & Now). It’s a good book — published locally without pesticides or antibiotics, low-fat and high in fibre — but the title could be misleading.

An herbivore (“a” herbivore? now there’s something to fight about) eats herbs, a carnivore mangia il roastbeef, an omnivore eats a family car “specially designed for India”. So I opened this book expecting to learn something about how to take nutritional advantage of people in my neighbourhood. Sure the Emersons are lovely people, but could they be an important part of my diet?

Turns out “cannibalism” isn’t even in the index. Locavore is about choosing, when the choice is there, to buy food that is produced closer to home. Why is that such an important thing to do? Read it yourself, you lazy bugger!

Locavore by Sarah Elton

Locavore, by Sarah Elton

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Interview with Optimistic SF Writer Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: A Sunnier Tomorrow by Evan Andrew Mackay,

published 2011 January 10 edition of AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review:

From Orwell to Atwood, speculative fiction offers plenty of grim futures to ponder. But reading Robert J. Sawyer is a positive experience: You learn a lot of fascinating facts, contemplate new ideas, enjoy a good story, and end with the impression that the future might not be all that bad. While we need cautionary tales, a good dose of intelligent optimism also makes for a satisfying read. As a fan wrote to Sawyer about his latest novel, WWW: Watch, “It is rare to find a fresh idea that offers hope and delight, and rarer still for that beautiful idea to come with evidence that really convinces the heart and mind, and moves someone to say ‘Yes, it’s true, we really can become better people.’”

windowless room

 

Robert J. Sawyer

And why wouldn’t Sawyer be optimistic? Since the age of 23, he has made his living in the arts, in Canada — and with 20 novels sold and the trifecta of Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards to his name, his career has been a spectacular success. Sawyer arrives full of energy, at ease, and ready to talk, over a light pub lunch at “The Unicorn” in Toronto before meetings with his new publisher, Penguin. A seasoned speaker, he emphasizes he is not intimidated by the voice recorder and slides it right in front of himself. A perusal of Sawyer’s website sfwriter.com will corroborate that this man is not a technophobe.

Wake, Watch, Wonder

In his latest trilogy WWWWake (2009), Watch (2010), Wonder (due out in April 2011) ― Sawyer lays out a hopeful view of things to come with what he says is the inevitable advent, this century, of artificial intelligence that will spontaneously emerge and then develop to surpass human intelligence. “I don’t think it is inevitable that [the existence of beings more intelligent than humans] means the end of life as we know it,” he says.

“I wrote my trilogy in response, in part, to the large number of negative portrayals of the future of humanity at the hands of our robot masters, of emergent AI, because the only visions we had were The Matrix, The Forbin Project, Terminator, every computer Captain Kirk had ever gone up against, Neuromancer, cyberpunk — we did not have a model, a template for the future in which we might survive with our essential humanity, liberty, individuality and dignity intact. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do that, but I think if the only models that are on the table are ones where, if at midnight tonight the World Wide Web wakes up, tomorrow morning the human era ends ― if that’s the only template that’s on the table, we’ve given up the battle before we’ve even arrived at the battleground. I think an argument can be made, and I make it at length over the course of three books here, it’s a subtle argument but I think it can be made, and it does at least bear initial scrutiny that there is a path out of this.”

Keeping an Eye on Big Brother

Even without considering the notion of the World Wide Web becoming self-aware, there are and always have been concerns about the hazards of the Web: from the annoyance of spam to the perils of identity theft, from Web censorship in places like China to the heinous crimes of child pornography where the Web is unregulated. Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is now so quaint as to bring a tear of nostalgia; Big Brother is watching you, but you are watching Big Brother. With the World Wide Web enabling the average citizen, in much of the world, to instantly retrieve or transmit information of any sort or quantity, person to person or in interest-based, regional or global forums, can a person get away with anything these days? Can a corporation or — in light of organizations like Wikileaks — can a government?

The first two books of WWW look at various facets of these concerns. In Wake, a freedom blogger in China tries to evade the authorities while communicating his suspicions online about a mysterious government cover-up. In that first novel, the heroine Caitlin’s private world is necessarily exposed to the scientist whose implant has corrected her blindness, but in the second novel, Watch, her every move is shadowed by the fictitious US government agency called W.A.T.C.H. and by the now-highly-developed consciousness Webmind which sees through Caitlin’s own vision. In Watch, Webmind is able to read the email of everyone on the Web. But although that’s fiction, these issues are still of concern to every user of Facebook or Google, really of every person who goes online or whose personal information exists online, which surely includes you (you are reading this online, aren’t you?). So before getting into the what-ifs of AI, let’s look at what the Web means to the world as it now stands.

WWW — The Key to Our Future?

Is the World Wide Web the key to our future? Sawyer answers, “Yes. Several reasons. The first is, the World Wide Web is the first infrastructural necessity that’s ever existed that isn’t controlled by any one government or region.” Within a region, of course, there can be far-reaching control. Such control is exerted in China, and Sawyer begins examining the implications of this control in Chapter 2 of Wake. Two and a half millennia ago Lao Tzu said, “People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge.” Sawyer’s balanced portrayal of the government and the people of China ― a country he has visited and where the Galaxy Award winner has a loyal following — is both sympathetic and pragmatic, no more and no less than a crucial element in his story. “There’s no way that China will be able to succeed indefinitely in keeping people in the dark. It just can’t be done,” he says. And the means by which they will find the light? “The Web will be that tool!”

Back to why it is the key to our future. “We have with the World Wide Web, by design, something that ― and increasingly so year by year ― is decentralized in its authority, ungovernable by its nature, and therefore liberating in its use.” What’s more, it is unstoppable, and “that is wonderful, in the sense that we have become dependent on something that nobody can take away from us, unlike, say, oil, where we are at the whim of the oil producers be they domestic or foreign.” And there’s more. “I think the World Wide Web is also key in a lot of ways to world peace. I’m an optimist at heart, and I do believe this ― the fact that in my own life, just on my Facebook page, I am routinely communicating with people, in Africa and Korea and China and Japan and so on and so forth ― you cannot be locally partisan when you are on the World Wide Web … When we look at pictures of Earth from space, you can’t see the borders. All you see is the unity. And of all the things we have ever built, this is the only one that actually is a worldwide entity.”

Helen Keller, The Matrix and the Origins of Consciousness

Sawyer describes the WWW series as the meeting of the mostly Canadian William Gibson whose seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer set the stage for the Wachowski Brothers’ movie The Matrix, and the late American playwright William Gibson who authored the play The Miracle Worker, about Annie Sullivan teaching Helen Keller to communicate and become aware of herself and the world around her. The inspiring story of Helen Keller and her teacher provides the template for the relationship between Caitlin and Webmind in Sawyer’s trilogy.

portrait 1960s

Sawyer believes consciousness will arise in some manifestation of AI much as it did in the evolving human mind not so long ago (in evolutionary terms), as Caitlin reads in Julian Jaynes’ influential 1977 treatise The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. “I suspect that the scenario that’s in my book, the World Wide Web gaining consciousness without it being planned to do so, is far more likely than somebody at MIT or Google or Microsoft announcing to the world, ‘I have made it in my lab,’” Sawyer says. “I suspect that when we do face AI on this planet, it won’t actually be artificial in the sense of some clever programmer figuring out how to code it.”

Colour burst abstract

Although AI is often imagined as coming from some software engineer writing “X number of lines of code that wake up and say cogito ergo sum …” Sawyer says, “I don’t think anybody has made any progress at all towards that.” An AI researcher tried to convince Sawyer he had a laptop that “learns.” Sawyer doesn’t think so, adding, “I don’t think it’s got one iota closer to being self-aware than an abacus is.” Sawyer thinks self-awareness will come to AI as it did to us: “Our consciousness was an emergent property of the complexity of our brains. Evolution is not teleological … nothing thrusting us towards being self-aware. It just happened.” It happened as an accident of evolution and it stuck around because it “turned out, apparently, to be useful, at least for the last 40,000 years.” In Jaynes’s theory, human consciousness developed a mere 3,000 years ago, before which time people essentially just did what their un-unified cerebral hemispheres told them to do.

But what is consciousness? In WWW, Sawyer examines the boundaries of consciousness and self-awareness from several angles. Caitlin, blind from birth, gains sight and must learn new ways of processing information and perceiving the world. One character, a high-functioning autistic genius, exhibits minimalist social interaction and a hyper-focused way of understanding the world that is scarcely comprehensible even to immediate family members. Hobo, the fictitious hybrid bonobo-chimpanzee, creates the first non-human representational art ― “that ability to have a mental picture,” Sawyer points out, “is part of the gaining of consciousness” — and converses in sign language with humans and an orangutan in order to make informed decisions about his fate. Although no such hybrid is known to exist, there is evidence that such breeding could lead to developments in the direction imagined in this story. Sawyer depicts, with frequent references to Helen Keller’s remarkable accounts, Webmind’s struggle to attain and integrate self-awareness, learning, communication, and to grasp and make choices based on moral distinctions. For many readers, it is likely this moral sense which most clearly distinguishes a fully conscious being from a beast or robot. What convinces Caitlin that a consciousness is somehow forming within the Web is her observation of rising Shannon’s Entropy scores as measured against Zipf plots applied to patterns made by rogue cellular automata in the background of the Web. (The science behind Sawyer’s hypothesis on how consciousness might emerge on the Web is explored in detail in Wake and Watch.)

The World as We Know It.

So if the World Wide Web, or maybe the device you are reading on right now, wakes up at midnight tonight, don’t think the only option is to rage against the machines. “Between what I have to say and what the dystopians about AI have to say, there will hopefully be a middle-ground reality that we will actually live in: alongside of, not underneath, our intellectual betters.” And, when WWW: Wonder comes out in April, even those dead-set on fighting our new robot overlords would do well to consider what Sawyer has to say about the very idea of shutting down the World Wide Web.

Leaving aside for now the issue of technology becoming self-aware and surpassing human intellect, what would Sawyer see if he were to flash forward twenty years into the future? “I think we will be continuing the current trend which is — despite what makes news: A smaller percentage of human beings are at war right now than at any other time in human history, there’s a higher degree of literacy right now than at any other time in human history, there are more people enjoying more freedom, civil rights and civil liberties than at any other time in human history … We’ll see much greater ecological sensitivity, and much more globalism and much less jingoistic nationalism in twenty years. We will be a World Wide Web of people … It will be a better world in twenty years.”

More coming soon at AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

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