Sunday, November 19, 2023

19: Another Exercise In Translation

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(Review of Radio Play. Draft)

“In England you have to have a licence to own a television.

The money from these licences is given to the government, who give it to a public TV company to pay for new TV shows and radio programmes. Some people think that this is a good thing because the public company makes good and interesting shows. Some people think it is a bad thing because it means the company makes shows some people don’t want to watch.

Some people believe that the world was made by a powerful being they call God or Allah and those people meet up each week in places called Churches, or sometimes Synagogues or Mosques to say prayers, which is their way of talking to the being they call God or Allah.

There is a law which says that the company which gets the money from the television licence has to make some programmes each year which would be especially interesting to the kinds of people who go to Church or Synagogue or Mosque.

In the olden days, before television and the internet, cinemas or movie houses—big halls where lots of people pay to sit in comfortable chairs and watch a big screen together—were very popular. In England people specially liked funny films. There was one very funny film about a soldier. It was called Carry On, Sergeant, because that was the kind of thing that one officer might say to another officer in the English Army. (It means “take it from here” or “as you were”.) It was so popular that the same actors appeared in similar funny films, making fun of different jobs. They were called things like Carry On Doctor and Carry On Teacher. So people started to call them “Carry On...” films. Sometimes the jokes were a little bit rude. English people were usually very polite in the olden days, but they still laughed at the rude jokes.

One of the actors who appeared in these funny films was a man named Kenneth Williams. Now it sometimes happens that boys have boyfriends and girls have girlfriends. In the olden days those people were usually called “homosexuals” although nowadays they are usually called “gay”. Kenneth Williams was one of those people. In the olden days, English people were not very nice to homosexuals. If a boy was caught kissing another boy in public he could even be sent to prison. So although Kenneth Williams was a very funny man, he was also quite sad a lot of the time.

In August the English public service radio channel (the one that people’s TV licences pays for) did a series of radio programmes about the Carry On Films. The channel is called Radio 4. It only shows talk shows. Some people like it very much because it has clever people talking about difficult subjects. Some people make fun of it because it is old-fashioned and stuffy. There is also a joke that very rich people don’t listen to it very much, and ordinary people with ordinary jobs don’t listen to it at all, but the in-between people who work in offices and schools listen to it all the time.

One of the programmes was a very old play with Kenneth Williams in it. It was a serious play and he played a serious character. In the Carry On films, Kenneth Williams was always very silly and very funny, so it was quite surprising and quite interesting to hear him playing a serious part. The play had been one of the programmes that was intended for people who believed in God and went to church, which, as we mentioned, the public service channels had to make in those days.

Andrew likes stories about space ships and wizards very much indeed. Sometimes he uses the internet to talk to other people who like them almost as much as he does. People often make fun of people who like stories about space ships and wizards. They say that they only like the stories because they are shy and lonely and don’t know how to talk to ordinary people. (Do you think this is fair?) A lot of those people liked a book called Good Omens very much. Good Omens was turned into a TV series. There has been a second TV series which continues where the book left off, even though one of the men who wrote the first book has sadly died.

Some of the people who believe in God also think that God has magical servants who take messages and help good people. Those servants are called angels. People who believe in God treat angels very seriously and treat them with great respect; but Good Omens is a funny book and the angels in it are quite silly. This is because the book is making fun of people who do believe in God, but because the book is quite funny and quite clever most of the people who believe in God didn’t mind too much.

The main character in Good Omens is an angel called Aziraphale. And guess what? The character Kenneth Williams played in the very old radio play was an angel called Azariel! A lot of the people who liked Good Omens thought it was quite funny that the names were so similar. Some of them listened to the radio play to see if the two characters had anything in common. But in fact....”

(Draft breaks off at this point.)

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Saturday, November 18, 2023

18: I like Star Trek. I used to like Arthur C Clarke. I am re-reading the Hugh Walters books which I adores when I was a kid.

I like Star Trek. I used to like Arthur C Clarke. I am re-reading the Hugh Walters books which I adored when I was a kid.

But I am moved to ask. In what way would it be a Good Thing for Humanity to become Multi-Planetary?

--Because if we carry on breeding at the present rate, there won’t be room for all of us on one little planet?

But we have very decent methods of birth control. All of us can have as much sex as we want to without suffocating the rest.

--Because we don’t want to use birth control: because making human babies is a Good Thing in itself, the more babies, the better

But where is this written: what is the moral imperative which says that the most important thing is for there to be the greatest possible number of human beings alive?

--Because we don’t want to become extinct?

Why not? Particularly? I mean, I would certainly like to live a long and healthy life. I suppose I kind of assume that in ten million years there will still be some humans; and I kind of assume that in ten million years there will not be any elephants. But I am not sure that’s a Good Thing. Certainly not the only Good Thing. What cosmic trolley problem tells me that, if it come to a choice, I ought to wipe out the elephants and preserve the humans?

--Because there is an evolutionary imperative that says that we—our species—should survive?

I agree that Darwin says that the fittest survive, because “most able to survive” is what “fittest” means. I do not see how it follows that I, an embodied consciousness with agency, ought to make choices that blind evolution was going to make in any case. “You have to work very hard to make this happen because this will happen inevitably whether you work very hard or not” is a funny precept to live your life by. Individual humans certainly have an instinct to preserve their own lives; but they also have the ability to override that instinct. When someone jumps onto a grenade in order to save his comrades, we call him brave. When someone says that they aren’t getting into that bloody space rocket because they might get blown up, we call them cowards.

There are times when it would be better to play the antique Roman than the Dane. If I thought the human race was going to evolve into Nazis or Daleks or Daily Express readers then I might decide that pushing the button and bringing the species to an end would be quite a good choice. Have you never seen Beneath The Planet Of the Apes?

--Because interplanetary travel, frontiers, the Wild West, men were real men and women were real women, an acre of land, stage coaches: humans digging mines and planting crops and building Jerusalem on Mars’s ochre and pleasant land?

I do see the appeal, for a certain sort of person, of the frontier spirit. I like science fiction movies, and some people like cowboy films. Star Trek started life explicitly as a western set in space. But digging trenches and building log cabins is pretty much the same experience whether you do it on earth, Mars or Planet Zog. You can only be in one place at a time. I think I’d rather have folk music and comic books and beer and flat whites on earth, thank you very much.

The first colonists didn’t come to America because they thought that coming to America was a good thing it itself and there was a moral imperative on Europeans to become multi-continental. They came because they were militant protestants and wanted a Christianity purified of residual Catholic elements. Later they came because the potato crop was infected and there was work to be had and railroads to be built and money to be earned. What they wanted was a house and a wife and some kids and a fiddle and a jar of Guinness. Migrating was the means to an end. To what end is interplanetary travel the means?

--To seek out new life and new civilisation?

Now this interests me. But it occurs to me to ask: for what reason do we want to seek these things out?

--Because other forms of life and other forms of civilisation would have their own culture, their own stories; their own ways of looking at the world: because once we have sat and talked with a three-gendered silicon based hamster our own understanding of personhood will be wider and bigger?

But we already share this existing planet with dolphins and whales and octopuses. If I talk about looking at the world from their point of view then I am apt to be called a hippy, a tree-hugger, and indeed woke. And we share this existing planet with human cultures—Maori and Inuit and Japanese and Texans—who see and perceive and understand the universe very differently from the ways in which we do. But any suggestion that a science department might take account of Maori cultural modes of understanding elicits hoots of derision from the science bros. Why would we be more interested in the modes of thinking on Alpha Centauri?

You used to see a T-shirt, I suppose from the Vietnam era. “Join the Army. Travel the world. Meet new people. Learn how to kill them.” If we travel the universe and encounter sentient lifeforms with different sciences and different cultures, isn’t it overwhelmingly likely that what we will do is kill them? Or enslave them? Or eat them? Or keep them as pets? Or is the plan simply to wipe out their ecosystems and drill for petrochemicals?

--Because humans have a quality called sentience or consciousness; and this is such a preposterously unlikely thing to have developed that it is vitally important to preserve it, because the chances of it existing anywhere else is vanishingly unlikely?

I get this one. It doesn’t really matter how many planets and flesh suits and rain forests we flatten, provided somewhere in the universe there are still minds.

It’s a spiritual, almost a religious proposition. Consciousness over mere stuff. It’s a throwback, in a way, to nineteenth century ideas of Life Forces and Bergsonian notions of creative evolution. In Stapleton’s great Starmaker, human consciousnesses turn into planetary consciousnesses and planetary consciousnesses turn into galactic consciousnesses and finally a universal consciousness which is able to get in touch with THE STAR MAKER. One thinks of Stephen Hawking wondering rhetorically if the right equations will allow us to know the mind of God.

Harold Bloom suggested that the core American faith was not orthodox Christianity, but a kind of gnosticism in which dispersed minds reached out for the deity. It lies behind Mormonism and Christian Science and Country and Western music. There’s a God out there and if we jump up and down and make a fuss we can maybe attract his attention. 

I get it. If there is nothing which can perceive the universe there is not much point in the universe bothering to exist. And I have a lot of time for faith positions. But if “the human race ought to become interplanetary” is a religious belief, let’s come clean and say so.

If humans are not the only sentience in the universe, then I have different questions. What is so precious about our particular version of sentience that compels us to generate more of it? When we encounter other minds, will we learn from them, teach them, or ex-ter-min-ate them?

And any way: haven’t we de-centred human consciousness? Aren’t we all agreed that we are not autonomous divine sparks in flesh suits, but passive objects being acted on by indifferent mind viruses? Why is it so important to carry those viruses to Mars?

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Friday, November 17, 2023

17: An exercise in translation.

There is a company which allows people to send very short messages to strangers all over the world.

Some of the people who write these messages think that people who were raised as girls sometimes start to think of themselves as boys, and that this is okay. Sometimes when a girl reads one of those messages, she may start to think that she is a boy, or a boy may start to think that he is a girl. This is not okay. So the only thing you can sensibly do is spend forty four thousand million dollars to buy the company, and stop people sending messages of that sort; or at least, make sure that there are also messages saying that changing your gender is bad.

Over the last thousand years there has been a general tendency for humans to live in more and more complicated social structures, and to build bigger and bigger towns with more and more sophisticated machines. But, because some of the people who make television programmes and movies think that it is okay for people to sometimes change their minds about whether they are boys or girls, this process is going to be reversed, and that would be a bad thing.

Because most people now believe that it is okay for people to change their minds about whether they are boys or girls, there is a very real chance that everyone in the whole world may soon die. This is really true and not just scary language.

We should all work really hard to prevent people from thinking that boys can sometimes decide to be girls and girls can sometimes decide to be boys. Stopping people from thinking this is really the only thing that any one should be doing.

If you believe that human beings can sometimes change their gender, then you probably don’t think that people can find out about the world by studying it really closely. Or else you don’t think we ought to study the world in that way. And you probably also don’t believe that skilful and clever people should have the best jobs and the most money and make all the important decisions. As a matter of fact, the whole reason you believe that people can sometimes change their gender is probably that you don’t really like people very much: or that you don’t agree with the idea of people existing in the first place. 

It would be a very good thing if some human beings could travel in a space rocket to Mars, and then to other planets as well, but as long as people believe that boys can sometimes realise they are really girls and girls can sometimes realise that they are really boys, this will never happen. It would be a very bad thing if it didn’t happen.

I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language.

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Thursday, November 16, 2023

16: Interlude: Quotes

 “Elon Musk was driven to take over Twitter after fearing his transgender daughter had been infected with a “woke mind virus” incubated on the social media platform.”
Daily Telegraph

“The woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide.”

Tweet by Elon Musk

“That the mind virus is pushing humanity towards extinction is not hyperbole.”

Tweet by Elon Musk

“The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters”

Tweet by Elon Musk

“Unless the woke mind virus, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit, and anti-human in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multi-planetary.”

Tweet by Elon Musk

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Wednesday, November 15, 2023

15: Bulverism is the rhetorical fallacy where you don’t prove that your opponent is wrong: you state conjectural psychological or biological explanations of how he came to be wrong.

Bulverism is the rhetorical fallacy where you don’t prove that your opponent is wrong: you state conjectural psychological or biographical explanations of how he came to be wrong.

It’s a lecture joke in a minor essay by CS Lewis and I have probably given it more exposure than it deserves.

The point of Lewis’s joke is that Bulverism is self-refuting. If I say “You are only a liberal because your mother breast fed you for too long and picked you up every time you cried” then you can reply “You are only a conservative because you got hit by your father and sent away to boarding school.” But this doesn’t get us any closer to finding out whether abolishing taxation for the rich will result in a better standard of living for the poor.

If Bulverism were correct—if all beliefs had psychological causes—then (argues Lewis) we would have argued ourselves into a position where arguments aren’t worth having, and indeed, proved that there are no proofs. So Bulverists are obliged to say “present company excepted” at the end of every sentence. Your ideas are the result of what you had for breakfast, but mine are the pure objective truth.

One thinks of the John Finnemore sketch about the scientist who believes that nearly everything evolved by natural selection, the exceptions being:


a: hummingbirds and

b: his grand-daughter, whose little toes were so cute that they could only have been created by God.

Memetics is Bulverism writ-large and turned up to eleven. “You only believe in the Loch Ness Monster because you have been infected with the Nessie-Meme” doesn’t say anything more than “You believe in the Loch Ness Monster.” “You only believe that Donald Trump would make a good president because you have been infected by the MAGA virus” doesn’t say anything more than “You think that Donald Trump would make a good president.” If the idea of Memes has any value, then to have a belief and to be infected with a meme are precisely synonymous. To say that you believe in a thing because you have been infested by a meme is to say no more than “You believe that because that is one of your beliefs; you believe it because it is a thing that you believe.”

To say that Muslims have diseased minds because religion is a widespread and tenacious idea is, at best, a play on words: an amusing observation that we use the same term in two different contexts. At worst, it is a profoundly misanthropic concept. Your opponent is not a human being who has committed an error which you can correct—because he has taken a false logical step or overlooked an important piece of data or doesn’t have a sufficiently large grasp of the world or even because something in his life-history makes him biased. He’s a passive receptacle acted on by an external force. A thing acted on by another thing.

But perhaps, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what human beings are: things acted on by other things? Perhaps the whole subjective universe really is a collection of mental diseases? Perhaps language really is a virus from outer space? The question is never “have you been infected?” but “what have you been infected with?”

Isn’t that roughly what the postmodernists say? The human mind is a wonderful and interesting thing but what is wonderful and interesting about it is that it is the intersection of a number of external forces. What it is not is an ego, an autonomous consciousness. I don’t think and therefore I am not. There isn’t a thing called “Andrew” which has unfortunately been infected with the idea that Jeremy Corbyn would have made a good Prime Minister and that Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer. You can’t administer an intellectual vaccine and get back to the pure unsullied Andrew before he acquired all these nasty intellectual lurgies. Andrew isn’t a person. Neither is anyone else.

But no-one believes this.

What they believe is that other people are mental dinghies buffeted about by infectious mental storms; whereas me and my friends are autonomous consciousnesses with agency.

Computer games and role-playing games have a concept of non-player characters: figures in the story who are controlled by a referee or an algorithm and don’t have any agency of their own. Some of the nastier people on the political right have taken to referring to their political opponents as NPCs. They also sometimes describe liberals and atheists and members of the Democratic party and people who went to state schools as Zombies. Simulations of human life; but not, in fact, human.

Some years ago, some right wing geeks came up with an idea that was so shocking that anyone who heard it would find that their life was irrevocably altered.

I understand that the idea itself was basically Pascal’s wager, with a computer with the attributes of God substituted for God.

The idea of an idea which is fatal to the hearer is in itself a compelling idea. Whenever I hear about Roko's Basilisk it makes me think about the Monty Python sketch about the joke that was so funny that anyone who heard it instantly dropped dead.

Sometimes I lie awake at night.

I wonder what side Keir Starmer will take in the forthcoming American Civil War. I wonder if the new demonisation of trans people and gay people will give rise to a new Oscar Wilde—or even a new Kenneth Williams. Or merely to a new Clause 28 and a new Auschwitz. I wonder if the young people who seem so liberal and radical and wholesome and gormless and nice will simply refuse to conform to the new authoritarianism. And I remember that it was the people who bought Sgt Pepper on the day that it came out who voted for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

And a dark thought crosses my mind.

Does the idea of Memes follow inevitably from the idea of evolution by natural selection? Once you have worked out why some of the Galapagos finches have different shaped beaks to some of the other Galapagos finches, does it follow as night follows day that you will cease to believe in human agency? And if so, would it have been better not to have known about evolution by natural selection?

Even though it’s true?

Is, indeed, that the ultimate point of the God-concept?

An essential bulwark against the Meme Delusion?

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