The singularity as atheist religion

In a talk titled “Dude You Broke the Future,” science fiction author and atheist Charlie Stross takes on Ray Kurzweil and other advocates of the “singularity,” the moment when all our problems will be solved with the emergence of transhuman artificial intelligence:

“I think transhumanism is a warmed-over Christian heresy. While its adherents tend to be vehement atheists, they can’t quite escape from the history that gave rise to our current western civilization. … If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And if it looks like a religion it’s probably a religion. I don’t see much evidence for human-like, self-directed artificial intelligences coming along any time now, and a fair bit of evidence that nobody except some freaks in university cognitive science departments even want it. What we’re getting, instead, is self-optimizing tools that defy human comprehension but are not, in fact, any more like our kind of intelligence than a Boeing 737 is like a seagull. So I’m going to wash my hands of the singularity as an explanatory model without further ado — I’m one of those vehement atheists too — and try and come up with a better model for what’s happening to us. …”

I find it delightful to see a self-proclaimed “vehement atheist” calling out other atheists for doing religion. This is especially admirable, since those other atheists would doubtless insist that they are not doing religion at all; they would claim that they are doing science. Not only that, those other atheists are doing bad religion — transhumanism is as bad as the Prosperity Gospel, insofar as both types of religion are barely believable, have no redeeming social worth, do not engage in worthwhile cultural production, assert that the vast majority of humanity will not be “saved,” spread fear, and are stupid and hard to believe.

This is just a parenthetical remark in a much longer talk — and the rest of the talk is definitely worth reading, particularly for Charlie Stross’ take on corporations as AIs that are making global climate change accelerate.

The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism

What a wild ride we Unitarian Universalists had in 2017.

The wildest part of the year happened last spring, when Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), resigned from office, with only a few months left in his term. The events that led up to his resignation were somewhat bizarre. Two of the finalists for a senior staff position at the UUA were both members of the UUA Board, which should make us wonder just how incestuous UUA hiring is (I mean, seriously, can’t you find viable candidates outside your volunteer board? — don’t you know how bad that looks?). Then when the white male gets hired in preference to the Latina woman, social media erupts in accusations of “Racism!”

Shouting “Racism!” was not a bad response, but hardly anyone mentioned the sexism involved. Now it’s not sexism every time the man gets hired over the woman. Nor is it always sexism when the man who gets hired is an ordained minister and the woman is a layperson (for while anyone who has done feminist power analysis knows that sexism often hides behind choosing the person with the most professional credentials, on the other hand sometimes the person with more professional credentials is in fact more qualified). And it’s not always sexism when the woman has a background in “women’s work” (which was true in this case; the woman in this case is a religious educator, and works with children, in a profession that is underpaid compared to parish ministry). But it most definitely was sexism when Peter Morales said in an interview that he could not hire religious educators for senior staff positions because they were not capable of that kind of high level work.

I was astonished at the rage I felt after reading that Peter Morales thought I was incapable of working for him in a high level staff position, simply because I am a religious educator, someone who does “women’s work,” in a profession where more than 90% of my colleagues are women, many of whom are poorly-paid part-time workers. Had I been British, I would have given Peter Morales the two-finger salute; but since I’m a New Englander, that would be cultural misappropriation, so instead I looked in his general direction with withering scorn. Continue reading

Snapshots from the Garden of Eden

We went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum today, and I particularly enjoyed Dina Goldstein’s photographs, from a series she calls “Snapshots from the Garden of Eden”: large black and white photographs, maybe three feet by five feet, of staged tableaux showing characters from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish folklore. My favorites:

— King Solomon, looking debauched and slightly bilious, sitting up in a large bed on which are sprawled two partially clad women among disarranged bedclothes (the wicked thought that crept unbidden into my mind: King Solomon as a role model for Judge Roy Moore)

— An unsettling image of a child sitting on a bed completely absorbed in looking at a tablet computer while a strange lights circles around her (the photograph was titled “Ibbur,” but to me it looked more like a dybbuk)

— Rabbi Lowe wearing safety glasses and standing at a bench covered with electronic test equipment, putting the finishing touches on a Golem that maybe he’s going to exhibit at the next Maker Faire

If religion is another mode of cultural production, this is the sort of thing we should be doing: constantly re-imagining religious narratives and metaphors. And by re-imagining, I don’t mean a modernist literalism that, on the one hand erects large granite monuments representing the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse, and on the other hand denies the validity of all religion because religious stories are not literally true; the modernist literalism of both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists is unable to cope with the uncertainties of metaphor.

Instead of literalism, I like Dina Goldstein’s way of re-imagining religious narratives: both sincere and ironic, both reverent and irreverent.

Performing a poem

The poet Lew Welch wrote: “I like the idea of giving my readers a text they can perform, themselves. Far too many of our pleasures are spectator sports already…” (introduction to Ring of Bone). The way I like to perform poetry is to write out a fair copy of the poem.

A couple of weeks ago, Carol and I went to the city and stopped in at City Lights Bookstore. I sat in the Poetry Room leafing through books and found the poem “Global Warming Blues” by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015). I almost bought the book, but I just got rid of four hundred books so we could fit into our new apartment; no way I could justify buying a new book for just one poem. So I performed the poem by writing out a fair copy on some watercolor paper. I tucked the poem into my coat pocket and forgot about it.

I carried the poem around in my coat pocket. The paper got wrinkled, and the poem got smudged though it was still perfectly legible. Maybe that’s a metaphor for what’s supposed to happen to poetry: poems aren’t supposed to remain captive inside the pristine covers of a book sitting on a bookshelf; poems are supposed to be out in the world: objects of use rather than useless objets d’art. I re-read the last paragraph:

now my town is just a river
bodies floatin, water’s high
my town is just a river
but I’m too damn mad to cry
seem like for Big Men’s living
little folks has got to die

Dreams

For the past few weeks, I’ve awakened most mornings aware that during the previous night I had had vivid and intense dreams. I can think of several reasons why my dreams have become so vivid and intense: our new rental is in a much quieter and darker neighborhood and I’m probably sleeping more deeply; my sabbatical has led me to turn inwards in a way that I usually don’t have time for; in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice when days are getting increasingly shorter I usually sleep more, and dream more.

I don’t have any interest in remembering my dreams, and then analyzing them while I’m awake. Nor do I have any interest in dismissing dreams as mere effluvia produced as the brain consolidates its memories from the day. The first approach takes the subjective content of dreams and objectifies it; the second approach ignores the subjective reality of dreams and dreaming. Each of these approaches is a product of the hyper-rationalism which turns everything into an object, and then takes those objects and carefully places them into categories, even though these categories may be divorced from the subjective reality in which we live our lives.

Some three thousand years ago, the oracle at Delphi gave this advice: “Know thyself.” In some ways, we haven’t made any progress from this; we have more technology, and less hunger and famine and disease, and more liberty for more people; but I’m not convinced we know ourselves any better. Mind you, the simple fact that, compared to three thousand years ago, more people are well-fed and reasonably healthy and not enslaved means that more people have enough time in their lives to take the time to know themselves. But objectifying and analyzing pieces of your self does not lead to knowing yourself as a whole.

Hyper-rationalism has given me lots of knowledge, but hasn’t led me any closer to self knowledge. I awakened this morning knowing that I had vivid and intense dreams. Then I got up, and ate breakfast, and went shopping, and did some housecleaning, and stood for a moment just looking out the window. Now I’m writing this. Tonight I will likely dream more vivid dreams that I don’t remember. All this seems to be a better way to follow the advice of the oracle at Delphi.

Portable radio

Michelle and Don stopped by this morning to pick up some amateur radio gear I got from Dad that I’m no longer using. We stood around talking for a while, and Don showed me the prototype of a large variable air capacitor he’s fabricating for use in magnetic loop antennas. So of course I had to show off my latest project: a portable box containing a low-power transceiver, digital interface, power supply, antenna tuner, and antenna.

OK, in terms of raw geek street cred, my portable radio box isn’t as cool as fabricating a large variable air capacitor. But it’s worth something as a small piece of systems engineering that addresses a specific problem that I face: our new house is clad with stucco on wire mesh, which means I live inside what is essentially a Faraday cage; and the landlord does not allow permanent outdoor antenna installations (let’s face it, most visitors to a cemetery don’t want to see a big antenna array). Now I can grab this box, walk out to our fenced-in patio, sit down and get on the air. Mind you, as with any good DIY maker-type project, there is room for improvement and expansion: it definitely needs a door on the front to protect everything; I’d like to add a straight key for Morse code and a space to store an Android tablet for digital modes; I’m thinking of a separate battery and solar cell unit to go with this; maybe someday I’ll add a small linear amp. But in the mean time, this works as is, and it was fun to sit outside in the sun yesterday and monitor the mobile maritime net.

Sabbatical report

I’ve spent much of the first two months of my five-month sabbatical moving from our old apartment to a new rental. Surprisingly, this has proved to be one of the best things I could have done with my sabbatical. Before we moved to Silicon Valley, we had moved five times in ten years, and each time we moved I was starting a new job or a new graduate program, and I didn’t really have time to unpack. But for this move, I actually had time to do things like go through old files and get rid of papers I no longer needed — in the past two weeks I’ve recycled (or shredded and composted) enough old, useless paperwork to fill a four-drawer file cabinet. I got rid of hundreds of books that I no longer need or want. And I’m getting rid of other belongings, too.

In our consumer society, it’s too easy to accumulate more belongings. You don’t need to spend lots of money purchasing new things at the store or online — we have accumulated many of our belongings at the thrift store or yard sales or through Craigslist, or even by trash-picking. (And with paper being so inexpensive, it is far too easy to accumulate files and paperwork.) All these things become a sort of spiritual dead weight; they can weigh you down slowly and stealthily so that you don’t even realize that you’re no longer able to move freely.

With all I’ve gotten rid of, I still have too many things. I’m working on getting rid of more stuff; it’s a kind of spiritual exercise at this point. I do have a couple of research projects that I’m working on during my sabbatical, that I’m not talking about right now, in case they don’t pan out; but even if those research projects don’t pan out, getting out from under the weight of too much stuff would constitute a successful sabbatical.

Moving

Carol and I have decided that it’s easier to move a thousand or more miles away, as we have done four times now, than it is to move two miles away, as we are doing right now. When you are contemplating a long distance move, you know you have to plan everything well in advance. When you’re moving two miles up the street, you think it’s going to be easier, so you relax.

But a move of two miles is not much easier than a move of two thousand miles. Friday, while we were in the middle of schlepping boxes, Carol looked at me and said, “This is traumatic.” OK, maybe “traumatic” is too strong a word; it certainly is extremely unpleasant.

Housing solution

I wrote recently about how insanely difficult it is to find housing in the Bay Area. Since then, the East Bay Times reported that high housing costs have contributed to recent job losses in the Bay Area:

“The Bay Area’s job losses stem from two distinct phenomena: Some employers are slashing positions, and others are unable to hire. Some economists attribute this second problem to structural barriers posed by skyrocketing housing costs. The lack of affordable places for workers to live appears to have hobbled the region’s ability to fill jobs as briskly as in prior years.

“‘Housing is the chain on the dog that is chasing a squirrel,’ said Christopher Thornberg, principal economist and founding partner with Beacon Economics. ‘Once that chain runs out, it yanks the dog back.'”

High-cost municipalities like Palo Alto have been experiencing a net decline in population for over a year now — while housing costs continue to rise. It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out. I suspect that changes in policy will have much effect on rising housing prices; this suspicion is based on what Jay Forrester wrote in his 2009 paper “Some Basic Concepts in Systems Dynamics”:

“People seldom realize the pervasive existence of feedback loops in controlling everything that changes through time. Most people think in linear, nonfeedback terms. … people see a problem, decide on an action, expect a result, and believe that is the end of the issue. [This is] the framework within which most discussions are debated in the press, business, and government.” Yet the world does not really work in a simple, linear fashion. Instead, says Forrester, “we live in a complex of nested feedback loops.”

Another way of saying this is that we human beings like to think of the world in terms of simple, linear, cause-and-effect relationships. Linear thinking provides a reasonably good model for most of our day-to-day actions, and we like to think it will work in all situations. A better model is to think of the world in non-linear terms, as a complex of interconnected feedback loops.

However, in practice it has proved very difficult to get most people to adopt a non-linear model of the world. I see this all the time in my work life. For example, when I’m doing pastoral counseling with people, I see that people often shy away at understanding their personal, spiritual world in terms of nonlinear feedback loops; they prefer to think that a personal, spiritual problem is easily addressed using linear cause-and-effect solutions; and those linear solutions may work in the short term, but after short terms gains there are typically feedback loops in the family and in other social relationships which tend to draw the person back to their original equilibrium.

In another example from my work life, congregations try to solve their problems using linear cause-and-effect thinking. If a congregation wants to increase membership, for example, they will typically find a linear cause-and-effect solution like improving their Web site or doing other advertising to draw new people in the door. One common result of this kind of linear “solution” is that there is a brief influx of newcomers, and a brief increase in attendance, but then within a year various feedback loops bring the congregation back down to the size it was before the advertising campaign.

So the reason I see little hope for policy solutions to the housing crisis in the Bay Area is that most policy efforts are driven by linear cause-and-effect thinking. Build more housing and housing prices will drop; implement rent stabilization measures and housing prices will at least be stable; — both these measures will fail because they don’t take into account the complex of feedback loops that are driving high housing costs, including availability of a range of jobs, transportation infrastructure, national and world forces bearing on the region, etc.

We have managed to solve our own immediate housing crisis. After the landlord sold the building we live in, we spent a month looking for housing and yesterday we signed a lease. We will be living in a cemetery — I kid you not — in a nice two-bedroom house that had been built for a caretaker. We solved our immediate problem with a linear cause-and-effect solution; but we have not solved the longer term problem of how two people who are not earning those six-figure high-tech salaries can afford to live in Silicon Valley.