Enlightenment Now

A colleague of Steven Pinker’s once told him: “I have observed many smart people who have little idea of how to logically think through a problem, who infer causation from correlation, and who use anecdotes as evidence far beyond the predictability warranted.”

Have you ever noticed this tendency in those who seem to have the strongest opinions? More importantly, have you ever noticed this glitch in your own world viewfinder? In almost every aspect of our lives–politics, news coverage, medical diagnosis and treatments, liberal arts, the humanities, your racist uncle at Thanksgiving, history, climate change, immigration–we just can´t help it.  And if you think the choice between deepening our collective understanding of the world and a reliance on ignorance and superstition is a no-brainer for everybody, sorry, it just ain’t so.

Because we humans are so vulnerable to our own cognitive biases and blind trust in our own “gut feelings” about questions that occur to us, we invariably get a distorted view of the state of the world.  Simply put, the world isn´t nearly as bad as you might think it is, and there are specific reasons why this is so.  In Enlightenment Now, Pinker not only relies heavily on data collected over time in graphs and charts (Max Roser´s graphs are wonderful and thorough. Click here to see), he explains why it is important to pay attention to this evidence, to understand how science and reason are often muddled in the public sphere, and to understand why things have gotten better.  He shows that the progress that the we have made as a species is quantifiable, despite the best efforts of influential people from all over the political spectrum to obfuscate and deny this fact. What has gone up globally? Life expectancy, GDP per capita, social spending, literacy, leisure time. What has gone down? For a start, work hours (in Europe and the US), costs of necessities, workplace-related deaths, terrorism deaths, rape and domestic violence, racist, sexist and homophobic opinions, natural disaster deaths, battle deaths, undernourishment, maternal mortality, extreme poverty, famine deaths, homicide deaths.

You may already be tempted to “whataboutery.”  What about ISIS? What about all these school shootings? I have personally overheard three different violent fights between a man and a woman in the last 6 months alone.  It is not the job of the statistics to ignore specific cases or highlight one or another, it simply represents averages and overall trends that come from the combination of objective observation and data gathering.  And it important to know how to read a graph and how to process statistics (which sometimes is surprisingly difficult).  I think the point of all these graphs isn´t to say that the problems they delineate don´t exist or are no longer important, it is to demonstrate the incredible progress we have made in the end.

Nor is Pinker suggesting that the path to progress is an easy one. There are many who surprisingly hate progress. And he argues that we are hard-wired to do stupid things: we follow passions, intuitions, faith, authority, gurus and celebrities and hunches, we rely on anecdote in lieu of logic and reason, we have a short-term memory, we relegate science to a corner when it conflicts with tradition. Many people even seem to reject ideas simply because they themselves do not understand them, and contend that to accept them is to be gullible. And nowhere is this more blatant than in the public reception of science. You must have noticed this in politicized issues like climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, public health and education.  And anti-science skeptics come from everywhere, from the congressman who brought a snowball to Congress to disprove global warming to Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator to flat earthers.  Have you seen that guy in California who sells raw, untreated water? This is a great option to hydrate yourself if you´re into Hepatitis A and diarrhea, and the reason we know this is because actual scientists found a way to treat water so more people could drink it without shitting themselves to death (Abel Wolman and Linn Enslow discovered the chlorination of water, which saved 177 million lives. Click here to learn more).

Indeed there have been important people in history that bucked these human tendencies and made our world a better place in which to live longer and happier. Thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Galileo and Thomas Paine did not pretend that we are always rational movers fighting the chaos, nor were they without faults and errors themselves. Rather, they presented ideas that rose above our irrationality, showing how we can outsmart our own inner homo sapiens, with all our deficiencies. Emmanuel Kant declared, “Dare to understand!”  An important overlying theme for these thinkers was the Enlightenment idea that we should pursue reason in order to understand the complexities and problems of the world.  This book is clarifying my idea of what the Enlightenment even is, and has shown me the importance of reason in everyday life, and that the enemies of reason come from unexpected places. And even though we have made giant strides in the quality of life on our planet, it is self-defeating to ignore this progress and to forget these Enlightenment ideals, instead we must not cease to build upon them.

 

 

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Questioning humanity in Blade Runner

Questioning humanity in Blade Runner

 

poster available at: http://mules9.com/bladerun

I think the first time I really contemplated mortality with an adult mind was after watching the “Tears in Rain” monologue of replicant Roy Batty. At the time, I suddenly found the idea of  being human, with a finite existence, all at once liberating, exhilarating and immeasurably sad and terrifying.  Also, I suddenly found immortality and eternity equally terrifying. Like many of the critics of the day, I didn’t quite grasp the clairvoyance of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). It was darker and more profound than I could understand. But by so effectively blurring the lines between robot and human, the film forced me think, or inspired me to think, on what it would really mean to live forever, on what it means to be human, and if there is any real value in empathy.

I always enjoy bleakness and gloom in films, and I have always been attracted to dystopian themes, especially in dense urban environments, and I am not sure why. Maybe it is the contrast of the hopelessness of the future with the relative banality of the present day that clarifies drama. Perhaps it appeals to that melancholic introvert in me. Whatever the reason, I find these settings ideal for a story.

There are many superficial qualities of Blade Runner that have garnered much praise (Click here for a synopsis of the movie): clever use of light, gritty and realistic sets, the use of rain and water, the prophetic ideas of future society, the unmistakable (and strangely dated yet timeless) music of Vangelis, the poetic dialogues and monologues in Hampton Fancher´s script.  By superficial I don’t mean frivolous. Any one of these elements alone would have made an impression, but they would not have had the

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Rachael, beginning to suspect that she may not be human like she´s been told.

collective power of all of them together.  I think the contrasts are particularly powerful in Blade Runner, and they go well beyond a simple human-robot dichotomy. The extremes of light rapidly change from blinding to pitch. The squalid and impure environment of the city and the lavish quarters of a well-off CEO. The violent Batty who searches for a longer life and the tender, beautiful android who does’t know she’s been manufactured. The architecture of the Mayan-esque pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation building set between towering modern skyscrapers. The loner amongst the masses. These contrasts are layers that enrich the film and allow us to understand the characters and the extremes that they represent, and therefore we begin a new understanding of what it means to be human.

Those who label Blade Runner parody rather than a fine work of pastiche simply haven’t really seen the movie. Openly adopting film noir, weaving the running narrative of a reflective, lonesome and detached man on a hapless mission of redemption in a post nuclear holocaust, Blade Runner showed us how human good sci-fi can and should be. And the results could have been disastrous, but they were not. The humanity and nostalgia complement what might otherwise be just another example of our lazy concept of an automated, hyper-computerized future (most of modern science fiction).

Picture: Warner Bros.

Part of the dystopian feel comes in the form of a sort of Marxist critique of capitalism and how an all-encompassing corporate environment isolates and delegitimizes the individual.  The decadence in the movie, perhaps seen to some as exaggerated, is portrayed as a direct result of a specific system run rampant on the world. We have all seen what the excesses of commercialism and capitalism can do to the mind, soul, and our sense of creativity.  In Blade Runner, it seems to me this theme is purposely pervasive and hyperbolic. Over everything (also quite literally, with blimps and police patrols above) looms an imposing presence, the towering god-like presence of the Tyrell Corporation, a complex but intentionally crafted system governing an ethnically diverse population that is so desensitized that it isn´t interested in human connections. Yet it somehow operates, albeit in an overwhelming chaos where the dreams and desires of humans are rendered almost meaningless (and those of a robot less than meaningless).  Deckard is a loner (it seems by choice), the replicants are slaves who, in practice, are assigned a wholly meaningless existence other than servitude to the all-encompassing system. The inherent worth of both humans and replicants is gauged by their productivity. Around each English-speaking character is a sea of humanity speaking a foreign language, intensifying the isolation and the interaction between those characters. Talk about a plausible dystopia.

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Inside the lush office of the Tyrell Corporation.

Another aspect of Blade Runner that has left an impression on me is the idea of memories and our concept of remembering.  Replicants receive fragmented memories from their creators, contrived ideas, sometimes drawn from reality, other times constructed.  Deckard, whether or not he himself is a replicant, is forced to contemplate the value of memories and how they validate our sentience (and perhaps more importantly, the “sentience” of artificially manufactured androids). Our distant memories are often dubious and our connection to the past can be tenuous.  Sometimes we invent or embellish past events, sometimes we block out the traumatic ones. Sometimes a smell or a song will bring back a feeling or a vague memory that we can´t quite precipitate. But it seems that these memories are a large part of what separate us from artificial intelligence. I find that Blade Runner, amongst its many questions, asks: In the end is there all that much that would set us apart?

 

 

Imagining Ourselves in Hoyle’s Cloud

img_1371To contemplate (or even define) our own existence in a meaningful way may be to contrast ourselves with something entirely different.  The universe has gotten much bigger in the last 50 years, both in reality and, perhaps more importantly, in our minds.  As we discover our staggering insignificance and tenuous survival in a vast (however measurable) void, we often rely on popular scientists to translate cosmology and hard to grasp concepts on the nature of reality. In story form, it’s hardly ever done well.

Science fiction’s often formulaic tales rarely reveal anything interesting about the reality of consciousness or humanity in the context of the cosmos.  At the risk of taking a side in the tired academic debate on the legitimacy of science fiction as fiction (or science), mere suspension of disbelief isn’t enough for me. Neither is escapism.  Even children eventually feel like they start seeing the same thing again and again, when turns out to be just people doing people things in space or in some distant future. The banal pseudo-exotic behaviors and names come across as contrived. The novelty of gadgets wears off quickly. The occasional technological advancements that turn out to be reality more often turn out to be superfluous and laughable, and they’re usually utilized in the first place as simple genre devices, and furthermore much less interesting than a retrospective story of how that advancement came to be reality.  In other words, a literary analysis of how or why humanity plays with its toys is more substantive than the toys themselves.  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t brilliant because of his accurate depiction of Skype in 1968, and I’d venture to say that Kubrick himself would place this idea low on his list of intellectual breakthroughs.  To me, the film exists as a fine example of science fiction because the premise, and the story as a whole, wouldn’t make sense in any other context, and it is almost devoid of nostalgia (or humanity, some have argued).  As adults, our appreciation of Star Wars is almost pure nostalgia, and the drama could be set in the Old West or in 1920’s Brooklyn, the questions of good and evil or sexual tension or hero redemption being wholly transferable. I think this maybe my trouble with some genres in general.  They seem to be otherwise ordinary life stories that are unnecessarily pushed through the meat grinder of some contrived setting or set of peculiar, wild and crazy conventions.  This movie about Santa Claus rescuing Martian children from depression comes to mind. Or perhaps this question of context defines good science fiction, in which case most that has been written is bad.

In telling a story using the vernacular of science, an absence of legitimate scientific concepts (yes, even theories) can also be a detriment to quality. Rarely, for example, will science fiction even conceptualize that we have likely been imagining aliens all wrong, and that we don’t even really know what we are looking for. Original concepts exist, but unfortunately scientists are not often story tellers, and so we must settle for social studies experiments in space that we inevitably connect to real life.  (By the way, real science sometimes seems to fall into the same trap, it seems to me.  Apart from the sweet sentimental notion of a human time capsule flying through space well after our sun has exploded and engulfed our earth, doesn’t Voyager’s Golden Record seem a bit pedestrian and short-sighted in that it relies only on human-specific denominators? Morse code? Brain waves of thoughts about love? A message from President Carter? Really?).

In Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, an alien gaseous superorganism approaches from the depths of space and threatens life on earth.  At first, the usual suspects of the disaster story come to the surface: the conspiracy theories from the public, the intellectual superiority (and quirks) of the scientists, the simple minded chest-pounding of military officials, the incompetence of politicians.  But after the quick refutation of leading scientists’ hypotheses on the ramifications of our sun being obscured by the cloud, the problem grows with some surprising, thought-provoking events, including the establishment of meaningful communication with the cloud.

Hoyle was not a biologist but an astrophysicist, yet the story drives fascinating questions of evolutionary and philosophical significance, partly because the context is so profoundly unique. Contrast the possible questions you might ask a 500-million-year-old organism that travels at 100 kilometres a second in search of solutions to the “deep problems” with Captain Kirk’s dilemmas about lusting after a green alien woman with voluptuous breasts and a tail.  One of these scenarios is at the same time less likely to occur in a movie or book, and more likely to approach something like truth or answering a real damn question.

Sometimes to understand why some things are plausible, hence powerful elements in a story, is to understand profound concepts in science that may not spontaneously occur to the layman. Hoyle has done this masterfully in The Black Cloud. The story rests heavily on information theory.  And he gives us a view into how information is shared among scientists, what they think and argue about (and how they argue), about how language could determine our subjective reality, and how the imperfections of our modes of communication determine our individuality (if we could all communicate instantly and telepathically, we would soon cease to be individuals). But the book even goes beyond effectively mixing scientific education and entertainment, already an impressive feat. Hoyle’s pace and plot development make the book hard to put down (although at times his clunky dialogue shows that he is, after all, a scientist and not a novelist). And he allows the reader to contemplate questions that would likely not occur in the uneducated mind, or more aptly, the curious mind without a bit of guidance.  How would we communicate with something we only suddenly conceptualize as alive?  How exactly can something come from nothing? How have the natural processes of our planet influenced our very nature? What is consciousness? Why do we have bodies at all? Why do we live on a solid planet? Is that an advantage? What questions have we not asked because our intellectual capabilities have not yet allowed us to conceptualize the questions? In order to learn something truly new, would the transfer of new information necessarily need to be expressed in a language wholly different from any we know?

Reviews seem to reveal that Hoyle didn’t produce the steady quality of sci-fi like that from Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. And Hoyle turned out to be wrong on some of his science, particularly in the field of biology and even in cosmology (regarding the beginning of the universe, he preferred his “Steady State” theory, and referred to the counterargument, sarcastically, as the “Big Bang”).   But he was also right about his theory of how chemical elements are formed in the insides of stars, and Richard Dawkins writes in the afterward that Clarke only equaled Hoyle at his best, specifically in The Black Cloud.  Each author of classic novels is unique, and we are never to know the factors that determine any given writer’s work.  But this story, published in 1957, still stands as one of the most original ideas ever to be written in any genre.

What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

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Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

A Film about Everything

img_0812Terrence Malick’s latest, “Voyage of Time,” appears to be as ambitious as it sounds, a visual journey from the beginning of time to the end of it, and it could be incredible.  Richard Brody describes Malick’s work most effectively, using satisfying scientific parlance–the interstitial scenes of a broken relationship, occupying a rarefied plane of thought–and he seems to value his work in a way few do.

I agree with Brody in that Malick often gets a prompt dismissal from the viewing public because his work operates outside the day-to-day actions of normal life, or framed stage life; it also dwells in the small moments that Hollywood skips over, the moments that people (who think they know what constitutes art or experience) think don’t make good cinema, and he shoots the overwhelmingly beautiful scenery and sounds around us, be it city or desert, or in the living room or in a raging party.  These invariably inarticulate dismissals of Malick’s films, or other serious works, are particularly tiresome to me, but it’s Friday and I’m in a forgiving mood.

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of Voyage of Time click here

We can now add to Malick’s scope the space between the microcosm and macrocosm, or at least the pleasant struggle to find the difference.  Voyage of Time seems to nurture that small place of comfort that some of us find in the knowledge that the universe operates completely independent of us– the observers– yet our ability to observe, to recognize beauty, to understand natural processes through curiosity and empirical evidence, is really what defines us and what defines happiness.  The preface of the film seems to try to get at truth (see below). And any film that tries to demonstrate the beauty and significance of a cosmos that is indifferent to us, thorough images that do not exist to be seen by us, is unlikely to engender despair. Rather, (I hope) it reminds us of the deep satisfaction in our desire to contemplate and to understand, to make connections and describe what is beautiful.  This is what I understand to be science, philosophy and art, all in one.

 

A Death in Venice

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A film brimming with sentimentality, gorgeous long shots of an iconic city now lost, and a protagonist who has lost his dignity and health, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice also incorporates powerful music from Gustav Mahler, which is wholly moving and at times devastating.  The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel of the same name. Visconti changed the main character, Gustav, is minor ways that seem to benefit the story-telling of the media of film.  There have been mixed reviews of Visconti’s interpretation, but the film is powerful on its own, and will likely inspire a reading of the novel.

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Death in Venice, novel by German writer Thomas Mann (1921).

Filmed in foggy frames that effectively typify a hot, humid and cholera-ridden Venice, shots are sometimes jaw-dropping; scenes of strolling aristocratic women in flowing white beachwear and holding small umbrellas are reminiscent of a Sorolla painting. The juxtaposition of water and stone, the mackerel sky sunsets, the ornate Grand Hôtel des Bains, Venice once had the power of romantic overload, but a kind of Dionysian overload, connected to the passions and excess of man of which some of us welcome at times, in direct opposition to the structured restraint of  Nietzsche’s Apollo.  Fitting into this ideal at first, Gustav doesn’t seem to notice any beauty at all except for one young man, with whom he steadily becomes obsessed, and we watch his slow, inward disintegration, his panic about aging, and his idealizing erotic beauty at the expense of dignity and intellectual contemplation — Dionysis pursuing Gustav to the end.

The subplot of a cholera epidemic, hidden from public view (it seems even then Venice was concerned about the necessary evil of tourists), brilliantly works into the story of Gustav’s demise.

Grab a bottle of wine and contemplate the Platonic ideal of beauty amongst pragmatism.  For further poignant contrast, compare the cruise ship Venice of today to that of Gustav’s time.

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The Slow Making of a Language

imageOtto Jespersen (1860-1943) was a Danish linguist, and one of the strongest authorities on the English language.  His Growth and Structure of the English Language is a little volume packed full of practical findings about the history of English, yet one gets the feeling that it only scratches the surface of the study, at times even summary and terse.

He demonstrates in some detail the obvious influence of the Normans and the French language on English, so blatant an influence that the reader is left with the impression that our language would be unrecognizable without it.  The obvious contrast between the vernacular of the higher classes (the Normans) and the everyday language of the humbler rural worker (those occupied by the conquest) is interesting enough, but what is striking is the mystery of how the language of the French was spread to those who undoubtedly found it irrelevant to their lives, and how it influences how we speak today.  Vocabulary, verbs and official names not only relating to but directly describing the law, fashion, cuisine, war and military, skilled labor, art and descriptions of leisure activities come from the French in vast quantities. And it was not a matter of one culture merely borrowing terms from another, the Normans introduced these aspects of culture into a native population that lacked them, whatever the level of intention.

The Danes also gave English some of its most important function words, and they influenced modern day English in a different way that is no less fascinating.  English owes less to the Norse tongues than to French in quantity, but possibly more in functionality.  For example, we received the words get, they, them, the, that, this, as well as the suffixes -by, -thorp, -beck, -dale, and -thwaite.  And they really were received, received from an invading force who introduced both a concepts and the words to describe them.

From p. 123:

“It should be noted…that when once a certian pronunciation or signification has been firmly established in a language, the word fulfills its purpose in spite of ever so many might-have-beens, and that, at any rate, correctness in one language should not be measured by the yard of another language.”  

An essential reference for any English speaker with an interest in why we say the words we say.

And I haven’t even finished the Latin and Greek chapters yet…