I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.
Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.
The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…
I’ve been reading Paul Berman‘s The Flight of the Intellectuals (many thanks to my boss here at RFE/RL, Jay Tolson, for lending me a copy). Although the book’s primary goal is to unearth the true ideology of Tariq Ramadan, a man whom both fans and opponents alike acknowledge is difficult to pin down, its elucidations of the links between Islamism and Nazism, located roughly speaking in the first half of the book, are extremely valuable. Berman not only provides an excellent summary of the most recent and important scholarly research into the topic, but he accomplishes the goal of making an intimate call to arms within the reader to face up to the true horrific countenance of certain ideologies.
This theme of avoidance, in Berman’s words, “the multi-motivated disinclination to discuss or even think about the very largest of crimes,” on the part of Western intellectuals, “The urge to look somewhere else — to look anywhere at all, except at the main thing,” is central to his book, and serves as the diving board for this reflection. You see, this little blog of mine is saturated by Transhumanist themes, and insofar as it reflects my mind (as close friends and sharp readers have noted, I’m not entirely candid in this digital space) it can be said to be an expression of a worldview that is, although not exclusively Transhumanist, is nevertheless deeply informed by such an outlook.
So, you’ll understand the depth of my concern when I say that Transhumanism, or at least some varieities of it, may be the Nazism, Communism, and Islamism of the future. Specifically, I fear that, if so, then it may one day be looked upon by distant generations from now as the twenty-first century’s equivalent of the antisemitism and eugenicism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — in other words, a belief system that promotes horrifying goals via terrible means, yet somehow is espoused by otherwise perfectly rational and decent people.
The new trailer for Tron: Legacy, the long-awaited sequel to Disney’s great experiment in blue screen film-making, was released this past week. Although doubtlessly it will be derided as spectacle, and with some justification — big dollars of course come from big dazzle — this film’s visual punch is going to be big precisely because, as filmmakers know very well, the image is often more meaningful than the word.
Popular science fiction always has its phases. Remember the confluence of asteroid movies, books, and games in the Nineties? Perhaps that trend reflected the calendrical (and cultural) fin du siècle. No surprise, then, that the Noughties tended to be concerned with themes of paranoia, surveillance, the schizophrenia of espionage, and asymmetrical warfare. The question, then, is what’s going on nowadays, for it seems virtuality, especially as related to transhumanism and the ultimate fate of humanity, has been really coming to the fore.
My grandparents, Charles and Bertie Schwartz, published their book Faith Through Reason in 1947, which had a small amount of influence among Jewish and Christian intellectual circles in the United States, especially the Northeast. The book carried the weight that it did primarily for two reasons, namely, the personal prominence of my grandparents among the professional and religious scenes in New York City, and its extremely cogent, clear, and forthright style.
Hearing about the book my whole life was one of the factors that led to my own strong interest in the question of faith and reason. Moreover, my grandparents’ views went on to deeply influence the views of their children and grandchildren, and will probably (and hopefully) continue to inform future generations. Pesach discussions have often turned to the text, during which the subtlety of the title — faith through reason — is emphasized.
What did my grandparents mean precisely? In the foreword they write, “faith need not be arrived at blindly” and “the test of reason may be applied to both, that religious beliefs may be adopted and that faith may be reached through the intellect”. The prima facie meaning of this passage would be as my family and undoubtedly my grandparents themselves took it to mean: faith can be established by reason.
However, as I currently see it, to make faith reasonable is to make it something other than faith. Reason, or at least the cognitive logical variety that my grandparents talked about, is useful to prepare one’s intellectual terrain for the dawning of faith, and more, to resolve doctrinal problems within a particular faith tradition. However, faith itself is ultimately either a different order of reason, or indeed, concerns something trans-reasonable.
But I’ll return to this issue in a moment, because it eventually has ramifications not only for the philosophy of religion, but of science, as well. Now, re-reading my grandparents’ book with the hindsights of age and several years of academic training, the following passage from their book leaps out at me:
Exploring the question of why the normally totalitarian government of Turkmenistan has suddenly and aggressively striven to increase internet access among its population, this article is ultimately a reflection upon the impact of technology upon human society. As a piece of what can only be described as “journalistic philosophy”, I’m particularly pleased with how it turned out; indeed, its core ideas are why I am a committed cyberjournalist.
Note: a shortened version of this editorial was published under the title, “A Pandora’s Box“, in the “Our Take” section of Transitions Online (TOL). The expanded version, republished below, originally appeared on neweurasia under the current title (click on the image above to read it).
It’s a philosophical riddle as old as when humanity first learned to harness the power of fire: Will technology bring freedom or slavery? Lately, observers of Turkmenistan find themselves asking this very question about the Internet.
Wow. Well, I’ve got to hand it to the writers. I heard rumors swirling for a while, but didn’t believe them. Her? Nah, get real; what a lame choice. But after watching the episode I now agree with the blogger at Galactica Variants: not only does the choice work, but it’s powerful. And I think it’s only the beginning, since the LA Times reports that we should expect to see this character, somehow, some way, over the course of the final story arc.
In light of the revelation, I am further awe-filled by the sheer time scale in which Galactica as a story operates, especially the way in which it is conveyed so intimately, personalizing the effect. There is truly something mysterious, terrifying, and enticing about the concept of eternal return, and the show manages to connect it to identity, history, and mortality in ways that never cease to evoke wonder and reflection. Truly, this is more than masterful television: it’s nigh philosophy.
(If you feareth not the spectre of spoilers, click on the image above to see the big revelation, and “read more” for some more thoughts.)
Since the World Wars, our species has been repeatedly confronted with the horrible visage of our increasingly godlike power. It grins at all of us from behind the emaciated ribs of starved Jews, Cambodians, and Darfurians, with the glare of Hiroshima shimmering across its jagged teeth. Now, what began as a severe crisis of faith in the Europe of the 1920s and 40s has quickly rippled out to encompass every culture and civilization, whether they realize it or not. Confucian and Buddhist peoples have laicized with shocking zeal, not to mention Jews, while Christianity and Hinduism have become hypercapitalist and contradict themselves. Mindbogglingly, all this has happened in the name of progress, virtue, and, most ironically of all, “family values” and cultural self-defense.
Let down as it has been by modernization and globalization, and severely betrayed by its own leadership, few in or out of the Muslim community would dispute that Islam has been particularly hit hard by the ever-expanding spiritual abyss. After all, is not most of the Third World Muslim? And in the few countries where Muslims have been able to prosper somewhat, it has either been in a position of dependency vis-à-vis the West (and now China), such as the bloated rentier states of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia; via dehumanizing authoritarianism, as in Egypt, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia; or in the form of a stuttering ascendancy fraught with ethnic strife, as in the fractious republics of Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Indonesia. If it is true that Islam has “bloody borders,” this condition is at least as much a result of the seepage of vitality from Islamic principles, like blood from a slit vein, as it is due to Muslims’ persistent failure to co-exist with kafirs.
I’m no fan of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahab but he did have a crucial insight, namely, that the most important concept of Islam is tawhid توحيد (unity). Could it not be that in a sense Islam may point toward our species’ animal past while Christianity may point toward our post-human future? Existence for our primitive tribal ancestors was experienced as a unitary whole in which sacred and secular were one, the same, and visceral. But for sedentarized homo sapiens, existence is an experience filtered through instrumental consciousness, cookie-cut into categories and concepts. Hence the reason why Islam, the marauding super-tribe, and Christianity, the staid city of man-deities, have been historic rivals.
Could it be that as our species barrels toward a future so inundated with technology that not only the body but the very soul could become genetically alterable, the image of the resurrected Christ—more human than human—begins to seems very prophetic, and Islam, for all its brutality, may actually be calling us to remember where we came from and that we should be careful about lunging so quickly toward the Kingdom of Heaven?
“The problem of evil.” Theologians and philosophers couldn’t have found a staler term to categorize the spiritual and intellectual catastrophe that is the question, “Where was God…?”
Where was God during Deir ez-Zor, Auschwitz, Darfur, and September 11th? Where is God when everyday people suffer and die from the most banal of causes. A non-stick frying pan, when scratched and heated, releases brain-damaging lethal fumes — where the hell is God in that? Imagine! The creator of the universe’s very existence challenged by kitchenware, and the best response Mankind’s thinkers can conjure is the crossword puzzle-sounding “problem of evil.”
The term I prefer is “theodicy”; the word’s Greek origin has an appropriately menacing sound. Yet, when I take a moment to examine the word’s etymology I find it nearly as insufficient as “the problem of evil.” It comes from the Greek θεός (theós, “god”) and δίκη (díkē, “justice”), meaning literally “the justice of God,” but more accurately rendered as “to justify God” or “the justification of God.” It was coined in 1710 by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz. You may recall him as the fellow who believed ours is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The problems with theodicy are immediately apparent, loaded as it is with innumerable assumptions. One assumption is the very goodness of God; another is whether it is the divine, not humanity, who is in need of justification. And of course the most fundamental assumption is that God even exists (but that’s a topic for another reflection — for the sake of this essay, and out of respect for my own spiritual experiences, I’m going with the belief that some kind of divinity does exist). However, the most problematic assumptions are (a) that there’s a flawless divine plan, much less total divine mastery over events, and (b) that events are assailable as either “good” or “evil.” At the root of both these assumptions are the ideas of certainty and necessity, and the question of the relation between suffering and divine intention.
For these reasons I propose that the entire concept of theodicy be gutted and rebooted. How? By dropping talk of “good” and “evil,” eviscerating the gibberish of what we mean when we say “God,” and then asking a new question, one about the relation of chance and divine decisions. In other words, let’s be historians about our faith, and ask: how do we reconcile belief in God with contingency and change? The answer I propose: God is a storywriter, and we are partners in the plot. This is the core analogy of what I call “post-monotheist theodicy.”