22 July 2014

'A struggle between humans and nature'

. @IEET. @HJBentham. @ClubOfINFO. #nature. #philosophy. #ebook.


There is often imagined to be a struggle between humans and nature. How does this struggle originate, and what is its resolution? Such a question is central to some religious traditions, and has much room to be explored in literature.

Nature is used to describe everything that lies outside of human agency. Disasters and disease often fall under this description, although there is usually some element of human blame in such problems. Some people try to live or eat according to preferences that they call “natural”. In my view, this is a fallacy. When we use the word natural with its only workable definition, to represent something distinct from human agency, it means that anything resulting from human agency is unnatural and so it cannot be natural (even if it imitates nature). When it applies to human choices, natural is only an arbitrary label used by people to refer to anything they approve of.

Why would humans battle against nature? Perhaps suffering can be described as the most imposing and constantly surfacing part of nature in our lives, because it is ultimately caused by the laws of biology rather than human wills. We humans have vulnerable bodies and we rely on vulnerable, easily destroyed brains to exist, although it is very apparent that we would prefer not to be exposed in this way. Because this is so, the struggle to overcome humanity’s physical and medical vulnerabilities can be depicted as a battle against natureour nature.

The assertion that seeking invulnerability against suffering is an escape from cruel inevitabilities biology is certainly reflected in some philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite seeing the transformation of humanity into a higher creature as a noble task, Nietzsche saw this as necessarily involving suffering. As for the desire to end suffering, he deplored this as a product of weakness and the inability to accept the forces outside human control.

Nietzsche addressed the way in which religious traditions give moral assurances against suffering. Religions offer promises of justice that run contrary to the natural order in which the strong are favored over the weak. The Christian doctrines of the fall of man and eternal Heaven are alike in their view that the world we know is flawed and polluted, and humans are instead meant to endure in paradise. Such myths have been easy for people to buy into, because it is often easier to tolerate suffering in the world and move on if one believes in a supernatural alternativea cosmic safety net for the weak and the deadafter it.

The other manifestation of our weak human refusal to accept suffering, but which actually works, is the desire to use science and technology to thwart suffering. Once we remove the supernatural, the only remaining assurances against suffering can necessarily come from the modernity of technology. In this sense, the idea of a technological singularity, after which the very best technology permitted by the laws of physics will get within reach, represents the only “true” paradise that could ever be inherited.

But what if a paradise, an all-encompassing solution to suffering, is impossible? A universe with high suffering is inherently more likely than a universe without it, because the “anthropic principle” does not contain any guarantees against mortality and suffering. The anthropic principle says human life exists only because this is a requisite for us to notice our own existence. Therefore, the anthropic principle leads to a universe that merely tolerates conscious life for a limited time, rather than enriches it or sustains it. Contrary to religious claims, the universe in which we reside is not “designed” for us to inhabit, and we know this because it is mostly uninhabitable. The vacuum of space cannot be inhabited, and most locations in the universe have the wrong temperature or lack the elements needed for life to exist. What is conspicuous is that the universal constants allow us to exist, not in any kind of ideal state but just enough.

One can relate “extropy” (Kevin Kelly’s usage of the term) to the anthropic principle. Where the anthropic principle explains the human-friendly properties of the universe as existing simply because a human observer exists, extropy the guarantee of something even more complex and intelligent in the future. More than simply tolerating human life, then, a universe where humans exist includes the inevitability that human intelligence will evolve into or produce something far more enduring and glorious. After all, we are no pinnacle, and we are still witnessing an ongoing explosion of intelligence through such creations as the internet and the race to develop powerful AI.

Take a look at history and current cosmology, and we will see that extropy looks very valid. Humans have undeniably been improving their existence, and this is arguably due to the universe being filled with resources that are very friendly to our needs. There are seemingly infinite resources and tools in the universe for humans to exploit to improve their civilization, and the anthropic principle alone did not necessary contain any guarantee that such useful “equipment” would exist. Conceivably, there could be worlds where intelligent life exists but there can be no fire. There might also have been no sufficient quantities of ores or effective tools to build an advanced civilization. Certainly, humans have a lot more at their fingertips than the minimal equipment promised to them by the anthropic principle. Although there is not necessarily a God to thank for it, there is a lot to be thankful for.

What if there was a world where conditions were less favorable? Perhaps, if humans were too vulnerable, there would be less potential to develop civilization, and instead all thought would be dedicated to staying alive. A work of fiction I have dedicated to exploring this theme, The Traveller and Pandemonium, takes place in a more hostile universe than ours (as permitted in the “many-worlds hypothesis”), where a traveler is not convinced by the idea that humanity could have arisen in such unfavorable conditions. Determining that humanity belongs in another world, he searches vainly for the solution.

The traveler keeps his quest secret, aware that most people will condemn him as a religious nut searching for Heaven if he talks about it, but there is actually a rational basis for his view that humans belong elsewhere. The world in which he resides is genuinely toxic and inhospitable to humanity, humans are vulnerable to every creature in the world around them, and they are rapidly going extinct. It looks like a human colonization gone awry on a hostile alien world, although no-one knows how it got that way.

The two strategies against suffering in the world can be described as surgical and spiritual. Those who advocate “spiritual” solutions are only offering window-dressing to humanity while they greedily seek power. Those who advocate “surgical” solutions might not seem beautiful or perfect in what they promise, but they are the only ones promising something real, offering something tangible that could really fight away the uglier characteristics of the universe and save what can be saved.


By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies on 17 July 2014

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18 July 2014

Squalid Worlds and Afterlives

.@hjbentham .#Follow @ClubOfINFO .#scifi. #philosophy. #fantasy. #Kindle.


People were, historically, more prone to believe in a Heaven after death when their living standards and life expectancy were poorer. It is appropriate that in a speculated post-apocalyptic or dystopian world, characters should be very prone to such belief.

Also, the despair of living in a squalid and unfair world usually leads to strange theories about how things got that way, and some ideal alternative is often imagined to exist elsewhere or at some point in the future. Hardline, cultic and extremist behavior flourishes when humans are perceived to be facing an existential threat. Religious traditions positing an afterlife as certain and assured are inherently hardline, because the existential threat addressed by them is death itself – that ticking clock from which none of us will escape. When other existential threats surface, the number of hardline and fanatical ideas increases exponentially.

To consider this subject, I used it to shape themes in my first full-length novel The Traveller and Pandemonium, authored with great care from 2011-2014. In the fictional world of the book, humanity is under much more nightmarish pressure than it is on Earth, and this pressure results in a plague of unlimited conflict and fanaticism tearing civilization apart. Rather than humans controlling and threatening the natural world, the natural world is encroaching on humans and threatening them. Humans are forced to cage themselves away for protection from the hostile aliens inhabiting the world in which they have found themselves, producing the surreal image of cities contained in bird-cage-like domes to shield them from the roaming creatures outside.

In a sense, the world I created for this story does not abide by the anthropic principle – a principle of cosmology which states that the world must include coincidences that support the evolution and existence of the people observing it, or there would be no such observers. Due to this principle not functioning in the world of the story, the alien setting of the story is threatening the human inhabitants with extinction rather than supporting them.

Faced with such a deadly situation from the outset, the main character, nicknamed “the Traveler”, is searching for the answer. How could humans exist in a world that fundamentally does not support or give any illusions of meaning to their existence?

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

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15 July 2014

Political futurism, ethics energized by sci-fi

.@hjbentham .@dissidentvoice_ .#scifi. #philosophy. #fantasy. #Kindle.

 

Literature has served an indispensable purpose in exploring ethical and political themes. This remains true of sci-fi and fantasy, even if there is such a thing as reading too much politics into fictional work or over-analyzing.

Since Maquis Books published The Traveller and Pandemonium, a novel authored by me from 2011-2014, I have been responding as insightfully as possible to reviews and also discussing the book’s political and philosophical themes wherever I can. Set in a fictional alien world, much of this book’s 24 chapters are politically themed on the all too real human weakness of infighting and resorting to hardline, extremist and even messianic plans when faced with a desperate situation.

The story tells about human cultures battling to survive in a deadly alien ecosystem. There the human race, rather than keeping animals in cages, must keep their own habitats in cages as protection from the world outside. The human characters of the story live out a primitive existence not typical of science-fiction, mainly aiming at their own survival. Technological progress is nonexistent, as all human efforts have been redirected to self-defense against the threat of the alien predators.

Even though The Traveller and Pandemonium depicts humanity facing a common alien foe, the various struggling human factions still fail to cooperate. In fact, they turn ever more hostilely on each other even as the alien planet’s predators continue to close in on the last remaining human states. At the time the story is set, the human civilization on the planet is facing imminent extinction from its own infighting and extremism, as well as the aggressive native plant and animal life of the planet.

The more sinister of the factions, known as the Cult, preaches the pseudo-religious doctrine that survival on the alien world will only be possible through infusions of alien hormones and the rehabilitation of humanity to coexist with the creatures of the planet at a biological level. However, there are censored side effects of the infusions that factor into the plot, and the Cult is known for its murderous opposition to anyone who opposes its vision.

The only alternative seems to be a second faction, but it is equally violent, and comes under the leadership of an organization who call themselves the Inquisitors. In their doctrine, humans must continue to isolate themselves from the alien life of the planet, but this should extend to exterminating the alien life and the aforementioned Cult that advocates humans transmuting themselves to live safely on the planet.

I believe that this aspect of the story, a battle between two militant philosophies, serves well to capture the kind of tension and violent irrationality that can engulf humanity in the face of existential risks. There is no reason to believe that hypothetical existential risks to humanity such as a deadly asteroid impact, an extraterrestrial threat, runaway global warming, alien contact or a devastating virus would unite the planet, and there is every reason to believe that it would divide the planet. It is often the case that the more argument there is for authority and submission to a grand plan in order to survive, the greater the differences of opinion and the greater the potential for divergence and conflict.

Social habits, politics, beliefs and even the cultural trappings of the different human cultures clinging to the alien planet are fully represented in the book. In all, the story has had significant time and care put into refining it to create a compelling and believable depiction of life in an inhospitable parallel world, and readers remarked in reviews that it is a “masterclass in world-building”.

The central character of the story, nicknamed the Traveler, together with his companion, do not really subscribe to either of the extremist philosophies battling over humanity’s fate on the alien planet, but their ideas may be equally strange. Instead, they reject the alien world in which they live. With an almost religious naïveté, they are searching for a “better place”. It is through this part of the plot that the concepts of religious faith and hope are visited. Of course, at all times the reader knows they are right – there is a “better place” only not the religious kind. Ultimately, the quest is for Earth, although the characters have never heard of such a place and have only inferred that it might somehow exist and represent an escape from the hostile planet where they were born.

Reviewers have acknowledged that by inverting the relationship of humanity and nature so that nature is on the advance and humans are receding and diminishing in the setting of this science-fiction novel, a unique and compelling setting is created. I believe the story offers my best exploration of a number of political and ethical themes, such as how people feel pressured to choose between hardline factions in times of extreme desperation and in the face of existential threats. Science fiction is a worthy medium in which to express and explore not only the future, but some of the most troubling political and philosophical scenarios that have plagued humanity’s past.

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published at Dissident Voice on 9 July 2014

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11 July 2014

Making opinions matter: making headlines

.#democracy. #you. #indie. #webcontent. #contentmarketing. @HJBentham.


Ever wanted to be the subject of international news, or to be recognized as an expert in your field? In the age of the web, both are relatively easy for anyone to accomplish – and it really matters. Thanks to digital culture, equal opportunity is becoming an unstoppable reality rather than an empty promise from ultimately self-centered authorities and companies.

Everyone knows the internet transforms humanity. Well-known YouTubers such as TheAmazingAtheist have depended on this transformative power of the web for their fame and popularity. It takes geography out of the human equation, and makes it possible to share ideas with ever vaster and more diverse audiences. In many ways, such beautiful communication discredits the idea that humans have to reside in arbitrarily delineated areas of land called states. But did you know you can easily make headlines as a result of your internet influence, and within mere months?

What I have come to realize is that over a period of six months, between March and September 2013, I easily acquired the means to become the subject of international news through the internet. And I accomplished this purely with a robust personal online publishing strategy. Reflecting on how I got this far with nothing more than a cheap netbook resting on a table, I have divided the process for making headlines online into five distinct “phases”. These phases, which I am eager to share with everyone, can easily be imitated by anyone with the bare minimum of a computer and an internet connection.

Keep in mind that I already tried blogging and “vlogging” for two years on YouTube, before I ultimately went for the route of legitimate online publishing. The truth is that blogging is simply inefficient and slow to succeed. It is something of a trap, because it is so easy to get started, but the fact is that it is almost impossible to grow a good readership through blogging alone. Fortunately, there are countless online publications in desperate search of writers with nothing more than comments worthy to be added to the discussion. To really harness the power of the internet, you need to harness the reach of people and businesses already thriving on the internet.

Phase 1


The first phase I identified on the road to effective online publishing consisted of finding nascent or seldom-visited online publications and submitting work to them. There are plenty of them that will take almost any submissions, which really gives new authors the chance to prove themselves. Recently, my own webzine, ClubOfINFO, has opened up to take submissions ranging from sci-fi stories to any meaningful commentary on technology and society.

Phase 2


The second phase involves going to the publications designed to empower everyone through the web, like openDemocracy or Infoshop News. It is at this phase that all online writers discover how technology has given them a unique gift to prove they are a force to be reckoned with.

Phase 3


In the third phase, if you are seeking to become a respected source on your subject, it is wise to use your background gained in the previous phases to submit articles to the leading magazine on your subject. After some months writing reviews and articles at a leading subject source like BeliefNet (that would be the best choice if your area of interest is religious belief) it is possible to earn recognition as a respected source of commentary in even further-reaching online media.

Phase 4


In the fourth and hardest phase, you approach an international news source with an op-ed. This can be difficult for a person who has not completed the previous phases, or if you insist on being published immediately at one of the very top news sources in the world. However, if you have the evidence to prove you are an outspoken online personality after successfully following the above strategy, an op-ed is very likely to be accepted. The real reward from this step is that media often quote their own experts in headlines, so it is actually possible that you can make your first international headline within mere months of becoming a writer on the web.

Phase 5


The fifth phase is all yours. Adapt it carefully to whatever you have set out to accomplish through your online publishing campaign. Successful online publishing can be used to amass an audience ahead of some other effort, such as promoting your personal website, creating more media opportunities in the future, or gaining a flow of potential customers at your own online business.

I followed the steps described above successfully, which is why I feel it is time to share them in detail. Better, I have more recently put together a detailed guidebook to teach these phases in their full depth and guarantee success for anyone else hoping to make their opinion matter through the web. This is a proven strategy, which produces very real results when completed. What I would like to see is everyone else recognizing this opportunity to excel and express themselves, rather than for this strategy to remain mine alone.

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

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