Five Finger Exercise

Including thumbs that is.  Having said that, not everyone has those:

TPT_five-fingered_hand

I can only imagine how difficult not having thumbs must be.  This is of course literally a five-fingered hand, meaning that it’s impossible for the first digit to touch the others fingerpad to fingerpad, which is crucial to tool use.  Primates generally do have thumbs of course, although their opposability isn’t always like ours.  This is a squirrel monkey’s hand:

3373159-Squirrel-monkey-hand-0

Squirrel monkeys are from the other half of the monkey clade and have pseudo-opposable thumbs, meaning that they operate like hinges but can’t swivel to touch the other fingertips.  Tarsiers, which are nocturnal versions of our direct ancestors the omomyids, have completely non-opposable thumbs:

By Jasper Greek Golangco – http://www.sxc.hu/photo/490925, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=646723600px-Tarsier-GG

Clearly tarsiers elicit a cuteness response in humans, probably because they’re proportioned like babies, which is therefore presumably ideal for a small primate, or at least one option.

An oddity about hands and feet, which I mentioned yesterday, is that whereas there are many species with fewer than five digits per limb, for instance horses and many lissamphibians, there never seem to be any animals which usually have more than five actual digits.  There are animals with an extra dew claw, such as cats and dogs, but this is a wrist bone rather than a real digit.  Even odder is the fact that whereas there are no species with more than five digits as standard, there are many cases of individuals in certain  species born with more than five, including humans:

As a healthcare professional I have come across a few patients with more than the usual number of digits per hand, and because we generally have two types of digit there are two ways in which this can happen – two thumbs or five fingers, or more.  Also, they tend to be branched from other digits rather than simply come off the hand as such.  I could go on about Robinow Syndrome at this point but that really belongs on another blog, as does Kennedy’s Syndrome incidentally, which I mention because its social construction is similar.

The issue of functional extra digits, each with their own nails, bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and part of the brain onto which their sensory and motor functions are mapped, illustrates an oddity about the nature of genes and DNA.  My own fifth digits are bent, a trait known as clinodactyly which can be associated with various other genetic rarities such as the chromosomal Turner and Down syndromes.  Both these involve one fewer chromosomes than usual, but different ones, yet one possible result of both is clinodactyly, meaning that it can occur due to completely different sets of genes being absent.  Similarly, although it’s tempting to think of there being genes for specific features of different digits and their associated muscles, nerves and other organs, the fact that people can have fully functional extra fingers is strong evidence against the idea that genes work that way.  What there seems to be instead is a set of inherited traits for the ends of one’s limbs to become “frayed” as an embryo, and the tendency to have extra digits is about something else, meaning also that the tendency not to have them is as well.

So why five?  If it isn’t completely genetic – there’s not a separate gene or set of genes for each finger – then where does the fiveness come from?  Why five also when having more than five can happen too without any disadvantages?  I personally think the answer lies in the Fibonacci Series.

At this point you’re going to have to indulge me because I have no idea whether the Fibonacci Series is well-known or not.  It’s a sequence of numbers each of which is the previous two added together, so it goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89… ad infinitum.  The other thing about it is that if you divide a Fibonacci number by its predecessor you get a number close to its own reciprocal plus one, and the higher the two numbers are the closer that number is to that value, which is called φ.  To illustrate this, the number φ, which like π goes on forever, is roughly equal to 1.61803399.  5/3 is 1.4, 144/89 is 1.61797753 and so on, and of course the reciprocal, which is one divided by that number, is 0.618055555 in that case.  This is known as the Golden Ratio.

I think nearly everybody knows all that but I’m not sure, so I’m just mentioning it in case there are people who don’t know it.

Something I’ve never understood about either the Fibonacci Series or the Golden Ratio is why they turn up so much in nature, but they do.  For instance, here’s a picture of an ox-eye daisy with a crab spider:

Daisy-with-spider

The florets in the centre of the inflorescence (what people generally refer to incorrectly as a flower when in fact like all plants in that family a daisy’s “flower” is in fact a bouquet of many flowers) occur in spirals of 21 in one direction and 34 in the other.  These kinds of numbers also turn up in the spirals of pine cones, pineapples and cauliflowers.  However, they needn’t be directly governed by genes alone, as this picture of the M51 galaxy shows:

espiral-fibonacci

The spiral arms of the galaxy, like many others possibly including the Milky Way, pass through the rectangles, each of which is a golden rectangle with the sides in proportion of around 1.618.  The same applies to the shell of a nautilus and the cloud swirls in hurricanes:

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19711635px-NautilusCutawayLogarithmicSpiral

hurricane

These are all logarithmic spirals and the hurricane and galaxy have nothing to do with genetic inheritance in their form.  The spiral and its association with the Golden Ratio just represent a path of least resistance.

As for the actual numbers of the Fibonacci sequence itself, these turn up as well.  For instance, the crab spider has eight legs, a starfish has five arms and so on.  However, when the numbers get that small the chances of coindences increase dramatically because smaller Fibonacci numbers are more frequent than larger ones.  Also, it starts to look a bit like numerology because whereas an octopus or a spider might have eight appendages, the actual reason for that might be that it has four on each side multiplied by two due to its bilateral symmetry, and whereas that symmetry itself is in the Fibonacci series – two sides – it starts to feel to me like I’m seeing patterns everywhere which aren’t really there.

Nonetheless, I do consider five to be an important number.  There are only a few different forms of symmetry among animals.  An animal may be completely asymmetrical, for instance some sponges are:

By Peng – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113733Schwamm1

(By the way, although this isn’t really symmetrical it does have a fractal kind of pattern to it), they may be radially symmetrical like jellyfish:

By Alexander Vasenin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=327533041200px-Moon_jellyfish_at_Gota_Sagher

They can also be bilaterally symmetrical, like humans, insects and many other species.  Or, they can be pentamerously symmetrical, like a star, as found of course in starfish:

By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6279893639px-Fromia_monilis_(Seastar)

In the distant past there were also life forms with threefold – triplanar – symmetry.  However, there are no animals with sixfold or sevenfold symmetry, and this to me is significant.  The reason starfish and their relatives evolved fivefold symmetry seems to have been that it makes them tougher.  This isn’t immediately apparent with starfish but with a sand dollar it’s a different matter:

Leodia_sexiesperforata_derivada_2013

These animals are tough.  Although their shells are made up of five plates joining at corners, the weak lines of the cracks between these plates are compensated for by the fact that the opposite point is the middle of a plate, meaning that every weak point is accompanied by a strong one.  This would also be true, however, of a heptagonal animal:

Coins_4a

The seven-sided fifty pence piece is, incidentally, designed so as to have the same diameter in all directions so it can work in slot machines.  So I’ve heard anyway.  The point being that there is no real reason why a sand dollar shouldn’t be a sand fifty pence piece, were it not for the sole fact that seven is not in the Fibonnaci series.  I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that’s the reason echinoderms have five sides rather than seven.  Having said that, I find the Fibonacci series mysterious and I don’t know why it turns up all the time.

Of course, what I’m working up to is the claim that limbs have a maximum of five digits because the number five is in the sequence.  I suspect that if there is vertebrate-like life elsewhere in the Universe it will turn out to have something like three, five or eight digits rather than six or seven.  I think also that there’s a way of testing this hypothesis, although I haven’t done it.

Sailfin_flyingfish

Limbs evolved from the fins of fish, particularly their pectoral fins.  If I’m right, a prediction which could be made would be that pectoral and pelvic fins will tend to have a number of rays in the Fibonacci sequence.  This would confirm the fact because fins have much larger numbers of rays than hands and feet have digits, thereby reducing the chances of coincidence.  However, I haven’t checked.  If that turns out not to be true, though, it may not mean I’m wrong.

So basically I can’t tell if I’m being a mathematician or a numerologist about this.  Or indeed a palm-reader.

Lungless Wonders

By Thomas Huntke, Germany (der Uploader) http://www.huntke.de – Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto), CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10777644Salamandra atra - Alpensalamander

The only obvious connection I can come up with between this post and political matters is Ken Livingstone, the well-known mayor of London and salamander enthusiast.  Drawing a veil over recent events, let’s escape into Newtville.

People sometimes seem to think of amphibians as failed reptiles or bracket them with reptiles.  They are also of course very much endangered nowadays, which considering their very long history is a terrible thing.  Pressing though that is, I don’t want to talk about it right now.  What I do want to talk about is the way amphibians contradict the idea that there is a ladder of evolution with single-celled organisms at the bottom and humans at the top.  In this view, the vertebrates would go:  jawless fish; sharks and rays; bony fish; lung fish; amphibians; reptiles; birds; mammals.  This isn’t how things are of course and I think most people realise that on some level, but it’s difficult to shed old idea of how the tree of life is.

An amphibian is not by any means a failed reptile.  Nor is it a primitive ancestor of future vertebrates.  If it’s around today, clearly it can’t be ancestral to anything else that’s around today.  Evolution didn’t know where it was going, and in fact today’s amphibians might just have almost as little to do with the ancestors of all other land vertebrates as mammals have.

Before I go there though, I want to talk about how they breathe, and how they don’t breathe, because it’s a little surprising at first to realise this.  For an amphibian, lungs are not actually very important to respiration, to the extent that there are quite a lot of them which live on land but have no lungs at all:  the lungless salamanders.  In fact there are also lungless frogs and caecilians, although not so many.  There are in fact more species  (380) of lungless salamander by far than there are of salamanders with lungs.  In other words, it’s unusual for a salamander to have lungs.

By contrast, most frogs do have lungs, and this is a clue to the function of amphibian lungs.  They don’t have them for breathing, even when they’re on land.  This is a slightly misleading statement because in fact amphibians with lungs do use them to breathe.  However, they also breathe through their skin, and the fact that they breathe through their lungs is more because they happen to be there than because they need them for this purpose.  Lungs provide a moist surface across which oxygen and carbon dioxide can cross but so does amphibian skin.  Frogs at least use lungs to make sound.  They do breathe with lung movements, but this is by means of pushing air in and out of their lungs using their mouths because unlike mammals, but like many other amphibians, they have no ribs or diaphragm, unlike mammals.  Some of them also use their lungs to give birth, by inflating them and pushing out their offspring.  Incidentally, some of them gestate in their stomachs.

Lungless salamanders are notably skinny, meaning that every part of their body is close to the air.  This enables them to acquire oxygen and give up carbon dioxide without breathing.  They also have a groove between their nostrils and mouths like the organ found in many mammals which allows them to smell things, because nostrils without air passing through them wouldn’t work very well as sense organs in that respect.  In some places, not only do they make up the majority of salamander species but they actually comprise the majority of the mass of vertebrates in the habitat.  Having lungs is apparently overrated.

By J. Patrick Fischer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17388117640px-2009_Andrias_davidianus

Much of the amphibian body plan and lifestyle is dictated by the fact that they breathe through their skins.  They tend to be small.  The largest living amphibian is the Chinese giant salamander, illustrated above, which is up to the size of adult humans.  However, they can only survive in fast-flowing and therefore highly-oxygenated water and are quite inactive.  Amphibians can also only survive in fresh or slightly salty water because otherwise osmosis would pull the water out of their bodies through their permeable skins and they would die of dehydration.  The ocean is a desert with the life underground and the perfect disguise above.  They are also carnivorous because herbivores need longer digestive systems and there’s no room inside an amphibian for a long gut or anything similar.  However, perhaps contrary to expectations, not all amphibians need to live near water or start out as tadpoles.  Some hatch out as small adults and others are born live rather than as eggs.

By Dmitry Bogdanov – dmitrchel@mail.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2728596Diadectes1DB

One of the odd things about amphibians is that what the ones seen today, also known as lissamphibians, are quite unlike the first four-legged animals which crawled out of the water, or scudded themselves through muddy puddles and shallow river beds.  These animals had heavy ribcages which seem to have been adapted to help them breathe air with their lungs.  Many of them were quite large – up to the length of a bus – and their teeth suggest they tended to be herbivorous.  These animals were also the ancestors of reptiles, mammals and birds and later on at least had scaly skins through which gases would not have been able to pass.  They also tend to resemble reptiles quite closely and gradually became them, insofar as it’s possible to become a reptile when they don’t really form a group of closely related animals.  In other words, if you want to see what most of the amphibians were like at their peak, really what you need to do is imagine something rather like a veggie saltwater crocodile laying eggs in the water and having tadpoles instead of baby crocs.  Lissamphibians just aren’t like that.

For this reason, it’s been suggested that lissamphibians may not even be related to our ancestors.  Rather, it’s been theorised that a different group of fish struggled their way onto land and evolved into them separately.  Whereas I find that idea seductive, I don’t think it’s true because like every other species of quadruped, no lissamphibian normally has more than five digits on each limb.  This is markedly unlike the earliest four-footed beasts who had more than five toes per foot:

By Dr. Günter Bechly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17152012800px-Acanthostega_model

This raises the question of why no vertebrates today usually seem to have more than five digits.  There are certainly people with six or more fingers and toes but they’re exceptional, and there are many species with fewer than five digits per limb such as many amphibians, birds and hoofed mammals, but for some reason there seem to be none which usually have more than five.  My own hypothesis is that five is in the Fibonacci series of 1, 1, 3, 5, 8, …, which turns up a lot in nature.  That raises a further question of course, but it is at least a possible partial answer.  Anyway, given that the ancestors of Ichthyostega had more than five digits, the fact that all amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals have at most five digits strongly suggests they’re all related and therefore that the amphibians didn’t arise separately from fish.

Recently it’s been thought that lissamphibians are descended from the earliest quadrupeds but not necessarily in one go.  There were two major groups of amphibians at first.  One group were the large, often lizard-like forms which include our ancestors.  It so happens that our evolutionary history at this point involves us splitting from the reptiles so early on that it’s almost true to say that we ourselves evolved directly from amphibians.  The earliest known synapsids, a group including mammals, are about 320 million years old and the earliest reptiles, that is the ancestors of the dinosaurs, birds and turtles, appear to be from about the same time.  In other words the fork occurred before there were even proper reptiles.  That said, mammals, reptiles and birds are all descended from temnospondyl amphibians.  Lissamphibians, on the other hand, seem to be descended from lepospondyls, which were all small, tended to be salamander or snake-like in shape and probably occupied specialised ecological niches and appeared by 350 million years ago as distinct from our ancestors.  However, the worm-like caecilians may themselves not be closely related to salamanders, frogs and toads.

Casting a bit of perspective on this, this means humans and lizards are more closely related to each other than either is to newts and salamanders.  As such, it seems a bit unfair to lump reptiles and amphibians together, because although lizards and salamanders may look quite similar and even have quite similar lifestyles in some cases, they haven’t really got a lot in common genetically.

What can be learned from all this?  Well, one thing is that modern appearances can often mask historical truths.  Another is that we shouldn’t try to judge other living things in terms of hierarchy.  No other land vertebrate can manage as well as an amphibian can in cold, damp conditions.  Mammals, for example, can adapt, but constantly need to produce enough heat in their bodies to raise their temperatures high enough for the chemical reactions in their bodies to keep them alive.  Consequently they have to eat more than amphibians, and some of them would also risk lung problems.  Amphibian lungs are not like ours in that respect.  They wouldn’t get pneumonia when we would.  We are what we are and they are what they are, but there is no reason why, for example, they are inferior to us simply because they don’t always have lungs.  All that’s out there in the living world is a host of different species, none better or worse than any other.

Turning Solutions Into Problems

Northamerican_technate

This is a map of the proposed North American Technate, one goal of the Technocracy Movement of the 1930s, whose symbol was the Monad:

monad

The crucial things to remember about automation are that it ought to be a solution rather than a problem, and that as technology it’s not new, but part of our nature as a species since we were Australopithecines.  Hominid tool use is primarily motivated by a drive to ease life and raise living standards and automation is just a continuation of this.  Any illusion of scarcity is artificial and unnecessary.  The corollary of automation should be something like a basic income scheme or a technocratic social order, and to be frank I can’t understand why everyone isn’t outraged that this still doesn’t exist and isn’t demanding that it happen immediately.  The fact is that there is simply no reason for anyone to be exploited or to have an unacceptably low standard of living.  It’s hard to imagine a bigger scandal than this in the whole of human history, and this scandal isn’t even new.  I can only imagine there is a psychological need for some people to imagine they’re superior to others.

progress

Right hand image is by Jononmac46 – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33751770

 

Technological change through the Palaeolithic seems to have led to increasing population and life expectancy, suggesting that the advent of new technology increased hominid fitness to survive and thrive in its environment.  The adoption of agriculture has a number of drawbacks in this respect, such as the possible emergence of a more hierarchical society, patriarchy and the problems of managing infectious disease and malnutrition due to the change to a lifestyle to which we are adapted, but in some ways there was a further increase in living standards brought on by technology, at least for some.  However, inequality grew and there was a drift away from providing for the common good.

The Industrial Revolution brought fear that means of livelihood, now substantially centred around factories, would be lost with increasing mechanisation.  It was actually suggested quite early on that those who were put out of work by machinery should simply be paid enough to live on, although I can’t track down a source – it may have been  late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

An argument frequently deployed against basic income is that it’s psychologically damaging and another is that it could lead to unrest or lack of motivation.  People are seen as benefitting from paid work with employers and as primarily motivated by monetary gain.  However, if work is worth doing, literally, i.e. it is heart work which fulfils a fundamentally useful social function and cannot be automated well, then it’s worth doing without pay.  The wages paid for work have the function of supporting someone financially who doesn’t have the time to support themselves by pursuing a hunter-gatherer way of life or self-sufficiency in other ways because they’re working for someone else.  This compensation needn’t be from the actual employer.  Much unpaid work is already done, such as parenting and housework, and the motivation to do those tasks doesn’t come from the prospect of monetary gain.  There is also much work which simply should not be done.  Financial services come to mind, and there’s nothing to be proud of in being a citizen of a nation which is a world leader in swindling people out of their income and forcing them into debt, which is basically what financial services amount to much of the time.  As far as mental health issues are concerned, much work is seriously deleterious to happiness and the constant anxiety and depression which emanates from the symbolic estimation of people’s lives as worthless and expendable and the removal of meaningful work from their lives definitely constitutes a mental health hazard.  These factors need to be set against the supposed dignity of “work” in the restricted sense of the word, namely paid work with an employer.  A change in the relationship with income could also free parents up from having to organise childcare in the form of state schooling, which is clearly now superfluous as a means of relevant or efficient education.  Incidentally, education needs also to carry the message of self-motivation in its delivery, which is currently impaired by societal factors.

It should also be borne in mind that there can be virtue in useless employment.  If your job involves providing essential goods and services there is a sense in which you are holding the beneficiaries of those services to ransom by asking to be paid for doing that.  Work which is “useless”, such as in the creative arts and entertainment, is more interchangeable.  It can “say” something important but an audience can prefer Ben Jonson to Shakespeare or the Stones to the Beatles.  Consequently it makes sense to ask for money in such a situation.  If the work is something like providing adequate sanitation, growing food, putting out fires or life-saving medical treatment, that work needs to be renumerated in a way that is unconditional in order to prevent the ransom situation from arising.  This is another way in which basic income could address the problem.  It may of course also be that such essential work is more likely to be replaced through automation than less vital work, which is another reason for basic income.

There are in fact both left and right wing arguments for basic income, each providing a counter-argument for the other side.  The right wing case is that it simplifies the welfare system.  Milton Friedman argued for it as a “negative income tax”, i.e. a tax which is paid to individuals below a certain income threshold.  This would make it means-tested and thus introduce bureaucracy.  It’s also seen as reducing the incentive to work, and in this scenario work is seen as an unequivocally good thing because considerations are primarily in terms of traditional economics and work is not seen as an intrinsic part of human nature.  This potential disincentive could be seen as a bad thing from a left wing viewpoint because it could reduce the potential number of trade union members.  Another right wing argument is that it could completely remove the need for the lowest paid employees to be paid at all by an employer, and lead to abolition of the minimum wage.  Friedman also questioned whether those relying on basic income should still have the right to vote, since he saw them as inevitably voting for increases in basic income, making the scheme impractically expensive.

A number of potential problems have been raised regarding basic income.  One is that it could lead to inflation of accommodation costs.  Since everyone would then have a certain guaranteed income, rent and other costs might then rise according to market forces, thereby wiping out any advantage it might have.  Possibly for this reason, some people advocate that the level of basic income should be set slightly below subsistence level.  It’s also possible that those with greater needs such as the disabled would not be provided for because the welfare state would potentially have been dismantled.

One of the most obvious objections to basic income is its affordability.  This would depend on it being initially unaffordable because the cost of not having basic income is enormous.  If you consider, for example, the expense of dealing with mental illness, homelessness, physical ill-health and crime resulting from poverty, if unaffordability is the strongest argument against it, it would have to be that it would be too expensive even to be considered as an investment in the future.  Some people also believe that new jobs will arise as automation proceeds, a phenomenon seen as having occurred throughout history.

Leaving the objections aside, I see basic income as a solution to many problems.  It removes the motive to do harmful work just for the money.  It means the lowest-paid employees needn’t be paid at all.  It reduces the bureaucracy of the welfare state.  It means that people will work for its own sake rather than for money.  It will also save money because of the cost of crime, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and poor physical and mental health.  However, I consider the reasons it isn’t implemented to be unconnected to any of these things.  Not having a basic income is cost-effective, I think, because it means the poor live in fear, which has both social and psychological functions.  The fear of penury prevents poor workers from demanding better working conditions and job security, meaning that a frightened and ground-down workforce is cheap and disposable.  This means that the vast investment necessary to ensure the existence of a large number of desperate, hopeless people pays for itself many times over.  I’ll come back to disposability in a minute.  It also performs an important psychological function, although at the cost of preventing a generally happier society.  It isn’t enough for some people that they succeed in their own terms of wealth and possessions.  It’s also important to them to know that there are many other people living in misery and want, not knowing where their children’s next meal is coming from or if they will die of hypothermia tonight, because it makes them feel more secure and valuable as individuals themselves.  Against this can be placed the issue that the happiest societies are the most equal in terms of income.  These are the reasons, I think, that basic income will never be implemented.

On the matter of disposability, it occurs to me that the response of the rich and secure to an automated society would not be so much concern for the physical needs of the poor and unemployed as fear that these idle hands are expensive to maintain and yield no return, and that they may rise up against them and overthrow the system.  Consequently, the rational response may be to drive them to an early grave either through their own decision to kill themselves or simply by not bothering to take care of them at all, which is of course very cheap.  Maybe what the rich really want is for most poor people simply to die.  Basic income doesn’t achieve that, so that’s another reason it may not be implemented.

Technocracy

This is the belief that society is best managed by experts in the likes of engineering and science rather than by politicians.  This idea was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s but was overtaken by events such as the Great Depression and Second World War.  As can be seen from the map at the top, technocrats in North America believed in the unification of the North American continent and nearby areas into a unit they referred to as the “Technate”.  They had what they referred to as the “Energy Theory Of Value”, which was that the basic measure common to all goods and services is energy, so the sole scientific foundation for the monetary system is also energy.  Therefore they would issue energy certificates to individuals instead of money which could be exchanged for the equivalent energy use.  To take a simple example, someone who shifted sixteen tons two metres vertically during a day would then be entitled to use the same amount of electricity or fuel, or to buy food providing that amount of energy, having taken the work done to provide that, to the same amount, so they would be another day older but they wouldn’t be deeper in debt unless they were using more energy than they were expending.

Technocracy could be seen as the extension of automation all the way up to government.  There are, however, various problems with it.  It’s not clear, for example, which kind of expertise, or within that which theory, is more appropriate.  It’s notable, for example, that educational theory and the psychology of learning are quite different in nature, so  which system would be applied to educational policy?  Theories are not free of value or political bias either.  Evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and social Darwinism all spring to mind here, as does Lamarckianism on the other side of the political spectrum.  Technocracy was also used recently and controversially in Italy to implement neoliberal economic policies.  Technocrats are also distant from popular opinion, although the two may sometimes coincide.  Technocracy is not democracy.  However, it also strikes me as potentially quite left-wing because it doesn’t rely on “the school of hard knocks”, which may or may not be a bad thing.  Right wing anti-intellectualism would seem to be opposed to that.

The Venus Project is a modern manifestation of technocracy.  This is a long-term project started by the architect Jacque Fresco and featured in the film ‘Zeitgeist Addendum’.  Fresco’s view, which I happen to agree with in general, is that the alternatives for the future are utopia or oblivion, with utopia in the form of technocratically-organised sustainable cities.  Like other forms of technocracy, however, there appears to be little room for non-conformity.  The main problem as I see it with the Venus Project is that the will to save the world is not there.  I would argue that the laws of thermodynamics, particularly the tendency towards entropy, mean that there is a drive towards self-destruction in all living organisms, which is of course balanced in part by evolved homeostatic feedback mechanisms but cannot be completely eliminated.  This is what Freud called Thanatos, and although his ideas are largely discredited this one in particular is useful.  There may be a tendency for people to turn against positive, life-affirming and optimistic ideas and plans precisely because they have those features.  Therefore, to me the optimism and positivity of both technocracy and the idea of basic income are the precise reasons why they will inevitably fail.

The Gig Economy

Before I get down to discussing this, I should define what I mean by this currently popular term.  The “Gig Economy” is a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work.  The likes of Uber and Deliveroo are often focussed on in this respect, where people are nominally self-employed and have none of the recently acquired entitlements which employees normally have because of this but also get all of their work from one source.  In other words, it seems to be a ruse designed to get round legal requirements for employers to provide their employees with such things as pension schemes, sick pay and the like.  Zero-hours contracts are another common feature of these situations where people are employed by others.

Two things strike me about this.  One is that this sounds like the kind of situation with which working class people have long been very familiar.  The difference, I suppose, is that people from a middle class background have greater social capital and are therefore able to make more visible fuss about it, and also their mind set may have been less ground down than working class people’s, although it will shortly probably be down there.  In other words, the middle class is disappearing for this reason as well as automation.

The other thing about this, to me, is that it sounds a little like an inferior version of what’s been called the “Catholic Economy”, and that there may be a connection there.  There is a somewhat convoluted link between the concept of the catholic economy and the coalition government which formed after the 2010 election.

The catholic economy, although initially associated with the Roman Catholic Church, is now probably better referred to as distributivism.  This is the idea that private ownership is important to all members of society and a basic right, and that the means of production should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout society.  As such, the idea is not easily categorisable as either right or left wing.  A distributivist society would be one in which most people are self-employed sole traders, though they may be organised into guilds.  It sees both capitalism and socialism as products of the enlightenment and prefers to hark back to a mediaeval system, though I would see that as very idealised.  Against that, of course, it could be said that my own description of pre-agricultural society itself partakes of the myth of the Noble Savage.

Distributivism goes hand in hand with the theological position of Radical Orthodoxy, which rejects modernity via postmodernity to arrive at a position where the world is interpreted theologically, science and similar disciplines being seen as essentially secular, atheistic and nihilist.

The reason this is relevant is that Phillip Blond, a proponent of Radical Orthodoxy and distributivism, was a key figure in the construction of the “Big Society” agenda of Cameron’s Conservative Party, one of whose slogans held that “there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same as government”.  This is presumably meant to emphasise the idea of the organic growth of customs and institutions into a society which works for all without state intervention, but also notably without the intervention of monopoly capitalist corporations.  This seems however to be largely a rhetorical device.  To illustrate, consider the coalition government policy on free schools.  The idea seems at first to be about giving parents, religious groups and others the legal right to establish their own educational institutions.  However, education need not be carried out in specific physical premises or locations.  It could be online, achieved via home tuition, take place in rented rooms or in people’s homes.  However, legislation required free schools to have physical premises, which immediately prices poorer people out of the situation and involves property or building firms quite heavily in the establishment of such schools when it is in fact entirely unnecessary.

I suspect that the gig economy is in fact what’s become of the catholic economy in the hands of Conservative pragmatism and realpolitik.  Hence a lot people are nominally self-employed now, and in purely technical legal definitions of the situation there are now a lot of self-employed sole traders just as there are supposed to be under distributivism.  However, these people own precious little and are fragmented, having little recourse to professional bodies, trade unions or guilds, and consequently they have few rights and little power.  The situation, nominally, does however seem to have quite a lot in common with Phillip Blond’s ideas even if he would himself wish to dissociate himself from them.

This dissociation, however, could be key to the success of a more left-wing approach.  Just as New Labour in government didn’t do what many Labour members and voters wanted it to do, it seems to me equally possible that the current Conservative government isn’t doing what its own members and voters wanted it to do either.  This dissatisfaction, which I believe must exist, is probably fairly typical of the disillusionment felt by ordinary voters and party members when their party is in office.  It could also potentially be exploited by the Labour party as it is now.  It’s been clearly demonstrated that the practical result of the Big Society is just business as usual and the permanent government rather than anything like distributivism, and I suspect there is a strong groundswell of dissatisfaction among people who voted Tory and are now repenting at leisure.  I suggest therefore that this is something which other groups could capitalise upon, and obviously I have Labour in mind here.

SCIENCE!

pyke

Those of us of a certain vintage will of course remember this guy, to whom I used to be compared a lot as a child.  His name was of course Magnus Pyke, and seemed to portray himself deliberately as a stereotypical “mad scientist”.  Another example which comes to my mind is Professor Marius, the fifty-first century inventor of the robot dog from Doctor Who, K-9:

Professor_2_Invisiable_Enemy

Finally, I absolutely have to mention Professor Branestawm, my other childhood nickname, marvellously portrayed by Harry Hill on the BBC in the past couple of years:

brianstwam

 If you wanted a definition of “madness”, once you got over the rather disrespectful term, which was acceptable in the ’80s, you might plump for either “doing the same thing every time and expecting a different result” or “being out of touch with reality”.  Although many people might caricature scientists as being socially out of touch with reality, doing the same thing every time and expecting a different result is more or less the opposite of what scientists are supposed to do.  Or is it?

Yesterday’s entry got out of hand and I decided to cut it off and leave the rest for today, but I’m going to have to repeat some of what I said back then, so it’s slow progress.  I want to talk about the philosophy of science.

When Christians, for example, say “atheists” they usually seem to mean people who are also metaphysical naturalists and scientific realists.  Focussing on the second, there’s been a lot of argument about what scientific realism is, but it amounts to something like the idea that the world described by science is the real world or an approximation to it.  Christians who are also Young Earth Creationists sometimes also seem to feel the need to couch their beliefs in scientific terms, presenting what they see as evidence for a young Earth, a global Flood and the perceived impossibility of evolution.  They might also see the world as in constant physical decline and deterioration, as with the idea that the speed of light is getting slower, and there have also been attempts to reconcile what we seem to see out there in the Universe, which appears to be old, with their views – some see space as non-Euclidean in the opposite way to how Einstein saw it, so they suppose parallel lines move apart with distance rather than staying at the same distance, which allows them to conceive of time as running at a different rate on Earth than in apparently distant galaxies.  Or, in a view which has recently become more popular, they may simply believe the world is flat.

Many Muslims and a tiny minority of Jews have the same sort of beliefs.  In some countries the majority of Muslims are creationist and there is also a case on record of a rabbi refusing to certify the kosher status of a range of milk cartons because they depicted dinosaurs, which he believed could not have existed because of the world being less than six thousand years old.  Having said that, I understand that Jewish creationists are very rare indeed.

Whereas all of that is in my view based on a fundamental misunderstanding of sacred texts, the difference between fundamentalist Abrahamic scientific “realism” and secular scientific realism is that the former rejects anything which appears to contradict a particular literal interpretation of the sacred text in question even if it is otherwise irrefutably supported by empirical evidence.  This is because they have as much confidence that their literal interpretation of their sacred text is correct as they have that 2+2=4.  Whereas they would probably see it as the Word of God, it’s actually their reading of the text in which they have confidence, not its actual content or anyone else’s reading.  Nonetheless, they would very probably still see themselves as scientific realists – they seem to believe that science, their “science” that is, describes the real world or approximates it.

When I studied scientific realism at university I was rather puzzled by the reluctance my lecturers seemed to have to pin down what it actually was.  It turns out that almost everyone has their own view of what it is.  The general idea seems to be that science is true and about real things even when they’re not observable.  Dark matter is a really good example of this, one in which I happen not to believe, but another example is neutrinos.  These are subatomic particles with no charge or mass which hardly interact at all with ordinary matter, and because our sense organs are made of ordinary matter, as are scientific instruments, the chances of detecting them are pretty small.

chlorine-neutrino

A neutrino “telescope” consists of a large tank of dry cleaning fluid buried miles underground, and neutrinos are detected by trying to find the occasional molecule which has been slightly altered over several years.  About forty years ago there was a bit of a scientific panic because they couldn’t detect enough neutrinos coming from the Sun as predicted by their theories, meaning that either they were wrong or the Sun was about to go out.  I don’t know what happened with that actually but clearly the Sun was still shining eight minutes ago or I wouldn’t be able to see to type this.

Scientific realism is committed to the idea that the world doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it, and to the thought that you don’t make the world.  This could be seen as important from a Christian perspective as it seems to mean there’s no practical result to prayer.  However, it also seems to contradict physics as it’s understood today because of the ideas of quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s Cat, which is neither dead nor alive until it’s observed.  Since this suggests that cats are not conscious, that example doesn’t seem to work very well.  Most contemporary physicists, therefore, would not always be scientific realists.  It would also be a problem in social science because clearly people do behave differently if they’re observed.  Psychology calls this the “audience effect”.  This might seem to rule out the possibility of the likes of psychology, sociology or economics being true sciences altogether.

Another option is of course instrumentalism, which is quite relevant to economics.  Instrumentalism is, for the third time of saying, the belief that scientific entities are fictional and only there to account for what the instrument readings tell you.  Sometimes this is probably true, as with this thing:

By Colliric – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30133389Mark_VIII_E-Meter

This is a Mark VIII E-meter as used by scientologists to detect engrams.  It works rather like a lie detector, measuring the conductivity of human skin to detect stress when the subject is being asked questions.  Scientologists claim that these measurable stresses indicate that someone has had difficult past life experiences which have become blockages to personal growth, and that these can be cleared by certain methods.  People who are neither scientologists nor members of the breakaway group from Scientology known as the Freezone, whereas probably accepting that the E-meter does detect changes in the conductivity of the skin under stress, which was one principle on which lie detectors were based, would probably reject the idea that engrams are real, so in terms of e-meters most of us non-Scientologists are probably instrumentalists and likely to remain so.  However, a scientific instrumentalist would also reject the idea that this is a real picture of platinum atoms under a field ion microscope:

By Tatsuo Iwata from Sapporo, JAPAN – platinum, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5719176FIM-platinum

This seems to mean also that scientific instrumentalists don’t believe in atoms.  In some areas this kind of thing might make some sense because, for instance, a biological species seems to be real, i.e. it’s a population of organisms which can breed together and produce viable offspring, but I have to say that when I think about what physicists say about subatomic particles or dark matter, I find my bogometer goes off the scale.  Then again, maybe I’m being too realist about the existence of bogons and that I can’t quantifiably measure how bogus something is at all.

My problem with instrumentalism is twofold.  To illustrate the first problem, suppose there was a scientific experiment conducted to test the theory that fish feel pain.  If it were then found that they did, according to scientific instrumentalism that would be a convenient fiction, and the question arises of how far this fiction could be extended.  For instance, would it be okay to experiment on children to see if they felt pain and then regard that as a convenient fiction?  For this reason I reject instrumentalism – it means there is a risk of not taking suffering seriously.

By Boldie – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3132574Anodonta_cygnea1

The second problem is related to the first.  The idea that a cat is not herself an observer seems to fail to respect the likelihood of a conscious cat being able to suffer or otherwise have experiences.  If you take this further to ever-simpler forms of life there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable cut-off point where experience will no longer occur.  For example, it’s sometimes claimed that vegans shouldn’t worry about eating mussels, cockles and oysters because they haven’t got brains, but they do have a sense of taste and are even able to do something we can’t, which is tell when the tide would change even in a fish tank thousands of miles from the nearest sea.  They also do have nervous systems, the difference being that they are not concentrated in a single organ like the brain, but the question arises of why, if they’re not like us, we should therefore assume that they can’t suffer.

Pursue this to its logical conclusion and you’re forced to see everything as a potential observer, meaning that there is a problem with quantum mechanics.  There would then be no such thing as an unobserved subatomic particle, and quantum mechanics would appear to be stuck.

Another observation, slightly different this time, is that our own observations are theory-laden and in a sense our own sense organs are scientific instruments.  This would mean that our beliefs about the world, through our senses, are in fact theories, and therefore in the view of scientific instrumentalism, merely useful fictions.  In other words, take this far enough and the world turns out not to exist.  I believe the world does exist though.

MONIAC

This is MONIAC, a water-based analogue computer used to model the British economy.  Money would literally flow, in the form of water, around the machine, which would make usable predictions about what different economic policies and conditions would do.  This is a realist way of looking at economics, and was used when Keynesian economics were popular.  I don’t know if Keynes was the economic equivalent of a scientific realist or not, but I do know that Milton Friedman, the economist who supplanted him after 1979 as the theorist most influential in British economic policy was not a realist but an instrumentalist.  Like many others, he saw economics as divided into political economy and positive economics, the latter being a value-free scientific approach.  It would clearly be possible to be a scientifically realist positive economist, but Friedman wasn’t.  He believed instead that economic theory was about useful fictions, among other things.  They are merely means to ends and don’t actually describe anything real.

Now I’m not able completely to justify what this makes me think, so I’ll just baldly assert it.  It seems very interesting to me that just as scientific instrumentalism allows scientists to imagine that they aren’t really causing pain when they experiment on other species of animals, so economic instrumentalism seems to be particularly associated with an economic theory which is often seen as responsible for the economic policies of Thatcher, Reagan and their successors, which are so often seen as causing incalculable suffering, and which continue today.  It just seems rather suspicious to me that the same theory which would make vivisection seem more acceptable than common sense suggests was also held by the economist responsible for the dismantling of the welfare state.

Of course I’m not actually scientifically realist either, but that’s a story for another time.

Atheisms And Other Isms

When I wrote yesterday’s post, it came to me that I don’t think I’ve ever gone into the subject of ideas connected to atheism, theism and agnosticism before, so this is what this is about.

Firstly, there’s this guy:

god

©BBC 1981 – will be removed on request

(the one on the right).  People who believe in this guy, and to many of them He is unaccountably male in spite of having apparently given birth to the Universe but there you go, are known either as theists or deists.  Theists are people who believe in God as the creator and sustainer of the Universe and who is still personally and emotionally involved in the Creation and with whom it’s possible for humans to have a relationship.  On the whole this is seen more among adherents of the Judaeo-Christian religions or people influenced by them culturally than elsewhere, but since this is a huge number of people it isn’t always obvious that it’s not the only option for people who believe in God.

Then there’s Deism.  Deism is the belief that there is a Creator God who kind of wound up the clockwork of the Universe at the beginning of time and is now watching it play out and run down without any personal involvement.  Deism seems to be what the Founding Fathers of the United States mainly were, meaning that they probably weren’t very religious.  There are also strands of Christianity where this would fit in well, such as Unitarianism and Quakerism.  Back then, the main problem with rejecting the idea of God entirely was that the theory of evolution was still in its infancy.  Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, lived around the same time as the Founding Fathers and believed in evolution although he didn’t come up with a detailed method whereby it could proceed in all its details.  Consequently at that point the Universe looked designed in the same way as the apparent fine-tuning of physical constants would make it look designed were it not for the fact that this may not be the only universe (small U).  There’s also ceremonial and metaphorical deism.  Ceremonial deism is the idea that when God is mentioned in official governmental language, such as the preamble to the US Constitution or “In God We Trust” on their coinage (we had Darwin on our tenners instead of course, ‘cos we’re officially Christian, unlike the US), it doesn’t actually mean anything but is just a figure of speech, very like the legal idea of “acts of God” and probably exactly like the phrase used in legal oaths “so help me God”.  God is also used as a metaphor by scientists and others, such as when Einstein objected to quantum mechanics by saying “God does not play dice with the Universe” or Stephen Hawking talks about trying to figure out the mind of God.  This doesn’t literally mean God.  It’s more like the use of the word “it” in “it’s raining” or “it’s sunny” – there is possibly a vague referent to the word, in that case the weather, but it isn’t so much something one literally has to believe exists so much as a way of avoiding awkward language.

This avoidance of awkward language brings to mind the poor relation of beliefs about God and religion which is rarely mentioned or thought about by most people at the moment – ignosticism and theological non-cognitivism.  Oddly, something similar to ignosticism can be held by people, even quite devout ones, who are followers of faiths usually seen as theistic.  Theological non-cognitivism is the belief that religious language, such as attempts to talk about God, are neither true nor false but actually literally nonsense, like babbling or perhaps the “pathetic fallacy” in poetry, which is a picturesque mode of speech which attempts to personalise something which is not in fact anything like a person.  I think if I were to stop believing in God at some point, I would probably opt for theological non-cognitivism rather than agnosticism or atheism.  One of the influences on ignosticism is the mid-twentieth century philosophical movement called logical positivism.  Logical positivists believed that meaninglessness amounted to a third truth value along with falsehood and truth, and that statements only meant something if they were axiomatic, expressed analytic truths (roughly, statements like “if it is raining, then it is raining” or more sophisticated logical arguments) or are empirically verifiable, i.e. can be confirmed by observation.  One of the reasons this fell out of favour was that the ideas expressed by logical positivism couldn’t be verified as meaningful by their own criteria, and there are also many negatives in it such as behaviourism, which claims that there is nothing to mental states but what others can observe in behaviour.  I think this is plainly untrue.  Nonetheless, ignosticism crops up in other places, such as in the move towards postmodernism, where the idea of God, like everything else, is deconstructed.  I’m no fan of postmodernism but that particular aspect of it is interesting.

As I said, there is a way in which even Christian mystics are ignostic.  There is, for example, the via negativa, the idea that one can only say what God is not rather than what God is.  This is also reflected to some extent in the Jewish refusal to use even the word “God”, and the Daoist thought that the Dao that can be expressed is not the eternal Dao.  Koans also come to mind.  Clearly Daoism and Buddhism are completely non-theistic in their intellectual forms although the more popular approach does involve deification of the figures involved.  It would again be entirely consistent to many Quakers and Unitarians to be 100% theologically non-cognitivist, I think, though you’d have to ask one.

Theological non-cognitivists would agree that humans can have no coherent concept of God and therefore believing in God is more like the invisible pink unicorn to an ignostic than the flying spaghetti monster.  There is contradiction in the very idea of God.

A somewhat related idea is agnosticism, which in the West seems to be a particularly popular view.  The word has the benefit of having a wider scope.  For instance, I might be agnostic about a particular scientific theory or political view.  By contrast the other words are directed towards the notion of God.  The word itself is taken by T H Huxley from the Biblical verse Acts 17:23 – “διερχομενος γαρ και αναθεωρων τα σεβασματα υμων ευρον και βωμον εν ω επεγεγραπτο αγνωστω θεω ον ουν αγνοουντες ευσεβειτε τουτον εγω καταγγελλω υμιν” – ” For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”  I would call agnosticism the idea that God’s existence cannot be known or unknown but there is a fact of the matter about it.  I would also say that it’s probably true.  If there is a God, God’s existence could only be literally known if there was direct experience of God in some way or a logical-type argument, which doesn’t depend on observation, can be constructed to prove God’s existence in the same kind of way as a mathematical theory can be proven.  Otherwise we’re all agnostics unless God is nonsense.  However, the question for many non-religious people is why would anyone bother to claim that about God?  Bertrand Russell once claimed that nobody could prove there was no teapot orbiting halfway between Earth and Mars but that no-one would bother to either, and it’s possible to look at God that way too.  One could feel reasonably certain that God does not exist without feeling the need to waste intellectual energy on bothering to prove that that specific fact was so.  There are theist and atheist agnostics too – respectively those who believe on balance that God exists but it can’t be known for sure and those who believe God doesn’t but that that can’t be known for sure.

Then there’s atheism, and it’s this along with theism which is where most confusion arises and where most arguments in the West occur about religion.  The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, one of the standard reference works on the subject, defines atheism as the belief that God does not exist, or something similar.  This is important.  It does not define atheism as the lack of belief in God, unlike many Western atheists nowadays.  Throughout my early adulthood, and to some extent even now, most of my friends and acquaintances would probably have agreed that God did not exist but that it was so obvious that they didn’t even bother to think about it.  From that approach I’ve retained a similar attitude that when one considers problems such as Brexit, Trump, homelessness and climate change, the priority is to work out what to do about them with like-minded people and the question of whether those people believe in God or not just doesn’t figure among my concerns or conversations with them, and nor should it.  I think, in fact, that the idea of a debate about theism and atheism is an American import not strictly relevant to British culture.  It’s substantially a distraction from more urgent issues.  Having said that, I am of course both theistic and devoutly Christian.

Even so, there is a problem with defining atheism as the absence of a belief rather than the presence of one.  There will be many millions of people who have simply never thought about God, because they’re in a non-theistic culture for example, and to recruit those to the number of atheists is unwarranted.  Nor is it the case that people are born atheist.  At birth, babies appear either to be brain-stem dominated creatures with undeveloped cognitive abilities or possibly, as certain religious views might have it, slumbering in the bosom of the Almighty.  One thing they almost certainly do not have is the belief that there is no God.  They probably also lack the belief that there is one of course, but to define atheism as the absence of a specific belief is silly.  If it were turned round, theism could be, wrongly, defined as the absence of a specific belief that there is no God, which would include deists and agnostics as well as theological non-cognitivists.  It simply doesn’t work.  In fact it doesn’t even work as a philosophical view about the nature of the mind because we all have an infinite number of assumptions in a negative sense.  I believe there is no Martian living in any house in this street, no Venusians on any of the planets in the Andromeda Galaxy, that Angelina Joly does not have cancer, that 7852635780758078 has a very large number of factors and so on.  None of these things existed in my mind before I thought of them, which is why my brain is not of infinite size.  It’s just not sensible to think of things that way round and I don’t think atheists who define atheism as the absence of belief in God also apply that similar absence of belief criterion to other kinds of belief or non-belief.

Then there’s the question of how some Christians approach atheism.  As a Christian, this is clearly something I know something about although as a liberal Christian I’m more familiar with people who aren’t very focussed on the issue of atheists.  In particular, there seems to be a tendency to think of atheists as having an entire belief system rather than simply people who believe that there is no God.  Atheists are also seen as being either left wing or amoral.  Then there is a whole collection of other positions which atheists are seen as holding.  For this reason I tend to refer to atheists in this view taken by some Christians as “metaphysically naturalistic, scientific realist Western-educated atheists”, because that’s what many Christians seem to mean when they use the word “atheists”.  I went into that a bit yesterday and will again do so today, but before I do that I want to talk about another thing which really gets on my nerves:  the issue of apostasy as seen by many Christians.

There seems to be a common Christian view that if you have honestly committed yourself as a Christian, you will never stop believing, and therefore that all the ex-Christians, as they see themselves, who are now atheist, were never really Christian in the first place.  In other words their former claim to be Christian was either self-deception or an outright lie.  When it is a lie, incidentally, as Christians we should be examining our own attitudes and behaviour in order to find out what we might be doing that prevents these people from feeling comfortable enough with us to be honest.  However, we cannot know it’s always dishonest and in fact most people describing themselves as ex-Christian are, I feel confident, telling the truth.  They were absolutely Christian believers with faith in the risen Christ as the uniquely fully human and fully divine perfect Son of God who died for our sins on the cross and rose again.  They completely believed that.  It’s outrageous of Christians to presume to know what ex-Christians believed and to accuse them of lying.  They were not lying.  We all have periods of doubt and if that period is long, strong and final, these people are atheist and were Christian, and to claim that they weren’t is not only judgemental but also presumes to know their own experience better than they know it themselves.  The reason some Christians claim this, I think, is that they don’t want to feel insecure in their own beliefs.  However, the Bible itself contains the verse, in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”, and to me this means, perhaps annoyingly to both Christians and “ex-Christians”, that being a Christian has absolutely nothing with what you currently do or believe.  In fact I think it might be an interesting strategy for people regarding themselves as ex-Christian to continue to call themselves Christian but insist also upon their atheism and whatever else they have ended up believing, because the Bible itself, which we are supposed to be guided by, says they are still Christian.  Still, I shouldn’t tell them what to do.  I just think it would be nicely subversive.

Back to the metaphysics and epistemology.  Atheism is nothing other than the belief that there is no God (or other deities).  It does imply other beliefs, for example, atheists don’t believe in a Goddess either, but needn’t entail very much.  For instance there could be atheists who don’t believe in evolution, and presumably before the nineteenth century there were quite a lot of those.  However, since evolution is clearly fact, most atheists would of course believe in it simply by virtue of being sensible people.  However, they needn’t be left wing.  Ayn Rand, for example, was extremely right wing and atheist, and I suspect Hitler was too although I don’t know what he actually professed to believe.  There just is no particular reason why atheists should be left wing, or even anti-religious.  They might be very much in favour of old-fashioned Christian values.  Some of them also believe in immortal souls and the afterlife.  None of this should be surprising.  There is no reason why there wouldn’t be an atheist who believes the Earth is only six thousand years old, homosexuality should be punished by death, there is an afterlife and that we all have immortal souls.  In fact it’s argued by some that the last two are contradicted by the Bible, so in a sense they could be seen as non-Christian beliefs.

Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that only the physical world exists and that everything in it can be entirely discovered and explained by observation, experiment and generating theories from those practices.  Many atheists will believe this.  Not all.  However, this denial of the supernatural which is important to Christians who are trying to oppose atheism, is not the only option, and just as there is theological non-cognitivism, so there are similar views which apply to science.  This is why I also use the term scientific realism.  There’s a lot of disagreement about what scientific realism is, but one way it might be described is the belief that scientific theories tend to progress towards truth and the unobservable entities supposed by them are real.  Dark matter and neutrinos would be good examples of that.  Again I suspect that most people see science in this way.  It doesn’t mean science always gets it right.  In other words, it takes science literally.

There are other views about science which don’t contradict its usefulness or value.  One of these is instrumentalism.  Instrumentalism is the belief that all unobservable things are meaningless and merely made up to explain what instruments show.  In a way this sits better with atheism and theological non-cognitivism than scientific realism does, but on the whole atheists don’t seem to hold that this is so.

Unfortunately I now realise I’ve written nearly three thousand words so I’m going to stop!

Peace, Religion and Atheism

cnd

Everyone knows this.  As a long-standing peace movement activist I don’t feel there’s any need to say who it belongs to in a formal kind of way and it is in fact impossible to copyright.  This is of course the CND or “peace” symbol.  Its origin story seems to be that in 1958 the graphic designer Gerald Holtom came up with this symbol for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which at the time had just started with the Aldermaston Marches against the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment there.  It was intended that it be carried on banners on marches from London to the site.

The origin of the CND symbol is said to be in the semaphore signs N and D, for “Nuclear” and “Disarmament”.  Semaphore is a system for spelling out letters which could be seen at a distance using two yellow and red flags.  It works like a clock face, with one flag representing minutes and the other hours, though instead of there being twelve possible positions there are only six of each because they are easier to recognise from a distance.  Here’s a chart of the alphabet in semaphore:

800px-Semaphore_Signals_A-Z

Incidentally, when I first had access to the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, there seemed to be no easily available image of the flag semaphore chart, so I uploaded one somewhere for anyone to use.  It would be fun to believe this was the ancestor of the above chart, which is from Wikimedia Commons, but the truth is probably that search engines and other ways of locating things on the internet just weren’t very good at the time.

Superimposed, N and D look like this:

nd

(which brings to mind a slight regret that I haven’t got four arms).  This is the origin of the two diagonals and “one” vertical in the circle of the CND symbol.  Or so it seems.

However, there’s also this:

Runic_letter_algiz

This is the runic letter algiz, which was used to represent the Z sound at the end of Proto-Germanic words.  This Z sound in itself is quite interesting because it’s the remnant of what became the “-US” in Latin nouns and “-OS” in Greek ones.  It survives in modern Icelandic as the “-ur” ending in words such as heimur, meaning “world”, and is one of two runes which never occurs at the start of a word.  It survived in both the Scandinavian and English futhorc (runic alphabet) and is therefore referred to in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem:

sec[g e]ard hæfþ oftust on fennewexeð on wature, wundaþ grimmeblode breneð beorna gehwylcneðe him ænigne onfeng gedeþ.

The Elk-sedge usually lives in the fen,growing in the water. It wounds severely,staining with blood any manwho makes a grab at it.

Some time in the early dark ages, the rune got turned upside down, rather like the way A was originally  ∀ , representing an oxen head with horns, putting it in the same position as the straight lines in the CND symbol.  In runic divination the CND-type orientation symbolises “life” and the elder form “death”.  Therefore it’s sometimes suggested that the CND symbol has occult origins and that the upside down version means the opposite of peace, or maybe the peace of the grave.

I’m going to entertain this for a minute.  If you take the idea of the power of symbols in such a way that they have their own power separate from the power given them by human beings, which to me seems merely magical, the use of the CND symbol, or the upside down CND symbol, would have its own power.  One of the motives behind using the symbol was to get away from the idea of the Cross, which is of course partisan and Christian.

There is an interesting contrast here between certain spiritual beliefs on the one hand and on the other both Abrahamic religion and metaphysical naturalism.  Both Christians/Muslims/Baha’ists/Jews and physicalist atheists would completely reject the idea that any symbol has power in itself, though perhaps for very different reasons, which may though have identical roots.  For a metaphysical naturalist, and I’ll come back to that term in a minute, symbols simply have no power except in social, emotional and anthropological terms, because the Universe is utterly dispassionate and doesn’t impose meaning on anything.  This is not to say that symbolism has no cultural role, but there is no magical energy “charging” any symbol which exists in itself according to this world view.

This view would also be shared by Muslims, Jews, Christians and followers of the Baha’i faith, and they would also reject the veneration of symbols as a form of idolatry – mistaking a created thing for the creator and focussing on a material object as opposed to the truly spiritual.  They would, though, agree with metaphysical naturalists that the symbol has no power at all in itself.  The only meaningful entities according to most Judaeo-Christian world views are humans, angels and God.  This is occasionally modified, for instance in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and the similar ideas of the incorruptible bodies of saints and the like, and possibly also in the notion of kosher and halal food, but in Protestant Christianity and Baha’i, as far as I know, this is pared down to the minimum.

Just to explain metaphysical naturalism, this is more or less what most Westerners tend to mean when they refer to atheism, although atheism as such is simply the belief that there is no God and is entirely compatible with other views, such as the Carvaka school of thought which holds that karma is so powerful that no God is needed or spiritualist views that one can contact the spirits of the dead but there’s no God behind the Universe, so there are both the supernatural and the afterlife but they’re still atheists.  The set of beliefs frequently referred to as atheism is actually more than the belief that there is no God.  It’s also often metaphysically naturalistic and scientifically realist.  Certain Christians might define it differently, as only believing in what can be observed, but that’s an inadequate definition because on the whole scientific realists will believe in things like planets orbiting stars in distant galaxies, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles and the like, so the idea that it means they necessarily believe “there is nothing beyond what can be seen or touched” (or presumably sensed in other ways through sense organs) is something which most atheists would probably object to as a definition of their opinion that there is no God.  That description, by the way, is closer to logical positivism, a mid-twentieth century philosophical idea which has long since fallen out of favour.

Scientific realism is the belief that the conclusions arrived at by the scientific method are provisionally and literally true rather than, for example, being fictions invented to explain readings on instruments.  Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that nature is all that exists spatiotemporally and consists entirely of physical items.  There is no supernatural according to this view, and so, for example, no soul as an entity, no God, no miracles, no power of prayer, but also, to apply it more widely, no real seances and no karma.

Oddly, the Abrahamic tradition and western “atheism”, in the inaccurate sense of scientifically realist and metaphysically naturalist atheism, possibly combined with certain values, have a fair amount in common in spite of the tendency for certain Christians and Muslims to distance themselves from it.  Among these is the idea that we are morally obligated to try to make the world a better place.  This is not entirely necessary to this belief system of course, because atheism and the like could be motivated by doubt that there is any meaning, given or otherwise, or that it’s a dog eat dog world where prayer doesn’t work and you can’t rely on anyone.  However, on the whole I would say that the vast majority of metaphysically naturalistic and scientifically realist Western atheists share the view with Christians that there are certain things one ought to and ought not to do, and these things are generally to do with practical help and action to make the world better and discharge obligations to fellow human beings.  This is not controversial to me.  I am primarily Christian because I hope that it will miraculously enable me to make the world better with God’s help than merely through my own efforts.  If it doesn’t do that it’s pointless.

Unfortunately, there seem to be many Christians who want to substitute something else for morality.  I’m not going to comment as such on Muslims, Jews or Baha’ists because they are not in my direct faith tradition and therefore I would risk being bigoted or prejudiced if I did that, but I suspect the same kind of processes may sometimes operate there.  What this amounts to is, rather than actually doing things to improve the lot of humankind or one’s neighbour in an obvious sense, simply converting people to saving faith in Christ.  This is reflected, for example, in missions which seek only to convert people in the poorest parts of this planet without providing humanitarian aid or providing it conditionally upon “conversion”.  These minstries are unfortunately partly responsible for the extreme homophobic regimes found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

This is where I get back to the issue of the peace symbol.  Peruse, if you will, this article from the fundamentalist (whose fundamentalism though?) website gotquestions.org .  There are a number of bizarre claims in this article, including for example the idea that Bertrand Russell was aware of the satanic origins of the symbol.  Bertrand Russell’s views on religion are set out in his well-known essay ‘Why I Am Not A Christian‘.  Russell would have regarded Satan and demons as just as mythical as God and whereas he may or may not have been aware of the idea of the CND symbol being satanic, he had no interest in promoting Satanism.  It’s more likely, I think, that he simply wanted a symbol which was not partisan or off-putting to particular groups, which the Cross most emphatically would have been.  Another odd statement in the Gotquestions article is the claim that the symbol had Communist overtones, as if Christianity is fundamentally opposed to Communism.  Some would argue that Christianity basically is Communism.  The community of early believers described in the book of Acts included the principle that all members should share their resources and property equally.  This is not some kind of aberrant offshoot of Christianity dating from a time centuries after the foundation of the faith but the origin of all Christianity – more or less the earliest Christian community.  And it is Communist, to the extent that two people who held back their property died as a result of their selfishness.

None of this is very surprising.  CND and the peace movement generally has included many members of various religious groups including the Mennonites and in particular the Quakers, as well as Roman Catholics.  These people believe they are called by their faith to oppose war and weapons, particularly weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear warheads.

Now there is a single unforgivable sin mentioned in the gospels, discussed on this mainstream Christian blog.  I am not about to accuse anyone of anything.  However, one way of understanding it is that it involves attributing the works of God to Satan.  From an evangelical perspective, the reason this is unforgivable is that it prevents a non-Christian from committing to Christ, or at least that’s how I understand it.  Regarding this view of the peace movement, as motivated by Satanism or at least being entangled with it, is pretty damn close to this attribution, and there are two possible dangers.  The first, which from the world’s point of view is pretty minor, is that it may prevent people who are interested in the peace movement from becoming Christian.  They might then be rather puzzled as to why so many Christians do things like break into missile silos and break nuclear warheads.  The other, which is just a bad thing from a non-religious, religious or Christian perspective, is that they will become Christian but turn against the peace movement when it is exactly where they belong and just what Christ is calling them to do.

I want to close with a short illustrative story from my own life.  During the peak of my involvement with CND and the peace movement, I was sitting in a cafe when I saw someone who used to be involved with CND.  She came over and we started chatting.  She then said to me that she had since become Christian and regarded her time in CND as one of searching which was now over since she had committed to Christ.  In other words, because of some tacit right wing propagandising under the guise of religious faith, my friend had left the peace movement, and perhaps other kinds of political campaigning, and been completely neutralised.  This is not how I see Christianity at all.  I don’t believe there is necessarily only a left wing case for political Christianity in the slightest.  However, nor do I believe that Christ wants us to sit on our fundaments all day and just pray and sing.

It’s expressed pretty well, actually, in Tim Hughes’ hymn ‘God Of Justice’:

God of Justice, Savior to all
Came to rescue the weak and the poor
Chose to serve and not be served

Jesus, You have called us
Freely we’ve received
Now freely we will give

We must go, live to feed the hungry
Stand beside the broken, we must go
Stepping forward, keep us from just singing
Move us into action, we must go

To act justly everyday
Loving mercy in every way
Walking humbly before You God

You have shown us what You require
Freely we’ve received
Now freely we will give

We must go, live to feed the hungry
Stand beside the broken, we must go
Stepping forward, keep us from just singing
Move us into action, we must go

Fill us up and send us out, fill us up and send us out
Fill us up, send us out Lord
Fill us up and send us out, fill us up and send us out
Fill us up and send us out Lord

Fill us up and send us out, fill us up and send us out
Fill us up, send us out Lord
Fill us up, send us out, You fill us up and You send us out
Fill us up, send us out Lord, yeah

Acting justly, loving mercy
We must go, we must go
To the broken and the hurting
We must go, we must go

We must go, live to feed the hungry
Stand beside the broken, we must go
Stepping forward, keep us from just singing
Move us into action, we must go, must go

Fill us up and You send us out, yeah
Heaven open

The Door Into Spring

Sg1stargatefront

Today is of course the first day of spring, one of two days in the year when the sun rises and sets at the same time everywhere on Earth.  It’s also one of the two days of the year when the length of day changes by the maximum amount.  This is because the length of day through the year varies as a sine wave:

sine

This means that the least change in the length of the day takes place on the peaks and troughs of that wave, which occur at the solstices.  The reason the length of say follows a sine wave is because the planet moves in an almost perfect circle, actually an ellipse, around the Sun, and is tilted rather than rotating “upright” like Jupiter, Venus and Mercury, which therefore have no seasons.  The fact that it’s an ellipse means there is a slight variation from the sine wave pattern, but our orbit only deviates by 1.67% so it makes very little difference.

This kind of rate of change is of what calculus seeks to analyse, and all I can grasp of that, really, is that there are two inverse processes called integration and differentiation, and that one of them is about measuring the slope of a straight line passing through a point on a line graph of a function.

Since calculus is about rate of change and planets move in elliptical orbits, accelerating and decelerating according to how far they are from the Sun in these orbits, casting horoscopes must involve calculus as well unless you just look up the values in an ephemeris, which would be lazy.  If the planets moved any faster than they do, they would move away from the Sun, and if they moved any slower they would move towards it.  If you then generalise this idea, as Newton did, you get the notion of escape velocity, which is how fast something has to move round something else before it can escape its gravitational pull.

By Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7404342640px-Janus1

The Latin word for “door” is ianua, which is where we get the name January, which is personified in the two-faced Roman god Janus, the deity associated with transition, doorways, gates and new beginnings.  If the Roman Empire had survived with its religion intact and gone out into space to found a Galactic Empire via stargates, Janus would be the patron deity of those stargates, as illustrated at the start of this entry.

Another thing Janus could be considered the deity of would be the Door Into Summer.  This is a joke which forms the title of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, one of the Big Three authors of the so-called Golden Age Of Science Fiction along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke.  The central character, perhaps more of a protagonist really but then I have that problem too, has two doors in his home.  He lets the tomcat Pete out of one of them in the summer, but if I recall correctly, that door gets snowed under in the winter, so he lets her out of the other door instead.  Pete seems to believe that the other door is the one into summer and if only she could get out of the other one during the winter, it would turn out to be warm and sunny.  Apparently Heinlein heard this idea from his wife Virginia, so she deserves most of the credit for this although it also takes some talent to know what will resonate with readers and the way it’s written is important.  Nonetheless it’s notable that of those Big Three male writers of science fiction, at least one of them nicked a brilliant title from a woman, although at least it’s not as bad as E E “Doc” Smith, who had his female next door neighbour write all the “emotional bits” in his stories without giving her a sou of credit.

I haven’t read as much Heinlein as I have Asimov or Clarke, and that which I have read is in adulthood.  It’s been said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is in fact twelve, so Heinlein is more or less absent from my version of that Golden Age.  At the age of twelve, his ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’ was knocking about the house being read by a student who lived there but for some reason I never picked it up.  Nonetheless I have read him since, and he presents me with a quandary.

‘The Door Into Summer’ was the first of his novels I read although I probably read some of his short stories as a child.  Published in 1957, it concerns someone who manufactures robot vacuum cleaners in 1970 and comes up with a design for an all-purpose domestic robot.  The description of how the robot works is that it has special tubes capable of learning movements and tasks and that putting these together in a single machine, having taught them correctly, will lead to a practical robot capable of doing household chores.  At least I think that’s what happens but I’m not sure.  He then has himself frozen for thirty years and when he comes round he gets a job making cars which turn out not to have any numbers on the speedometers and so on and are immediately scrapped, a neat reference to Keynesian economics.  That second detail is less convincing, but the difficulty for me emerged when I read the description of how the robot worked because it was utterly convincing.  It’s also very similar to the way car manufacturing robots were programmed in the real 1970s, where workers would guide one through the motions of their old tasks and subsequently presumably be out of a job, so like much science fiction it’s prescient.  However, all this is envisaged as happening without recourse to what we would understand today to be a digital computer, integrated circuits, microchips or any of that kind of technology, unlike the real robots which did use all of that stuff.  Nonetheless I found it entirely convincing for the purposes of the story and even now I can’t quite convince myself that a real robot couldn’t be designed like that without any digital electronics at all.  There are in fact real analogue robots, such as BEAM projects, and back in our home ed days we had a go at building a few, but as far as I know none of them work that way.

Hence the really distinctive thing about Heinlein’s writing is how convincing his ideas are.  On reading one of his stories, I find myself completely buying into a lot of the ideas as realistic even though many of them clearly aren’t once they’re examined from a safe distance, and for me this is the real genius of his writing.  However, it can also lead to problems in the way he’s perceived.

Heinlein has been accused of being fascist.  I feel this is very unfair, but I can see why people see him in this way.  It amounts to his talent for convincing readers of the realism of his ideas.  I haven’t read his books anywhere near as extensively as I have the other twor (spellchecker denies that’s a word but I’m leaving it in), but I have read one of the novels which led to this accusation:  ‘Starship Troopers’.  This has of course been made into a film by Paul Verhoeven, whose trailer is here.  As usual, this bears relatively little resemblance to the book but it does very much emphasise the interpretation of the book as militaristic quasi-fascist propaganda.  Apparently a less ironic version is in the works, which is therefore closer to the novel.

The politics of ‘Starship Troopers’ is interesting, and here’s the crucial point. When a character in a story espouses or embodies a particular attitude or viewpoint, it doesn’t follow that the author agrees with them, even if they’re the hero.  The political system in ‘Starship Troopers’ is summed up in the film by the phrase “Service guaranteoes citizenship”.  The fundamental idea is that you only become entitled to vote if you enlist in the military for a minimum of two years.  Everyone else does have rights – they can presumably take people to court, have their children educated by the state and have property rights for example – but they can’t vote or run for office.  The idea behind this is that if you want to benefit from government you should be prepared to defend it.  This is the crux, so far as I can tell, of why Heinlein is sometimes seen as quasi-fascistic.

Various attempts have been made to defend this position.  Heinlein himself served in the army during the War although apparently he didn’t see active service on the battlefield and there was no prospect that he would do so.  He later claimed that the kind of service he had in mind could include non-military service, although it’s hard to see how that would work because from the perspective of the story the idea definitely seems to be that you have to join the forces to vote.  The situation is laudably similar, also, to that of Ancient Greek city states, where the people voting on whether to go to war or not would in fact themselves go to war, thereby risking their lives and putting their money where their mouths were.  In the case of Ancient Greece, unfortunately, there would also be a load of slaves with no say in the matter going to war and getting killed, so it was by no means utopian. As it stands, the politicians in Westminster or the US Senate are not going to war when they vote on sending the army to Afghanistan or the South Atlantic though, and there would certainly seem to be dishonour in that.  Nor is it even true to say “’twas ever thus” because it clearly wasn’t.  The monarch used to lead the army into battle from the front, which may have been imprudent but probably focussed the mind rather.  However, the world of ‘Starship Troopers’ is egalitarian in that there’s no sexism or racism and anyone can join the army, and thereby become a citizen, so there’s none of the conscription or enlistment of slaves as found in, for example, the Argentinian army in 1982 or ancient Athens.  Everyone, equally, is putting themselves in danger to defend their way of life, and this is seen as engendering civic virtue.

There are naturally a lot of negatives in this system.  For instance, it isn’t clear that serving in the military is inherently more valuable than anything else, it disenfranchises conscientious objectors and it means that all politicians are soldiers, probably high-ranking ones at that, as are any people in positions of political power.  It would be deeply problematic and probably would lead to something resembling a military dictatorship after a while.  The book does in fact depict it in something like these terms, as the situation is one the world has drifted into as a result of veterans entering politics and being more popular.  From my own perspective, well, obviously I don’t agree with such a system.

My impression is that Heinlein had some sympathy with the idea and that it developed from his own experience, and possibly resentment at how some people had all the benefits of citizenship without appreciating the fight to get those benefits.  However, simply because he put those ideas into a story doesn’t mean he was advocating for them.  Politically, he moved from being liberal to conservative over his life like many other people, but his conservatism never included overt racism or sexism or puritanical attitudes.  Socially, he remained liberal, and is often understood as a right wing anarchist or libertarian, and whereas I don’t agree with that stance I absolutely do respect and understand it.  It has to be understood that the left-right axis is not the only one in politics and that authoritarianism and libertarianism can sometimes mean allegiance across that apparent divide.  Neither understanding nor sympathy entail agreement, and to my mind he was exhibiting both of these without agreeing with the perspective he seemed to be promoting.  It amounted to a thought experiment.

Nor is it accurate to describe this as fascism.  Fascism as an ideology is about the only duty being to the state.  This is not what the world of ‘Starship Troopers’ is like.  There is, for example, emphasis on camaraderie and the motivation for joining up and fighting is to defend or revenge one’s friends and family rather than a more abstract notion of the state or nation.  Also, fascism is the opposite pole to anarchism, as the latter holds that there can be no political obligation whereas the former posits that that’s the only obligation.  There is also a recognition in the nvel that fear and force alone keep the government where it is, and anarchists and fascists share that view.  It’s just that fascists also approve of it.  Consequently, it’s entirely feasible that a libertarian author, i.e. one with anarchist leanings, can easily get inside the mind of a totalitarian without approval, and since good authors may need to get inside their characters’ skins, this is what we see in ‘Starship Troopers’.

Consequently, the belief that Heinlein is a fascist, although it’s inaccurate because of the nature of fascism, is in a way a tribute to his ability to see the world from a different point of view, spin an entangling yarn and relieve the reader of the burden of disbelief.  He does this so well, in fact, that many people think of him as advocating for the world he describes.

My own issue with Heinlein has come up recently in a similar way, when someone explained how ships in his ‘Future History’ universe travel faster than light.  Heinlein seems to have practically invented the idea of hyperspace jumps and the warp drive, and also the torchship, a plot device which still crops up in today’s SF.  To do this, I need to talk about both of Einstein’s theories of relativity and the concept of escape velocity.

The crucial observation for Einstein is that no matter how fast you are travelling, the speed of light is always the same.  If you hold a torch in your left hand and shine it at a mirror in your right, the light will travel about a foot, then bounce off the mirror and back to the torch.  This will take two nanoseconds.  Now suppose you’re moving.  You would expect the beam of light to travel along a diagonal path.  At a forty-five degree angle this path might be expected to be forty-one percent longer than if you stood still, so you’d expect it to take 1.41 nanoseconds each way instead.  To a stationary observer this is what would happen if the beam does in fact move at 45º.  However, to the person holding the torch and the mirror, because light always travels at the same speed, it will still take one nanosecond each way and this is achieved by time moving more slowly for a moving observer.  Moreover, since the light is travelling the same distance, it isn’t even moving in a diagonal line, so objects are shorter in the direction of movement.  These effects become ever more pronounced as the speed of light is approached.  Moreover, because the speed of light can never be reached, it takes more and more energy to accelerate an object towards it, meaning that it has infinite mass at the speed of light, and for these reasons, moving a mass at the speed of light is impossible.

blackhole

However, that’s only half of Einstein’s theory.  The other half is general relativity, which states that space is curved by mass and that as that gravitational fields have the same effect as acceleration, meaning for example that time slows down as one approaches a black hole.  In the above representation the grid represents space, with one dimension removed, and the tunnel is the way a black hole distorts space with its mass.  This is of course potentially also a wormhole or a stargate, and will be ruled over by Janus.

Black holes, remarkably, were first theorised in the eighteenth century, when it was realised that because a denser object has a higher escape velocity, given that it’s the same size, the point comes where that escape velocity is faster than light, meaning nowadays that nothing can escape it.  However, it’s also theorised that a black hole can open elsewhere in space and let any surviving objects out.

Now consider an accelerating starship, and this is apparently Heinlein’s idea.  As it approaches the speed of light, it becomes more massive and also smaller in its direction of travel.  There will be a speed, very close indeed to the speed of light, when it will become so compressed in the direction of movement and also so massive that it will become a black hole.  At that point, a wormhole or stargate will open and the ship will travel through it, but without time passing because the ship will effectively be within an event horizon, and it will be able to move from one point in real space to another in a shorter period of time than it would take light to do so.  This is of course superluminal travel.

All that solves one problem for me while creating another.  It solves the problem of not being able to believe it’s possible to travel faster than light, meaning that I can now believe in my story.  However, it also creates the problem of me having acquired an apparently erroneous belief through Heinlein’s sleight of hand.  I know it’s impossible to travel faster than light, or do I?

All this is really a tribute to Heinlein’s ability to convince his readers of the plausibility of his ideas.  I now believe that there’s a door into summer, in the same way as some people believe Heinlein was a fascist, and for the same reasons.  It’s a dizzying, peculiar situation to be in, but it does at least enable me to write a convincing story, and it leaves me utterly overawed at Heinlein’s writing skills, even if he does turn out to be a bit of a fascist.