Introducing ‘Replicas’ (Part Two)

This is a continuation of my last blog post, in which I started to introduce my novel ‘Replicas’.  If you want to buy the ebook version for only 99p, follow this link .  Anyway, I will crack on.

Everyday Life

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1758516640px-Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02

You probably remember me objecting to ‘Star Wars’ on the grounds that its plot didn’t depend on the setting. That is, it asserts universals which in the setting are seen as applying as much as they would in any other. This means of course that in fact the plot of ‘Star Wars’ does depend on the setting, so I later added “non-trivially”. Hence my definition of science fiction as fiction whose plots depend non-trivially upon the setting. I hope I’ve done this with ‘Replicas’, but I also hope that it’s a story which feels like everyday life to the reader. That is, I want it to be emotionally realistic as well as scientifically plausible.

Bdna_cropped

There are ideas in the novel which work because of technological and cultural change, and this story couldn’t be told in 2017 or before, although advances in gene editing mean that it might not be too long before certain elements of it become facts of life. We are, however, probably a lot further from having human-like robots than we are from the transgenic scenario, although breakthroughs and rapid progress are impossible to anticipate in detail so maybe we aren’t. However, just as nowadays, though not necessarily in the near future, most people in the developed world might have taken antibiotics for an infection which could in the past have disabled or killed them and taken that for granted and forgotten about it for the rest of their lives, the genetic modification which has occurred early on in Melissa’s life she also takes for granted.

It’s a narrow path to tread between the boring and the excessively bizarre. Nonetheless to believe in a story I have to make it convincing in both scientific and emotional terms. Both forms of realism have to be in play and since you have to write about what you know, at least some of it, even in the 24th century, needs to be drawn from personal experience. This is why, for instance, Melissa is a linguist and botanist, and has two children. It also brings up the problem of using personal experiences with others as a resource, which risks crossing certain personal lines. To take a fictitious example, an argument one may have had with one’s partner about sex could theoretically end up being included in a story. I have of course tried to be discreet but that’s something of a luxury if I want to write something credible. Two of the dialogues are from other sources. One is a role play with my son and another is with the computer “therapist” ELIZA, a program witten in the 1960s. I’ll leave it up to you to find them.

<By Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5168552&gt;

PDP-10_1090

ELIZA is relevant in more than one way. The initial intention of the programmer was to demonstrate the superficiality of human-computer interaction, but what was in fact demonstrated was that users tend to attribute human intentions and motives to computer programs. Whereas these are clearly not going to be there in the circuits of the DEC System 10 running it, the same could be true of humans themselves. The externalist philosophical position holds that the basis for knowledge is outside the person whereas the internalist view is that it is in some sense within them. I have generalised this to the idea of mental states and dispositions of certain kinds being external to the mind. Just as a brain-dead person still has a next of kin because she is their mother, so are there certain states of mind, as it were, which can be read into a supposed person without those states being literally part of their conscious mind. This is in fact partly what Barak/24601 is having to wrestle with, and has come down on the side of being extremely externalist in that it even denies it’s conscious at all. This reflects the Cotard delusion, a state in which a depressed person believes themselves to be decomposing, dead or non-existent, which oddly can swing round into the belief that they’re immortal. Barak/24601 believes itself not to exist, or rather that it’s a mere mindless machine.

One Change Is Not Enough

322 Vermilion Sands web

(This is from here and will of course be removed on request)

J G Ballard once observed that science fiction stories set in the future are usually really about the present. They can sometimes serve as allegories or satire about something which is bugging the author at the time of writing. Another tendency has been for a single change to be made without also assuming a vast number of other changes and their interplay. The aforementioned author claims that his ‘Vermilion Sands’ stories were really supposed to be about the future. To me, they actually strike me as exercises in creating a surreal atmosphere and are none the worse for it, but that’s not what he claims. By contrast, stories written a few decades ago are often plagued by anachronism which can pull the reader out of suspension of disbelief. Notoriously, Heinlein’s ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’ includes the line “Dad says that anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote. Mine is a beauty! A K&E 20″ Log-log Duplex Decitrig. Dad surprised me with it after I mastered a ten-inch polyphase.”. Somehow hyperspace travel co-exists with them.

Datedness is hard to avoid, and the risk may be multiplied by introducing and extrapolating from a number of changes. There’s also a feeling of inelegance to it, which I’ve chosen to tolerate for the sake of constructing a convincing world. In the real world, many changes occur and interact. Much of the changes in the past three decades can be attributed to Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web but there has also been a trend of economic liberalism, growth of religious fundamentalism and advances in biotechnology, and although all of these do influence each other, they are relatively independent developments.

Arthur C Clarke observed in ‘Rocket To The Renaissance’ that just as European exploration of the planet enormously stimulated the West culturally and scientifically, so could human exploration and settlement of space be expected to surpass that by far. I would contend that some of that fallout is already evident, for instance in the form of research into the Martian atmosphere revealing the prospect of nuclear winter here and also via the Spaceship Earth concept and the idea of this planet being a tiny oasis of hospitability. I feel confident that the lack of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit since 1972 has done a lot of damage to our species and blighted our prospects, which is an unpopular view. Consequently, ‘Replicas’ depicts an earthly society constantly replenished and stimulated by space exploration, something which can be seen in the likes of Melissa’s career and in the materials science developments resulting from the study of silicon-based life. I passionately believe that humanity needs a physical growing point to thrive, and only since 1972 has this been effectively absent in the whole history of hominin genera. Hence I have chosen to illustrate how this might work both in Melissa’s own life and the life of humanity on this planet.

Up Wing Politics

 

It’s no secret that on the whole my politics are quite left wing, though also anarchistic and libertarian, whereas the world of the Galactic Association’s 24th century is largely capitalistic with a couple of exceptions. However, this is not difficult for me. Three hundred and sixty years ago, the issues in English politics differed hugely from today’s. It was around the time of the Restoration when parliamentary democracy as we know it today was practically non-existent and the kind of concerns expressed by the political class covered such matters as the tolerance of Roman Catholicism, the Stuart succession and Parliamentarianism versus the monarchy. It might be expected that any current debate in politics would be as outmoded as one between Cavaliers and Roundheads. I don’t think this is entirely true although I have attempted to imagine what other issues might have arisen in the meantime, such as the fight for robot rights, the political unification of Earth and of course LGBT concerns. It would be difficult also to let go of one’s own current political views because of course one wants one’s hopes for the future to come about.

Heinlein has often been seen as fascistic, partly because of the ideas expressed in ‘Starship Troopers’ that only people who have served in the military should be given the vote since they have demonstrated the willingness to defend it with their lives. Whereas I don’t agree with it, it is a viable position and a fairly respectable argument, but simply because he happens to have depicted a setting where that is the political order doesn’t imply the views are his. For all I know they are, but the book is a thought experiment which could’ve been written by a pacifist anarchist.

It’s also important to be open to other viewpoints and respect them rather than adhering to the dogma that only one’s own views are correct and everyone else is simply wrong because they haven’t thought them through. Also, there’s a strong tendency, which in fact I feel even in myself, to draw a line around one’s opinions and relegate others to an outer darkness where they aren’t worth considering. I have tried not to do this here.

Like most English-speaking people alive today, I grew up and continue to live in a society where the economic system is capitalist and the political system is a liberal democracy, or at least this is how it describes itself. Whereas this can be argued with, the economic and political system prevailing over most of human space in the late 24th century is also of this nature. This therefore also counts as me writing about what I know. I have taken at least one foray in the book into a different political system and not portrayed it sympathetically, largely because my experience with people who have lived under what seems to me to be a similar system has been that it’s screwed them up. You could certainly do worse than live under such a system and it’s by no means a dystopia. Trying to imagine a utopia would in any case probably be boring and unconvincing. Also, both utopias and dystopias would probably come across as unconvincing portrayals of a more nuanced future.

There’s also the question of what has been called “Up Wing” rather than left or right wing, and if I’m completely honest with myself I have to admit that the “Up Wing” view is pretty close to my own. I really want this species to survive, and if not by any means necessary, by a very wide potential variety of means, and as such I’m happy to ally myself with whatever gives us a future among the stars. Such a future, since it would probably be longer by far than one on this planet alone, and I hope consisting of many more lives lived through many times the recorded history of this species, and given time a better political order may emerge and prevail. Vision is, however, needed for this.

Up wing politics is also referred to as democratic transhumanism and technoprogressivism. Transhumanism and singularitarianism are often seen as problematic by the Left and the Greens because they focus on technical solutions to political problems. They also tend to be dominated by free-market ideas. To me, this strongly suggests a future dystopia where the poor are disposable and the rich are immortal, more intelligent and healthier. With truly cognitively enhancing drugs, technological extensions of healthy lifespan and modification of the genome to confer much greater longevity, but without an NHS-style system, comprehensive education and the like, I can only really see the species developing into two castes or even subspecies, the poor and the rich. I would of course like to be wrong, and maybe it’s my hyperbole, and clearly we no longer have to pay three thousand quid for a PC like in 1981, so maybe I am. Nonetheless, there are some issues which transcend the left/right divide, and for me one of these is the long term survival of the human race. Clearly I would like a fair world where everyone gets fed and sheltered adequately, but in the absence of that, and of course I shouldn’t be pessimistic because that could decrease the chances of a better world coming about, I would like there still to be people in 350 years time, on the whole. Up Wing politics to me means the kind of politics which promotes the human settlement of space, by whatever means. At the same time, to me it seems feasible that a combination of technological and social progress would occur.

Many Western countries have questionable histories, and there’s a sense in which people living today, though they may benefit or suffer from the history of their native countries, cultures or ethnicities, shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of others in the historical past. That’s easy for a relatively privileged Westerner to say of course. Nonetheless, the circumstances in which someone born in 2326 are givens in a similar way to my own givens. My first language is English, for example, which is advantageous in the world today but also has the legacy of being spread by colonialism. Likewise, someone born in 2326 might have similar inherited advantages but they shouldn’t be held responsible for them or, really, even be apologetic about them. The standard of living of the whole Earth is in any case assumed to be very high.

An Invitation To Visit Your Great-

Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandchildren

In conclusion then, I have tried to write a story which inspires, feels realistic both emotionally and scientifically, addresses LGBT issues, is optimistic and addresses various philosophical points.  I hope I’ve done so smoothly and unobtrusively, and also entertainingly.  I also hope this novel is the first of many.

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Introducing ‘Replicas’ (Part 1)

As you may know, my novel ‘Replicas’ has just been published with considerable help from the Galactic Association. What follows is somewhat like an interview with myself on the subject of the novel. Before I get to that, the ebook can be bought HERE, and a print version will follow. I’ll cover this first.

E-Book

At the moment, ‘Replicas’ is an ebook. Although I appreciate that many people prefer to have a piece of dead tree in their hands, and this will be available at some point, there are good reasons for it being released as an ebook first.

The most obvious is of course captured by the words “dead tree”. A physical paper copy of a book has mass and is composed of a considerable amount of matter compared to an ebook. As such, it uses up physical resources to a far greater extent than an ebook. That said, the very existence of embodied energy in the form of devices required to read ebooks shouldn’t be underestimated and built-in obsolescence and over-reliance on a digital infrastructure are also important, as is the implicit endorsement of the economic system which brings them to us. I will go back into the issue of politics later.

Another issue is the history of the Galactic Association universe. If you go to Amazon and read the foreword, you will see that the origin of this shared universe lies in the 1970s, to my mind the last time when things were “normal”, though that may be my age. ‘Handbook For Space Pioneers‘, the original work which provided the setting for my novel, was itself envisaged as an ebook at the time. In terms of the world of the book, the text and illustrations were envisaged as being read from a screen. An example of this is that the pages are referred to as “frames” and the whole book is described as a computer resource. Hence it makes sense that both ‘Handbook For Space Pioneers’ itself and ‘Replicas’ are ebooks.

Finally, the website http://www.gailearth.com and ‘Replicas’ are symbiotic. There are links throughout the book which go to the site. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune‘ had an extensive glossary at the end and was later accompanied by the now forbidden ‘Dune Encyclopedia’, which expanded the Dune universe interestingly, but contradicted what was later done with the series, and to some extent this is similar. Unlike ‘Dune’, however, this novel is, I hope, more humanly engaging.

Gender & Sexual Minorities

rainbow

(Yes, I know it looks weird).

A major theme of the book is what might in this early twenty-first century period be referred to as LGBT. I personally prefer the initialism GSM – Gender and Sexual Minorities. The way I’ve chosen to do it might be seen as controversial to some people and there’s also a possible problem with anachronism. If you want to know exactly how I’ve done that, you’ll have to read it of course, but it could be seen as promoting a certain position in the Truscum/Tucute debate because I clearly identify non-transition with dysphoria whereas it doesn’t follow that this is so, or will be so in the future. In my defence, I would say that I’m depicting a limited situation affecting certain individuals and that doesn’t mean there aren’t happily non-binary people out there in the Galactic Association universe or that gender presentation is fixed. Two sets of attitudes may also seem out of place in the novel, one religiously motivated and the other apparently not. My answer regarding one of those is that even now there are variations in conservatism and liberalism among religious individuals and sects, and I believe it’s feasible that even in three and a half centuries there will still be religious people who are to some extent transphobic.

Philosophy

675px-The_Thinker,_Rodin

Can an object think?  Can it be conscious?  Simply being human in appearance doesn’t make it a person.

Subjectivity is examined in the story. Just as people are often presented as “just knowing” they are of a particular gender, so are people generally convinced that they know they’re conscious, and I do in fact believe this is true. I’m partly asking whether it’s coherent to doubt that one is conscious, and whether this is similar to gender identity. Is it really possible to know what one’s gender is, or is that about something else? Another concern which follows straightforwardly from this is whether conscious robots are possible.

Genre SF

By Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden – Space Pilot X Ray GunUploaded by Oxyman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15920861640px-Space_Pilot_X_Ray_Gun_made_by_Taiyo

There are energy weapons in the Galactic Association but they don’t figure at all in ‘Replicas’, even as replicas.  After all, there are guns in the contemporary real world but how many mainstream literary novels feature them?  Even so, ‘Replicas’ is “Genre SF“. It will instantly be recognisable as bog-standard science fiction by any SF fan, although of course it should appeal more widely. Some science fiction is kind of incidentally so, such as ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’, written by literary authors who happen to use an SF setting to tell a story. Another example is the intensely irritating ‘Time Traveler’s Wife’, whose basic idea is uncomfortably close to ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, though that’s another story (or is it?). By contrast, the kind of stories written by Iain M Banks, Alastair Reynolds and William Gibson tend to use the kind of tropes SF fans can be assumed to be familiar with, such as intelligent aliens, force fields, faster than light travel and virtual reality. Some of these are necessary plot devices – it’s difficult to write certain kinds of stories if the impossibility of travelling faster than light is acknowledged for example, and that’s certainly true of the Galactic Association universe because many of the settled human planets would be impossible to reach from Earth in less than a lifetime even at near-light speeds. It’s difficult to take the idea of travelling faster than light seriously. The same is not true of certain other aspects of genre SF, in particular aliens and robots. We already have real examples of lumps of matter which are purposeful, conscious and intelligent in the form of human adults, so it’s practically a given that there could be other lumps of matter, either in the form of non-living devices or life forms which have evolved and originated elsewhere in the Universe, which are also conscious and purposeful. Therefore, to me the idea of AI – Artificial Intelligence – is not at all far-fetched and there basically just are robots. There are other examples of AI in the novel too, such as the vehicles and home security systems, and virtual reality entities. A simulated person is no less a person than a human. Moreover, the robots, which I call robots, automata or droids in order to avoid the gendered terms gynoid and android, have sophisticated inner lives and human-like emotions. There are also inferior robots which obey Asimov’s laws of robotics and are more like machines. There is an unstated backstory to the development of these entities by the way. It’s been noted before that a major motivation in the development of technology is in fact pornography and often male sexual desire. This applies, for example, to videos, sex dolls and of course the internet itself, which is substantially used for porn. At the same time, cosmetic procedures and products enable appearance to be enhanced, perhaps faked, with the result that there are false nails, false eyelashes, wigs and breast implants, among other things. I have chosen to envisage that this march of “progress” towards sex robots will ultimately lead to sentient beings with the inevitable moral dilemma that a being created as a mere sex object ought to be seen as both having a right to exist and a right to autonomy. The history of the robots in ‘Replicas’ is that their techological ancestors were sex robots, and a fight for civil liberties has occurred in the centuries between the perfection of the inflatable sex doll some time in this century and the time of Deborah and 24601/Barak which has led to them no longer being primarily sexual but nevertheless being aware of their history in the same way as Black people are aware of their own history of slavery and exploitation. Also, they just are people. They have a similar qunadary to the anatomically female characters in the book in that they need technological help to reproduce, which creates a potential point of exploitation.

The Real Future Of Earth

899px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

One of the distracting features of stories set in the future is that they are not always convincing because they are really about the present and an extrapolation of a specific feature of the present. A related issue is that it’s not always easy to depict technological and social progress over time in stories about the future. I have tried to address both of these in ‘Replicas’. It’s also clear that a lot of the exciting stuff is happening off-world. But, what if while all that exciting stuff going on excludes you because you can’t find a baby-sitter? What if your relationship, family and work commitments tie you to this planet? Would you not feel you were missing out and maybe start engaging in some kind of “second best” activity? Very often in space opera the situation on Earth is either completely out of the picture, as with Asimov’s forgotten location of Earth in the ‘Foundation’ series, or it gets depicted in passing without much focus on what it’s actually like to live there in the twenty-fourth century, as occurs with ‘Star Trek’. I have chosen deliberately to focus on this aspect. Melissa is deeply involved with her personal life on Earth also does research into other planets and is very engaged with the fact that human beings are in the process of spreading through the Galaxy. In this regard I’ve depicted architecture, funeral customs and fashion, and crucially, also the population issue – people on Earth need a permit to have children and are all vegetarian for example. Also, as time goes by there is technological change. Techniques for robot production change and information gathered from different star systems influences human culture.

A major social issue I encountered was that of work. It’s very difficult to imagine physical labour fitting into such a futuristic world. At the same time, the fact today that there are chess machines better than any human hasn’t stopped chess tournaments, and the existence of driverless cars doesn’t stop people from driving. It may even be psychologically necessary to work at something. I found a solution to this which again you can find out by reading the book.

Hope

By Dario Sanches from SÃO PAULO, BRASIL – BEIJA-FLOR-TESOURA (Eupetomena macroura), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3618575580px-Eupetomena_macroura1

DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs or beef or global warming or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive. This is the year five point five slash apple slash twenty six. Five billion years in your future, and this is the day

(He looks at his wrist watch.)

DOCTOR: Hold on.

(The sun flares and turns red.)

DOCTOR: This is the day the Sun expands. Welcome to the end of the world.

Thus opens the second episode of the first series of the revived ‘Doctor Who’, a series most fans assumed was dead and gone forever as of the late 1980s.

There is an argument, and indeed a general and very old expectation, that humanity hasn’t got long to go. There’s even a mathematical argument for it. If we assume that we are about halfway through the number of human births which will ever happen, and bear in mind that the population doubles every thirty years and that 75 billion people have lived up until about now, there is likely to be only about a century before the last human being is born. There are currently 7.5 billion people. In thirty years time there will be fifteen billion, in sixty thirty billion and in ninety sixty billion. That seems to mean that we can’t expect a long future, and in particular a future where we settle in space. The Galactic Association universe has ten habitable planets, including Earth and another planet with primitive but intelligent life forms on it which is therefore out of bounds to human settlement, within eighty light years. In fact the Galactic Association estimates six hundred million habitable planets. Now suppose the average number of people ever to be born on each of those planets is only 1250 people. That’s in the whole of future human history, however long that is. In that case, the chances of being born on one of those planets rather than Earth before it has colonised any of them is 99%. The mere fact that we are living on Earth now, without having spread through the Galaxy, seems to be practically enough to prove that it will never happen.

This is quite a gloomy view of course. It may also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we go around assuming that the human race is about to go extinct, we will quite possibly feel hopeless and that there is no future so it’s not worth planning for it and then maybe we will end up using up all our resources and making our planet uninhabitable without bothering to go anywhere else. But there’s a complacency and self-destructiveness about this attitude, and there’s another way of looking at the data above.

The Doomsday Argument seems to count human births and lives, but does it really? It certainly seems to suggest that there is a dramatic change in our near future, within the next century or so, which means there will no longer be people thinking about how long the human race has left. But it could mean exactly that: people will stop expecting the world to end or expecting us to die out, and this may well be because they’re aware that there are millions of planets or space habitats scattered among the stars, each with millions of people on or in them, and that this has been the case for thousands of years. In that scenario, it’s unlikely that many people will honestly believe that we are about to become extinct. Perhaps some major event could still wipe us all out of course, maybe an unexpected one. It’s therefore possible to reinterpret the Doomsday Argument as a way of predicting an end to human pessimism, or maybe a technological or spiritual evolution into a new state beyond such thoughts, which could of course amount to the same thing.

In any case, the Doctor expresses hope for the future in a similar way to ‘Replicas’. It’s an optimistic story which I hope will give people hope, and the pessimism you may feel right now which may make it seem unconvincing is what I’m trying to overcome, because we need an end to pessimism which breeds more pessimism.

Religion

One rather obscure hint in the novel is that whereas Christianity has ceased to exist, Islam has survived and flourished. The idea that the Christian faith is extinct was not in fact my intention, but the interpretation would be a valid one. You might ask yourself why a Christian of all people decides to depict a positive world where my own faith has disappeared. Christianity is seen as akin to astrology by one character, as persisting because of a delusion about the power of prayer which has evaporated at some stage in the past three and a half centuries, probably because it was popular as a Western faith, and also in other parts of the now unified Earth where economic development and higher standards of living now mean that hardly anyone is in need and that many major threats to life can be dealt with easily. There are no longer any infectious diseases on Earth, for example, except among people into alternative medicine who deliberately give themselves colds and the faction known as the Steady Staters which I’ll leave you to discover. By contrast, Islam has survived and grown. This is because of the slower development of countries with a large Islamic population and their tendency as a result to have larger families. I envisage Islam becoming more common than Christianity during the second half of the twenty-first century. However, Islam has also split into two new religions. One is relatively conservative but still much more liberal than Islam as it is today. Christianity has long had liberal elements but many of these prevailed only in recent centuries. Islam can be seen, perhaps somewhat politically incorrectly, as being about six centuries behind Christianity. In terms of the Islamic calendar, the late twenty-third century CE is the early nineteenth century AH.

Due to the need to undertake pilgrimage to Mecca, fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan and mark the beginning of the month by sighting the Moon, Islam is more or less confined to this solar system if not this planet. There is a second religion which has liberated itself from these requirements and can be conducted anywhere in the Galaxy, but whose parent faith was Islam.

By User:Alketii, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61256797islamicworld

Politically, there has been something like a caliphate in the sense that there was a large territory unified under theocratic rule in North Africa, South and central Asia and South East Asia. As time passed, this became more liberal and also developed an international auxiliary language. This is the spiritual homeland of both faiths.

Leaving Islam aside, most people are probably largely non-religious or vaguely pantheist in their beliefs.

All of this is probably coming across as quite abstract and impersonal. In fact, for me it’s anything but. One reason for being involved in politics is that you’re concerned about the future and want to make the world a better place. This often involves one’s own children, grandchildren and so forth, and since humans are cultural, we pass on memes as well as genes and “mother” the whole human race, whatever our gender or whether we have any children of our own.

Next time, I will go into other aspects of ‘Replicas’, including the possibly rather surprising political setting, the need to construct a believable and multidimensional world and that old hobby-horse of mine, the interaction between plot and setting.

Why Bother With Flat Earthers?

Why Bother?

Why bother with flat earthers at all? Aren’t they harmless, in a tiny minority and irrelevant? Probably in each case. However, what they do is serve a purpose as a kind of toy model of how an absurd opinion becomes widespread and some such absurd opinions are far more popular and influential. Two which come to mind are Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but for all we know there are more in store.

One problem with going into any of this is that of the various things about which people might have unusual and poorly-supported opinions, many of them might be held by myself or someone reading this, and that’s difficult. One example which comes to mind is my opposition to vaccination as it stands, although I’m not opposed to vaccination in principle, and the fact that Donald Trump is sympathetic to that opinion is almost enough to cause me to drop it. However, that in itself is illustrative, because I hold a difficult middle position in the vaccine debate, where I believe safe and effective vaccines should be developed as opposed to the current vaccines, which I perceive to be poorly tested and relatively hazardous. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with autism – that’s a separate issue. Some might say that this is an example of false balance, as with such things as anthropogenic global warming and “teach the controversy”, which is the idea that evolution and creationism in schools should be given equal time, when in fact the evidence for one side is much better than that on the other.

Anyway, back to the Flat Earthers.

Their Arguments and Cosmology

There are in fact a few variants in the Flat Earth “theory”, which I’ll mention later on, but right now the dominant idea is that the Earth looks like this:

unflag

The North Pole is said to be at the centre of the Earth and the Antarctic around the edge. This is of course the map shown on the UN flag, which many Flat Earthers claim is no error. They see the UN as being involved in a conspiracy to hide the truth via the Antarctic Treaty, which they claim bans the public from visiting Antarctica. Incidentally, in this view you can’t fall off the jäääärne (edge of the ice) because there is a wall of ice in the way, a conclusion which was drawn long before George R R Martin suggested something similar in ‘Game Of Thrones’. Some Flat Earthers additionally believe there is a larger Earth beyond the wall with its own continents and oceans and even claim to know their names. It’s claimed that during the fourteenth century a map came to light in China which revealed an additional thirty-three continents beyond the ice wall. However, it’s not necessary to believe this to be a Flat Earther.

One of several problems with the idea of Earth being flat is gravity. If Earth was flat and gravity operates as it’s widely believed, a denizen of such a “planet”, rather than experiencing it as flat, would in fact feel as if they were moving around inside a bowl. The further they were from the centre, the steeper the ground would appear to be and if there did turn out to be an edge, that would seem to be horizontal, so you wouldn’t fall over the edge at all. However, Flat Earthers either don’t believe in gravity or believe that it’s a lot weaker than usually thought. As an aside, gravity is in fact a very weak force. The entire mass of the planet can be overcome by a small magnet, for example, and it’s one of the puzzles of modern physics that it’s so much weaker than the strong and electromagnetic forces (the other, weak, force doesn’t operate in quite the same way). Instead of gravity, Flat Earthers posit that Earth is constantly accelerating at the same velocity as that involved in falling freely, and this would in fact probably work as far as I can tell. The objection that it would quickly reach the speed of light is, interestingly enough, completely invalid because special relativity as conceived by Einstein predicts that the speed of light is always the same to an observer no matter how fast they are moving because time slows down for them compared to an observer at rest, so in fact there would be no limit to this acceleration.

glorious

Flat Earthers sometimes base their beliefs on the Bible. This was popular during the nineteenth century. It probably goes without saying that they also deny that humans have been to the Moon and so forth, and that they believe there is no South Pole, that NASA is a major player in the conspiracy, that all photos of our planet from space are fake and so forth.

The various arguments advanced to establish that Earth is round are countered thus:

* Ships disappear over the horizon due to the refraction of light.

* Photographs taken from many miles above the ocean and land either show no curve at the horizon or do so because cameras use distorting wide angle lenses.

* The curve seen as a shadow of Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is caused by the water above the sky refracting the light from the Sun.

* Aircraft which fly “around” the planet are merely flying in large circles. Apparently some also believe that long haul flights involve anaesthetising the passengers so they don’t notice they’re flying differently than might be expected but I haven’t actually ever heard a Flat Earther say this.

* The Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated that Earth does not move horizontally, as it were, through space or orbit the Sun. This is an interesting one which I’ll come back to.

* Human missions in space were filmed in tanks of water.

* Communications and weather satellites are drones and high weather balloons.

There are various other claims, which if you’re interested are all over the internet.

Oh, and they also believe that Earth can’t be moving because otherwise star trails (the sky does rotate in their version of reality) would be blurred, which shows that they have little sense of scale or parallax.

Flat Earthers generally know all the common arguments advanced to demonstrate that the world and have answers. Many of these are from the book ‘Zetetic Astronomy’, published in 1881 by Samuel Rowbotham under the ironic pen name Parallax, but some are different. For instance, the book claims that lunar eclipses are the result of a normally invisible large disc passing in front of the Moon whereas modern Flat Earthers make the refraction claim. However, two things are notable about the way they argue.

Their Psychology and The Psychology of Others

Many conspiracy theorists are keen on the word “sheeple”. This implies that the majority of the population has had the wool pulled over its eyes by the Powers That Be. Whereas I do in fact agree with this to some extent, I don’t agree that it covers the specific things many conspiracy theorists go on about. In general, and in fact I also agree with this to some extent, this particular kind of conspiracy theory involves the belief that the education system and propaganda has persuaded people to accept the status quo for nefarious purposes which serve the interests of an elite group, who know the real truth. I’m in a slightly awkward position here because in fact I accept fully the idea that mass media and schooling, for whatever reason, tend to close down creative and original enquiry and questioning, and for that reason I decided to present our children with the choice to go to school or not, and they chose not to go, meaning that they ended up learning in other ways. I am also fairly committed to autonmous education, but all of this is really a subject for another blog entirely – homeedandherbs.blogspot.com . Consequently my approach is very much to test things for oneself without relying on second-hand experience and hearsay. You might think that conspiracy theorists would also take this approach and I’m sure many of them do, but quite a few of them don’t, even those who are not religiously motivated.

As I said, there are a number of common arguments that we are living on a round planet, which unfortunately, though valid, are often hard to test. As soon as the information available becomes second hand, the question of trust emerges. This means, sadly, that strictly speaking although I’m sure space agencies do have genuine images showing a round Earth, those are open to doubt in a Cartesian kind of way. That is, just as we might all be brains in a vat being electrically stimulated to imagine the world, so might these photos be fake. It’s fantastically improbable but not literally impossible, so it can’t be rejected and won’t work as an argument. This seriously cuts down the possible arguments available. In order to circumvent the “sheeple” claim, one must find ways in which the Flat Earther in question can reliably test their claims and trust the method used. This is immediately problematic if they haven’t thought of the test themselves. Anyway, I came up with the following four ways in which this could be done:

1. Look at train timetables in different parts of the world. How this works is as follows: the version of the Flat Earth shown on the UN map distorts the shapes of the land masses such that North America is much smaller east to west than Australia. If this were so, trains travelling between Sydney and Perth could be expected to take much longer than those travelling between Seattle and New York City. This is also verifiable by the thousands of passengers who get on and off these trains in stations between those pairs of locations, and the speed of the trains is also easily verified by such methods as counting regularly separated posts. The timetables themselves have to be fairly accurate or the passengers would complain, so there’s no room for deceit by the train operators and no opportunity to gas the passengers. Consequently, the fact that trains get from Sydney to Perth more quickly than trains going from New York City to Seattle, even when stops in between are taken into consideration, almost proves that the route in the latter case is longer than the former. Incidentally it has to be train or bus journeys because of public accountability and the fact that they travel across a surface with landmarks clearly visible.

I can think of two possible ways to counter this argument:

(i) The UN map is wrong. The North Pole is not in fact at the centre but Earth is still flat. In this case, there would still be discrepancies regarding train journeys but in different places. There would always be dicrepancies because just as it’s impossible to map a globe onto a flat surface without distortion, the opposite transformation is also impossible. Consequently there is no possibility of a fake globe without this showing up somewhere on it, although it’s conceivable that the distortions are not in heavily-populated areas – they could be in the oceans, for example.

(ii) On that subject, it seems at first to be conceivable that the land is the same shape as shown on a globe but the oceans are not. It isn’t, but before I get to that, it’s also impossible for the land to be at different separations because that would distort time zones. Whereas time zones are not exactly accurate with regard to the position of the Sun, the position of the Sun itself can be measured easily using a quadrant with a plumb line, which doesn’t require anyone to trust anyone else.

2. The position of the Sun is useful in another way, which unfortunately does require either a degree of trust in others or the ability to travel long distances. Hold a metre rule vertically when the Sun is closest to the zenith, measure the length of the shadow and repeat the experiment along a line of longitude. The length of the shadows will vary. If Earth is flat, that variation will follow the tangent trigonometrical function. If it’s round, it will follow a sine function. This is in fact similar to the original experiment conducted by Eratosthenes to demonstrate that Earth is round. Prior to that the Greeks believed the surface of the Earth to be a slope which influenced the climate due to the distance from a nearby Sun – hence the word “climate”, indicating a slope.

Problems with this include the need to trust someone else to be telling the truth about the height of their stick and travelling to the places concerned when the Sun is in the right position.

However, rather surprisingly an entirely different objection was made to this suggestion, namely that mathematics as such, at least at that fairly modest level of complexity, was untrustworthy. Never mind that the experiment could be repeated with a pencil, a football and a lamp at a fairly large distance, apparently the mathematics was doubtful. This, I think, is an interesting clue as to what might be going on.

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3. There is a myth that water goes down toilets and plugholes one way in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern. It doesn’t, although there may be a tendency, because the volumes and therefore masses of fluid are too small for this to be uninfluenced by other factors such as the position of the taps or the shapes of the bowls. Larger vortices, however, do rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. If Earth is flat and the north geographic pole is at the centre, this would mean there was a relatively arbitrary circle, the so-called “equator”, outside which they rotate clockwise and within which they do so counterclockwise for no apparent reason. On raising this objection, the reply was that “it’s to do with wind patterns” and on asking for more details I was asked to focus on experimental results. Well, this would be verifiable, as would the ocean currents, by direct observation without an intermediary, because these rotating storms also apply to ordinary weather patterns, so what you do is watch the weather forecast and note the prevailing wind direction relative to the centre of a high or depression and compare notes with someone on the other side of the equator. This involves trust once again, but it can nonetheless be confirmed that in one’s own putative hemisphere the wind reliably blows in a particular direction.

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4. Finally, earthquakes provide evidence not only that Earth is round but that it has a molten interior and a spherical solid core, although this requires a greater degree of trust than the others because you have to trust geophysicists or seismologists a long way away. Three types of waves produced by quakes are: the tremors which move along the surface, the S waves which vibrate perpendicular to their direction and the P waves which are like sound waves. P waves have a “shadow zone” near where the antipodes of the quake would be if Earth is round where they are particularly weak in a circle. This is akin to the difficulty in hearing sounds make in air from underwater and vice versa, suggesting a large spherical solid body within the planet. In the meantime, S waves are bent by the fluid content below the crust and recur in concentric circles of greater intensity centred on the epicentre. If Earth is flat, these areas are eccentric ellipses unless the quake is at the North Pole or wherever the centre of the flat Earth is.

There are a couple of other tests, including measuring the ping of servers with known remote locations and observing outside traffic cams in distant countries to see whether they’re in daylight or not, which produces two contiguous circles of light and darkness, and yes I have checked this, which is impossible on a flat surface given that Euclidean geometry is true (which it isn’t – I’ll come back to that too). However, although I know I’ve gone on and on about this I’m less interested in the details of the content of these arguments than the details of the interactions between myself and Flat Earthers.

Although Flat Earthers claim the majority is being deceived and is taking certain information on faith, the reverse appears to be the case. Not only that but also the people concerned are not keen on listening or testing these things for themselves. The degree of trust involved in measuring the length of a shadow, noticing the direction of the wind or reading a train timetable is non-existent and the content and validity of the arguments are open and available for assessment by the person concerned. By contrast, the arguments for a flat Earth are highly arcane and difficult to test without special equipment and coöperation, and are in fact rarely tested by Flat Earthers themselves.

I think a number of things are going on here.

Firstly, I think some people are trolling. They don’t really believe for an instant that Earth is flat and are just trying to get an emotional response, attention or a thrill out of deceiving other people. However, it’s increasingly hard to tell how honest people are online.

Secondly, I think a lot of people are feeling excluded and ignored. A study whose details I have frustratingly forgotten looked at the approach of Sasquatch investigators, and it was found that they tended to be people without much formal schooling in poorly-paid work or no paid work at all, and of course tended to live in rural areas. I suspect many Flat Earthers are similar, except for the last bit, though I can’t prove it. This is partly because of the lack of trust they place in maths, but also because they don’t seem to know professional scientists such as astronomers and geologists. This is a very important point because I think it extends far beyond the realm of Flat Earthers.

Thirdly, people generally use shared beliefs as a form of social cohesion. The more unusual the belief, the smaller the group and the more relatively important each person is within that group. It also makes them feel special and gives them a sense of control. They are therefore understandably reluctant to test their beliefs in a way that does not require trust in some other, but alternative, authority.

All this wouldn’t matter were it not for the fact that all of these forces also operate in generating extremist positions among the disenfranchised, or subjectively disenfranchised. Hence it applies as much to Brexiteers and Trump supporters as anyone else, and there are likely to be other untoward processes which will occur with world-changing significance as well.

I want to come back to the maths, but before I do that I want to examine an alternative Flat Earth theory.

Other Flat Earths

Perhaps surprisingly, the standard theory of the Flat Earth is not the only one. In the mid-twentieth century a British person known as John Bradbury arrived at some startlingly heterodox conclusions about the Universe, which included the hypothesis that Earth was flat. However, whereas standard Flat Earthers seem to start with the belief that Earth is flat and explain other observations in those terms, for Bradbury it was merely a detail in a startlingly different cosmology. This too is significant.

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For Bradbury, Earth is indeed flat but with a convex underside. Australia contains large deposits of mercury which are heated by the Sun and become more fluid, which distorts Earth’s shape and causes tides. The atmosphere gets colder the further up one goes, until it finally becomes liquid, and then apparently frozen. Above this layer is the “sub-semi-vacuum” and 220 miles above us, the Moon orbits, gradually accumulating and shedding phosphorus which explains its phases. Above that, 400 miles up, is the Sun, which gives off invisible radiation which heats Earth but is not in itself warm, or it would cause the liquid air to rain constantly down onto us. All light is green and other colours are derived from that colour, and it moves at infinite speed. The Apollo astronauts landed in Tibet because the magnetic field of the iron casing of the Universe moved the spacecraft in that direction. This magnetic field also prevents people from falling off the edge of the world.

The Earth only seems to be round because the human eye moves in a curve, in the same way as the sky only seems to be a dome. This is by contrast with mainstream Flat Earthers who believe the sky really is a dome.

It’s notable that this particular Flat Earth theory seems to have completely disappeared nowadays compared to the dominant Flat Earther version based on ‘Zetetic Astronomy’. Then again, sometimes accepted scientific theories have their own momentum without being particularly well-supported by evidence. Bradbury’s version, however, does not have a Christian background.

I said I’d return to mathematics. It was interesting to note that one person with whom I interacted didn’t trust trigonometry, and I suspect this was because trigonometrical functions are not intuitively obvious to them. In fact they are but that’s a subject I covered on homeedandherbs, but the problem is that people tend not to realise that they’re using them. There comes a point, however, when a mathematical argument which would be intuitively obvious isn’t so because of limitations in attention span and the ability to follow a line of thought, and this happens to everyone. though at different stages. Some parts of mathematics are, though, open to doubt, and one of these is Euclidean geometry, and this impinges on the Flat Earth in two ways.

I mentioned the Michelson-Morley experiment as quoted by Flat Earthers as evidence that we do not orbit the sun. This experiment involves two laser beams on a rotatable surface whose waves would interfere with each other if light travels at varying speeds according to the movement of the light source. This would demonstrate that the orbit of the planet would slow one beam down to varying degrees according to its angle if the light waves are waves in a medium of some kind. This does not in fact happen, and the explanation for this usually given is that although Earth does orbit the sun, the apparatus and the light waves shrink in the direction of movement but this can’t be detected if the observer is moving with them. To a Flat Earther the explanation appears to be simpler – Earth is not moving. However, Flat Earthers also believe Earth is constantly accelerating and must therefore experience length contraction in the direction of travel along with the time dilation effect predicted by Special Relativity. However, this would mean that the Michelson-Morley experiment can’t be used as evidence that we are not orbiting the Sun. This is a geometrical issue because time and the three dimensions of space are divided up differently according to how fast one is moving. The generalisation of relativity leads to the conclusion that spacetime is curved by the presence of mass, and ultimately that space can be considered curved enough to close in upon itself after many billions of light years. This sounds like it means the Universe is on the three-dimensional surface of a hypersphere but it can also be seen as meaning that there is a maximum distance between any two points after which it will reduce and the direction between them will swap, that three dimensional shapes tend to be slightly bigger on the inside than their outside would suggest and that parallel lines eventually meet. Hence non-Euclidean geometry.

There are two playful possibilities emerging from this. One is that for an object travelling close to the speed of light and approaching or moving away from Earth, Earth is in fact more or less flat, because to that object Earth is the thing which is moving near the speed of light and therefore thinner in the direction of travel. At the speed of light, Earth literally is flat. The other is that it’s possible to construct a hypothesis which makes Earth literally flat but is compatible with it being measured as roughly spherical.

According to Einstein, mass warps space so if nothing had mass Euclidean geometry would be true – parallel lines would never meet but stay the same distance apart. But the idea that parallel lines meet doesn’t need Einstein. Maybe space just is that way regardless of what physical mass exists. If that’s so, suppose parallel lines meet at a distance of 10000 km and that’s just the way space is. In that case, maybe Earth really is flat. Earth’s surface is simply a plane bisecting the Universe, and at a sufficient distance any two objects moving in straight lines meet. This would have two interesting consequences. Firstly it would mean that Earth seemed to be round but was actually flat, and secondly it would mean that the fixed stars are a maximum of only 40000 km away and probably stud the underside of that flat Earth.

I think it’s a shame that Flat Earthers didn’t adopt this version of the Flat Earth theory because it works a lot better than theirs.

 

Loving Angels As Well?

USEASTRO
Copyright HBO – will be removed on request.  Fair use justification – illustrative purposes

The Robbie Williams song ‘Angels’ is to me quite guilt-inducing.  The woman depicted in the lyrics is, in a most angelic way, a very selfless lover which seemed very difficult to live up to and I ended up feeling very much that I wasn’t an adequate spouse compared to that standard.  Of course, as a Christian I could recognise that life isn’t about personal striving but allowing God to act through one to achieve more than one would be able to manage without help.  As I’m typing this I can feel my non-theistic readers becoming dismissive, and I can empathise very strongly with that, because of the issue of angels.

There are spiritual paths whose conceptual accoutrements are very ornate and cluttered.  Hinduism and Shinto come to mind with their plethora of spirits and deities.  Abrahamic religions, I feel, are a reaction to that and proceed in the opposite direction, but human nature being what it is there also seems to be a cycle between what might be termed monotheism and what seems at first to be closer to polytheism.  People seem to find it hard to maintain the idea of a single deity without gradually adding bits to it.  Then the point comes where the need is felt to clear out the “dross”, as the clearer-outers would have it, and those extra ornaments are abolished.

The issue of angels arose for me recently because of the use of the concept in popular culture, namely the feature film ‘Dogma’ and the TV series ‘Preacher’, which have a lot in common.  To this end, it’s worthwhile looking into angelology just to work out what’s going on.  So I did that, and came across the familiar nine choirs organised into three triads:

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The choirs are, from top to bottom, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Principalities, Virtues and Powers; and, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.  So far, so elaborate.  I can see the justification in this kind of structure as a basis for meditation and a cabbalistic-style structure to the spiritual universe.  Comparing them to chakras, I feel the latter have an unquestionable reality to them which is not at all slippery and I think I’ve mentioned them elsewhere on this blog.  With angels though, and particularly with this highly ornate hierarchy, I have a substantial problem.

One of the issues with theology, as opposed to philosophy, is that it can seem to built enormous conceptual structures on top of minute turns of phrase in Scripture and the like.  Here I have older approaches to the Bible in mind.  The hierarchy of angels is probably the best of all examples I’ve found of this happening, although technically angelology is not theology.  The Bible seldom mentions angels, and it took me a very long time to track down why they’re organised into these nine levels based on studying the Bible.  I would even go so far as to say it isn’t there.  The explicit idea is from Pseudo-Dionysus, in a work called ‘On The Celestial Hierarchy’, and is based on the flimsiest of pretexts to the contemporary mind:  Colossians 1:16, which in the King James Version reads:

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

Somehow Pseudo-Dionysus (whose name, incidentally, was not literally that – the “Pseudo-” bit refers to the fact that he is taken to be St Denys, i.e. Dionysus, but isn’t) managed to build the whole hierarchy of angels on that plus a couple of other verses which are no more apparently relevant to the subject.

This is not a problem if it’s confined to the Middle Ages, which I’ve always assumed it is.  At the time, all sorts of elaborate conclusions were drawn on not very much evidence and then accepted as Holy Writ.  It turns out, though, that there is in fact at least one relatively mainstream Roman Catholic group which fully accepts the idea, namely one of the many Franciscan Orders.  I find this quite troubling, although I’m not myself a Roman Catholic.  Of course I don’t accept for a moment that this hierarchy is real for various reasons, not least that I see it as paralleling the hierarchies found in church and state, which I would consider to be absent in “Heaven” and as a mark of human failings.  The so-called “Kingdom” of Heaven is not a government.  All that stuff is what people do, not God, and the idea that there’s a parallel between the hierarchy of the Church and Heaven strikes me as totally bizarre and an attempt to justify an unjustifiable mundane system.  Of course it could be said as well that my own finitude and sinfulness leads me to this conclusion and that in fact God’s Kingdom is literally that, with a monarch, a court and the rest.  To me, however, that’s Babylon, and nothing to do with the divine.

William_of_Ockham

I have occasionally said to atheists that the only real difference between myself and them is that I believe that there is one extra person in the Universe.  I say this as an attempt at bridge-building.  I don’t see myself as on the opposite side as other people just because they happen to be atheist.  There is another reason why I say this though:  Ockham’s Razor.  That is, the idea, mentioned ironically by the mediaeval Franciscan friar William of Ockham, that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is the best hypothesis.  This is part of how I justify monotheism.  Many other spiritual pathways posit the existence of many supernatural beings, for instance Thor, Freya, Woden, Loki and the rest in Asatru, and Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon and others in Ancient Greek religion.  The monotheistic faiths, by contrast, posit the existence of a single deity, which is much simpler, and there are other religious perspectives which accept the existence of other deities only as faces of a single true deity behind them all.  Consequently when atheists ask the question “Which God do you believe in?”, attempting to make the point that someone who does not believe in Zeus or Freya is just as much atheist as they are, they miss the point that all these other names are simply names for the same deity, just as the Morning and Evening “Stars” are both Venus.  Of course it could very well be argued that the next stage on from monotheism is the belief that the number of deities is in fact zero rather than one, something which I happen not to accept but don’t wish to argue about.

Given this simplicity and adherence to Ockham’s Razor, you can perhaps understand why I have difficulty accepting the existence of angels.  To me, they seem redundant and in a way quite similar to the Roman Catholic idea of saints, and taking the passages which mention angels in the Bible, I must admit I have strong doubts.  Nor is there any problem in me admitting my doubt.  I would say that all Christians doubt and that it’s a healthy part of one’s spiritual journey to acknowledge that doubt.  In fact, just as there seems to be a cycle between a single entity and multiple entities in religion, in an individual’s spiritual path there is a similar cycle of doubt and trust which ultimately serves to strengthen faith.  Pretending not to doubt stunts spiritual growth.  To me at least, I want to wallow and luxuriate in my doubt like a nice warm bath, stepping out only when I’m ready to towel myself off in a reinvigorated spiritual state of trust.

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In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has three visitors.  When I first read this passage as a child, my immediate conclusion was that it referred to God as a Trinity.  Later on, taking as it were Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”, I decided that this was a childish interpretation, and also an example of over-interpretation.  I was therefore surprised, decades later, to find that it’s also an interpretation which has been fully endorsed by certain churches!  Nonetheless, looking at it I can only see it as seeing things which aren’t there and I don’t think it’s in keeping with the spirit of what at that point was a Jewish text to try to cram the idea of Trinitarianism into it.  I don’t want to take things too far and I want to be cautious, and the fact that the religious establishment can accept that kind of interpretation strikes me as extremely dubious.  It’s similar in fact to my embarrassment at realising that to repair a certain part of the Big Bang theory it was necessary to have Dark Energy.  When I had that thought, I decided I would never make a good scientist if I was having to make up something that silly, and apparently Einstein thought something similar.  Unfortunately scientific theories have their own momentum and that idea is now widely accepted in cosmology even though it’s clearly rubbish.  The idea of angels seems quite similar in that respect.

But, am I in fact ignoring very real supernatural beings who deserve some attention?  Someone who knew something he couldn’t have about me once told me I was surrounded by angels who loved me and that he could see them all around me.  Since he was also party to impossible knowledge, this does lead me to doubt my doubt in angels.  There is also clearly at least one angel I do believe in, who is of course not commonly believed in by liberal Christians, which I see myself as:  Satan.

TRIGGER WARNING – TWIN TOWERS

By UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg: Flickr user TheMachineStops (Robert J. Fisch)derivative work: upstateNYer – UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11786300UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11_edit

 I believe in Satan because Sod’s Law, at least in geopolitics and human affairs, seems very real and the alternative seems to be to believe in conspiracy theories.  Although things weren’t exactly hunky-dory before it, 9/11 really cocked things up in a major way.  It was exceedingly convenient for the military-industrial complex that it happened.  If I was a metaphysically naturalistic atheist, I would probably have looked for an explanation for that which would amount to some kind of conspiracy theory, and as we know, most believers in conspiracy theories of that nature are seen as delusional and having various other psychiatric issues.  That said, of course there are real conspiracies such as the Tuskagee Syphilis Program and I’m not denying that there really are conspiracies, just that the likes of the Illuminati (who actually, in a way, seemed like a great bunch of guys incidentally) taking over the world are just not happening and even if they are it misses the point, which is to make a world where they could not make useful headway, and that starts from within.

Even so, 9/11 is suspiciously convenient, and rather than opt for an earthly conspiracy theory when that kind of thing happens, I believe in a demonic one.  It was orchestrated somehow by Satan, by which I definitely do not mean, incidentally, that Islam is Satanic, because it very clearly isn’t.  I just mean that the establishment found it too convenient for it just to have happened by chance.  9/11 is, incidentally, merely a particularly vivid example of what I mean.  There are plenty of others.

Consequently, I clearly do believe in at least one angel, namely Satan, and if I believe in one, why not believe in others?  When I say “why not?”, this should be taken in the context of the fact that I’m a theist who believes in the supernatural and not in the sense that there is no God or supernatural, because that particular deal is not on the table here although it’s a valid question.

So yes, I do believe in angels, and moreover I believe that they are supernatural beings rather than aliens, which is another possibility I haven’t explored.  Furthermore, the idea of angels and angelology is culturally relevant and helps one to understand creative works even if one is personally completely naturalistic and atheistic.  For instance, the top of this entry is illustrated using the armillary sphere-like device which appears in the title sequence of the TV version of ‘Game Of Thrones’.  I would posit that it is in fact a Throne.  Hear me out on this one.

Thrones, sometimes known as or perhaps associated with ophanim are the third choir of angels counting down from the top.  They are markedly unlike other angels in appearance because they are utterly non-humanoid in appearance, something which incidentally appeals to me because the idea of angels looking like humans is completely absurd and I am already having my ability to believe things severely stretched at this stage.  This is an example of a Throne:

ophanim

Thrones are fiery wheels with eyes on the rims.  Whereas Game Of Thrones will of course not feature angels at any point, it turns out that the concept behind the title sequence involved the idea of a “mad monk” (not my words) in a tower somewhere who was able to see all the action, and what can be more a sign of an ungrounded flight of fancy than the idea of a Throne?  Hence this is, in my opinion, entirely intentional on the part of the designer of the title sequence and it’s something which can be appreciated if one knows something about angelology.

Finally, there is the usual peeve:  cherubim are not putti.

This is what people tend to think cherubim look like:

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In other words, like Cupid.  Cherubim are in fact the second highest choir of angels and have four wings and four faces, one of a lion, one of an oxen (don’t ask), one of a human and one of an eagle.  I honestly have no idea why people think cherubim are putti but I’m quite curious about it.

So, that’s why angels bother me.

Inferiority And Stripy Blue Marbles

A quick aside about the planet Mercury:

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Next year, the European and Japanese space agencies are working together to launch BepiColombo a major mission to Mercury, rather surprisingly due to reach the planet after a seven-year voyage.  This was at first a little confusing as Mercury, orbiting as it does within our own path round the sun, can be reached in less than half a year.  Apparently the reasoning behind that thought is not obvious, but if you think about it, it must be so.  Since it takes Earth a year to go round the sun and Mercury is rarely more distant from us than when it’s at its furthest point from the sun and we’re on exactly the opposite side of the sun, and since the closer an object orbits to the sun the faster it moves, the length of the longest direct path between us and Mercury has to be shorter than half our orbit and the space probe would have to be moving faster than Earth does, so it has to take less than six months.  Therefore I was puzzled by this at first.  It turns out BepiColombo is going to approach Venus, I think, three times and Mercury six times, so clearly it can’t be describing anything like a simple portion of an ellipse.

Mercury and Venus have a few things in common.  They are the two inferior planets.  This is not a reference to them being a bit naff compared to the others.  What it means is that they are both “below” us with respect to the sun.  Mars and the rest, by contrast, are referred to as the superior planets because from the perspective of the sun they’re “above” us.  This is not strictly true because they’re all orbiting, but I hope you get my point.

I’m about to go on about orbital dynamics, so be warned.

The German mathematician Johannes Kepler, 1571-1630 aware that his contemporary model of the solar system seemed to be completely wrong as it involved epicycles, the idea that as well as orbiting the sun, the planets made their own little circles as they moved around it, simplified the system and came up with his three laws of planetary motion, which are as follows:

  1. The planets move in ellipses with the sun at one focus.

This could be seen on the English pound note, except that the sun is placed erroneously at the centre of the orbits:

newton
(will be removed on request)

 Maybe this was done to foil potential astro-savvy counterfeiters, who knows?

2. Over equal periods of time, a planet sweeps out an equal area.  This is quite difficult to express clearly, but can be illustrated with this diagram:

areas

This is an exaggeratedly elliptical orbit of a planet with the sun at one focus (as opposed to the centre).  Suppose it takes a week for the planet to move from the position in its orbit from the lower to the upper point in the blue sector.  It will also take a week to move through the red sector.  Moreover, the area of both sectors is the same.  This means that planets move more quickly the closer they are to the sun.

3. I find Kepler’s third law the most interesting.  I’ll state it first, then explain it in “normal” language:  The square of the sidereal period is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis.

This is not as complicated as it sounds.  The “semi-major axis” is simply the average distance from the sun.  It can be clearly illustrated using Saturn.  Gratuitous image of Saturn:

640px-Saturn_during_Equinox

Saturn is, rather helpfully, about ten times the distance of Earth from the sun, and the cube of ten is of course a thousand.  Since thirty times thirty is nine hundred, it can be expected that Saturn takes about thirty years to orbit the sun, and this is in fact the case.

Back to missions to Mercury and Venus.  Mercury is about 40% Earth’s distance to the sun and Venus is roughly 70%.  Therefore spacecraft travelling to Mercury or Venus are effectively describing half of an orbit averaging the average of the sizes of the two orbits, in other words 70% and 85% of ours respectively.  Doing the maths, an orbit of 70% of ours is about the same as that of Venus, which takes 225 days to orbit the sun, so it ought to take a maximum of around 123 days to get to Mercury. and 143 days to reach Venus.  This is somewhat surprising because it takes longer to get to Venus than it does to reach Mercury, and this means in fact that of all planets in the solar system Mercury could be the quickest to reach even though its maximum distance from here is greater than that of Venus.

I mentioned earlier that Mercury and Venus have a fair amount in common.  Both have very long “days”.  Mercury’s day lasts fifty-six of ours and Venus has a day longer than its actual year at 243 of them.  Both of them along with Earth are of about the same density, five and a bit times that of water.  Also, both of them orbit almost upright compared to the sun, meaning that there is practically no variation in day length, and there wouldn’t be even if they rotated at the same speed as Earth either.

Which brings me to:

Stripy Blue Marbles

VUV_lg

Here is a fairly well-known false-colour image of Venus in ultraviolet light.  Given the colours, it looks remarkably like Earth although this is misleading because the choice was made to colour it blue and white, like us, and to the naked eye Venus looks more like this close up:

Venus-real_color

Now look at this photo of our own planet, as would be seen by a human eye:

earth_pacific

 

This is a view over the Pacific Ocean, revealing how close to an ocean planet Earth really is.  It’s almost possible to line up a globe at that distance so that no landmasses at all are visible, only the ocean and various islands, and from somewhat closer up it is easily feasible because a substantial part of that hemisphere would be hidden.

Although the first picture of Venus is false colour, it still reveals the fact that the swirls of clouds there are of a particular shape and that differently-composed clouds separate into streaks.  The “blue” streaks may be a mixture of sulphuric acid and ferric chloride, the latter chemical being used to treat sewage.  That part of the Venusian atmosphere sounds  to me like it might be quite useful for unblocking toilets, except that it isn’t that concentrated.

The relevant contrast between the two images is that whereas the clouds on Venus form streaks running roughly east-west interspersed with other clouds, the ones on Earth are much more swirly, indicating a more turbulent atmosphere at that level.  There is a reason for this.

It’s been theorised that ocean planets are in fact very common in the Universe.  All that’s needed, ultimately, is for the most common compound in the Universe, water, to accumulate in a fairly large lump at an appropriate distance from an appropriate star.  Moreover, once that has happened the atmosphere is likely to become high in oxygen without any biological activity simply because the radiation from the star will then break the water up into hydrogen and oxygen.  On smaller such planets, the hydrogen will then float up into space and the ultraviolet from the sun will generate an ozone layer from the remaining oxygen.  However, such a planet could well be lifeless because there wouldn’t be enough of any other elements for life “as we know it” to begin.  The kind of substances which might form on such a planet would be water, hydrogen peroxide and ozone, and whereas life clearly does well with water, it can’t really be expected to exist just as water itself.  Such ocean planets could simply be balls of highly pressurised ice covered completely in fresh water with oxygen atmospheres, although like us there would be clouds and rain.

The English interwar religious communist science fiction author and academic philosopher Olaf Stapledon supposed that ocean planets would in fact be very common, and were likely to form when the gravity was able to attract a lot of water but was also too high for there to be enough land of such an altitude to stick out of the ocean, meaning that there would either be islands or no land at all rather than continents, at least above sea level.  On the other hand, such worlds could be rocky.  It’s just that all rocks would be on the sea bed.  An intermediate kind of world has also been suggested where there is a rocky core covered by a thin layer of ice at the bottom of a deep ocean, with deep sea vents and active volcanoes providing other elements and thereby making life possible.  Finally, there could simply be Earth-like worlds with single continental plates like the Pacific, without enough geological activity to balance the erosion of land and a consequential global ocean.

Whatever the cause, ocean planets are probably very common, and one of their shared features is that because they are almost completely covered in water, their climate is likely to be fairly samey all over.  It takes a lot of energy to heat water up, once warm, water takes a relatively long time to cool down, and because it’s a liquid, warm and cold water tend to mix together.  On a planet with no land, nothing blocks this effect, so temperature variations on such a planet would be small.  However, certain things could interfere with this.  For instance, if an ocean planet was like Uranus and it orbited a sun-like star at the same distance as Earth, each hemisphere would spend half the year in daylight and the other half in darkness, and such a planet could do such things as have boiling oceans at one end and frozen ones at the other, which would swap regularly.  However, this is a fairly extreme case.  Another possibility is a planet with an orbit elliptical enough for it to cross the entire habitable zone of its star every half year, and this planet too would be stormy and turbulent. Yet another is that the planet would simply be quite small and have a thin atmosphere, though still thick enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, which could lead to greater temperature variations between the poles and equator, although smaller planets are probably less watery anyway because they’d have larger variations in altitude and less gravity to attract or hold on to their water, so such a planet is quite unlikely. However, even in these cases the conditions would have to be a lot more extreme to make a planet uninhabitable compared to one with more evenly mixed land and water on its surface.

Some of the planets in our own solar system have a marked axial tilt whereas others rotate almost “upright” compared to the sun.  Mercury, Venus and Jupiter are in the latter category, whereas Earth, Mars and Saturn are in the former.  Uranus is really extreme and roughly rotates “on its side”, giving most of the planet a forty-two year day and a forty-two year night, except for a narrow zone at the equator.  If it’s assumed that our solar system includes a typical distribution of axial tilts, it looks like there’s a roughly three in eight chance of an ocean planet rotating roughly “vertically” with little variation in day and night length, and along with that little seasonal change.

Now imagine such a planet which is on the margins of human habitability.  It has a gravitational pull around 30% greater than ours, hardly any axial tilt and is studded with the occasional low-lying island, rather like Polynesia.  Assume also that that planet rotates at about the same rate as Earth and that it has plankton which release enough oxygen into the atmosphere for us to breathe.  It has a roughly circular orbit like ours too.

Such a planet would have quite monotonous weather, with the exception that any hurricanes which developed would last a very long time.  Hurricanes are fed by the ocean and start to abate as soon as they make landfall.  Also, it’s possible that there would be very high winds at sea level due to the relatively rare interruption of land.  A wind could easily blow right round the planet with nothing to stop it at all.  On Earth this can only currently happen in the Southern Ocean although in prehistoric times there was an equatorial ocean of this kind.  The same would apply to ocean currents to some extent, although islands could possibly deflect these.

You could, in other words, expect stripes I think.  Winds would clear the atmosphere of cloud in some places and not others and there would be a tendency for certain places to be almost permanently cloudy and for others to be mainly sunny.  It would look roughly like a blue and white version of Jupiter:

blue

(only much better-looking than this rather ropy illustration).

I might be ignoring possible chaotic effects brought on by the butterflies of little islands of course.  There are streams of clouds leeward of oceanic islands, for example, which for all I know might add up to a major effect.  However, given that the atmosphere is denser, the clouds are likely to be higher, and therefore further above the lowlying land.

In other words, if we ever leave this solar system, one thing we can expect to see, I think, is stripy marbles.

1st-Shahada_white

Most Jews, Christians and Muslims would agree completely with the above statement in classical Arabic – the Shahada.  It reads, “there is no deity but the one true God”, which is the first part of the Islamic profession of faith, which in full is:

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh (wa) Muḥammadun rasūlu ‘Allāh”.  Clearly Jews and Christians, but not adherents of Baha’i or Sikhs, might take issue with the second clause.  In English then, “No deity but the one true God (and) Muhammad is God’s prophet”.

I don’t regard myself as a Muslim by any means, of course.  I’m not going into my own religious beliefs as such here so much as to note the fact that many years ago now I wrote a dissertation on Islamic societies and the Great Transformation.  This is me in another guise than how most people know me today, when I was studying sociology and there was an expectation in my first degree that if one were to give up a particular subject, even if it was subsidiary, one was expected to write a dissertation on a topic in that degree.  I only did one year of sociology and it was not a good dissertation.  I’m not emotionally attached to whether it was or not because sociology doesn’t matter to me as much as most other subjects.  I don’t really understand how sociology isn’t politics, for example, so it’s not clear to me what sociologists think they’re doing, something which came up later when I studied politics.  This dissertation of mine lacks intellectual rigor, was written in haste with quite cursory research based mainly on secondary sources and did not involve any contact face to face with any real Muslims.  It just wasn’t that good.

Anyway…

‘The Great Transformation’ is in fact the title of a 1944 book by the Hungarian-American political economist Karl Polyani, in which he argues that the invention of the modern nation-state went hand in hand with the development of a society dominated by the market.  Whereas the market existed previously, it didn’t dominate the human psyche, and the main change was that people shifted from ideas such as reciprocity and redistribution to behaviour as rational individuals within the marketplace.  The specifics of this idea are pretty irksome and also seem very inaccurate to me, but one thing Polyani did which does seem true is point out that there was a major change in the nature of Western societies around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Where we would differ is in the description of that change.  Nonetheless this change, regardless of its details, can usefully be referred to as the “Great Transformation”.

Two particularly uncontentious features of the Great Transformation come to mind.  Before it, the division wasn’t so much between childhood and adulthood as the period in life before getting married and the period from marriage onward, which applied to women and to men though in different ways.  Also, and this made a greater impression on me personally at the time, before it, societal roles were something one was born into whereas after it, one was expected to discover and change one’s role as life progressed.  In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written well before the start of the change, ambition is seen as sinful and against the divinely-ordained order of things.  Even today, the role of royalty is more ascribed than achieved, and this in a sense makes them as much prisoners of their situation as anyone else, though it’s a gilded cage.  Afterwards there were eventually ideas of careers being chosen and much focus on individual talent and skill.  Families were less likely to hve sons following in their fathers’ footsteps although the role of daughters often remained much more prescribed in  a way which had previously applied to sons.  We are roughly talking about the Industrial Revolution.

Polyani’s view is pretty close to the idea that liberal democracy and liberal economics are inextricably involved with each other, and is quite similar to the “Whig Interpretation Of History” in some respects, in that the past is seen as an inevitable progression towards freedom and enlightenment, in fact, seeing it as from a contemporary perspective to which everything was apparently developing.  This doesn’t really work of course.  Sarada often talks jokingly about looking back at Victorian times and seeing them as grim and unenlightened compared to the middle to late twentieth century, then extrapolating that beyond Victoria and imagining a world which was unimaginably awful to today’s minds. She recognises very clearly that this cannot be the whole story, and considering the bawdy and ribald nature of many writings before this time, at least the prudishness of the Victorians hadn’t gone on forever, and to a considerable degree the Victorians were good at inventing their own past, as with the frequent spurious explanations for children’s rhymes and the like.  Nonetheless, it clearly was pretty grim in many ways as the Bloody Code suggests, where one could be hanged for associating with gypsies or stealing anything which cost more than a shilling, such as a handkerchief.  However, once again there was a time before the Bloody Code.  It’s important not to idealise the past just as much as it is to catastrophise it, and in recognising that the past is a foreign country, we probably have to reject the idea that everything was always trundling along tramlines towards the glorious present of Liberal Democracy.

farm

Liberal democracy was of course not the only bright shiny future on offer.  I have to come clean here and confess that I Was A Teenage Stalinist, and whereas I am no longer like that, I admit that the idea of striding bright-eyed into a sunny socialist future involving big shiny biceps and a 50% increase in the production of tractors which can then plough the fields of our glorious collective farm under the watchful eye of Comrade Stalin do fill me with a sense of nostalgia, and I do believe that something good can be salvaged from all that.  This brings me to the second theory applied to the Great Transformation, namely Marxism.  I have to say this about Marxism.  Just as evolutionary theory, special and general relativity and quantum mechanics are working contemporary theories about biology and physics, and just basically true although lacking in detail in their original form, so is Marxism basically a correct description of economic, social and political relationships.  In other words I am a “Marxist” in the same sense as someone who believes in evolution is an “Evolutionist”, and just as the word “evolutionist” is a neologism made up by fundamentalists to pretend their creationism is a viable alternative, so the word “Marxist” is a word used by people who are in denial about the real way society works, or perhaps wish to conceal that fact or have been deceived into believing it doesn’t.  Having said that, there are details of Marxism as conceived by Marx and Engels that are just plain wrong.  For instance many of us are both bourgeois and proletarian and the two of them seriously failed to account properly for Green issues or for spirituality.  Note also that just being Marxist doesn’t stop you from being right wing.  It’s entirely feasible to use Marxist analysis to arrive at a strategy to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, at least in the short term, and I sometimes feel that the most Marxist party of all in today’s Britain is in fact the Conservative Party.  In other words, Marxism is as true as the theory of gravity, but gravity isn’t just about things falling but also things orbiting or leaving the planet altogether.

Taking both the idea of liberal democracy and that of Marxism together, there is in theory a major drawback to applying them to Islamic societies which is the same as the difficulty in seeing pre-modern Western societies as capitalist, namely the fact that they prohibit usury.  Both Islam and Christianity forbid the charging of interest on a loan, which means that capitalism as we understand it cannot operate as smoothly as it does in the West.  However, and this is where the practical aspect of my lack of time and real-life experience cuts in, there is apparently a series of contracts used in the Islamic world, each of which does not amount to interest but which together do, and a similar situation operated in Christendom before modern banks were established.  There are also the concepts of purchasing assets whose value will reliably increase, such as jewellery, and of paying tent on money from banks.  I find all of this quite disappointing as potentially the prohibition on usury is quite positive, but the spirit of shari`a doesn’t seem to be honoured here.  Having said that, I noticed that some Muslims couldn’t understand why I was vegetarian because my religion didn’t tell me specifically that I should be.  This is real experience of Muslims, but of course a generalisation from a few individual Muslims which may be unfair, but the idea behind that seemed to be that it wasn’t about reasoning through why a particular practice is in place so much as just doing what the Qur’an or hadith tell you without question.  There are many Christians who also take this approach.

250px-Panopticon

The other two big models of the Great Transformation are rationalisation and anomie theories.  Rationalisation is the idea, also present in Polyani’s thought, that the difference was that rationality began to be applied to society and that society has become increasingly rational as time has gone by.  In a sense this means we are becoming more “scientific” as part of progress, socially as well as technologically.  This would mean things like evidence-based policy, and also positivism in social science, which is usually deprecated – the idea that human societies can be understood scientifically.

It’s interesting to try to apply this to Islamic societies.  One of the apparent contradictions from the outside with Islamic societies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is that they are apparently based on faith-based rather than rational principles at the same time as seeking to use modern science and technology.  This means that scientifically-based intellectuals and other professionals might be imagined to encounter some degree of cognitive dissonance.  An imaginary example, and I don’t know how this really works out, is oncology – the study and treatment of cancer.   One way of understanding cancer is as evolution.  Mutations occur within a body cell which enable it to ignore the “kill” signal, survive better without oxygen and separate itself from its former fixed position and reproduce elsewhere in the body, for a limited period before it kills the host.  However, most Islamic countries are full of people who don’t believe in evolution.  Only eight percent of Egyptians believe in evolution, for example, and Sa`udi Arabia and Sudan have banned the teaching of evolution in schools.  It’s not clear to me what happens in biology departments in such countries and nor is it clear to me what happens when students from such countries study at universities in the West before returning to them.  Medical researchers would seem to have a problem.

One remarkable fact reported of active members of Da’esh and other hate groups is that they have a strong tendency to be engineering graduates.  Letting my personal prejudices interfere for a moment here, if I cast my mind back to about the time I was writing the aforesaid dissertation, I knew quite a few engineering students, mainly Christian or non-religious, white and ethnically English, and they did in fact strike me as unusually nasty, hateful people.  In fact, many of them were fundamentalist Christians and they stood out as being unusually illiberal, intolerant Christians, more likely to be stridently homophobic and, if male, sexist.  I realise that not all engineers are like that and in fact, being a Halfbaker there’s no way I’m going to diss engineers as a breed, but I can see the tendency, not there but in my past.

Nearly twice as many members of hate groups self-describing as Islamic have degrees in engineering than in Islamic studies.  Almost half the graduates in such groups have engineering degrees.  Nine times as many engineers are in these groups than would be expected by chance.  In fact, if you wanted to do what Trump presented himself as doing by preventing the entry of such people to the US, you’d do a better job banning all engineers from entering the country than people from officially Islamic countries.  However, two things about that:  it would have major economic consequences, and it would be more rational.  Not that it would be acceptable, mind you, but this perhaps illustrates that the rationalisation thesis doesn’t really apply to the United States, at least under Trump.

It’s also the case that members of non-Islamic right wing hate groups in the West are more likely to be engineers.  It might be thought that this is because engineers are better at making suicide vests and terror weapons, but this doesn’t seem to be the reason.  Nor is it just a question of engineers happening to be acquainted with one another because when hate groups spring up as cells or on a small scale, they also seem to be engineers.  An important criterion for membership is actually mutual trust.

Engineering students are particularly likely to be politically conservative, which of course groups the likes of white supremacists and “Islamic terrorists” together – they’re just two varieties of right wing groups with a lot in common.  They are also more likely to be religious, that is, members of conservative organised religious groups.  This corresponds to my own experience of engineering students.  They were often intolerant fundamentalist Christians and members of the Federation of Conservative Students, apart from one who was thrown out because he was too right wing.  They seem to be people who dislike shades of grey and imprecision, and since that’s how they perceive the contemporary world, they want to get rid of it.

Ironically, this seems to mean that rationalisation is a fairly good explanation of hate-motivated violent activity in self-described Muslims.  The reason Islamic societies are that way might be explained by the idea that they are dominated by bivalent logic and all-or-nothing thinking.  What would interest me, though, is whether this means the members of such groups are plodders or high achievers, although the former might be expressed as frustration.  It might be that in order to become a really good engineer, you have to be able to think more flexibly.

It also reflects another thing which irritates me about left wing ways of thinking about society.  Left wing politics often seems to be about finding problems rather than solutions.  Applying this to engineering, it’s like that subject being about studying why bridges fall down and planes crash without finding ways to design better bridges and planes.  Much left wing thought refers to “late capitalism”, which seems to be considered a euphemism for “eternal capitalism” or “mature capitalism”.  There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of suggesting how capitalism can be brought to an end in academic circles.

The other theory, which seems to fit Islamic societies quite well, is anomie, which is the idea that the distinctive feature of modernity is the loss of meaning and certainty in values.  Some Islamic scholars believe that the choice is between Islam and existentialism, and that existentialism actually has it right in a fairly profound way.  Islam in this analysis is seen to be the answer.

This, I’m afraid, is where I run out of time and steam.  I’m going to publish this now.  Let me know what you make of it.

Am I My Doppelgänger?

Could there be another you in another world or is that “you” really someone else?  Why is this important?

Before I answer those questions, I want to look at the idea of the Doppelgänger.  A Doppelgänger is an identical copy of someone who is out there in the world somewhere, and the story goes that if ever they meet, one of them will die.  Although the word is German, this idea exists in English folklore, where they are referred to as “fetches”.  On the whole it’s confined to mythology although the internet has meant that it has become easier for people to find their doubles nowadays, which is not quite the same thing as there is no sense of bad luck or misfortune associated with it.  There is also the very strange case of Emelie Sagee, a teacher at a school in what is now Latvia, in the nineteenth century, who would allegedly have a ghostly copy of herself appear beside her, mimicking all her movements, when she felt tired or ill.  This may naturally itself be a fabrication.

At first glance you might also find the idea of parallel universes to be equally fanciful.  However, there are good reasons for believing in them.  The physical constants which allow us to exist at all in this Universe are very finely tuned.  For instance, if the force bonding atomic nuclei together was slightly weaker the only chemical element would be hydrogen and “life as we know it” would not exist.  If this is the only Universe, we would more or less be forced into believing in a Designer, i.e. God, because it seems to be so precisely arranged.  However, any universe without life in it would not have anyone living in it to notice that the physical constants were any different.  Consequently, one solution to this problem is to propose the existence of multiple universes where those constants are different from how they are here.  In almost all those universes, even where there are stars, there are no rocky planets and no chemical compounds, although I would still hold out for the possibility that there could be life forms or at least conscious beings made out of ionised hydrogen.

By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30044004900px-Plasma_globe_60th

Leaving that possibility aside for now, given that we’re more or less forced to choose between the Design Argument and the Multiverse, I opt for the latter.  Given also that there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be universes where the laws of physics vary a bit less than would be required to rule out the existence of organic life forms entirely, it seems plausible that there would be a plethora of other universes which are more or less like this one in various ways.

Many of these universes would be very similar indeed to this one, to the extent that they would contain counterparts of ourselves, which brings me back to the question of doppelgänger.  The issue is, are we the same person in all these other “dimensions” or are we just a load of almost identical clones?  What would it mean for us to be the same person elsewhere?  What would it mean for us not to be?

There are two main philosophical theories about this.  One is counterpart theory, which is the idea that those people in the other universes are very similar to us but not the same people.  The other is known as “cross-world identity”, or “transworld identity”, which is the idea that we are the same people in them.  I personally believe in the latter.

The problem with cross-world identity is that there doesn’t seem to be a definite way to identify the people involved as the same in different universes.  I was born in Canterbury, did two degrees in philosophy, got married to Sarada, lived in Leicester, had two children and became a herbalist.  There is presumably a parallel universe where I did a doctorate in biochemistry, ended up working for a biotech company in Cambridge, and had no children.  This goes against my values because of my political beliefs, but those could also have been different.  It goes further than that though, because there seems to be no reason for identifying this random individual in another universe with me even if she has everything in common with me.  She wouldn’t have been born in Canterbury because she would be from a possibly identical copy of Canterbury on a different planet in a different universe.  She wouldn’t even live on Earth or in the Milky Way.

If at some point in the future, a twin Earth appears billions of light years away from here which repeats our history perfectly, apparently the same individuals would be born on it and live identical lives.  These people would in a sense have nothing in common with us.  They wouldn’t be us.  This is of course the classic problem with the idea of the resurrection of the dead and judgement day.  A person dies and their body is cremated or rots away.  The atoms making up their body become incorporated in all sorts of other life forms, including human beings.  Those human beings also die and their bodies are also destroyed.  Then comes the Day of Judgement and all the bodies of everyone who has ever lived are reconstituted and reanimated.  But if these bodies are made of the same matter, there is no way that two complete bodies can be made up, particularly if cannibalism was involved, or possibly blood transfusion or organ transplants.  Therefore the resurrected human race cannot be the same as the original human race unless they happened to have died the night before or were cryonically preserved or something.  God then goes on to judge these people, completely unfairly, since they have just been called into existence and have done nothing their originals have done, so why are they responsible?

I happen to have an answer to that, but I mention it here to illustrate that it seems fair to claim that the almost or even completely identical people in parallel universes are not in fact us.  What exists to link us to them?  They’re in different universes!

There does, however, seem to be a much more ordinary-seeming situation which makes sense of it.  At one point I was a baby in a hospital in Canterbury.  I am now a 49-year old typing a blog entry in Loughborough.  At first sight the answer to the question “Is a baby in a hospital in Canterbury the same person as a 49-year old blogger in Loughborough?” is an obvious “no”.  However, clearly it is the case because the first person turned into the second one.  Put more normally, the first person became the second one.  There is a succession of moments from my infancy to my middle age and in each moment I’m the same person as I was in the moment immediately preceding.  The same could apply to parallel universes.  In each successive parallel universe, perhaps adjacent, I am the same person, so I’m the same person as myself in any possible world where I exist.

I’ve described existence through a lifetime as an “ordinary-seeming situation”, and of course it is.  What might not be as obvious is that just as living one’s life is what we all do, and it’s entirely ordinary even if one is oneself extraordinary, it’s just as ordinary to exist as a single individual in many parallel universes, or at least, that’s how it seems to me.  However, there are still a couple of problems with this.

One is the question of what happens if there are “gaps” in one’s existence.  That is, there are some universes where one exists and others which are initially identical apart from one’s existence.  If there is a way of ordering parallel universes, and I think there is in the form of relative probability, our births are, to quote Eric Idle “amazingly unlikely”, and therefore it wouldn’t be surprising if there were very probable nearby universes where one doesn’t exist, then more improbable and therefore more distant universes where one doesn’t.  It could be argued that this never happens in someone’s lifetime.  I would argue, though, that it does.  It happens, for example, every time we fall into a dreamless sleep.  There is a sense in which we don’t exist during that time, although anyone who wanted could easily call us back into existence just by giving us a shake.  However, and this applies to identity through time as well, there are overlapping characteristics in a lifetime which guarantee identity proceeds in a fairly steady stream, and arguably parallel universes interrupt that stream.  Bringing them into the picture, it seems that characteristics can be so altered that I could arbitrarily identify myself with a rock on the third moon of a planet in the Andromeda galaxy which was destroyed when its sun went supernova six billion years ago.  This is not so.  In the same way as there are overlapping characteristics through a lifetime, so are there overlapping characteristics in parallel universes.  The point does come when claiming that one is a particular thing or person is simply false.

Why is this important?

It’s important for various reasons.  I am of course currently quite preoccupied with the Mandela Effect – the discrepancies between groups of people regarding their memories of well-known events, such as Shirley Temple having been dead since 1939 as opposed to her survival until this century and the existence of a fifty-first US state called Superior consisting of northern Wisconsin and Michigan.  It’s entirely plausible that these are mere memory effects.  However, if transworld identity can be made to work, another explanation is possible, namely that other versions of oneself are living in parallel universes where the state of Superior does exist and where Shirley Temple did in fact die nearly eight decades ago.  Those other versions of oneself would often have such memories.  It’s equally possible that there are versions of oneself whose memories of such events are incorrect, and that I may be such a version.

If transworld identity is plausible, containing no logical flaw that would make it impossible to be true, there is then a plausible explanation for the Mandela Effect.  This is that events which are true in parallel universes create accurate memories which in special circumstances become mixed up and transferred into one’s mind in other universes.  The veil which leads us only to perceive this world occasionally blows aside or rips, and we glimpse those other realities.  If this happens to a sufficiently extreme degree, we might no longer be said to be the same person, because all the important memories would change to those from other universes, and those might even turn out all to be true in a particular parallel universe.

Then again, and this is ignored by many people although it’s as important, maybe our memories are becoming less reliable because we use Google, Wikipedia and digital media too much.  I think this is also true, and will be going into that in a bit too.