Thursday, September 30, 2010
Isms and You
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Last night I heard Dan Barker, formerly a Christian minister and musician, give his testimony of losing faith because he grew up intellectually. I was not impressed by his arguments. He was an anti-intellectual, emotional Christian who lived on goose bumps. When he started to think, he has nothing to rely on--and became an atheist.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Sunday, September 19, 2010
The Constitution and Islamic Law
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Honoring Dr. Grounds
Friday, September 10, 2010
From the Chronicle of Higher Education
August 29, 2010
The End of Human Specialness
For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?
The defining idea of the coming era is actually the loss of an idea we never had to worry about losing before. It is the decay of belief in the specialness of being human.
As an example of what that would mean, consider the common practice of students blogging, networking, or tweeting while listening to a speaker. At a recent lecture, I said: "The most important reason to stop multitasking so much isn't to make me feel respected, but to make you exist. If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you'll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?"
Decay in the belief in self is driven not by technology, but by the culture of technologists, especially the recent designs of antihuman software like Facebook, which almost everyone is suddenly living their lives through. Such designs suggest that information is a free-standing substance, independent of human experience or perspective. As a result, the role of each human shifts from being a "special" entity to being a component of an emerging global computer.
This shift has palpable consequences. For one thing, power accrues to the proprietors of the central nodes on the global computer. There are various types of central nodes, including the servers of Silicon Valley companies devoted to searching or social-networking, computers that empower impenetrable high finance (like hedge funds and high-frequency trading), and state-security computers. Those who are not themselves close to a central node find their own cognition gradually turning into a commodity. Someone who used to be able to sell commercial illustrations now must give them away, for instance, so that a third party can make money from advertising. Students turn to Wikipedia, and often don't notice that the acceptance of a single, collective version of reality has the effect of eroding their personhood.
This shift in human culture is borne by software designs, and is driven by a new sort of "nerd" religion based around a core belief that a global brain is not only emerging but will replace humanity. It is often claimed, in the vicinity of institutions like Silicon Valley's Singularity University, that the giant global computer will upload the contents of human brains to grant them everlasting life in the computing cloud.
There is right now a lot of talk about whether to believe in God or not, but I suspect that religious arguments are gradually incorporating coded debates about whether to even believe in people anymore.
There is hope. Only a few years ago, to challenge the supremacy of the new nerd religion was to invite scorn from most undergraduates. This is no longer so. A post-Facebook generation is appearing, and its members are questioning the legacy of their predecessors. Recently, when I asked students not to tweet or blog during a lecture, so that they might exist, they stood and cheered.
The new question will be how we extricate ourselves from the antihuman software designs that suddenly run everything.
Jaron Lanier is a partner architect at Microsoft Research and an innovator in residence at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Thursday, September 09, 2010
Rectitude, waiting, finally
CS Lewis on the idea that morality is nothing but instinct, taken from Book 1, chapter two, of Mere Christianity: “Some Objections
For example, some people wrote to me saying, "Isn't what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn't it been developed just like all our other instincts?" Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct-by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires-one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.
Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature's mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same. And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, "Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up," cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.
Here is a third way of seeing it If the Moral Law was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call "good," always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses- say mother love or patriotism-are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad. All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother's love for her own children or a man's love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people's children or countries. Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the "right" notes and the "wrong" ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.
By the way, this point is of great practical consequence. The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials "for the sake of humanity," and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.