Why Not-Being in the Future Completely Sucks

Adam Frank at NPR’s 13.7 blog on why we shouldn’t be hung up about death, even though there’s no afterlife:

[E]ven though none of us existed 1,000 years ago, you don’t find many people worrying about their nonexistence during the Dark Ages. Our not-being in the past doesn’t worry us. So, why does our not-being in the future freak us out so much?

Oh pick me! I know!

Because we experience time linearly, in one single direction, so we’d have no reason to be concerned about not existing in the past. We’re incapable of ever having perceived that which came before us, but we are able to perceive the present as it unfolds into the future, and we are aware that at some point, for each of us, that present will stop unfolding. We don’t witness the past before our births, so we have no reason or frame of reference for concern. We do witness ourselves in the present moment and are cognizant of the fact that we will (or ought to) exist in future moments. And we are also aware that there will come a time when that existence, that awareness, will stop. For-fucking-ever.

Perhaps if we were the Wormhole Aliens of Deep Space Nine or part of the Q Continuum, and could watch time and all the other dimensions unfurl around us in dancing strings and infinite toroids, we might have a different perspective. But we are mere mortal bags of meat.

That’s why not-being in the future freaks us out. Okay?

And personally I’m god damn glad I missed the Dark Ages.

P.S. Here’s a post explaining more about my feelings about death. They are not good feelings.


As Ye Live, So Shall Ye Google

Image by Shutterstock.
In American counties considered the easiest in which to live, cameras, iPad apps, and jogging are among the subjects that residents are googling for. In the hardest counties to live in, it’s diabetes, guns, and the Antichrist. This is according to an analysis by the New York Times which used its own metrics to determine what the easiest and hardest places to live were, and then partnered with Google to determine what search terms correlated most strongly. Some of the results as reported by David Leonhardt at the Times are surprising to say the least.

But first let’s get one aspect of this straight. What this report does not say is that in the hardest places to live the Antichrist is the thing most Googled for, nor are digital cameras the top search queries for Easy Street. It is saying that these search terms correlated most strongly to the counties in question. Common searches are common searches across the board, so at the moment I am typing this, things like “Little League World Series” and “Rick Perry” are among the terms dominating Google search at the national level, and we can assume that they are doing so even in the hardest and easiest-going counties alike.

There is little that can be inferred definitively from the Times report, but it’s very telling that when life is less stressful, one has more freedom to think about things like digital photography, and when life is a trial, one’s mind turns to weapons and eternal retribution for whatever one plans on doing with those weapons.

All this said, here are some things that struck me:

  • It is not merely that Easy Street dwellers are into digital cameras, but that they are interested in specific models, such as the Canon Elph and other point-and-shoots, which then makes me wonder how easy their lives can really be if they’re even considering Elphs and not just a decent smartphone with a decent camera. Have they not heard of these yet?
  • One may be tempted to tie a high rate of searches for the Antichrist and guns together as some sort of wish for the End Times infesting the culture, but also consider that “severe itching” is also on that list, which I think makes many of the other searches much more understandable.
  • “Dog Benadryl” is also on the list for the hardest places to live, which, despite the “severe itching,” raises more questions than it answers.
  • Among the search terms for the easiest places to live was the 2001 Ben Stiller film Zoolander, which frankly makes me question the veracity of this entire project. No one, whether their lives be easy or difficult, should be spending any time thinking about that.
  • The greatest tragedy to emerge from all of this? According to Leonhardt, “Searches on some topics, like Oprah Winfrey or the Super Bowl, are popular almost everywhere.”

We have so far to go.

Friendly Substitute Atheist

Oh, hey.

Over the holiday, Hemant Mehta finally went on his honeymoon, and once again called upon me to run the Friendly Atheist site. So once again, I wrote a whole lot of articles and posts. Some of them I’m really quite proud of. Others, you know, sometimes you just gotta feed the beast.

To see what I’ve been doing over at Friendly Atheist, click this here hyperlink. You’ll be launched through the internets to my posts.

You know what? I had a lot of fun with it, and I felt like I actually got into something resembling a groove. Thanks, Hemant!


Atheists, Ever Shall You Blog

I have a longish piece up at Friendly Atheist today on the future prospects for blogs as a prime medium within the atheist movement. I am bullish on the form. A pinch:

Will skepto-atheists still be relying so heavily on blogs in ten years? I’m guessing yes. The main reason is that we are a movement and a community based largely on proving Some Big Point that most or far too many people still don’t agree with. To be extremely general, let’s say the Big Point is that magical thinking is wrong, and lots of times really bad. You can apply that to all sorts of things, from religion to alt-med to The Secret to UFO conspiracy theories and so on. And blogs are still the best way to make that Big Point.

And I go on. I’d really appreciate it if you gave the post a little Reddit love, keep it afloat and away from the jackals there.

Life. Don’t Talk to Me about Life.

Because it’s not really a thing. Here’s Ferris Jabr at Scientific American:

No one has ever managed to compile a set of physical properties that unites all living things and excludes everything we label inanimate. There are always exceptions. Most people do not consider crystals to be alive, for example, yet they are highly organized and they grow. Fire, too, consumes energy and gets bigger. In contrast, bacteria, tardigrades and even some crustaceans can enter long periods of dormancy during which they are not growing, metabolizing or changing at all, yet are not technically dead. How do we categorize a single leaf that has fallen from a tree? Most people would agree that, when attached to a tree, a leaf is alive: its many cells work tirelessly to turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into food, among other duties. When a leaf detaches from a tree, its cells do not instantly cease their activities. Does it die on the way to the ground; or when it hits the ground; or when all its individual cells finally expire? If you pluck a leaf from a plant and keep its cells nourished and happy inside a lab, is that life?

This can be a hard thing to accept, because I think that even we evil, heartless, scientism-promoting skepto-atheists for the most part still conceptualize life as a kind of force, a “thing” in the sense that it somehow powers these clumps of organic material and bags of meat that would otherwise lie inert. And when one conceptualizes it that way, it does become rather binary – either it’s there or it’s not. You can’t be “sort of alive” or as Miracle Max might have it, “mostly dead,” in this frame of thinking.

Let’s be honest. Thinking about life-as-a-thing, a manifest élan vital, rather than as a loose umbrella term for myriad biological functions, is to conceive of it kind of, well, spiritually. It’s essentially the soul, which is of course entirely fictional.

To let that go, to stop thinking of life as “stuff,” we (necessarily) complicate the search for it elsewhere. It’ll be one thing if one day we’re visited by extraterrestrials who have bodies and limbs and some means of reproduction. Yeah, those will be pretty clearly alive. But what if some future probe comes upon, say, a combination of minerals that seems to be behaving in a way that recalls cellular duplication? Or we build machines that reproduce themselves but with minor variations to improve (or detract from) their usefulness with each generation? And, you know, what about fire?

Seems to me that we’re best to take each example on its own terms, and accept that, in granular terms, the question as to whether something is “alive” is perhaps too subjective to be useful. That it reveals a bias for our own means of existence and animation, and betrays a tendency for even the most secular among us to fall back on concepts that make sense only in fairy tales and books of myth.

Articles of Faith in Silicon Valley

There is a theme gaining traction in some of the writing I’ve come across lately, and I think I just want to flag it as a compelling topic to which I’d like to return in more depth. It’s the idea of Silicon Valley and the tech industry as a new kind of religious center, where there is a sort of blind faith, a zealotry about the redeeming power of technology and the Internet.

You can probably already predict the contours of the discussion: For some, there’s a genuine potential for revolutions in health, education, and overall efficiency that might be born from the tech world, the iceberg of which we’ve only seen the tip. For the other side, it’s a deep skepticism along with almost a parental worry about wayward young entrepreneurs.

A couple of samples that have caught my eye of late — and I should state that I’m less interested in anti-tech alarmism that I feel like comes from the likes of Nicholas Carr and others, as smart as I think he is. Here’s George Packer in a piece more broadly about Silicon Valley and its early forays into politics. But it gets at the theme:

The industry’s splendid isolation inspires cognitive dissonance, for it’s an article of faith in Silicon Valley that the technology industry represents something more utopian, and democratic, than mere special-interest groups. [ . . . ]

When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously—it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues. “It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

And then there’s this piece on Medium from Adam Ierymenko, who has a deep-seeded disdain for what he sees as the Valley’s youth-based messianism, which, though a little unhinged at times, gets more to the meat of what interests me about this topic:

All the Valley’s talk about transhumanism, human potential, life extension, and generally “changing the world” is a bunch of hooey. It’s a myth — in the pejorative sense of that term. It’s a fluffy religion meant to snooker young professionals into giving their employers everything they have and working their brains down to the myelin until they become too old to be relevant anymore.

He goes on to suggest that if the technorati think that only their age bracket can have any meaningful effect on the species, that perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should just off himself before he gets into his thirties, because why bother. Again, a little unhinged, but colorful.

As a professional skepto-atheist, as well as a tech aficionado (and not to mention one who really hopes the Singularitarians are right), this discussion hits the spot for me intellectually. Expect more on this from me. I’m in the middle of two books, Long for This World by Jonathan Weiner (who wrote the fantastic The Beak of the Finch), about the quest for longevity and immortality, and Our Final Invention, an admittedly less-fantastic book that warns of the near-inevitability of our demise via the rise of AI.

So I think we’ll be coming back to this.

Stop Me Before I Podcast Again

I’ve been casting-pod like a crazy person.  Just as a quick update, yesterday I posted a brand new episode with my former iPad-slinging colleague Chris Sawyer, and we get all geeky and commiserate about the awful real world and the worlds we’ve created for ourselves online. 

Not too long before that, I posted a truly enlightening episode with the Clergy Project’s Catherine Dunphy. It turned out to be a pretty deep exploration of not just losing one’s faith, but the inner political machinations of a particular church you may have heard of. 

Who knows what I might do next. 


Trolling for Zeus

Hey girl.
Hey girl.

Philosopher Gary Gutting at the New York Times, I think, might be trolling us. Why? He is using his platform at the Times to argue for the possibility of the existence of…wait for it…Zeus.

Reminiscing about this recently, I asked the kids if they had thought that Zeus was real.  “Well,” one said, “I knew he didn’t exist anymore, but figured that he did back in ancient Greece.” This set me thinking about why we are so certain that Zeus never existed. Of course, we are in no position to say that he did.  But are we really in a position to say that he didn’t?

I’d say we’re in a fantastic position to say that he didn’t, because an anthropomorphic super-being that lives in the clouds and on top of mountain, from which he hurls lightning bolts, and births children out of his cracked skull, is, well, completely absurd.

At best, I can say that Gutting is engaging in a somewhat playful philosophical exercise, except that so much in his column seems to me, who am very much not a philosopher, to be extremely — even laughably — weak. For example:

[T]he people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies.  There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.

Sure we do. Because he wasn’t there. One can get into semantics about the non-supernatural meanings of “divine,” but there really is no reason at all to give credence to the idea that these folks were “experiencing” Zeus, a fictional character, any more than I can experience Mr. Spock.

Gutting also considers the idea that these experience are simply manifestations of normal brain activity, and therefore can be dismissed, and he counters:

In principle, any experience of our daily lives can be produced by electrochemical alternations of the brain, but this does not show that, for example, I did not actually eat breakfast or talk to my wife this morning.

That’s not the point. The point is that one is plausible, and we have little reason to doubt the truth of his breakfast. But the other, belief in the God of Thunder, is not plausible, it’s ridiculous, with no basis in reality as best we can understand it, so we can in fact write that one off.

There’s more like this. Again, I’m no trained philosopher, but I’m a little gobsmacked that this idea is being taken seriously in this form. Of course, it’s no sillier, really, than making the same kinds of arguments for Yahweh or Jesus, but I had thought that at the very least we as a species had left Zeus and company behind.

So maybe he’s trolling us. In which case, well played.