an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘future’ Category

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 1

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bonobo togetherness – who are the girls and who are the boys?

 

I’ve decided to focus on this very broad topic, and to write a book. Here’s my first (and in parts my second) draught

Introduction – a slow-burning inspiration.

In these few introductory pages, I’ll be writing a little about myself, after which I’ll (try to) leave me behind. At least as a topic. Of course, I’m on every page, as is Max Tegmark in Our Mathematical Universe, or David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity, or Johann Noah Harari in Homo Deus, or any writer of any other book of ideas, but in this opening I want to admit the lifelong passion I have for the set of ideas, or really feelings, I wish to explore here. They’re vital feelings, and big ideas, though they may come out as inchoate, or incoherent, in the telling. I probably feel most passionate about them because they seem so knocked about and pushed aside by the world I find myself in – though that world is always in flux and there are moments of inspiration.

 

It was in the mid 1980s that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I would have been in my late twenties, just beginning an arts degree as a ‘mature-age student’ at Adelaide University. I was living in a chaotic share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. Due to difficult family circumstances I’d left school at fifteen, and I’d fantasised for a while about being a complete auto-didact, the smartest fellow without a tertiary degree on the planet, or at least on the street, but I was frankly embarrassed at my poverty and my string of unpleasant and failed jobs in factories, offices, restaurants, and briefly, a hospital. My great solace, my way of maintaining pride in myself, was writing. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the books I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, reflections on the women I came into contact with – admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 13 years or so before I could buy my first computer.

 

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all despised or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

 

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy in these matters. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic airways condition – bronchiectasis – that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterest. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you perfectly,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

 

In fact I was obsessed to what I considered an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to pre-adolescence, when I imagined doing it, whatever it might be, with every attractive girl, and boy, within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly with my classmates, looking up and down the class line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

 

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and yes I did have one or two) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way. And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, and  a great motivator. But what if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

 

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the lifestyle and virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

 

So the following is an exploration of a world that seems worthy of study both for itself and for ourselves. We’re now the overwelmingly dominant species on the planet, and this is having strange contrasting effects, of hubris and despair. It’s also the case that we’re not one thing – our species is composed of cultures that seem to have little connection with each other, and multiculturalism is seen as having enriching as well as disastrous consequences. In such complex and dynamic circumstances, what do bonobos really have to teach us? The following is an attempt to answer that question in the most positive light.

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2020 at 11:52 pm

reading matters 2

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The beginning of infinity by David Deutsch (quantum physicist and philosopher, as nerdy as he looks)

Content hints

  • science as explanations with most reach, conjecture as origin of knowledge, fallibilism, the solubility of problems, the open-endedness of explanation, inspiration is human but perspiration can be automated, all explanations give birth to new problems, emergent phenomena provide clues about other emergent phenomena, the jump to universality as systems converge and cross-fertilise, AI and the essential problem of creativity, don’t be afraid of infinity and the unlimited growth of knowledge, optimism is the needful option, better Athens than Sparta any day, there is a multiverse, the Copenhagen interpretation and positivism as bad philosophy, political institutions need to create new options, maybe beauty really is objective, static societies use anti-rational memes (e.g gods) while dynamic societies develop richer, critically valuable ones, creativity has enabled us to transcend biological evolution and to attain new estates of knowledge, Jacob Bronowski The Ascent of Man and Karl Popper as inspirations, the beginning….

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2020 at 11:46 pm

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.

References

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenon

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm

Modern China and the Uyghur people

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Uyghur youngsters – from the East Turkistan Australian Association

A dozen or so years ago I began teaching English at a community college in the north-west suburbs of Adelaide. I didn’t know it at the time, but the area was home to the largest Uyghur community in Australia. The word ‘Uyghur’, of course, meant nothing to me, nor did the English name they gave to their homeland – East Turkistan. My classes were filled mostly with middle-aged Moslem women, along with Vietnamese and other Asian nationalities. Some of them wore hijabs, others didn’t. They – the Uyghurs – were an interesting lot, feisty, chatty, politically aware and close-knit. Over time I learned to my surprise that they weren’t quite ‘middle-eastern’, whatever that vague term means. Or at least they were more eastern than middle, geographically speaking. Had I been forced to guess their nationality, I’d have said maybe Iraqi or Afghani – I had only a vague impression of the various ethnicities – Uzbek, Tajik, Khazak, Pashtun, and their histories of interaction and/or tension. So I was surprised to learn that the Uyghur people live within the current borders of China – specifically, a large, sparsely populated region north of Tibet, which the Chinese call Xinjiang – which translates, interestingly, as ‘new frontier’. Knowing this, of course, alerted me to the probability of tensions in the region, or worse.

This was fully confirmed when the Uyghur social worker at the community centre, with whom I’d become friendly, asked me to help her write a letter to the Australian authorities for assistance in the case of her brother, an Australian citizen, who had been incarcerated in neighbouring Kazakhstan while on a visit to his home region. She explained that the Kazakh government had long been currying favour with the Chinese authorities by rounding up anyone who might favour East Turkistan independence. She also assured me that her brother, while resistant to the brutalities of China, was anything but a terrorist, and wanted nothing more than to return to his family.

I don’t know if our letter had any impact (I very much doubt it), but everything I’ve learned about the region since has, when I’ve turned my attention to it, gripped me with the usual impotent rage I’ve felt whenever a weaker nation, or culture, or person, is harassed and bullied by a stronger one.

Uyghur is a Turkic language, most closely related to Uzbek, and many Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in the ‘Xinjiang autonomous region’, their principal homeland. The term ‘autonomous’ is risible these days, as the Uyghurs are under increasingly intense surveillance and pressure from their Chinese overlords. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is commonplace, and the number of Uyghur inhabitants has dropped from around 76% in 1949, when China annexed the region, down to 42% today. In the same period the population of Han Chinese has risen from around 6% to 40%. It’s a situation that immediately makes me think of Palestinian Arabs under the sway of the Zionist movement since early in the 20th century. To describe it as ethnic cleansing by stealth would underplay the brutality and consequent suffering.

In his very thought-provoking little book The dawn of Eurasia, Bruno Maçães provides a more subtle and certainly less emotionally-charged account of China’s modernising movement, a movement which has little patience for ethnic diversity and the preservation of traditional cultures. Of course, nations like Australia and the USA are also struggling with the rights and aspirations of traditional indigenous cultures in the light of a relentless modernism, but both of these ‘western’ nations seek to accommodate those cultures under a framework of individual freedom (more or less). Maçães notes that China’s modernist ‘dream’ is more collective, requiring everyone to ‘get with the the program’.

I should point out that Macaes is talking about the Chinese government’s dream, one first iterated by Xi Jinping, who clearly wants to make a distinction between what one might call European, or European-style, liberalism and what he personally wants his country to be. The question of what ‘the Chinese people’ actually want or have dreams about – well, it’s moot. Nobody can say, certainly not Xi.

Nevertheless Xi and his cohorts are wielders of massive power, and for the time being they’re suppressing all but their own manufactured vision of the Chinese future. Maçães writes of a document distributed within the CCP shortly after Xi’s public maundering about the Chinese dream:

It outlined the main political perils the Party leadership was urged to guard against, all of them located within the ‘ideological sphere’ and calling for an ideological response. The document started by denouncing those who replace the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation with an obverse ‘constitutional dream’, imported from the West and claiming that China should strive to catch up with the West by adopting a form of constitutional government and following Western political models. Linked to this, a second false trend attempts to promote Western values as ‘universal’, claiming that the West’s value system ‘defies time and space, transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity’. The document then goes on to complete a full indictment of Western political ideas, including an independent civil society, economic liberalism and freedom of the press. The General Office is particularly insistent on the principle that ‘the media should be infused with the spirit of the Party’. Criticism by the media must be managed, supervision supervised. Those who deny this principle are looking to use media freedom in order to ‘gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology’. By allowing mistaken ideas to spread, critics will disturb the existing consensus on which road to take and which goals to pursue, and ‘disrupt our nation’s stable progress on reform and development’.

Bruno Maçães, The dawn of Eurasia, pp125-6

This is truly chilling stuff. The chances that an ‘existing consensus’ can be found regarding China’s future are about as likely as finding proof of the existence of some god or other, and needless to say, this fake consensus finds no place for the Uyghur people or any other minority culture within China – in fact they’re clearly in the way of what the current dictatorship deems to be progress, and nothing illustrates this so well as the city of Khorgos in Xinjiang, right on the border with Kazakhstan.

If you haven’t heard of Khorgos, you’re not alone. The city didn’t exist 5 years ago, but now it’s full of skyscrapers and already has a population of 200,000. It has been built as a major component of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ economic infrastructure project, which seeks to connect with central Asia and Europe as a means of facilitating trade, cultural exchange, financial ties and the like. Ambitious young people are being attracted there in large numbers, from all over China and other distant parts. The place apparently does have a multicultural feel, but only from a high-flying, business perspective – though cheap labour from the surrounding country side (e.g the Uyghurs) is an essential part of the plan. The Belt and Road future, if it can be pulled off, will mean that freight services will be able to shift products overland from China to Western Europe in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of current maritime transport. Interestingly, China has been turning its back on seaports, due to environmental congestion and high labour costs, and building more inland cities such as Khorgos. The future, as China sees it, lies with ‘a new network of railways, roads and energy and digital infrastructure linking Europe and China through the shortest and most direct route’ (Maçães).

the Khorgos gateway – a new rail port for Eurasia…

The Chinese government is arguing – no doubt sincerely – that its Belt and Road project will provide great opportunities for those who get on board with it, and that includes not only the Uyghur people, but the peoples of the Eurasian region, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, to name a few. This vast region is seen as a reservoir of barely-tapped economic potential, and the Belt and Road is being sold as a grand tide lifting all boats between and within Western Europe and China. But of course there are critics as well as fierce opponents. The growing presence of Chinese on the borders of and within Kazakhstan, for example, has seen protests there which have threatened the stability of the Nazarbayev regime (Nazarbayev resigned as President of Kazakhstan in March this year, but essentially still runs the country). Russia, India and a number of Western European nations have expressed grave concerns – Russia in particular is seeking to build its own rival economic network, and ‘infiltration’ of the project into Pakistan and Kashmir is creating regional tension. Obviously, any threat of a Chinese ascendancy outside its borders, given the Chinese government’s totalitarian control of its own people, is of global concern. The only way to allay those concerns, at least from a western perspective, is liberalisation within China, and a full recognition of the diversity of its people, in cultural, ideological and other respects.

Reference

Maçães, Bruno, The dawn of Eurasia: on the trail of the new world order. 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2019 at 1:10 pm