Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is a remarkable science fiction novel. It’s quite a story, quite a work of imagination.

What happens is that human beings have been screwing up the Earth to the point that it’s becoming uninhabitable. One response has been to try to create Earth-like conditions on planets in distant solar systems. It’s hoped that these planets will eventually become new homes for humanity.

The terraforming work on one such planet is sabotaged at the last moment. This leads to an enormous unintended consequence: some of the planet’s spiders rapidly evolve, becoming bigger, smarter and much more sociable than the spiders back on Earth.

Before the Earth becomes uninhabitable, giant spaceships are launched with thousands of people aboard. Most of the passengers are stored away as “cargo”, hibernating in an unconscious state, waiting to be resuscitated when their ships finally reach inhabitable worlds, many years in the future.

Throughout the book, the author switches back and forth between what’s happening to the spiders on their planet and what’s happening to the people in one of the spaceships. I felt closer to the people, but the author does a wonderful job explaining things from the perspective of the spiders. As you’d expect, the two species eventually meet.

Somebody is supposedly trying to turn Children of Time into a movie. It really deserves a TV series, possibly with multiple seasons. The author has also published a sequel, Children of Ruin. It’s probably remarkable too.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith is an Australian professor of philosophy who has spent many hours scuba-diving in order to observe the behavior of octopuses and cuttlefish. The book is an attempt to trace the evolution of mental activity from its earliest beginnings hundreds of millions of years ago, when bacteria began reacting to their surroundings. The author believes that mind and consciousness didn’t suddenly spring into existence; they developed gradually through millions of years. But he admits that nobody knows for sure.

Neither do we know what it’s like to be an octopus. We don’t even know for certain that it’s like anything at all. Maybe octopuses go about their business without feelings or anything like consciousness. Godfrey-Smith, however, argues that it’s reasonable to believe that creatures of many sorts feel pain when they are injured. But where to draw the lines (if there are any lines) between bacteria that simply react, animals that feel pain and creatures like us who are self-conscious is a mystery.

Octopuses are especially interesting because our common ancestors lived about 500 million years ago. Octopuses developed complex nervous systems, arranged differently than ours, independently from most other animals, including us. That means, in Godfrey-Smith’s words, “meeting an octopus is, in many ways, the closest we’re likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien”. It’s really too bad that they can’t tell us what it’s like to be them.

I wish the book ended with a summation of the author’s conclusions. I do remember the idea that nervous systems first evolved in order to respond to a living thing’s surroundings, and then to monitor its internal states and control its movements. And I remember a lot about the interesting behavior of octopuses and their close relations, cuttlefish. But I can’t say I came to any solid conclusions about the deep origins of consciousness. If the author reached any conclusions, he should have reminded his readers what they were.

Some Spiders Like Group Homes Too

Scientists have identified about 43,000 species of spiders in the world. Only about 25 of these species are social animals, living in communities like ants and people.

One such species lives in Africa. A group containing from 20 to 300 spiders called Stegodyphus mimosarum weave large communal webs like this:

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What is especially interesting about these little spiders is that the longer they live together, the more specialized they become.

Spiders seem to have personalities of a kind. Some are more shy than others; some are more aggressive. Researchers have discovered that if they put together a small group of these spiders, their individual traits gradually become stronger. The aggressive spiders, for example, become more aggressive.

As their colonies grow, the spiders also take on specialized social roles that seem to depend on their personalities, the shy ones staying inside the web and tending to the young, while the more adventurous ones defend the web and subdue prey (usually insects, but not always). Which roles individual spiders take on also appears to depend on the needs of the colony.

According to the New York Times:

The researchers view the development of strong personalities as the behavioral version of so-called niche partitioning, carving out a specialty in a crowded, competitive world….[One researcher] says the spider work neatly illustrates the mix of plasticity and predilection that underlies personality.

“I think it’s such an appealing idea that social interactions could cause social niches, and it resonates with our own experience as humans,” she said. “When you go into a group, your behavior changes depending on the nature of that group, but it can only change so far.”

It’s remarkable that these tiny spiders, with their even tinier brains, not only react differently to various stimuli but form communities that increase in size as individuals gravitate toward specific social roles, depending on their own proclivities and the needs of the community. Since that sounds a lot like what it takes to grow up and make a living in New Jersey, it’s one more piece of evidence that we too are part of nature and not as uniquely talented as we think we are. 

Why Hell Was Invented (Starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore)

Why was the idea of hell invented? Wouldn’t the promise of eternal happiness up in heaven be enough to get people to walk the straight and narrow? No, probably not.

As evidence, here’s a scene from Bedazzled, a terrific movie from 1967 that starred the English comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (sorry, couldn’t find a video). 

Both temporarily dressed as London traffic cops, Lucifer (Cook) is explaining to Stanley (Moore) why he got thrown out of heaven and is now stuck making trouble on Earth:

It was pride that got me into this. I used to be an angel, up in heaven.

Oh yeah, you used to be God’s favorite, didn’t you?

That’s right. “I Love Lucifer” it was in those days.

What was it like up in heaven?

Very nice, really. We used to sit around all day and adore him. Believe me, he was adorable, just about the most adorable thing you ever did see. 

Well, what went wrong then?

I’ll show you. (Approaches mail box.) Here we are. Give me a leg up, would you?

(Sitting on mailbox, legs crossed.)  I’m God. This is my throne, see? All around me are the cherubim, seraphim, continually crying “Holy, holy, holy.” The angels, archangels, that sort of thing. Now you be me, Lucifer, the loveliest angel of them all. 

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What do I do? 

Well, sort of dance around praising me really. 

What sort of things do I say? 

Anything that comes into your head that’s nice. How beautiful I am, how wise, how handsome, that sort of thing. Come on, start dancing! 

(Singing and dancing) You’re wise, you’re beautiful, you’re handsome. 

Thank you very much. 

The universe, what a wonderful idea, take my hat off to you. 

Thank you. 

Trees, terrific! Water, another good one. 

That was a good one. Yes.  

Sex, top marks! 

Now make it more personal. A bit more fulsome, please. Come on! 

Immortal, invisible. You’re handsome, you’re, uh, you’re glorious. 

Thank you. More!

You’re the most beautiful person in the world!

(Stops dancing) Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places? 

That’s exactly how I felt. I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!

I had no idea. It’s a very sad story. 

I suppose he had his reasons…. He moves in very mysterious ways, you know. 

I mean, apart from the way he moves, what’s God like, really? 

He’s all colors of the rainbow — many-hued. 

But he is English, isn’t he? 

Oh yes, very upper-class.

Peter Cook, who wrote the script, wasn’t the first to suggest that heaven would be boring. It’s hard to even imagine how it could be interesting for more than a while. How could bliss last forever? Would God be so wonderful that being nearby would be eternally pleasurable? It doesn’t seem all that appealing  to me. For one thing, we don’t even know what God is supposed to be like, so it’s hard to imagine why being in the divine presence would be so wonderful. It certainly doesn’t seem that singing God’s praises would be a good way to spend eternity.

Maybe it would help if one’s nearness to God fluctuated. That would introduce anticipation and contrast: “Now I’m further away. If only I were closer! Yes, like that. Excellent!” That way, the whole eternal experience would be pleasurable, but not always equally so. Changing one’s perspective like that would seem to cause emotional ups and downs, however, which sounds rather unheavenly. Plus, cycling between higher and lower pleasures for eternity might still be less than blissful (been there, done that, forever).

In addition, some of the greatest pleasures we know presumably wouldn’t have much of a role in heaven. Being reunited with someone you haven’t seen for a long time, for example. How often could you have the pleasure of seeing someone again? Would you miss them in the meantime (negative emotion again)? Or winning a competition. Are there losers in heaven? For that matter, are there really good discussions in heaven? Do you have to watch what you say, the way you do in church? Can you be yourself in heaven? And how about sex? Are there orgasms in heaven? 

The more I think about heaven, the less heavenly it sounds. And also the less feasible. Hell, on the other hand, is far easier to imagine. Ever see that Star Trek episode with the two guys who are colored black and white, but on opposite sides? They hate each others guts. To the point that when the show ends, they’re sent out into space to wrestle with each other forever. At least that’s the way I remember it. The ending is unsettling. Trapped forever in a very small space fighting someone who wants to destroy you. It sounds terrible.

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So do the various tortures supposedly popular in hell. Sitting in a pool of lava for eternity. Or being eaten alive forever, like Prometheus on his rock. 

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But maybe if you were tortured forever, you’d get used to it. Eventually get bored with the whole thing. Somehow, that doesn’t seem likely. Serious pain doesn’t lose its unpleasantness as time goes by. You can “learn to live with it”, but it still hurts like hell (my point exactly). And it’s so easier to imagine being in constant pain than being in constant pleasure. In fact, the phrase “being in constant pain” is quite common. Have you ever heard of someone “being in constant pleasure”, or, more grammatically, “enjoying constant pleasure”? Outside of heaven anyway, and we know how implausible that is.

As usual, there is probably some evolutionary reason why pain is more intense than pleasure. In order to stay alive and have children, it’s important to avoid painful injuries. Pain is great at getting our attention. Pleasure isn’t really required in order to survive, although mild pleasure helps in various ways and serious pleasure encourages procreation (which, due to the house rules, probably isn’t on the agenda in heaven anyway). 

If you doubt whether physical pain is generally more intense than physical pleasure, consider the greatest pleasure you could have and decide whether you would want that if it required enduring the most intense pain you could have. Most of us would decline the pleasure in order to avoid the pain.

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So that’s probably why the idea of hell was invented. Promising heaven is a good way to control behavior, but threatening hell is probably better, since being rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven is less imaginable and less appealing than avoiding eternal agony in hell. Which, when you think about it, is a disheartening commentary on what we actually have to deal with, life itself.

Note: Why some individuals are willing to endure horrible pain in order to achieve some goal or other is one of life’s mysteries. Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned alive by the Catholic Church in 1600 after refusing to disavow his beliefs. When sentenced to death, he is said to have replied: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”. He preferred agony and death over telling a few convincing lies about his beliefs. And, of course, some people (mostly men) march off to war and some people (always women) endure natural childbirth. Pain may be more intense than pleasure, but some things are more important to some people than pain. Go figure.

A Guide to Reality, Part 10

Chapters 5 and 6 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality are all about morality. In chapter 5, he lays out what he calls the “bad news”: there is no “cosmic value” to human life and moral questions have no correct answers. Rosenberg explicitly endorses ethical nihilism:

Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways. by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of examples that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none….All anyone can really find are the answers that they like [96].

To be completely consistent, Rosenberg would probably have to admit that there is no “bad” anything, not even news. Since, on his view, “physics fixes all the facts” and there is nothing truly good or bad in the world at all. After all, one quark is just the same as another.

Rosenberg explains that nihilism isn’t the same as relativism or skepticism. It’s not the case that ethical views can be correct at some times and not at others, or that we can never know for sure which ethical views are right or wrong. Nihilism doesn’t even mean that “everything is permitted”, since nothing is morally “permitted” or “forbidden”:

[All moral judgments] are based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. [Nihilism] can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible”. That, too, is untenable nonsense [97].

Nothing at all is morally valuable in itself  (“intrinsically”) or even as a means to something that is.

Notice, however, that Rosenberg isn’t a nihilist about everything. At least, he gives the strong impression that he believes some ideas are true and some are false, and some beliefs are justified and some aren’t. But it’s generally accepted that truth and justification are “normative” concepts just as much as “right” and “wrong”, i.e., they are value-laden. True statements are those which “correctly” describe some state of affairs, while justified beliefs are those that have “good” reasons for believing them. But physics has nothing to say about correct descriptions or good reasons.

In the rest of chapter 5, Rosenberg offers an argument for the truth of ethical nihilism. He begins with a version of the famous question Plato asked in his Euthyphro dialogue: If our favorite moral rule (whatever it happens to be) is both morally correct and favored by God, is it correct because God favors it or does God favor it because it’s correct? Some Christian theologians have tried to deal with the question by invoking the Trinity or by claiming that the question presupposes a misunderstanding of God’s nature, but most people would probably agree that God favors moral rules because they are correct, not the other way around.

Rosenberg, of course, isn’t really interested in a theological version of the question. He brings it up because he thinks it presents an important challenge to his own scientistic position.

He next argues that there is a core set of moral principles common to all cultures. These principles are so common and so obvious, in fact, that they are rarely discussed. For example, we all agree that parents should protect their children; self-interest is acceptable until it becomes selfishness; and it’s wrong to punish people at random. Rosenberg thinks this core morality is the product of millions of years of human evolution (which sounds right to me, too).

He then asks a Euthyphro-like question: did evolution result in our core morality because it’s the correct morality, or is it the correct morality because it resulted from evolution?

Is natural selection so smart that it was able to filter out all the wrong, incorrect, false core moralities and end up with the only one that just happens to be true? Or is it the other way around: Natural selection filtered out all but one core morality, and winning the race is what made the last surviving core morality the right, correct, true one [109].

This question seems more difficult to answer than the theological version. Rosenberg, in fact, argues that the question has no answer. On one hand, evolution is blind, so there was no way for evolution to “know” which morality is correct. Furthermore, evolution has resulted in common views and practices that don’t seem ethical at all, like patriarchy and xenophobia. For that matter, the fact that religion is so common implies that evolution is good at generating false (but useful) beliefs.

On the other hand, just because our core morality resulted from evolution doesn’t make it right. Lots of things have evolved that we’d be better off without (like using the same anatomical feature to eat and breathe). More fundamentally, Rosenberg suggests that there is nothing morally right about having children who tend to survive and have other children, which is the principal thing natural selection makes happen.

But if our core morality isn’t correct because it evolved, and it didn’t evolve because it’s correct, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that our morality isn’t correct at all. In other words, morality isn’t true. It’s merely useful:

Scientism cannot explain the fact that when it comes to the moral core, fitness and correctness seem to go together. But neither can it tolerate the unexplained coincidence. There is only one alternative. We have to give up correctness…

Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts – the facts about us, our psychology and our morality…The biological facts can’t guarantee that our core morality (or any other one, for that matter) is the right, true or correct one. If the biological facts can’t do it, then nothing can. No moral core is right, correct, true. That’s nihilism. And we have to accept it [113].

We might immediately object that the biological facts might not justify morality, but the social facts do. Rosenberg claims that lower-level facts, like the biological, determine higher-level facts, like the psychological. That may indeed be true (I think it is anyway), but isn’t it likewise the case that psychological facts determine social facts, which in turn determine ethical facts? If there are ethical facts (if ethical evaluations can have truth values – which is, by the way, a controversial view among philosophers), aren’t those facts determined by lower-level facts as well?

Those who think ethical statements can be true or false would probably argue that evolution has generated morality, but moral disagreement occurs because we simply haven’t figured out what all the ethical facts are. We know some ethical facts (it’s wrong to hurt people at random and other elements of Rosenberg’s core morality) but not others (is paternalism good in some cases? how about euthanasia?). 

I’ll end for now with the comment that philosophical arguments, even interesting ones like Rosenberg’s, hardly ever destroy the opposition. They almost always lead to more arguments. 

In our next installment, we’ll proceed to chapter 6, in which Rosenberg argues that nihilism is nothing to worry about, since nihilism can be nice.