What Should You Do If You Find An Atheist?

Walden sent this image in…

“What should you do if you find an Atheist?”

unnamed

Notice the devil’s horns on the atheist “Mr. Gruff”.

This reminds me of Charles Taylor’s observation, in A Secular Age, that those beholden to a religious viewpoint very often cannot fully accept a “buffered” modern identity in others. Their background condition of belief leads them to assume that… if you are not aligned with God… well, then you must be aligned with Satan!

They don’t see that poor Mr. Gruff was just out at his front gate, picking up his newspaper. He wasn’t looking to get into a theological debate with the neighborhood kids. Really! No wonder he looks sad.

Go enjoy that cup of coffee, Mr. Gruff. We have your back.

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A Diary of Some of the Questions We Encountered When We Started to Think About Utopia…

If you are looking for the reading for the October 6, 2016 meeting on UTOPIA, please click here.

This post will track our progress as we try to dream up our personal utopias in advance of the meeting. Members of the group are encouraged to write in with any questions, challenges, stumbling-blocks, insights, conundrums and breakthroughs they encounter along the way.

***

Tom C. on Saturday, September 17

The First Challenge: Resource Distribution

It strikes me that the question of resource distribution – that is, the basic question of “from whom, to whom”  — has to come first when we start planning our utopias.

Wait a second! Why can’t we start with face-painting? Fire-lit dances? Sacred ritual? Why do we have to start with material questions?

Here’s my painful thought.

The human animal is absolutely fanatical – and in this we are not unlike other animals – when it comes to generating an abundance of resources to protect against the hazards of life.

We want not only today’s material needs met, but we also want a reserve in case of emergency.

Unfortunately, for humans – and in this we seem to be exceptional among animals – the sense we have of what constitutes an adequate “reserve” is almost infinitely elastic.

As we go about our sunny way, there is a strong undercurrent to our thoughts: our imagination proliferates endless scenarios leading to our possible doom and demise. It also proliferates endless scenarios of desires met and dreams achieved, however remote.

This is how it works:

Voice #1: Hey. Stop worrying. Be happy with what you have and enjoy each day! Wouldn’t it be enough to know that you have a roof over your head and a daily ration of food and water?

Voice #2: Of course not, you sunny fool: what about in the event of an illness? I may need more than food and water! I may need 24-hour nursing care any day now!

Voice #1: Okay, fine. Good point. Then how about if you save, say, a year’s income to protect yourself against that possibility?

Voice #2: No – a year would be too brief. And besides, what about my children? Don’t they need some cushion in this unforgiving world? Don’t I have an obligation to create a reserve for my immediate family members too? I’m not so selfish to look only after only my own short-term needs, am I?

Voice #1. No, no, I hear you. So what if you acquired enough wealth to place yourself in the top 1% of annual income or the top 1% of net worth in the world… Would that be enough?

Voice #2: (momentarily thrown off by the hard numbers) Ummm…

Voice #1: After all, that is already the case for many, many residents in the Bay Area! The truth is that an annual income of over $32,400 puts you in the top 1% of the world. Okay, the cost of living is higher here, so maybe that number doesn’t move you… Then let’s just look at net worth — you could move anywhere and your net worth moves with you, right? Well, anything more than $770,000 total net worth (and that number includes your house, your cars, your furniture, your home electronics and jewelry, your liquid assets, everything added up together) places you up there in that rarefied category of the top 1% in the world!

Isn’t that enough to reassure you?

Voice #2: (starting quietly, but growing in confidence) I grant that’s a good start. 

But what if we want to ensure our safety and security… but also preserve our independence a little bit? What if we want the option to do things out of the ordinary and follow our wild hearts? Then we will need a little more, won’t we? We may need a lot more!

So sorry, but just being in the top 1% doesn’t cut it. I want to live my passion for visiting Balinese monkey temples! I want to start a small independent press dedicated to publishing… exclusively “found,” i.e. unintentional, poetry.

1% won’t let us live all the dreams we can imagine!

And so it goes. Our imagination proliferates scenarios of doom and demise — or dreams like visiting far-flung monkey temples and publishing unintentional poems (at a financial loss).

Our natural aversion to constraints of any kind gets us to conjure up these scenarios, however remote, and accumulate resources accordingly.

Fear is a constant motivator. Desire is also a constant motivator.

But in addition to fear and desire, there’s the habit of seeing our gains and losses in a comparative frame, the proverbial curse of “keeping up with the Jonses”…

Primates that we are, humans are obsessed with status. And the boundaries between material resources and markers of status (safety and security, independence, self-expression, recognition and approval) are blurry at best.

Hence – back to my original point – when we look at attempts to create utopias, we often stumble on the economic/material arrangement — the “to whom, from whom” —  right from the start.

As much as we want a fair society, many of us don’t actually want egalitarian distribution of resources.

Plato, Sir Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, Karl Marx… many of these celebrated utopian thinkers advocated abolishing private property and distributing material goods in a strictly egalitarian fashion.

Sure, it sounds noble when you first encounter it. It stirs you. “To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability,” said Marx, and you think, “Right! Whoever needs something… gets it! I like that.”

But then you quickly remember that your own and everybody else’s needs are infinitely elastic, and material resources are decidedly not.

The bottom line is that no political or economic arrangement can fully meet people’s perceived needs, or even come close. The diversity of human experience is such that some people’s demands will invariably conflict with others.

So we start to sense where this is going: in the end, some authority is going to have to pick and choose which “needs” to satisfy… and which to leave hanging.

Capitalism was long hailed (by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Austrian economists, late-20th century Republican presidents, early 21st-century Goldman Sachs partners and many others) as a glorious answer to this problem. “The market, if left to its own devices, will sort things out fairly!” we were told.

With maximum efficiency, it will set a price for each product in “demand,” depending on how many other people want it, how hard it is to produce, how many other resources go into producing it, etc. Then, given this price, people’s unique motivations and talents and effort can either make it possible to acquire – or not.

Everybody has an equal chance, and no centralized authority has to be put in charge of determining how resources get distributed. It will happen from the ground up, close to the people, without presuppositions, by way of an Invisible Hand or some such.

Sounds wonderful. Decentralized. Efficient. Endlessly working, day and night, for the common good through the interplay of many people’s self-interests.

The evidence, however, has been in for a while: it doesn’t work that way.

Over time, as Thomas Picketty recently documented, the forces of Capital gain ever more access, more influence, more leverage. In short, over time the deck gets stacked. Major events such as world wars may temporarily disrupt this widening gap between the rich and poor, but soon, remorselessly, ineluctably, the capitalist system drives people apart.

Soon, many needs go unmet, completely out of reach for the many; while any slight itch of a need for the upper class is easily scratched (with a rare lavender-smelling cream applied gratuitously where the itch once was, just because).

Yikes. So where does that leave us when we dream of utopia?

How can we even begin to think about the really fun stuff – say, our vision of reclining in hammocks strung between leafy treetops while tugging idly on ropes used to haul up baskets full of red raspberries we picked that morning… while, along with our neighbors in their hammocks, joining our voices, when it suits us, in a collective choral piece with multiple harmonies–

Sorry. Where was I?

Oh yes: how can we even begin to think about the fun stuff (hammocks, raspberries, choral singing), when we can’t figure out this basic question of the nature of work and the distribution of resources?

Much to consider as we turn our heads to the question of utopia.

Anybody else want to share some of their thoughts along the way?

Email them to me and I’ll make them an entry in this post. They can be as pithy as you like. Or maybe they take the form of a question? But I thought it would be useful to share some of our process — as we dream.

 

***

Tom C. on Monday, September 19, 2016

The Difference Between a Proposal and an Ideal

As I begin to wonder what kind of utopia, if any, I can conjure up, I find myself pulled in two directions.

First, there is the hard-headed question of coming up with a proposal for improved resource distribution, which I started to consider on Saturday (see above).

Second, though, I have an impulse to take the opposite approach entirely.

Let’s forget about the distribution of resources for a moment!

Can we?

Maybe this materialistic outlook is too narrow in scope, anyway. It preloads too many aspects of “the good life” as we know it today… with the effect of crushing our utopian impulse to start anew.

Instead, let’s think from scratch.

Let’s ignore “market efficiencies” and “GDP” and all the dull verbiage surrounding questions of the management of happiness in the contemporary world.

Let’s model our utopia on something far more simple:

What would make me smile?

What is the ideal I am yearning for?

After all, utopian thinking is not a blueprint of something likely to be built someday. Utopias aren’t required to contain practical or feasible proposals. They can also represent impossible ideals.

So this time around I’m going to skip past the all those thorny questions of macroeconomics and law, and go right to my vision for an everyday experience very different from the one we know today.

Here’s what I see when I close my eyes and dream…

Animals live, undisturbed, among us humans. We nod to them, communicate with them, observe them, make room for them, as the case may be.

Human beings are recognized as only one of many species on this planet teeming with life. So we don’t harm other species if we can help it.

We live more slowly, without a lot of technology — except when used to advance scientific inquiry and health care. (Can’t give those up.)

We don’t use cars. Instead we walk, or ride horses, or ride bikes. When we visit a friend out of our immediate neighborhood, we often stay overnight, or for a week or three… since the journey takes longer.

Education is absolutely free to everybody.

The highest value is wholeness. Seeing each person as a whole. Seeing our environment as a whole (including the animals, the insects, the plant-life, the ecosystem, the weather…).

Emotions are highly valued.

Laughter is also highly valued.

Freedom of speech and expression is absolute.

Okay. That’s a start. (It’s like a snapshot with no background explanation. I’m going to have to fill it in and expand it a lot, but I like the exercise of starting with the first things that come to me…)

What’s the first vision you have when you close your eyes?

***

 

Tom C. on Monday, September 19, 2016

A Threshold Question

One thing that I am realizing is that there is a threshold question, isn’t there, when we dream of our utopias?

Do you want a world that enables a steady and peaceful life, built on strong relationships and moments of quiet reflection?

Or do you want a dizzying and thrilling life, built on quick adaptation to new technologies, a panoply of entertainment options, and a bias towards innovation?

Can we have both?

(Do a lucky few in the Bay Area, and the developed world generally, actually live in the best of all worlds and have both now?)

***

 

Setenay B. on Wednesday, September 21

 

Utopia for Whom….

If you want to think big, a collective utopia, it has to be extensive. Because can there be a utopic world if all of Africa is starving for instance?

Why do most utopian ideals/thoughts end up being authoritarian? Can there be small, all-inclusive, non-authoritarian communities? (Maybe a kibbutz in Israel came close to that?)

Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status. The “ruling class” is always small. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are always few (and mostly men, even though always outnumbered by women and children). The rule-makers sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and PRIVILEGE. Oh the privilege!

Moving away from resource limitations, a large world order etc. is better for this thought project. We all look at it differently from where we come from and have vastly different ideas (I don’t have such an aversion to egalitarian ideas, as you stated, for instance). For me though, it’d definitely be a non-capitalist society. Or if the bottom line was still valuing profit over the product and cost/benefit was the main tool, everything would have to have its proper value.

Nature, providing “ecosystem services” (as called in the current-day capitalist environmentalist lingo), would have real value. A salmon returning to its natal stream would be as entitled to the water in the creek as the farmer taking the water and taking away its right to live. Water would be properly valued, so would air. Living with peace, dignity, and elegance in gorgeous surroundings would be considered profit and conquering nature would cease to exist as a concept. That requires thinking of our existence as living organisms, part of a single natural process. Sacrifice of the self to the whole in a way (which is probably one of the most anti-American ideas, which typically glorify ego and self over the community, you pursue happiness for yourself [which never works alone], you can do anything to bring about radical improvement: just lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps when fallen, etc. Well, that’s fucking impossible. Physically. You always need to be a part of a “process”).

So, my personal utopia.

Death is the ultimate anti-utopian thing. But I don’t know how to get away from it. Even in my dreams.

But, as in Marquez’s utopia, no one will be able to decide for others how they die.

Other practical thoughts:

Freedom for everyone. No slavery of any kind.

No hunger. No homelessness.

No “other”. No race, gender, religion, thought, tribe, status is better.

Education is free. So is health care.

Everyone has the basics, food, water, home, education, safety etc. The wealthy (if there’s got to be differences of worldly materials) pay much more taxes.

Respect for animals, plants, landscapes, moonscapes, Martianscapes etc.

Can there be uncertainty or frustration in my personal utopia? There has to be as there can not be the promise of satisfaction without the potential of not getting what I want. It is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants. The more frustration in wanting something, the more our desire for it. The imagining is in the waiting.

Mixed blessing of the choice. I’m lucky for this utopic thought: that my life is not a series of laments for  “the roads not taken,” desires sacrificed.

I think of Dr. Seuss’ great book on having to choose a pet.

I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.

The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that was that.

What else is utopian?

An old-growth redwood forest. And an oak tree by a wild creek.

Poetry is utopian. A young girl in a big city somewhere in the world, cramped in her own teenage self, full of ideals and dreams of justice and love and cramped in her frustration of not being understood, reads a poem to herself over and over again as the spring evening is falling. And each time she reads she enters more and more into the lives of the poet and his people and sees the world through their eyes, feeling intensely what they felt.That feeling is quite utopian.

Bloody wrists, clenched teeth, bare feet,
Land like a precious silk carpet
This hell, this paradise is ours.

Let the doors be shut that belong to others,
Let them never open again
Do away with the enslaving of man by man
This plea is ours.

To live! Like a tree alone and free
Like a forest in brotherhood

This yearning is ours!

Nâzim Hikmet

That last stanza was my utopia through late teens, hung on a board above my desk (along with other indispensable Hikmet lines)

“Yasamak bir agac gibi tek ve hur

Ve bir orman gibi kardescesine”

Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror

Rilke

 

This poem by Wislawa Szymborska:

Utopia

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

***

Tom C. on Wednesday, September 21

One Answer to the Problem of Scale: Establishing a Minimalist “Meta-Utopia” Within Which Smaller Utopias Come and Go

At the beginning of her “diary” entry, Setenay alludes to the problem of scale when thinking about utopia…

Why do most utopian ideals/thoughts end up being authoritarian? Can there be small, all-inclusive, non-authoritarian communities? (Maybe a kibbutz in Israel came close to that?)

This strikes me as a crucial question for us to address: is there an unavoidable problem of scale when thinking of utopia? Does any dream of a world-wide utopia have to be authoritarian — even imperialistic — in its application?

There are over 7 billion people on the planet. Aren’t there simply too many contrasting conceptions of the “good life” for everyone to agree on one way to organize society?

The political philosopher Robert Nozick offers one possible way out of this bind.

He suggests that we merely need to limit our dreams of a world-wide utopia to… a minimalist, rights-based “meta-utopia.”

This meta-utopia would itself say little about how we live, but it would perhaps provide a framework for many different, more particular utopias to thrive within it.

Here’s how he puts it in his classic of political philosophy, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974):

“The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead kinds of lives under different kinds of institutions.

“Some kinds of communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others…

“Half of the truth I wish to put forth is that utopia is meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out; the environment in which people are free to do their own thing; the environment which must, to a great extent, be realized first if one particular utopian visions are to be realized stably.”

Following Nozick’s thinking, we may wonder if all the classic utopian writers have had the wrong approach…

Rather than spinning out a fully realized way of life (as enjoyable as the fiction that results may be), perhaps, if they were more serious about altering the course of history, they should have stayed focused on determining some basic ground rules… and let other people fill in the rest.

So what would these ground rules for a “meta-utopia” look like? What would be required to enable people to move between utopias, start their own, fail, try again, adapt to changing conditions?

Right away, a few come to mind, for me at least:

  1. Freedom of association
  2. Freedom of speech and expression
  3. Freedom of conscience (religion, belief, etc.)
  4. Environmental constraints (no lasting damage to the ecosystems that sustain life)
  5. Limitations to the use of organized violence (restrictions on war)

It occurs to me, as I write, that this is starting to look a lot like the Charter of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions! Do we have a meta-utopia already in place and we didn’t realize it?

Nozick seems to think that this minimal framework hasn’t been tried yet. And he is actually quite optimistic about what happens after the “meta-utopia” is in place (even if it would take some time to develop):

“‘So is this all it comes to: Utopia is free society?’ Utopia is not just a society in which the framework is realized. For who could believe that ten minutes after the framework was established, we would have utopia? Things would be no different than now. It is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long period of time that will be worth speaking eloquently about. (Not that any particular stage of the process is an end state which all our desires are aimed at. The utopian process is substituted for the utopian end state of other static theories of utopias.) Many communities will achieve many different characters. Only a fool, or a prophet, would try to prophesy the range and limits and characters of the communities after, for example, 150 years of the operation of this framework.

“Aspiring to neither role, let me close by emphasizing the dual nature of the conception of utopia being presented here. There is the framework of utopia, and there are the particular communities within the framework. Almost all of the literature of utopia is, according to our conception, concerned with the character of the particular communities within the framework. The fact that I have not propounded some particular description of a constituent community does not mean that (I think) doing so is unimportant, or less important, or uninteresting. How could that be? We live in particular communities. It is here that one’s non-imperialistic vision of the ideal or good society is to be propounded and realized. Allowing us to do that is what the framework is for. Without such visions impelling and animating the creation of particular communities with particular desired characteristics, the framework will lack life. Conjoined with many persons’ particular visions, the framework enables us to get the best of all possible worlds.”

I like this point about the “dual nature of the conception of utopia.”

It helped me realize that we need to do both: think big and small.

On the larger scale, though, I still wonder how we could ever make even this more minimalist, meta-utopia stick. Even minimal ground rules would no doubt require some authoritarian actions from time to time (e.g. UN resolutions and use of force agreementsInterpol and the International Criminal Court).

So then aren’t we back to neo-imperialism? Are we ok with that, if it is necessary to create the conditions for smaller non-authoritarian utopias to flourish all around the world?

Are our smaller utopias dependent on a larger meta-utopia?

(Reminds me of the debate about whether National Socialists or the Muslim Brotherhood or like anti-democratic groups should be permitted to run for elections in a democratic state on the explicit pledge that they will disband it if elected? Is the democratic process dependent on the use of force, if necessary to impose of its values?)

***

Tom C. on Friday, September 30, 2016

THE QUESTION OF WORK

Work is now so closely associated with identity… that it is hard to accept it could be otherwise.

In our current era, “What do you do?” is not a question about what, in fact, you physically do during the day.

It is, of course, a question of how do you define yourself.

“What do you do?” is closer to “Who are you?”

Isn’t it?

But some contemporary thinkers insist that this is all about to change, as we are moving from a frayed consensus around “neoliberalism” (roughly today’s market-based system with minimal safety nets) to what may be called… a “post-work society“.

Whether that phrase frightens you, or thrills you, is interesting in itself.

Think about it for a moment. How much is your fear of a “post-work society” associated with the potential loss of your own identity? Or from a moral sense of disapprobation? Or is your aversion the result of a natural urge to recoil from the psychological change required by this assertion?

How much of your thrill (do you feel that too?) is based on your distaste for your own current work, your resentment at the feeling of capitalist forces beyond your control, your excitement about the prospect of disruption on a major scale?

This last week I have been reading a crop of contemporary books touching on our theme of utopia. They converge on this vision of a post-work society.

At the dawn of the 21st century, these books argue, we are entering a postcapitalist society, in which our basic relationship to work must change.

The books are:

UTOPIA FOR REALISTS by Rutger Bregman

POSTCAPITALISM by Paul Mason, and

INVENTING THE FUTURE: POST-CAPITALISM AND A WORLD WITHOUT WORK by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

A quick summary of each in turn:

UTOPIA FOR REALISTS by Rutger Bregman

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Rutger Bregman is Dutch. First published in 2013, his book has been translated into English and has garnered a lot of attention. He insists that our imaginations have withered in recent decades: we need to learn to dream again. For many years, people dreamed that the work week would get shorter, and there might be more time for leisure. This was the promise of new technologies and increased productivity in the West.

But this promise stalled out in the 1980s, and soon dreams of any kind of utopia died as well. The future has been cancelled.

What has emerged, instead of a vision of more leisure time, is a barren landscape, broken only by part-time or low-paying jobs.

Many people belong to a new class, Bregman suggests: the “precariat,” which is given this name due to the sense of precariousness that goes along with their lives. These members of the precariat include marketing directors as well as academics, sheet metal workers as well as journalists. The bottom line is that more and more people are working harder and gaining less, while a few at the top accumulate ever more wealth.

Bregman’s answer? Tax individual wealth, and with the revenues from that tax establish a universal basic income.

He cites many studies that show that giving money directly to people who are struggling helps them much more than work-training, re-education, etc.  This will require a new attitude towards work. We must measure success not by GDP but by other metrics, such as the GPI or the ISEW.

Bregman also argues for open borders, insisting that this would boost wealth worldwide.

POSTCAPITALISM: A GUIDE TO OUR FUTURE by Paul Mason

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Paul Mason argues that we are seeing the end of capitalism, since there is an oversupply of labor, cheap money and “financialization,” and labor imbalances across countries. Also, the rise of information technology is disrupting capitalism because — it is free. Here’s what Mason says we face now:

“In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park, pulled a million people on to the streets of Rio and San Paulo and now organized mass strikes across Southern China.

“They are the working class ‘sublated’ — improved upon and replaced… They are a group whose diverse interests converge on the need to make postcapitalism happen… Neoliberalism can offer them only a world of stagnant growth and state-level bankruptcy: austerity until death, but with an upgraded version of the iPhone every few years…”

He lists some goals:

  1. Rapidly reduce carbon emissions.
  2. Stabilize the finance system by socializing it.
  3. Deliver high levels of material prosperity by prioritizing information-rich technologies towards solving social challenges.
  4. Gear technology towards… an automated economy.

INVENTING THE FUTURE: POST-CAPITALISM AND A WORLD WITHOUT WORK by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

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Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams write the boldest book of the three. Their argument is simple but arresting: there is simply too much surplus labor for capitalism to handle anymore. Sure, capitalism requires a little surplus labor — as has often been noted, the unemployment rate never goes to 0% — but now there is way too much, and it is growing every day.

As jobs become more automated many workers are left redundant. Talk all you want (Obama, Hillary…) about your plans for little fixes to the neoliberal status quo (e.g. public option for health care, child care paid leave, job re-training, free education, etc.), but the truth is that the world simply doesn’t need more employees.

Add to this the huge increase in wage-earners worldwide, as subsistence farmers in India and China and other countries are moved off their land into urban areas (following the pattern laid down in the West centuries ago). You have too many workers for capitalism to absorb or channel into new markets…

So the capitalist order (he calls it “neoliberalism”) chugs along, but there are increasing numbers of people left out. Those at the top often do not even add value, and everyone knows it, but they accumulate the resources. The majority of people find their lives precarious and painful.

Some turn to xenophobia and nationalism (see Trumpism); others turn to small-scale protest (see everything from the Green movement to Occupy Wall Street; from BLM to the Arab Spring). But, according to these authors, all of these movements are tied down by their “folk-psychology”: they emphasize locality; they encourage direct action; they often can’t formulate demands when asked; and they are easily quashed by the state.

The way we are going is an increasingly unrestful population, up against an increasingly militarized police state, which uses the latest technologies to achieve close surveillance of dissidents. Think Russia. Think Turkey. Think, in recent years, France and the U.S. heading this direction, too.

The solution? Again, a basic universal income. Everybody gets a living income, no strings attached. If you want to work, that’s great. You can make more money and enjoy luxuries that others do not have. If you don’t, you can live on this basic income and pursue your interests and passions. This would be achieved through a tax on wealth.

To make this possible, the authors argue for an acceleration of technology with the specific aim of increasing automation. Short term, it puts people out of work. Long term, it creates the conditions for this new society.

The last part of the book makes the case for a long-term “counter-hegemonic” movement, instead of iterative demonstrations informed by “folk-psychology”. The authors suggest that the post-work society will require a reorientation of how humans think of themselves, and the political and economic order will adapt to that change. Mainstream media, think tanks, infrastructure — a whole “ecology of organization” will have to emerge to manage the transition from neoliberalism to the future postcapitalist world.

You can read their “accelerate manifesto” by clicking here. Not everyday we get to read a manifesto aimed directly at us, NOW.

Much to reflect upon, but I’ll leave it there until our meeting… Anybody else?

Summer Break

In our time-honored tradition (well, last year), we will take a break from meeting over the summer. In October we will resume.

I wish you exquisitely alive days, under all kinds of conditions, all summer. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen (“wide spectrum” protection against UVA and UVB rays is completely non-supernatural, so we’re good).

See you in the fall.

On “Building Better Secularists”

In an opinion piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago, the conservative commentator David Brooks wrote of the various challenges arrayed against those of us who choose to live our lives outside of organized religion.

We have a huge mountain to climb, in Mr. Brooks’ estimation.

Nez-Perce-mountain

First, we must construct a personal moral philosophy, all of our own.

Second, we must build communities to support us — and build them from scratch!

Third, we must set aside — and even more difficult, we must keep — a regular time for reflection (in his words, a “Sabbath”).

Finally, we have to find the “moral motivation” to care.

Consistent with the familiar, benevolent, “Who me?” pose of David Brooks, his piece makes every effort to sound fair (“The point is not that secular people should become religious,” etc.). But the impression is leaves is unmistakable…

Why would you do this to yourselves?

Just go with a ready-made religion already!

Choose one, any one, doesn’t matter.

In today’s paper, there were some useful responses from non-believers, questioning some of the premises of his argument.

I have just one response to Mr. Brooks myself. I would suggest that he has left out our biggest advantage over the religious…

The truth.

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

That’s our base camp.

Let’s keep climbing.

Perspectives on Changing Minds on Science and Religion in the U.S.

by Luis

In our meeting last week, Yann described the paradox observed in the US wherein many political conservatives combine good knowledge of science with completely non-scientific opinions on certain ‘sensitive’ topics. I wanted to know more so via Google I found this sociological study, published precisely on the day of our meeting, on the “perspectives on science and religion in the U.S.”

This article seems to have drawn quite a lot of attention from the media (example here), mainly because of the identification of that paradoxical group, which the authors call “post-secularists”.

I read the article in full and realized that its results are actually quite richer, and can provide insights about how to promote a more scientific mindset in the U.S. I am sending you my observations with you in case you want to share them in your blog.

First of all, the authors identify three groups in the U.S. population based on their attitudes towards science and towards religion. They have called them “traditional”, “moderns” and “post-secularists”. “Post-secularists” are “religious and scientifically literate”. These guys score relatively well in non-controversial scientific questions (e.g. the temperature of the center of the Earth or how to design experiments) but overwhelmingly reject the notion of Big Bang (94% against) or human evolution (97% against). Half of them define themselves as “conservative Protestants” and 84% of them are “non-Latino whites”. They mostly oppose abortion and are slightly more numerous in the South. The study doesn’t say it but it’s not hard to guess what news channel they watch and what party they vote for. I suspect that any debate with such people regarding their ‘touchy’ topics is doomed to fail: they simply refuse to believe anything that contradicts their “superior source of truth”. If the Bible says the Earth is flat, then the Earth is flat and that’s it. Fortunately for us, “post-secularists” are a minority only represent 21% of the US population today.

The group of “traditionals” (i.e. religious and non-scientific) is double the size, at 43% of the population. These folks mostly deny Big Bang too (79%) but they also ignore the existence of natural radioactivity (53%) or that electrons are smaller than atoms (64%). Almost half of them (46%) actually think that the Sun turns around the Earth! They say they are quite religious but nowhere close to the fanaticism of the post-secularists. “Traditionals” are the most racially diverse group: only half of them are non-Latino whites. More than 70% of African-Americans and Latinos are classified here. “Traditionals” rank substantially lower in income and years of education than “moderns” or “post-secularists”, and 60% of them are women. All this actually gives me hope because I tend to think that, with better education and access to science, many “traditionals” could eventually become “moderns” (i.e. those who prefer science to religion as source of ‘truth’). They don’t refuse science because of religion, they just have no idea of what science is or says. Campaigners for science should therefore target minority girls and poor neighborhoods, and make sure that their message is available in Spanish.

Finally, the “moderns” are those who score well in all scientific questions even if they contradict conservative Christian beliefs. This group represents around 36% of the US population, is overwhelmingly White (88%), and slightly more liberal and more male (58%) than average. This is the only group that strongly supports the unconditional right to abortion. Interestingly, atheists/agnostics tend to be classified here but they remain a minority even within this group: only 36%, versus 19% in the overall population. That means that almost two thirds of the “moderns” seem to be able to reconcile their religious affiliation or spirituality with a scientific view of nature. This is another piece of good news for me (even if I am an atheist) because it means that supporters of science need not destroy religiosity in order to impose their views. I suspect that would be doomed to failure anyway, since spirituality is an innate human intuition and feeling. A balance can seemingly be found where scientific mindset and a certain level of spirituality can coexist.

Summing up, if I had to devise a strategy to give science a more prominent role in U.S. minds, I would do the following: 1) promote education and access to science among the poorer communities, especially African-American and Latino; 2) allow religions and spirituality to slowly move their focus to realms beyond the current borders of science, those areas where the scientific method has not yet made many inroads; 3) not waste time trying to persuade the educated religious fanatics, who actively refuse to even challenge their beliefs, but expose and counter their propaganda whenever necessary.

Link to download the original study:

http://www.asanet.org/journals/ASR/Feb15ASRFeature2.pdf

Commentary in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/29/post-secular-evolution_n_6571154.html

More on Values and Science

For almost 300 years now, one of the most widely shared understandings in philosophy has been the distinction between facts and values.

That is, you can’t logically make the leap from a description of the world as it is…

Look, cows in a green field!

to a prescription for a certain relationship between us and that world…

Cows in a green field are good!

Cows-in-field-11

Citing David Hume, philosophers will often speak of the is-ought distinction (aka “Hume’s guillotine”).

But like most widely shared understandings of our species… this one is breaking down over time.

Aided by neuroscience and other advances, every day we are learning more about the brain and its relationship to our lived experience. And as we do, we can actually see that some courses of action, some facts in the world, lead to outcomes that most human beings would prefer (if given the choice). Whereas others lead to outcomes that most human beings would reject — for example, behavior which causes a surge in cortisol, which in turn leads to persistent feelings of anxiety and agitation.

In other words, at the level of biology we are finding descriptive statements blurring with prescriptive statements, and vice versa. For example:

 1. You talk to your child rather than spank him.

2 Your child’s limbic system handles conflict without triggering aggression.

3. A lack of unnecessary aggression makes your child (and you!) happier.

Where, in these three statements, did we move from mere facts to values? But we did, didn’t we?

An article I read recently discusses this question — in regards to spanking specifically. Check it out.

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the author may not realize just how deeply subversive his piece is. For really, how far does it go? You can start with spanking, but you might end up with… what? …a Universal Bill of Rights for Children, saying that some cultures around the world have it right and others wrong? The science isn’t there yet — but in theory it could be, no?

Will science someday be able to tell us whether, in fact, cows in a green field are good? (After all, the question is, ultimately, “How do cows in a green field affect our brains, to our advantage or disadvantage?” And this is, in theory, measurable!)

Two books address this breakdown of Hume’s is-ought distinction more generally:

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice and Freedom by Michael Shermer (very recently published — I haven’t read this one yet).

Next month, when we look at the Enlightenment and its dream of “progress,” we will explore some of the strongest critiques of this way of thinking. For of course there is a downside to seeing values as facts. In the last 100 years we learned that all too well from watching the overreach of fanatics like the Nazis and ISIS.

Is there a way around this danger? Are values that are confirmed as facts by science safer than other values? Or is it useful to keep the is-ought distinction, just to keep us doubting ourselves, even if the invention of the functional MRI has made it a relic?

The Fool is Dead! Long Live the Fool!

When Islamist terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charles Hebdo in Paris and murdered 12 people — editors, writers, an economist, a security guard, even the policeman on the sidewalk outside — they wanted to hurt people for what they wrote and the cartoons they drew.

The slogan “The pen is mightier than the sword” is often spoken in a kind of aspirational sense, without too much attention paid to whether it is true or false… But in the days that followed the killings in Paris we have seen thousands upon thousands gather all around the world, in an expression of sorrow and support for the dead journalists.

Thousands, millions of us are gathering, raising pens above our heads and saying, no.

You do not touch the fool. The fool is sacred.

The fool is dead. Long live the fool.

Our Old New Way group sent a bunch of emails back and forth yesterday, as we tried to come to grips with what happened in France. Here they are:

From Tom:

There are those events that seem like something remote… but then you realize they are something else too. Something personal.

The killing of 12 journalists in Paris (11 of them editors and writers and employees of a satirical magazine, 1 an economist and journalist who happened to be visiting) is, for me, one of those events.

Satire goes to the core of civilization. To be able to question, to mock, even to insult, the verities and taboos of your time, is a crucial aspect of being alive. It has a rich tradition. Voltaire. Swift. All the way to Aristophanes. (And surely back to our beloved prehistory.) This is how people call out hypocrisy. This is how people say no to false certainties.

I AM CHARLIE.

Look at the images below in the email forwarded to me by Florence. I love this magazine. I don’t need to agree with it. I love it. There is a difference.

Tonight at the French consulate in San Francisco there will be a gathering in support of this magazine and the brave, and regular, just-like-you, just-like-me people who died.

I’m going. Trying to arrange babysitter now (Coley is at Board Meeting). Flo is going. Anybody else?

Tom

Salut cher Amis,

L’année démarre avec un grand coup porté par les cons sur les drôles à neurones. J’ai un peu le moral en berne, une occasion de rire et de réfléchir qui s’envole.

J’ai du mal à savoir si je leur en veux plus d’avoir fermer un robinet à rire et à mauvais esprit ou si c’est pour leur manque de courage et d’intelligence.

Pourvu que le stylo reprenne rapidement le pas sur les balles! Ce serait la meilleure réponse à faire à ces cons.

Amicalement, Philippe.


Raphaelle wrote in response:

I would love to join – will be with you in my thoughts.
Have been tearing up all day.

Not only were they amazing artists, they were icons of our country and what it stands for. We will miss those voices dearly.

Yet, we will not be defeated. We will stand for freedom of expression, liberty and justice.

We will not blame all Islam for this, as it’s less than 2% of extremists who are, as we are now unfortunately used to, the visible & harmful face of an Islam we don’t want – neither the 98% of moderate or liberal Muslims or the rest of us.

We will hopefully find those responsible, bring them to justice and make sure they serve full sentences without possibility of parole.

This is what Charb, Cabu, Wolinski and their colleagues would have wanted.

Setenay sent a link to an article about a Turkish satirical magazine:

As someone who grew up in Turkey which has a very strong satirical magazine tradition I’m appalled and immensely saddened. The below article appeared in today’s Hurriyet Daily News before the incident and I read it with nostalgia, pride, and warm thoughts. How ironic!

 (click for article)

I wish I could come. Too last minute to organize kids etc.

Karoline:

I will be there in spirit with you all.

K

Sylvaine:

I am so glad you are all going.

Yet again… I can’t understand… In shock.

Big hugs.

Heather:

So sorry to miss it tonight; we had lots of intense discussion at the dinner table about the importance of satire in a healthy democracy, and fears about a backlash from the right over this.

Charles Hebdo seems like a cross between Mad magazine and John Stewart….priceless.

Jeanne:

I am with you in spirit. The pen will not be silenced!

Shari:

I heard it on BBC news just a little while ago!

Shocking and sad.

With you in spirit and conviction.  The world must learn tolerance and acceptance of diversity

Of thought as well as how one appears and speaks!  words And deeds

Will leave lasting impressions on our souls.

Stay well and in peace.

Debbie:
This photo was taken from Phil’s newsroom of Agence France-Presse.

It was one of the front page photo series used in the Guardian  http://www.theguardian.com/uk

 unnamed-6

This is an emotional time for all and especially for journalists.

This cowardly act of terrorism target editors, journalists, cartoonists of political satire and all of us who wish to openly discuss issues, seek truth and hold sacred our right to the freedom of speech.

Etienne:

Dear Friends,

Thank you. I really enjoyed Wolinski and Cabu (his “Beauf” and “Grand Duduche” characters will be so missed in the Wednesday edition of “Le Canard Enchaîné”) , and even Charb’s caricatures.

They were even more representative of what makes French culture and humor unique, more so than Tintin and Asterix’s authors, because they were subversive, terribly incorrect, revolutionary, and terribly funny.

Honestly, it can compare to having Doonesbury, Charles Schultz, the New Yorker’s most famous caricaturist, all slaughtered on the same day.

A video of the former head of the newspaper : http://www.franceinfo.fr/actu/faits-divers/article/philippe-val-l-ancien-directeur-de-charlie-hebdo-vient-d-exterminer-une-facon-de-parler-628167

Thank you Phil and your colleagues!

Marc:

I remember where I met Charlie Hebdo the first time, in the home of my lefty activist aunt. A pile of magazines was sitting where it belonged. In the toilet.

Last time I visited her 40+ years later, they were still there.

Charlie survived Coluche, Devos, Prévost, Le Luron and so many who demonstrated that nothing and no-one was immune from la “fauche à rire” and least amongst them religion, politic and those who represent them so well. Like Camus before them, they went on to demonstrate that it is not the ridicule that should be ridiculed, but the absurd, and as tragic as these events are, remember how absurd they are by the very reaction they generate in us.

Charlie will survive Charlie.

Phil:

Thanks for your kind words Etienne.

This cowardly attack touches on something primordial in our culture that is to be cherished and nurtured. I am talking about the right to laugh, poke fun, mock and ridicule. Our society needs the naughty boy at the back of the class throwing bottles and asking difficult questions without fear of reprisals.

We take these values for granted sometimes. I am extremely proud of the work we do here at Agence France Presse, but I am also painfully aware I have also lost two people working for me in the past year to the same bigoted thugs who attacked Charlie Hebo.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie – it sounds a simplistic social media catchphrase, but in fact it touches beautifully on the core issue. If our society does not believe in the idea, we are surrendering to the hatred.

Best, Phil