I am translating the Valve Employee Handbook

I blogged last week about how awesome Valve's employee handbook is.  This weekend I decided to start performing, er, I guess you'd call it a cross-context translation, on it.  I'm about two thirds of the way through, and I'm beginning to feel like this won't be as easy as I thought. When I was reading the handbook, it occurred to me that it would be a great set of general instructions for living a happy, decent and productive life.  So in the rewrite, I'm basically just removing all references to Valve, and replacing "the company" with "humankind," "Customers" with "other people," and so on.

I think this is turning out to be a really good start, but it's going to need a few more versions before it makes sense.  The translation out of literal context and into a more metaphorical worldview-suggestion pamphlet is not a straightforward one.  Things that are clear in the book, like the lack of management, will require more explanation to get the appropriate metaphorical resonance out of it.

If anyone wants to help, I'll be finished the raw translation soon and would love input.  You can reach me at watson@txwatson.com.

April's Charity Debt: Electronic Frontier Foundation

Last month, I wrote that I was going to start keeping a list of charities -- once a month, I'd add a new one, and a $5 debt to them.  My goal is to prep myself for donating a percentage of my income consistently to charity, once I have income. The charity I chose last month was Planned Parenthood.

This month, I'm adding a $5 debt to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).  The area they work in, keeping the net free and protecting human rights in digital environments, is some of the most important work being done in the industrialized world.

I do realize that both of my charity choices so far have been directed towards charities that operate largely in the US, and pretty much entirely in the industrialized world.  This is because I don't feel comfortable donating to charities helping the impoverished worldwide before I learn more about the areas my money will be going to, and what kinds of charity actually helps people in a lasting, sustainable way.

I've heard good things about Water.org via the Vlogbrothers and Wheezy Waiter, so they might be getting some of my money in the future.  And the worst I've heard about Kiva.org is that they're only pretty good, not really, really good.  I took them up on an offer of $25 dollars of free lending, but (since I don't have it) haven't put any of my own money into it.

Charity Debt

So, I found out about five minutes ago that J.K. Rowling isn't on Forbes Magazine's list of billionaires.  Prior to this discovery, I wasn't aware she should have been.  But as this article explains, she's only off the list because she's given too much of her money away to charity:

"New information about Rowlings' estimated $160 million in charitable giving combined with Britain's high tax rates bumped the 'Harry Potter' scribe from our list this year," stated Forbes.

Naturally, none of this likely bothers Rowling, who from the beginning has made giving back a priority for her wealth.

“You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently," she said in a past interview.

This made me think about my amount of charitable giving lately.  (None, apart from Kiva's recent promotion offering 25 dollars to lend for free.  So, arguably $25 but still none.)

I'm in a lot of debt right now, so I can't afford to start giving money.  But last time I had a job, I wasn't giving regularly either -- I gave some, when it occurred to me and was convenient.  But I didn't have a regular donation schedule set up, and that bothers me.

So, I'm going to start a new list in my book:  my charity debt.  Every month, I'm going to pick a charity, write its name down on a line, and add a $5 debt to them.  When I have more steady work and have paid off my more pressing debts, it will be $5 or 5% of my monthly income, whichever is more.

This month's charity will be Planned Parenthood, which has a convenient $5 minimum.  I'm sure I'll have more to say in the future about my philosophy of charitable giving as it develops, but offhand I imagine I'll be mixing it up between health organizations and homelessness relief in the US, responsible aid in the developing world, and direct donations to specific artists who produce work for free.  (Aaron Diaz and Jeph Jacques deserve my money, for instance.)

I hope to stick to this for the rest of my life, well into my extravagant wealth, when 5% of my income for a month would be like winning the lottery.  Or, maybe at that point I'll divide it up a little...  And maybe give away a larger percentage.

The thing I don't like about Walt Whitman

This post isn't really going to be about Walt Whitman, at all.  But I really want to get this idea off my chest, and it's 3:30am and I can't sleep and this has honestly been bugging me since I was seventeen. There are loads of role models out there, who seem sort of very different or very the same depending on how you look at them.  It's a particular category of same-ness, that I'm going to try to put my finger on, but for a ballpark, here's a list:

  • Camus
  • Sartre
  • Nietzsche
  • Whitman
  • Emerson
  • Kierkegaard
  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Aristotle
  • John & Hank Green
  • Alan Moore
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Baudelaire
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Lord Byron
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Greta Christina
  • PZ Myers
  • Buddha
  • Gandhi

These aren't similar people.  These are people with huge differences, and in some cases these are people with fundamentally non-overlapping fandoms.  Like, I'm not at all a fan of Plato or Whitman.  I don't agree with everything Buddha or Gandhi said.

But they've all got this one big thing, in the middle, where they're all basically pushing the same agenda.  Nietzsche would call it life-affirming.  They've all got this thing, where they basically just don't believe it's worth wasting any of the time you get, being alive.

And that makes it really hard to explain why I don't like all of them, why I don't agree with some of them, why I have a bit of contempt for a few of them.

But the thing is, that big thing in the middle isn't the only thing any of them ever talk about.  Nietzsche is annoyingly into music and dance.  Emerson is, to my taste, way too in love with nature.  I could see myself getting behind Alan Moore, but there's a certain degree to which I don't want to go that far down the road of a lifestyle of eccentricity.  (And I don't very much like my home town.)

Your role models and philosophical heroes sort of have to tell you that it's worth living.  That's not what makes them special.  I mean, it's what makes them special as human beings, but it's not what makes them special among notable people.

We can't all affirm life in the same way.  Walks in the woods make some people feel deeply connected with humanity.  For me, the thing most intimate and uplifting about a long walk in the woods is seeing the glow of city lights in the distance, knowing there's a place close enough to see its aura where people have come together to live and cooperate.

And, frankly, arguments about whose happiness is better are a pain in the ass.

I

Of course, I take issues with some things in the movement.  But there are moments that make me love to be a part of it.  Among them, this quote from JT Eberhard's blog:

I get so many emails about that.  When responding, I try not to think about the good coming out does to the atheist movement.  How quickly would the stigma on atheism evaporate if people started realizing that atheists were not banded together in a dark place plotting the unmaking of the country, but that believers were already living unmolested in the presence of atheists – atheists they love?  I try not to think about that because individuals are important, and forced separation from one’s family or the loss of a job may not be worth that contribution to the movement on an individual level.  The best thing is to make sure people come out only when the time is right for them.

Very early in the movement -- back as far as Dawkins's TED talk -- movement leaders made a point of preemptively standing up against outing people, or putting undue pressure on atheists to come out of the closet.

We may be the least trusted group in the United States today, but we don't have it as bad as gay people did in the 80's, or black people in the 50's.

I have nothing but respect for atheists in dangerous situations, who're dependent on religious parents or guardians.  And I understand completely when they don't want to come out of the closet.  It's not like it's never gone badly before.

I love being part of a movement that takes seriously the emotional and social hardships its members put upon themselves by coming out, and I love that we don't pressure people out of the closet before they're ready, or out people against their will.

And by the way, the blog post that quote comes from has a happy ending.  Check it out.

When science doesn't cut it

I wrote recently about degrees of doubt, suggesting that the reality of radical doubt more defended than opposed the preferrability of science as a method for sorting out reality.  As I pointed out in a footnote:

I hope to elaborate, in future, on my views about levels of doubt.  I think the issue is more complicated than the points I’ve laid out here, although I don’t think any of the complications are particularly relevant to this argument.

So, I wanted to start doing that.

The way I see it, there are six rough categories into which one can break up levels of credulity.  Moving from the most doubt to the least:

  1. Radical doubt The belief that nothing at all can be proven if it can't be proven to 100% certainty.  Any doubt is absolute doubt.  This level is useful mostly as a placeholder.
  2. Rational acceptance The belief that what rationally makes sense can be accepted as true.  So, 2+2=4, cogito ergo sum, but not 'water exists'.
  3. Empirical acceptance The belief that our sensory experience bears a relationship to reality, and that if, after significant effort, an idea hasn't been disproven, it can be accepted as true.
  4. Good faith The belief that current experience can be accepted as true by default, unless past experience or obvious logical flaw contradict it.
  5. Suspension of disbelief The belief that current experience can be accepted as true by default, with precedence over past experience or obvious logical flaws.
  6. Radical acceptance The belief that all things are true, real, and cogent.  Any evidence is absolute evidence.  This level is useful mostly as a placeholder.

Level 4 is the one I want to talk about right now.

I think any skeptic is familiar with the refrain, "Science doesn't know everything," as though that wipes out everything science does know.  And it's frustrating, because as a conversational tactic it attempts to force the skeptic, defending his worldview, into a more extreme position of claiming everything she does is scientifically sound.

And that's obviously not true.  It's an easy straw man to knock down, and, to be honest, it's easy to pressure most skeptics off of their solid home ground and into this rhetorical trap.  (That's an issue of culture and our common language for these topics, and I don't want to get into it here.)

The truth is that no one can be fully aware of the science, and many of the things most essential to our daily interactions are still beyond science's grasp.

In my experience, the answer to this that skepticism brings to the table is twofold.  First, accepting that  'I don't know' is a good enough answer to the overwhelming majority of questions.  A good skeptic gets used to saying 'I don't know' a lot.

And second, when the situation demands an answer better than 'I don't know' but scientific answers are out of reach (like, when deciding whether to pursue a relationship, or figuring out whether you can trust your friends) the good, skeptical thing to do is to assume the information you have is good, and to remain open to new information as it arises.

Human life is complicated and tricky, and most of the experiences we have aren't going to be clear-cut enough to be at all useful in an empirical sense.  Trying to draw scientific conclusions from personal experiences is insane, and unscientific. Nobody lives long enough to gather enough data to tease out good information, and nobody's memory is good enough to provide that data in a useful way.

But that doesn't mean that we don't use science when we have it.  An individual may not be able to gather enough experience with cancer treatments to determine which ones work best, but the scientific institution can.  And just because we don't have that wealth of information for questions like what shoes to wear in every circumstance doesn't mean the information about the cancer treatment isn't good.

And, of course, in any case you don't absolutely need to make an immediate decision, "I don't know" is generally good enough to hold you over.

Some Firefly & Existentialism thoughts

I was at my nephew's birthday party earlier, and because I'm crap with kids, I ended up hanging out on the couch watching a Firefly marathon, which was pretty awesome, because Firefly rocks. And that had me thinking, I'd like to finally get around to taking a moment to examine Mal's particular type of existentialism -- because, to my mind, Captain Malcolm Reynolds is a shining example of a hero figure of Existential Humanism.

For anyone who's never seen Firefly, the show takes place in space, some hundreds of years from now, in a solar system very, very far away.  The center of the civilization is the Core planets, which are at the peak of future-modern technology, but as you get farther and farther away from the Core, things get rougher.

Malcolm Reynolds is the captain of a Firefly class space ship, and he and his crew do odd jobs on the outskirts of the solar system.  Sometimes legal, usually not.

Mal's a criminal by trade, but he has a very strict moral code.  That's not to say he'll never do anything violent, cruel or paternalistic.  But he's got a very clearly defined sense of exactly how far he's willing to go.  He never hesitates to go that far, and he never steps over that line.

In the second episode of the series, The Train Job, the crew is hired to steal a shipment of supplies from a train.  Over the course of the episode, after the heist, they discover that the shipment was a collection of medical supplies for a mining town, and that a great many of the citizens of the town will die without it.

In the face of the wrath of a crime lord renowned for his violence, and at risk of arrest, he returns both the money for the job to his employer, and the medical supplies to the town.

The sheriff, with a posse, catches him bringing them back.  When he does, he tells him, "These are hard times.  A man gets a job, he might not look too close at what that job is.  But when a man learns the full circumstances of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice."

And in one of the more inspiring lines in all of fiction I've heard, Mal simply responds, "I don't believe he does."

This isn't the last I could say about the existentialism in Firefly.  But it's a good start, and if you're looking for some good existential humanist role models, Firefly is the show to watch.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Some more thoughts on the Doctor Who season 6 finale

I wrote, before, on the season finale of Doctor Who this year, "The Wedding of River Song." Spoilers will be present in this post.

In the post, I expressed a little bit of disappointment.  Not much.  I still loved it.  It was still deeply moving.  But it wasn't quite the earth-shattering brilliance I was expecting.  It leaned a little bit too heavily on loopholes for my taste.

Well, I've watched it several more times since then, and I have to say, I am increasingly impressed.

The ending, I admit, still feels just slightly cheap.  It was more a vehicle to keep the Doctor alive to continue having a show than it was a deeply sensible and brilliant wrap-up.  But this plotline, which his hypothetical death justified, was extraordinary, deeply moving, and as brilliant as I was hoping the actual death would be.

Seasons 5 and 6 progressively deconstructed the idea of the Doctor as a hero.  It showed the risks he poses to the people who travel with him.  It showed the damage he can do, dropping into people's lives and shaking them to the core.  It showed the way the universe might rally against him, the way he makes worlds fear him, the way he might terrorize the universe.

Moffat showed the Doctor losing faith in himself, coming to believe that he should die.

Then, in a life-affirming culmination, at the climax of the last episode of season 6, River Song, the woman who loves the Doctor more than anyone in the universe, shows him a distress signal, begging the universe for help.  To save the Doctor.

And from every corner in the universe, voices cried out.  "Yes, of course.  We'll help."

As River said, "I can't let you die without knowing you are loved.  By so many, and so much.  And by no one more than me."

I know it's just a story.  I know that the way Moffat tells it doesn't prove any deeper truths about the universe.  But what he showed us was a world, a universe, where passion and excitement and optimism and love can genuinely triumph.  He showed us the criticisms to the argument, spread across two series, and he shot them down.

I like to believe that we live in that sort of world.  A world where living life with passion and excitement, and loving and helping and fighting for the people we meet, whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself, and at the same time fighting for ourselves, isn't a path to self-destruction.

Ultimately, no one living can work out the moral calculus to figure out the best possible way to make life beautiful and exciting for as many people as possible.  Until someone works it out, I'm going to take the side of earnest, passionate, and unironic trying.

I'm glad to see that Moffat and the Doctor are on that side, too.

Acknowledging Humanity

I missed a perfectly good opportunity to acknowledge someone else's humanity today.

I was just getting home from therapy, and there was a man, from the cable company, repairing the wires on the outside of our house.  I thought about waving to him, as I walked inside.  Just a friendly wave and smile.

Instead, I walked inside, keeping my head slightly down.

I've got some great rationalizations for it.  I didn't want to risk the awkwardness of waving, then not being sure if he saw me -- or, what if he waved after I waved, but I wasn't sure he'd seen the first wave?  Surely it would be even worse to give the impression of deliberately snubbing him than it would to just not wave in the first place.

One of my best friends and I often argue about the value of small talk, and polite conversation with strangers.  I think this instance is a fairly strong point in her case:  my inability to gracefully interact with strangers cost a chance to acknowledge another human being's personhood.

It's a small thing, certainly, but as a repair guy I'm sure he already gets plenty of people treating him like an object, there to do a job and disappear into the aether.  On level, I'd have rather contributed to the group of people who acknowledge him as a human, instead.

Religion and Ethics

Yesterday, I wrote a post about not wanting to talk to my friends about why I'm depressed.  Obligingly, one of my friends responded with this comment:

So what are your thoughts on religion and ethics? Do they have to go hand in hand or are they seperate?

This is a fun question, and one I've thought about a lot.  So I want to take some time to break it down.

My first point would be to say that I don't think religion is intrinsically unethical.  I don't think that religion makes you a bad person, and I want to be very clear about that because that's an assumption a lot of people make about my point of view, since I'm critical of religion.

To start with, though, I should explain what I understand morality to be:

Morality starts with values.  Values are the presumed end-goals of actions, things that are considered a priori good, for the purposes of individual morality.  Most people, for example, see the well-being of thinking or feeling entities as being a priori good.

All morality has to be founded on an arbitrary decision like this, because there's no way to work back to a first principle that demonstrates morality as a natural law.  You can't get an ought from an is.

From that point, it's easy to establish moral goals based on one's criteria.  Morally good is defined as things that work towards the goal, morally bad is defined as things that work against the goal, and morally neutral is defined as things that have no noticeable effect on progress towards the goal.

The important thing to note here is that the moral value of an act is determined by its actual effect, not just whether one believes it will be effective. One might have the best intentions in reducing animal cruelty, but no matter how sure the person is, adopting dogs and secretly starving them is not a good way to achieve that goal.  It's morally wrong, even if the person believes it isn't.

We have a word for that causal dissonance -- we call it superstition.  False beliefs about causality seriously hinder a person's ability to make moral choices.

And that's where religion can contribute to immorality.  Religion consists, in part, often in large part, of unjustified claims about reality.  The addition of bad data to an individual's moral decision-making process often results in morally unjustified, or unjustifiable, conclusions.  If, for example, one believes in an afterlife, and one believes that this afterlife can consist either of eternal suffering or eternal happiness, and one believes that a major deciding factor in which afterlife one goes to is whether one has homosexual relationships, one might feel morally obligated to attempt to prevent homosexual relationships from taking root.

That act would be wrong.  Because there probably isn't an afterlife, and even if we can't say there certainly isn't, we certainly can't say we have good reasons to make claims about what it's like, or how one gets there.  Given the legitimate evidence available, the only morally relevant outcome of those supposedly justified actions would be the emotional and sometimes physical suffering of gay people.

So, to answer the question: Religion is at best morally neutral, but usually at least a little bit morally detrimental.

The Bechdel Test

I said I'd blog about this yesterday, so here it is: The Bechdel Test.  If you haven't heard of it, it's a quick test to measure presence of women in movies.  A movie passes the test if it…

  1. it includes at least two women
  2. who have at least one conversation...
  3. about something other than a man or men.

[source]

If that seems easy enough, try to work out whether your favorite movie passes.

The reason I keep it in mind is, having been raised in a male-dominated culture and surrounded by largely male-centered entertainment, it's not instinctual for me to account for the existence of women in my work.  I tend to need to take a certain amount of active measures to ensure that there are women in my fiction for reasons other than dating the men.  I hope I'll get better at this over time, but for now, aiming to pass the Bechdel Test is a good way to ensure that I have women in my fiction who've been characterized beyond who they're attracted to.

I also want to pre-emptively discuss a criticism of this approach that comes up slightly more than I'm comfortable with.  Often, when I explain to people why I make certain decisions about my writing, this being one of them, they'll say something to the effect of:

But isn't that artistically dishonest?  Shouldn't your art flow from your mind in its most pure state?  Aren't you corrupting your artistic vision by trying to shoehorn it into these cultural pressures and litmus tests?

Well, no.

First of all, my artistic vision is not to promote the gender roles I happen to have grown up with.  Representing women in my work is part of my artistic vision, and when I'm focusing on some other aspect (such as terrifying the reader, or making a point about robot rights) I don't want that to fall out of focus because, hey, if it's not specifically a feminist story there doesn't need to be women in it.  Avoiding that mentality would, in fact, be exactly the point of the exercise -- if I didn't do that, women in my fiction would end up being exclusively present for sex or for feminism, which would make it way too easy to read into my work and come to the conclusion that I think women break down entirely into 'well-behaved, feminine objects' and 'angry, horrible feminazis.'  I don't believe that, and I don't want my writing to make it seem like I do.

Secondly, the purity of the first draft is a myth that I think deserves to be done away with on its own.  The thing that springs into my mind when I start writing is not necessarily (in fact, virtually never is) at all polished or worth reading.  It's the raw materials I'm going to carve into a good story.  And aiming to meet standards like the Bechdel Test gives me better raw materials to work with when I start shaping the next draft, because it means I'm less likely to have to work engagement into a story about a bunch of dudes sitting around a poker table drinking whiskey and talking about their conquests.

I will probably blog more on this topic later, but those are my initial thoughts on the Bechdel Test, and on consciously aiming for non-stereotypical standards in fiction.

Later today:  Quotas! Is this one?  Do they help?

My personal journey approaching and through the Doctor Who season 6 finale

SPOILERS. At the start of season 6, the Doctor died.  And, at the very end, he --sorry, hang on.

Seriously, SPOILERS.

...

Alright. He survived.  I don't think very many people really believed he wouldn't.  (I know at least one person who did, but it seems unreasonable to think that the BBC would let them end the show.)

I blogged recently about Doctor Who and humanism, and I think it would be fair to say that I had faith in Steven Moffat's ability to pull this plot out.

That is, I was confident the Doctor would be fine until a few weeks before the episode, a couple of days after The God Complex.

If you watch the show, and have an obsessively philosophical bent, you may have noticed that the new series has an underlying theme of the dangers of extremist religion.  Doctor Who has always been themed around opposition to the fears of the British public, hence the Nazi-like Daleks and communistic Cybermen of the old series.

The God Complex was about the dangers of faith -- a Minotaur-like alien that feeds on faith was manipulating captured individuals into re-framing their individual faiths into faith in the Minotaur.

The context of the episode equivocated faith in Islam, conspiracies, oppression,

and the Doctor.

It occurred to me, just in time to start to worry, that Moffat's plan might have really been to kill the Doctor.  To end the series on the lesson that, sometimes, heroes die.  Sometimes, they don't come back.  And that any idol can be dangerous to put your faith in.

In the end, the way the Doctor got out of it -- the endless repetitions of "The Doctor Lies" and "Time can be rewritten" set up his clever manipulation sufficiently to justify his weaseling out of it.  As part of the story of the series, I thought it was pretty good, though it wasn't quite as brilliant as I expected it to be.  It worked, but it was more 'acceptable' than 'genius.'  And the episodes leading up to it did manage to persuade me that it was possible everything could end.  That was impressive.

Humanism and the death penalty

John Shook makes a case against the death penalty on humanist grounds, at the Center for Inquiry website.  It's a short, compelling piece, and I recommend reading it.  Here are some quotes and commentary.

Dominated by that vengeful spirit, the criminal justice system encourages prosecutors to chase a conviction of whoever they can, rather than the truly guilty; it distracts jurors from the lofty standard of reasonable doubt; and it lets supervisory courts forget their supreme duty of justice for all. In that heated atmosphere of swift vengeance, the criminal “justice” system mostly executes the poor, the disadvantaged, and racial minorities.

The pragmatic argument: even if you agree that killing people is okay, the system we have doesn't work.  We kill the innocent, the poor, and the marginalized.

Pro-deathers should broaden their principles. Governments exist not merely to deliver criminal justice, but to protect and defend the lives and rights of everyone. When a government executes an innocent person, it violates the ultimate justification for its own existence.

Right on.  The point of government is to protect its people, not kill them.  I realize this makes some people uncomfortable, but criminals remain citizens.  If we want to abdicate responsibility for the people we imprison, the answer is exile.  I'm sure there are countries out there that will take them.  But if we're going to keep them here, we do have obligations to treat them like human beings, and that means not killing them.

And finally, the argument in a nutshell:

Humanism stands for valuing the lives of all, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and governments that defend all of their people. These grounds alone are sufficient for abolishing the death penalty.

The Humanist Case against Capital Punishment

via Friendly Atheist

The Humanism of Doctor Who

Gladstone over at Cracked posted an article today called "How Doctor Who Became My Religion," which, I feel, hit on a lot of very important points.  In my labels box, one of the self-affected titles I've put down is "Whovian." If you're not familiar with the term, it's an arguably-insulting term for fans of Doctor Who.  (Like Trekkie.) For all the weirdly religious vibe of Gladstone's article, he's right.  Doctor Who, as a story, has all the necessary equipment to be the spine of a religious faith.

The religion/fandom comparison is far from a new thing.  CollegeHumor recently did a video on it:

and Greta Christina wrote an article for Alternet about it, a while ago: "What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)?".

Both the video and the article make the point that there are real differences between religion and fandom -- but they have a hell of a lot in common, too.

[It's important to me to point out, right now, without any ambiguity: I think there are important differences between fandom and religious faith, and I think that fandom, even when it reaches religion-like fervor, is safe, sane and legitimate in ways that religion is not.  Just so we're absolutely, unambiguously clear.]

The thing is, there are a few different kinds of stories.  There are stories like the ones Stephen King writes, or Hemmingway, the sorts of stories that are just about a group of people.  The kinds of stories that don't really spark much fanfic.  Then, there are myths.  These kinds of stories -- Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Firefly, Twilight, the Bible, have a sort of universal quality.  The characters are just slightly so distant from real humanity that they become symbols.  There's something aspirational about them. I don't think the true-to-life, Stephen King/Hemmingway style stories  are inherently less valid than the fanfic-inspiring types.  It think they're both valuable artforms.

Bringing it back to Doctor Who, though, there are good reasons for the Whovian fandom to be as religiously devoted as they are.  And, as a sort of religion, I think there's a lot to be said for Doctor Who.  Because the Doctor is one of the very few heroic, even deific, figures in fiction who champion humanism.

If you find yourself thinking "What would the Doctor do?" when faced with a moral difficulty, you're the sort of person I want in my life.  Because if you're being honest, you know that what the Doctor would do is work as hard as he possibly can, at the cost of his own safety and wellbeing, to find a solution that makes as many people happy as possible.  You know that the Doctor will abandon blame as soon as he sees an opportunity to get everyone somewhere peaceful and safe.  You know the Doctor would only ever harm another living being if there's no choice between that and saving innocents.  You know that the Doctor would say the two most beautiful words in any language are "Everybody lives."

Add to that a love of adventure, a healthy disrespect for authority, and a sincere and passionate dedication to living this life like it's the only one you're going to get, and it amounts to a pretty good life compass.  It doesn't hurt, either, that they're up-front about it not being true, in the strictest sense.  Gotta respect the absence of unjustified metaphysical claims in any quasireligion.

And, yeah, Doctor Who usually makes me cry, too.

Just wait until I start writing about existentialism and Firefly.

Label: Transhumanist

This one starts off with a chain of definitions from Wiktionary: transhumanism

  1. a philosophy favouring the use of science and technology, especially neurotechnology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, to overcome human limitations and improve the human condition

transhuman

  1. A human who recognizes and embraces the coming posthuman condition

posthuman

  1. Succeeding human beings as presently defined; more than, or beyond, what is human.

I understand that there's a lot of (sometimes contradictory) cultural baggage that comes along with the title "Transhumanist," and that some more committed transhumanists may disagree with my usage.  But I want to take a minute to talk about what transhumanism means to me.

Elezer D. Yudowsky makes the case for "Transhumanism as simplified Humanism," which I agree with.

I don't necessarily believe* that we're going to develop nanotechnology that will push our brains into super-overdrive.  I don't necessarily believe that we're going to fully unpick the workings of the human mind within my lifetime.  (I do think that prosthetics are quickly reaching the point where, given specific intentions, specialized prosthetics may be better options for some individuals than their natural-born limbs, and I think that range will expand rapidly, if not necessarily ever fully overtaking natural-born human biology.)

I do think that penicillin, laser eye surgery, cell phones and cars constitute exactly the same sort of augmentation to humanity that transhumanists propose.  I think language is a clever manipulation of our innate sound-making capacity, and written language is an augmentation onto that.  Fire is false environment.  Clothes are augmented skin.

When I say I'm a transhumanist, I mean to affirm my confidence in, and acceptance of, humans' relationship to technology.  I believe, as put beautifully by Dresden Codak author Aaron Diaz, [EDIT: in the words of his character, Kaito Kusanagi]

No, never say "us" and "them."  You separate a man from his tools -- Take his clothes, his history and his language away... he becomes an animal.  The machines... They are the hands and we are the head.  Only together do we make humanity.

(Emphasis mine.)

I call myself a transhumanist, specifically, to separate myself from people who wouldn't affirm that claim.  I call myself a transhumanist to separate myself from that particular kind of hypocrisy, from the false nostalgia for some sort of platonic humanity that convinces people that they're not intimately, existentially dependent upon technology, not just to enjoy the comfort of their life as it exists, but to be human in the way they understand it.  Humanity, as a philosophical concept, is largely taken to mean something other than an arbitrary sequence of genetic code.  That philosophical concept falls apart in absence of technology, and it's hypocritical to affirm all of that technology right up until around when you turned 15, after which point everything is an unnatural aberration.

I also want to make it clear that when I call myself a transhumanist, I don't mean singularitarian.  I don't believe that we're on our way to a technological singularity.  I don't believe we aren't, either -- I hold a position of strong agnosticism on the year 2030** and the rapture of the geeks.  That is to say, I don't know.  There's a huge body of analysis and argument both in favor of and against the singularity, and I'm simply not qualified to pick through it.  I find both arguments in favor of it and against it compelling, which speaks mostly to the skill of the writers.  I don't know how to tell true from false in that context, so I will remain singularity-agnostic either until the singularity hits, until it is comprehensibly, empirically falsified, or until my death.

 

*In this article, I want to emphasize as much as possible that when I say 'I don't believe,' I do not mean 'I believe the opposite of,'.  When I say I don't believe something, unless otherwise specified, I mean to imply that I'm unconvinced.  Not that I'm convinced against. **or 2045 if you ask Ray Kurzweil.

Obligatory 9/11 post

It's 9/11, so I guess I should blog about 9/11. I remember where I was on 9/11 -- in my 7th grade math class.  One of the staff members walked into the room and turned the TV on, then just left.

I remember because, for weeks afterward, people kept telling me that I was going to remember where I was on 9/11.  I tried not to, out of a natural impulse not to be controlled like that, but that only strengthened the impression.

I also remember how I felt about it, then.  I remember not really caring, and not really understanding why it was a big deal.

Later, it started to sink in what this meant about the world.  That happened after George W. Bush announced that we were going to war.  At the time, as a child, I thought wars were a 'past' thing.  I thought that, while there might be countries out there in the middle of the world who still fought with each other to resolve problems, this was America.  We were advanced.  We were special.  We can't possibly still believe that war is a good way to solve problems.  We're better than that.

I had thought that war was something that humanity was trying to get away from, trying to overcome.  I think I had thought that we could forgive the world for that kind of attack, or at least that we could recognize that the answer to violence against us wasn't more violence.

I still believe that humanity, at its best, is capable of that sort of kindness and understanding.  I still believe that humanity is basically capable of working towards the common good.

9/11 taught me that we're also still capable of terrible violence against each other.  That day, and the subsequent months, seems to me to be a showcase of those qualities.

The towers of the World Trade Center were built with glass and steel, because it's cheaper than concrete, and shot into the sky like monolithic trophies of modernism and economy.  They were as much emblems of the fetishization of 'market forces' and the abstract illusion of human achievement as they were accomplishments of the real pragmatism of technology and accomplishment.

The planes were piloted by religious extremists, acting out the darkest possible manifestation of the human capacity to circumvent reasoning.

The subsequent sense of community and shared tragedy was tainted by jingoism and xenophobia, and the subsequent war was tainted by empire building and fear mongering.

The media crippled itself in its effort to keep up with the change.

9/11 was bad.  It was very, very bad.  (I hope that's not a controversial claim.)  And in a slow, infusing way, certainly not all at once, it's how I learned that there was evil in the world,* not just in books and movies.

I don't think about 9/11 when I think about doing the right thing, trying to be good, trying to be decent. But the knowledge about the world that seeped into my mind, through the culture of America, after 2001, taught me the importance of action.

Humanity doesn't take care of itself; humans have to take care of it.

*My use of the word evil in this sentence is poetic, and not meant to indicate a view on the metaphysical characteristics of right and wrong.