Saturday, 12 October 2019

Love God, love your neighbour

If our purpose in life is to have relationship, then, how should we live?

It's not that difficult a question to answer. God makes it pretty clear, throughout the Bible. It was summed up by Jesus thus - “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. This is the law and the prophets.” When you read the prophets, you realise he wasn't wrong. A constant refrain through them is “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Always it's about two things – how we relate to God, and how we relate to each other. Always, to act in love.

Notice one thing that it isn't about. We are not to concern ourselves with other people's relationships, whether with God or others. Our focus is to be on ourselves. For who are you to judge someone else’s servant? People cannot be forced to love, they must choose to do so. They cannot – and this is something that right-wing and left-wing politics fail miserably on – be forced to be good, to act in the right way towards either God or their neighbours. Or themselves. Human beings must be permitted to be miserly, and to bear the consequences of their decision to be such. If we attempt to coerce them to act otherwise, we ourselves are no longer acting in love.

Love God, love your neighbour. That's it. Like many things in life, it's not complex. It's just difficult, and impossible to do perfectly without the grace of God.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Science Round 09/10/2019

This is the first of my (hopefully weekly) round ups of interesting science stories I have found. They may not necessarily be recent one; none of the ones here are from this year.

If true, it's unlikely that this and photosynthesis are the only life processes which relies on quantum mechanics, lending support to the idea that the brain is a quantum computer. Which means any attempt to upload a brain would require a computer capable of quantum simulation, keeping us safe from a Transcendence  scenario for a while yet. Indeed, to achieve consciousness in a non-biological brain may need computers that are purpose built for that purpose (a positronic brain, if you will) just as human brains are, dashing any dreams of achieving substrate independence. That probably means no hard take off singularity, but a biosingularity, where biological intelligence is enhanced to levels unseen so far in nature, could still be on the cards, as would non-singularitarian transhumanism.

"Amazingly, the skill involved in making this adornment shows a level of technique at least 30,000 years ahead of its time."

Maybe our Paleolithic ancestors and their cousins weren't as primitive as we have thought? If they had been engaged in agriculture, how could we tell? Tools and buildings made of wood don't preserve very well, and sea levels have changed significantly over the aeons. A fishing village would have been long washed away by now, taking with it the evidence of human inhabitation and whatever technologies they possessed.

Whilst I think that it is unlikely that there was an advanced ancient civilisation that surpassed our own abilities (surely they would have left evidence of their passing?), it is fun to speculate how far humans could have advanced in the past without us being able to recognise the remains they would leave in the present.

Alkaline steel-brass batteries of up to 20 Wh/kg have been created. Unfortunately I can't access the paper, but a new battery chemistry is Big News. Particularly one that has a long lifespan. Copper and zinc are far more abundant than the nickel used in Nickel-Iron batteries, with estimated reserves of 950 and 230 million metric tonnes respectively, though the potential resources are significantly larger than this at 3.1 and 1.9 billion tonnes. Even with the lower energy density compared to NiFe batteries, the use of more abundant elements means we should be able to build more energy storage than NiFe would allow us. I don't know how much is needed for the batteries, since I can't read the paper, but if we had a billion tonnes of battery, we'd have 20 TW-hrs of storage, or around 2.5 kW-hrs for each person on the planet.

That's still far from enough to run today's society on wind and solar, but for keeping the lights on and the refrigerator working it should be plenty, and unlike Lithium-ion it doesn't require advanced modern factories to produce. It may be a possible replacement for the NiFe battery in the Open Source Ecology Global Village Construction Set. One of the big advantages that this chemistry holds is that they could be manufactured and recycled without relying upon a functioning global economy, unlike options such as Lithium-ion. I can see these being used by post-apocalyptic settlements to store the energy generated by their windmills and watermills. More NausicaƤ, less Mad Max.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

The 'Problem' of Existence, Relationship, Love, and Free Will

The problem of evil (which is to say, the problem of suffering) is an ancient one, which pre-dates Christianity. How can a good God permit a world of suffering?

But what if the avoidance of suffering is not actually God's goal?

After all, the Christian God is one who does not shirk from suffering Himself. He is after all described as the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. God Himself knew, before the first speck of earthly dust was created, that creating this world would entail His crucifixion. Yet, He created it anyway. Why did He consider our existence worth the pain?

Let's take a step back for a moment to, all the way back into the mists of eternity, when nothing but God existed. Who is this being, this fathomless uncreated One who transcends and sustains our existence? There is one thing we know – God isn't one person, but three. God is, inherently, a relational being. If you stripped everything away, if all existence both heavenly and earthly were to turn to dust, relationship would remain.

Indeed, as Shinji Ikari eventually figured out (what an idiot!), relationship is required in order to exist. If the world is only of you, then there is no difference between you and nothing. Existence requires relationship.

What does relationship require, in order to avoid descending into a hell? Love. Perfect love, on a long enough timescale. Love is the foundation of any lasting relationship. This is what it means that God is Love, for without the perfect love that exists within the Godhead, God could not exist. If we do not have love, then we cannot have relationship, and will ultimately wither away into nothing.

But what is required for love? Now I get to Alvin Plantinga's answer to the problem of evil (I will read his book when it arrives). Love is only love if it is freely chosen. So now we complete the chain – existence requires relationship, relationship requires love, and love requires free will. As far as I can see it, in order to create a world in which human beings exist; and exist in relationship; and exist in loving relationships with each other, their world, and Himself; God had to create a world in which the rejection of this existence – with all the attending pain that it brings with it – was a possibility. A possibility which, on some level, has sadly been chosen by everyone who as ever lived, for we are inclined from birth towards such selfishness (it is certainly possible to strive against this inclination).

God does not prioritise happiness, He prioritises relationships. For nothing else would He incarnate and suffer death, even death on a cross. The restoration of all things, and the end to this present suffering, flows out of the restored relationships that has been made possible through His sacrifice.

That said, while a philosophical defence of the existence of evil is a good thing to have (and I hope I have made a good one), in the midst of suffering all words become dust and ash. To this I can only say – no other figure than Jesus cried out, in the midst of His suffering, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”. It is okay to cry out such words, as long as, in the end, we are willing to also say “Father, into Your hand I commit my spirit.” We live, it has been said, in Easter Saturday, between salvation and resurrection. But sometimes we live in Good Friday, right in the middle of suffering when it seems that all hope has fled and we are left with just the pain. In those moments, perhaps the best we can manage is Martha's faith as she grieved for her brother, as recorded by John. “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” There is nothing wrong with this response.

Monday, 8 April 2019

A Meditation On Walls

There's magic here, of sorts. Cloistered from the rest of the world, a garden harkens back to the earliest halcyon days of humanity, when the sons of God rejoiced and His newest children walked blameless and naked below the stars. Here, within these walls, lies a remnant, an ember, of how things ought to be, protected from the terrors of outside by brick and stone and wood and metal and concrete.

How it ought to be. But... it is not. Things are not as they should be, and without walls, any attempt to reverse even but a bit of the fall, even locally, will be swamped by the chaos that lurks at the corners of our vision, just beyond the horizon, bubbling beneath the surface of someone we know very little of after all, despite our delusions to the contrary. Walls are a force for good. Walls divide – but division is necessary for diversity, for beauty, for life itself. The first thing ever declared good was the division of light from darkness. Something there is that would have a uniform twilight covering all of existence.

Life itself depends on boundaries. From the smallest organelle to the skin of the most complex organism, life is a series of walls within walls within walls. An environment good for one thing is not good for another. Walls enable a separation that enables flourishing. Even the simplest form of life requires a wall around it to mark off it's interior. “This far,” says the cell membrane, “and no further, must the external environment intrude.” What a foolish thought it is to think that tearing down all divisions would bring utopia, rather than the bland uniformity of hell.

There are two ways to die, the chaos of fire or the cold order of ice. The first from no barrier, the second from no diversity. To avoid either fate requires walls.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Adios, culture war

I've gone off politics. Okay, not entirely – man is a political animal, going off it entirely would require me to become a hermit. But the vitriolic, cultural-political-memetic war that pits people against each other in a fight to see who can be the nastiest? That consumes it's own (and I'm not just talking about those on the left here...) in a whirlwind of hatred, whose fighters race each other on tigers to see who gets to be the victory meal? Yes, I want nothing to do with that any more, even if trolling is fun.

I know that this is nothing new. People have people calling their opponents Hitler since... well, Hitler (though the first people who did at least had an opponent who was literally Hitler). I know that there is nothing new under the sun.

I also know that very few people – I can't say absolutely no-one – consciously decide that they're going to hate group X. Paradoxically, I think most hatred is motivated by love – those who love are motivated to react strongly against any they fear to be threatening the beloved, whether or not those fears are grounded in reality. Christians who are worried that their faith is under attack, and atheists who are worried their lack of faith is as well. Fathers worried that their daughters will be assaulted by transwomen using women's bathrooms, and fathers worried that their daughters will be assaulted if they're forced to use the men's bathrooms by dint of being transgender. Women who are worried that they'll be forced into the tradlife of a fifties era housewife. Patriots, who love their country and its culture, and are worried about it being subsumed and lost. Above all, the everyday worries of people and families who are just trying to get through life, and hoping they keep their job and don't get mugged. I get this.

I also get that there are deep problems still with our society, and there most certainly is pain. The bodies of LGBT youth who have committed suicide prove this. Those who have lost the will to live because of a system that's set up for the benefit of others and left them at the bottom of society, whilst being criticised for the crime of being born white, prove this too. Their blood cries out from the ground. The pain is real. But it has been obscured – nay, smothered, even as it's politicised – by hatred. We're so afraid that the Other cannot see our pain, that we do not let ourselves see theirs. So we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that their pain isn't real, and is just a sob story used as a weapon in their war on our sacred values.

I understand all this. No-one sees themselves as the villain of their own story. It's always the other side which is the Empire, or the Death Eaters, or the Capitol. I can't hate people for that. But when we think our opponents have no redeeming features, everything bad that happens to them is them getting what they deserve, their propaganda to the contrary be damned.

That's why I'm done with this war. This isn't a Lord of the Rings style clash, with the Obvious Good Guys fighting the Clear Bad Guys. If I have to use a fictional analogy, then this is more like Game of Thrones – different sides, some of which are just out for naked power but most of which believe themselves to be in the right, fighting each other and tearing the land apart whilst the real threat moves implacably towards them. The real war is between the living and the dead, and the dead are coming. There are problems that we have as – as a society, as a western civilisation, as a planetary civilisation - which need to be solved, and solved soon. Blaming people – even those who are to blame! - doesn't actually solve those problems. We need solutions more than we need punishment.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Noblebright Future

All civilisations have their end. One would arise, prosper for a while, then decay from within until it collapses into a new dark age. After a while, a new one would take it's place. Rinse and repeat.

Our end was upon us. For a century at the least, we had mortgaged our future to pay for the passing pleasures of today, but eventually we had to end up living in our own repossessed future. Our infrastructure, stretched as it was across continents, was vulnerable to attack by small cells of guerrillas. T As law and order broke down, the poor – which included those who used to consider themselves middle class - became either bandits or their victims. The wealthy, a large number of whom grew fat off the loot that was extracted under the guise of taxation from the rest of society, retreated to well appointed lily-pads guarded by mercenaries. The ethnic differences between these groups – guerilla, bandit, the rich, the poor - were used by demagogues to inflame tensions, and soon we were in the throes of a low level multi sided race war.

When the oil supply was cut, no-one cared much whether it was due to peak oil or terrorists. The end result was the same – a spike in food prices and an end to cheap transportation. The economy, already failing due attacks on the infrastructure, very few people could get a job, but the state could not afford to give them money to survive. Roving camps of homeless people walked from town to town, hoping that the people of the next town wouldn't drive them out again. Diseases which we had under our control suddenly became fatal again, as health and sanitation vanished. People gave up on any hope of the future, turning to drugs to numb the pain, and suicide when that didn't work. We were almost in the dark ages, if not already there.

Until we chose differently. Until we looked at ourselves, and looked at our ancestors, and decided that we would not follow the path that many had trod before us. Until we asked, “Why must the corpse rot completely before a new civilisation could be birthed? Why must the darkness fall for so long until the sunrise comes again?”

The pre-existing institutions were no good. We had to go deeper back in time, searching the thousands of years of recorded history to discern what worked and what didn't, what lessons the Gods of the Copybook Headings had to teach us over and over again. There we discovered virtue. Restraint, the virtue of prudence; and humility, the seed from which wisdom may grow. There we discovered once more the value of tradition, of asking why a gate is closed before deciding to open it. There, we discovered once more the tools we needed to rebuild our society, a new respect for nature, and a greater understanding of our place in the universe – and the potential that we possess.

Armed with this new confidence, we set out to make our planet great again. Abandoned lots were cleared of concrete and debris and seeded to form new forests. Bandits found out that their defenceless targets were now defended. The badly functioning infrastructure was bypassed with local systems, as houses and towns took themselves off the failing grid. The internet was reconfigured, with wireless mesh networks joined together with powerful microwave links into a new network with even greater resilience. Railway lines were repaired, and extended, linking regions together. Towns remodelled themselves, embracing the vernacular architecture of their regions and densifying with grace, their townhouses and courtyard apartments rising several stories above revitalised streets, patrolled by the men and women of the Town Watch. No longer were streets a place to be feared, but once again a pleasant backdrop to the bustle of everyday life – a bustle which could be quickly escaped by means of a short walk into the smallholdings, allotments, and woods which surrounded these small towns and cities.

Technological development accelerated, as people faced the challengers of providing clean water, food, clothing, housing, healthcare, and the myriad of other things which are required for a decent and long life, in a severely resource constrained world. Inventors, doing what they do simply for the joy of it, and in the hopes of making a better world, released their designs for free – not that patenting them would have stopped anyone copying them. As their work made life easier, reducing the hours that were needed to simply survive, others could use their time to learn new skills and create new art. New universities were founded, focusing on cultivating the sort of men and women who would be wise enough to lead humanity forward – and humble enough to be willing to step aside. Scientific research, struggling with funding and corruption under the old establishment, leapt forward as new research institutes were founded. Space exploration, a dream which was thought to have fizzled out for a second time, was revitalised, and colonies were founded on nearby worlds.

Rather than an age of banditry, it is an age of pioneers. Rather than the basest instincts of humanity ruling the day, our essential nobility shines through in the darkness of the universe. Though there are still places where despots rule, most of humanity live in benevolent city-states – and though they have differences in how exactly society should be run, it is rare for cities to war against each other. Far from being a dark age, there is no better time to be alive than now.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Fiction

Another year, another list. Here are the fictional works, quotes, and scenes that have affected me the most this year.

Quote of the Year:

"I guarantee you that at some point, everything's going to go south on you, and you're going to say, 'This is it, this is how I end.' Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work." - Mark Watney, The Martian

Scene of the Year:

This isn't actually from this year, but Elevens regeneration into Twelve is my scene of the year, because "we all change, when you think about it... ...and that's okay... long as you remember all the people that you used to be." I am not who I was, and for a moment this year I did not recognise my own memories, being disconnected from my own past. But that's who I was - all those people are people that I used to be.

Film of the Year:

2015 is probably the year I've been to the cinema the most, so far in my life, and I have seen films on both extremes of the Romanticism versus Enlightenment scale, from the two capping films of the year I saw at the beginning and the end (The Hobbit and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) for Team Romanticism, to Tomorrowland (highly underrated) and The Martian for Team Enlightenment. I have to give this one to Team Enlightenment, and within that to The Martian, for the same sentiment expressed in the quote at the top. We're human, dammit. We don't roll over and let our circumstances crush us, no matter how hopeless they feel - in fact, we actively seek out challenges, as we have that spirit that Reagan mentioned in his speech after the Challenger disaster: "Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy.". So for that reason, The Martian is my film of the year.

Speech of the Year:

This one is a competition between Governor Nix's directed-at-the-audience "Reason you suck speech", and the 12th Doctor's anti-war speech from The Zygon Inversion. I'm giving this one to Tomorrowland (another point for Team Enlightenment) because of this - "In every moment there is the possibility for a better future, but you people won't believe it - and because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality". I look around me, and I can see how everything could be made better, how we already have the tools we need. We're not condemned to failure, it's something we choose everyday.