Category: Ethics

Bloodless Technonomy

The last link provided in the previous post leads down a rabbit hole. The author translates a Chinese report and then translates the data into geospatial visualizations and pie charts, sure, but he also begins very rapidly to layer on his ideological biases. He is part of the “AltRight” movement with a focus on human biodiversity. The memes of AltRight are largely racially charged, much less racist, defined around an interpretation of Darwinism that anoints difference and worships a kind of biological determinism. The thought cycles are large, elliptical constructs that play with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to describe why inequities exist in the human world. Fair enough, though we can quibble over whether any scientisms rise far enough out of the dark waters of data to move policy more than a hair either way. And we can also argue against the interpretations of biology that nurtured the claims, especially the ever-present meme that inter-human competition is somehow discernible as Darwinian at all. That is the realm of the Social Darwinists and Fascists, and the realm of evil given the most basic assumptions about others. It also begs explanation of cooperation at a higher level than the superficial realization that kin selection might have a role in primitive tribal behavior. To be fair, of course, it has parallels in attempts to tie Freudian roles to capitalism and desire, or in the deeper contours of Marxist ideology.

But this war of ideologies, of intellectual histories, of grasping at ever-deeper ways of reinterpreting the goals and desires of political actors, might be coming to an end in a kind of bloodless, technocratic way. Specifically, surveillance, monitoring, and data analysis can potentially erode the theologies of policy into refined understandings of how groups react to changes in laws, regulations, incentives, taxes, and entitlements.

How will this work?

Let’s take gerrymandering as an example. There is an uncomplicated competition for power involved in reengineering political districts that can be solved fairly easily via algorithms that remove human decision making from the process (see Wikipedia article for examples of splitline algorithms and isoperimetric quotients). A similar approach that uses experimentation and non-ideological mechanisms can be applied to many (though not all) divisive political problems:

  • Global warming controversial? Apply cap-and-trade or other CO2 reductions at half optimal strength (as argued by proponents). Surveil outcomes and establish a decision criterion for next steps.
  • Health care reform unappetizing? Create smaller-scale laboratories to identify what works and what doesn’t (say, like Massachusetts). Identify the social goods and bads and expand where appropriate.
  • Welfare systems under the microscope? Reform and reimplement using state and community block grants to test alternative ways of solving the problem. Leave existing system intact until the data is in.

Behavioral economics somewhat foreshadows this future of outcome- and data-driven policy development. I’ve coined the term “technonomy” based on Pittendrigh’s notion of “teleonomy” to capture this idea of basing policy decisions on experimental and data-driven methodologies, and to distinguish it from technocracy (it also appears to have other meanings already that involve “synergies” and other vacuous crap). If the AltRight want to deny a specific government action based on racial theories, or if the Very Left want to spend more to correct for a perceived injustice, or if Libertarians want a return to a gold standard, then all that is required is for the groups to design a policy laboratory that controls the variables of interest well enough that the theory can be tested. It will require enormous creativity that goes beyond conspiracy theories and mere kvetching, but would certainly be more informative than the current guerrilla wars of partisan intellectual rage.

Theology and Apologetics in Politics

If politics is religion because political theories are not justifiable in any rational sense, then we should expect to find deep theology and apologetics accompanying political “theories.” And we certainly do. Moreover, we should expect that the apologetics gin up mythological frameworks to satisfy prevailing political winds. Social insurance programs are case-and-point. What originated as a scheme to counter the desire to redistribute wealth through a limitation on downward social mobility became synonymous with socialism itself. Elizabeth Anderson of University of Michigan points out the deep ironies in her Chicago Law Dewey lecture on this topic:

The ironies are amplified as we think about the debate over the current health care reform efforts and the flip-flopping of everyone from The Heritage Foundation (note, however, that Heritage denies flip-flopping through an appeal to nuance) to Mitt Romney.

Religion doesn’t care, of course. Religion just requires consistency and a consistent denial of oppositional rhetoric. It also helps to have an enemy, as Ms. Anderson points out. And having cartoon tracts can help, too, as this cartoon embodiment of Freidrich Hayek shows:

The Jehovah’s Witnesses of political theory.


An ever-present flaw in almost all theology and apologetics–and a flaw that is easily remediable–is the requirement for omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience (OOO) on the part of the structure of God or the gods. We see this in the argumentative doldrums of the Problem of Evil, with practitioners like William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne building-out elaborate explanatory theodicies in an effort to justify or, at least, allow for an OOO deity. There are extensional consequences, too, like Paul Draper’s argument that an OOO-deity may be obligated to create more than just a single worshipful species given the known extent of the universe.

And what if we remedy the flaw by simply declaring that the OOO assumptions are unnecessary for deities? What if we simply loosen the requirement to something like “God is super-powerful and super-good?” Let’s call this the semi-OOO god theory or SOOO for short. Does SOOO short-circuit the most problematic issues that arise in placing the gods so far above us that we no longer resemble them at all? (an interesting side note: given Christianity’s obsession with the avatar-like character of Christ, it hardly seems aesthetically wrong to assume a flawed God).

The theological and apologetic problems do seem to evaporate, though philosophical arguments evaporate, too:

  • The Ontological Argument: The premise requiring God to be the greatest possible being (Anselmian formulation) immediately goes away. Therefore, there is no Ontological Argument. God doesn’t exist, but only on the initial premise. God may still exist as an SOOO deity.
  • The Cosmological Argument: No impact; the First Cause could be just about anything, as before. Only pre-scientific societies necessarily associate such a cause with an OOO deity.
  • The Problem of Evil: There are actually many formulations of the Problem of Evil, and it remains debated to this day, yet the primary formulation currently fashionable among apologists requires evil (at least moral evil, but sometimes also “natural” evil) in order to provide a proving ground for our moral character. This sometimes seems at odds with OOO notions like predestination, but with a bit of hand-waving we can presume that the gods know what is best for us and it all represents a higher good in a grander scheme than what is known in our philosophy. What world does SOOO suggest? Well, a so-so world on moral character. We might simply say that God is always morally better than us (never mind the genocide and other barbarisms in the Old Testament), which allows for evil to exist because God didn’t intend a perfect world or even a moral obstacle course. This makes religion much more casual an affair, appealing to moral aspirations rather than certitudes, which is at least appealing insofar as certitudes are intellectually unappealing.

The SOOO God or gods have some rather interesting properties that need investigation, however. If we presume that a SOOO-thing is always better than us and is an aspirational icon, then we still have to discount the apparent moral failures in the more ancient texts or the rational failures in the more recent ones (demons cause illness, snake venom can be cured by faith, etc.) while still trying to hold on to a hope that SOOO should remain an object of our aspirations. That is hard. That is slippery. It’s sooo much more appealing and easy to drop SOOO as easily as OOO under an even easier assumption that such an entity adds no value to our understanding.

The Sooner We Are All Mongrels, the Better

E.O. Wilson charges across the is-ought barrier with a zeal undiminished by his advancing years and promotes genetic diversity as a moral good in The Social Conquest of Earth:

Perhaps it is time…to adopt a new ethic of racial and hereditary variation, one that places value on the whole of diversity rather than on the differences composing the diversity. It would give proper measure to our species’ genetic variation as an asset, prized for the adaptability it provides all of us during an increasingly uncertain future. Humanity is strengthened by a broad portfolio of genes that can generate new talents, additional resistance to diseases, and perhaps even new ways of seeing reality. For scientific as well as moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake instead of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.

This follows an analysis of the relative genetic differences between various racial groups of humans, concluding that subsaharan Africa contains the highest genetic diversity among human groups. Yet almost everything in our social and biological history suggests that we have formed social structures specifically to prevent out-breeding and limit the expansion of our genetic pool. This has always been a thorny subject for selfish genetics: why risk pairing your alleles with unknowns guessed at through proximal sexual clues like body symmetry or the quality of giant peacock tails? The risk of outbreeding is apparently lower than the risk of diverse infectious agents according to a common current theory, but we also see culture as overriding even the strongest outbreeding motivation by imposing mating rules based on familial and tribal power struggles. At the worst, we even see inbreeding depression in populations that consolidate power through close marriages (look at the sex-linked defect lineages in European royal families) or through long religious prohibitions on marrying outside of relatively small populations of the faithful. A few years back there was even a suggestion promoted in the popular press that autism might be caused by assortative mating by geeks and computer programmers.

We should all be latte colored or at least mongrels. The alternative is too much like what happens to highly bred dogs:

Hundreds of different dog breeds have now been established although the majority have only come into existence in the last two centuries. These breeds have largely been generated by the selection of gross phenotypic attributes particularly suited for work or decorative purposes, many being encoded by single gene mutations. A consequence of such a severe selection and inbreeding history is that many breeds have come from a relatively restricted gene pool.

As expected, the mongrels have the highest number of different alleles (22 out of 30 possible alleles tested).

But back to Wilson and the is-ought barrier: should we be obligated to promote genetic diversity across the species? There are several arguments embedded in Wilson’s statements that we can unpack:

  1. The species, as a whole, will be more likely to “generate new talents, [resist] diseases, and [create new ways of seeing reality].”
  2. Diversity will not be seen as a source of difference and conflict, and therefore will reduce conflicts based on differences.

So, for (1), can we really see this as a moral good for any individual or couple? Taken to the extreme, the guidance would suggest preferential mating with those most genetically diverse or at least different from you. Stuck on the “is” side of the barrier, however, there are also the standard proximate drivers for sexual attraction and the more “global” motivation for promoting species-level diversity might override those drivers. The net effect would probably be insignificant, however, because we can assume that affairs of the heart would kick in and minimize the impact. Still, it is a bit of an odd moral good to contemplate in its rawest form. More clarifying, however, might be the argument that immigration policies can have a similar effect over time because propinquity is the mother of all desire.

John Gray on Jonathan Haidt

Excellent discussion (and review) of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by John Gray in The New Republic. Gray is skeptical of intellectual history but even more skeptical of scientism, or the attempt to apply scientific reasoning to the complexities of human politics. Summing up concerning evolutionary psychology:

Haidt’s attempt to apply evolutionary psychology is yet one more example of the failures of scientism. There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

E.O. Wilson, Sam Harris, and David Sloan Wilson undoubtedly also included. The trouble arises in trying to connect the dots in too simple a contour. Haidt’s observations about flavors of moral feelings among liberals and conservatives is interesting and perhaps useful. But, as Gray suggests, it is where this naturalism ignores the cascading complexities of history that trouble arises. And when it tries to crawl onto the shores of policy and normative ethics, Gray takes even greater exception; the is-ought barrier is unassailable.

There are some assumptions by Gray that could use some critiquing. He quotes Haidt’s favorable perspective on utilitarianism and contrasts it with Berlin’s values pluralism. Gray is skeptical that culture war topics like abortion or gay rights can be cast into a utilitarian form and are better entertained through a recognition that a divergent moral landscape is the inevitable product of the complexities that culture hath wrought. What ought to be done can’t be converged on in any coherent manner because of exactly the kinds of intuitions that Haidt has identified as leading to divergence. While not supporting utilitarianism, I think Gray does a disservice to the moral evolution that we can observe over time, the greatest driver of which is media depictions that play on our natural tendencies towards empathy (Gray chuckles a bit at Haidt’s suggestion that members of Congress get together for garden parties, but building familiarity against contempt is what Haidt is advocating). The dots certainly don’t resolve into simple contours, but stepping back from the page, there are strongly repeating patterns that are closely tied to our evolutionary heritage as social animals. In some cases these resolve into Haidt’s typology of fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, but in each case there are stronger currents just below them.

Moral Adaptive Bridges

The reviews of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, have begun in earnest. William Saletan raises the implicit question embedded in Haidt’s objective stance: is reasoned consideration of moral questions an improvement over traditionalism? That is, even if we accept that moral intuitions are emotional and reactive, are we not better when we transcend those intuitions and rely instead on a rational calculus that carefully weighs the pros and cons of personal decisions and social policies?

A clear example is the changing perspective in America towards gay marriage. The issue serves as a proxy for the general acceptance of gays and lesbians in society. And, critically, it is at odds with Haidt’s dimensional characterization of the conservative mind as focusing on the sacrosanct while the liberal mind is focused on fairness and reason. Why is it at odds? Because public opinion has moved steadfastly towards acceptance over time. The influence of tradition and the sacrosanct appears to wane.  We see this again and again in America; racism falls before the onslaught of reason, religious bigotry and anti-semitism dissolve into the background noise. What once was a source of moral revulsion is now justified as a source of moral standing.

How does change occur? We can invoke Sam Harris’ notion of The Moral Landscape to help understand the character of drift. Harris’ landscape is an abstraction of the notion of an adaptive landscape. In evolutionary change over multi-variate topographies, the primary problem that occurs is that of “local minima” (or, alternatively “local maxima”). That is, as species change in response to environmental signals, they become specialized in a very narrow niche. An alternative set of traits would yield better outcomes but, because they are well adapted to the local environment, they never jump out and discover the better set of traits.

One way of overcoming a kind of moral lock-in is through randomness. Trial and error variations move systems from one valley to another, deeper one. But with moral calculations applied to policy, there are deterministic mechanisms at work. Moreover, the gradualism that we see where public opinion changes in increments suggests that there are smooth bridges from one valley to another.

Moral Feelings and Reactions

Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times rounds up the exceptional work of Jonathan Haidt and others in his opinion piece, here. In reading it, I was reminded of the complicated reactions I encountered to an opinion piece I authored in the local paper about five years ago.

I wrote the piece, titled “Scouts and the Constitution,” following helping neighbors develop a rousing audio-visual tribute to their son’s achievement of Eagle Scout status in the Boy Scouts of America. His journey was not without complications: the parents had misrepresented through omission certain moral failings of the boy, and the boy had, himself, some misgivings about the requirements that were involved in becoming an Eagle. Yet, they had all persevered through steadfast inertia and asked me to help put together a short video. It was not difficult, though I tried to point out that Steve Miller’s  Fly Like an Eagle probably sends the wrong message on closer analysis (more on that in a moment).

We attended his Eagle event at a local church and I got to witness my video being used as part of the activities. The scout leader spent some time describing the number of local scouts who had moved on to military careers and how scouting prepared them for national service.  But then he let slip that it was the conjunction of their religious commitment and scouting that made them especially suited to defend the US Constitution. I felt oddly hollowed out by that comment, though I myself have sworn that oath as part of joining the US Peace Corps several decades ago.

The problem that led to my editorial is that the US Constitution specifically calls out that there shall be no religious test for any elected position in the United States.  That seems wildly at odds with an organization that requires its members to swear allegiance to God, though allowing polytheists in while excluding Buddhists.  I suggested rather calmly that I thought that Eagle Scouts should lead the charge to make scouting less controversially patriotic and more American.

And the reactions began, in online forums and among my neighbors. To sum up, those who considered the Boy Scouts to be sacrosanct simply considered me to be an ass and a liberal one at that for even bringing up the idea that there was something unpatriotic about the policies of scouting. But, amazingly, I never heard a single complaint that I was factually wrong or misrepresented the Constitution or the policies of the Boy Scouts. In fact, like Jonathan Haidt’s studies, the people were simple offended at the violation of their feelings about the institution of scouting.  I, despite having been a Boy Scout for several years, had no such feelings; the institution was subject to scrutiny based on its merits like any other institution.  Quoting Kristof, I violated the “loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity” portions of the landscape of their moral feelings.  Moreover, Steve Miller’s song about a revolution to feed the poor probably doesn’t work for most of them, either, although the Boy Scouts are otherwise strong in the charitable-giving department: revolutions just don’t respect authority.

My takeaway, like Kristof’s, is that reason is secondary to the ethical calculus that is at play in social and political reasoning. Still, it leaves us with the quandary as to how one’s upbringing determines what valences are attached to the different dimensions of moral reasoning. There is some evidence, for instance, that authoritarian parents instill conservative values to their children, while liberals transmit reason-driven considerations of fairness. Kristoff distances himself from that work through a few rhetorical efforts to soften and diffuse the role of reason in moral decision-making.

Fiction and Empathy

The New York Times reviews the neuroscience associated with reading fictional accounts, concluding that the brain states of readers show similar activation patterns to people experiencing the events described in the book. This, in turn, enhances and improves our own “theory of mind” about others when we read about social interactions:

[I]ndividuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature suggests that the advent of the printing press is where we see the start of a shift in European societies’ attitudes about violence. The spread of reading and the growth of political satire correlate with reductions in state violence through the 19th Century and into the 20th (yes, he argues the 20th shows a reduction in violence, despite our intuitions about WWI and WWII). Think Voltaire. Think All Quiet on the Western Front.

Teleology, Chapter 26

Wherein, the protagonist, Mikey, his twin brother, Harry, and a journalist, Jacob, are being physically healed by intelligent nanomachines while their consciousnesses are in a virtual world that appears to be a research ship in the Pacific Ocean.


We hovered in our “matrix” of sorts for ten more days. The Lexis reported that the search by US military forces was intensifying. Swarms of unmanned underwater and airborne vehicles were scouring the sea, though the most intense efforts were concentrated several hundred kilometers from our new location. The Lexis believed that the platform was in jeopardy because of the new connectivity that they had achieved to the outside world through the control of the nanobots, but also seemed consigned to whatever fate I dictated concerning their disposition. I chose to wait because our medical conditions were improving day by day—at least according to them—and I saw no reason to emerge until maximally healed.

We relaxed aboard the Recherché in the meantime, eating Cottard’s increasingly elaborate cooking and drinking his exceptional wines. The wines and foods were all familiar to me, I realized; the sensations had been mined from our thoughts and recollections. There was something disturbing about that, though I didn’t feel particularly violated because the Lexis were both a familiar quantity to me and their motivations I suspected were not malevolent.

While waiting I worked with the Lexis to try to understand how they had taken command of the external nanomachines and how they had modified them to improve their functionality. They regarded the entire exercise as something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was an elaborate artistic effort designed to promote the idea of the Creator among their kind by showing my adventures in an almost unimaginable heaven that they saw us living in. The idea of our physical universe was largely outside their ken but was supported through the equivalent of oral traditions among their kind. Even the act of saving us was more like rearranging statuary on an altar to them—an act of religious observance that had moral implications as mystical stories but was otherwise not translatable into their frame of reference.

I asked for control over the spatial representations and they created a series of dashboards on the bridge of the ship that allowed me to, initially, change textures and lighting. Being becalmed in a misty fog was wearing on me, so I admitted sunlight and designed a small island with a lone palm tree for fun. I asked for a view of the platform and they provided it, showing how dark it was three miles below the surface of the pacific before I asked for alternative lighting and an ultrasonic visualization was provided. The platform was huge, now, yet they were still building, focusing on support structures for landing Leapers and docking cargo ships for a larger industrial enterprise.

I was sitting with Jacob and Harry when I asked them why they chose the designs they had chosen. It was very simple, the Lexis had replied, the designs were needed in order to build and lift the components needed to create the Cosputer. They had read my mind and were simply following through on what they thought was needed to make it happen. Harry had been solemn for the past several days, ever since I revealed that we were in a simulation and showed him a video of what had transpired.

“I’m worried that you really are the anti-Christ, Mikey. Look, you have created the power to live forever and create your own heaven.”

“Trapped on a ship is hardly heaven, Harry, although Cottard’s cooking is very good,” I joked, “But seriously, man, I don’t want to deceive anyone. I don’t want to lie. I don’t intend to harm anyone and, as far as I know no one has been harmed except for a few of your compatriots in those Leapers. Other than people not being so interested in Christ or Allah or Mohammed or Krishna, what lies do you see?”

“Well, that’s just it. There is the great lie of separation from God that you are promoting.”

“I’ve never understood that, Harry. You are claiming that there is this rift and it is caused by human choice and belief, yet is only discernable to a select few like yourself, while the rest of us are just victims of some impending doom. When I talked of private versus public knowledge, I was being far too kind, really. The fact is that you are asking people to surrender their minds and all thinking to a series of irrational abstractions. It is delusional and crazy in a very real way. I am not even sure what the Cosputer can be used for. The idea of being absorbed into it is just one possibility that is not even well worked out. Mostly I’m interested in this slightly incomprehensible physics that happens when these micro black holes start whirling in close orbits near their event horizons.”

“But it is all so inhuman. Our gods were designed for us here on Earth,” Jacob said.

“They were. That is the secret, really, Harry. You can escape from the tyranny of the irrational by just giving yourself over to one of the oldest realizations: we invented the gods to order our world and help us. You can be a good Christian again if you realize that. There is no explaining the cruelty and horror of the Old Testament or the barbarism of the Koran without that realization. Odd, though, when I put it that way it actually gives Christianity a slightly elevated position among the Abrahamic trinity, at least. Perhaps ‘the least offensive of them’ is the more proper description. Still, you get a tremendous amount of mileage out of religion if you just give up on the literalism and irrationality. You can appreciate the messages of love and understanding as reflections of a fundamental need for people to live together. Though shall not steal or murder makes perfect sense as evolved algorithms for social order and were invented by every major civilization through religion or civil law or some combination of the two. Religion was and is an evolutionary learning system that has served us well but you are showing the unintended consequences of that primitive system when you are irrationally literal about these things. Actually, though, that is incorrect. You are not being particularly literal on these issues. You are being too expansively creative, instead, trying to apply poetic mythical guidance to every event in the world according to whims of your dictates. God didn’t intervene to give the US the first atomic bomb or infect the Chinese computing network with the Shibboleth 7 virus in 2034, but God is worried about my nanomedicine inventions and what their role is in the grand theater of the end of the world? Why not show some humility and just calmly wait for things to happen? Why are you so egotistical that you think you have a role in all this?”

Harry was stunned at my diatribe and sat still for a long pause just watching me. “Maybe I have a role because of who you are,” he said sheepishly.

“Maybe, but it is definitely the case that there is nothing evil in any definition of the word to what I have accomplished so far, nor was there ever evil intent, nor did I directly or indirectly hurt anyone. I can’t even tell you the last time I lied to anyone, Harry. I am certainly flawed in many ways. I doubt myself. I think badly of others sometimes. I hated you for years, though I’m not sure how flawed that was. I have lustful thoughts, which is something that your people seem to find bothersome yet with too many examples of hypocrisy to bother enumerating. Mostly, though, I have just studied the history of ideas and rational thought to come up with what I have achieved. And here you are, being brought back from the dead to share in the future.”

Jacob poured himself another glass of virtual wine. He was clearly enjoying my rant. “Mikey, do you think it would be possible to create a nanobot virus or something that would actually disable or remove the urge of people to be religious? Would that be possible?”

I sat back down, realizing suddenly that I had been pacing, and poured a glass myself. “I suppose so. Our minds are currently interfaced together supporting the direct stimulation of our sensory subsystems to provide an almost perfect simulation of normal reality. That knowledge could be used to stop religious thinking, too, I guess.”

“Under what circumstances would you consider doing something like that? Let’s say that some crazed Muslim terrorists were plotting a bombing and you came to know about it. Would you be willing to simply stop the titer of dopamine or whatever that feeds that religious feeling? How about when Harry was about to bomb Rio?”

Harry stayed quiet while listening to our discourse. He was angry, I could tell, periodically shaking his head in disbelief at what he was hearing.

“I don’t think so. Morally, I see a basic principle of minimal action to achieve a needed goal in play. The person should be allowed to think and, well, not-think, their way through complex dilemmas up and to the point where they are going to take action to harm someone else. Then, the choice should be based on the least invasive means to achieve the goal of stopping them. So, I guess I would blow out Harry’s van’s tires before I would invade his brain. He has a right to think badly, I suppose, and we have a right to protect ourselves against that bad thinking, but we have minimal rights to modify his brain.”

“What about for the mentally ill? Let’s say that there are people who are pathologically aggressive due to a genetic predisposition. Do we have the right to modify their brain under those circumstances? And what if religious fervor is, in fact, linked to this tendency towards magical thinking and dopamine? Is it acceptable to consider religious feeling mental illness under those circumstances? You just declared it all expansively irrational, after all.”

“Hard questions, but the problem of mental illness and its relationship to crime has to be driven by the individual. Same with religious belief taken to extremes, I think. If Harry wanted his brain modified, I would be inclined to let him make that choice. But for the delusional psychotic it may be appropriate to modify their brains just a bit in order to get them to a level where they are at least able to process information accurately enough to be able to make the choice as to whether they want to have the mental illness lifted from them. Anything else bespeaks tyranny to me, even given an otherwise irrational hatred of another group or people. You kind of need a Turing Test in way to determine whether someone is mentally capable or not.”

Harry seemed roused from his funk, “What’s that?”

“Alan Turing, British chap who developed much computational theory and worked on decrypting German Enigmas in World War II. The Turing Test is simple enough. If you communicate with a remote system and it convinces you it is human, then it is indistinguishable from human. That’s what I brought Jacob out to the platform for in a sense—to let him talk to the Lexis. But a weaker version of the Turing Test might apply to human rationality. If a remote communicator leaves the impression that it is capable of decision-making based on principles that are mostly internally consistent and can reason about the outside world, then they must be seen as mentally capable. This is slightly different, I think, from the legal dividing lines of sane versus insane, but is useful to me to answer this question, at least. Since Harry would have passed that test even around the time of the bombing, he would be entitled to just being shot dead rather than having his mind altered to bring it into better conformity with some greater rationality.”

Jacob was intrigued, “So, do you retract your claim of irrationality, then, concerning religious belief? Your requirement of sufficiency of rationality would be disputed by people like Szasz.”

“It’s worth nuance, I think. We can be irrational about many things. I loved Cassandra. I love my mom. My emotion on these points is just that—subjective—not derived out of rational consideration of their value to society or me, yet when we generate poetry about our loved ones we don’t expect that poetry to command us to act irrationally. Rationality is an understanding of consequence and an acceptance of limitations, I think. I read books in my teens that were so interesting to me that I wished they were, in fact, true. If I had translated that wish into actively trying to make them true, I would have been in trouble. I didn’t and most people who feel that way about their favorite fiction don’t commit crimes, either. Religion seems to be the exception.”

“Stop. Who did you read?”

“Niven’s Known Space, Dick, McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Anton Wilson; the hit list goes on and on. I wasn’t overly discerning until later in life,” I said, trying to distance myself from youthful exuberance. “Your comment on Szasz—Myth of Mental Illness, right?—isn’t as accurate as you might want it to be. Reality is partly a social construct, but equality for all in a safe environment kinda trumps that. Witches could be burned had they really, provably, been harming people.”

Jacob was intrigued, now. “Wish fulfillment is aspirations run amok. We visualize what we would like to be true—to be real—and sometimes it jibes with actual outcomes. Could you see religion as wish fulfillment, then? Irrational when at its worst but a driving force for moral reasoning at best, especially when there is no, was no, educational background that helped promote reasoning about ethical decisions?”

“Absolutely. Daddy is watching me and will whack me if I don’t do the right thing. My desire is muzzled by the constraints of religious teachings, just like the legal system and ethical reasoning constrains us today.”

Harry was sitting up, attentive again, “So you don’t think that my thinking was inherently crazy, just that when it was combined with the bombing it became crazy?”

“I suppose so. I said before that I forgive you and I mean it, but that forgiveness is almost exclusively predicated on you being able to keep it in your pants, so to speak. Talk all you want but don’t mix diesel and fertilizer. Craziness is only relevant when it exceeds the bounds of one mind. The worrisome thing for me is the question of where children’s minds live in this kind of an ethical system. Legally, here in America,” I realized the humor of what I had said, “or back there in America, I should say, children are a special, protected class of citizens, entitled to some rights but having lesser rights, as well. Still, I think the same rules must apply. Until the crazy religious kook hits the kid as part of indoctrination, there is no harm done. I would dearly love that the Madrasahs and Rabbinical and Catholic schools taught kids to reason first and then asked them if they wanted to believe afterwards, but the end of that kind of thing is a long way out.”

“OK, OK,” Jacob continued, “I see your point concerning manipulating brains directly. But how about doing it indirectly?”

“What do you mean?”

“Lexis, could you make the platform fly?” Jacob asked into the air over the wine bottle.

“Yes, certainly.”

“Could you turn the platform into a sphere of nanomachines that could work cooperatively to achieve different goals while hovering in the air?”


“Could you create nanomachines that could go into people’s homes and project three dimensional holograms of Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna and have those holograms talk to the people?”


“See, Mikey, you are in the lobby of omnipotence. You could drive people’s beliefs without the need for modifying their brains. But is it ethical? Let’s say that you could use these holograms to tell Muslim terrorists that they were on the wrong path?”

“It’s an intriguing possibility, though the ethical dilemma is that it is deceptive. I would be deceiving them that I was their god or prophet or something.”

“Right, OK, what if the talking hologram was none of the above but indicated that it was a new representative of ‘great forces for good’ or something happily neutral sounding, and it indicated that great good could come about by not following the old ways? It would have to happen to everyone on the planet on the same day and would have the remarkable benefit of being direct experience. The Lexis know all the languages of mankind, too, which would make it easy for them to translate the message of sorts. What would you command, oh Creator?”

“I still feel uncomfortable. Even with careful avoidance of details, it feels deceptive. It fails the sniff test. I’m trying to get others to believe certain things and willing to exploit their weaknesses to achieve my goals.”

“Yahweh and Allah and Jesus didn’t have that kind of conscience, you know? They demand things of people and are not apparently concerned with their feelings, very much. Job expressed doubt but there wasn’t much sympathy on the part of God. We are the pathetic creatures to be toyed with for our own good.”

“Jesus didn’t do that,” Harry exclaimed, “Jesus just loved us.”

“Well, he loved us so much that he threatened us with Hell, a concept that didn’t even exist in the Old Testament. He loved us so much that he was resurrected and left the planet. Why bother, really? How does any of that translate into some supermiraculous love? God gave his son… God is omnipotent. He could create any number of super luminous beings and send them on down to us. And then Jesus becomes identical with God in some Trinitarian blurring together of words? You are demanding that we give up rationality again and just support random semantic constructs.”

“It’s not random to us. The trinity is real and reflects differing aspects of God. Jesus is the redeemer aspect.”

“Nonsensical and contradictory. Our moral compass has evolved an exquisite sensitivity to fairness and to being treated unfairly, yet your God wants fairness only for believers. It worked as a cosmic plotline for bad poetry, but it doesn’t scan now. All the Abrahamic gods lack morality, lack love and lack kindness in any modern sense. They lack the ability to grant that to the people because they are not as great as their creations. I can’t trick or force people to not believe, just as I can’t trick or force people to believe in something new, because it is wrong for me to do so. It is abstractly wrong—ideologically wrong—because I abstractly believe in freedom and personal ideals. That was only a weak theme in good old-fashioned religion. You have the choice, perhaps, but the choice has supernatural consequences. I would not promise the impossible because it would be wrong, nor would I manipulate possibilities. All I could do is accept the choices.”

“How close were we all to death?” Jacob asked. He was pulling the cork from another bottle the steward had brought in off Cottard’s infinite wine list.

I peered at him and laughed, “Lexis, were any of us technically dead in the sense of our hearts having stopped for an extended period of time?”

The air fluttered and spoke, “Yes, both you and Harry were technically dead according to that criterion. Creator, your heart was stopped for two hours and forty minutes while we repaired the damage. Harry was dead for twenty seven minutes.”

“Harry, we both rose from the dead and have the possibility of being benevolent gods. Any interest?”

Harry was angry, now, “Just because you have these powers doesn’t make you into a god!”

“Why not? What separates your God and Jesus from super-intelligent and super-potent space aliens? Or some pre-existing form of life that looks remarkably like us. After all, we were made in God’s image, weren’t we?”

“But God is infinite love, the creator of all things, and light!”

“You don’t really mean that, though, do you? He can’t be light per se. Light is just electromagnetic radiation, so you can’t mean that literally, right?”

“Not literally, but in the sense of goodness.”

“Well, why not just say ‘goodness’ then, rather than saying ‘light’? But more critically, I am a creator, at least to these Lexis, and I have the ability to love all people, at least enough that I won’t harm them. What makes this possibility so very different from your God?”

“You are not infinite and omniscient.”

“And how does being actually infinite and omniscient make God better than me? First, it doesn’t really make any sense. If God were infinite He would occupy all known space or even perhaps all space including unknown space. That would mean that we were in fact part of God’s body, but that would also mean that we couldn’t actually be apart from God. It would be more like pantheism, I think. And ho ho for omniscience. How does knowing everything that is happening, has happened in the past or will happen actually make God good? He obviously isn’t really using that power to save us from disease, much less even Yahweh’s chosen people or Allah’s chosen people or anyone else. He foresees every little cancer, but let’s us suffer through them for our spiritual growth. Ahhh, yes, but He sees a greater purpose that we can’t possibly know that is still to come and happens in the afterlife. But so what? We can live forever, or at least until the universe collapses by simply repairing these bodies at a molecular level. We can eliminate pain and suffering without actually needing to know the future. The future doesn’t much matter insofar as you are not subject to its impacts.”

“Those are the lies we feared, Mikey. You are promoting the greatest lie that we can live without Jesus. It is all unfolding just like we had feared. You may very well be Satan incarnate.”

I laughed and sipped at the Bordeaux. Harry was agitated and it wasn’t going away. I tried to calm him down a bit, “Come on, Harry, this is just a discussion. You must have had discussions like this over the years?”

“Not really. We talked about our love of Jesus, mostly, and matters related to the church. This kind of blasphemous speculation never came up.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because we are more godly than you. We understand the power of Christ to redeem our souls. You don’t even care. You just want to change this world without regard for Heaven.”

“Wait, are you implying that any attempt to explain this world or make life better for people is evil? That seems remarkable to me. Didn’t you go build clinics somewhere to help people?”

“Yes, but it was done in Jesus’ name. That’s the difference.”

Jacob was perplexed, “So, if Mikey had done exactly the same research and come up with exactly the same results but had been an avid Christian, you would embrace the outcomes as good?”

“Yes, if he called on the Holy Spirit and he did God’s will and helped people through nanomedicine or whatever, than it would be holy, too.”

“I guess I don’t see what difference it makes? What if Mikey were to project into every home in every language that he wanted everyone to follow his new interpretation of Christianity that had brought about these miraculous changes to our lives? And let’s say that you weren’t aware of this discussion, would you believe it to be true and good?”

“I suppose so. The name of Jesus purifies everything, so if he was to use it it must be holy.”

I was mortified. He was suggesting a kind of warding magic. If the word was used, it had power in itself. But not all words had that power, just the word “Jesus.” “You are aware of the No True Scotsman fallacy, aren’t you?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Well, you want this invocation to have power, but there must be some other Christians who you don’t think are right, right? Like the Christians who support gay marriage and pride, or those who think evolution is accurate science?”

“They aren’t true Christians.”

“Well, how is it that they pray, invoke the name of Jesus, yet come away with all these wrong ideas? I thought the word purified everything?”

“They’re just misguided.”

“Right, no true Scotsman would murder his clansman, so he just can’t be a Scotsman. It’s as old as stone. Once again, if you want words to have meaning and power, they have to be at least consistent in their meaning. If you say the word Jesus has power, then you have to explain why it doesn’t have power most of the time. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me. Nothing. Bupkes. I’m irredeemable and you were brought back from the dead by the miraculous intervention of science. It’s not a lie and, honestly, the closest thing to a grand, all-encompassing and deep conspiratorial lie I’ve ever encountered is the claim that there are supernatural beings who created us, intervene in our lives and can be petitioned to carry out our wishes. We have the power to try to make that lie stop, yet so many fools and children buy into it because it gets them laid, because it comforts them, because they never think for themselves, because they are unwilling to ask basic questions about why we are here and what we should do with our lives. Here we are, though, continuing on with the grand mystical tradition of living and we still haven’t given ourselves over to an honest assessment that there are no gods at all out there, that we are part of a remarkable and random event, possibly driven by forces we don’t yet understand but altogether unrelated to the little wondrous fables that were invented during the Roman Empire.” I paused and realized I was too riled up, but there was sudden inspiration, too. “But what if we did what Jacob suggested, Harry? What if I did fly around in a big impervious sky ball and tell people that God has really returned and that they must do certain things. Would you see my decision making as being influenced by Satan? Does Satan influence me either way, really? If I decide not to do it because it is dishonest at some level or if I decide to go ahead with it?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because neither was done in the name of Jesus, I suppose, so it wouldn’t matter.”

“I get the broken record thing, Harry. I also have to turn you over to the police when you are well enough to move. You realize that, don’t you?”

“I do. I came to you to warn you. I don’t care about my fate here on Earth any longer.”

“What if I gave you the option of remaining in this state of suspension, instead? You would effectively be in jail. You could observe outside events but would otherwise live inside a virtual cocoon. Not as primitive as this but at least as lonely?”

Jacob cocked his head, “Why would you do that? You don’t think society—the other families—deserve some kind of justice?”

“Wouldn’t I be giving it to them? They would know he was decommissioned and I might even tell them that he was imprisoned. And, in a way, he would be helping with the Cosputer effort. This virtualization is just one step removed from being truly bodiless. He would better serve here as a research subject in righting the wrong to Rio and its employees than in a federal prison, wouldn’t he?”

“You would have to tell the families. They wouldn’t agree to it.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. If I were to move him and his body into space, there would be no jurisdictional issues. Well, I could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a fugitive, I suppose, were I to return to the States. Or, alternatively, I could just offer to house all criminals in such a place, thus getting Harry as part of the bargain.”