31 May 2013

Matthew Hughes' tribute to the late Jack Vance

Matthew Hughes, who alone among the writers of speculative fiction can reasonably claim successorship to the late Jack Vance (who died Sunday at 96), has written a beautiful and moving tribute.  http://www.fantasyliterature.com/obituary/thank-you-jack-vance/

28 May 2013

Lucretius Carus' phenomenally modern (1st Century B.C.) ideas

Here are some precepts divined by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve, from Lucretius' Epicurean philosophy, as expressed in the 1st Cen. B.C. poem, De Rerum Natura ("on the nature of things"):
• Everything is made up of invisible and indivisible particles.
• These particles are eternal.
• Particles are in motion in a vast void.
• Particles exist in unimaginably vast numbers, but have a limited number of forms.
• The universe was not created nor designed.
• Slight deviations from predictable motions (“swerve” or “inclination”) is the source of variation and free will.
• Nature ceaselessly experiments with new forms.
• Human beings are not special; they are made up of particles and void like everything else, and are animals much like other animals.
• Human society never experienced a golden age in the past, but began in primitive struggle for survival; through learning and experience it has become possible to improve human life.
• The “soul” dies with the body; it is not other than the particles and void that all things are made of.
• There is no afterlife.
• Death is nothing to us, because it is, in fact, nothing.
• All organized religion is superstition and delusion.
• Religions always result in cruelty and suffering.
• The highest goal of life is well being and avoiding pain.
• The greatest obstacle to well being is not pain, it is delusion, because suffering is mostly mental.
• Real understanding of the nature of things generates awe and wonder.

The breathtaking modernity of these concepts is amazing.

02 May 2013

Hominicentrist I am

Everyone believes things without strong evidence. What's dogmatic or irrational is believing things despite strong contrary evidence. For example, believing the creation dogma of fundamentalist Christianity, or believing that global climate change is a hoax or not supported by evidence (because it is; denying that is just denying what's in front of your nose).

But there are a lot of propositions, especially about likely future outcomes of trends, where rational extrapolation or inference is either wildly uncertain or really just impossible. Yet we all have beliefs about such things, whether we give them conscious thought or not, or whether we voice them or not.
Having said that, here's a belief of mine, which I share with Annalee Newitz (here):  The human race will survive the current mass extinction. In fact, I'd go so far as to say, we will beat the odds on average lifetime of terrestrial species by at least several standard deviations, and when our species does cease to exist, it will be because our descendants have evolved into other species, not because we became extinct without descendants.

Why do I believe this? Because I have a gut feeling. But it isn't just a gut feeling, it's a feeling that our particular and peculiar favorable adaptation, which is the ability to relatively accurately model reality and construct technology to modify the environment, is so blazingly superior to precursor adaptations in our ancestors and relatives, and so very adaptive, that I would not bet against our longterm survival and success. We will figure out how to survive, and thrive, and prevail. Even beyond the confines of "our time" and this Earth. Not all of us, but as a species.

If that's hominicentric (or whatever the word is), I plead guilty. Except I don't think it's wrong, I think it's just real.