stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

The Grotte du Mas d’Azil spear thrower

I listened to a very interesting programme on Radio 4 today summarising what’s known about Palaeolithic cave and portable art. Three experts in the field gave their views, including Paul Petitt, who wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions. One contributor, when describing portable art, alluded to the famous spear thrower from Grotte du Mas d’Azil, describing it as an example of an image of defecation. But, as has been noted variously in the archaeological world, animals don’t look backwards when defecating (see public domain photo below), whereas they do when giving birth. The depiction of the Grotte du Mas d’Azil spear thrower is far better interpreted as an image of a deer giving birth, upon which a pair of birds – probably corvids – perch. This avian behaviour is commonly seen in the wild, when corvids or other birds feed on the caul etc. The humour in the image is definitely there though, since the corvids’ beaks are the hook upon which the spear would be anchored.

Towards Dystopia

A fascinating article in yesterday’s Guardian previewing the new Netflix film The Social Dilemma outlines the scale of the problem humanity faces in the internet:

“… the tech industry’s tools, most predominantly social media, aren’t promising tools but too-powerful entities fragmenting attention and rewiring brains by design; that addiction to phones and social media is a function of their business model; that this divisive, degrading status quo is driving us straight to dystopia.” (The Guardian, 9/9/20)

Over the last five years I’ve pondered more and more the qualities of the internet, and become more and more dejected about it. My novel The Autist hypothesises a grim future, while other as yet unpublished works do the same. I’m not optimistic. An encounter with an ex-colleague in my local park a couple of days ago confirmed this mood, my friend, in his sixties, remarking that because of his decade of birth he felt he had lived through a golden age of liberalism and humanism – roughly the beginning of the 1960s to 2010. His hasn’t been the only voice I’ve heard making this observation.

I now think the great danger of social media in particular is the question of belief. The mushroom-like rise of conspiracies is just one symptom of the state we find ourselves in. Other symptoms include 50/50 polarisation, the rise of the anti-Science and anti-expert movements, and the proliferation of absurd cults amplified by the particular qualities of the internet, qualities so well summarised by Dr Mary Aiken in her book The Cyber Effect.

Human beings derive meaning about their world from the stories they tell. In millennia past, those stories were broad and monolithic: spiritual traditions and religions. What was believed by the masses came from particular sources: Buddha, christianity etc. The latter, religious, were dogmatic and enforced, but they were simple and fairly constant. The former, spirituality in prehistoric times, were local meaning frameworks; lack of understanding about the natural world’s laws, for all that prehistoric people had phenomenal environmental knowledge and powers of interpretation, led to belief in spirits, souls, spiritual realms, mystical beings and so on. All these beliefs were promulgated by stories – origin stories, moral stories, stories about behaviour, fate, the sky and the land.

In the 1960s in the West religious faith began to decline, as liberal, humane views spread – the liberal story, as Yuval Noah Harari observed, was the only tale in town. But now, as he went on to say, humanity has no story.

The internet has created a human social environment which by virtue of its particular qualities – immediate response (i.e. active as opposed to traditional passive participation), the potential for anonymity, its overly visual style and the parallel reduction in the value of the word and therefore reason – has allowed any individual to choose what they believe. This is, therefore, a startling and exceptionally dangerous moment in human history. There being no overall ethical authority in their lives, people have diminished to herd mentality, either following whims or disbelieving everything except their parents’ fundamental values.

This, then, is the danger. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, believing in a christian god has all the sanity of believing in a teapot orbiting the Earth. Neither belief is based in the truth of the natural world. Both are human belief systems that are attractive because of the narrative they tell – that the world was created by him on the cloud, or that teapots can fly. Such narratives appeal variously: to Westerners, to hippies.

The internet has become a vast, fragmented, semi-random, whimsical collection of belief stories. Everybody needs a meaning framework to survive – to live without one is to go insane. Lacking any other obvious ethical source, and seduced by the exploiters of the internet, the majority have chosen whatever out there takes their fancy. But those belief stories are lies. Worse, they are trite, semi-random lies.

Facts won’t mend this disaster. The only option is to tell the real human story based on our truth, which is itself based in the natural world. We can understand ourselves and the origin of consciousness. We can make sense of the human condition in a rising tide of chaotic digital noise. Unfortunately, such stories aren’t attractive when compared with life-ever-after or teapots in space.

A shame. The real thing is wonderful.

Nothing Is True Any More

Today social media delighted in a row of books behind Boris Johnson as, at Castle Rock School, he mouthed Tory propaganda and absolved himself of responsibility. I very rarely share political stuff on Facebook, but this story (perhaps because it featured lots of dystopian novels) tickled my fancy, so I shared it. A couple of hours later it turned out that the school librarian had made the display months before Johnson’s visit, as he departed his place of employment. The social media story was untrue. The message of the book titles had been left by the librarian for school managers.

My reaction was to share the Huffington Post correction and delete the original story, but the response of various of my friends was enlightening – and frightening. Many of them thought the original post appropriate, ironic, amusing etc. All a good joke at Johnson’s expense – opposing Tories more important than actuality.

Also shared yesterday was The Independent’s video of the great Sacha Baron Cohen speaking passionately about the dangers of social media. I’ve written and spoken a few times about these dangers, but I’m becoming aware now that more people are just giving up on resisting (the main theme of my novel The Autist, which features a Thai anti-internet group called Fri – i.e. Free). So here are some thoughts on what’s happening and what those dangers are.

It’s a combination of two things – the intrinsic narcissism of most of us, which leads both to irrational belief and deliberate propaganda, and the peculiarities of the digital life, which allow immediate response, bypassing reasoned, “slow” (as Daniel Kahneman put it) thought. This then is the danger: by creating an environment which human beings interact with as if it’s real, yet which is abstract and able to fool people using a number of simple psychological methods, we’re tearing ourselves from our roots in the real world. If millions of people come to the conclusion that – especially if the internet is their main source of active participation in life – they might as well give up bothering to find out what’s true and what’s propaganda, then humanity is doomed as a sane species. We literally are tearing ourselves from our own minds, either by creating alternate realities which the majority of people accept as real and true, or by inculcating a sense of disbelief so profound the concepts of reality and fantasy merge into one thing – a mess of cynical disbeliefs too complex to untangle.

As Daniel Kahneman observed, people are usually too lazy to take the time to reason. As Erich Fromm observed, narcissism operates through self-delusion. And as Yuval Noah Harari observed, most people don’t know themselves. Yes: so far, the human race hasn’t covered itself in glory regarding its understanding of the real world – oh, except, of course, over the last five hundred years… “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.” – Carl Sagan, scientist.

For me, narcissism is the fundamental metaphor of the human mind. Overcoming it through life is our main task. The internet, and social media in particular, is an environment which facilitates and amplifies that narcissism still remaining in the human species. In ethical terms, it is a retrogressive entity. Personally, I think it’s a very dangerous entity. But I seem to be in the minority in thinking so – and in acting as I think. I deleted the untrue post and posted the true one. How many others did likewise? And how many of my friends laughed off the original post?

Well, maybe I’m too serious. But, then again, we are creatures of narrative. The human narrative for 100,000 years has been one lie after another, promulgated by religion and spirituality. But those lies were passive; and they were essential at the time, serving to explain the otherwise inexplicable. The new lies are far more dangerous because they’re active. Suddenly everybody can participate in what they believe. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred they believe whatever takes their fancy.

To paraphrase something else Yuval Noah Harari said: what’s so dangerous about our times is that, having discarded the stories of Socialism and Fascism, and now even Liberalism, the human race has no story. I think the human race needs new stories based on reality and humane ethics before it’s too late. But perhaps it’s already too late.

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Magical thinking

Today Donald Trump revealed he is taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to counter Covid-19. What has been interesting, and what this blog post is about, is the media response. In the majority of cases – including at the public session where Trump made his revelation – the media pointed out that there is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is efficacious with this new illness. When asked what the benefits of the drug were, Trump said, “Here’s my evidence. I get a lot of positive calls about it.”

It is correct to state that there is no evidence to support the efficacy of this drug against Covid-19, but that does rather miss the point of Trump taking it. To ask Trump the question about evidence is to assess him on our ground. We can’t do this. Trump, as with all narcissists, must be assessed on his own ground, since he does not live in the world we inhabit. Only then can any conclusion be drawn about his beliefs and why he believes them.

Trump believes that merely by taking the drug he must be influencing his health. That his beliefs are fantasy is not just irrelevant to him, it is 100% terra incognita. He does not know that he does not know. He believes that by acting according to his beliefs about hydroxychloroquine he must therefore be having an effect on his own health.

This is what some call magical thinking. Magical thinking is a symptom of narcissism, in that it explicitly refuses to test beliefs or procedures in the real world. Magical thinking is the exact opposite of the scientific method, which experiments upon the independent real world to determine its laws. In the real world, as many of us realise, hydroxychloroquine has no effect on Covid-19. Spirituality, religion, superstition and the belief in the efficacy of spells are all forms of magical thinking which over time have acquired commonly accepted status in human societies.

For us and the media to state our understanding of the laws of the real world in the case of narcissists like Trump, while semantically correct and scientifically proven, is to miss the point of why narcissists say the things they do. Many people will say Trump is stupid for taking hydroxychloroquine. They are wrong. When Trump made his revelation today, he gave us a glimpse of the fantasy world he inhabits, not of his general level of intelligence.

We need to understand narcissism in all its forms. Trump and his ilk are merely the most obvious in the current political crop. But billions of human beings are thinking, believing and acting in the world today because of personal narcissism which they have not overcome.

Experiment. Hypothesise. Test. Theorise. Understand. We defer to the real world, not the other way around.

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Answering Dennett’s Question For Him

The philosopher and Darwinist Daniel Dennett is puzzled by the continued existence of religious belief. How, he wonders, does it have survival value? The fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins is similarly perplexed by the persistence of religion, 500 years after the beginning of the scientific revolution. I, on the other hand – an ironclad atheist just like D² – am not at all surprised by the persistence of religious belief.

First of all, a few notes on my own stance. I’ve always been an atheist. My novels often have the theme of exposing religion and spirituality for what they are (eg the ‘Factory Girl’ trilogy). I utterly reject any notion of deities, soul or spirit, and the afterlife. I’m also a Darwinist in that I entirely accept Darwin’s wonderful theory of evolution by natural selection. In other words, I’m remarkably like D². Why, then, the difference?

In this blog post I’d like to answer Dennett’s question for him. Why do spirituality (by which I mean belief systems up to 3,000BC or thereabouts) and religion (what came after) continue to exist in societies suffused with and dependent upon the modern evidence based way of thinking? After all, spacefaring nations East and West go to the moon because of science, not prayer. Hospitals work by science, not prayer. Vaccines were discovered by science, not prayer. When you want anything mended you go to a mender, not a priest. In short: prayer obviously doesn’t work in the world. Yet it remains a major focus for the greater proportion of the world’s population.

Spirituality and religion answer four major questions that all human beings must have answered if they are to live coherent, sane lives. Those questions typically revolve around the themes: (i) how did the universe come into existence; (ii) how did I come into existence; (iii) what is the meaning of my life; and (iv) how should I live? No human being can live sane and whole without some basic answer to these four questions. That’s part of being human. In other words, meaning is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. D² have answered the four questions through science. Others answer them through religion. Science, spirituality and religion are all meaning frameworks.

A better reframing therefore of Dennett’s question is: what is the survival value of meaning frameworks? Now we see where D² have gone wrong. Religion is merely an imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks. Atheism is also a human meaning framework. Science is a non-imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks, working through the scientific method, which spirituality and religion explicitly deny.

In other words, from perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago, spirituality was an absolutely inevitable invention for all hunter-gatherers, who could not under any circumstances have survived without it. Human beings profoundly live via metaphor. We tell stories. This is what the Darwinist and the fundamentalist atheist don’t understand. They apply Darwinism to social life. Darwinism in fact applies to bodies created by genetics. Applying Darwinism to social life – asking “What is the survival value of religion?” – is like applying the mechanical processes in clockwork to the notion of eleven o’clock. Eleven o’clock is a human concept emerging from the mechanical processes inside a clock. You don’t ask what eleven o’clock is by observing the precise positions of cogs, levers and hands inside a stopwatch. You enquire as to its meaning in human life.

If human beings are to live happy, just, peaceful lives we have to expose the true nature of spirituality and religion. Pretending it’s all just a bunch of fairy stories, although literally true, strips metaphor from human minds, and without metaphor we are destined for insanity. We need stories to survive, and for the vast majority of human existence we had to invent them, because we didn’t know the truth about the real world. But now we do. Scientists accept that we defer to the real world, not the other way around. It is the real world which teaches us, not some book written 2,000 years ago, or some imaginary collection of principles invented in the depths of the last Ice Age. A new story is therefore required.

Yuval Noah Harari recently pointed out that for the first half of the twentieth century there were essentially three human stories: Capitalism, Socialism and Liberalism. After WW2 there was one human story: Liberalism. But now, we have no human story. That observation should send a chill through the hearts and minds of all who care about the future of the human race.

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“Sir”

I’ve long thought that Labour is finished as a credible force, and now it’s clear that’s true. “Sir” Keir Starmer? Oh, dear. They had the chance to elect somebody relevant… and who did they choose? Not only a white man, but a white man so blinkered he’s accepted an “honour” from the very right-wing establishment he claims to oppose. There is no political opposition now, except in the minds of liberals, greens and humanists.

RIP Labour.

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Vote boy, get boy

I can’t say I’m surprised by today’s election result.

The Tories are one expression of the national character of England. Whereas in, say, America cultural narcissism is expressed via fact-free faith and an obscene surfeit of goods, and in China it appears through the brutal domination of the Chinese Communist Party, in Britain it is more subtle, more concealed. The English national character, exported with callous determination to the other three nations, is expressed via what is deemed a natural social hierarchy. This is why talk of social mobility in this country is a bit of a joke. There is social mobility, but only for people who conform to the norms of those classes in which it is allowed to be feasible. The unspoken thought is: there should be masters above.

Britain is in some respects a progressive country, but in most respects it is backward, fearful and cowardly. We haven’t had a Labour government in Britain since the 1970s. When Blair got in for three terms later on, that happened because he changed the Labour Party to conform with national norms. Labour became Tory-lite. Corbyn had absolutely no chance of succeeding yesterday because he offered something the British don’t want: radical change, humanity, decency, dignity, fairness and a just society. The British in general have little interest in such things. They have been played by the Tories as they always are – with ease, with a ruthless focus on the specifics of power, and with a kind of malicious, part ironic, part arrogant gaiety. Just like their friends at the Daily Mail, the Tories wanted the Labour and Liberal tribes to hate them, to be appalled by them, to loathe, especially via outraged liberals on social media; and they wanted that loathing to be expressed as loudly as possible. This deliberate polarisation, which as they well know is amplified by the digital world, usually benefits them the lean to the right. Too many anti-Tory liberals fell for it, not least on Facebook.

Tory conduct is a sort of thin-lipped, automatic condescension, which to them seems part of human nature but which in fact was manufactured centuries ago by boys who acquired power through violence. I call it ironic because in the main they’re alienated even from their own delight in what they’ve done over the years. They are the bureaucrats of disconnection.

It was significant that the Tories sowed disbelief even in their own trustworthiness. This was a deliberate ploy, as it was in 2016 in America. In times of distrust in politicians, in fake news and alternative facts, populations tend to the right. They do this because it seems to them that anything new and different is frightening; their national conservatism is expressed. In Britain this is particularly the case, as the Tories well know. Via social media they did their best to tear people from their roots in reality. They will do this for the foreseeable future, and when we get to the stage of deepfake videos this country really will be sunk.

Such sundering from human roots began a decade or so ago in my estimation. The scariest statement of the decade was made by Yuval Noah Harari in his superb 21 Lessons For The 21st Century. In it, he showed that before WW2 there were three main stories: Fascism, Socialism, and Liberal Democracy. Soon Fascism was overthrown, then Socialism, leaving just Liberal Democracy. But now, as he put it, we have no story at all. This is the true nightmare facing humanity. Corbyn put forward a story – a story of humanity, fairness and dignity – but he had absolutely no chance with such a tale. Perhaps he should now move to Finland.

We have a political system fit for the nineteenth century based on a voting system fit for the eighteenth. That the hypocrites of Labour and the hypocrites of the Tories have done nothing to give Britain a fair voting system tells you everything you need to know about this miserable, second-class country. It’s deeply ironic that values which are humane and progressive in modern politics are represented by countries we will soon be sundered from, but, frankly, this country deserves nothing more. I’ve been saying for ages that we don’t merit our place on the permanent council of the U.N. We long ago sank into second class mediocrity, and we have further to fall.

True revolution cannot in my opinion occur except outside the system. Those who try to work within it are moulded by it – hence New Labour. Yes, every few decades something good happens because of historical chance, but the other 99.9% is delivered by the system regardless of political colour. In Britain, that system is top heavy and suitably cloaked in the colours of an imaginary meritocracy.

True revolution follows naturally from changes within individuals, who then, if they’re lucky, manage to change their political and cultural environment. Fighting the Tories through their own system is an utter waste of time, quite apart from being meaningless unless you happen to live in a marginal constituency.

As Dorothy Rowe observed, there are no easy answers in life. You have to work hard, most of all at thinking. But thinking is difficult, and the British are lazy. If they’re offered easy answers they will take them. This is the message of today’s Tory victory. Conservatism is easy. Humanity is difficult.

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The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – Franklin Roosevelt.

The recent election tactics of the Tories made me think of this famous quote. Why did they do something so blatant as to rename their CCHQ Twitter account FactcheckUK? And why have they set up a fake Labour manifesto site, again blatantly? Both of these events have been widely reported, and widely shared on social media, especially on Facebook, where the lion’s share of the election will likely be played out.

What at first sight seems counter-productive is that they were “caught out” so easily. But is that the case? Could they have done both deeds deliberately? It’s counter-intuitive to say so, but, yes, they did do it deliberately, knowing they would be spotted and knowing that a huge fuss would be made about it as a consequence. They were relying on that fuss.

Why? Because, as has been shown by Trump and his kind in America, the way to achieve political success via social media is to erode the public’s confidence in truth and reality. This includes trust in all parties, not least the Tories themselves – the thing that seems so counter-intuitive. But it’s not. In situations where the public’s trust of digital media and politicians in general is low, the Establishment, the right wing, the Tories – whatever you want to call them – will benefit. The Tories will gain from this blurring between reality and fiction, between truth and lies, because in such situations public opinion leans to the right. In times of fear and confusion, people go, however reluctantly, with what seems safest, even if only as the least-worst option.

That Labour have revealed a radical, dazzling, wide-ranging manifesto only plays into the hands of the Tories. This is exactly what they wanted to hear. They want Labour to represent optimism, change, radicalism, because they know that’s exactly what the public in times of distrust and confusion will tend to avoid.

And the Tories want people to discuss and share as widely as possible their blatant lies. It doesn’t matter that they indict themselves. They don’t care about that. They have no scruples and are remorseless in their strategy, playing the British population for every advantage they can get. In the digital world, the right are utterly cynical.

And people are falling for it – voters, the media, news organisations, and those on Facebook.

Worried? You ain’t seen nothing yet. You wait until we have an election with video deepfakes.

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Partial Election 2019

There’s never been a General Election in Britain. All we’ve had are a series of Partial Elections.

That sounds pretty crazy, huh? But think. Britain uses a First Past The Post voting system, which is just about fit for the eighteenth century. This however is the twenty first century. All enlightened nations – most of Europe for instance – use Proportional Representation. Britain, America and Canada use FPTP, and all face totally unfair national elections.

In a Partial Election, only marginal seats are meaningful. Only in a marginal seat does your vote have a point. Take Shropshire, for instance. In the constituency of North Shropshire where I used to live, if I voted Tory the Tory would get in; if I voted Labour the Tory would get in; if I voted Lib Dem the Tory would get in; if I voted Green the Tory would get in; if I voted monster Raving Loony the Tory would get in. If I spoiled my vote, the Tory would get it, and if I didn’t vote the Tory would get in. I think this rural blue situation illustrates quite nicely the concept of the meaningless vote.

This moreover is a situation which both Tories and Labour have supported, and with utter hypocrisy, since the FPTP system benefits them, as the two parties in a two-party system. So much for democracy, you titans of the Left.

In a British Partial Election only marginal seats make a difference. In 2017, the Electoral Reform Society was able to call the results of 368 seats – more than half of Parliament’s 650 – before the election. Is that democracy? No. Meanwhile, 225 constituencies have not changed political hands since before 1950.

This ludicrous system can be changed by PR. PR gives every voter a meaningful task. Yes, it means coalitions afterwards, as we’ve seen in Europe, but isn’t that the point of politics? Talking to one another, making compromises, then arriving at a mutually agreed result.

Sounds like politics to me.

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Apologies

This weekend, events will take place in New Zealand marking the 250th anniversary of the arrival there of Captain Cook, which, because of misunderstanding across a cultural abyss, became a disaster. Maori were killed by Cook’s men during a spiral of cultural non-comprehension and male aggression.

All this, of course, is highly regrettable. It is regrettable that arrogant male colonialists ventured out – in Cook’s case with secret orders regarding the appropriation of land – and killed members of the local population. Even though those men decided that the Polynesian races were “superior” to African races (in part because of their straight hair), they still considered themselves dominant over all: an attitude of gross narcissism, compounded by their overweeningly proud male stance.

When, then, should apologies for such behaviour cease? The British of 2019 are an aeon and a world away from those of Cook’s day. Should we feel guilty for the deeds of those people? Should we also feel guilty for English actions in France during the Middle Ages? Should the English feel guilty for what they did to the Welsh in earlier years? And what about the French themselves, or the Danes? Should they feel guilty for what happened in 1066?

Where do we draw the line?

Personally, although I despise all patriarchal deeds – misogyny, colonialism, genocide, war – including what all British colonialists did, I don’t see the merits of me, via the government, apologising for the deeds of men utterly divorced from myself. If these incidents had occurred in 1969, then yes: formal apology and massive reparations. But 1769? Wouldn’t it make more sense to understand the reasons for the events of that historical era?

The other issue with making apologies for historical events is that it halts the moving-on progress. As a mostly Welsh person who loves Wales, I feel no need for an apology from the English about what was done to the Welsh. So… have regret for such deeds: yes. But most important is understanding. We have to understand the nature of the perpetrators of such deeds so that we can stop those deeds happening again. We need to see men for what they mostly are – little boys – to halt patriarchy. We need to understand the roots in narcissism of racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice in order to halt them in the present day. Apologising for the misdeeds of people who lived an age and a world away in fact obstructs ethical progress, because it presumes a connection which does not and cannot exist, even on the national, formal scale.

Though I am male and British just like Captain Cook, he is utterly divorced from me. My task is to see through the attitudes of people like him who live in the present day, and to call them out. And such I shall continue to do.

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