Posts Tagged ‘Arthur C. Clarke’

I believe in magic

June 23, 2012

I do believe, I do, I do! I believe in natural magic, the magic of reality. Don’t read Rowling without it.

…the magic of a thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, of the Milky Way on a cloudless night far from light pollution or of a scanning electron micrograph of an ant’s face. Or, for that matter, the magic of a lover’s kiss. Fairy-tale spells, miracles and myths — they make good stories. But the truth — science — is more magical, in the best and most thrilling sense of the word, than any myth or made-up miracle. Richard Dawkins

The magic even works in Kentucky.

Who knows what great magic may lie ahead, as reality unfolds? As Arthur C. Clarke put it,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God–but to create him.”


“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

And finally:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”

all fools

April 1, 2010

Would you believe (as Maxwell Smart would’ve put it) I designed our A&S syllabus to bring us to Dawkins’ discussion of “All Fools Day” precisely today?

If so, I’d be flattered. And you’d be gullible, in just the sense he’s about to explain.

But here we are in chapter six (“Hoodwink’d With Faery Fancy”) of Unweaving the Rainbow, back on one of his and one of my favorite themes, childhood indoctrination. I’ll bring baseball into it, if I get half a chance. [A prayer from Dawkins (!) for his daughterGod Delusion on ch’hd indoctrination]

On All Fools‘ Day one year, when my sister and I were children, our parents and our uncle and aunt played a simple trick on us…

The short version of this delightful recollection is that young Richard and his sister went for a blindfolded “aeroplane” flight, much as Red and Rover regularly do with eyes wide open. (American kids are more credulous, naturally.) Their father & uncle provided the sound-and-motion simulation to create a virtual experience they wouldn’t question, at that age. “We had simply been sitting on a garden seat… the tree branches brushing against us had been wielded by our mother and aunt… It had been fun while it lasted.”

Childhood is of course a time of natural credulity, hence vulnerability to nonsense. That’s good, because lots of childish nonsense is great fun. And it’s bad, because lots of childish nonsense paves the way for intransigent adult nonsense. “It never occurred to us to wonder why we must be blindfolded. Wouldn’t it have been natural to ask what was the point of going for a joyride if you couldn’t see anything?” No, not really. “We just didn’t have the sceptic’s turn of mind… such was our faith in our parents.”

That flight was on all fours with Santa, the tooth-fairy, angels, heaven, and so much more nonsense that adults in America don’t know how to question.

But there was a time in our species history when “an experimental and sceptical turn of mind” was more likely to get you get you dead. (Remember Douglas Adams’ whale?) Maybe that’s why so many of us continue to shun it, at our peril. But let’s admit: shunning skepticism is still more likely to get you invited to church and other modern forms of safe-haven inclusion. There’s a risk factor grown-ups (another name for skeptics) must swallow, to affirm their incredulity. Growing up is no bowl of petunias, as not only Dawkins’ pal Adams but also the author of Childhood’s End tried to tell us, but it’s crucial.  Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) won’t make the crate fly.

But there comes a time when we ought to notice, here on our pale blue dot (threw that in for you, James), that “the universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant,” less magical and far more wondrous. A spiritually-mature worldview (let’s say) “that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern sciednce might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Meanwhile, “human children have wide open ears and eyes, and gaping, trusting minds for sucking up language” and folk wisdom. “It must be so because Mummy and Daddy said it was.” How sobering is that, parents! “Trusting credulity may be normal and healthy in a child but it can become an unhealthy and reprehensible gullibility in an adult. Growing up… should include the cultivation of a healthy scepticism.”

Also worth noting in today’s reading: all that talk of barcodes, by which Dawkins means to symbolize “precise analysis” rooted in a pervasively-digitized information environment, brings us closer to what Michael Shermer has called the “soul of science” and an echo of the claim Sam Harris has been trumpeting lately that scientific precision should also help clarify our values. Shermer:

Morality and purpose are inextricably interdigitated — you cannot have one without the other. Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality and purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral purposes, and history brings us to a place where we can employ both for the enrichment of all.Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits, the realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and space elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility: a proud, albeit passing, act in the drama of the cosmos.

This suggests the next step on our evolutionary walk (or our next flight-destination), doesn’t it? Humility should make us more skeptical, less obstinately gullible, and a lot less stubbornly persistent in the delusions of childhood. But we’re going to have to stop giving our children away those first seven years.

childhood’s end?

March 12, 2010

Revisited the old Arthur C. Clarke ’50s sci-fi classic Childhood’s End last night, and was again disappointed in his vision– did he intend it to be as bleak as it still seems to me?– of a post-corporeal, post-individual humanity swapping embodied selfhood for “higher” hive existence in some vast impersonal “Overmind.”

This time it put me in mind of Ray Kurzweil‘s techno-utopian intimations of immortality. And, of Rebecca Goldstein‘s slant thereon:

“You mean just backing up our software, and throwing away this beautiful hardware platform we call my body? Are you kidding? I don’t want to look into the mirror and see a rectangular screen… Give me my body or give me death!”


July 26, 2009

We’ve been having fun entertaining our young guest from Ohio. Besides the water park and lots of good food (Kyoto last night: what fun, having hot fried meat flung at you from a spatula), we’ve done mini-golf and go-carts (not so much fun for me, frankly: too much like riding a runaway lawn tractor) and Centennial Park.

The Parthenon was fun and uplifting, as always, beginning with the box of Krispy Kremes on the steps to the Purple-shirted flocks of “Taylor family reunion” revelers to the temporary photographic “spirituality” exhibit to gilded Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, herself. I used to puzzle over the Greek confabulation of those two functions in a single figure, but after our latest national nightmare of war conducted without wisdom I don’t wonder about that any more. I do still wonder why they didn’t place our Parthenon high on the adjoining hill, much more acropolis-like than its lowland locale. There’s a dog-park there now. Best view in the city, now that Love Circle‘s been desecrated by Mr. Big Country.

centennialcrowdFun, but not quite this much fun: no pyramids or tight-rope walkers…  wish I could time-travel for real, back to the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.  Festive fun has its place, and so has the passionate love of wisdom .

When teaching just down the street a few years ago at Vanderbilt, I brought  my “Intro to Philosophy” classes here just to absorb the ambience of a place that symbolizes the beginning of our species’ most  pivotal developmental moment: the reflective transition from myth and superstition to critical rationality and circumspect skepticism, from belief rooted in fear to a worldview more grown-up. That was the moment when a vocal minority would begin to defend the rights of a Socrates to plant seeds of doubt about Zeus and Athena et al, “fun” though they were.

Older Daughter, a big fan of the Greek myths because (like the magical wizardry of Harry Potter) they are so much fun, informed Younger Daughter recently that her parents were not the ones to ask for validation of such beliefs. I was surprised Mom had earned that reputation in their eyes, who has little use for my brand of skepticism but lots for the secretive  “spirituality” of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer and Rhonda Byrne et al. But that’s a domestic provocation for another day.

Dan Dennett has pointed out our need for a new critical philosophy of fun, one highlighting the intrinsic joys of the quest for real wisdom in the world. “We certainly won’t have a complete explanation of consciousness until we have accounted for its role in permitting us (and only us?) to have fun.”

certainly won’t have a complete explanation of consciousness
until we have accounted for its role in permitting us (and only
us?) to have fun.”

Myths and magic are fun, misbehaving mythical gods and goddesses are fun, but Arthur C. Clarke’s point about magic (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to those who don’t understand it”) is constantly confirmed by the way we live now. For instance,  I tap these keys here, you read squiggles on a screen there, we communicate and annihilate the geographic (and possibly some of the cultural and personal) distance between us. Magic. But we begin to understand how it can happen, and we still have fun doing it. No?

“The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence.” It’s fun to know that, and to live it, as Carl Sagan did. It doesn’t sap the world of wonder to begin really understanding the improbability of our being here at all, and the wondrous opportunity we alone possess, on this planet, of knowing and improving our actual condition.

We’re still in transition, as we were 2,400 years ago. We don’t yet know all the fun we’re missing.