Author Archives: Russell Blackford

Transhumanism and The Journal of Evolution and Technology

This piece was first published over on the IEET site (and I’ve also just reblogged it at my personal blog, The Hellfire Club). It sets out briefly what The Journal of Evolution and Technology is all about, for those who might be interested.

I’ve had the honor of serving as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology (henceforth “JET”) since January 2008 – so it’s now approaching seven years! Where did the time go? Having been invited by Kris Notaro to write something about an aspect of transhumanism as it involves me professionally, I’m taking the opportunity to reflect briefly on JET and its mission. We have a great story to tell, and perhaps we should tell it more often.

JET was founded in 1998 as The Journal of Transhumanism, and was originally published by the World Transhumanist Association. In November 2004, it moved under the umbrella of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which, of course, seeks to contribute to understanding of the impact of emerging technologies on individuals and societies. This year, then, we are celebrating the first decade of the journal’s publication by the IEET.

My four predecessors in the editorial chair – Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson, Mark Walker, and James Hughes – have each contributed in distinguished ways to the transhumanist movement and transhumanist thought. They developed the journal as a leading forum for discussion of the future of the human species and whatever might come after it.

JET is now one of the IEET’s flagship operations. It maintains standards of scholarship, originality, intellectual rigor, and peer review similar to those of well-established academic journals. It differs in its willingness to publish material that comparable journals might consider too radical or speculative. The editors welcome high-quality submissions on a wide range of relevant topics and from almost any academic discipline or interdisciplinary standpoint.

We have a publication schedule that assigns one volume to each year, with an irregular number of issues per volume. Each issue contains a mix of articles, reviews, and sometimes other forms such as symposia and peer commentaries. We publish both regular issues – based on submissions received from time to time – and special issues. The latter may, for example, take the form of edited conference proceedings, or they may result from calls for papers on a designated topics.

Recent special issues have covered such topics as Nietzsche and European posthumanisms, machine intelligence, and basic income guarantee schemes in the context of technological change.

Generally speaking, we publish individual articles as they are received, peer-reviewed, and edited, which allows a quick turnaround from acceptance to publication. With our relatively modest resources and the challenges inherent in a journal with such a wide interdisciplinary agenda, we are sometimes slower than we’d wish in making initial decisions to accept or reject, but we strive to overcome those problems and we give careful attention at all stages to each submission that we receive. We work closely with authors to get published articles into the best possible form to communicate to a highly educated but diverse audience, and we’ve often received grateful thanks for our editorial input. In short, we have much to offer potential contributors who are producing research at the leading edge of transhumanist thought. If that sounds like you, please think of submitting to JET.

Central to our thinking, and implicit in the title “evolution and technology,” is the idea – increasingly familiar and plausible – that the human species stands at the threshold of a new form of evolution. This is very different from the slow Darwinian mechanisms of differential survival and reproduction. It is powered, rather, by new technologies that increasingly work their way inward, transforming human bodies and minds. According to this idea, technology can do more than merely give us tools to manipulate the world around us. It can actually alter us, and not just by shaping our neurological pathways when we learn to handle new tools. Our future may, in part, be the product of emerging technologies of human transformation, ranging from genetic engineering to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement to such radical possibilities as mind uploading and all that it might imply.

This idea of a technologically mediated process of evolution is, of course, familiar to transhumanists, who envisage (and generally welcome) the emergence of intelligences with greater-than-human physical and cognitive capacities. Even outside the transhumanist movement, however, there’s an increasing familiarity with the general idea of a new kind of evolution, no longer the product of Darwinian mechanisms but driven by technology and deliberate choices.

At the same time, this idea, in all its forms, remains controversial. Even if we grant it our broad acceptance there remains much to debate. It is unclear just how the process might be manifested in the years to come, just where it might take us or our successors, and what downsides there might be. No serious person should doubt that there will be risks, possibly on a global scale, in any path of transition from human to posthuman intelligence.

The idea of technologically mediated evolution, perhaps with a great transition from human to posthuman, merits careful study from all available viewpoints. Among writers and thinkers who take the idea seriously, there are bound to be disagreements. To what extent is the process already happening? If it accelerates or continues over a vast span of time, will this be a good thing or a bad thing – or is it a phenomenon that resists moral evaluation? What visions of the human or posthuman future are really plausible: for example, does the idea of mind uploading make good sense when subjected to scientific and logical scrutiny? Reasonable answers to such questions range from radical transhumanist visions of sweeping, rapid, entirely desirable change to various kinds of skepticism, caution, or concern.

JET welcomes a spectrum of views on all this, and we have been willing to publish intellectually serious critiques of transhumanist views alongside radical manifestos by transhumanists. We are unusual, though, in providing a forum for radical proponents of new technology to develop their visions in detail, and with a rigor seldom found elsewhere. Their ideas are then available in their strongest form for scrutiny from admirers and critics alike.

As I said at the start, there’s a great story to tell about JET – the journal has a rich history and exciting prospects for the future. If you’re not familiar with what we do, please check us out!

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13 Reasons to Doubt

Reasons to DoubtThe long-awaited (yes, it’s been in the works for some time) anthology from bloggers at the Skeptic Ink Network, 13 Reasons to Doubt, has finally appeared. It is published by Onus Books and is currently available in a Kindle edition, though other formats will also be appearing.

13 Reasons to Doubt is described in this way by its back-cover blurb:

Extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence.

The mainstream and social media feed our minds a diet of fringe science and outright pseudoscience. They relentlessly stream paranormal, supernatural, and otherwise extraordinary claims. Where do all these come from? They’re spread by shysters and charlatans, by corporate propagandists with cynical eyes on the bottom line, by priests and preachers of all kinds, by axe-grinding cranks and ideologues, and frequently by well-meaning dupes.

This may be a scientific age, but all too often, science, well-grounded scholarship, evidence, and logic are ignored—or even denied.

Scientific skepticism offers a corrective: skeptics defend science and reason, while demanding the evidence for extraordinary claims.

In this volume, we offer you thirteen ways to scientific skepticism: thirteen reasons to doubt extraordinary claims. The authors discuss groupthink and cognitive biases, science denialism, weird archeology, claims about religion and free will, and many other topics. Within these pages, there is something for anyone who wants to avoid biases and fallacies, cut through the masses of misinformation, and push back against fakers and propagandists.

13 Reasons to Doubt includes my chapter entitled “Skepticism in an Age of Ideology” – this is an original piece, especially written for the book, although it draws on my talk at last year’s TAM (the Amazing Meeting) among other things.

The following is a complete table of contents:


Peter Ferguson

Russell Blackford

Maria Maltseva

Caleb W. Lack

Jacques Rousseau

Keven McCarthy

John W. Loftus

Zachary Sloss

Jonathan M.S. Pearce

Rebecca Bradley

Staks Rosch

David Osorio

Edward K Clint



I haven’t yet read the entire book, but I’ve certainly read most of it (and even pitched in to help with the copyediting!). I can say that there is much strong material here, not least in Caleb Lack’s superb piece on why you can’t trust your brain (alas, your brain comes complete with all sorts of cognitive biases).

Please consider!

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Humanity Enhanced coming your way

My newest book – from MIT Press in this case – is Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

Humanity Enhanced is based on my PhD dissertation from Monash University, completed back in 2008. That PhD program turned out to be a big part of my life (as those of you who know me well are already aware, this was actually my second PhD, completed relatively late in life; my original PhD was an Eng.Lit. one from well over 20 years before).
Humanity Enhanced cover
The text has been reworked quite heavily since the original PhD dissertation, which was entitled “Human Enhancement: The Challenge to Liberal Tolerance”, supervised by Justin Oakley, and examined by Gregory Pence and Nicholas Agar.

Compared to the PhD dissertation, Humanity Enhanced has been expanded and elaborated in some respects, simplified in others (and especially in its language), updated, rejigged to deal with certain issues raised by the anonymous reviewers for MIT Press, and generally altered and lengthened sufficiently to be a quite separate work.

It includes a lengthy (and I hope useful) discussion of the therapy/enhancement distinction that does not appear in the original dissertation. I did write something along these lines at the time before deciding that it was not appropriate in that context. My interest was not so much in “enhancement” in some way that contrasts with “therapy”, but with the actual or postulated technologies of genetic choice that had been so controversial in the years leading up to my PhD program (notably after Dolly’s announcement in 1997). Still, the issue of a supposed therapy/enhancement boundary remains controversial, so I decided to say something about it in an appendix, if only to explain some of the problems with the idea, and why I am reluctant to see any such boundary as crucial either for the purposes of moral decision making or those of public policy.

That is not to say that no boundary line can ever be drawn. If, however, we push too hard on the concept of a therapy/enhancement boundary, we may find it very unsatisfactory for our needs. With some specific issues, it may fail to deliver any clear result or may appear to deliver one that is rather remote from what we really care about. There may be a range of cases where it provides a useful shortcut for our thinking, but I doubt that it is helpful with cases that are of genuine philosophical interest and difficulty.

While MIT Press is announcing Humanity Enhanced with an official 2014 publication date, and it bears a 2014 copyright date inside the book, it has actually been available for purchase for three or four weeks now, at least from Amazon.

Humanity Enhanced stands alone; you can read it easily without reference to any of my other work. To get a more complete picture of my position in legal and political philosophy, however, it is best to read it in conjunction with my 2012 book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. Both deal with aspects of legal/political philosophy and liberal theory. Between them, they give a rather comprehensive picture of my position in legal and political philosophy, which is not to say that they tell you how I would vote on every policy issue that comes up.

Indeed, my philosophical position gives a quite wide discretion to voters, electorates, political parties, and legislatures to disagree reasonably on such issues as exactly what laws should be enacted, what economic policies to pursue, what punishments to impose for various crimes, etc. I don’t claim that we can simply read off “correct” answers to such issues from our philosophical positions, although I do claim that we should agree to rule out some arguments as good justifications for our laws and policies. If my arguments for that are accepted, many substantive policy positions become very difficult to justify (since the most obvious arguments are ruled out), while others become very difficult to oppose reasonably.

To take just one example, I think it would be difficult under current circumstances to put a convincing and legitimate argument against making provision to recognise same-sex marriage – we could argue about the details, perhaps, but there seems to be no good argument against providing for some kind of regime for recognising same-sex marriage under conditions identical to, or at least very similar to, those relating to opposite-sex marriage. I develop the argument in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

In Humanity Enhanced I focus on technologies of genetic choice, such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select embryos, human reproductive cloning to bring into the world a child with a particular genome, or genetic engineering in the sense of altering an embryo’s DNA (and hence its genetic potential). I argue that public policy in this area has shown a considerable degree of illiberalism and even moral panic. We can, I suggest, do better than this. Next time we are confronted with some apparently scary innovation we can ask whether its prohibition is really justifiable in accordance with secular and liberal principles such as we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment.

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Death of Norman Geras

I’m sad to hear from various sources of the death of Norman Geras, whom I knew for his excellent and provocative normblog – which now includes an announcement of his death by his daughter, Jenny Geras. She indicates that the blog and all its archives will remain online.

My forthcoming appearances in London

For any London-based readers who might be interested – or people who will be visiting London in November – I have a couple of appearances there later in the year. On 9 November, I’ll be at Birkbeck College speaking to the London Futurists on “Secularism, Liberalism, and the Human Future”. The talk is blurbed as follows:

Emerging and proposed technologies such as human cloning and genetic engineering have drawn a chorus of objections from politicians, pundits, and scholars. In this talk, Russell Blackford eschews the heated rhetoric that surrounds these technological developments and examines them in the context of secular and liberal thought.

Some perceive emerging technologies as challenging the values of liberal democracy. Dr Blackford argues that the challenge is not, as commonly supposed, the urgent need for strict regulatory action. Rather, the challenge is that fear of these technologies has created an atmosphere in which liberal tolerance itself is threatened. He argues that some controversial technologies would be genuinely beneficial, and that liberal democracies would demonstrate their liberal values by tolerating and accepting emerging technologies that offer prospects of human enhancement.

The next day, 10 November, I’ll be speaking at Conway Hall for the Conway Hall Ethical Society on “Science and the Rise of Atheism”. The blurb for the talk reads:

In his new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, Australian philosopher Russell Blackford examines myths, misconceptions, and misleading half-truths about atheism and atheists, giving each myth as fair a run as possible to see whether it might contain any grain of merit.

The book carries enthusiastic endorsements from Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, Polly Toynbee, and other high-profile thinkers and authors. In his Conway Hall presentation, Dr Blackford will focus on the much-debated connection between the rise of modern science and the rise of modern atheist thought. Although it is often claimed that religion and science are compatible, this is, at best, seriously misleading. In fact, science has contributed significantly to the historical erosion of religious belief. The more we develop a worldview based on reason, and particularly on scientific investigation, the less plausible religion becomes. The history and the specific findings of science support the conclusion that atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

Obviously these are quite different topics, with the Conway Hall talk much more closely related to 50 Great Myths About Atheism, while the Futurist Society talk will foreshadow my forthcoming book from MIT Press, Humanity Enhanced. There’s nothing to stop you attending both, and I do hope to meet some of the Talking Philosophy readers.

50 Great Myths About Atheism on its way

Blackford rev 5Today is the 6th of August, so it is only a month until my new book, co-authored with Udo Schuklenk, can be purchased in the UK. It will be available elsewhere soon after, but Amazon UK is advertising a 6 September release date.

50 Great Myths About Atheism responds to many prejudices, libels, misconceptions, and half-truths relating to atheism and atheists. Udo Schuklenk and I give the “myths” as good a run as we can, identifying anything plausible, or any grain of truth, that we can find, while setting the record straight. In a long final chapter, we offer a history of atheist thought and explain why we think atheism is now the most reasonable answer to the God question.

The book carries impressive endorsements – more readable on the US Amazon site (the UK site presents endorsements in a confusing way):

“It has been my lot to have encountered all but three of the 50 Great Myths about Atheism listed by Blackford and Schüklenk, most of them many times. It is useful to have them all listed in one book – and so readably and authoritatively refuted. The long final chapter treats theological arguments with more respect than I would have bothered with, but the refutation is all the more convincing for that. The whole book builds inexorably to its conclusion: the Reasonableness of Atheism.”

—Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion

“With humor, wisdom and sound philosophy, Blackford and Schüklenk dismantle 50 important myths about atheism. In doing so, they have done atheists and religious believers a great service, for putting aside the myths enables us to see where real differences remain.”

—Peter Singer, Princeton University

“Atheists are routinely called ‘aggressive,’ but their strong values include a tolerance rarely shown them by the religious. This book’s calm ripostes defend atheists everywhere against unreasoned assaults from the dwindling faithful. ”

—Polly Toynbee, The Guardian

“Busted! Fifty times over! So say Blackford and Schüklenk — the New Mythbusters—with reason, conviction and style. I enjoyed this book immensely.”

—Graham Oppy, Monash University

“A brilliantly wide-ranging exploration of misconceptions about atheism and their relationship to our ideas about minds, human nature, morality – for pretty much everything we care about.”

—Ophelia Benson, co-author of Does God Hate Women?

“This is a book that’s as enjoyable to read as it is informative. Sharp, clever, and witty, it systematically dismantles misconceptions about atheism. Even God could learn something from it!”

—Ronald A. Lindsay, President, Center for Inquiry

Please consider, as we say.

Edit (August 19): The Amazon and Amazon UK sites are now selling the Kindle edition.

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New Philosopher magazine launched

Over the weekend, New Philosopher magazine was launched here in Australia at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. The magazine is edited by Zan Boag, who has ambitions for mass market penetration, with sales in shops and newsagencies. The first issue, devoted to the theme of freedom, includes an article by Peter Singer, an interview with Noam Chomsky, a (reprinted) story by Peter Carey, and much other content from people with pretty big names. The editor has aimed high, there seems to be a lot of good will toward the magazine, and I wish it every success. Printing a magazine of this kind with a run in the thousands, hoping to be picked up by a wide readership, is a risky move, so I hope it pays off.

Disclaimer-cum-announcement: this first issue also includes an article by me on the topic of propaganda (raising the vexed question of what can be done about it). My understanding of propaganda in the article is, “one-sided, emotionally manipulative, and (most especially) dishonest efforts to influence public opinion”. Current societies are awash with this sort of material, or so I argue, and we are exposed to it long before we have the intellectual tools to respond to it critically, meaning that our personalities and values are shaped by it to an extent.

I’m currently working on an article for the second issue – which is devoted to philosophy of mind, with contributions from Daniel Dennett and others. My topic is the return of panpsychism to academic interest and respectability. Panpsychism seems to be a desperate solution to the central problems in philosophy of mind, but highly esteemed philosophers such as Galen Strawson have brought it back to the table for debate. I’m still figuring out what I should say about this.

For those who might be interested, Australian and international subscriptions can be bought here.

We have the extraordinary evidence! (Part 2)

TAM talk 1Yesterday I published Part 1 of a reconstructed version of my TAM 2013 talk – presented to the 2013 instalment of The Amazing Meeting, organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The version I’m providing here, though a reconstruction of what I said, should be close to what you’ll hear from me when the talk appears on YouTube. Today, I provide Part 2, which concludes the content of the talk. Having discussed the way our scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively, but had to be built up over hundreds of years, I go on to relate this to contemporary scientific skepticism and the concept of denialism.

For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years. The reason is not that our modern understanding of the world is, prior to the evidence coming in, natural or intuitive, or because the old understanding of the world was inherently, prior to the evidence, counter-intuitive or bizarre.

When it comes to intuitiveness, or otherwise, don’t even start me on relativity theory or quantum mechanics. The universe opened up to our inspection by science is very strange indeed, in the sense that much of what we have learned goes against our natural intuitions. For example, Edward O. Wilson has this to say:

The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in doing so revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. … The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are not for, say, primary school children. Still, there is an exciting story to tell about the advance of science, about how our scientific knowledge was hard won — even in the face of human intuitions. I think we should introduce our children to this story as early as possible in their education. We can always learn more about it ourselves.

I take scientific skepticism to be essentially skepticism about claims that educated people should now regard as extraordinary — not because they are inherently bizarre but because they are anomalous within our hard-won, scientifically-informed picture of the world.

Think again of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true, if reincarnation were a genuine phenomenon, this would force us to revise our whole picture of the world to find some mechanism whereby it takes place. That makes it an extraordinary claim, and that is a reason to investigate it in a spirit of suspicion.

By way of analogy, many people make claims that run counter to the evidence from humanistic scholarship. For example, many people will not accept that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare (though the claim being denied was never an extraordinary one in this case). They claim the plays were written by, say, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Others deny terrible historical events, such as the Holocaust. There was once a time when the claim that the Nazis murdered nearly six million Jews in their concentration camps should have been regarded with suspicion, especially since much in the way of false propaganda was spread about the Germans during the first world war. We should always be cautious about atrocity propaganda, especially from our own side.

But of course, we know that the Nazi Holocaust did take place. We have the extraordinary evidence for these horrific events, and we have it in much detail. Given the picture that was built up by investigators immediately after the second world war and by historians since, we actually have the extraordinary evidence needed to believe in the occurrence of something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust. Someone who now denies those events does not deserve to be called by the honourable title of skeptic. Such a person is in denial of evidence that we actually have. Such a person is a denialist.

Initially extraordinary claims that actually acquire extraordinary evidence thereby change our picture of the world, or our understandings of ourselves and our situation. Once that happens, what were once extraordinary claims become normalised. Once they are sufficiently well established, those once-extraordinary claims can be used in arguments against new claims that are inconsistent with them. All the cumulative evidence that supports such a claim stands as evidence against any inconsistent claim.

So — the rotation of the earth was once an extraordinary claim. The onus was on proponents to gather the evidence. Skepticism about the claim was rational and warranted – though of course suppression and punishment were not. But the evidence has been gathered. Someone who denied the claim now would not deserve the title “skeptic”: such a person would be a crank or a crackpot or a denialist (don’t ask me what the difference is!).

We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence, however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe. That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was. I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.

Let’s do more about that.

Thank you, friends and colleagues. And thank you, JREF!

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Photo by Jerry Coyne.

We have the extraordinary evidence! (Part 1)

TAM talkThis post and the next constitute a version of my talk delivered at TAM 2013 – this year’s iteration of The Amazing Meeting. The talk was entitled: “We have the extraordinary evidence! Science, skepticism, and denialism.”

As I never simply read a paper, but always extemporise to some extent, what I produce here is not exactly what I said, but is based on my notes and my memory – it’s pretty close, but you can watch for yourself when the talk makes it to YouTube some time down the track. Meanwhile, here is my reconstructed Part 1, in which (to adapt some wording from Damion Reinhardt’s summary) I discuss how our modern, scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively to individuals and cultures, but was hard won.

Indulge me while I say how pleased and privileged I feel to be at this great event. Though I’ve flown nearly 8000 miles to attend, I feel very much at home among all you welcoming, friendly, and refreshingly rational and reasonable people. When DJ Grothe invited me to speak at TAM, I felt honoured but also felt some trepidation: I am not a magician, a scientific investigator, or indeed any sort of scientist, so what sort of contribution could I make to your theme of fighting the fakers, addressing a group of hardened and seasoned scientific skeptics? Perhaps, however, a philosopher can offer you a perspective that’s of general interest.

To do that, I’d like you to cast your minds back about 500 years. Now, I know none of us are quite that old, and I don’t believe in reincarnation, as will come up again later in this talk. But we have a pretty solid historical record of the past five centuries, at least for many parts of the world. So I’m going to make some comparisons between, let’s say, 1513 and 2013.

The lesson here is that what seemed like an ordinary, or at least acceptable, claim in 1513 might be an extraordinary claim now, and what would have seemed an extraordinary claim then might now be, in the relevant sense, an ordinary one. This is not because I take some of relativist approach to truth, but simply because the reasonably available evidence has changed enormously over five hundred years.

In particular, I’d like you to think of European civilization in 1513. This was four years before Martin Luther confronted the indulgence seller Johann Tetzel with his famous Nine-Five Theses, catalysing the Protestant Reformation. It was thirty years before the publication of Copernicus’ major work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, and about a century before Galileo’s great scientific discoveries that arguably mark the beginning of modern science. Charles Darwin’s work was over three hundred years in the future.

People in Europe five hundred years ago were, in effect, living in another world. That is, the information available to them was radically different from what is available to us today. No wonder they understood the world very differently.

The celebrated Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has carried out a similar exercise to the one I’m asking of you, though his exercise relates specifically to the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Taylor is himself a religious believer, but his 2007 book, A Secular Age, discusses how things changed over the past five hundred years to enable a movement from a society where belief in God is essentially unchallenged to the current situation in Western societies where it is, as Taylor puts it, “understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” For Taylor, it was virtually impossible, or unthinkable, not to believe in God five hundred years ago, whereas today, as he puts it, “many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable.”

As I said, Taylor is not an atheist, and nor is it my purpose today to put an argument for atheism – for that you’ll need to see my new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism.

But it was not only belief in God that came easy in that era — all sorts of beliefs that seem bizarre to scientifically educated people today were commonplace, while the foundation stones of the modern sciences had not yet been laid. Taylor identifies features of life in early sixteenth-century Europe that made the existence of God just obvious to everybody, and importantly some of them apply more widely than belief in God.

First, the natural world was seen as testifying to divine activity, whether it was the appearance of order or the occasional extraordinary events that could not be explained by human knowledge at the time — whether plagues and natural disasters or years of exceptional fertility.

Second, if you lived in Europe in the sixteenth century the political and social systems were still closely integrated with the religious system. At all levels of society, it was assumed that human activity was underpinned by the activity of God, and all communal life was pervaded by religious ritual and worship.

Third — and this is very important — there was a strong sense for sixteenth-century Europeans of living in an enchanted cosmos, full of miraculous beings and powers.

Fourth, as Taylor adds, there was simply no well-developed naturalistic, secular alternative to religion and to what we’d now regard as superstition.

In my view, Taylor understates the degree to which science (in particular) changed things. There were undoubtedly other factors involved in the changes to how we think and understand world, but science as we know it was incredibly transformative. And in 1513, science as we now know it was in the future, as were modern styles of moral and political philosophy. Even humanistic learning, such as various kinds of textual and historical scholarship, was at a relatively early stage, despite the revival of classical learning that we know as the Renaissance, which had begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, but then proceeded through Europe in a very patchy way.

If you were living in the early sixteenth century, you’d have had no real reason to doubt stories of supernatural events, such as miracles, hauntings, and the effects of evil spells cast by witches.

Let me qualify that. It was quite well known that, for example, some seeming miracles probably had more ordinary explanations. There was also some cynicism and suspicion — it was well known that some holy relics were fakes and that some supposed miracles were fraudulent. You can find reference to this in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written over two hundred years before — and even in the work of St. Augustine well over a thousand years before. (Some of you will be especially familiar with Chaucer’s crooked Pardoner, often referenced by the late Christopher Hitchens in his debates.)

Still, the late medieval world was a world without professional scientists, paranormal investigators, and the like. Even if you thought that some specific purveyors of miracles and relics were fakers and frauds, you probably didn’t doubt that there really were miracles, ghosts, witches, and demons. There was no well-developed body of investigation and thought that you could draw upon for skepticism about all that, even if you were in the more educated classes of society. All the intellectual authorities that seemed trustworthy would have advised you, even required you, to believe in these things.

Today, of course, ordinary people still have problems knowing who to trust, who has genuine expertise. We live in a propaganda society, and we know that much of what we read or hear is misinformation. But at least we are in a position to examine who might genuinely be qualified to talk on a particular topic.

In the sixteenth century, there was no particular reason for an educated person to doubt that she lived in a world where supernatural forces were at work and supernatural events took place — even if not right here today, probably not far away or all that long ago.

Conversely, there would have been no reason to trust anyone who made such seemingly bizarre claims as that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, that the earth is billions of years old, that human beings are descended from apelike forebears, or that the sacred history contained in the Hebrew Bible is highly inaccurate. From the point of view of someone living in early sixteenth-century Europe, all of these claims would have seemed extraordinary.

If I had time, I’d go into detail about the dramatic claim (so controversial in the era of Galileo) that the earth rotates on its axis. In the early sixteenth century and even a hundred years later at the time of Galileo’s discoveries, the idea that the earth rotates scarcely seemed to make sense. Galileo had to do much arguing and much hard-core science to challenge the seemingly commonsense view. If you’ve never done so, please read some detailed accounts of how he went about this, such as that in Philip Kitcher’s wonderful book The Advancement of Science (published in 1995).

For example, Galileo had to respond to the argument that an object dropped from a tower must fall “behind” the tower if the earth rotates. He used the example of an object dropped from the mast of a moving ship: for a sea-faring culture, this analogy had some imaginative salience. But in the end, he had to make extraordinary advances in physics, subsequently improved upon by Isaac Newton in particular, to create an imaginative picture of the universe within which the earth’s rotation was no longer an extraordinary claim. Similarly, the idea that we are descended through a naturalistic process from earlier primates was truly extraordinary until the evidence was gathered — and of course, that evidence has been vastly augmented since the time of Darwin, about 150 years ago.

The point of this talk is that the modern, naturalistic picture of the world that even most religious people accept for most purposes, most of the time, did not come naturally to us. It was hard won.

It was won through extraordinary efforts — by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, including people whom we’d normally regard as philosophers and humanities scholars rather than scientists. For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our modern, scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years.

(Part 2 (which is considerably shorter) follows tomorrow.)

My Amazon author page.
Photo by Miranda Hale

The Transhumanist Reader

the-transhumanist-readerThe Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future, edited by pioneer transhumanist thinkers (philosopher) Max More and (artist/culture theorist) Natasha Vita-More, is now available for order on Amazon – with an announced publication date of 29 April 2013.

Before I go on, allow me to give the disclaimer that I am one of the authors to have contributed a chapter, in this case entitled “The Great Transition: Ideas and Anxieties.” This is my most concerted attempt to date to explicate the central ideas of transhumanism and suggest how we might best respond to them.

You can click on the image of the cover where it appears on Amazon’s site if you’d like to sample the contents, including the full contents pages. Or it should work if you click here to find the table of contents.

The authors are something of a who’s who of thinkers who have contributed in one capacity or another to the transhumanist movement or to discussion of emerging technologies and human enhancement in general. Many of these people would be widely regarded as coming from different factions or schools of thought, and some may not even like each other all that much, so this is going to be a diverse book. Contributing authors, apart from the two editors (and myself, obviously) include Nick Bostrom, Anders Sandberg, Martine Rothblatt, James Hughes, Laura Beloff, Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil, Damien Broderick… and many others of similar calibre, with claims to be intellectual leaders in this area.

I have not read the whole book – though I’ve read some of the reprinted material in earlier forms – so I can’t give it anything like an actual review. Also, at this stage it’s not possible to review it on Amazon, so you won’t find much guidance there (if you pay a lot of attention to Amazon reviews). But I’ve read a prospectus as well as the ToC, and I’m confident that this will be a very authoritative book, showing the depth of historical and current thinking in the field. If you’re interested in transhumanist thought, or more generally in debates over emerging technologies and the prospects of human enhancement, this is a volume that you probably should get your hands on.