Monday, May 3, 2010

Seeing Humans from the Outside

I like how this book looks at humans from the perspective of different sentient alien species. The reader seldom gets the chance to examine a human from their own point of view. Instead the main characters are the Homomdan Kabe, the Chelgrians Ziller and Quilan and the Hub at Masaq. For this reason, it is a great book with which to end the semester. It is a look at us from the outside, the other.

And we look very decadent, drenched in power and hypocritical, yet we seem to strive towards egalitarianism and democracy. As I mentioned in my last post, the humans in this book in the future are not much different than Americans today. They believe in their ideals – freedom, peace and democracy – yet engage in unsavory schemes of intervention to enforce our belief that all can choose their own destiny for themselves.

The hypocrisy does not escape the aliens in this book. However, some take to the Culture while others do not. There is an interesting dynamic here that also exists today – Kabe v. Quilan. There are those that love the Culture, America, and those that despise and seek to attack and destroy it. What leads each group, species or individual to their determination is fascinating. We know the Chelgrians were negatively affected by the Culture, it was the Culture’s intervention that lead to their horrible civil war. While, on the other hand, the Homomdan have no such animosity. In fact, Kabe prefers the Culture to his own race. I think it also has to do with how close the individual’s culture was to the Culture, a term that captures our hubris perfectly, manifest destiny with one thousand years of prosperity to back it up.

Like a great energy field the Culture, America, either pulls you in or repels you – it all depends on your original magnetic, ie- cultural, identity. It is also revealing of the Culture. The Culture has difficulty coexisting with races that have a caste system, indeed with any other ideological system. Yet this belief in one’s own cultural superiority is nothing new, it is here now. Indeed, it is what makes international development work so troubling for those who want to “help” but are aware of our belief in our own superiority.

Final Post: If Aliens Really Were Discovered

Of course, as the class wound down last night and we each added our own closing remarks, the discussion inevitably turned once again to what the best way to approach the discovery of aliens would be. All of the novels we read throughout the semester provided us with a number of examples and possibilities, but, as a few of us said in class, this does not truly provide us with any predictive information--aliens, if and when they are discovered, are likely to be something beyond any human imagining. As Professor Jackson said in class, we would like to think that they would appear in a recognizable form, but that is not very (if at all) likely to happen. There is really nothing we can know about an alien lifeform, other than the fact that if they come here first they are probably more technologically advance than us. Because the possible physical and social characteristics of an alien race are so beyond us, there is no knowing how first contact would play out. I think if I learned anything from this class (granted I did learn a lot more than this) it's that any encounter with aliens will turn out however chance decides. In the end that's the deciding factor; we could have really good intentions but, in the end, communication between us and an alien species could go either way.

All we can really do is attempt to go about any discovery with as much caution and goodwill as we possibly can. But, as someone pointed out in class, we should also be aware of the risks and keep in mind the outlook of Graff in Ender's Game. If aliens show up with guns blazing, obviously the best approach is not one of goodwill. This is where caution comes in; yes we want to make a strong attempt to communicate peacefully with the aliens, but we should be well aware of the chance that such an interaction will not be possible. I think that Andrew puts this together really well in his blog post, saying, "We must be humble as we tread into the universe, and recognize that which makes us human makes us capable of great conflict, but also makes up capable of great peace." It's not a very satisfying conclusion to come to, but this class has made me believe that maybe all we can do is hope for the best and do what we can.

The question that Professor Jackson posed at the end of class was: Which of the encounters we examined throughout the semester seemed like the best way to go? For me, it seemed that the film Contact showed an approach that was pretty level-headed and, in my mind, right. Mostly it was Ellie's approach that was the right one. She was so committed to finding alien life that she treated the discovery with the kind of earnestness and humility that it should be approached with (humility is just what Professor Jackson emphasized as the most important piece of an approach to other sentient life). And although the end of the film is a bit uncertain in how it turns out, the first contact between humans and aliens manages to be peaceful and without confrontation. I believe both Ellie and Professor Jackson have the right idea. As the professor told us, it's important to maintain a healthy dose of internal skepticism and critique in order to ensure that we are not forcing ourselves into one position and one approach.

New Millennium, Same Humans

In many ways Look to Windward is about new concepts and in other ways it is about nothing new at all. The technologies and advancements are incredible, nay revolutionary. Humans have invented artificial intelligences, notably the Hub, so sophisticated that they can rule worlds and study galaxies thousands of light years away, as the Hub of Masaq’Hub explains to Mahra Ziller (293). Humans can almost escape death, copying their personalities into artificial devices, though whether or not this is the same person is debatable, as Phil mentions in his post. Lastly, humans are perhaps preparing to ascend to a higher level of existence, “the Sublime,” as in Stargate SG-1, although such an evolution would be rather boring since the humans would no longer be involved in material affairs (198-201). Which leads me to my point: for all of our changes and technological advances, humans have not really changed much in the millennia plus from the present. We are at our old games.

The Culture intervention with the Chelgrians with the intent to end their caste system seems to me like a direct parallel to America’s intervention in the Middle East. The US threw billions of dollars into the area to prop up puppet governments to control it, much as the Culture attempted. The Culture is most comparable to America, an incredibly rich and advanced entity with a lot of power where “things have been going very well…but our power may have peaked; we may be becoming complacent, even decadent” (461). The description Hub gives to Quilan at the end of the book fits very well with the U.S. That is why the attack Quilan plans reminds me of 9/11 on a “billions of people” scale.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Because We Can

The human Culture found in Look to Windward is a fascinating imagining of what humanity could become if we had the kind of technology that Banks presents in the novel. Humans are able to build planets (or something close to planets), they have created AI, they use virtual reality, and, perhaps most importantly, they are able to store their minds for re-use if they die. Phil questions this practice in his post this week, saying that the person who comes back is really an incomplete copy of the original because it can never be exactly the same as the old one. This critique is interesting, but not really something I considered too deeply in reading the book. What did bother me in the novel, however, is that it seems that humans have all of this technology and use it because it exists, because they can. There is no question, on their part, whether they should save their minds for re-use or whether they should let everything be run by the Hub.

Quilan comes up with a possible answer to this in his musings over the nature of humans. He proposes that maybe humans left the "running of their civilization to the machines" because "they didn't trust themselves with the colossal powers and energies their science and technology had provided them with" (150). I feel like this is probably more noble of a gesture than humans are capable of given our history with new technology. If it can be used as a weapon, great! In this light it seems both very wise and very unlikely that humans would decide one day that they should not be controlling their own technology. Although, maybe if we were to reach the point that the humans do in Look to Windward, our views would be different. However, even the AIs that control most human worlds were actually created by humans, again, as Quilan remarks on, they were built simply because civilizations had the technology to do so.

So, this once again brings up the question of, if we can, should we? Is it the best policy to trust our biggest decisions to machines? While the Hub in the book is presented as impressively wise and aware of the damage he is able to do, does that mean we can trust him more than we can trust humans? This might not be a fair question because humans certainly haven't been proven to be very level-headed and wise when it comes to running their civilizations effectively and fairly. It is impossible to come to a definite conclusion either way, because neither humans nor machines created by humans can be said to be completely unbiased and competent. One thing is for sure, though, allowing one mind, the Hub, to control all of the functions of an entire world and its pieces scattered throughout the universe is a questionable move to make. One incident, like the one that Quilan attempted, could bring a civilization crashing down. To me, it's the extreme equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Point of Isaac’s God Music

I thoroughly enjoyed our class discussion on Children of God. I think the subject that was most unresolved was the question of Isaac and his DNA music. Essentially, our discussion went from the question ‘was it worth the whole struggle to gain that ambiguous harmony?’ to ‘was it just a way to find something to justify all of the struggles the characters went through?’

While I think it is in our human nature to try to find some sort of meaning out of calamity, some way to say ‘there is a purpose to or meaning in everything’ I think Issac’s discovery was more than Russell’s attempt to give the characters some sort of resolution. While it does seem a little ‘cheap’ that after all Emilio went through he reconciled with God after Isaac’s self-proclaimed discovery of “God’s Music,” his discovery says something profound about human nature.

Whether or not Isaac’s harmony is proof of God’s existence, it is proof of how much we cherish our similarities and connections. The music was so profound to Emilio and many others because it reinforced our view of the sanctity of our alikeness, the commonalities of our experience. It is so profound because it is perhaps our greatest duality. Our fear of the other is only triumphed by our yearning to find ourselves in the other. The realization of that goal is the ideal of most religions and is embodied by Isaac’s God music. It is Russell showing us our own greatest desires and the purpose of religions that strive for peace and harmony yet so often, perhaps unintentionally, take us down a path of fissure and difference. It is our greatest duality.

Synapses Between the Seen and Unseen

Eifelheim presents an interesting paradigm of seen v. unseen knowledge, as discussed on the wiki page. I find it fascinating that both the scientific and religious discourses in the novel involve the unseen. One would typically associate science with the seen and religion with the unseen. However, the multi-dimension and light speed theories Sharon is concerned with are incredibly intangible. The irony of science, a discourse that relies on ‘immutable’ laws, is that when it comes to the most advanced areas like quantum mechanics and theory all the rules cease to apply. I think Flynn, through interweaving Pastor Dietrich’s remarkably ‘seen’ theology and experiential/sensible way of understanding the world and Sharon’s complex science, is making synaptic connections at the chasm between the realms of science and religion. In other words, the two discourses may be more inseparable than previously thought since they both occupy 'hypothetical' and 'real' space.

This “thought experiment” reminds me of the musings of French phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty had a notion of the ‘flesh,’ a term which denotes the multilayered connectedness of things, the depth and texture of existence. He describes it in his book The Visible and the Invisible as the miraculous “dehiscence of the seeing into the visible and of the visible into the seeing…the thin pellicle of the quale, the surface of the visible…doubled up over its whole extension with an invisible reserve.”

Through this concept Merleau-Ponty illustrates the mutual interplay between tangible beings and the mute realm of ideas and thoughts. For example, in his book he writes that “a visible is…the surface of a depth, a cross section upon a massive being” and that “pure ideality is itself not without flesh…it lives of them.” Similar to the symbolic the visible is a surface beneath which lies the semiotic, the invisible depth of being. Therefore the two facets, the visible and the invisible, give rise to our full experience of being.

It is fascinating that both science and religion can at once be considered ideas, invisible and tangible experience, visible. Accordingly, ambiguity is central to Eifelheim; reality is absent of concrete distinctions between entities, between the perceptions of the “scientific” Krenken and the “theological” humans.

Intersections of Theology & Science in Eifelheim

In Eifelheim the humans were the primitive Runa of Rakhat and the Krenken the humans. This time the aliens expand our perception of the universe. While reading the book I constantly kept wondering what the Krenken must think of us, 14th century medieval humans. In today’s day and age it is not a period of time we look upon and remember fondly, especially for tolerance of the other. Yet, as has been pointed out by many other people in our class, of all the alien encounter stories we have read this seems to be the most peaceful one. Can we attribute this, as Jackie has said, to the humans’ ignorance and pure dumb luck? I would agree it has to do with our ignorance and lack of awareness. We did not understand the full implications of aliens then. We still had a very limited view of our own world and did not have any means of opposing the Krenken, save diplomacy. Maybe it also has to do with the importance of religion at that place and time, meaning perhaps religion can sometimes actually reduce the fear of the other and encourage kindness or in this case "Christian charity" (I know we don't often think of religion as such in this day and age, but in this story it seems to have such an effect on the villagers.)

I found the conversations between the Krenken and Dietrich fascinating. Some of the conversations seem like a dialogue between science and religion, revealing opportunities for intersections and agreements between the two. Take, for instance, Dietrich and Hans’ discussion of the beginning of the universe. Hans’ explanation of the big bang theory does not seem to entirely preclude Dietrich’s creationism argument. Perhaps there can be a place for theology in science? That seeming paradox is nothing new, Einstein was a profoundly religious or rather spiritual man, yet in the context of a human-alien encounter it is interesting.

According to Hans, “time began when this world and the other world touched… ‘that was the beginning of everything. Someday they will again clap, and all will begin anew (216).’” Essentially he is describing the big bang theory. Dietrich responds with creationism: “But, to press a thing, some actor must press upon it, since no motion exists save by a mover. How might we press upon time (216).” Somehow, after reading this passage, both the scientific and theological arguments seem valid at once to me.