I am fascinated by, and frightened by, the idea of alien contact.

In the late 1980s, someone gave my dad a copy of Whitley Streiber’s Communion, a novel about an alien abduction. The front cover featured a head and shoulders portrait of a being which, today, is commonly called a ‘grey’: an alien with large and slanted almond-shaped eyes.

For no reason that I can fathom even to this day, the image utterly terrified me. I couldn’t look at it. I’d have an almost violent reaction: I had to cover my own eyes, or demand that someone take the book away. Dad kept it separate from the rest of the books in the library, and read it with the front cover folded back.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Strangely enough, these similar aliens did not frighten me, when I was a kid. In fact I wanted to meet them.

Today I have more self control: I can look at similar representations of aliens in The X Files, or Stargate SG1, without a sudden freakout. (Although it does still give me the creeps.) Nonetheless, I sometimes still wonder why I had that reaction. I am not, to my knowledge, an “abductee”. I’ve never seen a UFO for myself. I know that thousands of others say that they have seen one, including friends of mine who I regard as rational people and under situations where no alternative explanations were obvious. I would say that I would like to see one, but then I remember what it was like when a picture of a “grey” would cause me to have an irrational and physically visceral fear reaction.

Besides that: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If I was shown a UFO, I would demand a very high standard of proof that it wasn’t a hoax.

The famous scientist Stephen Hawking once wrote that if humanity encountered an alien civilization, it would likely go very badly for us. (Read about it here.) A simple version of his argument goes like this: first contact between high-tech and low-tech societies tends to go very badly for the low-tech society. As the contact between Europeans and Indigenous nations in Africa, Australia, the Americas, etc., went very badly for the Indigenous nations, so would the contact with (presumably very technologically advanced) aliens likely go very badly for us. “Because: empire, and colonialism”. I probably need not say much more about it than that.

There are also arguments for why alien civilizations might be benevolent. A simple version of this argument goes like this. As a society develops its technology over time, it encounters “barriers” or “great filters” which might prevent them from progressing further, if not destroy them entirely. Runaway climate change, pandemic disease, weaponized AI, nuclear war— take your pick. Presumably, a civilization which has developed warp drive and contacted us will have overcome those obstacles. They might have learned how to run their economics, politics, ecology, science and technology, etc., non-hazardously and sustainably. And if they let us learn from them, it might be a net benefit to us to meet them.

Let’s see if it’s possible to split the difference. We could say, more simply, that a civilization-to-civilization encounter with extraterrestrial intelligent life would change basically everything. It would be comparable to the way human life on earth changed, and continues to change, because of the invention of the gasoline engine, or the spread of the internet, or the rise of our global climate instability crisis, as examples.

Okay, splitting the difference like that makes the proposition vague and evasive. So, here are some examples, that we can explore in a utilitarian way. Alien contact: how would it change how we think, and how we live?

In religion: what if we were given unambiguous evidence that the Von Daniken Hypothesis is true? (In case you don’t know, that’s the theory, proposed by Eric Von Daniken in his book “Chariots of the Gods” (1968), that most of the world’s important global religions were founded by aliens who visited us in the distant past.) That would overturn thousands of years of human thought, feeling, art, music, architecture, social and cultural experience. There might be a massive shift toward atheism and secular humanism. At the same time, alien cargo cults might arise, in which people pray to the aliens for a solution to our global climate crisis, or to end all human wars, cure all diseases, or to bring some kind of personal salvation. Imagine what the world’s great religious monuments would look like— the Hagia Sophia, St. Peter’s in Rome, Kajuraho Temple, the Masjid al-Haram, and so on— if it were proven beyond reasonable doubt that the people who built them were wrong about their religious beliefs. Imagine what would happen to Christianity, the world’s largest religion by number of adherents, if Jesus came back to us and he had brownish skin, a wedge-shaped head, an extendable neck, no hair, and he waddled a bit like a duck when he walked?

Space Jesus. Heals your “ouch”, teaches you to “be good”.

In politics: As most everyone probably knows, political identity and unity often forms in a kind of dialectic relation between a constructed ‘us’ and a constructed ‘them’. Even the writers of Star Trek, a pop culture franchise which wears its humanism on its sleeve, proposed that the Federation was born out of a need for several different communities to unite and defeat a common enemy, the Zindi. Now, imagine the ultimate ‘us’, all human beings on Earth, configuring themselves in relation to an ultimate ‘them’— an intelligence so different from ours that it is literally otherworldly, literally not human. One could imagine the appearance of the political will to unite the 200 sovereign nations of Earth into a single body politic, so as to create interstellar economic and diplomatic ties. One could also imagine new strains of xenophobia and exceptionalism, and new strains of that pernicious political style which emerges from xenophobia and exceptionalism: fascism.

Starship Troopers. Space fascists.

In art and culture: After ‘contact’, all stories will be science fiction stories. We would all be living in a bigger world, and no artist, writer, musician, filmmaker, game designer, or any other kind of creative person, could ignore that. Literary fiction, contemporary dramas, romantic comedies, and all kinds of other genres which normally have nothing to do with science fiction, would almost require some kind of alien contact point in order to keep up with the times. As a literary device, an alien is always a statement about ourselves: what we wish for, what we fear, how we approach differences among ourselves, what we imagine we could become, a warning about what we must never become, and so on. After contact, an alien could be just another character among many. Imagine a future version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, in which the train is a spaceship, and a given character’s membership in an alien species is absolutely irrelevant to whether that character is one of the suspects. Or, the detective.

Doctor Who, “Mummy on the Orient Express”. Five hundred years from now this will not be science fiction. It will be ordinary literary detective fiction.

in philosophy (especially existentialism): after ‘contact’, it will be absolutely undeniable that there is nothing special about humanity. We will know ourselves as one species of sentient life among many, with no greater claim to significance than any other. Centuries ago, people believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Later we learned that the sun was the centre of our solar system. But we still thought ourselves special, ‘made in the image of God’, or otherwise possessors of a divinely-bestowed importance. After that, we learned that the universe is enormously bigger than our own solar system, and that it has no centre. But we still thought ourselves special: because of our ability to reason, for example. Or our uniqueness in an empty universe. After contact, the universe will not be as empty. And our rationality will be one kind among many. Our interests, our affairs, our lives, will feel smaller. It will be harder to ignore that we occupy only a tiny pale blue dot in an unimaginably vast cosmos, that is mostly as indifferent to us as we might be to a single spider on another continent. Thus the prospect that aliens exist can be equally as terrifying as the prospect that we are alone.

Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo. Yeah, I went there.

In some of those examples, it’s easier to imagine that alien contact would be bad for humanity, more than that it would be beneficial. And besides that, I have my own aforementioned personal reason to dread the prospect of meeting E.T.

Score for Hawking, perhaps.

But the damn thing of it is, I really do want to know if there are other intelligences out there. I think the core problem of the Fermi Paradox, the question “Where is everybody?”, is among the top-ten most important scientific and philosophical questions of all time. I am heartened by the fact that in the years since Frank Drake formed his famous equation, we have more information about some of its variables, so we have a better idea where to look for organized signals. I am deeply unhappy that I will very likely not live long enough to see the creation of a working Alcubierre Warp Drive— if such a thing can be built at all. Because I think that of all the things we could pursue and possess, the most important and intimate of them is knowledge. I want to see the rings of Saturn for myself: not only through a telescope— I’ve seen them that way already— but standing on the surface of Enceladus. I want to see the Great Spot of Jupiter, rising over the crest of a hill on Ganymede. I want to see a new star born in the heart of a stellar nebula. I want to see what our galaxy looks like from outside. I want to see an alien city, read their history books, visit their museums, explore their forests and tallgrass meadows. I want to know how they survived their wars and other great barriers, to the point where we could learn from them how to survive ours. I want to know what’s really going on in the universe. I want to invite the gods to my home for afternoon tea, to ask them Socratic questions, and find out what more and what else the meaning of life might be.

And I want to know if anyone else wants those things, too.

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A philosopher plays Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

As a philosophy prof, of a generation that got a lot of Greek and Roman voices in my education, I was very excited to play AC Odyssey. The game takes place during one of the historical periods that I have been studying as a philosopher for most of my adult life. Throw in a few recommendations from my students, and the fact that one of the game’s writers is a friend of mine (hi, Susan!), I decided to sit down and play.

Me, contemplating the sacred domain of Eleusis. (Well, my screenshot, anyway.)

(Well, I played one of the Ezio Trilogy games first, because it takes place in Renaissance Italy — another historical period that philosophers traditionally give a lot of attention to. And it was wonderful. But leave that aside for now.)

So, here’s a running impression, since I’m writing this blog post a few entries at a time, over the space of several weeks as I snatch an hour or two of time to play.

Spoilers, obviously.


My first impression, like most people’s first impression, is that it’s stunningly beautiful to look at. I graduated from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One only three weeks ago, and the gear-up in graphic detail astonished me. Photo realistic landscapes, volumetric light rays for the sun and moon, a very long draw-distance, the rustling of tallgrass and tree leaves—it was a wonderful experience just to walk around the island of Kefalonia, the place where the story begins. Having lived some of my life in Europe, this was familiar ground for me – and so I am predisposed to love this game from the beginning.

My experience with console RPGs is relatively limited; prior to playing AC, I played Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Fable, the whole series for each of these, and almost nothing else. Those are games with excellent worldbuilding and in which it’s possible to simply explore. What’s the view like from the top of that mountain? What characters or creatures might be hidden in that town, that forest grove, that sheltered bay? And the first few hours of the game, which limit you to the one island (like a starter-dungeon, I suppose), still delivered lots to explore. I’m running errands and odd jobs for someone named Marko, who seems to be in debt to everyone and who more or less expects me to fix his life for him. All his quests felt like side quests. They made me wonder, does the game have a main quest at all? Not that I would mind a game that didn’t. In fact I wonder what that might be like.

I absolutely adored what Kassandra did with that guy’s obsidian eye. And the look on his face when she did it! Whichever member of Ubisoft’s writing team thought of that, she deserves a raise.

I respected that the Florence of AC II could not have the street layout of the real Florence, because it would take up too much computing time and memory, and because the map is supposed to be an obstacle course more than a real city. But I felt more comfortable in ACO’s Kefalonia, whose towns looked and sounded like real towns, having a more naturalistic layout. And as the story took me to other areas of Greece, the cities remained consistently life-like. Assuming (trusting, hoping) that Ubisoft consulted with historians and archaeologists to design the world, I feel like I am now better able to explain to my students what life in classical Greece was like. It’s crowded and messy. Even the rich parts of town are crowded. The disparity between rich and poor is very stark. Everything is hand made. In fact I now finally understand why the Greeks built those stoa in their agoras. Everybody does everything outdoors, so if you want some shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, you go to the nearest stoa.

Incidently, when I arrived at Athens’ famous Agora, I didn’t realise it at first. Trained for decades to expect an open square with clean granite paving stones and serene white marble columns, I instead found a crowded and disorganized market with a dirt ground, and merchant stalls covered in awning. Aristotle wrote that the agora of an ideal city should be reserved for politics and philosophy, so there should be no commercial activity there; in fact he says that people whose livelihoods are too involved in practical matters (farmers, for instance) shouldn’t enter unless summoned. (That area to the side of the Temple of Hephaestos, with the olive tree that Athena planted, might be that Aristotelian philosophical space.) But the agora of ACO is obviously exactly what the real Agora of Athens would have been like. A public place where all kinds of public activities: commerce, politics, art and music and culture, and the like, come together. In the colonies of Magna Graecia, they built their agora before building temples and private houses. They did everything outdoors and in public.

Well, they had that lovely Mediterranean climate for it.

But I realized I was in the Agora, not just when a headline came up on the screen to say so, nor even when I saw (and was warned away from) the temple of Hephaestos. The magic moment for me was when I passed by some women singing the Seikilos Epitaph. I knew the tune from its appearance in Civilization VI, and I also already knew it was very old. But I didn’t know there were lyrics. So I looked it up, and found that it is the oldest recorded music in the world. It’s a song of love, but also of mourning: perhaps something that the author composed for the grave of his wife. And its text is a set of propositions about how life is both brief and tragic, and yet it should be good:

While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
And Time demands his due.

How wonderful, how absolutely uplifting, to know that this musical thought survived history, not only in point of fact that the words survived, but also in point of principle that the human experience it expresses is so universal: that we are mortal, and that we struggle with the immensities, and yet, sub specie aeternitatis, life is good.

The next day at work, I sang it for my students. They were a little astonished to hear their philosophy prof singing in class.

The inclusion of that song is another thing in this game, for which Ubisoft should give a raise to whoever decided to include it. Such a beautiful moment.

It’s just kind of too bad that the only merchant in the Agora that you can talk to is the blacksmith. It might have been nice to be able to buy and sell goods whose utility in the story is about something other than combat. There are trade goods you can find in the field and sell in the market, but otherwise they’re not used for anything. What if you could buy clothing: something to wear in town, or when doing social quests. Or, it might be nice to go to workshops and make things out of all iron metal and olive wood. To buy a house, and outfit it with your own furniture and art, for instance.

But if I couldn’t have that, I could have something else that felt just as good: a ship’s crew who sing old Greek poems. Now I’m looking up the lyrics, so I can learn to sing with them.

I met Herodotus!
I also made a superficial comparison of the map of Greece in the game, to the map of Greece in the real world. Not only in terms of scale — for obviously the Greece of the game could not be 1:1 to the real Greece. But the relative position of islands, lakes, and such. There’s a lake in Boeotia which doesn’t exist in modern day Greece. Also, Euboia isn’t an island. But I wondered if there was a lake there in ancient times? A quick look through my Britannica (I still have a complete 1984 edition) and I find that there was. Lake Kopais. Respect for the game designers is increasing.

In the midst of the same research, it occurs to me that the total playable area of ACO is probably 250 square kilometers. Or, more than six times larger than Skyrim! Granted that a lot of ACO’s playable area is water for sailing, nonetheless that’s huge. And although the landscape tends to be relatively homogeneous, the towns are distinctive and memorable. This is my new favourite exploration world.

The wish is also increasing in me, to have enough time / money / resources some day to create a game like it.

Selfie, while contemplating the Greek islands and the sun, as the real Socrates used to do. It’s really no wonder that western philosophy was born here.

The game took me back to the future briefly. I’m reading Layla’s emails and documents. Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Nick Bostrom are mentioned by name. Heideggarian concepts like Dasein and Alethia, used correctly. I’m impressed.

At the bidding of Pericles, I just rigged a vote to have the philosopher Anaximander ostracized from the city. I have to say, I feel rather unhappy about it, being a philosopher myself. There’s a hint that the ostracism might have saved his life from something else. But I’m beginning to wonder if I’m supporting the wrong side of the Peloponesean war. Wrong, not in the sense of who will win (I know my history, I already know it’s Sparta) but rather, wrong in the sense of: I should be supporting the democratic, artistically vibrant, and intellectually flourishing Athens, instead of totalitarian, war-obsessed, and bullish Sparta.

Also, I met Socrates! It was fun to see what the designers thought he should look like — and it was true to my impression of him too. Various textual sources say that he was a big, ungainly, and uncomely fellow, who galumphed when he walked. He engaged me in some light philosophical banter about knowledge. I would like to have had more dialogue options, but I suppose it makes sense that Kassandra is a mercenary and her relationship with knowledge would be practical and technical (and violent) rather than knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake.

Also, there’s one major feature of Socrates’ character that seems missing: his sly sense of humour. The Apology (the speech he made at his trial for corrupting the young) is riddled with it. My excitement on meeting him wore off a bit too soon.

But all that was forgiven when I met him again at Pericles’ symposium, where he and Thrasymachus hashed out some of the arguments in Book 1 of The Republic. I liked the touch about how he decided to wear shoes to the event — famously, Socrates went barefoot everywhere. (Imagine what his feet must have looked like.) Also, I loved his big happy smile when Aspasia entered the room. It was first smile I saw in this game which was bright enough to show teeth. Xenophon said that Socrates and Aspasia were having an affair. Maybe the game designers knew!

You know, when the game offers me a moral choice, I usually pick the one that involves talking to people instead of killing them. For instance, when the lions were terrorizing a village, I found the guy who was trying to live like one of them, and got his medicine for him, instead of killing him and his lions. But as for that pirate who makes you swim through shark infested water to get her a treasure, and who then doesn’t pay you — I made sure that she died. Painfully. And then I destroyed her ship, too.

The moral choice regarding the man and his lions, is like a moral choice between killing someone to save others, or not killing them with the knowledge that others will therefore die. It’s very stark, and not very philosophically interesting. In effect it’s only a trolley problem. So it’s nice that ACO gave me more options.

(As an aside: Fallout III has a worse version of this problem. In the settlement of Megaton, you meet someone who will pay you a lot of money to help him detonate a nuclear device, or you can kill him and so save the people who would have died in the nuclear blast he plans to ignite. It’s such a stupid choice. Game writers can, and I think must, do better.)

In the games I design as teaching tools for my students, I try to lean away from choices between good and bad, and away from choices between bad and worse. I definitely lean away from the kind of problems in which someone dies, or is killed, no matter what you do. Instead I want to lean towards choices between different (competing) concepts of goodness. Red or green or blue or yellow, so to speak, instead of black or grey.

I’m soon to publish a tabletop game of my own which attempts to do exactly that. And, sorry about the plug there.

At this point, by the way, I’ve been playing long enough to feel some of the same problems noted by critics. Chief among them: the grind. Events in the main quest line require some levelling up, which I suppose in principle is fine, but those events do not, by themselves, give enough experience points to allow me to level-up fast enough to continue the quest line. I suppose the idea was to force players to take on side quests. Still, it feels jarring to have a good story interrupted this way, for reasons related to the game mechanics and unrelated to the story itself. Levelling up, by the way, also feels like a bit of an illusion, for the reason that all the game’s antagonists level up with you, and so in effect nothing changes. I understand that the game must continue to be challenging. But it seems somewhat absurd that a run-of-the-mill guardsman, who was a tough nut to crack when I was 3rd level, should not be dispatched with relative ease when I’m 10th level. As it is, I’m 23rd level and I just had my ass handed to me by the exact same kind of bandit who has been handing me my ass for hours. I’m turning the combat volume down to ‘easy’ and I’m not ashamed of it.

Ah. Less grinding. More story. Much better.

I’m beginning to wonder if it is possible at all to create a large open-world RPG that does not feature combat so prominently. What would a game like that be like? Would it feature logic puzzles? Moral dilemmas? Racing and chasing? Detective deduction? Social manipulations? The other thing I’m doing with my (increasingly small amount of) free time is edit and lay out my tabletop RPG. I’m placing the rules for social actions ahead of the rules for combat action, as a subtle signal to players that there’s more to life than hacking and slashing.

For instance: the sight of that valley in Arcadia, with the colourful farms, was a wonderful reward in itself. Long after I forget what ability perks I chose when I levelled up, I’ll remember what it felt like to quit all the quests and go exploring at my own initiative, looking for the city of Sparta, and to unexpectedly come across that valley on the way.

That scene where my Kassandra met her mother. So lovely. So human. Great work.

Also: I’m beginning to think Aspasia knows things she’s not telling me.

I’ve now had a few more dialogues with Socrates in which we discuss whether someone can change their character over time, and whether some kinds of crimes (like horse thievery) could be morally justifiable under some situations, such as when you need the money (from selling a stolen horse) to feed your family. They’re the kind of Jean Valjean questions we debate in first year philosophy classes, and it’s nice to see them here. I chose dialogue options that I thought were at least consistent with each other, if not exactly reflecting my own views. For instance, my Kassandra said that it could be justifiable to kill someone if doing so would save the lives of some number of others. That’s a sort of trolley-problem question, to which the correct answer (as I see it) is “There’s something wrong with utilitarianism”. But it is also a question at the heart of the Assassin’s Creed world. The assassins do, after all, believe they can improve the world by killing people. It’s the very reason they exist as a secret organization. In other AC titles, this is referred to as one of the Three Ironies, part of the ‘creed’ of Assassin’s Creed. If Kassandra were to doubt that, she would doubt her entire purpose in life.

Socrates asks Kassandra whether a bad man could over time become a good man. And, in very Socratic fashion, he observes that if it’s true, then the converse must also be true, that a good man could become a bad one. That, right there, could affect how the Assassins see their mission. If a bad person could become a good one, then there are other things the assassins can do about bad people besides kill them. I wonder what an AC game might look like if it explores that possibility.

I enjoyed the scenes which take place in Athens during the disease outbreak. Historically, it was Pericles’ greatest military blunder; it cost him his own life, too. I say I enjoyed those scenes, but they were, after all tragic scenes. Here’s a city I had grown comfortable in. It is the setting where I met Socrates, and a dozen others whom I have been studying my whole life. It’s where I heard someone singing the Seikilos Epitaph, as mentioned. So to see it gloomy and grey, populated by suffering people, was emotionally rough. Phoebe’s death was so awful, that I sat for a while, just looking at her, before continuing with the story. But it ended on a harmonious and satisfying note: Socrates, at the dockyard in the Piraeus, choosing to remain in Athens, saying that there has to be someone willing to challenge people’s ideas and to speak out against injustice even when everyone calls it justice.
“I have lived as an Athenian, I will die as an Athenian”, he said.

Yes, he will. And I am sure he knew what was likely ahead of him.

Now that, my friends, is what moral courage looks like. That’s what made Socrates a hero.

I wonder if the story will take me to his trial.

The other reason the Assasins organization exists is to search for Precusor artifacts. And in my last session, I found a big one: the entrance to the lost city of Atlantis. (And by the way, the game offered what has become my new favourite theory of where the ‘real’ Atlantis, if there ever was one, might have been.) I thought the shape of the endgame would be the killing of whoever is at the centre of the Cult of Kosmos. It may still be that, but it now seems it will also be the closing of that gate to Atlantis. And I see by Ubisoft’s DLC offerings, that Atlantis is an explorable area too.

This seems like a good place to end this blog post. I’ll leave you with these summary thoughts:

  • I have a new favourite video game series. My previous favourite, the Elder Scrolls series, now feels pretentious and small by comparison.
  • But having said that, I think I like designing and worldbuilding my own games (and novels, etc) better than I like playing other people’s games. Anyone got ten million dollars to spare, that I can spend on creating my own big RPG?
  • I likely wouldn’t use AC Odyssey to teach Greek history or to teach intro philosophy. But I certainly would invite students of mine to make references to the game in their essays and projects if it helps them understand the classical Greek world better.
  • It is my wish that everyone should study philosophy, so that they can dive into our world in the spirit of the Seikolos Epitaph, and in the spirit of Socrates: questioning everything, searching for what is true and beautiful and good, seeing the world’s tragedies and injustice and darkness, and yet finding that the world still deserves our activism and our love.
Yes, I know that Kassandra is Greek, female, and a fictitious character, whereas I am male, Irish-Canadian, and probably not a simulation. Nonetheless, I still feel like this is a selfie.
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The Little Prince, and Outer Space

I do hope you have heard of, if not read, The Little Prince, a delightful children’s novel by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It begins with a story of a pilot who has to land his plane in the desert to make repairs (Saint-Exupéry was himself a pilot). There he meets a child who claims to live on an asteroid called B-612, and who came to earth by hitching a ride with a flock of birds and a comet. I adored this novel, as well as the animated television series which ran when I was myself a child.

So, with great excitement, a few weeks ago my partner and I watched the 2015 film based on the novel. Where we discovered, as did pretty much everybody who saw the film, that it had almost nothing to do with the novels.

I suppose the film producers thought to themselves, “We can’t just make The Little Prince. We have to make a 21st century version of him. So, what if we made a film about The Little Prince all grown up? Hey, it worked for Peter Pan in Hook (1991). And we can make the pilot who found him as en elderly man: eccentric, funny, loveable, shunned by his community because he preserves his child-like heart, and a mentor figure to another young child and that child’s parent, who must learn some Important Life Lessons about retaining child-like imagination. Throw in a message about the soullessness of consumer capitalism, for the GenXers in the audience who remember the 80s, and for the millennials who are woke to socialism. Yeah, let’s do that. And if we make the New Child and Parent into a girl and a woman, then we can tick off our diversity checkboxes at the same time, too.”

Yeah, and we can also tick off the audience. Because the film became, well, not a film about The Little Prince. It was a film about why everything childhood is good and everything adult is bad. And that’s a proposition we have to examine, and I think reject.

Frankly, there’s a lot of things I like about being a grown-up. For one thing, my own childhood from about the age of 8 onward can be mostly described a psychological endurance run, because of the bullying, the verbal abuse, the cold-shouldering, the neglect, the discrediting of my interests, the disvaluing of my accomplishments, from my peers as well as some of the adults around them. And the physical beatings from bullies that were authorised by adult authorities (ie. the same bullies who verbally taunted me by day could physically beat me up during karate class twice a week at night). No wonder, then, that I escaped to the forest of the Elora Gorge as often as possible, to enjoy some independence in solitude. By contrast: now that I’m an adult, if someone wants to bully me, I can sue them. Or call the police on them. Not only that: I can also read the great books of civilization and understand them. I get my own money, and I decide how to spend it. I get to have sex with any consenting adult partner I want. I get to travel the world – I’ve been to fifteen countries so far. (I’m especially fond of central Europe.) I get to write books and share them with people who will make an honest attempt to understand them. My life as an adult has been an order of magnitude better than my life as a child. (Though I still protect my solitude, and in the Gatineau Hills park I have a new forest.) So, stories that privilege childhood innocence and childhood wonder always strike me as patronizing and wrong.

But that reduces to psychology an argument that deserves treatment on its own merits. So here’s another way in, by way of a counter-argument and some questions.

Someone might say: “sure, childhood often sucks, but adult life sucks even more. The world of adults in 2019 is a soul-crushing circus of commercialism, global warming, poverty, and resurgent fascism. If you insist upon letting go of childhood things, might there be no space left for wonder? Might there be no space left for child-like (not child-ish) innocence and magic in our lives and in our stories? No space left for us for escape (I don’t say escap-ism) from the nightmare of our time?”

A reply: That space is still all around you. It is, to my thinking, impossible to eradicate. Though it can be temporarily suppressed, it can always break through and demand attention. However much of the world we enclose within the frame of the human, there will always, always, be realms beyond the frame which summon us to amazement and beauty. And to terror. And in either case, to the sublime. Such is the nature of the Immensity. (A word with deep philosophical significance to me, and which features often in my books.) Let me introduce you to an example of it: the Hubble Deep-Field photograph.

My god, it’s full of stars!

Basically, every dot in that photograph is an entire galaxy. Scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at an area of space where they thought there was nothing, and they opened the aperture at that space for about ten days. They had no idea what they would see. It was possible they wouldn’t see anything. But they gave ten days to looking at nothing just to see whether or not it might turn out to be something. And it did. It turned out that the universe has galaxies everywhere. That we are dwelling within a universe that is probably infinite, and in which there’s something to discover in every direction. That’s every direction, in three physical dimensions out to billions of light years, and in two temporal directions, past and future, out to billions of millennia. We live in a world that’s astonishingly, overwhelmingly, unthinkably beautiful. And facing that immensity is not a childhood thing. It is a grown-up thing.

If I was driving to any kind of point in this not-well-crafted argument, it’s that we should reject the proposition that all things childhood are good and all things adult are bad, because some sources of magic and wonder available only to adults are better than those available to children. Or, better than those which we as adults think are available to children who live in perfect worlds, like the world that the characters in the 2015 Little Prince film lost.

Let me explain why that world is not lost. Or, more to the point, why the world we actually have is better. In fact: here’s composer Eric Whitacre, who wrote an orchestral piece inspired by that photograph; let him explain it.

Anyway, photographs like the Hubble Deep Field, and artistic creations inspired by it, are places where I can feel my sense of wonder and magic inspired and preserved in me, whilst at the same time remaining an adult. I shall always love Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince; but I prefer to imagine that the boy grew up to become a man, and that his rose grew up to be a woman, and they’re both still out there, exploring the galaxy, but maybe with a telescope now. Or an Alcubierre drive.

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What do you regret?

“No regrets!” A motto of sorts that I remember from my teens and 20s. In one sense it was the YOLO of its time; an invitation to live a life of wildness and hedonism. In another sense it might have been a call to avoid doing things that you would regret later. In a third sense, it suggests one should have a future-looking view of life, a decoupling of one’s present from unhappy influences of past events: nostalgia, or guilt, or sorrow.

Lately I have wondered if all of those senses of the phrase are wrong. and that it may be good to have a few regrets. I don’t mean the decisions one makes in the absence of information which, had one known, one might have chosen differently. I mean, instead, the things one does which, intended or not, caused some pain to others, and the knowledge of being responsible for that pain.

A personal confession, before I explain an argument for the above proposition. My spiritual life involves posing to myself various Socratic questions designed to induce better self-awareness. Questions like the one in the title of this blog; questions to which “Nothing” is not an acceptable answer. I have discovered about myself in the last month or so, that I live with rather a lot of regret. For roads not taken, for changes turned down. For people and communities who were once kind and loving to me, and who I also loved, but nonetheless from whom I took more than I gave, or who I pushed away, or who I harmed. Some have been friends. Some have been former girlfriends and lovers. Some have been colleagues and neighbours. Some of these regrets go all the way back to my high school days. They are among the reasons I have lived most of my adult life as a bachelor — if I am alone, I do not harm anyone, and no one accuses me of doing anything wrong.

I think it may sometimes be good to have regrets. It can be a sign of having lived a complete life – complete, in the sense of including the lows that come with the highs, including the pain, including the scars, including the euphemistic ‘lessons learned’ — which really means knowledge of the consequences of bad choices, and, one would hope, the wisdom to make no such similar mistake again.

In reply, you might say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect’. And on face value, that’s obviously true. But what is the perfection to which we are comparing ourselves? What teacher, what prophet, has preached it? What holy book describes it? And whatever it might be, does the motto itself tacitly suppose that it does not exist? What, then, is the point of comparing ourselves to perfections that do not exist? Is it only to further punish ourselves? Is it to accept ourselves as flawed and sinful? Or do we need an entirely new language by which to talk about human nature and the human condition? One in which the spectre of ‘perfection’ does not arise?

I think I can answer the latter question with Yes. A well lived life, a life of full human eudaemonia, cannot be a life of lotus-eating ignorance. It has to include some real engagement in the world, including the kind that can result in people being hurt. Because in the course of living that life, people can, and do, make bad choices. But the word for a person who causes deliberate and avoidable harm to others and who thinks it fully justified, is evil. I wonder if regret is the psychological tether-line which, while forcing us to acknowledge the things we’ve done that were wrong, also holds us back from doing worse – or becoming worse.

The next time you meet someone new and you want to get to know them, here’s a probing question to ask: “What do you regret?”

It’s like a way of asking, “In what way are you a better person now, because of what you regret?”

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Some propositions on ecology and philosophy

For the past several years I have (very slowly) worked on a manuscript on ecology, its major scientific principles and discoveries, and their implications for philosophy, politics, economics, religion, and culture. It’s been such slow going that I wrote, and completed two entire novels at the same time. Part of the reason it’s been slow going is because: every time I come up with what I think is a really good idea, I do me due diligence research and discover someone else thought it up already. (Which, sub specie aeternitatis, is a good thing: it means the idea is already out there, inspiring people hopefully for the better.) Also, the state of the science is moving very quickly: I started the work before the discovery of mother trees and mycorrizal networks in forests, and before the discovery of a giant and ancient ecosystem dwelling five kilometers below the surface of the earth and as large as the oceans. So I end up starting all over again.

Panorama from a lookout on King Mountain trail, Gatineau Park, August 2018.

Here are a few of the notes I’ve made in the last few weeks. I post them here in the hope that some of you might see something in them that I haven’t seen, and that you might point me in new directions.

Ecology against fascism.

  1. Ecology is the science of living relationships.
  2. As a science of living relationships, its principles and aims are fundamentally contrary to the principles and aims of fascism — as fascism is the assertion, in the political arena, of fictitious essences (ie. of human nature, of human races, of genders, of cultural purity, of national destiny, etc), and the assertion of the necessity of separation, subordination, and conquest of the bearers of one essence by the bearers of another.

Ecology and the Design Argument.

  1. A conclusive finding made by the science of ecology: there is no such thing as (long term consistent) stability, balance, or harmony in the world of nature. Everything in nature is in transition.
  2. Given the truth of (1), it follows that the Design argument for the existence of God, insofar as it depends on the findings of the science of ecology, is unsound.
  3. From (2) it could follow that there is no God.
  4. Or, it could follow that most of us have profoundly wrong ideas about the divine. For example, God might not be the omniscient, omnipotent, monotheistic God presupposed (sought? affirmed?) in the Design argument. God might be many (polytheism), or immanent (panentheism), or a changing thing (process theology), or something else. What, if anything, does ecology teach about the divine?

Six propositions from a purely utilitarian and anthropocentric view.

The field of environmental philosophy provides some obvious answers to one of the root questions of philosophy: ‘what is good?’. To make things simple, let’s set aside, for the moment, any discussion about how landscapes may have intrinsic value, or how animals and plants might have rights, or how an expanded concept of the self could include our surrounding landscapes and ecologies. Let’s look at only the answers that come from a purely utilitarian, purely anthropocentric view, of environmental ethics.

With that in mind, it should be clear that things like:

1. clean air to breathe,


2. clean water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking,

are objectively good. I’m following philosopher John McMurtry’s conception of ‘objective good’ here, in which something is good insofar as deprivation of that thing leads to loss of life-capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting, up to and including loss of life itself. There might be more things to go on that list, but I’m keeping it simple for now.

Given the objective goodness of air and water, we can draw the conclusion that:

3. An ecology and biome surrounding one’s community, of sufficient stability and biodiversity to provide a reliable supply of clean air and water,


4. A system of economics and politics which regulates the community’s extractions from and impacts upon those ecologies and biomes, to keep them within local and global carrying capacities,

are, at the very least, instrumentally good. They are necessary for our continued possession of the objective goods of air and water, without which we are all dead.

But most people don’t draw that conclusion. Or, it might be more accurate to say that our politics and economics, and indeed our culture, on the whole, behaves as if:

5. Those goods described in 3 and 4 are merely nice things to have, and that no serious consequences follow from harming them.

The evidence for 5 can be seen in, for example, the way that international climate protection agreements, such as the Paris Agreement (2016), are unenforceable: there are no legally prescribed penalties for parties who violate its aims. And in the time since international agreements like it have been drafted and signed to much media fanfare, the global climate instability-disaster has continued, leading to the destabilization and destruction of human-life-supporting ecosystems and landscapes all over the earth.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the logic in all that discussion is impeccable. There could be more to say to strengthen it, but I think the point is clear enough. It leads me to the following questions: Why does that happen? Why does culture, economics, and politics, on the whole, behave as if 5 is a truth so obvious it does not require serious examination?

It might be that people believe:

6. There will always be enough air and water. Ecologies and biomes are always robust and complex enough to survive whatever extractions and impacts we impose on them.

And that therefore, principle 4 is not necessary.

But as anyone who has studied ecology will know, principle 6 is false. We can run out of clean air and clean water. And we can, in fact, die, if we do not acknowledge that fact.

But what should we do about the widespread non-acknowledgement of that fact? That’s the question that has been nagging me for pretty much all my adult life.

Green Selves, Green Social Contracts

As a matter of practical and observable reality: the ‘greening of the self’, promoted and promised by the environmentalist movement, has not in fact occurred. For the reason that: despite widespread and popular environmental initiatives such as civic recycling programs, renewable energy developments, environmental education in schools, etc., the climate of the earth is more unstable now than it was 30 years ago, and the climate is shifting toward instability with increasing momentum, to the point that large regions of Earth will very likely be uninhabitable for human and animal life by the year 2100.

That proposition gives me no pleasure. I can clearly see how the idea of the green self inspires artistic creativity, ethical changes in economic and interpersonal behavior, ethical virtues like cooperation, compassion, empathy, frugality, temperance (sophrosyne), global vision, and political action, in those who have accepted it. It is a beautiful idea. Were I to reject this idea, I might hamper the environmental movement, and I might unnecessarily distress people who are committed to it. A revision or replacement of the green self has to be just as beautiful.

Instead of a green self: a green social contract? Along the lines proposed by Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto, or by Polly Higgins’ Mission Life Force, or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I wish I had thought of ideas like these. Sometimes I feel like I’m being left behind.

And another thing!

What does ‘stability’ mean? In the second argument above, I said it doesn’t exist in nature, yet in the fourth argument I framed it as an instrumental good, and in the fifth argument I implied that its opposite, instability, is bad. This might be inconsistent. Lots to think about here.

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Who will win the Second American Civil War?

The second American Civil War has already begun.

This fact is not acknowledged by those who expect a civil war to look like previous wars: having large and well-organised armies, having territories with definite (even if moving) borders, and having wide battle zones along or near those borders.

The second American Civil War, already in progress, has battle-fronts in any place where a politically radicalized person murders those whom he regards as no longer American like him. The perpetrators might not belong to any organizations, and might not be taking direct orders from anyone; it’s enough that they have adopted a value program which certifies mass-murder as ethically right and required. (In that sense, the factions in this war have franchises rather than regiments and divisions.) In that respect, the war looks more like an insurgency. It is being fought in cities where it is possible to get a coffee and have a normal conversation with a friend less than two city-blocks from the scene of the fighting. The battlefields of the second American Civil War include synagogues (the most recent being yesterday, in Pittsburgh PA), schools, churches, mosques, movie theatres, political rallies– any place where there has been a politically motivated mass shooting. Taking those locations as not merely the scene of a crime, but also the scene of organized political violence, the second American Civil War already meets one of the standard academic definitions of a war: one thousand battle deaths, per year, or more. (*See the addendum, below.)

When did it begin?

Historians might some day pin one date or one event as the beginning of this second civil war: for my part I would pin it on 16th June 2015, the day that Mr. Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States. For although there had been this kind of political violence in America for at least the previous thirty years, Trump’s candidacy and presidency gave to the perpetrators of nationalist right-wing violence the feeling that they had someone from the economic and political establishment on their side. If no one is taking direct orders from him, still they are taking “hints”, in the form of the various remarks and code words that he uses to reassure people he would approve of certain modes of violence. In terms of principle, rather than in terms of a calendar date, the second American Civil War began when America’s dominant class, finding their dominance in decline, rose up against the oppressed in order to preserve their dominance and their ability to oppress.

Who will win?

The date of its beginning is tangential to the real point I wish to make, which is: The winner of the second American Civil War will not be any faction in that war. It will not even be any “true America”, whatever that might mean. It will be whatever country, or several countries, other than the United States and other than any American political faction, that can transform their economy and their culture such that they no longer rely upon the United States. Or to put it another way: the winners will be the countries that can leave the United States behind, especially in these four fields: economics, political influence, culture, and knowledge.

1. Economics.

At this time, the economy of the United States is still the largest in the world; the US dollar is still the world’s reserve currency; American banks and other financial institutions still shore up the global economy. As a consequence of America’s second civil war, America will lose that position of economic dominance. Whatever other country, or block of countries, can take over that position, as a net exporter of money and of strategic commodities (cash crops, energy, manufactured goods especially cars and aircraft, etc), will win the economic front of the war.

2. Politics and diplomacy.

America’s economic dominance of the world helped it to dominate the world politically, too. Through most of the second half of the 20th century Americans have been expected to lead, and in fact did lead, in things like international peacekeeping, foreign aid and disaster relief, nuclear non-proliferation, and the creation of trans-national trade partnerships and military alliances. In the next five to ten years, that influence will end. In the future, fewer and fewer countries will treat America as a reliable and honest participant in global affairs. This trust will erode slowly, but it will erode in step with the speed that the American people lose trust in their own institutions– a loss that will accelerate as the democratic institutions of the United States which should be above politics become instead politicized battle-fronts in their own right: the Supreme Court, the armed services, the police, the means of drawing electoral districts and of counting ballots in elections, and so on. The political front of the second American civil war will be won by whatever country can present itself as the reliable, stable, and trustworthy, alternative. That winning country is likely to be the same country that wins the economic front. This may or may not be a free country– consider how many countries today are leaning toward populist and patriarchal authoritarianism. Just today, for example, Brazil elected an authoritarian populist president. So I worry that the country who wins the American civil war on the political and economic front will also be the next country to lose it. But I do hope that the winning countries will be those who can keep their democratic institutions above politics, and so preserve their trustworthiness in the eyes of all citizens whatever their political beliefs.

3. Culture.

Most of the world watches American-made film and television shows, listens to American music, reads American books, reads American print media on the internet. That, too, will slowly end. Fewer and fewer people will want to watch, hear, or read stories that glorify the foundational mythologies, or even the day-to-day realities, of a society in violent decline. The culture front will be won by whatever countries have an arts and culture sector — a sector of musicians, filmmakers, writers, playwrights, and so on — that can out-compete American arts and culture in box offices, bookstores, internet downloads, and so on. These arts and culture creators will have to create a new philosophy about humanity and its future, which can capture the imagination in a way that American stories like The American Dream used to do. (My philosophy to take that place is called The Deliberate Civilizationread about it here.) Again, the winner of the culture front may or may not be a free country– ideas like patriarchy, racism, religious chosen-ness, and the like, are seductive to people who imagine themselves both oppressed and at the same time justified to oppress others.

4. Knowledge.

Finally, in matters of knowledge: remember it was Americans who led the world in technology for most of the last century. Americans invented the internet, the internal combustion engine, the aeroplane, the film projector, the nuclear reactor, the Saturn V rocket which put twelve men on the moon. Yet the second American civil war has treated information, and all instruments of mass communication, as a battle front, by treating intellectuals and scientists with contempt, by ignoring important scientific discoveries such as climate change and global warming, by treating their news media as an entertainment media with no need for truth or journalistic integrity. This may seem the most abstract front of the war– but it is a war front like every other, in the sense that people kill and people die because they are captured by the lies created around them by their leaders and by their propaganda-saturated culture. From “Pizzagate” to the anti-vaccination movement to the storms and droughts of climate change: wherever propaganda and subjectivity replaces knowledge and truth, people suffer and die.

The knowledge front will be won by whatever countries have a knowledge sector– professors, scientists, school teachers, journalists, clergy, entrepreneurs, politicians, administrators, and so on– that protects an honest and objective relationship with reality.

Here, however, I think the knowledge front will be won – can only be won – by countries that remain liberal, multicultural, and free. I claim this for the reason that as the American civil war drags on, scientists and intellectuals who might have thought of moving to America will instead stay in their home countries, or else move to countries they regard as safe. They’ll go to cities that welcome immigrants rather than scare them away. They’ll go to places where there is still money from government, from academia, and from private foundations, to pay for pure research – pure, in the sense of being directed only by the curiosity of the researcher and by the evidence of observable reality, and not by the economic or political interests of the paymasters. Over time, as they and their children settle into in their new homes, their different life experiences and different languages will help people around them think and see things in new ways. In so doing, they’ll help create a culture of experimentation, imagination, and (to use the language of our zeitgeist) disruptive innovation — not only in economics, but in culture and politics too. Those countries, and only those countries, will bring the next wave of world-changing scientific discoveries and technological developments on to the stage of history: interstellar space flight, for example, or cold fusion, or quantum computing. And in bringing those new scientific and technical transformations to the world, they will leave America behind.

Lots of people in these winning societies won’t like the new social contract that will emerge in their countries. There might be some who will romanticize the losing side of America’s civil war. There might be some who will want to re-start the war in their home countries the moment they think they can win it. That is because the winning countries will not be the countries that dominate or conquer America. Rather, the winners will be the countries where la lotta continua — where the struggle for a better culture, a better humanity, goes on. The losing countries will be the countries where that struggle has ceased, because America’s second civil war has reduced them to a struggle for the minimum necessities for life – food and shelter – or else where everyone is dead.

Good luck, everyone.

* Addendum, 29 October 2018.

I was asked to provide a citation for the statement I made above, that the number of deaths in politically-motivated violence in the USA meets the threshold definition of a war: 1,000 battle-deaths per year.

First thing to note: the definition of a war comes from Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, which defines a “minor conflict” as between 25 and 1,000 deaths per calendar year, and a “war” as more than 1,000 deaths per calendar year.

According to https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/, there have been 12,072 deaths by gunfire in the United States in 2018 – that’s as of 29 October 2018, the day I checked the page to get the data. The same database reports that 15 of those deaths were classed by American law enforcement agencies as “hate crimes”, zero as “political violence” and 2 as “terrorism involvement”, since October 2017. That’s a total of 17 deaths: so if those are the only ones you count, they’re not enough to meet the above-mentioned criteria of a “minor conflict”.

But much might depend on which 12-month frame you look at. A mass shooting in Orlando Florida, which killed 50 people, was classified as terrorism, and so it meets the requirements of my argument. But it took place in June of 2016 so it wouldn’t count “in the last calendar year”.

Or, much might depend on incidents which are not counted as terrorism or hate crimes or political violence, but perhaps some of them should be. For example, the Washington Post reported that in 2018 so far, 159 Black people and 109 Hispanic people have been killed by police officers, of whom 14 of the victims were unarmed.

Or , we could count the deaths where the killer has no particular feelings about the people he killed; he’s merely taking pleasure in the ability to kill, treating violence as an end in itself— a behaviour that fits the 3rd and 12th items on Umberto Eco’s fourteen features of fascism.

I think that we have enough information to assert a disjunction proposition, as follows: “either the 2nd American civil war is in progress now, or else it is brewing.” It’s perhaps not as definitive as I would like. But I think the situation in America, in which the rhetoric of racism, sexism, religious hate, and the like, has moved from the margins of society to its mainstream, and which moves people to kill their neighbours, calls for a new category of conflict. The Dept of Peace and Conflict Research, cited above, defines several types of wars: for example, between states, between a state and a non-state organization, between a named organization (a state or a non-state org) and an unarmed population (ie, a genocide). We might have to invent a new category of political violence, in which the number of battle-deaths is not the only relevant criteria. We might include the number of incidents which result in injuries but not deaths: 12 in the last 12 months, according to gunviolencearchive.org again, bringing the total to 29, which is within the definition of “minor conflict”. Or we might include some measure of the fear felt by members of minority communities.

In any case, whether the 2nd American civil war is in progress now or is only “brewing”, I remain convinced that when that second civil war breaks out, the winner will still be: not America. And I’m sorry for it; I assure you that this conclusion brings me no pleasure. But I hope this conclusion will be thought about by people around the world, including within America, to help everyone prepare for the unhappy but very likely prospect of a world without America.

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The Twelve Year Warning: Why the world will do nothing about the UN’s latest climate change report.

By now, I hope that you have heard of the warning from UN scientists concerning the likely future of planet Earth if we continue emitting CO2 and other global warming drivers in our farms, factories, power plants, and vehicles.

The report says that we have to reduce our global carbon output to zero in only twelve years, or else face a future of more droughts, more violent storms, more floods, more refugees and mass migrations, more giant wildfires, more desertification, more ocean acidification, more death, more of everything that is associated with climate change. Here’s the link where you can read the report for yourself.

I have a bold prophesy for you: we will miss that target. We will miss it because the people who are in a position to do anything about it are also in a position to insulate themselves from the worst consequences.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Think of it by the following analogy. In the first decade of this century, there were plenty of warning signs that the global financial system was on the verge of breaking. This mostly had to do with sub-prime mortgage lending in the United States, though there were other factors, too. Some of the people who raised the warning were ignored; others were fired or otherwise censured. But the uppermost people knew the warnings were logically sound. They also knew they need not worry, because the government would bail them out. And that is exactly what happened. In the months following the banking crash of 15 September 2008, hundreds of banks and industrial corporations deemed “too big to fail” received bail-out money from the government, sometimes as direct cash injections, sometimes as purchase of shares, so they could continue producing their products and paying their workers and employees. (Many of the executive-level management also pocketed that money for themselves. That’s another scandal, but only tangentially relevant to my current argument.)

I think the same thing is going to happen regarding the warnings that the world’s climate scientists have sounded since the 1970’s. The super-rich will get a climate change bail-out. Never mind that as a class they are powerful enough to transition the world to a zero-carbon, green energy economy in less than ten years. Never mind that such a transition would be profitable for some of them. Never mind that some of them, taken individually, do have humanitarian and compassionate values. As a class, they will save themselves first.

They will squeeze as much money as they can from the fossil-fuel economy, mostly from the sale of their products but also, significantly, from governments, directly as subsidies or indirectly as tax breaks. They will use this money to build life-boats for themselves, in parts of the world where the effects of the coming climate catastrophe are likely to be less intense. New Zealand, for example.

In fact I strongly suspect that when certain celebrity industrialists say we should colonize Mars to make it harder for a war or an an asteroid impact or some natural disaster to destroy the human race, the phrase “the human race” does not mean all of us. It means, instead, a select class of uber-wealthy individuals who can pay to jump ship before it catches fire. It would amaze me, but not surprise me, if one or more Mars colonies are already in the early stages of pre-fabrication.

As for the rest of us: we shall have to continue doing all the things we are already doing to help prevent climate change: planting gardens, planting trees, consuming less stuff, rewilding landscapes, recycling waste, experimenting with regenerative agriculture, lobbying businesses and governments, voting for scientifically-literate politicians and parties, joining public education campaigns, and so on. But I believe we have to do these things in full knowledge that the work shall be of very little effect in the short term.

There is, however, another reason to continue doing those things: we should give to our descendents the knowledge of how to create and preserve a life-affirming and ecologically conscious human culture. If we preserve that knowledge, perhaps our decendants of six or seven generations from now could have such a culture, when fossil fuels have finally run out and the global climate settles down. If we lose that knowledge, it might take far longer to re-discover and re-invent it.

I am more optimistic about the next thousand years, than I am for the next hundred.

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Cannabis Etiquette: Some Suggestions

Okay, Canada. We’re going to legalize cannabis in a little over a month. I’m generally in favour of that, but I also worry that people might not understand cannabis, and as a result of not understanding it, people might hurt themselves or others.

As a college prof, I’ve been hearing stories from students of mine for years about people who bought one type of pot, only to find that it had far more THC than they were led to believe. Among other problems, mostly stemming from ignorance.

Mislabelled product, product mixed with harder stuff like cocaine, and dealers and suppliers who lie about their sources, etc. are everywhere.

As a result, they had all kinds of reactions, up to and including the kind of reckless behaviour while high that gets people permanently injured or dead.

Insert obligatory stock-photo of something to do with cannabis.

So: in much the same way that responsible alcohol drinkers know to check the label of what they’re drinking (for alcohol %, etc.), and know not to drive, and know when to stop for the day, etc., responsible cannabis consumers will be those who learn to read the label of what they’re smoking (or eating, or vaping, or, whatever), and not drive, and stop when they’ve had enough.

So, I propose the following simple rules of etiquette, similar to what we already do around alcohol, to help those of us who want to toke up to do so responsibly.

– If you don’t know where it came from, don’t take it.
– If you don’t know what it is, don’t take it.
– If it isn’t labelled clearly, or not labelled at all, don’t take it.
– If the person offering it to you won’t tell you what it is or where it came from, don’t take it.
– If you don’t know how much THC or CBD it contains, don’t take it.
– If you don’t know what THC or CBD means, don’t take it. (Find out here.)
– If it didn’t come from a licensed producer, don’t take it.
– If you have to go to work, to school, a wedding or a funeral, or to visit the Queen, don’t take it.
– If you have to drive somewhere, don’t take it.
– If you have already taken it, don’t drive until you’re not high anymore.
– More to the point, don’t make any major life decisions while high.
– For the love of the gods, don’t get a tattoo while high. Speaking from experience. (No, not my own.)
– If you’re trying it for the first time and don’t know what to expect, don’t do it alone, or don’t do it among other first-time tokers.

And, some of the cigarette etiquette we have already learned can apply to cannabis, too. Such as:

– If you offer it to someone who doesn’t want it, don’t offer it again.
– If you are among people who don’t want to smell it second-hand, save it for later or go somewhere else for a while.
– Clean up the butts.

I know that most of these rules look simplistic, common-sense, even childish. It should be obvious that cannabis tokers should do these things. But speaking as one with ten years experience working with college- and university- aged students, I promise you it isn’t common sense.

But if we all get on board with simple straightforward principles of courtesy like these, then everyone who wants to toke up can enjoy themselves without endangering their own or anyone else’s health.

Final rule, which again should be obvious but here it is:

– If you don’t want to take it, don’t take it.

Doctor Brendan. 🙂

* Namaste is also the name of a responsible medical & recreational cannabis company. There are hundreds of others. Search the Health Canada website to find them. Here’s the link.

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My Bohemian Adventure: Wonderful, Curious, and Heartbreaking

Blog posts about a writer’s holidays are normally dreary affairs of narcissism and fantasy. So, here’s one about why my holiday was wonderful, curious, and, well, heartbreaking.

First, something wonderful.

As this was my third visit to Krenicna, Central Bohemia, Czech Republic, perhaps the neighbours felt more familiar with me, because I was invited to join them at their social gatherings far more often than ever before. I got a chance to have substantial conversations with people who, on previous visits, I only met in passing. Anyone can go to a faraway country and gawk at the monuments that they could see in photographs at home; a real adventure involves talking to new people, for new people are always surprising, and often wonderful too. I shall be glad to see them again next year.

Wonderful people.

It was, as always, wonderful to babysit the family dog, Helli– who, this year, was in heat– but maybe I’ll save those stories for the next time you meet me in person.

Next, something curious.

You know, over the last six or seven years or so, my thinking has grown less mystical and more humanist. Most of my friends know this, or figured it out even if I didn’t say much about it. Readers of my books will have noticed I’m not writing (much) about paganism anymore. During this expedition in Bohemia, somewhere during the month, I was reminded of how animism, the foundational principle of all religion, is surprisingly difficult to put down.

I rejected the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin when I was sixteen. In my late twenties and early thirties I rejected the so-called ‘Laws of Magic’ (well, such as they were widely understood in the neo-pagan community at the time; see my book ‘A Pagan Testament’ for a list of them).

Yet this year, events reminded me of why animism is such a persistent, elemental experience. It could start with the simple and perhaps uncomfortable feeling that you are being watched, when you know you are alone. It could come from the more numinous and ecstatic feeling that arises when looking at the dome of the stars from the top of a hill, where the field in which I sat suddenly seemed like the centre of the universe.

I remain convinced I was logically and ethically right to reject those religious doctrines I mentioned above. Yet animism, as the simple proposition that the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present, seems to offer itself despite all objections. I might scientifically understand everything there is to understand about a flower– its biology, its niche in the ecosystem, the structure of its cells, the chemistry of its life-processes, its role in humanity’s arts and culture– and yet the question seems never to disappear: what if there’s something more to this flower? What if there’s a spirit? And what might that spirit be?

Glory of the sun, touching the horizon.

Depth of the hollow hedgerow, passage to the mysteries of Earth.

Well, there’s a topic for a future book, maybe. But if I write that book, mind that it will not be an exercise in validating anyone’s feelings. Not even my own. I’m a philosopher, and it is the philosopher’s duty to seek the truth, whatever it might be.

More Wonderfulness

One of the things I love about visiting central Bohemia is the explorability of the land. The village is nestled in a shallow valley of meadows and forested hills, and near to a steeper valley which beds the Vltava River. I have come to love walking the trails and hill crests and cave-like hedgerows, with Helli keeping me company and watching out for whatever may lie ahead.

I adore these meadows, these forests, these hills. And this wolfdog.

This year I did something I hadn’t done (much) in the previous visits: explore the hill trails by night. Since I am writing a novel about Urania, and since the village is far enough from the nearest big cities that the Milky Way is visible on a clear night, I thought it important to go out and see the stars. And so I did– and the planet Mars, too, which was in a leg of its orbit that brings it close to Earth, so on most nights I saw it very bright, perhaps outshining Venus.

The moon, and the night-glowing clouds.

Finally, something heartbreaking.

But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) Europe was under a protracted heat wave, and had been since Easter. Daytime temperatures never went below 33 degrees C, the whole time I was there; and it rained only once. The grass in the meadows browned, and crackled underfoot. The trees withered too, as if autumn was upon us. The land was suffering. And I veritably mourned to see it suffer.

Parched soil and starving trees.

A side point. A local new friend told me the price of recently harvested hay for animal-feed was 20% higher this year because of drought-induced scarcity. (So if you think global warming won’t affect you– I promise you that it will. If nowhere else, it will hit you in your grocery store: in the price you pay for your food, and in the kinds of foods that will become entirely unavailable.)

I have agreed for years that climate change and global warming really is happening. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about it. I’ve seen the evidence with my own eyes, decades ago. Nevertheless, to see it come to this land that over the last four years I have grown to love– heartbreaking.

Bonus Photos.

Though not directly connected to the narrative I’ve unfolded for you above, I also visited Prague again, and Cesky Krumlov, beautiful cities which I heartily recommend to all urban explorers (and my thanks to the Reidingers for taking me there even while they were jet-lagged.)

Cesky Krumlov.

Castle courtyard, Cesky Krumlov. Notice the allegories of the Platonic virtues painted on the building.

Hall of Curiosities, Strahov Monastery, Prague.

Mediaeval book displayed in the library of the Strahov monastery library, Prague.

Baroque ceiling ornaments, Theological Library, Strahov Monastery.

Philosophical Library, Strahov Monastery.

Postscript. I used to say I wanted to build a temple. Not anymore– now I want to build a museum (a ‘home of the Muses’) and a library, like this one. And I will fill it with the best philosophy, literature, poetry, music, art, foodways, handicrafts, history, science– everything you’d need to rebuild after a collapse of civilization. My library at home is now almost a thousand books, so I’m getting there.

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A 16th Century Version of ‘The Millennials Are Ruining Everything”

This past weekend, I acquired a copy of Seneca’s Morals By Way Of Abstract, published in 1702. My attention was drawn not only by the book’s age– it’s more than three hundred years old– but also by this note in the translator’s preface:

We are faln into an Age of vain Philosophy; (as the Holy Apostle calls it) and so desperately over-run with Drolls and Scepticks, that there is hardly any thing so Certain, or so Sacred, that is not exposed to Question, or Contempt. Insomuch, that betwixt the Hypocrite, and the Atheist, the very Foundations of Religion, and good Manners are shaken, and the Two Tables of the Decalogue dash’d to pieces, the one against the other: The Laws of Government are Subjected to the Phansies of the Vulgar; Publick Authority to the Private Passions and Opinions of the People; and the Supernatural Motions of Grace confounded with the Common Dictates of Nature. In this State of Corruption, who so fit as a good honest Christian-Pagan, for a Moderator betwixt Pagan-Christians?

The translator, Sir Roger L’Estrange, published this when he was 86 years old. So you could perhaps read this translator’s preface as a 16th century example of a Baby Boomer complaining about how the Millennials are ruining everything.

Frontspiece of Seneca’s Morals, with engraving of Seneca committing suicide at the command of emperor Nero.

L’Estrange did not intend this an ordinary summary-translation of Seneca for a general interest. He published it because he was angry. He was 26 years old when the English civil war began; he was decidedly of the King’s party, and published pamphlets against the Parliamentarians; he spent nearly the whole of his life thereafter advocating for Protestant and royalist causes. I think L’Estrange was one of those “father knows best” conservatives, and was utterly incapable of imagining that there might be anything wrong with his worldview. You can see in the passage above how he refers to Catholics as ‘pagans’. Here’s another passage from that preface which shows this attitude:

Have we not seen, even in our dayes, a most Pious (and almost a Faultless) Prince, brought to the Scaffold by his own Subjects? The most Glorious Constitution upon the Face of the Earth, both Ecclesiastical and Civil, torn to Pieces, and dissolv’d? The Happyest People under the Sun Enslav’d; Our Temples Sacrilegiously profan’d; and a Licence given to all sorts of Heresie, and Outrage? And by whom, but by a Race of Hypocrites, who had nothing in their Mouths all this while, but The Purity of the Gospel; The Honour of the King; and, The Liberty of the People: assisted underhand with Defamatory Papers, which were levell’d at the King Himself, thorough the sides of His most faithful Ministers? This PROJECT succeeded so well against One Government, that it is now again set a foot against Another; and by some of the very Actors too in that TRAGEDY, and after a most Gracious Pardon also, when Providence had laid their Necks, and their Fortunes at His Majesties Feet. It is a wonderful thing, that Libells, and Libellers, the most infamous of Practises, and of Men; the most Unmanly, Sneaking Methods, and Instruments of Mischief: the very Bane of Humane Society, and the Plague of all Governments: It is a wonderful thing (I say) that these Engines, and Engineers, should ever find Credit enough in the World to engage a Party: But it would still be more wonderful, if the same Trick, should pass twice upon the same People, in the same Age, and from the very same IMPOSTORS. This Contemplation has carry’d me a little out of my way, but it has at length brought me to my Text again…

I think that in that passage, he is reflecting on his life. He lived through the English Civil War, and the Restoration; he spent a year in exile due to political opposition (did he flee for his life, or did he walk off in disgust?). Although he was knighted by King James II, he was indited in plots against the successor, King William of Orange, and even spent time in jail for it. He was frustrated for all his life by people whose way of thinking was different than his. And he did everything he could to fight them.

So I think that in publishing this little book, L’Estrange was hoping to induce in his contemporaries a kind of philosophical and moral enlightenment. He wanted it to be a corrective force against the “fancies of the vulgar” noted above, and perhaps produce a reconciliation between the different philosophical factions in his society. That’s what I think is implied in this comment, to the effect that he thought Seneca’s text is the greatest gift anyone ever gave to the human race:

I am sorry it is no better, both for your sakes and my own: for, if it were written up to the Spirit of the Original, it would be one of the most valuable Presents that ever any private Man bestow’d upon the Publick: And this too, even in the Judgment of both Parties, as well Christian as Heathen: of which in its due place…

Next to the Gospel it self, I do look upon it [Seneca’s work] as the most Sovereign Remedy against the Miseries of Humane Nature; and I have ever found it so in all the Injuries and Di∣stresses, of an Unfortunate Life.

So there you have it. Even in 1702, old men were still telling the kids to “shut up and respekt mah authoritay!”

I share none of L’Estrange’s political views, of course, except perhaps an appreciation of Stoicism and a mild curiosity about the monarchy. Nonetheless, I’m finding it interesting and even somewhat spiritual to hold this small piece of intellectual history in my hands, and to see how it is not much different from the kind of angry public argumentation that still take place today.

Read an online edition of the complete text here.

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