Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some Things Never Change

A few days ago, I watched an advertisement by the Singapore Armed Forces. As glamorous music played, a sabre-wielding general slashed wildly at his opponent. Before anyone managed to be decapitated, the scene abruptly shifted to an urban wasteland. Rifle-wielding soldiers, with painted green faces, were trooping through bushes, hunting for prey. "Some things never change," a narrator intoned.

Two days before this, I was watching a classic 1970s production, ‘The World at War’—a documentary series on World War II. I was especially interested in the episodes on the Holocaust. There were interviews with victims, SS men, and elaborate descriptions of the state-run horror that sent millions to their death. Murder, with industrial efficiency. If we were in the same position as the SS men, would we push the same buttons, succumb to social and political pressure, and plumb the dark depths necessary to work the assembly lines of death? The Nazis were fellow human beings, after all.

World War I. Stalin’s purges. Nanking. World War II. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. Cambodia. Vietnam. Rwanda. Mankind’s greatest century. Mankind’s bloodiest century. In our new century: September 11, the various terrorist bombings, the Mumbai attacks. Some things never change. From the birth of our species, generation after generation has carried on the proud human tradition of brutality and massacres and genocides, greed and corruption and lies, lies, lies. Human evil seems infinitely creative, multi-fanged and evergreen.

This account is, of course, one-sided. We are a race that has partaken of the fruit of the knowledge of good AND evil. Perhaps for every Hitler, there would be half a Mother Theresa (or maybe one) to nicely balance up. But if we were still a relatively feeble race that could at most spear or bludgeon ourselves to death, then this state of affairs is regrettable, but perhaps still tolerable. But when we have become a species armed with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, a species tapping the codes of life, a species able to manipulate matter at the nanoscale, nicely 'balancing up' is no longer enough.

Our proud and seemingly supreme civilisation has in fact been at the brink of annihilation for 60 years. Students of history would probably know the moment when our species (or at least our civilisation) might well have ended in nuclear fire: the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Even at that point, a mere 17 years after the invention of the first atomic bomb, the USA was armed with 27,297 warheads. The USSR, 3,332. Throughout the crisis, President Kennedy had to resist repeated urgings by his military chiefs to launch a full scale attack on Cuba to wipe out the Soviet missiles--a step that would quite certainly escalate into a nuclear war. It was Kennedy's admirable restraint and cool-headedness under excruciating pressure that saved the world (though historians would also point out that it was his foreign policy failings that caused the Soviet Union to plant the missiles there in the first place). Yet despite Kennedy's leadership, all could still have been lost--if not for sheer luck, or grace. In the 2002 Havana Cuban missile crisis conference, the world learnt that at the height of the crisis, a US navy ship was dropping depth charges (bombs) onto an unidentified submarine. The submarine turned out to be a Russian B-59 carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo. It is interesting to note that the captain was under orders that allowed the use of the torpedo if his submarine was "hulled" (the hull is breached). It appeared that our civilisation might have escaped nuclear doomsday by mere accident.

And have things changed since 1962? Have we become repentant and humble, buried our heads in ashes, don sackcloth and cry out for mercy and salvation? Quite the contrary. And the most dangerous phase is not before. It is ahead. With inexorable technological advancement, the weapons of both legitimate states and terrorist organisations would continue to be refined--enabling mass-murder at an ever-more attractive price. In essence, we seemed to be a species bent on suicide. The trajectory is clear. Mankind remains the same: a layer of ethical, intellectual and spiritual development smothering an unregenerate core of foolishness, animality and perversity. But our power grows exponentially. Thus the world struts in deluded pride--till we plunge off a cliff.

Maybe it is not even pessimistic to state that our civilisation has almost no chance of survival in the long run. It is merely realistic. What chance is there for a sudden explosion of ethical, or even spiritual, development? Yet only that could give us a fighting chance. Anyone who has undertaken some kind of ethical training would know the sheer army of obstinate obstacles in ourselves: ignorance, attachment to darkness and perversity, weakness, hatred, anger, greed and so on. Even for a single human being to advance ethically or spiritually is difficult. To expect a substantial portion of the human race to do so, in our decadent world system and with our age-old human resistance to the light, is probably to expect the impossible. There are other seeming solutions: a world totalitarian state to control technological advancement? Allowing AI to shepherd us forever? Maybe using technology to transform human beings into docile loving creatures? Or perhaps the world would suddenly leave aside numberless differences to unite peacefully in a United States of Earth? And proceed with many hallelujahs to a golden age of equality, fraternity and liberty!

It is probably more realistic to recognise that we are in a grace period--a time before the destruction of the current world order. One way or another, the end will probably come. It may be a century or sooner, or later. But at some point, the balance would be tipped, our luck will run out, and we would destroy most of what we have built up over 10,000 years, the last cycle of civilisation. And perhaps most of humanity would perish. Maybe the only mercy is that most of us would perish quickly, and not because of a prolonged horrible ordeal.

What are some apocalyptic scenarios? The worst nightmare, a perfectly possible one, is a revived Nazi movement. Not the crude Nazism of Hitler, with its nonsense about the Aryan master race and its pseudo-scientific social Darwinism and eugenics. But a Nazism based upon 21st or 22nd century genetics and cybernetics: a transhuman movement that has the real capability to alter human nature using genetic, cybernetic and social engineering, a political and social movement to create a truly new race that is no longer human, a creed that seeks to supplant homo sapiens by something else--a creed that proposes a Final Solution to all human problems. Impossible? Alarmist? Let us not delude ourselves. Nazism arose in Germany, the most cultured nation of Europe, the land of Mozart and Beethoven and Hegel and Einstein (if we include Austria as part of a greater German bloc). The nation with the most advanced science. The nation that was seemingly on the forefront of human advance. It was such a nation that succumbed to mass insanity because of wounded national pride and economic despair--and of course, because of the innate depravity hiding in every human heart. Which nation in our world can claim to be utterly safe from such madness? And the crimes of the Nazis remain as a dark example for all to follow. Their actions are no longer unprecedented.

And let us never forget how close Nazi Germany came to forging a 'new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science' (Churchill). In 1940, if Britain had surrendered, in 1941, if Stalin had fled Moscow, or if Russian resistance had crumbled because of their catastrophic early losses--today the world might either be an atomic wasteland (the US would still have built the first atomic bomb), or a nightmare empire incarnating hell. Hitler very, very nearly succeeded.

And horrifying as the deeds of Hitler were, the chilling fact is that his advent was premature. The time was not yet ripe. The Nazis lacked the tools to create a true 'master race'. But in this century and the next, the power to do what Hitler could only dream of, would be ready for the seizing. And even more wonderfully, weapons based on nuclear technology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence would be present to finish what Hitler prematurely began. If there is a good time for the Beast of the primordial ocean, the evil behind and within us to rise and dominate human affairs once more, it would be in the coming decades and centuries. He came too soon, and he would be back.

Given this prognosis, the most rational thing to do is twofold: on one hand, to hold back, for as long as possible, the hand of death. On the other, to prepare the seeds of a new future, the next cycle of civilisation. If a crucifying end-game is already looming, the key is to learn and to prepare for the next game. This may sound horribly cold-hearted, or even insane, but it is in fact the sanest thing to do. Prepare a foundation for the remnant that would survive the horsemen of the apocalypse--a foundation for that remnant to build on, to build with. Sow Fire for a mass ethical and spiritual development beyond our reach in this cycle. Sow wisdom that would allow humanity to reign over nature with a completeness beyond our imagination. . Sow mercy, that mankind may find healing in the ruins of a bygone age. Sow love, for a future unity of mankind--a unity that eluded us in this age. But whatever we sow, it is clear that only with the grace of God can they grow. A race like ours, which has made our kind of mistakes, surely cannot demand anything--we can only hope for mercy.

An 'ark' is needed to carry mankind and nature forward. For after the darkness and the flame, we are likely to have an earth scorched and devastated, a world where demons roam, both figuratively and literally. For mankind to rebuild in such a world would probably mean the return of the bloodshed and obstinate darkness that doomed us in the first place. An ark is needed to make the road of ascending humanity smoother and more possible. But at this point, we can only speculate about the form of this 'ark'. Would it be an alliance of man and machines? A group armed with science or even deeper knowledge and power? Would it hide from the world? Or tackle the oncoming darkness, in the hope of mitigating its effects? Would it fight, unleashing violence for violence? All this is unclear.

But what is clear is that while we still have the resources and peace, we need to prepare for the inevitable.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Nov Post

Yes, October has passed without a post...

My belated excuse is that I was, and am, working on a 17,000 word module on narrative writing for The Ministry. After that deluge, one can, perhaps, be excused for not having the inclination to write anymore.

Still, it is November, and I must write something.

Actually I was intending to cut and paste an article by Benjamin Franklin, 'The Morals of Chess'. Since that venerable Founding Father is long dead, I do not think he can mind. I have changed my mind but I hope interested parties will read his article (freely available without his permission through Google). Learn more about the wonders of CHESS.

This month, the Leonid meteor shower is going to drench our skies! I still remember the night before my A Levels 10 years ago (oh yes, I am getting old, very old), right before my Astrophysics exam. I was out there in the wee hours of the morning (forgive the cliche)., looking at shooting stars.

The shower featured in York too, about a year after that.

Since then, I have not seen shooting stars. But I hope to catch one next week.

As some readers might have noticed, this is indeed a random rambling, though ironically it is no doubt more comprehensible than my obsessively planned and structured Normal posts. Much hair has fallen around the area of my computer. One who wishes to be comprehended by everyone, should seek not to. Lamely profound quote of the week.

Why has God created such a big universe? Oh yes, God exists. So since he exists...and since the universe is somehow created or manifested by him, and since it is so big, He obviously needs a lot of space to execute his grand schemes, whatever they are. Yet human beings are so, so physically small. The crown of creation being an iota of dust. Or perhaps we flatter ourselves, we aren't the crown of creation. When we are indeed crowned, we will be kings of infinite space? Or Queens? Or bishops? or rooks or knights? Or both king and pawn at once. Servant-leadership.

Ok, the clock is running. Time is running out (if time actually exists). I need to go back to saner pursuits.

am I mad, or is most of the world insane? Naturally, I prefer the latter.