Some thoughts on little white lies

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my writings for any length of time that I’m not a fan of dishonesty in relationships–of any sort, big or small. I have always championed the cause of open, honest communication, especially in romantic relationships. A great deal of human misery and suffering in relationships can, it seems to me, be addressed by the simple but nevertheless radical idea that communication is good.

That doesn’t mean I embrace the idea of Radical Honesty™, at least not as it often shakes out in the real world. I’ve written about that before.

But I am no fan of intentional dishonesty, even in small ways. The little white lie? It has effects that are farther reaching and more insidious than I think most folks realize.

People who advocate for the little white lie often argue–indeed, seem to believe–that they are being compassionate. The function of the little white lie is to save someone from hurt or embarrassment, the reasoning goes. What is the harm in that? Isn’t it cruel to tell a hurtful truth, if there is no purpose to it?

I have oft observed a very strange thing in romantic relationships, and that is good things our partners say to us tend to bounce off as though our self-conception were made of Teflon, whereas bad things have amazing power to stick. If our partner tells us “I think you’re beautiful; I am totally attracted to you,” it is easy to say “well, he doesn’t really mean it,” and not to internalize it. But a partner saying “I don’t think you look good in that dress” sticks tenaciously, and can haunt us for weeks.

Why is that?

There might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the little white lie.

We live in a society where there are certain things we are “supposed” to say. There are certain lies that we are encouraged to tell–little soothing words that we set up like fences around anything that might potentially be hurtful to hear.

Each of them might, in and of itself, not be that big a deal. Who cares, really, if your partner’s butt looks big in that skirt? You’re not with your partner because of the size of their butt, after all; it doesn’t matter to your relationship.

But here’s the thing.

When you tell little white lies, however harmless they may seem, you are telling your partner, Don’t believe me. Don’t believe me. I will lie to you. I will tell you what you want to hear. Don’t believe me.

Is it any wonder, then, that positive stuff bounces off but negative stuff sticks? You are establishing a precedent that communicates to your partner, straight up, do not trust positive things I say. They are empty words. They do not reflect the reality of what I believe. So how, given that, can we really expect our partners to trust it when we give them affirmation?

Little white lies are corrosive. They communicate a very important truth: I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings.

When we make a habit of telling the truth all the time, something wonderful happens. We tell our partners, You can believe me. I will not say what you want to hear; I will say what I actually believe. That means when I tell you positive things, I mean them.

Lies, however innocuous, breed insecurity. They cause your partner to second-guess everything you say: does he really think this is true, or is he just trying to placate me? Is he genuine, or is he just trying to avoid saying something I might not want to hear?

A question I hear often is “When I tell my partner things I like about them, why don’t they believe me?” And the answer, of course, is that we live in a society that cherishes comfort above truth. We are taught from the time we are children that we should tell white lies, and expect others to lie to us, rather than say anything uncomfortable. That leaves us in a tricky position, because we don’t have any way of telling whether the positive words we hear are lies.

Oh, we know we can believe the negative words, because those aren’t little white lies–the purpose of a white lie is to avoid discomfort, and negative things are uncomfortable. We trust the bad stuff implicitly. But the good stuff? We have no reason to trust that! We don’t know if it’s real or if it’s a white lie.

So here’s a thought. If you want your lover to believe you about the good stuff, give them a reason to. Let them know it’s honest. How? By embracing honesty as a core value. What’s the harm in little white lies? They create an environment where we suspect dishonesty from everyone. We can never quite be comfortable that anything positive we hear is the truth; there is always–there must always be–that niggling little doubt.

It is very difficult to develop positive self-esteem when we can not trust the good things people say about us. And yet, taking away our trust to believe the good is exactly what little white lies do.

Don’t do that. Be compassionate in your truth–but be truthful.

Some thoughts on porn, coercion, and the Fundamental Reconstruction Error

If you spend any time in any forums where people talk about sex, it is a truth as inevitable as night following day that, sooner or later, someone is going to talk about porn.

And as soon as someone starts to talk about porn, a certain predictable conversation will come up.

“Porn performers are coerced and trafficked,” someone will say. “Porn is bad because women are forced into it. It is a terrible meat-grinder industry. We need to rescue all the victims of porn.”

The same narrative comes up around sex work as well. Sex workers, according to a certain kind of person, are victims, people there because they have been forced, threatened, or tricked into it.

The people who make these arguments, in my experience, almost certainly don’t know any porn performers or sex workers. They will cite “studies” they read on the Internet, like the rather dreadful study that claims legal prostitution in the Netherlands has resulted in a huge increase in trafficking in that country. (I’ve read that study. Buried in the fine print: the study’s authors define a “traffick victim” as any person who for any reason crosses national boundaries and then ends up working in any capacity in the sex trade. So a person who immigrates legally and voluntarily goes to work as a sex worker is a “trafficking victim” according to the study.)

A particularly pernicious variant on this “women-as-victims” narrative is circulating amongst folks who are generally politically liberal and see themselves as allies of women, but still face discomfort about porn and sex work: Well, yes, women can and do freely choose to go into porn or sex work, but, you see, not abuse porn like what you see at Kink.com. Those women go into normal mainstream porn, and then they get “groomed” to do abusive porn.

I’ve seen variants on this narrative turning up in places where people are otherwise open to the notion that not all sex workers or performers are victims–sure, “mainstream” porn (whatever that is–I would say there really isn’t any such thing as “mainstream” porn; porn is, by its nature, niche) isn’t inherently exploitive, but that kinky stuff? Man, just look at it! Sometimes the performers cry! That’s clearly abuse!–and for a long time, I’ve simply chalked it up to standard, ordinary squicks about exchanging money for sex, cultural taboos about sex, ideas about what is “normal” or “not normal” around sex. You know, the ordinary soup of preconceptions, emotions, and cultural norms that oozes through the public discourse on sex.

But lately, I’ve started thinking there’s something else at work, too. Something that lies rooted in a tacit assumption that those who hold these ideas about porn and sex work hold, but don’t directly articulate, and an assumption that sex-positive folks who support the right of people to choose porn and sex work don’t directly address: the starvation model of sex work.


The starvation model of sex work starts with the assumption that it is hard to find people who want to do porn or sex work. A reasonable person wouldn’t make that choice, except through coercion or the most dire of necessity. Therefore, to feed the demand for sex workers and porn performers, there must be coercion and abuse.

In places where porn and sex work are criminalized, that makes sense. Production of porn and sex work becomes a criminal enterprise. The pool of people willing to work in criminal enterprises is small.

In places where these things are not criminalized, the equation is different. I personally know many porn performers and sex workers (yes, including performers for Kink.com). They report they enjoy what they do and choose to do it freely. I have no reason to doubt them.

And yet, whenever I ask the folks who criticize the porn and sex work industries, or cast sex workers as victims, if they’ve ever talked to sex workers, the answer is almost always “no.” And when I say the people I know choose what they do, the response is almost always incredulity.

If we assume that it is true nobody would voluntarily choose to do porn or sex work, then it makes sense to think the folks who are doing it, aren’t there by choice, and to look for coercion. If we assume there are lots of people who are willing to do porn or sex work, but nobody would choose to do “abusive” sex work, then the same thing holds–the folks who appear in Kink photo shoots must be being groomed, tricked, manipulated, or coerced.

If, on the other hand, we assume that there are actually quite a lot of folks who are totally okay with porn and sex work, the narrative falls apart. Why would I, as a porn producer, risk my business (and prison) forcing women to perform when I can simply put out a call that I’m looking for performers, and people will come to me voluntarily? Why would we assume that every sex worker is a trafficking victim, given that there are people who like the idea of doing sex work?

For the women-as-victims narrative to hold true, a necessary prerequisite is women wouldn’t choose to do this voluntarily. But that premise is rarely stated explicitly.

So why would people make that assumption?

I spent some time asking questions of people who promote the sex-worker-as-victim narrative, and discovered something interesting.


Psychologists often talk about a quirk of human psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It’s a bug in our firmware; we, as human beings, are prone to explaining our own actions in terms of our circumstance, but the actions of other people in terms of their character. The standard go-to example of the fundamental attribution error I use is the traffic example: “That guy just cut me off because he’s a reckless, inconsiderate asshole who doesn’t know how to drive. I just cut that car off because the sun was in my eyes and there was so much glare on the windshield I didn’t see it.”

We do this All. The. Time. We do it without being aware we’re doing it. We do it countless times per day, in ways large and small.

The penny dropped for me that something similar was going on in discussions about sex work during a different conversation–not about sex work but about polyamory. There was a guy who was railing, and I mean railing, about polyamory. Nobody, he said, would ever truly be okay with it–not really. No guy would ever willingly share a woman with another guy. Sure, poly folks say they are okay with it, but that’s just because they think it’s the only way they can keep the one they love. You give any poly person the magical power to have absolutely anything they wanted, he declared, and nobody would choose to share a partner.

Now, this is a load of bollocks, of course. I would, in a perfect world, still be poly, and still not have any desire to have my partners be sexually fidelitous to me.

When I told him that, he flipped out. That’s disgusting, he said. No man–no man, no man ever–would be okay with it. No man. If someone says otherwise, there’s something wrong with him.

We see the same line of reasoning used in other arenas. No man would be okay with having sex with another man–if a guy fancies other men, there must be some kind of damage or trauma, as one example.

And then it clicked.

I would like to propose that there is another bug in the operating firmware of humanity, similar to the fundamental attribution error. Call it the fundamental construction error, if you will. We as human beings re-construct the world in our own image, assigning our own values, ideas, squicks, taboos, likes, and dislikes to the great mass of humanity as a whole. “Nobody likes,” “everybody wants,” “nobody would,” “everybody thinks”–all statements of this class can most properly be understood to mean “I don’t like,” “I want,” “I wouldn’t,” and “I think.”

“You must be damaged in order to be gay” really means “nobody would want to be gay,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be gay.”

“All sex workers are victims” really means “nobody would want to be a sex worker,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be a sex worker.”

The fundamental reconstruction error makes it extremely difficult to realize that other people can be, on a very deep level, not like us. We assume that others are like us. This tacit assumption is the foundation of most of the models we build of the social world around us. It doesn’t get explicitly mentioned because it’s wired so deep it doesn’t even get noticed.

Why are porn performers and sex workers victims? Because nobody would do these things voluntarily. Why would nobody do these things voluntarily? Because I wouldn’t do these things voluntarily. Ergo, it must be–it follows inevitably that it has to be–that people who do these things are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice.

And since it follows that these people are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice, then the stories of people who work in the sex industry voluntarily can be discarded–because they are the words of someone who is damaged, broken, victimized, or has no other choice.


I would like, therefore, to propose a radical idea:

The world is made of lots of people. Some of those people are different from you, and have different ideas about what they want, what turns them on, what is and is not acceptable for them, and what they would like to do.

Some of those ideas are alien, maybe even incomprehensible, to you.

Accept that it is true. Start from the assumption that even if something sounds weird, distasteful, or even disgusting to you, it may not be so to others–and that fact alone does not prove those other folks have something wrong with them. If someone tells you they like something, and you have no compelling evidence that they’re lying, believe them–even if you don’t understand why.

How do you do it?

Awareness of the fact that your cognitive impulses are buggy is a good place to start. I started looking at myself any time I caught myself saying “oh, that driver is an asshole” or “oh, that person is obviously an inconsiderate jerkoff”–I would stop and say “huh. Have I ever done that? Is this an example of the fundamental attribution error?”

Doing the same thing when you find yourself assuming that all X are Y, especially if it’s “all X are victims” or “all X are damaged goods,” is probably a good mechanism for sorting out the fundamental reconstruction error. Is that really true, or are you just re-creating the world in your own image?

#WLAMF no. 19: Kinky sex

A while back, I was participating in a conversation about sex, and the subject of kink came up. A guy was saying his girlfriend had approached him with the idea of some sort of non-specific kink, and he was reluctant to engage in it for fear that “nice guys” don’t do that sort of thing with their partners. What, he wondered, would it be like if the sexes were reversed? A guy who asked his girlfriend for kinky sex was clearly not a nice guy; nice guys would never do such a thing! So why should it be okay for a woman to ask her boyfriend for kink? Didn’t it show a double standard–women can do something bad but guys aren’t allowed to? Someone else said that he shouldn’t be a nice guy, because women don’t want nice guys–nice guys, he explained, are emasculated, and women actually want strong, alpha guys, guys who will control them.

And listening to it, I felt despair.

I’ve always been suspicious of framing things in terms of “nice guy” vs. “bad boy;” I think, to be blunt, it’s childish and stupid. Modern social expectations do not “emasculate” men, being a “soft male,” or “losing your center.” That’s a load of rubbish. Modern social expectations are about treating women as human beings rather than need-fulfillment machines. That’s it. You don’t have to be “emasculated” or any of that other silly stuff to do that. You simply have to look at women as full human beings, deserving the same levels of respect and consideration you’d give any other person.

At the end of the day, it’s about consent, not disempowerment. It’s messed up to see relationships in terms of who’s empowered and who’s disempowered; in a good relationship, it’s possible for two (or more!) people to all be empowered.

Likewise, being a “nice guy” or treating women with “respect” does not mean holding doors open, always being soft and gentle, or always having sex in candlelight on a bed strewn with roses. REAL respect, as I’ve said many thousands of times, means talking to women about what THEY want, and then treating them the way they want to be treated.

Are you seeing the Matrix yet?

The “nice guy” who refuses to try anything kinky because he thinks it’s disrespectful isn’t really a nice guy. He’s not listening to his partner, because he knows what’s best for her.

And the “bad guy” who talks to his lover about what she wants, talks about what he wants, and then works with his lover to explore their mutual fantasies together? He isn’t really a bad guy…even if those fantasies involve kinky sex.

It seems to me the world might be a happier place if we all stop trying to figure out the rules about how to treat women “properly,” and instead just talk to women like human beings and treat each individual the way she wants to be treated. A lot of men say they just don’t understand women. A lot of women say they don’t understand men. I respectfully submit that perhaps, if we listen to each other, that might change.


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#WLAMF no. 15: “Government should fear the people”

When I was living in Atlanta, I used to see a bumper sticker all over the place: “People shouldn’t fear the government, the government should fear the people.”

This sentiment is quite popular in conservative parts of the US, and it or variations on it (such as “When government fears the people, there is liberty; when the people fear the government, there is tyranny”) are often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Wrongly, as it turns out–Jefferson never said this.

Now, on some level, there’s a grain of truth here, in the sense that a government ideally represents the will of the people and should be held accountable to them. To some extent, anyway. In some cases, the will of the people is a deeply troublesome and evil thing; the will of the people in the pre-Civil-War Deep South, for instance, held that some people aren’t people at all but rather property, and that’s a will I don’t think a civil society should respect.

But what it misses is that when the government fears the people, the result is tyranny, just as surely as when the people fear the government.

Governments have power. They have police forces and jails. They have standing armies. A person with a gun and a heart full of fear is a dangerous person indeed.

Why do tyrannies exist? They exist because people in power fear losing that power. They fear what happens if the people express their will. Tyrannical governments restrict what they fear. They restrict speech because they fear the power of speech. They restrict demonstrations because they fear the power of demonstrations. A government that fears the people, attacks the people. It handles that fear through force and control. When it sees something it fears, it acts ruthlessly to eliminate it. When a government fears the people, the people become the enemies of the state.

The same holds true for civilian police. A police force that fears the people, treats the people as threats. It shoots the people, even if they’re unarmed. It labels the people “thugs” and “looters.”

The idea that the government should fear the people creates–in fact, it can not help but to create–totalitarianism. The greater the fear, the greater the response to it. A government that sees the enemy around every corner, treats every person as an enemy.

“People shouldn’t fear the government, the government should fear the people.” This idea is a blueprint for evil.

People are people. Governments are made of people. I would like to propose a different bumper sticker: “The government and the people should hold one another accountable. Let them treat one another with respect, so that we may have a civilized society in which all are respected.”


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#WLAMF no. 9: Fusion

A lot of the world’s social, economic, and resource problems are, when you come down to it, power problems. I don’t mean political power; I mean energy. Electricity.

Take fresh water, for instance. Three-quarters of the planet’s surface is covered by the stuff, yet much of the world doesn’t have reliable access to safe, clean water. 780 million people don’t have regular access to clean water. Nearly four million people die a year from water-bourne illness.

If we had unlimited quantities of cheap, clean energy, water would stop being a problem overnight. It’s easy to desalinate seawater…easy, but not cheap. The process requires enormous inputs of energy, and energy is expensive.

The holy grail of energy is, and has always been, fusion power. Fusion power offers vast quantities of energy from seawater…if we can make it work. And we’ve been chasing it for a while, though never with any serious determination; the world’s annual budget for fusion research is about 1/18th the annual revenue of the National Football League. (In the US, the annual budget for fusion research is less than what the Government Accountability Office spends on paperwork.) Fusion power promises one-stop shopping for reversing global carbon emissions, improving access to fresh water all over the world, raising the standard of living for developing nations, moving toward non-polluting transportation…

…if we can make it work.

It’s been a long road. A lot of engineers thought we’d have the problem licked by the mid-1960s. Here we are in 2014, and it’s only been in the last two years that teams at MIT and Lawrence Livermore have actually made fusion reactors that produce net positive energy…for short periods of time. It’s a very, very difficult nut to crack.

Enter Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin recently announced that their Skunkworks team has been quietly, and secretly, working on fusion power for a while. And they claim to be within 5 years of an operating prototype of a compact fusion reactor.

Now, I am of two minds about this.

Pros:

– It’s the fucking Lockheed Martin fucking Skunkworks. These are not a bunch of cranks, kooks, or pie-in-the-sky dreamers. These guys built the SR-71 in the early 1960s, and the F-117 Stealth fighter back when the Radio Shack TRS-80 was the state of the art for personal computers.
– Lockheed doesn’t seem the kind of company to stake their reputation on a claim unless they’re really, really sure.
– They’re exploring deuterium-tritium fusion, which is a lot easier than ordinary hydrogen-hydrogen fusion of the sort that happens in the sun.
– Did I mention it’s the fucking Lockheed Martin fucking Skunkworks? They have money, engineering expertise, and problem-solving experience by the metric ton. They are accustomed to solving hard engineering problems 20 years before anyone else in the world even knows they can be solved.

Cons:

– Fusion is hard. The pursuit of fusion has left a lot of broken dreams in its wake.
– The design they propose encloses a set of superconducting magnets inside the fusion chamber. That’s clever, and solves a lot of problems with magnetic containment, but superconducting magnets are fragile things and the inside of a fusion chamber is as close as we can get to hell on earth.
– Fusion creates fast neutrons. Those fast neutrons tend to run into stuff and knock it all out of whack. Solving the problem of the reactor vessel degrading under intense neutron flux is non-trivial; in fact, that’s one of the key objectives of the multibillion-dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being built by a consortium of countries in France.

Fusion power, if we can make it work, would likely (and without hyperbole) be one of the most significant achievements of the human race. It could and very likely would have farther-reaching impacts than the development of agriculture or the invention of iron, and would improve the standard of living for billions of people to a greater extent than any other single invention.

For that reason alone, I think it’s worth pursuing. I’d like to see it better funded…say, maybe even on the same scale as the NFL. I’m not sure of Lockheed can deliver what they’re promising, but I am very, very happy they’re in the race.


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Intermission: Some thoughts on love

In the midst of all the writing I’ve been doing about GMO food lately, I thought I’d take a brief digression into an entirely different subject: love.

Recently, someone online pointed to the writings about love by Francesco Alberoni, an Italian sociologist who has this to say on the matter:

No one can fall in love if he is even partially satisfied with what he has or who he is.The experience of falling in love originates in an extreme depression, an inability to find something that has value in everyday life. The “symptom” of the predisposition to fall in love is not the conscious desire to do so,the intense desire to enrich our lives; it is the profound sense of being worthless and of having nothing that is valuable and the shame of not having it. […] For this reason, falling in love occurs more frequently among young people, since they are profoundly uncertain, unsure of their worth,and often ashamed of themselves. The same thing applies to people of other ages when they lose something in their lives-—when their youth ends or when they start to grow old.

Now, I am not a sociologist, but when I read this, I rolled my eyes so hard I feared they would fall from my head onto my keyboard.

I am a deeply, profoundly happy person. My normal baseline emotional state is almost overwhelming joy almost all the time. I am constantly awestruck by the wonder and beauty of the natural world, as I’ve blogged about here.

In other words, I am about as far from “the profound sense of being worthless and of having nothing that is valuable and the shame of not having it” as it’s possible to be.

I fall in love deeply, unhesitantly, and with abandon, without fear or reservation. Love is an amazing thing. It is the profound sharing of myself with those I love, and through it, the sharing of joy. Life is filled with wonder and beauty, all of which is amplified by love. I create with the people I love. I explore with the people I love. Love is a fantastic thing, a process for multiplying joy and dividing sorrow.

It’s easy to be cynical about love, because love is not for the cowardly. It lets us share ourselves with those around us, and that makes us vulnerable. Like anything worth doing, love carries risks. It’s easy to get tangled up in our own egos and fears–what if we get hurt? What if the person we love doesn’t love us back?–and so to believe, mistakenly, that those we love owe us something simply because we love them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Love cannot be coerced. It exists only when it is given freely. It’s not for wimps. To risk loving is to risk exposing yourself in the most profound way possible. Love requires courage.

But that is precisely what makes it so valuable.

I do not entirely understand the depth of cynicism that would lead Mr. Alberoni to the conclusions he has reached. But I am very, very happy he’s wrong.

Musings on being fucked: Christian millennialism and the Fermi paradox

When all the world’s armies are assembled in the valley that surrounds Mount Megiddo they will be staging a resistance front against the advancing armies of the Chinese. It will be the world’s worst nightmare – nuclear holocaust at its worst. A full-out nuclear bombardment between the armies of the Antichrist’s and the Kings of the East.

It is during this nuclear confrontation that a strange sight from the sky will catch their attention. The Antichrist’s armies will begin their defense in the Jezreel Valley in which the hill of Megiddo is located. […] At the height of their nuclear assault on the advancing armies something strange will happen.

Jesus predicted the suddenness of His return. He said, “For just as lightening comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27). And again He said, “…and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
–Sherry Shriner Live

Believers must be active in helping to fulfill certain biblical conditions necessary to usher in the return of Christ. Key to this plan is for Gentiles to help accomplish God’s purpose for the Jews. […] Jesus is saying that His Second Coming will not take place until there is a Jewish population in Jerusalem who will welcome Him with all of their hearts.
— Johannes Facius, Hastening the Coming of the Messiah: Your Role in Fulfilling Prophecy

There is a problem in astronomy, commonly referred to as the Fermi paradox. In a nutshell, the problem is, where is everyone?

Life seems to be tenacious and ubiquitous. Wherever we look here on earth, we see life–even in the most inhospitable of places. The stuff seems downright determined to exist. When combined with the observation that the number of planetary systems throughout the universe seems much greater than even the most optimistic projections of, say, thirty years ago, it really seems quite likely that life exists out there somewhere. In fact, it seems quite likely that life exists everywhere out there. And given that sapient, tool-using life evolved here, it seems quite probable that sapient, tool-using life evolved somewhere else as well…indeed, quite often. (Given that our local galactic supercluster contains literally quadrillions of stars, if sapient life exists in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places life evolved and if life evolves in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places that have planets, the universe should be positively teeming with sapience.)


These aren’t stars. They’re galaxies. Where is everyone? (Image: Hubble Space Telescope)

When you’re sapient and tool-using, radio waves are obvious. It’s difficult to imagine getting much beyond the steam engine without discovering them. Electromagnetic radiation bathes the universe, and most any tool-using sapience will, sooner or later, stumble across it. All kinds of technologies create, use, and radiate electromagnetic radiation. So if there are sapient civilizations out there, we should see evidence of it–even if they aren’t intentionally attempting to communicate with anyone.

But we don’t.

So the question is, why not?

This is Fermi’s paradox, and researchers have proposed three answers: we’re first, we’re rare, or we’re fucked. I have, until now, been leaning toward the “we’re rare” answer, but more and more, I think the answer might be “we’re fucked.”


Let’s talk about the “first” or “rare” possibilities.

The “first” possibility posits that our planet is exceptionally rare, perhaps even unique–of all the planets around all the stars everywhere in the universe, no other place has the combination of ingredients (liquid water and so on) necessary for complex life. Alternately, life is common but sapient life is not. It’s possible; there’s nothing especially inevitable about sapience. Evolution is not goal-directed, and big brains aren’t necessarily a survival strategy more common or more compelling than any other. After all, we’re newbies. There was no sapient life on earth for most of its history.

Assuming we are that unique, though, seems to underestimate the number of planets that exist, and overestimate the specialness of our particular corner of existence. There’s nothing about our star, our solar system, or even our galaxy that sets it apart in any way we can see from any of a zillion others out there. And even if sapience isn’t inevitable–a reasonable assumption–if life evolved elsewhere, surely some fraction of it must have evolved toward sapience! With quadrillions of opportunities, you’d expect to see it somewhere else.

The “we’re rare” hypothesis posits that life is common, but life like what we see here is orders of magnitude less common, because something happened here that’s very unlikely even on galactic or universal scales. Perhaps it’s the jump from prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) to eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus, which are capable of forming complex multicellular animals). For almost the entire history of life on earth, only single-celled life existed, after all; multicellular life is a recent innovation. Maybe the universe is teeming with life, but none of it is more complex than bacteria.


Depressing thought: The universe has us and these guys in it, and that’s it.

The third hypothesis is “we’re fucked,” and that’s the one I’m most concerned about.

The “we’re fucked” hypothesis suggests that sapient life isn’t everywhere we look because wherever it emerges, it gets wiped out. It might be that it gets wiped out by a spacefaring civilization, a la Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker science fiction stories.

But maybe…just maybe…it won’t be an evil extraterrestrial what does us in. Maybe tool-using sapience intrinsically contains the seeds of its own annihilation.


K. Eric Drexler wrote a book called Engines of Creation, in which he posited a coming age of nanotechnology that would offer the ability to manipulate, disassemble, and assemble matter at a molecular level.

It’s not as farfetched as it seems. You and I, after all, are vastly complex entities constructed from the level of molecules by programmable molecular machinery able to assemble large-scale, fine-grained structures from the ground up.

All the fabrication technologies we use now are, in essence, merely evolutionary refinements on stone knives and bearskins. When we want to make something, we take raw materials and hack at, carve, heat, forge, or mold them into what we want.


Even the Large Hadron Collider is basically just incremental small improvements on this

The ability to create things from the atomic level up, instead from big masses of materials down, promises to be more revolutionary than the invention of agriculture, the Iron Age, and the invention of the steam engine combined. Many of the things we take for granted–resources will always be scarce, resources must always be distributed unequally, it is not possible for a world of billions of people to have the standard of living of North America–will fade like a bad dream. Nanotech assembly offers the possibility of a post-scarcity society1.

It also promises to turn another deeply-held belief into a myth: Nuclear weapons are the scariest weapons we will ever face.

Molecular-level assembly implies molecular-level disassembly as well. And that…well, that opens the door to weapons of mass destruction on a scale as unimaginable to us as the H-bomb is to a Roman Centurion.


Cute little popgun you got there, son. Did your mom give you that?

Miracle nanotechnology notwithstanding, the course of human advancement has meant the distribution of greater and greater destructive power across wider and wider numbers of people. An average citizen today can go down to Wal-Mart and buy weapon technology that could have turned the tide of some of the world’s most significant historical battles. Even without nanotech, there’s no reason to think weapons technology and distribution just suddenly stopped in, say, 2006, and will not continue to increase from here on.


And that takes us to millennialist zealotry.

There are, in the world today, people who believe they have a sacred duty, given them by omnipotent supernatural entities, to usher in the Final Conflict between good and evil that will annihilate all the wicked with righteous fire, purging them from God’s creation. These millennialists don’t just believe the End is coming–they believe God has charged them with the task of bringing it about.

Christian millennialists long for nuclear war, which they believe will trigger the Second Coming. Some Hindus believe they must help bring about the end of days, so that the final avatar of Vishnu will return on a white horse to bring about the end of the current cycle and its corruption. In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo sect believed it to be their duty to create the conditions for nuclear Armageddon, which they believed would trigger the ascendancy of the sect’s leader Shoko Asahara to his full divine status as the Lamb of God. Judaism, Islam, and nearly all other religious traditions have at least some adherents who likewise embrace the idea of global warfare that will cleanse the world of evil.

The notion of the purification of the world through violence is not unique to any culture or age–the ancient Israelites, for example, were enthusiastic fans of the notion–but it has particularly deep roots in American civic culture, and we export that idea all over the world. (The notion of the mythic superhero, for instance, is an embodiment of the idea of purifying violence, as the book Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil explains in some depth.)

I’m not suggesting that religious zealots have a patent on inventive destructiveness. From Chairman Mao to Josef Stalin, the 20th century is replete with examples of secular governments that are as gleefully, viciously bonkers as the most passionate of religious extremists.

But religious extremism does seem unique in one regard: we don’t generally see secularists embracing the fiery destruction of the entire world in order to cleanse os of evil. Violent secular institutions might want resources, or land, or good old-fashioned power, but they don’t usually seem to want to destroy the whole of creation in order to invoke a supernatural force to save it.

Putting it all together, we can expect that as time goes on, the trend toward making increasingly destructive technology available to increasingly large numbers of people will likely continue. Which means that, one day, we will likely arrive at the point where a sufficiently determined individual or small group of people can, in fact, literally unleash destruction on a global scale.

Imagine that, say, any reasonably motivated group of 100 or more people anywhere in the world could actually start a nuclear war. Given that millennialist end-times ideology is a thing, how safe would you feel?

It is possible, just possible, that we don’t see a ubniverse teeming with sapient, tool-using, radio-broadcasting, exploring-the-cosmos life because sapient tool-using species eventually reach the point where any single individual has the ability to wipe out the whole species, and very shortly after that happens, someone wipes out the whole species.

“But Franklin,” I hear you say, “even if there are human beings who can and will do that, given the chance, that doesn’t mean space aliens would! They’re not going to be anything like us!”

Well, right. Sure. Other sapient species wouldn’t be like us.

But here’s the thing: We are, it seems, pretty unremarkable. We live on an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable galaxy. We’re probably not special snowflakes; statistically, the odds are good that the trajectory we have taken is, um, unremarkable.


Yes, yes, they’re all unique and special…but they all have six arms, too.
(Image: National Science Foundation.)

Sure, sapient aliens might be, overall, less warlike and aggressive (or more warlike and aggressive!) than we are, but does that mean every single individual is? If we take millions of sapient tool-using intelligent species and give every individual of every one of those races the ability to push a button and destroy the whole species, how many species do you think would survive?

Perhaps the solution to the Fermi paradox is not that we’re first or we’re rare; perhaps we’re fucked. Perhaps we are rolling down a well-traveled groove, worn deep by millions of sapient species before us, a groove that ends in a predictable place.

I sincerely hope that’s not the case. But it seems possible it might be. Maybe, just maybe, our best hope to last as long as we can is to counter millennial thinking as vigorously as possible–not to save us, ultimately, but to buy as much time as we possibly can.


1Post-scarcity society of the sort that a lot of transhumanists talk about may never really be a thing, given there will always be something that is scarce, even if that “something” is intangible. Creativity, for instance, can’t be mass-produced. But a looser kind of post-scarcity society, in which material resources are abundant, does have some plausibility.

Astonishing Beauty

The world around us is fractally beautiful. Not only is it filled with the most extraordinary, breathtaking beauty, but that beauty exists no matter what level you set your gaze upon. At any scale, at any magnification, beauty persists.

Look at a flower.

It’s beautiful–the colors, the symmetry, the shape. These things are all pleasing in their own right.

But look closer. Much, much closer. What will you find? An enormous array of tiny cells, in a proliferation of shapes and functions, each working with the ones around it to give the flower its form and color, all of them filled with activity. Inside every cell, an array of bogglingly complex molecular machines, running all the time, consuming energy, producing still more molecular machines, and always, always striving to survive and make more of themselves.

Now look up, from the microscopic to the macroscopic.


Image: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope team

This is NGC 2818, a magnificent planetary nebula in the southern constellation Pyxis. This and other planetary nebulae are the remnants of violent explosions, the result of a star that has fused all its available hydrogen fuel and is no longer able to support itself against gravity. In the last few seconds of the star’s life, it explodes, leaving behind a glowing ember called a white dwarf and throwing off a shockwave of expanding gas.

These stellar remnants are beautiful, but like that flower, they are fractally beautiful. In fact, they are connected with that flower. Most of the elements necessary for life, all the molecules with an atomic weight greater than iron, are forged in these fiery explosions, when the unimaginable forces of a nova or supernova fuse lighter elements into heavier ones. The atoms in this flower, and in you and me, were birthed in fire and sent out into the universe, to eventually coalesce into this sun, this solar system, this planet, at this place and this time, and became us and kittens and chocolate and motorcycles and ice cream sundaes.

The universe is both incomprehensibly huge and incomprehensibly fine-grained, and it’s beauty all the way down.

Even when we look at the same scale over time, we see beauty. Beauty is enduring. It emerges, over and over again, wherever there is the possibility of change.

Indeed, there is quite literally more beauty around us than we are capable of seeing. White flowers are richly colored, to eyes that can see in ultraviolet. The sky above our heads is a tapestry whose richness we could not recognize until we built machines to augment our feeble vision.

But it isn’t just the grandeur of the natural world. Beauty lurks in every corner. It hides in a tumbler filled with colored glass stones on a restaurant table.

Color is a myth, of course. It’s a perceptual invention, created by the sorting of light of different frequencies into neural impulses by our visual system, with sensors tuned to respond best to different wavelengths of light. It’s a crude approximation of the diversity of photons filling the air around us. These photons chart extraordinarily complex paths through the tumbler, reflecting and refracting, sometimes being absorbed or scattered, and we glance at this intricate mathematical dance of physics for a moment and then look away.

The complexity and beauty of the physical world is both breathtaking and ordinary. Breathtaking because it exists on scales we can scarcely begin to understand; ordinary because it surrounds us all the time, beauty so abundant we forget it’s even there.

Every moment of our lives is spent in a world so beautiful, so incredibly filled with marvels, that we are blessed with abundance beyond measure. I can not help but feel that, should we become more mindful of it, the dull and ugly parts of the world will lift, just a bit. And perhaps, just perhaps, we will be that much less inclined to manufacture more of that dullness and ugliness.

We are here for only a brief time. Let us never forget how beautiful it is to be so privileged to exist in this place.

Oh, Joss: “Morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death”

A couple of years ago, during a lackadaisical time in my life when I was only running two businesses and wasn’t on tour to support a book I’d just coauthored, I sat down with my sweetie Zaiah and we watched all the episodes of the Joss Whedon television show Dollhouse over the course of a week or so.

The premise of the show, which isn’t really important to what I want to write about, concerns a technology that allows personalities, identities, and skills to be constructed in a computer (much as one might write a computer program) and then implanted in a person’s brain, such that that person takes on that identity and personality and has those skills. The television show followed a company that rented out custom-designed people, constructed in a bespoke fashion for clients’ jobs and then erased once those jobs were over. Need a master assassin, a perfect lover, a simulation of your dead wife, a jewel thief? No problem! Rent that exact person by the hour!

Anyway, in Episode 10 of the short-lived series, one of the characters objects to the idea of using personality transplants as a kind of immortality, telling another character, “morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death.” I cringed when I heard it.

And that’s the bit I want to talk about.


The New York Times has an article about research which purports to show that when reminded of their own mortality, people tend to cling to their ethical and moral values tightly. The article hypothesizes,

Researchers see in these findings implications that go far beyond the psychology of moralistic judgments. They propose a sweeping theory that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life. The theory holds, for instance, that a culture’s very concept of reality, its model of “the good life,” and its moral codes are all intended to protect people from the terror of death.

This seems plausible to me. Religious value systems–indeed, religions in general–provide a powerful defense against the fear of death. I remember when I first came nose to nose with the idea of my own mortality back when I was 12 or 13, how the knowledge that one day I would die filled me with stark terror, and how comforting religion was in protecting me from it. Now that I no longer have religious belief, the knowledge of the Void is a regular part of my psychological landscape. There is literally not a day that goes by I am not aware of my own mortality.

But the idea that fear of death reminds people of their values, and causes them to cling more tightly to them, doesn’t show that there are no values without the fear of death.

As near as I can understand it, the statement “morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death” appears to be saying that without fear of punishment, we can’t be moral. (I’m inferring here that the fear of death is actually the fear of some kind of divine judgment post-death, which seems plausible given the full context of the statement: “That’s the beginning of the end. Life everlasting. It’s…it’s the ultimate quest. Christianity, most religion, morality….doesn’t exist, without the fear of death.”) This is a popular idea among some theists, but does it hold water?

The notion that there is no morality without the fear of death seems to me to rest on two foundational premises:

1. Morality is extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is given to us by an outside authority; without that outside authority, no human-derived idea about morality, no human-conceived set of values is any better than any other.

2. We behave in accordance with moral strictures because we fear being punished if we do not.

Premise 1 is a very common one. “There is no morality without God” is a notion those of us who aren’t religious never cease to be tired of hearing. There are a number of significant problems with this idea (whose God? Which set of moral values? What if those moral values–“thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” say, or “if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death,” or “whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you”–cause you to behave reprehensibly to other people? What is the purpose of morality, if not to tell us how to be more excellent to one another rather than less?), but its chief difficulty lies in what it says about the nature of humankind.

It says that we are not capable of moral action, or even of recognizing moral values, on our own; we must be given morals from an outside authority, which becomes the definition of morality. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say that without religion, nothing would prevent them from committing rape and murder at will; it is only the strictures of their religion that prevent them from doing so. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say if they believed the Bible commanded them to murder children or shoot people from a clock tower, they would do it. (There is, unsurprisingly, considerable overlap between these two sets of self-identified Christian.) If it takes the edict of an outside force to tell you why it’s wrong to steal or rape or kill, I am unlikely to trust you with my silverware, much less my life. Folks who say either of these things seldom get invited back to my house.

The notion that the fear of death is a necessary component of moral behavior because without punishment, we will not be moral is, if anything, even more problematic. If the only thing making you behave morally is fear of punishment, I submit you’re not actually a moral person at all, no matter which rules of moral behavior you follow.

Morality properly flows from empathy, from compassion, from the recognition that other people are just as real as you are and just as worthy of dignity and respect. Reducing morality to a list of edicts we’ll be punished if we disobey means there is no need for empathy, compassion, charity, or respect–we aren’t moral people by exercising these traits, we’re moral by following the list of rules. If the list of rules tells us to stone gays, then by God, that’s what we’ll do.

An argument I hear all the time (and in these kinds of conversations, I do mean all the time) is “well, if there’s no God and no fear of Hell, who’s to say the Nazis were wrong in what they did?” It boggles me every single time I hear it. I cannot rightly apprehend the thought process that would lead to such a statement, in no small part because it seems to betray a boggling inability to allow empathy and compassion be one’s moral signposts.

What it all comes down to, when you get to brass tacks, is internal moral values vs. external moral values. When we can empathize with other human beings, even those who are different from us, and allow ourselves to fully appreciate their essential humanness, treating them ethically becomes easy. When we do not–and often, religious prescriptions on behavior explicitly tell us not to–it becomes impossible. An intrinsic set of moral values is predicated on that foundation of reciprocal recognition of one another’s humanness, worth, and dignity.

Those who say without God or without fear of punishment there can be no morality seem blind to that reciprocal recognition of one another’s humanness, worth, and dignity. And those folks scare me.

Some thoughts on the Seven Virtues

A while ago, over dinner with my partner Eve, her mom, and some friends of theirs, we started talking about the Seven Deadly Sins.

I am not terribly good at them; in fact, it took a while to remember what they were (greed, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, pride, and wrath). Of the seven, the only one at which I have any skill is lust; in fact, I’ve put so many character points into lust I’m still forced to make default rolls for all six others.

I got to thinking about the Seven Deadly Sins, and wondering if there were Seven Virtues to go along with them. Apparently, there are; a few hundred years after the list of vices caught hold, someone decided there should be a similar list of virtues, and made such a list by negating the vices. The virtue Chastity was proposed as the opposite of Lust, for example, and the virtue Humility as the opposite of Pride. (Some of the others don’t really make a lot of sense; proposing Kindness as Envy’s opposite ignores the fact that people can simultaneously feel envious and behave kindly. But no matter.)

The negative version of the Seven Deadly Sins didn’t really seem to catch on, so Catholic doctrine has embraced a different set of virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.

I look at that list, and find it a bit…underwhelming. We’ve given Christianity two thousand years to come up with a cardinal list of virtues in human thought and deed, and that’s the best it can do? It’s almost as disappointing as the list of Ten Commandments, which forbids working on Saturday and being disrespectful to your parents but not, say, slavery or rape, as I talked about here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some of the things on the list of virtues I heartily endorse. Courage, that’s a good one. Justice is another good one, though as often as not people have an unfortunate tendency to perpetrate the most horrifying atrocities in its name. (Handy hint for the confused: “justice” and “vengeance” aren’t the same thing, and in fact aren’t on speaking terms with one another.) Temperance in opposing injustice is not a virtue, hope is that thing at the bottom of Pandora’s jar of evils, and faith…well, the Catholic catechism says that faith means “we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us,” and furthermore that we believe all “that Holy Church proposes for our belief.” In this sense, to quote Mark Twain, faith is believing what you know ain’t so. (On the subject of hope, though, it should be mentioned that Hesiod’s epic poem about Pandora says of women, “From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.” So it is without an exuberance of cynicism that I might suggest there is perhaps a synchronicity between the ancient Greek and modern Catholic thinkings on the subject of the fairer sex.)

In any event, it seems that, once again, the traditional institutions charged with the prescription of human morality have proven insufficient to the task. In my musings on the Ten Commandments, I proposed a set of ten commandments that might, all things considered, prove a better moral guideline than the ten we already have, and it is with the same spirit I’d like to propose a revised set of Seven Cardinal Virtues.

Courage. I quite like this one. In fact, to quote Maya Angelou, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” So this one stays; in fact, I think it moves to the head of the list.

Prudence is a bit of an odd duck. Most simply, it means something like “foresight,” or perhaps “right thinking.” The Catholic Education Site defines prudence as the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end. But that seems a bit tail-recursive to me; a virtue is that which directs you to do good, and doing good means having these virtues…yes, yes, that’s fine and all, but what is good? You can’t define a thing in terms of a quality a person has and then define that quality in terms of that thing!

So perhaps it might be better to speak of Beneficence, which is the principle of making choices that, first, do no harm to others, and, second, seek to prevent harm to others. The principle of harm reduction seems a better foundation for an ethical framework than the principle of “right action” without any context for the “right” bit. (I’m aware that a great deal of theology attempts to provide context for the virtue of prudence, but I remain unconvinced; I would find, for example, it is more prudent to deny belonging to a religion than to be hanged for it, simply on the logic that it is difficult for dead Utopians to build Utopia…)

Justice is another virtue I like, though in implementation it can be a bit tricky. Justice, when it’s reduced to the notion of an eye for an eye, becomes mere retribution. If it is to be a virtue, it must be the sort of justice that seeks the elevation of all humankind, rather than a list of rules about which forms of retaliation are endorsed against whom; formal systems of justice, being invented and maintained by corruptible humans, all too easily become corrupt. A system which does not protect the weakest and most vulnerable people is not a just system.

Temperance needs to go. Moderation in the pursuit of virtue is no virtue, and passion in the pursuit of things which improve the lot of people everywhere is no vice. And this virtue too easily becomes a blanket prohibition; the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who were anything but temperate in their zeal to eradicate alcohol, failed to acknowledge that drinking is not necessarily, of and by itself, intemperate; and their intemperance helped create organized crime in the US, a scourge we have still been unable to eradicate.

In its place, I would propose Compassion, and particularly, the variety of compassion that allows us to see the struggles of others, and to treat others with kindness wherever and whenever possible, to the greatest extent we are able. It is a virtue arising from the difficult realization that other people are actually real, and so deserve to be treated the way we would have them treat us.

Faith and Hope seem, to be frank, like poor virtues to me, at least as they are defined by Catholicism. (There is a broader definition of “faith,” used by mainline Protestant denominations, that has less to do with accepting the inerrancy of the Church in receiving divine revelation and more to do with an assurance that, even in the face of the unknown, it’s possible to believe that one will be okay; this kind of faith, I can get behind.) Indeed, an excess of faith of the dogmatic variety leads to all sorts of nasty problems, as folks who have faith their god wants them to bomb a busy subway might illustrate. And hope (in the Catholic sense of “desiring the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit”) can lead to inaction in the face of real-world obstacles–if we believe that once we get past the grave, nothing can go wrong, we might be disinclined to pursue happiness or oppose injustice in the here and now.

I would suggest that better virtues might be Integrity and Empathy. Integrity as a virtue means acting in accordance with one’s own stated moral precepts; but there’s more to it than that. As a virtue, integrity also means acknowledging when others are right; being intellectually rigorous, and mindful of the traps of confirmation bias and anti-intellectualism; and being clear about what we know and what we hope. (When, for example, we state something we want to be true but don’t know is true as a fact, we are not behaving with integrity.)

Empathy in this context means, first and foremost, not treating other people as things. It is related to compassion, in that it recognizes the essential humanity of others. As a moral principle, it means acknowledging the agency and rights of others, as we would have them acknowledge our agency and our rights.

Charity is, I think, a consequence arising from the applications of justice, compassion, and empathy, rather than a foundational virtue itself. In its place, I propose Sovereignty, the assumption that the autonomy and self-determinism of others is worthy of respect, and must not be infringed insofar as is possible without compromising one’s own self.

So bottom line, that gives us the following list of Seven Virtues: Courage, Beneficence, Justice, Compassion, Integrity, Empathy, and Sovereignty. I like this draft better than the one put forth by Catholicism. But coming up with a consistent, coherent framework of moral behavior is hard! What say you, O Interwebs?