Thursday, July 30, 2009

Memento Mori

The Memento Mori; Life as Passing Shadow

By John Taylor; 2009 July 30, Kalimat 17, 166 BE

What is the central fact of our existence? Surely it is this: life is temporary. We are here for a very short time and then we die. No matter which direction we turn, there the Grim Reaper stands, staring us in the face. This distressing reality is something both believers and unbelievers can agree upon. Life in this world is ephemeral, like a passing shadow, as the Psalm puts it,

"What is man, that You care for him? Or the son of man, that You think of him? Man is like a breath. His days are like a shadow that passes away." (Psalms 144:3-4, WEB)

In times past there was a wise custom of keeping a skull by one's desk or bedside to remind the viewer that death is imminent. This was called a Memento Mori, a standing reminder that life is temporary, that whatever you do it is not lasting, and death will intervene. I do not keep a skull; instead, I collect short quotations on this theme that I have come across in my reading. Let me share some of my collection today.

The above verse from the Psalm points out that life is a mere "passing shadow" compared to the sunlit highlands of reality. Plato made this the basis of his theory of the nature of justice. In the Republic he told the of myth of the cave or den. Here slaves are permanently chained to face a wall. Having seen only the wall during their whole lives, they mistake the reflected shadows for reality. They do not see that a fire is behind them, and that men and objects moving between the fire and the wall are creating shadows.


"And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?"

"Very true."

"And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?"

"No question, he replied."

"To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images."


According to this parable of the sun as the Good, the only reality is what the sun illumines directly. A just person, then, is the reverse of what we think, that is, a meticulous observer of shadows on the cave wall. To be faithful to a projected image of an image is mere imitation. Justice is not shadows of reality, it is the sun that illumines the world outside the cave. Transient shadows are all we see in this temporary existence.

"Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away." (Ps 144:4)

The Qu'ran carries the metaphor of the sun of the Good further. Just as a worshipper raises her arms and lowers her head to the ground, so the sun rises and sets, and our shadows shorten and lengthen during the day. If humans do not pray, they neglect to pay tribute to a Being that even lower material objects pay obeisance to and revolve around, as if in prayer.

"We will show them our signs in the horizons and in themselves, that it may become clear unto them that this is the truth." (41:53)

For Baha'is, our most impressive Memento Mori is permanently enshrined in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah's Most Holy Book, or Book of Laws. You can read what He says about it (pages 33-34, paragraphs 39-41) for yourself, but in my understanding the divine Lawmaker is clearly saying that religion itself is both cause and effect of the Memento Mori. Here God addresses humanity, saying in part:

"Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow others will possess them. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed. Say: Can ye claim that what ye own is lasting or secure? Nay! By Myself, the All-Merciful, ye cannot, if ye be of them who judge fairly. The days of your life flee away as a breath of wind, and all your pomp and glory shall be folded up as were the pomp and glory of those gone before you. Reflect, O people! What hath become of your bygone days, your lost  centuries?" (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, pp. 33-34)

Baha'u'llah was probably thinking of the Memento Mori that motivated the sacrifices of His life, a miniature play about the Turkish Sultan Salim that He had witnessed in youth. This satiric piece of theatre told of a great king standing in all his power and splendour in an ornate court. On a whim, the Sultan declared war. His order was carried out and soon an entire army was arrayed, complete with cannon volleys and cavalry charges. However, when it was all over, the puppet master packed the entire cast of characters away in a small chest.

Abdu'l-Baha also placed great emphasis on this theme. In a Tablet tto a woman believer He reminded her of the same central fact of every examined life.

"O thou esteemed (or dear) maid-servant of God! All that thou hast looked upon -- even the dominion of Victoria, the Queen of England -- is but an image on the water and a mirage of phantasms! That which is a reality and is eternal and everlasting is the love of God, is the knowledge of His Highness, the Forgiver, is the spread of the perspicuous religion of God, the uplifting of the Word of God, and the diffusion of the lights of the guidance of God!" (Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets, Vol. 1, 186-187)

Baha'u'llah, in an early work, makes another point about how the uncertainty of life can corrupt us. This lesson is part of the message of Ecclesiastes,

"Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better? For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" (Eccl. 6:11-12, KJV)

Such is life, a bang followed by a whimper. The evident futility of all we aim to accomplish makes it all a doubt wrapped in an impious enigma. Without reflection and the devotional life, lingering doubts creep in about whether effort and sacrifice will ever bear fruit. Uncertainty about the value of our efforts and the fairness of our place in life prompts us to act unjustly. This, Baha'u'llah points out, is a lesson of history.

"But as these people failed to turn wholly unto God, and to hold fast to the hem of His all-pervading mercy at the appearance of the Daystar of Truth, they passed out from under the shadow of guidance and entered the city of error. Thus did they become corrupt and corrupt the people. Thus did they err and lead the people into error. And thus were they recorded among the oppressors in the books of heaven." (Javahir, para 55, p. 41)

How often it happens that what should motivate us to devote time and effort to religion only makes us worse. The only way to escape the corruption of worldly presuppositions is to take your skull, or whatever Memento Mori you happen to have, in hand and contemplate what is soon to come. Such is the advice of all the Holy Ones, including Abdu'l-Baha.

"This life will surely pass away like unto a fleeting shadow and the gay trappings of this earthly existence will soon be rolled up. The cup of bitter death will be borne round and the fire of anguish and despair will be set ablaze. The foundation of human life will crumble and this clamorous outcry and tumult will be hushed to silence and stillness. Rejoicings will cease and pleasures will come to an end. The souls will set out empty-handed on their journey to the next world, compassed by intense grief and anguish. Of the contemplations of bygone days, of the former life of comfort, joy and power not a single vestige will be left. Utter perdition will prevail and everyone's grievous loss and deprivation will be laid bare." (Abdu'l-Baha, Fire and Light, p. 21)

John Taylor



Wednesday, July 29, 2009

College of Light

The Factories and College of Light

By John Taylor; 2009 July 28, Kalimat 15, 166 BE

The first of two chapters about education in Panorthosia is the sixteenth, "Concerning the Universal Bond of Learning, The College Of Light." (p. 223) This chapter proposes a school of the world with a unified philosophy or Pansofia grounded in the light of God.

"... they will attend to the light of wisdom itself in all the variety of the natural world and in all its entirety, kindling it well, purifying it clearly, and spreading it effectively from nation to nation all over the world. For just as the sun in the heavens is not created for the exclusive benefit of one region but rises upon all, whirling to the south and turning unto the north, traversing the universe in its circuit (Ecclesiastes I, 5), so the sun of the mind, which is wisdom, is even now arising clear and bright, and these apostles of light will see and ensure that it is not confined to one nation or a certain few, but circulates throughout the whole world of mankind: in so doing they will become the world's brightest light-bearers, bringing the dawn to break upon the darkness of every people ..." (Panorthosia, Ch. 16, para 4, p. 224)

This institution of universal enlightenment would function with affiliates at every level, from a room devoted to learning in every home, to a sort of equivalent of UNESCO at the United Nations. The college of light would be a world government's "department of education," except that, as we have already mentioned, Comenius saw the members of this world-level college of light being elected directly by and from among working teachers, not appointed by and beholden to a separate branch of government, as is done today in nationalist states. The task of the college of light is extremely ambitious, including not only education but also directing what we now call science.

"It will be the responsibility of these Colleges to supervise the dealings of the Mind with Reality, that is, to exercise control over all human knowledge, curbing its excesses or defects or any tendency to go astray at any stage or in any circumstances, seeking ever to increase and improve the dominion of the human Mind over the real world, and to spread the light of Wisdom throughout the minds of nations all over the world. They might even be described as Mankind's Training-school, and the Heaven of the Church, and the major Luminaries of the World." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 16, para 1, p. 223)

This is the genius of Comenius, to refuse to contemplate what we routinely do, that is, artificially divorce science from technology, and science from education, as if they were entirely separate entities. All are part of our one, universal need to learn about God, the universe, and each other, so why treat them differently? By uniting teaching and science in a single enquiry the college of light will forge what he calls the "universal bond of learning." This bond avoids the pitfall of forcing the vast diversity of human thought and culture into one mold by some propaganda campaign. The emphasis on light (what we know and agree upon) and darkness (what is unknown or disputed) allows a world educational program to be entirely truthful, to permit truth itself to do the uniting.

As we have seen, the college of light is one of three democratic institutions of world governance, the other two being a political wing and a religious parliament. Presumably, a citizen in a Comenian order would exercise her franchise with three votes, one for each institution. Since every large household and neighborhood has an affiliated branch, a classroom, a place of prayer and a consultation chamber, local elections for each of the three, based on direct personal contact, could be frequent and regular.

We are used to jostling and rivalry among institutions but Comenius points out the advantages of ending that. A strong college of light would cordially cooperate with the other two branches, and by doing its part well would narrow their range of activity as separate bodies.

"To this end the Colleges of Light will also have friendly relations with the other two, which are assistants, as it were, in the universal spreading of light, and will help them as much as possible with sound advice like polishers and smiths, sharpening their hoes, ploughshares, and scythes, and solving any problems arising between churchmen and politicians so that nothing is left to the court of the Church except a decision in cases of conscience, and the political court concerns itself only with acts of violence and their prevention." (Panorthosia, Ch. 16, para 13, pp. 229-230)

This chapter explores the idea of the colleges of light adopting as their own bailiwick the publishing industry, which now would include the internet and the movie and video game industries. "The writing of books in future should not be in the hands of politicians nor churchmen but of the Colleges of Light, since the latter deal with theory, the former with practice." This is an intriguing idea. If the internet and information industry were owned, policed and operated by teachers, the excesses we now witness could be curtailed without heavy-handed, self-serving censorship. The motives of governmental and religious interference are always suspect. Since the goal of the college of light is enlightenment and the advance of knowledge, its motives are beyond reproach.

As it is now, scientists tend to specialize in pure research without application in teaching or social change; for example in economics, Jeffrey Sacks in The End of Poverty called for a new discipline called "clinical economics," which would combine theory and practice, general principle and specific context. All this is inherent to what Comenius proposed centuries ago. Every ivory tower would be torn down and experts would be directly involved in every decision on every level. No social program would go into action without careful vetting by all three branches of governance, educators, religions and political leaders. Only when all three agree would any policy be put in place.

"Therefore the other two should approach the Colleges of Light for anything that is needed in theoretical reasoning, but the latter should not issue any publication without having the practice tested by the other two and obtaining their censorship and approval respectively. The Politicians should hold the symbols of power, and concentrate on maintaining universal peace. The Churchmen should administer the Word, the Keys, and the Sacraments, and devote themselves wholly to keeping men's souls close to God. Thus there will be no confusion in their duties." (Panorthosia, Ch. 16, para 13, pp. 229-230)

Today our monolithic nationalist governments have lost trust because they tend to extend their tentacles beyond their legitimate goal of just maintaining peace and order. Nor are religious groups any better; they fanatically look beyond other-worldly welfare and attempt to steer the world their way. Comenius envisions a cooperative division of labour among all three institutions, each representing a major faculty of humanity. This would be more flexible than the artificial "separation of powers" that suspicious nation builders have welded into the present machineries of government.

What we need is truly universal education that puts wisdom, not technical wizardry, first, and thus sustains everything, like the sunlight does the earth. Teachers in such a system will become like captains of industry, the overall product of whose thriving factories is enlightenment.

"... they will attend carefully to the factories of Light, the Schools, so that these are opened throughout all Nations and all communities of human society, and are kept open and gleam with constant light. For just as the Sun fills its Planets with its light, and enlightens the whole sphere of the world (except where it turns away and seeks the shadow among the bodies of darkness), so they must enlighten the whole scholastic world which has been assigned to them. They will therefore impress upon leaders of states and churches everywhere that they must not tolerate any home, village, city, or province where reading and writing are not taught with wisdom." (Ch. 16, para 5, pp. 224-225)

John Taylor



Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The World Belt

By John Taylor; 2009 July 27, Kalimat 14, 166 BE

Note: This is a revision of an essay that came out on the Badi' Blog three years ago, on July 10, 2006 to be precise. Some details have changed but this is still basically how I envision Kant's Universal Civic Society (UCS) coming about.

Putting On the World Belt

A World Building Mega-Project
Precis: Just as railway construction projects built the modern nation, a “world belt” mega-project may build the universal civic society. A world belt would not only be a railway but also a power line and a hillside building project extending through and between every joined continent on the planet.

Transport and Power Lines in the UCS

I just finished (in 2006) listening to a thrilling history book-on-tape called "Nothing Like it in the World," by Stephen Ambrose, the story of how the first transcontinental railroad across North America was built in the 1860's. I would like to see such a monumental construction effort repeated in my lifetime, only instead of just a rail line -- our present rail system is badly in need of an upgrade anyway -- this time we could combine it with an even more ambitious mega-project, the construction of the first transcontinental hillside housing development.
Here is how it might work. We would bury all roads and train tracks underground in a single line across the American continent. Another line would extend north and south from the tip of South America through Central America, the continental United States, Canada, Alaska and over (or under) the Bering Strait to Asia. The goal of this project, made possible by a world federation, would be to establish a planet-encircling high-speed link from the Americas to the tip of Africa, India and England.
Trains would be built on two levels, one above the other. The bottom level would be the express link, featuring a high speed rail line like the French TGV (Train A Grand Vitesse) or perhaps the more radical magnetically levitated German, Japanese or Chinese trains. Right over this is a second, slower train carrying freight and passengers for local stops. Since they are enclosed, these rail lines would not encounter the air resistance of surface travel.
Over the double-decker train tracks, on the surface level, is a long building development, where many people live and work in a high-density urban setting. I have been describing this mobile, containerized construction system in several earlier essays. Because it depends upon a universal set of standards and building codes, it could only be built under the standardizing authority of a world government.
The surface level, being already built over buried trains and power lines, does not need to devote space to roads. This extremely long, snake-like building looks not unlike a skyscraper built on its side. On its shady side are buildings designed to accommodate smaller modular buildings, such as homes, farms, stores, shops, workshops and factories. Having many sub-units fitting into a single, large superstructure allows local planners to optimize dynamically every factor in urban design simply by moving modular units around within the World Belt.
The initial goal of this strip of urban construction running through each of the continents of the world is to take in the estimated one or two billion refugees that rising sea levels will soon create. It would allow them to move from flooded regions and find a better, more mobile life than ever before. With a modular residence, they could move around to wherever they are needed without the suffering, deprivation and dislocation of a refugee village. It would permit not only individuals but families, businesses and even neighbourhoods to relocate easily. Thus if a convenience store did not become viable in one neighbourhood in the World Belt, it could be rolled onto one of the trains underneath and moved quickly and cheaply to another location, which could be virtually anywhere on earth. Families can move their modular homes around without bothering to transport every item they own piece by piece every time.
On the sunny southern face (or in the Southern Hemisphere, the northern side) of the Belt are built-in various solar-energy catching devices, such as greenhouses, glassed-in passive solar structures, solar panels, solar towers and outside gardens. Years ago, it was calculated that if roads in America were covered with solar panels, even our current, 5% efficient solar technology would take in enough energy to fill all of our projected energy demands. Such solar collectors, along with interspersed wind turbines, would turn this World Belt into a huge power generating facility. This would further offset operating costs and help underwrite the admittedly staggeringly high initial investment of building this World Belt.
The expense of this project would be offset by the concurrent construction of power lines built nearby but at a safe distance from the transport line. This is no ordinary set of overhead wires. It is a buried, superconducting high voltage direct current (HVDC) power line. A relatively new invention, the cryogenic HVDC power line not only carries an electric current from one place to another almost without loss, but it also functions as a battery, storing electricity from intermittent power sources, such as solar and wind generating facilities, until demand on the grid can make use of it. Engineering groups, inspired by Buckminster Fuller and other far seeing prognosticators, have been advocating such an intercontinental power link for decades. Unfortunately, as with most of our needs for environmental protection, there is simply no single, world embracing institution with the audacity to implement it.
Judging by Ambrose's story of the first American intercontinental train builders, financing a seeming ambitious enterprise like this could be surprisingly easy, especially if we learn from the mistakes they made back in the 1860's. The two big companies that built the American transcontinental line were the Union Pacific, which started in California and went Eastwards, and the Central Pacific, which started east and built westward. Both built a new railway through virgin land at huge expense. However, they rapidly made back their investment with extremely lucrative subsequent railway business.
Not surprisingly, corruption was rife. The bigwigs bilked little investors and taxpayers alike, using the free land granted to them to amass huge fortunes for themselves at public expense. Workers slaved for tiny wages; the names and numbers of railway builders wounded and killed were not even written down. The Union Pacific was riddled by the worst scandals of the 19th Century. The only reason the Central Pacific got away Scot-free was that somebody came up with the clever expedient of "disappearing" all their books and records in a fire. Ambrose, typical American, repeats again and again his belief that there was no other way of doing this, as if America existed in a vacuum. This completely ignores the Canadian intercontinental railroad, built immediately afterwards, not to mention other rail projects around the world. The Canadian railway enterprise was equally challenging and to some extent learned from and improved upon the egregiously corrupt American example.
That is not to say that there was not method in the madness of how financing worked in 19th Century America. The transcontinental railway was built with a clever strategy of taking all possible shortcuts to rapidly cash in on future potential. Everything was built as cheaply as possible, as opposed to doing it right the first time. These administrators knew that improvements could be done easier and cheaper once the train itself made transport from distant areas possible, and when the money came flowing in.
For example, they built long stretches of track on sand using shoddy wooden ties that they knew would last only a year or so. This was wise, since later on, the trains themselves could carry gravel for proper bedding from anywhere in the country. At the time of construction stones and wood were sold at grossly inflated prices, if they could be bought at all. Once the railway had been laid, permanent ties could be had from anywhere in the country at a much lower price. Thanks to government support, money was cheap at the start as well. Government loans were doled out based on the amount of track laid. The railway companies' credit was good, since everyone knew that soon their railway business would be very lucrative.
By combining transit and power lines with a line of modular housing and other buildings, the facilities available in a UCS World Belt would make life more liveable in every way than anything we currently have. At the same time, like the early railways it could be built cheaply at first. Rail and power links may be laid first and the housing project laid in last, after money, power and transport from around the world make this urban building project cheap and easy.
The long-term goal of the housing project is to attract large numbers of people to move there, and not only refugees. By providing the luxuries of full service facilities, residences would be more pleasant to live and neighbourhoods more vibrant and dynamic than all but the most luxurious mansion today. The wealth of human contact would make even a mansion appear isolated and deprived by comparison.
In order to save the environment, the migration to hillside projects along the world belt can be hurried along by gradually reducing the artificial subsidies that sustain our present inefficient housing, transport and electric power grids. As soon as property and energy taxes reflect the real costs of an isolated existence in dangerous, inefficient, non-sustainable freehold buildings, widespread adoption of mound architecture will take place without a hint of coercion.
Overall, a world belt would be like railways in past centuries, which were nation-building enterprises, only instead of one nation, it would unite an entire planet. The potential benefits are beyond estimate.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Brown on OH at TED

The British Prime Minister expounds upon the most important Baha'i principle, the Oneness of Humanity.

We're at a unique moment in history, says UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown: we can use today's interconnectedness to develop our shared global ethic -- and work together to confront the challenges of poverty, security, climate change and the economy.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Oprah interviews a Baha'i actor

About Two Things, race and high tech

A Friend is Jailed while Scientists Worry

By John Taylor; 2009 Jul 26

After many years of languishing under my migraines, this summer I seem able to concentrate on one thing (actually two things) long enough to produce something longer than a single essay, one day's work. I am collecting together and revising disparate ideas, conceived over many years, for saving the world. If all goes well, I might even seek publication for this "Cosmopolitan Condition" series in book form. This would be a big change after some thirty years of active, full time writing as an unpublished amateur. I enjoy my amateur status, but these ideas are important and I have a duty to spread them as much as I can. At the same time, I feel that this summer I have perhaps neglected my small readership on the Badi' Blog, so today I will offer general commentaries on these two recent items in the news:

A Friend of the U.S. President is Jailed

Scientists Worry as Machines Approach Super-Intelligence


A Friend of the U.S. President is Jailed


The media has been full of the news of the recent arrest (and later release) of a prominent member of the African American community for breaking into his own home when his door jammed. I have read several articles talking about various aspects of this issue. I learned that relations between Black men with the police are a flashpoint for racism in the United States.

This reminded me of a lesson I got myself when I was given a ride many years ago with an African Canadian Baha'i, Myron Duncan. We had not gone one block before a cop pulled us over and, for the first and only time in my life, I was confronted by an openly suspicious, contemptuous, impolite police officer. Myron told me that his pink van driven by a Black man screamed "pimpmobile" to their ears. Once, he said, he was passing through a small town and was pulled over four times, each time grilled by a similarly rude police officer. When the fifth cop car stopped him he exploded, protesting loudly at what is now called racial profiling. They let him go, but by all reports if he had "gone righteous" like that in the States he would still be in jail, or at least have a criminal record.

I have often thought about this grating experience of getting the fifth degree for just riding in my friend's "pimpmobile." After much pondering I came up with the idea of getting rid of the entire profession as we now know it. We should adopt as a social goal the elimination, or at least vastly reducing the number of armed police officers. A cop should be a rare intervention brought in only as a last resort. It is a structural wrong when the police come in cold, more like an invading army than the peace officers they are paid to be. Even bouncers in a bar have a better idea of who they are dealing with than police officers in many confrontations.

Why not make law enforcement more like the medical system? In a hospital there are many nurses for every doctor. Doctors are only called in for major decisions and critical interventions.

Why not create a new profession similar to nurses for maintaining law and order? I call it the neighborhood helper (this is what the Chinese call a similar trade). A helper would be a trained social worker who lives nearby. She would do most of the work that is presently done by beat cops, leaving the police to do what they do best, take care of violence and other extreme breaches of the peace. What you hear over and over from police officers interviewed after this incident is, "In these confrontations it is difficult because the people do not want us to be there. They hate talking to us." Maybe the people are right. Maybe there should be another kind of official to talk with first.

To go back to the cause celebre of Professor Gates, the Black man arrested for breaking into his own home, such a thing could never have happened if neighbourhood helpers were called in first. For one thing, a NH lives in the same block, so she already knows who lives there and who does not. Gates was arrested for not surrendering the correct identification photo ID after his break-in. A neighbourhood helper would not even need to go out the door upon hearing a report from another neighbour who had witnessed a Black man breaking into a local house. She could have simply called up Mr. Gates on the phone, confirmed that it was him, and asked if he needed any further help after his door jammed. There would be no need for unpleasant confrontations.

That said, another important point came out of the many interviews in the media with the police. (see: "As Officers Face Heated Words, Their Tactics Vary, New York Times, Michael Willson and Solomon Moore, July 25, 2009) The issue of an officer's tolerance lies at the heart of the dispute surrounding the arrest of this professor.

People in these confrontations tend to be extremely rude and verbally abusive. In this case, the police officer has the rather gross and clumsy power to either arrest the verbal assailant or have a thick skin and ignore the torrent of profanity. Clearly, this is not so much a fault of the police as it is the public in general. Courtesy, the crown of virtues, has been cast to the winds. Even with neighbourhood helpers involved, it is unlikely that much can be done about this problem other than training, especially religious training. It was not for nothing that Baha'u'llah forbade swearing, backbiting and other forms of verbal abuse.

Another flaw of the public is that we are reluctant to obey any direct order from an authority figure. This is because there is a common misconception of what freedom is. This inadequate and indeed perverse idea of freedom is that "nobody has a right to tell me to do anything." This Baha'u'llah condemns in the Aqdas as an outcome of "animal freedom," where we think we are free if we have the freedom of lower beings, rather than higher, angelic ones. Furthermore, Baha'u'llah teaches that obedience is a virtue of God Himself, and we should all embrace it willingly, joyfully.

"What mankind needeth in this day is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom. The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree..." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings, 206)


Scientists Worry as Machines Approach Super-Intelligence


Abdu'l-Baha in America warned that "every day new instruments are invented for destruction of the very foundation of the human race." (Mahmud's Diary, 95) He may have been exaggerating a century ago, but now it is almost literally the case that a new horror is invented every single day. A recent New York Times article covered the latest and perhaps the greatest threat to the "very foundation" of our existence, the invention of machines that make smarter machines that make smarter ones, until they are smarter than we are.

The prospect of autonomous machines out of control is such a frightening possibility that it has dominated science fiction for the past century. Now it is about to become a reality. As this article points out, machines now can drive a vehicle around town, mobile robots can make their way reliably through a building, plugging themselves into wall sockets for more power, fly deadly drones without supervision wreaking destruction on an entire nation; they can play the role of doctor and even pretend to be sympathetic to a human patient's woes. Many traditional human jobs, such as driving a car, are under threat as automobiles rapidly learn how to drive themselves. Some scientists are even comparing the compelling power of robots to that of old time religion. The article cites one scientist as saying,

"Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years. Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture." (Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man, John Markoff, New York Times, July 25, 2009)

The point where machines do surpass humans is being called not the rapture but the "singularity." If you believe pundits like Raymond Kurzweil, after the singularity we may find the contents of our brains and memories being uploaded into computers in the same way that believers have always thought of the soul being translated to heaven after the death of the body.

Or the singularity may mean that machines decide to crush us like parasitic fleas. The latest Terminator movie offers an iron hard vision of permanent war between smarter, stronger machines and puny humans who survive mostly as a plot device to keep the Terminator series moving profitably forward. So important a watershed will the Singularity be in human history that we could measure time as before and after the Singularity. Which would make this the Age of B.S. I think we always knew, of course, that this is the age of B.S., but the singularity gives a whole new meaning to the term.

As I watched the terrible vision of doom in the Terminator film, I was reminded of the frightening prophesy of Baha'u'llah in the perhaps ironically named Tablet, Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih, or Words of Paradise.

"Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal. Great God! We have observed an amazing thing. Lightning or a force similar to it is controlled by an operator and moveth at his command. Immeasurably exalted is the Lord of Power Who hath laid bare that which He purposed through the potency of His weighty and invincible command." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, 69)

Compared to this, I do not think the loss of jobs to machines is a serious problem. Machines have always been able to run faster, fly higher, punch harder and calculate faster than humans. As Baha'is we hold that our distinctive virtues are not so much physical and mental as spiritual. If body and mind serve the purposes of love and spirit, then there will be light upon light. Otherwise, all is darkness, eternal conflict. Abdu'l-Baha said,

"God has endowed us with intellects, not for the purpose of making instruments of destruction; but that we might become diffusers of light; create love between the hearts; establish communion between the spirits and bring together the people of the east and the west." (Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, 182-183)

The scientists are right to worry. As things are, our entire system is designed to serve limited, material ends. It is always easier, from an amoral point of view, to rob or kill than to make something yourself. There is no getting around it; that is the outcome of the materialist viewpoint. As long as we think in this narrow way, the machines we make will reflect that dangerous mindset. As they get smarter than us we will inevitably have to worry about our survival, because this is the kind of "smart" that made them. It leads only to death and destruction.

However if society is seeking the kind of "smart" that "creates love between the hearts" and "brings together the people of the east and the west," then so much the better. Let the robots we make get as smart as they want, it will only make things better. In that case, when we make our super-smart machine brains, we will just have to introduce a "moderation" chip along with a "spirituality" module.

Baha'u'llah, in addressing the leaders of civilization, prescribed just this, moderation in all things, and especially in broad social goals. This advice to think and act moderately is the basis of the following prescription that His son, Abdu'l-Baha, gave during His stay in America almost a century ago. He points out that whereas material civilization is a mirror, passively reflecting light, spiritual civilization can be like a lamp, with its own energy source. In that event, the super-intelligence of machines with their built-in rules of moderation, would not be a threat, they would be just another bounty of God's gift to man, technology.


"Their material civilization resembles a glass of the utmost transparency and purity but divine civilization is like a shining lamp. When these two combine, the utmost perfection will be realized. The light of the oneness of humanity, of universal peace, of equality of human rights and of divine morals will emanate from this country to all the regions of the world and will illumine them all."

Someone asked whether, with all these worldly occupations and physical labors, it is possible that such a spiritual condition can be realized. 'Abdu'l-Baha replied:

"Provided they behave moderately, the more people advance in the material realm, the more their capacity for attaining spirituality is augmented. The sounder the body, the greater is the resplendency and manifestation of the spirit. Truly, what impedes spirituality are the dogmas and imitations that are contrary to true science and a sound mind."

(Mahmud's Diary, New York, June 24, 1912, p. 122)

John Taylor



Saturday, July 25, 2009

Imitation is the Root of all Evil

Comenius Defines Education

By John Taylor; 2009 July 25, Kalimat 12, 166 BE

In this series we are looking at the ideas of John Amos Comenius on the principle of promotion of education. Last time I promised to go over his definition of education. I shall do this now, and also analyze the main problem that education faces, imitation. Next time we will look at the solutions he proposes.

Precis: Comenius emphasized that learning is at the heart of human Nature and the universe itself. The opposite of education is imitation, the corruption of our ways of learning. Whenever arguments, division and conflict are evident, it is a sure sign that imitation has become the standard, not reality. Education destroys the labyrinth of error.

John Amos Comenius is best known today as one of the first advocates of lifelong learning. He held that as human beings we are born curious. Teaching is the art of extending this basic need into every phase of life.

"Who is there that does not always desire to see, hear, or handle something new? To whom is it not a pleasure to go to some new place daily, to converse with someone, to narrate something, or have some fresh experience? In a word, the eyes, the ears, the sense of touch, the mind itself, are, in their search for food, ever carried beyond themselves; for to an active nature nothing is so intolerable as sloth." (Comenius, Wikiquotes)

In his masterwork on education, the Great Didactic, Comenius similarly defined education as the art of making the best use of our lives, every moment of our lives.

"If, in each hour, a man could learn a single fragment of some branch of knowledge, a single rule of some mechanical art, a single pleasing story or proverb (the acquisition of which would require no effort), what a vast stock of learning he might lay by. Seneca is therefore right when he says: `Life is long, if we know how to use it.' It is consequently of importance that we understand the art of making the very best use of our lives." (John Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic, 1649, translated by M.W. Keatinge 1896,

It is not because of some quirk or idiosyncrasy of human nature that we have such a strong need to learn. Learning is a natural outcome of the nature of the universe. Every form of life, and even minerals, are constantly growing, progressing and evolving. Religion, for example, is not an end in itself, it is actual another kind of school, only its graduation ceremony is put off until death.

"Just as the whole world is a school for the whole of the human race, from the beginning of time until the very end, so the whole of his life is a school for every man, from the cradle to the grave. It is no longer enough to say with Seneca: 'No age is too late to begin learning'; we must say: 'Every age is destined for learning, nor is man given other goals in learning than in life itself.' Nay, not even death itself, or the world, brings man's life to an end. Everyone who is born a man must pass beyond all these things right into eternity, as if to a celestial university. Therefore all that precedes is the way, the preparation, the workshop, the lower school." ("Universal Schools" in the Pampaedia)

In the Panorthosia, written at the end of his life, Comenius proposes a far more ambitious goal than learning more and learning for a longer time. He investigates how education might be the program for reform of the entire planet. How, he asks, might a united world government use education to end the wars and dislocation that are deranging humanity?

The Opposite of Education is Imitation

In order to answer this question Comenius offers a proposition: the opposite of education is not so much ignorance as it is imitation. While it is true that it is in our nature to learn, that does not mean that all learning is good, no matter what. He cites Paul, "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." (Colossians 2:8) We imitate when we lap up "rudiments of the world," un-integrated, random, superficial facts and then repeat them without understanding.

Education is supposed to teach us how to transcend "vain deceit," to integrate all knowledge and learning under a single, universal light. Knowledge is always singular, there is no plural, "knowledges." To grasp knowledge demands struggle, coming to grips with the underlying principles behind the outer reality. This takes a great deal of effort and sacrifice in the beginning, though once the lesson is learned it becomes easier.

This explains why we often substitute imitation for really learning for ourselves. We do it out of simple laziness. However, at a deeper level our reluctance is a sign of a spiritual condition, a certain lack of autonomy in the soul. We collect the opinions of others because we mistrust our own faculties and insights, which are untested and unproven. Far easier to play follow the leader and gather into schools of thought, in spite of the fact that they inevitably contradict one another.

"For so long as some people only wish or know how to follow in the footsteps of others, if they are attached to leaders who have gone wrong, they are bound to go wrong at the same time; if they follow various leaders, it is impossible for them to take their various diversions without uncertainty and perplexity." (Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 8, p. 146)

Whenever an "excessive reliance on the guidance of others" predominates, the result is "an infinite perplexity of opinions, policies, and actions." One reason why imitation is evil, then, is because it propagates and multiplies human error. For the same reason parasites and disease propagate easily in a monoculture. An educated society is a diverse ecosystem that makes it very difficult for the same kind of error to spread. Widespread imitation causes havoc in many minds, and prejudices and human error propagate throughout society. Comenius compares an imitative society to a labyrinth with a thousand wrong turns. Only by destroying it can we approach our goal. Done right, education should start with a clean slate and then concentrate upon bringing about unity in diversity.

Another problem with imitation is that it does not necessarily disappear with the spread of schools. Even highly trained individuals and the most advanced nations are equally susceptible to imitation.

"There is evidence of this in educated nations, where we see that the more schools and books and studies they have, the more they are divided and exhausted by conflicting opinions, so that if there is to be any chance of the reform of our affairs, it is necessary in the first instance that these labyrinths should now be destroyed or closed." (Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 8, p. 146)

Imitative squabbling has come to a head now that global warming is putting a time limit on our impulse to reform. One would expect educators to be at the forefront of change, but they are not. Why this is so was diagnosed and explained perfectly well by Comenius. Next time we will look at his diagnosis, prognosis and prescription for education.

John Taylor



Friday, July 24, 2009

Rewards of Contentment vs. Commercial Corruption

From the Banquet of Xenophon

The following dialog is thought to be based on a conversation that actually took place. It struck me as apposite to several sayings of Baha'u'llah in the Words of Wisdom and the Seven Valleys about the importance of contentment.

From: Xenophon: Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium, Apologia, Loeb Classical Library, by Xenophon (Author), E. C. Marchant (Translator), O. J. Todd (Translator) 1923, 279-282

Then Socrates turning to Antisthenes; "And what reason have you," said he, "who have very little or no money, to value yourself upon wealth?"

Antisthenes: "Because I am of opinion, gentlemen, that poverty and wealth are not in the coffers of those we call rich or poor, but in the heart only. For I see numbers of very rich men, who believe themselves poor; nor is there any peril or labour they would not expose themselves to, to acquire more wealth.

"I knew two brothers, the other day, who shared equally their father's estate. The first had enough, and something to spare; the other wanted every thing. I have heard likewise of some princes so greedy of wealth, that they were more notoriously criminal in the search of it than private men. For though the latter may sometimes steal, break houses, and sell free persons to slavery, to support the necessities of life, yet those do much worse. They ravage whole countries, put nations to the sword, enslave free states, and all this for the sake of money, and to fill the coffers of their treasury. The truth is, I have a great deal of compassion for these men, when I consider the distemper that afflicts them.

"Is it not an unhappy condition to have a great deal to eat, to eat a great deal, and yet never be satisfied?

"For my part, though I confess I have no money at home, yet I want none because I never eat but just as much as will satisfy my hunger, nor drink but to quench my thirst. I clothe myself in such manner that I am as warm abroad as Callias, with all his great abundance. And when I am at home, the floor and the wall, without mats or tapestry, make my chamber warm enough for me.

"And as for my bed, such as it is, I find it more difficult to awake than to fall asleep in it. ... But don't mistake me, gentlemen, for governing my passion in this as in other things; I am so far from desiring to have more pleasure in the enjoyment, that I wish it less, because, upon due consideration, I find those pleasures that touch us in the most sensible manner deserve not to be esteemed the most worthy of us. But observe the chief advantage I reap from my poverty; it is, that in case the little I have should be taken entirely from me, there is no occupation so poor, no employment in life so barren, but would maintain me without the least uneasiness, and afford me a dinner without any trouble.

"For if I have an inclination at any time to regale myself and indulge my appetite, I can do it easily; it is but going to market, not to buy dainties (they are too dear), but my temperance gives that quality to the most common food, and, by that means, the contentedness of my mind supplies me with delicacies, that are wanting in the meat itself.

"Now, it is not the excessive price of what we eat that gives it a relish, but it is necessity and appetite. Of this I have experience just now, while I am speaking; for this generous wine of Thasos, (the noblest vines, that grew in one of the Grecian islands) that I am now drinking, the exquisite flavour of it is the occasion that I drink it now, without thirst, and consequently without pleasure. Besides all this, I find it is necessary to live thus, in order to live honestly.

"For he that is content with what he has, will never covet what is his neighbour's. Further, it is certain the wealth I am speaking of makes men liberal. For Socrates, from whom I have all mine, never gave it me by number or weight, but whenever I was willing to receive, he loads me always with as much as I can carry. I do the same by my friends; I never conceal my plenty. On the contrary, I show them all I have, and at the same time I let them share with me.

"It is from this, likewise, I am become master of one of the most delightful things in the world. I mean, that soft and charming leisure that permits me to see everything that is worthy to be seen, and to hear every thing that is worthy to be heard. It is, in one word, that which affords me the happiness of hearing Socrates from morning to night, for he having no great veneration for those that can only count vast sums of gold and silver converses only with them who he finds are agreeable to him and deserve his company."

"Truly," said Callias, "I admire you, and these your excellent riches, for two reasons: first, that thereby you are no slave to the government: and, secondly, that no body can take it ill you do not lend them money."


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reforming ethnics and proprietors

Democratizing Ethnicity and Ownership

By John Taylor; 2009 July 23, Kalimat 10, 166 BE

Precis: Democratic and cosmopolitan reform under a UCS (universal civic society) would allow us to build from the ground up for complete efficiency in travel and buildings. This would not only avoid negative impact on the environment but also maximize the freedom, welfare and security of UCS residents.

Our present infrastructure is grossly inefficient. Houses, buildings and transport churn out prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases. Our present setup is so wasteful of energy, water and other resources that without huge government debts and heavy subsidies it would be prohibitively expensive to live, work and travel. Sooner or later the results of this folly become unavoidable: social unrest, a polluted environment and destabilized climate. Long term survival requires us to overhaul not only government but also the physical infrastructure, the food, clothing and shelter that keep us alive.

This summer we have been discussing on the Badi' Blog how to go to the root of it all by improving democracy. If we reform elections and other democratic processes we could revitalize and spread democracy into areas as yet untouched by the will of the people. Combined with a cosmopolitan condition under a world federation, an improved democracy would permit what Kant called a universal civic society (UCS). A UCS would look entirely different from the artificially subsidized landscape witnessed today as one tours through town and country.

A UCS city would be densely populated to enable economies of scale, which reduce the per capita ecological footprint as close as possible to zero. The land is not flat but runs in high furrows oriented in east-west rows that maximize exposure to the sun. Surfaces with solar exposure are fully farmed by professional farmers and amateur gardeners, so as to come as close as possible to complete local subsistence, with residents on a "100 metre diet." Built along and into the slope of the shaded, vertical sides of the high furrow are mixed-use buildings, each housing many modular, portable units and sub-structures. High speed travel is buried safely underground, leaving the street between each furrow to pedestrians, bicycles and low-speed public transit.

We have already mentioned several reforms that would make this ideal structural rebuild possible. These include the formation of new levels of democratic governance on the family, household and neighbourhood levels, erecting in each locality dynamic displays called war and peace rooms to aid in planning, applying face-to-face voting in education and peer review in the workplace, dashboard displays and escutcheons, localized media (an LBC, or Local Broadcasting Cooperative) and elections among experts (democratic meritocracy). Each of these will be an outcome of the spread of democracy, the investment of power in the hands of the people.
There are several more regions of virgin territory in which democratic pioneers would have to settle. I want briefly to outline two of these, ethnicity and ownership, today and look at others later.

Democratic Ethnicity

Each neighbourhood in a UCS arrives at decisions by holding votes among local experts and by polling the general public in real time in a "war and peace room", a multimedia planning center placed at the heart of every city block. Whereas higher levels of government use force and legislation, at the grassroots neighbourhood level subtler methods are possible. Local planners -- which includes all residents -- respond to incentives and sanctions built into escutcheons, which are public displays of merit for both individuals and groups. Devising plans involves trading and negotiating fine adjustments to one's escutcheon.

In the midst of all this activity, a neighbourhood government actively juggles quotas for cultural, ethnic, linguistic diversity and uniformity. The standard aspects of these quotas are determined by policy at higher levels of government, where experience is broader. As long as neighbourhood planners apply quotas fairly and transparently and allocate local assets equitably based on the proven enterprise of a given group, it is unlikely that minorities or majorities will be aggrieved or feel rivalry towards one another. Briefly, here are the main philosophical considerations that these quotas would be designed to uphold.

It is a general principle that racial, linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity contribute to a free, dynamic and creative culture. Language and culture of minorities thrive when they crowd together to some extent in order to increase the number and variety of personal contacts with one another. On the other hand, spreading out is good too. While some neighbourhoods may specialize in one culture, such as Chinatowns or Little Italy’s, generally speaking a mix of cultures is the most beneficial to a neighbourhood, offering variety, stability, peace and order to the body politic. However, in order for variation to exist there must be a degree of overall uniformity too. All must conform to standards, especially in language. A common second language would allow minorities to contribute fully to the wider cosmopolitan culture while guarding the overall society against stagnation or a tyranny of the majority.

In our present pre-cosmopolitan, order by far the worst bone of contention among ethnic groups is the obsolete notion of absolute sovereignty. Wealth and property are immutably tied to traditional location. Ethnic groups who happen to live on land with richer fields, a more benign climate or more oil and mineral resources than others enjoy boundless riches, while others are left in penury. This incites every group to do all it can to stack the deck in its own favour. Racial and ethnic harmony seem like a naive dream. This dangerous situation can be eliminated by our next topic, democratic ownership.

Democratizing Ownership

Our present system of possession, sole proprietorship, was devised in a pre-computer age when dynamically negotiated, shared ownership would have been prohibitively slow, complicated and expensive. Sole proprietorship is extremely clumsy and wasteful; in the midst of widespread homelessness, empty lots and derelict buildings blight the landscape of a cityscape scarred by endless sprawl and dismal slums. Even the wealthy suffer anxiety and fear from the burden of buying and caring for an embarrassment of possessions.

Computers and other developments in high technology make it possible for ownership to be divided among all users and concerned parties of every large item of property with the slightest usufruct (shared, public use). By dividing title into shares that can by owned and traded by everybody concerned, including casual onlookers, far more people and groups can be stakeholders. As in a joint share company, important decisions about an item's use can be arrived at by democratic election among all part-owners with a legitimate stake. This would include most notably the world government, which should have a say in every decision that can affect, for example, global warming.

There is no technical reason not to divide every large possession into shares. We already have highly complex, computerized exchanges where items of virtual currency, stocks, futures and bonds are reliably and fairly exchanged at a moment's notice. For example, a dollar is no longer merely a hunk of metal or paper. It is a virtual entity that can be sent around the world in a second. Why not extend this flexibility to shares of real estate, large buildings, roads and other items of property in a neighbourhood?

Within certain limits, then, in a UCS shares in local real estate, businesses and other large property in the community can be freely exchanged by residents in the neighbourhood's war and peace room. As a result an individual in a UCS need be sole proprietor of only a few small, personal items. Shared ownership would greatly simplify their existence and allow them to concentrate fully on their special part of the division of labour, their own career and family. At the same time, each would be in a better position than now to grow personal wealth by investing in shares in neighbourhood assets and real estate. For the first time in history everybody, groups and individuals, would be in an equal position to gain a fair stake in local land, goods and enterprises.

Ending sole ownership would also permit personal and collective interests to combine harmoniously in common proprietorship. For instance, with judicious investment an enterprising family business might increase its shares in strategic area assets and along with that, its influence on policy making in its neighbourhood. An efficient farming household, for example, might move from a small home to a large homestead as its profitability increases. Since neighbours are part owners of their enterprise, the farmer might plant berry bushes and fruit trees throughout the neighbourhood without fear that their harvest will be pilfered.

Indeed, an argument can be made that every resident should be required by law to own a minimum number of shares of neighbourhood assets in the local commodity exchange. This would instil in all the proprietary attitude of a responsible homeowner and eliminate attitudes that lead to vandalism, graffiti and looting during disasters and emergencies. Australia, witnessing Hitler come to power in a democratic election with low voter turnout, instituted a law requiring citizens to vote by law. Anybody who decides not to vote in a general election is subject to a one hundred dollar fine. Similarly, the UCS, witnessing the extremes of wealth and poverty of today, might well institute a similar minimum ownership requirement of its citizens. Any resident owning fewer shares than he should must pay high enough fines to make non-involvement uneconomical. Since shares are virtual, residents who move into another community can easily transfer their minimum shares to the new local commodity exchange from their former neighbourhood, without penalty.