AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Sunday, 30 July 2017

LEONARDO'S DRAWINGS AT WINDSOR CASTLE

Well, I'm Italian and reside in Great Britain, but I can't fathom why some of Leonardo da Vinci's greatest drawings reside in Great Britain too, at Windsor Castle to be precise. The key to Leonardo's genius lies in his notebooks, where he unravelled the secrets of anatomy, engineering, art – life itself. But one mystery has never been solved: how did his greatest drawings get from Italy to Windsor Castle – and at one of the bloodiest periods in English history? Were they smuggled in by King Charles I? Or the court painter Peter Paul Rubens? Art critic Jonathan Jones thinks he's finally cracked it...
Leonardo's Notebooks
For centuries, this object lay forgotten in the dark. War and fire raged all around it, and should have destroyed it. But it survived, and kept its precious cargo safe until one day it returned to the light. From that moment it was doomed.

This empty volume is a clue to the mystery I'm here to solve. The jewel of the British Royal Collection is a collection of 600 or so sheets of drawings and notes by Leonardo da Vinci. They constitute the greatest work of art in Britain – no debate. They star in every Leonardo exhibition around the world. But no one actually knows – least of all the Royal Collection, which would love to – how they got here in the first place. There is no record of the drawings' owner for most of the 1600s, before the first mention of them in the Royal collection in 1690 – after which they vanished again until their discovery in a chest, in the reign of George III.

Turning away from the husk of an album for now, I look at the drawings in Perspex mounts on what resemble big music-stands all along the desk. I have been looking all day through boxes of these sheets of ancient blue, red, and cream-coloured paper, manufactured in Italy in the 15th and early 16th centuries, that once lay secure inside that empty binding. At one point I accidentally held a blue sheet so the light was behind it and for a moment its desperate fragility became obvious. The design vanished and what remained was like a moth's wing - desiccated, webbed, strengthless.
The sheet of notes on the stand is, however, incredibly well-preserved, in ink whose crisp decisiveness communicates scientific authority. In the largest and most iconic drawing on the sheet, two halves of a womb have been pulled back to reveal a human foetus, legs folded up, big bald ball of a head turned downwards, face hidden behind a perfect hand resting on a perfect knee. It looks as if it is only sleeping, so respectfully has Leonardo drawn what is both a scientific illustration, and so much more. He cut the dead mother's womb open to expose the foetus within but, as he takes up his pen, the scientist becomes the artist. You share his feeling of humility and awe at the spectacle of humanity's beginnings: the infinite possibility. He marvels at the big feet, the perfect ear, and, most of all, the shining dome of the skull, containing the germ of nature's supreme marvel, a human mind.

Other images surround this drawing, including studies of the vascular walls of the uterus that mistakenly give it interlacing blobs called cotyledons, like those Leonardo had observed in a cow. Then there is the handwriting that, famously, flows in the opposite direction from most people's. An early set of reproductions of his anatomical drawings, engraved in 1796 soon after their rediscovery, renders this script as a blur. Nowadays, every word has been deciphered by scholars. On one of the sheets at Windsor, Leonardo makes clear from what gory solitude his study of the foetus was born: he remembers "passing the night hours in the company of these corpses, quartered and flayed, and horrible to behold".

What a man called Mr Dalton found at the bottom of a chest in a royal palace one day in the 18th century was, quite simply, the greatest collection of evidence of Leonardo da Vinci's genius that survives – or at least that is known to survive. Everyone knows Leonardo left notebooks that massively amplify his small corpus of paintings. It is in his notebooks, scattered in museums and libraries across Europe, that his designs for inventions, scientific researches, plans for unfinished works, caricatures, landscapes, maps, emblems, architectural designs, and iconic images such as Vitruvian Man, are to be found. What is less well-known is that the collection of his drawings and notes at Windsor Castle is far and away the best of all.

I'm not sure why this isn't more often acknowledged. Perhaps republicanism makes us want to talk up notebooks in public collections; perhaps internationalism makes us want to praise Italy's Codice Atlantico. More pathetically, deference to Bill Gates leads experts to collaborate in talking up the Codex Leicester, which he owns. Obviously, every letter of every word, every nuance of shading, from the hand of Leonardo is precious. But much of Italy's Codice Atlantico is concerned with abstruse problems; many pages have no drawings or only tiny ones. The same goes for the Codex Arundel, held in the British Library. By contrast, the album at Windsor combines Leonardo's greatest scientific research – his anatomies – with an abundance of artistic designs. It is the perfect Leonardo museum, bound in a book – or it was bound in a book, until its images were mounted and displayed by curators at the Royal Collection.

Leonardo drawing of woman's face

The Mona Lisa and the handful of Leonardo's other surviving paintings are like a mask he wore. They are wonderful performances that play on our deepest psychological responses. Leonardo anticipated the surrealists in using raw psychic material in his art, as he explains in a note in the Vatican that recommends staring at a wall until you see images of mountains and battles. Yet they are not what he considered the core of his life's work. When Vasari and Sigmund Freud wrote about Leonardo, they wondered why he failed to finish paintings. The answer is that he was less interested in commissioned works than in his own quest to understand nature and humanity. It's in his manuscripts – more like scientific notes than the drawings of other artists – that you find the record of this.

This is a detective story about art and war in the bloodiest period of British history. In the 17th century, Charles I was beheaded after causing a civil war that killed multitudes of his people. Somehow, while all those people were dying, the most precious and delicate relics of the Italian Renaissance – these drawings and notes – came to Britain.

I may not be a Harvard professor of religious symbology or know much about the bloodline of the Magdalene, but I do enjoy a mystery and so I set out to solve this one. And I succeeded. Final proof is elusive, always, but in this case the circumstantial evidence is so overwhelming, I think I've got my man. I know who brought Leonardo's greatest drawings to Britain.

The hunt begins in Milan, where in June this year big screens were being set up in front of the cascading gothic cathedral for people to watch one of Italy's first World Cup games. In the nearby Ambrosiana museum and library, which holds the Codice Atlantico, is an inscription engraved in marble that makes an amazing claim: that, in the 17th century, Count Arconati, who gave the Codex to this library, fought off a bid of £1,000 from the English king – "ANGLIAE REX" – to keep them in Italy.

It was in Milan that Leonardo first started to make notes about everything. Born in 1452 in Tuscany, educated as an artist in Florence, he seems to have rebelled against the life of a jobbing painter and came to Milan hoping its ambitious ruler Ludovico Sforza would pay him to think. In Florence, he left the unfinished Adoration of the Magi, a painting that tries to be about everything – architecture, history, nature. Its teeming images of horses, battles and a staircase to nowhere strain to understand the world in a way that exceeds what others expected of art.

This boundless curiosity is there in the pages and pages of notes he wrote until the end of his life, at Amboise in the Loire Vallery in 1519, where he had moved to be painter to the French king. Leonardo's will shows his great anxiety about the posthumous fate of his illustrated writings. He never published a word, but even so believed he was writing books. He left his notebooks to his favourite pupil, Francesco Melzi, a Milanese of noble birth: Melzi is to inherit, says the will, "each and every one of the books, which the Testator now possesses".

Melzi took the books and unbound papers back to his own city, Milan, and did his best to organise them. He showed them to interested people such as the art chronicler Vasari, and laboured to produce at least one workable book manuscript from Leonardo's notes: a Treatise on Painting, whose manuscript is now in the Vatican. A version of this was published in France in 1651. But, by then, Melzi was long dead, and Leonardo's notebooks were on their complicated journey around Europe.

Melzi's heirs in Milan did not understand the peculiar documents they had inherited; they let the notes rot, allowed visitors to take them away wholesale. Eventually, the Italian sculptor Pompeo Leoni got his hands on huge quantities of Leonardo's drawings and notes, and bound them into leather volumes.
Leonardo's anatomical drawings
By 1690, the most significant of Leoni's albums was in the hands of the British monarchy. How did such a precious volume get to Britain without being noticed? Why wasn't its arrival recorded? How did it survive? And the underlying mystery – why were the puritanical British, whose island was regarded by Renaissance Italians as an obscure barbarian land, even interested in it?

The answer to that last question is not hard to find in London. On Whitehall is the last surviving part of Whitehall PalaceInigo Jones' towering classical box of a Banqueting Hall with ceiling frescoes by Peter Paul Rubens. This and other surviving islands of Baroque London are proof enough that the British court was acutely interested in art and architecture in the early 17th century. Charles I imported the Catholic splendour of the Baroque to Britain – he was portrayed in marble by the Pope's personal artist Bernini, and employed court artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck, as well as the Italians Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio.

When Charles was still prince, he visited Madrid in a daring undercover mission to make a political marriage. He didn't get married in the end, but he did see a lot of art, and cheekily asked for Titians as presents. It's surprising how political this all is, four centuries on. Royalists make such a fuss about Charles as a tasteful, sensitive soul – ignoring evidence that he was a stupid, dogmatic, inadequate man who brought his people to civil war; a backlash against him was inevitable. Jerry Brotton's book The Sale of the Late King's Goods (2007) sees Charles I's art collecting far more sceptically, as a story of deals and negotiations with no love at its heart. Maybe. But as far as I can see, from looking at paintings such as Moses in the Bulrushes by Orazio Gentileschi, and still more at his daughter Artemisia's Self-Portrait as the Muse of Painting, Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria presided over a court that rivalled the artistic excellence of continental capitals. The London of Charles I was becoming more civilised, in a European Catholic way.

Upon his accession in 1625, one of King Charles I's very first acts was to swap a portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein for a painting that belonged to the French king – Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist, today in the Louvre. Bare-shouldered with an enigmatic smile, pointing up at heaven – in fact his vertical finger caresses a cross so dark you don't immediately see it in the shadows – Leonardo's Baptist seems more profane than sacred. To the Protestants responsible for the fate of Charles' art collection after his beheading, its sexual quality can only have added to its repellent papism. It was sold abroad and ended up back in the French royal collection.
Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo
What happened, in the brutal 17th century, to bring Pompeo Leoni's Leonardo album to London? In the Pizza Express on Windsor High Street, the Royal Collection's dapperly dressed Leonardo expert, Martin Clayton, shares his hunch – just a hunch, he insists – that, who knows, maybe Charles I himself grabbed the album on his youthful adventure to Madrid. Nice hunch. But when I mention it later to Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford, he jokes that Clayton is a "courtier", predisposed to find evidence of royal good taste.

I go to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to follow up another lead: Thomas Howard, Second Earl of Arundel and Charles I's most knowledgeable adviser on art. I've read a slightly breathless tribute to Arundel, claiming he knew more about Italy than any Englishman before him. I've come here to see if that's even slightly plausible. The Ashmolean owns many Greek and Roman sculptures from Arundel's collection, and it's obvious looking at them that he was no mere aristocratic snaffler. He excavated sculpture himself in Rome and obtained, at what must have been huge expense and effort, authentic examples of Greek art from Asia Minor.

Arundel collected drawings, too. He had so many drawings that a purpose-built room had to be created for them in his mansion on the Strand. When he was living in exile in Italy at the end of his life, he told the diarist John Evelyn the true story behind the plaque in the Ambrosiana library in Milan. It was not really the king, he explained, but he, Arundel, who had tried to buy the Codex Atlanticus. The king had given permission to use his name. Now, he said, he could see his "folly" – the Codex wasn't worth the £1,000 he had offered. But how did he know this? I think the truth is, he had seen better. He had seen the Leoni album that was to end up in the Royal Collection.
During the civil war, when Arundel was living in exile, the Bohemian artist Wenceslas Hollar published engravings of Leonardo's drawings. The engravings depict the very Leonardos now at Windsor. Only a couple have a credit saying they come from the Arundel collection – but it would be a fair assumption that if Arundel had one drawing, he had them all: by this time, all 600 or so drawings were bound in Leoni's single album. There are two possibilities here: either Arundel had bought Leoni's album himself in Madrid; or Charles I had imported it, and it came into Arundel's hands during the civil war.

Either way, what is clear is that the album had reached court circles before the death of Charles I. So do we owe its provenance to the brilliant collecting instincts of these two men? I don't think so. Arundel and Charles were intense, but narrow, men. They were interested, informed, even passionate when it came to art – but they weren't geniuses. And the acquisition of the world's best collection of Leonardo notes and drawings points to a collecting genius.

In 1629, someone came to the court of Charles I who understood Leonardo da Vinci better than anyone. I first saw the clue to my man's identity in a portrait of Arundel in the National Gallery in London. It's a very loving portrait. The artist obviously admires and likes Thomas Howard, seeing in him not merely a powerful courtier but a friend. Did I say the clue was in the painting? The clue is the painting.

It is one of several portraits of Arundel by his friend, the artist, diplomat, courtier and scholar Peter Paul Rubens. Born in Germany to an Antwerp family, getting his higher education in an extended trip to Italy, Rubens became the greatest of all Baroque painters. He is a supreme court artist who proves what every courtier, and perhaps every intellectual wants to believe – that erudition and style can transmute into genius. No one can dispute Rubens' genius even if it is a system of quotations, a supercharged commentary on Caravaggio and Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael and – obsessively – Leonardo.
The Battle of Anghiari by Rubens (after Leonardo)
Rubens was particularly transfixed by the legend of Leonardo's lost, painting The Battle of Anghiari. He got his hands on a 16th-century drawing of this vanished painting, adding his own swirling horses' manes and bulging eyes. It haunts his lion hunts, battles, conversions of St Paul, every horse and monster he ever painted. Where did Rubens learn enough about Leonardo to be able to convincingly reimagine a lost work by him?

There is a drawing in the Royal Collection in which, in preparation for his battle painting, Leonardo portrays horses' faces in frenzy. Teeth champ, eyes bulge. Of all the drawings by Leonardo that survive, this is the closest in spirit to Rubens' drawing of The Battle of Anghiari. Rubens knew the drawing, and he therefore knew the Leoni album. We have to go back to that crucial fact: all the drawings were by now in a single album. To know one was to know them all. When Rubens came to London, his mission was to make peace between the Spanish and the English courts. What better way to charm Charles I than pointing him to a truly unique treasure? It was Rubens who pointed the king and Arundel towards the Leonardo he loved himself - the expression and movement you encounter in the drawings at Windsor, from his designs for The Last Supper to his monstrous caricatures. When, in a book-lined study in Oxford, I mention Rubens to Kemp, he gets quite excited. Follow up the Rubens lead, suggests Kemp, my Deep Throat, and you won't go far wrong.

Rubens left the English court in 1630. In Antwerp, he reworked one of his greatest paintings, a river landscape that is a fantastical version of the Thames running through a dreamlike England. In this landscape Rubens sets the story of Saint George and the Dragon. The holy knight George is personified by Charles I; the damsel he rescues is Queen Henrietta Maria. Rubens had started it during his visit to London, but later added horrific details – half-eaten corpses, the dragon's victims.

The body nearest to us lies on its front. The skin has been removed, either by the dragon's fiery breath or the process of decay. The man's flayed arms reveal their inner structure: muscles and tendons laid bare. On the torso you can see vertebrae, ribs, internal organs. He might have been dissected. I think these corpses allude directly to the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. The flayed corpses surround Saint George just as Leonardo's anatomical drawings surrounded Charles and his circle in life, on the advice of Rubens.
Saint George and the Dragon by Rubens
A detective story usually starts with the corpse. In this case, it is the final clue that links Peter Paul Rubens, the British monarchy, and the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. It tells us how his masterpiece got here.

Drawn to a conclusion: the incredible journey of Leonardo's art

1519 Leonardo da Vinci dies at Amboise in France. Leaves his notebooks to his favourite pupil, Francesco Melzi, who takes them to Milan

1566 Melzi shows Leonardo's anatomical drawings to art historian Giorgio Vasari

1590s Many of Leonardo's papers come into the possession of Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor from Arrezzo; he binds them into albums and later takes them to Madrid

1600-1608 Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens lives and works in Italy, studying the art of Leonardo and other Renaissance masters

1603 Rubens' first trip to the Spanish court in Madrid

1610 Leoni dies in Madrid. Several volumes of Leonardo's drawings and notes remain there

1623 Prince Charles visits Madrid, travelling incognito, and tries to obtain paintings by Titian as gifts

1625 Accession of Charles I to the throne. Swaps Holbein portrait of Erasmus with the King of France for Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist

1629-30 Rubens visits British court as peace ambassador from Spain. Begins work on Landscape with Saint George and the Dragon. Knighted by Charles I

1634 Rubens finishes canvases for Banqueting House, London

1639 Charles disastrously appoints the aesthete Earl of Arundel as commander of his army against Scottish rebels

1640 Death of Rubens

1642 War breaks out between King and parliament. Arundel flees abroad. Wenceslas Hollar engraves Leonardo drawings apparently owned by Arundel

1646 Death of Arundel in Italy

1649 Execution of Charles I. Much of his art collection sold, including Leonardo's Saint John, now at the Louvre

1690 Dutch artist Constantine Huyghens sees Leonardo da Vinci album at Kensington Palace

1760 Reign of George III begins. Pompeo Leoni's album is discovered in a chest in the royal household

1930 By this date all drawings from the Leoni volume are removed to be conserved and displayed.
Leonardo's anatomical drawings
Leonardo's Notebooks

Friday, 28 July 2017

HOW TO BE AN ATHEIST

I've always thought religion is bad for you, religions are a mind-constriction, and only create frustration and castration — on this I certainly agree with the likes of Christopher Hitchens (R.I.P.), Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, et al

However, on the existence of God and/or the beginning of the Universe... well, that's another matter.
There are no certainties, nobody can assert with absoluteness the existence or non-existence of someone/something that has no physical correspondence in "reality". We cannot prove with certainty that the Big Bang occurred and was the actual spark originating the Universe and, besides, this heory has  become one of the liveliest areas in the discourse between science and religion, one side affirming that the Big Bang implies a creator (some see its mention in their holy books!) while the other argues that Big Bang cosmology makes the notion of a creator superfluous.


With this said, leaving aside any philosophical speculation on proving God's existence, lets hear the other side — the atheistic side, on a light note though... otherwise I'll get a headache 🙎

💮
First comes Austin Cline, from ThoughtCo (Humanities: Religion & Spirituality). He has been actively involved in educating people about atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism on the Internet for over 15 years.Austin Cline was a Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism and a former Publicity Coordinator for the Campus Freethought Alliance. Austin has also lectured on religion, religious violence, science, and skepticism. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts from Princeton University. He also studied for one year each at the University of Zurich and the Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich, Germany. In America, Germany, and Switzerland, Austin has studied both religion and philosophy.He says that both atheism and agnosticism are neglected in popular culture, despite the popularity of recent books by atheists. When was the last time you saw an openly atheist politician, an article on atheism in a major periodical, or anyone discussing secular humanism as a serious alternative to religion?
So, here he goes...
DO YOU WANT TO BE AN ATHEIST?

So, do you want to be an atheist? Do you really want to be able to call yourself an atheist instead of a theist? If so, then this is the place to come: here you can learn the simple and easy procedure for becoming an atheist. If you read this advice, you'll learn what it takes to be an atheist and thus perhaps if you also have what it takes to be an atheist. Few people seem to understand what being an atheist is all about and thus what becoming an atheist entails.

It isn't that hard, though.

Here are the steps necessary to become an atheist:

Step One: don't believe in any gods.

That's it, there are no steps two, three, or four. All you have to do is not believe in the existence of any gods. None of the following are steps in becoming an atheist:
There are lots of things which people imagine are part of being an atheist, but definitely aren't. Atheism is nothing more or less than the absence of belief in gods. There are only two options available for everyone: either a belief in the existence of some sort of god is present, or no such belief is present.

That exhausts all the logical possibilities. This means that everyone is either a theist or an atheist. There is no "middle ground" where a belief in the existence of some god is a "little bit" there or a "little bit" absent. It's either there or its not.

How you arrive at not believing in any gods may be difficult and will certainly vary from person to person.

For many people, religion and theism have played such central roles in their lives and families that abandoning these things may appear impossible. It may require a great deal of study, research, and contemplation. Many people don't have the time or inclination. Others may be afraid of what they could find if they start.

What you do after you arrive at not believing in any gods may also be difficult, especially if you are surrounded by religion and theistic belief. You don't have to do anything more to be an atheist, but this doesn't mean that there is nothing at all left to do. You will have to decide whether you inform others about this and, if so, how you present it. Many people may start treating you differently simply because you don't believe in their gods anymore. You may have to be concerned about whether knowledge of your atheism will lead to discrimination against you at work, for example.

Being an atheist is easy — all that it requires is not believing in any gods. Existing as an atheist, though, isn’t always easy because so many people think so poorly of atheists. In more secular societies where lots of people are atheists, existing as an atheist will be easier because there is less pressure telling them that being an atheist is immoral, unpatriotic, or dangerous.

In more religious societies, the increased pressure will make existing as an atheist very difficult for some.

He then continues (on another page)...

WHAT ATHEISM IS
by Austin Cline

Atheism is the Absence of Belief in Gods: The broad, simple definition of atheism is simply the absence of belief in gods; atheism is not the absence of beliefs generally. Normally called "weak atheism," this definition is attested to in most comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries, and specialized references.

Disbelief in gods is not the not the same as a belief or as the denial of gods. The lack of a belief isn't the same as having a belief and not believing something is true isn't the same as believing it is not true.

This broad definition of atheism was used by early freethinkers and continues to be used by most contemporary atheist writers. It is also the definition of atheism used consistently throughout this site. Atheists use this broad definition not simply because it's what we find in dictionaries, but because the broad definition is superior. The broad definition helps describe a broader range of possible positions among both atheists and theists. It also underscores the fact that theists are the one making an initial claim. The narrow definition of atheism as denying the existence of gods or asserting that no gods exist is really only relevant in specialized contexts, like philosophical literature.

What it Takes to Be an Atheist: Not much — no faith, no commitments, no declarations. An atheist does need to be godless, though godlessness isn't quite the same as atheism. Not everyone recognizes that there are significant differences among atheists, not just in questions about religion and theism but also in political philosophies and all major political issues.

Why Don't Atheists Believe in God? There are lots of reasons why an atheist might not believe in any gods. There is no one reason for atheism and no one path to atheism. Broadly speaking, though, atheists just don't see any reason to bother believing in any gods.

WHAT ATHEISM IS NOT

Atheism is Not a Religion or Ideology: You can tell when people are getting this wrong because they incorrectly capitalize atheism and atheist in the middle of sentences as if it were a proper noun like Christianity or Muslim. It's not! Atheism isn't any sort of belief, which means that it can't be a belief system, which in turn means it can't possibly be a religion on its own.

Atheism is Not an Absence of Religion: Some atheists make the opposite mistake, thinking that atheism is an absence of religion. As noted above, atheism is simply the absence of gods, not an absence of religion. Atheists can be religious and there are atheistic religions. This is because theism isn't the same as religion.

Atheism and Agnosticism are Not Mutually Exclusive: Many if not most atheists you encounter will also be agnostics; so are some theists. Atheism and agnosticism are about related by separate issues: belief and knowledge (specifically, the lack thereof).

Disbelief in Gods Isn't Another Belief: Many people have the mistaken idea that disbelief in gods is still just another belief. This misconception can be eliminated through a better understanding of the basic terms of debate: belief, knowledge, disbelief, faith, and denial.

Atheism is Not the Same as Communism: You can support communist or socialist politics while being a theist and you can be an atheist who is staunchly opposed to anything and everything even remotely socialistic, never mind communist.

Atheism is Not the Same as Nihilism or Cynicism: Atheists can hold many different philosophies (including nihilism) or attitudes (like cynicism) but they aren't required to hold either of those.

Atheism is Not a Choice or Act of Will: Christianity requires that beliefs be choices in order to treat disbelief as a sin and as deserving punishment, but voluntarism of beliefs makes little sense.

It's more reasonable to view beliefs as forced conclusions from the evidence before us.

Atheism is Not the Cause of Millions of Deaths: The extreme death and destruction caused by theistic religion have led some believers to try to argue that atheism is worse, but while some atheistic philosophies can inspire violence, atheism itself has never done so.

MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM

There Are Atheists in Foxholes: Not only is it false that life-threatening experiences magically transform atheists into theists, it's easy to find examples of where such experiences cause theists to become atheists.

Atheism Does Not Require Faith: You don't need any sort of "faith" to disbelieve in gods, just as you don't need faith to disbelieve in elves or Darth Vader.

Atheism Does Not Require Omniscience: You don't need to search the contents of the entire universe to have good reason to disbelieve in or even deny the existence of gods

Atheism is Not Incompatible with Morality: There is nothing about morality and ethics which requires the existence of or belief in gods. Secular atheists have no more trouble behaving morally than do religious theists.

Atheists Can Have Meaningful, Loving Lives: No matter how important belief in a god or following a religion may be to believers, secular atheists have no problem living good, meaningful lives without any of that.
Second comes Staks Rosch, a very vocal atheist, humanist, progressive, and Jedi. He is a Philadelphia based writer and a vocal advocate for Humanism, atheism, and reason. He serves as the head of The Philadelphia Coalition of Reason (PhillyCoR) and writes the Dangerous Talk blog on the Skeptic Ink Network and is a freelance writer for Publishers Weekly. He has a Master's Degree in Philosophy from West Chester University and is a stay at home dad.

Here's what he says...
5 Pretty Good Reasons to Be an Atheist

by Staks Rosch (huffingtonpost.com)

People love lists. Am I right? So here is a list of five pretty good reasons why you should be an atheist. Now I know I am not going to convince everyone with this list because god-belief has been indoctrinated into our society for a long time and most people have been raised to believe in some deity or another since before they could walk. But here are five reasons you might want to think about that might cause you to rethink your deeply held faith-based convictions and become an atheist.

1. The Bible is ridiculous.

Have you read the Bible? I mean really read it and not just flip around to the pages that your religious leader told you to or watched some mini-series on television telling you their version of the stories. I don’t know why, but those shows always leave out the best parts. Where are the zombies? When Jesus is crucified on the cross the Bible says that there were earthquakes and zombies (Matthew 27:50-53). What television producer in their right mind would leave out the most interesting part of the story? The thing is that the Bible is filled with this stuff like when God sent two bears to maul 42 children for calling a guy, “bald” (2 Kings 2:23-24).

Unfortunately, aside from the surprisingly large number of hilariously ridiculous stories like these, the Bible is pretty boring and that is probably why so few religious believers have ever actually read it. Let me just say this: There is a reason why the Bible is the most recommended book by atheists. That reason is because it is boredom peppered with ridiculousness.

2. We don’t need no stinkin’ deities.

Ever since the enlightenment, religions have been fighting a losing battle against science. God has moved more and more to the gaps of human understanding. There was a time when if humanity didn’t know the answer to one of life’s questions, then God was that answer. That time apparently is still the present but fortunately, science is learning more and more answers. Interestingly enough, God seems to be the answer to less and less questions.

Evolution has explained human origin and the Big Bang explains the origin of the universe. So what role did God play? As we learn more about evolution and the universe, God’s role will no doubt get even more marginalized. The fact is that there really is no role for a deity to play at all. We can just factor out the deity and come up with the same scientific answers.

3. The Problem of Evil
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
— Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.)
Epicurus asked those questions a long time ago and we have yet to hear a valid response from religious leaders. My alleged “Free Will” doesn’t cause hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, nor does God’s alleged “justice” justify any of the horrible suffering and death that people face around the world on a daily basis.

One doesn’t have to go to Africa to see children starving needlessly. Did those kids offend God in some way? Perhaps those kids need to suffer horribly and die to teach us something important. That truly is egotistical, isn’t it? What about all the people who have cancer? Does God have his reasons for torturing them? I would very much like to know what those reasons could possibly be. The Problem of Evil continues to be a pretty good reason to be an atheist.

4. Oh, Hell!

The concept of Hell is probably one of the most disturbing religious ideas ever conceived by man. It was great to strike fear in the hearts of evil doers back in the day, but today our morality has evolved quite a bit. We no longer view women as property nor do we consider slavery a valid business model. Most people recognize that torture is wrong and yet we are expected to believe that some deity will torture us for all eternity if we don’t believe he exists on insufficient evidence?

Many Christians in the 21st century have woken up to the fact that the concept of Hell is barbaric and these Christians, to their credit, don’t believe in the concept of Hell. That’s a great start. But Heaven is kind of Hell too when you think about it. That is especially the case if not everyone goes to Heaven and those who do have to live out eternity knowing that their loved ones are being eternally tortured. But assuming we all do go to Heaven regardless of our beliefs or lack of beliefs, than what do you do in Heaven? From what I understand, you sit around worshiping God for all eternity sometimes with a set number of virgins. I don’t know about you, but eternity seems like a pretty long time to me and worshiping some deity doesn’t sound like much fun, especially after all the virgins are gone.

5. You just don’t know.

Let’s face reality here for a moment. There is no valid evidence for any deities. If there were valid and compelling evidence, then we would all be on the same page. There wouldn’t be a million sects of each religion and there wouldn’t be a million different religions. There would be one sect of one religion and God would make his presence known to us in a way that was so obvious that it couldn’t be disputed. We would be able to see him, hear him, smell him, touch him, etc. There would be no atheists because we would have no choice but to believe. After all, he’s God and he could do that kind of thing. No, that doesn’t affect our alleged “Free Will.” I know that Kim Jong-Un exists, but you don’t see me worshiping him.

The fact is that we are all agnostics. We don’t know whether any deities exist. There is no evidence for the existence of any deities. There is no good reason to believe that any deities actually exist. So without any valid reason to believe that any deities exist, I don’t believe any deities exist. You shouldn’t either. Because we are agnostic, we should also be atheists.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

HEY, WHERE'S MY ALGORITHM?

“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, Homo Deus. “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci
Below, Yuval Harari discusses the attempt to upgrade humans into gods and explains why 'Data Religion' may conquer the world, plus you can read an extract from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow just for the fun of it (so to speak). Further down is an exclusive interview with Yuval about his earlier book, Sapiens, in which he discusses how science is increasingly able to address fundamental questions about our existence, why national identity has little practical meaning any more and why technology is on the verge of replacing Christianity, Islam and the other major faiths as our primary religion.

© 2017 W&G Foyle Ltd


A word from professor Yuval Noah Harari

During the twentieth century humankind has done the impossible and turned famine, plague and war from uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. Today more people die from obesity than from starvation; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed in war. The average Briton is a thousand times more likely to die from eating too much at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda? Humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divine powers of creation. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and to turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

This isn’t science fiction. The pursuit of immortality, happiness and divinity has already begun. It is taking place around us every day, in countless laboratories, factories and supermarkets. In 2013 Google established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is 'to solve death'. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In a January 2015 interview Maris said 'If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes'. Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. Using a football analogy, Maris explained that in the fight against death, 'We aren’t trying to gain a few yards; we are trying to win the game'.

The pursuit of immortality, happiness and divinity is currently undertaken for the benefit of humankind; however, it is questionable whether it will benefit all humans to the same degree. While immortality is now in – equality is out. Breakthroughs in biotechnology, nanotechnology and computer science might consequently create unparalleled gaps between rich and poor, and even split humankind into different biological castes. True, in the twentieth century most medical breakthroughs that began with the rich eventually trickled down to the general population. Yet what happened in the twentieth century may not repeat itself in the twenty-first century, for two important reasons.

First, medicine is undergoing a conceptual revolution. Whereas twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick, twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy. And whereas healing the sick is an egalitarian project aiming to give everyone the same universal standard of health, upgrading the healthy is an elitist project seeking to give some individuals an edge over others.

Second, twentieth-century medicine benefited the masses because they were useful. Twentieth-century armies needed millions of healthy soldiers, and the economy needed millions of healthy workers. The British or Japanese elite in 1914 had an interest in vaccinating the poor and building hospitals and sewage systems in the slums, because if Britain or Japan wanted to be a great power, it needed the slum-dwellers as soldiers and workers. But the age of the masses may be over, and with it the age of mass medicine. As computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, most humans might become militarily and economically useless. Hi-tech forces 'manned' by pilotless drones and cyber-worms are replacing the mass-recruitment armies of the twentieth century. Some studies indicate that within 20 to 30 years, up to 50% of jobs in the civilian economy will be automated. Under such conditions, at least some elites may conclude that there is no point in providing improved or even standard conditions of health for the new 'useless class', and that it is far more sensible to focus on upgrading a handful of superhumans beyond the norm.

The new technologies might do more than just split humanity into biological castes and consign most humans to the burgeoning 'useless class'. They may in fact topple humanity from its dominant position altogether. Whereas in the modern era authority gradually shifted from gods to humans, in the twenty-first century authority might shift again from humans to algorithms.

Today the world is still dominated by the humanist world view, which tells us that human beings have some magical spark called 'free will', and that our inner feelings are the ultimate source of all authority. Since no-one can understand my feelings and my choices, no-one should have the authority to make decisions for me. We shouldn’t listen to God, to Holy Scriptures or to Big Brother: we should rather listen to our feelings, follow our heart, and heed our own inner voice. In politics we believe that the voter knows best. In economics we maintain that the customer is always right. Humanist art thinks that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; humanist education teaches us to think for ourselves; and humanist ethics advises us that if something feels good, we should go ahead and do it.

Yet more and more scientists and entrepreneurs now argue that free will is a myth, and that given enough biometric data and enough computing power you could hack humanity and create an external algorithm that will understand us humans much better than we understand ourselves. If and when this happens, authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms, and humanist practices such as democratic elections and free markets will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.
Think of Amazon’s Kindle, for example. It can monitor which books you read fast, and which slow; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kindle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it can know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It can know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press each and every one of your emotional buttons.

As humanism declines its place will be taken by a revolutionary new religion, which emerges not from the Middle East but from Silicon Valley, and which preaches salvation through algorithms rather than through divine grace. This 'Data Religion' believes that the entire universe is a flow of data and that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system – and then merge into it. Like many previous creeds this Data Religion may well be a dangerous error. But like previous myths it may nevertheless conquer the world.

~ * ~

Professor Yuval Harari

...And now an extract from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The Modern Covenant

Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die. Very few of us can ever rescind or transcend this deal. It shapes our food, our jobs, and our dreams, and it decides where we dwell, whom we love, and how we pass away.

At first sight modernity looks like an extremely complicated deal, hence few try to understand what they have signed up for. Like when you download some software and are asked to sign an accompanying contract that consists of dozens of pages of legalese –you take one look at it, immediately scroll down to the last page, tick‘I agree’, and forget about it. Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Until modern times most cultures believed that humans played a part in some great cosmic plan. The plan was devised by the omnipotent gods or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power. Humans were much like actors on a stage. The script gave meaning to their every word, tear and gesture – but placed strict limits on their performance. Hamlet cannot murder Claudius in Act I, or leave Denmark and go to an ashram in India. Shakespeare won’t allow it. Similarly, humans cannot live forever, they cannot escape all diseases, and they cannot do as they please. It’s not in the script.

In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. It really mattered whether they fought bravely on the battlefield, whether they supported the lawful king, whether they ate forbidden foods for breakfast, or whether they had an affair with the next-door neighbour. This of course created some inconveniences, but it gave humans psychological protection against disasters. If something terrible happened – such as war, plague or drought – people consoled themselves that ‘We all play a role in some great cosmic drama devised by the gods or by the laws of nature. We are not privy to the script, but we can rest assured that everything happens for a purpose. Even this terrible war, plague and drought have their place in the greater scheme of things. Furthermore, we can count on the playwright that the storysurely has a good and meaningful ending. So even the war, plague and drought will work out for the best –if not here and now, then in the afterlife.’

Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.

Since there is no script, and since humans fulfil no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending, or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.

On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not confined to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want – provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning – but we can eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future – but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death – but we can create paradise here on earth and live in it forever, if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties.

If we invest money in research, then scientific breakthroughs will accelerate technological progress. New technologies will fuel economic growth, and a growing economy will dedicate even more money to research. With each passing decade we will enjoy more food, faster vehicles and better medicines. One day our knowledge will be so vast and our technology so advanced, that we shall distil the elixir of eternal youth, the elixir of true happiness, and any other drug we might possibly desire – and no god will stop us.

The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.

This chapter discusses the modern pursuit of power. The next chapter will examine how humankind has used its growing power to somehow sneak meaning back into the infinite emptiness of the cosmos. Yes, we moderns have promised to renounce meaning in exchange for power; but there’s nobody out there to hold us to our promise. We think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal without having to pay its price.

[...]
~ * ~
Here follows the interview with Yuval about his earlier book:


Sapiens, book coverYou've cited Jared Diamond - and in particular his Pulitzer Prize winner Guns, Germs and Steel - as an inspiration for the book. What advice did he offer you and what else made you want to tackle such a vast overview of humanity?
It wasn't an advice, but rather an example. When I began studying at university, I hoped that this will be the place where I can find some answers to the really big questions of life. But I was disappointed. The academic world encouraged me to focus on narrower and narrower questions, and gave me the impression that one cannot approach the big questions in a scientific way. Jared Diamond's book was a revelation. It showed me that it is possible to tackle the biggest questions of history and of human existence in a scientific way.
In writing Sapiens I tried to follow this example, and not only to dare ask very big questions about the human condition, but also to try and answer them scientifically. Questions such as whether there is justice in history, whether power ensures happiness, and what - if anything - makes humans different from other animals.
Much of our behaviour you accredit to genes developed before we settled into fixed communities. How would you address the suggestion that we are so much further developed that we can't really use genetics as a rational explanation for human behaviour?
Biology by itself cannot account for human behaviour. For human behaviour is also shaped by ideas, beliefs, stories and social structures, which cannot be explained in purely biological terms. It would be extremely foolish to look for a genetic explanation for the French Revolution. However, ignoring biology is also foolish. Humans are animals, and their physiology, their emotions and their cognition have been shaped by millions of years of evolution.
I think the relations between history and biology are somewhat like the relations between a football game and a stadium. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behavior and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena. However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games within it. Thanks to their amazing imagination, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical development of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sportscaster who, attending the World Cup championships, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field rather than an account of what the players are doing. On the other hand, a radio sportscaster who is unfamiliar with the boundaries and features of the playing field (e.g., the penalty area), will find it hard to make sense of the game.
As human beings trying to make sense of our place in the universe, would we need a replacement for religion should it be rejected? Are we compelled to ask why even when there isn't necessarily answer?
I think that religion is the most important human creation, and the key to our conquest of the world. As such, there is no danger that we will ever reject it. We are likely, however, to replace older religions with new ones.
But first, we should understand what religion is. Religion is not belief in gods. Rather, religion is any system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in superhuman laws. Religion tells us that we must obey certain laws that were not invented by humans, and that humans cannot change at will. Some religions, such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, believe that these super-human laws were created by the gods. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Communism and Nazism, believe that these super-human laws are natural laws. Thus Buddhists believe in the natural laws of karma, Nazis argued that their ideology reflected the laws of natural selection, and Communists believe that they follow the natural laws of economics.
No matter whether they believe in divine laws or in natural laws, all religions have exactly the same function: to give legitimacy to human norms and values, and to give stability to human institutions such as states and corporations. Without some kind of religion, it is simply impossible to maintain social order. During the modern era religions that believe in divine laws went into eclipse. But religions that believe in natural laws became ever more powerful. In the future, they are likely to become more powerful yet. Silicon Valley, for example, is today a hot-house of new techno-religions, that promise humankind paradise here on earth with the help of new technology.
You note that most of the scientific and technological progress being made today relies on international co-operation. Do you think that this may signal the beginning of the end for the nation state?
The tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries. Though citizens in Israel, Italy, Mexico or Thailand may harbor illusions of independence, the fact is that their governments cannot conduct independent economic or foreign policies, and they are certainly incapable of initiating and conducting full-scale war on their own.
States are increasingly open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and the international judicial system. States are obliged to conform to global standards of financial behavior, environmental policy, and justice. Immensely powerful currents of capital, labor, and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states. The appearance of essentially global problems, such as melting ice caps, nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation-states. No sovereign state will be able to overcome global warming on its own.
We are consequently witnessing the formation of a new global empire. The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers, and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.
One of the triumphs of post-war capitalism has been to put the acquisition of consumer products at the heart of all strata of society. Is this now a runaway philosophy that can only be diverted by a shortage of resources?
It is certainly a runaway philosophy. In a way, it is the most successful ethic in history. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. People were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.
In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions -- and buy more and more. This is the first ethic in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. And there is not much chance they will abandon it any time soon.
I don't think that it will be stopped by shortage of resources. Because in fact, over the last 200 years the resources available to humankind have been increasing all the time. We find new resources faster than we use-up the old ones. The real problem is not resource scarcity, but ecological degradation. The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.
You predict that humans will be able to use technology to upgrade themselves to a new species within perhaps a couple of centuries. Do you think this might offer a challenge to religious hegemony?
I think this will be the new religious hegemony. Upgrading humans is the aim of new techno-religions that begin to develop today in places like Silicon Valley. These techno-religions promise salvation, happiness and eternal life here on earth, with the help of technology. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other traditional religions are unlikely to survive such a transformation. But religion will not merely survive it - it will lead it.
In your conclusion, you state: 'Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.' Do you see anything that makes us capable as a species of addressing the extent of the suffering we cause?
Not at present. The dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human wellbeing (or animal wellbeing in general). There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the ones that enhance our wellbeing. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness and suffering of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage.






On Dr Yuval Harari and his two important books, also check my past entry: