I Will Not Be Told: Stephen Fry’s Speech at Harvard

Posted in culture on February 22nd, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

I just attended Stephen Fry‘s acceptance of the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, given by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

His speech was quite different than the one he gave for the Intelligence² Debate. The main theme tonight was “I will not be told.”

To be told is to wallow in revealed truths. Bibles and similar religious texts are all about revealed truths which cannot be questioned, and the origins of which require the readers to make many assumptions. And it was even worse in the dark times of religious book control and illiteracy in which you might not even be allowed to read the book—you have to get the mediated verbal account from someone supposedly holier than you.

Discovered truths, on the other hand, are not told. Of course somebody could tell you a discovered truth, but if you don’t trust them you can question it. Discovered truths can be discussed. They are questioned and tested.

Fry suggests humility before facts—reason or sounding reasonable is not enough. Back to question and test. And so on.

Stephen Fry then fumbled through a quick version of history to describe how the Greeks had some free inquiry and attempts to discover truth around 2000 years ago, but that was almost extinguished for 1500 years by the Christians. But not all hope was lost, and then the Enlightenment brought discovered truths back into action. Science kicked into gear, the United States was born, and so on.

***

Later on, Fry was discussing Oscar Wilde’s adventures—somewhat like the Beatles, Wilde was not well known in England and then burst onto the scene in America in large part just by being an interesting character. When somebody asked him how America, born from the greatest ideals of freedom and reason, could have disintegrated into the Civil War, Wilde responded that it’s because American wallpaper is ugly.

The concept is that violence breaks out when people have no self worth because, which in turn is assisted by ugly artificial habitats.

***

Stephen Fry says how he used to see posters of Che and Marx in college dorms mixed in which pictures of John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. People thought that revolutionary politics and rock music could change the world for the better. But they can’t. The posters he prefers to see on people’s dorm walls are Einstein and Oscar Wilde—the life of the mind instead. Fry then said something about the Oxford way to “play gracefully with ideas.”

***

Stephen Fry tells us (note this is not verbatim): “It’s not humanists’ job to tell religious people they are wrong. However,” and there is a pause as the crowd laughs, “it is none of their fucking business to impose their revealed truth on the wonderful world of doubt.”

Amidst anecdotes of Oscar Wilde, Fry repeatedly asserted his second theme, which is that humanists should not tell other people how to live. In fact, he accepted the award on the condition that the Humanist Chaplaincy would not try to convert religious people and smugly tell them they are wrong. It’s all about showing vs. telling.

As Fry so splendidly puts it: “You can tickle the minds of others, you can seduce the minds of others, but don’t try to own the minds of others.”

Epilogue

The high point of the question and answer session, which Fry compared to a KGB interrogation, was a serenade by a young lady with a ukulele, in which she offered the homosexual actor her baby-making apparatus in no uncertain terms.  “I have all the tools that you require to breed / So send along your seed.”

Molly the Ukelele Girl

Molly the Ukelele Girl

Update: I found the name of the Ukelele girl: Molly.  She also was playing humorous songs about Wikipedia and Facebook in the beginning before the introductions.  Looks like the Stephen Fry song was premeditated:





Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

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Dennett’s Future of Religion Part 2: Transformation

Posted in culture on November 14th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Just posted on my Science 2.0 blog:

Dennett’s Future of Religion Part 2: Transformation

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Daniel Dennett’s Super-Snopes and the Future of Religion

Posted in philosophy on October 12th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

“We’re all alone, no chaperone”
—Cole Porter

Despite his resemblance to Santa Claus, Daniel Dennett wants to disillusion the believers.  If we’re all adults, why can’t we reveal the truth that God(s), like Santa, are childish fantasies?

Earlier tonight I attended Dennett’s talk “What should replace religion?” at Tufts University, which was kindly hosted by the Tufts’ Freethought Society as part of their Freethought Week.

Atheist groups will have to compete with religion in the realm of social activities such as church services.  People won’t leave churches if they don’t have something else to give them the excitement, the music, the ecstasy, the group affiliation, the team building, the moral community, etc. that churches provide.  Many churches already contain atheists who go for all the other stuff besides the doctrine.  In fact, some of the preachers themselves do not believe the doctrine.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett @ Tufts, 11 Oct 2010

I won’t go over the entire talk, but I’d like to talk about the truth segment.  Dennett pointed out the various citizen science (although he didn’t use the term citizen science) projects going on, in which random people voluntarily collect or analyze data, such as for bird watching and galaxy classification and report that to central repositories.  But certain other data collection activities have gone down—the mundane types of things such as goings-on in a town.  Town newspapers are dying, and nobody is there to take notes in local affairs (such as education, politics, etc.).  And this lost data might be important, because it is oversight.

The Internet has democratized evidence gathering while also promoting the abuse of misinformation.  So, Dennett proposes, some organizations could start projects as preservers of truth—or perhaps a church replacement could convert lovers of God into lovers of truth.  But it wouldn’t be unconditional love of truth.  The privacy of your own thoughts, for instance, may contain truthful information, but it doesn’t necessarily have to become public.  A scientific (in a broad sense of the word) organization that loves truth would compete with religion’s typically “imperfect” handling of truth.

A serious project of truth preservation could become a sort of Super Snopes.  Snopes is the famous website which debunks and/or proves true various urban legends and the like.  When you get one of those emails such as certain bananas will eat your flesh, check it out on Snopes first before continuing the hoax chain.  Dennett doesn’t define Super Snopes in detail, just that this is a kind of project that would be like Snopes or Wikipedia on an even more massive scale.  And there could be similar or overlapping projects that operate on local scales—perhaps reinstating the town/neighborhood oversight that is now missing.

Of course, something this vague has a chance of happening in the future.  But how it happens could be, as usual, an imperfect evolution from what we have now.  Hopefully secular groups, as Dennett makes the call for, will try to architect and create these projects as soon as possible.

I speculate that the projects that end up working in the future as far as truth preservation will make use of software agents (autonomous programs).  For instance, if people are not interested in taking notes on every little issue in your town/city, especially the mundane ones, then a computer can do that.

Of course, one person’s boring task is another’s hobby.  Some people enjoy collecting the data that they contribute to a central database.  But some will be able to use software agents to act as their minions—the citizen truth gatherer becomes a node, in which they are a small local central repository, which then sends data to the next biggest node, and so on.

The truth needs to be available to people whenever they want.  So the other major part of the technical aspect will be the interfaces and filters that allow humans to digest information, and to choose what streams to digest.  Of course, various web technologies have been increasing this capability (of filtering and choosing streams) for the entire life of the Internet.

Here is my question: could a (or perhaps several) Super Snopes ever evolve beyond truth preservation into actual civilization preservation, for instance like Asimov’s fictional Foundations?

(Cross-posted with Science 2.0.)

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Atheism and Tango

Posted in meta on August 21st, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Although atheism is not the main theme of this blog, I figured other atheists might enjoy it.  So I joined the Atheist Blogroll (quote from Mojoey):

The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

(Photo credit: Henrik Schröder, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Also, I just stumbled upon this weird group on Facebook called “Tangoists.” They are atheists that have apparently replaced the ritualistic aspects of religion with Argentine tango.  The full description also mentions the needs of consolation and sensuality (I wonder, were people getting a lot of sensuality out of religion?) :

Tangoism – world view (Weltanschauung) based on scientific atheism with meeting the need for ritual, consolation and sensuality by means of argentine tango. Tangoism followers (tangoists) usually have their own conception of tangoism, however.

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