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Eden is an Illusion (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Eden is an Illusion (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published April 2, 2009
as Part of Issue CXCI of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 23, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CXCI of The Rational Argumentator on April 2, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 23, 2014
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Many Western and non-Western cultures alike are contaminated by a highly dangerous idea with destructive consequences – the idea of man’s “fall” from some “higher” state – an Eden, if you will. Different groups holding this idea give it different incarnations – but the implications are the same. The myth of the Fall is detrimental to human ambition, flourishing, and improvement; it stifles attempts to find creative solutions to the dreadful problems that have been plaguing humankind since its very beginnings. But beyond being destructive, the Eden myth is simply false. There never was a “better” state from which human beings have “descended.” We shall explore why the Fall is an illusion that ought to be abandoned.

The myth of the Fall is held by often mutually antagonistic groups, all of which pose considerable obstacles to the progress and flourishing of many individuals. On the one hand, fundamentalist religious conservatives see man as literally fallen from the Garden of Eden, where God had designed for him a “perfect” existence. I fail, of course, to see anything perfect about an existence where man had no technology, no love of learning, and no knowledge of good and evil. But this very existence is also embraced by people who claim to be on the opposite side of the political spectrum – radical left-wing environmentalists, who have their own vision of Eden.

Like the Eden of the religious conservatives, the Eden of the environmentalists involves no technology and no active, systematic progress of human knowledge and capacity. Rather, man’s “unity” with “Nature” is celebrated in this vision. According to the environmentalists, there was once a time – probably the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer days – when man existed in “harmony” with this strange entity called Nature, which seems to encompass everything other than man. Allegedly, humans did not disturb the “balance” of ecosystems and took good care of the Earth in those days – whatever that means. Alas, there was never such a balance to begin with. We shall see that both the religious and environmentalist visions of Eden are plainly wrong.

Life for early man – far from being blissful or even remotely enjoyable – was, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Life expectancy in the Paleolithic period was anywhere from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties. Food was continually in short supply, as there was no guarantee of plentiful game to hunt or berries to forage. And if a plentiful catch did occur, there were scant safeguards to prevent the food from spoiling. Predators and disease were rampant; sanitation and health care were non-existent. Without a scientific method, a person with even the best of intentions often ended up hurting one’s fellow human beings while intending to help them.

Every conceivable vice, social problem, weakness, and fallibility of human beings today has always existed throughout human history; the only difference is the magnitude of such problems, which were most certainly greater in prior eras. Without the benefits of technology, education, and the relative safety and comfort of our times, people were far more prone to engage in violent conflicts over resources and to allow emotional clashes to escalate into bloodshed. Rape, slavery, female subjugation, ceaseless wars, adultery, substance abuse, murder, theft, and other detestable conduct were more common then than now – as there were fewer alternatives to such conduct, and fewer disincentives from it. Every problem facing mankind has always existed in some form – due to hostile natural forces or the irrationality and stupidity of many humans. But the solutions to many of these problems could only come in the form of technological and societal progress – a departure from the non-Eden of the past.

The Eden myth in all of its incarnations originates from the rather strange notion that there is something written in the cosmic laws of nature that the default state of human beings is to be happy, comfortable, justly treated, and in “harmony” with their surroundings. There is no natural law which guarantees this or even tends toward it. The term “comfort” did not even acquire its present usage until the 17th century, and what the ancients meant by “happiness” differs dramatically from prevailing modern views. To suggest that human beings are guaranteed anything good by God, Nature, or what have you, has no evidential support; indeed, all the evidence speaks to the contrary. Humans are faced with millions of perils, injustices, and vulnerabilities. Survival is far from guaranteed, and people of merit and virtue rarely get the rewards they deserve. When natural disasters, political oppression, and disease strike, they rarely discriminate between the good and the evil. There is no natural justice, goodness, or equilibrium, and 99.9% of all species ever existing are now extinct. There is no special protection given to humans from the forces that wiped out many of their distant relatives.

The Eden myth suggests that there is natural guarantee of happiness and justice given to humans, but humans have chosen to stray from the origins of that guarantee – God, Nature, or an analogous reified entity. Therefore, humans suffer – but not because suffering is the default state, but rather because humans did something wrong in rejecting the bliss of the default state. The Eden myth might state that humans deserve lifelong suffering for the sins of Adam and Eve or their ancestors or post-Renaissance Western civilization – but it is in some ways much less grim than reality. The appeal of the Eden myth to many people is that it suggests the existence of an underlying balance and goodness about the world as such – implying that somehow, beneath all that nastiness, everything is fundamentally all right. It is not.

There is nothing to suggest any guarantees given human beings with regard to anything pertaining to their survival, happiness, or fulfillment. There is no cosmic justice and no cosmic “balance.” Rather, whatever justice people wish to obtain, they must create the conditions for. Human technologies, social systems, and esthetic and intellectual accomplishments erect a fortress of civilization which enables us to somewhat resist the onslaught of the elements. The fortress is currently quite shabbily built – with numerous gaping holes and inadequate structural support. Moreover, it is far from complete; indeed, even its foundations have not yet been completely laid. Humanity is still in a state of general barbarism – unable to even figure out ways to prevent individual humans from dying and to prevent human social and political systems from degenerating into either tyranny or chaos. But for all of our massive problems, our ancestors had it worse.

If we are to overcome the extremely genuine and massive threats to our existence coming from virtually all directions, it is essential not to take comfort in the demotivating illusions of a cosmic balance. The longing for a fictitious past bliss leads many to stifle the ambitions of some humans to create a better future. The advocates of the Eden myth seek to thwart the advocates of technological and societal progress – seeing them as taking humankind even further away from its original bliss. But only progress can help us avoid the gruesome destruction and oblivion that are currently in store for every single living individual, unless human ingenuity can enable us to pursue a better path – one which we must follow to push back the hostile aspects of nature and humankind alike and create a safer, happier, more prosperous existence.

Read more articles in Issue CXCI of The Rational Argumentator.

Incentives Matter… On the Margin (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Incentives Matter… On the Margin (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published January 10, 2010
as Part of Issue CCXXXI of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 22, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was previously published as part of Issue CCXXXI of The Rational Argumentator on January 10, 2010, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 22, 2014
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One of the favorite expressions of economists is “Incentives matter.” There is much truth to this idea, but it is instructive to examine how it works a bit more closely.

An incentive is a set of conditions that favors one course of action and/or disfavors its opposite. A positive incentive increases the reward or decreases the cost associated with a decision, while a negative incentive increases the cost or decreases the reward associated with it. An incentive can be a condition of the natural environment, a conscious human choice, or an emergent outcome – a characteristic of what Friedrich Hayek called a “spontaneous order.”

But it is not the case that all human beings are moved by the same incentives to a particular course of action or inaction. For instance, an increase in the cost of gasoline might lead some people to drive less – but a wealthy car enthusiast might just take the hit and pay the higher price; for him, a negative incentive was not a sufficient deterrent to his behavior of choice. On the other hand, ample information and culture available virtually for free on the Internet might motivate more people to become computer-literate, but for certain individuals with a strong visceral fear of electronic technology, this might not be enough; the positive incentive has failed to overcome the psychological barriers within them.

We can best see how incentives matter by examining large-scale changes in behavior. Crime statistics in an area might fall, for instance, if people were allowed to carry concealed weapons in public, where a previous law might have prohibited this. But there would still be some individual acts of crime, just as there would still be some people who would never think of committing a crime, no matter how easy it would be to perpetrate one or to get away with it. If the government raised the minimum wage, the unemployment rate would increase over what it would have been otherwise, but it is not the case that all workers – or even all workers previously earning less than the minimum wage – would suffer or lose their jobs. Some low-income workers might even get a pay raise, but likely at the expense of others being laid off or never being hired in the first place. Yet some generous employers might choose to personally absorb the cost increase and refuse to lay off any workers – but this might mean fewer other investments in their businesses or a lower standard of living for these business owners.

We can summarize this insight by stating that incentives matter on the margin. If a person’s other characteristics – including ideas held, material position, and skills – strongly favor one course of action over another, then an incentive to the contrary is unlikely to change that person’s behavior. On the other hand, if a person is barely inclined one way or another, then an incentive might result in a shift of behavior.

Once made explicit, all of this might appear self-evident to someone who paid attention in a basic economics course. Why is it important, and why does it bear emphasizing? There are several reasons.

Recognizing the marginal importance of incentives prevents individuals from looking for panaceas or overnight revolutions, of which our world yields extremely few, if any. On the other hand, it also inculcates one against despair. Any sufficiently strong incentive will result in a desirable or undesirable statistical shift, but it is unlikely to completely solve a problem. On the other hand, it is also unlikely to completely doom the state of affairs, either. Human beings are remarkably resilient and intricately complex. Crimes, disasters, bad laws, and health defects will destroy some and keep down others – but human innovation and creativity will not completely die; it will flourish somewhere, in some way or another, where the negative incentives are not strong enough to thwart the civilizing desires of the best among us. But it is also important to recognize that human existence is a continual struggle against both natural perils and the follies and even the evils committed by our fellow men. We will need more than one incentive to be favorably arranged if we are to keep these enemies of civilization at bay.

The marginal functioning of incentives is also a cause for hope. If a destructive policy were to completely cripple some facet of human life, then there might not be a way to resist it effectively. But because some individuals are sufficiently strong internally so as not to be diverted from their course by the policy, they can amass the will and the resources to resist it. Moreover, people can condition themselves to respond more or less strongly to certain incentives. The more a person can train himself to persevere in the face of significant externally imposed costs, the more likely that person is to succeed despite such obstacles. Such successes are the building blocks upon which all human civilization has been built.

It is instructive to remember that there has never been an even tolerably calm and safe environment for innovators to flourish; at every time and place in history, some force – deliberate or not, more severe or less so, but never particularly mild – stood in the way of the thinkers and creators to whom we owe our progress. Where the carriers of civilization overcame these forces, they created a more favorable environment for us. We must, likewise, strive against the challenges of our time. By overcoming existing negative incentives, we can create positive ones for the future, through the examples we set and the work we bring forth.

Click here to read more articles in Issue CCXXXI of The Rational Argumentator.

Progress: Creation and Maintenance (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Progress: Creation and Maintenance (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published March 8, 2010
as Part of Issue CCXXXVIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 22, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXXXVIII of The Rational Argumentator on March 8, 2010, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 22, 2014
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The audio version of this essay is read by Wendy Stolyarov. You can also download this audio essay as an MP3 file here. 

One frequently encounters the identification of human creativity and inventiveness as driving forces for progress in technology and society. In part, this identification is correct: it is through the human creative faculty – the ability to bring forth new combinations of matter and new ideas – that improvements to the human condition arise. But while creation is a necessary component to progress, it is not a sufficient component.

Consider that the human creative faculty has existed since the emergence of our species; even cave dwellers exhibited it, to the extent that they could take even a little leisure time in their highly dangerous, subsistence-based lives. Cave paintings and tools from several tens of thousands of years ago show clearly that our remote ancestors had the ability, and the desire, to reshape the world in an attempt to improve their condition. And yet, for the vast majority of human history – up until the 18th-century Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution – real progress has been so slow and minuscule as to be virtually imperceptible within an ordinary person’s lifetime. This was the case despite the fact that every generation had its share of great thinkers, artists, and even mechanical tinkerers.

The other necessary component of progress is maintenance of what has already been created. While creation is an ever-present ability within human beings, there are also destructive forces that counteract and diminish its fruits. Nature itself is the source of many such forces: disease, decay, and death are omnipresent unless counteracted by arduous and continual human effort. Just as billions of lives have been lost in complete oblivion to the ravages of “natural causes” – from catastrophic disasters to senescence – so have innumerable works of art, architecture, literature, and technology been lost to these perils. Consider that even the extant works of great known philosophers such as Aristotle or composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann are a fraction of what these great men of the past are known to have created, but which was buried by the sands of time. Imagine, also, what the pitifully short lifespans throughout most human history did to diminish the output of creative geniuses, who, in better times, might have continued to innovate for decades more.

Maintenance is the ability to preserve and transmit existing knowledge, techniques, and objects. It can be performed through sheer effort of will – but only to a point. A European monk or an Arabic scholar in the Middle Ages could spend a lifetime meticulously copying by hand a single book from centuries before his time, only to have it vandalized by one of his successors some generations hence. Even the work of Archimedes was subjected to such savage mistreatment.

Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the Information Revolution, the techniques for the preservation of physical goods and knowledge have become tremendously more reliable than was possible in premodern societies. The ability to make multiple copies of an object and potentially inexhaustible copies of an idea – and to maintain detailed visual, textual, and auditory records of particular times, places, and activities, with little effort by historical standards, has preserved many of the accomplishments of prior and current thinkers for the creative faculties of humans to expand upon.

It is doubtful that we, in our time, are inherently more creative than our ancestors. But we do have a much more diverse and advanced subject matter to which to apply our creativity. Where we are free to do so, we may arrange these building blocks of innovation in much the same way that our ancestors arranged sticks and stones – except that the consequences of our actions are much more powerful, life-enhancing, and durable. Our infrastructure and our methods for maintaining and transmitting knowledge separate us from our ancestors to the extent that, to them, we would be as gods.

And yet, none of the wonders that enable progress in our time are ever guaranteed to continue, though not due to inanimate nature and lower life forms alone; those have always been in a steady retreat wherever human reason and productivity were unleashed at anywhere near their fullest extent. But the folly, ignorance, sloth, and envy of other men can all too easily slow the growth of progress-nourishing infrastructure to a crawl, or even reverse it and usher in a new Dark Ages. Coercive policies, economic misconduct and capital consumption, massive wars, widespread prohibitions on peaceful and productive activities, superstitions and irrational taboos, pervasive and disproportionate fears – as embodied in the environmentalists’ progress-killing “precautionary principle” – and a desire for “security” over liberty, for “tradition” over growth, and for stasis over innovation, are all forces that counteract and threaten the maintenance of our civilization. In most times and places, only a handful of people have been immune to deleterious anti-progressive beliefs and their consequences, but there is no reason why we cannot all rise above such anti-life thinking. We all have the creative faculty in us, and we can all think.

The importance of maintenance to human progress can be carried into the life of the individual with profound consequences that can produce massive personal growth and productivity via a change of habits. A mere creation of reproducible records of one’s past achievements – and their publication on the Internet, where possible – can create a formidable store of knowledge to which the creator and others can refer and which they can build upon. The concepts of open-source software and distributed computing, for instance, are built on this elementary principle, but it can be applied to so many more areas of life. The creative faculty is with us every day, and every day it produces original ideas and methods for improving our lives. But, without adequate maintenance – including the establishment of a concrete form for these innovations – these gifts from within our minds will fade away into insignificance, much like the ruins of antiquity. Developing an improved infrastructure for the products of one’s own mind may be the first step toward revitalizing the infrastructure of civilization itself.

Click here to read more articles in Issue CCXXXVIII of The Rational Argumentator.

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History of the Minoan Civilization of Ancient Crete (2002) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

History of the Minoan Civilization of Ancient Crete (2002) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 20, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published in four parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 32,200 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  ***
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 20, 2014
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The Minoan civilization of ancient Crete has long fascinated historians and students of history. As early as about 4000 years ago, the Minoans already had a thriving culture with major commercial, esthetic, and technological accomplishments, unparalleled virtually anywhere else in the world of their time. Some have even speculated that the Greek legend of the ultra-advanced ancient city of Atlantis was based on knowledge, passed down through the ages, of the accomplishments of Minoan Crete.

This essay will examine key aspects of Minoan life and culture. We begin by looking at this civilization’s emergence and the kind of geographical environment in which it came to be. We then continue the examination of the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete by discussing the Minoan economy and government – both of which were remarkably advanced for their time and allowed the Minoans a then unparalleled degree of liberty and prosperity. We proceed to discuss this culture’s religious, esthetic, and technological aspects, the athletic activities common in Minoan Crete, and the manner in which this remarkable ancient civilization met its end.

Beginnings of the Minoan Culture

The site of Knossos, the capital of ancient Crete, possessed discernible human influences from as early as 7000 BC. The beginning of intense development can be detected at about 3000 BC.

The Minoans originated in Asia Minor and spoke a language not related to the Indo-European group. The interpretation of their scripts and any manner of their phonetics are lost to us, although Myceneans and later Greeks may have borrowed certain Minoan aspects of speech.

Centralization of government was gradually instituted with the construction of the first Palace in Knossos at about 2000 BC.

When population reached levels exceeding the available food supplies, migrations to neighboring islands were required to extend the accessible arable territory. Need of a navy also arose for purposes of transportation as well as commerce with other Mediterranean cultures for the acquisition of food and other raw goods.

Geography of Crete

Crete, a large island in the Mediterranean, lies halfway between Asia Minor and Greece, granting it a central spot in numerous ancient trade routes on the sea.

During the earliest days of its development, Crete was free from invasions, since no civilization had yet developed a sufficiently massive and functional navy to mount an expedition. This permitted relatively calm development, where resources could be employed for technological advancement and the arts rather than frequent warfare, subsistence, and repairs. The Minoans as a result created few defensive structures and no standing army, since the necessity for these was not present.

Crete possesses a temperate climate and highly productive soil. Large families were common, as demonstrated by houses of four to six rooms for even the poorest dwellers within the realm. Evidently, the frequent agricultural surpluses resulted in rapid population growth and hence the need for expansion and trade.

Economy

The primary vehicles of the Minoan economy were mercantile ships also equipped with armaments. They conducted journeys to mainland Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. From there they imported basic resources such as additional food to maintain a constantly increasing population.

Minoans exported refined goods, such as jewelry, wine, oil, and artwork, for Crete was home to numerous skilled craftsmen and specialists.

Present hypotheses concerning the identity of numerous Minoan documents hint at a purpose of recording commercial transactions. It is known that accuracy and calculation were valued in conducting economic deals.

Trade was centralized and commissioned by the King, whose extensive network of bureaucrats would implement detailed designs and analyze the results. Because of Crete’s small size and relatively small population, it was possible for the monarch to govern the country in a similar way to the management of a modern corporation. Nevertheless, the government did not neglect the people, and there is evidence of even the lower classes enjoying imported goods. The distribution may not have been even, yet the differences between wealth and poverty were substantially smaller than in any other contemporary culture.

Government

Crete was ruled by a monarch from the central palace of Knossos. The first ruler (and the only one whose name is known) was the legendary King Minos, described by later Greeks as being the son of Zeus and appointed by the chief deity to reign over the island.

The monarchy, however, was far from a totalitarian regime. Historian Richard Hooker describes the role of the King as a “chief entrepreneur or CEO” rather than a dictator. Numerous administrative decisions were shared by a priesthood (which was mainly female) and an immense network of bureaucrats and scribes. This semi-meritocracy was one of the most civil regimes of its time, remarkable for its lack of rigid caste structures and barriers to individual socioeconomic advancement.

Evidence suggests that the people of Crete were permitted a large degree of liberty, and no gender inequalities existed. Cretans are anomalous in that respect, having avoided the negative impacts of late Neolithic societies upon women and the poor. Perhaps this is due to the fact that their relative tranquility placed a smaller need on a strong military and a subservient workforce. Thus patriarchy and a rule of warlords never developed.

Religion

The Minoans had a matriarchal religion in which no male gods were detectable.

Cretan religion orients itself around animals, and numerous deities seem to possess a central emphasis on them. For example, “The Huntress” represents human attempts for mastery over other creatures, while “The Mountain Mother”, a diametric opposite, attempts to preserve a natural setting for animals. A popular household goddess was portrayed as entangled in snakes throughout her organism. Other goddesses possessed exteriors of birds, most notably doves.

The Minoans worshipped trees, rocks, and springs in a semi-Animist manner.

Evil figures in Minoan religion are represented as human demons with the limbs of lions and other carnivores.

Art, Architecture, and Technology

The most renowned of the palaces in Knossos was the four-story Labyrinth, the chief palace of the King in existence from 2000 to 1350 BC. Its extraordinary abundance of rooms served as a basis for legends of foreigners, such as mainland Greeks, who perceived it as a maze in which it would be humanly impossible to remember one’s way. In reality, however, it was not the crude dwelling of the Minotaur that myths describe it to be. It possessed numerous places of worship, workshops, lavish banquet halls, and a grand courtyard in the center, surrounded by four sections. This palace was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, in 1700 BC, and later by an earthquake in 1600 BC. The eruption of the Santorini volcano in 1450 BC was its greatest catastrophe, although it was restored once more by conquering Greeks. However, it fell into neglect and disrepair as Crete lost its political value around 1380 BC. This monumental work is thought to have been designed by the legendary architect and scientist Daidalus, the father of Icarus.

Minoan art seems to have been separated from mundane tasks and duties and oriented toward a purely aesthetic purpose. Numerous wall murals in palatial complexes within Knossos illustrate scenes from the animal world and everyday life, common in depiction but detached from practicality. The objects portrayed were often trivial and superficial, and there is no moral or political aim discernible in the works. Art was instead developed “for art’s sake”.

Minoan cities possessed plumbing and sanitation systems reaching into the confines of every home. The exact means by which they realized this was, unfortunately, lost following their decline and not recovered until 17th century Europeans had again attained this skill.

Sports

The renowned sport of ancient Crete, open to both genders and subjecting all to the same standards, was bull leaping. This was a dangerous pastime, but harmless and humane to the athlete and the animal if performed with skill. A bull would be released to charge toward the jumper. Once it was in sufficient proximity, the performer would attach his hands to the bull’s horns and vault onto the creature’s back. Another common objective was to somersault from such a position to a state of standing on a spot of land directly behind the bull.

Boxing was also a favorite activity, as portrayed in numerous wall murals. The precise regulations are unknown, but this is perhaps a source of inspiration for later Greeks, who adapted the sport to the Olympic Games.

Fate of the Civilization

The Minoans’ isolation from foreign threats caused them to maintain feeble frontiers, and gradually mainland powers such as Mycenae developed, with the fleet and army to overcome them.

The task of conquest was perhaps lightened for the Myceneans by the explosion of the Santorini volcano, four or five times more massive than the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa in 1888. This, along with a similar catastrophe on a nearby island from the volcano Thera, inflicted devastating blows upon Crete’s population and economy, crippling it and rendering it susceptible to invasion.

Under Achaean occupation, Knossos gradually withered away into an insignificant village, the cultural level of the Myceneans being too primitive to maintain the complexities of the civilization which they had conquered.

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that Cretan script was somewhat adopted by the occupants. Elements of Linear A, the original (and yet un-decoded) alphabet of the Minoans, have been spotted in Linear B, the early writing of the Myceneans.

Myths maintained a memory of this civilization in such fascinating works as the tale of Theseus and his struggle against the Minotaur for over 3000 years. Only between 1900 and 1931, during the extensive excavations conducted by archaeologist Arthur Evans, did details begin to surface about the true identity of this culture. Archaeologists and historians discovered a humane and prosperous society that existed during a relatively savage time, a society that provided many of the early foundations of Western civilization.

Sources

“Knossos.” http://www.culture.gr/2/21/211/21123a/e211wa03.html

Hooker, Richard. “The Palace Civilizations of the Aegean.” http://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/MINOA/MINOANS.HTM

Iraklion Museum. “City of Knossos: The Palace of King Minos.” http://www.dilos.com/region/crete/kn_01.html.

The Humility of Futurism – Article by Adam Alonzi

The Humility of Futurism – Article by Adam Alonzi

The New Renaissance Hat
Adam Alonzi
April 20, 2014
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Civilization operates as if its troubles and their solutions will be as relevant tomorrow as they are today. Likely they were obsolete yesterday. How preposterous do the worries and aspirations of yesteryear seem now? What has not been refined since its conception? Our means of subsistence, entertainment, expression and enlightenment continue to change, although, at least unconsciously, they are accepted as stable. Change, once gradual, now quickens exponentially. Countless professions have been created and destroyed by advances; old orders have been destroyed, new ones have arisen; our world outlooks have been revolutionized by new discoveries over and over, although a sizable portion of the world is unwilling or unable to understand a man like Aubrey de Grey and an equally sizable portion of the population is still struggling with Copernicus. A Futurist accepts himself and his ideas as incomplete, therefore he actively works to improve upon them. Futurism is the first ideology that explicitly accepts the necessity and desirability of change.

It is a mistake to think we have reached the final stage of our journey. Plateaus are mirages conjured by the shortsighted; human evolution is a mountain without a peak. If a man has eyes, let him see all we have done and all we have yet to do. Let him gain the humility religion and liberalism have failed to inculcate into him and so many others. Each generation repeats this mistake. There is no evidence to suggest we are complete or are doomed now only to regress. Naysayers seem motivated to dismiss the triumphs of others out of fear they themselves will appear even less significant. Historically the distant future has received little attention compared to such pressing questions as the number of angels on the head of a pin or the labor theory of value. This may be thanks to a fondness for the apocalyptic, a fascination which certainly has not faded with time, but it is also attributable to the egotistical need to stand out. All epochs are transitions. The advances of this decade have failed to restore popular faith in progress, yet the very word is misleading. Faith does rest not upon an empirical foundation. There are scores of popular beliefs founded upon little or no evidence. Yet the proof of progress is all around us. Death wishes and earth-annihilating misanthropy aside, we can trace the modern disdain for the march forward to the fashionable nonsense of academia.


Speculations and prophecies, even conservative estimates based on careful analysis, are treated with derision by the public. To say one has faith in technology is misleading. To compare the singularity to the rapture is like comparing planetary motion to Santa Claus. One is rooted in scripture, the other in observation. The doomsayers, secular and religious alike, enjoy forecasting our demise. The essential corruption critics charge Western civilization with is common to all; it is called human nature. It is meant to be transcended, not through critiques of immaterial “cultural entities,” but by improving our bodies and our minds through bioengineering. No belief is needed here. We do not rely upon a outworn holy book or the absurd dialectic of the Marxists. We change and adapt because we must. This is a point of pride, not one of shame. We do not worship the past; we have shrugged it off. Compared to the ridiculous claims circulating in the cesspool collectively referred to as “the humanities” this is a sane position, yet it is treated with nothing by scorn by those who, wishing so ardently to distance themselves from Western civilization, bite the hands that feed them, clothes them, and shelters them. While they navigate by GPS, post their inane tangents on social media sites, and try with all their might to discredit the culture to which they owe their lives and livelihoods, others push forward. Self-proclaimed critics of Western civilization should consider trading their general practitioner for an Angolan witch doctor. It is hard to respect those who do not practice what they preach.

Postmodernism and cultural relativism, though they have pretensions of completeness and delusions of permanence, are but passing fads. Something devoid of usefulness or, for that matter, a coherent hypothesis, cannot last long when technology is generating so much benefit to so many people. A meme will continue to propagate itself long after it has served its purpose, to the detriment of competitors and to society at large. It is the duty of Futurists and Transhumanists to demolish the acceptability of rubbish in academia and in the media. The Luddites are more dangerous than the Creationists. Hubris is barely acceptable in the hard sciences, but in an absolutely unempirical discipline like philosophy, it is deplorable. Our first priority should not be political or religious; it should be scientific. To whom do we owe our prosperity, and to whom do we owe our future? To whom do we owe our lives and the lives of our children? How many of us would not be here today were it not for the men and women of modern medicine? This is not the end. Forget the weary and the overwhelmed; they are weak. Forget the ones who have no desire to climb higher; they are unfit. Cast aside the ones who pray fervently for the undoing of their own species; they are the most vile of all. This is not the end. This is our beginning.
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Adam Alonzi is the author of Praying for Death and A Plank in Reason. He is also a futurist, inventor, DIY enthusiast, biotechnologist, programmer, molecular gastronomist, consummate dilletante and columnist at The Indian Economist. Read his blog Cool Flickers.
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Help the next generation embrace a progress-filled vision of the future by supporting the illustrated children’s book Death is Wrong (free in Kindle format until April 22, 2014), and the campaign to distribute 1000 paperback copies to children, free of cost to them. The Indiegogo fundraising period ends on April 23, so please consider making a contribution today.
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War is the Worst Choice for Ukraine and the World – Article by G. Stolyarov II

War is the Worst Choice for Ukraine and the World – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
April 14, 2014
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As I write this, people have already been killed in the confrontation between pro-Putin militants of the self-proclaimed “Republic of Donetsk” in Eastern Ukraine and the “anti-terrorist” forces sent by the interim Ukrainian government to suppress the insurgents. (Calling them “rebels”, “separatists”, “militants”, even “provocateurs” may be legitimate – but the use of the label “terrorist” here only further eviscerates any meaning that term once had in referring to people who deliberately kill civilians to make a political or ideological point.) It is not precisely clear what is happening on the ground – who is prevailing, and who is responsible for the initiation of force. What is clear, however, is that a deadly tragedy may be about to occur – unless reason, common sense, and every longing for peace and civilization are marshaled against it.

I have no love for Vladimir Putin or his regime. He is clearly an authoritarian despot, with little respect for the rights of his own people or those of others. He will pursue an agenda of personal power and aggrandizement through nationalistic rhetoric and attempts to rekindle the alleged glory of Imperial and Soviet Russia. Yet, despotic as he may be, one would hope that Putin is not suicidally stupid. It was one matter to seize control of Crimea, with its majority Russian-speaking population and popular support for annexation by Russia. Occupying the rest of Ukraine – in which even many ethnic Russians have no enthusiasm for union with Russia – is another matter entirely. A protracted occupation of Ukraine, amidst an unsympathetic populace – to say the least! – would bog down the Russian military and imperil an already precarious economic situation.  It would also risk the lives of many Russian soldiers in a prolonged partisan uprising, much like the one that the Soviet regime had to deal with for decades in Ukraine during the last century.  A reasonable person would hope that Putin recognizes this and does not stray from his characteristic modus operandi – which, however ruthless, is nonetheless marked by caution and pragmatic calculation.

Until the uprisings that led to the declaration of the “Republic of Donetsk”, it seemed to me that Putin’s conduct of “military training exercises” on Ukraine’s Eastern border was a strategic bluff. While the cover of military exercises affords Putin plausible deniability, he could also sincerely agree to withdraw the troops in subsequent negotiations, in exchange for the West’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Crimea annexation and a more loosely federated Ukraine. If Putin had pursued this approach, he would have likely gotten away with annexing Crimea after nothing worse than some griping and minor sanctions levied by Western governments.

Yet it is now unclear whether the separatist uprisings in the Donetsk region were orchestrated by provocateurs employed by Putin’s regime (as many in the Ukrainian government and foreign-policy hawks in the West allege), or whether they largely arose from local Russian nationalists who were inspired by the Crimea annexation and sought to repeat it in Eastern Ukraine (as many of the separatists do appear to be ordinary civilians). Nonetheless, Putin’s regime has officially endeavored to maintain plausible deniability – which means that an escalation of military force against the separatists by the Ukrainian government would give Putin exactly the pretext he would need to invade Eastern Ukraine, if that is indeed his goal.

The “anti-terrorist” operation by the Ukrainian government of President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk is – like any attempt by Putin to even consider an invasion of Eastern Ukraine – an act of suicidal folly. Not only do Turchynov and Yatseniuk undermine their own legitimacy in the eyes of Eastern Ukrainians by treating their own citizens as “terrorists” (), they also create the actual war that they accuse Putin of fomenting! Logic suggests only two possibilities: either the separatists are Russian provocateurs, or they are not. If they are indeed Russian provocateurs, then Turchynov and Yatseniuk have effectively initiated hostilities against Russian forces. If the separatists are not Russian provocateurs, then Turchynov and Yatseniuk are deploying military and “counter-terrorist” forces against their own people, instead of dealing with any insurgent or criminal behaviors via the police and the civilian justice system. Either way, the Ukrainian government is not doing itself any favors and is itself engaged in dangerous brinksmanship, which, unless restraint wins the day, could cost the lives of at least thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians.

If this crisis were merely an episode of competing follies between two Eastern European regimes, I might have left the matter at that. Unfortunately, prominent neoconservative war hawks such as John McCain and certain NATO generals, such as Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove, remain unable to transcend the insane era of the Cold War, when the civilized world was never far from nuclear annihilation due to the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. They continue to call for “harsh” and “forceful” measures to be taken against Putin’s regime – whatever that means. Economic sanctions would, of course, be wholly counterproductive and would further impoverish Russian civilians, driving more of them, in desperation, to further embrace Putin’s nationalistic agenda. But military action of any sort by NATO or the United States would be an absolute calamity for human civilization – risking not just another cold war, but World War III between the world’s two major nuclear powers. Such a war would paralyze the progress of humankind for decades and lead to the eradication of much of the infrastructure needed to make comfortable, prosperous lives possible.

The neoconservative and NATO hawks are the Western mirror image of Putin’s nationalistic aggrandizement. They warn of the United States’ weakening image in foreign policy, of a perceived softness of the Obama administration’s response. They fear, in essence, a loss of American “national honor” and “national pride” if the United States were to withdraw from its role as global policeman and global human-rights enforcer. But they overlook the essential question: Why should the United States government be involved in the situation in Ukraine? There is no danger to American citizens, to whom the United States government’s duty of protection is owed, even in the worst-case scenario of Putin’s troops occupying all of Ukraine (which, as explained earlier, will not happen unless Putin is suicidally stupid). There is no compelling “national security” rationale of any sort for military or even extensive policy intervention in an area of the world separated from the United States by an ocean and most of the European continent!

The United States government is drowning in runaway debt, and the country is only beginning to recover from disastrous decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of American troops have been killed in the prior interventions of this millennium; tens of thousands more have come home physically and mentally scarred forever.  And the hawks want them to fight in yet another part of the world which most Americans understand nothing about, for no tangible gain, in the name of the geopolitical posturing of regimes whose leaders care not at all about them and will not bear a single physical cost of the massive killings, tortures, property destruction, and other atrocities that war inevitably brings with it? War is always fought at the behest of and for the benefit of corrupt, power-hungry leaders, and all the costs are always borne by innocent civilians and by very young armed men who know not what they fight for and who kill one another senselessly, even though they could have been good friends in other circumstances.

As the Wikileaks revelations about the conduct of some American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the world, the US military is not uniquely righteous or humanitarian; torture, sadism, and perversity in the conduct of war marred the US military record, too.

The description of the horrors of war and the immense beneficence and moral imperative of peace by the great Renaissance humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus is just as true today as it was in the early 16th century when these words were written:

Peace is at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man; war, on a sudden and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, abolishes, whatever is cheerful, whatever is happy and beautiful, and pours a foul torrent of disasters on the life of mortals. Peace shines upon human affairs like the vernal sun. The fields are cultivated, the gardens bloom, the cattle are fed upon a thousand hills, new buildings arise, riches flow, pleasures smile, humanity and charity increase, arts and manufactures feel the genial warmth of encouragement, and the gains of the poor are more plentiful.

But no sooner does the storm of war begin to lower, than what a deluge of miseries and misfortune seizes, inundates, and overwhelms all things within the sphere of its action! The flocks are scattered, the harvest trampled, the husbandman butchered, villas and villages burnt, cities and states that have been ages rising to their flourishing state subverted by the fury of one tempest, the storm of war. So much easier is the task of doing harm than of doing good — of destroying than of building up!

As with the remarkable surge of grassroots opposition that prevented US intervention in Syria in 2013, it is time for the American public to vociferously denounce any military intervention in Ukraine. It is not surprising, as a recent Washington Post article highlighted, that “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want to intervene”! Education of Americans, not the inflammation of their zeal, should be the priority. The conflict in Ukraine today is a clash between two extremely ugly nationalisms – and ignorant neoconservative jingoists would add their own third flavor of nationalism to the mix. It is time for civilized individuals everywhere to reject all nationalism and all war. All of us humans – in Ukraine, Russia, the West, and everywhere else – face a choice for the next several decades. If we pursue the path of peace and non-intervention, we can become a spacefaring, cosmopolitan civilization. We are on the verge of major breakthroughs in life extension, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanoscale manufacturing, and ubiquitous, affordable energy. If we pursue the path of war, then humankind will instead become suffocated in the muck of jingoistic tribalism, with a promising future washed away by rivers of blood and consumed by an inferno of bombs.  The next few weeks will indicate which of these futures we face.

Responses to an Inquiry on Ethics, Human Purpose, and the Future of Humanity – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Responses to an Inquiry on Ethics, Human Purpose, and the Future of Humanity – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
September 5, 2013
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A recent philosophical exchange with reader Elu Sive on TRA’s “About Mr. Stolyarov” page was sufficiently interesting and constructive that I have decided to post it here for a general audience. Elu Sive raised ten points of view and requested my feedback, which I subsequently provided. Here, I will cite each of the points and my response.

Elu Sive Point 1: “There is an objective reality.”

My Response: I agree in full.

Elu Sive Point 2: “The purpose of democracy is mainly a means of fighting corruption and promoting the interests of the people as opposed to those in power. It is not a valid method to select the correct answer among alternatives and should never be used as such.”

My Response: I agree. The will of the majority does not determine truth, nor does it necessarily coincide with good policy. Moreover, most decisions should be left up to individuals to implement, so long as such implementation can be done non-coercively. Democracy is only useful in the highly limited context where conflicts of preference are unavoidable and necessarily involve some people’s preferences being overridden. For instance, if only one person can be the neighborhood sheriff, then it makes sense to put the issue to a majority vote. However, even then, the powers of the neighborhood sheriff should be highly limited to the protection of individual rights, and not their violation.

Elu Sive Point 3: “Science is the best method we have for evaluating what is true and not.”

My Response: I agree, especially when science is defined broadly to include logic and mathematics. More generally, rational inquiry based on real-world observation and logical deduction therefrom is the best method we have for evaluating what is true and not.

Elu Sive Point 4: “Our human existence is only meaningful in our social contexts, to our selves and to future generations (our existence is not meaningful in universal or spiritual fashion).”

My Response: Here I disagree. Our existence is meaningful per se and as the antecedent to all meaning and value. My video series “Life as the Basis of Morality” (see Part 1 and Part 2) explains my reasoning. I agree with Ayn Rand’s statement: “I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.”

Elu Sive Point 5: “We should place a greater emphasis on our social context and future generations than on our selves. We should favor altruism over self-reliance.”

My Response: Here I also disagree. While I advocate considering the future and taking a longer-term view of one’s actions, as well as considering one’s impact on the world and on others, all of this should be done to promote one’s own enlightened, rational self-interest, particularly in the continuation of one’s own life and flourishing. Each individual is, by nature, best suited to promote his own well-being. In promoting his own well-being, the individual should be concerned about the well-being of others and should seek ways to exchange values with others to promote mutual flourishing. Complete autarky is impossible and undesirable; we can gain great values and improve our lives tremendously by interacting with others. However, each individual’s moral self-reliance – in the sense of thinking for oneself, acting out of one’s own initiative, and valuing one’s own productive work and independence from subjugation to the arbitrary dictates of others – is paramount for creating a world where human flourishing is maximized to the extent possible.

Elu Sive Point 6: “What classifies as common good depends on circumstances and must be continuously re-evaluated.”

My Response: What is good for people does depend on the specific context, but it is still rooted in objective requirements of human survival and flourishing. As a simple example, there are some items that can give our bodies energy if we consume them, while there are others that would poison us. The objective requirements of human survival and flourishing depend on the laws of nature, which are universally valid, though their applicability will differ based on the context. The correct answer in a given situation is like the correct choice of tool for constructing a building; it depends on what part you are working on, with what materials, in what setting, and for what goal (in terms of the values you are trying to realize). Multiple answers will be good enough for a particular problem, but some answers are clearly superior to others in achieving human survival and flourishing. That being said, it is important to continually use one’s rational faculty to evaluate the soundness of possible approaches on a case-by-case basis.

Elu Sive Point 7: “Our social context is only meaningful in the long-term context of supporting and improving human civilization, or a possible post-human civilization.”

My Response: I agree with the goal of improving human and possibly post-human civilization (though I prefer the term “transhuman”, since I think that technological transformations will amplify and supplement our humanity, enabling us to transcend existing limitations, rather than take our humanity away). I think that human societal interactions can serve multiple valuable purposes both in the immediate term and in the long term. In the immediate term, it is certainly good that grocery stores exist in one’s vicinity to enable one to obtain food and other conveniences. The shorter-term interactions, as long as they are compatible with long-term perspectives and values, can certainly be of value as well.

Elu Sive Point 8: “The defining character of our age as judged by future civilization will be: short-shortsightedness and extreme individualism.”

My Response: I agree that there is considerable short-sightedness in our era, though it is probably less than in previous eras, when the average human lifespan was several times shorter than today. The extreme individualism, though, is not a phenomenon that I observe. I see all too many people bound by thoughtless traditions and norms, while refusing to think about matters on principle (instead of being attached to the concrete institutions and thought patterns that are fed to them by “opinion leaders” and the surrounding culture). The true individualist, who takes charge of his own life and is willing to engage in innovative thinking which transforms the world, is quite rare still. If asked to characterize our era, I would describe it as a time when the knowledge to solve many of the world’s problems is already available and accessible, but the willpower to solve these problems and overcome the constraints of obsolete institutions is lacking. I also see our era as characterized by a race between accelerating technological progress and increasingly outrageous authoritarian intervention.

Elu Sive Point 9: “We should practice future-oriented altruism: just as we care for others in our immediate vicinity in order to create a better life for everyone, we should care for our [descendants] as predecessors have, or we wish them to have had.”

My Response: I agree that we should look forward into the future and consider how life would be then, and how our current actions would affect future living conditions. I do not think that our focus should solely be on future beings, though. I hope to personally see a better future, and to structure my actions to maximize my chances. I am, though, happy to have been born into a world where the many generations of humans before me have already created an infrastructure of knowledge and capital to enable a relatively comfortable way of life. The great challenge of our time is to secure our lives against the still-omnipresent forces of ruin, death, and decay.

Elu Sive Point 10: “We should aim to replace humanity with post-human beings, remedied from most of the flaws that plague the human psyche and physiology today and in the past.”

My Response: I agree with remedying existing human flaws and transcending human limitations, with the important caveat that I consider such actions to be consistent with and to amplify humanity. Importantly, I think that we ourselves should be the beneficiaries of these improvements, through new medical treatments and augmentations (especially radical life extension), as well as the eventual integration of biological and non-biological components.

Always Think! – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Always Think! – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Mr. Stolyarov explains why thinking is essential and indispensable for everyone; that includes you. He discusses the fundamental purpose of his videos – to cultivate an broadly oriented intellectual mindset among viewers, in an effort to further the progress and maintenance of human civilization.

Remember to LIKE, FAVORITE, and SHARE this video in order to spread rational discourse on this issue.

Enemy of Ruin – Quiz and Badge – Fifth in TRA’s Series on Indefinite Life Extension

Enemy of Ruin – Quiz and Badge – Fifth in TRA’s Series on Indefinite Life Extension

enemy_of_ruin

G. Stolyarov II
March 30, 2013
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The Rational Argumentator is proud to announce the fifth in its planned series of quizzes on indefinite life extension, a companion activity to the Resources on Indefinite Life Extension (RILE) page.

Enemy of Ruin Quiz

Read “The Real War – and Why Inter-Human Wars are a Distraction” by G. Stolyarov II and answer the questions in the quiz below, in accordance with the essay. If you get 100% of the questions correct, you will earn the Enemy of Ruin badge, the fifth badge in The Rational Argumentator’s interactive educational series on indefinite life extension.  You will need a free account with Mozilla Backpack to receive the badge.

This badge was designed by Wendy Stolyarov, whose art you can see here, here, and here.


Leaderboard: Enemy of Ruin Quiz

maximum of 9 points
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