Lifeboat of Knowledge, Dinghy of Power

Lifeboat of Knowledge, Dinghy of Power June 3, 2012

A long one, here. Sorry.

I’d like to revisit my recent post, Reason Not to Rest, in which I touched on the idea “We won and we can relax now.” I want to expand on that, to look at it from a slightly different angle, and basically reinforce my own conviction that now is definitely NOT the time to relax.  So:


The Antikythera Mechanism has been in my mind over the past few days. Do you know about it? It was a fantastic clockwork device created 100 years before the supposed birth of Jesus. A mechanical computer of an intricacy that you and I would find hard to fathom, the thing contained dozens of tiny gears all meshed together to do something that would be a bit of a marvel even today. Discovered as something from Back Then, it almost makes you wonder about time travel, or technology misplaced by visiting aliens.

Wikipedia has this to say about it:

The device is remarkable for the level of miniaturization and the complexity of its parts, which is comparable to that of 19th-century clocks. It has more than 30 gears, although Michael Wright has suggested there may have been as many as 72 gears, with teeth formed through equilateral triangles. When a date was entered via a crank (now lost), the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun and Moon or other astronomical information, such as the locations of planets. Since the purpose was to position astronomical bodies with respect to the celestial sphere, in reference to the observer’s position on the Earth, the device was based on the geocentric model.

In other words, it was used to accurately predict the position of the planets on any date, even though it was based on an incorrect, earth-centered, model of the solar system. Damn. That’s a bit like performing successful brain surgery when you think the brain does nothing but cool the blood.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But still, by any standard, this is a pretty impressive gadget.

Wikipedia again:

Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University, who led the most recent study of the mechanism, said: “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully … in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”

But then there’s this:

Technological artifacts of similar complexity and workmanship did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe.

We lost the technology for building such things for more than 1,500 years. One thousand, five hundred years. Sixty human generations.

To put it in Steam to Space parameters – based on the span of about 300 years from the first commercial steam-powered pump to the placing of footprints on the Moon – that’s five STS generations of technological advancement missing from our history.

In modern technological terms, it represents a near-infinite amount of progress … which did not happen.

Science and technology

I’ve been in several arguments over just when science appeared on Earth.

As a side note, I once made the argument that you can have technology without science. My audience disagreed instantly: No you can’t, they said. You’d have to have science to build transistors and integrated circuits and have them come out the same each time so they, you know, worked.

But technology is not electronics, I replied. It’s not even related to science, strictly speaking, although that’s how we think of it today. Technology is just a specialized way of doing something – the same way every time, something taught and passed on by experts – to effectively accomplish a desired end result.

Some years back, I got to tour the inside of an Iroquois Long House, which is basically a quonset hut arranged like a communal dorm room with bunk beds and cooking and storage areas for 20 or more families, all made of nothing but sapling poles forming inverted “U” ribs, covered with tree bark roofing, with rawhide lashings (or was it grass cordage?) here and there to hold things together. It was a sunny day when I went into the thing, and I figured it would be sloppy and primitive, with light leaks all over the ceiling where, on rainy days, water could drip through. Hey, they were tough, primitive people, I thought, and wouldn’t mind a bit of water dripping down on them. Besides, working with the materials they had, and with no knowledge of how to do a quality job, the thing WOULD have holes all over the place.

Except it didn’t. There was not a single pinhole of light through that roof. The damned thing was absolutely water-tight. I was dumbfounded at what I immediately realized was … technology. (Admittedly this one was built by modern students of the thing, but they were using the original materials and, presumably, techniques.)

When these things were invented, I have no way of knowing. But they were likely perfected hundreds and hundreds of years ago … by people who did care whether or not they stayed dry while they slept or cooked or relaxed. Cared so much they worked out the technique for accomplishing that, and passed on the knowledge of that technique, the tech-knowledge-y, to each succeeding generation.

As for science, I generally date the first appearance of realio-trulio capital-S “Science” to the founding of the Royal Society of London. I get in arguments about that too.

“No, man,” they always say, “We’ve had science as far back as Archimedes, and even farther. The Mesopotamians were doing science in 3500 BC, more than 5,000 years ago. Astronomy, medicine and mathematics were arrived at independently many, many times by countless early civilizations.”

The next thing out of my mouth is usually about to be “But that’s not science.” Which means the argument is about to descend into a semantic disagreement. You know, one of those types of arguments that is SO useful every other time it’s used. (“That’s just a theory!” “Stop saying that, you don’t even know what the word ‘theory’ means!” “Yes I do! It means a guess!”)

These days I stop myself. I do not know how to win an argument with a person unwilling to agree on the meanings of the words you use. There’s no way to discuss a concept on a field of unshared definitions.

The best weapon I’ve found so far is metaphor. I try to sidestep the argument by making up a new word, or picking a word that has nothing to do with the subject at hand, and playfully redefining that.

My new word in this case, to replace what I mean by “science” which is likely to be well-defined in a person’s head, is “lifeboat.” Except I imagine it in the arch intonations of Patrick Stewart’s voice: “The Lifeboat. Yeesss, exactly, Mr. Data.”

The Lifeboat

A lifeboat as in: A conveyance that rescues or gathers something valuable from an area of danger, a place where it will be drowned or sunk, and brings it to safe harbor.

But THE Lifeboat as in: The thing that saved the knowledge and techniques of Science.

Now I can make my argument as: We may have had flashes of science as far back at the third millennium B.C., but we didn’t have The Lifeboat until about 350 years ago.

That’s when this organized group of people, the Royal Society of London, started consciously and formally saving all the little individual flashes of brilliance and discovery — yes, and even the silly mistakes — recording and getting them together, disseminating and discussing them in full public view rather than in some sort of secret society, so that every new person, ANY new person, interested in a subject – say astronomy, or geology – could start from a non-zero place and add their own small new discoveries to advance the field.

The discovery of a new comet, for instance, is something that can be done by a high school student. Though it’s not something you’d normally think of as momentous, today we crow from the rooftops about how cool it is. Because we really believe in The Lifeboat, and every tiny bit of new knowledge, added even by amateurs, is important. (Besides the fact that a cometary collision with Earth could wipe us out, and it actually is sort of important to see them early and figure out where they’re going.)

So for the last 350 years, we’ve had this Lifeboat of Knowledge that took us from steam engines to space. Or to computers, iPhones, lasers, MRI machines. (Also, more darkly, to cruise missiles and poison gases.)

Thinking about a “lifeboat” metaphor, I immediately realize there can be other types of rescue-vessels-through-time. For instance: How about a lifeboat of power?

Because that happened too.

The Dinghy

Power is certainly nothing new. We’ve had kings and dictators come and go. We’ve even had dynasties of emperors and kings, classes of hereditary rulers. Though they must have seemed interminable to the generations subjected to them, from the current-day perspective at least, they don’t last. The personality cults of such as Stalin and Pol Pot ended with them, and even longer-lived dynasties have either frittered away to symbolic figureheads or given way to violent revolutions. Some of them — Mayans, Incas, Aztecs — were either conquered by others or somehow just … vanished.

Someone just had to work out a solution. A way to save power down through generations, to add to it, gathering influence over more and more people, sapping them of their will and ingenuity, finding new and better ways to subjugate and rule over common human beings. Working out techniques to domesticate people.

Hurrah for the Catholic Church! That innovative ruling body found a way!

Although … considering that power hardly needs “saving,” as such – power was never really in any danger – I think I’d rather call this one the Dinghy of Power. Keeps the boat metaphor going, but doesn’t imply rescue. (Plus, it sounds funny when you talk about the Pope’s “dinghy.”)

So: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-year-old Dinghy of Power goes on. But also, the dinghies of all those younger religions — Islam, and the Mormon Church, and even that mind-control turd Scientology, recently crapped out by SF writer L. Ron Hubbard.

How? Just this: They found an interesting new way to convince people to fall under their sway. Rather than terrorizing them directly – “Obey me or I’ll burn you and your whole family to death in a fire!” (which works only as long as you’re willing to actually follow through and burn some people, and only as long as you live) …

… they discovered you could terrorize people indirectly. Very different from scaring them with direct physical threats, this was scaring them and then posing as the friend who could save them.

Hey, *I* won’t burn you and your whole family to death in a fire, but This Other Guy will. This huge, dangerous guy that you can’t hope to avoid … because he gets you after you die. He can see in the dark, follow you everywhere. He knows everything and he can hear your thoughts. Plus, almost everything you’re doing pisses him off, and you don’t have a chance in Hell of knowing the good things from the bad … without me.

But yo, listen, I’m your friend, dude, and I know how to stop him from doing that. In fact, I know how to get him to give you, like, candy and titties! Forever! In fact, it’s better than candy and titties — it’s better than anything you can even imagine it! It’s Candy-Titties!

Sinking knowledge

For much of human history, Knowledge served as a threat to Power. What do you do when individuals rise up and say “Hey, Candy-Titties doesn’t even make sense! Besides, I just discovered that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe!” For it to be a true Dinghy of Power, you have to squash that individual — and his discovery — right away.

So for most of human history, religion (and, yes, superstition) was the choppy sea on which each new discovery attempted to bob and float, but was instead swamped and sunk out of sight.

Doesn’t mean there weren’t fantastic inventions and discoveries in past eras. Does mean they were continually lost or suppressed.

For instance: Kudos for the early intellectual advances of the Arabs — astronomy! mathematics! — and for those of so many other peoples over the earth. But where did they all go? Those discoveries remained virtual secrets as far as larger humanity was concerned. They vanished. Something sank them.

It was only after we cobbled together the Lifeboat of Knowledge that such discoveries had a place of rescue. A place where one piece could be placed on another, and something built with it.

This whole discussion is an evocation of the main point on which my hostility to past religion rests. Over thousands and thousands of year, religion, organized and disorganized both, capsized the Lifeboat of Knowledge (it’s also something of a Lifeboat of Freedom, when you think about it).

My hostility to present-day religion, and the religious mindset, rests on the same sort of argument, with the recognition that this is still going on.

The big events of the past in this battle certainly matter. The fact that Giordano Bruno was burned to death (by the Catholic Church), or that Galileo suffered house arrest on pain of murder (by the Catholic Church), or that the Library of Alexandria was sacked (by Christians) – we might liken those events to tsunamis that caused big destruction.

But the small events matter too. These are the choppy wavelets that sprang up in the individual minds, wavelets of disbelief, of religious snobbery, of crudity and insensitivity, of disdain for the collection of knowledge – that have swamped the scattered flotsam of discovery and creativity and original thought for 2,000 years and more, before it had a chance to be rescued by The Lifeboat.

Some of us might look around at the apparent benignity of present-day churches and conclude they are no danger, and thus do not deserve our criticism or scrutiny. I would strongly disagree. Because religion is not just the craziness of the Big Events. It’s this quiet, constant storm that affects us in every moment, and in our most mundane pursuits.

Even if religion had no main events, or no recent main events, even if we look at those main events and denigrate them as insignificant and uncommon, there was still this choppy, rough sea that helped destroyed each day’s discoveries, not in periodic pogroms but in each day.

Religion sets up a mental field of hostility to difference and newness, to curiosity and freedom, a dampening field in each mind that succumbs to it, working to stamp out each new spark, pretty much at the moment of its birth.

And I’m not just talking about science and technology. I’m talking about any newer and better way of doing something. I’m talking about ethics and morality, about compassion, about human health and sanity, about being able to live together peacefully, and about all the social rules and habits that make those things more possible, or less possible.

I’m not really focused on whatever happy superstition resides in the individual mind. Just as I consider it largely a matter of personal choice, personal freedom, if someone wants to take drugs, I consider whatever people want to believe a matter of personal choice. Go for all the “energy” and “quantum” you like. Some of those choices are tragic, and I think every effort should be bent to persuading potential users of that fact, but I’m not sure I myself would work very hard to stop them.

But the pushers … yes. When the lives and minds of children and innocents lie in the balance, and the larger directions of society itself, I have a hard time convincing myself that those people have a total, irresponsible “right” to do what they do.

It doesn’t matter that there are no big events today. (You know, besides that little peccadillo of pedophile priests molesting Catholic altar boys with full complicity of the upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church.)

What matters it this continuing general hostility to thought and reason, the choppy seas that still endangers discovery and invention. And not just locally, or in one church, but globally.

And it’s more than just the core package of beliefs that bother me. It’s all the stuff that can happen once you install those beliefs.


At our multitasking best, there’s only so much attention we humans have to give to things. Anyone who’s ever seen sleight of hand magic knows it. If I distract you with verbal patter and the flamboyant waving of my left hand, I can do practically anything with my right hand and you will never see it. You can know it’s a trick and yet still be flabbergasted as it plays out — magically — right there in front of you.

Religion has been the tricksiest of magic tricks. Get people distracted and you can do anything to them, or around them. You can force them into multiple marriages, into physical mutilation – even to the extent of carrying it out themselves – of their own bodies or those of loved ones. You can get them to refuse medical care. Subject themselves to punishments which they’ve done nothing to deserve. Fool them into creating children they can’t afford to feed. Lie them into giving you money. Force them to give you power.

Plus, once your pry open their minds and leave them defenseless – or fix them so they never develop defenses — you open them to whatever other parasite wants to come along and suck the life out of them. Get them to march off to war, vote against their own interests, spend their money on garbage. Inhale purchased poison and feel that they’re doing something daringly independent and life-affirming. Demand to be ruled by blatant liars and thieves and back-stabbers. See traitors as heroes, and vice versa.

The question in all this is: Do we want to allow that choppy sea of hostility to the fruits of the human mind to continue, further damping down progress and discovery, and only awaiting the next emergency to swamp all of civilization? Or do we want to stop it at its source?

Should we co-exist peacefully with religion and superstition? Presenting “both sides” and allowing each child to “decide for themselves”? Should we simply fold our hands and agree when some smarmy jack-wagon smugly says “Oh, we all have our own beliefs and opinions. That’s what makes America great”?

My feeling? Because I can see the choppy waters, and because I know what happened to the Antikythera mechanism, and the 1,500 years of other advances that might have happened but didn’t …

I say no. I want that storm of lies and fantasy GONE.

The Catholic Church, all the bastions of organized religion and dogma, must be ended. It must be replaced with something else. Something better.

What would this something else be?

I have this crazy idea …

"Best to you, Mr. Fox, and for your efforts."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out
"All the best, Hank! Your thoughts and words have always given me something to ponder."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out

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