Visions of a Better World


Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees and others answer the question: What’s your utopia?

Visions of a Better World

Unless you are too stoned or enlightened to care, you are probably dissatisfied with the world as it is. In that case, you should have a vision of the world as you would like it to be. This better world is your utopia. That, at any rate, is the premise of a question I’ve been asking scientists and other thinkers lately: What’s your utopia?

I presented students’ responses to this question last year. This final column for 2018 (if aliens land in Central Park or CERN discovers a portal to a parallel universe, I’ll let major media handle it) offers responses from scientists and others I’ve interviewed lately. My hope is that these visions will cheer up readers bummed out by my previous post, “Dark Days.” See the end of the post for my utopia.

Noam Chomsky: I don’t have the talent to do more than to suggest what seem to me reasonable guidelines for a better future.  One might argue that Marx was too cautious in keeping to only a few general words about post-capitalist society, but he was right to recognize that it will have to be envisioned and developed by people who have liberated themselves from the bonds of illegitimate authority.

Richard Dawkins: My utopia is a world in which beliefs are based on evidence and morality is based on intelligent design—design by intelligent humans (or robots!). Neither beliefs nor morals should be based on gut feelings, or on ancient books, private revelations or priestly traditions.

Sheldon Solomon: Staying alive long enough to see that my children are relatively settled and economically secure and knowing that there’s a decent chance that the earth will not be reduced to a festering heap long before the sun explodes!

Sabine Hossenfelder: That we finally use scientific methods to restructure political and economic systems. The representative democracies that we have right now are entirely outdated and unable to cope with the complex problems which we must solve. We need new systems that better incorporate specialized knowledge and widely distributed information, and that better aggregate opinions. (I wrote about this in detail here.) It pains me a lot to think that my children will have to live through a phase of economic regress because we were too stupid and too slow to get our act together.

Scott Aaronson: Since I hang out with Singularity people so much, part of me reflexively responds: “utopia” could only mean an infinite number of sentient beings living in simulated paradises of their own choosing, racking up an infinite amount of utility.  If such a being wants challenge and adventure, then challenge and adventure is what it gets; if nonstop sex, then nonstop sex; if a proof of P≠NP, then a proof of P≠NP.  (Or the being could choose all three: it’s utopia, after all!)

Over a shorter time horizon, though, maybe the best I can do is talk about what I love and what I hate.  I love when the human race gains new knowledge, in math or history or anything else.  I love when important decisions fall into the hands of people who constantly second-guess themselves and worry that their own ‘tribe’ might be mistaken, who are curious about science and have a sense of the ironic and absurd.  I love when society’s outcasts, like Alan Turing or Michael Burry (who predicted the subprime mortgage crisis), force everyone else to pay attention to them by being inconveniently right.  And whenever I read yet another thinkpiece about the problems with “narrow-minded STEM nerds”—how we’re basically narcissistic children, lacking empathy and social skills, etc. etc.—I think to myself, “then let everyone else be as narrow and narcissistic as most of the STEM nerds I know; I have no further wish for the human race.”

On the other side, I hate the irreversible loss of anything—whether that means the deaths of individuals, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, genocides, the flooding of coastal cities as the earth warms, or the extinction of species.  I hate when the people in power are ones who just go with their gut, or their faith, or their tribe, or their dialectical materialism, and who don’t even feel self-conscious about the lack of error-correcting machinery in their methods for learning about the world.  I hate when kids with a passion for some topic have that passion beaten out of them in school, and then when they succeed anyway in pursuing the passion, they’re called stuck-up, privileged elitists.  I hate the “macro” version of the same schoolyard phenomenon, which recurs throughout cultures and history: the one where some minority is spat on and despised, manages to succeed anyway at something the world values, and is then despised even more because of its success.

So, until the Singularity arrives, I suppose my vision of utopia is simply more of what I love and less of what I hate!

David Deutsch: Of course I’m opposed to utopianism. Progress comes only through piecemeal, tentative improvements. I think the world will never be perfected, even when everything we think of as problematic today has been eliminated. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. Never satisfied.

Stephen Wolfram: If you mean: what do I personally want to do all day?  Well, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to set up my life to let me spend a large fraction of my time doing what I want to be doing, which usually means creating things and figuring things out.  I like building large, elegant, useful, intellectual and practical structures—which is what I hope I’ve done over a long period of time, for example, with Wolfram Language.

If you’re asking what I see as being the best ultimate outcome for our whole species—well, that’s a much more difficult question, though I’ve certainly thought about it.  Yes, there are things we want now—but how what we want will evolve after we’ve got those things is, I think, almost impossible for us to understand.  Look at what people see as goals today, and think how difficult it would be to explain many of them to someone even a few centuries ago.  Human goals will certainly evolve, and the things people will think are the best possible things to do in the future may well be things we don’t even have words for yet.

Peter Woit: Besides the peace, love and understanding thing, in my utopia everyone else would have as few problems and as much to enjoy about life as I currently do.

Martin Rees: A utopian society would, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal. Two trends are reducing interpersonal trust: firstly, the remoteness and globalization of those we routinely have to deal with; and secondly, the vulnerability of modern life to disruption –- the realization that “hackers” or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life – security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth — but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire Internet more secure. But their current applications – allowing an economy based on crypto-currencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions –seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)

And the world is so interconnected that no utopia could exist on the scale of one nation-state.  Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair– with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries and the plight of the “bottom billion.” And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritize projects that are long-term in a political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.

Tim Maudlin: In the utopian tradition that goes back to Plato (again!) utopias are not supposed to be real places. In Republic, Socrates says that it does not matter whether the ideal state actually exists: it is a pattern by reference to which one can judge the present situation and how it can be improved. There is a reason why Butler’s Erewhon is about a place called “Erewhon”. But as it happens my present not-yet-in-full-existence utopia is well on its way to full-blown reality. It is called the John Bell Institute for the Foundations of Physics, a non-profit institute formed to promote the study, teaching and investigation of the foundations of physics. So far we have our Faculty and Honorary Fellows and Bell Fellows and regular Fellows, and we have identified where our European campus will be (in Bojanić Bad, Hvar, Croatia) and are seeking an American campus in the Rockies. This is putting my views about utopia to the acid test.

Robin Hanson: My personal utopia would be an intellectual world where we actually lived up to most of the intellectual ideals we espouse. Where work is judged mainly on the long term benefit it gives the world, and arguments are accepted no matter how unpalatable their conclusions, or whose ox is gored. I actually think we know a lot about how to construct such a utopia if we wanted – see my work on futarchy and idea futures. The main problem seems to be that most of us don’t actually want my “utopia.”

Tyler Volk: John, having this opportunity to focus for a spell on your great questions: this is it!

Jim Holt: My utopia is a society that consists in its entirety of Tim and Vishnya Maudlin, David Albert, Jenann Ismael, Shelly Goldstein, Barry Loewer, Carlo Rovelli, Hartry Field, Trevor Teitel, and me, all arguing eternally about gauge theory while beautiful girls and comely boys peel grapes for us.

Nick Herbert: In sociology, I am utterly ignorant. My favorite poet Robinson Jeffers (“Shine, Perishing Republic”) held a dim view of human progress. Perhaps we are now living in the Last Golden Age before the Decline of the West. Whatever the case, Nick offers these words as a guide to rightly living in this odd complexity:

Love this well

ere it perish.

And thank you

for your mystery

which I almost entirely

do not understand.

John Horgan: As I argue in Mind-Body Problems, my free, online book, many of us are already living in pretty good utopias, democracies that give us unprecedented freedom to be who we want to be. But things could be—will be!–a lot better. We will recognize how stupid and wrong war is and end it once and for all. With the money we save from demilitarizing we will end poverty, too, improve education and health care for all, and solve the conundrum of climate change. And we will keep giving ourselves more freedom, more choices. Our children and their children will find new ways to be human, to live good, meaningful lives, ways we can’t even imagine now. This weird, wonderful human adventure will never, ever end. Happy Holidays!

Chomsky: Trump is a Distraction, Used by the Deep State to ‘Systematically Destroy’ America


Smashing the two party paradigm Noam Chomsky called out deep state democrats and republicans alike for using Trump as a distraction to destroy America.

World-renowned intellectual giant and respected academic, MIT professor Noam Chomsky recently sat down for an interview called ‘A Continuing Conversation with Geographers’. In the interview, he clearly makes his thoughts known regarding the Trump administration’s ongoing media driven pseudo-scandal involving Russia, and specifically concerning Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer.

Chomsky, the author of more than 100 books, including “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” in which he breaks down how U.S. corporate media has been weaponized as a means of controlling public opinion by propagandizing the American people, didn’t mince his words, previously noting

“It’s a pretty remarkable fact that — first of all, it is a joke. Half the world is cracking up in laughter. The United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like, institutes military dictatorships.”

“Simply in the case of Russia alone—it’s the least of it—the U.S. government, under Clinton, intervened quite blatantly and openly, then tried to conceal it, to get their man Yeltsin in, in all sorts of ways,” said Chomsky. “So, this, as I say, it’s considered—it’s turning the United States, again, into a laughingstock in the world.”

“So why are the Democrats focusing on this?” he said. “In fact, why are they focusing so much attention on the one element of Trump’s programs which is fairly reasonable, the one ray of light in this gloom: trying to reduce tensions with Russia? That’s—the tensions on the Russian border are extremely serious. They could escalate to a major terminal war. Efforts to try to reduce them should be welcomed.”

“Just a couple of days ago,” said Chomsky, “the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock, came out and said he just can’t believe that so much attention is being paid to apparent efforts by the incoming administration to establish connections with Russia.” He said, ‘Sure, that’s just what they ought to be doing.’”

Continuing, Chomsky said, “So, you know, yeah, maybe the Russians tried to interfere in the election. That’s not a major issue. Maybe the people in the Trump campaign were talking to the Russians. Well, okay, not a major point, certainly less than is being done constantly.”

“And it is a kind of a paradox,” he said, “that the one issue that seems to inflame the Democratic opposition is the one thing that has some justification and reasonable aspects to it.”

Maintaining a similar line of thinking in this most recent interview, Chomsky maintained that the Putin meeting should be seen as a responsible gesture of diplomacy rather than collusion with the Russians. He went on to note that the media would better serve the public interest if they actually focused on what is happening behind the scenes of the Trump administration.

“What’s going on is a very systematic two-tiered operation. One of them is Trump, Bannon, the effort to try to make sure you capture the headlines, that you’re top of the news, one crazy thing after another just to capture people’s attention. And the assumption is ‘Well they’re gonna forget later anyway.’”

Essentially, Chomsky believes that the contrived pseudo-scandal that is Russiagate only serves as a distraction from the actual scandalous happenings that are taking place on a daily basis in Washington, D.C., and only serve to embolden the “rich and powerful.”

“While everything is focusing on that, the Paul Ryan republicans, who are, in my view, the most dangerous and savage group in the country, are busy implementing programs that they have been talking quietly about for years. Very savage programs, which have very simple principles. One, be sure to offer to the rich and powerful gifts beyond the dreams of avarice, and [two], kick everyone else in the face. And it’s going on step by step right behind the bluster.”

To drive this point home, Chomsky says one need look no further than the configuration of the cabinet:

“Take a look at the cabinet. The cabinet was designed that way. Every cabinet official was chosen to destroy anything of human significance in that part of the government. It’s so systematic that it can’t be unplanned. I doubt that Trump planned it. My impression is that his only ideology is ‘me’. But whoever is working on it is doing a pretty effective job, and the Democrats are cooperating – cooperating in a very striking way.”

While typically the Democratic party would act as a counterbalance to the GOP agenda, in this Trump-era — with a media circus/reality show environment — Chomsky, a leftist, notes that they have simply played into the media hype over Russia. They are taking what would be looked at under almost any other circumstance as acts of diplomacy and attempting to paint them as scandalous.

“Take a look at the focus in Çongress. It’s one of the few decent things Trump has been doing. So maybe members of his transition team contacted the Russians. Is that a bad thing? Recent ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock, had a blog where he pointed out that ‘It’s exactly what you should be doing. It’s the job of ambassadors and diplomats coming in. There are serious problems and tensions you want to talk over to see if there’s anything you can do about them. Instead of just building up force and violence.’ That’s what the democrats are focusing on, and meanwhile all these other things are going on and they’re not saying anything about them.”

Over the years, Chomsky has refined what he calls, the ‘propaganda model’ of the corporate mass media. He posits that not only does the media systematically suppress and distort, but when they do present facts, the context obscures the actual meaning. In essence, the mass media uses brainwashing to keep people subservient to large corporate interests.

Thus, Chomsky’s words should be taken extremely seriously when he recently referred to news stories being pushed in the mass corporate media, about Trump-Russia “collusion,” as little more than “a joke.” In fact, he says that this neo-McCarthyist/anti-Russia propaganda degrades one of the positive aspects of the Trump administration – a drive to reduce hostility with rival nuclear power Russia.

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