Monday 15 July 2024

Are We Alone in the Universe, or Not? And Does It Matter?

Peering through Saturn’s rings, the Cassini probe caught a glimpse of a faraway planet and its moon. At a distance of just under 900 million miles, Earth shines bright among the many stars in the sky, distinguished by its bluish tint.

By Keith Tidman

The writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” 

But are the two alternatives really terrifying? And even if they were, then what might be the upshot?


In exploring the possible consequences of Clarke’s thought experiment, I’ll avoid enmeshing us in a discussion of whether extraterrestrials have already visited Earth, or whether we will get to visit their planets in the near term. For the foreseeable future, the distances are too large for that to happen, where suspected extraterrestrial civilisations are thousands, millions, or billions of light-years away. Those distances hamper hunts for signals engaged in by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, which metaphorically dips only an infinitesimally small scoop into the vast cosmic ocean. And such distances hamper interstellar travel.


Accordingly, we are currently in no position to respond definitively to the challenge Enrico Fermi, also known as “the architect of the nuclear age,” raised with his lunchtime colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 1950, referring to extraterrestrials: “Where is everybody?”


One piece of crucial context for our conversation here is that of scale: the known universe is currently thought to be some 93 billion light-years in diameter. Recall that a light-year is a measurement of distance, not time, so that in Earthly ‘miles,’ the cosmic diameter is an easy, but boggling, calculation: 93 billion multiplied by 5.8 trillion miles. Add that, in the case of travel or electromagnetic communications (beamed signals) between us and extraterrestrials, the velocity of light is the fixed upper limit — as far as current science is concerned, anyway. All of which is problematic for detecting aliens and their biomarkers or technomarkers, quite apart from anyone engaging in neighbourly interstellar space visitation.


Yet, in a universe kickstarted some 13.8 billion years ago — with hundreds of billions of galaxies, and trillions of stars and planets (many of those exoplanets conceivably habitable, even if not twins of our world) — it’s surely arguable that extraterrestrial civilisations, carbon-based or differently constituted physically, are out there, similarly staring toward the skies, quizzically pondering. Alien cosmologists asking, “Where is everybody?,” making great strides developing their own technology, and calculating probabilities for sundry constants and variables assumed necessary for technologically advanced life to prosper elsewhere.


There are two key assumption in asking whether we are alone in the universe or we are among teeming alien life strewn throughout the universe. The first assumption, of a general nature, is to define ourselves as a conscious, intelligent, sophisticated species; the second is to assume the extraterrestrials we envision in our discussion are likewise conscious and intelligent and sophisticated — at least equally or maybe considerably more so, options we’ll explore.


A third assumption is an evolutionary process, transitioning from physics to chemistry to biology to consciousness. Higher-order consciousness is presumed to be the evolutionary apex both for our species — what it is like to be us — and for extraterrestrials — what it is like to be them. Consciousness may end up the evolutionary apex for our and their machine technology, too. Given that higher-order consciousness is central, we need a baseline for what we mean by the term. Taking a physicalist or materialist point of view, the mind and consciousness are rooted in the neurophysiological activity of the brain, reducible to one and the same. This, rather than existing dualistically in some ethereal, transcendental state separate from the brain, as has sometimes been mythologized.


As a placeholder here, consciousness is assumed to be fundamentally similar in its range of domains both for our species and for extraterrestrials, comprising variations of these features: experience, awareness, perception, identity, sentience, thought experimentation, emotion, imagination, innovation, curiosity, memory, chronicled past, projected future, executive function, curation, normative idealism, knowledge, understanding, cognition, metacognition — among others. On these important fronts, the features’ levels of development between us and extraterrestrials may well differ in form and magnitude.


As for one of Arthur C. Clarke’s alternative scenarios — that our species is alone in the universe — I can’t help but wonder why, then, the universe is so old, big, and still rapidly growing, if the cosmic carnival is experienced by us alone. We might scratch our heads over the seeming lack of sense in that, whereby the imposing panorama captured by space-based telescopes dwarfs us. We might, therefore, construe that particular scenario as favouring an exceptional place for our species in the otherwise unoccupied cosmic wonderment, or in a different (and more terrifying?) vein suggesting our presence is inconsequential.


That is, neither aloneness nor uniqueness necessarily equates to the specialness of a species, but to the contrary a trifling one-off situation. Where we have to come to grips with the indeterminacy of why this majestic display of light-years-sized star nurseries, galaxies rushing toward or away from one another, the insatiability of hungry supermassive black holes, supernovas sending ripples through the faraway reaches of spacetime, and so much more.


As for the possibility of sophisticated other life in the universe, we might turn to the so-called anthropic principle for the possible how and why of such occurrences. The principle posits that many constants of the Earth, of the solar system, of the Milky Way, and of the universe are so extraordinarily fine-tuned that only in those ways might conscious, intelligent, advanced life like ours ever to have evolutionarily come into being.


The universe would be unstable, as the anthropic principle says, if any of those parameters would shift even a minuscule amount, the cosmos being like a pencil balanced precariously on its pointed tip. It’s likely, therefore, that our species is not floating alone in an unimaginably vast, roiling but barren cosmic sea; according to a more expansive view of the error-less anthropic principle, the latter makes the creation and sustenance of extraterrestrial life possible, too, as fellow players in the cosmic froth. Fine-tuned, after all, doesn't necessarily equate to rare. 


We might thus wonder about the consequences for our self-identity and image if some among these teeming numbers of higher-order intelligent extraterrestrials inhabiting the universe got a developmental jumpstart on our species’ civilisation of a million or more years. It’s reasonable to assume that those species would have experienced many-orders-of-magnitude advances biologically, scientifically, technologically, culturally, and institutionally, fundamentally skewing how humanity perceives itself.


The impact of these realities on human self-perception might lead some to worry over the glaring inequality and possibly perceived menace, resulting in dents in the armour of our persistent self-exceptionalism, raising larger questions about our purpose. These are profoundly philosophical considerations. We might thereby opt to capitulate, grasping at straws of self-indulgent excuses. Yet, extraterrestrials capable of interstellar travel might choose — whether for benign purposes (e.g., development, enlightenment, resource sharing), or for malign ones (e.g., hegemonism, hubris, manifest destiny, self-exceptionalism, colonisation), or for a hybrid of reasons — that interventionism, with its mix of calculated and unpremeditated consequences, might seem the natural course.


Our reactions to gargantuan inter-species differences might range from giddy exceptionalism at one end to dimmed significance at the other. On a religious front, a crisis might ensue in the presence of remarkably advanced extraterrestrials, influencing factors surrounding faith, creeds, dicta, values, patriarchy. Some of our religious constructs — scriptures, symbology, philosophies — might collapse as shallow affectations. For example, in light of hyper-advanced extraterrestrials, our history of expressing religious imagery in anthropomorphic terms (our species described doctrinally as being “in God’s image,” for example) may no longer make sense, fundamentally altering belief systems.


We would have to revisit the principles of ethics, including the degree that ethics are culturally and societally contingent. Or the impact might lead to our being elated that life has advanced to such a remarkable degree, covetous for what it might mean for benefits for our species — to model what seems to have worked magnificently for a cutting-edge alien civilisation. The potential for learning vastly advanced natural science and technology and societal paradigms would be immense, where, for instance, extraterrestrials might be hybrids of the best of biology and the best of machines.


As potentially confounding either of Clarke’s scenarios might prove, neither need be terrifying; instead, both scenarios have the potential of being exhilarating. But let me toss one last unavoidable constant into the cosmic cauldron. And this is the concept of entropy — the irreversibly increasing (net) disorder within a closed, isolated system like the universe, with its expanding galactic and stellar separation accelerating toward a thermodynamic demise. Entropy is a fact of life of the universe: providing an expiry date, and eventually rendering everything extinct. The end of history, the end of physics — and the end of metaphysics.


Monday 20 May 2024

America’s Polarised Public Square and the Case of the 2024 Presidential Campaign

Plato’s tale of shadows being misinterpreted in the cave
can be taken as a warning about the dangers of propaganda and misinformation

By Keith Tidman 

There’s a thinking error, sometimes called the Dunning-Kruger effect that warns us that cognitive biases can lead people to overvalue their own knowledge and understanding, amplified by tilted campaign narratives that confound voters. Sometimes voters fail to recognize their patchy ability to referee the truth of what they see and hear from the presidential campaigns and various other sources, including both social media and mainstream media. The effect skews public debate, as the electorate cloisters around hardened policy affecting America’s future. It is a tendency that has prompted many thinkers, from among the ancient Athenians to some of America’s founders, to be wary of democracy.

So, perhaps today more than ever, the manner of political discourse profoundly matters. Disinformation from dubious sources and the razor-edged negative branding of the other candidate’s political positions abound, leading to distrust, rifts, confusion, and polarised partisanship within society. The bursts of incivility and brickbats are infectious, sapping many among the electorate. Witness today’s presidential campaign in the United States.


Even before the conventions of this summer, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are a lock; yet, any expectations of orderliness are an illusion. President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump, with candid campaign devotees deployed alongside, are immersed in spirited political tussles. The limited-government mindset of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke might well stoke the hurrahs of libertarians, but not of the mainstream political parties thriving on the nectar of activism and adversarial politics.


We’re left asking, then, what facts can the electorate trust as they make political choices? With what degree of certainty should the public approach the information they’re served by the campaigns and legions of doctrinaire pundits talking at cross purposes? And is it possible to cut through the diffusion of doctrine and immoderate conviction? 


Facts are indispensable to describing what’s happening inside the political arena, as well as to arbitrate policy changes. Despite the sometimes-uncertain provenance and pertinence of facts, they serve as tinder to fuel policy choices. The cautious expectation is that verifiable facts can translate to the meeting of minds. The web of relationships that gives rise to ideas creates an understanding of the tapestry that the public stitches together from the many fragments. The idealised objective is a Rousseau-like social contract, where the public and elected representatives intend to collaborate in pursuit of the common good — a squishy concept, at best.


Today, anyway, the reality is very different: discourse in the public square often gets trampled, as camps stake out ownership of the politically littered battleground. The combustibility of political back-and-forth makes the exchanges harder, as prickly disputants amplify their differences rather than constructively bridge divides. In the process, facts get shaded by politically motivated groups metaphorically wielding high-decibel bullhorns, reflecting one set or another of political, societal, and cultural norms. Hyperpartisanship displaces bipartisanship. 


Consider the case of refugees and migrants arriving cross-border in the United States. The political atmosphere has been heavy with opposing points of view. One camp, described by some as nativist, contends that porous borders threaten the fabric of the nation. They fear marginalisation, believing “fortress America” is the solution. Another, progressive camp contends that the migrants add to the nation’s economy, enrich our already-dynamic multiculturalism, and on humanitarian grounds merit assistance. Yet, the cantankerous rhetorical parrying between the camps continues to enlarge, not narrow, the political gap.


Disputes over book bans, racial discrimination, reproductive rights, tax policy, inequality, role of religion, public demonstrations, gun safety, rules of democracy, and other normative and transactional wedge issues are equally fraught among intransigent politicians of diametrically contrasting views and immune to persuasion. Such flashpoints are made worse by intra-party, not just cross-party, hubs at boisterous variance with one another — leaving one wondering how best to arrive at a collective of settled norms.


Instead of being the anchors of social discourse, real or disputed facts may be used to propagate discord or to disadvantage the “other.” Facts fuel jaundiced competition over political power and control: and as historian and politician Lord Acton said, such “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Many people complain that this “other” is rooted in systemic bias and ranges across race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, language, religion, education, familial pedigree, and socioeconomics. The view is that marginalisation and disenfranchisement result from the polemical fray, which may have been the underlying aim all along.


Unfortunately, while the world democratises access to information through the ubiquity of technology, individuals with manipulative purposes may take advantage of those consumers of information who are disinclined or unprepared to thoughtfully question the messaging. That is, what do political narratives really say, who’s formulating the narratives, what are their benign or malign purposes, and who’s entrusted with curating and vetting? Both leftwing and rightwing populism roams freely. It recalls Thomas Paine’s advice in The Rights of Man that “moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.” Shrewd advice too often left unheeded in the presidential campaign, and in the churn of events has itself become the tinder of the dissent mentioned above.


Today, dubious facts are scattered across the communications landscape, steering beliefs, driving confirmation bias, stoking messianic zeal, stirring identity warfare, and fueling ill-informed voting. As Thomas Jefferson observed, the resulting uncertainty short-circuits the capacity of ordinary people to subscribe to the notion “That government is the strongest of which every [citizen] feels himself a part.” A notion foundational to democracy, one might say. Accordingly, the public has to grapple with discerning which politicians are honest brokers, or which might beguile. Nor can the public readily know the workings of social media’s opaque algorithms, which compete for the inside track on the content of candidates’ messaging. Communication skirmishes are underway for political leverage between the Biden and Trump campaigns. 


Jettisoning political stridency and hardened positions proves difficult, of course, especially among political evangelists at loggerheads. But it’s doable: The aim of sincere conciliation is to moderate the rancorous political discourse, while not fearing but rather accommodating the unbridled sharing of diverse ideas, which is foundational for democracy operating at its best.  

Monday 6 May 2024

On the Trail of Human Consciousness

By Keith Tidman

Daniel Dennett once called consciousness the “last surviving mystery” humankind faces. That may be premature and even a bit hyperbolic, but not by much. At the very least, consciousness ranks among the biggest of the remaining mysteries. Two questions central to this are: Does the source of conscious experience rest solely in the neurophysiology of the brain, reducible to myriad sets of mechanical functions that necessarily conform to physical laws? Or, as some have contended, is consciousness somehow airily, dualistically separate from the brain, existing in some sort of undefinably ethereal dimension? 

Consciousness is an empirical, bridge-like connection to things, events, and conditions, boiling down to external stimuli that require vetting within the brain. Conscious states entail a wide range of human experiences, such as awareness, identity, cognition, wakefulness, sentience, imagination, presence in time and space, perception, enthrallment, emotion, visions of alternative futures, anchors to history, ideation, attention, volition, sense of agency, thought experimentation, self-optimisation, memories, opinions — and much more. Not to forget higher-order states of reality, able to include the social, political, legal, familial, educational, environmental, scientific, and ethical norms of the community. The process includes the brain's ability to orchestrate how the states of consciousness play their roles in harmony. As philosopher Thomas Nagel therefore concluded, “there is something it is like to be [us]” — that something being our sense of identity, acquired through individual awareness, perception, and experience.

The conscious mind empirically, subjectively edits objective reality. In the phrase of David Chalmers, philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, “there is a whir of information processing” as all that complexly happens. The presence of such states makes it hard, if not impossible, to disbelieve our own existence as just an illusion, even if we have hesitancy about the accuracy of our perception of the presumed objective reality encircling us. Thought, introspection, sensing, knowing, belief, the arrow of perpetual change — as well as the spatial and temporal discernments of the world — contribute to confirming what we are about. It’s us, in an inexorable abundance of curiosity, wondering as we gaze upon the micro to the macro dimensions of the universe.


None of these states, however, requires the presence of mysterious goings-on — an “ethereal mind,” operating on a level separate from the neuronal, synaptic activity of the brain. Accordingly, “consciousness is real and irreducible,” as Dennett’s fellow philosopher, John Searle, observed while pointing out that the seat of consciousness is the brain; “you can’t get rid of it.” True enough. The centuries-old Cartesian mind-body distinction, with its suspicious otherworldly spiritual, even religious, underpinnings and motive, has long been displaced by today’s neuroscience, physics, and biology. Today, philosophers of mind cheerfully weigh in on the what-if modeling aspects of human consciousness. But it must be said that the baton for elucidating consciousness, two and a half millennia after the ancient world’s musings on the subject, has been handed off to the natural sciences. And there is every reason to trust the latter will eventually triumph, filling the current explanatory gap — whether the path to ultimate understanding follows a straight line or, perhaps more likely, zigs and zags. A mix of dusky and well-lit alleys.


Sensations, like the taste of silky chocolate, the sight of northern lights, the sound of a violin concerto, the smell of a petunia, hunger before an aromatic meal, pleasure from being touched, pain from an accident, fear of dark spaces, roughness of volcanic rock, or happiness while watching children play on the beach, are sometimes called qualia. These are the subjective, qualitative properties of experience, which purportedly differ from one person to another. Each person interpreting, or editing, reality differently, whether only marginally so or perhaps to significant extents — all the while getting close enough to external reality for us to get on with everyday life in workably practical ways. 

So, for example, my experience of an icy breeze might be different from yours because of differences — even microscopically — between our respective neurobiological reactions. This being the subjective nature of experience of the same thing, at the same time and in the same place. And yet, qualia might well be, in the words of Chalmers, the “hard problem” in understanding consciousness; but they aren’t an insoluble problem. The individualisation of these experiences, or something that seems like them, will likely prove traceable to brain circuitry and activity, requiring us to penetrate the finer-coarse granularity of the bustling mind. Consciousness can thus be defined as a blend of what our senses absorb and process, as well as how we resultantly act. Put another way, decisions and behaviours matter.


The point is, all this neurophysiological activity doesn’t merely represent the surfacing or emergence or groundswell of consciousness, it is consciousness — both necessary and sufficient. That is, mind and consciousness don’t hover separate from the brain, in oddly spectral form. It steadfastly remains a fundamentally materialist framework, containing the very nucleus of human nature. The promise is that in the process of developing an increasingly better understanding of the complexity — of the nuance and richness — of consciousness, humanity will be provided with a vital key for unlocking what makes us, us


Monday 15 April 2024

Models, Metaphysics and Reality: How Philosophy keeps science on track

By Rob Hamilton

Does God exist? What is consciousness? How can we know what is real?

Questions such as these have always perplexed humanity and despite the great advances made over recent centuries in understanding the behaviour of the world around us, we seem to be no closer to answering these core questions about the nature of existence.

In my new book Anything Goes – A Philosophical Approach to Answering the God Question, I argue that, paradoxically, answers to these questions can be obtained – but only once we recognise that no knowledge of the true structure of reality is possible. What do I mean by this? Well, essentially that claims about the structure of reality are models that describe the way our experience of how the world behaves. It is these models that then become our reality.

Put short, all the world is models

The popular notion of how science progresses is that we are steadily, if slowly, getting closer to the truth about the nature of the world around us. Indubitably, as time has gone on, scientific advances have been made and, yes, we have reached the stage where two great theories, Einstein’s General Relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics, provide us with a nearly complete description of the universe. We just need some clever physicists to iron out a few wrinkles like dark matter and dark energy in a Theory of Everything, and then we will have arrived at the Truth of how reality is structured.

The naivety of this belief is striking, a point highlighted by 20th century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, when he pointed out that scientific theories can never be proven to be true. Rather, they are working assumptions about the way the world is, that are supported by the evidence. Until they aren’t. 

Take Newton’s theory of gravity: this was thought to be true until anomalies like the precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury were discovered. Nowadays, it is Einstein’s theory that provides the correct answer. But this raises the possibility that if we manage to come up with a Theory of Everything, who is to say that one day we will not conduct an experiment or make an observation that contradicts this theory too? For this reason, even if physicists were to discover the true structure of reality, they could never know it! 

“Okay”, some might say. “Although we can never know that we have reached the truth, at least we can say that our current theories are ‘more true’ than the previous ones”. This view is known as Convergent Realism and was powerfully critiqued in a 1981 paper by the philosopher Larry Laudan. 

At the everyday level, Einstein’s theory actually provides only very slightly different results to Newton’s, but the way it characterises the universe is completely different. Newton’s theory is set in the common-sense world of three-dimensional space plus a separate conception of time. Einstein’s is based on the notion of curved four-dimensional spacetime. Who can say what the universe will look like according to the next theory? As Schrödinger quipped, quantum mechanics tells us that cats can be alive and dead at the same time and that the building blocks of our universe can be both waves and particles. Weird, yes, but might it be that the true nature of the universe is just as weird and perhaps even beyond our ability to comprehend? 

Ultimately, scientific theories are models of the way the universe works. They allow us to understand the universe in terms of its behaviour, and we can use them to predict how the macroscopic objects of our experience, such as tables, stars and light bulbs behave. They do this by characterising the universe in a certain way that helps us get to grips with it. Because, as humans, we just do not have the tools to find out what the universe is ‘really like’.

The Map is the territory

Now comes the plot twist. The surprising but unavoidable consequence of this conceptual speed limit, is that the structure or make-up of this reality that we are modelling is irrelevant! It is only reality’s behaviour that matters. It is reality’s behaviour that we are modelling and a good model will predict its behaviour well. But if reality’s structure is unknowable and elusive, then it will forever remain a shadowy mysterious thing lying behind the veil. It is only the structure and objects of our models that can be known to us. These are the things that we live by and that give our lives meaning. And so these are the only objects that can be considered ‘real’ in any meaningful sense – if the objects of our models are not real, then nothing is real.

And so, what we have here, I would argue, is a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Many scientists and physicists are aware that all of our understanding is in terms of our models, but avoid engaging with the implications of this, because it is unnecessary for day to day work and raises difficult questions. They cling to the idea that there must be a ‘right answer’ out there, because if there isn’t, then well doesn’t everything fall apart? Where are the standards of correctness? What is to stop us from just claiming that whatever we like is true? In my book, I argue that these worries are unfounded. Although the structure of reality is unknowable, the good news is that it does behave in a certain way. And so not all models are created equal.

Anything Goes

I like to call this way of thinking the ‘Anything Goes’ method, because with no knowable reality to assess our models against, the only standard of correctness is a consideration of whether your model produces sensible results. And there is more to modelling reality than just the laws of physics. Even the idea that there is some kind of external reality, that is the source of our experiences, is part of this model that gives us an explanation for why our experiences behave in the way they do. Ultimately, each of us needs to find a way of making sense of our experiences in a way that works for us. In that sense, Anything Goes.

I think that this way of thinking is revolutionary! Once we recognise that it’s all a matter of perspective – that there are no disembodied facts about the universe in any useful sense, we can make progress in all sorts of areas that have previously proved intractable. Does God exist? It depends on your model. Is Schrödinger’s Cat alive or dead? Well, from whose perspective? Schrödinger’s or the cat’s? How would we tell if an Artificial Intelligence model attained consciousness? 

In my book, in order to find answers to questions like this last one, I ask what it means to say that an entity that only exists as part of your model of reality has a mind of its own as well as whether solipsism could be true, what it’s like to be a bat and whether you could be a brain in a vat!

All these questions and more are addressed in Anything Goes – A Philosophical Approach to Answering the God Question, due to be released on Amazon on 3 June 2024.

Visit  to find out more as well as for details of how to get a free advance copy.

Monday 4 March 2024

Picture Post #43 The Importance of Empathy


'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'


Posted by Martin Cohen


I remember reading about Nazi Germany, which is truly the only comparison that makes sense when looking at Israel's genocidal hatred of all things Palestinian. The ordinary German people used to line the streets and toss bread to Jews in the wagons as they went past on their way to concentration camps.  They did this for AMUSEMENT - they laughed at the people scrabbling for the scraps, like animals. 

The point is, ordinary Germans felt their Jewish neighbours were not "people'. Something of the same cruel indifference governs the behaviour of Israelis to their Palestinian neighbours today. The picture is powerful because it reveals what happens where common humanity has disappeared.

AP photographer Tsafrir Abayov, who has been covering the border between Israel and Gaza for almost 20 years commented in the Independent:
“I grew up in Ashkelon about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Gaza, and I’ve been covering the Israel-Gaza border for almost 20 years, so I know this border from end to end. I have a lot of spots where I know I can get a good shot. On this day, I was driving by and I saw a group of female soldiers who had gone up to a tank position on the Israeli side, about 50 meters (164 feet) from the border. I don’t think these soldiers are normally stationed there. They just went up to take a look. From this position you can see right into Gaza — and all the destruction.”

Monday 29 January 2024

Bittersweet Ballads

Children playing amidst the rubble of damaged buildings in a camp for Palestinian refugees

By Martin Cohen

Palestine Wail and Other Bittersweet Ballads is a collection of poems by Yahia Lababidi. Yahia, as he recalls, has a personal connection to the conflict in Palestine, because his grandmother, Rabiha Dajani, was, seventy-five years ago, forced to flee her ancestral home in Palestine at gunpoint. She went on to become a remarkable educator, activist and social worker.

The collection starts with an apt quotation. Mahmoud Darwish’s aphorism that:
«Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.»

These are poems like ‘We Were Playing with the Clouds’ by the Palestinian artist and activist, Ghassan Kanafani (1936 – 1972), which runs:

I wish children didn’t die.
I wish they would be temporarily elevated
to the skies until the war ends.

Then they would return home safe,
And when their parents would ask them,
where were you? They would say,
we were playing in the clouds.

Yahia himself writes, by way of an introduction to the collection:

‘The death of one child, due to natural causes, is nearly unbearable. The systematic, cold-blooded murder of thousands of innocent children, in the name of so-called ‘self-defense’, is an unjustifiable moral obscenity. Yet, this is what the Israeli government continues to do and it is appalling that there remain democratic nations as well as civilized individuals who find it difficult to unequivocally condemn such depravity and call for a ceasefire. Who will honor these blameless, anonymous martyrs? How can we remain silent in the face of such atrocities?’

‘Words matter, since narratives shape realities and, in turn, how history is told and who is deemed worthy of our sympathies. That’s why artists are deemed dangerous, for daring to speak truth to power. It is, especially, significant for example that since October 7th, more than 70 Palestinian journalists have been killed, in Gaza, in the line of duty while Israel has murdered at least thirteen Palestinian poets and writers in Gaza.’

‘Our understanding of the human condition is diminished without the emotionally imaginative and spiritually-enriching witness of storytellers and artists. We know from watching the news that narratives are grossly distorted when high-jacked by corrupt politicians and compromised media. As a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Malcom X, succinctly put it: “If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’

As a case in point, just over a month ago, young Palestinian poet, scholar and activist, Dr Refaat Alareer, was assassinated by a targeted Israeli airstrike, along with his brother, sister and her four children. Anticipating his own death, Alareer shared this heart-rending poem, just one month prior to his murder by Israeli forces:

If I must die
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze–
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself–
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love

If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale.

But this is a collection of new poetry by Yahia Lababidi so let us include now this one – by way of a taster. The reader is sincerely encouraged to seek out the rest in the collection.

The Light-keepers

Hope is a lighthouse

(or, at least, a lamppost) 

someone must keep vigil

to illumine this possibility

In the dark, a poet will climb 

narrow, unsteady stairs

to gaze past crashing waves 

and sing to us new horizons

Others, less far-sighted, might 

be deceived by the encroaching night

mistake the black for lasting, but 

not those entrusted with trimming wicks

Their tasks are more pressing —

winding clockworks, replenishing oil –

there is no time for despair

when tending to the Light.

Commenting on the collection, James Crews, author of Unlocking the Heart: Writing for Mindfulness, Creativity, and Self-Compassion, writes: 

‘These are necessary and truthful poems. Yahia Lababidi powerfully illuminates this heartbreaking time and terrible season in the history of our world. This book, like a lantern in darkness, brings to light the truth of lives we must learn to honor and remember.’

And do check out Yahia’s YouTube channel where he regularly includes readings of his poems.

Monday 8 January 2024

What's in a name?

By Shoidur Rahman

French Martinique: no marionette martinet then, or nightingale. Thus begins this tail, as all tails do, quietly and decently, but rising to prenominal elaboration. The jackdaw may crakkajack alone, but listens to the earth call of toucan.

Now the toucan’s brow is so heavily, crossly drawn, a look of ineffable concentration is there like beetlebrow. But it's also endearingly light and playful as well. Wait, my bird, ‘til I get to the bottom of this tail. Wait, ‘til I end my song.

His crumpled orange beak is sharp, not yet for this world – nor so flash that he could start to work it like a hip-hop hopeful, complicity, asininely imitatio - but as a scimitar he might use it as a dagger, instead. - Fan that tail! But only just so – modestly! 

Don't grauble or grumble or grovel in the dirt, like a turkey. Be glossy, a high shine, be as polishedly black as any upperclass British person of high decorum wearing bowler hat and clipped moustache and suit. Be as black as the polished wood veneer of the effigies of a certain yesteryear, a toucan squat be on my windowsill bookshelf. 

But if in your boots you see reflected your own face, have a care you don't remember poor Indian shoe shine boys, who wore the big turbans, who daily pushed the brush, shovelling hay and other shit stuff, but never grovelled, earned only a rupee a day, or exchanged it so that their brother could eat. Only let it be, so that it live.

He’s quite fine, toucan, complete within these sheaves of leaf and shade, his tropical retreat. The black men come and go, toiling in the blazing sun. But his eye is gimleted, and he’s quick to scuttle, two at a time, on clawed feet, breathing respiration in a big billowing sky, which descends to our planet like the calmest bluest sheet you've ever seen…

Monday 25 December 2023


The ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan to in conversation with the contemporary novelist Mo Yan, Courtesy AI.

By Chengde Chen

Oh, AI, are you the Southern Gate between the known and unknown

Or the Monkey King of humanoid capabilities, unparalleled and bold?

You, on my behalf, think, write, design, and program,

Responding effortlessly, seeking widely, and chatting with ease.

Your literary prowess is like galloping from Qu Yuan* to Mo Yan**,

Your profound knowledge spans from Thales’ to Musk’s domain.

Your ‘deep learning’ leaves me trailing in the dust,

While your ‘algorithmic’ space unifies man and God!

I know you’re a machine, yet I envy your intelligence,

You're clearly my invention, yet exposing my incompetence.

I should celebrate your arrival, yet fear self-destruction,

I want to reject you, yet dread delaying the theory of evolution.

Ah, please tell me, how should I truly treat you?

Is it really your insidious duty to replace us?
I wish I could transform into your ‘artificial intelligence’,

Let you taste the mixed flavours humans experience facing AI!

*Qu Yuan (300 BC) is regarded as the greatest poet in early Chinese history—the first author of verse in China to have his name associated with his work.

**Mo Yan is a Chinese novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.


Tuesday 5 December 2023

Chernobyl's Philosophical Lesson

How to Slay the Nuclear Zombie? 

By Martin Cohen

Review article on the occasion of the publication of ‘Chernobyl’ by Emin Altan

Now here's a coffee table debate starting book with a difference. Emin Altan’s photographic tale of the nuclear power station that exploded on 26 April 1986 is both a grim journey and yet somehow a poetic one. Page after page of evocative images – black and white with just a hint of lost colour – speak not only about the folly of nuclear power, but of the greater folly of human conceit.

The images in the book for the most part fall into two categories. There are the are ones from the radiation-soaked exclusion zone that actually could be taken almost anywhere where human plans have been thwarted and decay has set in. A basketball court strewn with rubble, juxtaposed with a rediscovered photo – hopelessly mouldy – of children in gym gear exercising with sticks is an example that caught my eye. You sense that these children were imagining themselves as future world-beaters, and the reality of human transcience is brought home by the peeling decay of the abandoned gym.

There is a beauty in these decaying photographs that Altan’s book powerfully conveys. The book plays with images of life that are also images of death. This is a photographic essay that is about much more than Chernobyl. Better would be to say that it is about existential questions of human existence. Scenes of life abruptly halted blended with decades of inevitable decay But then, you might wonder, how does nuclear energy, always keen to claim to be the brave and the new, fit in? But it does very well, because, as I say in my contribution for the book, nuclear energy is a zombie technology… a technology that arises from the grave, if not every night, seemingly every decade, before stalking the Earth in pursuit of hapless victims.

Nuclear energy is eye-wateringly expensive, with effectively unlimited downstream costs for dealing with shuttered power stations and radioactive waste. It is the only human strategy for energy generation that also comes with a very real risk of one day destroying all human life on the planet.

Another paradox is that, in recent years the nuclear industry has sold its reactors not to wealthy countries - but to the world’s poorest: Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia… Why do such countries sign up for nuclear? The answer is finance deals, and dirty money for regimes. Which is why India and China, countries in which millions of people live below the poverty line and can’t afford electricity at all, are the world’s biggest spenders on nuclear.

However, the reasons why, once upon a time, all self-respecting environmentalists hated nuclear power are still there. It produces invisible pollution— radiation— with the potential to seep everywhere, causing genetic diseases that interfere with nature. After the explosion at Chernobyl, an invisible cloud slowly spread across the Earth poisoning food chains and leaving toxic residues in the seas and soils. Residues that would be toxic for thousands of years… And Chernobyl could have been far worse, had it not been for the heroism coupled with (ironically) the ignorance of the people who fought to prevent the plant exploding.

When I researched nuclear’s real share of the world energy pie for my book, The Doomsday Machine, a few years ago, what emerged very clearly was that renewables, including old technologies like hydroelectric, played a secondary but significant of the energy mix - but nuclear did not. It was, I wrote then, merely ‘the cherry’ on the top of the energy pie.

Because, while the technology of renewables steadily becomes cheaper and more efficient, nuclear energy steadily increases in cost, while efficiency gains remain purely speculative. Put another way, energy is a very complex issue, and simple one-size-fits-all solutions won’t work. It’s true, as as the nuclear lobby says, that renewables cannot easily replace nuclear for energy intensive industries and that their output is by nature erratic. It’s also true that for all the rhetoric, global primary energy consumption has not only increased over the last century, but has increased exponentially.

The conclusion, then surely, is that part of the solution to the world’s energy problem, the solution that removes the need for nuclear, is we have to stop the ever-increasing rate of energy consumption. However, this apparently virtuous aim is complicated, indeed made not virtuous at all, when it is realised that at the moment most of the world’s population already use rather modest amounts of energy, while it is a rich elite who gobble up the lion’s share. Yes, the careless consumption of the world’s rich has to be curbed, but on the other hand, a more equal distribution of income in the world must inevitably also create higher energy demand. Because, today, hundreds of millions of people lack access to sufficient energy, often with dire consequences for themselves and the environment. When people lack access to electricity for cooking and heating, they rely on solid fuel sources – mostly firewood, but also dung and crop waste. The use of wood for fuel often contributes to deforestation – even if in principle wood can be cropped sustainably. Electricity, on the other hand, allows refrigeration of food; washing machines for clothes; and light to read at night. In some countries today, children can be found sitting under street lights to do their homework. The energy problem of half of the world is energy poverty.

Fortunately, the kinds of energy needed by these families and individuals are increasingly within the ability of renewables to provide, while the demands of industry are flat or declining and possible to meet within the current energy mix – without needing nuclear. Without, likewise, needing us to answer all the existential questions. Which is just as well, as surely these have no easy answers.

Monday 6 November 2023

A Poem comparing Confucius and Marx (with a twist)

By Chengde Chen

I just asked ChatGPT, one of the new artificial intelligence to write a poem about Confucius and Marx. You can see what I got below:

Confucius and Marx 
In ancient halls where wisdom's flame did burn,
Two minds emerged, in different times they'd yearn.
Confucius, sage of old, with noble grace,
His thoughts engraved in time, a lasting trace.

In golden words, he spoke of virtue's way,
Harmony and order, like the break of day.
His Analects, a guide for hearts and minds,
A path to walk, where virtue intertwines.

Marx, a modern thinker, bold and keen,
In times of change, a revolutionary dream.
He saw the struggle, class against class,
A call for justice, echoing like glass.

Confucius sought the moral man's design,
Harmony in life, like a vintage wine.
Marx, the critic, saw the chains of fate,
Called for a revolution, a new state.

Two voices echo through the corridors,
Philosophers distinct, like distant shores.
Confucius with tradition, hand in hand,
Marx, the visionary, reshaping the land.

In ancient scrolls and communist tomes,
Their words live on, in intellectual homes.
Confucius and Marx, an unlikely pair,
Yet their ideas dance in the cosmic air.

I really think we poets, and writers generally, are close to be being made redundant by it, and I feel lucky to get my novel published before it came! . A philosopher friend (Donald Gillis) recently talked to me about this question: how should we define AI knowledge – and what is the difference between a computer gaining from ‘deep learning’ from numerous documents – and humble humans learning from experience? 

(Oh, and the image for the poem was also created by artificial intelligence!)

Thursday 26 October 2023

Why Don't People Seem to Care about Palestinian Lives?

Palestine is being ‘ethnically clensed’ in plain sight - yet the West seems indifferent

By Martin Cohen

Palestine is being ‘ethnically cleansed’ in plain sight - yet the West seems indifferent. Why is this? Wherever you start, the trail soon leads back to US politics.

How close is the current U.S. President, Joe Biden to Israel and how much influence does the US have over Israeli policy? The answer is “very” and “not much”. In 2010, in the middle of the then-vice president’s trip to Israel, the ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu government embarrassed Biden by announcing 1,600 new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, which was supposed to be the future capital of a future Palestinian rump state. Biden is notoriously aggressive and won’t normally tolerate any disagreement. Thus, in a 2022 article for Axios, entitled ‘Old Yeller: Biden's Private Fury’, Alex Thompon notes how:

“Being yelled at by the president has become an internal initiation ceremony in this White House, aides say — if Biden doesn't yell at you, it could be a sign he doesn't respect you.’

But with Israel, it seems the situation is rather different.

One of Netanyahu’s advisors, Uzi Arad, later revealed that when Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Biden soon after publicly humiliating him, Biden threw his arm around “Bibi” and said with a smile, “Just remember that I am your best fucking friend here.” Likewise, in 2012, Biden publicly said to Netanyahu: 

“Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”

In vain, it seems, do advisors try to educate Biden about the complex politics of the region. About memories like that of the Nakba, at the heart of this ignored history. This is a term which means “catastrophe” in Arabic. It refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Prior to this, contrary to claims that Arabs and Jews cannot live together, Palestine was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. However, the conflict between Arabs and Jews intensified in the 1930s with the increase of Jewish immigration, driven by persecution in Europe, and with the Zionist movement aiming to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. It is always unpopular to state it, but in fact Hitler supported the idea which surely tells you want a terrible one it always was.

Today, the politics of Americans – and many other countries too, including the U.K –  with respect to Israel is characterised by three things. Prejudice against Arabs - who are seen as various kinds of “terrorist”; ignorance and indifference to the history of the region. However, American politics add in one other ingredient, and a most dangerous one too,  which is an irrational conviction that the Bible predicts the Second Coming of the Messiah – but only once the Holy Land is reunited under Israeli control. It has even been suggested that Joe Biden is part of this evangelical cult, though I have no way of knowing if this rumour is true. What I do know is that this ridiculous and irrational view has considerable influence on both Democrat and Republican parties. It feeds into a political consensus that, one way or bloody another, Palestine needs to become “Israel”.

Nonetheless, in November 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (with Jerusalem under UN administration). When, understandably, the Arab world rejected the plan, Jewish militias launched attacks against Palestinian towns and villages, forcing tens of thousands to flee. The situation escalated into a full-blown war in 1948. The result of this war was the permanent displacement of more than half of the Palestinian population.

Today, most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees from the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 war, and more than half are under the age of 18. Apart from the tragedy of forcibly displacing children, attempts to blame the inhabitants of Gaza for either “voting for” Hamas or not resisting them are hollow given this age distribution.

Today too, due to Israel’s siege of Gaza, the majority of Palestinians there no longer have access to basic needs such as healthcare, water, sanitation services, and electricity. Prior to the siege, their situation was already pretty desperate: according to the UN, 63 percent of the population was dependent on international aid; 80 percent lived in poverty and 95 percent did not have access to clean water.
Alas, many American voters have been encouraged to feel indifference to Palestinian suffering for decades, and instead have passively accepted an alternative reality in which the Jewish people not only there - but worldwide - are a persecuted but courageous minority. Never mind that nearly six million Americans are Jewish and live pretty safely there…

The bottom line then is that, in the normal way, there is NO political price to be paid by the Democrats for supporting the Israeli government in its latest, murderous expansion of “Jewish areas”. However, this time, I actually think is NOT normal.

The catch is, despite Biden's "unconditional" support, Israel knows the Palestinians won't conveniently flee abroad (despite so many being killed at the moment, with highly publicise strategies of cutting off water and bombing hospitals) so its strategy becomes one of just killing. But Gaza alone contains some 600 000 people - mostly children. If they won’t flee, then they need to be killed. After all, Gaza was already a kind of prison. It will be hard to square that circle.

When I was younger, I remember meeting some of the "IDF heroes" of the last war - certainly they fought at a significant disadvantage against well-armed foes. Could it be today that the 360 000 reservists now begin to doubt their commanders? I think it is possible. However, If not, they will soon find themselves wading through civilian bodies in the rubble of Palestinian homes.

But back to a question posed recently on Quora will Biden pay a price for his indifference to the plight of millions of Palestinians? No, in the short term,  I don’t see Biden or anyone else paying a price for this. However, in the longer term – indeed maybe as soon as within a few months – I think things will look very different At which point, either Israel corrects itself (as Netanyahu represents only a small minority) – or history will do it for them.

Further reading on Palestine