Humanism and Stoicism: Relevant Philosophies for Modern Thinkers

HumanistsMN and Minnesota Stoics collaborated on June 4, 2022, to present a “compare and contrast” between humanism and Stoicism.

Gabriel Blott of MN Stoics and Audrey Kingstrom of HumanistsMN discussed a handful of major topics and how each tradition views them. They covered core principles and practices, ethics to politics, the division of individual vs personal responsibility, and much more.

Held at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, the discussion was moderated and MC’d by Rev. Dr. David Breeden of FUS, who has a wealth of knowledge and passion for both traditions.

These three engaging presenters gave us a great overview and the conversation was lively and informative. Watch a video of the panel below.

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April 2022: The Science of Mental Immunity

Andy Norman, author of the book Mental Immunity and director of the Humanism Initiative at Carnegie Mellon Universityspoke at our April Community Gathering about ways we can inoculate ourselves against irrational thinking and conspiracy theories.

Watch a video of Norman’s presentation below (introduction starts at 23:13).

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National Day of Reason 2022

Sarah Levin

By Suzanne Perry

After a two-year pandemic-related absence, HumanistsMN returned to the State Capitol on May 5 to observe the National Day of Reason, which honors the principles of secular lawmaking and separation of religion and government.

As in 2019, we joined hands with First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and Or Emet – the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism to sponsor a breakfast with legislators to affirm that policy should be based on reason, science, and evidence, not on religious preference.

At the Capitol and at a brewpub event the evening before, our guest speaker  — secular-voters organizer Sarah Levin (pictured)  — urged us to mobilize to counter the growing threat of Christian nationalism and dogma-influenced policymaking, for example the draft Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Thanks to the legislators who attended the breakfast, including Senators Jim Carlson and Jen McEwen and Representatives Robert Bierman, Heather Edelson, Sandra Feist, Mike Freiberg, and Todd Lippert.

We were pleased to get support from 15 advocacy and secular groups in Minnesota and beyond. Representatives from ACLU of Minnesota, Camp Quest North, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, Compassion & Choices Minnesota, and OutFront Minnesota spoke at the Capitol. The following additional groups endorsed the event: Black Nonbelievers, Central Minnesota Freethinkers, Gender Justice, Jewish Community Action, Jews for a Secular Democracy, Lake Superior Freethinkers, Minnesota Atheists, Rochester Area Freethinkers, Secular Student Alliance, and UU Humanist Association.

We know many people support the Day of Reason principles. As Sarah Levin advised, we just need to organize to increase our political clout!

Photos by Craig Stilen

Harlan Garbell, HumanistsMN

Allan Malkis, Or Emet

HMN Welcomers Stephanie Schwinn and Christine Retkwa

Day of Reason audience in the Capitol Vault

Rep. Robert Bierman

Rep. Heather Edelson with HMN’s Audrey Kingstrom

Rep. Sandra Feist

Rep. Mike Freiberg


Rep. Todd Lippert

Sen. Jen McEwen

Julio Zalaya, ACLU of Minnesota

Andi Kurbondski, Camp Quest North

Jerry Gale, Christians Against Christian Nationalism

Rebecca Thoman, Compassion & Choices Minnesota

Matt Lewellen-Otten, OutFront Minnesota



We Did Good in Our Community!

By Christine Retkwa

Brett Gebhard and Christine Retkwa (below) helped clear trash near highway 35W.

Humanists were out and about during HumanistsMN’s participation in the national Secular Week of Action, coordinated by Foundation Beyond Belief. Our events:

  •  Fifteen people worked hard at The Food Group, packing boxes of meats for the program that supplies food at wholesale prices in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The group packed over two tons of food!
  •  About a dozen humanists risked getting soaked and cleaned river bluffs and nearby Minnehaha park at an event organized by Friends of the Mississippi. Thankfully the rain stayed away!
  •  Nine hard workers scoured the brush on the shoulders of 35W in Lino Lakes, collecting at least 20 bags of trash — all to the music of appreciative honks from motorists.  “Treasures” large and tiny were collected.
  •  Our last event of this period  — doing yard clean-up for some St. Paul seniors — was postponed until Saturday, May 14. Please join us if you are available! 

We know that many of you volunteer with other organizations and have roles outside of HumanistsMN activities – from the arts to education to the environment. For example, HMN volunteer Ginny Redgrave staffs the front desk at the Museum of Russian Art and is a longtime member of the Friends of the Cemetery, a volunteer group that supports the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.  

Thank you for all you do to help your neighbors and make our community as fabulous as it can be.

Here’s to Doing Good in our community!  Watch for future opportunities throughout the year!  And if you have suggestions on other activities, contact

Christine Retkwa is co-chair of HMN’s Humanists in Action team.

Winning the Lottery

By Harlan Garbell

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

—Leon Trotsky

Vietnam annual draft lottery

There is a genre of fiction called “alternate history” (sometimes referred to as “alternative history”). You no doubt have either read a novel or watched a movie or television program based on an alternate history of events. Some of these books or programs are very good, some not. But they all challenge us to see the world as it might have been had someone made a different choice, or had chance intervened to change the trajectory of human events.

As I have aged and looked back on my own life, I have often marveled at how things could have been so different had I made just one different choice. In many ways, your reading this article at this moment in time is really the culmination of innumerable choices, or choices not made, by both you and me over our lifetimes. Many of those choices were wise, some were not. Even so, here we are.

We also need to factor in chance. Hasn’t chance played a prominent role in your life, where luck, either good or bad, significantly changed the trajectory of your life? For example, think about how you met your partner or significant other. Did you meet in a class at college? If so, what if your future partner was able to get into that class only because someone else dropped out at the last minute? You get the idea.

However, that is really just scratching the surface of how we, at this precise moment, came to be who we are. We would also need to factor in the choices of both of our parents (biological and adoptive) during their lifetimes. Right? And why stop there? What about the choices of their biological parents, and so on. For example, what if your grandparents decided to immigrate to America in 1912 instead of Australia only because a cousin wrote a letter to your grandfather saying jobs were plentiful in the mills along the Mississippi River here in Minneapolis.

But even then you would need to factor in chance, or perhaps more correctly in your grandparents’ case, choices made by others over which they had no control. For example, what if your grandparents chose to come to America in steerage on the passenger liner Titanic in that year? As you may know from reading history (or seeing the movie), the captain of that ship (Edward J. Smith) made the foolish choice to maintain his current speed and disregard the danger of icebergs. So, in effect, those unfortunate souls who drowned could have included your grandparents and there would be no “you” to read this article.

I have always been fascinated by the intersection of individual choices with historical events, which are usually beyond the control of the average individual. And how that intersection of choice and chance can then set off a further chain of events leading to the present moment. For example, in my own life I made a very unwise choice to drop out of college during my sophomore year. I was not very happy with what I was doing and where I was at and thought I could always pick up my studies at a later time without consequences.

Why was this choice unwise? I made this decision in March 1965. For those of you who don’t remember (or are too young), that was the month the first U. S. combat troops (3,500 Marines) landed in South Vietnam on orders from President Johnson to enter into the ongoing war between the South Vietnamese government and local insurgents, the Viet Cong. That was also the month that the U.S. first started bombing North Vietnam in what was ominously called “Operation Rolling Thunder.”

Consequentially, the United States went from being a military advisor in a war to being at war. By dropping out of college, I had lost my student deferment, resulting in my receiving a letter a month or so later from the U.S. Selective Service informing me that I was now classified 1-A- “Available for Military Service.” So, bottom line, I cleverly managed to lose my student deferment from being drafted into the armed forces in the very same month that our country went to war. (Nice work, kid!)

In February 1965 the Selective Service inducted 3,000 young men into the Army. In March that number increased to 15,000 inductees per month. In July it more than doubled to 35,000 per month. I had planned on returning to college in September but now realized that those plans were in jeopardy. Johnson was not playing around; the U.S. was fully committed to defending South Vietnam from a Communist takeover.

Then came a twist in my fortunes. In July 1965 I was playing a pickup basketball game outdoors when I felt a sharp pain in my chest. The pain did not subside and I was barely able to make it to the nearest hospital emergency room. I was promptly examined and treated for a collapsed lung (pneumothorax). I remained in the hospital for a few days thereafter and at the time thought this was an unlucky break.

I went back to college in September but learned to my chagrin that I no longer was eligible for a further deferment. When I was inevitably called up for my draft physical in December of that year my lung had apparently not fully healed and I was classified 1-Y- “Qualified for Service Only in Time of War or National Emergency.” (Weren’t we at war already?) In any event, they didn’t call me back. I dodged a bullet – perhaps literally. My “unlucky break” in July wasn’t unlucky at all as it turned out.

But there’s another twist to this story. In 1969, while living in California, I received a notice in the mail indicating that I was now subject to the first draft lottery in this country since 1942. Men born from January 1, 1944, through December 31, 1950, would be called up based on the order of 366 days of the year written on small pieces of paper,  put in a small blue capsule,  dumped into a glass jar, and randomly selected. Your birth date determined your fate. On December 1, 1969, the piece of paper with my birth date on it was the 352nd pulled from the jar. The Selective Service never bothered me again even though the war dragged on for six more years. For all intents and purposes, I won the lottery.

I am sure all of you who are reading this account have similar stories about events in your lives. How choices you made in your life turned out differently than what you expected, or how “luck” or historical fate intervened to change the trajectory of your life. This can also be true if you did not make a choice when you had the opportunity. For example, lacking the confidence, or being too fearful, to seek something you really wanted – something you later regretted over the years.

That Vietnam story was just one of many episodes in my life that was life changing. Thanks to a pickup basketball game, and some lottery luck, I was saved from a foolish choice and did not become cannon fodder in a misguided, faraway war. However, that episode changed the trajectory of my life in more ways than one. I hadn’t really even heard of Vietnam at that time, but this event focused my attention on this terrible episode in our country’s history and radically changed my views on politics and my willingness to act on these views. This then led to a chain reaction of other choices in my life, leading me eventually to write this article you are now reading. But the immediate significance of that episode was that I survived when so many others my age did not, or came back horribly wounded physically or psychologically.

Anthropologists have determined that anatomically modern humans first walked this planet about 150,000 years ago. This is about 7,500 generations of our species. Think about the odds of all of your ancestors (paternal and maternal) being able to survive long enough despite ubiquitous famine, disease, war, pogroms, natural disasters, accidents, foolish personal choices, etc., in order to produce their latest living manifestation – you. Statistically, those odds are practically astronomical. So, if by any chance you’re going through a difficult time right now, just glance up from your laptop or tablet for a brief moment and consider this – you exist, you are alive. You are a winner of our species’ historical lottery.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.

March 2022: The Humanities Thrive with Justice for All

Kevin Lindsey, Chief Executive Officer of the Minnesota Humanities Center, spoke to our March Community Gathering about the center’s work and the importance of promoting humanities for a more just world.

Watch a video of Lindsey’s presentation below (introduction starts at 14:44).


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Looking for Helpful Alternatives to ‘Thoughts and Prayers’?

HumanistsMN is participating in this year’s nationwide Secular Week of Action. We are sponsoring events from April 20 to May 9 (a broader range than the national event to include more activities).

Help show how humanists do good in our community! Please consider participating in one of the following activities:

  • Pack and sort food at The Food Group on April 20. The food will be distributed to more than 200 food shelves.
  • Clean up park area along Mississippi River in Minneapolis on April 23. Keep our community beautiful and waterway clean!
  • Help seniors by doing spring yard clean-up on April 30. In Como area of St. Paul.
  • Join the semi-annual Highway Cleanup on May 7. Remove trash along I-35W, near White Bear Lake. Watch our Meetup page for the date and details.
  • Join the 55 other humanists who advocate for humanist values to our legislators! Occasional action alerts provided by Humanists in Action committee; email to be added.
  • Donate to The Bridge for Youth, a group that helps homeless and runaway youth. Buy items on a Target registry and have them sent to the organization’s Resilience House. Or give cash online. ·
  • Give blood or platelets. Contact Memorial Blood Centers or the American Red Cross.

Let us know how you participate in this week! Send stories or photos to

A Call for Humanists to Again Address the Question of War: Part 2

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021

By Paul Heffron

This is Part 2 of a three-part series by the author about war. You can read Part 1 here.

Slavery was an evil institution created by humans. Reformers, believing that this evil could not be abolished outright, proposed making it less cruel and more humane. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy countered by arguing that if slavery were humanized, it would never be abolished. But though it took a long time, it was ultimately seen as an irredeemable evil and was ended.

What about war? Why couldn’t it follow this path as well?  That has proven to be more difficult. Some reformers in Tolstoy’s time proposed making war less brutal, believing that would eventually lead to its end.  Tolstoy again argued against it, fearing that  making war more humane would just make it more tolerable.

In his book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, a professor of jurisprudence and history at Yale, writes, “Tolstoy is being proved right…the humanization of America’s wars has become a part of the syndrome of their perpetuation, not a step beyond them.” In other words, in our recent history we have abandoned the goal of peace and reinvented war as something carried on by humane methods, but seemingly without end.  

The conventional military view, as expressed by 19th century theorist Carl von Clausewitz, rejected efforts to humanize war,  saying wars should be fought without restraints to bring them to an end more swiftly, which would save lives and limit destruction. Many of America’s wars followed the Clausewitz model but not always successfully.

Such wars have generated and ended peace movements. In the late 19th century until World War I, a peace movement was in high gear, with celebrity advocates; best-selling books; Nobel Peace Prize winners; an international peace conference at the Hague; and proposals for arbitration, disarmament, and a world federation based on the U.S. constitutional federation of 1787. This peace movement, and later ones, gained public support, leading to international agreements, but they were mostly lip service with no means of enforcement. Wars continued to break out and became ever more destructive.

The United States had engaged in brutal wars with Mexico and the Indian nations to expand west. In 1898, it instigated a war with Spain, and by winning, acquired Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, including the Philippines, where it brutally repressed a war for independence. An American-style empire was in the making, with a world class navy and growing global economic interests.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I with peace as a goal (“a war to end all wars”). In hindsight, many Americans viewed the war as illegal and pointless. A peace movement emerged in the 1930s but was silenced in 1941 by America’s entry in World War II.

Some advocates of air power claimed aerial bombing was a more civilized form of warfare than ground war. At first, President Franklin Roosevelt said there would be no bombing of civilians. However, with the firebombing of German cities and of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, and then the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, the air war could hardly be regarded as more civilized. After the war, the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo Trials made wars of aggression international crimes.

The UN Charter created the Security Council, which was supposed to prevent war, authorize intervention to end wars, and establish peace keeping, but its permanent members had veto power and could block such actions.

In 1950, when the Soviet Union was not present to exercise its veto, the Council authorized a “police action” in South Korea to counter North Korea’s invasion. After American troops moved up through South Korea and well into North Korea, Chinese troops entered the war, and American forces retreated. “When General MacArthur finally let the air force do its worst [during the retreat],” Moyn writes, “every town and even village of note in the north was reduced to smoking ruin, as fighters strafed those who tried to put the fires out…meanwhile ground forces torched farms and foodstuffs.” Most of those who didn’t starve died in the winter cold. Moyn concludes, “Korea was the most brutal war of the twentieth century, measured by the intensity of violence and per capita civilian deaths.” There was no talk of humanizing war.

Next was the Vietnam War (1964-75). Protesters alleged that the intervention was unjustified, and that the napalm bombs and aerial bombing of North Vietnam, the torture and shooting of prisoners, and the massacre at My Lai were war crimes. Bertrand Russell’s war crimes tribunal (1967), co-led by Jean Paul Sartre, gave a verdict of “inhumane” to the war. Rev. Martin Luther King and associates, many military veterans, political leaders, and student protesters denounced the war.

“From the ashes of Hanoi and the darkness of My Lai, the possibility of humane war would come into view,” Moyn writes. In all of America’s wars, he adds, little attention has been paid to  the civilian victims. That changed beginning with the Geneva protocols of 1977, which prohibited the targeting of civilians and excessive collateral damage in war.

In the late 1990s, there was a new focus in international law on victims of both ground and air wars. In 1999, Human Rights Watch condemned the indiscriminate bombing from 10,000 feet by the U.S. of cities in Serbia to end the war crimes in the Kosovo War ‒ without  U.N. authorization. President Bill Clinton regarded it as just and necessary. The rights of civilians became even more urgent in the drive to humanize war.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, President George Bush declared a new type of war, a War On Terror, and lawyers inside the Bush administration wrote a code of rules. But John Yoo and other advisors provided Bush with escape hatches to do what he and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted, “running roughshod over other rules prohibiting the use of force.”

The War on Terror, as authorized by Congress, allowed going after terrorists and their host nations anywhere in the world without a time limit. That meant going after the 9/11 attackers and many other individuals or groups and nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq that harbored terrorists. It also produced photos of torture at Abu Ghraib and the horrors of detention at Guantanamo. No effective peace movement emerged as during the Vietnam War.  John Kerry criticized the way Bush was conducting the Iraq War in his campaign for the presidency, but Bush was reelected. There followed a greater emphasis on the legality of war and counterterrorism and what would be called a “light footprint” by using limited air strikes, drones, cruise missiles, Special Forces, and cyberattacks.

President Obama reversed many of Bush’s policies and practices and increased and expanded the War on Terror, making it more humane with the use of drones and Special Forces, the latter in 2011 taking out Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11. Now the goal of less harm to civilians and infrastructure was added to earlier humanizing practices like treating wounded and captured soldiers and prisoners humanely.  The War on Terror was conceived as “self-defense against terrorists” including “preemptive self-defense” regardless of whether or not Americans were threatened. New global engagements were more like policing, defended as humane and morally wholesome. Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Moyn’s assessment: war was “becoming humane—but never-ending.” Donald Trump as candidate and president was opportunistic and inconsistent. He could condemn the Iraq War, but endorse brutal war. He identified with the hashtag #EndEndlessWar, but carried on what had become the never-ending war against terrorism more expansively. For example, he ordered the killing of Iran’s popular general Ossim Soleimani with a Reaper drone that hovered and fired a Hellfire missile at its target (a weapon costing $65 million).

What about President Biden? Moyn recently observed that he is following in Obama’s footsteps, continuing the policies and practices of the humane forever war.

Moyn’s thesis is provocative and debatable. Maybe our global war against terrorism seems endless. But is making war humane part of the problem or part of the solution? Moyn maintains that our empire as a world power, seeking domination, makes never-ending war inevitable. Maybe world peace is not possible so long as there is a conflict between the world powers of America, Russia, and China. 

What positions have humanists taken? That’s next in Part 3 of this series.


The Strongman Cometh

By Harlan Garbell

“It’s still him (Putin), the same amoral mendacious sociopath he’s always been.”

— Former National Security official Richard Clarke, on being asked about the recent actions of the Russian president.

“I am the only one who can make America truly great again.”

— Donald J. Trump

Like many of you, I have been closely following the horrific war between Russia and Ukraine these past few weeks. The world has indeed been outraged by the unjust and extreme level of violence targeted at a people who just want a country of their own. What kind of person could unleash such death and destruction to so many people without remorse?

Perhaps the following vignettes will give you an insight on the character of the man who unleashed this carnage on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin.

In 2005, the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, had the opportunity to visit Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Kraft’s team had recently won Super Bowl XXXIX over the Philadelphia Eagles and during the meeting he removed his huge, diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring and proudly handed it to Putin for his inspection. After glancing at it, Putin pocketed the ring and walked out of the room surrounded by three KGB agents.

In 2007, Putin had a meeting in the Kremlin with Angela Merkel, then Chancellor of Germany. Knowing from Russian intelligence that Merkel was deathly afraid of dogs, Putin brought his huge black lab, Koni, with him to the meeting.

Even if you didn’t know Putin’s history of unleashing brutal wars against civilian populations (Chechnya, Syria, Ukraine), these episodes alone would reveal someone with deep character flaws. Essentially a sociopath with no conscience about how his behavior affects other people. But the question arises, how could such a corrupt, greedy, power-hungry individual rise to the top of such a large and powerful country? A country with great cultural and scientific traditions.

Political scientists and historians will suggest that, although not inevitable, the historical lack of a Russian democratic culture, along with the dearth of intermediary civic institutions, created the appropriate conditions for Putin’s ascent. In other words, a country perennially ripe for the cleverest, most ruthless individual to have the inside track in obtaining political power. Think Lenin, Stalin, or Khrushchev.

All this is true, but critical domestic economic and security threats in the 1990s helped propel Putin into the megalomaniac that he is now. When Putin was appointed Prime Minister of Russia in August 1999, the Russian economy was in severe distress with unemployment at over 14 percent. After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country moved from a centralized command economy to a decentralized, quasi-market economy. The average Russian was economically displaced by these macroeconomic changes and as a result, had to navigate through a new era of insecurity without the safety net previously provided by the former Communist regime.

Also in August 1999, the Second Chechen War erupted. Chechens are a fiercely independent people who live in the Caucasus in the south of the Russian Federation (the region between the Black and Caspian Seas). Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chechens were determined to seek their independence from Moscow, similar to other regions that declared their independence in 1991.

In September of 1999, Russia was hit by a series of grisly terror attacks that were attributed to Chechens. This set off a wave of fear throughout Russia, which combined with the ongoing economic anxiety set the stage for the Russian public to seek a “strongman.” Someone who would restore a sense of safety and security. Someone who would bring the country back from the abyss.

The Russian people had been clearly traumatized by these events and were desperate to have the suffering and fear they were experiencing alleviated. The president of Russia in 1999, Boris Yeltsin, was a blundering alcoholic who was showing clear signs of dementia. He was widely unpopular for his incompetence and weakness in the face of the country’s desperate situation. Yet, surprisingly, on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned his office and anointed Putin his successor as president of Russia. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, the Russian people seemingly got their savior (a former career KGB spy), a man who would restore Russia to its previous, perceived rightful position in the world. A man who would make Russia great again.

As I write this article in March 2022, the United States is experiencing the fastest annual pace of inflation in four decades. A report this month indicated that 64 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck —in a country where income inequality is greater than any other industrialized nation in the world.

Also as of this writing, 953,000 American deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 since the pandemic started two years ago. (The unofficial number of deaths is universally acknowledged to be much higher.) This has helped contribute to U.S. life expectancy falling by two years ‒ the largest such decline in almost a century, and the largest among all 29 “high income” countries of the world.

Troubling also is the significant rise in violent crime in U.S. cities over the past decade. Although property crimes and robbery have fallen significantly, murder, rape, and aggravated assault all climbed by 25 percent, or more, in major cities nationally. Anecdotally, in most big cities, people are feeling more insecure about their personal safety than at any time in decades. For example, based on numerous local published reports, the substantial increase in carjackings here in the Twin Cities has created a level of fear and anxiety not experienced in many years.

Historically, the administration of Donald Trump from 2017-21 is generally considered to have been one of the most incompetent, corrupt periods in our history. Trump also encouraged, and helped organize, an attempted violent overthrow of a democratically elected government. A purveyor of the “Big Lie,” the former president has similar sociopathic tendencies that afflict Putin, for whom Trump has vocally expressed his admiration on many occasions.

And it is not just Putin’s poisonous personal style that Trump, and his many followers, admire. Russia under Putin has promoted the idea of a national ethno-state, where the Russian Orthodox Church socially and culturally dominates, while assigning minorities, women, and gays their rightful (i.e., lower) place in society. This is almost a mirror image of the social, cultural, and political goals of Trump’s base ‒ the Christian Nationalist Right.

Chillingly, Trump has almost complete control over one of our two major national political parties. Most pundits believe he will run for president again in 2024. He has always positioned himself politically as someone who is “strong” and his opponents weak. Someone who famously said that “I alone can fix it.” With the continuing dysfunction of Congress, and the weakness many perceive of our current president, the electorate may yet again turn again to this aspiring autocrat.

Not coincidentally, in preparation for Trump’s presumed candidacy, many state governments have passed laws restricting voting rights that will make it difficult for the Democratic candidate to win in 2024. Moreover, several of these same states have either proposed, or passed, laws negatively effecting the rights of women, gays, and minorities. And the Supreme Court of the United States, dominated by backward-looking “originalists,” are primed to uphold these restrictive laws. Many of which are an abomination, like the ability to collect bounties by suing people who help women obtain abortions.

Personal safety and economic insecurity will very likely be major issues in the upcoming national elections in 2022 and 2024. Are conditions ripe for the return of the American “strongman”? Someone who would seemingly bring the country back from the “abyss”? And, if elected, would Trump and his supporters make America “great” again by even greater levels of greed, corruption, and incompetence on the way to creating America’s version of a white, Christian ethno-state?

Should that occur, there would be someone in Moscow who would be smiling inwardly. The same man who helped propel Trump to power in 2016.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.



February 2022: Dastardly Deeds in the Name of Science

Science is usually a force for good in the world. But science writer Sam Kean, who spoke at our February Community Gathering, discussed cases where obsession led scientists to twist a noble pursuit into something sinister.

He cited three examples from his latest book – The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science –  anatomists who relied on grave robbers to provide bodies for them to work on, rival paleontologists who sabotaged each other’s work, and the much-reviled  inventor of the lobotomy.

Kean quoted Albert Einstein, who said, “Most people say it is the intellect that makes a great scientist. They are wrong. It is character.”

Watch a video of Kean’s presentation below (starting at 17:58).

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Team of Letter Writers Make the Case for Secularism

By George Francis Kane and Erica Klein

From George: You may have noticed familiar names in the Star Tribune letters to the editor this year. That is no accident – a volunteer team of letter writers has been busy representing secular viewpoints on important issues. This is our story.

Early in 2021, I had to do a leadership project in the Freethought Toastmasters Club. It required putting together a team and leading it to goals that I had to define. I decided to pull together people to write letters to the editor of the Star Tribune on secularist issues.

I had a lot of experience writing letters to the editor of the Escondido Times-Advocate when I lived in North San Diego County in the early 90s, but they did not have a unifying theme. My experience with the Star Tribune was in the early 2000s, when I was spending hours a day posting on their discussion boards. I stayed in the Faith and Values section, where I had lengthy debates with Christians on a variety of issues. Most often they were civil.

Eventually the Star Tribune closed their discussion boards. They explained that they were no longer needed since new enhancements would permit readers to post comments on every article published in the online edition. It seemed that they had no interest in discussions about anything except articles that they had published.

I receive email alerts every day from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and many days from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, and the Secular Coalition for America. So I know that there are things going on every day that impact secular government: cases in federal and state courts, bills in Congress and state legislatures, executive orders by the president and state governors. But these reports never seem to make it into the Star Tribune.

The first couple of letters I submitted did not get published. Then in late February 2021 the paper published a commentary that asserted that Harriet Tubman, who will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, was a gun-toting Christian. I replied that “(T)he hostility that the commentary writer believes that liberals have for Christianity is nothing more than our commitment to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. We insist merely that the government never prefer one religion over any other.” The Star Tribune published it under the headline “Skip the Christian victimhood.”

That was my first success! I finally had an affirmation that this project was worth pursuing. Shortly after my letter appeared in the paper, Erik Riese and Erica Klein joined the team. Later, Ross Meisner and Steve Petersen joined. In the year that the team has been together, we have had 16 letters published. We work collectively on drafts, but the writer has the final say on every aspect of his or her letter, including when it is ready to submit.

We have focused on the Star Tribune because it has the largest circulation in Minnesota, but we could send a letter to any other forum. There has only been one occasion when two of us wrote in response to the same letter, and both were published. If we had a larger team, that could happen much more often. I think we have found a useful vehicle for getting the secularist viewpoint in front of a large audience. If you would like to join us on our team, please let any of us know.

The theme of the project is secularism — that is, the separation of religion and government. It is no surprise that we have addressed Christian victimhood, Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, declining church attendance, distinguishing religious liberty from religious privilege, a commentary on the need for faith, social studies standards in public schools, health care workers, and the ever-increasing presence of “nones” (people without religious affiliation) in public schools. But by far the issue that we have addressed the most is abortion rights. We have to point out to the Star Tribune the relevance of some of their stories to the separation of government and religion, even though they would rather ignore it.

From Erica: I expected to get nasty reactions to my letters. So far I haven’t, but something interesting has happened as a result of each of my letters that has been published.  For example, after the first one, I was contacted by a like-minded woman in my town and invited to a Shabbos potluck at the local nature preserve (I’m a Jewish atheist), where I met some friendly people.

After my second letter, I was contacted by a guy out of Chicago who runs a volunteer group called Common Good Governing. He scours major city newspapers letters to find people who might be interested in volunteering with his group to find candidates to support in contested critical U.S. House races. I’ve been volunteering with him ever since.

After my third letter, which was reacting to a previous letter, I was contacted by that original letter writer. She liked what I said in my letter, and clarified the point she was trying to make. We had a friendly exchange. Overall, being part of the letter-writing team has been a fun and satisfying experience with surprising dividends.

Contemplating Non-Existence

By Harlan Garbell

You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.

“Lonesome Valley”

—Words and music by Woody Guthrie (adapted from traditional spiritual)

Many years ago I had an existential crisis — literally. It dawned on me that I would actually die. Maybe not the next day, or the next year, but I would certainly die.

Of course, part of growing up is learning that every living being has to eventually die. But, strangely, on some level, I thought that death would not apply to me. (This is different from thanatophobia, which is fear of death.) Psychologists will tell you this is not an uncommon experience. After all, the only reality that I had ever known, or could comprehend, was my own existence through conscious awareness. I couldn’t really comprehend non-existence. Nor did I really want to.

All adults over a certain age have experienced the deaths of others, including family members and friends. This experience involves the pain of loss, and for most people, suffering. Not only for the deceased, but selfishly for ourselves as well. No longer will we experience the love, comfort, or friendship that these people provided in our lives. But, frankly, it was their existence that was extinguished. We continue to exist, albeit sadder and lonelier. And no matter how strong our ability to empathize with the fate of others, we cannot really comprehend someone else’s crossing the portal into non-existence.

I certainly didn’t believe in heaven or hell, but my mid-life crisis got me thinking about whether the natural universe provides another option, other than non-existence, after death. This question kept nagging at me and soon I wanted to learn more. And it became more than just a passing curiosity. After all, I had just realized I was going to die, really die, and eternity is a long time. Plenty of motivation to learn more about this question, if you ask me.

I don’t recall using the internet much during that time, if at all, but I do recall spending significant time in the library researching the possibility of some form of consciousness, or maybe awareness, after death. I never bought into the theory of “life after death,” nor was I persuaded by the idea of a supernatural soul or spirit, but what if consciousness somehow remained even after the death of the body? Of specific interest to me were books about people who had “died” and been brought back to life. And indeed, there were several books about people having “near death” and “out of body” experiences.

In my reading I learned that a common near-death experience (NDE) involved someone who “flatlined” on an operating table. When brought back to life, he or she often recalled in exquisite detail the events that occurred while they were considered dead. Sometimes the person described how they were hovering overhead and looking down on the frantic efforts of hospital staff as they performed their life-saving procedures. Typically, the resurrected patient would also say they experienced a feeling of utter calm, often bliss, prior to being brought back to life.

Another common NDE involved going through a tunnel toward a light of immense brightness. Others related similar journeys, but also described seeing colors or hearing sounds never experienced on Earth. Often people said they saw, or even communicated with, loved ones who predeceased them. Most, but not all, of these NDEs were reported to be extremely joyful. Many people were actually saddened about returning to life, and some even tried to resist being resuscitated.

As an aside, I also read about folks who had experienced past-life regressions through hypnosis. These folks were able to conjure up thoughts and feelings of previous incarnations. Good for them, I thought, but to me this was just a sideshow. No past life has ever been verified scientifically and, in any event, I never really aspired to be a knight in King Arthur’s Court or a crew member on Captain Nemo’s submarine. Perhaps if these past lives revealed people with normal activities or jobs, like chimney sweep or used-car salesman, these stories would be more credible. Even so, as Thomas Hobbes succinctly put it, most lives back then were in reality “nasty, brutish, and short.”  Who needs that?

The scientific community has come up with several theories regarding NDEs. One is that these are hallucinations triggered by low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxia). Another more widespread explanation is the “dying brain hypothesis.” The theory here is that hallucinations occur when brain activity is altered as brain cells begin to die. However, even after many years of research, there is still no definitive scientific explanation for this phenomenon. This is perhaps why scientists are newly interested in studying the effects of hallucinogenic drugs as it may impact our understanding of NDEs.

In many respects, humans are only just beginning to understand the natural world. For example, there is breakthrough scientific evidence that underneath a typical forest exists a highly sophisticated network where plants exchange information for mutual benefit. In this ecosystem, trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. Who knew that “lowly” plants had these abilities?

Humans are also beginning to use new scientific tools that will expand their knowledge exponentially. Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computers are just a few of these new tools humans now, or will be, using to understand natural phenomena. Who wouldn’t be surprised if what we currently believe is completely turned on its head 50 or 100 years from now? In some respects, we humans in 2022 are not so different from our early ancestors who looked out at the moon and stars for clues as to their origins and significance.

Every living being crosses the threshold from life to death alone. As cool as it would be for my decaying carbon atoms to somehow merge with other atoms in some form of web of universal awareness, I am not expecting much. But, really, what do I know? Is it heresy for a humanist to even be thinking about this?

So, is there any evidence of a form of consciousness after death? No. But more scientists are studying these types of phenomena and are letting the facts drive the research as opposed to faith, religious belief, or preconceived scientific notions. Where this winds up nobody knows. As a humanist, I am skeptical that there is any form of awareness, or consciousness, after death. But as a humanist, I am also keenly aware of what I don’t know and that science and technology will ultimately determine how our still existing atoms, after death, will be reassembled and recycled into the universe’s ecosystem.

Will these atoms that used to belong to “me” display an awareness similar to those that exist in a forest? Although skeptical, I wouldn’t reject it out of hand. Stay tuned.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.

January 2022: Christian Nationalism and the Jan. 6 Insurrection

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol showed to the world that Christian nationalism is more than just a scholarly debate about whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Andrew Seidel told our January Community Gathering. “It is a violent, exclusionary movement bent on seizing power in the here and now,” he said.

In an online presentation, Seidel, a constitutional lawyer at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, detailed the role of Christian nationalists in the violent attack on American democracy. The many examples included the opening prayer by evangelist Paula White, who added “the United States of America” to the biblical Lord’s Prayer; the “QAnon shaman” who led a prayer in the U.S. Senate about “patriotism, Jesus, and restoring the nation”; the attacker who carried a Christian flag into the Senate; and the right-wing extremist Proud Boys who were hailed as “God’s warriors” as they marched to the Capitol.

Seidel, the author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, added an epilogue to the new paperback version to discuss the insurrection, which he told us provides further proof that the movement is un-American.

Watch Seidel’s presentation on video below.

YouTube player

America’s Historical and Racial Reckoning

By Audrey Kingstrom

America is becoming more diverse. That’s obvious. But did you know that for the past decade, demographers have been projecting that by 2045 the majority of the U.S. population will be non-White? And now, those projections are becoming a reality. Data from the 2020 census  indicate that almost 53 percent of the U.S. population under 18 identifies as non-White.

While Minnesota is less diverse than the nation as a whole, in the metro region especially but also across the state, the non-White youth population is growing significantly.

Unfortunately, these population trends are being used by some to sow division in our country. Our previous president built his brand by stoking fear of “the other” among White Americans. Now, conservative pundits and politicians have developed a full-blown strategy to fuel the flames of fear, resentment, and division by turning “critical race theory” and “ethnic studies” into the new toxic wedge issues of our time to expand their power and hopefully defeat Democrats.

Until recently most people had never heard of critical race theory (CRT), but this emergent legal paradigm has been informing our social and political institutions and structures for over 40 years as they endeavor to become more equitable. CRT originated with the renowned lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist Derrick Bel in the 1970s, while the pioneering legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw most notably represents the field today.

Simply put, CRT posits that racism is a historical feature of American society embedded in its legal structures, social systems, and political institutions. Racism is not merely a mindset of the past or a matter of residual individual bigotry but, more significantly, is best understood as systemic and structural subjugation woven into the fabric of society. In recent decades, many of our institutions and workplaces have been encouraged to reckon with the durable vestiges of historical racism and, increasingly over the years, many have taken up the challenge.

These efforts are now completely under attack by the radical right — composed primarily of Christian Nationalists and neo-liberals. Conservative pundits and politicians have launched a malicious campaign to discredit and derail the historical and racial reckoning that has gained traction in recent years. Their tactic: using CRT as a dog whistle to rally the masses against any and all efforts to examine American history honestly or to work toward a more equitable and inclusive society. They routinely and grossly misrepresent CRT in speeches, podcasts, and newscasts and, in a particularly cynical twist, claim that Whites are now the new victims of racism.

How did it come to this — conservatives placing the blame for racial polarization and hostility on CRT and its adherents? Their strategy has been to invalidate and deflect attention away from the real culprits – most notably, the killing of Black folks. The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. Its ranks swelled with the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police, then Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, to the most egregious recent case, George Floyd. (And since this article was written, tragically, another name must be added to the list, Amir Locke.) The relentless and graphic devaluation of Black lives the past decade — much of it vividly recorded — galvanized a flagging racial justice movement.

In the meantime, academics continued to produce new historical scholarship and write more books about racism (influenced no doubt by CRT and the BLM movement), while racial justice activists, community leaders, and workplace HR departments ramped up their diversity training and/or anti-racism programs. A renewed effort to combat systemic racism and implicit bias had seized much of the country. Shame and guilt were never anyone’s aims, only truth and reconciliation, but nonetheless backlash ensued.

Case in point: the conservative crusade to storm school board meetings and deliver their hyperbolic grievances is well under way, with many state legislatures eager and willing to statutorily enshrine their concerns. Conservatives are notorious, of course, for politicizing the school curriculum. Whether trying to prohibit the teaching of evolution, ban controversial books, demand the primacy of “classic” English literature in the classroom, scrub the social studies curriculum of “revisionist history” (those unpleasant truths about America’s past), or censor educators for teaching about bias and diversity, conservatives have a well-earned reputation for being the curriculum police.

Ethnic Studies a Flashpoint

Not surprisingly then, the emergence of “ethnic studies” in America’s classrooms has become a corollary flashpoint for conservatives — one that Republicans in Minnesota have currently flagged with the pending adoption of the new social studies standards. (This update is undertaken once a decade by the Department of Education.)

Here in Minnesota, ethnic studies are to become a fifth “strand,” or focus, among the social studies standards beginning in 2026.  Having been introduced in schools across the country in recent decades, ethnic studies provide a more culturally relevant curriculum for our increasingly diverse student population. In addition, this curriculum will expose all students to the history, contributions, and challenges of the full range of American experiences that now comprise our country. Such courses will better prepare our youth for their work and civic lives.

Truthful and inclusive history does not teach students to hate America or hate Whites — as conservatives contend — but helps motivate students to take their education more seriously and inspire them to work together toward the best of American ideals. When they see people like themselves represented in the curriculum — not just as victims but as actors in America’s story — students get much more engaged. And all learn that America is a work in progress reliant upon an active citizenry. This proven pedagogy has been driving social studies reform more and more in recent decades. I can attest to its efficacy from my years of teaching in New York City public schools.

The conservative playbook is to divide and conquer. They distort the truth and breed lies using CRT to distract from the more concerning issues of the electorate. Throughout our history, pitting Whites against Blacks has always been an effective means of keeping poor and working-class people divided lest they join together to fight for economic fairness in the workplace, e.g., better wages and expanded benefits. History teaches us that America’s economic elites have always reinforced their power by maintaining a racial hierarchy to fend off populist economic movements. This strategy effectively derailed Reconstruction and branded the Jim Crow era, and it can work again now.

Joe Biden is right – we are in a battle for the soul of America. With demographic change inevitable, conservative politicians are afraid of losing the power they inherited from their ideological forebears at America’s inception. They are intent on promulgating a sanitized version of history that ignores or rationalizes genocide, racial oppression, and corporate power. Stuck in the past, they are no more than propagandists who glorify America’s past political, social, and economic winners, discounting authentic historical scholarship.

This conservative radical minority disavows society’s efforts to reckon with our racist history. These elites serve their own interests by blaming the victims of racial injustice and denying the structural and systemic problems that endure. They employ those time-tested strategies of race-baiting and disinformation to keep as much of the powerless and disaffected White population within their clutches as possible. It’s their last best hope to try to retain control of a country in flux.

Many of us as humanists have championed racial justice because of our values – it’s the right thing to do. But it’s also in everyone’s best interest. The multicultural, multiethnic world of the future is upon us right now, right here in America. A well-functioning democracy requires that all its citizens have autonomy and agency to participate fully and have access to the halls of power.

At the close of her book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee asks: “Who is an American, and what are we to one another? We have to admit that this question is harder for us than in most other countries, because we are the world’s most radical experiment in democracy, a nation of ancestral strangers that has to work to find connection even as we grow more diverse every day.”

Surely we aspire as humanists to join in common cause with Black, Brown, and White folks throughout the country to repair our flawed systems and create a more equitable and inclusive society.

‘A Thousand Brains’: An Engaging Book on Neuroscience

By Nathan Curland

Let me start by stating that A Thousand Brains by Jeff Hawkins is likely the most profound and engaging book on neuroscience that I have ever read. That is because it is more than just neuroscience; it is an attempt to present a new theory of brain function to a general audience and then extrapolate to what it means for the future of the human race.

Hawkins’ goal is to appeal not just to other neuroscientists, but also to the layperson who wonders where our intelligence, or even our consciousness, comes from. As such, he gives us enough information to understand what has been learned in the last couple of decades about brain structure but does not dwell on the detailed chemistry that other neuroscience books devote many pages to. (I.e., it is enough for you to know what a neuron or synapse is/does, without knowing the various molecules or the interactions involved to perform their functions).

Along the way, Hawkins shares with us the journey that he and his team of researchers took to get to this theory. However, he is careful to point out that there are still many details and experimental results that must be filled in before it becomes a truly confirmed theory (à la evolution). Many times he refers to it as a “framework,” but one that he has much confidence in.

Before getting to the particulars, it is important to understand Hawkins’ background. His original degree was in electrical engineering and he initially worked at Intel. However, he was always fascinated by the brain and how it functioned. So, inspired by an article by Francis Crick (of DNA fame), he explored working in a doctoral program that would encompass an overall theory of brain function. He applied to and was rejected by a number of institutions either because the brain was already just thought of as a computational machine (MIT’s Artificial Intelligence lab) or the project was too ambitious and he would not accomplish enough in the requisite time (typically five years) to successfully get his doctorate.

Discouraged, he went back to electrical engineering and, with others, founded Palm Computer Inc. – and made a lot of money. After 10 years he decided to go back to his primary love, neuroscience. He gracefully resigned from his company and in 2002 created the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, a collaboration of a number of university neuroscientists interested in working on brain science. However, he soon found this arrangement unworkable, since most of the professors had their own ideas on what they should work on, rather than a common goal.

So after three years he turned the Institute over to the University of California, Berkeley (who had rejected his thesis proposal a decade earlier!) and founded Numenta, his private independent research group, staffing it with bright scientists committed to his vision. Besides their own research, studies, and computer simulations of the brain, Numenta served as a focal point for conferences and a meeting place for neuroscientists from all over the world to come, share data, and discuss.

Old Brain vs. New Brain

The book is divided into three sections. Section I, “A New Understanding of the Brain,” discusses the new theory, how it differs from existing theory, and how it better explains the myriad of data that scientists have discovered and published over many decades of neurological research. Existing theories treat the brain as a purely hierarchical structure with information coming in from the various senses and then being transferred up to higher and higher levels, becoming more detailed and complex at each level —almost like the design of a computer, as is the structure of today’s AI systems.

However, for Hawkins, the human brain wasn’t “designed”; it has evolved from lower forms. There is some hierarchy, but that is not the whole story.  A fundamental “old” brain,  which all lifeforms have to some degree, handles basic functions (movement, digestion, aggression, sex, etc.). A “new” brain, i.e., the neocortex, evolved because thinking is helpful for finding food, avoiding predators, and living long enough to procreate.

In fact, the main difference between the “higher” and “lower” order animals is the size of their neocortex (in Homo sapiens, it is about 70 percent of brain volume). Whereas the “old” brain is composed mainly of distinct organs with unique structures suited for different functions, the neocortex is composed of hundreds of thousands of “cortical columns” (each can contain thousands of mini-cortical columns). Although each is a very complex layered structure, are all pretty much the same structure, repeated many times.

Furthermore, the neocortex, once established, did not grow vertically (layered) from lower species to higher species but laterally (area wise) — hence the folding structure of our brains, where more material needs to be squeezed into a solid cranium whose volume did not grow as quickly. It’s as if it was easier from an evolutionary point of view to simply duplicate and add something that appears to work, rather than “invent” something new all the time. (It should be noted that these columns also exist in parts of the “old” brain. There is continuity in evolution at work here!)

So the fact that MRI systems show different parts of the neocortex lighting up when different mental functions are performed comes not from unique structures, but from the wiring between the parts of the neocortex — all of which are structurally similar. Hawkins gives many real-life examples of how a purely hierarchical structure for the mind cannot be explained by this type of physical neocortex structure and that something different must be found.

It has been known for some time that the brain is a memory prediction machine. Through constant learning, it makes a model of the world, instantaneously updating the model as the world changes in time and the senses deliver the changes to the brain. The same is true for higher-level concepts such as language, music, mathematics, etc. This model is the basis for our predictions, perceptions, and actions.

It has also been discovered that map-creating neurons exist in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex in the “old” brain. In 1971, “place” cells were identified that permit the brain to recognize what things are. Then, in 2005, “grid” cells were identified that permit knowledge of where things are (with respect to a reference, of course). Similar types of cells exist in the cortical columns of the neocortex. The existence of these cells implies that brains can create reference frames of what things are and where they are with respect to the body.

The cortical columns provide the mechanism for this, creating reference frames that have retrievable knowledge stored in them. Furthermore, it was discovered that knowledge of an item is stored in thousands of complementary columns, but not necessarily redundantly since information is coming to the columns from different sensors via different neurons.

This leads to the “binding problem”: how do inputs from the different sensors combine into a singular non-distorted perceptive experience? Hawkins’ answer is that the different columns develop a “consensus” via “voting” neurons, who send information on their axons out to other columns. The excitations quickly settle to a stable configuration which is what we perceive.

Non-Intelligent AI

In part II, Hawkins discusses “machine intelligence.” He notes that what currently passes for AI has no real I (intelligence). To be intelligent, the machine must be able to learn continuously, not through endless training, as current systems require. His definition of intelligence is “the ability of a system to learn a model of the world” (reality). For this to happen, he proposes it must learn the way the human neocortex learns. Current AI systems are basically “one-trick ponies,” able to do only the task they were programmed or taught to do.

Hawkins also tackles the presumed existential threats to humanity that are frequently ascribed to future intelligent machines. This is not about bad people using AI to destroy civilization but the possibility of AI itself being a bad actor. He points out that the reason people can be bad actors is not because of intelligence (the neocortex) but because of adaptations in the “old” brain that evolutionary pressures created to assure survival for pro-creation of our genes. That is, humans have goals because the “old” brain created those goals. Intelligent machines will only have the goals we give them. It is up to us, the designers, to not give them human-like emotions. Unless we deliberately give our future AI machines those “old” brain goals, there is no reason to believe they will deliberately become bad actors.

Existential Risks and False Beliefs

In Part III, Hawkins discusses “Human Intelligence.” This, he believes, is where the real existential threats to human survival exist. For 3.5 billion years, life has been driven by basic evolutionary pressures: competitive survival and procreation. Human intelligence has allowed Homo sapiens to flourish and succeed. However, the recent rapid rise in technology and scientific discovery has led to significant existential risks, the most significant being nuclear war and severe climate change.

For Hawkins, these existential risks arise due to two fundamental systemic risks built into our brains. First are the risks associated with the “old” brain: the part of our brain that harbors many short-sighted behaviors that were useful for gene procreation/survival but not necessarily desirable for assuring the future of humanity. He asserts that human-caused climate change is primarily due to overpopulation and the amount of pollution created per person.

Second are the risks associated with the neocortex, notably the creation of false beliefs. These false beliefs are created because the brain can only know a subset of the real world, what we perceive, since our model of the world is not necessarily the real world itself. We live in a simulation that our brain has created over our lifetime and this model can be wrong. Furthermore, cultural memes, such as religious beliefs, can spread some of these false models because they have evolutionary advantages. These false beliefs can convince large segments of the population that climate change is not real, or that an afterlife exists where one will be spared if any calamity happens on this earth.

In the final chapters, Hawkins discusses various options put forth to either extend humanity’s reign or at least preserve our collected knowledge for future civilizations so that our existence will not be forgotten in the endless breadth of time. If you are a science fiction fan, you will have encountered most of them and Hawkins discusses their viabilities in great detail. I will leave that for the reader to discover.

All in all, A Thousand Brains, is a well-written, informative, mind-opening read. I highly recommend it.

P.S. It is on Bill Gates’ list of the best five books of 2021.