The road less travelled: Navigating without algorithms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As I embark on my summer travels, I have resolved to ignore the recommended routes on my satnav and to get off the beaten track. Join me.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Literature and popular culture are littered with mentions of the ‘road less travelled’. It is ensconced in our lexicon like a tick between the toes, so much so that its meaning becomes more baffling for every new song or misquote.

M Scott Peck’s eponymous book, which came out in 1978, probably started the confusion with its focus on what it takes to be a fulfilled human being, venturing into forests of soul-searching stuff like love, discipline, ethics, religion, spiritual growth, serendipity, grace, lying, suffering … and evil. With the knack of an acupuncturist’s needle, Scott’s book had anticipated the ailments of an emerging ‘self-help’ generation.

To Scott, a psychiatrist by trade, the potted road of spiritual development could be travelled in four stages, from chaos to blind faith to scientific scepticism and finally reaching the end destination where you can enjoy the mystery and beauty of nature and existence.

Evil, he suggests, is understood as much by what we do as what we don’t do: evil fuelled by self-deception as people try to maintain perfect self-images, to which they must deceive others, the scapegoats of their lives…

Confusing? Well, I think so. Why can’t the road less travelled be simpler or perhaps more literal, something like not being afraid to get off the beaten track or swerving away from the high road, for the sake of keeping the metaphor going.

This occurs to me as I plan my road trip to our cottage south of Stockholm, an annual summer pilgrimage, that the life of order, routine, comfort (for many) is rooted in arterial thinking. The idea being to channel as much stuff through the major arteries, or motorways of life, to be sure we get from A to B with the least disruption or disharmony. There are only so many hours in a day, only so many foreseen or unforeseen alternate passages for this ‘lifeblood’ before we revert to form, take the easy way out, the fastest route.

That’s fine, most of the time, because even the most free-spirited souls still need some regularity. They have to eat to live, sleep to dream, imbibe to create … But for the vast majority of people it means narrowly interpreting what an alternate route would look like, the points of interest along the way and what may or may not constitute something ‘scenic’.

The long way round may once have been wise to avoid highwaymen, but today it strikes most ‘busy’ people and casual observers as wasteful, unnecessary, and costly (in time, money and perhaps spiritual ‘energy’). And besides, plying the byways of life has become so damned hard when easy options abound.

More and more of us delegate life-planning to artificial intelligence, the neat algorithms like Google Drive that navigate our journeys for us – complete with eerily accurate deviation ‘costs’ in terms of the time it takes out of our lives. We are left wondering whether we are really in charge. It seems almost impolite to ignore the recommended readings by Amazon’s helpful AI assistant and the suggested viewing by Netflix’s digital curator, or ‘Lord Netflix’ to the truly flix-addicted whose numbers are growing by the minute.

So, the ‘road less travelled’ today could simply be ignoring the recommended route to Stockholm, avoiding the trending films or suggestions, reading books picked up at flea markets … It could mean choosing slower means of transport and, by default, taking longer to get from A to B.

But that sounds okay to me when the main arteries get clogged up with everyone else making a beeline to Peck’s stage four of spiritual development, sustained just barely by a gut-full of gas-station grease and coffee. Join me as I find out what is in store as I venture off the algorithms.

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Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

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إعترافات ملحد مصري

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

رغم عدم الإعتراف بهم، الملحدين ايضاً اولاد بلد ويجب على الدولة والمجتمع ان يعطوهم حقوقهم. 

الأحد 20 اكتوبر 2013

English version

صدق أو لا تصدق، أنا أحد أعضاء أكثر أقلية غير معترف بها فى مصر. لا، لست قبطيا و لا بهائيا. أنا آجنوستى-ملحد أو ملحد-أجنوستى. باختصار، أنا لا أدرى أذا كان الله موجود لكن الدين، من وجهة نظرى المتواضعة، من صنع الإنسان و ليس مرسلاً من السماء.

أذا كان هناك أله، فقد أحدث “الأنفجار العظيم” ثم أختبأ ليشاهد نتيجة عمل القوانين المبهرة التى صنعها لتحكم الكون. هو لا يتدخل في ادارة تفاصيل حياتنا التافهة على رقعة الأرض الحقيرة هذه. نحن لسنا فى مركز مخططه.

هذه أول مرة أعلن فيها عن عدم إيمانى فى جريدة مصرية و سيغضب ذلك بعض القراء وسيجرح مشاعر البعض الأخر. وذلك ليس فى نيتى. مع أنى لا أريد أن أسئ لمعتقدات اى أحد، أعتقد أنه من حقى أيضا أن أعبر عن أعمق قناعاتى التى وصلت أليها بعد سنين من الشك و التساؤل والتردد والتفكير.

عندما يجد الناس الإيمان، نسمع عن تلقي وحي أو عن لحظات تصحو فيها وترى نورا. لا أعلم أن كان هذا صحيحا حيث أنى لم أختبر أى صحوة دينية أبدا. ولكن عندما تفقد دينك، هو شئ أقرب لنزيف بطئ أو الوصول لحالة مزمنة من الوهن قد يتخللها بعض الفترات من التحسن ولكن النهاية قريبة، بما فيها البحث في النفس و تدمير للنفس.

لعلنى شعرت بأقوى حالات الإيمان (والأكثر طفولة) فى بلد غير مسلم ثم فقدته في بلد مسلم، مع أنى لم أهجره تماما ألا بعد رحيلى عن مصر للمرة الثانية. كانت البداية عبارة عن شكوك طفولية حول سبب عدم دخول أصدقائى الإنجليز للجنة عندما يموتون، ثم تطور الأمر لأسئلة حول وضع المرأة والجنس بالإضافة للتناقضات والأخطاء العلمية فى القرآن.

 كما راودتني أسئلة ميتافيزيقية  وفلسفية مثل: لماذا يخلق إله عادل ومحب كائن معيب ثم يضعه تحت اختبار يعرف هذا الإله الغير محدود  نتيجته مقدما؟ بالطبع لا أدعى أن الإسلام ينفرد بذلك، بل تنطبق نفس الأسئلة وأسئلة مشابهة على باقي الأديان.

 أعتقد أن الكثير من المؤمنين سينتابهم الفزع والقلق عند قراءة المقال هذا. ربما سيحزنوا على ضلالي ويتعجبوا من نفسي الجوفاء والفراغ العميق بها. لكن على العكس أنا لا أشعر أن الحادى ترك ثقباً بحجم الله فى قلبى. ولا أنى لاجئ روحاني هائم في مخيمات الأرواح المنفية.

هناك الكثير من الأشياء حولنا التي تملأ مشاعري بالدهشة والغموض. من العلوم والتكنولوجيا التي تقوم “بمعجزات” حديثة ولا نهائية الى النظريات الفيزيائية التي تتسم بجمال في ميتافيزيقيتها. ومن “جزيئات الله” للاعتقاد المجنون بوجود شلال من الأكوان حولنا.

البعض الأخر يعتقد أن الملحد يفقد بوصلته الأخلاقية عندما يتجرد من الدين وأنه يعانى من وجوده في متاهة من العدمية نتيجة استئصال أخلاقه. فى الواقع هذه الفكرة مهينة للإنسانية لأنها مبنية على افتراض أننا أطفال أشقياء لابد من إجبارنا على عمل الصواب والبعد عن الخطأ. الفارق الاساسى بين القواعد الأخلاقية للمؤمن والملحد أن الملحد لديه حرية أكثر لاستخدام العقل فى اختياره للأخلاقيات التي يقرر التمسك بها أو تركها.

اعتقاداتي بأكملها هى ملكي وحدي ولا أنتظر من أحد أن يعتنقها، لأن إيماني ليس دعويا. أنا أعتقد أن كل شخص يجب أن يجد طريقه ويقرر بنفسه ما يريد أن يؤمن به. كل ما أطلبه أن يكف الآخرين عن الدفع بمعتقداتهم فى حلقى أو أن يحاولوا إلغاء معتقداتي، كما فعل العديد من الإسلاميين طوال السنوات الماضية.

 بينما أحترم المعتقدات الدينية للآخرين وأعجب بهؤلاء الذين يملكون التدين والخلق المحب، هناك الكثيرين ممن لا يفعلون مثلى ولا يعطوني نفس الحقوق. ومع أن القانون المصري لا يجرم الإلحاد بوضوح، هناك آليات لملاحقة الملحدين. منمها القانونان المبهمان والمبتكران والمرعبان في نفس الوقت الخاصين بازدراء الأديان والحسبة، ويستخدمهما المحامين الإسلاميين والدولة لملاحقة الملحدين بل أيضا لملاحقة المسلمين المختلفين معهم فى الرأي.

ما لم أتمكن من استيعابه هو كيفية “شعور” دين عمره قرون بالازدراء ولماذا يحتاج الإسلام ناس يوكلوا انفسهم مدافعين عنه في حين أن القرآن نقسه يطالب غير المسلمين بالشك والتساؤل وحتى بالسخرية. في الواقع أي دين يعتقد أن حقائقه دالة وقاطعة الثبوت في حد ذاتها لا يحتاج أيا من أتباعه أن يجبروا الآخرين على اعتناقه.

هناك من سينبذ كلامي على أنه إدعاءات شخص أبتعد كثيرا عن أصوله وعاش بالخارج لمدة طويلة. ومع أني لا أشك أن المراحل التى قضيتها في أوروبا عرضتني لأساليب تفكير مختلفة، لكن أبتعادى عن الدين حدث معظمه أثناء وجودي بمصر على الرغم من جمال المظاهر الدينية العديدة التي أعجبت بها هنا، من الأجواء الإحتفالية المفرطة فى رمضان لنسك الرهبنة في الصحراء.

 من حسن حظي أنه كان بإمكاني قطع صلاتي بالدين فى وسط أقل حدة وورع. حيث أن البعض لم تتوفر له تلك الرفاهية وأنا أعرف العديد من الملحدين والأجنوستيين الذين يخفون حقيقة معتقداتهم عن عائلاتهم خشية من فقدانهم لأحبابهم.

قد يكون من المغرى للبعض أن يرونى شاذا أوحتى مكروها، لكنى أؤكد لهم أنى لست الوحيد. مع أنى كنت صوتا نادرا حينما خرجت من القمقم لأول مرة، لكن الثورة شجعت العديد من الملحدين أن يعبروا عن أفكارهم، حتى وأن كان ذلك محفوفاً بمخاطر فادحة مثل النفي أو النبذ والملاحقة القضائية – مخاطر أصبحت محصنا منها حيث أنى فقط أزور مصر ولا اقيم هناك.

 أما الذين ستغريهم فكرة أن الثورة جائت بأفكار منحلة، أؤكد لهم أن الملحدين كانوا دائما متواجدين بمصر – وفى العلن – و لعبوا أيضا دورا مهما فى تكوين هوية مصر. في الواقع، حتى سبعينات القرن الماضى لعبوا الملحدين ومن أبحروا في تيارات عدم الإيمان دوراً بارزاً في الفكر والثقافة في مصر.

على سبيل المثال، كان رائد الاشتراكية فى مصر سلامة موسى يؤمن أن الناس يجب أن تعتمد فقط على عقولها وأن كل منا يجب أن يأخذ مصيره بيديه. ومن المعروف أن مصطفى محمود، مقدم البرامج التليفزيونية الشهير الذي مزج بين الدين والعلم، كان أيضا ملحدا ثم وجد طريقه للإيمان مرة أخرى، مع انه صرح بأن أعماله الأولى التي أنتقد فبها الدين كانت هي طريقته لاختبار إيمانه.

أحد أعظم فلاسفة مصر الوجوديين في القرن العشرين، عبد الرحمن بدوى، كتب في الأربعينات من القرن الماضي موسوعة عن الملحدين على مر التاريخ الإسلامى. وكان هناك الكثير منهم مثل “داوكنز” الدولة العباسية ابن الراوندى.

يشير البعض إلى أن عدد الملحدين في مصر يفوق عدد المسيحيين. أن صح ذلك يصبح الإلحاد ثاني أكبر معتقد في المجتمع. لن نعرف في المستقبل القريب عددهم، حيث لا يعترف بالملحدين أو يحصيهم أحد. والتمييز الذي يتعرضون له دفع الكثير منهم أن يخفوا وجودهم. لكن من المؤكد أن بجانب الإيمان كان دائما الإلحاد جزء أساسي من نسيج مصر الإجتماعى وإنكار ذلك لا يولد سوى النفاق.

 حان الوقت لنعترف بكامل حقوق الملحدين بما في ذلك حقهم في حرية الإعتقاد بما يشاؤا وحقهم فى ألا يصنفوا على أنهم أتباع أيا من الأديان السماوية الثلاثة وكافة حقوقهم المدنية مثل باقى المصريين.

 فوق كل شئ، نريد أن ينظر لنا بمساواة كمواطنين وليس كأهداف للملاحقة القضائية والأسوأ من ذلك… للاضطهاد.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

نشر هذا المقال في The Daily News Egypt في 15 اغسطس 2013. الترجمة العربية من خلال باسم رؤوف

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Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though never officially recognised, atheists and agnostics have always been part of Egypt. Society now needs to grant us our right not to believe.

Monday 19 August 2013

إقراء بالعربي

Believe it or not, I am a member of Egypt’s least-recognised minority. No, I’m not a Copt or a convert or a Bahá’í even. I am an agnostic atheist, or an atheistic agnostic. Basically, I don’t know whether or not God exists, but religion, in my humble view, is clearly manmade and not heaven-sent.

If there is a god, he set off the Big Bang and then took cover to view the handiwork of the magnificent laws he set in motion to govern the universe. He is not an interventionist micro-manager who, for some unfathomable reason, decided to place us, insignificant flecks on the back of an insignificant speck that we are, at the centre of his entire scheme.

This is the first time I’ve made such a declaration of faith, or faithlessness, in an Egyptian newspaper, and it is bound to outrage some readers and cause offence to others. That is not my intention. Although I do not wish to insult people’s most intimate beliefs, I believe I also have a right to express my heartfelt convictions, and ones which I arrived at after years of doubt, questioning, hesitation and thought.

When it comes to finding religion, we hear of epiphanies, moments when someone suddenly wakes up and sees the light. I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve never experienced a religious awakening. When it comes to losing your religion, as REM might put it, it’s more like a slow bleed or a debilitating terminal condition in which there can be periods of recovery but the end is not far off; it involves soul-searching and soul-destruction.

I felt perhaps my strongest (and youngest) faith in a non-Muslim country and lost it in a Muslim country, though I did not fully abandon it until I left Egypt again. It began with childhood doubts over why all my English friends would be going to hell when they eventually died, which matured into questions over the status of women and sexuality, as well as the contradictions and scientific errors in the Quran.

That’s not to mention the more metaphysical and philosophical questions, such as why a just and loving God would intentionally create a flawed being whom he places in a test which the omnipresent, omniscient deity already knows the outcome? Of course, I’m not singling out Islam – the same and similar questions apply to other religions.

Many believers, I imagine, will read the above with a mix of horror and even concern. They will perhaps grieve for my lost soul and wonder what emptiness and hollowness lie inside. But, on the contrary, I don’t feel that my loss of faith has left me with a God-sized hole in my heart. Nor am I like a spiritual refugee slumming it out in some frontier camp for exiled souls.

There is so much around us to instil a sense of wonder and mystique, from the science and technology that can perform endless modern-day “miracles” to the physics theories that are metaphysical in their beauty, from the God particle to the zany notion that a cascade of multiverses exists.

Others assume that deprived of religion, the non-believer loses his or her moral compass, suffers a lobotomy of his morals and exists in an ethics-free nihilistic haze. But this notion is frankly insulting to humanity as it is built on the assumption that we are errant children who have to be coerced into doing right and avoiding wrong. The main difference between the morality of the faithful and faithless is that the non-believer is much freer to exercise reason to decide which ethics to uphold and which to jettison.

My convictions are entirely my own and I don’t expect others to adopt them. Mine is not a proselytising “faith”. I believe that everyone should find their own path and decide for themselves what they wish to believe in. All I ask is that others refrain from shoving their beliefs down my throat or try nullifying mine, as numerous Islamists have done over the years.

While I respect people’s religious beliefs and admire those of a forgiving and loving spiritual disposition, there are many who do not, or would not accord me the same right. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly outlaw atheism, there are other mechanisms for targeting non-believers. These include the vague, innovative and frightening legal concepts of “insulting” and “ridiculing” religion, as well as hisbah, which have been used by crusading Islamist lawyers and the state to target non-believers but far more often believers with a different interpretation of their faith.

What I’ve never been able to get my head around is how any centuries-old religion could feel insult, and why Islam would need self-appointed defenders when the Quran itself challenges non-Muslims to doubt, question and even mock. In fact, any faith which believes its truths are self-evident does not need any of its followers to coerce and intimidate others into obedience.

There are those who will dismiss what I say as the ranting of someone who has moved too far away from his roots and lived abroad for too long. Although I do not doubt that the phases I have spent in Europe have exposed me to alternative way of thinking, most of my drift away from religion occurred in Egypt, despite the numerous beautiful aspects I admire about faith here, from the festive excesses of Ramadan to the monastic frugalities of the desert.

Fortunately for me, I was able to sever my ties with religion in a less intense, demanding and pious environment. Others have not had that luxury, and I know quite a few atheists and agnostics who hide their true beliefs from their families or are discreet about them out of fear of losing their loved ones.

It might be tempting for some to view me as an aberration, even an abomination, but I can assure them I am by far not alone.  Although I was a rare voice when I first came out of the closet, the revolution has emboldened many more non-believers to speak their  mind, even when it comes at the great personal risk of ostracism and prosecution, risks I am relatively immune to now that I only visit Egypt.

For those who may be tempted to think that the revolution has brought with it decadent ideas, let me stress that non-believers have always been around in Egypt – often openly – and have played important roles in shaping the country’s identity. In fact, up until the 1970s, atheists and those who sailed close to the wind of non-belief were prominent in the country’s intelligentsia.

For example, the pioneer of socialism in Egypt, Salama Moussa, believed that people must depend only on their minds and that each of us must “take his destiny into his own hands.” It is widely reputed that Mustafa Mahmoud, the popular TV presenter who blended religion with science, was an atheist who found God, though he himself claimed that his earlier works criticising religion were his way of testing his faith.

One of Egypt’s greatest philosophers of the 20th century, the existentialist Abdel Rahman Badawi, wrote, in the 1940s, an encyclopaedia of atheists throughout Islamic history. And there have been plenty of those, such as the Dawkins of the Abbasid era Ibn Al-Rawandi.

There are even atheists who speculate that the number of non-believers in Egypt could potentially exceed the number of Christians. If true, that would make non-belief the second largest faith community.

For the foreseeable future, we will not know as nobody has bothered to recognise or count them, and the discrimination they face has led many to lead an underground existence. But what is certain is that, alongside belief, non-belief has always been an integral part of Egypt’s social fabric, and denying they exist only breeds hypocrisy.

It is time that atheists and agnostics have their rights recognised in full, including their right to freely believe what they want, their right not to be described as a member of one of the three heavenly faiths, and their right, along with other Egyptians, to access civil courts.

Above all, we need to be regarded as equal citizens and not as targets for prosecution… or worse, persecution.

 

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 15 August 2013.

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Embodying the mind

 
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By Khaled Diab

In philosophy and religion, the body is merely a hollow shell for our mind and soul. But what if our bodies not only confine but also define us?

9 April 2010

For centuries, our poor, fragile, vulnerable bodies have received something of a bad press. Occupying the temporal, physical plane, as they do, they are what make us weak and fallible; they succumb to temptation and are immersed in ‘sin’.

Though, at one level, they may be our temples, they are also regarded as our flesh pots. The devout try to release themselves of the body’s mortal bonds through physically demanding – even harmful – devotions, such as fasting and self-flagellation.

In contrast, our souls and minds, are objects of disembodied, otherworldly beauty – they are pure, essential manifestations of who we are, uncontaminated by the whims and wiles of our carnal body, occupying the paradise of the metaphysical plane. Most religions regard the body as the prison of the soul, while the dualist view of philosophy sees the mind as somehow existing apart from and independently of the body.

Thought experiments seemed to back this up. René Descartes embarked upon a quest in which he called all his previous beliefs into doubt. Though he could doubt whether he had a body, the only thing he could be certain of was that he had a mind, because of his ability to think.

But tempting as it is to subscribe to Descartes famous adage, “I think, therefore, I am”, and all it says about the apparent power and independence of our higher faculties, evidence is mounting that out bodies are far more than mere vessels for our minds but actually intimately shape our every thought, including abstract ones.

A recent feature in New Scientist explored how science is gradually uncovering the mystery of how our bodies do the thinking. For example, one study showed that eye movement and abstract thought are linked.

Another experiment suggests that the physical and emotional are closely intertwined. It would appear that our tendency to describe good things as facing upwards – ‘high’, ‘elated’ and ‘upright’ – and bad things as pointing downward – ‘down in the dumps’, ‘downside’ or even ‘lowlife’ – is no simple metaphor and physical movement does affect the way we look at things. For instance, in one experiment, the direction in which people were moving marbles – up or down – often affected the way they answered neutral questions, such as “tell me what happened yesterday”.

More sinisterly, in a manner of speaking, our physical attributes, such as our handedness, seem to hold a certain amount of sway on our judgement. One experiment which asked 286 students to judge the personal characteristics of cartoon characters standing to the left and to the right found that 210 of them showed a clear rightward or leftward preference. Amazingly, of these, 65% of the left-handed students described the characters on the left more positively, while 54% of the right-handed students regarded the characters on the right more positively.

Since most of us are right-handed, this might explain why we say someone who is good is ‘righteous’, why we don’t speak of ‘human lefts’ and why someone who used their left hand was considered ‘sinister’ (meaning ‘left’ in Latin) in the Middle Ages and ran the risk of being accused of witchcraft. Of course, we have overcome this prejudice in our enlightened age and many of us happily describe ourselves as leftists, though many rightists do still view us as the devil’s spawn!

So, given the growing evidence that our ‘minds’ are simply another, if more sophisticated, of our bodily functions, why have we regarded our intellects as being separate from our brains and bodies for so long. This could partly be caused by the confusion aroused by the fact that our thoughts can apparently defy the laws of physics and be in many places at once, and our minds can travel in time and space without our bodies, and switch between reality and fantasy in the blink of an eye.

In addition, this dichotomy is borne of our ancient frustration at the physical and time limitations our bodies impose upon us – the tragedy of our brains is that the consciences they grant us have led us to grow too big for our biodegradable physical boots, prompting the wish to outsmart them, through the invention of the mind, and outlive them, through the creation of the soul.

So, what implications does this emerging line of research have, beyond delivering humanity with another dent to its collective ego? Well, for starters, we’d have to rephrase Descartes famous adage. I suggest: “I stink, therefore, I think.”

Moreover, just as modern science has marked not only the death of God but also the death of the human soul, it now looks like the death knell has sounded for the metaphysical “mind”, too.

In a future of ‘ambient intelligence’, we’ll need to dedicate some effort to studying whether creating artificial intelligence that is similar to our own, will require us to create robots with bodies like ours or whether computer models simulating intelligence are enough? In addition, if intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe developed in radically different physical bodies would that mean they have developed radically different forms of abstract thought or is there a common element to abstract thought, regardless of the creature developing it?

How about future humanity itself? What if we radically re-engineer our bodies using genetic engineering techniques and nano-technology, would our cognition and perceptions vary dramatically, too? What kind of people will we become if we, one day, get rid of our bodies all together and upload our minds into ‘the cloud’ once our bodies expire? Maybe this is the heaven we’ve obsessed over for so long about.

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