A Religion of Life

Image by Karen .t from Pixabay

The following discussion about belief systems may seem out of place coming from a recovering astrophysicist, and perhaps I am as surprised as you are. But my path has taken me to an unexpected place, so that I now think we would be wise to make a radical course change at the deepest level of what we believe.

Why should we consider a major change?

  • Because we don’t know everything, and never can.
  • Because what we do know tells us we’re on the wrong track, initiating a sixth mass extinction—not just from CO2, but from modernity itself.
  • Because we now (collectively) believe in the wrong things, like human supremacy and economics (gross).
  • These beliefs are actively hurting the living creatures of the planet, including us.

Science has revealed so much about the origins and rules of the universe, and how life came to be so exquisitely diverse. Let’s tap into what this tells us. Let’s also acknowledge that mysteries will always remain. Rather than continue to be paralyzed in this urgent time by what we don’t yet know, let’s fill in the gaps with belief—or even faith—rooted in the science we already do know. Let’s move beyond the current stories we tell ourselves in modernity, and fashion new ones that move us in a better direction—to the enduring benefit of all life on Earth.

I’m not sure I know how to tell this story, so please bear with me and accept my apologies for a long-ish read. For those who saw last week’s post, this one contains familiar echoes, but represents a fresh approach intended for a more general audience.

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My God: It's Evolution!

I never thought it would happen to me, but I’ve had a divine revelation, of sorts. Have you heard the good news?

While being brought up in a Methodist church, and educated for 8 years in Catholic schools (where I went to mass five days a week for the first three years), I abandoned Christianity midway through high school—tentatively traversing an agnostic phase on my way to calling myself an atheist. Now I eat babies and make my clothing out of puppy skins. Just kidding: I am playing off childish myths about atheists, though I now recognize how completely ludicrous and backwards this perception is. Atheists actually eat puppies and use baby skin for clothing. Ah—I can’t stop kidding around.

I’ll skip over all the physics training, astrophysics exposure, outdoor experiences, etc. that contributed to my worldview. Suffice it to say that I found no shortage of phenomena in the world worthy of awe and appreciation. It was all the more amazing to reflect on the simple origins of everything and the emergence of astounding complexity—especially in the spectacle of life. To me, the idea that our biodiverse world rests on a relatively simple set of physical laws makes the outcome FAR more interesting and dazzling than does the comparatively unimaginative invocation of a sentient creator.

The revelation at hand did not arrive all at once. An initial grounding is partly contained in the reading journey I laid out some while back. Most importantly, the writings of Daniel Quinn (who lived for a time in a monastery aiming to be a hard-core Trappist monk) played a major role—recently reinforced by Alex Leff’s excellent podcast treatment of Ishmael. The revelation finally matured in the context of my post from last week on free will, and the illuminating responses it generated.

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Recommended Podcasts

This is a short “bonus” posting about some worthwhile podcasts I have been following lately that might be appreciated by Do the Math readers. I’m not a particularly thorough podcast consumer, often having a spotty relationship even with the ones I enjoy. That said, I’ll start with the most recent, and the one that in fact inspired this posting.

Human Nature Odyssey

Alex Leff has created what I think is a masterpiece in his first “season” of Human Nature Odyssey. The series is an entertaining, engaging treatment of Daniel Quinn’s 1992 book, Ishmael. I read this book and its companions in 2022, finding powerful and important insights that have stuck with me and grown. I highlight these in an account of my reading journey, and later in a dedicated post. Alex brings humorous life to the story in a richly textured production.

I can’t say personally how well the series would work without first reading Ishmael, but I suspect it would still work quite well as a stand-alone experience (Alex intended it to be able to work). I can say that I enjoyed it enough to run through twice. I won’t rule out a third pass—which would be a personal first for any podcast series. So, it receives my highest recommendation. Give it a try, and tell friends and family about it if you enjoy it. No, I am not getting paid or compensated in any way!

Holding the Fire

Dahr Jamail followed his 2020 book The End of Ice with a palliative book together with coauthor Stan Rushworth called We are the Middle of Forever, which presents perspectives from a variety of Indigenous voices within North America (Turtle Island). Holding the Fire expands the effort, in audio form, to an international set of Indigenous people who have wisdom to share. I am struck by the common themes offered by people from such different environments and cultural histories. These commonalities can’t be coincidence, and might light the way for long term success: living on this planet as humble participants within a community of life.

The Great Simplification

I have referenced a few inspirations from this series, by Nate Hagens, in previous posts. Nate talks to leading scholars, thinkers, practitioners, and activists in the world who are engaging with the meta-crisis in various ways. Nate encourages systems thinking that is not ecologically blind, energy blind, materials blind, etc. It is rewarding to learn that others in the world are thinking about these topics, although the number of guests whose narrow focus appears to result in one or another “blindnesses” is its own sort of lesson as to how rare a broad perspective on the meta-crisis is—but Nate gracefully and gently probes some of the blind spots. Besides the regular series (featuring guests), Nate also creates a sidecar “Frankly” series of shorter installments addressing relevant pieces of the puzzle.

Crazy Town

Jason Bradford, Rob Dietz, and Asher Miller—in association with the Post Carbon Institute—gather (in the same room, no less!) to chew on topics and trends relevant to the meta-crisis.  These are fun conversations, with lots of good-humored jabs at each other.  All three are very insightful, compassionate, and well-informed.  Their episodes on mega-wankers like Elon Musk are entertaining, as part of a series on “Phalse Prophets.”

Doomer Optimism

Finally, I am less familiar with this series except that I was a guest on the recent episode 195. That’s right: they’re approaching 200 episodes. Among other guests, they have had Bill Rees, Daniel Schmachtenberger, John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg and Kate Raworth. While I have not explored this one very thoroughly, I resonate with the title, as I am doomerish when it comes to modernity, while remaining oddly optimistic when it comes to humanity.

This statement brings me back to the Ishmael-based podcast (Human Nature Odyssey) mentioned at the top of this post: we can enact other stories going forward—stories of respect, awe, and reciprocity.

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Free Will: Good Riddance

This baby violet-green swallow faces the first big decision of her life: should I stay or should I go, now.

I never cared much for arguments about free will, one way or the other. I put free will into a similar category to other wastes of time in philosophy, like the Great Deceiver concept or the trolley problem. Angels on the head of a pin, anyone? It seemed like one of those unresolvable debates that has persisted for centuries: a tar baby that one would be foolish to punch.

If an opinion was demanded of me, I would say without particular conviction that I leaned toward a position that free will was an illusion, but that I was happy to behave as if I had free will, and then get on with life. My leaning toward illusory free will stemmed from a sense that our decision center is no more than a bolus of interconnected neurons, shaped by many influences in the physical universe.

After listening to a podcast featuring Robert Sapolsky based on his new book Determined (which I have not read yet), I found my position coming into focus. A large majority of people in our society—over 80%—believe in free will. Indeed, it is often pointed out that our criminal justice system is predicated on the concept. Some folks (called compatibilists) adopt a squishy compromise position that attempts to assess how “internal” a decision is (good luck with that). Few members of modernity reject free will completely, but that’s where Sapolsky landed, and I found his arguments to be persuasive.

A recent article by Richard Heinberg explored the interaction between belief in free will and our response to the meta-crisis: can we save the world if we don’t have free will as a motivating engine? Although I am somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the pernicious free will topic, what the hell. I find myself compelled to do so.

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Reasoning with Robots

Image by Văn Tấn from Pixabay

As technology has invaded many facets of our lives, I am guessing that all of us experienced the frustration of trying to reason with algorithmic minds. Have you ever raised your voice to a device, asking “Really!?” We might wonder if the application was designed by an unpaid intern, or if the designer ever tried to use it in realistic circumstances. But no amount of frustration will have an effect. The operating space is prescribed and rigid, so that no matter how many times we try, the thing will stubbornly execute the same boneheaded behavior.

Imagine that a self-driving car in a city detects a voluminous plastic bag in its way. It will stop, and say—perhaps silently to itself—”Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” I could go all day. No, actually I can’t. But it can, and that’s the point. A really sophisticated version might say: “Bag.” “Bag.” “Bag.” “Bag.” Meanwhile, a human driver might look at the bag, and based on the way it waves in the breeze decide that it’s mostly empty, but just looks big, and is safe to drive over without even slowing down—thus avoiding interminable honks from behind.

Arguing with robots would likely be similarly tedious. No matter what insults you are compelled to fling after reaching your frustration threshold, all you get back is the annoyingly repetitive insult: “Meat bag.” “Meat bag.” “Meat bag.”

Meat bag brains have the advantage of being able to take in broader considerations and weave in context from lived experience. We can decide when algorithmic thinking is useful, and when it has limits. Unfortunately, I buy the argument from Iain McGilchrist that modern culture has increasingly programmed people to be more algorithmic in their thinking—in my view via educational systems, video games, and ubiquitous digital interfaces. I often feel like I’m arguing with robots, but of the meat variety.

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A Lifetime Ago

Image by brfcs from Pixabay

Having just ticked over a new year, it’s a fitting moment to think about time.  I have often compared modernity to a fireworks show—dazzling, short, then over—and indeed we often celebrate the New Year with a fireworks display.  Perhaps lasting 10 minutes, the display occupies one fifty-thousandth of the year.  This is like the past 50 years of explosive impact relative to the 2.5–3 million years of humans on Earth, or our 10,000 year agricultural period compared to the time since a different explosion: the Cambrian.  Our current ways are indeed as transient as a fireworks show, also marking a sort of culmination of a long era.  But let’s approach temporal perspective from a different angle.

Growing up, I thought of World War II as ancient history: long before my time. But now, I have lived more than twice the span that separated WWII from my birth in 1970. Only 25 years elapsed between the end of WWII and 1970, while we’re presently 54 years away from 1970. 25 years, I now realize, is nothing! When I was born, WWII was still fresh in the minds of many who had lived through it.  Indeed, both my grandfathers fought in WWII, carrying the physical and psychological scars to prove it.  To my grandfathers at the time of my birth, WWII seemed like “only yesterday,” as 1999 seems to me now.

A related trick is to keep track of the date that was as distant from your birth as you are today. In other words, the year in which your anti-self who lives backward in time would find themselves. For instance, I was born at the beginning of 1970 (which also happens to be the start of Unix time), and therefore find myself about 54 years from my birth date. Thus 54 years prior to my birth date is 1916, smack into the middle of the first World War. I can probably expect my backward self to make it past the turn of the century, before the fireworks show of modern life really got underway: before airplanes, for instance.

But the main point of this post is that the past, and all “history” isn’t really that far back. We’ll play a game based on the question: who was the oldest person alive when the oldest person today was born, and likewise back to the more distant past.

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