What's the Point?

Time for a new paint job on the house?

Having developed a perspective that modernity is fated to fail, and that many of our culture’s current pursuits and institutions are misguided efforts to prop up temporary structures, I often encounter the reaction that I am being defeatist. If what I am saying is true, then what’s the point? Yeah: what is this point that others believe justifies all the craziness? Whatever they think “the point” is could well be based on unexamined and incorrect beliefs.

I will attempt in this post to explain what I mean by this, in multiple passes. A starter example may seem a little patronizing, but could still be helpful. If your world only makes sense and has meaning on the premise that Santa Claus exists, then you’ve put yourself in an unfortunate place. Others have found ways to appreciate life without that requirement based on a falsehood.

Let’s also try generalizing the concept before getting to specific examples.  We start with something I present that happens to be essentially true (or indeed comes to pass in due time), whether or not we can say so with absolute certainty. Then imagine that the reaction is: “well, if that’s true, then what’s the point of living?” Well, we obviously are living, and if we do so in the context of this truth, then it makes little sense to say there’s no point in living. The problem must then lie in what the person believes “the point” to be, and therefore must be wrong about that. In this sense, a “what’s the point” challenge might be taken to signal a flawed worldview.

Okay. That’s the template. Let’s do a few practice cases (optional if you want to cut to the chase), and work our way toward the main event regarding modernity.


As we have no demonstrable evidence to the contrary, it is likely true that the universe operates as a quasi-deterministic symphony that writes itself in real time as the tangle of relationships described by physics play out. I say quasi-deterministic because quantum probabilities add spice to the details of the unfolding, but still in a prescriptive way. Most people have serious problems with this view, because life does not at all feel like it operates deterministically. I get it. Truly, the “undetermined” sensation is not lost on me for a second! But so what? Why would the actual real universe as it exists before us care what notions and hang-ups I construct in my brain about how it works?

Mind-bendingly complex and cool things can emerge from “the stage”—as far as we know all 100% consistent with the laws of physics that we have carefully elucidated, and to which no replicable experiment has found exception. That’s a strong bit of evidence on the side of determinism: we can’t override the physics that makes our neurons do what they do, for instance. Life certainly feels undetermined and open-ended, because the complexity is so extraordinarily insane that the only conceivable way to reveal the outcome is to play it out with the actual full universe as expressed in unfathomably rich inter-relationships between all the particles. No one—including the universe itself—knows for sure exactly what comes next in every detail (though broad brush predictions about things like sunrise tend to be pretty solid). Just because it’s deterministic doesn’t mean there’s a plan or a script: just rules and scads of interactions.

So, if in rejecting the notion of determinism, someone says “what’s the point in getting up everyday if I’m just executing a script?”, then whatever they imagine the point to be is whacked in the context that determinism is actually the way of things. Something doesn’t make sense in their view of the world (which I will alternately label as worldview or cosmology), in a broken sort of way. In other words, if the only thing that makes sense to someone is to live in a world that is not deterministic, but the world is indeed deterministic, then that person’s sense-making of the world is essentially misguided. They have no authority to determine whether determinism is true or not, so what’s their coping strategy if—as mountains of evidence suggest—the universe turns out to be deterministic? Do they have a plan for that besides reactive rejection, or does it break their whole cosmology and leave them rudderless? What a shame, if they short-circuit based on their own chosen flaw: an unforced error. I suppose they can also just never accept determinism and continue to be comfortable within their cosmology, fragile as it may be.

Free Will

It goes pretty similarly with the sensation of free will. Again, I get that our perception of the world convincingly fools us into mistaking agency for free will. But what if that’s wrong? Yes, we have agency in that we are actors in this self-writing script and have impacts on the rest of the performance—impacts that are hatched by our own neurons without violating any laws of physics. But there’s no sign of a “soul” that can override the relationships between all the stuff that makes us up. If physics (e.g., neurochemistry) were that easy to override, then how can drugs gain the upper hand? How can anesthesia make us go completely blank for hours without even a sense of time (where does the soul go)? Why does our sense of soul/awareness/consciousness coincide with our biological birth and subsequent development as biological beings? It’s dazzlingly impressive how resistant people can be to the notion that we are wholly corporeal beings.  What a spectacle!

Anyway, it is unacceptable to many to suggest that we don’t have free will—which has every likelihood of being the case with no firm evidence to the contrary. Again, we don’t get to choose whether it’s true or not. If in someone’s mind there’s “no point” to living without free will, and indeed there’s no free will, then we have another case of a self-defeating choice of beliefs: another unforced error.


A third related piece and then I’ll move on to modernity. We are aware of ourselves, which we call consciousness. Many elect to see this as a state of transcendence. Whatever. Call this fascinating piece of emergent complexity what you like, but it seems to be a quality of many forms of life, and this totally makes sense. It is hard to see how you would stop even a moderately complex being with many sensory inputs and a brain from building a mental model in which the organism is a “self” or “entity” that needs to maneuver and perform certain functions in certain ways in order to be a successful member of the community of life. Evolution sees to it that those unable to conjure this capability are less able to operate successfully in a soup of other “entities” who can manage to do so.

If your standard-issue human supremacist has trouble accepting that consciousness is not unique to humans, but just another cool outcome of the evolution of complex organisms, then they have managed to set themselves up poorly—because loads of evidence points to (probably) universal consciousness (not all of identical form, naturally). So if the point to being human is this special power, then it’s a stupid corner to have painted oneself into. Angry reactions then boil down to anger at oneself for engineering another unforced error.


I hope these relatively brief starters laid the groundwork for understanding the main topic, and weren’t just annoying tangents.

Let me attempt to frame the modernity version in a series of conjectural statements I might make, followed by reactions I might get from mainstream members of modernity.

Statement: We probably won’t have electricity or much in the way of metals in a thousand years (give or take a thousand years or so).

Response: That seems crazy and nearly impossible to imagine playing out short of nuclear annihilation: it would make all our progress to date pointless.

Statement: Earth almost certainly can’t maintain 8 billion people or anything near it for even a century or two—especially without fossil fuels.

Response: It is our ethical obligation to make it work, and we surely will via innovation and technology (fossil fuels are not what makes us amazing: we just are amazing). Otherwise, what’s the point of our having risen to this state?

Statement: Science as we practice it is a net harm: deployed for short-term human gains at great cost to the ecosphere’s health.

Response: If that were true, then what would be the point? Obviously there’s a point to science, which expands our knowledge and provides ample benefits via technology.

Statement: Centuries from now we will have lost much of the knowledge that science has worked hard to accumulate.

Response: That would be tragic if true: then what’s the point if it’s all going to get flushed?

Statement: I spend much of my time trying to get people to see modernity as fundamentally unable to succeed in its ambitions.

Response: If you think it’s really that bad—doomed to fail—then what’s the point of bothering to write about it?

It would be interesting to collect thoughts about what such respondents do think the point is. How anthropocentric, ecologically ignorant, unrealistic, impractical, short-term, or even delusional are they? What sort of detached utopia do they dream is possible? How much context do they have to ignore or exclude to leave room for this tidy vision of artifice? Trying to remember what it was like to think this way, here are some possible answers:

  1. Eliminate hunger and inequity; achieve world peace; perfect democracy; no barriers due to race or gender; bend the arc or history toward justice; education and good jobs for all.
  2. Pursue science until we answer all key mysteries, cure all diseases, perhaps even defeat death from old age via molecular biology insights (telomeres!).
  3. Star Trek: leap from our earthly cradle and grace the universe with human greatness.
  4. We’re just starting the good life, which we want billions to experience indefinitely.
  5. Exercise and perfect our dominion over Earth as granted by God (just swept up a few billion Abrahamic subscribers).
  6. Preserve and expand human accomplishment in art, writing, music, architecture, science, technology, etc. These things differentiate us from animals and from our animal past, and are the whole point of being human.
  7. Eventually merge our consciousness into digital form and become more than human: unleash new powers and live (forever) in the cloud.

Quick responses to each in turn:

  1. Santa Claus again? A pleasant set of fantasies, but very anthropocentric; ecology-blind; unachievably naive. As an aside, success on the first point inevitably grows the population, scaling up the current tension with respect to planetary limits.
  2. Unachievable hyperbole; we’re not accidentally structured to be capable of understanding everything, and that’s okay; mystery and awe can remain; curing all diseases and achieving effective immortality would be ecologically disastrous!
  3. Mind-numbingly delusional in terms of realism, and also very Human Reich.
  4. The “good life” is rapidly wrecking our home, and will thus prove to be short-lived.
  5. And how’s that supremacism working out (in light of a sixth mass extinction)? Failing the test, are we?
  6. Neat things, to be sure, but part of the package (Human Reich) that is destroying what it means to be other species. Focusing on one side of the coin isn’t helpful. These things can’t exist long-term if their very pursuit drives ecological collapse. Attempts to differentiate ourselves from animals is itself a deeply flawed and problematic practice.
  7. Whoa. This degree of disconnected delusional dreaming is almost to the level of mental disease, and ought to be looked at by a professional. Read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary to learn about the imbalance inherent in this kind of view.

Wrong Cosmology

I think a universal observation about these sorts of objections is that my original statements are incompatible with the cosmologies of the respondents. They fail to compute, within the worldviews of those folks. It feels like unfamiliar nonsense, when “sense” is constructed from a misguided notion of what this existence is all about and what the future promises to hold.

The distilled logic is: “if what you say were to be true, then my worldview falls apart, so what you say doesn’t seem like it can be true.” More bluntly: “I reject your premise, as preserving my worldview is more important to me—even if it’s utterly wrong (which it can’t be, somehow).”

In one sense, the “what’s the point” question is a form of progress. It acknowledges a deep disconnect. Problem identified. Maybe the real point is not at all what was imagined! I view it as similar to the fact—which I relish—that racists hate being labeled as racist. That’s a form of progress: they know it’s not okay, and get all defensive. When someone says “then what’s the point?” they have made a big step to appreciating the incompatibility. The harder trick is to get them to re-evaluate their cosmology as the chief source of disconnect.

Once allowing the cosmology to shatter, many of my statements are far easier to entertain, and may even become obvious or seem the most likely truths—to the point of being attractive, even. Cosmologies can therefore seriously distort and limit our thinking—affecting our judgment.


A quick detour about the word “progress,” which I used three times previously. The first instance was embedded in a mainstream response, used in its common form to reflect technological development, medical advances, access to economic/material “needs,” social tolerance and justice, and the like. Politically, the term “progressive” applies to those seeking expanded human rights and “fair” distribution of earth’s loot for all (humans).

But the second use reflected a much different form of evolution: questioning the traditional meaning of progress is itself progress. Abandoning “progress” as it is usually defined is, to me, progress. Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress helps paint the word in a different light.

Existential Vacuum

A serious barrier to abandoning any cherished cosmology is that without anything to take its place one is left staring into an abyss. It’s scary. What meaning, or purpose could possibly exist? It feels like nihilism. Those who make it to the other side know better. There’s life after Santa Claus; life after shedding God; life without free will; life (literally) with conscious critters to keep us company; life after modernity. By life here, I mean love, joy, meaning, awe, community. Also pain, loss, death, and other counterparts that must exist hand-in-hand to give substance to the pleasant bits. I’m not trying to sugar-coat: just indicating that rewarding experiences are every bit as possible—if not more so—without modernity.

Think of the picky-eater kid who would only ever eat chicken nuggets, pizza, and hot dogs. Frustrated parents catered to the kid’s limited palate, all the way through high school. Now imagine that during college, the kid (still earning that label) goes on an exchange trip to Thailand. It seems super-scary at first: “Nothing to eat here! I’ll starve!” But eventually they try some of the less intimidating items, find that they’re quite delicious, and before long discover that Thai food is amazing. The door is open. The original problem, in a sense, was living in a skewed world that allowed or even promoted the maintenance of an unhealthy, limited tolerance for a broader understanding of the world of possibilities.

Once dropping the problematic cosmology that defines the point of life in terms of human “accomplishment” in the narrow context of modernity, a universe of other values systems becomes available to offer sustenance. To think otherwise is to arrogantly assume that thousands of generations of humans who came before were miserable because they had not found their “special purpose” (not referring to The Jerk movie, here). Modernists are nodding, because this sounds right according to their mythology. But that strikes me as delusional bull$#!+! Joy is part of the package of being human, and always has been! Likewise, all the other plants and animals of the world are not frikin’ miserable because they lack modernity! I could turn the tables and say that the modernity disease produces far more misery (for all life) than any other worldview that has ever existed on the planet.

If successful in sloughing off the mantle of modernity, you’ll see it as a hideous garment. Why did you love it so? It filled your head with crazy ideas that caused loads of damage and had no chance of working in the long run anyway. It was completely out of place: clashing contemptuously with the rest of the community of life. Once shot of the foul wrappings, you’ll see that something wonderful has been staring at you all along: life on Earth. It’s amazing, and quite a privilege to be a part of it. You’ll find no shortage of meaning, in a multitude of dimensions (plants; birds; mammals; amphibians; something for everyone). You’ll feel like now that you’re awake from the fever dream, you can imagine living on the planet without the evil trappings and pulls of modernity. You’ll want others to find the same hope and truth, so that you’re not stuck on the destructive treadmill that is too big for you to stop on your own. You need other people to come with you, and leave the piece of junk behind to rust and crumble, as life reclaims its prominence on the planet.

So, What IS the Point?

If modernity is not to last very long, what’s the point in pretending that it will?  What’s the point in holding onto a worldview predicated on modernity’s survival?  What’s the point of our current choices, jobs, ways of living?  To what end do we pursue the things we presently do?

Just because a lot of the things we do today will turn out to be pointless does not mean there’s no point to anything!  What a huge and unwarranted leap that is!  In the context of a completely different lifestyle as subordinate partners among a cast of many in the community of life, one might find innumerable sources of meaning.  Living, loving, caring, helping, singing, laughing, learning, respecting, offering gratitude, appreciating beauty, jabbering, teasing, playing, sharing—for instance—are all part of being human and of being one form of life among many others on this planet: lots of room to find meaning and “points” that validate life.  If the meaning in your life is contingent on modernity, then maybe you’ve come to the wrong shop, and ought to look for new forms of meaning that are built to last.

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39 thoughts on “What's the Point?

  1. A while ago I came to the conclusion that the "search for meaning" was just a bunch of bull, that human beings create meaning, and are the only agency we have found that does so. There can never be an answer to "what does it mean?," only "what do you mean?"

  2. When are you going to change the name from "Do the Math" to "I guess solar works but I can still be cynical"

    • Wow: way to miss the point! Solar sort-of works to perpetuate a system in ecological freefall. It might work well enough to keep us on track for rapid failure. See the post called A Climate Love Story, and Unsustainable Goose Chases, in case you missed them. Solar only "works" in a tragically narrow sense.

      That aside, I toyed with calling the blog "Did the Math." But I occasionally still get mathy, like last week and for Inexhaustible Flows.

      • Please do change to "Did the math"! What a brilliant idea. Reading your blog has been as transformative to me, as writing it must haves been for you. Absolutely amazing. What a journey. I'm also a trained physicist and totally resonate with "Did the math"!

    • I'm always bemused by people saying it's defeatist, to be truthful and it's often seen as toxic. Denial really is powerful and presumably why we're in this mess but useful as we can deny our own mortality… until we can't, much like modernity in that respect for most people.

      I find it immensely interesting and intriguing to watch humans destroy their home, each other and entire species. It's like I'm observing some alien species that I have no understanding of but one day hope to. All the data and science is there but it's willfully ignored. I guess it explains things like religion etc.

      We still have people believing the earth is flat, laugh all you like but this time their belief is existential.

  3. Coincides at various points to Buddhist concepts of anatta and dependent origination. I think Siddhartha, upon seeing the first three of the Four Sights, discovered entropy and worked out his program from there.

    My journey through a similar line of inquiry to yours led me here, to sitting in my "zero gravity" chair (leukemia, old age, arthritis) appreciating the unexpected gift of the aurora borealis. In the glow, bats flung themselves at tasty insects.

    Point? We don't need no stinking point.

  4. Filthy, rotten modernity is doomed to fail, and I'm glad of that fact. No 'soul' is needed to produce consciousness. Animals (maybe plants and all life) are conscious – that's always seemed obvious to me, no scientific investigation required. Cause precedes effect in the physical domain, no argument there, either.

    As for determinism, well, there is one question I'd really like to ask: what caused the 'Big Bang'? While that remains unknown, it's too early to aver that 'determinism is all'. Ok, there's lots of evidence to support the deterministic picture, but the Big Bang might represent a disproof by contradiction – we don't know.

    Our perception of the world fools us into mistaking agency for free will only if a distinction between those terms is insisted upon. It's semantics. If I decide to have porridge for breakfast, I have exercised 'agency', aka 'free will'. There really is 'no point' arguing over the exact term. The meaning is clear enough.

    Progress? There has been none. If anything, humanity has gone in the opposite direction, moving away from a connection to the real, physical Earth and all the other animals and life on this planet. Modernity is like a psychological construct, a lie, that humans have to believe in to 'acheive' by its criteria. They hide in it.

    • At the risk of opening a can of worms we've already batted around to no avail, I would say your decision to eat porridge was never something you could own in a deterministic world. There was never a point at which you (as if separate from the physical implementation of your body/brain) could insert an override to what the neurons in your body were going to do. The illusion feels like a "free" choice, but free of what, exactly? Determinism (physics)? Anyway, I predict you will have no choice but to disagree, and meanwhile I will probably elect to leave the non-convergent exchange where it is.

      Big Bang? Same sorts of fluctuations that bring particle/anti-particle pairs into existence all the time. "We don't know" is a fair enough statement, and I'll bet we can never answer the question "why is there something rather than nothing?" That said, quantum fluctuations in an inflationary multiverse context doesn't get too bothered about spontaneous instantiations of space-time bubbles that become their own universes.

      • It was my understanding, regarding particle/anti-particle pairs appearing, that that larger the energy 'borrowed', the shorter the amount of time or the probability they can exist (I'm a bit rusty on this). So a whole universe spontaneously appearing would seem to be very unlikely indeed, with a probabilty approaching zero.

        Concerning choice, how do *you* know it's an illusion? The neurons in my body are under the executive control of *me*. *I* decide what I will have for breakfast.
        Just because it isn't immediately obvious how consciousness, in all life, emerges (yes, it's complex) that doesn't mean anything outside of physics comes into play. It might only mean our physics is incomplete, which is hardly a controversial statement.

        To deny the existence of choices is to give a free pass to any and all crimes. *Of course* people are responsible for their actions. If they aren't, then What's the Point of trying to inform/educate them via this blog and your textbook etc.?
        You are, in effect, *denying your own existence* in order to concur with the consensus, wholly deterministic, picture.

        • I'll go along with one more volley, in the irrational hope that I can manage to do what I haven't been able to yet and produce a cube-flip "aha" moment.

          In my view, there is no *you* to control the neurons in your body: no separate agent, somehow apart from and above (controlling) the material workings of neurons. Sounds like the definition of a soul to me. The neurons are in control, and *are* you, in large part. Obeying physics, they have no freedom to do anything other than what particle interactions dictate via their arrangements and conditions. Granted, those arrangements and conditions are wonderfully sophisticated, evolved to permit extraordinary organism-level coherent responses to external stimuli that we can call choices ("belonging" to the organism), and those choices impact the external environment (thus an agent of change so that the organism possesses agency). But all proceeds according to deterministic processes beyond the control of some putative entity sitting apart. If nothing outside of physics comes into play (I agree), then I accept the result that we have no override to thwart the (effectively) deterministic flow.

          You're illustrating the classic example of assuming there's no point if you're not in control. Your cosmology demands a point and purpose to your life. I would say that construction is inconsistent with the actual universe, yet an adaptive, convincing, and understandable mental model that may contribute to our success as a species. It's like the utility of the mental model that a brick is solid, when in fact it's mostly empty space and only acts impenetrable via electromagnetic interaction. The solid model might be wrong, but it's effective.

          Then why do we hold people accountable for crimes? Because a successful social species that survives evolutionary pressures must develop responses (e.g., neural structures) that operate for the common good (group survival). If a member has a "defective" mental construction that produces harmful results, the super-organism (community) must have a way to self-correct or it fails and disappears. Evolution operates simultaneously on many levels, producing rather sophisticated codes for dealing with errant individuals. We need not hold a soul accountable (even if that's essentially how we frame it) in order to generate consequences for undesirable behavior (that presumably will enter the neural calculus as a relevant stimulus and deter such behaviors).

          Why do I write and encourage people to think differently? It's my (neurons') response to myriad stimuli, producing yet more stimuli for others to consider. Call it part of the adaptive pro-social package I inherited: warning the community of a threat that they may not have perceived. Nothing about this denies my existence, although I will deny that any part of my actions break rank with how my neurons react and that somehow I am their boss (they *are* me). I deny that I am something bigger than my arrangement (relationships, information, evolution) of parts. No astral plane on which *I* exist apart from and above the intricate physics pile. To make such a statement is to go against the consensus of our society, the bulk of whom understandably trust the very convincing illusion that we are in full control (rather than being evolved to react reasonably so that we may impact our local conditions in ways that are favorable to our survival).

          We likely don't have the whole physics picture. But what are the chances that missing pieces even touch on this question? So far, nothing in the enormous list of contributions (e.g., gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics) has provided support for believing consciousness can override or control the mundane stuff: quite the opposite, the more we learn. But the world does not come crashing down after abandoning the free will cosmology. In fact, I would say it becomes richer and more fascinating without the shortcut loophole.

          Okay–end of (overly-long) thread.

  5. should we make a point of standing in the way of modernity, or should we just let it all play out to it's inevitable conclusion? Should I not allow a large energy company to put a solar farm on my property, even if it would make my short existence much less stressful for myself and family? Is this a moral question or just a simple calculation of what is best in this temporary span of modernity. I think I get your point, but the complexities of everyday life are somewhat conflicting.

    • Modernity will inevitably and persuasively tug people in all sorts of ways that don't make sense in the long game.

  6. Whitehead, Russell, Carroll, Wittgenstein, Korzybsky They are sources of inspiration for many psychologists, philosophers and methodologists of science. I think McGilchrist is no exception 🙂 Having learned to perceive the world without internal verbalization, "labeling", identification, generalization, judgments, classification, etc., we discover a different way of looking at things, perceiving and evaluating them. Map≠territories. Every experience is unique. Every moment is unique. 'Structure' is the only source of 'knowledge'. Structure is characterized by relations, connection and order. Reality is unknowable. All we create is the order of words we use to describe something. That is, the structure of the language that describes some "knowledge".
    Such "models" or "maps" of reality can either be survival-promoting or non-promoting. The integrity map of the primacy and interdependence of life promotes survival, suprematism and anthropocentrism do not.
    In Buddhism, the background of "reality", wholeness, interconnectedness and primacy is described by the concept of "shunyata", which I have never been able to grasp.

  7. I am wondering about your views on the recent progress in artificial intelligence and on how it relates to your conclusions about the future of humanity. I see no mention of it in your posts, while I would argue that it is a big part of the equation and it shouldn't be ignored. If you haveve already thought about it and concluded that it doesn't affect your conclusions in a major way I would be very interested in hearing about your thoughts.

    • Sure: it's another facet of technology that does not somehow operate outside of physics, energy, materials, and ecology. In the short term, it is likely to operate in service of modernity as an accelerant. It will likely help the market achieve market goals more quickly and efficiently, to the detriment of us all. It contains no fresh wisdom, but simply reflects the frequency of recent human creations. Unless it somehow bucked the system and put ecological health above even its own continuance, then I don't see any magic reversal emerging: just a faster path toward exploitation, depletion, ecological harm, and collapse of modernity.

      P.S. I have chosen not to post replies to this off-topic thread to avoid lengthy distractions.

  8. Very well done. If you haven't read it, you'll like Paul KIngsnorth's "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ".

    • Paul Kingsnorth, who became an eastern-orthodox Christian and called Covid "a delicious gift from god". Sure, he retracted that comment, but removing the mushroom does not remove the mycelium, something he should know. His reaction to our predicament has been the most cowardly of all: to retreat into an obviously human fantasy that offers personal salvation. And now that he has salvation, he can't wait for it all to come tumbling down.

      That's probably one of the things that I dread the most about our way down: the return of the religious nutjobs with their death-cults.

      • Thanks. I didn't know about the COVID comment, and I agree that religious craziness will probably be a feature of "our way down ".
        Re the book , though, ( a collection of essays, one of which is also the title of the book) published in 2016 : a lot of it reflects Tom's thoughts in his recent essays, sometimes with more elaboration, which is why I suggested that he might find it of interest.
        He also details how he was subjected to repeated abuse from some of his fellow environmentalists for his views in that book. Environmentalists who were formerly against the destruction of the remaining "wild "regions of Britain, were in favour of that destruction, if required, for the construction of energy infrastructure to "save" industrial civilisation.
        That in itself is a fantasy, as you would know ,if you have read Tom's energy textbook, and a lot of his essays.

  9. I question the assumption that eliminating hunger will grow human population. After all it is likely there was much less hunger in per-agricultural times and populations were much smaller. Perhaps there is some other regulation mechanism at hand. When you come into daily contact with the ecosystem that sustains you your brain might pick up some insights on its overall health.

    • Okay; my intended context was via increased agricultural yield, not the hunter-gatherer mode in close contact with the local ecology. A surprising number of people believe that humans are different from animals in that food abundance will not translate to population increases. The Green Revolution would like a word.

      • The "green revolution" allowed a population explosion, true. But also true, most wealthy countries, which haven't had shortage of food for generations now, have had below-replacement reproduction rates for a while.

        • Yes; once reaching an utterly unsustainable (planet killing) level of affluence, human population increase ceases to be the main driver and sheer ecological exploitation takes over. It looks okay for a while, and like a model for the rest of the world, but at a cost that Earth can't bear. Another factor is that the Green Revolution relies on temporary substances, which is another reason the model is not long-term viable.

      • Human ecologist William Rees made me familiar with the distinction between K-selected species (K for maximum carrying capacity) and R-selected species (R for maximum reproductive capacity). Humans are K-selected, which means they will expand as long as the carrying capacity allows. That's what happened with the green revolution and will indeed probably happen again if we are able to increase yields.

        Same with the energy: If we are somehow able to solve the energy problem, we will probably use it to eat into the planet even faster.

        • Carrying capacity is also a function of energy availability, so that we temporarily boosted Earth's carrying capacity for humans via fossil fuel use (fertilizer; industrial agriculture). Meanwhile, the damage inflicted on the ecosphere resulting from our profligate period reduces the long-term carrying capacity, exaggerating the overshoot effect.

    • I don't think you can say that there was less hunger in pre agricultural times than there is now. Hunter-gatherers lived from year to year depending on the wildlife migrations and fish and seafood stocks for protein and the berries and seeds of wild plants for everything else. These yields have a huge annual fluctuation. Agriculture, however primitive, stabilizes these yields. once people no longer had to rely on a wildly varying source of food and could "put down roots" and be assured of a somewhat stable food supply they were able to "multiply like humans"
      There is no magic. Humans are animals. They are no different than any other living organism on the planet. Humans have evolved a brain capable of written communication and higher level logic that has allowed us to easily pass knowledge on to succeeding generations and develop infrastructure using fossil energy that allows us to circumvent almost all of the natural disasters that would have killed off most of the population of hunter-gatherers.
      That is modernity.
      You should read about the migration of people from Asia into North America during the previous glaciation when the two continents were linked by Beringia. There weren't very many that made it across.

  10. I get the impression that the unfolding of the universe, and more specifically the conscious beings that have arisen in it, is so impossibly complex that even a god could not compute the result. So, if there is a creating entity, it is watching the pre-determined developments with just as much curiosity as we are. A good reason to create a universe, no?

  11. The fundamental question is, "how should a on-time endowment of energy and minerals be spent?". Energy pulsed through a system creates structure which goes on to create information and they all feed back on one another. Use a popped hydrogen balloon as an analogy. Ignite it too soon and it will be too concentrated and not all burn. Ignite it too late and the hydrogen will be too disperse. Are you arguing that humans are using energy in a way that creates a sub optimal burn? You need to answer the question: how could humans have used the energy in another way to create more structure and information?

    If in 10 million years, after we are gone, life can recover , then nothing lost. Some scientists argue the sun is too hot to regain full diversity. If the sun is not too hot and we don't create a nuclear hell scape, then the biosphere might be more rich and diverse from being shaken up by the human experiment.

    I was sad after understanding all this 15ish years ago until reading HT Odum and saw the utter determinism of it all. This thing called modernity might be the best and only way to utilize the concentrated carbon and metal sources on the surface of earth. The things we created and understood will all be under the cumulative curve of the stuff the planet earth did (yes it is fun to anthropomorphize the earth) along with all the other species and natural processes. And maybe just maybe humans can turn the information gained into a prosperous way down and keep our story a little bit longer and bigger than it would otherwise.

  12. Tom, thanks for yet another superb post, I thoroughly enjoy reading them and the many comments they educe.
    I was right with you through the sections on determinism, free will, consciousness, the abyss, wrong cosmology etc, but you started to lose me towards the end, where it seems to me that, as in some previous posts, you began to introduce a kind of overarching meta-narrative. I understand that our species (from birth onwards) has a long standing and deep-seated need for emotional meta-narratives: ones that provide the appearance and or promise of overcoming our frequently irrational fears and insecurities. It is also clear that there has been and continues to be no shortage of pied pipers: religious, spiritual, governmental, technological, willing to step up with their offers of salvation. Importantly, your work in getting others to critically think for themselves, sets you apart from all others whose penchant is penny whistles. So why the diversion, albeit a very attractive one, into a vision of hope? Given the seriousness of the catastrophe we are living through, isn't it time that we evolved beyond our infantile needs, our desires to *relate* through some kind of comforting *togetherness*?
    The abyss is a great place, it teaches us, if we open ourselves to it, to *have ourselves* and it is vital in helping us to learn how to truly live and, importantly, how to die. But we are so busy distracting ourselves from it with narratives and stories, ones that consistently morph into ideologies and identities, complete with scapegoats, nothing more than conjuring tricks that provide the appearance of strength and security with no substance whatsoever. All promising visions of the future, throughout Human history, seem to suffer this same fate.
    I would argue that what we need is a 'Narrative to end all Narratives', that we dispense with the fairy tales that culturally determine us from birth onwards, and that each of us learns how to truly critically think and, understanding that all we have is how we respond to life in this moment, put our agency into action through our daily behaviors, no matter whether others do or not.
    All the information that each and every one of us needs is largely already out there, indeed your blog site superbly covers most of it.
    Thank you for writing what you do.

    • It's a jarring surprise to be accused of peddling a message of hope, when I'm basically saying that modernity (life as we know it) will come crashing down and that we could very well end up living in a mode that more resembles hunter-gatherer cultures than agriculturally-based cultures. Most of my friends seem to think this is about the darkest, most abysmal viewpoint I could take. It's true that by highlighting elements of being human that do not rely on the trappings of modernity, I put some less-than-dismal lipstick on the pig, and some facets of living that we might even look forward to recovering.

      Anyway, I applaud you for seeing my posts as a message of hope where many would find despair.

      • For those of us who genuinely critically think for ourselves, visions of hope and or fear (despair), along with scapegoating, are pointless distractions, the domain of the majority and the pied pipers that lead them and that they choose to follow, depending on their particular togetherness tribe. A self-reinforcing feedback loop that will only deteriorate as time goes by.

        I am sorry to hear about your friends but not at all surprised. Our society, the general public, government, media and educational institutions are rife with emotional brain reactionary thinking. I have followed your writing from the earliest days and have always respected its emotional neutrality and its focus on facts, critical thinking, truth and reality, characteristics that we desperately need much more of. I do not pretend to have the answer to the dilemma of moving others towards critically thinking for themselves without simultaneously using the emotional brain motivators they crave. But I do know that the solution doesn't exist in passages like this – 'You’ll want others to find the same hope and truth, so that you’re not stuck on the destructive treadmill that is too big for you to stop on your own. You need other people to come with you, and leave the piece of junk behind to rust and crumble, as life reclaims its prominence on the planet.'

      • Maybe the hope comes from an interpretation of finding meaning in life that seems to come out in your posts. There is something amazing about life on this planet. Richard Dawkins calls it "The Greatest Show On Earth." But, though amazing and beautiful to our (human) minds, the reality is rather more basic. Any hope, though is artificial. As Dawkins also mentioned, the world is naturally one of untold suffering – besides the day-to-day task of finding food and reproducing, most wild animals will die of starvation (sometimes by injury or environmental change) or predation (eaten alive). This was also the lot of hominins, until we figured out a temporary solution called modernity. When that goes away, I don't know if we'd be able to figure out how to avoid returning to that free for all. You've done a fantastic job of explaining reality, in relation to the longevity of civilisation. But what happens next may not be something we have any control over. Certainly, what we want to happen has little bearing, ultimately, on what will happen. We may be able to alter the trajectory but not our ultimate fate.

  13. Curious to hear in more detail why you would describe the universe as quasi-deterministic. Is it that quantum probabilities are not powerful enough to influence events at higher levels?

    • Quantum probabilities absolutely influence downstream events, able to play key roles in dictating top-level outcomes. It's just that the probabilistic outcomes are beyond control: they just do what they do. As a result, one cannot predict precisely how a system will evolve, as the possibilities "branch" at each expression of a quantum probability. So, strict clockwork determinism is broken, but outcomes still flow according to physics and will just do what they do. This break from strict determinism does not open a window for manipulation. The probabilities still follow strict, calculable rules dictating likelihoods of outcomes, the choices of which appear to be random and "automatic."

      • ∞-valued conditionality and ∞-valued determinism of maximum likelihood.

  14. Determinism is the underlying principle of reality. Although there are fundamental laws of physics that govern the interactions of matter and energy, the universe is a vast, highly complex system that contains what we perceive as chaotic elements. Physical, biological, sociological, cultural, economic factors all in play . It should be appreciated that Open, Chaotic, Complex systems are inherently unpredictable. That is an attribute of the systems and a better model or better data does not make the system predictable. We are often surprised when life takes unexpected turns. Life does so because it can, because the 10,000 things interacting within the laws of life made it so. Determinism does not equal predictable!! The system potential outcomes have a probabilistic component, as the probabilities unfolds in the current moment they steer the future probabilities that can be twisted by future chaotic factors that have their moment to unfold. Emergent phenomena also appears in complex systems that are very difficult for us to understand in terms of their causal roots or predict as well. We know much, but should remain very humble in our full understanding of how this universe functions.

    As for purpose: We should long to live in harmony with the Earth, ourselves, family and community and future generations.

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