Mysterious Materialism

Image by Kerstin Herrmann from Pixabay

My recent posts have suggested that our world, in all its magnificence, needs nothing beyond physics and emergent complexity to still be mysterious and inspiring, which in turn can lead to being better, humble ecological partners in the community of life. While many human cultures have gravitated toward beliefs in gods, human transcendence, or a higher purpose, I point out that the billion-year timescales of evolution offer plenty of room for unfathomable results that defy our cognitive capacities to grasp. What if all it takes is physics (particles in uncountable relationships) and lots of time for amazingness to emerge? Are you not entertained?

Such a view might predictably be denigrated as reductionist, materialist, and lacking imagination. It’s ironic, because from my point of view it seems to require a super-human amount of imagination: so much that I don’t possess nearly enough on my own—nor has any other human been able to put it all together for us. The very same “failure” of complete end-to-end explanation that causes many to reject the premise leaves me in awe, wonder, and appreciation. One might say that it’s a more challenging concept than the alternatives.

Our recent trajectory has been one of serial demotions, each perhaps more insulting than the last. Earth is not at the center of creation. Nor is the sun at the center of the galaxy. Our galaxy is not at the center of the universe. Our universe may indeed be one among countless others (we can probably never know). Closer to home, we learn that humans evolved from apes, tracing back to slime in our distant lineage. As a corollary, humans are not, in the end, exempt from the laws of life: we are physical beings still subject to—and dependent on—biological and ecological constraints. The proposal I discuss takes the demotion series another step: removing imagined transcendent properties of free will (mind, or soul) and divine favor—instead establishing us as compulsory actors in an extravagant production of physics. It all makes for a rough day, unless your expectations are unusually low.

What could be more humbling than to accept ourselves as piles of atoms executing the interactions of physics? Note that we could use heaps and heaps more humility in our world. Perhaps this is one route to get there: a principle that also more closely binds us to all other life—to our collective benefit.

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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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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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Confessions of a Disillusioned Scientist

AI-generated stranger; I’m not so young/attractive

After a rocket ride through science, I am hanging up the gloves, feeling a little ashamed and embarrassed to have devoted so much of my life to what I now see as a misguided cause that has done more harm than good in this world.

The previous post details my views about the limits of science. In this post, I will focus more on my own reaction as a human participant in the enterprise.

As is so often the case, my trajectory, in hindsight, looks straightforward and linear. Halley’s comet introduced me to the sky in 1985–1986 at age 15–16, quickly leading to my building a 10-inch Newtonian telescope on a German equatorial mount (using plumbing parts from my plumber neighbor). Through this telescope, I saw all nine planets in one night (when there were nine), an individual star (supernova) 36 million light years away, and a quasar 2 billion light years away. I was a physics major at Georgia Tech and spent every-other-quarter at the Naval Research Lab working on optical communications for space. I had my pick of graduate schools, and chose Caltech for its idyllic setting, its relaxed, collaborative atmosphere, and access to “big glass.” Within a few months of starting, I had gone on observing runs to the venerable Palomar 200-inch telescope and the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea. What a dream I was living! Meanwhile, I enjoyed many outdoor adventures with fellow grad students, some of whom have become life-long friends.

I did not expect to stay in academia (the statistics were not encouraging to a middling student), and interviewed at a few “industry” jobs while also dipping a toe into “prize” postdoc fellowships and create-your-own postdoc adventures. I picked one from the “adventure” bucket, to start a lunar laser ranging project as a test of general relativity at the University of Washington. Abandoning my graduate expertise in infrared astronomical instrumentation was risky, but I saw this postdoc as a last hurrah in academia, deciding that I might as well have fun. I loved the people I worked with, and savored my time in Seattle. Unintentionally, this gutsy move looked very attractive to faculty search committees, two of which tracked me down based on the reputation of my graduate work and then put me on their short lists after learning of my new direction. One of these led to a tenure-track job at UCSD starting in 2003, where I kept the pedal to the metal on the lunar ranging project. During a 20 year career there, I was never turned down for funding my project, hit all the usual promotion steps at the expected times (tenure then full professor), and felt that I had “made it” by all traditional measures. Having written and reviewed a large number of peer-reviewed papers and served as panel reviewer for NASA and the NSF for far more proposals than I ever wrote, I knew the “game” quite well. I had a versatile set of powerful tools that I could bring to bear on what seemed like almost any problem. Science was, in some ways, the essence of my being, and I found plenty of reward in it—both intrinsically and societally.

So, what happened?

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Putting Science in its Place

Photo by Noam R

Although I might be described as a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, I’m about to say some things that are critical of science, which may be upsetting to some. It’s like those warnings on a movie or show: strong language, nudity, smoking, badmouthing science. So, before I lay into it, let me express some appreciation for what science does remarkably well.

  1. Science exemplifies careful observation—isolating confounding factors to focus on a particular interaction.
  2. Science follows a method that suppresses personal attachment to an idea: nature becomes the arbiter of truth.
  3. When it comes to elementary particles and fundamental physics, one can hardly do any better; although even an atomic nucleus is complex enough to defy exact treatment.
  4. Science advances by trying to tear itself apart, so that surviving notions are very strong.
  5. Because of science, we have a decent outline of how cosmology, evolution, and biophysical systems work.

It has its place.

But the very thing that makes science powerful is also its biggest weakness. It relentlessly pushes wrinkles aside, smoothing its zone of interest to the least complex system one can obtain for study. This is ideal when wanting to observe a Bose-Einstein condensate in isolation, or the genetic mechanism for producing a certain protein. Science also tends to dissect a problem (or literal critter) into the smallest, disembodied pieces—which then have trouble relating back to the whole integration of relationships between pieces. Other “ways of knowing” attempt to grapple with the whole, accepting it as it is and not applying reductionist tools.

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Context is King!

Think about it first..

It amazes me how long an insight can take to fully develop, sometimes simmering for years while the pieces fall into place. I feel like this when it comes to the importance of context. I presume I’ve known the word since I was a youngster, thrown in with a jumble of other words I might occasionally see fit to use. Over the past decade, I have become increasingly aware of its relevance and value. At this stage, I can think of few more important words or concepts.

In this post, I’ll extract highlights on my path to greater awareness of contextual importance, and its relevance to the present predicament—using a few metaphors to help paint the picture.

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Learning to Walk Again

For many years now, I have made efforts to live differently—initially motivated by a sense of resource limits and the recognition that scaling back could have a dramatic effect if adopted widely. I was able to cut my domestic energy demand by a factor of four or five. I changed my habits of diet, travel, heating/cooling, laundry, showering, consumer activity, and much else.

Yet I remain firmly in the grip of modern ways. I am still a member of “normal” society, and don’t (yet) draw stares when I go out in public. I live in a house, drive a car (sparingly), buy food at a grocery store, and eat lunch at the university food court. Yes, I could shed more of these. I could try a living in a yurt, getting by without owning a car, and finding ways to get my food locally without scanning bar codes. But even though I have gone much farther than most, going “all the way” has always felt a little overboard to me. It edged up to seeming performative; to virtue-signaling; to those choices becoming the focus instead of a means. I often think of it in terms of trying to convince a group of hikers to make better progress: you don’t do it by disappearing over the horizon and losing influence. You’re better off staying close enough to encourage others along.

When reading the book Hospicing Modernity, by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, I came across this great analogy:

There is a popular saying in Brazil that illustrates this insight using water… The saying goes that in a flood situation, it is only when the water reaches people’s hips that it becomes possible for them to swim. Before that, with the water at our ankles or knees, it is only possible to walk or to wade. In other words, we might only be able to learn to swim—that is, to exist differently—once we have no other choice.

I instantly had a new friend in this metaphor. In fact, it filled a gaping hole that had been present for many years. Sure, I could flop down and try to swim right now, but I would look a fool floundering in the muddy water. Yet, I can help prepare myself and others for the day when we must swim.

As much as I love this framing, one thing bothers me about it, and I have a proposed alternative, but it has the downside of requiring a longer telling.

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Our Time on the River

A post from last year titled The Ride of Our Lives explored the game theory aspect of modernity: those who adopted grain agriculture and new technologies had a competitive advantage over neighbors who didn’t. The “winners” were destined to be those who followed the path that we now call progress.

In that post, I used the metaphor of a gentle stream turning into a swift river—by now a raging class-5 rapid—heading toward an inevitable waterfall as a feature simply built into the landscape from the start. In this post, we will examine this river more closely, pausing to pay tribute to the various tributaries that contribute to its estimable flow. I even drew a map!

Metaphorical map of modernity’s journey. The orange time references relate to the post: The Simple Story of Civilization. Click the image to enlarge.

Here is a PDF (vector graphics) version.  I suggest having this open in another window while reading the post.

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Ecological Cliff Edge

The numbers had already left impressionable marks on me, and as they swirled in my head for some months I certainly had a sense for the urgent warning they wanted me to hear. But it wasn’t until I rubbed the numbers together that the message really rang out. Then plotting the historical evolution shook me anew.  I was staring at the ecological cliff we appear to be driving over.

Let’s build the punchline from a few facts that were already rattling around in my head. Human population, at 8 billion today, was 1 billion around the year 1800. At a global average human mass of 50 kg, that’s 400 Mt (megatons) of humans—matching the 390 Mt I had seen in a superb graphic from Greenspoon et al., shown later in this post. This same graphic shows wild land mammal mass at 20 Mt today. I also knew that wild land mammal mass was about 4 times higher in 1800, and 5 times higher 10,000 years ago.

Put these together, and what do you get? In 1800, every human on the planet had a corresponding 80 kg of mammal mass in the wild. Wild land mammals outweighed humans in an 80:50 ratio.

Today, each human on the planet can only point to 2.5 kg of wild mammal mass as their “own.”

Let that sink in. You only have 2.5 kg (less than 6 pounds) of wild mammal out there somewhere. A single pet cat or dog generally weighs more. Not that long ago, it was more than you could carry. Now, it seems like hardly anything!  I especially fear the implications for mammals should global food distribution be severely crippled.

The graph is even more alarming to me.

Mass ratio (left axis) and total mass (right axis) of wild land mammal mass per person on the planet.  Note the logarithmic vertical axis, as is necessary to show the wide range of values.

The vertical scale is logarithmic in order to show the enormous range involved. The precipitous drop in the present age is staggering. How can we look at this and think that we’re heading in the right direction? That’s modernity for you, folks.

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