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.

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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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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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Text Substitutions

Most people are probably familiar with text substitution, in some form. It’s when a particular bit of text in a document is replaced throughout with an alternate. In many packages this is carried out via a Find/Replace dialog box. My main use has been in a Unix/vi environment, where the friendly and intuitive command :1,$s/old text/new text/g finds every instance of “old text” and replaces with “new text.” The true nerd will appreciate that the command is compatible with ‘regular expressions’ (an innocent-looking term that conceals a boatload of nerdcrap).

Over the years, I have developed a number of automatic text substitutions for phrases/platitudes I hear people utter. The filter works so that what I hear is converted into my internal version before processing further. This post collects a few such examples, although I’m sure I’ll think of more after the fact.

In each of the cases below, the heading is the spoken phrase, and the bold sentence that follows is my internal translation.

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Wasp Wisdom

My patient wasp family on the end of their stick, after completing woodshed reconstruction.

One way to measure the change I’ve undergone in the last several years is via wasps. That’s right: wasps.

It’s as if I woke up one morning realizing that I grew up in a society of human supremacists, that I was one too, and that I no longer want to live that way.

In 2022, I began heating my home by burning firewood—mostly from scavenged trees in my forested area that have blown down. I needed a shelter for drying the wood and hastily constructed a structure mostly out of spare materials on hand. This summer, I decided to gussy it up to last a while. As I began unloading wood from it so I could rebuild it from the ground-up, I found a small nest of paper wasps attached to a stick on top of the pile, just under the roof. It was a smart location for the wasps.

In the past, I would have eliminated the nest, as it interfered with my plans. My biggest concern would have been how to wage war on the wasps without any risk to myself. Growing up, I feared wasps. I suppose I imagined they were after me—which I see now as a form of projection. Mentally, I was at war with wasps, so naturally these enemies would also be at war with me. If they weren’t so dumb, they would ambush me as a preventive offensive.  It is somewhat telling that when I searched on the internet to identify the wasps, a shocking fraction of the search results pointed to sites geared toward exterminating these “pests.”

Now that I am trying to operate as a humble member of the community of life, and to think of wasps as sisters who have been around for a long time and can probably teach me a thing or two, I find that my initial reaction is not one of fear, but of admiration.

The wasps did nothing wrong in choosing their spot. It was a solid choice. My desire to rebuild the shed was outside the parameters of normalcy. So I decided to work around them.

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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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The Intransigence of Now

Everybody has beliefs. Many are so deeply ingrained that we do not even recognize them as such. The most staunch scientist—who spurns belief in Santa Claus or God—still operates on a metaphysical foundation of beliefs about how the world works: e.g., that the scientific method is the only valid path to truth, and that unproven conjectures have little worth—and unprovable ones even less—even if quite possibly correct (and important). For instance, science can probably never tell us if animals experience emotions the way humans do, but isn’t it obvious by non-scientific interactions? Maybe some animals experience a sense of awe for natural phenomena, or notice the stars and wonder, or are more aware of their own mortality than we could ever know. Plants “scream” when attacked; will science ever deliver an understanding of what it is like to be a tree? How could it?

But I digress, already. This post is not about the narrow, literalist, and almost certainly incomplete metaphysics of science, but about the stubbornness of brains. People have a very hard time getting rid of some notions, or accepting something that runs counter to their assumptions. One might even suspect some “hard” wiring at play! Hey wait—people’s predispositions, personalities, and beliefs must indeed map to real neural connections in their brains (where else: we don’t use cloud storage!). Changing minds means down-weighting or destroying some connections and making new ones: not easy. Incomplete attempts often “repair” themselves back to something close to the original state, as beliefs are woven into so many offshoots as to be difficult to eradicate fully.

But neither is this a post about brain functions. Come on, Murphy, get it together! What this post is about is how intransigent people are, in general. After a few familiar examples, we’ll turn an important case: people have a very hard time seeing how unusual and temporary this moment is, it having lasted all their lives and more. The claim that most humans don’t appreciate the obvious temporary nature of modernity might seem as dismissive as the claim that animals don’t appreciate their own mortality. Yet some can, and that’s very important.

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The Ride of Our Lives

Courtesy Pixabay/fraugun

How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.

The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.

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Human Exceptionalism

From Pixabay/Activedia

For almost two decades now, I have been on a journey to understand what comes next in the grand human enterprise. I started out in a mindset superficially similar to that of most people I encounter—assuming that we would innovate our way into a future that became ever better: less poverty and hunger; greater conveniences; a probable space future—fingers crossed.

But the more I dug into the details, the more concerned I became that such a grand vision is an illusion built on top of a highly anomalous period in human history when we over-exploited finite resources on Earth in a one-time bonanza—using those resources to access remaining resources ever faster in an accelerating cycle. I constantly sought reassurance as to what I had wrong about this picture, but found little solace. Those who tried to ease my mind spoke in vague praise of human capabilities and pointed to the arc of history as a reliable pattern by which to understand the future. I did not get the impression that they had confronted my specific concerns and had a blueprint for how to navigate past the pile-up of global-scale problems and irreversible consumption of our inheritance.

Lately, as I meet other academics (via PLAN) who have come to similar conclusions (sober, deep, and careful thinkers, I find), a frequent question that arises is: how can something that seems so obvious to us be dismissed by so many others? What are we missing? Or what are they missing? Why is it so hard to reach common ground? Where is the disconnect?

An answer—or at least a partial one—is beginning to resolve itself in my head. Previously, I tended to focus on growth and ecological overshoot as the most important “upstream” factors impacting our complex civilization on our road to an uncertain future, while issues like climate change and political/social considerations are downstream effects (symptoms) that will not get solved without first addressing root causes (the underlying disease). But maybe I have stumbled onto something even more foundational—the headwaters (pathogen), if you will—and am starting to pinpoint why our peril is so hard to grasp.

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