Over the Edge

“To account for the orderly behavior of living beings Descartes introduced the concept of the machine which, more than an conceivable organism, is the product of design from start to finish. Even more than Newton’s divine organizer, the machine model introduced teleology or finalism in its classic form: a purposeful organization for a strictly pre-determined end. This corresponds to nothing whatever in organic evolution.

The transposition of the specific characteristics of organisms and machines actually elevated the mechanical creature above his creator. That error has brought catastrophic potentialities in our day, in the willingness, on the part of military and political strategists, to give to agents of extermination they have created – nuclear weapons, rockets, lethal poisons and bacteria – the authority to exterminate the human race.”
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power

Something precious about Western civilization was lost last week. We pulled up anchor on scientific fact and are now adrift on a sea of myth and fantasy, rudderless. To see those protesting in the streets, insisting that facts matter, was to have a front row seat as science, the cultural current of Western civilization for the last five centuries, became just one more special interest. Facts, evidence, reasoned argument, objective measurement, honest use of probability mathematics – all this is now on equal footing with every other minority view trying to get a just hearing in the halls of power.

Caesar will decide if those representing these things deserve any air time with the rich and powerful guiding our military, economic, ecological and cultural future.

It was not a good thing that scientists and their supporters had to take to the streets to ask people to listen to facts. Sure, the courage the protesters displayed showed everything we are rightly proud of about our commitment to truth. Those marching and protesting had all the right intentions, and as we have discussed intention is very important in determining the ethical value of actions. Still it is astonishing, really, that citizens of our oil driven, nuclear weapon threatened, ecologically omnicidal modernity needed to take to the streets to insist that facts matter. Somewhere along the road between the engineers in the factory, who are constrained on every side by the limitations of matter and energy, and the image makers packaging their products for mass consumption, who paint freely with the brush of unconstrained imagination, our culture seems to have been persuaded that reality is optional.

Our astonishing lack of historical knowledge is not serving us well here. The rise of the scientific method was greeted across Europe as a way forward. Religious wars had ravished the continent for decades. Catholics fought Protestants, Protestants fought each other, and no one could agree on what the “real god” wanted of people, so the people spilt blood right and left to show the sincerity of their devotion. It was a time of true believers. Ransacked villages, burnt Cathedrals, buried loved ones – the river of bloody destruction seemed to erupt anytime educated people tried to have a conversation with one another. One party would site this scripture, chapter and verse, and provide lengthy detailed arguments for why what they insisted on being true was the only true that could be true. In response the listener would site a different scripture, a different chapter and verse, and soon the ire between them overcame them and the final missionary tool, the sword, was brought to bear.

Those centuries of religious and political arguments weighed heavily on those who first turned their hope towards the scientific method. That method seemed to provide a real possibility of extending the area of mutual agreement among people, which in fact it has. Reasoned argument based on evidence was seen as a means of rationally guiding the beliefs of human beings towards something more solid than individual opinion. It was the so-called objectivity of the method that provided the hope. Demonstrable facts became the currency of educated thought. We do well to remember that though there were always a few philosophers here and there, for the most part before physical facts took center stage it was the power of the speaker’s wealth or inherited family name or the size of the institution they represented that determined, in practice, what was to be considered real and true.

The people eventually grew tired of sacrificing their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and lovers, for ideas that no one could provide the slightest bit of solid evidence for. When the first inklings of science started making their way through the educated circles it was seen as a breath of fresh air. A type of humility turned away from the unanswerable why questions of religious philosophy for the limited, but reliable, answers about how things worked right here on earth. This has proven to be an outstandingly fruitful pursuit of knowledge. Open an upper graduate textbook for any of the hard sciences and you will immediately confront the density of our modern comprehension. This detailed knowledge is available for the student and scholar regardless of which part of existence they choose to focus on; from geology to astronomy, biology to quantum mechanics, from neuroscience to atmospheric studies, the list goes on and on.

It is sad that we have turned our back on what our ancestors worked so hard to provide for us through this pursuit of scientific knowledge. It revealed the full extent of deep time and deep space, showed forth the mysterious molecular means of evolutionary life’s long trail, and opened the heavens to a vision unimaginably vast. Reality trumped the theological and mystical imagination of our ancestors at every turn. If religion is actually coming to know the reality of that-which-is, these secular centuries have been quite courageous in their faith.

It takes a courageous, adult faith to face the reality of our situation. Childhood faith is able to exist as a pure comfort: god is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Adult faith has confronted the cold, godless universe revealed by the heart broken in suffering, typically suffering for another. It is an interesting psychological fact that it is the door of compassion that causes one to question the childish image of a good god always watching over us. It is when we need to confront the reality of evil killing and damaging innocent lives that the too easy childish faith is shattered. The problem of evil: how could a good god allow this to happen? It is Dracula’s taunt, ‘I am about to drink the blood of the living, good god if you exist strike me down and save the innocent from the loss of their souls.’ As we have learned, painfully, from Dachau, Dresden, and Nagasaki, the stars remain silent. The atheist’s honesty about these matters cannot be dismissed.

It is wrong to think this step in intellectual integrity destroys. It uncovers delusion, reveals a truth that can be revealed no other way. The dark night of the soul is orthodoxy; it was not play acting when the Christ of our myth cried out from the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Only by being willing to pass through this threshold might a person come to find a more adult faith, the resurrection of hope on the other side of immaturity.

As a culture we are going through the same process. In the secular space we have been learning to stand strong with the honesty of our intellectual integrity. It is as if we said, ‘Ok, maybe the universe was made by monsters and cares not a whit for us, we are going to be brave enough to discover the truth regardless.’ I applaud our courage. We admitted to ourselves that whatever power humanity’s long cultural evolution might achieve in our efforts to protect and nurture that which we love, it will of necessity be based upon that which is real. The first image to guide science towards just what that real might actually consist of was the machine. And in this, there is a tale.

Science, of course, deserves part of the blame for its having become just one more special interest in our day. Its fascination with the machine and easy subservience to the needs of empire are well known. This and so much more can be laid at the foot of science. It does not change the tragedy of what has happened.

As Lewis Mumford taught us in The Myth of the Machine, mathematics and machines were thought to uncover a realm more real and fundamental than the messy organic complexity of subjective experience. That celestial and terrestrial mechanics were wholly tractable through gravitation’s terms of mass and momentum captured our imagination. Physics became the standard bearer for what a mature science should look like. Though we set out with an image of the machine as the scientific model of the really real, it was too removed from the organic substrate from which it came. The machine inhabits a dead universe, one in which life is a secondary, chance, ultimately meaningless occurrence. Galileo banished the qualia as secondary qualities, silencing subjectivity. This is our dark night.

The myth of the machine’s dead universe is a delusional one.

It is the result of banishing subjectivity from considerations of reality. This is what allowed scientific thinking to avoid the religious and political fights all around it. The non-subjective yet active automaton became the model of life that fascinated the kings and princes seeking to bring their unruly empires under the control of law and order. A mass of people understood to be little more than valves, levers and winds could be played by pharaohs’ fingers, made to sing his song – and build his pyramid.

The problem with the scientific enterprise centered around the view espoused by Descartes that living things were no more than machines (man excepted in his opinion due to we alone having rational souls). This is to put the matter backwards. Organisms are not made of collections of simple machines, our simple machines are made from abstracting a single functional aspect of an organism into a simple form. The machine, unlike the organism, is no longer able to adapt to changes but requires a very exact input if it is to produce its output. Machines only function within a small range of tolerance; change the fuel, the chemical makeup of the input materials, or any number of other details and nothing works. The organisms from which we draw our inspirations do not share these limitations and are characterized first and foremost by subjectivity. Still, in retrospect this fascination with the machine, which lead us to build and serve Homo Colossus, also looks to have been an effective vehicle for the intellectual and cultural development of our scientific knowledge. It was this art of seeing the essential through simplification that made it possible for our brains to get purchase on the complexity of our molecular environment.

Reductionism gives us models we can work with. It’s effectiveness should not be confused with an ontological objectivity it cannot justifiably claim given the epistemology of scientific inference. Creating maps and menus are necessary but no substitutes for the land and the meal to which they refer. Our species relationship with our planetary home is the referent for all the equations, all the scriptures, all the models of our minds and hearts. Science was mistaken when it dismissed subjectivity as unreal, instead of real but too complex to be captured in our models. Culture, however, was mistaken when it dismissed the factual basis of science’s molecular world in favor of fights over maps and menus.

Dead Things?

“My way has been to scour the whole world through.
Where was delight, I seized it by the hair;
If it fell short, I simply left it there,
If it escaped me, I just let it go.
I stormed through life, through joys in endless train,
Desire, fulfillment, then desire again;
Lordly at first I faired, in power and in speed,
But now I walk with wisdom’s deeper heed.
Full well I know the earthly round of men,
And what’s beyond is barred from human ken;
Fool, fool is he who blinks at clouds on high,
Inventing his own image in the sky.
Let him look round, feet planted firm on earth:
This world will not be mute to him of worth.”

Goethe, Faust. Part Two: Midnight

 

What is the role of consciousness in the universe? I think this is a very meaningful question in light of the failed relationship between consciousness and its container which the ecological crisis displays. It is worth spending some time mulling over, contemplating, even, as we will do today, speculating about.

First we should take a moment to appreciate how far our self understanding as a species has come. We understand the role of evolution through deep time so well, that today we read it at the molecular level like a vast clock. How much further might we grow into understanding what we are in another thousand years? Another ten-thousand?

How, we wonder, can the nervous system and hormone systems of the body work with the massive neural networks in the brain (and gut) to produce what we subjectively experience as awareness? As Francis Crick rightly pointed out in a book capturing the essence of our position, to believe mind arises from matter, given the Cartesian split between them modern science assumes, is an Astonishing Hypothesis. For all the world, it does in fact seem to be case that properly structured matter produces mind. But what is the cosmos herself but structured matter through and through? And is it not shot through with information in the patterns it displays? And, finally, is not information the currency of intelligence? Intelligence is the central feature of evolutionary adaptation, the means by which living things participate intimately with their environments. Notice how this requires that we grant awareness of that environment to that which evolves – we are back to the question of subjectivity.

We have become comfortable with the idea that dead things exist. Not the trivial difference we recognize between here is a live cow, there is a dead cow. We have become comfortable with a conception of death that is absolute. This allows us to see things, such as oil and the other minerals used to build Homo Colossus, as mindless items we are free to do with as we please. This attitude towards the geological strata extends then to molecules in general. These too can have no purpose or meaning since they have been placed into this strange category of wholly dead things. Then we learned about molecular pathways in biochemistry. Watching the molecular exchanges within living tissue we gaze at life’s metabolism, the magic by which it’s homeostasis is sustained. Life arising from absolutely dead molecules. The philosophical blowback has been extreme: the logic of the Cartesian premise condemned our own self-consciousness to be classified as evidently dead as well, resulting as it does purely from molecular interactions.

Which leaves us a choice. We can either admit we were in error about this whole ‘we are the only fully aware living being on this dead earth’ thing. We can either admit we were in error, which will entail a new relationship between humanity and the living earth, one characterized by much more concern and care. Or we can carry on the war of all against all. In this view only the small spark of human self-consciousness is really real and, we fear, even that is likely nothing more than a delusion from start to finish; a curse from a meaningless, mindless universe. This small spark of awareness, alone in a dead universe full of rocks and fury but no mind, suffers, knowing what the rocks do not. In this view there is only one way to end suffering: to become unaware like the dead rocks (which we assume is absolute).

Opposed to this is the ecological view. It is supported by the evidence of our sciences and the great spiritual traditions of our ancestors. This view sees that which we walk upon is not a dead rock but a living earth. It is a place in which every fully interdependent thread is inseparable from a feeling and a thought somewhere, somehow. This view comes to those willing to grant subjectivity to all living things and information, if not intelligent mind, to the very rocks themselves. This view is true, you know, within the great all-inclusiveness of interdependence. The view of absolutely dead things actually existing, as they say in Tibetan debate, is not the case.

Let the soil and the compost heap be our guides to understanding our earthly sojourn. In the soil we learn how even the rocks serve the needs of life, lending it support and critical functional elemental capabilities at the molecular level. From the compost heap we learn that even death is turned to the service of life. We learn that life and death are actually two sides of the same coin, complementary like a wave and a particle.

We have prided ourselves on our heroic stance. We human animals, alone of all the species, were made aware of what we are, our position in the great scheme of things. It was a lousy position, meaningless. But we put on our stiff upper lip and got on with the business at hand, namely making a lot of money. We compliment each other on the unique courage by which we can finally face who and what we really are: evolved apes that are little more than robots sent out to battle against the stars.

Oswald Spengler was sure the Faustian myth captured the essence of our western civilization. Faust, you will recall, was a great scholar but all his learning and studies left him unsatisfied. He longed for absolute knowledge, unlimited knowledge, with a healthy dose of worldly pleasures tossed in for good measure. The myth has captured our scientific devotion in its sketch. Science has given us unprecedented understanding of the molecular world, but has not satisfied the cravings for meaning lodged in the human heart.

To obtain these desires Faust makes a deal with the devil. Have our cultures not been willing to sacrifice moral integrity for the success we have achieved? Ah, but the devil was a liar from the beginning. The Cartesian split is a lie. It said we needed to make a choice between our hearts and heads.

We understood that knowledge was power and if there was anything this poor pathetic orphan of a species, all alone on this isolated dead rock circling a non-descript star needed, it was power. Due to the Cartesian error we expected we would have to pay the price of sacrificing our emotions to gain that knowledge. It was not so much that there would be no emotions along our way. Though we prided ourselves on our objectivity, in fact, as the Faust myth illustrates so poignantly, what we did was allow the search for knowledge to blind us to the truth of our emotional nature. In our hunt for achievement we bound ourselves to competition, blinding ourselves to the value of simplicity and contentment. Ethics and compassion took a back seat in our dealings with “the real world,” the one only we moderns ever had the courage to perceive truly.

These seem to be some of the unspoken assumptions of the world we live in. I don’t think they stand up to conscious, rational examination. The heroic stance we have taken in the west was for the sake of learning to think rationally about what is real. We made heroic sacrifices in our pursuit of that knowledge, for which we should be rightly proud. We should not let our disillusionment in its dark side delude us the way it is doing now.

What our Faustian program uncovered was exactly what it set out to find, a universe of dead rocks ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, thoroughly meaningless and without emotion. Just as a patient with a neurological disorder that prevents emotion from participating properly in their reasoning soon finds that their reasoning is ultimately meaningless, so to culturally; our search for knowledge at the price of emotion found the universe to be meaningless as well. Today, of course, we have learned that it is in the nature of things to find what we are looking for. Build an apparatus to find a wave and you will not capture data about particles, though that does not necessarily mean there is no particle data to be had if other tools were applied to the observations.

We moderns wonder, how could there be a feeling in the attraction of the electron to the proton? To entertain such thoughts, we are quite sure, is to indulge in the crudest anthropomorphism. Yet, we fear, if it is not there among the particles, how could it really be in any of the myriad things they produce, including ourselves? Are we no more than chemical robots, meat puppets fooling ourselves that our awareness of our awareness means something more, something else?

We trip up on the role of awareness. To admit the electron is ‘attracted’ to its mate with an element of love involved, seems to ascribe to elementary particles the same conscious awareness we are familiar with, which is patently absurd. Is it only metaphorical to say the electron is attracted to the proton like lovers? It must be. Yet… We are left wondering just what the role of metaphor actually is in the embodied minds we think with. In a world of will and representation, many of the modern conceptions of consciousness are just too small to carry the full burden of the evidence.

And because consciousness is directly accessible to everyone, we all know a lot more about all this than we tend to give ourselves credit for. It would be good if we could befriend this western wound. Compassion is called for. Goethe’s treatment of Faust is in two parts, the first of which ends in tragedy. Parallels with our own circumstances are obvious. Part two of Goethe’s Faust, written years after part one when Goethe was an older man, begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust, and mankind. How this, too, has parallels with our own circumstances is less obvious. It is the work of mindful ecology to encourage them. The final scene of Goethe’s masterpiece has Faust’s soul carried to heaven by the intercession of “Virgin, Queen of Motherhood… Eternal Womanhood.” The artful clue turns our attention to Gaia, Mother Earth, the living earth. Mephistopheles had fearfully threatened Faust that when he died he would encounter the absolute death spoken of earlier in this essay, the “Eternal Empty,” making his life meaningless. No, Goethe insists, the goddess beats the devil every time. There is only the compost heap, and the ongoing saga of our kind.

Subjectivity

Subjectivity is the Achilles’ Heel of modern science.

The discovery of quantum mechanics can be instructive. At the dawn of the twentieth century physicists were rather confident their discipline had captured the most essential aspects of how the physical world works. There were just a few experiments and observations that did not fit the prevailing theories, but for the most part the work of physics in the twentieth century would be one of, as Albert Michelson quipped (and lived to regret!), filling in the sixth decimal place. By 1927 the whole apple cart of our physical understanding would be overturned.

The items that did not fit the standard models of the physics of the day seemed to be rather small discrepancies. Three experimental results in particular were troubling. The first was what was known as the ultraviolet catastrophe associated with black body radiation, the solution of which would lead to Plank’s quantum of energy replacing the previous conception of energy as continuous. The second experiment was the photoelectric effect, which Einstein’s explained provided evidence that light could act as particles as well as waves. The third was bright line optical spectra, which would lead to the Bohr atom as the first atomic model to account for the discrete energy states being observed.

It is important to understand just how successful Newton’s gravitational theory had been in classical physics. Objects in motion were subject to rigorous analysis with the tool of the calculus and the conceptual abstractions of force and momentum with such accuracy we still use the same techniques in our age of satellites. It is also important to understand just how successful Maxwell’s wave theory of electromagnetism had been in classical physics to appreciate just how radical the coming of quantum mechanics really was. It was not just that the universe once thought to be continuous became discontinuous and radically momentary. A deterministic universe gave way to one ruled by probability.

Philosophy was there before science. Kant had identified space and time as absolute categories of thought, presenting us with the picture of the mindless, clockwork universe as the scaffolding on which the very ability to think at all depended. When relativity removed the absolute nature from time and space, the way was open for Schopenhauer to explain the world as will and representation. The subjectivity, the will, of what had been discovered in our hunt for objectivity was laid bare. The mechanical universe of classical physics, the one made in the image of our machines, gave way to, well, no one is quite sure just yet what the new picture of reality is trying to teach us. There are, however, clues.

The difference between determinism and probability is a very big deal. To glance for a moment at the headlines: the fundamentalist fanaticism of the true believer is built brick by brick from their certainties. Those who hold their truths more humbly, recognizing the limitations of human understanding, are less likely to forget logical inferences are founded on probability.

Classical science was understood to be dedicated to seeking a type of truth that was completely objective. The revolutionary scientific method insisted that opinions no longer be taken as facts. We learned to insist that if you make a claim about what is actually real and what is not, there needed to be evidence to back it up. The mathematical methods the sciences use are all designed to provide the type of knowledge that relies on measurable evidence. It was a revolution in where the ultimate authority, the final court of appeal, was to be found. No longer could the king, saint or pope declare what was and what was not, simply by virtue of their position. Facts took on a new importance. When the scientific revolution began this was indeed a very revolutionary position to take. It was also democratic. These scientific measurements could be taken by anyone anywhere and each person could prove for themselves the experiment properly performed lead to consistent results. The acceleration of gravity, as we learned in school, is 9.8 meters per second per second at sea level. It is so as much for a Chinaman as it is for an Englishman.

For those who really understood what this was all about the authority did not move from the kings, saints, and popes to the scientific experts. The authority moved into each person’s own eyes and hands by which they could handle the evidence for themselves and, most importantly, the authority of each person’s reason became recognized as the final court of appeal. Power can torture a man and make him recant his beliefs but only what is undeniably true for his reason carries the real power to persuade. (Mindful Ecology has suggested since its inception that every home that can should have mind tools at the ready; a telescope, microscope and access to encyclopedias. It is not what you read or watch that teaches best, it is what you do.)

Science insists its investigations remain grounded in the realms of evidence, which works to keep it deeply embodied in reality. This was a powerful blow against superstition. It was a liberation from our inherent gullibility and the conmen that have ever been at the ready to exploit it. On the other hand, the pursuit of scientific theory involves finding the right abstraction, the one that will capture the essence of what the embodied evidence is indicating. We do not do good science when we have one law of gravity for apples and another for planets. Those mathematical abstractions exist in a realm where the body of the thinker no longer seems to be playing any vital role at all. In the Platonic realm of pure mathematics where is blood and flesh? Over time the abstract was given more respect than the particular, standing things on their head. Our societies became even more committed to Descartes Error: reason defined as thought wholly uninfluenced by emotion came to be considered the summit of humanity’s capacity for understanding.

With the coming of quantum mechanics and relativity the role of the observer could no longer be ignored. Subjectivity is the blackbody radiation of our times, an indication that something fundamental is missing from our view of what is really going on: we do not know what the role of consciousness is in the universe.

Object Oriented Ontology

“Reality is made up of nothing but substances – and they are weird substances with a taste of the uncanny about them, rather than stiff blocks of simplistic physical matter.”
Graham Harman, On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl

“Form is like a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble; perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree; consciousness, a magic trick — this has been taught by the Kinsman of the Sun. However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they’re empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately.”
Buddha

 

Once, in the ongoing struggle against prejudice it was said, “you cut us, do we not bleed?” Today we could say “you cut us, are we not light?” This is the telling feature of our shared molecular world; quarks exchanging gluons form nuclei, particles sharing photons form atoms, atoms sharing electromagnetically form molecules and molecules form the 10,000 things. All things are the same here, one taste.

Interestingly the tales of gods will most likely not travel well; force your convictions about the unseen onto another people with their own traditions about these things and you are unlikely to be extended a warm welcome. The whole sorry tale of missionaries and colonialism, not to mention religious wars, witness to how divisive such things can be. On the other hand, if instead of talk of gods you talk of molecules, then you will find that whatever country you might visit they are speaking the same language you are, the language of shared mathematics and theory. We are quite sure melting a glacier and polluting a river in Tibet is the same as doing so in Alaska. We are not so sure meditating in Tibet and praying in Alaska are the same at all. Interesting.

Our minds are easily hypnotized until they alight only on the small, mundane concerns of the human world. We get bewitched by the worldly dharmas, spinning endless tales of hopes and fears around happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance, praise and blame, gain and loss. The opposite view is that there is an intrinsic worth to the mountains, plants and animals we encounter that is not dependent on the norms of mankind.

The molecular dance, from cosmos to orgasm, is playing with us right here and right now, and we don’t even notice. The powerful alluring attraction of the weaving, buzzing light-dance is closer to us than our own breath. How could it be otherwise when in the final analysis it is what we are? Tuning into the rainbows of the biosphere, to speak poetically, is no more difficult than relaxing one’s grip on our individual cares and concerns; to simply sit in grateful awareness of the grand play of the whole.

How can you know of the fantastic roller coaster of biochemical pathways and the grandeur of our celestial neighborhood and not spend an hour or two just receiving in quiet contemplation what it feels like to be invited to dance at this ball? Do you think you are going to be here forever?

The one thing we know about this molecular world of ours is that change is the only constant. What you are, right now, will not always be as it is right now. Dare to consider what this means for those you know; you might want to “shower the people you love with love” in James Taylor’s fine advice. Train to be awake to how precious this day is.

Our society values objects more highly than relationships and experiences. For us the seemingly measurable objectivity of objects seems more real than the touchy-feely world of values and processes. So we ask ourselves, what are these puzzle pieces we find out here in our molecular world. Through an interplay of language and perception our experiences are populated with objects. We give the puzzle pieces labels and we are off to the races, able to think about umbrellas and stars and petrochemicals. It is as if the ‘atoms and void’ scaled up to ‘things in space.’ Everywhere we look – in any direction, at any scale, with any sensory modality – boundaries make clear distinctions among objects; this blade of grass is unlike this other, this leaf is not the same as that one. This demarcation carries on until ‘things’ are multiplied quite literally beyond comprehension.

Perhaps this labeling is why it is easy for us to become jaded and bored, taking the whole strange goings-on so for granted we barely even notice something very odd is happening at the heart of all this.

We went looking for those billiard-ball atoms and what we found were probability waves, and all the other quantum weirdness. That particular weirdness is confined to the unimaginably tiny scales of Plank’s uncertainties, which makes us uncomfortable enough. Not quite the solid foundation we were hoping for. But as things scale up and molecular aggregation continues another dimension of weirdness opens up with the emergent nature of things. Emergence: H2O is not wet, water is; nor can the wetness of water be reduced to an H2O molecule. Yet wetness has just as much claim to being really real as the hydrogen and oxygen atoms, even though wetness will only appear where particular molecular interactions occur; those of just the right temperature and pressure to avoid water’s phase shifts to ice or steam.

There is another dimension of weirdness inherit in even the most seemingly ordinary of objects. In the history of Western thought quite a debate has been carried on around what a thing-in-itself might be and how, or if, we could ever come to know such an ontological monster if such did exist. All human knowledge must, of necessity, be presented to our minds in human terms. That is, whatever we might come to know about the cosmos, however true and useful it might prove itself to be, will never provide a means by which we will be able to judge the accuracy of our knowledge in any kind of absolute sense. Kant is well known for supposing the shape of the organs by which we think also shapes what is thought. Thought requires assumed and unquestioned scaffolding i.e. our intuitive understanding of time, and space, cause and effect. (They are like the furniture of the mind allowing thoughts to come and visit.) The content of our thought always presupposes distinctions between objects, so every ‘thing’ is in a particular place and every ‘change’ takes place at a particular time.

Carrying this weirdness in yet another direction we have to face squarely how strange it is to have thinking meat. Neuroscience is proposing that consciousness is a product of nervous tissue. As Francis Crick observed this is a most Astonishing Hypothesis. The innermost senses of awareness, including all the heights and depths of love and hate, enlightenment and delusion, are in some fashion the result of the interaction of all those billions of individual nerve cells in the brain.

Rather as wetness results from the interaction of all those billions of H2O molecules in a drop of water.

We have to be careful here. We can have all the right cards in our hand but still play them wrong and lose our chance at a liberating insight.

To say, for example, atoms and void is a picture of a mechanical meaninglessness is to go far beyond what is warranted by the evidence. If we are going to define awareness as something only living things have, then we will need another term for how the electron is “aware” of the proton (and visa versa) evidenced by their mutual attraction. But isn’t awareness the foundation of consciousness, the one irreplaceable element of clarity, transparency? I have a stomach and hunger, as does a bird, a bee, a fish. I have an eye and with it become aware; how different is my optic awareness than that of the fish or bee? What of the bird, a sheep, an ape? Perhaps the human experience is not at all similar in content but in kind, that is, what it is like to have optical awareness of an environment. Examine carefully and it is hard to remain sure many, if not most, of humankind’s most treasured experiences are absent from among our animal relatives. Somewhere on this spectrum of weird objects consciousness emerges from awareness. The science community is careful interpreting their data but here and there the impossible to ignore is getting mentioned, as for example in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (pdf).

Yet another dimension of this multidimensional weirdness concerns all those distinctions by which all these objects come to be objects at all. Those distinctions are ultimately illusory. Animate, inanimate, aware or otherwise – there are only molecules contemplating molecules. It is all of the one taste.

The final weirdness: nothing can come from nothing; something cannot be reduced to nothing. These are explained in Epicurus’ poem. There is appearance and there is emptiness, atoms and void, that which is and that which is not. This is an old debate. Hinduism was said to assert a cause could produce an absence – Shiva could dance the universe into destruction so a supernatural creator God was needed to bring it back again. Buddhists disagreed, insisting instead on what we recognize today as the laws of the conservation of matter and energy. In the Buddhist view the emptiness that arrives at the end of Shiva’s dance is already inherent in all the objects throughout the universe right now.

Now something beyond the weird. Every human infant, when seeing the motes playing in a shaft of golden sunlight, reaches forth their hand in delighted wonder. This expression of will embodies not just what we are, but something primal about what the earth is. We catch a glimpse of the world as will and representation, to use Schopenhauer’s most excellent phrase.

What we touched on before relates to appearance-emptiness as atoms and void. Then we touched on awareness and consciousness which is concerned with clarity-emptiness but this last image, the infant hand caressing the sunbeam, this is something more. There is another irreducible element within experience; I’ll refer it to luminosity-emptiness. This is the warmth of bodhichitta that cracks you open with a depth of feelings that leaves the mind with an exquisitely vulnerable soft spot. In other words, beyond the astonishing hypothesis that consciousness is involved with nervous tissue is the Outstanding Hypothesis that in the depths of love, fragile and yet relentless, we gaze into the heart of the cosmos.

Now I said we have to be careful. This is starting to sound way too New Age; mystic thinking should be precise, not muddle headed.  It is all too easy to mouth platitudes like ‘God is love’ or ‘All you need is love’ and completely shut out any contact with this weird aspect of things I’ve been trying to acknowledge. The platitudes can put us back to sleep where we lose our mindfulness, lose touch with the wonder in the existential configuration of our strange circumstances as conscious human beings.

Then, if we are not careful but are honest with ourselves, well, then “if you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.”

Puzzle Pieces

“Wheels within wheels in a spiral array
a pattern so grand and complex,
time after time we lose sight of the way
our causes can’t see their effects.”
Natural Science, Rush

 

The delicate dance of molecular docking describes how ‘things’ arise from the ‘atoms and void.’ The very precise folding of proteins, for example, forms very exacting spaces on which its interactions with its environment will take place. An enzyme fits the protein’s molecular dock perfectly, like a hand in a glove. Everywhere we care to look we find interdependent molecular forms behaving as puzzle pieces shaped by the endless tinkering of evolutionary time. Scaling the interlocking shapes, we arrive at ecology’s explanation of a keystone species as a dramatic example of how living puzzle pieces work together to maintain the tapestry of a thriving ecosystem. The behavior of these keystone species shapes the dynamic homeostasis of their part of the biosphere. Or scaling the interlocking shapes in another direction we arrive at conceptual models where ideas and observations are made to fit with one another harmoniously. When they do we say things make sense.

Deep in the night world of the Chauvet caves, a night world much larger than our day world, we painted the spirit animal that came abundantly from the earth’s dark womb. Our ancestors relied on those animals for making the lives they shared together with family and tribe possible. There in the vast dark, embraced by massive rock, the shamans recorded the basic affinity of the hunter and the hunted. Indigenous wisdom recognized the spirit of an animal and paid it reverence. While a village may kill a dozen buffalo they would also perform a rite of thanksgiving for the archetypal buffalo, the buffalo spirit. They recognized individual animals as representatives of what we would call the species. They maintained a balance with the earth by honoring the species, promising to respect and protect it. To hunt an animal to extinction would be to remove its puzzle piece forever from the dynamic tapestry of life, diminishing the richness of the earth instead of enriching it.

Contrast this with our age when the extinction rate is estimated to be a thousand times that of pre-industrialized earth.

Life saving medicines work because, as far as we can tell, they alter these molecular interactions just so, just the way they need to be to bring health back to the organism. I wish I knew a molecule that could cure us. I don’t but I do suspect I know which molecule gave us our disease.

Information at the molecular level, though it is what our senses deal with directly, is far too overwhelmingly detailed for conscious awareness to deal with. Imagine what would be involved simply moving your finger if you had to arrange each molecular change involved. So instead our conscious minds look for patterns and gestalts.

It is, however, worth spending a moment to spell out what is happening at the sensory interface: I hold your hand, the molecules in my fingers meet the molecules in your fingers; pressure and temperature are communicated through thermal gradients as part of an endless cascade of tactile information our skin provides to our nervous systems. More subtle communications go on as well. In the touch we might find warmth, friendship, care, or perhaps anger forcing foreign control over our grip, or perhaps it is no more than a purely political handshake, expressing little more than expected social behavior. These, and any number of other possible contexts, will each involve both emotional and cognitive components and will participate in the ongoing chore of making sense of our experience, making meaning.

All of this is born from an interplay of cause and effect in a grand, if complex pattern. Everywhere actions and reactions: if we put particular molecules in the atmosphere, effects follow. They will play a part in the ongoing pattern making of weather and climate. It really is that simple. That one of the molecules belching out of our tailpipes and smokestacks all across the industrialized world is CO2 and causing global warming is just one of those things. We need oil to live the way we choose to live. Period. Full stop. As long as we choose to continue to live this way we will add to the atmospheric concentration and the parts per million (PPM) will continue to rise into the nightmare territory. We need to be prepared for this.

This molecule, and others in its family polluting our rivers and oceans, lands and forests, is just that – a molecule. Nothing more, nothing less. It is easy to get foggy vision and lose sight of that it seems to me as I survey the range of cultural responses to this most well understood, civilization threatening science. We discuss its politics, philosophy, religious implications, sociological and psychological ramifications, and in a truly impressive display of intellectual ingenuity look into every nook and cranny of our “climate crisis” imaginable. Well, except the one, you know, we don’t talk about.

We could stop putting the molecule in the air. We could change how we live.

On the way to the nightmare PPM numbers out here in the real world we may or may not soon encounter tipping points powerful enough to alter our trajectory. From my study of ecology and the data concerning current energy use and ecosystem damage, I have no doubt a very nasty discontinuity will hit society hard if we proceed with business as usual long enough. The interesting question is how malleable might our existing institutions become in service of the needs of a changed time? Might, to use a fairly topical example, a global financial collapse that lead to a world wide depression, even if accompanied by world war, act as a brake on the rate of excess CO2 production in the long run?

Oil is a molecule, a family of them actually but the point stands. A petrochemical can do things molecules shaped in other forms (and with other energetic bonds) simply will never be able to do. We managed to use this supremely condensed energy source to fuel this great party, to use Richard Heinberg’s dated but percipient metaphor for the many engineering marvels of the fossil fuel age, but the bill has come due. Among its many line items is one I fear most, the one that just might heal us of our hubris, a hubris I would argue we came by honestly.

In the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, human beings’ ingenuity has bent nature to our will. Our ability to understand the molecular world has given us our science and it has given us our engineering and these delivered the cornucopia of goods by which we have wrestled a decently human existence from the bloody hands of hostile nature. In our story, all of life is competition and we are the ultimate competitor.

To a degree no one can yet know with any certainty, the fabulous wonders of our machine age and our impressive industrial achievements were less a product of our clever ingenuity than the fact that we had learned to avail ourselves of this, the most special, energy dense substance in all the earth, the Devil’s blood, the petrochemical – oil.

Images of feeding sugar to bacteria come to mind. I wonder if there were Petri Dish popularity contests to determine who was greatest among the sugar ‘producers’?

The complexity of the human nervous system might share the same cellular fundamentals with the occupants of said Petri Dish but the emergent properties expressed among ourselves as values, financial arrangements, languages, arts and all the rest just might be enough to avoid their fate. Overshoot and collapse are very seriously bad ju ju. To avoid or ameliorate such calamities of cause and effect is exactly what all people of goodwill should be most adamant about. If the LtG model is even only partly right, and the accelerated deterioration of social and environmental systems we see in our headlines indicates it could well be, this is no time for holding back from a radical analysis. What are our options, as a species, for living within the limits of what the environment can supply and assimilate, given the built up infrastructure and institutions we have inherited?

The current inability to even talk about the age of limits is unlikely to last long if tipping points, social and environmental, are triggered. Our refusal to acknowledge that the world of global energy has fundamentally changed, as we begin to view peak oil in our rear view mirrors, condemns us to responding foolishly by failing to understand our true situation. I rather doubt in the halls of power the brokers in realpolitik fail to account for the end of cheap and easy oil. We know they do. It is only the mass media which won’t touch it, only the public which is being left in the dark.

Our minds respond to the brain’s elegant molecular communications in kind, finding a meaningful connection between our awareness and our experience in the frisson we feel when cognitive puzzle pieces fit together just right. A model can weave a bushel load of seemingly disconnected ideas and observations together with a transparency of insight. How is this for one?

Add some understanding of the oil molecule – cracking gasoline, polymer chemistry and such – to understanding how CO2 works in the atmosphere and mix well with a simple comprehension of a resource supply curve. Heat over funny money shenanigans papering over the derivative market black hole by folks jacked up on an injection of externality to maximize corporate pathology. Serve hot with a religious war, cook through a few elections and voila! We just might find ourselves waking up in the age of limits, ready to start speaking about the unspeakable.