January 28, 2018

No Problem, We Can Fix This! Really?

Charles Mann
The Atlantic
March 2018

“It is as if humankind were packed into a bus racing through an impenetrable fog. Somewhere ahead is a cliff: a calamitous reversal of humanity’s fortunes. Nobody can see exactly where it is, but everyone knows that at some point the bus will have to turn. Problem is, Wizards and Prophets disagree about which way to yank the wheel. Each is certain that following the other’s ideas will send the bus over the cliff. As they squabble, the number of passengers keeps rising.”

Prophesies, be they secular or religious, are mostly matters of faith and hope, and finalities that are heavenly or hellish. The Wizards of science and technology use evidence and offer predictive probabilities - a better fit, I think, for what evidence shows is likely an undirected, ever-changing universe. But as they say, even the reasoning of the Wizards can be wrong, and new and better evidence keeps being found.... JEL

A New, Better Story For Humankind Not Needed?

Henry Farrell
Boston Review
January 18, 2018

Think we don’t need a new story to replace the current human-centric myth of civilization? That we are well-provided for by the ideologies and actions of those controlling the current global system’s politics, economics, religion, education, science and technology? That they and their ideas and efforts can adequately address any disaster that might arise; or that they and the rest of us can make clear-headed, well-reasoned course corrections as we progress toward the Enlightenment’s flourishing and perfection of persons and societies?

This essay (link) argues that the realities that society’s and the world’s powerful have created for us have impaired Humankind’s ability to reason and behave optimally. That the raw material of reasoning, factual evidence, is intentionally being distorted or ignored by the powerful. Their goal, I think, is to put the hopes and aspirations the Enlightenment genie provided back into the bottle so that their will, not the people’s or the Earth’s, shall prevail. That what is good in the short term for this elite is also good for everyone and the biosphere in the long term. 

The vast majority of the world’s thinkers and actors in politics and economics are complicit in this effort. They command (legislate, fund and administer) the direction taken in the fields of education, science and technology, and public and private expenditure.

The Humanities - art, history, literature and philosophy - are also to a large degree complicit. Heroic, mostly male, Earth-dominating humans take center stage in almost all they produce. 

However, of all the minds at work in the world, those in the Humanities are, comparatively speaking, the most free, creative and expansive in their thinking. Free to challenge the human-centered myth of what it means to be civilized; and free and well-equipped to write a better, more Earth-centered and humane story for us to believe in and live by. 

The current standard model of civilization favored by most nations of the world - unfettered economic growth capitalism and human beings as both demigods of the planet and cannon fodder minions for the aspirations of the rich and powerful - is failing us. It’s time to start writing and living by a better Earth-centric, truly humane story. 

“[Writing in the 1960-70s, science fiction and dystopia novelist Philip K.] Dick believed that we all live in a world where ‘spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into heads of the reader.’ He argued: ‘the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans—as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans.’”

“In his novels Dick was interested in seeing how people react when their reality starts to break down. A world in which the real commingles with the fake, so that no one can tell where the one ends and the other begins, is ripe for paranoia. The most toxic consequence of social media manipulation, whether by the Russian government or others, may have nothing to do with its success as propaganda. Instead, it is that it sows an existential distrust. People simply do not know what or who to believe anymore. Rumors that are spread by Twitterbots merge into other rumors about the ubiquity of Twitterbots, and whether this or that trend is being driven by malign algorithms rather than real human beings.”

“We live in Dick’s world—but with little hope of divine intervention or invasion. The world where we communicate and interact at a distance is increasingly filled with algorithms that appear human, but are not—fake people generated by fake realities.”

December 30, 2017

Addressing Climate Change – A Failing Attempt to Treat Symptoms of A Bigger, More Difficult Problem

This is a long but excellent article with lots of good info on climate change details and issues.

Question. Which is the greater problem, the Democrats not having a policy and plan for climate change, or the likelihood that climate change cannot be adequately addressed with any policy given how far downstream we are within the current worldview paradigm? That worldview being: a belief in the necessity of economic growth at almost any cost; a preference for nationalism vs globalism, and political complicity with business; religion-influenced human’s-over-Earth’s-needs thinking; and the coupling of the environmentalist movement’s notions of ‘sustainability’ with Western Enlightenment ideas of civilization and ‘progress’.

December 18, 2017

Quantum Biology

Let us take Deepak Chopra’s notion of “quantum healing” and set it aside as something that is so far unproven, unsubstantiated by evidence, and a theory and method that remains unconfirmed experimentally. Let’s simply consider the possible role of quantum physics in the processes of earthly life and evolution. Subatomic particles behave in different ways than does matter at the atomic, molecular, and higher levels of complexity. Despite not being well understand, it is well known that subatomic activity influences and is influenced by matter at higher levels.

If the details of quantum mechanics ever become known, that is, it becomes precisely known how subatomic particles relate to higher matter, then we shall have achieved the next major scientific breakthrough. Solutions to many if not all the physical and metaphysical questions will have become possible. Solving the hard problem of consciousness, developing a physics “theory of everything” that reconciles general relativity and quantum field theory, and high-probability prediction in the natural and social and behavioral sciences all might become possible.

The follow essay discusses the quantum aspects of life processes in a very stunning way in terms of the early, still primitive understandings we have, yet entices us to imagine where the research might lead. 

“In 1944, a decade before James Watson and Francis Crick, the physical nature of genes was still mysterious. Even so, it was known that they must be passed down the generations with an extraordinary high degree of fidelity: less than one error in a billion. This was a puzzle, because one of the few other known facts about genes was that they were very small – far too small, [physicist Erwin] Schrödinger insisted, for the accuracy of their copying to depend on the order-from-disorder rules of the classical world. He proposed that they must instead involve a ‘more complicated organic molecule’, one in which ‘every atom, and every group of atoms, plays an individual role’.

“Schrödinger called these novel structures ‘aperiodic crystals’. He asserted that they must obey quantum rather than classical laws, and further suggested that gene mutations might be caused by quantum jumps within the crystals. He went on to propose that many of life’s characteristics might be based on a novel physical principle. In the inanimate world, as we have seen, macroscopic order commonly arises from molecular disorder: order from disorder. But perhaps, said Schrödinger, the macroscopic order we find in life reflects something else: the uncanny order of the quantum scale. He called this speculative new principle ‘order from order’.

“Was he right?

“A decade later, Watson and Crick unveiled the double helix. Genes turned out to be made from a single molecule of DNA, which is a kind of molecular string with nucleotide bases (the genetic letters) strung out like beads. That’s an aperiodic crystal in all but name. And, just as Schrödinger predicted, ‘every group of atoms’ does indeed play ‘an individual role’, with the position of even individual protons – a quantum property – determining each genetic letter. There can be few more prescient predictions in the entire history of science.”
"How, then, does life manage to maintain its molecular order for long enough to perform its quantum tricks in warm and wet cells? That remains a profound riddle. Recent research offers a tantalising hint that, instead of avoiding molecular storms, life embraces them, rather like the captain of a ship who harnesses turbulent gusts and squalls to maintain his ship upright and on-course. As Schrödinger predicted, life navigates a narrow stream between the classical and quantum worlds: the quantum edge."

Human Nature Is What We Make Of Our Selves And Communities

What language does is to enable speakers to differ about propositions. Propositions ground inferences, which can be persuasive without being logically compelling, and on which two people can differ. Thus the invention of language, like other major transitions of evolution, generated an explosion of possibilities. When we can talk about what we want, we can also discuss, generalise, refine, extrapolate, analogise, creating fresh propositions to endorse. Wants can be grounded in basic needs and desires but, from those raw materials, talking quickly leads us to a potentially unlimited variety of new propositions about artificial things to care about: cultural conventions, institutions, art, money. These constitute the values by which we govern our lives. Each variant of human desire is ‘natural’, not in the sense of being required, but only of being made possible by nature. And it is in what nature makes possible, not in what it necessitates, that we should look for the answer to the question about what we should be or do.

“These new possibilities and the choices we make among them define who we are. And that is the core idea of existentialism as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1946 – the doctrine that for humans alone, existence precedes essence: that who we are is determined by our choices, not the other way round. Because our values have arisen in a process of debate, inference and generalisation, they are no longer even distant consequences of our basic needs. Our nature arises from choices that were not determined by our biological make-up. It is enabled, but not determined, by biology.

“That holds for us both as a species and as individuals. As individuals, we each face, at every turn, the options we are afforded that result, in part, from previous choices, both our own and those of our predecessors in the human experiment. But there is no predicting where those choices might lead as we talk ourselves into them. As a species, we are part of a lineage in which a large number of crucial transitions, brought about by chance in this one lineage but not others, have enabled new possibilities. As individuals, many of those possibilities have been spurred by the urge both to imitate and to ‘reform and innovate’. And among those, it is up to each of us to make still new choices. If there is a human nature, it is created as much as it is found.
“The unpredictable character of human nature is all the more apparent when we confront what might in retrospect look like yet one more major transition: the advent of technology, and especially the creation of the world wide web. Given that unpredictability, we cannot be sure that the existence of the web will not end up limiting our choices rather than enhancing them in some ways that we can only begin to glimpse. But even if that happens, those choices will be ones that no pre-existing conception of human nature will have dictated.
“What biology teaches us about human nature is that, in a very real sense, there is no such thing as human nature. The only coherent attitude to that fact is that of the existentialist: if there is any guidance to be found in nature, it is that there is nothing there to follow. Instead, we should aspire to create it.“