September 24, 2011

From the Unknown Into Uncertainty - "Introduction"

From the Unknown Into Uncertainty:  The Origin, Evolution and Future of Humankind


James E Lassiter

© 2011

The nature of the All moved to make the universe.  But now either everything that takes place comes by way of consequences or continuity; or even the chief things toward which the ruling power of the universe directs its own movement are governed by no rational principle.  If this is remembered it will make you more tranquil in many things.
– Marcus Aurelius (121-189AD)


The above quotation is the last entry in Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Part VII.  Though a believer in the Roman gods and that humans possessed souls contained within yet distinct from their bodies, Marcus Aurelius presents in this brief passage a secular view of the origin and evolution of our Universe.  He describes that which gave rise to our Universe as an “All,” defined only as something possessing in its very nature the ability to make a universe.  It is from this source and this point in space and time that the inherent characteristic of the “All,” “moved” to form our Universe.  The analogy well fits the explosion of a very tiny, very dense speck of proto-matter, an event we today call the Big Bang.

Marcus describes all else that followed – all subsequent entities and processes - as either the “consequence” and “continuity” of the making of the universe, or as occurrences that were acted upon by the “ruling power of the universe,” the All, in a manner ungoverned by rational principles.

Most puzzling to me is Marcus’s final statement in this entry.  He advises that we shall be more at peace in our thoughts and behaviors if we remember a certain “this.”  “This” could refer to all the things that came into being and events that occurred since the making of the Universe as a direct consequence or continuation of this initial “movement,” as well as those entities that appeared and events that occurred that are beyond reason and rational explanation.

But in referring to “this” is Marcus giving us a choice?  Is it ours to choose between the two to be tranquil about:  1) the continuation and consequences of the universe’s origin or 2) the things that have occurred since then that are beyond reason?  Either we can focus our attention on the consequences of the origin of the universe or accept that they are beyond our reasoning ability.  Is our comfort or tranquility to come from keeping in mind one or the other positions – the first position being that of focusing on what happened after the Big Bang whereas the latter position being these occurrences are beyond our reasoning power?

I see no comfort in this either/or offering nor do I understand Marcus to be taking a stand in favor of either position.  Surely this last sentence in the quote is not referring only to the second position that being certain events in the evolution of the universe are governed by no rational principle.  For this would be contrary to the rationalism and practicality inherent in the Stoicism of his time and, of which Marcus was a follower and by which he lived, and his belief in a daimon, the conscience and reason the Stoics believed were inherent in all humans.

Therefore, Marcus must be saying that much can be understood about the evolution of the Universe by studying the continuation and consequences of the Big Bang and that we are advised not to be perturbed by the fact that much of these occurrences are beyond reason.

Rather than interpret this statement as meaning the events of the universe are beyond our reasoning ability, there is good reason to think that his intent was that there are events in the evolution of the Universe that happen without reason such as accidents and serendipitous, unanticipated consequences in the continuation of events that followed the Big Bang.  Thus there are events that occurred after the initial making of the Universe that are direct and expected continuations and consequences of that origin event; and there are also post-origin occurrences that are unexpected and contingent in the sense of coming about by chance or due to unforeseen, unintentional causes and therefore are irrational continuations and consequences. Examples of such post-origin occurrences would emergent higher levels of complexity above the physical and chemical levels. These would include life, agency, consciousness, social relations, and others.

These are the fundamental principles I try to describe in this book – the continuation, consequences, and accidents in the evolution of the Universe that have defined and continue to define the settings, contingencies and unpredictable occurrences in which Life on Earth arose, and which influenced the evolution, history and future of Humankind.

In more practical and familiar terms, there is in Marcus Aurelius’s entry and in the title of this book a process that has the most profound consequences. A process that gave rise to contexts and constraints in and under which the Universe evolved, Life originated and human beings emerged, survived and came to be the most powerful living force on Earth.  It is a universal and natural phenomenon that underlies and courses through not only our individual and collective lives, but also influences all of our most important truths and morals.  That process is what we call change over time, something we for the most part take for granted and think little about in our day-to-day lives. Something we at times welcome and at other times fear or dread yet know is as inevitable as the movement of the Earth, the Sun and all the galaxies.

Without change over time there would be no Universe, no Earth, no Life.  Nor would there be any questions to answer or problems to solve for the Universe would have never come into being or if it had it would be static and dead, not dynamic and evolving.  Change over time is the most basic of all processes in the Universe, including Earth, and it is that which has brought into being all that we are and know, and all that we must contend with.  Attempting to accept and understand this universal and natural process is the key to understanding ourselves and possibly ensuring our survival as a species.  The hip admonition “evolve or die” is more profound than a mere secular jab in the eye of creationist absolutists.

This is a story of more than why there is something rather than nothing in the Universe and on Earth – one of science’s many as of yet unanswered questions.  It is an account of that something’s most fundamental characteristic - change over time, and the contexts, opportunities, challenges and consequences it has provided and continues to provide Humankind, and how our species has responded.  Many of these contexts, opportunities and challenges are understandable and in fact probabilistically predictable based on what is known of the laws of Nature.  Other contexts, opportunities and challenges arose completely unexpectedly by chance, a significant number of which allowed for the emergence of Life and the survival of a particular primate, Homo sapiens. 

The origin, evolution and future of our species are part of this process of change over time in the Universe, one of millions of stories of matter and energy in motion - ever changing, ever responding, often unpredictable, sometimes successfully adaptive.  Sometimes not.  That matter and energy are in motion establishes physical, chemical, biological and social contexts that provide at least three options:  action, inaction, accident.  The entire evolutionary history of Homo sapiens has been impacted by and will continue to be impacted by all three.  Each successive “wave” or "phase" of action, inaction and accident in the Universe has driven and provided opportunities for or against successive actions, inactions and accidents.  Most important in this flow of the Universe’s “time” and matter, especially the accidents that have occurred, has been the introduction of “emergence” and “agency”.

This fundamental property of change, its origins presumably in the origin and transformation of matter, energy and space, provisionally postulated but ultimately unknown, and the direction, content and outcome of change being likewise provisionally postulated but ultimately unknown, defines and circumscribes certain contexts and options for all matter, including Life.  The evolved contexts and options currently facing human beings arose from the origin and transformation of the Universe and the evolutionary history of Earth.

Ours is a story of where our ancestors came from, what they are made of, what has happened to them, and what their responses have been to those contexts and occurrences.  It is a story of the “emergence” of novel entities and processes including “agency” without which there would have been no Life.  And without which there would be no possibility of Humankind having any control over the morality, direction and fate of human civilization.  It is also a description of the implications of these contexts and options that the Universe, including Earth, has presented, and our responses, for our present and future survival or extinction.

Our story is one of a deep and long connection with the Universe, including Earth. Our understandings, interpretations, and depictions of that story have come and continue to come in many versions – mythic and secular, absolute and provisional, closed and open.  Some versions of the story of Humankind, more so than others, are more consistent with and truthful to the contexts and options we arose from and those we now face, and more useful for the contexts and options we may face in the future.

What follows is a case for one version of Humankind’s past, present and future – a truth that continues to evolve and increase in its explanatory power.  A provisional truth that provides the foundation for what I and many others believe to have the greatest probability of finding a sustainable path toward a viable, prosperous and survivable future.  That truth is provided by scientific secularism.

September 18, 2011

The American Religious Fundamentalist and Political Conservative Assault on Science, Intellectuals and Democracy


The Right-Wing Media's Discipline Machine by Ben Adler, The Columbia Journalism Review, February 15, 2012
White House's Budget Gets Down To Earth by Allen Boyle, Cosmic Log on MSNBC, February 13, 2012
The Legacy of 9/11 and the War on Intellectuals by Stephen Zunes, truthout, September 10, 2011
The Years of Shame by Paul Krugman,, September 11, 2011
It's Long Past Time to Get Over 9-11 by Mark Karlin, Buzzflash, September 11, 2011
War: The Fiscal Stimulus of Last Resort by Ellen Brown, truthout, Sepember 12, 2011
Disbelief Is Not A Choice by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, September 12, 2011
The Terrorism Issue That Wasn't Discussed by Gareth Porter,, September 12, 2011
Why The Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous by Adam Lee, AlterNet, September 8, 2011
A Fundamental Republican Problem by Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, August 22, 2011
A Teacher on the Frontline as Faith and Science Clash by Amy Harmon, The New York Times, Education, August 23, 2008
The Fall of the United States by John Atcheson,, September 15, 2011
The Phony Solyndra Solar Scandal by Dave Johnson, truthout, September 15, 2011
Between Race and Reason:  Anti-Intellectualism in Americam Life by Susan Searls Giroux, from her book of the same name, September 16, 2011
What If The Tea Party Wins? by Ian Millhiser, Center for American Progress, September 16, 2011
A Point of View: The Revolution of Capitalism by John Gray, BBC News Magazine, September 3, 2011
The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux by Noam Chomsky, Boston Review, September/October 2011
Free to Die by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, September 15, 2011
The Unseen Influence of the Religious Right by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, July 11, 2011
As Religion Fades, Will Atheism Be Enough? by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, July 21, 2011
Concerns About the Religious Right Are Not Overblown by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, August 23, 2011
The Truth About Class Warfare in America by Richard Wolff,, September 20, 2011
Let's Explore the History of "Class Warfare" by Myles Spicer, The Minneapolis StarTribune, September 24, 2011
Notes on Class Warfare by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion, September 20, 2011
9 Policies Conservatives Were For Before They Were Against Them by Joshua Holland, Alternet, September 21, 2011
Conservatives Say It Out Loud: They Hate Democracy by Dave Johnson, Campaign for America's Future, September 23, 2011
The Social Contract by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, September 20, 2011
Denialist Demogogues and the Threat to Science by Donald R. Prothero, a review of The Inquisition of Climate Science by James L. Powell, eSkeptic, September 28, 2011
Government Neutrality is Not "Anti-Religion" by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, October 3, 2011
How the Oligarchs Took America
We Live in Perilous Times for Science by Elizabeth Loftus, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, May/June 2011
Conservatism: Screwing the Poor, Elderly, Sick and Disabled by Al Stefanelli, examiner, October 7, 2011
The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, November 2011
Punching a Hole in Bubbles of Denial and Addiction: Late Capitalism and Its Discontents of the American Autumn by Phil Rockstoth, Common Dreams, October 13, 2011
Religion in the Affairs of Man: Mixing Theology and Politics by Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post, January 22, 2010
Seven Republican Economic Lies
Twilight of the GOP Foreign Policy Wise Man by Jacob Heilbrunn, Foreign Policy Magazine, October 12, 2011
Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and Decline of Public Intellectuals by Massimo Pigliucci, eSkeptic, October 19, 2011
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010, an excerpt on eSkeptic, October 19, 2011
The Evangelical Rejection of Reason by Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, October 17, 2011
Can Science and Faith Exist Together?, Letters, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, October 24, 2011
The Un-American War On Science by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Huffington Post, October 28, 2011

September 17, 2011

"Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life Confirmed!" - How Would You Respond? How Would Humankind?


What Do You Say To An Alien?, by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, February 11, 2012


Imagine the profound implications of scientists conclusively finding life on another planet or celestial body!  Beyond its significant contribution to our scientific knowledge, it would have an immense personal, philosophical and religious impact on the lives of many of us.  It could influence the future survival or extinction of Humankind.

Consider the various personal transformations human individuals would very likely undergo if life beyond Earth is discovered.  For most secularists it would be neither a surprise nor upsetting to their personal concepts of self, their daily life or their worldview.  If anything such a finding would be a boost to secularist confidence in science's methods and perhaps a cause for comfort and celebration on learning of our affiliation with at least one other life form in the Universe.

For some agnostics it would be the clinching piece of evidence that forces them to give up their belief in the possibility of the existence of an Abrahamic God.  Or it might be so terrifying a discovery that in their inability to accept it they were driven into a complete denial of science and toward the open arms of absolute theism.

For believers it would depend on the strength of their commitment to their faith in Abrahamic theology and cosmology.  Some Abrahamic believers, particularly fundamentalists and radicals, would willingly and calmly accept the discovery as further proof of God's will, and celebrate their expanded understanding of God's infinite powers.  Moderate believers, known by some as mainstream people of faith, would likely be either unmoved or driven toward the extremes of fundamentalism or agnosticism.

September 11, 2011

"Today I Weep For My Country"

"Today I weep for my country...." by US Senator Robert Byrd, a speech delivered on the floor of the US Senate, March 19, 2003, 3:45PM.  An excerpt:
“(T)his Administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the twin towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But, he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war.”
Today, millions of other patriotic Americans and I painfully mourn those innocents killed on September 11, 2001 at the hands of religious fundamentalists, and those others who died the same day in their efforts to save lives.

It would be wrong, however, to reflect only on the tragedy of 9/11.  It is fitting today to also remember the tens of thousands of lives, American, Iraqi and others, that have been lost in Iraq since March 19, 2003 due to our national leaders' misdirected response to our 9/11 attackers.  May these victims also be remembered and mourned, and their families and friends consoled.

September 7, 2011

What Is Anthropology? Notes On My Incomplete, Provisional Answer

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known. Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. - Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. - Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

The task of the anthropologist is to get as near as possible to what actually happens, but to place it and to think about it in a context of humanity in general. - Meyer Fortes (1906-1983), Introduction to the Segmentary Lineage System Reconsidered

We're getting closer to our nature. - Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

What is Anthropology?
A basic definition of anthropology.

Brand Anthropology:  New and Improved, With Extra Diversity! by Greg Downey, Neuroanthropology:  Understanding the Encultured Brain and Body, January 28, 2011:  "Anthropologists need to invest more in getting our version of what we do before the public eye rather than let ourselves be defined by others. If we look closer, what we find in a lot of the critiques are caricatures of us put forward by other people: indigenous ‘advocates’ who attack anthropologists, cultural studies scholars who try to make game of us, and the out-of-touch who assume that, if they don’t know what’s happening, there must not be anything happening in our field.  We often don’t take strong stands against these caricatures, or we take nuanced opposition to them that doesn’t do much to abate the more powerful rhetorical thrust of the criticism."

Anthropology and Publicity by Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology, December 30, 2010:  "To have a public voice, anthropologists must respond to public debates. We have to engage what people are talking about, and make ourselves part of that conversation."


A basic definition of "culture," the core concept of anthropology.

Our Place In Nature

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe:, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. - Carl Sagan

O Nature:  From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return. - Marcus Aurelius (121-189AD)

September 5, 2011

The Kingdom Of Swaziland - Deeply Rooted In Africa's Past Yet In Need Of Space For Its New Democratic Roots

Why Protests Will Not Unseat Swaziland's King Mswati, BBC, September 5, 2011
Swaziland:  A Kingdom In Crisis, BBC, July 12, 2011

From 1980-1983 I served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher in the Kingdom of Swaziland, Southern Africa, a land-locked country about the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey.  It was my first time living and working Africa.  The Ministry of Education posted me to a rural government high school in the geographic transition zone between the high and middle veld regions.  The school, comprised of half boarders and half day scholars totaling six hundred students, was located on a steep hillside facing east, overlooking the Usutfu River flood plain.  Sunrises were spectacular and thunderstorms literally hair-raising.  I loved my job and got to know my community by visiting the homesteads of my students and meeting their parents.  This also facilitated my learning the Swazi language, Siswati, and the subtleties of Swazi culture.

Some of the Swazi friends I made, including some of the teachers at the school, would occasionally comment on the lack of democracy and corruption among the royal family and its government, but did so only with great discretion and never in the company of each other.

The difficulties Swaziland faces today - 25% HIV infection rate, two-thirds living in abject poverty - are much worse than they were when I lived there.  Also, my view of the country at that time was that of an outsider who was not confronted with the everyday social and economic challenges of my Swazi teacher colleagues.  I was very much enthralled by the richness of Swazi culture, past and present.  I therefore found it difficult to understand that, to many Swazis, democracy and civil liberties such as free speech, public assembly, and unions were so important.  That, in fact, the seriousness of their plight would one day lead them to speak out against the monarchy, the very institution that embodied the beliefs, values and spirit of what it means to be Swazi, an institution they had been willing for centuries to support and abide by despite the price they had to pay in terms of their freedoms.

The time has come when many Swazis, though their love of and devotion to their culture and history remains unwavering, have determined that the efforts of King Mswati III, son of King Sobhuza II who ruled from 1921-1981, to be the standard bearer of their culture and way of life and lead them into the 21st century have failed.  The lack of civil liberties and need for effective action to address the country's many problems have come to outweigh their willingness to put up with the excesses of Swazi royalty and its sycophants in government for the sake of showing respect for and loyalty to their history and culture.

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