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, I think 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 causes and therefore are irrational continuations and consequences.

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.

1 comment:

Al Stefanelli said...

"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." Brilliant, Jim. Enjoyed reading this.