Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Cosmic Reset

In an early episode of the original Star Trek, aliens put Kirk on a rugged planet to duel with the captain of a rival Gorn ship. Kirk wins as the dinosaur-like Gorn was intelligent but really slow.

On Earth, dinosaurs never became intelligent. Arising 240 million years ago, they survived some 175 million years and for 135 million of those were the dominant land animal. By the time they became extinct, dinosaurs had perfected two ways of living: eating plants or eating each other. The plant eaters were excellent at converting plant matter into animal bulk and could grow very large. The carnivores were very good at using tooth and claw to eat the vegetarians. Some carnivores – such as the raptors – may have hunted in pacts and perhaps had some wolf-like intelligence. But in general, brain power doesn’t seem to have been on the dinosaurs’ primary evolutionary path.

Mammals arose just 10-15 million years after the dinosaurs. But for most of their first 160 million years, they lived underfoot as squirrel-sized, nocturnal plant eaters and insectivores. For this life style, relatively larger brains gave an evolutionary advantage. So under the feet of the dinosaurs, mammals got smart. Still, even with their brains, they could not compete with tooth and claw.

Enter the six-mile wide asteroid that found the earth 66 million years ago. That asteroid – nudged out of its distant orbit by a chance encounter with another rock or after swinging too close to Jupiter or Saturn – had travelled silently on its way for perhaps a million years to arrive just seconds before the earth moved just beyond it in its own orbit. When it hit, it set the earth on fire and after it had burned away, caused a long dark winter that left most creatures dead and many extinct, including the non-avian dinosaurs. This disaster was, however, good news for the mammals. Perhaps because they were small, lived underground and could eat anything, some survived (along with birds, who are smart flying dinosaurs). Within a million years, the earth had recovered and mammals were the dominant large land animal. Some of those eventually evolved even further in reliance on brains, eventually producing us.

That asteroid wiped the slate clean, resetting the course of animal evolution in favor of the brain and intelligence. There is no reason to assume that an additional 66 million years would have led the dinosaurs towards the Gorn as in 175 million, it had not done so. It’s as if the universe has a bias in favor of intelligence and sent a “do-over” to set things right.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Humming along….

The human brain is able to store and retrieve memories spanning the decades of an individual life. This occurs despite the exchange, death and constant rearrangement of our neurons. Which raises the question of how? In the hard drives of modern computers – classical or quantum – data is stored in physical bytes (or qubits). Data is written to them and retrieved from them. They can be re-written but the bits themselves do not otherwise change. If one does change through damage or failure, that bit of information is – generally speaking and leaving aside backups – lost. Computer memory is hard. Ours is soft, organic. Amidst the constant comings and goings of millions of nerve cells, our memories – our very identity and sense of self – remains constant (within the margins of error associated with life and aging). It’s a marvel of evolution, really.

According to a recent study, we owe this happy state of affairs to the fact that “as individual neurons die, our neural networks readjust, fine-tuning their connections to sustain optimal data transmission.” It’s a matter of individual nerve cells and networks of same being both excited and inhibited from discharging, thus maintaining a dynamic balance. Through this process, the entire system (networks of networks) achieves “criticality’ – sustaining an overall state that apparently maintains the data structure despite changes affecting the underlying organic bits. What this means is something like this: our inbuilt self-regulating rhythm of neural activity at the individual nerve, synapse and network levels tends towards an optimal level of brain-wide activity. That allows us to remember stuff even as nerve connections change. It’s like the brain is constantly humming to itself the story of our lives. The humming is the basis of mind and memory.

While one might take the notion of this “humming” as simply a metaphor, the researchers suggest that the mechanism they hypothesize also may explain consciousness. But it seems to me this cannot be the case. Ever listen to a gurgling stream? It kinda hums too. But a stream – okay, as far as we know – is not conscious. But we are. I hum therefore I am.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Light Ages and Dark Ages

Read recently a dystopic sci-fi short story set near the end of this century in which a floating city of refugees is overturned by one of the then frequent super typhoons in the Philippine archipelago. The “hero” then must flee from super biotech Chinese police. Nothing about the story line offered reason to look forward to the world that will be brought about by climate change, environmental damage, rising sea-levels and technology-enabled authoritarianism. Indeed, the end of the century will most probably be one of desperation, displacement, disease, poverty and death for billions. Made me wonder what is the meaning and purpose of any of the lives we live now if it leads to this. The answer seems to me to be that there is no meaning but there may be purpose.

Most who live in the wealthy countries of North America, Western Europe and the Pacific Rim enjoy lives of security, well-being, comfort and accomplishment. In the past 200 years, advances in industry, agriculture, transportation, and technology have improved the lives of many others and reduced poverty globally. While not everyone shares in this progress, collectively, the human race has never had it better. But the good times and bad times come in waves – light ages followed by dark ages – and the next one may indeed be a super typhoon.

Throughout history, periods during which many lived relatively well are followed by times of collapse. During the golden age of Rome, its citizens enjoyed relative stability and comfort. When Rome fell, Europe entered the centuries of the dark ages. Other civilizations rose and fell in their own spaces and times. This was probably true in prehistory as well. Homo sapiens almost went extinct at least twice before: around 195,000 years ago and again some 70,000 years ago. Both times it took hundreds to thousands of years to recover. We now live in a global civilization that has entered the age we created from scratch, the Anthropocene. When our global light age ends, the dark age will therefore also be globalized.

What does this mean for those of us alive now? Well, we can enjoy what we have. Beyond that, nothing. Ages swing from good to bad and back again. It seems likely they will continue to do so. None of this has any meaning, it just is. At most, it has perhaps been the engine of human evolution as overcoming the past dark age allows us to rise a little bit further in the next light one. But we can not claim credit for our relative well-being. We were just born lucky. And we also cannot be blamed for the past centuries of burning fossil fuel and despoiling nature. We were merely alive when the bill came due. But we can still have purpose. At some point in the next century, humanity will reach a new equilibrium with the changed earth. So we can try to live more sustainably now and do everything we can to ready the world and the next generations for what is to come so that the next age is a light one.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Himself the Age Transfigured (#2)

We have come to be the movement,
The moment of the cosmos.
Each particle that exists,
Changes and touches all others.
And we are the awareness.

To each change, we give name.
We track each touch,
We push all levers,
Or learn them just the same.
We are the lever,
The hand that encompasses.

Each molecule flowing over and around
Every other molecule
Is perceived by us,
Measured by us,
Called into being by us.

Ours is the time in which
The Universe came into it own.
We ride the surf and,
At the same time,
Dive the waters.

That which we cannot do,
We can imagine doing.
Ours is the power and the glory,
To be true.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

COVID-19: The Great Equalizer

By now, the human species has been altering the natural order for some 11000 years. It started with the advent of agriculture and went through urbanization and industrialization which transformed the surface of the earth and began changing a host of natural systems including the climate, animal life, forests and oceans. We humans have known about this for a while. But most of us – especially those of us in the advanced economies and not living too close to the rising waters – could see the impact of our disruption of natural systems as something that would affect other people – future generations, the poor, those living in low-lying island nations – and not so much us in the here and now. COVID-19 has altered that by bringing to all of us the results of our changes to the earth. It has equalized the impact of the destruction of natural environments (which stresses what lives in them thereby making them more prone to diseases that can jump to us), the way we use animals (including how close we live with them and the antibiotics we use to fatten them) and the close quarters (in large numbers) in which we live. Add to this the way we use hydrocarbons to travel and transport, the interconnectedness of our ways of life and economies and the varying shortcomings of our political systems. We should not have been surprised by the current bio-crisis. It’s not that any one of these caused the virus but that the total impact of what we have wrought was largely hidden until now though very much operative.

So COVID-19 shows us that the bill won’t wait to be delivered and that everyone must pay. The rich may be able to retreat to their enclaves and private transport. But their world will change as ours does. The species as a whole will survive. But this is the wake up call. The future disrupted world is upon us now. Returning to “normal” – whenever and whatever that turns out to be – may well be just a breather before the next episode. We need to take the next step in our evolution – remake our economies and politics, restoring nature even if gradually and treating each other more equally – and start now or the humanity that makes it to the 22nd Century may be unrecognizable.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Continuing Notes on Sabine's "A History of Political Theory" -- Episode 33

For episode 32, see here

The Theory of the Nation-State: The Moderns 

XXXIII. Fascism and National Socialism
 A. Somehow national socialism and fascism were combination of
     professed socialists and professed nationalists.
 B. Attempt to marshal total energies of people behind government
     led to emphasis on war (or preparation for war, even permanent
     preparation for war).
 C. Mussolini and Hitler mined the ideas of philosophic irrationalism.
       1. Combined, on an emotional level, cult of the folk and cult
           of the hero.
       2. Schopenhauer saw behind nature and human life the
           struggle of a blind force within the human mind -- 'will' --
           to construct an illusion of order and reason.  The hope for
           mankind was to end this struggle through contemplation,
           consciousness without desire.
       3. Nietzsche moralized struggle in place of achievement. Values
           based on superior capabilities would replace liberal values. 
       4. Bergson gave utilitarian value to intellect and saw it as the
           servant of the 'life force' (similar to 'will').
       5. Sorel substituted 'life-force' for materialism thus stripping
           Marxism of its economic determinism.  Class struggle is
           the manifestation of sheer creative violence on the part of
           the proletariat. Myths inspire such movements; philosophy is
           social myth.
 D. Hegel was a rationalist and did not see philosophy as myth.
       1. But Mussolini used Gentile's Hegelianism (theory of the
           state) because it was expedient.
       2. Claims were merely in pseudo-Hegelian language where
           'might is right' and 'liberty' is found in subjection. 
 E. Central terms of national socialism:
       1. Folk (race) -- organic people.
       2. The Elite and the Leader.
       3. Lebensraum -- the territorial expansion of a Germanic
       4. The Folk:
           i. the individual emerges from the Folk tom which he owes all
           ii. individuals are not equal as they embody the reality of the
              Folk in varying degrees
           iii. at the center is the Leader
       5. Society is:
           i. the Leader -- charismatic 'natural" hero of the folk
           ii. the ruling elite -- provides intelligence and direction
           iii. the masses -- not capable of heroism, inert and led 
               by emotions

Note:  This ends my notes from Sabine's A History of Political Theory. These entries start here. I have tried to be truthful to what I recorded as I read Sabine many years ago but have tweaked them here and there.  I have regained an understanding of Western political thought and its continuing relevance.  I hope they might help do the same for whoever stumbles upon them. 


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Continuing Notes on Sabine's "A History of Political Theory" -- Episode 32

For episode 31, see here

The Theory of the Nation-State: The Moderns

XXXII. Communism
 A. Communism, or Marxism-Leninism, was adaption of Marxism to
     epoch of imperialism and particular conditions of Russia (more
     generally, non-industrial economies and societies with peasant
 B. Lenin led the Bolsheviks, favoring a vanguard party approach
     against the Menshevik faction favoring a democratic party. 
 C. Lenin pointed out that workers do not become socialists but
     trade unionists so socialism must be brought to them from
     outside by middle class intellectuals.
       1. Democracy consists of not running ahead of people (by
           advocating what they cannot follow) or lagging behind.
       2. Vanguard party provides goals that will work without undue
           use of force.  
       3. The party has science in Marixsm (rather than doctrine of
       4. The party also has a dedicated, disciplined elite.
       5. Democratic centralism, freedom of discussion before the
           decision is made but not after. 

"The dialectic, Lenin wrote in one of his notebooks, is 'the idea of
the universal, all-sided, living connection of everything with every-
thing, and the reflection of this connection in the conceptions of
man.'" (820)

 D. Lenin and Trotsky argued for a combined bourgeois and

     proletarian revolution in backward countries.
       1. Proletarian revolution in Russia had to include, at least
           initially, the peasants.
       2. Could only succeed, however, if hooked up to proletarian
           revolutions in the West.
       3. Alliance with the peasants was first revolution, shift to
           European proletariat would be the second.
       4. Extension of capital to underdeveloped nations becomes
           necessary when monopolies are established in home markets.
       5. Imperialism results and competition between imperialists
           become war.
       6. High profits from imperialist exploitation enables imperialists
           to pay off their own workers.
       7. This condition is artificial and the European proletariat will
           become revolutionary in line with Marx's predictions.
       8. The oppressed nations would then add to the proletariat.
       9. Proletarian nations would be most likely to produce revolution.
 E. But with the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Western socialist parties led
     their proletariat to patriotic support of the war.
 F. Upon success of the revolution first and solely in Russia, Lenin
     found only one tangible, usable institution, the party.  
 G. Stalin added the concept of socialism in one country.
 H. State transformation of the economic base cut final tie with
     conventional meaning of economic determinism.

Next week: Fascism and National Socialism