Sunday, December 03, 2006

In a commentary that accompanies his film Powaqqatsi, Godfrey Reggio says, to paraphrase him, that the world is a unit that is held together by its web of diversity.

This is a problematic thesis for those who see the Internet (and by extension technology in general) as a unifying force and one that allows for unparalleled empathy across national, racial, and economic boundaries.

While we haven't been afraid to shine a light at the downside of technology, or its misuse, Reggio's view highlights a problem that goes deeper than technology's side effects. Technology works according to standards, and accordingly we find it standardizing ways of life around the globe. Homogeneity is a necessary part of technology's makeup.

The degree to which this is true, technology is therefore - lin ight of Reggio's comment - a threat to what makes the world the world.

Note that there are important evolutionary connotations in Reggio's claim, as well, for a lack of diversity is inherently dangerous to the survival of species and ecosystems.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A passage in the NY Times about the latest study on the Antikythera mechanism brings us back to Tarnas' discussion of the attempt to bring Romantic and scientific thought together. Tarnas notes that Goethe felt that, "the human spirit does not simply impose its order on nature, as Kant thought. Rather, nature's spirit brings forth its own order through man, who is the organ of nature's self revelation."

That view is certainly in line with the proposal that man's and nature's aspirations (whether explicitly identified or not) are shared.

What's more it helps explain the point that Dr. Fran├žois Charette of the University of Munich museum in Germany made with regard to the Antikythera mechanism. Noting that the mechanism, made around 150-100 B.C., employed gears that weren't seen again for 1,000 years, Charette noted that "The gear-wheel, in this case, had to be reinvented."

Note that he said reinvented, not rediscovered. Without making this a semantic argument and instead focusing on the face value of what he said, how does man come to the same brilliant, world changing invention more than once?

Could it be evolution of wheels and gears, such that there were millions that again fell by the wayside in the 1,000 years after Antikythera? Or could it be that a geared wheel is some perfect ideal naturally affixed in our minds?
Staying with the passage in the first post of the evening, Tarnas goes on to say:

"The modern experience was still vexed by a profound incoherence, with the dichotomies of the Romantic and scientific temperaments reflecting the Western Weltanschauung's seemingly unbridgeable disjunction between human consciousness and unconscious cosmos."

He closes the section a few lines later by adding:

"Modern man was a divided animal, inexplicably self-aware in an indifferent universe."

These passages beg a few key questions:
1. Are the cosmos unconscious, or (while not self aware) do they have aspirations?
2. If the cosmos have aspirations, are they nonetheless indifferent to humanity or simply singularly focused and so far beyond the realm of our understanding?
3. If the cosmos have aspirations, are they at odds with our own?
4. Are we "inexplicably" self aware, or rather ironically, or accidentally. Does the answer put us out of sync with the aspirations of the cosmos, or somehow preclude us from being a tool in the cosmic aspiration?
In a short but interesting interview with Daniel Dennett on TheTech.org, Dennett describes natural selection as generating "exquisitely well designed materials," but adds that the process is "profligate" and "wasteful." In other words, it is a very inefficient process.

However, we are seeing increasing evidence that organisms use their genes efficiently, with different creatures putting the same genes to similar but different uses. This is another example of the power of science to explain how.

What's missing is the why. We know that the process of natural selection aids in survival, but why do the very simple organisms from which all the complexity of life originated incessantly push for change? What was wrong with the status quo? Are they always compelled by their environment?

The answer could be - in reference to the prior post - that no those organisms weren't always pushed by their environment and that instead all nature including humans has aspirations. Science seems to be taking up the gauntlet on this, and certainly that's what FC was in a way pursuing, and we more so.
In his fascinating timeline of Western thought, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas describes the conflict between scientific thought and Romantic perspectives in a post-Kantian world. He notes on p. 377 that "both scientist and artist simultaneously experienced the breakdown and dissolution of the old categories of time, space, causality, and substance. But the deeper discontinuities between the scientific universe and human aspiration remained unresolved."

The key term here is human aspiration. When we look at the motive, spoken or unspoken, that has driven art, religion, literature, and even scientific inquiry, we have to come back again and again to human aspiration. Where there's a conflict between science and the humanities -- and in spite of some efforts by the likes of E.O. Wilson to resolve them, they've been present since Copernicus -- it can be largely pinned on the fact that science hasn't, doesn't, or can't enfold human aspirations into its explanations.

Friday, November 24, 2006

It's foolish for Dennett and Dawkins and others to attack religions on rational grounds, which isn't to say that they don't deserve it. Religious people are wrong to attempt to present rational arguments for god.

But religion, when it avoids literalism, speaks a different language than science, for it isn't focused on explaining how. It is focused on being, a question science doesn't address directly. It's arguable that the entire premise of religion is to get beyond biology -- in terms of biological appetites and biological limits. Science is being applied to the same goal.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Daniel Dennett has an interesting post on Edge.org wherein among other things he "forgives" friends who prayed for him during a recent life threatening medical incident. Dennett is at the forefront of a "new atheism," as Wired recently called it, where he is joined most famously by Richard Dawkins.

Dennett's take on modern medicine is largely right in that it does undergo constant scrutiny, though his characterization of it as being imbued with "humility" is marred by a poor word choice. Doctors rarely admit their mistakes or their wrongheaded assumptions.

More interesting is that Dennett sees prayer as a waste of time. Here he is very much in league with the usually more belligerent Dawkins, who sees any reliance on faith as misguided and dangerous. Both might be right in that one day Christians, Muslims, and all other religions might one day be too embarrassed to admit to have faith in the supernatural, but at present Dennett's criticism is too narrow. He is right that there is no proof of the intercessional power of prayer, but he is wrong in assuming that that is the only value it might have -- in other words, that because prayer doesn't "work" the one doing the praying would be better off doing concrete acts of good.

What Dennett misses is that prayer, which for all we know could take nearly as many forms as there are people praying, can be good for those doing the praying. There are obvious mental benefits, which when collected on a societal scale can be good for civilization. As well, the contemplation and humility that accompanies prayer can build the strength in individuals to then go out and do charitable works. For Dennett to assume a direct exchange of prayer and intercession is to focus too much on one aspect of prayer.

One of the big problems with prayer is that it is done publicly, which at least in the Christian religion was something frowned upon by Jesus. The public displays by fundamentalists and evangelicals are symptoms of other, larger misuses of religion.

While Dennett and Dawkins have valuable practical reasons for seeking to undermine and discredit religion, their chosen routes for doing so leave many avenues areas unexamined. Both would do well to consider Camille Paglia's recent comments in a Salon.com interview. Responding to a question about the status of the Democratic parts as the "anti-religion" party she includes this assessment: "But religion is absolutely central to this country in ways that Europe's secularized intellectuals fail to understand. I'm speaking here as an atheist who studies religion and respects it enormously. In the history of mankind, the benefits that religion has brought to society in shaping behavior and moral choice are overwhelming in comparison to the negatives, which anyone can list -- like religious wars and bigotry. Without religion, we'd have anarchy."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The quote in the last post was taken from The Third Chimpanzee, a book Jared Diamond wrote before Guns, Germs, and Steel. If I find fault with his characterization of natural selection it is only as an example; it's a practice shared by many other scientists.

At the end of chapter four of The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond writes: "The goal of all human activity can't be reduced to the leaving of descendants. Once human culture was firmly in place, it acquired new goals."

Indeed we have, and there can be few examples of those goals more powerful than our art, commerce, religion, and our indulgence of excess (say in food and entertainment).

Yet Diamond rightly points out at the end of that chapter that "we evolved, like other animals, to win at the contest of leaving as many descendants as possible. Much of the legacy of that game strategy is still with us."

In fact, the drive to survive is at the base of most of our endeavors. At times it is symbolic survival (our penchant to archive photos, write books) and at others it is literal, as when we find new treatments for life-threatening diseases. The survival we're focused on now, however, is different than the survival Diamond writes about and which dominated our species for most of its existence. For one, today the survival effort encompasses both the species in general and the individual.

Second, survival is less focused on increasing descendants than on the meaningful, realistic, and conscious/unconscious effort to overcome the physical limits of biology. We are doing this via communication, science/medicine, and spiritual inquiry to name a few.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Life scientists are famous for saying things like, "some of the geographic variation in our appearance surely reflects natural selection molding us to local climate, just as weasels in areas with winter snow develop white fur in winter for better camouflage and survival."

The problem with this might seem like one of semantics, but it is far more than that. I'm not going to blame scientists for turning off scripture-reading literalists from the theory of evolution, but they can be faulted for these types of word choices, which can be maddening to adherents of the theory of evolution and even those sitting on the fence.

Look at the difference between saying:

- Weasels in areas with winter snow develop white fur in winter for better camouflage and survival.

Versus

- Weasels that had the ability to develop white fur in the winter have evolved as the dominant weasel species in areas with winter snow because it camouflages them and increases their survival rate.

The former, found often in biology texts, takes evolution beyond the ongoing interplay that happens between the urge of living things (say, survival) and the world. Instead, biologists phrase their examples of evolution as though within a given collection of genes there takes place purposeful strategizing to plot a course for survival for the given circumstances they face.

It's like this:

Did brown weasels start becoming white because they had to in order to survive winters? Or did those weasels who, for whatever reason, turned white in cool temperatures, simply outlast those who couldn't?

That's entirely different than saying, because there was snow weasels began to turn white in the winter.

It's clear that that isn't the message scientists want to send, but their choice of phrasing can easily lead down that path.

Outside of the language, this issue is very important for several reasons:

On a certain level, we can direct our evolution. This is true on both direct/indirect (or conscious/unconscious) levels. Take Ray Kurzweil and the idea of bio-engineering, computer-human enhancement as an example of the first; take pollution and urbanization as an example of the other.

Second, there's no doubt that humans haven't stop evolving -- we're still somewhere on the forward moving timeline that began with our walk through, and step out of, the Stone Age.

Third, we're likely the only species to recognize that we evolved and that we are evolving. But while knowing that, there's little in the way we live that suggests this knowledge is anywhere present at the forefront of our attention.

Monday, September 18, 2006

In June, New York Times technology writer David Pogue did a piece on the then recently announced decision by Bill Gates to give away most of his wealth. That decision prompted Pogue to re-tackle the contradiction of Gates the ruthless executive and Gates the philanthropist. Among other things, he ended up concluding that "Mr. Gates's entire life arc suddenly looks like a 35-year game of Robin Hood, a gigantic wealth-redistribution system on a global scale."

It is a conclusion that rings true in FC's world vision. In constructing an explanation of the world centered on humanity's drive to communicate, FC did not ignore economics and commerce. In fact, commerce was in FC's view necessary for the greater goals of humankind, with the evolution of both economies and understanding proceeding hand in hand.

While not pretending that material greed too often stood in front of our greater calling to understand and be understood (on both an individual and societal level), FC clearly considered commerce a secondary role player to the larger creative and communicative forces that move us.

Furthermore, he saw a strong link between the efficiency of our commercial systems and the progress we made toward our hope for empathy. No doubt his view will raise the ire of many, for his standard for progress in communications and understanding were largely focused on technological achievements, including the Internet. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he considered the 20th century version of capitalism the financial form best suited to support the economics and to the provide the valuable ulterior incentives that could push our drive for empathy forward.

The Gates example is a ironic, of course. Bill Gates used the financial and commercial system beautifully to build an empire. His wealth came from providing technology instrumental to the leaps we've taken in instantaneous communication; he is now dedicating that wealth to prolonging life -- pushing medicines to limits that will let us overcome our biological weaknesses -- to get beyond biology, as it were.