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Saturday, June 16, 2018
Nature ... Philosophy ... Science ...

I recently read an article in Scientific American about a research project meant to measure the bite pressure of various crocodile species. The author (Dr. Gregory Erickson) was himself the researcher, and thus spoke from personal experience. He started his article with a description of how he would approach crocodiles (both in captivity and in the wild), so as to shove into their mouths a wired-up tube designed to measure pressure.

Obviously, this was not an easy form of research !! In fact, it sounded absolutely harrowing — sneak up on the croc from behind, goad it with the tube, then get the thing to attack the tube with its hideous teeth and crushing jaw (and not attack you!). Turns out that certain crocs can bite down with a pressure approaching 3,800 pounds per square inch — i.e., the pressure that you would get by putting a Chevy Impala on a platform, and holding it up with a 1 inch square piece of metal (or whatever else could withstand such pressures).

That got me to ponder some of my philosophic assumptions about the nature of the universe, and especially this tiny but interesting little quadrant of it called planet earth, with all of its living things. Crocs are incredibly powerful and dangerous predator animals. It’s kind of hard to find any sense of natural beauty in such a ferocious and aggressive creature (although some people can). And if you believe that a sentient and almighty God created the universe according to a positive, life-affirming theme, or even if you believe in some sort of rational order or “way” to the world despite lack of a deity, it’s kind of hard to figure out how the crocodile fits in (along with a host of other bizarre and uninspiring examples of living things). You can find a lot of beauty and sensible order in nature (the beauty of birds or the cooperative ecology of a forest), but you can also find a lot of ugly and unnecessarily brutal things too.

Perhaps this is what turned Darwin away from being an Anglican clergyman-in-training and put him on the path of agnosticism. A close-up study of nature shows it to be red in claw and tooth. There aren’t too many signs of God-like love out in the wild; we humans use our minds to impose beauty onto things like birds and panda bears, and we like the way that tree and plant roots seem to cooperate. We feel good about the “balance” of ecology. But at the same time, we ignore the many ugly things and predatorial things that seem to vastly outweigh the nice things. What is so beautiful about insects that grow and live inside other insects and eventually eat them (e.g., the parasitoid wasp)? Where is the wonder and awe in swarms of ants attacking mice or songbirds? What is so naturally peaceful about adult monkeys that kill infants parented by a rival?

If this is how life works, and if life is one of the highest manifestations of organization and information convergence in the universe, then why does natural life seem so devoid of signs of kindness and divine intent? And what does it say about we humans, given that we are another manifestation of this “web of life”? Not only does God seem absent, but any hope for a “natural order” of benign co-existence also seems cast to the wayside. This presses “doubt” to the limit — it goes to total despair. The old fashion notions of an intelligently designed universe created by a loving God are DOA, and there isn’t much hope either for the atheist humanist or for the “non-theistic spiritualism” of far-Eastern religions such as Buddhism.

Let’s engage here in a “thought experiment” — what if this all is just a Boltzman Brain illusion? If you aren’t familiar with the notion of the “Boltzman Brain“, the nutshell explanation is that according to some interpretations of the laws of entropy (which are laws of nature!), the notion that our universe is real is much less likely than there being some clumps of semi-organized matter and energy floating in a void of otherwise empty space, these “clumps” being much smaller than the whole of our universe — but organized enough to trigger a conscious awareness. These “conscious clumps” (aka “Boltzman Brains”) could by chance be tweeked such that they create a conscious awareness very similar to our own! I.e., the Boltzman Brain’s internal awareness is not simply reflecting a clump of some energetic stuff alone in a dark void, but instead yields a delusion of being a living creature on a small planet with plenty of interesting features and other life forms, rotating a bright star that belongs to a star swarm called the Milky Way, which itself swims with billions of other galaxies in a fantastically sized universe created from a sudden inflationary event that coupled itself with an energetic Big Bang.

The “Boltzman Brain” delusion theory sounds bizarre, but according to some cosmic interpretations of the entropy equations, this arrangement is much more likely to create what we humans consciously experience than having actual fleshy bodies on an actual planet in an actual solar system in an actual galaxy in an actual universe !!! There is lots of argument amidst cosmologists and philosophers as to whether the Boltzman Brain conjecture could be true; many conclude that it can not, most notably Dr. Sean Carroll.

But for purposes of my own thought experiment, let’s give it a pass, and imagine that we really are Boltzman Brains. And furthermore, let’s imagine that we have somehow gained a “meta-consciousness” about that, i.e. we finally realize that what we perceive is just a fixture of our own internal mental processes. Given our new “meta-awareness”, we now have some choice regarding the world that we imagine that we live in. We aren’t stuck with nature such as I have described it above, with aggressive crocodiles and parasites and sharks and such (and with humans as the worst examples of irrational brutality and aggressiveness!) . . . we can make it different. What would we then do? What kind of natural world would we imagine for ourselves?

Well, for the kinder and gentler amidst us, perhaps we would “create” a world where life and evolution ran more according to vegan principals, i.e. towards avoiding the consumption of highly organized / high-information things for sustenance, towards preferring the lowest organized / lowest information sources of sustenance (e.g., plants, fungus, fruits, nuts). The rule of evolution would still be “survival of the fittest” — but the fittest would be those who best cooperated, who sought out and identified the most opportunities for cooperation and “low impact” living.

Ah, sounds like my kind of world !! But let’s now ratchet our thought experiment down a bit. What if your Boltzman Brain itself had pre-set but random tendencies that pre-disposed the choices you would make once you gained the “meta-awareness” that allowed you to custom-design your universe? What if you your Boltzman Brain inherently favored predatorial behavior, exploitation, pain, injustice, sickness . . . and you couldn’t control that with your new-found “meta-awareness”. Well, in that case, you might get what we actually see — i.e., a nature that is very red in tooth, and humans who, despite a patina of civilization and love and cooperative community, are really mostly predatory and exploitive.

OK, end of experiment — back to “the real world” (or so we hope!). In our “real world” we observe that evolution certainly does seem to favor the survival of the most preditorial, the creatures who exploit the most aggressively and exploitively of higher life forms. However, beauty and cooperation never totally disappear either; and we can even scientifically document that cooperation is sometimes a pro-survival / pro-reproduction strategy, and beauty is sometimes a side-effect of nature. So in reality, we get a mixed-bag world with a mixed-bag Nature. Still, this is a Nature with much too much blood, even though it seems obvious to our long-term analytical minds that more cooperation and less aggressiveness would foster a better outcome in the long term, with more cooperation and beauty and less viciousness and ugliness and irrationality.

So, perhaps our brains, with their gift of projection (seeing ahead, imagining the future), can see that there is (or at least can be) something more than what evolution shoots for. Evolution is about survival and reproduction, and it yields life forms that expand as much as possible given the available energy, information, and entropic organization in their environment. Whereas, for what ever reason, humans want to impose other values beyond maximum expansion, including “maximum quality of existence”. Well . . . for at least some humans, some of the time. And even though this may seem like an exception to the rule that humans are just as bad if not worse than other living beings, it still hints that something more exists than whatever is driving pure evolution . . . something more like “the Way” of the east, or the “God” of the western tradition.

Is the negative view of Nature and human nature true? Like my final Boltzman Brain, are we are too biased, too locked-in towards exploitation and against cooperation? Steven Pinker says that things are getting better over time, that rationality is triumphing and there is more justice, human rights, respect, and cooperation accumulating over the time of human history . . . So we are not inherently biased, not locked-in; something can be done, there is hope (according to Pinker and his fellow optimists).

Which way does it cut? Which way are the dice truly loaded in Nature? And if they have been loaded against mindful cooperation and towards dumb exploitation, can our complex minds then really ever transcend Nature? Can they see something “beyond Nature” and then impose it upon Nature? Is there something that we can come up that will change our behavior in ways that that Nature otherwise can’t?

If the whole thing is loaded towards expansive ugliness, if our “human legacy” is mostly an illusion — then there is no God, no “Way” of the east, not even any reason to take atheist humanists seriously. If whatever goodness we do perceive is just a delusion, just a random blip that will fade quickly with no lasting effect, then it’s “game over”; and down we fall into the pit of doubt with ultimate despair at the bottom.

Some Calvinist believers might agree with that — yea, that’s the “dice” such as they are, they might say. Nature is inherently predatory, and so are we. Our “rationality” is mostly an illusion, it doesn’t do us much good. But God stands away from these dice and their crap table. God is above Nature, and steps in from afar and offers to save you and me from this ugly set-up. By comparison, Catholics often say that there is inherent goodness in Nature and in us, but we who have “hear the word” need to work harder to bring it out. Likewise, in an unobvious way, Buddhists say we are already Buddha, although we have work to do in order to realize that. Both traditions say that we need practices and exercises and good information to get in touch with our Godly or Enlightened side. (Which may just be our thinking / rational side in action, from a secularist Buddhist view) (While the more Catholic view is that our thinking / rational side ALLOWS us to realize the holy, and respond to it — lest we think that the two views are really just the same).

Where do I stand, how do I look at the chasm between human hope and despair? I grew up as a Catholic, and I stayed involved with Catholicism into my mid-30s. Over time I became a spiritual wanderer, and today I regularly meditate with a group of Buddhists. Still, I wouldn’t actually call myself a Buddhist any more than I would claim to be a Catholic. Nonetheless, I have been heavily influenced by the more optimistic views of both of these traditions. I think that we can change ourselves and change the world in keeping with our “higher visions” — but much more slowly than we’d like to believe. There’s still just too much “crocodile-ness” in humankind, and the American political scene seems to have regressed deeper into the swamp over the past decade or two. And yet, I still think that we can and do get better in the long run, so long as we keep our inspiration and remain patient while acknowledging disappointment. Is this because of divine inspiration received in prayer, or from realizing “the Way” through meditation, or from the gift of human rationality and logic at work? To be honest, I’ll take all three; I don’t believe any of these things to be mutually exclusive.

So, don’t let those crocodiles — the ones in the real swamps, and the ones in the political swamps of Washington DC (especially that swamp that they call “The White House”) — get you down. They bite hard, but the future ultimately belongs to the meek and humble. I believe that Jesus was right — the meek and humble shall inherit the earth. Eventually . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:25 am      

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