Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Problem With Humans

The problem with humans is that we think we are a problem.

We think we are at odds with the rest of the universe, because we have deep questions, and we feel guilty when we look into the eyes of a deer or a fish, feeling the same kind of guilty nostalgia that an adult feels when looking into the eyes of a baby. We think of the wisdom of an empty mind, the connection of Buddhist oneness, a longing for the immortal rock, the simplicity of its erosion, and its straightforward contribution to the sand of the shores. We wish we had closed the catcher’s mitts of our eyes before they had caught too many sick lies, tossed to us from our perverted culture whose contribution to the world around us amounts to nothing but railroad tracks that we desperately build to lengthen the blind trip of our Freudian train as it hisses out its poisonous fumes on an accelerating route to inevitable doom, breathing in coal and pumping out poison for the lungs of the eternal, angelic deer, rendered still and dumbfounded by our stupid, frantic lights.

But should we feel this way? Is what we are doing wrong? And if it is, what makes it wrong? Is it just because we are different; because we create things that nothing else creates, or think in a different way than anything else does, as far as we know? This certainly can’t be our rubric for guilt-free existence - to do, think and create nothing that doesn’t exist already. If this were the case, DNA should feel guilt for their prolific creation of life, those complex machines who do nothing but destroy and transform their environments solely for the selfish reasons of their own survival, ensuring the continuation of their destructive past. Stars should feel guilt for their creation of complex elements, carrying the burden of responsibility for changing their environment from the pure, old-fashioned universe of hydrogen and trace helium to the universe of complex molecules we see today. In each of these cases, and countless others, we see in the universe, long before humans, a destruction of a previous environment for the creation of a new one.

The obvious argument that we shouldn’t do the same is that we have the ability to make choices about how we interact with our environment, which we have good reason to believe stars and DNA do not. Determinists would say that this is simply not true, that the feeling of choice is only an illusion and that our bodies and communities are merely complex combinations of physical processes, resulting from a cacophony of cause-and-effect, knee-jerk reactions. There is very interesting experimental evidence behind this philosophy. In one experiment, researchers stimulated the subject’s premotor cortex, which is largely responsible for planning muscle movement. This evoked from the subject a conviction that they decided to perform the action. They would even make up reasons for their motivation in doing so. When neurons that directly control muscles were stimulated, however, the subject had the experience of having their bodies controlled unwillingly by an outside force. I’ve heard many arguments for a deterministic philosophy, but I think it is safe to say that no matter how you look at it, our brains and bodies have built into them a certain degree of choice and randomness. Even if it was proven beyond doubt that choice is an illusion, which is a shift of worldview that would require a plethora of evidence and careful consideration, this strikes me as a useless, if not harmful, piece of knowledge, given that we have no stronger subjective experience in our lives than choice. Beyond being a potentially harmful philosophy that seems to only have the function of justifying everything we do, determinism is also depressing. But there is something that we can take from a deterministic worldview before we dismiss it entirely, which is that it takes a step towards equating humans with the rest of the universe.

We know now that we are made of the same stuff that the rest of the universe is made of, that all of the heavy elements in our bodies were fused in stars and supernovas, and that we share a common ancestor with every other living creature on Earth. We don’t know exactly what caused the first forms of replicating molecules to emerge, but we know it had something to do with being a healthy distance away from the sun so its photons could maintain a consistent interaction with the molecules on our planet without causing too much damage to them. There is no evidence, however, that there was some new force that was introduced into the universe when a certain combination of molecules replicated, however successfully. Just as plants and animals are two of many ways to be a living creature, it seems that living and nonliving things are just two ways of being made out of matter. Furthermore, the Big Bang theory indicates that living and nonliving matter share a common ancestor of sorts, before diverging and going down separate paths for separate reasons.

There seems to be no reason to think of ourselves as separate from the rest of the universe. We come from it, exist entirely within it, and are in constant interaction with it, just like everything else. So then, why do we think of ourselves in this way? Why do we put the most value on things that we, as a species, have had the least to do with? Why do we have words like ‘natural’, ‘nature’, ‘wilderness’, ‘technology’, and many others whose meaning strictly delineates our species from the rest of the world? Why is the beaver’s dam allowed into our mental image of a ‘pristine wilderness’, but our dams are not? Do beavers feel the same guilt for building their damns, or woodchucks for cutting down trees, or birds for building nests? Does a wolf ever feel remorse for killing her victim? I think the answer to these last few questions is no. So why do we have these feelings of guilt and remorse for doing these kinds of things?

The obvious difference between these actions I’ve mentioned and their counterparts in the non-human world is a matter of degree. Our dams are huge and excessive, our buildings look nothing like anything else we see on both an aesthetic and a substantial level, we outsource our killing, and do it on a massive scale in an impersonal way, having no connection with the living things that we eat. Most of these things are the result of our population. There has been a feedback loop between the efficiency of specialization that we discovered long ago, and the increase of population it produces. It’s a kind of chicken and egg problem to find out which came first; was it a large population that demanded the efficiency of specialization to keep up with it, or was it the benefits of specialization in a community that created an enormous amount of food and resources, which resulted in a population explosion? Either way, as we find ourselves today, it is a frivolous analogy to make between the cookie cutout houses that we see in our suburbs and the nests we see birds making in trees. No matter how we define the term ‘sustainable’, it’s clear that what birds do is sustainable and what humans do is not sustainable.

Before we judge ourselves so harshly for this fact, we must remember the lesson that we learned from Charles Darwin; we are not the only species that tries to recreate as much as we possibly can in order to increase our genetic influence; this is one behavior that we share with every species on Earth.

I’ve often heard people say that our manipulation of our environment, and our technologies in general, are wrong because we are “playing god”. The truth, I think, is that it would be irresponsible of us to not play god. After all, we are the first species who have, with our wit and originality, succeeded so well in the game of natural selection that we truly are able to control our environment, including every species within it, to an increasingly minute degree, so that they benefit the motives of our species. We are thus the first species to have motives that go beyond the proliferation of our species to include the well-being of all species, because we’ve come to realize that our existence, as well as the existence of all life, depends on the maintenance of a much larger organism; our planet. I think it is safe to say that any species that have found themselves in such a powerful niche would have to make the same transition. And I think it is also safe to say that there are many imaginable ways of occupying the niche at the top of the food chain without having enough powers of reasoning and observation to realize that it is this much larger system is more important than any one system within it. Perhaps, then, the best candidates for the niche that we humans maintain, even in the best imaginable case in terms of maintaining the health of our environment, are a species who have something like a brain, which allows them to conceive of their environment in terms beyond their own survival. It is clear that this unselfish worldview is drastically in contrast to any behavior we’ve seen in any other species up until now. This dramatic shift of behavior is exactly where we find ourselves right now.

But there is another possibility. It’s possible that the bad guys came out on top, and that things would be a lot better had, say, that damn meteor not struck Earth and killed all those species, allowing a future in which the many greats-grandchildren of dinosaurs fill our shoes. Natural selection is completely blind and far from perfect, and it is conceivable that in creating us, evolution created a disease that is slowly and inevitably killing itself off. The rate at which human brains have been growing in the past million years or so is one of the most explosive phenotypic trends we know of. It’s obvious why intelligence was, and continues to be, so strongly selected for, and it’s also easy to see that this particular mutation has absolutely had a greater impact on Earth’s environment than any mutation before it, besides perhaps the evolution of the amazing replicator, DNA itself. On top of intelligence’s obvious advantages for survival, the mutation seems to be creating its own feedback loop by resulting in the creation of technologies and cultures that create environments that specifically select for intelligence, so that intelligence is selected for at a constantly increasing rate. It’s possible that brains simply shouldn’t get this big. The current state of our individual psychologies and the frantic, confused cultures that they create are lines of evidence for this. So, perhaps we are, literally, a disease that is spreading like an infection. This may not be a bad thing, as diseases always seem to have some role in nature. For instance, diseases like cancer and HIV seem to have the emergent function of reducing the ridiculous number of our population. Without medicine, diseases like these and others would probably even be keeping our population at a level that might be thought of as congruous with the rest of the living world, and the resources on Earth. A similar, but more interesting example is a particular kind of fungi, called Cordyceps, which are parasitic fungi. There are many species, each adapted to specific host. Some Cordyceps species are able to affect the behavior of their insect host; Cordyceps unilateralis for instance causes ants to climb a plant and attach there before they die, assuring maximal distribution of the spores from the fruiting body that sprouts out of the dead insect's body. When other ants find the bodies of their friends dead, showing signs of Cordyceps infection, they carry them far away from the colony before the fungus sprouts and releases its spores. The relevance of this example is that the rate of Cordyceps infections seem to increase in proportion to their host species’ population. The result is a regulation of population, and the maintenance of a complex and fragile ecology. Diseases and viruses are concerned with reproduction, just like everyone else, and in doing so, they create their own niche in the environment that is exactly as perfect as everything else. I used to hate spiders as a child, until I heard that if they weren’t around, there would be all sorts of mosquitoes and flies all over the place.

My point is that regardless of how we classify our species and justify our situation, it must be admitted that we are here, that natural processes have given rise to our situation, and that there was no point at which our actions branched off into a separate category of existence, disconnected from the world. What does distinguish us from everything else is that we are the only ones who can change the nature of our influence on our environment. We are alone in our struggle with our own creations; we don’t know how to succeed in our attempts to balance our innate desire for progress and the destruction that progress, as we conceive of it today, results in. Even worse, we don’t even know if success is possible. And even worse than that, we haven’t ever been able to define what success would look like. We have no idea what we want to accomplish, or not accomplish. It certainly isn’t about survival anymore; of this we can be sure. But if not survival, then what? In asking this question, we are asking the big question – “Why?” But we have no idea how to answer this question. The recent discovery of the universal insignificance of our planet, and the discovery that we weren’t simply put here, haphazardly for some inconceivable greater purpose, but rather that we emerged, just like everything else, through complex processes, has us searching for the answer in the stars, hoping to find others like us, asking the same question. But what are we really hoping for in this cosmic union of minds? What we are searching for is cosmic proof of what we already know to be true, but we can’t admit to ourselves just yet - that there can be no simple, elegant answer to this question; that to conceive of some cosmic goal at some finite point in the future that we are progressing towards is an antiquated concept. We are searching for the final nail in the coffin of a religious, purposeful universe. Deep down, we no longer expect from our wise, cosmic elders an answer to our question of “Why?” We want them to laugh at us good-naturedly for even asking such a question, when we’ve already discovered the answer. The reason that we hope to find other intelligent beings is that we want cosmic proof that we are natural. We want to know that life happens, and that intelligence and technology, and everything we find ourselves doing happens, so that we can make our conscience clear, and rid ourselves of our self-imposed guilt.

But we don’t have to be told that we are natural, just like everything else. We already know that this is true; everything points in this direction. It’s time to finally take this knowledge to heart, and cure our own feeling of alienation from our world. This is the only way to go forward from this drastic era. We simply cannot continue on the way we are, with the knowledge we have accumulated about the severity of the damage we are doing to the ecosystem on which we depend. We need to consider ourselves, and the technologies we create, as a fully integrated part of reality, and erase the word, ‘unnatural’ from our vocabularies. I believe this approach will stimulate positive change in virtually every field of human culture. I’ve already mentioned how this will help us progressively move forward in the ecological crisis that we share with the entire living world. I will highlight a few other examples below.

This approach is already at the heart of a major dichotomy in modern philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, that is represented by two general camps – old school and new school. Old school philosophy aims to discover and name the fundamental truth of the world, to cut to the core of all that we perceive, and find the truth behind our perceptions, those processes that guide everything, and are responsible for the illusions that we perceive, and the arbitrary choices we make in life. The recent new school of philosophy has abandoned the possibility of any single perspective or idea ever being able to describe everything, portraying instead a view of a complex and integrated universe in which all things play a descriptive role.
The final consequence of this integrated perspective is a necessary philosophical change that will allow us to be successful in our attempt to go forward as a society with a clear, constructive future in mind. In the most general and important sense, it requires that we change our interpretation of our place in the universe. At the core of our philosophy up until now, we interpret our knowledge of the vastness of our universe as an excuse for nihilism. If everything that we do is arbitrary on a universal scale, then we are justified in doing anything we want without thought or remorse. But an integrated universe gives us a new perspective on this knowledge. After all, we must admit that even though every decision we make is arbitrary, we still make decisions, and any decision requires a choice among many arbitrary paths. Every element that is considered in every path must now be considered of equal qualitative value, and with our knowledge, we can choose the path that produces the most harmony among every element that will be affected by our choice. To paraphrase, this is the difference between a universe in which everything is to be considered unimportant, except humans, and a universe in which everything is to be considered important, including humans. We can no longer afford the hypocrisy of considering ourselves the only important things within a universe with no qualitative meaning.

The same type of transition is happening in the world of physics. Old school, Newtonian physics is a search for fundamental, unchanging laws that exist somewhere behind the things that we perceive. This search for a single, unchanging law that exists eternally, independent from the rest of the universe that it governs, is essentially the search for God. The crisis that modern physics faces of finding a theory to unite the quantum model with the standard model will only be resolved with a drastic change from this classical perspective. Whatever the answer to this question will look like, it will almost surely be a theory that perceives everything, including the parameters of our universal laws, as a product of relations of physical things. This is the direction that physics seems to be heading, from quantum observations and string theory to the heavily postulated Bozons who create fields that give particles their mass. In this relational world, it is impossible to describe anything completely without a description of everything in the universe. This new language of physics might take examples from the language that biologists have begun to use after Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which no organism can be completely described without describing every cell, organ, organism, etc., and their complex relations with each other to create a single being, as well as the history of change that each and every one of the individual elements and their interrelation within any living system has undergone.
This view of a world in which fundamental, eternal laws exist apart from the world that we conceive of as real, causes us to view the physical world as merely a passing, illusory construct, attempting to reach some perfect, Platonic form that it will never quite achieve. This has been reflected in the language of physics since the beginning. After all, it was only natural, when microscopes were first able to see things that the human eye could not, to think of the common macroscopic perspective as not representative of ‘reality’, and it was natural to come to the same conclusion when we first realized that the world we can see with our eyes is only a fragment of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. It is also a habit of many physicists to think of the smoothness of skin, or the density of steel, or the wetness of water, as incongruous with ‘reality’, because even steel mostly consists of space, with huge distances between electrons and their respective atomic nuclei. A very small particle, a neutrino for instance, goes travels through steel with ease, perceiving it perhaps very much like we perceive space, with gaps between its electrons and protons and neutrons and such almost as large as the gaps between our planets. Once we make these realizations, it is all too easy to say that the world as we see it is illusory. But this is silly. We can’t call something a mere false representation of reality every time we see it from some other perspective, or with different tools. Skin may be perceived as smooth, as a spacious gas, or as a mountainous landscape depending on our size. It may be perceived as being an entirely different color by brains that code wavelengths differently. With infrared glasses, we may only see skin as a product of the heat it produces, but to say that any of these perspectives is false or illusory would be ridiculous. We must think of all of these perspectives as merely an incomplete representation of reality. A complete understanding of the skin, or of anything, would come from integrating all of these perspectives into one cohesive whole. Skin is all of the things listed above, not none of them. This false conception is the root of the criticism that people have of studying the brain (or just about anything). Neuroscientists hear this all the time, “Why would you try to reduce the wondrous miracle of consciousness, perception, emotion, experience, memory, and intelligence down to a mere machine? No physical explanation of mental phenomena could account for the wealth and beauty of all human experience.” These people are falling victim to the fallacy that I described above. To claim that in studying the brain (or anything) from a physical perspective, we lose our understanding of the ephemeral beauty of emotion, is to make a false dichotomy. It is nonsense to think that we have to think of the brain either as a mechanism or a source of profound experience. A full understanding of our consciousness will come from a complete description and appreciation of mental phenomena at every level, not the least of which is one of subjective appreciation.

Politics and Social Theory:
Embracing our role as a fully integrated part of reality will be the biggest step away from competitive nationalism, and towards a peaceful, united world. We already see this happening, with the widespread use of connective technologies such as the internet, and all forms of global communication. The largest hurdle to cross will most likely be the unequal distribution of resources that we see currently in our global economy. This will also be the hardest obstacle, because this stratification exists largely because of the large populations in countries whose own local resources cannot support their numbers. This results from the most basic law of population growth; populations increase to match the amount of available food. Without the introduction of foreign resources, the populations of many African countries, for instance, would be drastically lower than we see them today, for the simple reason that there just isn’t that much food in their desert environment. The prolific shipping of food and resources between all areas of the world has increased the populations of areas like these, and created a dependence on foreign resources, which gives countries like America the upper hand in any negotiation. This, I think, is one of the largest reasons for the exploitive state of globalization that we see today. It will be very difficult for the world to find (or desire) a unified economy, but I strongly believe that this is the direction that we are headed in, although I think it would take a great deal of work to create a world without economic stratification amongst various areas.
This future may seem impossible, but the general unified philosophy that is emerging makes it seem at least plausible. And it will surely be impossible unless we dismantle the self-hatred of our species and our technologies, and establish clear, global goals. The only way this will ever happen is by pursuing a general universal philosophy of integration and unification in which we use our expanding body of knowledge about the world to be as sure as we can about the short and long term effects of our actions on everything, and hold ourselves responsible for the consequences of those actions.

“The world will always be here, and it will always be different, more varied, more interesting, more alive, but still always the world in all its complexity and incompleteness. There is nothing behind it, no absolute or platonic world to transcend to. All there is of Nature is what is around us. All there is of Being is relations among real, sensible things. All we have of natural law is a world that has made itself. All we may expect of human law is what we can negotiate among ourselves, and what we take as our responsibility. All we may gain of knowledge must be drawn from what we can see with our own eyes, and what others tell us they have seen with their eyes. All we may expect of justice is compassion. All we may look up to as judges are each other. All that is possible of utopia is what we make with our own hands. Pray let it be enough.” – Lee Smolin

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