BEING ECOLOGICAL

Being Ecological

Don’t care about ecology? You might think you don’t, but you might all the same. Don’t read ecology books? This book is for you.

It’s understandable: ecology books can be confusing information dumps that are out of date by the time they drop on you. Slapping you upside the head to make you feel bad. Shaking your lapels while yelling disturbing facts. Handwringing in agony about ‘What are we going to do?’ Horseshoe‑in‑a‑boxing-​glove propaganda. This book has none of that. Being Ecological doesn’t preach to the eco-choir. It’s for you: maybe you’re in the choir but only sometimes, or maybe you have no idea what choirs are, or maybe you don’t care at all. Rest assured this book is not going to preach at you. It also contains no ecological facts, no shocking revelations about our world, no ethical or political advice, and no grand tour of ecological thinking. This is a pretty useless ecology book, in fact. But why write something so ‘useless’ in such urgent times? Have I never heard of global warming? Why are you even reading this? Well, the truth is you might already be ecological, you just didn’t know it.

Continue reading “BEING ECOLOGICAL”

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JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS

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WE CONTROL NATURE for societal reasons. The control of nature advances with our ability to predict the outcome of natural processes. Inasmuch as predictions are but explanations in reverse, it is possible that they will be quite as combative as explanations. Indeed, prediction is the most highly developed skill of the Master Player, for without it control of an opponent is all the more difficult. I t follows that our domination of nature is meant to achieve not certain natural outcomes, but certain societal outcomes.

A small group of physicists, using calculations of the highest known abstraction, uncovered a predictable sequence of subatomic reactions that led directly to the construction of a thermonuclear bomb. It is true that the successful detonation of the bomb proved the predictions of the physicists, but it is also true that we did not explode the bomb to prove them correct; we exploded it to control the behavior of millions of persons and to bring our relations with them to a certain closure.

What this example shows is not that we can exercise power over nature, but that our attempt to do so masks our desire for power over each other. This raises a question as to the cultural consequences of abandoning the strategy of power in our attitude toward nature.

Continue reading “JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS”

BOILING GEOMETRY

If I boil water in a kettle on a stove, the operation and the objects that support it are, in reality, bound up with a multitude of other objects and a multitude of other operations; in the end, I should find that our entire solar system is concerned in what is being done at this particular point of space. But, in a certain measure, and for the special end I am pursuing, I may admit that things happen as if the group water-kettle-stove were an independent microcosm. That is my first affirmation. Now, when I say that this microcosm will always behave in the same way, that the heat will necessarily, at the end of a certain time, cause the boiling of the water, I admit that it is sufficient that a certain number of elements of the system be given in order that the system should be complete; it completes itself automatically, I am not free to complete it in thought as I please. The stove, the kettle and the water being given, with a certain interval of duration, it seems to me that the boiling, which experience showed me yesterday to be the only thing wanting to complete the system, will complete it tomorrow, no matter when tomorrow may be. What is there at the base of this belief? Notice that the belief is more or less assured, according as the case may be, but that it is forced upon the mind as an absolute necessity when the microcosm considered contains only magnitudes. If two sides of a triangle and the contained angle are given, the third side arises of itself and the triangle completes itself automatically. I can, it matters not where and it matters not when, trace the same two sides containing the same angle: it is evident that the new triangles so formed can be superposed on the first, and that consequently the same third side will come to complete the system. Now, if my certitude is perfect in the case in which I reason on pure space determinations, must I not suppose that, in the other cases, the certitude is greater the nearer it approaches this extreme case? Indeed, may it not be the limiting case which is seen through all the others and which colors them, accordingly as they are more or less transparent, with a more or less pronounced tinge of geometrical necessity? In fact, when I say that the water on the fire will boil today as it did yesterday, and that this is an absolute necessity, I feel vaguely that my imagination is placing the stove of yesterday on that of today, kettle on kettle, water on water, duration on duration, and it seems then that the rest must coincide also, for the same reason that, when two triangles are superposed and two of their sides coincide, their third sides coincide also. But my imagination acts thus only because it shuts its eyes to two essential points. For the system of today actually to be superimposed on that of yesterday, the latter must have waited for the former, time must have halted, and everything become simultaneous: that happens in geometry, but in geometry alone. Induction therefore implies first that, in the world of the physicist as in that of the geometrician, time does not count. But it implies also that qualities can be superposed on each other like magnitudes. If, in imagination, I place the stove and fire of today on that of yesterday, I find indeed that the form has remained the same; it suffices, for that, that the surfaces and edges coincide; but what is the coincidence of two qualities, and how can they be superposed one on another in order to ensure that they are identical? Yet I extend to the second order of reality all that applies to the first. The physicist legitimates this operation later on by reducing, as far as possible, differences of quality to differences of magnitude; but, prior to all science, I incline to liken qualities to quantities, as if I perceived behind the qualities, as through a transparency, a geometrical mechanism. The more complete this transparency, the more it seems to me that in the same conditions there must be a repetition of the same fact. Our inductions are certain, to our eyes, in the exact degree in which we make the qualitative differences melt into the homogeneity of the space which subtends them, so that geometry is the ideal limit of our inductions as well as of our deductions. The movement at the end of which is spatiality lays down along its course the faculty of induction as well as that of deduction, in fact, intellectuality entire. Continue reading “BOILING GEOMETRY”

THE BLIND SPOT

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers. 

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate. 

So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.

Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.

The fields of complex systems theory and network science add mathematical precision to these claims by focusing on wholes rather than the reduction to parts. Complex systems theory is the study of systems, such as the brain, living organisms or the Earth’s global climate, whose behaviour is difficult to model: how the system responds depends on its state and context. Such systems exhibit self-organisation, spontaneous pattern-formation and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (very small changes to the initial conditions can lead to widely different outcomes).

Network science analyses complex systems by modelling their elements as nodes, and the connections between them as links. It explains behaviour in terms of network topologies – the arrangements of nodes and connections – and global dynamics, rather than in terms of local interactions at the micro level.

Inspired by these perspectives, we propose an alternative vision that seeks to move beyond the Blind Spot. Our experience and what we call ‘reality’ are inextricable. Scientific knowledge is a self-correcting narrative made from the world and our experience of it evolving together. Science and its most challenging problems can be reframed once we appreciate this entanglement.

Let’s return to the problem we started with, the question of time and the existence of a First Cause. Many religions have addressed the notion of a First Cause in their mythic creation narratives. To explain where everything comes from and how it originates, they assume the existence of an absolute power or deity that transcends the confines of space and time. With few exceptions, God or gods create from without to give rise to what is within.

Unlike myth, however, science is constrained by its conceptual framework to function along a causal chain of events. The First Cause is a clear rupture of such causation – as Buddhist philosophers pointed out long ago in their arguments against the Hindu theistic position that there must be a first divine cause. How could there be a cause that was not itself an effect of some other cause? The idea of a First Cause, like the idea of a perfectly objective reality, is fundamentally theological.

These examples suggest that ‘time’ will always have a human dimension. The best we can aim for is to construct a scientific cosmological account that is consistent with what we can measure and know of the Universe from inside. The account can’t ever be a final or complete description of cosmic history. Rather, it must be an ongoing, self-correcting narrative. ‘Time’ is the backbone of this narrative; our lived experience of time is necessary to make the narrative meaningful. With this insight, it seems it’s the physicist’s time that is secondary; it’s merely a tool to describe the changes we’re able to observe and measure in the natural world. The time of the physicist, then, depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time.

We can now appreciate the deeper significance of our three scientific conundrums – the nature of matter, consciousness and time. They all point back to the Blind Spot and the need to reframe how we think about science. When we try to understand reality by focusing only on physical things outside of us, we lose sight of the experiences they point back to. The deepest puzzles can’t be solved in purely physical terms, because they all involve the unavoidable presence of experience in the equation. There’s no way to render ‘reality’ apart from experience, because the two are always intertwined.

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge. It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture, in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as a source of nature’s self-understanding. We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson

CREATIVE EVOLUTION

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When a shell bursts, the particular way it breaks is explained both by the explosive force of the powder it contains and by the resistance of the metal. So of the way life breaks into individuals and species. It depends, we think, on two series of causes: the resistance life meets from inert matter, and the explosive force—due to an unstable balance of tendencies—which life bears within itself.

That adaptation to environment is the necessary condition of evolution we do not question for a moment. It is quite evident that a species would disappear, should it fail to bend to the conditions of existence which are imposed on it. But it is one thing to recognize that outer circumstances are forces evolution must reckon with, another to claim that they are the directing causes of evolution. This latter theory is that of mechanism. It excludes absolutely the hypothesis of an original impetus, I mean an internal push that has carried life, by more and more complex forms, to higher and higher destinies.

The road that leads to the town is obliged to follow the ups and downs of the hills; it adapts itself to the accidents of the ground; but the accidents of the ground are not the cause of the road, nor have they given it its direction. At every moment they furnish it with what is indispensable, namely, the soil on which it lies; but if we consider the whole of the road, instead of each of its parts, the accidents of the ground appear only as impediments or causes of delay, for the road aims simply at the town and would fain be a straight line. Just so as regards the evolution of life and the circumstances through which it passes—with this difference, that evolution does not mark out a solitary route, that it takes directions without aiming at ends, and that it remains inventive even in its adaptations.

Evolution is a creation unceasingly renewed, it creates, as it goes on, not only the forms of life, but the ideas that will enable the intellect to understand it, the terms which will serve to express it. That is to say that its future overflows its present, and can not be sketched out therein in an idea.

If life realizes a plan, it ought to manifest a greater harmony the further it advances, just as the house shows better and better the idea of the architect as stone is set upon stone. If, on the contrary, the unity of life is to be found solely in the impetus that pushes it along the road of time, the harmony is not in front, but behind. Nature is more and better than a plan in course of realization. A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates. Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open. It is a creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement. This movement constitutes the unity of the organized world—a prolific unity, of an infinite richness, superior to any that the intellect could dream of, for the intellect is only one of its aspects or products. Continue reading “CREATIVE EVOLUTION”

TIME IT’S TIME

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The finished portrait is explained by the features of the model, by the nature of the artist, by the colors spread out on the palette; but, even with the knowledge of what explains it, no one, not even the artist, could have foreseen exactly what the portrait would be, for to predict it would have been to produce it before it was produced — an absurd hypothesis which is its own refutation. Even so with regard to the moments of our life, of which we are the artisans. Each of them is a kind of creation. And just as the talent of the painter is formed or deformed—in any case, is modified—under the very influence of the works he produces, so each of our states, at the moment of its issue, modifies our personality, being indeed the new form that we are just assuming. It is then right to say that what we do depends on what we are; but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves continually. This creation of self by self is the more complete, the more one reasons on what one does. For reason does not proceed in such matters as in geometry, where impersonal premisses are given once for all, and an impersonal conclusion must perforce be drawn. Here, on the contrary, the same reasons may dictate to different persons, or to the same person at different moments, acts profoundly different, although equally reasonable. The truth is that they are not quite the same reasons, since they are not those of the same person, nor of the same moment. That is why we cannot deal with them in the abstract, from outside, as in geometry, nor solve for another the problems by which he is faced in life. Each must solve them from within, on his own account. Continue reading “TIME IT’S TIME”