This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

22nd September 2014


The Future of Science


There is a passage from Foucault that I have quoted many times, which is one of my favorites from this works:

“A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.”

It just occurred to me today that we might say that same about the future of science:

“A real science recognizes and accepts its own future without feeling attacked.”

A pure and thorough-going complementarity between past and future would only be possible if our knowledge of past and future were symmetrical, which it is not. But it should be pretty clear that contemporary science, in so far as it glimpses future iterations of the discipline, would feel profoundly inadequate in the face of what may come out of science, when sufficiently advanced.

It is a staple of pop-culture futurism that science a hundred years from now many be as different from contemporary science as contemporary science is different from science a hundred years ago — before the confirmation of relativity, before quantum theory, before plate tectonics, before the expansion of the universe, before genetics, and so on. In other words, science a hundred years ago is barely recognizable today as science, and the same may be true a hundred years’ hence.

But whenever dissecting pop-culture futurism one must keep in the forefront of one’s mind what the message is to the contemporary audience, which is the real target of futurism. Some of these claims about science becoming rapidly outdated are sincere, but some are based upon an implicit non-progressivism and the contemporary equivalent of a cyclical theory of history.

Having had the misfortune of being exposed to a lot of the looniest forms of conspiracy theory present in our culture today, I can tell you that the cyclical theory of history is alive and kicking in the popular mind, and there is no more familiar idea to the listeners of late night radio programs than the idea that civilization has emerged repeatedly on Earth and achieved a high level of technological development, only to be destroyed by its own hubris.

The idea of science being outdated in the future is related to this idea of cyclical history, because cyclical history maintains at bottom that there is no progress, and this must include the claim that there is no real scientific progress either. Therefore the falsification of past science by present science, and the eventual falsification of present science by future science, points to the idea that science does not better approximate truth over time, but only revolves in a vast cycle along with the rise and fall of civilizations, with no real progress being made.

In the context of a cyclical theory of history, science could recognize its past and future without feeling attacked, because all science is equal and no science is closer to the truth than any other science, because all science is eventually falsified.

The fact that science does feel attacked by being presented with its past, which now seems perverse and unworthy of being called “science,” and would feel attacked if presented with a future iteration of itself, is, in this sense, a hopeful sign, as it suggests that real progress is made in science, and that scientists know this so well that they feel both insulted and challenged when the painful history of the follies of science is spread out before them.

It would be an interesting exercise to develop the above idea in the context of Kuhnian paradigm shifts. I leave this as an exercise to the reader.

Tagged: Foucaultfuturismscienceprogresscyclical timecyclical history


22nd September 2014

Link with 1 note

On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the Universe →

The above-linked paper was brought to my attention by Fermi Paradox Solved? which was in turn brought to my attention by Siggi Becker.

The paper by Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez suggests possible explanations as to why the galaxy does not seem to be brimming with extraterrestrial civilizations eager to be in contact with us. Here is the abstract of paper in full:

As a copious source of gamma-rays, a nearby Galactic Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) can be a threat to life. Using recent determinations of the rate of GRBs, their luminosity function and properties of their host galaxies, we estimate the probability that a life-threatening (lethal) GRB would take place. Amongst the different kinds of GRBs, long ones are most dangerous. There is a very good chance (but no certainty) that at least one lethal GRB took place during the past 5 Gyr close enough to Earth as to significantly damage life. There is a 50% chance that such a lethal GRB took place during the last 500 Myr causing one of the major mass extinction events. Assuming that a similar level of radiation would be lethal to life on other exoplanets hosting life, we explore the potential effects of GRBs to life elsewhere in the Galaxy and the Universe. We find that the probability of a lethal GRB is much larger in the inner Milky Way (95% within a radius of 4 kpc from the galactic center), making it inhospitable to life. Only at the outskirts of the Milky Way, at more than 10 kpc from the galactic center, this probability drops below 50%. When considering the Universe as a whole, the safest environments for life (similar to the one on Earth) are the lowest density regions in the outskirts of large galaxies and life can exist in only ~ 10% of galaxies. Remarkably, a cosmological constant is essential for such systems to exist. Furthermore, because of both the higher GRB rate and galaxies being smaller, life as it exists on Earth could not take place at z>0.5. Early life forms must have been much more resilient to radiation.

At the end of section 5 of the paper is a nice summary of the gist of the paper:

"It seems the survival of life, as we know it on Earth, was only a recent phenomenon in the history of the Universe caused by the growth of large galaxies. Life forms that might have existed earlier or that exist today in other regions of the Universe that are much more susceptible to significant GRB bombardment must have been much more resilient to radiation than life on Earth."

This actually suggests two clear possibilities: 1) the prevalence of radiation-resilient life in the universe, or 2) the late and lonely appearance of life on Earth. It should be noted that cosmologists and astrobiologists have long considered it unlikely that life, much less civilization, would come from the cores of galaxies (the “inner Milky Way”), where the density of stars is much higher, and therefore the large-scale existential risks from this crowding is much higher. This is one reason that galactic habitable zones (GHZ) have been defined.

It would be saying too much to say that this work “solves” the Fermi paradox, but it should be counted toward a solution of the Fermi paradox. Despite the simplicity of its statement, the Fermi paradox is never going to be resolved by a single knock-down argument.

As implied by the Drake equation, addressing the Fermi paradox meaning addressing all the factors that come into play in the emergence of intelligent life capable of technological civilization. No single argument can address all of these factors in one fell swoop; a series of arguments drawn from the disciplines that study the sciences represented by each term of the Drake equation  — and probably other factors as well of which we are not yet cognizant.

Tagged: Tsvi PiranRaul JimenezGamma Ray BurstsFermi ParadoxDrake equationGHZgalactic habitable zone


18th September 2014


Metaphysical Fallacies Again


In my last post, Pernicious Metaphysics, I referenced an earlier post, Metaphysical Fallacies, and now just today I learned that I have been anticipated by several decades in my use of the phrase “metaphysical fallacies,” which plays a prominent role in Hannah Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind.

I’ve written about Hannah Arendt previously in relation to her work on mass man, an idea developed in her The Origins of Totalitarianism, and in relation to perhaps her most famous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I discussed in Historical Consciousness for its Own Sake. I’ve also skimmed several of her books, being particularly interested in On Revolution and Between Past and Future, but until today I don’t think I had ever cracked the covers of The Life of the Mind (or, if I did, it didn’t make much of an impression on me).

No matter that Arendt formulated the problematic of totalitarianism that we still use today to discuss Nazism and other forms of fascism, Arendt still has not been forgiven for writing Eichmann in Jerusalem. Having heard of the book and the controversy surrounding it, I read it. Having read it, I didn’t get why she took so much flack over it. I had to read a number of essays about its reception before I began to understand the controversy surrounding the book, which, as I said, still hasn’t gone away. There was a piece in Slate from 30 October 2009, The Evil of Banality: Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger by , which takes up the controversy as though decades had not passed in the meantime. 

In this article it is not only new charges about Arendt’s sources that are aired, but questions about her relationship to Heidegger. Anyone who has read this or my other blog knows that I am no fan of Heidegger (cf. Ott on Heidegger and Conduct Unbecoming a Philosopher). And I, too, wonder why Arendt played the crucial role she did in rehabilitating Heidegger after the war. It certainly wasn’t naïveté, either about Heidegger or his association with the Nazis or about Heidegger’s philosophy. Arendt was not naïve. It is probably much simpler than that. Heidegger was an old friend, and Arendt forgave him. Now, the rest of us may not forgive Heidegger, but it seems incomprehensible (if not unconscionable) to say to another person that they should not forgive an old friend, not matter how undeserving.

This, however, is not what I set out to write about today, but there is a sense in which the digression on Heidegger is relevant, since in her exposition of metaphysical fallacies Arendt used Heidegger is her example of what she calls the “basic” metaphysical fallacy. Arendt took up metaphysics only to diagnose the discipline in term of “metaphysical fallacies” — irony, perhaps? — and she wrote that, “The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth. The latest and in some respects most striking instance of this occurs in Heidegger’s Being and Time, which starts out by raising ‘anew the question of the meaning of Being.’ Heidegger himself, in a later interpretation of his own initial question, says explicitly: ‘“Meaning of Being” and “Truth of Being” are the same’." (p. 15)

For Arendt, metaphysics has revealed itself as consisting only of fallacies; once we deflate or deny the fallacies, there is nothing left. Nevertheless, there is a certain value in these fallacies:

 ”…the only record we possess of what thinking as an activity meant to those who had chosen it as a way of life is what we could call today the ‘metaphysical fallacies.’ None of the systems, none of the doctrines transmitted to us by the great thinkers may be convincing or even plausible to modern readers; but none of them, I shall try to argue here, is arbitrary and none can be simply dismissed as sheer nonsense. On the contrary, the metaphysical fallacies contain the only clues we have to what thinking means to those who engage in it — something of great importance today and about which, oddly enough, there exist few direct utterances.”

For Arendt, all of metaphysics is Pernicious Metaphysics, and all of it fallacious — but there are lessons to be learned from these fallacies, because, while fallacious and pernicious, metaphysics is neither arbitrary nor nonsense. Metaphysics, then, is a record of valuable errors; philosophy consists, on this view, of object lessons. 

This is a surprisingly positivist position to take, implying, as it does, a perfectly simply and unproblematic world hidden beneath the layers of metaphysical fallacy, waiting for us if only we can penetrate through all the fallacies and lay hold of this thing in itself which, seen in its nakedness, presents though with no difficulties whatsoever.

Of course, we have heard this time and again from twentieth century philosophers, and I don’t want to reduce the subtlety of Arendt’s position to some schematic, positivistic denial of metaphysics. Indeed, while I do not exactly agree with Arendt, I am quite sympathetic to her position. I agree that metaphysical fallacies, when they are committed, are not arbitrary and not nonsense. They deserve our study and attention. I would maintain additional, however, that there remains the possibility of metaphysics beyond metaphysical fallacy, which, like science as we understand it today, is never quite right, and always subject to revision, but which nevertheless, incrementally, step by painful step. more closely approximates the world the more carefully we learn to ask metaphysical questions and even to hazard an answer to them.

Arendt herself take a step in this direction in her analysis of the “basic” metaphysical fallacy committed by Heidegger. If the identification of being with meaning is a metaphysical statement, and also a metaphysical fallacy, then the assertion of the non-identity of being and meaning is also a metaphysical statement, but not a metaphysical fallacy.

I wrote above that Arendt outlines a position quite close to twentieth century positivism in its various iterations; in another sense, Arendt’s position vis-à-vis metaphysics can be likened to something much more recent: the speculative realist critique of Kantian correlationism. Here is Quentin Meillassoux on correlationism:

“…the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, p. 5 

I wrote about this previously in De-Coupling Intentionality. The speculative realistis tend to be quite heavily influence by Heidegger, so again we see (if you will forgive me) the correlation. The equation between thinking and being, characteristic of intentionality in phenomenology, is not precisely the correlation that interests Arendt, but the “basic fallacy” described above she does put in the form of an equation, the equation of meaning and truth, and she does so in the context of a work on thinking. Thus the correlationism that Arendt critiques is the correlation of meaning and truth. We could even call this a form of intentionality. Arendt’s proposed de-coupling of meaning and truth, as against Heidegger’s explicit equation of “Truth of Being” and “Meaning of Being” is no less a metaphysical thesis than their coupling in Heidegger.

If we can substitute thinking, salva veritate, for meaning, the Husserlian correlationism of thinking and being and the Heideggerian correlationism of meaning and being are in turn correlated. In so far as thinking is meaningful in Arendt — and, as she says, “metaphysical fallacies contain the only clues we have to what thinking means to those who engage in it” — the critique of Heideggerian correlationism and Husserlian correlationism (or Kantian, if you prefer) coincide.

Tagged: Hannah ArendtmetaphysicsThe Life of the MindArendtHeideggerMartin Heideggermetaphysical fallaciesQuentin Meillassouxcorrelationism


16th September 2014

Post with 1 note

Pernicious Metaphysics


In my post on metaphysical fallacies I quoted W. H. Walsh’s stories that illustrated a conflict over metaphysical principles, the first involving the claim that things don’t just pass clean out of existence, and the second involving the claim that things don’t just happen for no reason at all.

The first of these metaphysical principles is the corollary of a principle famously to be found in Lucretius: ex nihilo nihil fitfrom nothing, nothing comes — which implies, into nothing, nothing goes. In the twentieth century Alfred North Whitehead called this the ontological principle: “there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere” (Process and Reality).

The second of these metaphysical principles — that things don’t happen for no reason at all — is well known as the principle of sufficient reason, which has a history in western philosophy as distinguished as that of the ontological principle. I regard the principle of sufficient reason as among the most pernicious of metaphysical principles, that has misled generations of philosophers and others into a teleological conception of the world, that is only in the modern world — and not even the modern world only, but more narrowly, the world since industrialization — being challenged by a non-teleological way of understanding, as science becomes more sophisticated and is able to squeeze out all the gods from the gaps.

The principle of sufficient reason and the teleological conception of the world that follows from its systematic application are not precisely metaphysical fallacies or metaphysical biases, but what might be called systematically misleading metaphysics, or perhaps pernicious metaphysics. In many cases, metaphysical biases are identical to principles that are central to the metaphysical systems one rejects; when a metaphysical bias is consciously adopted as a principle, it can no longer be called a bias, as it is now an explicit methodology.

It was Gilbert Ryle who first formulated the idea of systematically misleading expressions. In his concern for language, Ryle was a man of his time, exemplifying what has come to be called the “linguistic turn” in philosophy (interestingly, the linguistic turn in found in both analytical and continental philosophy). But it is not only expressions that can be systematically misleading. Expressions that are perfectly clear and not intrinsically misleading for linguistic purposes may encapsulate a systematically misleading idea, and a systematically misleading idea is what I mean when I say that the principle of sufficient reason and the ontological principle are systematically misleading metaphysics. The fact that they accord so well with our intuitions is part of the problem; if they did not, we would not have to struggle against. them.

It could be argued that the principle of sufficient reason is a particular case of the ontological principle, such that things don’t happen for no reason at all because for something to happen for no reason at all would require that this event appeared out of nothingness, which violates the ontological principle. If the ontological principle is the foundation of the principle of sufficient reason, and the principle of sufficient reason is a pernicious metaphysical principle, then we should seek the origins of pernicious metaphysics in the ontological principle. 

If the ontological principle is the root of all evil metaphysics, the fons et origo of a perniciously teleological conception of the world, then if we are going to get to the root of the matter we must call the ontological principle into question, whatever its intuitive standing. Does something ever come out of nothing? Can there be a creatio ex nihilo? These are extremely tendentious ways of formulating the problem; let us try to find a somewhat less tendentious way to approach this.

As the historical sciences yield an ever more detailed account of a temporal world, a world in which time is the central organizing principle, the concept of emergence is becoming ever more important. Emergence is one of the central concepts of temporal metaphysics.

The ontological principle commits us exclusively to a position of weak emergence, in which the properties observed to be emergent from complex systems are unpredicted and unexpected, that is to say, emergence is here an epistemological doctrine. It is only with strong emergence that emergence is an ontological doctrine according to which qualitatively new properties appear that are ontologically distinct from the properties of lower, less complex levels of a system.

Wherever there is strong emergence, there is ontological novelty, and wherever there is ontological novelty, an ontological threshold is passed. it could be argued that this new ontological threshold does not come from nothing because we know what preceded it, and we know the substrate from which it emerged, and we know that a new level of complexity in the substrate produced an ontological novelty, but if we insist in every case that the ontological novelty is nothing but those preceding conditions, then we are committed a priori to a reductivist position.

If we allow the possibility that there are instances both of weak and strong emergence, and we are not to insist upon reductivism in every case, then we must acknowledge that in cases of strong emergence ontological novelty violates the ontological principle; in other words, we must recognize a limitation to the ontological principle — the ontological principle is neither absolute nor unconditioned.

From a conditional ontological principle that recognizes exceptions we can derive a conception of the world in which developmental processes produce qualitatively new forms over time. In such a world of ontological development, we tremble always on the verge of ontological novelty.

Where exactly the point is when we pass over into ontological novelty is not always plain, nor should be assume that there must be a discrete point. This is a problem related to the sorites paradox. I wrote above that metaphysical biases can be identical to principles that are central to the metaphysical systems one rejects; just so, in this spirit, many philosophical theories have their origin in a shift of perspective that rechristens a paradox as a principle, and so we might speak of a sorites principle instead of a sorites paradox. An incrementalist conception of the world embraces the sorites principle and understands that fundamentally new forms, forms that are new in essence, emerge from what Alfred Russel Wallace called The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.

Some time ago in my post Finding Paley’s Watch, I began to sketch a non-teleological conception of the world. This post has been little read, and it is probably not obvious that I was suggesting something fundamentally new. I need to return to this idea to give it a fuller and more systematic exposition, and to do so in light of the discussion above of the pernicious metaphysical principles that lie behind the teleological conception of the world that has gone largely unquestioned in the history of western metaphysics. We have learned to question specific cases of teleology, and have freed large parts of science from teleological thinking, but we need to pass beyond a fragmentary and opportunistic formulation of non-teleological thought to a metaphysical non-teleology that conceives the world entire in non-teleological terms.

Tagged: metaphysicsreasoningmethodmethodologyontological principleLucretiusAlfred North WhiteheadGilbert Ryleprinciple of sufficient reasonsorites paradoxsorites principlephilosophyAlfred Russel Wallace


11th September 2014


Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur →

Dinosaurs never lose their power to fascinate. Recent announcements of paleontological discoveries have made us aware of some very large dinosaurs.

The above-linked article in Science was brought to my attention by Spinosaurus fossil: ‘Giant swimming dinosaur’ unearthed, bKem Kem fossil beds in eastern Morocco have yielded enough information to reconstruct this species.

A Gigantic, Exceptionally Complete Titanosaurian Sauropod Dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina (brought to my attention by 'Dreadnought' dinosaur yields big bone haul).

Continuing discoveries of this kind drive home to us the success of dinosaurs prior to the K-Pg extinction event (the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction, formerly known at the K-T event), and vividly illustrate the nature of adaptive radiation. Almost any ecological niche that you can imagine — whether enormous predatory swimming carnivores or almost as enormous land-dwelling herbivores — were filled by dinosaurs during the Mesozoic (the time of "middle life"). 

Now, in the Cenozoic, almost all these niches are filled by mammals. We take it for granted that there are mammals in the forest and mammals on the prairie and mammals of the desert and marine mammals in the world’s oceans. Mammals live with us as our companion animals, and mammals domesticated by us served as the basis for agricultural civilization, both as food and as muscle power. The mammalian adaptive radiation of the Cenozoic (the time of "recent life") is as remarkable as the adaptive radiation of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic.

The earlier eras of life on Earth — the Paleozoic (“ancient life”) and the Mesozoic — were brought to an end by major extinction events, i.e., existential threats that ended the global preeminence of earlier forms of life. We have abundant scientific evidence not only that this can happen, but that this has happened — repeatedly.   

We know our vulnerability to existential risks in a way that the Gorgonopsids of the Paleozoic and the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic did not know their existential vulnerability. Now the question is, with this knowledge, are we going to do anything about it, or are we going to allow the great adaptive radiation of mammals to be just another biological era brought to a close by another extinction event?

Tagged: Nizar IbrahimRebecca MorellespinosaurusdinosaurJonathan AmossauropodK-Pg extinction eventadaptive radiationMesozoic


8th September 2014


The Laniakea supercluster of galaxies →

It seems that we must now get used to a new way of thinking about the universe at the largest scales. Previously it was said that out Milky Way galaxy was part of the Virgo Supercluster. Now the Virgo supercluster has been placed in the context of a much larger structure that is being called Laniakea.

A paper (linked above) that has just been published in Nature by R. Brent Tully, Hélène Courtois, Yehuda Hoffman, and Daniel Pomarède incorporates several innovative approaches to cosmology. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Galaxies congregate in clusters and along filaments, and are missing from large regions referred to as voids. These structures are seen in maps derived from spectroscopic surveys that reveal networks of structure that are interconnected with no clear boundaries. Extended regions with a high concentration of galaxies are called ‘superclusters’, although this term is not precise. There is, however, another way to analyse the structure. If the distance to each galaxy from Earth is directly measured, then the peculiar velocity can be derived from the subtraction of the mean cosmic expansion, the product of distance times the Hubble constant, from observed velocity. The peculiar velocity is the line-of-sight departure from the cosmic expansion and arises from gravitational perturbations; a map of peculiar velocities can be translated into a map of the distribution of matter. Here we report a map of structure made using a catalogue of peculiar velocities. We find locations where peculiar velocity flows diverge, as water does at watershed divides, and we trace the surface of divergent points that surrounds us. Within the volume enclosed by this surface, the motions of galaxies are inward after removal of the mean cosmic expansion and long range flows. We define a supercluster to be the volume within such a surface, and so we are defining the extent of our home supercluster, which we call Laniakea.

A video has been produced which illustrates the main themes of the paper, Laniakea: Our home supercluster, which is available on Youtube. This is well worth watching, as it does a great job of giving an intuitive presentation of these innovative ideas in cosmology, which involve scales of space and time far beyond the ordinary historico-temporal scope of human consciousness.

The paper shows, correcting for the expansion of the cosmos, how galaxies are moving relative to each other, and it turns out that a great many galaxies are being drawn in the direction of the great attractor. The paper also offers a new way to define a galactic supercluster, such that the Laniakea supercluster is the basin of the great attractor.  

The “flow” of galaxies that defines superclusters, hence the structure of the universe at its largest scale, suggests cosmological processes of an extent equal to the almost unimaginable spatial extent of these structures. There is much yet to learn about the universe.

Tagged: LaniakeaVirgo superclustercosmologygreat attractor


8th September 2014

Post with 2 notes

Weird Life?


An interesting discovery was recently announced of an organism — at least two new species, Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides — that do not readily fit into existing classifications of life.

This discovery was brought to my attention by a BBC article, Deep sea ‘mushroom’ may be new branch of life

Dendrogramma, New Genus, with Two New Non-Bilaterian Species from the Marine Bathyal of Southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) – with Similarities to Some Medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara. Here is the abstract of the paper, in full:

A new genus, Dendrogramma, with two new species of multicellular, non-bilaterian, mesogleal animals with some bilateral aspects, D. enigmatica and D. discoides, are described from the south-east Australian bathyal (400 and 1000 metres depth). A new family, Dendrogrammatidae, is established for Dendrogramma. These mushroom-shaped organisms cannot be referred to either of the two phyla Ctenophora or Cnidaria at present, because they lack any specialised characters of these taxa. Resolving the phylogenetic position of Dendrogramma depends much on how the basal metazoan lineages (Ctenophora, Porifera, Placozoa, Cnidaria, and Bilateria) are related to each other, a question still under debate. At least Dendrogramma must have branched off before Bilateria and is possibly related to Ctenophora and/or Cnidaria. Dendrogramma, therefore, is referred to Metazoa incertae sedis. The specimens were fixed in neutral formaldehyde and stored in 80% ethanol and are not suitable for molecular analysis. We recommend, therefore, that attempts be made to secure new material for further study. Finally similarities between Dendrogramma and a group of Ediacaran (Vendian) medusoids are discussed.

The most interesting question posed by this discovery is this: Is dendrogramma weird life? Well, what exactly is weird life? I learned the term from Paul Davies’ book The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, where Davies writes:

How might we go about identifying life as we don’t know it? Given the large measure of chance in evolution, it’s highly unlikely that organisms from separate origins would have the same biochemistry. Astrobiologists refer to known organisms as ‘standard life’ and to the hypothetical alternative forms as ‘weird life’. (Weird life could be alien life in the sense of ‘not one of us’, but also in the sense of having an extraterrestrial, e.g. Martian, origin.)”

The question of whether dendrogramma is weird life could be readily answered by analysis of its DNA, but the abstract above notes that the sample (which was taken in 1986) was fixed in formaldehyde and stored in ethanol, so a genetic analysis of this specimen is not possible, But if another specimen could be found, then a genetic analysis would “resolve” the phylogenetic position of dendrogramma — or show it to lie outside the tree of life.

It is unlikely that this strange life form represents a second or independent genesis of life on Earth because it has apparently survived in the terrestrial biosphere for possibly billions of years, but it is an interesting thought, and if life from a second genesis is found on Earth, it is likely to be, like this, some tiny sample that at first seems only an oddity, but when sequenced shows itself to be unrelated to other organisms known to date.

The discovery of weird life would constitute an anomaly of the life sciences that could have, in ages past, triggered a full-blown model crisis for biology. But we already have a nascent biology capable of addressing weird life — astrobiology — which, in a sense, co-opts the possibility of future model crises by establishing a theoretical position that is so comprehensive contemporary science cannot easily get outside its scope.

Similar considerations could be said to apply to big history in the realm of historiography.

Tagged: Paul Rinconweird lifesecond genesisPaul DaviesDendrogrammaastrobiologymodel crisisJorgen Olesen


7th September 2014


     Big Red Sun over North Portland Harbor.There are several places in the lectures of Joseph Campbell when he mentions the phenomena of that time of the month when the setting sun on the western horizon and the rising moon on the eastern horizon are almost exactly the same size, opposing each other on opposite sides of the sky. It was exactly like that this evening on the North Portland Harbor, and conditions were perfect for viewing it. After taking the picture above I went canoeing, and it was a perfect evening to be out on the Columbia River. The Portland airport is next to the river, so that when I go canoeing I am under the flight path of the airport. Twice this evening, after it was fully dark, I happened to be lined up on the river exactly so that an airplane taking off from the airport passed exactly across the face of the nearly full moon. This was remarkably beautiful, and, in a sense, the kind of beauty that one finds in a Japanese garden, where nature stands both in contrast to and in harmony with human intervention — and, again, not unlike the polarity of sun and moon at opposite ends of the sky. 

Tagged: sunsetNorth Portland HarborPortlandbeauty


6th September 2014


Responding to the World we Find


In my last four posts — Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience, Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization, Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, and Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization — I employed Joseph Campbell’s formulation of the four functions of mythology as a framework for the exposition of religious experience in the context of a changing human condition driven by changing structures of civilization.

Another schematic way that Campbell approached mythology was to distinguish three responses that individuals may have toward the world, and implicitly this is a function of the first function of mythology, the mystical or metaphysical function, which mediates between the inner world of consciousness and the world beyond individual consciousness. This first function of mythology, of the mythological relation between mind and world, can take three distinct forms. 

Campbell’s rendering of the three possible responses to the world are:

  • Affirmation
  • Denial (also called “The Great Reversal” by Campbell)
  • Conditional Affirmation

To state it in this way suggests the possibility of conditional denial, which I can understand is a counter-intuitive response, though it should be recognized as a possibility, even if an outlier. But the threefold response above might be informally expressed as yes, no, and maybe.

While Campbell was usually quite careful in his formulations to avoid advocacy, when it came to the three possible responses to the great mystery and monstrosity of the world, Campbell was forthright in his view that only an unambiguous acceptance of the world as it is was a workable and respectable response to the mystery and monstrosity that confronts us as soon as we open our eyes. Nothing less than total and absolute affirmation will do for Campbell.

Campbell’s own differing formulations of the mystical function of mythology reflect his view that, ultimately, there can only be affirmation of the world. Moreover, the terms in which Campbell presents the threefold distinction among responses to the world betray the valuations that he places on these responses, and if we adopt a distinct terminology, the valuations implicit in this distinct terminology may suggest different valuations of the responses.

I have found just an alternative terminology to those of Campbell, noted above, in the series of lectures Philosophy as a Guide to Living by Professor Stephen A. Erickson Ph.D., Pomona College (lecture 11, “Marx’s Utopian Hope”). Erickson’s terminology to describe essentially the same mythological responses to the world, embodying a distinct valuation from that implied by Campbell’s terminology, are as follows:

  • Resignation
  • Transcendence
  • Transformation

All of these terms are freighted with a long history in western intellectual history, but precisely for this reason we can immediately see that, schematically, these are essentially the same categories that Campbell uses, but with a radically different valuation. To speak of “resignation” where Campbell speaks in terms of “affirmation,” “transcendence” where Campbell speaks in terms of “denial,” and “transformation” where Campbell speaks in terms of “conditional affirmation,” is to give a very different sense to the relation of mind to world.

There is, of course, a difference between acceptance of the world in terms of positive affirmation and acceptance of the world in terms of resignation, but both remain modalities of  acceptance, as denial and transcendence are modalities of rejection of the world, and amelioration or conditional affirmation and transformation are modalities that look toward changing the world.

I have long been dissatisfied with Campbell’s formulation of conditional acceptance, as I think that this attitude plays a much greater role in our thought than that to which Campbell consigns it. By interpretating a vision of the changed world as transformation rather than conditional affirmation — accepting the world only in so far as it accords with one’s wishes, which sounds petty and egocentric — it is easy to see how many traditional mythologies, including mythologies of surrogate religions, appeal to a transformation of the world as ultimately the only world in which the mind can be at home. 

Tagged: Joseph CampbellStephen A. Ericksonmythologytransformationtranscendenceresignation


5th September 2014

Post with 2 notes

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization


Creation of Adam 2.0 by Robedirobrob

In my last post, Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, I discussed several possible scenarios for the future in relation to religious experience as it manifests itself in the mystical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological functions of mythology. I realized after I wrote that post that I missed a couple of important points. 

The immediate and personal experience of ecstatic states of mind, which are so central to the shamanism of nomadic peoples, and which in industrial-technological civilization are displaced from religious experience entirely and instead are cultivated in distinct and non-religious institutions, are functions of the human psyche, and if the human psyche changes, either from gradual evolutionary development, or technological intervention, such as cognitive enhancement, then functions of the human psyche such as ecstatic experience are subject to change.

If the immediate and personal experience that for many is the root from which all institutionalized religion ultimately grows is changed, then different institutions will grow from that changed root. In the most ossified societies — i.e., in permanently stagnated societies — in which mystical experience has been marginalized in favor of communal rituals that serve only the cosmological and sociological functions of mythology, a changed relationship to ecstatic personal experience would make little difference, but these are not dynamic societies from which historical change is likely to emerge anyway. 

Cognitive enhancement is a wild card that could develop in many different directions — possibly in one new direction, though most likely in several different directions at once. Depending upon what is judged to be “enhanced” mental function, cognitive enhancement might result in the elimination of ecstatic experience, the intensification of ecstatic experience, or in qualitatively new ecstatic experience. Different cognitive enhances are likely to have all three distinctive results, resulting in an even more pluralistic milieu of religious experience.

Another important point is that in talking about religious experience and mythology, I also should have explicitly discussed religious surrogates, which Eric Voegelin in his classic Science, Politics, and Gnositicism (which I referenced in The Limits of Engineering Consent) called ersatz religion. I have previously discussed Bertrand Russell on communism as a substitute religion in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization. There are, of course, a whole range of ideologies that serve as surrogate or ersatz religions, and it is to be expected that these surrogate religions also involve religious experiences (or, more precisely, surrogates for religious experience). Indeed, we could probably arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of surrogate religions by applying Campbell’s four functions of mythology to them. We would likely find that in the most successful surrogate religions that there are powerful forms of religious life that address all four of the functions of mythology.

Some time ago in Post-Modern Christendom I wrote about the changing European intellectual milieu and how it has produced religious ideas like those of Klaas Hendrikse, who said, “God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.” Claims such as this, while sharply rejected by traditionalists, are common in other sectors of society, even if rarely spoken out loud for fear of reprisals. This kind of diversity in religious thought and experience was always present, but in the past it was subject to heavy-handed repressions. Now in the West there is little repression, and communications technology ensures that even marginalized forms of experience are accessible to the mainstream.

However far the continuous tradition of religious observance diverges from its sources in the Axial Age (and it may indefinitely diverge and result in new species of religious observance, to employ the language of Alfred Russel Wallace), the reality of the human condition is such that some other institution or ideology will come to serve the four functions of mythology even if no traditional institution or ideology meets those needs.

Religion in its traditional form may even die out, but the religious needs of human beings are a perennial feature of the human condition. In terms of discussing the far future of civilization, we may well see the human condition change, and it could change so radically that these perennial religious impulses eventually disappear, but the very experience of the atrophy and elimination of these impulses would be a traumatic experience that in turn would call forth the kind of mythological responses that guided individuals and societies through difficult transitions in ages past. To what does an individual turn in his or her hour of need? And does anyone suppose that there will come a time in which an hour of need is no longer experienced?

Just because individuals do not self-identify as being religious does not mean that they are not. Some of the most profoundly religious people I have met in my life have disavowed having any religion whatsoever. The mythologies that come to serve as surrogate religions — be it UFO conspiracy theories, nationalism, communism, or social justice utopias — continue to perform the four functions of mythology that Campbell identified, whether or not those those who profess them realize that this is the myth by which they are living.

Even the most stalwart atheist — like myself, for example, aspiring as I do to become a compleat atheist — can see that religion is not going away any time soon.

Tagged: religionreligious experiencemythologyJoseph Campbellsurrogate religionersatz religionfuturismfuture studies