consciousness, cosmology, Quotes & Aphorisms


[I]f anything, science is moving toward a retrieval of older understandings of the sacramental nature of the Real. . . .

“There is entropy and chaos and then there is the Logos; there is noise and there is information and organization, which are deep linguistic structures, the codes at the heart of the universe. This is an idea that has been a part of modern and postmodern thinking at least since the time of Charles Peirce whose semiotics laid the foundations for Heisenberg and Bohr, Crick and Watson. Everything is code, signs working with other signs. Everything is Word. More on Charles Peirce’s semiotics in the future, but for now let’s hear what Toolan has to say:

We no longer need to carry the physicist’s energy and the humanist’s signs and symbols in separate accounts. One balance sheet will do. Information physics has given us back a semiotic universe, a nature that–like the medieval sacramental universe–gives signs. University divisions of the natural sciences and divisions of humanities while working at different parts of the spectrum, need not figure themselves as concerned with utterly disparate matters. The natural sciences, we may now say, deal with primitive sign systems and their protolanguages and protogrammars, whereas the humanities deal with the more developed sign systems and meanings of the animate star dust we call human cultures.

“There is a telos, an Omega point, toward which all creation groans, and this telos is the slow, eons-long process of a largely unconscious, inarticulate Natura becoming aware of itself. The human being is the ‘warp’ in the cosmic flow where this ‘becoming conscious’ occurs and through whom this awareness is given a voice.”

~ Jack Whelan, After the Future

cosmology, Movies, scientific arrogance, Whither Homo sapiens?

“She saved the world by using the information he sent her via the watch from the black hole with the help of a robot,” I said earnestly,

trying to explain the ending of Interstellar to my father, who had just sat through the movie with my mom and me, but couldn’t understand much of what Matthew McConaughey and his co-cast members mumbled. (Neither could I, so it wasn’t his almost-97-year-old hearing.) Then I heard myself. WHAT am I SAYING?? And I became helpless with laughter. The laughter was delicious. It was worth the three hours of confusion, incredulity, and sitting. We continued to laugh about and at the movie for the next couple of hours.

We need to see the elegant 2001 on Netflix to get the taste of this incoherent, overstuffed, unbelievable movie out of our mouths. They lost me before they even left Earth. First of all, if the ecosystem of the Earth had been destroyed, where were they getting their seemingly endless supplies of electricity and gasoline? It’s plausible that if hundreds of millions had died, there might be surpluses of fuel to tap, but then tell us so, for godsake. Also, as always in Hollywood movies, everyone looked way too healthy and well-groomed for their supposed desperate circumstances.

Then the real fun began. People were hurled through space storms and crushing gravity warps and bounced off the surfaces of hostile planets with their spaceships and bodies largely unaffected (well, OK, they did need Dramamine). Helmets off a lot of the time, no seat belts even, and facial expressions that barely rose to those of riders on a small-town roller coaster. Not to mention, where were they now getting their seemingly endless supplies of fuel and oxygen? As in the Sandra Bullock–George Clooney Gravity, it was impossible to suspend disbelief. Our bodies are almost certainly far too frail, short-lived, and dependent on a narrow range of conditions to survive long-range spaceflight—even if we ever figure out how to do it—much less space smash-ups and flying shards of space-suit–piercing debris. And sealing ourselves into Zip-Loc freezer bags full of amniotic antifreeze is a comically hasty, sloppy version of the suspended-animation trope. The sad truth is we’re not likely to get far off this planet, except robotically—and even if we could, we’d take with us the very squabbling selves that have despoiled Earth.

But what’s wrong with the fantasy of doing so? Isn’t this just the epic Enkidu or folkloric Brothers Grimm of our age?

Well, yes, that’s exactly what it is—digitally enabled primitive mythmaking. And I suppose European peasants didn’t think that witches and leprechauns were “fantasy” any more than we think interstellar travel or relativistic redemption is fantasy. My complaint is not with the yearning to search beyond our own planet—it’s the next extension of the hunger to explore that may be the best thing about us—or with the impulse to imagine beyond what we can actually do. My complaint is with the sheer badness of the movies, which believe they can be dramatically slipshod in every way as long as they blind us with CGI. (In any case, the actual images from the Hubble brutally beggar anything Hollywood can whip up.)

Worst of all: in this movie, we turn out to be our own gods. We have met the deity, and he is us. In nothing does swaggering scientism more resemble religion, and a narcissistic and solipsistic religion at that. Without positing a traditional God, there’s an awful lot out there to be in awe of, forces of a grandeur that we will never equal, master, merit, rival, or even fully comprehend. Yet the implication is that the most powerful thing out there is the next release of the human bean. In Interstellar, we’re not looking down a wormhole, we’re looking up our own a**hole.

consciousness, cosmology, extinction, origins of life, the universe, What is life? What is death?, Whither Homo sapiens?

The Race Between the Two Human Drives

To understand life, and to destroy it. Which will prevail?

Well, to destroy life isn’t entirely a drive. It’s a side effect, a byproduct of our drive to expand our own life, to aggrandize ourselves, to make more of us, to get bigger, stronger, live longer. As the Olympics have it, Citius, Altius, Fortius. This is the drive that powers all life. It’s very strong, and very wily, but not very bright. That is, it’s instrumental; it lights up a tunnel of vision to immediate advantage, and that with hyperreal clarity, but to everything outside that laser beam the life force is myopic and blinkered. The long term, the feedback loop, the butterfly effect, all are far outside its ken. The law of unintended consequences is the consequence.

So we destroy life, amazing life, in our greed to feed and gratify and multiply our life, which in the last analysis is rather dull and one-note: we want sex, and status, and possessions, to reproduce ourselves, and not to die. There’s nothing terribly unique about this: any life form can do it, and does. Life forms are generally constrained only by the limits of the carrying capacity of their environment (the food supply) and the checks of predation and parasitism, and by the ritualized limits that have evolved to paradoxically protect life forms from the excesses of their own life force by constraining them, from gene silencing and apoptosis to estrus to social hierarchy.

If we are uniquely destructive it’s because, collectively and individually, we’ve conquered or rejected so many of those imposed constraints. And because we have the devil’s gift, imagination, which empowers us to outwit environmental limitations (at least for a while, a long while) and also adds half-conscious envy and spite to our more innocent forms of self-interest. We don’t only kill to eat, or to protect ourselves, or to enlarge our territory; we kill to appropriate the magnificence of life forms we envy — to adorn our females with egret feathers, to ingest the power and male potency of the tiger. These may be degraded forms of what once passed for worship when we were the minority animal and humbly thanked our beautiful, powerful big siblings for magnanimously sharing their surplus meat, might, and magic with us.

The awareness that we are going to die often only spurs these pursuits on and makes them more frantic: only in the throes of acquisition or orgasm or intoxication can we forget death, an escape that has to be endlessly repeated; or else we believe deep down that the next billion or the next scientific discovery is the one that’s going to make us immortal. But the awareness of death is also a pivot. It can become a turning point. If we realize that however much we may reduce disease, prolong life, and ameliorate suffering, we are not ever going to (and shouldn’t) defeat death, then the blind striving we share with all the rest of life becomes, for us, just a little bit pointless. Then what is the point?

* * *
I started to write this because, as usual, I was copyediting science. I happened, in particular, to be reading about the zeal with which archaeologists pore over bone fragments and debate just when and why the first hominids became bipedal. What does it matter? And I became fascinated, not for the first time, by this hunger to know, because it’s excessive, obsessive. It cannot be entirely instrumental. Sure, archaeologists care about their reputations, and very young scientists set their sights on the Nobel. And of course much, maybe most, science (and certainly most science funding) is driven by instrumentality — by goals ranging from survival (defeating disease and hunger) to domination (what we call “defense”) to the profit motive, or some mixture of all three. But to know, to find out, to understand — what we are, what life is, what kind of astounding cosmos kindled it — still seems like a burning drive all its own. It’s a startling diversion of life force ninety degrees away from “more of the same,” off the grid, out of this world, out of the “Will to Power” world in which our power will always be either pitifully limited or annihilating, into the world of thought which (thanks to the material mastery of science) can see to the beginning of the universe.

We will always have mixed motives, and that’s as it should be: the drive to live powers the drive to know. But the latter seems like the only larger purpose for “a human incarnation,” as the Buddhists put it, the best reason to live longer, and the only real consolation for death.