Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Old Kind of Science

The attempt to conquer nature—in less metaphorical terms, to render the nonhuman world completely transparent to the human intellect and just as completely subject to the human will—was industrial civilization’s defining project. It’s hard to think of any aspect of culture in the modern industrial West that hasn’t been subordinated to the conquest of nature, and the imminent failure of that project thus marks a watershed in our cultural life as well as our history.
I’ve talked here already at some length about the ways that modern religious life was made subservient to the great war against nature, and we’ve explored some of the changes that will likely take place as a religious sensibility that seeks salvation from nature gives way to a different sensibility that sees nature as something to celebrate, not to escape. A similar analysis could be applied to any other aspect of modern culture you care to name, but there are other things I plan to discuss on this blog, so those topics will have to wait for someone else to tackle them. Still, there’s one more detail that deserves wrapping up before we leave the discussion of the end of progress, and that’s the future of science.

Since 1605, when Sir Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning sketched out the first  rough draft of modern scientific practice, the collection of activities we now call science has been deeply entangled with the fantasy of conquering nature. That phrase “the collection of activities we now call science” is as unavoidable here as it is awkward, because science as we now know it didn’t exist at that time, and the word “science” had a different meaning in Bacon’s era than it does today. Back then, it meant any organized body of knowledge; people in the 17th century could thus describe theology as “the queen of the sciences,” as their ancestors had done for most of a thousand years, without any sense of absurdity. The word “scientist” didn’t come along until the mid-19th century, long after “science” had something like its modern meaning; much before then, it would have sounded as silly as “learningist” or “knowledgist,” which is roughly what it would have meant, too.

To Francis Bacon, though, the knowledge and learning that counted was the kind that would enable human beings to control nature. His successors in the early scientific revolution, the men who founded the Royal Society and its equivalents in other European countries, shared the same vision.  The Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in Verba (“nothing in words”), signified its rejection of literary and other humanistic studies in favor of the quest for knowledge of, and power over, the nonhuman world.The crucial breakthrough—the leap to quantification—was a done deal before the Royal Society was founded in 1661; when Galileo thought of defining speed as a measurable quantity rather than a quality, he kickstarted an extraordinary revolution in human thought.

Quantitative measurement, experimental testing, and public circulation of the results of research: those were the core innovations that made modern science possible. The dream of conquering nature, though, was what made modern science the focus of so large a fraction of the Western world’s energies and ambitions over the last three hundred years. The role of the myth wasn’t minor, or accidental; I would argue, in fact, that nothing like modern science would have emerged at all if the craving for mastery over the nonhuman world hadn’t caught fire in the collective imagination of the Western world.

I mentioned last week that Carl Sagan devoted a passage in the book version of Cosmos to wondering why the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a scientific revolution of their own. The reason was actually quite simple.  The Greeks and Romans, even when their own age of reason had reached its zenith of intellectual arrogance, never imagined that the rest of the universe could be made subordinate to human beings. Believers in the traditional religions of the time saw the universe as the property of gods who delighted in punishing human arrogance; believers in the rationalist philosophies that partly supplanted those traditional religions rewrote the same concept in naturalistic terms, and saw the cosmos as the enduring reality to whose laws and processes mortals had to adapt themselves or suffer.  What we now think of as science was, in Greek and Roman times, a branch of philosophy, and it was practiced primarily to evoke feelings of wonder and awe at a cosmos in which human beings had their own proper and far from exalted place.

It took the emergence of a new religious sensibility, one that saw the material universe as a trap from which humanity had to extricate itself, to make the conquest of nature thinkable as a human goal. To the Christians of the Middle Ages, the world, the flesh, and the devil were the three obnoxious realities from which religion promised to save humanity. To believers in progress in the post-Christian west, the idea that the world was in some sense the enemy of the Christian believer, to be conquered by faith in Christ, easily morphed into the idea that the same world was the enemy of humanity, to be conquered in a very different sense by faith in progress empowered by science and technology.

The overwhelming power that science and technology gave to the civil religion of progress, though, was made possible by the fantastic energy surplus provided by cheap and highly concentrated fossil fuels. That’s the unmentioned reality behind all that pompous drivel about humanity’s dominion over nature: we figured out how to break into planetary reserves of fossil sunlight laid down over half a billion years of geological time, burnt through most of it in three centuries of thoughtless extravagance, and credited the resulting boom to our own supposed greatness. Lacking that treasure of concentrated energy, which humanity did nothing to create, the dream of conquering nature might never have gotten traction at all; as the modern western world’s age of reason dawned, there were other ideologies and nascent civil religions in the running to replace Christianity, and it was only the immense economic and military payoffs made possible by a fossil-fueled industrial revolution that allowed the civil religion of progress to elbow aside the competition and rise to its present dominance.

As fossil fuel reserves deplete at an ever more rapid pace, and have to be replaced by more costly and less abundant substitutes, the most basic precondition for faith in progress is going away. These days, ongoing development in a handful of fields has to be balanced against stagnation in most others and, more crucially still, against an accelerating curve of economic decline that is making the products of science and technology increasingly inaccessible to those outside the narrowing circle of the well-to-do.  It’s indicative that while the media babbles about the latest strides in space tourism for the very rich, rural counties across the United States are letting their roads revert to gravel because the price of asphalt has soared so high that the funds to pay for paving simply aren’t there any more.

In that contrast, the shape of our future comes into sight. As the torrents of cheap energy that powered industrial society’s heyday slow to a trickle, the arrangements that once put the products of science and technology in ordinary households are coming apart. That’s not a fast process, or a straightforward one; different technologies are being affected at different rates, so that (for example) plenty of Americans who can’t afford health care or heating fuel in the winter still have cell phones and internet access; still, as the struggle to maintain fossil fuel production consumes a growing fraction of the industrial world’s resources and capital, more and more of what used to count as a normal lifestyle in the industrial world is becoming less and less accessible to more and more people. In the process, the collective consensus that once directed prestige and funds to scientific research is slowly trickling away.

That will almost certainly mean the end of institutional science as it presently exists. It need not mean the end of science, and a weighty volume published to much fanfare and even more incomprehension a little more than a decade ago may just point to a way ahead.

I’m not sure how many of my readers were paying attention when archetypal computer geek Stephen Wolfram published his 1,264-page opus A New Kind of Science back in 2002. In the 1980s, Wolfram published a series of papers about the behavior of cellular automata—computer programs that produce visual patterns based on a set of very simple rules. Then the papers stopped appearing, but  rumors spread through odd corners of the computer science world that he was working on some vast project along the same lines. The rumors proved to be true; the vast project, the book just named, appeared on bookstore shelves all over the country; reviews covered the entire spectrum from rapturous praise to condemnation, though most of them also gave the distinct impression that their authors really didn’t quite understand what Wolfram was talking about.  Shortly thereafter, the entire affair was elbowed out of the headlines by something else, and Wolfram’s book sank back out of public view—though I understand that it’s still much read in those rarefied academic circles in which cellular automata are objects of high importance.

Wolfram’s book, though, was not aimed at rarefied academic circles. It was trying to communicate a discovery that, so Wolfram believed, has the potential to revolutionize a great many fields of science, philosophy, and culture. Whether he was right is a complex issue—I tend to think he’s on to something of huge importance, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit—but it’s actually less important than the method that he used to get there. With a clarity unfortunately rare in the sciences these days, he spelled out the key to his method early on in his book:
In our everyday experience with computers, the programs that we encounter are normally set up to perform very definite tasks. But the key idea I had nearly twenty years ago—and that eventually led to the whole new kind of science in this book—was to ask what happens if one instead just looks at simple arbitrarily chosen programs, created without any specific task in mind. How do such programs typically behave? (Wolfram 2002, p. 23)
Notice the distinction here. Ordinarily, computer programs are designed to obey some human desire, whether that desire involves editing a document, sending an email, viewing pictures of people with their clothes off, snooping on people who are viewing pictures of people with their clothes off, or what have you. That’s the heritage of science as a quest for power over nature: like all other machines, computers are there to do what human beings tell them to do, and so computer science tends to focus on finding ways to make computers do more things that human beings want them to do.

That same logic pervades many fields of contemporary science. The central role of experiment in scientific practice tends to foster that, by directing attention away from what whole systems do when they’re left alone, and toward what they do when experimenters tinker with them. Too often, the result is that scientists end up studying the effects of their own manipulations to the exclusion of anything else. Consider Skinnerian behaviorism, an immensely detailed theory that can successfully predict the behavior of rats in the wholly arbitrary setting of a Skinner box and essentially nothing else!

The alternative is to observe whole systems on their own terms—to study what they do, not in response to a controlled experimental stimulus, but in response to the normal interplay between their internal dynamics and the environment around them. That’s what Wolfram did. He ran cellular automata, not to try to make them do this thing or that, but to understand the internal logic that determines what they do when left to themselves. What he discovered, to summarize well over a thousand pages of text in a brief phrase, is that cellular automata with extremely simple operating rules are capable of generating patterns as complex, richly textured, and blended of apparent order and apparent randomness, as the world of nature itself. Wolfram explains the relevance of that discovery:
Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs. (Wolfram 2002, p. 1)

One crucial point here, to my mind, is the recognition that mathematical equations in science are simply models used to approximate natural processes. There’s been an enormous amount of confusion around that point, going all the way back to the ancient Pythagoreans, whose discoveries of the mathematical structures within musical tones, the movement of the planets, and the like led them to postulate that numbers comprised the arche, the enduring reality of which the changing world of our experience is but a transitory reflection.

This confusion between the model and the thing modeled, between the symbol and the symbolized, is pandemic in modern thinking. Consider all the handwaving around the way that light seems to behave like a particle when subjected to one set of experiments, and like a wave when put through a different set. Plenty of people who should know better treat this as a paradox, when it’s nothing of the kind.  Light isn’t a wave or a particle, any more than the elephant investigated by the blind men in the famous story is a wall, a pillar, a rope, or what have you; “particle” and “wave” are models derived from human sensory experience that we apply to fit our minds around some aspects of the way that light behaves, and that’s all they are. They’re useful, in other words, rather than true.

Thus mathematical equations provide one set of models that can be used to fit our minds around some of the ways the universe behaves. Wolfram’s discovery is that  another set of models can be derived from very simple rule-based processes of the kind that make cellular automata work. This additional set of models makes sense of features of the universe that mathematical models don’t handle well—for example, the generation of complexity from very simple initial rules and conditions. The effectiveness of Wolfram’s models doesn’t show that the universe is composed of cellular automata, any more than the effectiveness of mathematical models shows that the Pythagoreans were right and the cosmos is actually made out of numbers. Rather, cellular automata and mathematical equations relate to nature the way that particles and waves relate to light: two sets of mental models that allow the brains of some far from omniscient social primates to make sense of the behavior of different aspects of a phenomenon complex enough to transcend all models.

It requires an unfashionable degree of intellectual modesty to accept that the map is not the territory, that the scientific model is merely a representation of some aspects of the reality it tries to describe.  It takes even more of the same unpopular quality to back off a bit from trying to understand nature by trying to force it to jump through hoops, in the manner of too much contemporary experimentation, and turn more attention instead to the systematic observation of what whole systems do on their own terms, in their own normal environments, along the lines of Wolfram’s work. Still, I’d like to suggest that both those steps are crucial to any attempt to keep science going as a living tradition in a future when the attempt to conquer nature will have ended in nature’s unconditional victory.

A huge proportion of the failures of our age, after all, unfold precisely from the inability of most modern thinkers to pay attention to what actually happens when that conflicts with cherished fantasies of human entitlement and importance. It’s because so much modern economic thought fixates on what people would like to believe about money and the exchange of wealth, rather than paying attention to what happens in the real world that includes these things, that predictions by economists generally amount to bad jokes at society’s expense; it’s because next to nobody thinks through the implications of the laws of thermodynamics, the power laws that apply to fossil fuel deposits, and the energy cost of extracting energy from any source, that so much meretricious twaddle about “limitless new energy resources” gets splashed around so freely by people who ought to know better. For that matter, the ever-popular claim that we’re all going to die by some arbitrary date in the near future, and therefore don’t have to change the way we’re living now, gets what justification it has from a consistent refusal on the part of believers to check their prophecies of imminent doom against relevant scientific findings, on the one hand, or the last three thousand years of failed apocalyptic predictions on the other.

The sort of science that Wolfram has proposed offers one way out of that overfamiliar trap. Ironically, his “new kind of science” is in one sense a very old kind of science. Long before Sir Francis Bacon set pen to paper and began to sketch out a vision of scientific progress centered on the attempt to subject the entire universe to the human will and intellect, many of the activities we now call science were already being practiced in a range of formal and informal ways, and both of the characteristics I’ve highlighted above—a recognition that scientific models are simply human mental approximations of nature, and a focus on systematic observation of what actually happens—were far more often than not central to the way these activities were done in earlier ages. 

The old Pythagoreans themselves got their mathematical knowledge by the same kind of careful attention to the way numbers behave that Wolfram applied two and a half millennia later to simple computer programs, just as Charles Darwin worked his way to the theory of evolution by patiently studying the way living things vary from generation to generation, and the founders of ecology laid the foundations of a science of whole systems by systematically observing how living things behave in their own natural settings. That’s very often how revolutions in scientific fundamentals get started, and whether Wolfram’s particular approach is as revolutionary as he believes—I’m inclined to think that it is, though I’m not a specialist in the field—I’ve come to think that a general revision of science, a “Great Instauration” as Sir Francis Bacon called it, will be one of the great tasks of the age that follows ours.


Joel said...
I just got my PhD in materials science this month.

I'm looking forward to starting my career, but doubts about the mainstream worldview made it tough to find motivation to finish.

As I've begun networking, I've noticed that society isn't as confident as it was when incumbent scientists were starting their careers, and a lot of the places that are hiring look like bad bets to me. I don't want to have a bubble collapse under me.

I also get a vague sense that a lot of opportunities are opening up, not necessarily for employment, but for good science to be done. It was good to read some of your thoughts on the matter; I'll need to work through this topic thoroughly as time goes on.

12/18/13, 5:58 PM

Andy Brown said...
As always, a very thought provoking essay. I've long noted that people who are trained in modern medicine often understand a good deal about certain pathologies, but have no understanding whatsoever of human health and wellbeing. I think your essay here helps me understand some of that. Health is the kind of system that our assertive science can't really understand - (for reasons you lay out in your post) - but pathologies are often quite a bit simpler and, of course, often respond to blunt meddling on the part of experimenters and doctors. Your perspective helps me to understand something that has been a mystery to me - namely why modern medicine is utterly obsessed with sickness and pathology and utterly indifferent to health.

12/18/13, 6:10 PM

makedoanmend said...
I can accept with no qualms that humankind has been on a sort of quest to tame nature and often try to eradicate it or remake nature in some human-centric form. But I also think there has been (and I'm not going to explain myself well) a concerted attempt by humankind to destroy the human animal, and that this attempt seems to be again gathering steam lately.

It's been quite obvious that certain sects, like the communists, had a deeply held distain for humanity; as humanity didn't measure up to some unspecified ideal. However, neo-capitalist ideology, especially in its current purist form, seems to be driving to the same conclusion these days. It's very evident in the UK just now. I'm just wondering if you think humanity's dislike of humans is a manifestation of the desire to conquer nature or is it just human nature asserting itself as the limits of nature confront 7 billion people jostling for the same resources? Or is this dislike of humanity a symptom of both the desire to conquer nature but also a dawning realisation that while we can do much damage, and exterminate many other creatures, we are finally meeting a cosmic sized but delimiting nature that might not just be too tameable afterall?

There was a conference recently in Edinburgh, Scotland whose sole topic was how society could privatise nature and turn all natural features, like the air we breath, into cash generating streams of income. Such as deep desire to commodify everything these days seems to be the final push to conquer nature and to also loudly declare a dislike of ourselves.

12/18/13, 6:25 PM

Richard Larson said...
There could be some simple logic to explain why a computer software program would have tendencies. A pattern in electricty influenced by some universal motion. As mentioned, a pattern in human use. There could even be more and less viscosity in sequences. Lots of influneces or combinations, that could lead to its own tendencies. Does this mean it sentient?

Don't believe spending time on any of these types of patterns is going to be profitable post carbon. It will be in the category of space vacations and money. Interesting nonetheless.

12/18/13, 6:42 PM

Tom Bannister said...
Thank you once again for another thoughtful descriptive piece about one of the, 'headaches' of our time. (I don't think its a headache, I'm just describing the reaction I usually get whenever I point out that a description of a thing is not actually the thing itself).

I think you mentioned this a couple of posts ago but this is a BIG problem in the legal profession at the moment. Lawyers, academics etc are often very unnerved and uncomfortable whenever you mention that a law is not a piece of concrete (is a piece of concrete actually a piece of concrete? lol), but a verbal, social, cultural description. The reaction is usually, but if we didn't have that there would be CHOAS!!! I do occasionally try and bring up a broader philosophical point in my law lectures. Some of the students clearly get it. Often sadly the lectures don't. (and I'm at one of the more liberal/wacko/progressive law schools in New Zealand- Waikato.

At least with law everyone is at least forced to admit that law is essentially a value judgement. The Science people I come across are by and large far worse. They pretend that there is 'science' 'pure' and 'objective' and free of bias! and then there is 'everything else' which ought to be more like 'science'.

Anyway, thanks for allowing me to do a bit of ranting. It does make me ponder though very carefully the various strategies that could be used to gradually unhinge people from the strict rationalist 'scientific' materialist world-view. (if that's even possible at all in some cases)

12/18/13, 6:47 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Quote: "The central role of experiment in scientific practice tends to foster that, by directing attention away from what whole systems do when they’re left alone, and toward what they do when experimenters tinker with them."

The above quote sums up the image / acceptance problem of alternative agricultural techniques such as organics and permaculture. It is simply that critics fixate so much on explaining or criticising the interactions that they are unable to observe the whole. They simply don't (or can't, or refuse to) see it. The techniques encourage complexity, when industrial agriculture - which is supported by many scientists - is a move towards a simpler system.

Those critiques drive me bananas too, because those techniques simply work.

As an example, I don't know what the specific interactions are between comfrey / borage and a citrus tree. I've just observed that on the ground it actually works and both the trees and herb are better for those interactions.

I always find it curious that both scientists (and economists too, for that matter) are happy to make pronouncements without consideration of the facts on the ground with which they operate in. It is just weird.

By the way, it is 40 Celsius (104F) here today and about a third of the country is in a heatwave. Such an event is not unusual, but the sheer size and extent of it is a couple of weeks earlier than previous years. Tidy work, everyone.



12/18/13, 7:07 PM

bryant said...
Bravo, excellent essay!

My daughter sums it up thusly:

In theory, theory and practice are the same... in practice, they're not.

12/18/13, 7:13 PM

Ruben said...
Your note that models can be useful without being true reminded me of Boids, a computer model of bird flocking behaviour. The author found that three rules—Separation, Alignment, Cohesion—could create flocking behaviour.

It was immediately clear to me that humans have such simple rules for the pro-environmental behaviours I was studying, things like recycling and conservation.

But even though these simple rules can create a bird simulator, scientists aren't actually clear that is how flocking is controlled. As I understand it, the great speed with which changes pass through the flock means that telepathy, for example, is still in serious, if somewhat fringe, consideration.

12/18/13, 7:56 PM

My donkey said...
just a typo (missing word):
"One crucial point here, to my mind, is the recognition that mathematical equations in science are simply models used to natural processes."

12/18/13, 8:02 PM

Stephen said...
I think you might be over stating the role of religion when explain why the Roman Empire never had an industrial revolution. As a slave society instead of a guild society the Romans never had the technical skill and craftsmanship to build the necessary machinery and instruments except for a few rare wonders. There was also much less literacy than the high medieval period and no printing press to spread new ideas. In there mines mills there do seem to of tried to use the technology available to make them as profitable as possible.

12/18/13, 8:20 PM

Richard Green said...
Hi John,

You use of the past tense in the first sentence stunned me. I guess it is one thing to accept that we are in collapse, but something very different to realize that industrial civilization really should be thought of as something in the past.

12/18/13, 8:22 PM

Doc said...
Well written once again. As a scietist, i am constantly questioning the sources of the knowledge we use - too many of these sources seem to have taken Einstein at his word when he said that 'Imagination is more important than knowledge'; they proceeded to make up their facts.

The new hot issue seems to be the activity of the science publisher Elsevier, which is withdrawing valid anti-GMO articles based on thoughts from a new editor that used to work for Monsanto. I guess revisionist history can be complemented by revisionist science - the only thing lost is the truth.

12/18/13, 8:28 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
Eeeeh! Gotta take exception to your caricature of Skinnerian Behaviourism. I know Burrhus Skinner is everyone's favourite bogeyman, but operant conditioning works pretty well, even with yuman beans outside Skinner boxes. It is applied daily by psychologists the world over with very good results (and also, methinks, by marketing experts with very bad, though effective, results).

12/18/13, 8:46 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Joel, good. Materials science is potentially very useful in a salvage society, since it can be used to understand the behavior of secondhand materials as well -- still, you're right about being wary of bubbles.

Andy, bingo. These days in the US, mainstream medical practitioners no longer talk about "healing" or "curing" -- the model now is "health management," which means they keep you sick but functioning, so that getting well doesn't interfere with the income stream.

Makedo, it's quite simple, really. Human nature is also part of nature, and it's human nature that these efforts are aimed at conquering.

Richard, none of that has anything to do with what Wolfram was discussing; I'm sorry I didn't succeed in making that clear. He was talking about the behavior of simple rule-based systems, which need not be run on electronic computers at all. As for sentience, er, where did you get that from?

Tom, by all means rant. I wasn't aware that the same problem was infesting law, but I'm not surprised.

Cherokee, exactly. The question "does X work?" is logically prior to the question "why does X work?" -- and one of the core logical fallacies of modern scientific thought is the insistence that if the cause isn't known, the effect can't happen.

Bryant, an excellent summary.

Ruben, I'd take it further than that. We can't know why birds flock. All we can do is generate models that more or less imitate flocking behavior.

Stephen, yes, that was Sagan's theory. Like so many of Sagan's speculations, it doesn't really hold water -- the US was a slave society at the time of our industrial revolution, for example.

Richard, good. You might consider contemplating the phrase "progress is over."

Doc, good gods. That's unusually corrupt even for modern science.

Thijs, Skinnerian behaviorism is an effective tool for short term manipulation of living things in controlled settings -- that is to say, another expression of the will to power that pervades contemporary science. As a tool for understanding, it's contemptible -- and I've read a good many critiques of the claims that its effects are lasting, or really that effective in the real world.

12/18/13, 9:04 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
I don't know that I'm all that impressed by the critiques you've read, as I know people who actually do use behaviourial therapy to effectively create lasting and positive results in a non-controlled setting.

Are you certain your dismissal of behaviorism's effectiveness doesn't stem from that contempt you mentioned?

12/18/13, 9:13 PM

August Johnson said...
JMG - Re: Knowing that the model isn't reality. I'm reminded of when astronomers used the model of Crystal Spheres carrying the Moon, Planets Sun and Stars. They clearly knew (and said so) that reality wasn't that way but it was the best model they had to describe how the movements worked. Now, today in Physics with Quarks (six flavors; up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top), Gluons, and so on, it seems that the model has been totally and unconditionally accepted as the reality. Sounds more like porn!

12/18/13, 9:27 PM

Pinku-Sensei said...
When I read Peter Watson's "The Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th Century," one of the things that struck me was that not only was science involved in the project of conquering nature, but that science was in the project of conquering other fields of knowledge, something that scientists themselves would acknowledge wryly in passing. For example, my undergraduate adviser in Geology once remarked, somewhat derisively, that "psychology is trying very hard to be a science, and one of these days, it will get there." I later dated one psychologist and married another, and decided that "one of these days" had arrived; research psychology is indeed a science as other scientists understand it.

The same thing has happened to anthropology, although the cultural anthropologists are resisting, much to the dismay of the archeologists and physical anthropologists, who whole-heartedly embrace being scientists, and is moving through sociology. Economics would be next, except, as you noted, there is too much wishful thinking going on in that field to make it a science as the scientists themselves understand it.

Of course, any conquest would be resisted. Watson described one such effort by the French philosophers, who decided to combat the materialism of the German and Anglophone scientists by turning to their own materialism. Instead of following Darwin, they turned to two of the other great minds of the 19th Century, Marx and Freud, to combat Scientism. Too bad, as Watson remarked, that Marx and Freud were wrong.

You probably wouldn't be surprised by this development. As you've noted, anti-religions accept the premises of their intellectual adversaries, but invert their values. The French were no different in developing their own materialism instead of trying to build a spiritual alternative. Then again, I don't find Anouilh's ennui expressed as Existentialism very comforting, so maybe it's for the best they didn't try.

12/18/13, 9:31 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
I'm really struggling with this post.

At root, the issue here is this: what is science for?

I fully agree that modern science is about the conquest of nature. If we abandon that course, then what, exactly, is the point of science?

As you note, the very high civilizations of the Romans, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Mayans, etc. didn't have what we call "science." It wasn't because they weren't smart enough. It was because they didn't see the point. They didn't see the point because they weren't out to conquer nature.

Does science have any other real purpose?

There's a common belief that science begets technology begets power and wealth and material comfort. It's a somewhat sketchy belief at best, and grows even murkier as both science and technology rise on the curve of diminishing returns. Whatever truth the belief had in the past, it will certainly have less truth in the future.

There's a common belief that science begets a deeper and truer understanding of the universe, and that this is a good thing. The second is debatable -- the first is simply nonsense. A little over a century ago, space had three dimensions, the universe was infinite in extent and filled with "luminiferous ether," atomic nuclei were indivisible, and time was absolute. Space now has between four and ten dimensions, the universe is expanding from a primordial Big Bang and is filled with a sea of virtual particles and invisible "dark" matter and energy, atomic nuclei are decidedly divisible, and time is as stretchy as a rubber-band. I've recently read of a new theory that our space-time is some kind of holographic projection arising from a lower-dimensional universe with perhaps as little as one "real" dimension.

How many left-handed quarks can dance on the head of a pin?

Absent a drive to conquer nature, with diminishing practical returns on investment in science, and with every new theory winging off into Alice's Wonderland, what is the point of science?

Observation of nature as-it-is, yes. No problem with that -- it's valuable. The Romans, Greeks, and Chinese did that. So did Ugg, the caveman. So do nematodes.

But science? I don't feel the case has been made.

12/18/13, 10:24 PM

Tom Bannister said...
-Joseph Nemeth

What's the point in the science if its not about conquering nature? Well of course science is really only a methodology, a method of inquiry. The direction you put on that will of course depend on your existing values. Scientific method is already being used to investigate, say different methods of sustainable farming or renewable energy or alternative healing practice. So there you go. Someone using scientific method can have any number of agendas.

12/18/13, 11:30 PM

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...
Joseph - the purpose of science needs a little elaboration. Do you really think quantum field theorists believe that predicting the Higgs boson will grant them power over nature? They know perfectly well that theoretical physics at the sub-sub-nuclear scale has no practical relevance. You have to build a 30km long accelerator to even watch the things as they self-destruct.

When Einstein published E=mc^2, he didn't think it had any earthly application. Not enough was known at the time about the nucleus to suggest otherwise. In fact one of Einstein's other papers in that year had finally given convincing evidence that atoms actually exist, so it was too early to think about what might happen if someone came along and started splitting them.

My point is that motivations can vary a lot, but most great scientists are driven by intense curiosity and a desire to figure out some of Nature's secrets. Is that conquest? I don't know.

However, there is no doubt that the reason scientists have been given great resources by governments is because governments think they need to do so to either conquer someone/something or to avoid being that someone.

12/19/13, 12:20 AM

zmejuka-alexey said...
John Michael,

I have a good background in mathematics and computer science and IMO you overestimate the importance of that book.

The cellular automats are arbitrary mathematical models, which are studied on their own in many details. One just takes some arbitrary axioms ( or rules in the automats) and study the mathematical universe that results from them.

The problem with arbitrary mathematical models is that they are unrelated to nature. In contrast, physical laws are mathematical models carefully constructed so that their behaviour resembled the behaviour of nature.

As for the larger subject touched in your post, I agree that some transformation of the way science is done will happen. Though IMO it will likely go to more practical direction, it will be just a method that allows to produce results with practical significance. In contrast to modern, costly and highly specialized science it should be cheap.

Collideres, Mars trips or DNA decoding are unlikely to be present in that list. On the other hand vaccination, thermodynamics for steam engines, electromagnetism for long distance communication are high on my list of surviving scientific fields. They are cheap and give high value to the practioners.

And almost forgot, military science! It also gives immense concurent advantage to the society that preserves it. For example, basic gun or even machine gun technology is easy to preserve and can be reproduced without fossil fuels.

Best regards

12/19/13, 2:04 AM

Richard Larson said...
I don't know. Reread the blog and I still get these thoughts out of your description of Wolfgram's work. Didn't read that book, but my idea has a flow of something, maybe energy, maybe other things, outside influences for sure, that create patterns, tendencies, thoughts, maybe has the same influence on humans as it does, um, everything. Like fighting nature, and all that entails, going against these flows is a losing battle.

Perhaps even the behaviour of this rule-based system (not a computer program as I typed, but could still be included in the everything) is influenced by these forces. Creates a behaviour, but not sentient? A question not just for you, and like my comment last week, anyone else reading, to hold the thought, type an answer, whatever. Even though risky, that was my point, and it was just a thought. :-)

12/19/13, 2:21 AM

Christian Herring said...

Your last few posts make me wonder whether you have ever read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn - it touches on many of the issues you've discussed recently, including the secular mythologies that have led mankind to assume that it 'owns' nature, and should therefore conquer it. I would highly recommend it as a book, though I don't personally agree with absolutely everything it claims, particularly regarding the 'solutions' it offers to the present state of affairs. Nonetheless, if you haven't read it, I think it would be worth a weekend to do so. Let me know what you think!

12/19/13, 3:23 AM

Odin's Raven said...
It seems the Greeks were here ahead of us.

Their Talos and ours stops working when the flow of oleaginous ichor is disrupted.

Absent the needs of Europa, the skill of Daedalus and the laws of Zeus, can there be a telos for Talos?

The scientific spells of the modern Medea may persuade him that he has eternal life and can rewrite the laws engraven on his brazen back; and lead to similar destruction.


12/19/13, 3:36 AM

Phil Harris said...
I'm glad you picked out 'pompous drivel'. But it has a lot of hard political and social calculation behind it. History of the Royal Society is worth strolling through on their website - illustrates your points about window dressing. (I like the new President; open-necked shirt and pullover). That sharp guy Charles II who was brought up away from home - his dad having had his crowned 'divinely ordained' head chopped off - was onto it in a flash.

Science got increasingly useful in a competitive world; e.g. physics and bombs when geopolitical structures feared being 'trumped' by somebody else's technological innovation. And nuclear power was going to trump fossil fuels. GMOs and DNA manipulation would be a new agricultural and medical revolution.

One trouble with exponential growth is that it gets dreadfully extravagant in its final two doublings. In a highly geared fossil-fuelled society 'Science' like everything else becomes horribly extravagant - and for most purposes a 'promise' rather than an immediately useful utility - and those really sharp guys are going to cut off big lumps if they can't see an immediate use, perhaps leaving a large bet or two on the table for luck. The 'project' is in the process of being redefined by simple rules. 'Discovery' is going to mean what we want it to mean, with a bit of bread and circuses thrown in?

I think you are saying that society/self-generated virtual reality is one way of living inside our heads, including entertaining and negotiating with the gods we create there? By definition some of it is bound, as you imply, to get a bit out of touch when paved roads are at a premium?

Yes, I agree if I read you right, 'reductionist science' reductio ad absurdum is ludicrous.

Phil H

12/19/13, 4:24 AM

Yupped said...
On a day to day basis, I try to live through my senses, observation, felt experience and common sense. The more I bring a conceptual layer of ideas and measurement to my experience, the less in touch with reality I am. Sometimes this is a good thing, but it wouldn't be sensible to only relate to life through concepts and measurements. So maybe the scientific method should just be one tool in the toolbox? A couple of recent experiences to illustrate:

Although I'm not a scientist, I have spent the last few years working with academic researchers on a large computer science project. In observing scientists in action there did seem to be a tendency to cling to ideas and suppositions, often in the face of mounting contrary evidence from testing and analysis. This seemed especially true the more hat funding and professional reputation was on the line. This particular research project went on 5 years. Common sense intuition could tell what the results were going to be after 12 months. We took another 48 months to fully test and document that same early insight. This seemed a little pointless to me, but seemed just fine to the scientists who believed that since the early idea was now proven with data it could now be considered true and worthy of publication. Until then it was just a fluffy-headed hypothesis.

In a related vein, my wife has been working on solving some health problems that have plagued her for years. She has finally done it with herbs and diet, after many unsuccessful traditional medical interventions including a couple of surgeries. Basically, she got in touch with her own body, consulted a naturopath, followed her experience and intuition, adjusted her diet and went with what worked. She recently met with her old doctor who said that this sounded fine but was not something she was trained in and because she wasn't trained in it she couldn't really comment - she was a little offended that the healing hadn't come from textbook medical science.

12/19/13, 4:24 AM

Unknown said...
Excellent essay. I believe you have misinterpreted the motto of the Royal Society, however. 'Nullius' is in the genitive case: the phrase means literally "on no one's words", i.e., "On the authority of no man." It could be paraphrased, "Don't believe anything just because someone says it."

12/19/13, 4:26 AM

M said...
Thank you for another illuminating essay. As someone involved on a citizen level with helping our small river town plan its future, it's mind boggling and somewhat frustrating how many times the kind of thinking you describe here serves to inhibit imagining any kind of future other than the one people have already burnished in their minds, the one that follows the law of perpetual progress. For one example, apparently, every human being is born with a set of keys to a vehicle (grossly oversize for the task) to transport themselves about in for the duration of their lives. And it goes onward and downward from there.

12/19/13, 5:38 AM

Yossi said...
Joseph Nemeth.
Does science have to have a point? Surely the problems begin when it needs to have a point and then begets technology. Why isn't natural curiosity sufficient?
Unfortunately scientists need money and only seem to be able to get it by working for organisations that demand technology. Scientist with a private income like Newton, and nowadays James Lovelock seem to be rare.

12/19/13, 6:07 AM

Just Because said...
I'll jump in on the thread of comments about Behaviorism. It can be a worthwhile theory in a narrow sense (getting your kids to ask nicely for things instead of whining and pitching a fit), but does not work well as a big theory. That is, it has a place within a larger systems theory to help understand behavior at an individual level, but isn't very helpful when trying to cope/adapt to a larger system that is not under one's control.

12/19/13, 6:11 AM

Marc L Bernstein said...
James Howard Kunstler has used the term "techno-triumphalism" to mean the assertion that humanity's problems can invariably be solved by the use of technology. One could expand that concept to include conceptual and mathematical problem solving. One would then get "conceptual-mathematical-technical-triumphalism". This is what we often encounter in the scientific world today. An extreme example of such a view is the singularity hypothesis of Ray Kurzweil.

What is often missing from "conceptual-mathematical-technical-triumphalism" is a combination of ecological thinking and humility, and sometimes full systems thought as you've mentioned.

I would venture a guess that even as industrial civilization declines, those who maintain a belief in the inevitability of human progress will continue to assert that all is not lost and that a new major technological discovery is waiting just around the corner.

Personally I hope that something genuinely revolutionary does come out of Kurzweil's singularity institute []

I suspect that nothing will be found to overcome the mistakes that humanity is currently making with respect to sound ecological principles, and that a major societal collapse is very likely during this century.

Observational science, based upon empirical observation, statistics and elementary pattern recognition may well survive the coming collapse.

Science based on the notion that nature can be subdued is probably going to take a severe blow.

12/19/13, 6:24 AM

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...
Joseph - you are misrepresenting current knowledge, which can never be complete. Just because there are a wide range of speculations about the dimensionality of space-time does not mean we know less than a century ago. For example, if there are "extra dimensions" beyond "3+1", they must be "small", i.e. space is approximately "3+1" but may have some extra dimensions that are curled up very small so you can only see them at very small length scales (=high energy).

So in other words, "3+1" is a very good approximation to the higher dimensional theories, just as Newton's gravity is a very good approximation to General Relativity. Similarly, classical mechanics is a very good approximation to quantum mechanics unless you (again) look at small length scales.

It's not useful to make out that knowledge has not advanced when it clearly has advanced. Anything can be ridiculed by misrepresenting it.

12/19/13, 6:24 AM

sgage said...
Speaking of The Religion of Progress, and its handmaiden Modern Science, here is a rant (albeit a thoughtful one) about TED/TED-ism by Benjamin Bratton. He is far from declaring the End of Progress, and seems to 'believe in' Science, but the piece is an amusing read. Especially if, like me, you find TED talks to be glib, over-simplified, feel-good presentations. Or as Bratton calls them, "middlebrow megachurch infotainment".

12/19/13, 6:45 AM

Adam Funderburk said...
Great post, JMG!
In the mental health world there is a definite drive to “be more scientific”, particularly amongst psychiatrists and psychologists. “Evidence-based” practice gets funded, and using “research-based” techniques is becoming the norm in order to receive third-party (insurance) compensation (It’s funny that insurance providers are the ones with the biggest say in what is “evidence-based”). Irving Yalom, a famous psychologist and group moderator, commented that “the scientific quantifiability of [mental health] data was directly correlated with its triviality”.
As a mental health counselor, I have observed that the best practitioners, no matter what their specific degree or title, act as artisans or craftspeople; they understand the concrete principles of their job, but there is also an artistry and a respect for the unquantifiable aspects of the relationship that makes for good psychotherapy. Carl Rogers, considered the father of humanistic, client-centered psychology, described the three core conditions for effective therapy: genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathetic understanding. These conditions are widely accepted, and their results well-documented. A meta-study of research articles strongly supports the view that the strength of the therapeutic relationship is the greatest factor in successful therapy, and Carl Roger’s core conditions are all about the relationship. The short of it is that they work. The thing that frustrates the more “scientific-minded” researchers (and not a few of my professors) is that they aren’t sure exactly why the core conditions work, and they can’t quantify them “properly” for “real research”. Even my professors, when we came to Carl Rogers, would encourage us to be genuine, accepting, and empathetic, but wouldn’t really explain how to do that (there aren’t many quantifiable techniques for being a kind, genuine, empathetic person) and wouldn’t really mention it again (As a funny side note, we spent more time with Skinner – a lot more “data” to talk about, and some “concrete” mental models to discuss).

12/19/13, 6:48 AM

Chris Travers said...
Great post, once again. It reminds me very much of Heisenberg's repetitive argument that data does not imply theory. In the end, we must accept that the map is not the territory, but is in fact a representation of territory we cannot even see or really visit.

This religion of progress must come crashing down. It is already under tremendous strain. The only thing that is sustaining it currently is its own inertia and there is little chance of it doing anything other than coming crashing down again.

12/19/13, 6:57 AM

William Church said...
Very interesting John. I enjoyed this essay very much. I have a couple things I'll toss into the mix.

One is that the conquering of nature is one way of looking at science. But some of what you write of is, as I am sure you know, engineering and not science. At some point the distinction can get subtle as I know all too well. But one of the driving motivations of many engineers, including myself, is not necessarily to conquer nature as it is to build things.

There is a drive in so many of us to design, build, and operate tools, machines, buildings, etc. I suspect many of us would have been carpenters and blacksmiths and wheelwrights stone masons and whathaveyou not too many centuries ago. I would wonder if this drive to be, for want of a better term, craftsmen is not an inheritance from our long history where the ability to manufacture a useful tool could be a huge advantage in tough survival situations.

There was a high price that was paid when the engineering profession allowed its highest degree to be changed from a Dr of Engineering to a Doctor of Philosophy. The difference is subtle and at the same time massive. If the future holds what you describe then I would not be a bit surprised to see that switch reversed.

And ~that~ would be my offering for today. That the difference between a Doctor of Engineering and a Doctor of Philosophy in ~whatever~ Engineering is also the difference in what would be useful in the future you describe versus what fits into the economy of today.

Best wishes to you over the holidays Brother.


12/19/13, 7:31 AM

ed boyle said...
I finished reading the 5 volume German history of technology and the summation of ideas at the end seems to be pertinent to the discussion.

Technology is what practical people do when trying to get things done. Later others make up rules to explain what is going on inside the system (Maxwell's equations, etc.). These explanations help to further develop the higher level technology. Eventually technologists are way beyond scientific theories in their own world of practical problems(high level elctronics, etc.) developing a parallel science of equal value with all sorts of engineering rules. Engineering is not just applied science. Technologists are groping to get newer, better, faster or just different effects from materials and mostly as long as it works theory of why does not matter but they have learned that as tech has developed faster and faster that they have to make their own theoretical knowledge base to accelerate the process. Still, all that matters is results. Scientists can stay in ivory towers (see aristotle and quantum theorists) if they want but an engineer has to live in the real world.

To pay due respect to a common set of internet acquaintances I would like to say that The Oil Drum was therefore so important for building a basis for resource shortage concept as engineers are reality based and when empty talk runs out (economists explanations of reality) and scientists are out in left field doing their own fantasy thing that engineers do the heavy lifting turning a good idea into a useful product. Almost anything can be true, cool but not neccessarily marketable, profitable, acceptable, financable, etc. Peak oil was this idea from the TOD crowd.

Our limits are now defined more and more by CO2 output of cars, low energy consumption electrical devices, recyclability. This recalls to me all those 70s green ideas you'Ve discussed and the alternative agronomy nowadays.

Reality(and resulting theory thereof, e.g. religion or science) is relative to who we are, what we need, where(and when) we live(local environment). Without fossil fuels our current scientific theory would not have come about as it is mere explanation of what was happening in the world of high energy technology in scientific theory about physics, electricity, etc. Most of chemistry started with getting color dyes and pharmaceuticals from coal tars in 19th century germany.

If we stopped science(attempts at explanation of current observable tech) before we had access to coal we would have stayed with wood based coals then steel making would have remained primitive and also our scientific instruments as well and electrics and chmeicals and pharma would be nonexistent as well as faster than horse travel and telecoms.

In short you can only explain what you see and can test. Everything else is speculation. This is why moderns consider themselves above religion as religion is based on "myth" or childlike "just-so- stories". Mapping the universe, DNS, etc. needs massive fossil fuel reserves. Ignorance was bliss for us earlier primitives and the modern sleep of reason breeds Frankenstein monsters.

If Siddha powers are real then in trance one can perhaps perceive the double ohelix or chemical structures in one's own body but utilize this on an industrial scale - no way. Perhaps bilocation and other such miracles of Jesus but not for the masses. "Don't try this at home" is valid for the hi-tech here.

The future of science is like the man moon landing hoax theories. Future generations will refuse to believe what they don't see. This is why the bible belt has such pulling power in their anti science bias. Intuitive reality is what an emotional animal - primate with brain or not- likes and a story book religion fits that better than ten thousand page discourse over the nature of nature.

12/19/13, 8:15 AM

Karl said...
Here are two links that deal with the topics raised this week and as part of the theme of war on nature if people are interested in further reading. I remember debating holism (high school debate) way back in the late 1980s but I don't specifically remember Goldsmith although he did write a book about it in 92.

Whatever happened to ecology? by Edward Goldsmith · July 1, 2002

The science of Ecology has been taken over by the cult of scientific reductionism and has become a weapon in the war on the living world being waged by industrial man.

Is science a religion?
by Edward Goldsmith · February 1, 1975

Scientists are functionally the priests of our industrial society. It is only they who are capable of mobilising, for our purposes, the limitless powers of Science, of acting thereby as the intermediaries in our relationship with this new and formidable deity.

12/19/13, 8:41 AM

Kyoto Motors said...
“The alternative is to observe whole systems on their own terms—to study what they do, not in response to a controlled experimental stimulus, but in response to the normal interplay between their internal dynamics and the environment around them.”

I’d like to think that this is what climate science is all about, which is, after all, the study of how our attempts to conquer Nature have failed – having altered some significant aspect of natural weather systems… or so the theory goes. The challenge has always been to separate geological age-scaled patterns from mere industrial/ historical patterns. Our computer based mathematical tools have proved to be limited for sure, but the general theme that comes from climate science does provide something of an antidote to the ambitious hubris of the day… unless you climb aboard the bandwagon where advocates of planetary-scaled cooling interventions gather!

By the way, I have sorely missed participating in this weekly forum of late, but have just been so short on time… I have read with great interest every post, and just want to extend my continued gratitude, along with the season’s greeting of warmth, health and happiness to you and your loved ones.



12/19/13, 8:52 AM

David Rhodes said...
Indeed, Wolfram and yourself are contrarians of the same cloth. When describing him, one journalist started with an encounter between the Dalai Lama and a group of Hell's Angels, and how those alien beings make sense if you realize how much they love their bikes. Wolfram really loves his cellular automata. Is it fair to say that you really love morphological thinking?

In his physicist way, Wolfram is advocating for it too. One needs to explore all possible patterns of behavior, and also to be able to recognize them in new contexts. On this note I'd like to recommend a gorgeous Coursera course called Model Thinking by Scott Page (just finishing now unfortunately). He really drives home the point that "all models are wrong," but at the same time shows their use with dozens of practical examples, and shows that one can be systematic and precise about it all.

I like how you've motivated how we can be systematic without being Baconian. Beyond the flaws of unnatural experimentation, there are the practical dangers of attempting to "subject the entire universe to human intellect". Intellectually, we get farther by working on a more humble scale.

12/19/13, 8:53 AM

Robo said...
It seems to me that Wolfram's cellular automata might be one way of modeling fractal self-similarity in nature ... whereby essential behaviors or characteristics of energy, particles, substances or organisms are reflected and multiplied into complex patterns that recur on a systemic or cosmic scale.

As you point out, human mathematics and science attempt to describe and predict these patterns, which we then declare to be absolute laws rather than the high probability tendencies that they really are.

12/19/13, 9:02 AM

[email protected] said...
"different technologies are being affected at different rates, so that (for example) plenty of Americans who can’t afford health care or heating fuel in the winter still have cell phones and internet access"

An interesting cultural convergence: The rise over the past 2 decades or so of "affordable luxuries", such as specialty coffees or craft beers or artisanal foods, which has been driven by marketers' accurate identification of the need to express taste and take comfort in even small things.

The same faculties that enable us to mistake the model for the reality it represents also enable us to live with the dissonance of not having affordable health care, yet having easy and seemingly affordable access to Tibetan yak's milk cheese that pairs nicely with a glass of cask porter.

12/19/13, 9:06 AM

Kyoto Motors said...
@ Josheph Nameth
You may be entering the realm of semantics (?)… I think much of what we call science, the institution, will be up for debate as to whether it can justify itself/ pay for itself, etc. For better or for worse (mostly for better, in the very practical sense of shedding extravagancies like space programs – though on a sentimental level, for worse…but I digress). An example of an old science may be exactly what you’re talking about: observing nature/ working with nature – like a good gardener, or parent! The benefits being self-evident. As you say, no problem with that.
At the same time, maintaining modest technologies and systems – to whatever extent we can – may rely on some degree of practical understanding of post-Bacon scientific principles, like Newtonian physics, Copernican astronomy, and Mendeleevian chemistry. Never mind that nuclear radiation, being what it is, will necessitate that we maintain an understanding of its effects for a long time to come!

12/19/13, 9:14 AM

Justin Wade said...
@Andy Brown

I am a computer science/programmer guy, but I have spent my career writing scientific applications, the bulk of it in medical science/biotech.

To your point, I (and many on the inside that I know) believe that modern medicine is akin to alchemy.

The way medical science has been done for over a century, and this is the research on which all the knowledge is built, is fundamentally flawed. What they do is to start a biological process, stop it, then mount whatever is there on a slide. They do this for a bunch of processes and piece together a movie out of these slides, then derive a story.

The problem is that, as per this post, living tissue is not functioning according to what you see at any time, but as a function of the network of cell and protein signalling as it occurs in real time over a duration. To continue with the movie analogy, the equivalent would be to splice together 1 second clips of video from different movies into an hour long film, and then to build a body of knowledge about film based on that.

This is fundamentally why the lack of reproduce-ability in experiments is so widespread, the research keeps turning up very badly stitched together data. The fundamental limitation has been one part technology, one part ideology.

We have technology now that allows researchers to take snapshots of a single sample throughout its process and to analyze those snapshots as one continuous process. The ideological fallacy is an inability to consider a biological system and its behaviors with emergent processes that are not strictly a function of what any of the single pieces are doing at a given time. Incidentally, the same is true of genetic expression. Recent research has found that mutation is a relatively common event, but what causes problems is what is going on in the network of DNA rather than a single replication/division/apoptosis.

The last point to consider is that disease classification is a model, not real. Its a heuristic for putting similar manifestations into a category. When you look at how tissues behave, no two instances of disease or cancer are exactly alike. There are patterns of perturbations in signalling and response that are unique to every individual.

12/19/13, 9:28 AM

Justin Wade said...
Well, if man is not really divisible from nature, and I take this to be true - the line dividing man from nature is a figment of our collective imagination - then could one credibly restate the program to render nature transparent and under human control as the program to render mankind transparent and under human control?

Let's not forget that the enlightened thinkers brought the practice of slavery back after a thousand years of taboo, and here we are now, where people are increasingly finding they are ensnared in debt traps that keep them essentially functioning as indentured servants for most of their lives.

12/19/13, 9:32 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Worried about running out of cheap oil? Not buying snake oil or shale oil?

Fear not! Soon, real soon, you'll be able to enjoy the benefits of patented perpetual motion brought to you by the incomparable technical ingenuity and marketing chutzpah of America's finest developers.

Algal Oil

12/19/13, 10:09 AM

SLClaire said...
JMG, thank you for this article. I think this is what I am trying to do with my practice of dialoguing with my garden. At any rate I will think deeply about what you've written as I am working out my garden design for next year.

I wrote up what my garden told me this year in my latest blog post, for anyone who might be interested.
What my garden told me

12/19/13, 10:21 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Thijs, nah, a set of practical techniques can have an absurd theoretical justification and still work. When I was in college, I knew several professors who had been ardent Skinnerians during the heyday of the movement -- one of them had built a Skinner box for his infant son in order to do experiments on the kid -- and, having recanted, were able to describe in detail the failings in Skinner's methods. My response to the critiques was certainly shaped by their discussions.

August, exactly! One of the big points of contention between Galileo and the Catholic church was that the Church insisted that mathematical models of celestial phenomena needed to be treated purely as models, while Galileo insisted that his model was the literal truth about the heavens.

Pinku, oh, granted. Thing is, it's simplistic to claim that Marx and Freud were wrong -- or, for that matter, that Darwin is right. All three offer models of the universe of human experience, which are applicable to certain phenomena and inapplicable to others. The triumphalism that insists that a theory is true because it happened to win out over the others is a real barrier to understanding.

Joseph, good. You're grappling with the issues involved here. I'd point out that classical logic went through the same crisis of faith -- if the whole world can't be explained by logic, what is logic good for? -- and the answer turned out to be that, first, it's a very useful tool for solving certain kinds of problems, and second, learning and practicing it has positive effects on those who do it. Just as practicing a martial art, say, has value even if you never get into a serious hand-to-hand fight outside of the dojo, practicing logic -- or science -- is a healthy discipline for the mind.

Alexey, I think you've missed Wolfram's central point, which is that arbitrary systems with very simple rules very readily mimic core aspects of nature even when the systems haven't been designed to mimic nature. Of course Wolfram's models aren't models of specific mathematical processes -- but neither are the various branches of pure mathematics, and yet those provide the models through which physical scientists pick and choose to find analogues to natural processes.

Richard, it's subtler than that. Take an absurdly simple set of rules for turning squares black or white in a grid, set it up under the right conditions, and processes analogous to growth, evolution, crystallization, etc. emerge spontaneously from the interactions of the whole system. Nothing flows into it -- the system itself, despite its apparently mindless simplicity, becomes a generator of astonishing complexity.

Christian, yes, I read it a couple of years after it first came out. I have to say I wasn't impressed -- it seemed simplistic to me.

Raven, "a telos for Talos" wins you today's gold star. Good!

Phil, bingo. There are times when I'd like to translate reductio ad absurdum as "reductionism always ends in absurdity."

Yupped, exactly. Science has become a prisoner of its own relative success, and more to the point, of the personal advantage of its practitioners. That's common enough in human institutions, of course, just as it's common for such institutions to keep on proclaiming their own infallibility in the face of a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Unknown, fair enough -- I'll always accept a grammatical correction.

M, I see that sort of thing all the time. I've come to think that the lag time between when an ideology stops working and when its believers finally notice that it's stopped working is one of the least recognized and most important factors in history.

12/19/13, 11:03 AM

zmejuka-alexey said...
John Michael, you are partly right that I miss Wolfram's central point. I don't think that cellular automats can mimic core aspects of nature from PRACTICAL point of view.

I'll try to clarify. If I take physical theory of optics, melt some sand and apply some brain work and hand polishing I can construct a telescope or glasses. Telescope is hugely helpful for the military, glasses for the eldery. Notice that without the theory of optics I am unable by trial and error construct such complicated objects, though the technology is bronze age maximum.

For me this is the core value of science: ability to make very useful things, that cannot be done without deep theoretical understanding of nature.

May be I lack imagination, but I don't see how the output of cellular automats theory can be applied to construct anything usefull. Going to absurdity: How one can construct glasses using cellular automats?

As for other aspects, I agree with you. Behavior of cellular automats can resemble that of nature, but it is not of any practical importance.

Thank you for the answer, analyzing it, I found that my attitude toward science changed to more engineering approach.

Best regards

12/19/13, 11:57 AM

JP said...
Wolfram simply noticed that life has a fractal aspect, I think.

Life deployed in time, that is.

You see this in gardens all the time. Fractal patterns interfering with each other over time. You just pull out the fractal patterns you don't want there.

JMG notes:

"The alternative is to observe whole systems on their own terms—to study what they do, not in response to a controlled experimental stimulus, but in response to the normal interplay between their internal dynamics and the environment around them. That’s what Wolfram did. He ran cellular automata, not to try to make them do this thing or that, but to understand the internal logic that determines what they do when left to themselves."

And this is precisely what the cellular automata of the "reach toward infinite space" did when applied to humanity and
millions of years of stored sunlight.

It created the civilization of the West.

In any event, I'm more interested in the issue of mirror symmetry because I haven't really figured that one out yet.

I think it's just as important as Wolfram's cellular automata.

12/19/13, 12:10 PM

thrig said...
Engineered systems may also evolve curious complications—for example, the Internet now mostly consists of little-endian devices talking to one another via mostly big-endian network protocols. In other words, something like:

Imagine a vast number of villages, with paths between them, these paths being used by runners to exchange messages. The villagers all speak the same language--English, Klingon, whatever, the language is not important. What is important is that for any message exchanged between the villages, it must be written down, and must be written down with the letters of the words reversed: "good day" is written "doog yad", and then a runner delivers that message to the next village. Therein, the translator Olef Byteswapson reads the message, "doog yad", and announces to his village that the other village has said "good day". They all agree that this is so, and send back the reply--"dna doog yad ot uoy sa llew"--and then a runner carries this reply to the original village. Therein, the counterpart to Olef, another byte swapper, reads the message, and announces to her village the reply thus previously stated. And so it goes.

How did this state of affairs come to be? Well, back in the day, "doog yad" was the actual language, as spoken between the few big castles and towers of the land. There were also some little villages, but they did not speak with anyone, at least not yet, and they spoke using the "good day" form. Now eventually the towers and castles went away, or anyways became much less important, while the little villages multiplied, and yet the same tradition of speaking in the manner of the big castles and towers carried on, at least when exchanging messages between places.

12/19/13, 12:46 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
Curiosity is one valid reason for continuing to do science. I have no problem with that. In that sense, doing science can be viewed as something like art, or at least recreation.

That also places science back in the realm of wonder, since the use of the scientific method isn't intended to yield anything but beautiful (human) abstractions based on nature. Like forms in poetry, there are rules, and your abstractions have to follow the rules, or they stray from "science" into "fantasy." But both science and fantasy are then on a more-or-less equal footing, following different rules. We can argue whether the sonnet (one set of rules) is better than the heroic ballad (a different set of rules), but it's an aesthetic argument.

It raises the question of how much human resource we're going to devote to this. Perhaps quite a lot. In post-Renaissance Europe, a great deal of human resource was devoted to the arts: sculpture, painting, music, poetry. Most civilizations have been very fond of entirely impractical (but imposing and beautiful) architecture. Science can certainly fit as art. It's certainly beautiful to the educated mind.

12/19/13, 12:55 PM

sgage said...
@ Karl,

Thank you very much for posting the links to those Goldsmith articles - very interesting thoughts! And lots of good references. Lots of food for thought for this ecologist...

12/19/13, 1:35 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Just Because, that is, it's a workable tool for exercising control in limited contexts, but it's not an effective tool for understanding whole systems. I can see that.

Marc, well, I'd like to think you're right about Kurzweil's outfit, but I tend to think that an organization founded to pursue a religious fantasy decked out in SF drag is unlikely to accomplish much.

Sgage, excellent! "Middlebrow megachurch infotainment" is a brilliant coinage; clearly I have to catch up with this guy's writings.

Adam, exactly. Who cares that Freudian methods all but eliminated hysteria, which was once an extremely common and damaging mental illness -- we can't quantify it, so it must not work!

Chris, the thing that has to happen is that enough people need to start challenging the myth of progress in public. I'm trying to contribute to that, but it takes many voices.

Will, engineering has a long and lively history ahead of it -- as long as there are practical problems to be solved, there'll be a need for engineering techniques. I'd point out, though, that Roman and Chinese engineers (among many others) accomplished impressive technical feats without any sense that they were in the business of conquering nature; doubtless the engineers of future ecotechnic societies, as they tighten the screws on renewable-energy technologies we can't even imagine yet, will be equally free of the delusion that nature exists so humanity can tell it what to do.

Ed, and that's exactly why -- or one of the reasons why -- I'm so concerned about making sure that science survives as a living tradition. If people still know how to ask nature questions and get replicable answers, it's less likely that the achievements of the present age will turn into the fairy tales of the far future.

Karl, excellent! Many thanks for the links.

Kyoto, and a happy solstice to you, too! To my mind, the problem with the current climate debate is precisely that nobody's interested in asking what actually happens -- a subject about which paleoclimatology has a lot to say -- because the answers to that question advance nobody's agenda.

David, yes, that's fair enough -- it makes sense of things to me that other forms of thinking don't. I suspect the reason I find Wolfram's work fascinating is that his cellular automata are morphologically equivalent to a great many other things in nature, and can be understood in similar ways.

Robo, Wolfram got there well ahead of you. Fractal self-similarity is one of the things that cellular automata readily produce; they also produce chaotic phenomena, and most interesting of all, they produce complex systems that combine chaotic behavior and order in ways remarkably reminiscent of phenomena in nature.

Librarian, a fascinating point!

12/19/13, 1:43 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@41fa - I wasn't intending to ridicule science.

My point was that it doesn't generate a coherent, consistent picture over time. If I were to phrase it mathematically, I would say that science does not demonstrate globally convergent behavior. It is, at best, locally convergent within a particular historical and social milieu.

Thomas Kuhn explored this in considerable length in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions and various other essays, and it was most pithily stated by Max Planck's quip that "science progresses one funeral at a time."

I perfectly understand that the scientific picture is incomplete, and always will be, and that's fine. But it is a matter of faith -- specifically, faith in progress -- that science is leading in any particular direction, such as "toward a deeper and truer understanding" of the universe. I brought up the profound difference between 19th century cosmology and 21st century cosmology as one illustration of this.

You say you believe that we know more now than we did in the past, but I would respond (as in the old Lone Ranger joke), "Who 'we', white man?"

I suspect that *I* know a bit more about celestial mechanics than your average iron-age Druid. I'm pretty sure he knew a lot more about pretty much everything else relevant to his world, tied together as a more-or-less coherent whole in something not unlike the Renaissance ideal of mastery of all knowledge.

All I can say about most subjects is, "Well, I'm sure someone knows the answer to that." We may have a larger volume of "knowledge," but is it really knowledge if it isn't known by anyone? Or if it is so fragmented that nothing fits with anything else? I would argue that this represent less knowledge, not more.

12/19/13, 1:43 PM

Justin Wade said...
You should check out evolutionary algorithms and their applications to engineering problems.

Also, see the work of Reginald Cahill in physics, in some of his research he used a neural network to model/predict an iterative, recursive function that intentionally has noise at each iteration/generation of the function. The neural network 'learned' how to predict this function by modelling space and time, that is a dimensional search space to predict the noise and its range and a linear time to track the sequence of generations.

Sometimes it may not seem to be so, but it is. Science and logic don't always play nice.

12/19/13, 1:50 PM

jt said...
I think many things in this post are conceptually seriously wrong. For example:

"Thus mathematical equations provide one set of models that can be used to fit our minds around some of the ways the universe behaves. Wolfram’s discovery is that another set of models can be derived from very simple rule-based processes of the kind that make cellular automata work. This additional set of models makes sense of features of the universe that mathematical models don’t handle well"

But Wolfram's models are also mathematical. There is no conceptual difference between "mathematical equations" and "Wolfram's models".

Wolfram didn't invent cellular automata. They were made famous by Conway's game of life in 1970.

"It requires an unfashionable degree of intellectual modesty to accept that the map is not the territory, that the scientific model is merely a representation of some aspects of the reality it tries to describe. "

I think all people who do research in natural sciences know and simply take it for granted that the "model" and "reality" (whatever the definitions of these words) are different things. For example Wigner's article "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in natural sciences" is very well known.

Finally it can be argued that scietific revolution happened already 2000 years ago. It was just "forgotten" (or destroyed), see Lucio Russo: The forgotten revolution.

12/19/13, 1:58 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- There's another good use for science: part of a healthy lifestyle, like getting enough fiber. :-)

I'm not sure I'll buy that. I've not noticed that scientists are particularly happier or better-balanced than other people. They get depressed, divorced, drunk, and suicidal right along with everyone else. As the institutions of science crumble and they start losing their livelihoods, I'm not at all sure that science will do for them what philosophy did for Boethius.

Of course, the scientific method is extremely useful for solving certain kinds of problems. But what kinds? Primarily, practical problems in the natural world.

That takes us back to the faith that science begets technology begets comfort. But I think the causality is reversed.

A practical problem inspires us to seek solutions that resolve the problem and bring comfort. One class of solutions contains technological solutions. Seeking a technological solution to a practical problem then inspires use of the scientific method to help create the technology.

This is, however, something that humans have always done. I have a hard time believing that Archimedes didn't use some form of the scientific method when he was building devices for his hometown of Syracuse. The Egyptians would have used this kind of science to build pyramids. The proto-Celts would have used this kind of science to erect megaliths.

This is fundamentally different from the desacralizing, conquest-oriented science of Francis Bacon, which is the thing we do that wasn't done by the Romans, et. al.

For this latter kind of science, we now have art, and fiber. And conquering nature. Is there anything else?

12/19/13, 2:38 PM

Enrique said...
John Michael,

One of the thoughts that came back to me as I was reading this essay was the vague sense of unease that I felt in many of my social sciences classes at university. It seemed to me even back then that there was a serious disconnect between the theoretical models that were being taught by many of my professors and the way things actually work in real life.

I have also long believed that one of the reasons why politics are so dysfunctional both in the USA and the EU is because so much of political and bureaucratic decision making is based on what I call “ideological thinking”, that is to say thinking based on theoretical and abstract models of how things should work which are based in turn on a particular set of ingrained ideological biases rather than on how the world actually works. A good example of this in action has been the disastrous consequences of trying to put neo-liberal economic policies and neo-conservative foreign policies into action. Far too many politicians, bureaucrats and judges seem to live in an ivory tower, and have no idea how things work in the real world outside the bubble they live in and don’t have to deal with the real world consequences of their decisions. This is one of the major reasons why Obamacare turned out to be such a fiasco. The other is all the corrupt bargains that Obama, Pelosi, etc had to make to get that particular monstrosity passed.

As for your and Andy’s exchange about the so-called healthcare system, that is why Charles Hugh Smith insists on calling it the sick-care system, and I think he entirely correct.

12/19/13, 3:32 PM

Enrique said...

The biggest problem with automatic weapons and modern firearms in the Long Descent is that you have to be able to produce parts consistently to very high tolerances and levels of precision. That sort of thing is very difficult to do without the kind of elaborate infrastructure possible in a fossil fueled industrial economy. Still, given the importance of weaponry and military defense, especially given the rising tide of violence and disorder that the breakdown of the modern world will produce, I would imagine this will be a very high priority for national governments, warlords and the like.

I don’t expect firearms to go away entirely, but it’s a good question what the highest feasible level of firearms technology will be in an ecotechnic society. Will it be automatic weapons, bolt-action rifles, rifled muskets or flintlocks? Societies that retain or can re-discover the ability to make assault rifles and machine guns could have a decisive military advantage over those that can only make bolt-action rifles, muskets or crossbows. Incidentally, Russia could have a major head start in this category since its modern firearms like the AK series assault rifles and PK series machine guns are simple, rugged and very reliable. That’s one thing I have long respected about Russian weapons designers. They develop weapons that are competitive on the world arms market and effective on the battlefield, but are designed to be simple, cheap and easy to maintain and operate. This is true whether we are talking about the T-34 tank, the AK-47 rifle or Sukhoi fighter jets.

I recall we had an extended discussion thread on this very subject a while back on the Archdruid Report, but can’t remember which essays. Leo also has some good discussions on this subject on his blog A Melburnians Response to Overshoot, which I highly recommend.

12/19/13, 3:36 PM

Darren Urquhart said...
(off topic)
Meanwhile, in Australia a black swan event is unfolding.

12/19/13, 3:50 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks. The other baffling yet obvious question that is overlooked is: "Is X of higher quality than Y?". If I was really being cheeky, I'd also suggest that this question can be rephrased as: "Is it in our collective interests that X be done?"

Science seems incapable of addressing (or perhaps unwilling to address) these issues and it appears to me that society as an entirety also overlooks them.

An example of the above quandary (well a quandary for me anyway) is comparison of industrially produced food versus organically produced. Obviously they are substitute products, but issues such as quality seem to be largely ignored even at the expense of people’s health.

This is on my mind because I'm picking sun ripened strawberries most days now. Yum! Most purchased strawberries are usually picked green and then gas ripened so that they can travel distances. This means that they usually have little to no flavour (little to no sugars), despite the fact that they look like strawberries.

Most techno geeks (and I'm a self-confessed plant, soil and water geek!) would rather see investment in Internet technology than see high quality food available more widely.



12/19/13, 4:00 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

As an interesting aside. I just happened yesterday to pass by a poster for a conference in 2014:

Marxism conference in Melbourne 2014

Tried, failed, yet the idea keeps coming back - just like a zombie and to about the same effect.

You're good. The poster gave me a weird goose bump feeling of recognition. It is quite sad that we can't seem to learn from history.



12/19/13, 4:16 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Joseph,

Ugg the caveman and nematodes! hehe!

Well done.


12/19/13, 4:25 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

One last thought for today. The heat has kept me inside the house.

Quote: "understand the internal logic that determines what they do when left to themselves."

Yeah, this is exactly the process that I follow here when trying to provide optimal conditions for the living systems (chooks, bees, fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and wildlife). Following this methodology is easier and less work really than tinkering with the systems all of the time. It is just slower and requires more resources.

The bees are a really good example. I've set them up and just observe what they do and try to get a feel for their cycles - if left to their own devices in optimal conditions (they're pretty happy at the moment with all of the flowers here).

Most of the advice and books for bees is geared towards maximum / efficient production. Very little advice and practice is geared towards resiliency of the colony. It is little wonder that colony collapse disorder is so widespread. Such a moniker is really another name for: water stress, food stress, predators, disease, environmental stress and finally my favourite - relocation stress. It is hardly any wonder why bees have such a hard time of it across the planet!



12/19/13, 5:44 PM

dragonfly said...
So, I've had some actual hands-on experience with cellular automata. Fascinating stuff.

Some years ago, I embarked on an interactive art project, a major component of which was the simulation of waves moving on the surface of a body of water.

It turns out that cellular automata is rather well-suited to this end. The math is simple, and requires no calculus, to my continuing amazement. Further, the simulation exhibited realistic refraction and reflection of waves, which confounded me for the longest time, given that the underlying model knows *nothing* of such phenomena. I didn't program it to do that !

Two things that really stuck with me from that project are how very simple rules can give rise to amazingly complex, beautiful, and utterly unexpected behavior, and how hierchical thinking can literally blind you to other ways of looking at things. Specifically, I wasn't able to conceive of the mathematical model at all until I stopped thinking about waves and their shapes and interactions.

Instead, I had to imagine I was a single drop of water among millions.

For anyone interested, a brief overview of the project:

Finally, if you have javascript enabled on your browser, a simple demonstration wherein droplets are released at random onto a very low resolution (192 cells) surface:

12/19/13, 5:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Justin, excellent! That gets you tonight's gold star. Of course the part of nature that the savants of the Enlightenment were most interested in conquering was human nature. I'm reminded of that quote from Dune: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

Raven, ah, you saw that, too? The fracking bubble is losing air, so of course the next excuse for ignoring peak oil is being trotted out. Notice that the promoters are talking excitedly about how this "disproves peak oil" -- which nobody supposedly believes in any more -- and that considerations of net energy are nowhere mentioned. I'll do a post on this latest pond scum ponzi scheme sometime soon.

SLClaire, good to hear. I'm busy looking through heirloom seed catalogs and planning next year's garden, too -- and yes, close attention to what the garden has had to say is a central part of that.

Alexey, the same thing was true of mathematics in ancient times, when the basics of geometry and the like were first being worked out. We're a long way from the point at which cellular automata can be used directly to create models for, say, optics; the point Wolfram has made is that there's another potential source for such models, one that very readily duplicates phenomena in nature that have been hard to model using mathematically based formulae.

JP, the importance of Wolfram's work doesn't preclude the emergence of other ideas that will also be important!

Thrig, that's a great example of the impact of history on systems. That's a blind spot in many ways of thinking about the world -- many things are what they are, not because of first principles, but because history happened to go careening down one path rather than another.

Joseph, for the next five centuries or so, if things follow the usual pace, there won't be much in the way of spare resources to devote to anything but survival, which is why practical sciences such as field ecology and agronomy have the best chance of getting the scientific method through to the future. Later on, after the deindustrial dark ages, the possibilities may broaden out more than a bit.

Jt, you know, if you want your comment to be taken seriously, it would help if you refrained from dragging in irrelevancies. If you'll reread my post, you'll find that neither I nor Wolfram claimed that he invented cellular automata; insisting that there's no conceptual difference between the standard mathematical models used by science and the kind proposed by Wolfram simply shows that you don't know what you're talking about; and whatever may have happened 2000 years ago, the scientific revolution that shaped our present world is the one I've discussed, of course. As for the confusion between models and the reality they represent, please go back and notice just how many self-proclaimed rationalists insist in print that if current theory doesn't provide a mechanism for a given effect (such as the medical consequences of acupuncture), the effect doesn't exist. That's exactly the confusion I'm discussing here, you know.

Joseph, you're overgeneralizing. I'm sure people who understand logic also get drunk and depressed; nonetheless, it's good training for the mind, and helps evade certain common stupidities. That's all I'm suggesting for science.

Enrique, exactly! What you've called ideological thinking is a major reason for the crisis we're in -- combine that with the sort of mental blinders that keep people from noticing that their theories do not match the reality on the ground, and you can run a civilization into the ground in very short order!

12/19/13, 6:46 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Darren, funny.

Cherokee, science can't deal with quality at all, except by reducing it to quantity. If it can't be measured in numerical form, science drops the ball -- and yes, strawberries that taste like mildly sugared sawdust squirted with imitation fragrance is one of the results. Also, thanks for the link to the Melbourne Marxist event! The city of Seattle just elected a Socialist to the city council; I'll be talking about that as we proceed.

Dragonfly, fascinating -- many thanks for this. Complex phenomena like wave motion is exactly the sort of thing that cellular automata generate easily while standard mathematical models have to struggle to imitate. Very elegant work, by the way!

12/19/13, 6:53 PM

Matt Heins said...
The Melbourne conference and Sawant's election to Seattle City Council appear to be more closely connected than just involving Marxists. Following Cherokee's link and downloading the program, I saw that the first talk is "What is the Socialist Alternative?".

That's Sawant's specific group, the Socialist Alternative Party.

On topic:

Honestly, I think you are giving Sagan's question more credit than it deserves by trying to give it a genuine answer. Outside of the Church of Progress (whose orthodoxies let us decode it to give his "proper answer") it seems as silly to me as asking why the Roman Empire never had a Protestant Reformation! ;)

As a student of history, I have sometimes wished I had a trained parrot on my shoulder to squawk "Due to a confluence of myriad events!" whenever such broad, silly questions come up. Although your only slightly annoyed "Because they were different from us, Dr. Sagan" is a good response too.

12/19/13, 7:29 PM

Liquid Paradigm said...
@Enrique re: politicians and bureaucrats

As a low(ish)-level member of government office fauna, I can directly affirm your suspicion is spot-on. And it is getting much, much worse.

Very, very fast.

It's all part of industrial civilization's current obsession with disappearing up its own, hmmm, frack-hole, I suppose.

Barring some personal economic or other such miracle, I'm utterly trapped. But since the only really practical thing I can do is spread awareness of the issues (material and, dare I say it?, spiritual) raised by our good host as far and wide as possible. And so I do, relentlessly.

Plus some stockpiling of literature, some tidbits self-generated through the occasional journal reflection, that deals with ways of facing external and internal crises that are at the doorstep and to follow.

Should the Gods allow, I'll at least get off a loud, curmudgeonly "I told you so!" before the panicked crowds pull me limb from bureaucratic limb. ;)

12/19/13, 8:36 PM

Marcello said...
"And almost forgot, military science! It also gives immense concurent advantage to the society that preserves it. For example, basic gun or even machine gun technology is easy to preserve and can be reproduced without fossil fuels."

Modern weapons require quite a bit of machinery capable of turning out metal parts with tight tulerances,good quality alloys and smokeless powders which require a fair bit of chemical substances. The technology is not particularly advanced by modern standards (at least it does not have to unless you are chasing that little bit of extra performance), it is quite likely that a StG 44 or a MG 42 could still be pretty adequate, but it does require a fair bit of infrastructure: you have to have the machine tools and the ability to replace them when they wear out for instance.
If you can turn out 1890's style bolt action rifles automatic weapons are not that much more difficult, historically the first LMGs (Chauchat for example), automatic rifles (Fedorov Avtomat) and SMGs came out soon after and saw some use in WW1.If you can't however your options narrow down and a look at mid 19th century firearms and production technology will give an idea of what is possible at each step.

12/20/13, 1:38 AM

Phil Harris said...
JMG & Dragonfly
Keats: "fret not after knowledge -- I have none, and yet the Evening listens"

I am not always sure when I am serious, but, question, what cellular automata and what simple rules are responsible for the patterns in my brain? (I sincerely guess they are there, innately, and function, whether modifiably or not). I am interested in memory - do the simulations incorporate memory into the patterning? Penrose the mathematician argues that "One needs external insights in order to decide the validity or otherwise of an algorithm".

Chris Cherokee asked a blog or two back where insights came from. I think, JMG, your reply was "Good question". Seems about right to me.

Phil H

12/20/13, 4:39 AM

ganv said...
In parenting a 2 to 3 year old, in seems that one of the main reasons these are called the 'terrible twos' (or more accurately the terrible two years between turning 2 and turning 4) is that this is the time when humans discover the huge gap between their desires and the way the world actually is. So days are filled with 'I want, I want...' and 'Nooooo!'. Eventually we find some degree of acceptance of the world as it is and the frequency of the tantrums decreases.

Modern science has enabled satisfaction of many desires that were previously unattainable, but the gap between human desires and reality is so huge that it hasn't made much difference. The religion of progress has encouraged many to believe that their desires will be met in the future...and we are on our way to some epic tantrums as reality asserts its preeminence over wishful thinking.

I guess I see this situation of unmet desires in a world of limited resources as a universal norm. Often it is not just superficial desires but survival needs that are unmet: like enough food to eat or fuel to keep warm. I'll have to think more about your contention that the war against nature is a recent ideology. It seem a bacterium, a tree, and a rabbit all face the same gap between the desires they have evolved which cause them to seek exponential population growth and the reality of their environment which keeps them in some kind of population equilibrium. Bursts of change (like discovery of stored fossil fuel) produce bursts of exponential growth, but the desires are never satisfied and a new equilibrium is eventually reached...maybe after a crash. I guess you are talking about the ideologies that humans develop to rationalize our situation. Maybe the ideology that we should seek to conquer nature is relatively new. The instincts to try to satisfy our desires by manipulating nature seem to be universal and largely unchangable. I guess it is the moral structures we develop for managing our instincts that you are talking about.

12/20/13, 5:55 AM

zaphod42 said...
Thanks, Jim, for a very 'nice' Report. I'm afraid that, now, I will have to read "A New Kind of Science."

So many books... so little time.


12/20/13, 7:08 AM

redoak said...
JMG wrote:

“To believers in progress in the post-Christian west, the idea that the world was in some sense the enemy of the Christian believer, to be conquered by faith in Christ, easily morphed into the idea that the same world was the enemy of humanity, to be conquered in a very different sense by faith in progress empowered by science and technology.”

The importance of this idea cannot be overstated. Intellectuals in the early Enlightenment were most proud of their opposition to Christian thinking without ever reflecting on how deeply that tied them to it. Like someone who hates their ex, they are still immersed in the relationship. The exceptions are rare and remarkable, and in general promote something like JMG’s formulation at the beginning of this post, that the world cannot be made transparent to the intellect and subject to the will. An admirable example for consideration, David Hume, who elicited such a stupendous knee-jerked-to-forehead reaction from Kant!

But the project of dissent consumed these too few exceptions, and so contemporary western philosophy has in many ways failed to produce a coherent vision of the human experience not infected by an antagonism between man and his world.

Now there’s a project!

12/20/13, 7:59 AM

Travis said...
"Lacking that treasure of concentrated energy, which humanity did nothing to create, the dream of conquering nature might never have gotten traction at all;"
I would agree fully that most certainly humans would have never reached the degree of industrialization that we have without fossil fuel. Sometimes I wonder that if that discovery had not been made then perhaps the oceans would be void of whales and seals. So the drive to dethrone the gods was given a hyper boost from fossil fuel, but the longing seems to have already been alive and well.
Thanks again for a great post!

12/20/13, 8:08 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Indonesia must be Middle Earth. First they found the Hobbits. Now they've found a dragon!


Let us pray that they never find the One Ring.

12/20/13, 9:02 AM

sgage said...
@ redoak,

"But the project of dissent consumed these too few exceptions, and so contemporary western philosophy has in many ways failed to produce a coherent vision of the human experience not infected by an antagonism between man and his world.

Now there’s a project!"

Ah, now we're getting somewhere! A Project indeed! This has essentially been the project of my entire adult life, but as redoak knows as well as anyone, it's not always easy going, and I am getting tired...

On another, related tack... I look out my window right now at the snowy New Hampshire woods stretching up the hill beyond my barn. I know these woods very well, heck, I know an awful lot of the trees on an individual basis, some since they were kids - you could say a first name basis. I know the wildlife that lives here, every kind of wild plant, the permanent residents, the just-passing-through, etc...

My instant unmediated emotion as I take in the scene is... love. (yes, even towards the weasel that killed several of my chickens, even at the same time that I hate the little fracker). That's the only word that can evenly remotely cover it.

I think that might have something to do with something...

12/20/13, 9:50 AM

sgage said...
@ Phil Harris

"Chris Cherokee asked a blog or two back where insights came from. I think, JMG, your reply was "Good question". Seems about right to me."

Once again I say, now we're getting somewhere. Surely we aren't going to leave it that? Or maybe we must...

12/20/13, 9:58 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- Yes, I haven't mastered the art of not overgeneralizing in 4096 characters or less. :-)

My jury is truly out on whether "scientific thinking" is good for a person.

My experience is that it is -- in the US -- an alienating practice that distances you from your local community. I find it less alienating to tell my neighbors that I'm a Druid, or even a Pagan, than to tell them I'm a (former) physicist. Alienation is certainly NOT good for you.

Are the mental benefits of science better than doing Sudoku? No one gets upset with you for doing Sudoku. They get very upset when you tell them that capitalism is a wealth-pump that is now making most of us poorer. Or that we're going to run out of oil. [NOOOO! There's an infinite amount of oil under the polar icecaps! Enough for thousands of years! I heard it on TV! It's Obama's fault!]

So let me turn this around: what are the consequences of NEVER engaging in scientific thinking?

12/20/13, 11:48 AM

Ruben said...
Fractal vs. Constructal

Whenever conversations start relating fractals to nature, I like to link to the Constructal Law.

It is nice that fractals mimic nature, but they are just math. You can smoke pot and zoom in and in and in and in, what a trip. But in nature, you can't. Eventually you get to atomic scales, and the zooming stops. So fractals aren't predictive of natural systems.

The Constructal Law, on the other hand, says that all natural systems are flow systems, whether it is water, lighting, nutrients, pedestrians or cars, nutrients, forces, knowledge or whatever, it all flows.

By looking at the characteristics of the system, Contstructal Theory can be predictive and can be used to actually optimize flow. It can tell us how small the rivulets of water will become, which fractals cannot do. I can tell us ways to optimize roads, which fractals cannot do.

Constructal law - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

12/20/13, 12:31 PM

Luckymortal said...
My first thought was: this is just what Ecologists do, so nothing new here (although "Ecology" isn't always taken seriously as a science.) And not just Ecologists, and it's not like this is a method of inquiry somehow excluded by our modern understanding of the scientific method.

The problem isn't really a limit of scientific practice, it's the constraint of funding under the profit motive. Companies cherry pick forms of inquiry that will document the utility of their products, and this "science" is no more than a branch of the sales department. I think most scientists are fully aware of that.

Perhaps the "revolution" would be consumers waking up and realizing it, too. After that "revolution," the inquiry will be made to best match the question, not the desired answer, and your "new old" form of science will become as common as the current norm.

12/20/13, 1:34 PM

Phil Harris said...
@ sgage wrote: "Once again I say, now we're getting somewhere. Surely we aren't going to leave it that? Or maybe we must..."

Well ... my guess, few cents, pennies, is that 'insights' are most often implicit within 'situations' (to be discovered) and something to do with all that innate (real actually) math, and then stirring the math with a lot of external input or memories thereof. Their ‘flash’ nature seems typical, though Penrose (I think) and others suggest that an 'insight' may take a long time to 'unpack' into some kind of language.

Phil H
PS I think insights can be encouraged!

12/20/13, 2:09 PM

Ruben said...
@ Joseph Nemeth

If you see conformity to your local social norm as what's "good for you", so be it, and there's an end on it. Have a good life.

But... what do you even mean by 'what's good for you?' What do you even mean by 'mental benefits'? What do even mean by 'thinking scientifically'?

Your comment has left me wondering what you're really getting at, to tell the truth.

There are ways of gently pushing back - no need to be 'alienating', unless you want to be. But everyone has a different comfort level in that regard.

I usually shoot for something like 'harmless eccentric' :-) But those who have ears will always listen...

12/20/13, 4:00 PM

August Johnson said...
@Ruben - I know a professor who has no readable copy of his own PhD Dissertation because of this. The University wanted all copies submitted electronically and now they're in a long obsolete format on an unreadable floppy disk. He kept no paper copies...

12/20/13, 6:48 PM

steve pearson said...
@JMG et al, There is a wonderful article by Toby Hemmenway @,entitled" the Last Nomads and the Culture of Fear" To me it addresses so much of what you, JMG, have written about and we all, hopefully, have thought about over the last few years.
Happy Holidays to all, Steve

12/20/13, 9:24 PM

KL Cooke said...
"Roman...engineers...accomplished impressive technical feats..."

What I'd like to know is how they did the engineering math in Roman numerals?

12/20/13, 10:52 PM

KL Cooke said...
" can't deal with quality at all, except by reducing it to quantity. If it can't be measured in numerical form, science drops the ball..."

In the industrial world, quality is defined as "meets the specification." So if the industrial grower creates a specification for strawberries that that defines parameters for size and color but not for sugar (due to "manufacturing" constraints) the resultant fruit passes as quality, even though it has no flavor.

Then it's up to the thaumaturgists to sell the people on size and color, and so what if you can't taste it?

12/21/13, 1:22 AM

KL Cooke said...
"Complex phenomena like wave motion is exactly the sort of thing that cellular automata generate easily while standard mathematical models have to struggle to imitate."

Could cellular automata be applied to Brownian motion?

12/21/13, 1:24 AM

MawKernewek said...
@[email protected]:
I know what you mean by the rise of "affordable luxuries" but hadn't thought of them in quite that way before as compensation for bigger things.

I had assumed, that where I am, the stimulus for them was related to tourism, that these artisan foods etc. were being sold as souvenirs etc.

The other market I had thought of is those who are comfortably off, who buy some organic vegetables and local artisan foods to soothe their consciences given that most of their consumer spend goes via big supermarkets and [multi]national chains.

But you're saying that for people in their 20s/30s who still live with their parents or in a room in a houseshare, don't have the means to rent or buy their own place, affordable luxuries are a kind of compensation. I can relate to that.

12/21/13, 6:23 AM

Unknown said...
Over the time I have read this blog and comments there have been several occasions where the discussion of the second law of thermodynamics has come up. As an engineer I find that people often overlook the fact that life does not happen at equilibrium but occurs in energy flows at some distance from equilibrium. A very interesting look at life and the second law has been taken by Mae Wan Ho in her book “The Rainbow and the Worm” the physics of organisms. This is one of the more interesting reads I have ever found and I am finishing it for the fifth time and it still proves an interesting read. Enjoy.
Tom A

12/21/13, 9:48 AM

:€ said...

You're quite right about holistic implications of cellular automata, that said, their value is more inspirational and analogical than practical. That may change if they manage to put them into hardware (smart matter), but that's the thought that I'm not at all comfortable with.

Which brings me to my second point, I was very surprised to see transhumanist like Wolfram (pretty much the embodiment of posthuman hubris) described positively on this blog, especially as an example of intellectual modesty. I understand that the visibility of New Kind of Science is probably a good enough reason, but it's almost like a christian saint describing devil's work in glowing terms. :)

Wolfram wants to mechanize and compute everything, he's even more radically reductionist than Sagan. It seems to me that you've understood his general direction to be the opposite, perhaps because of Wolframs bottom-down emphasis.

12/21/13, 11:16 AM

Roger said...
I've read all sorts of odd and amazing things. That a universe be created of such complexity that it creates moving objects, themselves with the complexity to question, but not quite comprehend, that same universe. What kind of creator would do this? One with a sense of humor? Or a malicious kid with an ant farm?

Einstein told us a bunch of stuff about the geometry of space-time. And they say it stood the test of actual observation. But then along came quantum mechanics and this "spooky action at a distance" which they say is equally valid but doesn't square with Einstein.

Oh and more stuff about subatomic particles that maybe move backwards and forwards temporally. At least that's what I thought I read.

Not that I would have a clue what all that actually means. I mean, how can something move forwards into a future that hasn't yet taken shape or back into a past that's dissolved into the present moment? In any case maybe we still have a ways to go in understanding that geometry. I know I sure do.

A future that hasn't yet taken shape? A past that's as good as gone? Not so fast. There's a school of thought that says time is illusory, that past, present and future co-exist in a multi-dimensional construct that defies our own eyes and sense of reality. At least it defies my eyes. I'm feeling like a four dimensional insect encased in an amber of this alleged space-time continuum.

But wait. Because now somebody from the Perimeter Institute says it's high time for the notion of passing time to reclaim its rightful place. Or at least that's what I think he's saying. Seems like we peel away the layers of onion only to find more layers underneath.

What if we finally comes to a complete understanding of reality? Imagine. Then what? Will we all be disappointed? Will we get depressed?

12/21/13, 11:29 AM

Ben said...
I am curious about what you think the competing civic religions might have been (to replace the Theist religion in the West)? Can you suggest names or readings about those other views?

12/21/13, 6:02 PM

Ruben said...

I once heard that half of the Library of Congress is unreadable due to lack of proper players and readers for the format the item is recorded in.

But never question the march of progress!

12/21/13, 7:01 PM

Iuval Clejan said...
There are times when a model is bad, there are times when a model is good but limited, and there are times when a model is so superb that it is easy to think of it as "the truth" about nature. This last seems to be the case with Maxwell's equations, Einstein's geometrical/spacetime equations and the Dirac equation. You know a model is superb when it predicts new, non-intuitive experimental results (and this is an important part of science you didn't quite mention. Not enough to verify something that is already known). It is a mystery to me (and to others such as Einstein) why mathematical models can be so superb at times. One can't help but think that the Pythagoreans were onto something. Perhaps nature is not always at its core about numbers, but mathematics seems to be there (some branches of mathematics are at least partially qualitative, like topology), not just in our heads.

12/21/13, 7:02 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Sgage -- as I said from the start, I'm struggling with this post.

My mother's family settled in Oklahoma, and one of her cousins who grew up with her moved to Idaho as a young woman. One of the last times I saw her, she told me she'd stopped trying to remember her grandchildren's names at number sixty-three. She had eleven children herself, one of whom was gay and was expelled from the family and community as a Devil's child: when you have eleven, you can afford to throw one or two away.

We visited them in Idaho, once, and went to a church service on Sunday. One of their shibboleths as a religion was to never, ever see a doctor, for anything whatsoever: it was a loss of faith in God to turn to doctors, and was the difference between salvation and eternal damnation. I remember one fellow in the parish, his nose gone, his face half-eaten by "The Cancer," standing up in church and praising God for the strength that God and his community had granted him to stand up against doctors and rely on faith for his healing.

These people -- my own shirttail relations -- were as ignorant as dirt regarding science: they held it in worse than contempt, they called it Evil. They weren't especially bright, and were by no means formally educated. Their understanding of Christianity was the most primitive kind of literalism you could imagine, maybe more primitive than you can imagine. Their lives were profoundly rural: wells they dug themselves, cattle and crops they raised themselves, some trade with "outsiders" to their faith, which they did not actually depend upon.

Yet in two generations, these savages went from "man and wife" to at least sixty three grandchildren. Should the mathematics of their lifestyle continue, a century would see them a thousand-strong. Two centuries would see them a million-strong. Despite the stillbirths, the diphtheria, the cancer, the dotage and senility. Or, at a thousand-strong, the family blood-feuds and wars.

By contrast, I spent seven of my most formative years intensively studying to be a scientist, with all the traditional liberal-arts trappings. I obviously thought, at the time, that both education and science were in some way important. The profession of scientist lost its cachet for me thirty years ago, but now I'm questioning the premise all the way to bedrock.

Is there any value, whatsoever, to "science?" Particularly in the context of a disintegrating civilization?

If so, exactly what is that value?

12/21/13, 9:14 PM

Neo Tuxedo said...
To the Christians of the Middle Ages, the world, the flesh, and the devil were the three obnoxious realities from which religion promised to save humanity. To believers in progress in the post-Christian west, the idea that the world was in some sense the enemy of the Christian believer, to be conquered by faith in Christ, easily morphed into the idea that the same world was the enemy of humanity, to be conquered in a very different sense by faith in progress empowered by science and technology.


The alternative is to observe whole systems on their own terms—to study what they do, not in response to a controlled experimental stimulus, but in response to the normal interplay between their internal dynamics and the environment around them.

Compare and contrast:

"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'" (Ann Coulter on Fox News Channel's Hannity & colmes, June 20, 2001)

"...and he that breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom." (Gandalf to Saruman)

12/22/13, 7:15 AM

Lance M. Foster said...
I grok Joseph Nemeth's posts. I enjoy the beauty of science as much as anyone.

Ultimately, science is best at grappling with understanding and solving tasks in the physical world. But as we have seen with nuclear disasters, genetics, surveillance tech, big pharma, and so on, there are always unintended consequences. Science creates more new problems often as much as it solves old ones. Most of the time science does not serve mankind, it serves those who bankroll it, and those guys aren't much interested in service or progress, except the kind that puts more money in their bottom line and more toys for bragging rights among their peers. We don't have enlightened masters who want the good of all (see Runesoup this week too).

For the poor and untutored, you don't need science or money to outbreed (in Darwinian terms, surpass in success) your neighbors. "Idiocracy" anyone?

So really, science, in its purest form, is really a belief system, a way of life, an aesthetic practice for the mind/soul/spirit, with practical side benefits. Much like druidry or hermetics or philosophy or the spiritual exercises of Ignatius, or contemplative prayer, or meditation… now it is going off into the bizarre and fantastic as Joseph indicates with these new discoveries. It is a practice of the Mind-Soul, but with material benefits of controversial worth.

What I see in some of the responses to Joseph's honest struggle is the same kind of thing I get when I mention Peak Oil or Collapse to the uninitiated. Denial. Anger. Sputtering. "What's wrong with you?" they say. Joseph is just taking the next step past what we already agree on (in this forum anyways) and that is a scary place to go to.

12/22/13, 8:48 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Lance -- Precisely. Thank you.

However, I'm also questioning the generally-assumed causality of science begets technology.

I'm thinking about a post I recently saw, making an impassioned plea for parents to vaccinate their children, and I thought about the eradication of smallpox.

Talking about the "conquest of nature" as an inviable philosophy can be taken to the absurd extreme of saying that humans should therefore try to not alter their environment at all (binary thinking), meaning if people can't find an appropriate cave, they have to stand outside and get wet. Every organism on the earth alters its environment in an attempt to live a little easier, and humans are no different. So if we figure out how to eradicate smallpox, I for one am not going to shed any tears over "viral genocide."

But the smallpox vaccine was developed from cowpox in the late 1700's, and involved simple observation of milkmaids and "Hey, let's try infecting people with cowpox and see if that works as well as when milkmaids catch it accidentally." It worked, so they kept doing it. That, and some political will to violate people's "civil liberties" by vaccinating everyone who came in contact with a smallpox victim, effectively eradicated smallpox.

No genes were sequenced in this process. There were no double-blind studies. No one understood WHY milkmaids so rarely caught smallpox after they'd had cowpox.

Malaria eradication in the US has been a similar sort of observe-and-imitate process. It doesn't take much "science" to observe that malaria incidents rise during mosquito season, and all attempts to eliminate malaria are centered around eradicating mosquitos, first by draining swampland, and finally (in the US) by widespread use of DDT.

You don't need a culture of science to drain swamps.

I think DDT is a fairly typical example of how science actually interacts with technology. It did require a culture of science to synthesize DDT (1874), but what this did was to create a "playbox" with a bunch of new toys in it, toys that don't occur in nature, toys with completely unknown properties. The insecticidal properties of DDT were not discovered until 1939, and it was only after widespread use that its harmful side effects were discovered and publicized (1972).


12/22/13, 11:27 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
(… continued)

A culture of science can create a "playbox" of things that don't exist in nature-as-we-experience-it. This may contain useful toys. It may contain harmful toys. It will likely contain toys both useful and harmful (e.g. DDT): any toy that doesn't already exist in nature and is useful (i.e., is potent in bringing about some effect) is likely to be very dangerous indeed, because our natural environment will not have feedback mechanisms in place to regulate it.

The culture of science I was taught considers itself morally neutral: it creates toys indiscriminately, in the name of "knowledge," without any regard to consequences, which it considers "imponderable."

Viewed from a systems perspective, there are two things that a new toy created by science MUST NOT do: it must not self-replicate, and it must not persist for a long time in a natural environment.

It seems that every toy that science has created in the latter category has been at best a mixed blessing, from DDT to CRCs to GMOs to nuclear bombs and atomic power, and in the end the harm tends to outweigh the benefit, since the benefit is invariably short-term and short-sighted (e.g. profit or power), while the harm (if any) is by definition long-term.

We have (fortunately) not been very successful at the former kind of toy. The closest has been the uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction: before the first atomic bomb was tested, there were some calculations that indicated a full atomic detonation would start a nuclear chain reaction in the atmosphere's nitrogen, meaning that the Trinity test had some probability -- based on unknowns -- of incinerating the entire earth.

But we're working hard now on creating biological chimeras that will reproduce indiscriminately, and we're increasingly inclined to release them into the wind to "see what they'll do."

This is how people play with toys created by science.

I think there's a fair chance that future generations (humans or corvids), should they come across a repository of information about our age, will shudder and consider our stance of "scientific moral neutrality" to be one of the most criminally negligent and irresponsible things they've ever imagined.

They will thank their gods that our culture died.

12/22/13, 11:28 AM

the Heretick said...
it is not just nature which science has reduced to a subject to be studied, but our selves as part of nature.
we are all a part of this grand experiment, to be poked, prodded and transformed.
the human genome project is regarded as a great triumph; it has brought the rise of XNA, synthetic DNA is a reality, so we now have the ability to alter ourselves.
millions of years of evolution is not enough for the naked ape, the fanatic futurists wish to have implants and gene grafting.

what rough beats indeed.

12/22/13, 11:46 AM

Lance M. Foster said...
Interesting synchronicity: "Many have suggested fanciful ideas about how to name another forming “faith” that many don’t even recognize as existing. “Scientific Mysticism” will do. Non-anthropocentric, often represented in science fiction (especially if one includes the work of people like Ursula LeGuin and the visions of pop film), welcoming to indigenous “spirituality” (whatever that is, so long as it’s land-based)… (

12/22/13, 12:25 PM

sgage said...
@ Joe Nemeth,

I think the tone of my reply to you did not come across as I meant it. I was genuinely wondering about how we might define some of the terms you used, not doubting the sincerity of your post. I simply found those terms subject to varying and broad interpretations...

12/22/13, 1:00 PM

sgage said...
@ Lance,

I don't know if you were referencing my post, but I was basically asking for some definition of terms.

Certainly no denial, anger of any kind, or sputtering. I wasn't saying 'What's wrong with you', I honestly wanted to know what he meant.

(captcha: exclusive stresse)

12/22/13, 1:03 PM

Gaianne said...
KL Cooke 12/20/13 10:22

It is certainly possible to calculate using Roman numerals, but no, it is not particularly easy, and the Romans did not do that. They used an abacus or a counting table, with beads or pebbles, which is easy, once basic algorithms are learned. Even long division is not hard, merely tedious.

However, the mathematics of Roman engineering was excessively crude. For example, their wonderful aqueducts were designed without a proper concept of flow rates. They built their arches without any theory of structures and stresses. Mainly they just learned from experience (failures) accumulated over a long span of time. So calculations per se were not necessary.


12/22/13, 2:37 PM

Dagnarus said...

"The biggest problem with automatic weapons and modern firearms in the Long Descent is that you have to be able to produce parts consistently to very high tolerances and levels of precision."

I think you've overlooked the fact that guns need ammunition, and automatic weapons use ammunition a lot faster than a single shot rifle. Apparently at one point the US was firing about 250,000 bullets for every insurgent killed in Iraq. That suggests to me that one of the biggest problems with automatic weapons in the long descent would be keeping the troops supplied with ammunition. I wouldn't be surprised if in the future armies equipped with automatic weapons will get soundly beaten by armies with bolt-action rifles simply because the former army was incapable transporting enough ammunition to the front, let alone being capable manufacturing enough.

12/22/13, 5:17 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@Joseph Nemeth--You have asked a profound question. My answer may be philosophically naive, but I'll offer it anyway.

When it comes to the physical universe, there is such a thing as truth. It's better to know the truth than to have to guess.

I went to summer camp as a child, and spent a lot of time staring up at the night sky from my sleeping bag. Away from the suburban light pollution, there were a whole lot more visible stars than at home, almost a different reality.

I was interested in astronomy, so I knew what stars were, about how far away they were and what the Milky Way is. None of those facts could be deduced from staring at the stars for half an hour at a time with my naked (actually behind glasses correcting for myopia) eyes. The stars appeared and felt cold and mysterious. As a thought experiment, I entertained the idea that I was looking at an opaque hollow sphere randomly pricked with holes through which a great light was shining. That explanation fit what I was seeing equally well.

The ancient Greeks worked out the shape and size of the Earth from careful observation and geometry. They didn't have the technical means to figure out the true distance of the sun. They didn't know the four states of matter; they didn't know the difference between the fire of an oil lamp and the fire of nuclear fusion. They did not know all the naturally occurring elements and how the elements relate to each other. They did not know that the materials of which the Earth is made were formed in the furnace of our star. They would have liked to have known these things.

I hold in my mind both a mythical understanding of the sun and moon as divine master and mistress of human life and a scientific understanding of the same. The sun begets the matter and energy in which we have our being; the moon stabilizes the tilt of our planet's axis and governs the tides, providing favorable conditions for the evolution of complex life forms.

Without science, I would only have the poetic version of the story.

12/22/13, 7:51 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Joseph Nemeth: “Yet in two generations, these savages went from "man and wife" to at least sixty three grandchildren. Should the mathematics of their lifestyle continue, a century would see them a thousand-strong. Two centuries would see them a million-strong. Despite the stillbirths, the diphtheria, the cancer, the dotage and senility. Or, at a thousand-strong, the family blood-feuds and wars.”

I think you will find that such population growth in such people oddly, mostly occurs in civilizations and times that are wealthy, there is plenty of food and land, and reasonable public order.

Come the Dark Age and it is those who can command the sublime technology, art and beauty of a Long Ship or a medieval full suit or armor, or a water wheel, or whatever is the equivalent this time around, who prosper and spread their genes. People get the wrong idea about dark ages, judging from the last one they can be periods of thriving innovation where much depends on the development and successful adoption of novel ideas.

By the way, civilization changing ideas can as easily be, say, double entry accounting as the cross bow.

Stephen Heyer

12/22/13, 8:58 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Joseph,

Quote: "A culture of science can create a "playbox" of things that don't exist in nature-as-we-experience-it. This may contain useful toys. It may contain harmful toys."

What seems obvious to me is that nature does not go out of her way to provide an environment that is suitable for humans. I grow and eat several types of mushrooms here so am (sort of) fascinated with fungi. Yet, in the garden there are many types of mushrooms growing, some of which may be edible, whilst others may be harmful. I dunno which ones are OK to eat and don't wish to undertake the experiment.

Your quote reminded me of a story about the old timer timber fellers Down Under.

Those guys lived in the middle of nowhere and felled the largest trees on the planet. The funny thing was though, they used to enjoy a bush tea made from the aromatic indigenous Sassafras tree (which I have growing here). It smells lovely however, it is also a potent carcinogen and ingesting it is a bad idea. The forest had the last laugh. The trees themselves have since re-sprouted.

Nature also has the potential to be beneficial as well as harmful, so science may just be reflecting nature?

What your comments are hedging around is that science fails to make a value judgement on the likely outcomes of practising that art.

I live immersed with nature - up to my eyeballs in fact - and she has beauty as well as sheer terror. Aren't we also simply an extension of nature? Why would science be any different? Take away the fossil fuel benefits and you’ll see it all clearly.

Hi Phil,

Thanks. I dunno either. Blame the chickens. Truly, I've been practicing meditating whilst supervising their activities. It can be a bit complex when they decide to start digging up the driveway though. I've decided to thwart their evil plans though by simply growing some fast growing herbs in that area.

As an interesting aside, I've recently discovered that the herb evening primrose is resistant to glyphosate. As an author from Down Under once said, concentrate on growing things, not killing them. Wise words.



12/23/13, 12:23 AM

das monde said...
Wolfram's investigation of cellular automata is not much different from an looking how chemical substances interact with each other "on their own terms". The proportion of completely non-interesting interactions is similar. And like in most other scientific investigations, the motive to discern most remarkable and potentially productive patterns is just the same friend of pure curiosity. DNA self-assembly algorithms is already an empirical+modeling field of research. Before long, simple rules with useful consequences would be implemented in organizations and what not. First though, functional modes of chaotic phenomena have to be still worked out (if that is a right idea at all).

Regular scientists are not that hell-bent to subjection of nature - pure curiosity is still their deep motivation. But applicability pressures increased at the universities - and that was not scientists' initiative at all. The centuries-old university institution has been significantly corporatized in the last decades. Scientists are still very well trained in research logic, and it is hard to tell them something new here. But they generally do not wish to bother with interests' games and media circus. Public perceptions of science are predominantly generated by most sponsored fields (like economics, haha) and new management tricks. These are corrupting factors indeed.

And regarding this called Progress Religion: some political differentiation would be interesting. The liberal types like Carl Sagan do not take progress for granted. Just check liberal community blogs: scientific knowledge meshes with concerns of the civilization course almost daily. Carl Sagan would be concerned today similarly - though most likely ignored or ridiculed in today's media. Who are the real priests of the Progress Religion now? Guys like Thomas Friedmann, Matt Ridley, Malcolm Gladwell - real shills for that "responsible" corporate freedom to act regardless of broad consequences, so deliberately nursed in today's deceptive political economy. This "conservative" tradition derives more directly from Christian insecurities than from liberal fantasies, I guess. In a cynical sense, spreading Progress Religion is a rational strategy now - for those who may indeed know better. Ain't it convenient to keep impressions of cyclic recoveries and inevitable progress constantly present in the collective consciousness, when the things will not really go that direction? Some may not be sure about subjection of nature, but are very confident about managing masses in crisis. That is a less public science, possibly with cellular automata.

12/23/13, 3:20 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
I think that two related aspects of materials science have been generally overlooked - and very valuable. Durability and time related failure modes.

How long will a variety of engineered plastics last in a variety of environments ? How specifically will they fail ?

BTW, I noted that the cast iron US Capital Dome will be refurbished over the next two years. In 1860, cast iron was the high tech material.

12/23/13, 6:46 AM

redoak said...
@sgage, Joseph, Lance

I think the question of value of science cannot be extricated from the question of the value of human understanding more generally. For it is only when science is abstracted from this whole that we suffer its excess and abuse. Though the list of holistic modes of thinking Lance laid out (Druidry, philosophy, meditation, etc.) has not been hugely influential in taming our excesses, human beings are capable of a great deal of political diversity and so other modes and orders are possible, perhaps even ones with some respect for wisdom. Who knows, decline might be a catalyst for change in this direction.

It is an amusing piece of historical naiveté that Francis Bacon’s proposed utopia (find it his very readable New Atlantis) restricted science to an elite and wise ruling class, somewhat like philosopher kings with slide rules, but without all the irony. The point was to maintain a social order among the masses through the celebration of their material success. (If I remember correctly, the highest praise is given to those with the most offspring! So safe to say the lower classes were not spending time in the lab…) For Bacon, science and technology would be safely managed through wise political philosophy. It is a difficult and troubling path forward from Bacon, through his protégé Hobbes, all the way to our current predicament where political wisdom itself seems naïve. In some ways it represents the path of ideological ascent to Hubbert’s peak. That’s a story worth telling JMG (if you run out of better material!).

12/23/13, 8:04 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@sgage -- No worries. Thank you for offering space by asking for definitions. Definitions are, however, pretty straightforward. I hope the ensuing discussion has clarified that?

@deborah -- Me, too.

So far, I've heard (here) two reasons to do science.

One is aesthetic: it is worthwhile because it creates beauty, just as music or art creates beauty. I'm on-board with that.

The other, proposed by JMG, is that it is a useful personal mental discipline, which he has compared to formal logic, or to martial arts. I'm not sold on this one yet.

The science-begets-technology-begets-comfort/wealth/power is commonly accepted, and is the underlying justification for most of the big money poured into science research. I don't buy this: to the extent that this actually works at all, I think it tends to be more harmful than useful, e.g. DDT or CFCs.

There's another reason for doing science, probably the main reason it's done. Fresh out of graduate school, I landed a position in the R&D division of a privately-held billion-dollar company. After a few years working there, I figured out that we were really an off-the-books division of marketing: our job was to wear lab coats and geek-out high-ranking dignitaries from other companies: we were exotic parakeets, or "bards of the court." Our job was merely to impress -- little else. In other words, doing science is valuable simply because everyone else is doing it, and it is important to "keep up with the Joneses."

Space race, anyone? "Falling behind in basic research?"

12/23/13, 10:14 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@sgage -- no worries. I hope some of the ensuing discussion has cleared this up a bit, or at least cleared up the extent to which I'm confused about the matter myself.

@deborah -- me too. :-)

@stephen -- I have to disagree on a number of points. Things like long ships or suits of armor are artifacts of a civilization at its peak, not headed into decline. Medieval Catholic Europe was a civilization in its own right, probably peaking around the Scholastic age in the thirteenth century, then degenerating into the Age of Cathedrals (large, useless monuments to the past) and finally into the debauchery of the Renaissance Popes. It was the decline of the Church that made the Renaissance possible in Italy, and the Protestant movement possible throughout the rest of Europe.

But I most certainly disagree with the premise that masters of technology preferentially pass on their genes. One of the most prevalent sets of genes throughout Eurasia are the "Genghis Khan" genes, and he didn't boast any technological mastery that I'm aware of. He just got around. A lot.

@cherokee -- well, yes, people are part of nature, as is what people do, including science. And even in a stable forestland, some fungus may come along with a new chemical defense that gives it a short-term advantage, destabilizes the sere, and wipes out its own environment along with itself and its vaunted new adaptation. I'm not enough of a naturalist to know if or how often this actually happens.

If it happens to humans, well, it happens. But I reserve the very human right to point fingers and complain mightily as we all go down. As well as the right to holler about it beforehand.

12/23/13, 1:59 PM

sgage said...
@ Joseph Nemeth

"I hope the ensuing discussion has clarified that?"

Yes, and given me much food for thought. I wrestle with the same ideas, and appreciate your take on it...

12/23/13, 3:12 PM

Crow Hill said...
JMG: A superb so clearly captures and explains the world in which we exist today, a great pleasure to read… followed by most enlightening comments and links form readers. Thanks to all.

This blog reminds me of those intellectual salons held in pre-1789 Revolution France.

JMG said: “(Science is) good training for the mind, and helps evade certain common stupidities.”

I agree. I studied science at university after having had a go at philosophy, because I felt it was healthier for my then depressed mind.

The books which cured me from the religion of progress were those of Rene Guenon, the Crisis of the Modern World (1937), the Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times (1945) etc. It’s his solutions I’m less enthusiastic about. However the Unanimous Tradition could serve as one source of inspiration for a new stage of humanity.

About science and technology: Apparently there is a lot of essential work to be done in zoology and botany which doesn’t need any special tools or techniques apart from observation, but the funding goes to those using molecular biology, leaving the field open to “amateurs” for the first category.

David Abram in Becoming Animal talking about his disappointment with science as taught at school and university: “The real truth was always hidden behind the scene…whether in the super small world of electrons, neutrons, and quarks, or in that dimension—inconceivably distant in space and times—wherein the cosmos emerged from the primordial big bang.”

“Nature also has the potential to be beneficial as well as harmful, so science may just be reflecting nature?”

What’s harmful to one being is beneficial to another, the predator and prey. Or the implosion of stars that created the elements we are made of. And those mushrooms you eat. Is it beneficial or not for them to be eaten by you? Or evolution, the destruction of dinosaurs enabling us to come into existence.

Joseph Nemeth: I find the relative or person you describe stoically or rather faithfully suffering from cancer and getting on with life admirable.

12/23/13, 11:30 PM

Somewhatstunned said...
(part 1 of 2)
Re: this "nature of science" business. Of course the word "science" is used in at least four different ways. The usage that interests me is ... well some quick quotes from other people:

...natural science is for its students an enlightening vision, a form of contemplation which, equally with the arts, can properly serve as the centre of a full human life
(Mary Midgley. from: Utopias, Dolphins and Computers)

So although the theories of science should never be mistaken for absolute all-embracing truth they do provide us with the clearest and in many ways most useful account of the material universe that we are ever likely to enjoy - and indeed some of the non material matters, including psychology and perhaps even sociology, and bits of economics. Science is an aesthetic pursuit. … I would like to … suggest that the prime purpose of science is not to change the universe but to enhance our appreciation of it.(Colin Tudge from: So shall we reap)

12/24/13, 1:10 AM

Somewhatstunned said...
[part 2 of 2 "science" as valuable activity, my feelings expressed in other peoples words]

The essence of science is not a body of knowledge but a way of thinking. It is a matter of being concerned with ‘what is’ and not with ‘it ought’ or ‘I wish’
(Dorothy Rowe from: The real meaning of money)

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
(Richard Feynman: The pleasure of finding things out)

... and before someone says "but look what happens in practice",

... assumptions having social and political origins and serving social and political interests can enter into science under the guise of adequate science. …It can by no means be taken for granted that all that is put forward in the name of science and justified ostensibly in terms of its interests and aims does, as a matter of fact, serve those interests and contribute to that aim ... (Alan Chalmers: Science & its Fabrication)

12/24/13, 1:17 AM

Marcello said...
"However, I'm also questioning the generally-assumed causality of science begets technology."

Depends on the examples me thinks. Didn't the modern electric motor come out only after quite a bit of theory and experimentation?

"Apparently at one point the US was firing about 250,000 bullets for every insurgent killed in Iraq. That suggests to me that one of the biggest problems with automatic weapons in the long descent would be keeping the troops supplied with ammunition. I wouldn't be surprised if in the future armies equipped with automatic weapons will get soundly beaten by armies with bolt-action rifles simply because the former army was incapable transporting enough ammunition to the front, let alone being capable manufacturing enough."

Dagnarus, that argument was made in the 1930's (bolt action vs semi-auto)and going by memory in the 1840's-1850's (early needle guns vs rifled muskets) and it was probably a mistake. Having a greater rate of fire is an advantage provided you have the training to use it when it matters. Plenty of suppressive fire will lead to high consumption rates but that it is done because it is now affordable. You can exercise fire discipline with assault rifles and waste ammunition with smoothbore muskets.

12/24/13, 4:12 AM

Richard Larson said...
Archdruid, your reponse to my second comment is complex in itself. Another layer of thought. Might take some time to process, thanks.

12/24/13, 5:03 AM

redoak said...
JMG, regarding the last paragraphs of your post. I just completed a graduate course in soil chemistry, a bit out of my wheelhouse, but I was able to keep my head above water long enough to keep in sight the big picture. And the big picture boils down to something like this: complexity trumps comprehension. For example, in nutrient and carbon cycling there are simply enormous and basically inaccessible functions with titles like “microbial decomposition” or “mycorrhizal associations,” or “clay complexation” that account for the majority of the action, but are by and large undiscoverable outside highly reductionist and interventionist lab experimentation. How it works in the field is probably beyond our comprehension. One tidbit that blew my mind last term, the clay fraction of a hectare of loam 1 meter deep has a chemically active surface area equivalent to the surface area of the United States! Whoa! Complexity trumps comprehension! And of course, this is just as true in many other fields of study.

The discovery of complexity through empirical observation followed the discovery of complexity through logical analysis by some 2500 years. But seeing is believing, right? The real question is what is to be done with that discovery? In very broad terms, both eastern and western philosophy use this discovery to inspire a deep and confident humility and love of life and the natural world. At least in the western tradition, the dialectic education of the soul requires a stepwise and egotistical mastery, not unlike the scientific method, to exhaustively prove that mastery itself is neither possible nor ultimately desirable. Practice is not enlightenment, however necessary. And so that is how I return to the question of the value of science. The human soul is by nature curious and deserves to know to the deepest degree possible. Science is an excellent means to this end, but that end does not express the fullness of human potential. For knowledge is not wisdom, however necessary. And so we arrive at the value of philosophy.

12/24/13, 6:50 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Matt, oh, granted -- still, it's relevant as a reflection of a certain modern mindset.

Phil, there are no cellular automata in your brain, any more than there are mathematical equations generating your thoughts. The value of both is purely that they allow us to model the behavior of natural systems, such as your brain.

Ganv, the ideology of the conquest of nature isn't just a matter of unmet desires; those are universal, as you've pointed out, while the idea that humanity ought to conquer nature is unique, as far as I know, to modern industrial culture. Plenty of ancient Greeks, for example, had unmet desires, but they pursued the fulfillment of those desires in a worldview that assigned humanity a strictly limited place in the great scheme of things, and delighted in telling stories about the hideous fates of people who tried to overstep the boundaries assigned to our species.

Zaphod, I gather you read my blog right after Jim Kunstler's!

Redoak, exactly. That's the great philosophical project of our time, and the time before us.

Travis, granted -- but it would have crashed and burned considerably sooner, and with much less overall damage to the planet, had fossil fuels not been available to throw it into overdrive.

Raven, I've long fancied the suggestion that Bill Gates has it, which is why Microsoft's headquarters is located within sight of a very large volcano...

Joseph, at this point we've passed from facts to values, and values are always personal. If you don't think that the practice of scientific thinking has value, that's your personal choice, and can't be gainsaid by anyone else. I disagree, and want to see the option kept available.

Ruben, that's another source of good models. The existence of one such source certainly doesn't rule out the existence of others!

Mortal, the thing that worries me is that people in general seem more likely to confuse sales-pitch science with the real thing, and throw both of them out together. So long as scientists don't take their revulsion at corporate and government distortion of science out of the ivory tower and start talking about it in public, they're likely to end up dangling from lampposts right next to the corporate executives.

12/24/13, 2:24 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Ruben, fascinating! I'm not surprised -- and this on top of the embarrassing inability to replicate some of the most fundamental experiments of modern science isn't exactly helping...

Steve, thanks for the heads up.

KL, they didn't. They used geometry instead of arithmetic. So, by the way, did Isaac Newton -- I recommend a read through his Principia Mathematica; the geometric proofs he uses are very different from modern mathematical methods, and, ahem, a good deal more elegant. As for Brownian motion, bingo -- cellular automata do a very good job of imitating phenomena of that kind.

Unknown Tom, are you familiar with Prigogine's work? He has a lot to say about the way that system complexification depends on an open thermodynamic system.

Euro, I haven't followed his more recent work. Even so, even a broken clock catches a blind mouse, or what have you.

Roger, I'm not too worried. Human beings simply aren't that smart; what passes for "a complete understanding of reality" among us is simply a set of symbolic relationships that more or less makes sense of whatever part of reality we like thinking about at the moment.

Ben, you might check out some of the popular viewpoints in the Classicism/Romanticism debate of the late 18th and early 19th centuries for examples.

Iuval, I'd say rather that mathematics are a reflection of the inner structure of the same nervous systems with which we're experiencing the universe, so close fits can be expected now and again!

Neo, excellent. Coulter is, as usual, beneath contempt; that little outburst of hers has just earned her a somewhat undignifed role in tomorrow's post.

Lance, good. Of course there's going to have to be a sorting out, and the practice of science as it exists in future societies will no doubt be shorn of a lot of the more abusive dimensions of current practice -- but then the same thing happened to logic in its time.

Heretick, as I commented earlier, human nature is part of nature, and the conquest of nature was always at least partly about the conquest of human nature.

Lance, thanks for the tip.

12/24/13, 2:41 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Das Monde, the relationship of the motivations of individual scientists to the effective orientation of the scientific project as a whole is a complex one. I've seen far too much research fraud at work to believe that the corruption of science is purely a matter of how it's applied, and the tendency of scientists to end up focusing purely on the results of their own manipulations is distinct from corporate corruption as well. As for the confidence of the would-be manipulators of crowds, we'll see how well founded that is...

Alan, a good point.

Crow Hill, well, if there were a Unanimous Tradition, that might be an option. Unfortunately every attempt to define one -- Guenon's very much included! -- very quickly devolves into frantic cherrypicking of sources in support of a preconceived ideological agenda. Oddly enough, I'm rereading "The Reign of Quantity" just now, and once again finding it fascinating and distressing to watch a brilliant and erudite mind come so very close to getting it, and then run right off the rails over and over again.

Stunned, clearly I'm going to have to read more of Midgley and Chalmers!

Richard, glad to hear it.

Redoak, good! Of course science doesn't reach the fulfillment of human potential, any more than logic does. Both are toolkits with a relatively narrow focus, good for solving certain common problems and for developing certain helpful qualities of mind and character. Philosophy in the full, ancient sense of the word -- I have Pierre Hadot's discussions of the concept very much in mind here -- provides the frame within which all such specialized mental toolkits have their place.

12/24/13, 2:53 PM

das monde said...
JMG: Science by itself is not absolutely clean, surely. But science has standards - and those standards are miles high compared with discourses in the media, politics, and even justice systems. At least science is doing what it is supposed to do 99% of the time. The recent organizational reforms and funding shifts are decreasing the standards - by quite a new order of magnitude. This is a challenge for the scientific community, as it hardly ever faced such a self-destructive (or possibly deliberate) global course. But here is an example of a similar downwards transition: the Hellenic Greece had shown an interesting blip of real scientific innovation - but the Romans did not catch it. Sagan should have looked into that.

12/24/13, 5:18 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Joseph Nemeth: “I have to disagree on a number of points. Things like long ships or suits of armor are artifacts of a civilization at its peak, not headed into decline.”

Which brings up the whole question of what we mean when we rather loosely refer to a “civilization”.

To quote Wikipedia “Civilization … generally refers to state polities which combine these basic institutions: a ceremonial centre (a formal gathering place for social and cultural activities), a system of writing, and a city... divided into social classes with a ruling elite and subordinate urban and rural populations”.

Yet what we often refer to is actually a culture, society or ethnic group, or, more usually some combination of all three.

I don’t think the Nordic people who built the Long Ships were a civilization, though they certainly were a culture and a society and an ethnic group. Neither, I think, did being near a cultural peak or not come into it: Rather, I suspect, they were a good example of the kind of opportunistic middle power that thrives when there is no Roman style civilization to “control” them.

And by the way, this kind of society usually seems to be far more inclined to develop new ideas and technologies than the usual run of civilizations, with the notable exception of the nations that arose in Western Europe and China (but that is a different discussion). Probably, I guess, because the Western European civilizations tend:
1. To retain many of the primitive features of cultures/ethnic groups.
2. To have economic systems and social arrangements in which slavery plays a minor role if any.

I won’t argue the point on whether some (and only some) Medieval societies were also civilizations, and in which time periods, though I think there is an interesting and prolonged discussion to be had on that one.

What I will argue is that continual technological, social, artistic and economic innovation preceded, continued through and continued after the Medieval period, including Medieval Catholic Europe. So, you see, I would argue strongly that advances in ships, weapons, society and technology enabled rather than depended on Medieval civilization.

Whether a particular civilization was peaking or not at a particular time had little to do with it.

As for: “But I most certainly disagree with the premise that masters of technology preferentially pass on their genes. One of the most prevalent sets of genes throughout Eurasia are the "Genghis Khan" genes, and he didn't boast any technological mastery that I'm aware of. He just got around. A lot.”

What!!! Genghis Khan didn’t command technology (and lots of related techniques such a military organization and training, governing an empire, integrating foreign knowledge and lots else)??? Come on, read about the guy a bit!

I mean, he shaped a bunch of nomadic desert herders into a nation and military force that took down the most technologically advanced major power on earth – China. Read about the tactics that annihilated the best Medieval armies, the superb laminated bows that made sniping practical, the light silk armor, the administration developed from scratch that controlled the largest contiguous empire in history.

You don’t have to make the stuff to command it (I carefully used the word “command”, not master). In fact the investment in skill needed to (a) produce it and (b) use it to best advantage is usually well beyond the capacities of one person: The maker and the user often need to be separate people.

Oh! And the user is not necessarily the person who commands it, that is often yet a third level, one that requires understanding of the technology, how to use it best, how to manage the users and much else.

Likewise, it is the successful who pass on their genes and this is exactly what Genghis Khan’s 30 million descendents demonstrate. After all, that is what the whole game is about, and all it is about, at least according to that cruel old witch – Mother Nature.

12/24/13, 8:53 PM

stream walker said...
Wolfram's work isn't all as original or groundbreaking as he claims, and apparently quite a bit of it has been falsified, see for a rather lengthy and in depth review.

As for failure to attribute the work of others predating ANKS:

"Here is a precis of Wolfram's history of cellular automata. He discovered them in 1981 (although he had made important precursor experiments earlier, as a teenager). Some time later he learned that John von Neumann had had the idea 30 years earlier. But von Neumann missed making the crucial discovery that simple rules could produce complex behavior, and so did others who toyed with the systems in the intervening years. By the late 1970s, "research on systems equivalent to cellular automata had largely petered out." But then the publication of Wolfram's papers redefined and reinvigorated the field, drawing in many followers—although most of them went off on the wrong tangent or wasted their time on trivial details.

It didn't happen that way. To begin with, interest in cellular automata did not peter out in the 1970s; it was thriving. The field continued to grow in the 1980s, when Wolfram's participation doubtless helped, but more important was work on the physics of computation and reversible cellular automata. Wolfram took no part in that. The main actors were Edward Fredkin, Charles Bennett, Tommaso Toffoli and Norman Margolus—who were also, as it happens, the ones who explained to Wolfram in 1981 the nature and historical context of his own work." And so forth.

Finally, this: discusses some of the pioneering work by Fredkin in this field.

12/25/13, 2:49 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
Hi John,

I usually don’t comment when I have nothing to add, but I just wanted to get in a thanks for sharing the rather profound (to me) observation that models are not the things they model, light isn’t a wave or a particle, before this thread closed.

That is one of a limited number of things that changed to some degree the way I understood at the universe, yet after I finally comprehended them, left me wondering how I had managed to not see them for so long.


Stephen Heyer

12/25/13, 3:22 AM

Zach said...
Very interesting! Thank you for another thought-provoking essay. I now have to add Wolfram to my ever-growing "Archdruid Report Reading List."

I had a few small forays into this kind of science back in the late 1980s as an undergraduate, before leaving it for more "practical" (employable) work.

My favorite was part of a senior-level math seminar on chaos theory and fractals. The most famous fractal, of course, is the Mandelbrot set. It's a beautiful example of a simple rule yielding amazing complexity.

The rule, in English rather than as an equation, is this: take any complex number c. Square it, then add c to the result. Square that result and add c again. Repeat this endlessly.

Now, consider the question: does the value of the result "blow up" (increase without limit) or not? That's the Mandelbrot set - the collection of points that don't blow up when this rule is applied. As the Wikipedia article notes, this yields a distinctive and easily-recognized shape.

My partner and I had an idea for a project, and asked our professor "What's so special about two as the power? What if we cubed the sum every time? What about arbitrary powers?"

"I have no idea - what a great question!" was the reply.

So we wrote a simulation to find out.

And it turned out that there's a simple relationship between the exponent n in the equation and the overall shape of the set.

We got our grade for the project, celebrated, and thus ended my one bit of original mathematical research. :)

I note with both awe and amusement that my smartphone supports, as a toy application, a fractal generator which does in fine detail the same simulation we did crudely on a PC in 1989, and does it in mere seconds rather than the hours we needed. Progress!


P.S.: It seems to me that Christopher Alexander's "Pattern Language" of architecture might be another example of this sort of science.

P.P.S.: Merry Christmas to all! Even to those celebrating different holy days or none at all. May you have joy and merriment anyway. :)

12/25/13, 5:45 AM

Phil Harris said...
Mysterious brains.

There are a lot of cells (100 billion in the human brain) and most activity is automatic. There are perhaps 60 trillion connections.

It is daft for me to try to join any debate on ‘maps and territory’ as these arguments might apply to brains and the human brain in particular. There have been better brains than mine addressing the topic over a very long time. My inclination is to think of brains as having both territory and maps.

Most brain activity does not seem to be about ‘thinking’, and even when it is, much information acquisition and processing appears to be automatic and below ‘consciousness’. As an afterthought, some of my more accurate thinking in the sense of ‘sorting information’ appears to happen at night when I am asleep :)

BTW; thinking about computer ‘cellular automata’ experiments, there are no actual ‘cellular automata’ in a computer. It is just simulation – a coded language that expresses as language and form? But it is widely recognised that very complex behaviours likewise arise in biology from iteration of simple rules among multiple connected components.

Recent discussion and comment caused me to learn some interesting stuff about brain development here


12/25/13, 9:50 AM

Crow Hill said...
JMG: Thanks for sharing the synchronicity about Rene Guenon: a nice Christmas present. And Merry Christmas to you.

12/25/13, 12:43 PM

Petr said...
I just wanted to thank you for noting the Wolfram's book. It is great. I can't stop reading it online, despite I already ordered a printed version. :)

12/27/13, 3:30 PM

Roger said...
They say that God incarnated Himself via a human mother. They say He tried to get humanity back on the rails and in the process left behind a body of sayings.

Let's assume there's such a person as Satan. What might Satan have thought? What if Satan said "this cannot stand". What would he do? Incarnate himself in the form of an anti-Christ? What would be the sayings of Satan? Would they be found in something like Mein Kampf?

Or maybe never mind going through the trouble and mess of a human incarnation. It's all so undignified, especially to one supposedly so mighty and proud and with the stones to defy the Creator Himself! The illegitimate son of a Jewish peasant girl? Bah!

No, there must be less obvious and more devious means of influence. You know, nudge human affairs this way and that with light-handed interventions, all obscured by the fog of the day-to-day.

Maybe a momentary distraction to get someone to turn this way instead of that way so as to get an idea or thought to combust. An odd co-incidence one may think, a unexpected meeting, a small, inexplicable event.

Maybe, once in a great while, if the stakes are really high, something that requires a major hack and re-write of reality. And so there's a conversation between a snake and a girl in a garden. Or, as Satan might sneeringly retort, a virgin birth.

But, usually, no obvious glitches in the matrix, nothing that any rational person couldn't explain away.

People so influenced may say and do things with the worst or, better still, the BEST of intentions (the road to Hell being well paved with both but especially the latter). But they can't see the future nor far reaching consequences. After all you live your life in five minute slices.

Was Satan behind screeds by that bitter little war veteran with the comical moustache? Who can say? Personally, I think that truly long lasting and pernicious ideas have to be in respectable garb, sounding sane and reasonable, with established philosophical underpinnings and the imprimatur of prestigious institutions. What might such ideas look like?

As you might say JMG: "shareholder value". How much lunacy and ruin were justified by those magic words?

Or how about: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

What on earth are folks in the NRA thinking? What possible consequences are there to ignoring this business of well regulated militias? What possible black swan events are people closing their eyes to? Sandyhooks? Multiple Sandyhooks? Could it get worse? How much worse?

12/28/13, 11:47 AM

Phitio said...
Dear JMG,
It seems to me that you are sort of missing the point with science.

First, science is a human attitude, driven by various reasons, that could be curiosity, or desire of control over nature, or simple seek for beauty. Most part of current mathematical models were shaped by esthetical issues. The Plank's formula for the Black body emission was driven by a simple matematical esthetical change ( adding a -1 in the denominator) which in turn made all the previous mathematical but inconsistent descriptions to unificate and , again gave the birth to the quantum concept.

Plese, don't understimate the incredible success of math in describing nature, because it has surprised so many times the researchers themselves that someone legitimately wondered why the mathematics is SO suspiciously successful to describe nature.

The probable answer is that nature and mathematics share a common nature, if you pass me the verbal joke.
There are some humorous questions that I love to ask to my friends: do the imaginary part of complex numbers really exist? Do the numbers "really" exists by themselves without the human brains? What really make the difference between the existence of God from the existence of a number?

Are both of them really "tools" to manage real problems of our existence? And why they indeed work?

These questions are not entirely philosophy or religion or science, they are questions that come from heart and the mind, a spontaneous process.

To go back to the question of science and models, I can confortably say , yes, the matematical models are what they are, models. They come from a particular methodological approach, that is called analysis and synthesis. It worked very well in a awful large part of natural fields. Being a scientific approach, not the science itself, it has its own limits. A lot of scientist have believed that this is the only method available, on account of its success, but it is a illusion.

I call Analysis and Synthesis the Saruman approach.

There are obviously other approaches, used in other fields of science. The Holistic approach, for example, is better suited for complex systems, which simply lose their nature if you try to split apart their components in smaller ones. The Holistic approach : I call it the Gandalf approach.

I used those two Tolkien's characters because they are highly evocative of a human attitude that can drive scientist using the different approach.

The Saruman approach tend to break things apart to look inside, and is driven by a sort of lack of respect to the thing you are examining. This is particularly true when you are killing living things or people to study them. Indeed you can obtain results using this approach, but you are indeed losing something else that is extremely important in the broader view and in other subtle aspects.
The Gandalf approach is infinitely more difficult then the previous, It requires more then mere intellect, but also a great deal of humility, wisdom, patience, and respect, and the results are far less certain or directly useful. Conversely the approach itself has the possibility to reach knowledge simply unreachable to the other approach.
And, more important, this knowledge is not driven by the idea of control and conquer. It is more or less a matter of love and interest.

12/30/13, 2:05 AM

S P said...
Let me add my perspective as a physician.

It's not so much that we're wrong about the science as it is that we failed in our promises. We failed to deliver cures for everything and endless eternal youth. And now people are discovering, wait a second, this Viagra doesn't make me a 22 year old adonis, and I'm on 10 medicines and have had 10 surgeries and still every year I get older and slower.

So people are angry at the broken promises and escalating costs, as they should be.

Imagine if the space program promised people, by 2010 we will have a huge space station and a colony on the moon. And if they failed then people would stop believing them.

1/19/14, 5:47 AM