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Bodhi Chefurka
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Bodhi Chefurka is now following Dave Cohen
Oct 29, 2013
Typos, typos. ...and our place in it... ...that thought is noble..."
Sorry, RE - I didn't intend a value judgment from that - i was trying to point to the role of science as explanatory of the universe and out place ion it - in much the same way as art, philosophy or religion. We are tool-monkeys, we always do things with our knowledge. Art is pressed into service as propaganda in addition to its more benign expressive role; religion becomes a social control mechanism as well as a way of expressing reverence towards the larger universe; philosophy becomes the basis for legal systems... It's not even that though is noble and action is base. I think that some clarity can be had by unpacking the cultural roles of science and engineering a bit more clearly than we're used to doing.
One of the things that has most helped me make sense of the difference between science and engineering has been Marvin Harris' anthropological framework called "Cultural Materialism". Harris sees all human cultures as operating on three levels. The infrastructure is the level at which culture and the physical environment meet. It's where all the "means of subsistence" work to provide the culture with its physical existence. It's the level of technology - of farming, mining, manufacturing etc. Above that is the structural level, where the organizing institutions of the culture operate - the legal and educational systems, economic institutions etc. At the highest level, the "superstructure" is the level where values and meaning live. It's the level at which we explain to ourselves the nature of the world and our place in it. The other key element of CM is the concept of "Infrastructural Determinism". This principle embodies the observation that in all cultures, cultural change usually flows up from the infrastructure, usually due to changes in physical circumstances or the technology to deal with them. Changes do not flow down from the superstructure with anything like the same ease or impact. In other words, the operation of a culture responds more to changes in the outer environment or technology than to changes in value systems. In fact, most changes in value systems occur *in support of* changes that are already occurring down in the infrastructure. In this view, engineering lives at the infrastructure, since it provides the technology for promoting our continued existence. On the other hand, science is a component of the superstructure. Science explains the universe to us, and creates a sense of meaning. Religion also live in the cultural superstructure of course. Here's how I see the process working. I'll use 18th century British coal mining as an example. British society needed a new thermal technology because the forests are being depleted, so enterprising people figure out that coal can be burned in place of wood. Coal mining starts. The easy seams are rapidly exhausted, and the mines are dug deeper. But there's water down there, flooding the shafts. It needs to be pumped out, and hand vacuum pumps lose their lifting ability below about 30 feet. Some mining engineers hear about the Newcomen steam engine, and it's brought into service as a pumping engine. As the mines go deeper through the rest of the century, the early engine is found not to be efficient enough. So the call goes out from the engineers for improvements to steam engine technology. This call rises through the culture until it reaches the ears of Carnot and Clausius. They're not engineers, but scientists, and as they think about the issue, the new science of thermodynamics is born. The scientific finding are fed back to the ironmongers and mining engineers, and the problem is solved. In the process, a new science has been created, one that continues to explain the operation of the universe 150 years later. The same process can be seen at work in the need for a hugely destructive weapon to win WWII. Science did not "create" the atom bomb, it merely made it possible. The long view of science is sometimes incompatible with the needs of the infrastucture, as both Oppenheimer and Wiener found out, much to their disadvantage. As long as the role of science is kept clear, there is little problem. Science explains the world up in the cultural superstructure, then engineering turns those observations into useful technology down in the infrastructure. However, when the needs of the cultural infrastructure become overwhelmingly pressing, the direction of science is subjected to great pressure flowing up from below - pressure to align its work with the technological needs of the culture. Thus the pure explanatory objective of science is gradually subverted. Scientists are forced into bed with the engineers through social pressure and grant tailoring, and we have the unfortunate, muddy result we see today.
I have a recent insight to share on this topic. First, consider HT Odum's Maximum Power Principle: "During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency." What does this tell us about why human civilization has developed as it has, and ended up in the shape it has taken? Next, consider the principle of "Primacy of Infrastructure" developed by anthropologist Marvin Harris as part of the theory of Cultural Materialism. Harris took Marx's tripartite system of {infrastructure, structure and superstructure} into the anthropological realm. In this interpretation, "Infrastructure" denotes all the technology we use to interface with the natural world's resources. "Structure" is our socioeconomic edifice - the political, economic, corporate, legal, educational and other systems that form the structural backbone of our society. The superstructure is the layer that houses all our beliefs and values - the art, literature, religion, philosophy that describes how we see ourselves and the world. The principle of Primacy of Infrastructure can be stated this way: "Social influences probabilistically flow upward, from the infrastructure to the structure and from there to the superstructure. There is much less influence in the other direction." OK, now consider Harris' principle as a corollary of Odum's. What does this combination tell us about our chances of reshaping the world towards a decline or even a restraint in the use of energy resources, by using education or activism? If upon reflection you think our chances are anything but zero, would you please explain why?
Toggle Commented Feb 11, 2013 on Is the End Near? at Question Everything
Bodhi Chefurka is now following Neven
Sep 14, 2012
@Joe Smith, ljgeoff You're definitely not alone in these perceptions. Many of us have had our "OMG!" moments, and wondered what to do next. I've chronicled a lot of my own journey since 2007 on my web site. Some of my early screeds were published on TOD as well. As I went along I realized that at every turn, on every level, in every dimension, there is no solution to this predicament. The conglomeration of wicked problems we have created, combined with our biological and cultural resistance, defy any the possibility of a "solution". Even mitigation is a very remote long shot - the latest Arctic Basin Ice Area graph showing the 2007 step function in the anomaly has been yet another confirmation. So what to do? I went through 3 years of near suicidal despair until I realized that for me the only way out was to go in. Others have taken similar paths, but many can not choose that route, and that's fine with me. After all, here are 7 billion of us, each with a deeply personal view of what constitutes "right action". I do highly recommend a bit of Buddhism to everyone who wakes up to the depth of the problem. A bit of detachment goes a long way. My take on our predicament is here: My response to it is here: I hope it helps.
Eric, among 7 billion humans you are sure to find people who are willing to think about just about anything. I used to try to argue what I saw as sense into people who I felt were off in the weeds, but I realized it makes no difference to how things unfold. Each of our opinions is just another small tug at the warp and weft of the grand tapestry of life. Now I try to let other people think about whatever they want so long as they return the favour, and don't try to talk me into sharing their POV. Transhuman nanobot singularities the like aren't my dish of tea, but perhaps my desire to operate from the position that my sense of self is an illusion, that "I" don't exist, and that reality as I know it is purely the creation of my own perceptions seems as foolish to them. It's a big old goofy world - who's to say what's foolish and what's sane? The inmates?
Toggle Commented Aug 14, 2012 on Rememberance at Question Everything
Anywhere_But_Here, "Having eliminated this primordial fear mechanism, I find that observing our current predicament is so much more enthralling." A thousand times yes. I would add that this brings up the possibility of a fifth category of air traveler. This category consists of those who know that the future is inherently unpredictable; that our sense of being in control of things is mostly an illusion; that fear is a learned response to uncertainty; and that fear can be unlearned by cultivating non-attachment to memories or expectations (or practicing the kind of complete surrender to What Is that is implied by the Arabic word "Insha'Allah"). Of course there may only be one "Buddhist" like this on any given flight, but in my opinion it's a supremely sapient response to the vagaries of life.
Toggle Commented Aug 8, 2012 on Rememberance at Question Everything
It's not reluctance so much as disinterest in that style of thought. I intend no judgment against words or for silence, it's just that I'm the wrong person to ask right now.
AZ, despite its name, the approach you point to seems quite reductionist to me. That way of understanding What Is is not useful to me at the moment, but it may be very helpful to someone else. Not that I necessarily prefer holism - or even monism - in any absolute way. I simply try to choose the mental tool appropriate to the task at hand and the inner and outer results I wish to obtain. He is modeling What Is in the best way he can, given who he is right now.
Bruce, like many others on this board - including our generous host - I share your thirst for knowing and your desire to share. One of the things I appreciate about Dr. Mobus is that he has not succumbed to emotional reactivity in the face of this knowledge. Giving in to the toxic combination of knowledge and fear creates a particularly unhelpful sort of Cassandra impulse - one I call, "Quick, everybody wake up and kiss your children goodbye!" Of course it's hard to communicate the enormity of this perception without sounding at least a little florid - my own web site is an unfortunate testimony to that impulse. On the other hand, I'm convinced that the growing awareness of limits and tipping points is acting as a springboard for many. It seems to vault some people into deep self-inquiry in an effort to come to terms with the intense feelings the knowledge can generate. Down in that well of self-inquiry many people are finding an interesting sort of liberation - holding the paradox of human potential and objective finality can do that to you. I'm convinced that this particular brand of moksha can take the lock off whatever unexpressed sapience we might have as individuals. On the third hand, I find myself becoming less enamoured of knowing and doing these days, and thirsting instead for stillness. Partly this is because I feel that knowing and doing have a poor track record - they're what got us into this pickle - and partly it's from feeling that what's really needed right now is to find the center.
Bruce, you ask the crucial question: "Now what?" We each have our own answer to that, of course. Mine has become "Wait and see what unfolds." Here is a series of questions-cum-invitations I've been extending to myself recently: - What would it be like to move past the usual behaviors of clinging to the past, judging the present and fearing the future? - What would it be like to lay down all expectations and belief, and simply live with What Is? - Might this radical approach open my heart and calm my mind sufficiently to let me see opportunities that my normal closed behavior hides from me? - Might it allow me to live more deeply and richly even as I am buffeted and spun by the forces of change? - How would I prefer to face my inevitable death - filled with awe and wonder, or brimming over with bitterness and regret? - What would happen to Me if I chose to live as a fully human being? What does that idea mean to me? It's exhilarating to limn the possibilities of an inherently unpredictable future. Those of us who try may legitimately congratulate ourselves on our perspicacity and bravery. But perhaps even our careful, courageous, clear-eyed analysis doesn't (and even can't) describe it all. Can we allow ourselves to leave some small chink through which the unexpected might appear? Would we recognize it if it did?
Bruce, it sounds like you're alluding to things like the UCC, is that correct? My belief-system is in neutral about the implications I've heard, but I know TPTB are working hard to shovel anything related to that set if ideas down the memory hole post haste. The usual CT tags are being hung on most people who try to talk about it openly.
Here's a subversive thought. "There is no problem." Thinking of "what is" in terms of "what should have been" is a sure recipe for suffering, for both individuals and societies. We are exactly where we are, we could not possibly be anywhere else. Things could not, in this moment, be any different than they are. What makes our situation appear to be a problem or predicament is our fervent wish that things be different than they are (or will be). We are, individually and collectively, engaged in a process, not a problem. The situation in which we find ourselves will evolve and change, and in the course of that change particular things may or may not happen. When the wave function collapses, we are left with what is. Fretting over what might be or what might have been is just another form of the attachment the Buddha identified 2500 years ago. Anyone who has spent some time in self-inquiry knows exactly where attachment leads, and why such suffering has no virtue.
Toggle Commented Jul 13, 2012 on What Am I Watching? at Question Everything
More and more these days I find myself inclined to say less and less. Fortunately there are people to whom I can sometimes point and murmur, "What he said!" George, you are one such person. Thank you for everything you think.
Toggle Commented Jun 25, 2012 on What is the Universe Up To? at Question Everything
Is there a single marker of sapience? I think it can be expressed in a wide variety of contexts, in every domain of human experience, whether intellectual, emotional or spiritual. Non-dualism is an expression of sapience in the spiritual domain. Sapience has been a consistent, though rare, phenomenon throughout history. I'd propose that its main impact has been at the individual level because there has never been a critical mass of high sapients in the species. The idea that one must be compelled to action by worldly circumstances may be true, but I would also submit that what you might recognize as legitimate action may be much different from my definition. I believe that individual action is ultimately all that matters, as individual action is the foundation stone of all human change. But I also believe that talk is action - as is contemplation.
The following observation is by Adyashanti, one of America's top non-dualism teachers. It speaks to me in the same way as the Dark Mountain ethos and Charles Eisenstein's book "The Ascent of Humanity". I bring it up here because I feel that embracing a non-dualist philosophy is a marker of sapience. "The hope for the environment does not lie in the hands of the environmentalists. They simply sit on the opposite side of the duality from those who destroy the environment. They are culprits in continuing a type of violence that is the very root of what causes us to destroy the environment. "The hope for the environment lies in the realization that all beings and all things are yourself, including those who oppose you. Until your vision and compassion is big enough to include those who oppose you, you are simply contributing to the continuation of destructiveness. The end of separation is the salvation for all."
Bruce, I feel your pain, but that's much too short-term thinking. The goal is to get as many sapients into the evolutionary selection pool as possible. Your genes don't care what you do for a living. 20,000 years from now nobody will care what your children did either, only whether they reproduced sufficiently to augment the gene pool with more sapients. Your concerns are those of an individual citizen, not those of a member of a species on an evolutionary quest. Lift your eyes to the far horizon, my son, and all these overweening latifundian concerns pale into insignificance... Sorry to wax a bit flippant, but I'm burned out from a decade of solid worry and analysis of all the things that are going wrong today. There are too many problems in the predicament, they're simply not soluble, and the bottleneck now appears to be upon us. Frankly, it's a huge relief to have a long-term hopeful ideas like the "The Evolution of Sapience by Means of Natural Selection" to think about. It takes my mind off the infinitude of intransigent day to day political, economic, cultural, psychological, energy, resource, climatic and ecological disasters that are starting to unfold, intersect and amplify around us.
Bruce, you ask what those who are sapient might do to prepare. I'd say the overriding priority should be to find another sapient of the opposite sex and have children. I think the future is too inherently unknowable for any specific physical planning beyond learning low-energy, low-resource techniques for daily living. All the sapients I know seem to be taking up permaculture, for instance.
Tom, what comes out the far side of this event will look nothing like what went in. Is a caterpillar a failed experiment? He may think so, because self-digestion is pretty final from his point of view. But you really have to ask the butterfly. Here's a different heretical thought: Limiting our population growth right now could even be construed as a bad idea, since it would reduce the pool of selection candidates that might carry the fitness trait. Of course that comes with severe tradeoffs, but frankly, we've already made those tradeoffs. The damage is already done, and what remains is to see what the "reward" will be for the species. Maybe all those soccer moms with their 3.5 kids are doing the species a favour...
George, In my opinion this post goes far beyond your usual level of excellence. This is just plain brilliant - a quantum jump in insight. I feel like you just threw open a shuttered window I had never noticed, and let a piercing ray of pure sunshine into the room. The idea of sapience as the significant fitness characteristic and the bottleneck as the selection event has never been this clear to me. I'd always been convinced that this is some kind of evolutionary event (with such overwhelming species-level implications it could hardly be otherwise) but I hadn't been able to take it beyond Sahtouris' pupation metaphor until now. Your explanation has true genius-level simplicity, directness and accessibility. Wow! Thank you! @Aboc Zed, your idea of active trust in the face of increasing adversity being a sign of sapience is something I've long believed as well. On your other point, I think that the dissolution of the existing structure is an essential prerequisite for the change. Complete autolysis of the original organism is a fundamental aspect of the pupation metaphor. Though we all know that analogies are necessarily incomplete and misleading, it's hard to see how a total reorganization could occur so long as any of the original system's backbone remained. Its remnants would both impede and misdirect the unfoldment of the new structure.
By the way, there is always the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: I'm a big supporter!
Toggle Commented Jun 18, 2012 on Hospice For Humanity at Question Everything
Juggle, my strategy is that I will develop the dignity, and Mother Nature will supply the death as she always does. That seems like a fair and karmically clean division of responsibility to me.
Toggle Commented Jun 18, 2012 on Hospice For Humanity at Question Everything
George Once again, you've done it. Your ability to make things absolutely, uncompromisingly simple and straightforward is an enormous, treasured gift. I often wonder why those of us who have had this same vision continue to torture ourselves with "could" when we know too damned well all the reasons - from environment and culture to psychology and evolutionary biology - why "won't" is really "can't". Please excuse me now, there is grieving yet undone.
Toggle Commented Jun 17, 2012 on Hospice For Humanity at Question Everything