Sunday, June 9, 2013


No concept better expresses the essence of reality than the Chinese yin-yang. For reality as we know it is nothing if not dichotomized: anything that exists in a way that can be specifically identified or explicitly defined manifests the dichotomy of “to be or not to be” (alive-dead, 1-0, etc.).  The irony is that yin-yang is so fundamental to life that we, literate creatures that we are, are driven to construct rhetorically useful but essentially false dichotomies that serve to categorize and hence rationalize our perceptions, as epitomized by Cartesian dualism of mind vs. matter, and by our deeply rooted propensity to view the world as ‘us vs. them’—the source of the ubiquitous straw man. 

Nevertheless, I think it safe to say that we can use words to articulate ‘true’ dichotomies that bespeak the fundamental yin-yang nature of reality.  One such dichotomy is freedom-constraint.  It is yin-yang because you can’t have one without the other.  To be free is to be unconstrained, implying (the possibility of) constraint; while to be constrained is to not be free to do something that you would otherwise be free to do.  Constraints are real—physical laws such as gravity are examples.  If you don’t believe me go jump off a tall building.  I suspect you won’t because you know that in reality you are not free to do so without killing yourself.  But freedom is real too.  You really are free to make your own choices, within the constraints of who you are, where you are, etc.  And if you stand atop a tall building and release a bowling ball from the constraint of your hand then it is free to fall to the ground below in response to the constraint of gravity.  You are free to decide whether that is something that would be good to do.

Freedom-constraint: everything is free to the extent that it is not constrained.  And being granted freedom from one constraint brings into play other constraints that were formerly held at bay (i.e. constrained) by that constraint.  If you inflate a balloon and tie off the opening the pressurized gas inside the balloon is constrained from dispersing by the closed elastic wall of the balloon.  If you use a pin to burst the balloon you release that constraint, and the gas is now free to disperse in response to (the constraint of) the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which compels any unconstrained gradient to dissipate as rapidly as possible.

Another yin-yang dichotomy is rule-exception.  Physical ‘laws’ are rules that ostensibly hold without exception.  But do they, for all eternity?  It seems possible, if not probable, that they did not hold in the earliest moments of the universe, as they had not yet developed into existence.  And there may yet come a time, perhaps at the end of time, when they no longer hold, and ‘we’ will once again be free from their constraining influence (only to become constrained by something else currently held at bay by physical law).

Rules are essentially constraints, and exceptions manifest freedom from constraint.  Exceptions are the font of creativity.  Which brings us to the question of life: is it the rule or the exception?  Is life yin or yang?  Or is it both?

From the perspective of the science of physics, which is all about rules (physical law), life is clearly the exception.  No physical law entails life.  The rules of physical science do not foreordain or allow prediction of life.  That is not to say that life breaks the rules—it is constrained by them.  But if reality consisted only of rules, then there would be no life.  Life is constrained by rules, but it is exceptionally creative within those constraints.  It is not strictly yin or yang—it embodies both.  Since physical science only deals with fully-developed constraints, it fails to grant insight into the creative nature of life.  Physical science focuses exclusively on the yang while ignoring the yin.  As noted by Jacques Monod in Chance & Necessity (which might as well have been entitled Yin & Yang), the best we can do within the scientific framework is to attribute the creation and creativity of life to the impenetrable mystery of random chance—life's yin to its mechanistic yang.  And that is simply another way of saying that insofar as life is creative, it embodies freedom from constraint.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

On evolution, development, science, and humanity

From a materialist perspective, evolution is an expression of the laws of thermodynamics, and is thus both conservative (the first law) and non-conservative (the second law).  It plays out developmentally, i.e. via feedback-driven symmetry-breaking processes, occurring within ‘bounded’ systems of interactions, that actualize (by progressively increasing the probabilities of) some (singular) possibilities at the expense of (all) others.  Whatever is predictable about nature (and hence evolution) is so owing to systemic development. 

Insofar as evolution involves chance it is unpredictable.  Development nevertheless progressively leads to somewhat predictable ends.  I say “somewhat” because the predictability of development increases with development.  Immature systems are highly unpredictable, whereas mature systems behave predictably, and their continued development predictably ends with their extinction (or death).  Fortunately for life, evolution is creative, continuously (and unpredictably, by chance) spawning new incipient systems with varying amounts of developmental potential.  Some of these systems emerge developmentally via metamorphosis of old (‘senescent’) systems.

Science then, to the extent that it is a predictive (as opposed to explanatory) enterprise, can only deal with (relatively late) development, not evolution in general, or the particulars to which it by chance gives rise.  Mechanisms come to be via development, and act in turn to constrain further development in more or less predictable ways.  So, science lacks the capacity to foresee origins, and therefore cannot possibly direct the psycho-social-cultural-economic metamorphosis that is needed for the survival of civilized humanity.  The best it can do is alert us that metamorphosis is needed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On being causal and being caused

A fair amount of human activity is motivated by the desire to identify the causes of things, in answer to the questions 'how?' and 'why?'.  Answers to the latter question generally begin with the word 'because', followed by a description of circumstances that are thought to explain (make 'sense' of) whatever it was that inspired the question.

Of course, as any parent knows, any answer to to the question 'why?' only invites the same question again, as the explanation itself needs explaining.

To anyone who makes the effort to think about it (which apparently does not include politicians, pundits, or much of the voting public), it becomes quickly apparent that the notion of 'causality' is a complex can of worms.  It is, therefore, a ripe subect for philosophy, one that (like so many others) was thoroughly developed by Aristotle, who identified four causal categories: material, efficient, formal, and final.  According to Aristotle, explanations that fail to identify causes from each category are inadequate.  Of all the categories, final cause is most relevant to the question 'why', because it is the reason for a thing's existence--its intended purpose, a specific goal that fulfills some want or need.  Thus, the final cause of something is (or requires some notion or inkling of) the thing itself, or at least whatever it is that the thing will do that is desirable.

Science is ostensibly all about identifying natural causes, in order to enhance our ability to predict and control nature ('knowledge is power').  Francis Bacon, a founding father of the scientific method, sought to simplify the whole problem of causality by declaring that natural philosophy should not be concerned with 'final cause' (and to some extent formal cause as well), since the latter is something that exists only in the minds of human beings and God.  That, along with the dualism of Descartes, effectively disallowed any scientific explanations of nature involving mental anticipation and intent.

One thing that all explanations have in common is that they refer, either explicitly or implicitly, to history.  That is, the cause of anything that is happening now is something that happened in the past.  Since naturalist explanations aren't allowed to invoke mind, they do not allow for the possibility that future possibilities can influence past events.

So in general, scientists do not really address the question why--at least not in the way that it is addressed by everyone else (e.g. detectives in seeking the 'motive' of a crime).  And consequently, if we are philosophical naturalists and take the view that nature is only that which is defined by strict Baconian/Cartesesian science then we have to say that nature lacks purpose, which leads logically to the nihilistic conclusion that beyond selfish human concerns, nothing really matters: life is a Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Seeking causes is well and good, but we tend to take it way too seriously, and too far.  The notion of causality undoubtedly has an ontological basis, but the quest to identify causes is entirely epistemological--a mental phenomenon.  So it is really a linguistic problem, and like all linguistic problems, it can be interpreted too literally.  Anything and everything has myriad (perhaps an infinite number of) causes.  But literalists of all stripes fall into the binary trap of thinking that a cause is THE cause, and annoyingly, will often insist that you are wrong if you suggest that there are others worth considering.

It seems to me that if we avoid that trap then the specter of existential nihilism evaporates.  And, since 'being causal' and 'being caused' have direct bearing on the notions of being 'to blame' and 'at fault', forgiveness also comes a bit easier.

Monday, April 30, 2012


If you ever want to excite a stickler, all you need do is take poetic liberties with the word entropy--a term coined by Rudolf Clausius to refer to the potential energy that is irrecoverably lost during any kind of work.

Just ask Jeremy Rifkin.

I read Rifkin's book Entropy: A New World View shortly after it came out in 1980, during my senior year in college.  I resonated with it at the time, and (though I have not revisited it since) still do.

In spite of what they say, I don't think the critics' beef with the book has anything to do with misappropriation of the word 'entropy'.  Rifkin hit a nerve all right, but not by misusing a technical term.  It's more like the nerve you hit when you tell an alcoholic that they have a drinking problem.  I suspect that the criticism amounts to nothing more (and nothing less) than the deep-seated defensiveness of denial.

What difference does it make if the book's subject--the increasingly destructive effects of pollution and ecological degradation caused by our industrial global economy--does not precisely fit the precise technical definition of 'entropy'?  That does not make the book's thesis any less true.

Whatever.  From my perspective the use of 'entropy' by Rifkin and co-author Ted Howard is justified, because their intended meaning is fully consonant with that of Clausius.  Entropy is not a complicated concept--all it means is that work costs potential.  So if you only attend to the benefits of doing the work, and ignore the costs ('externalization' anyone?) you are bound to run into problems: sooner or later something that you depend on--something that grants the potential necessary for you to keep working--will be gone, converted forever into an unusable form.  You don't have to look far these days to see the truth of that.  I'd say Rifkin and Howard are looking pretty prophetic.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Thoughts on randomness

Random: now there's a loaded term.  Can you think of a better word for aggravating hardcore determinists, theist and atheist alike?

On the one hand are those who would have you believe that everything is purposefully determined by Divine Will. 

On the other hand are those who would have you believe that everythng is algorithmically determined by Physical Law. 

If something is random, it is 'uncaused', or 'not influenced by prior bias or disposition'.

The determinists hold that nothing is uncaused; that randomness signifies nothing more than a lack of knowledge: what appears uncaused is not really that; it's just that we don't know enough to ascertain what the cause is.  That is, randomness is entirely epistemological.

But so what?  There is nothing wrong with the idea that everything is caused by something.  But it is impossible to know enough about all the relevant somethings to completely eliminate randomness from experience.  No one will ever know enough about the forces and contingencies influencing the trajectory of a tossed coin to predict the outcome with certainty.  So if you choose to believe that randomness has no objective reality, you are still left with nothing but faith to support that belief--be it faith in a supernatural deity, or faith in physical determinism. 

Which leads me to ask: does it matter whether randomness is ontological or epistemological?  Seems to me that the one amounts to six, the other a half a dozen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Poetic intuition, metaphor, and Heidegger

As a scientist I have struggled with the supposed need to restrain my poetic instincts with the use of words.  So I was gratified to learn, in reading McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary, that the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger--toward whose work I've found myself gravitating of late--was similarly disposed:
"Heiddeger reached naturally towards metaphor, in which more than one thing is kept implicitly (hiddenly) before the mind, since he valued, unusually for a philosopher, the ambiguity of poetic language.  He lamented the awful Eindeutigkeit--literally the 'one-meaningness' or explicitness--to which in a computer age we tend: both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, according to Richard Rorty, 'ended by trying to work out honourable terms on which philosophy might surrender to poetry'.  Wittgenstein's work became increasingly apophthegmatic: he repeatedly struggled with the idea that philosophy was not possible outside of poetry.  And Heidegger ultimately found himself, in his last works, resorting to poetry to convey the complexity and depth of his meaning.  He saw language as integral to whatever it brings forward, just as the body is to Dasein, not as a mere container for thought: 'Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak.'"
That gets directly to the heart of what I'm finding to be seriously problematic about science, or at least science as it is normally perceived and practiced: the attempt to pin down, in order to extract meaning and value, that which cannot possibly be pinned down without loss of meaning and value.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On the sanctity of definitions

The inspiration for this post comes from a letter to the editor in this morning's newspaper, in which letter-writer Michael McCabe wonders:
"In the debate over whether the definition of marriage can be changed, I have not yet heard an answer to the following question: Whence comes the authority to change the definition?"
A loaded question calls for a loaded answer, so here's mine:

The authority to change any definition is consensual.  Definitions are conceived when consenting adults engage in poetic intercourse, so they change in conjunction with evolving consciousness. That is the basis of semantic evolution.

To see this just think of how the definition of 'gay' has changed over the past century.

So, Mr. McCabe, there's your answer: the authority to change the definition of marriage comes from the seminal font of creativity within each of us.