Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Held Hostage by Progress

The continual recycling of repeatedly failed predictions in the peak oil community, the theme of last week’s post here, is anything but unique these days. Open a copy of today’s newspaper (or the online equivalent), and it’s a safe bet that you’ll find at least one op-ed piece calling enthusiastically for the adoption of some political, military, or economic policy that’s failed every single time it’s been tried. It’s hard, in fact, to think of any broadly accepted policy in any dimension of public life today that can’t be accurately described in those terms.

Arnold Toynbee, whose sprawling study of historical cycles is among the constellations by which this blog navigates, pointed out quite some time ago that this process of self-inflicted failure is one of the standard ways that civilizations write their own obituaries. In his formulation, societies thrive so long as the creative minority that leads them can keep on coming up with new responses to the challenges the world throws their way—a process that normally requires the regular replacement of the society’s leadership from below, so that new leaders with new ideas can rise to the top.

When that process of replacement breaks down, and the few people who still rise into the ruling class from lower down the pyramid are selected for their willingness to go along with the status quo rather than for their commitment to new ideas that work, what was once a creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, which rules by coercion because it can no longer inspire by example. You can tell that this has happened to your society when every crisis gets met with the same stereotyped set of responses, even when those responses clearly don’t work. That happens because dominant minorities identify themselves with certain policies, and with the social roles and narratives that go with those policies, and it takes much more than mere failure to shake those obsessions loose.

The resulting one-track thinking can go very far indeed.  The ideology of the Roman Empire, for example, copied the theological vision of Roman Pagan religion and projected it onto the world of politics. Roman Pagans saw the universe as a place of chaotic powers that had to be subjected to the benevolent rule of a cosmic paterfamilias by way of Jove’s thunderbolts. Roman social thought understood history in the same way, as a process by which an original state of chaos was bashed into obedience by Rome’s legions and subjected to the benevolent rule of the emperor.  For much of Rome’s imperial history, that model even made a certain amount of sense, as substantial parts of the Mediterranean world that had been repeatedly ravaged by wars beforehand experienced an age of relative peace and prosperity under Roman rule.

The problem was simply that this way of dealing with problems had little relevance to the pressures that gutted the Roman Empire in its final years, and trying to apply it anyway very quickly turned into a massive source of problems in its own right. The endless expansion of the Roman military required by increasingly drastic attempts to hammer the world into obedience imposed crippling tax burdens across Roman society, driving whole economic sectors into bankruptcy, and the government responded to this by passing laws requiring every man to practice the same profession as his father, whether he could afford to do so or not. Across the dying empire, whenever one extension of centralized imperial authority turned into a costly flop, some even more drastic act of centralization was the only thinkable option, until finally the whole system fell to pieces.

Modern industrial civilization, especially but not only in its American expression, is well on its way to this same destination by a slightly different road. Across the board, in politics, in economics, in energy policy, in any other field you care to name, the enthusiastic pursuit of repeatedly failed policies has become one of the leitmotifs of contemporary life.  I’d like to focus on one of those briefly, partly because it’s a classic example of the kind, partly because it shows with rare clarity the thinking that underlies the whole phenomenon. The example I have in mind is the ongoing quest for fusion power.

Scientists in the US and something like a dozen other countries have been busy at that quest since the 1950s. In the process, they’ve discovered something well worth knowing about fusion power:  if it can be done at all, on any scale smaller than a star—and the jury’s still out on that one—it can’t be done at a price that any nation on Earth can possibly afford.  The dream of limitless cheap fusion power that filled the pages of gosh-wow newspaper articles and science fiction stories in the 1950s and 1960s is thus as dead as a sack full of doornails. Has this stopped the continuing flow of billions of dollars of grant money into round after futile round of gargantuan fusion-power projects? Surely you jest.

Thus fusion researchers are stuck in the same self-defeating loop as those peak oil mavens who repeat the same failed prediction for the umpteenth time in a row, in the serene conviction that this time it’ll come true.  They’re approaching the situation in a way that prevents them from learning from their mistakes, no matter how many times the baseball bat of failure whacks them upside the head. In the case of the fusion scientists, what drives that loop is evident enough:  the civil religion of progress and, in particular, the historical mythology at the core of that religion.

Fusion researchers by and large see themselves as figures standing at the cutting edge of one important branch of techological progress. Given their training, their history, and the cultural pressures that surround them and define their work, it’s all but impossible for them to do anything else. That’s what has them boxed into a dead end with no easy exits, because the way progress is conceptualized in contemporary culture is fatally out of step with the facts on the ground.

Progress, as the word literally means, is continued forward motion in one direction. To believers in the civil religion of progress, that’s the shape of history:  whatever it is that matters—moral improvement, technological prowess, economic expansion, or what have you—marches invincibly onward over time, and any setbacks in the present will inevitably be overcome in the future, just as equivalent setbacks in the past were overcome by later generations.  To join the marching legions of progress, according to the myth, is to enlist on the side of history’s winners and to help the inevitable victory come about just that little bit sooner, just as to oppose progress is to fight valiantly in a misguided cause and lose.

That’s the myth that guides contemporary industrial society, just as the myth of Jupiter clobbering the Titans and imposing the rule of law on a fractious cosmos was the myth that guided Roman society. In the broadest sense, whether any given change is “progressive” or “regressive” has to be settled by good old-fashioned politics, since changes don’t arrive with these labels branded on their backsides. Once a group of people have committed themselves to the claim that a change they’re trying to bring about is progressive, though, they’re trapped; no matter what happens, the only action the myth allows them to consider is that of slogging gamely onwards under the conviction that the obstacles will inevitably give way if they just keep at it. Thus the fusion research community is stuck perpetually pushing on a door marked PULL and wondering why it won’t open.

Of course fusion researchers also have deeply pragmatic reasons for their refusal to learn the lessons of repeated failure. Careers, reputations, and million-dollar grants depend on keeping up the pretense that further investment in fusion research has any chance of producing something more than a collection of vastly overpriced laboratory curiosities, and the field of physics is so specialized these days that shutting down fusion research programs would leave most fusion researchers with few marketable job skills relevant to anything this side of flipping burgers. Thus the charade goes on, funded by granting agencies just as committed to that particular corner of the myth of progress as the researchers whose salaries they pay, and continuing to swallow vast amounts of money, resources, and intellectual talent that might accomplish quite a bit if they could be applied to some less futile task.

The fusion research community, in effect, is being held hostage by the myth of progress. I’ve come to think that a great deal of contemporary science is caught in the same bind.  By and large, the research programs that get funding and prestige are those that carry forward existing agendas, and the law of diminishing returns—which applies to scientific research as it does to all other human activities—means that the longer an existing agenda has been pursued, the fewer useful discoveries are likely to be made by pursuing it further.  Yet the myth of progress has no place for the law of diminishing returns; in terms of the myth, every step along the forward march of progress must lead to another step, and that to another still.  This is why, to glance briefly at another example, efforts to craft a unified field theory out of Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics still get ample funding today, despite a century of total failure, while scores of research projects that might actually yield results go unfunded.

It does no good to science, in other words, to be imprisoned within the myth of endless linear progress. I’ve wondered more than once what modern science would look like if some philosophical equivalent of a SWAT team were to kick down the doors of the temple of Progress and liberate the hostages held inside. My best guess is that, freed from the myth, science would look like a tree, rather than a road leading into infinite distance:  rooted in mathematics and logic, supported by the strong trunk of the scientific method, extending branches, twigs and leaves in all directions, some of which would thrive while others would inevitably fail. Its leaves would spread out to catch as many of the rays of the light of truth as the finite nature of the tree allowed, but if one branch—the one called “fusion research,” let’s say—strayed into a lightless zone, the tree of science would direct its resources elsewhere and let that branch turn into a dry stick.

Eventually, the whole tree would reach its maximum growth, and after a lifespan of some centuries or millennia more, it would weaken, fail, and die, leaving its remains as a nurse log to nurture a new generation of intellectual saplings. That’s the way that Greek logic unfolded over time, and modern science started out its existence as one of the saplings nurtured on classical logic’s vast fallen trunk. More generally, that’s history’s way with human intellectual, cultural, and artistic systems of all kinds, and only the blinders imposed by the myth of progress make it impossible for most people in today’s industrial world to see science in the same terms.

That same logic is not restricted to science, either.  If some force of philosophers packing high-caliber syllogisms and fallacy-piercing ammunition ever does go charging through the door of the temple of Progress, quite a few people may be startled by the identity of some of the hostages who are led out blinking into light and freedom. It’s not just the sciences that are tied up and blindfolded there; nearly all the Western world’s religions share the same fate.

It’s important here to recognize that the myth of progress provides two potential roles for those who buy into its preconceptions. As noted earlier in this post, they can join the winning side and enlist in the marching legions of progress, or they can join the losing side, struggle against progress, and heroically fail. Both those roles are necessary for the enactment of the myth, and the raw power of popular culture can be measured in the ease with which nearly every religious tradition in the Western world, including those whose traditions are radically opposed to either one, have been pushed into one role or the other. The major division is of course that between liberal and conservative denominations; the former have by and large been reduced to the role of cheerleaders for progress, while the latter have by and large been assigned the corresponding role as cannon fodder for the side that’s destined to lose. 

The interplay between the two sides of the religious spectrum has been made rather more complex by the spectacularly self-defeating behavior of most North American denominations following the Second World War. In those years, a series of wildly popular books—John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew, and others of the same kind—argued in effect that, in order to be properly progressive, Christian churches ought to surrender their historic beliefs, practices, and commitments, and accept whatever diminished role they might be permitted by the mainstream of liberal secular society.  Some of these books, such as Robinson’s, were written by churchmen; others, such as Berton’s, were not, but all of them were eagerly received by liberal churches across the English-speaking world.

The case of The Comfortable Pew is particularly intriguing, as the Anglican Church of Canada hired a well-known Canadian atheist to write a book about what was wrong with their church and what they should do about it, and then gamely took his advice.  Other denominations were not quite so forthright in expressing a death wish, but the results were broadly similar.  Across the board, liberal churches reworked seminary programs to imitate secular liberal arts degrees, abandoned instruction in religious practice, took up the most radical forms of scriptural criticism, and redefined their clergy as amateur social service providers and progressive activists with a sideline in rites of passage. Since most people who go to churches or synagogues are there to practice their religion, not to provide their clergy with an admiring audience for political monologues and lessons in fashionable agnosticism, this shift was promptly followed a steep plunge in the number of people who attended services in all the liberal denominations. Here again, the logic of progress made it all but impossible for church leaders to learn the lesson taught by failure, and most liberal denominations have remained in a death spiral ever since.

Meanwhile, conservative denominations were busy demonstrating that the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea. Panicked by the global expansion of Communism—you rarely heard that latter word in American public discourse in the 1950s and 1960s without the adjective “godless” tacked on its front end—and the sweeping social changes triggered by postwar prosperity, the leaders of the conservative denominations moved as eagerly as their liberal counterparts to embrace the role that the myth of progress offered them. Along with William F. Buckley and the other architects of postwar American pseudoconservatism, they redefined themselves in opposition to the progressive agenda of their time, and never seemed to notice that they were so busy standing against this, that, and the other that most of them forgot to stand for anything at all.

The social pressure to conform to stereotypes and resist progress in every sense drove the weirdest dimension of late 20th century American Christian pseudoconservatism, the holy war against Darwinian evolution. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the luminous poetry of the first chapter of Genesis must be treated as a geology textbook, nor is a literal reading of Genesis mandated by any of the historic creeds of the Christian churches. Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis. That and such sideshows as the effort to insist on the historical reality of the Noah’s ark story, despite conclusive geological evidence disproving it, crippled the efforts of conservative Christians to reach outside their existing audience.

The conservative denominations never quite managed to discard their historic beliefs, practices and commitments with the same enthusiasm shown by their liberal counterparts, preferring to maintain them in mummified form while political activism took center stage; still, the result was much the same.  Today, the spokespersons for conservative religious denominations in America speak and act as though reinstating the mores and politics that America had in the late 1940s has become the be-all and end-all of their religion. In response, a growing number of former parishioners of conservative denominations have withdrawn into the rapidly growing Home Church movement, in which families meet in living rooms with their neighbors to pray and study the Bible together. If that trend accelerates, as it appears to be doing, today’s conservative megachurches may soon turn into cavernous spaces visited once a week by a handful of retirees, just like the once-bustling liberal churches across the road.

The hijacking of religious institutions by the competing civil religion of progress has thus turned out to be a disaster on both sides of the political divide.  The distortions imposed on religion, once it was taken hostage by the myth of progress, thus correspond closely to the distortions imposed on science during its own imprisonment by the same myth. As the civil religion of progress begins to lose its grip on the collective imagination of our time, in turn, both science and religion thus will have to undergo a difficult process of reappraisal, in which many of the mistaken commitments of recent decades will need to be renegotiated or simply abandoned. Harrowing as that process may be, it may just have an unexpected benefit—a negotiated truce in the pointless struggle between science and religion, or even a creative rapprochement between these two distinct and complementary ways of relating to the universe. I’ll discuss these possibilities in next week’s post.

174 comments:

Georgi Marinov said...

Has this stopped the continuing flow of trillions of dollars of grant money into round after futile round of gargantuan fusion-power projects?

It's not a bad idea when writing about real life to avoid making obviously false (and ridiculously so) statements like this one.

The total funding for ALL of research in the world is probably less than 200 billion dollars a year, with a good chunk of that being military technology research in the US and other strictly applied work, that should not really count as science. And fusion research is one tiny piece of that.

"Trillions of dollars" for fusion research (let alone "a continuing flow" of such amounts of money) is several orders of magnitude off the mark.

The "multimillion dollar grants" remark is also completely disconnected from reality. Very few scientists get multimillion dollar grants for themselves, and none do so from the government (the extremely rare cases in which people got such grants all involve private donors). Multimillion grants go to large groups of researchers, who are actually paid very little for what they do, and the only real personal benefit that they see from those money is the occasional trip to conference in some exotic location.

I am no subscriber to the idea that fusion will save us, but please, get your facts straight.

Thijs Goverde said...

While I'm startled to find myself disagreeing with pretty much everything you say about the Roman Empire, I'll concede that the myth of progress, as you call it, is incredibly pervasive and rears its head in the most unexpected places.

Why, it's only a week ago when saw one of the moste level-headed thinkers I know, and a staunch critic of the ideology of progress to boot, speak of "...the slowly accumulating body of effective technique that provides one of the very few long-term dynamics to history" and state that "as hominids and then humans developed more and more elaborate mental models of the world, the hard-won ability to test those models against the plain facts of experience with more and more precision has been central to our achievement".

Can you believe it?

(Please imagine me creating one of those winkey-smiley thingies here!)

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, it would also be helpful if you paid attention to what I wrote rather than whacking a convenient straw man. I didn't say that the trillion-dollar subsidies were disbursed in a single year, nor that the multimillion-dollar grants were going to single researchers. How much money has been spent by all nations on nuclear fusion power so far? If you'd care to document that the figure is less than $2 trillion in today's dollars, I'd be interested in seeing that.

Thijs, funny. Of course you're quite aware that the mere accumulation of technique, while it provides one of the few long term dynamics to history, is neither inevitable nor moving in any particular direction, much less the point of human existence -- all of which are core elements of the myth of progress.

pasttense said...

As to your complain that fusion research has been going on for 60 years with no success yet, note that historically research has often taken a long time to bear fruit. As an example I suggest you look at the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and look at how long it took for successful results to appear.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

The moons have aligned as fusion energy has been in the news recently here as the team in the UK has been seeking funds to build an even larger reactor than their current toy.

Wishing on a star: The frustration of fusion

Apparently, according to the article back in 1997 the machine produced 16 megawatts. I assume this was for no more than a few seconds which is probably comparable to not much more than an extended and somewhat loud mouse fart over the course of an hour.

Speaking of things that we could do in the real world! The solar power system here has recorded that it has generated 2,952kWh since I connected up the mains switchboard. Isn't that 2.952 megawatt hours (someone please correct me if I'm wrong)?

I'll tell ya which machine was cheaper too. hehe! Fusion is money poorly spent.

Nature shows me that atrophy is more the norm for things. My mind often turns to drainage and ground water when I think of atrophy.

The ground here shifts and moves ever so slowly. I can do things to slow it's progress and even reverse some of the movement, but atrophy will win in the end. The movement is ever so slight, but it is happening and I would never have noticed had I not been here for years observing.

Even though it is mid to late afternoon the storm just hit and it is almost as dark as night outside. The wind is howling and the thunder can be felt as well as heard. Very heavy black clouds and the rain is as intense as any summer storm.

Victoria braces for some wild weather

It is all about systems though and fortunately two of the wettest years in recorded history recently has meant that they received some honing and are pretty durable. Most of the rainwater is returned into the ground water reserves through one system or another which keeps the orchard watered during the long hot summers.

I'm a bit mystified too. How does one know intuitively that the solar and telluric currents would meet at a site like this high up in a mountainous watershed? Did you know that the Victorians in the 19th century used to have health resorts up here? Some of the older buildings remain, although they are residences now.

Regards

Chris

Leo said...

Theoretically Democracy should keep the cycling of leaders going. Mind you, corruption by wealth, factionalism and stagnant ideologies makes it in practice very different.

Thinking about it; quite a bit of the peak oil sphere still copies the myth you described. Even when the people are nominally anti-progress. The inevitable end of the other side is appealing I guess, especially with the inevitable win.

Also, Magic now has 3 meanings. The Harry potter one, the one you talk about and a new plant breeding technique.

http://www.csiro.au/en/Organisation-Structure/Divisions/Plant-Industry/Plant-Industry-newsletter/MAGIC.aspx

Iuval Clejan said...

I don't think that trying to quantize gravity (very popular), or the converse (geometrize quantum mechanics, which is not as popular), both of which can be considered attempts at unification, is an example of being captive to the myth of progress. It is more an example of attempting to have a consistent theory of the universe. It doesn't mean a final theory that will never be revised. Just because it is hard, doesn't mean it is a dead end.

On the other hand, maybe you are correct. I am wondering if the myth of progress prevents people from considering the possibility that a mistake has been made, or a commitment to a dead end path has been made, and being able to go back and take another path. This might be the case with trying to quantize gravity. Perhaps the converse is another path to try (I am trying!). It might also be the case with the industrial revolution. Perhaps it was a mistake and we should try something else that considers the benefits of a healthy community, creative work that connects people to each other and nature, and healthy ecosystems, not just efficiency and comfort. But the myth of progress prevents many from this consideration.

Tom Bannister said...

Hello Again. I'd be interested to hear more about your idea of a swat team to bust into the the temple/prison of the religion of progress. We could sure use one of those in my country (New Zealand)

The trouble is of course, people need to be aware they are captive in order to be freed. Otherwise its like the matrix. "they are so dependent on the matrix they will protect it at all costs" (something like that).

I can only envisage such a SWAT team would have to first make a clear and definitive statement/s about the prison the believers of progress are in (even then some might still not believe it), then actually offer what will hopefully look like a viable alternative.

As in any totalitarian regime (if you want to analogize the religion of progress under such a name), people that are free do not always immediately know what to do, since they are so used to being oppressed (ahem Russia after the fall of the soviet union). My concern is we will have a LOT of depressed souls wondering around western nations in the years to come. (well ok actually we already do :-()

John Michael Greer said...

Pasttense, if Renaissance societies had invested tens of millions of florins in Leonardo's designs at a time when they desperately needed the money and resources for things that might actually have paid off in less than five centuries, they'd have been mistaken, too.

Cherokee, I expect another big push toward fusion in the next couple of years, once the fracking bubble pops. As for the currents, intuition's the usual way to find such places!

Leo, the myth of progress is hardwired into contemporary culture. It takes a clear sense of history to filter it out, and that's not common in the peak scene these days.

Iuval, I think it was worth trying. The question is why so much time and energy still goes into pounding on that locked door, rather than asking exactly the question you've raised -- is there a more basic mistake here?

ChemEng said...

Mr Greer:

Your post discusses the concept of progress in science and religion. I would like to add some thoughts with regard to industry.

The July 2013 issue of the journal Hydrocarbon Processing published an article entitled, “The future of automation is now”. The authors (Clark and Turk) define three phases of technological evolution in the Chemical Process Industries in a sketch “Process Industry Drivers”. I don’t think that I can include graphics on this blog, so I will try to put it into words:

• Phase I (1950s) – we invent new chemicals (think of the word “Plastics” in the movie “The Graduate”).
• Phase II (1970s) – the industry develops new processes for making the newly invented chemicals.
• Phase III (1990s to now) – we make those processes more efficient.

The process industries are highly dependent on the availability of oil, not so much as a fuel, but as a feedstock. Were the supply of oil to falter then the concept of progress will probably move toward a fourth phase, “Improvisation”. We would have to learn how to run our facilities with erratic supplies of feedstock, an unreliable supply of spare parts and poorly trained employees.

This would mean that progress in an industrial context actually goes into reverse. Concepts that are baked into our way of thinking such as Economies of Scale, Just-in-Time management and Global Operations would actually be detrimental in Phase IV.

PhysicsDoc said...

Fusion is of course supported by physics so a reactor is not an impossibility. To me it is an issue of engineering maybe nearly impossible engineering but still engineering. A hydrogen bomb is an example of a man made fusion energy device but one that requires an atom bomb (fission bomb) in order to get the temperatures and pressures high enough (that shows how extreme the conditions are). One thing to keep in mind is that advances in engineering often lie dormant until the right matching technology is developed. As pasttense mentioned human heavier than air flight required centuries for success. The development of internal combustion engines and advances in materials and manufacturing were catalysts for the last step in that history. Similarly, fusion may be developed due to other technologies that are coming of age. I know of one early stage company that is attempting to develop a smallish fusion reactor by leveraging the recent advances in high speed electronics and feedback and control systems. These independent technologies were not online a decade or two ago.

PhysicsDoc said...

Most of the big physics discoveries of the 20th century happened early in the century and through individuals and not institutions with huge budgets. Once the ideas and basic science were developed money was thrown at researchers to develop these ideas into products and applications for industry and the military. In some cases the devices developed were initially academic without many uses but later became ubiquitous (e.g. the laser). It made sense in my mind to put money into developing the science into actual devices, but the idea that more money will make basic science accelerate and lead to never ending breakthroughs is obviously not true. I do think we are currently in a stage of diminishing returns both in science and engineering.

KL Cooke said...

"...if Renaissance societies had invested tens of millions of florins in Leonardo's designs at a time when they desperately needed the money and resources for things that might actually have paid off in less than five centuries, they'd have been mistaken, too."

As I understand it, one of Leonardo's income sources was designing war machines--basically vanity projects for the Big Shots of the day. One interesting bit of speculation is that he deliberately drew up his designs such that they wouldn't work, for fear of the uses to which they might be put.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1415660/Leonardo-da-Vincis-war-machines-were-failures-by-design.html

Hypothetical: Somebody has worked out fusion, but has kept the lid on it lest some General Jack D. Ripper type try to reconfigure it into the ultimate megabomb. Meanwhile. just enough promise is shown to keep the bucks rolling in, playing Leonardo's game, because "il faut mannger," as you point out.

PhysicsDoc said...

One slight correction to my last comment, the returns from climate science could be huge in a positive way if more people took this research seriously and acted on it.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

Clear and concise writing as we have come to expect of you!



It appears that as a civil religion, progress allows people to make statements that are basically unfalsifiable. For instance one of my friends told me some years back: "Modernity knows no major dysfunctions, only minor ones which are fully expected". I am still flabbergasted by this statement because it means that believers in modernity/progress can never be convinced that any dysfunction may prove to be unresolvable by our civilisation. They can always come up with clever arguments why this particular problem will soon be over. Hence the belief is unfalsifiable, pure faith at work!

You have described how Christianity in the US conformed itself to the roles assigned to it by progress. Do you think that something similar happened in other major religions and if so can you give examples?

Finally, I noted that the religion of progress comes along with a fairly rabid materialistic world view where for instance the very existence of intuition is denied. As this religion weakens, what kind of world view do you think may emerge and what role do you envision for such non rational phenomena as intuition in such a new world view?

Regards

Andy Brown said...

I think I'm finally starting to see how the myth of Progress interferes with solving our problems, and this week's essay takes it a step further. I wrote at more length about this on my own blog but this is the crux of it:

The problem is not that we lack solutions for living upon the earth. The problem is that most of these solutions are incompatible with our cosmology of Progress. Let me reiterate that. We have solutions, but because these solutions are - for lack of a better word - heretical - they cannot be enacted (or for the most part, even discussed). The idea that we should be intentionally applying our considerable creative and technical energies toward building a future that is slower, poorer, and less shiny than today's is so unthinkable that people mostly refuse to think it.

For example, we can easily avoid climate change calamity if we are willing to leave $4 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel in the ground, bankrupting some of the largest, most powerful economic interests on earth, and bringing the engines of economic growth to a shuddering halt. We could move past non-renewable resources if we took only what systems can regenerate and forewent the rest. We can feed all our people if we reigned in population, discarded the worst of modern agribusiness and transitioned to a more productive, less wasteful, more labor-intensive steady-state food system. We could put an end to our continuous economic crises if we abandoned the fiction of global economic growth and created an economy that could smoothly function with contraction. After all, such changes are going to be imposed on us eventually whether we like it or not.

Les said...

Speared me in the heart, you have this week.

Thirty years ago I took myself off to the University of Sydney, because they'd just finished building a research tokamak and I was going to save the world by sorting out the hows, whys and wherefores of small scale fusion. Guilty on all counts, constable...

Luckily I'm fundamentally lazy and went for a "career" in IT instead, where it was pretty easy to make a good living without having to think too hard (the opposite of fusion research).

Fast forward thirty years and I was in a town hall meeting today, discussing with lawyers and pollies and townsfolk what can be done about the coal seam gas "industry" in our area. I lost count of the number of people proposing either the necessity of CSG for future progress, or the unnecessary nature of it, because of all the alternative energy sources we have access to, if only the gummint had the will to enable them.

So, tomorrow, back to cutting up next year's firewood and finishing some fencing so the cattle can move into the next bit of paddock. I definitely got over being lazy when I started farming. But, geeze, I feel like some kind of weirdo some days.

Cheers,

Les

PS: Cherokee Chris: try microseconds or less for that 16MW, put in enough energy to run a largish town and get out enough to boil a cup of water.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
How serendipitous it is I do not know, but there is for me a splendidly relevant photograph (Detroit 1915) and a thoughtful essay over at this week’s The Automatic Earth. He calls the dominant religion, ‘Growth’, as in economic growth. You refer somewhat more broadly to the religion of ‘Progress. The themes seem intertwined.

For me the adjustments to religion / social hierarchy that were so characteristic of the 19thC in the face of the explosion of industrial progress and the scrabble for discoveries, including those of science & technology, was the start of a retreat of the bigger denominations, i.e. decline of those having a big political role not just in the ‘English speaking world’ but within the broader Western culture. Also, religions within a range of affected cultures, not just those of the West, seem to have changed their role. For example, secular ideology appears to have dominated collapsed Empires not only in Europe but also in the Near East; thus Turkey, previously the core of the Ottoman Empire could be another case. (I leave out the Far East as beyond my scope).

Traditional religion certainly has recently played a much smaller part in Western Europe. I think you have previously expressed interest in coming religious revivals, Regarding that theme, I witnessed the strong religious revival starting in Poland in the early 1980s, being an expression there of resurgent ‘national identity’; and I gather that Russia has seen something similar more recently. Resurgence of religion in the Middle East and in the ancient civilisation of Iran (the latter was never part of the Ottoman Empire) could be significant.

Incidentally I have returned from a few days ‘course’ helping build a ‘compost toilet’ adjacent to a ‘faith centred’ minority community in UK’s North Pennine. When cycling home last week I passed successively a small isolated 12thC church and two ‘Stately Homes’ open to the public. One of the houses became connected with the early 20thC ‘socialist’ British Labour Party via a maverick aristocrat landowner; the other was built by an industrialist as a futuristic late 19thC mansion having prototype electric lights and micro-hydro. He had been instrumental over a few decades in replacing cannons on warships with hydraulically managed rifles capable of lobbing a well-aimed ton of explosive projectile more than 10 miles.

The first old house, where I drank two pots of tea, displays a wonderful ‘blow-up’ photo of the early Labour Party. The crowd of beards and bustle dresses were all seated on that same lawn. They must have arrived by the now defunct railway, though I guess there might have been some bicycles. As I passed the second house, I reflected on the role of the British industrialist. He was a major contributor to the arms races that ‘ended’ if that is the word, in 1946. He sold warships to a number of navies but was chiefly famed for his help in the build up of the Japanese Imperial Navy who could then whack the Russians at the penultimate pre-1914 demo at the battle of Tsushima (1905).

As a footnote, the little 12thC church perched on a rock sill a few miles north of Hadrian’s Wall had an adjacent village for many centuries, but the village was dismantled in the early 19thC after the population was wiped out by cholera brought by a returning sailor. (Message: compost toilets should be carefully designed?). I also found it interesting that the intellectual founder in the 1940s of Britain’s ‘welfare state’, later ennobled as Lord Beveridge, is buried with his wife modestly in this remote graveyard.

Cycle rides indeed! The wheel turns.
Phil H

Andy Brown said...

Your description of the tree with all its branches very much reminds me of a course I had as an undergraduate. At Penn, Igor Kopytoff taught The History of Anthropological Thought, and he explicitly rejected the standard - here's-how-we-got-HERE (to glorious HERE) story of history in favor of a serious of snapshots through time that dwelt not just on the ideas that happened to endure, but on all of the dead-ends and thickets that the study of human culture(s) had gotten itself into. I suspect that that view of past and progress, is part of what makes me susceptible to your own rhetorical blandishments.

Villager said...

"Thus the charade goes on, funded by granting agencies just as committed to that particular corner of the myth of progress as the researchers whose salaries they pay, and continuing to swallow vast amounts of money, resources, and intellectual talent that might accomplish quite a bit if they could be applied to some less futile task."

Like going to work for Goldman Sachs!

Maybe we should just keep them on the fusion dole where they can't wreck our economy quite so much.

Marcello said...

"Hypothetical: Somebody has worked out fusion, but has kept the lid on it lest some General Jack D. Ripper type try to reconfigure it into the ultimate megabomb."

Well, fusion bombs of immense power (comparable to tens of millions of tons of conventonal explosives, and it is not a typo) have been available since the 50's so the issue is completely moot. From what I read fusion power should be feasible, it is just that it may turn out, particularly early on, as practical as producing electricity by using Ferrari car engines to drive generators: sure, it can technically be done but it is not particularly cost effective...

Sleisz Ádám said...

The paragraphs about fusion made me think of an academic conference on energy issues I attended a few weeks ago. The people there were mostly young electrical engineers like myself and almost all of them - sadly all of us - were presenting hopelessly complicated projects with the aim of optimizing a miniature slice of the power grid's operation. Specific types of power exchanges, future electric car chargers, centrally controllable consumer devices, and so on.

Almost nobody mentiones the existential questions of the grid in these circles. It gets a cynical frown from older colleages someday or a bit of silence at informal events. It is impolite to bring it up, kind of a sacrilege.

And I have to say that getting out of it is still not easy... There are no well-trodden paths.

Unknown said...

Jay here. To be fair, tabletop fusors have existed since the 1960s, and have some practical application as neutron sources. As energy technologies go I agree that it's a dead end, at least partly because the neutron flux from a sizeable reactor would transmute everything nearby into high-level radioactive waste.

NH Peter said...

JMG, do you know if you can get a conceal carry permit for a syllogism? You just can't be too careful today!

-p

jen vogh said...

you 'swat team' concept tugged awake a long dormant philosophy in my mind, postmodernism (i was an art student, long ago :), and my first thought was "from whence would they come?" and my second was "how could they possibly make themselves understood?" to say that we are trapped in our signs might be to overstate the situation, though not by much - in my experience, it is only thoroughly intractable signifieds (the ones that end up with their boots on our heads) that stand a real chance of 'liberating' anyone. then is when you might have a team come in, but more of a medic team, heh...

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I hadn't visited the church I was brought up in quite awhile, until one year I decided to go back for a service with my parents, just to see some old faces, etc. I hated the fact that they had thrown away all the old hymns and the piano player to embrace the worst aspects of pop music for the "contemporary worship" section. I wouldn't have become a regular attendee anyway... but they really lost me with the Britney Spears versions of songs that actually used to be the best part of church: singing as a congregation.

On another note there is a thriving home church on my block. The members of this church all live within a few streets of each other. The pastor even officiated at the non-denominational marriage ceremony for my wife and I.

It's funny that in the Catholic education I received I was taught evolution in the sciences classes. I never understood the literalist approach to the bible. Some of the mysteries it contains are better approached as Mysteries with a capital "M"... it does not deny them their religious, or magical power.

Richard Larson said...

I think it natural for a politician - betting other people's money - would walk a direct line to the Fusion Wheel of Fortune, and bet the works.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG, I am having some trouble seeing how the Catholic Church fits into your characterization of contemporary religion.

(a) I cannot think of a widely read, influential, Catholic writer (someone with the stature of authors Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Jean Vanier) who has been writing a Catholic version of The Comfortable Pew. The closest I can come to are two writers I esteem, Hans Kung and John Dominic Crossan.

But even they do not seem a close fit.

Both of them denounce Emperor Constantine's rapprochement between Church and Empire (a rapprochement which, they and I would suggest, continues in its sterile, empty course today, with Washington in place of the Roman Capitol). Yet both issue the denunciation without attacking doctrinal fundamentals, as defined in the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds ("Rose again on the third day", "One baptism for the forgiveness of sins").

(b) On the other hand, neither does Catholicism closely fit your characterization of religious conservatism. You write, "Today, the spokespersons for conservative religious denominations in America speak and act as though reinstating the mores and politics that America had in the late 1940s has become the be-all and end-all of their religion."

There is here only a modest degree of fit.

A conservative Catholic wing does decry abortion (this is right of them) and same-sex marriage (here I think their ground is shakier), and keeps judiciously silent on American militarism (here their work is scandalously poor). In this sense, it is true, a conservative USA Catholic wing is defending 1940s mores.

This conservative wing is represented on the Web by many of the laity posting in the "Catholic Answers" forum, and I think is represented in USA television broadcasting by EWTN. A good European book author from the conservative wing is Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.

Here again, I say, there appears to be only a modest fit with your characterization of ecclesial conservatism.

The socially conservative Catholics will deny that the defence of 1940s mores is what you term "the be-all and end-all of their religion". Conservative Catholics will insist as loudly as anyone that their be-all and end-all is eucharistic. It is centrally so, for them as for less stridently conservative Catholics, in the Mass. It is vicariously so, for them as for less stridently conservative Catholics, in eucharistic adoration at the reserved Sacrament, in prayer undertaken not at the reserved Sacrament (as when one prays at home), and in secular works of mercy.

All segments of the Catholic spectrum, from the fans of Kung and Crossan on the left to the members of Opus Dei on the right, agree on the need to incarnate a eucharistic theology in social action. (Someone has usefully written, "For the Catholic mind, truth is incarnate.") Most American Catholics these days accordingly pay at least a kind of lip service to the ideals of 1930s-to-1980s New Yorker Dorothy Day, in some possibly lukewarm way feeling that here is an individual who has managed to live her faith.

Disagreements there are, but they occur, sometimes noisily between right wing and left wing, within a wide framework of agreemnt that this week's ADR essay fails to sketch.

Indeed one might a little sternly remark that anyone stepping outside the wide common agreed framework, rejecting portions of the Creed or the Catechism, is by definition stepping outside Catholicism.

Perhaps you can comment further on Catholicism at some stage, whether this week or later?

I wonder, also, if American Judaism fits into your characterization of contemporary religion, or whether the same difficulties arise in its case as I am respectfully suggesting arise for Catholicism?


Sincerely,


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www punkt metascientia punkt com
Toomas punkt Karmo at gmail punkt com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

In pondering the difficulties of fusion reactors and Unified Field Theory, it is worth recalling one Victorian instance of work held up for want of lateral, creative, thinking.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) strove to develop a computer. He failed at a couple of points, however, to think laterally.

A good science fiction story could start with a time traveller's returning to Victorian Britain for one second, placing onto Babbage's desk a postcard containing one sentence: "Try not gears and base-10 numerical notation but telegraph relays and base-2 numerical notation."

In the story I am envisaging, the sentence is sufficient inducement for Babbage to redesign his Analytical Engine. His Engine now becomes a huge rack of relays, powered by batteries of wet cells. The delicate relay reeds are kept clean by enclosing the whole assemblage in a barn-like room, with steam engines running intake and exhaust fans against door-sized filters of fine-weave linen.

Readout is now through compass needles over coils.

Input is, as in Babbage's own design, through punched cards.

As Babbage progresses, he achieves the insight of the 1940s machine designers (von Neumann?), namely, that his "store" (I think that in his own, base-10, design, the store held only data) could actually hold not data alone but also machine instructions.

In contemporary language, we would put this by saying that "The microcode is made to live right in the RAM."

Her Majesty's Government, seeing the industrial, and even the military-diplomatic, implications of Babbage's work, fund him generously (as they did in actual Victorian Britain).

By 1914 or so, Britain is the world's leading power in computation, with Babbage indeed dead, but his legacy carried forward by others.

This is as it was in the actual world, with (e.g.) binary-computer pioneer Aiken at Harvard in actuality discovering one of six Difference Engines constructed by Babbage's son Henry Prevost Babbage (1824–1918).

Those pesky compass-needle readouts are in the counterfactual 1914-or-so scenario replaced with register-by-register banks of incandescent bulbs. And there are rudimentary hardcopy printers.

The task of programming is eased with the construction of symbolic assemblers, so that programmers need no longer write microcode at their desks.

There are even whispers, in the corridors of 1914 power at the Royal Society and in Whitehall, that the emerging cathode-grid-plate "thermionic valve", now becoming useful in wireless telegraphy, may soon replace the telegraph relay, making Babbage's machine architecture run faster. It is in those same corridors additionally whispered that "compilers" might some day manufacture huge slabs of microcode out of terse input paragraphs written not in assembler but in "high-level languages".

With Britain's preeminence in engineering duly cemented through an early, decisive, lead in the design and deployment of computing machinery, Kaiser Wilhelm pursues a properly circumspect diplomacy. World War I never does break out. The twentieth century is accordingly a century of what Churchill was pleased to call, in addressing the House on 1940-06-18, "sunlit uplands".


Rather wickedly,
having lately finished
an excellent post-breakfast cuppa,


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(anglophile Estonian near Toronto)
www punkt metascientia punkt com
Toomas dot Karmo at gmail punkt com

Stanley Erickson said...

Sorry, but I don't understand where your conclusions on fusion come from. Are you using an unstated axiom that says 'if you spend X over Y years and some invention hasn't been finished, spending nX over mY years will also fail to produce the invention'?

Avery said...

KL Cooke, have you ever wondered how many people invented miracle engines that run on water or waste, only to have an energy or automotive company, or the government, "take them away" with minimal compensation? I meet people making claims like that whenever I take a road trip. Why, there must be millions of these lost devices that General Motors has shelved away in a warehouse somewhere. It's a perfect myth to fit the frightening reality of peak oil.

ZZ said...

I have been following your blog and learned a lot (e.g. from the green wizardry series), I think I understand your point about historical cycles how empires rise and fall instead of a perpetual linear progress.

What worries me that I still see a significant difference between the failing of the current empire and the ones before it. Historical empires of Egypt, Greece, China, Rome, Aztec, and Maya empires (just to name a few) all had a fairly localized geological area where their influence was felt both during their prosperous times as well as their fall. E.g. the ancestors of the Mayans or other aboriginal American tribes did not feel any effect of the Roman empire's ruling or fall. However, the current empire, even if the power center is in the USA, has a rather global effect on the entire planet. This is something that technological progress did achieve (shrinking the world via communication and travel) which makes a significant difference from previous empire cycles.

As far as my limited historical knowledge goes, previous empires that have fallen did not give rise to a new empire on the same place. Instead, new empires came about independently from the fall of previous ones. So what worries me is the fall of this empire might have a global devastating effect, which breaks the cycle and no new empire will anywhere on Earth.

Do you have any comment on this aspect, or you think this is irrelevant to think about at this point ?

Steve in Colorado said...

Isn't this kind of the rationale behind Obamacare? The medical system is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and more people don't want to participate in it, so... We'll make them!

This is probably rehashing something that's been said here over and over, but I really think most people don't want to think about the end of progress because it means that we have to figure out how to preserve the things we like about the last 3 centuries, instead of just relying on the God of Star Trek to do it. And while that sounds like a simple enough statement, you pretty quickly enter some thorny ground.

So for instance, I'm pretty attached to the past century's achievements in the areas of gender and sexuality, as are many people. But when I think about how to preserve them in a nonindustrial world-- in a world, in other words, where significantly less energy per capita is available all round, and most of the energy available comes from human muscle-- it requires admitting a few uncomfortable things. First it requires actually looking at gender roles in nonindustrial societies from around the world. According to which of the two big versions of the myth of progress you believe in, if we look far back enough, we should be able to find either a Goddess-worshiping egalitarian paradise or a Hobbesian nightmare. Instead, while those two kind of sort of turn up occasionally if you squint the right way, things are really much more complicated. Societies which are constrained by energy limits, and in which population replacement is an immediate concern, have had to allocate their human resources accordingly.

In order to figure out how they do what, you sort of have to put yourself in their shoes. Say you had a population of 50 men and 50 women, with a natural resource base x depleting at rate y, and a certain number of neighbors at least some of whom are hostile. You need to allocate your humans in such a way that you can preserve your population in the face of war, disease, and the hazards of daily life without overshooting the carrying capacity of the land. So you can allocate all your women to war and all your men to motherhood. How does that affect things? Okay, now try it the other way around. How about now? Once you figure out an arrangement that allows you to not go extinct in the current environment, only then can you start thinking about how to make people happy. How do you do that? Here, you can start looking at the solutions that actual societies have come up with. In all my reading, the two most common solutions in nonindustrial societies seem to be 1. maintaining separate spheres of authority and 2. maintaining a transgender or third/fourth gender option.

Now, at this point, you've already had to look through the eyes of people who didn't do things the way that your culture does, and to try to sympathize with them, and that is something that no one in America seems capable of doing. Now it gets even harder, because you have to come up with ways of handling an issue that are workable but that are different from those laid down by the God of Star Trek. This seems to be nearly impossible for many people. In the Star Trek universe, all the women are called "sir" and you can replicate anything you'd like for dinner. Real life has a way of being messier, and real life solutions always carry problems, drawbacks and unintended consequences. In my experience most people, if you try to talk to them about this sort of thing, will point to the problems with the real-life solutions, refuse to see the people of the past who have come up with those solutions as anything but monsters for not following contemporary political dogmas, and insist that it's got to be their way or nothing. Unfortunately, that leads me to think it's probably going to be nothing.

Chris said...

@KL Cooke: The fusion megabomb was invented 60 years ago by Edward Teller. The Soviets tested a 50 megaton version in 1961, having scaled in down from 100 megatons, you know, "just in case."

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, well, it was a figure of speech anyway. Effective fallacy-piercing ammunition isn't yet available!

ChemEng, good. And of course "efficient" is the opposite of "resilient," so the current pursuit of efficiency will have to be reversed in the interests of resilience as supply chains become unstable, etc.

PhysicsDoc, of course fusion is possible. The problem is making it happen continuously on a small scale, and that seems to be unavailable except at a cost that will make it hopelessly unaffordable. As for diminishing returns, exactly -- most of the fundamental scientific discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were made with equipment that would be considered far too simple for a middle school classroom today.

KL, I'd encourage you to read Charles Seife's Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking sometime. It's a useful glimpse inside the progress mentality I've outlined.

PhysicsDoc, that's another one that people can't or won't think about because it flies in the face of the myth of progress.

Karim, I don't have personal experience with religions outside the United States, so I'd encourage those who have to speak to that on their own blogs. As for the post-materialist future, we'll get to that.

Andy, good. Do you remember the distinction I drew a few posts back between what can happen and what does happen? You've just named a prime example.

Les, well, there you have it. The religion of progress has no shortage of devoted followers...

Phil, very good. Western Europe spent three centuries exporting all its religious eccentrics to America, which is why we've got 'em now and you don't. Still, it'll be interesting to see what happens on your side of the pond down the road.

Andy, excellent. When I was finishing up my degree in the early 1990s, you could find that same perspective here and there in the history of science. I have no idea whether it's still around.

John Michael Greer said...

Villager, can we set 'em to work counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a proton? That'll cost less, and keep them out of trouble just as well.

Marcello, good. It's entirely possible that there will eventually be a fusion reactor that breaks even -- but it'll likely cost more than the ITER, which at $14 billion and rising is already the most expensive scientific experiment in history.

Sleisz Ádám, that's typical these days. I wonder if there's room for some sort of samizdat among young electrical engineers willing to talk about the serious questions...

Unknown Jay, granted, but we were talking about fusion as a power source. The Farnsworth Fusor is an interesting lab curiosity, not a power source for a civilization.

NH Peter, funny. I carry mine openly, which is legal in this state!

Jen, well, as I said to Tom, it was a figure of speech; no known explosive is powerful enough to open a closed mind.

Justin, you know that when you play rock music backwards, you supposedly summon the devil; when you play country music backwards, you get your wife back, your truck back, your dog back, etc. Do you know what happens when you sing "Kum Ba Ya" backwards? You get your congregation back...

Richard, quite possibly!

Toomas, the liberal Catholics I know are more likely to read Matthew Fox than Hans Kung, and as Justin pointed out, they're playing Britney Spears music at services, which is enough to curdle anyone's digestion. The Catholic term for the liberal end of what I was discussing is Modernism, and from what I hear, despite repeated papal censures, it's still deeply entrenched at a lot of Jesuit universities here in the States. The conservatives -- well, those that haven't gone schismatic and Tridentine -- are the ones denouncing the liberals as CINOs ("Catholics in name only") and insisting that anybody to the left of them ought to be driven out of the church. Same song, different words -- and I understand, from talking to my Jewish friends, that the same dynamic has taken place between Reform (on the left) and Orthodox (on the right) congregations, with Conservative (confusingly, in the middle) not really sure which way to hop.

Stanley, I suggest you go back and reread what I wrote, because you've completely misstated it. My point was not that fusion is impossible but that at this point, even if it works, it's too expensive to serve as a workable power source. It amazes me that so many people who can presumably balance their checkbooks literally can't see an economic argument when it's applied to technology!

John Michael Greer said...

ZZ, nearly every week somebody brings up that point. The answer is simple: a difference of scale is not a difference of kind. The collapse of ancient Mayan civilization affected the whole world the ancient Mayans knew about; furthermore, the collapse of modern industrial civilization may hardly be noticed in the New Guinea highlands or the mountains of central Asia. The fact that the current collapse is somewhat bigger doesn't make it different in any more meaningful sense.

Steve, excellent! You get this afternoon's gold star, for paying attention to just how much rethinking will be necessary to get past the myth of progress.

Iuval Clejan said...

I was just talking with a friend raised by anthroposophists about Rudolf Steiner and how I don't think he got Science, and was more similar to a medieval philosopher than a "spiritual scientist" as Steiner claimed to be. My friend started defending Steiner and attacking science at the same time. It's funny because I wasn't attacking Steiner for not being a scientist. I don't think the scientific method is the only valid way to understand the world, but perhaps being "unscientific" is similar to being "anti-progress" in most people's minds. Perhaps Steiner coined the term "spiritual science" as a marketing gimmick. He did not seem to have been aware of the concept of experimental controls and ways of dealing with experimental bias (such as the double blind protocol). There is no scientific (meaning with controls and statistical testing) experimental support to some of the claims of biodynamic agriculture (such as planting by the phases of the moon, or those preparations with cow horns), or of homeopathic claims, as far as I have researched.

My friend's attack of science was based on what most people consider the fruits of science, which are ugly urban sprawl, unemployment and meaningless work, pollution and other environmental devastation. I consider these to be the fruits of the industrial revolution, not of science. These are confused in the popular mind.

onething said...

Hmmm, well here is the latest on a hopeful company regarding fusion power:

http://www.starscientific.com.au/faqs/#validity

onething said...

Part 1

It isn't always the belief in progress that holds back science. More, it is a reluctance to be wrong, to buck the trend, to redo and undo.

I have read some thoughtful books and essays by at least three astronomers who do not believe the Big Bang, and while I am a layperson, I find that their arguments have merit, and seem to satisfactorily answer all the mainstream, established ideas. Particularly enlightening is Paul Laviolette's long discussion at the end of his book in which he not only goes through all the arguments, but gives a layperson like me quite an inside view as to how the physicists come up with factoids that are actually patches for holes where their theories don't add up.
Personally, I am very impressed with Paul La Violette because he has made several successful predictions, beginning in the 70s. I may be wrong, but I think he's one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

Yet these astronomers, often with stellar beginnings to their careers, are marginalized once they go far enough out of the box from within which they are expected to make small discoveries, but not big ones.

This is a real flaw in the human character.
Fear of reprisal is holding back science, and suppressing new thoughts.



onething said...

Part 2

JMG, I love your mind, your thinking, your whole approach so much that I have been slowly going through the archives and reading pretty much everything you have written.

Currently, I'm about half way through World Full of Gods, and while I have had many small disagreements, the only big one is that you dispensed with the cosmological argument far too quickly and glibly.

And I don't disagree with your general report on how the conservative churches have approached things.

BUT -- Neodarwinism is another branch of science which is mired in preventing progress because it insists upon an atheistic interpretation because that is actually its raison d'etre. I know you will disagree but the inner circle all agrees on that. It is the one branch of science which has by far the highest percentage of atheists. This is no accident. Darwin himself said Christianity was a religion that no decent person would want to be true (or was it Voltaire?) and that if true it would consign his beloved father and grandfather to hell. (I would lay the fault of modern atheism at the feet of western Christianity, but I digress.)
Humans require an origins teaching, and this is why Dawkins said Darwinian evolution allowed him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Now, mind you, life unfolded slowly from the simple to the complex, and we can call that evolution. But those in charge of the theory at academia have never waited for a plausible explanation and have thus jumped from one absurdity to another, and this is partly the usual hubris but also they really needed to have a system that works with matter only, with no will or mind or intent.

I have not yet figured out what you believe about such things, but I have at least got some partial opinions from you on that. So the crux of the problem for me is the insistence that evolution was absolutely undirected and without purpose. Only an atheist needs that, it is an unproven and metaphysical stance that they had no right to teach my children as fact, and if you do believe that consciousness, mind or divinity is part of the universe or the source of the universe, then it is really quite unlikely to be true.

onething said...

Part 3

"...devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis."

I mentioned the Big Bang because it is a fairly neutral theory and because I am an open minded and curious person, I put quite a bit of time into it, and have tentatively concluded that it will not stand the test of time. Likewise, although I have never believed it likely that life exists apart from God, I read very thoroughly this controversy, not with creationism in which I am uninterested, but the arguments of those against Darwinism, mostly Intelligent Design. Not only is the evidence in favor of it not increasing, it is decreasing. The more we learn of, for example, molecular biology, the less likely unguided and random processes and mutations appear to be adequate explanations. I read the literature on as detailed a level as I can find, and believe me, the devil is definitely in the details. I've just spent two chapters reading about protein folds. I guess the reason I have taken issue here is that no matter how much the proponents insist that the evidence is overwhelming and only idiots would fail to agree, it simply isn't so. The arguments against neoDarwinism are absolutely compelling to me, there are several classes of them, they are intricately scientific, and take no position at all on the god issue, although of course many authors are religious. And furthermore, I have never seen even one good refutation of their points, although it is often claimed that such refutations have taken place!

I, for one, would really like to know how life unfolded. You mentioned once that it might have been done by committee, and I tend to agree. Jeremy Narby in the Cosmic Serpent wonders if DNA is actually a life form, an entity, with an agenda to evolve itself.

I don't for a moment think that the Intelligent Design community would behave any better if they had the upper hand - that's the human character flaw I mentioned - but the understanding of the unfolding of life as it currently stands is a kind of substitute religion and you know how religious people don't like to examine their dogmas in detail? Whereas the intelligent design scientists are using detail to slowly back them into a corner.

You heard it from me first!

k-dog said...

Your analysis of science echoes another critique of it I found this week. George Mobus posted'Is Science Another Failed Institution?" at his blog a few days ago.

Your theme this week of man being unable to legislate the behaviour of Mother Nature resonates with his. Science became institutionalized and subject to the failings of man.

A noble beast she was destined to roam free and not with the bit of society in her mouth. - K-Dog

Helix said...

That tree metaphor is awesome. Thanks JMG!

onething said...

By the way, I should clarify that I have nothing whatever against atheists. They do as well as anyone else in this strange situation we find ourselves in.

John Michael Greer said...

Iuval, one of the difficulties with Steiner is a matter of translation. The German word wissenschaft covers much more territory than the English word science -- pretty much any organized body of knowledge can be ein wissenschaft, whether or not it makes use of the scientific method. Steiner's work has quite a bit of value in its own right, but you're right, of course, that it's not scientific in the strict sense of the English word.

Onething, I'm aware that Neodarwinism has been used as ammunition by atheists, but it's hardly fair to insist that this makes it inherently atheistic, any more than the fact that some Satanists enjoy playing volleyball makes volleyball Satanic. The only question that Darwinism or any other scientific theory can answer is "how," and that leaves such other questions as "why" and "who" wide open. No scientific theory, insofar as it remains scientific, can prove or disprove a claim about the purpose of evolution, or of anything else -- again, those are not questions science addresses, and those who try to make science address such issues (as of course pop atheists such as Richard Dawkins do) are engaging in an abuse of science.

I'm not a molecular biologist, and so I take my cues from those who are -- and those with whom I've discussed these issues assure me that the supposed biochemical disproofs of Darwinian evolution are invalid. They may be wrong, to be sure, but the logic of Darwinian evolution makes powerful sense to me, and those arguments against it that I do have the knowledge to critique (for example, arguments by design that focus on ecological relationships) are remarkable for their logical shoddiness, so I tend to trust the biologists here.

Finally, I want to return to the issue I raised in the post -- nothing in the Bible or the historic creeds of Christianity rules out biological evolution. If that's how God chose to create humanity, I think He showed excellent taste in selecting an elegant method. The notion that Christianity has to reject a scientific theory that has no bearing on any of the core issues of Christian faith is, I would argue, a sign of just how deeply Christianity has been hijacked into the service of the myth of progress -- in this case as one of its canned opponents.

K-dog, thanks for the link. Mobus makes some excellent points.

Helix, you're welcome!

Joy said...

Having left evangelical religion, I now attend a Unitarian Church when I feel the need for spiritual/philosophical insight, inspiration, etc., which is usually twice a month. At first, I enjoyed the services, which contained a broad variety of diverse views and opinions. But the past few years, I can see some of the same problems in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination that occurred with the evangelicals. Just as the conservative Christians try to work in politics to bring about conformity to their interpretation of what is biblically correct, liberal religionists are doing the same to bring about conformity to their interpretation of what is politically correct. It’s exactly like your comment on liberal churches that “redefined their clergy as amateur social service providers and progressive activists with a sideline in rites of passage.” Some UU’s have even gone from calling themselves a liberal religion to a progressive religion, and at both the local and national level seem to be falling over themselves reorganizing in order to ride the shirttails of progressive politics and attract what is thought to be the rising tide of progressive faith among the young people of today. They are stepping on some toes among their members while doing so, and I wonder whether they truly will be able to attract all of these Generation XYZ, Millennials, and such, in numbers great enough to replace the aging membership of Hippy-Boomers/Silent Generation that makes up the present day UU majority. They are pushing politics as much as the conservative churches are, and often are just as self-righteous about it too. Both groups are trying to use politics to force their version of utopia upon society, whether it’s for progression toward a Christian America or a New Progressive America.

Sometimes I wonder why I attend church at all. I don’t even consider myself religious, but just interested in formulating a philosophy of life that is based on “what is”. Perhaps the literalist authority that is so often present in American religion has poisoned me toward the word “religion”, along with “worship”, “god” etc. I look forward to your future posts, and hope that I can gain a different, useful way of looking at religion.

By the way, I heard on the radio while typing this that Detroit, the home of industrial progress, has declared bankruptcy.

Villager said...

"Villager, can we set 'em to work counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a proton? That'll cost less, and keep them out of trouble just as well."

We're already doing that - but it's called "string theory."

Talk about a solution in search of a problem!!!! NOT EVEN WRONG.

Renaissance Man said...

So, it seems, Achilles really cannot catch the tortoise.
Apparently the track of Eternal Progress may be linear, but it is relativistic. Who knew?
Your tree analogy made me think of the similar description in Douglas Hofsteader's "Godel, Escher, & Bach (An Eternal Golden Braid)" that discusses the limits of the "tree" of mathematics which is unable to prove all truths.
I suspect the psychology of the search for fusion power, seems like is should be possible because we heve "progressed" to an understanding of how fusion works... and appears to lie just beyond our grasp, so if we strive just a bit harder...

Leo said...

What do you think of this by Ugo Bardi?

http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/the-punctuated-collapse-of-roman-empire.html

He gives the founding of Rome in 753BC, so to be fair we should include the founding of industrial civilization.

Considering that Industrialism was started by wind and water (only two renewables, there's more now), a point that many people who should know better ignore, we could put that date nearly a 1000 years ago. That's when many of the advances in water and wind happened, through you could put it later in the 15th-16th century.

d35e68fa-f009-11e2-aee1-000f20980440 said...

I read what you had to say about the range of Christian denominations with interest. I am a Pagan, but I grew up in a house church group known as the 2x2s... and cannot help but find your description of the house church movement -- "rapidly growing"! -- a bit disheartening.

The 2x2 people may know how to operate complex machinery in the workaday world, technicians par excellence unconcerned with the human context of their operations; but their minds, oh their minds... I never want to be surrounded by so many people in whom the "mind-forged manacles" are so prominent again, it makes me shudder over a decade after breaking with it. I know that not all of the house churches are affiliated with the 2x2s or "Christian Conventions", however it is almost certain that they would be reaping gains apace if the house churches in general are doing so.

Perhaps this is my own favorite illusion, that somehow the enema of dechristianization will complete its cure before we go down the far side of Hubbert's Plateau; that something more Pagan will rush in like wind into a pocket of low pressure left by the departure of Christianity and the secular humanism which was happily to self-destruct while doing its thing...

I still think it is likely that some form Paganism will remain when all the Abrahamanic religions have perished, as the solstices and "War" and "Dawn" will not have gone away but artificial constructs like "Holy Spirit" would surely perish; but in the context of "rapidly growing" house Churches, I can unfortunately see the possibility that Christianity will increase in virulence again.

Dechristianization has protected us from witch scares, torture, burnings at stake. If Christianization occurs, then we may see a recurrence of all of these happenings. Christianity, when it is powerless, speaks in such innocuous love & light terms. But ah! when it is in power the Torquamadas and Witchfinder generals would appear to proliferate with suspicious ease.

T. Appleman

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG

No doubt you'll take a lot of heat for trashing the hot fusion community (no pun intended, but I'll gladly take the groans).

I thought it was interesting that after the latest failed prediction in the inertial confinement world -- the fact that the pellets "squish" as they compress, disrupting the fusion process -- that the community as a whole was mildly disappointed but on the whole, cheerful and upbeat. Which illustrates a rather important detail that you skipped over in your analysis.

This detail is that the actual goal of the enterprise changes, but without acknowledging the change.

There was a time when the goal of science was to figure things out and write about it. Then it became merely to write (publish or perish). Now, it is mostly about securing funding for writing.

Traditional fusion research is very good for securing funding. It's well-studied: there aren't a lot of surprises, and regardless of how it turns out, you'll get a publishable paper and a good chance at the next round of funding. That it is a dead-end research is endlessly debatable, but irrelevant to the actual function of the research, which is to secure the next round of research funding.

I'm currently watching my son- and daughter-in-law go through this shift of emphasis. They're about a year into their first tenure-track positions, and they immediately found themselves managing a small business: funding, personnel, managing, ordering, politicking and cutting deals. Research? Nah -- that's something their grad students do. The lucky stiffs.

Politics is much the same. The biggest part of freshman orientation for new senators, I've read, is about securing funding for the next election campaign. It isn't greatly in error to say that the job of a Senator is to remain a Senator: nothing more nor less. As jobs go, it pays well, and its benefits are second to none.

Perhaps this hollowing-out of enterprises into shells that maintain the form but lack the substance of what they once were, is the essence of social senescence. Where once we fought wars because we wanted something, now we fight them simply because that's what we do: we are Wars R Us. Where once we did science to acquire knowledge about nature, now we do science because we have scientists: Science R Us.

Quos Ego said...

JMG, have you ever read Edwin Abbott's Flatland ?

I couldn't help thinking about this amazing little book after reading this week's essay.

S P said...

Your point on fusion is taken, however I don't think we have spent "trillions" on fusion research, and besides, fiat currency isn't real so it ultimately fails as an objective measure of anything.

If we actually did spend trillions on energy rather than give trillions to bankers, industrial civilization might have some fight left in it, but that's neither here nor there.

Rather, I think the whole idea of nuclear energy including standard fission reactors represents a derivative, if you will, of fossil fuels, and will not be maintained without them.

As such, as the power from the combustion of fossil fuels declines, so will nuclear energy in any form.

Many in the doomer blogosphere have commented on this particularly The Automatic Earth and Steve from Virginia.

KL Cooke said...

"Well, fusion bombs of immense power (comparable to tens of millions of tons of conventonal explosives, and it is not a typo) have been available since the 50's so the issue is completely moot."


Well, that's what I get for watching Batman movies. Pity, because I was already starting to think about the novel--"The Da Vinci Megaload," maybe? In the movie version, Khloe Kardashian could play the girlfriend.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

@onething @JMG

If I may butt in on yet another conversation, my observations of the ID vs. anti-ID battle has largely lead me to the conclusion that they're right about each other and wrong about themselves: both more confident in their ideas than is warranted and both too tolerant of colleagues' poor arguments and ulterior motives.

In particular, neither side seems particularly inclined to actually read and comprehend what the other side writes.

One point that rarely gets made is that whether you think, as a matter of historical fact, that intelligent forces have intervened in the evolution of life on Earth will largely depend on whether you believe, for whatever reason, that forces capable of doing such a thing exist.

In other words, if you believe in God or gods, it seems reasonable to suggest maybe they weren't totally neutral to the development of these little critters romping all over their handiwork.

And lets not forget that we are such forces. Human have been consciously interfering in the evolution of life ever since we discovered selective breeding.

PhysicsDoc said...

JMG,
In your posts you have mentioned two common narratives currently in our culture, the apocalyptic NTE narrative, and the technology solves all/progress will march on narrative. I have noticed a third which I will call the NWO or New World Order narrative. In this view the craziness of the world has an underlying cause and is orchestrated by a shadowy group of the worlds elite. The purpose is to either enslave or wipe out most of us lesser folks by about 2030 or so unless we rise up and fight back. Interestingly they pick a similar date for this to culminate as some of the NTE people use for the date when our NTE time runs out (~2030). These people also pick up on many of the same things that others view as just the collapse of our civilization, they just put a conspiracy theory spin on it. Of course climate change is just a hoax perpetrated by the elite to further enslave us. I guess this narrative serves the same purpose as the other two, it gives people the space to avoid confronting the real issues.

PhysicsDoc said...

JMG,
I forgot to mention the religious narratives such as the Christian end times and the extreme version of the progress narrative i.e. The Singularity. All of these have a common element in that they all either ignore, marginalize, deny, or minimize the elephant in the room, environmental collapse and climate change. I sometimes wonder if your narrative tends to do the same thing in a subtler way.

onething said...

I do think that evolution theory as it is taught is inherently atheistic. It is a tenet that evolutionary processes are random and unguided. And it is precisely the how of it that has not been answered. If they could answer the how of it there would be no argument. And, if they are right as to the how, then there is no who or why.

So far as I know, the main reason Christianity has fought against evolution theory is precisely that it teaches no need of a creator, no will or purpose.

I am not sure what the argument from design re ecological relationships is about. But this is one topic that should you take sufficient interest or time, you should evaluate some evidence for yourself.

My intuition is that however life really did unfold is far grander and more interesting than biological evolution, which does not seem elegant to me, relying as it does on billions of errors that get past the DNA proofreaders, such that this most amazing system of careful copying during reproduction without which life would fail is somehow also responsible through its errors for evolving millions of stunning creatures.

wiseman said...

@JMG
Do you think the purpose of western schooling system (as it exists today) is to drill "The myth of progress" into young minds ? I find that wherever this system has been co-opted it's hard to convince people to open their minds and think independently.

Schooling never made much sense when I was going through it, however it all made sense to me when I read John Taylor Gatto's work about the schooling system, the desks, hours of paperwork, getting up and sitting down at the ring of a bell, finishing your lunch in a specified time, it's all designed to acclimatize the human body to do the work of a clerk in future years.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Very interesting. I imagine there is maybe some sort of cultural memory at work too?

Hi Les,

Good to hear from you. Yep, farming in a sustainable manner can be a complex business. How are those cows going?

Wow, it is wet down here in the past few weeks...

But, we just had the warmest July day since records began in 1853. I think it reached 23.3 Celsius (73.94 Fahrenheit).

Funny, you mention that about boiling the water. I had to laugh as I connected up a dump load resistor and solid state relay to redirect the excess generation capacity from the wind turbine.

I put the relay too close to the dump load and the heat sink was too small. Yep, the relay over heated, failed and melted and I almost burnt the house down. How silly is that - One of the few houses in the country built to the highest bushfire resistant standards, gets burnt down by the stupidity of the owner. Would not have been a good look!

The whole lot got promptly dismantled as a bad idea. The wind turbine produced next to no power anyway here as it just isn't that windy.

Still, it confirms that the excess generation capacity here is more than enough to boil a nice cup of tea! hehe!

Regards

Chris

Georgi Marinov said...

Onething, I'm aware that Neodarwinism has been used as ammunition by atheists, but it's hardly fair to insist that this makes it inherently atheistic, any more than the fact that some Satanists enjoy playing volleyball makes volleyball Satanic. The only question that Darwinism or any other scientific theory can answer is "how," and that leaves such other questions as "why" and "who" wide open. No scientific theory, insofar as it remains scientific, can prove or disprove a claim about the purpose of evolution, or of anything else -- again, those are not questions science addresses, and those who try to make science address such issues (as of course pop atheists such as Richard Dawkins do) are engaging in an abuse of science.

The neutral theory of molecullar evolution, which is very well supported by data, does not leave much room for a God. And it answers the "why" questions quite well.

Finally, I want to return to the issue I raised in the post -- nothing in the Bible or the historic creeds of Christianity rules out biological evolution.

Last time I checked the thing explicitly said things happened otherwise. How is that not ruling out evolution?

Georgi Marinov said...

Blogger John Michael Greer said...
Georgi, it would also be helpful if you paid attention to what I wrote rather than whacking a convenient straw man. I didn't say that the trillion-dollar subsidies were disbursed in a single year, nor that the multimillion-dollar grants were going to single researchers. How much money has been spent by all nations on nuclear fusion power so far? If you'd care to document that the figure is less than $2 trillion in today's dollars, I'd be interested in seeing that


Your exact words were "continuous flow of trillions of dollars".

2 trillion dollars over 60 years would mean 30 billion a year for fusion alone. That's an absurd number - the total funding for all of physics is nowhere near that high.

Currently, the budgets of the US funding agencies are as follows (rounding the numbers):

NIH: 30 billion
NSF: 7 billion
NASA: 17 billion
DoE: 4 billion
NOAA: 5 billion
DoD: 5 billion
USDA: 1 billion
USGS: 1 billion

Of these, funding for fusion research can come from DoE, NSF, possibly some from DoD, the other agencies do not cover that. But those are the total budgets for all the science they fund, which is a lot more than fusion. And fusion funding is actually down, MIT shut down its program earlier this year

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/05/19/fusion-energy-research-mit-shut-down-people-lose-their-jobs/x8CDMwik26faDd9FmwlrTO/story.html

The total cost of ITER is going to be 15 billion, and that's a large international project spread over many years.

Yes, proportionally more money went to that kind of research during the cold war, but it was also a lot cheaper back then. It's nowhere near trillions.

Anyway, I was not attacking a strawmen, it was actually a very relevant remarks, because it's a fine line between presenting a realistic assessment of the situation and entering a completely unjustified anti-science mode of writing, and that comment crossed it.

Alice Y. said...

Hi JMG, this post made me wonder if it's worth trying to use the 'moral and scientific progress narrative' as a lever when I encounter progressive decision-makers. I can see it's possible to characterise economic-growth/BAU types as 'dinosaurs' and that 'good planning in the progressive sense means thinking based on a realistic understanding of the limits of ecological capacity to absorb pollution and provide resources'. It would mean splitting economic progress off from moral and scientific progress and encouraging people to see conventional economics as an evolutionary dead end. One difficulty is that those who have serious decision-making power in the current arrangement are exactly those who depend on the current economic arrangements.

If the narrative that has gripped most people so firmly can be used as an entry point to begin thinking within the 'Limits to growth' framework, that might help people make some less disastrous decisions. I can see that there's a danger that cognitive dissonance would lead them to ignore/forget what they would prefer not to see, but harnessing this to ideas about reality-testing and scientific enquiry is potentially powerful, since most people in the progressive side want to see themselves as realistic, scientitic and so on. Wondering if you see other hazards attending the gambit of using the story of moral and scientific progress to help people come to terms with the age of limits?

Phil Harris said...

JMG
It is not really my place to intrude on American debates on science, evolution and religion, (although I am told that neo-Christian ‘entryists’ into UK’s C of E make a point of them). For what it is worth though, as a biological scientist albeit not an evolutionary biologist, I support your general conclusions. Forgive a longish quote summarising a publication in this week’s Science. I hope it gives general readers a flavour of the scientific method as the science tries to account for the natural world.

Adaptation is a wonderful thing. Borrowing a more poetic note; given conditions, 'design' is perhaps an emergent property of the days of our vanity, given time and chance under the sun?

Playing the Tape of Life
Should the tape of life be replayed, would it produce the same music? Many influential evolutionary biologists, notably Stephen J. Gould, have argued that the answer is “no.” However, patterns of convergence among different species filling similar niches all over the world have argued that the answer is neither so simple nor perhaps so negative. Classic cases of convergence, such as marsupials on the Australian continent or cichlids across the African rift lakes, have demonstrated that similar ecological pressures can result in species with similar ecological traits. Such classic examples, however, do not allow for the influence of niche filling based purely on chance. Mahler et al. (p. 292) take advantage of the well-studied species clades of Caribbean anoles to examine patterns of adaptation and niche filling across species and islands. Across-islands convergence on a few distinct adaptive peaks (or niches) has driven diversification of species. Anomalies from these ecotypes are only found on the largest, most diverse islands. Thus, ecological niches powerfully shape species and convergence on particular forms is an inherent component of adaptation. Thus, it seems that the tape of life might play the same music, despite being produced by different instruments.

John Maiorana said...

The theory of evolution is only necessary to explain the origin of life in a mechanical universe with unidirectional physical time. By mechanical I mean a world which obeys a finitely describable theory of events and their measures. Evolution has the concept of progress built into it through the mechanisms of "random" variation, selection, and inheritance, which somehow combine to produce the progression from simpler to more complex forms. The observation that life adapts to changing circumstance is hardly proof. Because of its assumptions and motivations, the theory of evolution is actually quite deadly. Perhaps a "theory of resolution" would be better. It's quite simple, really. Instead of saying "evolve", say "resolve".

Adrian Skilling said...

On Fusion I found this, "Have we spent too much on Fusion":

http://focusfusion.org/index.php/site/reframe/wasteful

which suggests total fusion funding of Fusion in the US is $29 billion. This is an industry report though full of justifications. Given as JMG says (and confirmed below), ITER alone cost approx $14 billion
http://www.iter.org/factsfigures.

Add in European spending, http://ec.europa.eu/research/energy/euratom/index_en.cfm?pg=faq, if approx 500 million Euros a year, assuming same over 30 years means the total is around $33 billion. So $47 billion very roughly, but no doubt quite a bit is missing from these figures (I've wasted enough time already) but it'd take a lot to get up to JMGs $2 trillion figure.

Anyway, I'm not trying to nitpick, I agree with JMG that we are probably witnessing a dead horse being flogged. We keep funding (though funding has declined at least in the US) because the outcome is so alluring, and the sunk cost arguments that if we stop now then we've total wasted all that money. The aim ITER is rather modest, 500MW out with 10MW in, and there's no guarantee that will be met. A typical coal fired power station generates 600MW.

No doubt this amount of money would be very much better spent elsewhere. But also consider we've spend $850bn on bank bailouts in a single year! and we keep throwing money at them.

Bill Pulliam said...

Joseph Nemeth -- you have pinpointed EXACTLY why I ditched my career in Academia, got a commercial drivers license, and now live as a hillbilly amateur scientist. I may be the only hillbilly with a Ph.D. from a major state university in this small rural county (though I'm not actually sure of that), but I am hardly the only one in the world. When my doctoral major professor heard about my "career change," her response was "good for him." Though she had been very successful in it, she had no delusions about the present-day circumstances in Academia.

As I express it, Academia is no longer the home for the Scholar. It is the home for the Salesman. Where is scholarship happening now? That is a very good question. I have found no shortage of outlets and venues for my scientific leanings in the world of amateur and citizen science, and the internet has lead to an enormous growth in networking and data sharing in the amateur science world. But still there is a need for support for professional scholarly institutions in any complete society. Amateurs mostly observe, monitor, and document. We don't necessarily work with the big ideas, nor do we have the money for expensive technological investigations (with a few exceptions, like James Cameron). Where is that happening now?

Adrian Skilling said...

This might be interesting to some people

http://ec.europa.eu/research/energy/euratom/index_en.cfm?pg=faq

it shows that of all public European R&D spending in 2007, about 40% if for Nuclear power and of that 31% is for Fusion. I am amazed that it is that high, and consider that previous to 2007 the proportion and total funding of Nuclear has been much higher.

You might well consider that our of proportion to the payback from Fusion research.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, duly noted.

Joy, the Unitarian Universalists are in some ways the extreme case in the liberal end of the spectrum I discussed in the post. Maybe it's just me, but when I've attended UU services -- which I've done in several parts of the country -- I've ended up thinking that it's a place for people who have the habit of getting up early on Sunday mornings to take in a lecture and sing off-key, but have forgotten why.

Villager, good. I'd say more precisely that it's not even science -- if it doesn't generate testable, falsifiable hypotheses, it's not science in any meaningful sense, and most current versions of string theory don't.

Renaissance, at this point Achilles is chasing his own shadow, thinking that it's a tortoise, and can't figure out why as the sun sets behind him the dratted tortoise gets further and further ahead!

Leo, I thought it was a good post. He suggests that it took 900 years for Rome to rise and 400 to fall; by the same scale, it took industrial civilization 300 years to rise -- I consider the Newcomen steam engine as the starting point -- and so, by Bardi's figure, it should take industrial civilization something like 133 years to fall. "A ragged decline one to three centuries in length," if I may quote myself...

d35, every religion has skeletons in its closet, and the tendency of so many Pagans these days to fixate on the evils of Christianity leads me to think that, if Paganism did become the dominant faith, it would probably be just as intolerant as the religion it despises. What you contemplate, you imitate!

Joseph, exactly. Every institution sooner or later becomes more interested in its own survival and the salaries and perks of its leading members than on the purpose for which it ostensibly exists.

Quos Ego, of course!

S P, no argument there -- the sheer cost of nuclear power is a dead giveaway that something's very much amiss with the enthusiastic claims of cheap abundant energy from the atom...

KL, too funny.

James, fair enough. You're certainly right that the entire debate is far too deeply stuck in polemics to generate much more than heat at this point.

PhysicsDoc, yes, that's also an important narrative, and one that I've discussed from time to time. As for whether my narrative doesn't give adequate room for environmental collapse and climate change, I've been discussing those, and including them in my models of the future, all along -- here again, trying to find a justifiable middle ground between extreme claims.

Mike R said...

Very interesting stuff, JMG.

I've been thinking a lot about Detroit today. I know that Detroit as metaphor is not exactly an original thought (every other comment on news stories about Detroit's bankruptcy are using Detroit as a metaphoric example).

But how do people doubt theories like the long descent when we have Detroit as a real-life example of how long descents operate? Detroit has been in decline longer than I've been alive, and I'm 42, and yet nearly three-quarters of a million people still live within the city limits and, as unpleasant as most of their lives may be, they still function in a city that has municipal services, as limited as they are. And I know they're horribly limited -- 58 minutes on average for the police to respond to a call -- but the point is that the descent is long, and these services don't go away overnight, as some people seem to think they do or will. Many decades after the start of Detroit being used as the classic example of U.S. post-industrial decay, the city -- evidently even after bankruptcy -- offers municipal services to its residents.

The other point I don't see written about as much is that, while the city of Detroit has been in its agonizing but slow-motion descent, the suburbs around Detroit function more or less as well as any other U.S. metro area. The Detroit airport, in nearby Romulus, is a major airline hub and completed a sparkling-new international terminal several years ago. I chuckle at the thought of international passengers connecting through Detroit for the first time, expecting post-industrial decay, and emerging in a well-run and modern terminal.

Michigan has higher unemployment than nearly all other states, but Detroit's suburbs are by and large the same sprawling, middle-class places you see anywhere built in the U.S. after World War II. In short: they are aesthetically awful, full of chain stores, and car-dependent, but for now they work fine for what they are.

My point in all that is, issues of race and Americans' disregard and cruelty toward the lives of other Americans' aside for a moment, regional Detroit, the Detroit metro area, may be instructive as an example of a long descent. Namely: that even as certain areas reach troughs of decline, other areas around them (just a few miles away) are much higher up on the ladder of decline, and these two situations can coexist quite functionally (if not happily) for quite some time. The lack of uniformity of decline is striking to me (and, again, I know how issues of racism and corruption and overspending created this situation, but I'm looking at the reality of this lack of uniformity in societal decline rather than rehashing its causes).

Google Street View (perhaps the most underrated piece of desktop technology there is) is your guide to seeing the reality in the city of Detroit. Merely drop the little orange guy nearly anywhere in the city, and you can see, in HD, what several decades of long descent can do to a place.

Gah, I am off-topic for this week's post, but I hope you'll put me through anyway.

Georgi Marinov said...

Adrian Skilling said...
This might be interesting to some people

http://ec.europa.eu/research/energy/euratom/index_en.cfm?pg=faq

it shows that of all public European R&D spending in 2007, about 40% if for Nuclear power and of that 31% is for Fusion. I am amazed that it is that high, and consider that previous to 2007 the proportion and total funding of Nuclear has been much higher.

You might well consider that our of proportion to the payback from Fusion research.


Those numbers are not for "all public European R&D spending", they are for energy R&D only

Big difference.

That there has been no payback from fusion is true. But does that mean funding for it is out of proportion? It's not an easy problem to solve and one cannot expect immediate paybacks all the time, sometimes research takes very long to produce results.

A much more useful way of looking at the situation is how much money is spent on research vs how much resources societies are investing into things that not only have not contributed to their well being but are actively working against it - military spending is between one and two orders of magnitude more than all research spending combined and a good portion of the economic activity that enters into GDP calculations is either completely useless or outright detrimental to the future of the species.

Ranting about how wastefully the tiny insignificant amounts of money that go into research are spent looks a lot less justified if one takes those facts into account.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, you've done a fairly good job of proving my point, because the brief description of evolution you've given in your comment is a frankly bizarre distortion of evolutionary theory as I understand it. The generation of genetic novelty is a feature, not a bug -- genes are adapted in a great many elegant ways to produce a steady stream of new combinations, and new genetic and epigenetic expressions. Those variations then become the raw material on which natural selection works.

As for evolution being inherently atheistic, that's like claiming that meteorology is atheistic because God doesn't independently manufacture each individual cloud to cause rain to fall on the just and the unjust -- it's an unjustifiable and completely unnecessary confusion between means and ends. I'm beginning to wonder if I need to research and write a book on the theology of evolution, just to clear up some of the shoddy logic being used by both sides of the debate.

Wiseman, I think that Western schooling exists for the purpose of paying the salaries of school administrators and government bureaucrats. Any other function long ago got swallowed up by the process Joseph Nemeth discussed above.

Georgi, duly noted, and thank you for the references. I've corrected the text of the post accordingly. As for the Bible ruling out evolution, one of the funniest details of the whole debate is the way that staunch atheists agree with the fundamentalists they claim to despise in insisting that a collection of Iron Age myth and poetry can only be interpreted in the most pigheadedly literal of senses. You may have more in common with the creationists than you think!

Alice, I'd say give it a try and see what results you get!

Phil, this was one of the points I was trying to address in my earlier post on the difference between what can happen and what does happen. Many thanks for the quote.

John, if you assume that evolution presupposes a mechanical universe and unilinear time, yes, you can them extract mechanism and a simplistic sense of time out of it! What I'm trying to say is that these presuppositions are not necessary to evolutionary theory -- nor, crucially, is progress in any sense implied by that theory. Adaptation is not perpetual improvement.

Take the basic concepts of evolutionary theory -- gradually increasing genetic and epigenetic diversity, on the one hand, and selective pressures from the environment, on the other -- and put them in a universe that isn't wholly mechanistic or limited to Newtonian time. In such a universe -- which may well be more like ours than the universe of mechanism -- evolution still functions in the same way; the unfolding of diversity and the nature of the selective pressures may not be quite the same as in a mechanistic universe, but the process still works.

Adrian, thanks for the facts and figures!

Georgi Marinov said...

Bill Pulliam said...

As I express it, Academia is no longer the home for the Scholar. It is the home for the Salesman. Where is scholarship happening now? That is a very good question. I have found no shortage of outlets and venues for my scientific leanings in the world of amateur and citizen science, and the internet has lead to an enormous growth in networking and data sharing in the amateur science world. But still there is a need for support for professional scholarly institutions in any complete society. Amateurs mostly observe, monitor, and document. We don't necessarily work with the big ideas, nor do we have the money for expensive technological investigations (with a few exceptions, like James Cameron). Where is that happening now?


That academia is messed up is indisputable. However:

1) That does not mean amateur scientists will or even can do better. The cutting edge of research requires a lot of commitment and a deep understanding of a field, that at present is very difficult to achieve if you are not doing it professionally. That's just the reality of the situation - in most areas of research, things are just too complex for it to be any other way.

2) Academia is in part to blame about its current state because it did not take a unified stand against the broader societal trends that eventually brought it where it is now. The primary reason it is in such a sorry state is the influence the prevailing socieoconomic ideology has had in developing the current funding and hiring practices (once you move beyond the era of the gentleman scholar, which you have to do once things reach beyond a certain level of complexity, those practices become very important, because people have to eat somehow no matter what their occupation). Yes, that ideology has been justified using the work of academics, but that's just one corner of academia (and it's not one that belongs to the sciences) and I use the word "justified" for a reason - it's not really academia that's pushing that ideology, it's other more powerful forces in society.

Georgi Marinov said...

Adrian Skilling said...
On Fusion I found this, "Have we spent too much on Fusion":

http://focusfusion.org/index.php/site/reframe/wasteful

which suggests total fusion funding of Fusion in the US is $29 billion. This is an industry report though full of justifications. Given as JMG says (and confirmed below), ITER alone cost approx $14 billion
http://www.iter.org/factsfigures.


Clicking on that link, I see the following statements:

Adjusting for inflation [year?], total fusion spending is $29.1 Billion.

That’s for 57 years of fusion funding. (To get a sense of what’s been going on these 57 years, check out this Gary Weisel Article.)

That’s an average of $393 Million a year - adjusted to $510 million per year in the US. This includes NIF as well as Tokamaks and alternatives.


Georgi Marinov said...

Georgi, duly noted, and thank you for the references. I've corrected the text of the post accordingly.

Thanks, appreciated

As for the Bible ruling out evolution, one of the funniest details of the whole debate is the way that staunch atheists agree with the fundamentalists they claim to despise in insisting that a collection of Iron Age myth and poetry can only be interpreted in the most pigheadedly literal of senses. You may have more in common with the creationists than you think!

I have always maintained that young earth creationists actually have more intellectual integrity than proponents of theistic evolution (even if their level of intelligence is much lower). I am not alone in that thinking.

I know what the text says explicitly.

You can interpret it any way you can but there is only one or two corners of the interpretation space that have not yet been painted where you can go at present if you are to be consistent with evolutionary theory as currently understood. Unfortunately, the most accessible book on the subject of what modern evolutionary theory is about is "The Logic of Chance" by Eugene Koonin and that is still way too technical for the average reader, but if you have some time and are interested, I strongly recommend it.

Andy Brown said...

Evolution does not have progress built into it, unless you define progress as "movement through time toward whatever it is you end up with."

It's no coincidence that evolution crops up in these conversations. From the start, people have tried to lay evolutionary science down onto the pre-existing narrative of progress and the Great Chain of Being. Most if not all of the normal misunderstandings that people have about evolution come from the way in which it gets distorted to "fit" with the over-arching narrative.

JMG, you can write your book if you like, but it seems pretty clear that the people arguing about evolution are mostly really arguing about something else. Still, it would be a good thing if it helped free evolutionary theory from pulling double duty as science and rhetorical Rorschach.

Roger said...

...the enthusiastic pursuit of repeatedly failed policies has become one of the leitmotifs of contemporary life. - JMG

I wonder if you would include the Fed's repeated application of loose monetary policy as one of those enthusiastic pursuits of repeatedly failed policy. We've had repeated bubbles and busts, each worse than the last, each bubble and bust seemingly the result of excessive liquidity in the financial system. And the response by the Fed to each bust was the further application of what apparently caused the problem in the first place: more liquidity.

They say that, in the aftermath of this latest real estate and derivatives bust, but for prompt and aggressive Fed action (massive electronic money printing), there would have been a catastrophe on a par with the Great Depression. Seems to be bad form though to question whether it was the Fed, at least in part, responsible for the mess in the first place.

A question: shouldn't monetary policy such as that prescribed by Greenspan and Bernanke act as a bridge from "here" to "there"? We know where "here" is ie where things are at now.

"Here", where we're at, is an economically ruined continent littered with the financial carcasses of businesses and families and entire cities. How did we get "here"? You can massage numbers and statistics and craft narratives to comply with a particular ideological world view to explain this on-going year-by-year deterioration. Or to claim this is just an aspect of on-going change and eventual, upward economic "progress". Or maybe to claim that there is no deterioration, that things are just hunky-dory, that things have never been better. People are, after all, subject to what some call "landscape amnesia". Never mind landscape amnesia, the young 'uns weren't around to see their grandfathers troop off, lunch-pails in hand, to the factory gates.

But I've seen the decades long deterioration. There are people that would suggest offshoring as one important explanation and I would in large part agree. The justifiers and explainers and re-writers of history don't fool me. They say offshoring and de-industrialization is a canard. Sorry, I'm not buying it.

So how could loose monetary policy act as a bridge to get us over some temporary economic difficulty? Let's say that it could act as a stimulant to get under-utilized factory capacity back up and running and hiring laid off workers. But what if the factories no longer exist - at least in North America? If the intent for expansionary monetary policy is to stimulate demand and get people back to work, thereby stimulating more demand, there have to be work-places to go back to. The problem is that those work-places are now in places like China and there's scant evidence that they're coming back or that monetary policy is somehow going to fill the gap left by their departure.

And so, instead of being an economic restorative, each monetary expansion inflicts a new asset bubble (maybe this time a bond bubble) and in the fullness of time a new bust and another calamity. You have events in the real world and the real economy - offshoring from the US in this case - that have as their reasonably expected consequence a decline in American living standards. What else would you expect?

Back to my question. We know where "here" is. But what is the intended destination for these repeated bouts of expansionary monetary policy? I would submit that aside from some nebulous idea of "growth" there is no real plan. Have you heard of one? I haven't. Just open the money spigots and hope for the best. The - ahem - "free market" will somehow take care of it. The "free market", the theoreticians tell us, will self-adjust. Sure it does, I've seen it. Forgive my insolence, far be it from me to question the great and the powerful, but when the "free market" jumps off a cliff does it count as a "self adjustment"?

Glenn said...

There seems to be immense concern that our host exaggerated the amount of funding going to Fusion research. Whether or not the good Archdruid has engaged in hyperbole or not, his argument was _not_ that too much money was being spent, or that the amount spent was depriving worthy causes elsewhere (though both might arguably be true); his argument was that vast amounts of funding spent on decades of research have yielded negligible results. It helps, as he frequently says, to address the argument or claim in question, rather than a side issue.

I am slightly older than JMG, but like him, for my entire life a major breakthrough in "Fusion Energy" has always been just around the corner, usually from 20 to 50 years out. Like him, I neither intend to hold my breath or give up sex while I wait. Splitting firewood and continuing to build our tiny cabin seem more worthwhile activies.

Glenn
Marrowstone Island

Orlandu84 said...

I started reading your blog last week after Outside In linked you. It is always a pleasure to read good prose. Also, I must express my gratitude for your concise analysis of how the "myth of progress" has lead to a collapse of religious belief in 20th century America.

On the topic of evolution and the Book of Genesis (which has become a hot topic of debate in the comments), allow me to commend St. Augustine. He wrote two works on the matter. "Against the Manicheans" and "The Literal Meaning of Genesis." In short Augustine did not claim that Genesis was a scientific account of creation. Augustine, like Aquinas, did not think that one could even establish the creation of the world on scientific grounds. Instead, creation can only be believed as a matter of faith. It saddens me deeply that Christianity figured this truth out centuries ago, only to forget it in the modern era.

Richard Clyde said...

UU strikes me, doctrinally, as more or less a church of positivism. It determined its core values by polling the membership, and the result is almost word-for-word Comte or Saint-Simon. This is less than healthy, in my view.

But institutionally, I think UU churches can serve an important role for various kinds of theological non-conformists. At a minimum, they provide community and religious education that people like pagans, spiritual humanists, and actual Unitarians would have difficulty getting elsewhere. UU also provides a kind of legal and social "cover," or even "vector," for organisations like CUUPS, whose members might otherwise find it difficult to operate as a body or even imagine themselves as a community.

onething said...

James Jensen,

You make several very good points. Re the two sides not listening to one another, that is so, and yet I think that side which is debunking neoDarwinism listens better because one, they simply have to in order to marshal their arguments, and two, they have slightly differing motivations. For someone who believes in God, evolutionary theory is an irritant, but not a real threat to their worldview. However for those like our friend Georgi, it is essential.
The religious, on the other hand, have their faith and irrational belief system invested elsewhere. It is incredibly difficult to get them to examine that. But for the atheists who I maintain are the real leaders in this dogma because it is a substitute religion, their human tendency toward irrational beliefs are invested in evolution theory, and this detracts greatly from it as a neutral science.

As to this cute sentence,

"In other words, if you believe in God or gods, it seems reasonable to suggest maybe they weren't totally neutral to the development of these little critters romping all over their handiwork."

That is a humorous way of stating why I think there is an atheistic divide in evolutionary theory. The real insiders teach it in such a way that God has nothing to do with it, which I consider almost a logical impossibility.
Either it is random and unassisted or it ain't. If there was a setup, that's a different ball game.

If we're in the setup ballgame, the problem then is that we have not yet found a mechanism to account for how evolution happens.

Georgi,

The neutral theory is one of several. But upon closer scrutiny, which has been accelerating since the 70's, none of the proposed mechanisms holds up.

Re your reply to JMG, you are only correct if I am right that as you see it, evolution theory precludes God. What JMG is saying (I think) is that life can evolve through genetic changes in a Darwinian fashion, and it does not conflict with the idea that God/gods created the world/universe and had something to do with getting life going.

Phil Harris:

I like your quote because it is a great example of assuming one's conclusions. Evolution is assumed, therefore we can speculate about convergent evolution and what it means. If you're into niche theory, you might like Michael Denton's Nature's Destiny.

The proposed mechanisms - gene mutation, gene duplication, genetic drift, and so forth, do not stand up to scrutiny. And now epigenetics throws a huge wrench into the works anyway. I've got a small shelf of books on this topic, but the one I'm reading now may be the best - Darwin's Doubt.

It's time for another synthesis.

JMG

I've been inspired by your book to develop a small grotto in a recessed little spring in the woods near my house.

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, well, there we differ. I have a hard time finding any intellectual integrity at all in trying to pretend that the Book of Genesis is a textbook of geology and paleontology, which it so obviously is not, while ignoring the vast body of evidence from dozens of sciences that conflicts with any literal interpretation of it.

Andy, oh, granted. The irony here is that evolution has been part of Druid teaching since before Darwin's time, so I'm persona non grata with both sides!

Roger, got it in one. The behavior of official economists in general is a classic, gold-plated example of what I was talking about.

Glenn, thank you. My point was actually slightly different -- whether or not sustained fusion is possible outside a star, it's been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that a fusion reactor would be ruinously expensive to build and operate, and therefore the sheer economics of fusion put it outside the field of potential answers to our energy problems.

Orlandu84, thanks for the reminder! This is why I've been saying that the crusade against Darwinian evolution is a mug's game into which Christians have been suckered -- it does them no good and their God no honor, and merely serves the interests of the religion of progress.

Richard, oh, granted. I've simply found the UU services I've attended to be stunningly vapid.

Onething, glad to hear it. I may be discussing this whole evolution thing in a later post, btw -- it seems to me that the divide you're seeing is an optical illusion caused by a lack of attention to some of the basic presuppositions your religion shares with mine and most others.

Chris said...

@Orlandu84: A slight correction. Aquinas did think that the creation of the world could be demonstrated (he takes himself to have done so in the Five Ways). What he thought, however, was that the creation of the world _in time_ could not be demonstrated. He considered it metaphysically possible for God to have created the world from eternity, so that the past could have been infinite. For him, it's a matter of faith that the world came into existence a finite time ago in the past; but the world must have been created, whether in time or from eternity, since it can't be the source of its own motion/being/necessity/value/finality.

TAE Daily said...

[i]"The social pressure to conform to stereotypes and resist progress in every sense drove the weirdest dimension of late 20th century American Christian pseudoconservatism, the holy war against Darwinian evolution. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the luminous poetry of the first chapter of Genesis must be treated as a geology textbook, nor is a literal reading of Genesis mandated by any of the historic creeds of the Christian churches. Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis. That and such sideshows as the effort to insist on the historical reality of the Noah’s ark story, despite conclusive geological evidence disproving it, crippled the efforts of conservative Christians to reach outside their existing audience.[/i]

Hello JMG,

I find the above to be a popular caricature of conservative Christian belief rather than a fair and accurate assessment. For one thing, it's amazing how many people don't even know such a thing as an "Old Earth Creationist" exists, or similarly that there exists Christians who believe the Bible teaches a local rather than global Flood (the former is consistent with modern science while the latter is not).

Biblical literalism and faithfulness to God's word has little to do with superficial readings of modern English translations, and much more to do with putting effort into understanding the language and context in which the traditions of scripture formed and were preserved. To suggest that a "literal" reading of Genesis and modern science are somehow mutually exclusive is likely a misunderstanding of what literal interpretation means. I do agree, however, that a literal and faithful reading of the Bible tends to exclude the possibility of Darwinian evolution.

Which leads to the other problem here, which is the dogmatic assertion that science has increasingly supported Darwinian evolutionary theory, and the assertion that anyone who disagrees with it is clinging to faith and ignoring the scientific evidence. There are many scientists who have immersed themselves in their respective fields and have decided that the amassing scientific evidence UNDERMINES Darwinian evolutionary theory rather than supports it. They have also produced research showing how the scientific evidence positively supports Biblical creationism.

As the late Lynn Margulis (nonreligious biologist) said,

[i]I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change - led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.[/i]

Of course, there is room for reasonable debate and ongoing learning (as Paul said, "test everything and hold fast to what is good"), but my experience is that conservative Christians are primarily the ones pushing for dialogue and debate while "liberal" Christians and non-Christian evolutionists are the ones who refuse to even consider the possibility that their perspectives on the origin and development of life are fundamentally flawed.

It is true that Bible is not a scientific textbook and it wasn't intended to be one. For that matter, it's not a historical treatise either. But that doesn't mean the Bible cannot contain A LOT of historical and scientific truths, which are also inextricably linked to its philosophical and theological purpose. At the end of the day, the historical, prophetic and scientific reliability of Biblical texts reinforces the primary and unique theological message of the Christian faith - that God has been active in revealing his redemptive truths all throughout human history, to the point where God himself became a human being.

KL Cooke said...

"I'm beginning to wonder if I need to research and write a book on the theology of evolution, just to clear up some of the shoddy logic being used by both sides of the debate."

That's a great idea.

ganv said...

Wow. That is a great starting point for a dozen doctoral dissertations in American Studies, Religious Studies, Science Studies, and History. But you need some 'respectable' academic jargon. Maybe post-progressive studies. I like 'post-exponential studies' myself, but that is too mathematical to catch on.

The observation that both the fundamentalist (conservative) and the modernist (liberal) branches of protestant Christianity have gotten caught in dead-end ideologies is an obvious but not often stated truth. The saying goes: 'The fundamentalists believe things that can't possibly be true and the modernists believe things that can't be passed on to the next generation.' There are many voices and institutions out there claiming to be leading an orthodox protestant movement that avoids the Fundamentalist's errors, but they seem in practice to simply advocate a carefully edited version of traditional protestant teaching that is as conservative as possible while not yet being clearly falsified. If they happen to follow your advice and check what happened to the previous generations who tried that approach, they would quickly realize that their teachings will almost inevitably be falsified in short order.

Every new generation of modernists seems to split into those who abandon Christianity entirely and a few who turn to the ritual of Catholic or maybe Episcopal worship or who switch to fundamentalism.

In their reaction against the hierarchy and mysticism of the Roman Catholic church, Protestants seem to have become inextricably committed to a God that is rationally knowable from his interactions in the world and from the biblical texts. But without the mystical, protestant belief has become increasingly falsified by the failure of rational inquiry to provide evidence for their God.

John Michael Greer said...

TAE, have you noticed that the only people for whom, if I may quote you, "the historical, prophetic and scientific reliability of Biblical texts reinforces the primary and unique theological message of the Christian faith" are those who already believe the theological message? I'm aware that there's a small minority of conservative Christians who are into old-earth Creationism and local diluvialism, and I would encourage people of any faith to try to understand the original context of their scriptures. Still, quoting Lynn Margulis out of context in a way that radically distorts her meaning -- you do know, I trust, that what she went on to propose was something just as far from creationism as Darwinian theory is -- is exactly the kind of dubious stunt that makes people outside the creationist fold roll their eyes and go looking for something less dodgy.

KL, I'll certainly consider it.

Ganv, I like "postprogressive studies"! Thank you also for applying the "what happened last time?" rule -- you're quite correct, of course, that efforts to ground religious faith in a "God of the gaps," who can be credited with anything science hasn't quite explained yet, is a losing game. I think of the creationists particularly here: there was a long time when the lack of the "missing link" was a core theme in creationist literature, until prehuman hominids were well and truly documented; embryology was another happy hunting ground, until that got thoroughly explained; now it's protein folds -- and when that gets explained, it'll be something else. It's a mug's game, this habit of argument by nitpicking, because it impresses nobody but its practitioners, and keeps the devotees of progress with opponents over whom they can triumph without too much effort.

Max said...

Brilliant work, as usual, JMG. I thought I'd expand a bit on your point about one track thinking in the context of the research community.

Research is funded by grant money. There are many foundations/corporations that fund research, like NSF, DoD/E, Monsanto, etc., and none exist in a vacuum. Aside from a spiel on the general resarch plan, methods, you also have to point out broader impacts from this research. The funding agency then has a checklist of what they want to see in a proposal. The funding agency is filled with people - people with their own biases and views of the world. Whatever the issue du jour is at the moment is probably more likely to be heard.

While I am only a young scientist at the moment, I have learned by now that writing a grant is essentially a long advertisement selling yourself in the specific thing your potential funder wants to hear. That's likely why fusion continues to get funding. The idea of cheap, near limitless energy is so alluring, so sexy, that the payoff for all the money being thrown at the problem is worth every penny.

Thanks for writing, as always!

d35e68fa-f009-11e2-aee1-000f20980440 said...

You're correct, Mr, so I will detail what you intuited. I've been thinking of a scenario, NOT a plan, set to a "Pagan Inquisition" theme. I never got to the point of writing it out in detail because of doubt as to any foundation in the contemporary Pagan scene for the kind of mass movement and logistical aggression which would be necessary for the big event. It was / is a dystopian thought experiment for one raised on the same. If it were actually to be carried out a single Pagan sect would have to have become militant, have to have become willing to enforce doctrinal standards, have to have attracted a numerous & voluble following, and as yet I see no signs of such a development except in a tenuous and marginalized way (aka the Wotanists). It is fair to say that I would likely run afoul of orthodox doctrine, were it to crystallize and that the actualized scenario it would be messy.

But then, we moderns are no strangers to messy. We have had people trying to eliminate entire races, people trying to eliminate entire classes, the societorectomy is our speciality...




100% Witch said...

Dear JMG,
I heard you were at Pagan Spirit Gathering this year. Yet I don't think I saw you.

Was your student silvermoonraven telling me right?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

I envy your historical bike ride. Cholera was a real problem here in the late 19th century as the night carts used to dump their deposits directly into the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers. The Asians as a comparison used to collect these in pottery jars with lids and then compost them and use them as fertilisers. Very clever and far more observant than people of European backgrounds.

I used to live in a house that was built in the 1890's and it had an old granite cobblestone lane-way that the night-carts used to use. The toilet was a little brick shed at the very back of the property. The hand made clay sewerage pipes eventually ran underneath those lane-ways and digging on the property was a fascinating look into the past.

I don't think a well designed and maintained compost heap would spread cholera. The problem would have been that someone who was infected did an unmentionable act directly into a waterway that was used for drinking purposes or watering edible leafy plants. Many people historically drank fermented drinks rather than fresh water because of this problem, without even realising what the source of the problem was.

The last month or so has brought over 250mm (10 inches) of rain here and I was thinking about this particular problem in relation to the chooks here who have an enclosed run with a deep litter (mulch) system. This afternoon, I replaced about half a cubic metre of material in their run, not because it smelled, but because my gut feel said that it had reached critical mass. I aerate the entire run, every day by turning it over by hand with a fork and the chooks look healthy, but I don't really know the long term risks of this system.

I don't think that germ theory would survive more than one or two generations after any sort of collapse, although it would be nice if it did.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Fusion power just seems to me like another attempt to grasp any straw at all that means that we might not have to live within our means. It is a delusion. To live within your means is within my understanding and it is scary as it takes away all of the things that I use as a buffer should something go wrong here – as it inevitably does from time to time. It has not escaped my attention that the fuel loads are building up in the forest here and wildfires seem to cycle in this forest on a 40 year basis. The Aboriginals would never have allowed the forest to get into this current state.

It is sad really because as time passes, opportunities slip away.

After the recent historically unprecedented warm, sunny period in July here, some of the fruit trees started to set buds as the soil temperature raised. Almonds, hazelnuts and plums are the main offenders.

Now however, it is 2 degrees Celsius outside and there was even a little bit of snow this morning (sleet really, although it is an event for us!). The poor confused fruit trees probably won't set fruit this year...

However, I didn't let this get me down as I purchased a new type of cherry tree this morning. It is very exciting as I'd never really appreciated how poor the genetics of our food producing species had become until I set out on this adventure.

By the way, the water tanks are now all full and the batteries are hovering in the 70% range. I'm determined this year to go into summer with full water reserves. Apparently there will be some sun on Wednesday through Friday.

Also, of note here recently is that a local who does not have a single eucalypt tree on their property and which is also completely fenced off from the local wildlife has taken umbrage at my forest management practices and raised these concerns with the local council. One thing I detest, is a hypocrite. But I will endure.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I thought you might like this. Tiger quolls are a native marsupial cat and they were present in this forest until the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires (read wildfires) of 1983 which wiped out both their habitat and food sources. Foxes later moved in and took up their ecological niche.

Deep in tiger country a rare predator prowls

The convicts used to keep them as pets, although no one mentions that now. It always seems strange to me that people are happy to keep domesticated cats (felines) as pets which are a complete ecological disaster but would frown upon trying to maintain an endagered species that way.

I thought up another Aussie-ism for your reporter: "Mate, that's going off like a frog in a sock". That's all yours, use it well!

Regards

Chris

Ashvin said...

JMG.

[i]TAE, have you noticed that the only people for whom, if I may quote you, "the historical, prophetic and scientific reliability of Biblical texts reinforces the primary and unique theological message of the Christian faith" are those who already believe the theological message? I'm aware that there's a small minority of conservative Christians who are into old-earth Creationism and local diluvialism, and I would encourage people of any faith to try to understand the original context of their scriptures.[/i]

Yes I have noticed that, but that seems to be the fault of public laziness, misinformation and media deception rather than any shortcomings on the historical, scientific, etc. arguments in favor of Biblical reliability. This applies to Christians, such as YECs who fail to research OEC and consider its merits, as well as non-Christians who are generally unaware OECs exist. How many times have you ever seen a popular media outlet present the OEC view of Genesis rather than the "a day is a day" and we have been around for "a few thousand years" view? The latter is simply given MUCH more attention in both evangelical churches and secular settings where the Bible is being critiqued.

It's even worse in terms of historical reliability, because people generally treat history as boring and too "speculative" or "subjective" to matter anyway. There are way too many Christians who have absolutely no legitimate response to the questions, "why should I trust the Gospels' accounts" or "what historical evidence do we have for Jesus' Resurrection?" However, that evidence does exist and the Christian faith is served by making it wider knowledge rather than ignoring it and pretending like Biblical theology is not heavily dependent on ACTUAL historical realities.

"If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" -1 Corinthians 15:13-14


[i]Still, quoting Lynn Margulis out of context in a way that radically distorts her meaning -- you do know, I trust, that what she went on to propose was something just as far from creationism as Darwinian theory is -- is exactly the kind of dubious stunt that makes people outside the creationist fold roll their eyes and go looking for something less dodgy.[/i]

You're right, that was a bad way to quote on my part. I certainly wasn't trying to imply Margulism endorsed Creationism! The point I was trying to make is that many experts in the field, religious or nonreligious, have recognized that Darwinian evolutionary theory is far from being set in stone and that there are many lines of evidence that cast doubt on traditional explanations of the theory. The general public, otoh, treats the theory as being something just as well-established as Einstein's theory of general relativity, for ex, when nothing could be further from the truth. They haven't objectively and honestly approached the evidence. And when it comes to the theory of Biblical Creationism, they haven't even bothered to figure out what it is and what it predicts.

...

Ashvin said...

...

This doesn't seem like the place to get into a debate on all that highly scientific evidence. But you original article seemed to simply assume the evolutionary paradigm cannot be reasonably questioned and then went on to make a larger point about conservative Christians and their "crusade" against evolution, as if anyone challenging the scientific theory is acting from blind faith rather than from reasoning, logic and the evidence. No where does the Bible teach the former, and quite a few places it teaches the latter. Only the rise of modernism, which you rightfully critique, has also given rise to this artificial distinction between philosophy/religion on the one hand and logical, rational, empirical fields of knowledge on the other. What we call the
"scientific method" arose out of the European Reformation not despite the prevalence of Biblical revelation and theological assessment, but because those things were finally allowed to flourish.

laughingbirdfarm said...

JMG,
You wrote " I'm beginning to wonder if I need to research and write a book on the theology of evolution, just to clear up some of the shoddy logic being used by both sides of the debate." Please write that book! It is desperately needed, and I would have written it myself years ago if I had a deep enough background in theology.

As for the religious changes in the past few decades, I have seen both sides. I'm on the X/Millennial border and I grew up in a conservative denomination. I had a front-row seat as it shifted from being about practicing Christianity to participating in politics. I also watched them get more and more dogmatic and hardline in the literal interpretation, and lose membership accordingly. I left myself when I was 15 during the middle of a sermon in which the pastor claimed women were literally the property of their husband or eldest male relative, and should behave accordingly. I couldn't deal with that.

OTOH, those faiths are very good at walking their talk in some ways. When each of my parents died, someone from the church showed up at our door with a hot meal every night for a month and the pastor stopped by three times a week to make sure we were okay.

Then I discovered UU as a young adult. I know it's already been mentioned, but I did not find it vapid then. I went a service a couple of years ago, and it's changed, but it was a good haven for socially liberal folks at the time, albeit one lacking much of a theological core. They became more and more about politics during the time I was there and less about any sort of fundamental values.

UU likes to talk about progressive policies and so forth, but they don't like to follow through on them. I finally left when I was unemployed and about to lose my house and they asked me to resign my membership because I couldn't "financially contribute" to the church.

By the time I left each of these denominations, there were down to retirees and the stalwart middle-class families with kids.

On another note, a few people have mentioned Catholicism. I may be Pagan, but I married into a large Catholic family, and I can vouch for the fact that Catholic churches cover the map and can fall into either side of this divide. You almost have to go to a monastery to find true Catholicism being practiced anymore.

Bill Pulliam said...

Intelligent design -- this hypothesis is as unfalsifiable as the hypothesis that God exists. Science used to accept it as self evident, but it has been rejected because of evidence, just like geocentric cosmology.

Personally, I feel that an intelligence that could create a self-designing, self-assembling universe in an instant and then leave it to take its own course according to natural law is vastly more impressive than an intelligence that would need to be constantly tinkering and steering.

Georgi -- your item (1) appears to be a rebuttal to a claim I never made. In fact it is mostly a restatement of what I myself said in my second paragraph. I didn't say that the amateurs would replace the academics; I was pondering the fact that scholars and scholarship are now essentially homeless.

As for item (2), many of the ongoing changes in society are shaped by large-scale complex forces. But these are still at their roots driven by the trillions of choices made by billions of individuals. My individual choice is to no longer participate in what Academia has morphed in to. Perhaps eventually the fact that all the old-fashioned scholars have left it will bring about its demise, and scholarship will re-emerge in a new form and with a new home. But if these things happen they will happen because of the individual actions of millions of people. Hence I focus only on my own personal choices and the reasons for them.

Rita said...

I just read in the _Mensa Bulletin_ a short news bit on the Lawrence Livermore fusion project, which involves focusing lasers on a symmetrical fuel pellet from all directions. The stated problem was that they can't manage to make a completely symmetrical pellet. Saw part of a presentation on the same project at a Mensa gather last year. Lovely graphics and much "we're almost there" rhetoric.

JP said...

Hey, JMG. I have an off the wall question here after thinking about the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes.

Couldn't we toss a boatload of information on certain subjects into some satellites, toss them into stable orbits and then have them continuously broadcast textbooks of actual useful high-quality information by radio at certain frequencies that would be able to received on certain channels utilizing low-grade tech that is likely to be around?

Can we put enough shielding up there that they will endure for 1000 years? It that even possible?

I'm thinking information that will only generally have helpful uses, not "how to build a nuclear bomb with used pinball machine parts."

Nothing says that we can't make a library of useful things and toss it where nobody will be able to tear it down when the West declines.

I always got annoyed that they *always* trash the libraries.

Granted, we would have to be *very* careful with what books we sent up there. And I'm thinking *very* low-tech in terms of broadcast and reception. And very resilient. As in a ton of lead, a ton of solar panels, and no military purpose whatsoever, so it would be of no strategic value to shoot it down.

There are a number of neat orbital points where things just sit there unless smashed by something else.

(This is the *only* useful thing that I've been able to cull from the Age of Space so far. Well, that and if you put people into space they die pretty easily)

JP said...

Also JMG, I'm talking about something that once you get it up there, you can't *control* it from Earth once it is set in place.

So, read only and broadcast only.

Not a Mars Rover or anything like that.

And with no thought whatsoever to efficiency with all effort in the tech pointed toward resilience.

JP said...

I got this idea from Orson Scott Card's "Homecoming Saga" series, by the way.

JP said...

I also got this idea from the U.S.S.R.'s space program.

Specifically Sputink.

All it did was sit there are beep. Which I thought was really, really stupid at the time. What a waste!

Unless you *want* something that will sit there and give you a very specific loop of beeps. For centuries.

Which does not seem really dumb at all.

JP said...

Could they be tossed into the Lagrangian points?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagrangian_point

And would there be a problem with tidal locking?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tidal_locking

Anyhow, that's my thought for this week. I'm finished thinking about this problem/possibility at the moment.

John Michael Greer said...

Max, many thanks for the details!

d35, in the early third century CE, Christianity was a diffuse, poorly organized, marginal sect that nobody in their right minds would have seen as a potential dominant and persecuting power. The Pagan scene could undergo the same transformation, I'm sorry to say.

100%, I've never been to Pagan Spirit Gathering, so, no, you got some misinformation.

Cherokee, what is it with these officious busybodies who just have to try to mess up things when somebody else is pursuing sustainability? A Druid I know, who's doing some very constructive things with her property in Michigan, is having similar problems, and she's hardly the first. Do you think we could sic a bunch of tiger quolls on them?

Ashvin, er, in my experience, people who blame their audience for their own inability to communicate their message have set themselves up for perpetual disappointment. I'd encourage you to find somebody unsympathetic to your point of view, have 'em read through your stuff, and tell you exactly why it doesn't convince -- and then take that input with the utmost seriousness. (One of the reasons I have this blog is precisely that it provides me with that kind of feedback.) You're right, though, that this isn't the place for a debate on OEC vs. YEC vs. the scientific mainstream, so I'll let the matter rest there.

Laughing, I'm coming to think that somebody or other needs to grab American religion by its lapels and give it a good hard shake.

Bill, I may divagate a bit on that one of these days, because it seems to me that the whole debate is missing an obvious point.

Rita, of course! We're always almost there -- just one more round of funding...

JP, er, next time, could you put all your thoughts in a single post, or maybe two of them? Much less wear and tear on the moderator. As for your suggestion, well, do you intend to do anything to make something like that happen? If not, it's just another bright idea, of the sort which we as a society use so often to drug ourselves into insensibility.

Ashvin said...

"Ashvin, er, in my experience, people who blame their audience for their own inability to communicate their message have set themselves up for perpetual disappointment. I'd encourage you to find somebody unsympathetic to your point of view, have 'em read through your stuff, and tell you exactly why it doesn't convince -- and then take that input with the utmost seriousness"

Yeah, I have... and given the extent to which Western culture has placed blind faith in Darwinian evolution, I'm not surprised that they don't automatically switch sides, or, moreover, that they treat any critiques of the theory as offensive personal attacks. It's not a failure of conservative Christian scientists to communicate - they provide plenty of lectures, articles, books, etc. that a skeptic could pour over for hours. It's the failure of the skeptics to even CONSIDER any of that research because it is "blasphemous" to their Darwinian faith. No one has to take my word for it, simply look around and decide for yourself.

http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/live-stream-dr-fazale-rana-debates-dr-michael-ruse-on-evolution-vs-design/

That being said, I know people on forums like these are much more open-minded and willing to question their pre-established dogma. So here is a link to a debate between Christian biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana and atheist Dr. Michael Ruse on evolution as it relates to the origin of life. Not sure if I can embed videos here, so will just provide link for anyone who cares to put some effort into considering BOTH sides of the argument and following the evidence where it takes them.

http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/live-stream-dr-fazale-rana-debates-dr-michael-ruse-on-evolution-vs-design/

The Origin of Life: The Great God Debate

Fuz Rana vs. Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse and Fuz Rana square off to debate the question “Are natural processes sufficient to explain the origin and the complexity of the cell?”

Phil Harris said...

@Cherokee
Chris
Thanks for your interest.
While building the compost toilet there was wide-ranging discussion of waste disposal systems, and different types with and without water. I actually quoted your installation of a proprietary system handling ‘grey water’ as well as sewage that also uses worms as part of the digestion system IIRC.

There are a number of issues regarding parasites and pathogens. The key safety feature as you know of course is to not to allow contamination of water supplies by either animal or human fecal wastes. This covers a range of possible contaminants, but seems especially important in the case of waterborne cholera. Cholera carriers are relatively rare these days in most countries, but I found interesting stuff just now when I googled key words - cholera water persistence growth abstract. In particular there is a website for waterbornepathogens.org and I learned that suspect water if it is properly filtered first can be further cleaned of cholera. One study in Africa put drinking water in plastic bottles and stored it on the roof in sunlight to reduce the risk. That seems like a useful tip if all else fails.

The site I was working on took care to establish a ring of surface drainage that could deal with rain. The toilet was already sited away from the known routes of local flash floods in order to keep water away from the compost – though your 10 inches of rain would be very exceptional in British conditions and would overwhelm most of our sewage systems. As a country we have seen more frequent flooding these last years from several inches of sudden rain, and the subsequent clean up of the dispersed sewage has been a big issue. The clean water main distribution grids however have been pretty resilient in villages and towns. Private rural water supplies will have been another matter.

The finished compost at our site was not going to be used for vegetable gardens especially where uncooked greens will be gathered. Incidentally, I understand that China has long had a social taboo on eating uncooked vegetation. Similarly, where pigs have access to human waste, pork will always need a good cooking! I remember your system for your house seemed particularly safe. I guess the chooks need to be protected from contamination from the human system; otherwise they could become a potential ‘feedback’ loop. Salmonella and E. coli particularly always have potential for sharing the gut of more than one species!

We could go on!
Best wishes
Phil H

Sunfish said...

The most unfashionable work on scientific research is "The economic Laws of scientific research" by Terence Kielley which echoes the points you have so eloquently made regarding that subject.

Yes science does have fads and fantasies and many delightful careers and sinecures are to be had thereby, fusion research being a notable case in point.

Perhaps the biggest current myth is "the big bang theory" - scientific creationism dreamed up by a catholic astrophysicist priest (lemaitre) and proclaimed by a narcissist (hubble).

At least one gentleman is kicking against this idiocy, but has the worlds scientific establishment against him. Link below:

http://sensibleuniverse.com/

Leo said...

On the intelligent design thing.

As I remembered someone explained; It's built into science that god, gods, goddesses, goddesses, pantheons, ancestral spirits, spirit forces and whatever else I missed are ignored. You can't quantify them, prove or disprove they exist and there simply an extra term which does nothing.

Think it was Kepler who was asked why he didn't have god in his equations. He answered "because he's not needed".

As far as science cares, the universe runs itself.

@ Cherokee Organics

They want to reintroduce some native animals.

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/prom-may-be-in-for-devil-of-a-time-20130720-2qb9x.html

Apparently the Tasmanian devils can out compete foxes and cats. I can imagine them winning a fight.

In a decade you could see them in your area. Maybe then the option of keeping native pets (besides birds) will be open.

John Michael Greer said...

Ashvin, that is to say, you're still blaming your audience for your own failure to communicate to them. It's not a useful habit, though a very popular one! Unless you get past it, you're going to spend the rest of your life being furious about all these people who are so bigoted that they can't see that you have a headlock on the truth -- which, ironically, puts you right in the same camp as scientific atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who say the same things you have, in some cases word for word.

Sunfish, thank you for the reference! I'll definitely scare that one up.

Leo, oddly enough, I'll be talking about that shortly. Science asks the question, "what can we understand about nature if we approach it on its own terms, without reference to theology?" That's the ground rule of science, and it's a useful one -- but it's a bit circular to claim, as so many atheists do, that since science hasn't found the gods it's deliberately not looking for, they must not be there in the first place.

Georgi Marinov said...

Science asks the question, "what can we understand about nature if we approach it on its own terms, without reference to theology?" That's the ground rule of science, and it's a useful one -- but it's a bit circular to claim, as so many atheists do, that since science hasn't found the gods it's deliberately not looking for, they must not be there in the first place.

That's not really true. Nobody has ever sat down and written a set of rules which scientists should follow, and there isn't an unwritten set of rules either, except for the something vague requirement that proper epistemological practices should be applied.

God was not taken out of the picture a priori - modern science evolved from natural philosophy which in turn developed from medieval philosophy. There is no need to go into details into what the focus of the latter was, and the vast majority of people who took part in the development of modern science between the Middle Ages and the 19th century were religious and God prominently featured in their understanding of the universe. He got taken out of the picture gradually, when it became apparent that first, no deity is needed as an explanation for anything, and second, almost nothing of what the holy books say about the world around us is true. This was a gradual process of people raised in a deeply religious culture realizing there is no God, not some cabal of militant atheists declaring there is no place for God in science.

If sufficiently strong evidence for the existence of a God appears, scientists will quickly abandon atheism and incorporate him in their cosmological models. But not only there is no such evidence, but the more we learn, the more apparent it becomes that religion is just a deeply unfortunate (deeply unfortunate because its currently dominant forms are on course to be a major contributor to our premature extinction) accident of our evolutionary and cultural history, not something to take seriously.

LunarApprentice said...

JMG and Cherokee O

Now we have officous busybodies from H**l:

http://www.alternet.org/food/should-you-be-able-buy-food-directly-farmers-regulators-dont-think-so?paging=off

Authorities in the US are beginning to criminalize trading with farmers.

Where are all those conservatives determined to get "big government off our backs"? Where are the liberals with their supposedly populist leanings?

How far can this go? Are farmers markets and CSAs next? Why do we have to have so much unnecessary hardship?

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, yes, I figured we'd get another round of that from you. Not so; the process by which science excluded nonphysical causality and teleology from the field of acceptable explanations was anything but a straightforward evolution from medieval philosophy via natural philosophy, and there was a great deal of overt politics and ideology involved. You might read Margaret Jacobs' useful studies of the ideological foundations of the scientific revolution, just for starters. But I'll be discussing this in more detail as we proceed.

Lunar, but of course. Agribusiness is in a state of blind panic over the explosive rise of farmer's markets and the like, and monopolistic moves of the sort you've outlined are par for the course. That's another of the fields (along with medicine and higher education) I expect to come a cropper in a big way in the not too distant future; hang in there.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Georgi Marinov writes, ". . . the more we learn, the more apparent it becomes that religion is just a deeply unfortunate (deeply unfortunate because its currently dominant forms are on course to be a major contributor to our premature extinction) accident of our evolutionary and cultural history, not something to take seriously."

What is your evidence that the human development of religion is accidental?

If it were an accident of culture or evolution, one would expect some human societies to be without it, just as some human societies don't eat fish or have harmonic music or facial hair. To the contrary, religion is a cultural universal like spoken language and incest taboos. This strongly suggests that religions are useful and provide an adaptive advantage for groups of humans, as language and incest taboos obviously do.

The Neanderthals may have had religion; at any rate, they buried their dead marked with red ochre, which required considerable effort from them. Other intelligent social animals do not have religion as far as we know, even though some social species have cultures. Perhaps the reason only some great apes are/were religious is that religion requires more complex symbolic thinking than the other animals of Terra can muster.

If a group of human beings were to organize a completely religion-free society and keep it going for multiple generations, that would show that religion is not absolutely essential to human social organization in the short run. Religion-free society has been attempted in a few places; most of Scandinavia is in its second generation of being nearly areligious. We'll see how that turns out; well, I won't, but someone will.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Leo:

Not Kepler, but Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), one of the founders of celestial mechanics. When asked after a lecture on that subject, where in his system was a place for God, he replied: "Madame, I had no need of that hypothesis."

Quos Ego said...

@Georgi

What you write seems quite conceited to me when the very existence of the universe contradicts one of the most important scientific rules there is: that nothing can be created out of nothing.

And the scientific explanations to that are that at some point in time, there was a moment when the laws of physics did not apply.
Such a principle seems strangely akin to God to me!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Roger,

Offshoring was the method by which wages were maintained for the employed and inflation contained. Simple as that, really. Like quantitative easing, it too as a policy is subject to diminishing returns.

Regards.

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Georgi,

Quote: "The primary reason it is in such a sorry state is the influence the prevailing socieoconomic ideology has had in developing the current funding and hiring practices (once you move beyond the era of the gentleman scholar, which you have to do once things reach beyond a certain level of complexity, those practices become very important, because people have to eat somehow no matter what their occupation)."

That is an excellent insight. However, it is also indicative of an industry in or near overshoot of its resource base. It is also a good metaphor for the wider society.

Nature provides no guarantee of anyones or anythings right to eat. Species simply fill up a niche based on the resources they can get access to. Science, like banking (as an example) is no exception to this.

Regards

Chris

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Georgi's description might not be factually correct, but I think it is a fair synopsis of the narrative which is believed by most moderate present-day scientists. And of course the power of narratives is one of the central themes here. Isn't that back to where we started?

Thing that always bugs me on this topic... regardless of what you believe about the origins of the universe, you always run headlong into an inexplicable. So if God created the universe and directs its design, who created and designed God? If natural law appeared in an explosive instant, what bigger natural laws lead to this incident? Physicist actually do address that question but still you always run into the next level of creation. There is no way to avoid the "turtles all the way down" paradox. Adding God to the equations does not simplify them or "explain" anything at a fundamental level. Neither does subtracting it. Even if, as I sometimes suspect, every attribute of the cosmos could be logically derived from the starting premise of 1+1=10 (i.e. the equations ARE reality...), you have not explained where that one fundamental "truth" came from. And of course if you do have an eternal universe extending infinitely back in time with no beginning, have you ever really tried to comprehend THAT? An infinite past? Which of course is not possible with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, infinite time means infinite entropy hence zero order, zero free energy, no scientists and no phenomena for them to study if they did exist. So now you invoke some principle to siphon off the excess entropy... somehow. to somewhere, forever... turtles, turtles, turtles...

So it can be amusing to see how much emotional and intellectual effort is expended on arguing about what to name the topmost turtle in the infinite stack.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

I'm truly chuffed that you mentioned the system here. It is a little ripper and the kangaroos, wombats and wallabies thank me for it as every summer it provides them with constant fresh herbage to graze.

The worms are moving outwards into the herbage too. They're especially noticeable if I do a big chop and drop, however, they live a precarious life as they are a tasty snack for the magpies, rosellas and kookaburras. The worms even slug up onto the verandah here when it is really wet and that provides food for the small birds which clean them up in the morning.

Mind you 10 inches of rain has been challenging and when I leave the property I get to look at all of the damage. The valley below is a ground water recharge point (otherwise known as a swamp) and some of the paddocks are underwater (as they are meant to be)!

I hear you about the private water systems. The local township sewage treatment plant is built along side Jacksons Creek and has some very large settling and aerating ponds. Yeah, when it rains, well all of that water doesn't disappear...

It has rained so long and consistently that poor old wombat was out and about on Friday night in the rain looking even more grumpy than usual. They can hole up in their burrows for 3 days having a nice sleep.

Cooking and fermenting are traditional ways to deal with the pathogens and the UK has a long tradition of these practices.

Yes, of course, I never explained this, but the chook system is completely separate from the worm system and there is no cross over. The chook litter is a mix of woody mulch and chook poo (ie. it is a cold compost) and it gets spread around the orchard. It fertilises the fruit trees and herbage. The fruit doesn't come into contact with the litter and the herbage absorbs the litter pretty quickly. It is pretty biologically active as fallen leaves and bracken for most of the year will disappear within a week to two weeks at most (it is warmer here).

Anything that composts our wastes and returns them to the soil is really worth our time.

Good work.

Chris

Bill Pulliam said...

Perhaps a more succinct way to express the same conundrum: If you propose the existence of god, and that it is involved in the ongoing processes of the universe, then god is part of the creation itself, it is not the creator.

It is yet another quantum field -- the god field, that affects the outcomes of quantum events based on some sort of information/intelligence that comprises and is transmitted by it. Such a field could even violate the laws of thermodynamics at the macro scale without actually violating any laws at the quantum scale.

But now all this means is that you have yet one more quantum field whose origin and existence you still can't explain...

Matthew Sweet said...

http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/non-indigenous-culture-implications-of-a-historical-anomaly

Alomg the lines of claiming the exceptional nature of our times but takes a different perspective than I've seen before. Basically that industrial civilization is the first non-indigenous society in history. What is your response to this thesis? I have only just finished reading it myself.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, there's actually a fairly simple explanation for that phenomenon, which I've already referenced: the evolutionary pressures that shaped the human mind selected for activities considerably less overwhelming than comprehending the entire universe and everything in it. I'd argue on this basis among others, that the human mind is incapable of knowing the truth about the cosmos in any real sense; all we have are makeshift models, drawing on the limited resources provided us by biological and cultural evolution, that more or less match the observed behavior of the cosmos.

Causality is such a model. It's not out there in the world; it's something we bring to our percepts as part of the process of assembling those into a world in our minds. One of its flaws is exactly the infinite regress of turtles that it can't avoid -- if everything is caused by something else, then there has to be some cause for the First Cause, right? I'd suggest, though, that this is simply a bug in some of our mental software -- which is why acausal systems of thought (e.g., Taoist science) don't consider it an issue.

Matthew, it's remarkably simplistic and ahistorical, not to mention an object lesson in the contemporary bad habit of assuming that a spectrum consists only of its two opposite ends. Most other civilizations had an equally cavalier attitude toward issues of place -- consider the Roman soldiers from all over the Empire buried near Hadrian's Wall on what's now the English-Scottish border, or for that matter the Vikings, who were perfectly willing to settle down anywhere they could hack out a foothold. There have been human cultures at every imaginable point along the line between the deeply-rooted indigenous model and the cosmopolitan "where there is money, there is my home" model, and trying to shoehorn that wild diversity into yet another rigid binary -- for the purpose, inevitably, of insisting that we're unique among the world's societies -- is, well, the sort of thing I'd expect to see in Yes Magazine.

John Michael Greer said...

Ashvin (offlist), no, I didn't think you'd get it, though I didn't think you'd stoop to name-calling quite so promptly. I really should do a post one of these days about the way that people like you and Richard Dawkins box themselves into self-defeating rhetorical strategies guaranteed to alienate everyone that doesn't already agree with them, and then blame it all on those who don't agree with them! We have a lot of it in the peak oil community, too -- though not quite so much as in the theist-atheist wars.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Hmmm, interesting; as a possessor of a mammalian brain that has been steeped in western science since the age of 2, it's hard to even imagine non-causal science. Of course, in most other areas of science, mathematics, and technology, when you hit an infinite loop you take it as a sign that there is something wrong with your concept, equation, or implementation; not that there is something wrong with the universe.

Causality is a very useful empirical tool of course. Much like energy, which is also just a made-up (but very useful) bookkeeping trick. Show me a calorie (not a calorie of something, just a calorie) and I'll show you a cause.

Now that we are clear on that, we can go back to discussing what sorts of effects might be caused by an ongoing reduction in readily available energy...

Chris said...

John Michael Greer wrote: "Causality is such a model. It's not out there in the world; it's something we bring to our percepts as part of the process of assembling those into a world in our minds. One of its flaws is exactly the infinite regress of turtles that it can't avoid -- if everything is caused by something else, then there has to be some cause for the First Cause, right?"

That's an all-too-common misconstrual of the causal premise involved in the cosmological argument. The claim is not, 'Everything is caused by something else,' but rather 'Everything that comes into existence is caused to come into existence by something else.' Conjoined with the minor premise, 'The universe came into existence,' it follows that the universe was caused to come into existence by something else. Further argumentation that whatever caused the universe to come into existence is a supernatural entity is, of course, required, but such argumentation has been provided by the foremost defender of this line of theistic proof, William Lane Craig. I would refer you to his work for further discussion of the cosmological argument.

Ben Simon said...


Dear John;

In your latest blog you commented with the line :" I'd argue on this basis among others, that the human mind is incapable of knowing the truth about the cosmos in any real sense; all we have are makeshift models, drawing on the limited resources provided us by biological and cultural evolution, that more or less match the observed behavior of the cosmos."
This is the first time I have seen such a statement, in spite of it being so simple and obvious.
My hat is off to you , once again, for this fine demonstration of intelligent discourse.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

8x
So it can be amusing to see how much emotional and intellectual effort is expended on arguing about what to name the topmost turtle in the infinite stack.
x8

Well I call him Julius McGigglefart. But then, I'm a sciency ;)

John Maiorana said...

I didn’t suggest that evolution presupposes a mechanical universe and unilinear time, but the converse: that presupposing a mechanical universe requires a theory of evolution to explain how life comes into being. A theory of evolution that only explains adaptation would more aptly be termed a theory of adaptation. A theory is a finite set of logical assertions or meta-assertions. A theory is a conceptual machine. A universe that conforms to a theory is a mechanical universe. In Newton’s day it was supposed that the universe is deterministic. Thus an explanation of how life could arise in such a universe was required, and the Theory of Evolution was the response. Its supposed mechanisms are random mutation, selection, and inheritance. However, it is now supposed that the universe is only probabilistically-mechanical. In a deterministic world life must be built-in. In a probabilistic world, life should be at least likely, which the mechanisms of evolution don’t seem to provide convincingly. In the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics, anything that can happen will happen, and we just happen to find ourselves in a universe in which life (and ourselves) happens, which then begs the question, what are “we”. The multiverse explanation seems more like a pedagogical trick than an explanation.

“Gradually increasing genetic and epigenetic diversity, on the one hand, and selective pressures from the environment, on the other” is more observation and surmise than theory. Gradually increasing diversity is surmised from the so-called fossil record. Selection is the observation that some things survive longer than others combined with a vague notion that something is being selected for, “fitness”, that can only be defined in a circular manner. More of this kind of thinking can be found at http://www.natureinstitute.org/. Gradually increasing diversity really does seem like a type of progress. Going from simple chemicals to complex multicellular organisms with intellects seems like progress. The Theory of Evolution is a mechanistic explanation for this progress.

It seems untrue that the universe conforms to a finitely prescribed set of rules. Theories may be useful but are not truth. The Theory of Evolution may be useful. I think it is a waste of time, an attempt by people to cling to the remnants of the old Newtonian point of view. A major problem with it seems to be the moral lessons people tend to extract from it, such as survival of the fittest, and the imperative that mankind must continue to evolve into some sort of transhuman cybernetic organism, thus calling for our extinction as mere squishy biological animals. I do not respond favorably to calls for my extinction.

There is an interesting article that discusses such notions at resilience.org: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-07-19/bioeconomics-the-hidden-megascience “Bioeconomics, The Hidden Megascience”

Leo said...

Certainly.

I was just referring to the fact that taken as a scientific theory Intelligent design isn't very good. It introduces a term which can't be evaluated (might as well say "I don't know") and there's a perfectly good theory in use already.

The only statement science can make on gods existence is that as far can be told, he's not needed to run things. And you can't decisively prove any of them exists or don't exist.

Mind you, if the gods in question aren't separate entities but some part of the mountains, rivers and winds it might be different. Understand that was the tradition at one point.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, exactly. Our conceptual tools are indeed useful -- I'd argue, in fact, that our brains are very well adapted to produce useful conceptual tools -- but it's a mistake to treat those tools as real existences, as real (say) as the experiences that we sort out using those tools. Thus we can talk about diminishing energy supplies while being aware that "energy" is an abstraction, a mental summary of a lot of different fragments of experience, that we happen to find useful to sort that experience into meaningful forms.

Chris, yes, I'm familiar with the claim -- I studied the cosmological proof at some length while working on my book "A World Full of Gods." I was speaking off the cuff. Mind you, I find the cosmological argument a very weak reed -- it assumes that the culturally determined habits of thought of one corner of humanity (in this case, the notion of causality) can tell us something about the fundamental nature of existence, which seems very dubious to me.

Ben, many thanks!

Zed, and here I would have expected you to call it Zardoz!

John, okay, that was less than clear from your earlier comment. From my point of view, describing the intersection of variation and selection as "observation and surmise rather than theory" misses the boat completely; all any theory is or can be is a surmise that relates to certain repeated observations. Thus you're quite correct that theories are useful but not true, but that's equally the case with any idea, including those that you prefer!

As for the conflation of evolution with progress, though, there I think you're completely missing the point. Yes, evolution has been distorted into a theory of progress, but it's hardly fair to insist that the distortion is the theory. A gradual trend toward increased diversity over time isn't progress, it's simply one of the things that happens reliably in an open system, as Prigogine pointed out a while back. You'll notice that blue-green algae haven't exactly been superseded by later life forms -- they're still very much around, and probably will be long after every multicellular organism is long gone. Thus it's not evolution that's calling for your extinction, just true believers in the gospel of progress who have twisted the theory of evolution in support of their faith.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Chris:

The major premise you cite, namely, "Everything that comes into existence is caused to come into existence by something else," is not at all self-evident.

Indeed, for whatever my own mystical experiences may be worth, I am personally certain that it is a wholly false premise. That won't carry conviction for anyone else, of course. But the work of the linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, in the first half of the 20th century showing how habits of one's own speech and language (its grammar and lexicon) have an enormous impact on how one perceives and reasons about the real world. [Note: Whorf didn't claim that one's speech and language *determine* how one thinks about the world, only that they have a very great impact on it.]

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Leo,

I'd love to have a family or twenty devils running amok here. They'd probably eat the chooks though. They're particularly vulnerable to motor vehicles because they are nature’s clean-up crew and eat carrion rather than the spotted quolls which are the hunters of the forest.

Funny you mention the reintroduction of devils to Wilsons Promontory. In the 70's a similar thing was tried with the Cape Barren Goose which failed because of predation from foxes, dogs and cats. They do live on the islands off the coast though.

Wilsons Promontory is a good place to try such reintroductions because it has a narrow isthmus which can be fenced off. There is also very little vehicle traffic in the National Park.

It is a nice place and I'd recommend the Sealers Cove overnight walk as one of the great Australian walks, although go off peak during the week if you get the chance.

Dingo's brought across from Indonesia displaced devils and thylacines on the mainland. Later, domestic dogs and particularly cats replaced dingo’s.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thank you. I've always felt an affinity with the quolls. Their bite packs a serious punch but you wouldn't think it to look at them.

The officious busy bodies are finding the same thing in their dealings with me! I'm not finished yet, by a long way and they are on some shaky ground. People often assume that I am a pacifist and this is an incorrect assumption.

The laws are written around a do nothing principle which alleviates officialdom of the need to having to manage the forests in any way shape or form other than policing.

It really isn't based on any ecological principles and encourages wildfires.

PS: What has creationism got to do with this weeks topic? Why can't people accept that a God or Gods can be much greater than their imaginations? I've often suspected that people hang onto creationism because it gives them some sort of option out that a God will come along at an opportune point and rescue them. My gut feel is that a God would be pretty grumpy (like a wombat but worse) because of the mess we've made...

Truly, the lunar currents work and spread outwards from a point in the landscape.

Regards.

Chris

Ray Wharton said...

As a regular reader of your blog and books I figured I would shoot in some feed back on this idea of you writing a book on evolution, and how cussed the whole debate has become.

First, it sounds awesome, and I would likely buy and read it. It seems that the false dichotomy of evolutionary debate in our culture are stuck in a feed back look of contemplating each other more than the supposed virtue of their own ideas, so a book that focused not on the other's captivating flaws, but on it's own way of mapping our relevant experiences in a way which can stand on its own evolutionarily optimized number of feet. I would hazard a guess that a lot of Bateson's ideas might get some love and further refinement in such a project.

Second, I am more strongly interested in the talk I have heard of you writing a work applying systems theory to some of the old Chinese philosophy, a project which sounds even more cool.

Paul said...

"In the case of the fusion scientists, what drives that loop is evident enough: the civil religion of progress and, in particular, the historical mythology at the core of that religion.

Fusion researchers by and large see themselves as figures standing at the cutting edge of one important branch of techological progress. Given their training, their history, and the cultural pressures that surround them and define their work, it’s all but impossible for them to do anything else. That’s what has them boxed into a dead end with no easy exits, because the way progress is conceptualized in contemporary culture is fatally out of step with the facts on the ground. "

Apologize for long quote, by unavoidable because simple things are said in so many words.

A far many simple explanation of the phenomenon than evoking the "Held hostage by progress myth". Scientists do research for a living, and progress IN RESEARCH is peer-judged. And different funding organizations use different criteria, and I can safely assume that those in charge are practical people rather than (arm-chair) philosophers. In the broadest scenario, there is something called "hedging". And hedging in fusion power does make good sense (not to say that I agree with putting that amount of money into fusion power research. But my own view doesn't make all other people become nuts!)

onething said...

Because, as another poster pointed out, if you believe in a mechanical universe, you must have something very like evolution theory, it is, shall we say, owned by them.

If I had not read so deeply into this topic, I would no doubt consider myself some sort of theistic evolutionist. My rejection is not of evolution as in life unfolding over time, but rather a rejection of neoDarwinian and even post Darwinian theories of which none are adequate.

A couple of the postDarwinian theories are beginning to look at the scope of the problem and think in terms of how to make core changes in life forms. None of them even touch the origin of life.

I was not confused by the Lynn Margulis quote because I know who she is. I can provide many similar quotes, some of them truly astonishing, such as denying randomness and attributing cognitive processes to organisms as they respond to environmental pressure. Yet I would be careful to mention that every one of them remains dedicated to explaining evolution via purely undirected means. The interesting thing about reading such quotes (being careful to understand them in context) is that they show how these academics in evolutionary research often find nearly everything thus far proposed as thoroughly inadequate - and thus they propose their own hopeful suggestions.

The public, and that includes the educated public, are given a sanitized view. It kind of reminds me of the sanitized view I was given of the early church. When I found that the bedrock of my church was not 2000 years old but about 1600-1700 years old, and that it was deliberately carved out of a morass, that really opened my eyes.

No, Bill, intelligent design is falsifiable. What would be needed is a convincing method by which an undirected process could produce life, and new life forms.

"Personally, I feel that an intelligence that could create a self-designing, self-assembling universe in an instant and then leave it to take its own course according to natural law is vastly more impressive than an intelligence that would need to be constantly tinkering and steering. "

That is known as frontloading, and is quite a favorite theory among many intelligent design folk!

Here's what seems odd to me, not for an atheist but for anyone else who posits any kind of God/source/consciousness as a fundament of the universe - why would you expect there to be no residual clues as to the intelligence at the bottom of things? To say that a universe that has arisen out of consciousness should and ought to look in every way as if that were not the case, that it should look as if it were a chemical/mechanical universe...why???

How is that logical? Don't intelligent entities do intelligent things, and aren't the instantiations of their efforts pretty obviously not reachable by random processes?

You stated the turtle paradox quite well. It is useless to then ask what created God. In that case, God is not God, but just another thing in the stack of caused items. Either its turtles all the way down, or there is something else. And I partly agree with JMG that our minds can't quite grasp this. I know mine can't. The wave of my mind breaks repeatedly against this rock. But the answer to this koan is to realize that although one can't conceive of how such a thing can be, yet it must be, that there is something which exists uncaused. Eastern philosophy calls it "real" with everything else being unreal, in the sense that everything else is composed of parts that arise and fall and come together and dissolve.

I do not think the answer to this koan is to reject causality, at least in this sphere of reality we find ourselves in. Without the consistency and predictability of nature we'd go insane. The purpose of being able to think causally is to realize the paradox, and solve the koan.

But I'm not the kind of monotheist you talk about in your book, JMG. I am a panentheistic monist.

wiseman said...

JMG
It's sad to see these theist/atheist fights, I thought this matter was settled long ago.

I am an atheist myself but I don't like to go around telling people whether god exists or not or whether it's proper to pray, just as I'd expect people not to badger me to go to a temple. It's a personal subject matter that is beyond the realm of arguments.

All I'd like to see is that people don't engage in persecution or dogma in the name of God. I feel that's where Atheists should focus. Atheists should also realize the positive aspects of religion such as their power to rally people in times of crisis.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, in America, at least, if you mention the relationship between science and religion, the atheists and the creationists immediately pick up their bludgeons and start going at each other, and anyone else in range. It's the current hot button issue on that front. I rather like the idea of the Wombat God, by the way!

Ray, I've had to stick the systems interpretation of the Tao Te Ching on hold much longer than I would have liked -- I landed a pair of contracts for plum projects, and that's basically eaten 2013. I'll get back to work on it after the first of the year. As for evolution, I may just do a post on that soon -- it's a divagation, but potentially a useful one.

Paul, I'm not saying that anyone is nuts. What I'm saying is that fusion research has already proven that, whether or not a fusion reactor can be built, it can't be built at a price that anybody, anywhere, can afford. That being the case, why are we continuing to pour billions of dollars down what amounts to a high-tech rathole? The pervasive pressure of the mythology of progress, I suggest, is the most parsimonious explanation.

Onething, I quite understand that you're not a classical monotheist -- though I appreciate the reminder, and also your attention to the difference! My problem with the Margulis quote was that it was basically being used as a proof text -- a habit that's just as unproductive in science as it is in theology. As to your broader question, though, are you familiar with Prigogine's equations? He showed that the flow of energy through an open system produces a consistent trend toward increasing levels of complexity in that system, as long as the energy flow continues. I see that as the general law of which the emergence of life is a specific example. More on this shortly, though.

Wiseman, in America, it's anything but settled. There are large and vocal groups on both sides of the theist-atheist line that are spoiling for a fight. Ironically, as a theist who believes in Darwinian evolution, I get heat from both sides!

Georgi Marinov said...

onething said...
Georgi,

The neutral theory is one of several. But upon closer scrutiny, which has been accelerating since the 70's, none of the proposed mechanisms holds up.


I am not sure we have the same understanding of what is meant by "neutral theory of molecular evolution"

Re your reply to JMG, you are only correct if I am right that as you see it, evolution theory precludes God. What JMG is saying (I think) is that life can evolve through genetic changes in a Darwinian fashion, and it does not conflict with the idea that God/gods created the world/universe and had something to do with getting life going.

It is usually the same people who claim that life cannot arise from prebiotic components that also claim that science cannot disprove God. And there is some interesting similarity between the two statements


Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Georgi Marinov writes, ". . . the more we learn, the more apparent it becomes that religion is just a deeply unfortunate (deeply unfortunate because its currently dominant forms are on course to be a major contributor to our premature extinction) accident of our evolutionary and cultural history, not something to take seriously."

What is your evidence that the human development of religion is accidental?

If it were an accident of culture or evolution, one would expect some human societies to be without it, just as some human societies don't eat fish or have harmonic music or facial hair. To the contrary, religion is a cultural universal like spoken language and incest taboos. This strongly suggests that religions are useful and provide an adaptive advantage for groups of humans, as language and incest taboos obviously do.


I said "an unfortunate accident of our evolutionary and cultural history". There is a common ancestor to all humans alive today.

I use the word "accident" from the perspective of our long-term evolutionary success, from which religion is not only not adaptive, but highly detrimental to it.

It may have been adaptive when it developed though, and throughout most of human history - you can easily see why the tribes that had developed religion (which at the time was almost the same as culture) outcompeted those that didn't and why at a later stage religious fanatics would outcompete the less devoted (it's actually happening today right in front of our eyes too)

But as I said, it is not adaptive in the long-term, it is not really necessary and its universal presence in human societies does not reflect the presence of some deep spiritual force in the universe, just the cognitive deficiencies of the human mind, which are the result of its evolutionary history. It's actually correct that we did not evolve to understand to universe around us, that's why most of us are so wide off the mark in their understanding of it.

Georgi Marinov said...

Quos Ego said...
@Georgi

What you write seems quite conceited to me when the very existence of the universe contradicts one of the most important scientific rules there is: that nothing can be created out of nothing.


I don't think you have a very good understanding of the current thinking on the issue in theoretical physics.

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Georgi,

Quote: "The primary reason it is in such a sorry state is the influence the prevailing socieoconomic ideology has had in developing the current funding and hiring practices (once you move beyond the era of the gentleman scholar, which you have to do once things reach beyond a certain level of complexity, those practices become very important, because people have to eat somehow no matter what their occupation)."

That is an excellent insight. However, it is also indicative of an industry in or near overshoot of its resource base. It is also a good metaphor for the wider society.

Nature provides no guarantee of anyones or anythings right to eat. Species simply fill up a niche based on the resources they can get access to. Science, like banking (as an example) is no exception to this.


I have on numerous occasions pointed out that modern science lives a precarious existence made possible almost entirely by the abundance of resources enjoyed by industrial civilization. And that once that is not longer the case, it will collapse. Which is why I am so pessimistic about the long term prospects of the human species as the knowledge we have worked so hard to accumulate will be lost

This, however, does not mean these are the limits of how much science can be done by a human society. The current limits are set by the priorities of our society. And science is not one of them even though it is about the only meaningful thing that a society should invest resources in (from an evolutionary perspective). Instead we waste most of ours on completely useless activities and consumption. If we had our priorities right, it would have been quite a different picture. I have no illusions this is ever going to change but where we are right now is not the limit of the fraction of people in a society whose primary occupation is advancing knowledge.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

How cool would that be? Wombat God is a good guide to both weather and seasons.

I don't understand why people can't accept both the concept of a divine entity/ies and Darwinian evolution? To accept both doesn't change the facts on the ground.

Hi LunarApprentice,

Thanks for the link. I've read about those sorts of actions in the US and its kind of weird.

Fortunately, I'm not having that sort of trouble, yet. Poor Vernon, what a nightmare. It is a bit of an over-reaction really, to what is a minor matter. Such things will sort themselves out in time as funds become increasingly scarce.

It sort of reminds me about JMG's comment about absurd centralisation policies in Rome being all part of the responses of a system in collapse.

Excess produce from the farm here is usually given away and it forms part of the social capital that extends from here outwards to others. People love it and it is mostly respected.

Mind you, the wildlife takes its fair share too and there is lots of them and they're not complaining.

Hi everyone,

The captcha was "neworac". Is that a Blakes 7 reference?

Regards

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG
I sympathise with Wiseman.

Debates in America seem largely, to be about err … ‘America’. People elsewhere are often happy to wear American ‘fashions’ but usually stick to not bothering too much culturally about anything else. I hope that America does not decide it has settled anything ‘universal’. We get enough backwash as it is. Some of us in Britain are more worried about getting the ‘American’ model of health-care imposed on us, than we are about religion.

Small correction: Hadrian’s Wall (Roman) is about 60 miles south (by bike) from where I am near the present Scottish / English Border. This somewhat slantwise line was demarcated as late as 1296 although the strategic matter of the port of Berwick remained a big issue until Tudor times. We have been mostly a ‘settled’ country for a while now, and titles to land can usually be traced back for at least 1000 years, even though ‘border raiding’ still was going on round here 500 years ago. The immediate trajectory for our now much larger essentially urban population is more worrying. We will share some version of the fate of the rest of industrial civilisation. In that sense what happens in that greatest of metropolitan consumers the USA, must matter to us.

The fact that we share a language with USA matters less these days than the fate of energy and resource distribution. Like much of the world we share much more than cultural bric a brac or any interest in leftover/ongoing debates, and that fact must trouble even the ancient polyglot cultures of India let alone an ex-imperial ‘metropole’ like the British Isles.

best
Phil H
PS. Can I really imagine a theocratic USA winning its domestic battle and using surrogate religious justifications for taking to extremes its war with reality and with limitation? Err... perhaps I can!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for the Hadrian's Wall reference. I'll bet just like fusion it cost an awful lot of resources and produced next to no income. A very apt reference.

Regards

Chris

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- "Ironically, as a theist who believes in Darwinian evolution, I get heat from both sides!"

And when you expand that "theist" to "non-Abrahamic polytheist" (true for both you and me) it's simplest to just avoid the topic entirely most of the time... of course I am not a prominent figure in any religious order, so that is easier for me!

Onething -- your *convincing* theory exists. It's called Darwinian Evolution and all its 20th and 21st Century expansions. It has "convinced* the vast majority of scientists. We see no need for more than those processes plus the incomprehensibly vast amount of time and the unimaginably huge number of organisms and generations it has had to act upon. You disagree, fine. But we have heard all the arguments before, and remain unconvinced.

Bill Pulliam said...

It is interesting that almost no one seems to suggest the option that the entities and phenomena we characterize as deities might actually be *products* of the evolutionary process, not drivers of it. Think about it, if there were some way to collectively generate non-corporeal entities with the abilities to help with every aspect of your lives, wouldn't that confer a great selective advantage?

Of course in the Darwinian world view, we who evolve are both the products and the creators of evolution, so this distinction is close to meaningless anyway.

Matthew Sweet said...

Thanks for your thoughts on that Yes article. After reading it I was suspicious of the thesis but was simultaneously attracted to it, and my suspicion was set aside by my eagerness to accept the ideas presented. Simplicity and binary choices are very appealling; I can see it takes practice and training to spot and reject them. One of my great weaknesses, and one that I am sure I share with many, is that I am an uncritical reader. I can see the flaws in an argument as presented, meaning I can follow and critique the internal logic of an argument, but what I cannot do is see and critique what is being left out, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Chris said...

Robert Mathiesen wrote: "The major premise you cite, namely, "Everything that comes into existence is caused to come into existence by something else," is not at all self-evident."

I didn't say it was self-evident. I merely pointed out that it's the actual premise involved in the cosmological argument, which means that the argument can't be dismissed with a Dawkinsian cliché like "If everything has a cause, then what caused God?"

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, exactly. The thesis that a god or gods created the universe and everything in it hardly rules out the thesis that the process through which the biological side of that continuing creation takes place can be effectively modeled by Darwin's theory.

Phil, well, that's one of the reasons I point out that I live in America, I've never lived anywhere else, and my readers abroad should always remember that their mileage may vary. America's a weird place, and the notion that it ought to be some kind of template for the rest of the world may just be the most thorougly disproved idea of our time.

Cherokee, and both of them kept a lot of people employed for a good long time, too!

Bill, the irony here is that the Druid Revival traditions were talking enthusiastically about the religious dimensions of evolution before Darwin's time. As the head of a Druid order that traces its lineage straight back to those eccentric Welshmen and their equally odd English friends and co-conspirators, I don't really have the option of lying low -- so it's full speed ahead and Blue Meanies watch out!

As for the evolution of gods, good! I'm recalling Gene Wolfe's proof of the existence of at least one god, which is somewhere in his "Shadow of the Torturer" series; it runs something like this. Either the universe had a beginning or it didn't. If it had a beginning, something had to begin it. If it didn't have a beginning, it's existed since infinite time, and given infinite time, the probability that at least one being would have attained to godhood approximates to 1. QED!

Matthew, it takes plenty of work, and plenty of practice. It can be helpful, after reading an article, to sketch out its argument in outline form -- that can make the fallacies and distortions much clearer.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Chris:

Indeed, I did notice that *you* weren't necessarily claiming the premise was self-evident. (But what you or I might or might not claim isn't particularly important in this context. As individuals, you and I hardly matter in the clash of ideas. Ideas can be valued with no reference whatever to the people who hold them.)

It is the people pushing the cosmological argument who claim it is self-evident. That's reason enough for me to advance the contrary claim, for the reasons I gave.

And Whorf's work is highly relevant to a lot of what the Archdruid has been saying this year.

Quos Ego said...

@Georgi

"I don't think you have a very good understanding of the current thinking on the issue in theoretical physics. "

Are you referring to the very controversial M-Theory?

I am sure I know less than you do about the subject, but I know one thing for sure: there is absolutely no consensus between scientists.

John Maiorana said...

I find it ironic that you are so critical of the secular religion of progress, and yet so strongly espouse the theory of evolution, one of its main dogmas.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I hear you. I wonder if the need to put up serious grandiose walls is an indicator of a failing society. It certainly says that there is a fear in that society that resources are a bit stretched (or will be shortly)? Dunno, but I'm aware of a few of them going up in various places around the world.

Fencing is on my mind because I share this farm with the wildlife and wouldn't think of fencing them out. However, this requires adaption to their activities plus I have to allow for their consumption which is sometimes in competition with mine. It is no easy task which is why most people simply fence them out.

I forgot to mention it before but your friend in Michigan has my sympathy.

By the way, how good was "Shadow of the Torturer"? Epic!

Hi Georgi,

I've got no beef with you.

I'd like to extend your thoughts somewhat though.

Quote: "The current limits are set by the priorities of our society."

From my perspective society is simply a small subset of nature so the limits are actually set by our resource base and ecosystem. Society in itself can have opinions on resource allocation, but hard limits are in practice set by nature.

Quote: "science is not one of them even though it is about the only meaningful thing that a society should invest resources in (from an evolutionary perspective)."

Just to throw a completely different perspective to you. The Aboriginals existed on this continent for somewhere between 40 and 60 millennia. They directed their energies towards managing the environment so that it provided a sustainable outcome geared towards their ends. Science did not feature in this society, but observation, myth, tradition and practice did.

On the other hand, here at the farm over the past 7 or 8 years, I've developed in parts up to 200mm of top soil. This is an amazing acceleration of the natural processes. When I arrived here, there was no top soil and only hard baked clay which was as tough as concrete. I can explain the process of how I achieved this, but in no way can I explain the science behind it. I don't believe anyone has a complete understanding of the science behind soils as they are inherently complex.

Yet, scientific studies show that repeated applications of NPK fertilisers eventually kill off both the life within and structure of the soil. At the same time as a society we continue to pursue this path in agriculture and it will be our undoing.

Science is not a good tool with which to resolve these sorts of issues. If as a society we responded to scientific studies, we would have delved further into studies such as "The limits to Growth" and taken action to alleviate the worst of the predicted outcomes.

I'm not trolling you, I'm just pointing out that there are some unpleasant facts on the ground which we are all doing our best to ignore.

Regards

Chris

Bob Smith said...

JMG,

Is it something in the water that makes all my favorite blogs cover similar subjects at the same time?

You should really read the "Predictica" section of this week's woodpile report (www.woodpilereport.com). You and Ol'Remus are barking up the same tree, albeit different sides of it.
Best Regards,
Bob

onething said...

Well, Bill,

I thought my insight that the causal dilemma is a koan was quite profound.

I'm disappointed that you skipped over my question: Why are we accepting that a universe with a conscious, nonphysical aspect, and nonhuman entities with intelligence should bear no marks of this?

Wiseman says,

"All I'd like to see is that people don't engage in persecution or dogma in the name of God. "

There has been persecution and dogma in the name of no-God, in the place where those who have that power operate - academia.
Anyhow, it's not a fight over atheism versus belief. It's a scientific argument over interpretation of data. There are metaphysical implications on both sides, but that can't be helped.

For me, science IS religion.

JMG,
I am somewhat familiar with Prigogine, but I need to learn more, because I truly doubt that there are any systems in nature which correspond even remotely with the kinds of things which conscious intelligences produce. Bill Gates said that DNA is like computer code, only far more sophisticated than anything we have ever produced.
The DNA code with its four letters and 20 amino acids (which is the simplest aspect of the genetic code) are like an alphabet, and the life forms are like novels, sonnets, sonatas - islands of function and order in a vast sea of potential gibberish. Intelligent Design predicted that the great majority of the genome would turn out to be functional, and not junk. As of 2012, that is now officially the case, at least 80%. And that noncoding part of the genome turns out to be where the master controls are. The proteins are like piles of bricks and lumber - they are not the blueprint, and small changes there cannot slowly change one species into another. The body plans of animals is much deeper than that in the hierarchy of integrated and highly specified information. Consequently, some form of saltation is the only solution.
Francis Crick said biologists have to constantly remind themselves that what they are looking at was not designed.
Why must they?

I'm interested in how Druidry thought of evolution, in what way and when.

Georgi,

The neutral theory proposes that genomes accumulate extra material which can mutate freely without penalty. It begs several questions.

So you think that science can disprove God?

Joseph Nemeth said...

There was an article in the most recent issue of Science News on Niels Bohr, the "father of the atom." They gave what I think is one of the clearest explanations of the Copenhagen interpretation of the Complementarity Principle, which they claim was Bohr's way of looking at it, and that it was Heisenberg who brought in most of the stuff about the "observer." I think it's germane to this discussion.

Bohr's view was that quantum particles simply didn't have properties like momentum and position. However, when you coupled them -- or "entangled" them in modern parlance -- with experimental apparatus designed to measure what we think momentum or position ought to look like at the particle level, the results looked as if the particle had momentum or position. The whole issue with complementarity is that no one has figured out any way to simultaneously measure position and momentum: the measurements are complementary, not the properties being measured. These classical scale properties, projected upon the individual particles, don't exist.

There are plenty of comparable quantities. "Pressure," for instance, doesn't exist at the particulate level, but as a statistical property of large numbers of particles, it is certainly a useful concept.

I think this whole "evolution versus creation" argument, to the extent it is anything but a shibboleth (and I've seen very few instances where it isn't), is the result of a bad question, like "Is an electron a particle or a wave?" The correct answer is "give me a context."

The Earth is a global ecosystem, and each bioregion on the earth is a local ecosystem. These systems raise up and destroy empires. They rule over life and death for communities. They bring wealth and good fortune, or dearth and ill fortune, to families and individuals. They can (sometimes) be propitiated through appropriate sacrifices (giving up a plot of land to lie fallow, or turning from pigs to chickens for protein). But they are not ours to control, and are often deaf to our entreaties.

How do these differ from the gods of old? Yet they are "merely" physics, chemistry, and biology playing out.

Evolution or creation? Bad question.

pipermichael said...

Mr. Greer,
Having followed you for a long time, I was interested in your comment concerning the Unified Field.
It might interest you to know, that such a thing has been found, and reject, stomped and ridiculed, because of the very things you mention in your blogs.
The 'religions' of men, cannot accept that a Unified Field, must, prove a power greater than the Universe, in order for the Universe to BE.
If you understand the basic issues involved(where does the energy come from, and where does it go.), then you understand that to arrive at the source and sink of the energy of the Universe, its mechanisms of reality and life itself, would be met with nothing but ridicule by the particle crowd, and the religious crowd(especially the 'christians'.
You would also see, being a druid, that only a true understanding of the power of nature itself, is the only way to take a leap out of the cul de sac's that have held our minds for a very long time.
I call it the power of Mystery, in both science and religion, the Bible condemns it, but try to tell them that they are condemned by their own book, and they go a little nuts.
My 40 years of research, led to something I call the God Coil, (a modification of Tesla's work) and the proof of the nature of The Dark Aether. Which, is absolutely necessary for General Relativity to function, and also, from what I've discovered, not just gravity, but magnetism, inertia and entropy, as scale and polarity manifestations of the One Primal Force, what I term; The Protogenitor.
This is radical, I know, but, something the Ancients were more knowledgeable about perhaps than we are, unfortunately, the religious zealots burned it, in their pyres and stakes when they destroyed the Heretics, outlawed philosophy and reason, and delivered us to the dark ages with the Doctrine of Mystery.
I am hoping, when my work is complete, that I will be able to beat the laws of gravity and thermodynamics, or at least cheat them a little... ;)
We shall hopefully know before the end of the year.
If you wish, you can visit the Unified Field of the Creator, the Intelligent design of the ancient Gnosis reinterpreted, and what I call; The God Calculus.
Good day sir.

http://pipermichael.wordpress.com

Georgi Marinov said...

Cherokee Organics said...

Just to throw a completely different perspective to you. The Aboriginals existed on this continent for somewhere between 40 and 60 millennia. They directed their energies towards managing the environment so that it provided a sustainable outcome geared towards their ends. Science did not feature in this society, but observation, myth, tradition and practice did.


1. There are plenty of reasons to think that the aboriginals actually wrecked their environment. The megafaunal extinction on the continent coincides very suspiciously with their arrival. I know people like to dispute that explanation but it's the only one that really makes sense to me. So they weren't very good at managing their environment, at least in the beginning (and after that it was too late to reverse the damage as extinction is forever).

2. What happened to them not so long ago? They got almost wiped out by Europeans. And why did they do so? Because, first, the latter had sufficiently superior scientific understanding of the world around them to allow them to develop better technology and conquer them, and second, the aboriginals had no means to protect themselves against the new diseases introduced by the colonists (which is also a problem best addressed by science).

The point I am making is that investment in the accumulation of knowledge and understanding about the world around us is extremely beneficial from an evolutionary perspective, because:

1) The improved understanding of the ecosystem we're part of informs us what to do and not to do if we don't want to wreck it, with very negative consequences to our long-term evolutionary success. And yes, I am aware of the argument that, you see, indigenous people took better care of their environment than we do. It is only superficially correct - nobody has ever had better understanding of their environment than that achieved by modern science (even if, of course, there is an enormous amount of work still left to do), it's just that our society as a whole chooses not to pay any attention to it.

2. Scientific knowledge provides some resilience against cataclysmic events (like the appearance of new pathogens). Not an absolute protection but much better than without it.

wiseman said...

There has been persecution and dogma in the name of no-God, in the place where those who have that power operate - academia.

Yes there has been, we are humans after all.

Which is why I am not advocating that atheists dominate. I merely recommend a hands off approach for Atheists, you can pray as long as you don't torture non-believers in it's name. It's also a good idea to have diversity which acts as a counterbalance. I see theists and atheists as countering each others wildest fantasies. A world where one side completely dominates will be an utter disaster.

I am not proposing something miraculous, this philosophy has been practiced here for thousands of years. Practicing Hindus can be Atheists as well, I am an example of that. I see myself as part of the larger Hindu identity but still consider myself an atheist. I take part in religious ceremonies not to pray but out of respect for others.

Bill Pulliam said...

onething -- maybe because you have posted nine comments totaling several thousand words, and that is a lot for anyone to read through on an internet comment thread, much less respond to?

PhysicsDoc said...

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows that there is a fundamental limit into what can be understood about nature using the scientific method and in particular reductionism. Reductionism is a method of understanding something like nature by breaking it down into ever smaller and smaller parts that can be thought of as independent constituents, the sum of which make the whole. Think of a watch or machine with all the little springs and gears that make it up. There is also the assumption of classical causality where the movement of one part causes the movement of another part and so on. Quantum mechanics shows that if we push this concept to its limit and apply it to nature it eventually breaks down. As we try to isolate smaller and smaller particles they start to behave more like waves (continua versus singularities) that are spread out and entangled with other particles/waves i.e. reductionism breaks down. Interestingly causality also breaks down and events/conditions can only be assigned probabilities. For waves, representations that are related by the Fourier transform such as position and momentum representations inherently produce Heisenberg uncertainty relationships between observables such as position and momentum. All methods of inquiry have their limits including the scientific and reductionist approaches. What is amazing is that we can still get a handle on these limits and the kinds on answers that we can expect using mathematics.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Georgi,

Thanks for engaging as this is an important topic.

Nice one. Megafuna were probably the equivalent to a giant supermarket on legs...

I never stated that they didn't cause widespread initial damage to the environment upon their arrival on the continent. That is getting into a better / worse cultural argument and it is inappropriate, because both the North American and European indigenous people did exactly the same thing.

What is impressive, is that they recognised the errors of their ways and manned up and took on the challenge of managing the environment in a sustainable method and passing that hard won knowledge on. You are worried about the future of scientific knowledge, are you up for that sort of challenge?

Upon arrival, 90% of the southern Aboriginal population was wiped out by disease within a few years of contact. The northern population was more resilient as they had had contact with their northern neighbours. Science had nothing to with it and it certainly isn't anything to be proud of. A decimated culture can hardly fight back against invaders can they?

Some of those new pathogens are actually a result of science. Have you no outrage about feeding antibiotics to feedlot cattle? Or do you prefer your cheap meat? How do you reconcile the abuse of scientific knowledge in these sorts of ways? I don't really know myself, but it is a disaster waiting to happen.

You also disregarded the issue of complexity.

Regards

Chris

Georgi Marinov said...

Cherokee Organics said...

I never stated that they didn't cause widespread initial damage to the environment upon their arrival on the continent. That is getting into a better / worse cultural argument and it is inappropriate, because both the North American and European indigenous people did exactly the same thing.

What is impressive, is that they recognised the errors of their ways and manned up and took on the challenge of managing the environment in a sustainable method and passing that hard won knowledge on. You are worried about the future of scientific knowledge, are you up for that sort of challenge?


I am not so sure they recognized their mistake - most likely extinction and the associated environmental changes did not happen quickly enough for them to recognize it, much less why it happened.

Certain cultural practices eventually evolved that brought the system in some sort of equilibrium, but this need not have happened consciously.

Upon arrival, 90% of the southern Aboriginal population was wiped out by disease within a few years of contact. The northern population was more resilient as they had had contact with their northern neighbours. Science had nothing to with it and it certainly isn't anything to be proud of. A decimated culture can hardly fight back against invaders can they?

We have vaccines and drugs today. We are certainly better prepared to deal with a novel pathogen than a hunter-gatherer culture.

Some of those new pathogens are actually a result of science. Have you no outrage about feeding antibiotics to feedlot cattle? Or do you prefer your cheap meat? How do you reconcile the abuse of scientific knowledge in these sorts of ways? I don't really know myself, but it is a disaster waiting to happen.

Antibiotic misuse is a real tragedy. But that is not the fault of science - any scientist will tell you it's a horrible idea. We don't overuse antibiotics because science tells us so, we do it because other forces in society push for it and they are in the same time blind and deaf to what the science says.

You also disregarded the issue of complexity.

I am not disregarding it and I do not reject the concept. Of course once a system gets too complex relative to what can be supported, it will collapse. But there is a slight problem with applying that idea to societies and it is that in pretty much all cases when complexity has increased, this has been accompanied by physical expansion, and the latter is a seriously exacerbating factor in their eventual collapse.

I don't see why the only available options should be hunter-gathering or subsistence farming. A highly technologically advanced yet sufficiently small for its resource base society seems perfectly possible to me. Not necessarily in practice because there is no way of getting from here to there, but in principle it could be done.

Jennifer D Riley said...

Look at Denmark, a country not on Big Oil's account. Assess how Denmark has leveraged alternate energy. Then just move East or West. Any country to the East or West of Denmark should emulate Denmark for alternate energy development.

Bill Pulliam said...

Georgi: "1) The improved understanding of the ecosystem we're part of informs us what to do and not to do if we don't want to wreck it, with very negative consequences to our long-term evolutionary success."

Nice in theory, but in practice this sort of principle only applies on the margins. There is ample history to show that when scientific judgement bumps into macroeconomic forces, the latter win.

Matthew Lindquist said...

Georgi: Er, you say "there is no way of getting from here to there,", but there certainly is: Dark ages. A couple of those would certainly shrink humanity down to an ecologically manageable level!

John Roth said...

Chris,

Sorry to bring up something that I think was only in the first couple of days, but I've been off doing other things for a while and just caught up.

There's an old saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The Federal Reserve has only the abilities that Congress chose to give it. You claim that they're "printing money." Well, that's not exactly what they're doing, but even if it was, that's one of the few tools they have at their disposal, and claiming that they should be doing something that they're not legally empowered to do is, I think, not the most convincing argument in the world.

Unknown said...

If freed from myth, civilization could indeed be like a tree. In youth it grows vigorously toward the light, it aspires to dominate the canopy of the forest, if it's lucky. In old age it spends most of it's time just packing on more wood to hold itself up, perhaps getting more beautiful, but not much bigger. A tree knows it will die, thus makes seed. In death it becomes useful habitat for many other species. Will we be so gracious in our old age?

Tyler August said...

I'm jumping in very late this week, but I want to say I really enjoyed the discussion that sprang up. Being a North American, and having friends who are entranced by Hitchens and Dawkins, I should have seen where it was headed, but I did not. Still, it was interesting to see how you handled it, JMG. On this, as it seems with everything else, your perspective strikes me as both novel and enlightening.

On the topic of fusion research, I find it most amusing that every new reactor should work, based on the scaling regime they built the last one at. But plasmas are very cussed things, and the same scaling law never holds when you go to the next size... in other words, nature keeps moving the goal posts, and somehow we scientists have never caught on.

To Bill Pulliam, re: evolving gods, isn't that something Teilhard de Chardin was grasping at?

Ian Stewart said...

John Roth,

What would you consider to be a fair characterization of the Federal Reserve's actions? As I understand it, they are purchasing Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities using freshly conjured Federal Reserve Notes. They are not necessarily physically printing cash, but they are adding new cash to the system, yes? It seems that this has yet to generate generalized inflation, as the libertarian blogosphere fears, but the Fed is certainly not holding the monetary base static.

TIAA said...

Totally looooved this weeks ....last weeks now...,,post

Flowed perfectly into my comment from the previous weeks post.

Another book to add to the menagerie of books working at the end of god in it's conservative and liberal forms is 'The Gospel of Christian Athiesm' by JJ Altizer.

This book addresses not only western tradition in it's stagnant form but also touches upon the orient and it's stagnant form. Most progressives, having turned to one of the eastern spiritual traditions might gasp in horror at my casual agreement in his diagnosis, as eastern religion/philosophy is a bit of a sacred cow now.

Onward, inward, and backward we go so forward may be our claimed direction. ;-)

om-seeker said...

I wonder if you have by any chance come across the talk given at google by Dr. Robert Bussard in 2006.
"Should Google Go Nuclear? (no, really)"

If you were a fan of the TV program cosmos in the 1970s, you might remember the idea of the "bussard ramjet" which was an idea for an interstellar spaceship that could go the speed of light. This is the same Robert Bussard

He gave a talk at google which in the early part of the lecture makes fun of toroidal fusion reactors, saying something like "you look up at the sky, and it's clear that fusion works, and none of them are toroidal"

He then goes on to describe his own research which had been unpublished as he was under navy contract. It's pretty simple 1st year physics really...

I think it's worth checking out his research that has somewhat of a following, known as "polywell" fusion. but the idea is to use electrical force to create the conditions for fusion by injecting and trapping electrons which are light and easy to control in a magnetic containment which then creates this enormous negative potential well, drawing nuceli together with such energy as to be abe to trigger fusion reactions. please check it out.


Now it's important to note that Bussard himself was extremely critical of mainstream fusion and that he talks about how they all knew that the big toroidal reactors would never work, but that the idea was to use that money for more promising technologies,...

He talks about having been a part of it and in almost exactly the same language of your post describes their situation of being essentially living off of grants in order to continue to make these baroque cathedrals, which use liquid lithium containment to capture neutrons etc....

but the science is interesting - it's also interesting because the reactors are quite small and ultimately would be far more likely to be able to be used as a replacement... and the machines, well turn them off and there is no radiation, because (at least in theory) there are no neutrons given off.

check it out --


Histalonia said...

Michael,

I like your idea of a common language for what you refered to as a civil religion.

I saw a good article a while back that discussed these as well.

The author referred to them as:
secular belief systems
and
religious belief systems

She also mentioned its common for folks to have multiple belief systems at the same time.

You made a good point how secular belief systems has been intertwined in the cultures of both mainstream science and formal religions.

I think once a common name for belief systems is in use, you will be able to name the component belief systems that have become intertwined, and it will be easier for people to see these and realize they have multiple distinct belief systems. This will give them the freedom to discard one and keep the others.

Here is reference to the original article:

http[colon]//www[dot]theoildrum[dot]com/node/5249?nocomments

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

I am not sure that the concept of 'economically feasible' will mean the same things to the coming dark age; I wonder if the dysfunctional economies of the Dark Ages will recur, and in what form. For example, it might seem feasible for some overlord to burn a lot of the serfs' forest land to run the generator that powers his house. OTOH, will we see monasteries and convents again? If so, hopefully without the self-flagellation, witch trials, and the like--And how would a communal group keep themselves from being overrun by mad overlords or packs of bandits... As always, lots to think about JMG